Please note - this chapter has strong language from the start.

Chapter 7

Harsh Reality

"Shit!" Fox McCloud hurled the wristcomp and holo-projector back into the chest, his face contorted in apoplectic rage, his eyes burning. "That one-eyed son-of-a-bitch!"

Krystal shied away more than a little, ears flattening back, eyes widening, unnerved by the outburst and, initially at least, unsure how to react. The small dinosaur bolted for the furthest corner and huddled there, arms covering his head, body shaking violently.

"Should have fucking known he wasn't dead!" Fox thumped down with his back against the chest, fingers clawing at his temples. "And I shouldn't have let our-our defences slip so fucking much!"

Krystal took a step toward him, her wits just about regained, determined to try and calm him down. "Fox, please..."

"Fuck!" His hands were clamped to his face now. "Fucking idiot!"

"FOX!" She hated to shout, but couldn't see another option.

McCloud started violently, almost glaring at the vixen through parted fingers, but didn't say anything.

Krystal sat alongside him, one leg drawn up to her chest, the other straight out in front of her, and fixed him with a steady gaze. "Fox, take a breath, then tell me who that was and why he wants to kill you so much."

Fox sighed, letting his hands thump into his lap. "That... That was Wolf O'Donnell, leader of another mercenary group, StarWolf, and the Lylat System's biggest bastard. During the Venom Wars a few years back we came up against them twice, and beat them twice, the second time over Venom itself and – we thought – for good. Their ships were shattered wrecks, they were all badly injured, the planet was a semi-mechanised wasteland – we were convinced they were finished." Another sigh, this one turning into a soft groan. "I guess we were wrong, and I guess he's angry and sore and vengeful, and we – I – in growing complacent and letting my guard down gave him the perfect opportunity for some payback." His fist slammed into the wood he sat against, his voice twisting into a snarl. "And now they've got Peppy, and Slippy, and ROB, and the GreatFox, and Falco's in Scale's hands, and it's all because I got sloppy and lazy and fucking stupid!"

Krystal gripped his shoulder. "And I suppose having little to no funds so you couldn't keep the ship and its security in proper condition had nothing to do with it?"

"Well, no, but –"

"And having little to no work for months or maybe years on end, so little to no way to keep yourself focused and sharp and alert had nothing to do with it either?"

"Maybe it was a-a small factor, but –"

"Or Falco's leaving?"

"That...that certainly did, yes." Fox seemed to have lost the will to argue, his mood not nearly so violent any more. "He's a one-bird army."

"So circumstances ensured you were vulnerable, and all Wolf had to do was wait for the right opening," Krystal reasoned.

"And circumstances contrived to give him a killer one." Fox seemed almost resigned now. "I still think I could...should...have done more, though..."

"All part and parcel of being a leader, Fox." Krystal leaned forward to nuzzle his muzzle softly. "Especially a good one."

"Maybe." Fox's ears dipped, just a touch of colour coming to his cheeks. "Sorry about the language, by the way – I tend to get pretty foul-mouthed when I'm angry. Old, bad habit I can't seem to cure."

"No problem." Krystal assured him, a smirk twisting the corners of her mouth. "Besides, it's not like I haven't let rip myself before now."

"You?" Fox couldn't quite process the concept, eyes widening. "Cussing like a soldier?"

"Oh, yeah," Krystal confirmed, smirk widening. "Though I was being chased through a decrepit maze of a moonbase by a half-naked, drug-crazed pirate tiger with a pulse rifle and a foul temper at the time, so I like to think I had good reason." She held up a hand to forestall the hundred questions Fox looked like he was about to throw at her. "I'll show you later; for now we need to get dressed and moving before your angry friend shows up."

"Ah, small problem there." Fox rubbed the back of his head, frustration starting to creep back in again. "Can't take any of my clothes or equipment – Slippy bugged 'em so I could be kept track of on ground missions, and since Wolf now has the GreatFox, chances are he'll have the frequencies and codes, too."

"That's a pain..." Krystal grimaced. "I guess you can't just cut them out of your clothes?"

"No, 'cause in a way they are my clothes. Never really understood it, but it's something to do with special fibres woven throughout the fabric, so even a tiny scrap puts out a passable signal. Saved my life a couple of times. Oh, the irony..." He reached round to pluck the backpack from the chest and plunge a hand inside it. "Before you ask, this is used so rarely it never seemed worth fibre-bugging it."

"So we're down to a backpack and a bikini? Lovely." She cocked her head. "What are you after?"

"My knife."

"Why on Saur... Oh... You've got a bug implanted under your skin somewhere, haven't you?"

"Yep – in the small of my back." Fox pulled a three-inch, matt black folding knife from the bag and held it out to the vixen. "Which needs to be removed, and since I physically can't do it..."

"All right." Krystal agreed, taking the blade. "Might be best to kneel against the chest."

Fox nodded, shifting round and onto his knees, settling his hands on the gently curving lid of the container. The vixen set her fingers to stroking through the fur of his lower back, searching for the telltale bump she knew had to be there. She found it a fraction above the base of his tail, a miniscule protrusion that was very easy to mistake for a spot. As best she could when equipped with just a knife she trimmed the fur around it up to the skin, then carefully drew the tip of the blade across the bump twice, creating a neat little cross that welled with scarlet almost instantly and exposed a glint of metal.

As deft as Krystal's fingers were, though, it took a little while to prise the bug out, it managing to be both slippery as wet soap and curiously adhesive, fusing back into the flesh every time digit or blade slipped. Eventually, after many muttered self-reprimands from the vixen and much tensing of fingers by McCloud, the blue female worked it free and sat back, grimacing at the divot in Fox's back she'd created and the blood drooling quite copiously from it.

"Made a mess of that, didn't I?" she observed, somewhat morosely, retrieving her bikini from the chest and applying the knife to both halves.

"Actually, considering it's designed to be a pain to remove, you did damn well," Fox disagreed, twisting his head round to smile at her. "I've seen trained medics take over ten minutes to pull one out."

Her cheek fur darkening slightly, she bent down to gently lick – her tongue being the best cleaning tool available – as much of the blood from the wound as possible, before pressing a small wad of cloth to it, holding it there with her nose until she'd tied a very makeshift bandage around his waist. Once satisfied the ad hoc dressing was secure she patted McCloud on the shoulder, who promptly span round to regard her with genuine admiration, his smile fully encompassing his face now.

"And a good, solid field dressing, too," he remarked, taking the knife she proffered, folding it up and tucking it under the bandage as it crossed his right hip. "If we ever get out of this alive, remind me to offer you a place on the team – you'd be a credit to any squad, believe me."

Now Krystal was blushing heavily, looking everywhere except at Fox as she dropped the scraps of fabric that were all that remained of her bikini into the backpack. She took up her staff, got softly to her feet and padded over to the door, where the now only mildly nervous dino was quick to join her. "Are we ready?"

"When we decide where we're going, yes," Fox responded, moving over to stand alongside them, pack slung over one shoulder and stave hanging loosely from his hand.

"My ship." It was closer to an order than a suggestion. "All right, it's not flyable, but there are supplies and clothes we can use. It's deep in the woods south of Thorntail."

"That's assuming Wolf didn't find and destroy it."

"If he had, wouldn't he have said so? I don't think he knows about me."

Fox nodded slowly. "You're right. Let's try and keep it that way." He turned to the statue. "May we please be permitted egress?"

"Of course." The door eased silently open as it replied, the diminutive dinosaurian disappearing through it so fast he was almost a blur. Neither fox remarked upon it – they honestly couldn't blame him. "Your possessions will be safe here – nothing can breach that portal unless I allow it to."

"Thank you." Krystal nodded politely, shaking off one last twinge of memory and peering outside. "Lovely – it's raining..."

"Fine by me." Fox flashed a grin. "I could use a cool shower, and anything that helps obscure our tracks is very welcome. Ladies first..."

"Is it just me or are those bastards getting tougher?" Fox wondered, slightly favouring a left leg streaked with blood, his fur wringing with rainwater, the crumpled form of a stocky Sharpclaw fading into the blue behind him.

Krystal, patches of congealing scarlet dotted over the sodden pelt of one arm and most of her chest, shook her head, her breathing a little laboured, her gait not quite as smooth and sure as when they'd started out. "It's not just you – they're getting tougher, and there's more of them. You'd almost think they knew..."

"At the very least, they suspect," Fox responded, teeth lightly gritted behind his almost grimly neutral expression. His ears perked up, detecting a deeper, fuller roar of mobile liquid beneath the ceaseless susurration of the rain. "I think I hear the waterfall."

Krystal's swivelled forward, her demeanour picking up to the point she nearly smiled. "Yep, that's it. The ship should be right alongside it."

The ship proved to be a small, gunmetal grey transport that bore a passing resemblance to an egg, being far broader at one end than the other. With its snub nose embedded amongst the roots of a half-toppled tree, its bodywork buckled and dented, the cockpit window webbed with fractures and the sliding airlock door jammed half open, it was a truly sorry sight, and neatly put paid to any hopes McCloud had of it being a potential way out of the mess Wolf had created for them.

"Tough landing?" he asked, as he followed her up to it.

"Very," Krystal confirmed, stepping lightly inside, tail higher than it had been in a little while. It dropped abruptly as she took in the interior, bristling along with her hackles, and her hands tightened into fists. "Oh, those little..."

Fox rested a hand on one of her shoulders and his chin on the other, pressing lightly up against the seething vixen to peer past her into the cabin of the vessel. It was as basic and simple as any he'd come across, just two pilot seats at the front, consoles curving around them, and a multi-purpose living area lined with cupboards and drawers and cubby holes, every last one of which had been completely emptied out.

"I don't believe it!" Krystal hurried around the craft, finding nothing but empty space wherever she looked. "The little horrors took everything! Every last blasted thing! Even some of the trim..."

"What little horrors?" Fox asked, still standing in the doorway.

"Lightfoots." Krystal all but spat the word out, not pausing in her increasingly frantic scouring of the ship. "Three or four of them were hanging around pretty much constantly within hours of the crash, but always in the distance, in the shadows, in the trees and bushes...somewhere they could vanish from or into quickly, I suppose...and they never did anything other than watch and chatter to each other, so...I ignored them. Thought them harmless, just inquisitive." She slumped onto a long, low plush seat toward the rear of the craft, visibly fighting to remain calm, her paws cradling her face. "Guess they weren't. Guess they were just...waiting for the right opening..."

Fox, ignoring the glimpses of movement in the corner of his eye, stepped into the cabin and padded over to the vixen, sitting alongside her and slipping an arm round her. "I'm assuming there was...more in here than just clothes and food?"

Krystal nodded, pressing closer to him almost without thinking about it, settling deeper into his light embrace. "Memories; the last I had of Jade and my parents..." Her voice was a faraway murmur. "Sealed in a box my mother made for me..."

Fox's ears perked. "Sealed? Interesting choice of word..."

"Magic lock only I know the secret to. Doesn't stop them breaking it open, though."

"No, but it might frustrate them long enough for them to run out of patience and toss it away, if they're the scavengers I think they are." A smile tweaked the corners of his mouth briefly on spotting more movement and a flash of sleek green scales just outside the door. "If they can't get into it nice and quickly, why waste any more effort on it?"

"Even if that were true, that leaves a whole lot of forest to search for it..."

"I don't think you'll have to worry about that," Fox assured her, kissing the bridge of her muzzle to stall the questions he could see coming. "I believe we've just made some very useful allies. Our focus now should be seeing what if anything we can salvage from the arwing and Falco's transport, finding food, talking to the Queen Earthwalker, and trying to find a way to get to the first chunk of floating planet."

"So I'm not the only one thinking it's odd our friend Warpstone can only send you to two places, then?" Krystal enquired, straightening up a little and fixing McCloud with a gently knowing smirk.

"Definitely not." Fox twisted round enough to look at his companion comfortably, their noses so close their whiskers brushed. "Hopefully the big stone guy remembers what to do, and whatever it is it's not too tricky or time-consuming."

"I wouldn't place a wager on that," Krystal advised him, drily. "Not with our luck."

"Eh, something's gotta go right for us sometime," Fox responded, airily, flashing his best devil-may-care grin as he got to his feet and shook himself. "Now, is there anything you want to take care of, or shall we just cut right to the chase?"

"Mmm, one thing..." The vixen, in a single smooth movement, stood up, stepped forward and enfolded him in the warmest and closest of embraces, one he was quick to return in full, and one that lasted quite a few minutes in the end. "Now I have some arms to bury myself in, I'll be taking advantage of them every chance I get," she explained, once they'd loosened their holds enough for their eyes to meet again.

"Fine by me," Fox responded, unable to resist nuzzling her softly. She nuzzled him right back, and before either knew it lips were caressing lips. Before things could evolve any further, though, Krystal eased back.

"Later," she whispered, in response to McCloud's playful pout, a real sparkle in her eyes now. "Later."

"I'll hold you to that," Fox assured her, stealing one last very quick kiss as he led her out of the ship, into rain that was visibly lessening.

"You'd better."

A half-hour hike through woodland so dense it felt like permanent twilight beneath the canopy, interrupted by no fewer than six Sharpclaw attacks, each more brutal than the last, took them to the Hollow, by which time the rain had all but ceased. Krystal flattened herself up against a trunk right on the edge of the cliff, and Fox up against her back in a decidedly protective manner, and both peered round the tree to survey the situation.

Neutralised, they quickly realised, was something of an understatement – McCloud's arwing and Falco's transport had been reduced to smouldering, sparking shells, rent thoroughly asunder by a barrage of laser fire. What initially looked like simply sustained blanket bombardment quickly took on a different cast to McCloud's experienced eyes, though – beyond the two craft and an area of greenery about two feet around them very little else had even suffered a glancing blow, the exceptions being two fairly long and very narrow strips of furrowed earth and charred grass that stretched out toward the river and Warpstone's enclosure respectively, both of which were further notable for the total lack of any lifeless Thorntail corpses anywhere along their lengths. The dinosaurs themselves were all present and correct, if looking shaken to a reptile, and even those aggravating little flying creatures were still flapping lazily around. There were also a dozen or more heavily armed Sharpclaws patrolling the Hollow, two of them keeping close watch on the wreckage, a sight that had Fox's fists clenching in frustration.

All the signs pointed to a precision hit, and yet the very idea of Wolf O'Donnell, for whom collateral damage was a perk of the job and the phrase 'hammer to crack a nut' was practically a personal motto, taking care to only destroy what he was actually aiming at and not just dropping a nova bomb or two was almost inconceivable. The simple fact that the Hollow wasn't a smoking crater left Fox dazed and confused, failing completely to wrap his head around an irreconcilable contradiction.

Forcing this train of thought into a siding before it plummeted off a cliff, he glanced briefly at the sky, hoping fervently that O'Donnell wasn't keeping watch on the area, since with all the technology undoubtedly packed into the Wolfen there was almost literally no place to hide, then started down into the dell, Krystal right behind him. Cautious to the point of paranoia he led his companion from one patch of cover to the next, working their way across the Hollow in short, sharp spurts to avoid detection, until they were crouched low and close together amongst the rocks and weeds at the edge of the river, submerged almost to their shoulders, staring up the gently rising bank at the ruins of the two craft.

Now Fox was struck by just how little debris there was amongst the wreckage, barely a trace remaining of the considerable quantity of medical and food supplies the transport had contained and, much more worryingly, none at all of the numerous weapons Falco had stockpiled in various concealed compartments. A glance at his companion told him she'd come to the same conclusion - they had to get closer, if only to confirm what looked pretty certain already, which brought up the thorny issue of how to deal with a pair of large, scaly, thickset, axe-wielding problems without drawing attention to themselves.

The Sharpclaws, ironically enough, suggested the answer, their method of patrolling in a loose circle around the wreckage, one always diametrically opposite the other, providing a definite, if brief window for ambush, not least since the route passed within three feet of the bank the foxes crouched against. Pressing so tight to the bank and rocks the water crept up to their necks they watched and waited, nerves taut as guitar strings, until the larger of the two dinosaurs plodded close enough.

The instant he was parallel to the water the vulpines lunged for him almost in perfect unison, catching hold of and hauling him into the river so fast he was underwater before he knew what had hit him. It took all of their combined strength to disarm him and hold him there, and he kicked up more than enough noise and fury before finally vanishing in that all-too-familiar blue shimmer to set their pulses racing faster than they already were, but luck seemed to be with them, as no shouts went up and no-one came running.

Several more minutes ticked by, the two foxes huddled so close together in the water they could feel each other's hearts hammering, before the other Sharpclaw stalked slowly into view, his gait stiff, his head twisting constantly from side to side, his eyes wide and his axe clutched tight in both hands; he knew something was wrong, but atypically for his kind he obviously wasn't about to charge into anything. He also proved to be unusually observant, spotting the scuffs and scrapes left in the grass by the first dinosaur pretty quickly, but before he could lift his head to raise the alarm a bolt hit him hard in the throat. Half a second later he was face down in the river.

Once he'd vanished, the vulpines wasted no time in hustling up the bank, Fox heading for the transport, Krystal the Arwing, knowing they'd have minutes at best before fresh muscle was teleported in or one of the others elsewhere in the Hollow noticed what was missing. In tense silence they scoured the shattered remnants of the two craft, trying to be both thorough and fast, but turned up nothing beyond the very occasional scrap of torn and scorched cloth and char grilled stain of processed rations. Frustrated but not willing to take the slightest risk they regrouped and slipped back into the river, and none too soon – even as they settled in the narrow space behind the waterfall three brand new Sharpclaws showed up, all armed with shields as well as axes, and all on high alert.

"Damn," Fox muttered, as he and Krystal huddled tightly into one another's arms, only their heads, resting cheek to cheek, above the water line. "You'd almost think someone cleared the ships out before Wolf turned his lasers on 'em."

The vixen nodded toward the shop. "Your friend Creepy, maybe?"

"Most likely, yeah," Fox agreed, grimacing involuntarily at the thought of the deeply odd dinosaur. "Though we can't ignore the Lightfoots or the Sharpclaws, either. I really hope it's not the latter that took Falco's gun collection. There's some nasty kit in there..."

"Not a pretty thought," Krystal concurred. "Wanna duck into the shop and see if there's anything there?"

"No – we're pushing our luck as it is. We'll check in on the Earthwalkers, and maybe try and sneak a chat with Warpstone, then we're gone. Ready?"

"Ready."

Fox in the lead, they crept along the river, keeping as low as physically possible and freezing what felt like every other step at the slightest twitch from a Sharpclaw. Progress was only slightly quicker on reaching the deeper section that allowed them to swim, in spite of being underwater, since they had to keep poking their noses out for air and to maintain tabs on the patrolling dinosaurs. In particular they focused on the Sharpclaw marching stolidly back and forth across the enclosure in front of the Earthwalkers' cave, an especially massive brute toting a spiked club bigger than Fox.

"How the bloody hell are we gonna get past him?" Fox wondered, in a whisper, as he and Krystal trod water as close to the walled area as they dared. "You could drop a Landmaster on his head and he wouldn't even flinch." He sighed, rubbing his temple. "All we can hope is the muscle in his head isn't as strong as the ones in his arms..."

Krystal lifted an eyebrow. "Are you thinking of doing...what I think you're thinking of doing?"

Fox stole a kiss, little more than grazing his lips over hers for a second, then flashed that grin again. "Don't hang about, all right? And shut the door behind you, if you can."

Krystal nodded, taking a deep breath, then McCloud was gone, racing up the bank and across the front of the enclosure, tail streaming out behind him. The outsize Sharpclaw's reaction was instantaneous – he let out a barking cry, which drew the attention of all his brethren, and gestured urgently with his club towards the two nearest him, then at Fox's sprinting figure. A pair of barks in smart reply and the two dinosaurs were chasing after McCloud with startling speed, charging across the undulating grass with axes ready. The leader, as he seemed to be, settled back into his steady patrol.

"Oh...shit..." Krystal husked, barely able to hold back a rush of panic as she watched Fox disappear down one of the cuttings that led from the Hollow, the Sharpclaws only a hair behind. Closing her eyes and resting her forehead against the grass she forced herself to breathe deeply and calm down, to trust that Fox could survive and escape, and to focus on finding a way past the scale mountain.

Looking up again, the vixen studied the mechanically pacing dinosaur for several long minutes as she silently worked through option after option, possibility after possibility, discarding each almost as soon as she thought of them, until, eyes widening, it suddenly occurred to her things might well not be what they seemed, in which case...

Shoulders squared she stood up and walked slowly and deliberately out of the water, up the bank, along the low wall and into the enclosure, coming to a halt right in front of the titanic Sharpclaw. Standing with hands linked neatly behind her back (the retracted staff held vertically between them in a probably forlorn attempt to keep it hidden) she waited in stolid silence, looking far more composed and collected than she felt, as the dinosaur regarded her askance for several seconds, a lot more intelligence in those dark eyes than she'd expected...

Eyes she got to inspect at much closer quarters when one massive green hand shot out to clamp roughly around her waist and lift her into the air, holding her so close to his face his breath blew her whiskers back. Now she couldn't even begin to hide the fear that had been gnawing at her ever since she left the river, her ears flat back, her eyes wide and dilated and her tail limp against her legs. The Sharpclaw either didn't register it or simply didn't care, for after several more moments of intense scrutiny he abruptly lifted his club to smash the end of it against the target above the doorway, then once the stone barrier had slid aside enough literally threw her into the passage beyond.

Krystal helplessly and violently skidded and tumbled into the narrow chamber such was the force the dinosaur had flung her with, coming to a halt with the jarring, painful aid of a wall. Feeling like half her fur and skin had been scraped off she clambered to her feet, leaning heavily against the rock until the world wasn't spinning so much. The first thing she noticed was that the slab was sealing the entrance once more; the second, this with a welcome surge of relief, her staff lying a few feet to the left. The third...

"Krystal!" Tricky bounded to his feet and bounced over to her. "I knew you'd come to get us out! I knew y... Hey – where's Fox...?"

"He's...got something to take care of." She started for the other end of the room, where the Queen Earthwalker lay peacefully, intending to sit in the corner opposite her. The dinosaurs, however, seemed to have other ideas, since at a nod from his mother Tricky started gently nudging the vixen toward the elder Earthwalker, guiding her into settling with her back against a broad, surprisingly warm flank. "So they're using this place as a holding cell now?"

"Yes." The Queen sounded and looked far from perturbed by events. "We've been shut in here for over two hours now, although, from the looks of you, we've gotten off lightly."

Krystal chuckled ruefully. "Oh, you have no idea..."

"Care to tell us about it?"

"I-It'd take a while," the vixen demurred, stroking Tricky's scalp, the latter having rested his head in her lap. "It's been...eventful..."

"We're not exactly short of time," the Queen Earthwalker coaxed, with a soft smile.

"True..." Krystal nodded, deciding any distraction was better than none, and besides, it wasn't like she was spoilt for ways to pass the time. "Well, it started this morning, when we reached the cave the Key was in..."

She didn't know how long she spent reliving the events of the last few hours (or most of them, at least) for the two highly attentive dinosaurs, but it felt like an age, not least since dear Tricky persisted in interrupting to ask question after question after question, ranging from the painfully inane to the startlingly perceptive. She didn't get to finish the story, though, for just as she started to recall their arrival at her shuttle a basso rumble filled the chamber.

Nerves jangling she snatched up her staff and took a few steps forward, so she could watch the door slide open, tensed ready to defend herself and, more importantly, the two Earthwalkers if necessary. Rather than the towering brute that had thrown her in, or any other snorting Sharpclaw thug for that matter, slowly revealed as the stone moved aside was the golden-orange furred, bruised and battered and bloody, heavily breathing yet still confidently smiling form of Fox McCloud.

She literally ran for him, clamping her arms round him in a fierce embrace, kissing his face repeatedly. "How did you...?"

"Later." He hugged her back just as tightly, and returned most of her kisses. "Have you asked her Majesty about Warpstone?"

Krystal flushed lightly, feeling oddly giddy with Fox back in her arms. "No, sorry – Tricky and the Queen wanted to know why I look so bad, and I didn't think I'd be getting out so-"

Fox pressed a finger to her lips. "You couldn't look bad if you tried. Now, sorry to rush you, but I don't want to push our luck." He released her and moved further inside, patting Tricky on the head and bowing to the Queen Earthwalker. "Your Highness, apologies if I seem rude or impatient, but do you know if Warpstone was ever able to send people to places other than the ones he can now?"

The Queen took several seconds to think this through, her gaze drifting to the distant, before snapping back into sharp focus on McCloud. "There have been...rumours to that effect for a long time, and there are a series of notches on the inside of the rock wall around him, so it's certainly likely, but no-one knows for sure besides Warpstone himself, and he won't talk about it. Maybe if you catch him in a good mood...?"

Fox grinned, nodding. "Oh, I think we might be able to coax it out of him now we have a window. Speaking of, we'd better take our leave. Will you two be all right here, or is there somewhere else you can find safety?"

"We'll be fine here," the Queen assured him. "There isn't much they can do to us."

"All right." Fox bowed again, as did Krystal beside him. "Farewell for now."

"Window?" the vixen asked, as McCloud led the way outside at a brisk jog. "What did you mean...oh..."

Her eyes widened dramatically on noticing the complete lack of Sharpclaws throughout the Hollow; not a single, solitary one met her astonished gaze. "Where...?"

"When I got back here I found them gathered round a projection of a tall dino barking out orders – I don't think it was Scales, just a high-ranking minion. When he'd finished they all teleported away, one after the other, in a matter of seconds, the big guy last of all. Whatever it was the commander wanted it sounded pretty damn urgent."

"I'll have to take at it look later," Krystal decided, as they ducked through the gap in Warpstone's wall. "See if I can translate what he said."

"Okay. You'll have to teach me the language some time..."

"We'll start tonight," she promised. "If we get the chance..." She lifted her muzzle and voice, Warpstone now looming right above them. "Could we have a word, please?"

"O' course," Warpstone answered, gesturing toward the platform in front of him. "What be on yer minds?"

"Travel." Fox stepped up onto the tiny circular area, Krystal right beside him, their hands clasping each other quite firmly, and it rose to the statue's head height. "As in, we've lost our way of getting to the planet chunks floating in orbit, and wondered if..."

"I could help?" Warpstone smiled, though it held a certain melancholy. "Aye, I could, if I still had ma jewels."

"Jewels?" both foxes asked, sharing a glance, a thrill of excitement tingling through both of them.

Warpstone tapped the vivid green gem embedded in his forehead, then pointed to the inside of the rocks around him, to his left, where a quartet of identically shaped notches cold be discerned. "Jewels. In ma pomp I could take ye a dozen or more places with the aid of yon shiny beauties, but that was centuries ago. I havnae seen a stone in over two hundred years, not since the Whisperscales took the last o' 'em." He held up a finger to forestall the questions forming on vulpine lips. "Although, I did hear there just might be something at a place called...what was it...?"

Two sets of ears pricked up even more.

"High up in Moon Mountain Pass."

Krystal looked at Fox. "That's three days walk from here – very strange place; desolate and warped and more than a little creepy."

"Sounds like fun," McCloud drawled. His eyes snapped back to Warpstone. "Any idea what we need to look for?"

The statue shook his head slowly.

"Damn. We'll just have to wing it, then." He nodded to Warpstone. "Thank you for the help, and if you don't mind we need to get gone before the Sharpclaws return."

"Go. Awae with ye. I'll be here when ye need me."

Once the platform had sunk enough the foxes started back toward the main section of the Hollow, Fox leading Krystal down the path he'd taken when fleeing the Sharpclaws. It dropped down several thigh height ledges before terminating in a roughly circular area of twenty feet diameter with a heavy barred gate on the far side and a dozen or so branded crates clustered haphazardly to the right, two of which were broken enough for a handful of dumbledang pods to have spilled out of one and large, pale white eggs from the other.

"Food supplies!" Krystal crouched down by the damaged box, scooping as many pods as she could into her arms. "Something to smile about at last!"

Fox, meanwhile, was collecting half a dozen of the eggs. "I hope these are bird eggs."

Krystal nodded. "Pukpuk eggs. Large, almost flightless, very common forest bird. Kinda like chickens only even more stupid."

"You mean it's possible?" Fox laughed, as they ambled back toward the ledges.

"Put it this way..." Krystal turned round and hopped up to sit on the first ledge, then shuffled backwards and carefully climbed to her feet. "Once, when settling down for the night, I had one try to roost in my lap, repeatedly, no matter how many times I shoved it off, and even after I moved. In the end I had to climb up a tree to get some sleep."

McCloud was shaking with laughter now. "Oh, I wish I'd been there to see that..."

Krystal was giggling more than a little herself. "Who knows, you just might get to see a repeat performance – the bloody things seem to adore me..." Her ears shot up. "Oh, by the way – there's something you really need to take a look at; I stumbled across it while collecting the white grubtubs."

"And it only pops back into your head now because...?"

"Because coming within a whisker of being eaten by a living cloud clears your mind out very effectively."

Fox flashed a contrite smile, nudged her cheek with his nose. "Ah, fair enough. We'll store these just beyond the tree line then take a quick look, ok?"

"Ok." Krystal nodded, pressing her lips very briefly to his brow. "I think there's a hollow log we can use quite close to the top of the ridge."

By this stage they'd reached the tumble of rocks they'd used to descend into the Hollow. The ascent was a much slower affair by necessity, the foxes having to ferry the eggs and pods up one or two at a time, but it went as smoothly as could be hoped, and moments later the supplies were safely stowed in the log and the vulpine pair were on their way to the mound the opposite side of the river from the Earthwalker's chamber. Krystal led the way along the cramped tunnel and down the hugely long ladder inside, to the bottom of a broad shaft dotted with narrow platforms and large red mushrooms that emitted clouds of choking dust every time someone strayed too close.

Giving the latter as wide a berth as possible the foxes jogged through a low arched opening into a long lozenge of a chamber, the vixen heading for a shallow bump about a third of the way down the middle of the room, at the apex of which was a hole two feet in diameter. With no hesitation at all Krystal dropped into it, drifting gently down to a compact, tiled dome of a room from which a serpentine, sloping passage extended. A wide-eyed Fox was right behind her.

"Well, that's a neat trick."

"Neater one down here," Krystal responded, beckoning him to follow.

The tunnel led to a slightly larger dome that contained a circular pool with a platform in the centre, a huge stalactite pointing toward the centre of it. Fox's eyes lit up.

"Staff power?"

"Staff power."

Grinning hugely, Fox vaulted over to the platform and held his staff high above his head, this time not reacting at all when the lightning bolt hit it. Leaping back, he joined Krystal in collecting some of the gems ringed around the pool to recharge their staffs, then they retraced their steps to the shaft, the vixen stopping under a ledge some twenty feet high.

"Stand back, and watch this."

A positively agog McCloud took several paces back, watching intently as Krystal stabbed the pincer end of the staff into the ground, gripped the shaft just below the golden oval and fingered another artfully concealed button. A light swelled in the green gem nestled amongst the golden tines, a tremor radiated out from the point metal met dusty topsoil, growing exponentially stronger over several seconds, then with an almost frightening suddenness and violence the staff rocketed vertically upwards, the vixen clinging tight to it, whooping and hollering the whole way. When stave and passenger drew level with the ledge the pace smoothly decreased, allowing Krystal to gracefully flip over and land at a crouch. The grin she was wearing when she straightened up and turned round to gaze down at McCloud was a sight to behold.

"Your turn!"

Experiencing a mixed feeling of excitement and nervous anticipation uncannily like the one that washed through him every time he sealed the cockpit of his Arwing, Fox stepped forward and repeated his companion's actions almost exactly, tensing himself for the eruption. It still caught him by surprise, though, punching the breath from his lungs and wrenching at his wrist muscles as it tore him from the ground and propelled him at truly exhilarating speed straight up, wind tearing through his fur, ears pushed flat back and tail plastered against his legs. For some moments after his feet touched the ledge all he could do was gape at Krystal with eyes shining and a giddy smile on his face.

"Whoa..."

"Yeah, that was my reaction," she chortled, patting him on the shoulder. "Three more of those and we're out of here."

Fox grinned from ear to ear. "This job really has its perks."

"I've said it before and I'll say it again," Fox murmured, lazily trailing the fingers of one hand through silky-soft white-with-a-hint-of-blue fur. "This job really has its perks."

The food stowed safely in Krystal's transport, a small supper of a dumbledang pod each consumed, and an agreement reached that it would be better to start for Moon Mountain Pass as early as possible the next morning rather than leave straight away, the two foxes had headed to the nearby waterfall and the crystal clear teardrop of a pool it cascaded into, determined to make the most of a chance to relax and enjoy themselves. Thus Fox now sat behind the sparkling veil of the falls, his back resting on slick stone, his arms around the vixen in his lap, his fingers stroking blood from her belly fur.

"You're telling me," Krystal purred, her head nestled against his and her eyes blissfully closed. An encounter with a duo of Sharpclaws just as they reached the shuttle, the first of the dinosaurs they'd seen in almost an hour, had left her with several streaks of red from stomach to neck, courtesy of a wickedly barbed club and very quick reflexes, so the tender attention from McCloud was more than welcome. "I'd forgotten how therapeutic a touch could be..."

"You and me both," Fox responded, dipping his hands into the pleasantly cool water to scoop some up, which he proceeded to drizzle onto her chest, over every inch of the pert hillocks of her breasts, to soften the dried blood streaked across them so he could groom it out. "We really need to do this more often..."

"Fine...by...me," Krystal sighed, feeling so relaxed and contented she was on the verge of dozing off in Fox's embrace. "Now, before I drift off and forget, can you focus on those orders you overheard?"

Fox nodded, closing his eyes, his hands falling still over the portions of breast they had been cleaning. Krystal let her mind expand outwards gradually, easing her way into her companion's, to find the memory she sought front, centre and in sharp focus.

"Very impressive," she smiled, slipping into it, emerging on the ridge above Thorntail Hollow, looking down on the Sharpclaw meeting.

"A good memory has its uses in my job."

"I can imagine. Right, he's saying... 'C3 has been spotted in Cape Claw, all Thorntail troops to relocate there and begin searching. Capture, don't kill. Repeat, capture, don't kill.'" Her eyes snapped open, and her head twisted sharply round to stare in shock and excitement at Fox. "There's someone else here..."

Fox nodded, a light sparkling in his eyes. "We have got to try and meet up with them, if the Sharpclaws haven't gotten them already."

"Plenty of hiding places around the Cape, and no shortage of ways out, either. Problem is we have no way of knowing where...unless we try to get one of those projection devices the Sharpclaws are using..."

"Listen in." Fox nodded. "I doubt they'll give one up willingly, though. We'll just have to keep an eye out for a decent opportunity."

"All right." She let her eyelids roll smoothly shut once more, and her hands settled over Fox's, clasping them a little closer to her breasts. "Enough with the talk for now, though. I just want to luxuriate in feelings I haven't had for years..."

"What feelings?" Fox asked, in a murmur, nuzzling and kissing her cheek, slowly working his way to and along her muzzle.

"Mmm... Peace... Contentment... Bliss..." Lips met lips, drifting into a slow, caressing dance...until Krystal drew back. "Let me show you a little something..."

"Okay." McCloud shut his eyes, resting his forehead against hers, enjoying the warm and gentle tingling sensation that always accompanied their mental melding.

'This is the last time I felt like I do now,' Krystal's voice had softened to a mellifluous murmur, the warmest of breezes drifting through his mind. 'This is the last time I felt like I had a place in the world...'

Colours bloomed all around Fox, rich pastel hues of yellow, and blue, and green, a scene as idyllic as any he could imagine painting itself gracefully into being. Soft sand, tumbles of warm rocks, wind-tousled seas, vivid blue sky, and fur as green as grass after the rain. His mind's eye gazed through those of a Krystal several years younger, a lithe and sylphlike flower in the midst of unfurling, sitting against a tide-smoothed stone on an unspoilt, deserted, sun-caressed beach. In her arms rested another young vulpine girl, curves and laughter and mischief and sparkling green eyes, their fingers entwined with one another amid the velvet pelt of her budding chest. Lips gravitated to lips, toying, brushing, teasing, until muzzles parted, gliding over one another, sinking into a kiss so deep and warm and heartfelt it almost overwhelmed him...

And then he was back behind the waterfall, golden-orange fur mingling with blue, body pressing so close to body they almost blended into one another, his heartbeat singing in time with hers, his eyes losing themselves completely in the entrancing blue moonpools before them. Muzzles stroked one another with whispering tenderness, kissed fur and skin and lips with endless warmth, closed tightly over one another so deeply and fully and lovingly that nothing else existed any more...

Nothing but orange-gold and blue...