Chaz extricated himself from the snowdrift, shook himself down and glared at Rune.
"... what? I warned you this time!"
"How come you two aren't covered in snow and I am?" he demanded, "Are you sure you're just aiming badly?"
"If I was good at aiming, we'd actually be in the Myst Vale and not somewhere near Reshel!"
"Meow?" asked Rika.
"It could be worse," Chaz told her, "At least we're near a town. A town that sells Sol Dew. So I can stop and get myself dried off and Rune can go and get my payment. I've done everything you asked me to do!"
"Technically, Rika carried out the commission..."
"You addressed the commission to Rika!"
"Meow!" agreed Rika.
"I did? Oh, yes, I did. Oh well..."
After a brief stop at the town, they began the journey south towards Myst Vale. The death of the Profound Darkness had halted the unnatural snow storms and the Dezolisians had managed to clear a path between all the important trade routes, if not completely clear the areas made impassible by the snow. A kind of primitive Ice Digger had been invented, much the same as the Hydrofoil that the Motavians had made except not made out of things they found in the garbage. They managed to book passage on one of these Ice Diggers between Jut and Myst Vale. Soon, they were inside the home of the Musk Cats, where Chaz learnt that Dezolis Owls did not disappear or become less homicidal upon the removal of apocalyptic threats. By the time he saw the two guards stood in front of the passage to the inner chamber, where the cats actually lived, he was glad of the warmth and the peace.
Welcome back, meow, said a voice in his head, when are you going to give us back the Silver Fang you borrowed off us?
"Um, sorry, I don't remember where we put it," he turned to Rika, "Do you remember?"
"Meow," she shrugged.
Why does the one with pointy ears talk like a normal person instead of a human, meow? Two curious blue eyes peered up at them. The small ginger cat was soon joined by another, who sprang forwards and sniffed Rika.
I smell a strange energy from this one, meow, it commented, it feels familiar, but I have not seen it before. Should we tell the Old Man?
"If you think the Old Man would know what's going on, please could we see him? We need help urgently," said Chaz.
The human is being polite. It must be an emergency, meow, commented the first Musk Cat. They looked at each other, purred in agreement and sprang off down the corridor.
Chaz continued walking until he reached the inner chamber, where the Old Man slept, surrounded by cats who slept in corners of their own, ran in circles around the dais or glared at each other, locked in their own private psychic arguments. The ancient cat gave the impression that he probably hadn't moved, or even woken up, since Chaz last saw him. As Chaz approached, he opened one eye.
You found something that's not for humans, didn't you meow?
Chaz nodded, "We're not sure what happened. We're sorry if we caused any offence. Do you know how to bring Rika back to normal?"
She looks like she's behaving perfectly normally to me, meow, the giant cat yawned and moved his head to look at Rika, who was on all fours, chasing after the cats who had been running about.
"For a Musk Cat! But she's not a Musk Cat! She's a Numan, and, true, I'm not sure how Numans are supposed to act because they're, well, new, but I'm fairly sure they're not cats! They hardly look anything like cats at all!"
"Old Man, I think you might be interested in some of the things inside Rika's mind," said Rune, "They could be of help to the entire Musk Cat race. Could you just look inside? Think of it as a favour from Myau to Noah."
I already loaned you the Silver Fang, meow, and you lost it.
"Its not lost, I just don't know where it is right at the moment."
And Myau gave you that bottle. You used up that too, meow.
"Yeah, about that bottle..." he sighed, "Look, if Rika wants to get to know her inner Musk Cat, that's fine by me. Its good that at least someone has a choice. And if Myau needs her for something, I guess none of us has a say in it anyway. But please try and talk to her. Just so we know what it is that she wants."
The cat yawned again, stood up, turned around on the spot for a while, his wings flapping lazily, then decided his bed was comfortable again and settled back down.
It'll be a long ritual, meow, and you might not want to observe any more Musk Cat rituals. Why don't you get some sleep in the next room while we work?
"Come on, let's leave them to it," said Rune, ushering Chaz out of the chamber.
"Will it be okay?" the Hunter asked him.
"I'm sure she'll be okay. She's still, what, only ten years old? She's still discovering who she is anyway."
"What about the Feeve technique? You said it would be dangerous for it to get into the wrong hands..."
"That was thousands of years ago. There were a lot more Musk Cats when Myau was alive. The population has been in decline for a long time, so they need something as powerful as a Forbidden Technique of their own if they want to advance. And the Old Man's a good leader. You can tell. He hardly ever does anything. He wouldn't abuse forbidden knowledge if it involved staying awake for longer than half an hour. Besides, some Musk Cats can get the tops off bottles by themselves. They've had a long time to practice. "
"Doesn't that make it a pointless technique?"
He shrugged, "Human bodies can heal by themselves, but Res isn't a pointless technique. Anyway, I vote we actually get some sleep. Its a custom to follow the Old Man's advice around here."
Relaxing as it was to be in a chamber full of relaxed, purring cats, Chaz couldn't sleep. The pile of Dezo Owl down feathers they had made up for him didn't look that appealing a bed, and besides, he was worried about Rika. He sat and watched Rune sleep. The Esper's sleep was fitful. He argued with himself angrily in two different voices. Chaz didn't recognise the language they were speaking.
The next morning, Rika was herself again, so they collected their fee from Rune and he teleported them home. They said their goodbyes and Chaz promised that he would help Rune if ever he was needed for a similar experiment, or if ever a dire fate threatened Algol, with the implication that this was both fairly inevitable and likely to happen in less than one thousand years' time. Rika promised to send him a postcard. On the way home, Rika told Chaz all about her adventures as a Musk Cat.
"It was fun at first, but it kind of wears off," she explained, "They don't really do anything. Well, they do, inside their own heads, but I don't really understand what they think of as fun. I guess I'm not Musk Cat enough."
"So, can you still use Feeve?"
"I don't know. Right now, I can't speak Musk Cat well enough. Their thoughts are too different to mine and most of their language is telepathic," she said, "When the Guardian was in my head, helping me use the technique, it kind of brought out the Musk Cat in me. I think the Old Man will be better at using the technique than I was."
"I really hope so," said Chaz.
"I can't believe we actually did a job and got paid for it!" she said, her face brightening, "How long has it been since that happened?"
"If we're lucky, the reception office will be closed by the time we get back, so we have a whole night of not having to report back!" he said.
"Do we really need to report the mission? It wasn't an official Guild mission, it was a personal request. We've been paid, so maybe we should just leave it..."
"We might get away with it, if nobody saw us handling the letter or heard us talking about the mission. The Guild gets suspicious of Hunters who don't report missions, though," he said, then suddenly looked panicked, "The coffee! I forgot all about it! I promised I'd have the answer by tonight, and I'm supposed to meet him in the bar before it closes!"
"Chaz, I seriously don't think anyone cares about the coffee..." commented Rika, "I also don't think we're anywhere near Aiedo."
"What? Where has Rune sent us this time?"
"Well, judging by that city over there being Zema..." said Rika. Chaz sighed.
"We might as well stop for the night," he said, "We're never going to get home at this rate."
It was at that point that they heard the noise, a little like a Hydrofoil exploding. Chaz turned his head. He saw the first of the wave of androids crossing the sea, heading towards Zema.
"I guess we won't be hurting for missions for a little while," he commented.