All living beings traveling across the bridge that crossed the boarder between the continents of Ehm’ma and Gi’ahn’na either came from Fai’lah Guard, or Kah’tan’na Port. The town of Fai’lah Guard was a port town, once upon a time. It was housed in the second-to-last of the hottest temperature zones of all of Oneuywa, and it was one of the largest towns- close to being one of the only towns- on the Continent of Ehm’ma’s southern border. At some point, a Royal Family had formed, and then the town prospered into the modern marvel it presently was.
Our story here begins many years in the past, on a road in this desert area, just outside the town of Fai’lah Guard where time seems to stand still. Yes, this was a place that not many dared travel. Most travelers to this hot, torrid region came by water, be it ocean or river.
The setting is that of the empty night, a nondescript carriage drawn by two white-grey colored lizards, the size of horses, natives to the landmasses inhabiting this second-to-last region in the increasing heat scale. The Rakutors, for that is what the reptilian beasts are called, come to a stop well outside the port-town’s massive walls. Not even the guards atop the walls could see them this far out.
Here, a Prince, a King, and a solider made bodyguard return from a voyage of espionage. They were of Lycan blood, yes, but a subspecies specially adapted towards this harsh environment; they lacked the fur that those with wolf ears and tails typically had, and were known as Jackals. This trio of Jackal Royalty leave their small carriage, with the king and guard releasing the Rakutors to the wilds, and then head for a larger, caravan styled carriage that will take them the rest of the way to the town they call home.
In the Prince’s arms lay an infant not of Royal- or even Lycan Blood. She was human. Her pale skin indicated that she had been born by those who lived in the milder zones- her golden hair that barely showed through her head wrappings further said that her lineage came from the Clover Islands. Natives that bathed in the magically infused waters from that area- waters which carried properties of the four Magicka Wells hidden beneath the islands- were blessed with increased magical powers. The golden hair was a sign of their vast, internal reserves of magical will power, giving humans born there a boost beyond what their cousins elsewhere lacked.
Lycans who were turned from humans with such increased magic wells were known to have even larger reserves than their mundane Lycan cousins. The “Princess” would be turned into a Jackal Lycan before arrival at the capital, and the King and Queen would hail her genetically impossible looks as a blessing from Mizar and Alcor themselves.
A Princess whose great Magical potential would help secure the King and Queen for years to come. She would be their perfect Heir, the one who would allow them to finally expand politically to Kah’tan’na Port via an arranged marriage. As they reached their new caravan, the King took the girl- very likely kidnapped from some poor, unsuspecting family- from the Prince, and began to load her into the carriage seat designed for her. The Queen already waited inside, smiling at her Husband, and then nodded to the guard.
The Prince was about to begin climbing into the caravan when the Guard drew a second weapon that was not part of the standard issue kit. It was of common make, common design, but with a single flare to the hilt that would continue baffle those who investigated the murder of the parents for many decades to come.
The Prince never knew what hit him, even as the simple blade did the deed- severing the spinal column at the base of the skull, thus severing the Prince’s head from his neck in a heartbeat. The guard released his grip on the blade, and the Prince’s corpse fell to the ground, weapon still wedged in his neck and sticking out like a bent nail stuck in the floor boards.
The guard joined the King and Queen, and their new Princess, in the Caravan, and they took off, leaving the Prince’s corpse to decay in the sands of time eternal. Nobody would find his unmarked grave save the scavenging animals of the desert. No, nobody would even look for his body- for the King would tell the tale of how, during their tour of the Continent Ehm’ma, their young Prince had grown jealous of the daughter that had been “Born” during their tour, and hired bandits to slay her…
Except those Bandits instead slayed him when it would ‘sadly’ turn out that they thought they could ransom him for more money from the King, who held no room in his heart for traitors. Nobody would find the Prince’s unmarked grave, for nobody would look for the grave of a traitor.
Nobody, that is, save the sister of the child who had definitely been kidnapped. The young daughter who had escaped her parents’ fate by going out to play tag with the Dragon boy from across the street at just the right moment. A sister who, upon finding her parents slain corpses, would swear revenge, and would hunt down those who had caused her such grief.
It was just her luck then, that she and her Dragon-born neighbor both had the invisible marks of a certain potential: Cat ears and a tail that only they could see on each other, by nature of being born with the power to peer through a complicated, magical ward cast upon the whole world. This was a trait that would allow them to find their town’s local entrance to the Lucky Cat’s Guild, and as it happened, by way of sheer fortune, one of the first people they met was an odd girl who also had cat ears and a tail.
They would only later find out that that girl’s cat ears and tail were real and not magical illusions, and that her name, Hergie, was not just the result of her parents naming her after one of the Creators of the world.
Thirteen years had passed for nineteen year old Ahven Ventus, a silent, tricky Dragon-born boy with pitch black and blood red scales, and twenty year old Mila Archten, a sly, clever Human girl whose blonde hair and shining, piercing blue eyes were unmatched by all contenders. So many years of chasing down leads, working the rumor mills of the world until more leads popped up.
Working over those many years, the duo of Ahven and Mila had made many contacts, and discovered so many leads to so many other cases. Places to be hit and robbed, or people who needed to be … defamed or defanged. They became a well loved, and a working part of the Cat’s Guild. While most jobs held no real leads, ever so slowly, a path began to form. A Trail of bribes, treachery, and assassinations that lead from the Clover Isles to the town of Rainbow Line in Brahgegaius, then past the Dreamer’s Isles, Egg Roost of Aura’s Dawn, to River’s Spite in Ehm’ma, and then finally…
A caravan of three men and a babe were seen heading south, towards the Grower’s Hand Lake. From there, it wasn’t even luck, but mere deduction that the next stop had to be Fai’lah Guard. And so they traveled, using the Lucky Cat’s many hidden entrances whenever they needed them (And it was always where ever the whims of fate decided that those entrances were seemingly needed at random).
So when they discovered a skeleton in tattered, faded, royal robes, they made note of the location. When they entered the town, somehow just in time to see a small parade go through, announcing the Princess’ arranged wedding to the Prince of Kah’tan’na Port, they saw what was not meant to be seen.
Because, despite the fur less ears poking through a mane of blonde hair, and despite the makeup covering her sun-bronzed, Jackal shifted face… Mila Archten recognized her own face in there somewhere and the face of her Mother, from whom she inherited her looks.
Yes, in that moment, Mila’s life goal had been semi-fulfilled. Her now fourteen year old sister had been found, and so she and Ahven acted. They ran towards the nearest entrance to the Guild’s hideout, always within reach, and through sheer luck, they once more ran into the Matron of Luck and, beyond all possible hope, the Pathfinder.
And so they told the two deities- the representations of Justice and Thievery- exactly what they’d just seen. The consequences were known immediately, and without hesitation, Hergie placed a call.
The conversation that followed spoke even more of the flow of Luck that the Matron personified. Mystryal agents were now coming to aide and assist with stopping the arranged wedding from going through.
Mikari Yuki scowled at the many cheering, quite obviously drunk, patrons of the bar that they were supposed to be meeting their Cat’s Guild contact at. The heat was near blistering, even indoors. The large, overhead ceiling fans did little to cool the room so full of heated bodies giving off even more heat as they attempted to cool down.
As a consequence of the centuries old Cataclysm, the planet called Oneuywa had a very prominently sun facing southern axis, the temperature in the southern most regions of the world raised higher and higher into near unlivable conditions. Being located in the second-to-last livable zone of them all, the town of Fai’lah Guard’s day to day temperatures were blisteringly hot.
It went without saying that the location of said blistering happened most often on the feet. Shoes were useless in this part of the world, as was most clothing. No matter how well dressed you were… the fact was that no natural means of countering the heat would work because the heat itself was not natural.
Sure, you saw the occasional mage wearing a full set of heavy, enchanted robes to keep them cool, but that kind of cooling magic was expensive, and more often than not, even those runes failed in the extreme heat of the region. That such intense heat was prominent in the region, and yet the land was still livable? That in and of itself spoke of the unnatural nature of the shift in the world’s axis. It spoke of one of the Flame Princess’ many plans for world domination- just barely halted from completion.
If you were native to the region and were used to the heat, like so many of the drunks in the bar were, then the world’s cultural fixation on wearing clothes that spoke of your job took a back seat to being comfortable. As most cloth or metal based uniforms trapped heat, the most any native to the region wore on a day to day basis were shorts, and lots of belts with pockets attached.
The belts and pouches themselves were common accessories across the world- as everyone had the occasional need of extra carrying space- but like most innovations of that nature, their origins came out of necessity. And so the necessity of needing lots of belts in a region where excessive heat made standard clothing options unusable lead to the creation of external pockets on belts.
That was what Mikari saw in this tavern. People in shorts and strapped all over with belts and randomly hanging pockets. Even she and the rest of her team were dressed in this way. This was an undercover operation, and wearing a Mystryal Uniform of any kind would be sending up alarms to the people they were to be investigating that they were, well, investigating them!
In most other parts of the world getting the paperwork done to run an undercover mission to subvert the clothing rule would have taken a lot of time… except for this part of the world. That was for the better here, for time, as the old saying goes, was very much against them.
Which was why it was increasingly frustrating for Mikari that their contact hadn’t shown up yet. Ranagi had gone off to the bar to ask the barkeep about the upcoming wedding, leaving Mikari at the table with Ayako and Tony, who, naturally, were caught up in “Soul-Bond-Memory-Recap” mode, giggling idly about this or that while sharing a bowl of cheese sticks and ranch dip. Mikari didn’t mind, so long as they didn’t accidentally blow their cover with their antics.
They’d all been waiting here for long enough that those two had already gone through three bowls of the appetizer, and showed no sign of stopping any time soon.
“My legs are getting stiff,” Mikari griped, just loud enough to get Ayako’s attention, “I’m going to walk it off. Keep your ears open in case our contact shows up.”
“’Kay,” The Lycan girl nodded in response, but otherwise didn’t seem to be listening. Oh well. It was only day two of having a working bond- a lack of attention on other things was acceptable. There wasn’t even much for Ayako or Tony to do on this case anyways.
Or for Mikari to do, either. Why had she been chosen to come? At least she wouldn’t be stuck doing homework, but still… homework was preferable to the intense heat and glaring light of Cypher hanging above them.
And so the Imp girl got up from the table and began walking around the crowded bar. Strangely, the crowd seemed to part at random to let her through. It was strange because that effect usually only happened thanks to the Mystryal uniforms. Someone wearing pockets? Too mundane of a sight around this town to warrant any odd attention.
(The bar’s lack of outfit diversity aside, she’d seen enough girls in near identical outfits to her own wandering around the market outside to know this to be true.)
It made her curious, suspicious, and angry all at the same time. But getting angry wouldn’t do anyone any good, Mikari knew. Maybe she’d go outside and see if their contact was just late in arriving. And if not, she’d wander the market for a bit to kill some time.
And so she left the crowded bar, regretting the decision in an instant. It was definitely much hotter outside than it had been inside. Mikari raised an arm to shield her eyes from the sun. ‘Damn it… maybe I should buy some sunglasses?’ If this assignment was going to last any longer than a day, then it probably would be best to do that anyways. And even if it didn’t, maybe a set of sunglasses would help just with today in general. Cypher was shining much too bright for her liking.
Putting her bare feet onto the hot sand (no stone pavements. That would just be TWICE as worse), Mikari grit her teeth and prepared to find a stall that sold sunglasses. Surely there had to be a stall selling them. If not, then someone had to be completely stupid and insane!
It was then that she bumped shoulders with an Undine boy around her age- An Undine? In the desert??- they both started apologizing in an instant, talking over each others sentences before Mikari saw what was over his eyes: Goggles! Maybe even better than sunglasses! Those seemed to have air-vents attached to the sides- perfect!
“Hey, um,” Mikari broke the stream of apologies first, “sorry if this is out of the blue, but where did you get those goggles?”
The boy blinked- the motion barely visible through the orange colored lenses. “Uh, my goggles?” He paused, “My Cousin got me them for my birthday a few years back. Why?”
“Damn,” Mikari sighed. “I was hoping to find something like that. The sun’s bugging my eyes.”
“Ah, yeah, I hate that,” The boy nodded. “I didn’t have a use for them until I got here. You’d be surprised how often you need a sun blocking visor out here in the desert. Or anywhere, really.”
“So very true,” Mikari nodded. “Are there any shops around here selling glasses, at least?”
“Not today,” The boy shook his head. “And even then, the shop’s closed for another two days- they share it with another store and swap out every three days. You just missed ’em yesterday, I’m afraid.”
“Damn, so much for that idea,” Mikari shook her head. Something nagged at her, then. “You know, I’ve gotta ask.”
“Yeah?” He asked, seeming to know what her question was already.
“What’s an Undine doing all the way out in the desert for?”
He laughed, “Business, believe it or not.”
“Aaah, that,” she smiled in return. “I’m here on similar. Just got into town. You?”
“On my way to a meeting,” he replied.
“Me too, actually,” Mikari wondered… was it possible? “And I’d better get going to it. I don’t want to keep people waiting.”
“Yeah, fair enough. I’m running late too, got caught up trying to find the right set of stairs,” The boy nodded with a sly laugh, and then went to leave. “Good luck!” He sauntered away into the market crowd and seemed to disappear into the masses.
“Thanks!” And with that, Mikari returned to the bar, which was just as crowded as before, but, now that she was aware of the temperature differences between inside and out, could feel and appreciate the slightly cooler air.
A glance around the place showed the same patrons as before, exactly where she’d left them. Mikari sat down at the table with Ayako and Tony, said an “I’m Back” and got no response from either Lycan. She almost wanted to complain. This was a job, and here they were flirting over food and a soul bond. Admittedly, it helped keep their cover as ‘just ordinary tourists,’ but even so…
Was it so hard for them to at least acknowledge that she’d returned from her brief walk?
Mikari couldn’t blame them, though, as much as some distant part of her wanted to resent it. From what she’d heard from her parents about their own soul bond, the initial first few days were always a bit of a rush of reforming emotions and resurfacing memories.
A sharp whistle was heard then- one she’d been waiting for. Mikari looked over at the bar, where Detective Kaie was waving over at them, and… next to him was the Undine boy from before, goggles waiting around his neck, and revealing a set of navy eyes.
Mikari’s crimson orbs met them for a moment- and all she could think of in response was, “Are. You. KIDDING me!!?”
She might have accidentally said it aloud, given how the Undine smirked at her, and Ayako innocently ask, “What happened?”
“When the boss told me to keep an eye out for a man with a discolored left arm,” the Undine said as he lead them around back to the kitchen, and then down a stairwell that seemed to be relatively abandoned compared to the rest of the building. “I wasn’t expecting it to be Detective Ranagi Kaie of all people. Cutting your own arm off? That’s the kind of nerves that builds reputation!” He laughed a short, simple, sort of amused and awestruck laugh. “I have family who attend Mystryal Academy, she’s going to flip when she finds out I met you before she did!”
“Surely they told you who you were fetching?” Kaie asked, clearly trying to ignore the apparent fact that his life was gossip worthy. Instead, he seemed to be focusing his energy into a scowl, directed at the fact that as they went deep enough underground, the temperature noticeably went down by several dozen degrees. It was enough to make even Tony, with his extra fur layers, shiver at the sudden change.
“Hah, nope. All I got told was that a detective was coming to help Miri and Ahven out with their case.”
“Wait- what?” Kaie asked, surprised. “Those two are our informants on this one??”
“Whow ere you expecting, Mizar and Alcor back from the grave?” The Undine asked, rather sarcastically. Mikari frowned at that. Surely he could have a bit more respect for the fallen Creators?
“No, we were expecting Hergie and Hecate, fresh out of bed,” Mikari retorted, sticking a tongue out at the Undine for his remark.
“Hah! Funny!” the Undine laughed, “You joke, but they are both here, actually.”
“That was probably her I talked to on the phone, then,” Ayako said, scratching at her nose in a slightly embarrassed manner. “She just said she was ‘the top cat’ and asked me to come specifically.”
“Hergie asked you specifically to come?” The Undine whistled. “You’re in for an interesting day, that’s for sure.”
“And Hecate?” Ayako pressed a bit nervous, “Hecate is here too? Right now??”
“Lesser known fact? They’re lovers, kid. Not a day I’ve been here that I can ever remember them being apart,” the Undine rolled his eyes as they neared the bottom of the stairwell, which terminated at a solid wall, and the temperature seemed to rise back into a more temperate level. “It seems odd though, doesn’t it? That the Pathfinder and the Lucky Cat would be bedfellows?”
“A little, yeah,” Tony nodded. “You’d think they’d get along as well as cats and wolves.” He then paused before correcting, “The normal ones that don’t transform, I mean.”
“Yea, funny that,” Said a cloak wearing girl who descended the stairs behind them, making everyone- except the Undine boy- jump in surprise. “Especially since Hergie loves it when Hecate takes on a Lycan body. All those muscles? Mrrrow!!”
“Seriously?” Mikari scowled, turning to glare at the new arrival. “That’s a little too much personal information, and isn’t this stairwell getting a little bit too crowded for going nowhere?” She then blinked and asked the figure, “Where did you even come from?”
“Oh, that? Here, I’ll show you the answer to both!” The girl in the cloak said before clapping her hands but twice. Involuntarily, Mikari, and everyone else blinked. When their vision cleared, suddenly, they were all standing in the center of a large cavern, still at the foot of the stairs they’d just descended.
Stairs that, if one looked back the way they came, would seem, impossibly, to spiral upwards in an endless circle, branching off and joining multiple other stairwells that continued upwards and onwards and into the infinite void above them all…
“Wait! Your voice!!” Ayako gasped, grinning as the girl who had just appeared took off her cloak’s hood. “You’re…!”
“Hergie at yer service!” The cat eared, blond haired, green eyed Matron of Luck gave a slightly dramatic bow. “Welcome to the Cat’s Cradle, Detective Pups.”
“I’m going to go see if I can grab some spare goggles,” The Undine said, winking at Mikari as he did such. “Don’t want your sensitive Impish eyes burning out from Cypher’s glare, now, do we?” And then before she could reply, the Undine slipped away like a cat.
“Why that little…!” Mikari clenched her hands.
“Aw, leave Eugene alone,” Hergie said, somehow having slipped around off of the back of the stairs to a standing position in front of them. “He cares. Not quite good on the talking with people thing yet, but we’re working on it.” She then motioned for them to follow her, “C’mon, lemme give you the guided tour on the way to Hecate.”