User:Mr.Peaches/The Hifalutin' Tale of Kawouso the Otter (Unfinished)

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The Hifalutin' Tale of Kawouso the Otter (Unfinished)

Author: Mr.Peaches

Arr. Be a cold, calm night 'pon the seas. The cap'n be taskin' me to tell ye the tale of how the crew of the Dirty Dungbeetle--that be us, pups--now be the richest pirates 'pon the waters. So grab a barrel an' fetch me 'nip, and shut yer yaps while ol' Drownin' Wade Cutler regales ye with the tale of Kawauso the Otter!


December 24th, 2007 9:32 AM Southern California


Four little squares with three little doors and cheap spackled white walls--a small apartment. There were holes hither and yon, and little stains of mysterious origin from residents past hidden like Easter Eggs on the carpet. Circumstance brought a youth by the name of Joshua Coene to this place. Maybe the shower was tiny and the cabinets didn't close right, but did Joshua Coene ever complain? Did he ever falter? Nay, friends, he most certainly did not. Joshua Coene was grateful for everything he had, and this forthright spirit was rewarded with happiness... a kind of low-key, but long-lived happiness.

Josh knew all the details of his domicile without having to open his eyes, so he knew not to push over the stack of Japanese History notes written in economical script on the nightstand as he arose from bed, gently pushing aside one of his Chesapeake Bay Retrievers as he did so. Sasha was this one's moniker, and Josh patted her furry head as he opened his bedroom door to commence with the morning drainage.

He promptly stopped, and nocked an inquisitive brow.

No longer were the walls of the apartment dry and dull, cracked and spackled! Nay, they were festooned with lush evergreen wreaths heavy with berries, wrapped in sparkling ribbon and hung with glittering doilies! Festive lights of red and green and white caked the walls and ceiling between! No longer were the floors dusty and smudgy--they were clean enough to perform triple-bypass surgery on, and the softest Christmas throw-rugs were...thrown...hither and yon, bedecked with scenes of Santa and holly and Yuletide merriment!

Joshua un-nocked his brow and gave the other one a turn.

Unable to buy a tree this year due to the fact that Japanese History students aren't the richest in the world, and due to the fact that he cared far more about daimyos than decorating, the Californian lad had gotten used to the notion of a tree-less, duller Christmas. Now, he found his circumstances oddly reversed. Not one, but *three* Christmas trees had been raised within his domicile, each one a massive cone of lights and glittering icicles and shiny metallic orbs, of figurines and candy canes and ornaments galore! Why, the entire apartment had been turned into Omega-Ultima Christmas land! And all this without a sound last night!

He switched eyebrows again and cleared his groggy throat. "Ahem...hello?"

No answer, but the rest of his Chesapeake Bay Retrievers--namely, Bill the blond dog-of-the-house and Shiloah, a Hershey brown, came trotting out of the wonderland and jumped on him lovingly, Sasha yawning and joining in.

"Hey, guys... I guess you... should get fed..." Patting the pooches, Josh ventured out of his bedroom like Niel Armstrong out of the lunar lander, stepping on the plush rugs as if afraid too much pressure would trip some sort of alarm. Left and right he looked, and everywhere was a scene of Christmas wonder. In the back of his mind, he started formulating a list of who could have jazzed up his apartment. By the time he had fed his hounds, results were still inconclusive. His family and the majority of his friends had either pressing matters that kept them from getting together this particular holiday (although plans had been made to meet a day or so after) or were simply doing other things elsewhere. The magnanimous Coene had been fully prepared for an uneventful Christmas day with the dogs; fate, it seemed, had other plans.

Not trusting the sudden bounty of food threatening to blow up his fridge, Josh breakfasted along with the dogs, meditatively eating oatmeal, the bowl on an ornate red and green tablecloth. When finished he could stand it no longer; he would call up his acquaintances and get to the bottom of this puzzling, albeit not unpleasant, mystery.

He had his fingers on the "send" button when a sudden glimmer at his feet caught his eye, and he gasped. On this most unusual day, what should he find but Bill setting down a merry wrapped present at his feet! Sasha and Shiloah flanked him, all three wearing big doggy grins.

"Is this for me?" Of course receiving no verbal answer, nonetheless Joshua was quite touched. Setting down the cell phone on a nearby coffee table, the youth picked up the package. A small box, perhaps one foot cubed, it was wrapped in shiny silver paper with ribbon to match, its edges carefully laced. A small tag hung off the ribbon, which upon inspection read:


tO Josuua FRUM bIL Soshuh anD Sh- yloh Lv u

"Oh, you guys!" Forgetting a moment the improbability that his canine friends had actually produced the gift, he set down the box and gathered the Retrievers into a big hug, receiving big sloppy kisses. Wiping his face, the historically-inclined lad perched upon the couch and undid the bow gently. The bow and paper fell away to reveal a nondescript, plastic-like box with a simple pull-open lid. Upon this lid was a note. Written on soft white paper, it read:

Hey! Thanks for choosing us for your adventurous needs! Whatever the reason, we're always fresh and ready for delivery!

There was some goofy-looking guy giving a thumbs-up at the bottom. It looked like a sort of manufacturer note meant to be taken off. Hmm. Joshua put it aside and opened the box.

BOOSH!

"YEOW!" Joshua leaped off the couch in alarm as a huge cloud of purple smoke exploded out of the flattened box! Within milliseconds the entire festive apartment was chock-full of an impenetrable violet haze. The stuff smelled a bit of Pepto Bismol and mint, and the lad hacked and coughed as he tried to find his way to the windows. Treachery! Terrorism! What was this stuff and and why on Earth would someone pack it in a box! Throbbing rose in his tissues and bones as he blindly stumbled around; was this the end? This madness--would it claim him so coldly?

He rubbed his arms frantically, stopped, rubbed them again. He could just see them through the mist! Hair! Fur! Growing uncontrollably!

"Waugh!" It was everywhere--growing out of his legs, his back, his stomach! Now, a crack of his spine! Have to sit down! His torso lengthened, his legs shortened just a bit! Madness! He pawed at his hind end with clawed, webbed paws, trying to restrain an enthusiastic, muscular tail from making an explosive appearance. He failed miserably, and the new appendage whipped around wildly as Joshua's face swelled, lengthened, and re-aligned itself. A few more moments of thickening fur and shifting ears, and it was over. The formerly human Joshua Coene lay in a daze upon the carpet as the mist slowly cleared and dissipated. He chittered idly, head swimming. His world had been turned upside-down like a bucket full of marbles, and he was free-falling through at atmosphere of unknowns.

Soon there came a licking frenzy and a wave of dog breath. His dogs had found him again.

"Blpbth!" Waving them off, Josh flopped over to a mirror and clutched his whiskered face in shock! What greeted him were two shiny eyes black as onyx stones, a moist black nose dominating a plump muzzle bristling with whiskers, and two tiny ears twitching near the rear of his head. Slowly he placed a paw atop his skull. It was a little flat and nubbly, a slight crease down the middle under the sandy brown fur. His nostrils quivered; smelling the pine on the wreaths and the dogs. His gaze turned to his padded paws, with their pearly claws. Finally his brain verbalized what his eyes had seen and his paws had mapped:

"Great Scott, I'm an otter!"


How did it feel to be suddenly altered to a large, bipedal, humanoid otter? Well, here in the apartment surrounded by his hounds curiously sniffing away at his webbed feet, it felt... a great deal *safer* than you'd think it would.

Joshua stared at his hands, flexing his nimble fingers, watching the dark webs between them loosen and tighten. This was revolutionary--impossible! But here it was! Otterfication!

"Woo... hello, hello, hello..." He ran his muzzle through its paces, his lips apparently still agile enough for human speech. Trying the other tactic, he succeeded in emitting natural otter sounds--a series of sort of squelchy noises, with some underlying hisses hither and yon. Incredible! Just incredible...

The Retrievers were idling around the festive apartment as Coene prodded himself, the dogs as carefree as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The newest otter affixed them with his beady eyes.

"Did... you guys made this happen, didn't you? But how?"

Friendly shop!

"Chtrr?" Who said that?

Sasha! Speaking, yet not! Almost--broadcasting, on some natural frequency! Had Joshua been re-tuned?

"Sasha?" He clutched his paws to his head, trying to keep his brain from exploding. Now the other dogs had gathered before the sofa where he sat, all eager to tell the story of their Christmas success.

[It was awhile ago--] Quoth Sasha.

[I wanna tell!] Interjected Bill.

[Friendly shop with nice-smelling man!] Quote Shiloah.

[Lemme tell!] Insisted Bill.

[Mouth moved, gave us present for you!] Overrode Sasha.

[Aww...] Bill frowned a little.

After a short silence, it seemed to the otter that the strange canine tale had ended, only raising more questions--of all the things dogs were good at, it didn't seem storytelling was one of them. Still... he could almost feel their good intentions through his whiskers.

"Th... thanks, you guys." The dogs reacted joyously to their master's appreciation, and Joshua thought, through the haze of confusion, that he meant it. It's just--how would he tell his family? What would his boss think? What kind of shampoo would he have to buy now? Should he see a doctor or a vet?

A gull cried outside his window, sending the dogs scuttling to investigate and giving the otter an idea; well, it just didn't make any sense *not* to try out his flippers. The ocean was almost lapping at his doorstep; maybe there was a chance that he could make it down to the beach unnoticed. The former human poked his large nose through the blinds and scouted the beach. Nuts. Busy as usual. He would have to concoct a cunning scheme... or simply stay in the apartment all day. It was festive enough...

No, that just wouldn't do. Who knew if the change, this odd alteration, would last or fade over time? Merciful Neptune... what would it mean if it *was* permanent? No time to think about that now!

The otter scuttled about, collecting towels and clothing in a haphazard manner, still a little addled from the morning's events. The house sure seemed creaky toda--

SKREEEEEEEESH! The eastern wall exploded inward, dust and debris peppering the wall, the wreaths detonating into mulch!

"HSSSSSS!" The otter fell back under the force of the explosion, covering his eyes with a paw! He landed with a splash and stubbed his tail--there was water streaming in through a massive wooden hulk lodged in his apartment. As the dogs barked at it, Joshua stared it down wide-eyed. That was a--

"Ship!" Whyyy? Why was the madness continuing? Why was there a ship?! The madness didn't end there; with a splash, several oddly-shaped figures landed in the water; a bipedal cat bedecked in leather trousers and bandanna, a massive brown ox, also bipedal, wearing pantaloons and a poofy shirt, a humanoid armadillo with glossy armored plates, and an anthropomorphic porcupine with spines exploding from its back.

All of them carried either daggers or cutlasses.

"Oh..." the otter thought of slipping back into his bedroom and locking his door--but the dogs! Even now they were barking bloody murder at the porcupine! The bristling thing was squaring off with his best friends and loyal companions, its tail swishing vigorously! Nooo! Squelching in an otter-like fashion, Joshua leaped to his footpaws and shooed the Retrievers away from the prickly menace, only to be seized in a furry full Nelson by the gray and tawny cat!

"Bones!" The feline shouted, his breath smelling distinctly of catnip. As the otter struggled, the massive Oxen picked him up and tossed him up onto the deck of the barnacle-encrusted ship as if he were a softball! The armadillo was somehow already waiting, and held him down under a mass of leathery hide while the rest of his abductors hopped back aboard!

"Gun the motor, Sharkie! Bones, give us a push!" The cat bellowed, his fearsome teeth gleaming in a frowning maw. As easily and quickly as a basketball tumbles down a lonesome stairway, the ox shoved the wreck of a ship out into the water, water which should not have been there in the first place, and Joshua found himself abducted, snatched away from his home, his dogs... and his very life.


The first thing the otter noticed, below the humming of the motor (what kind of wooden ship had a motor?!), was the crashing of the waves on the bow as the animal crew turned the ship around. When the armadillo brought him to his feet, he could see ocean everywhere, with the shore ten times farther away than it should have been. It wasn't even *his* shore; where there had been a huge gooey cluster of civilization and smog, now there was nothing but some forlorn, tree-covered islands, and the air was crystal clear. It's as if his odd (and odd-smelling) captors had popped right out of an alternate dimension and now popped right back in with him in tow! The mustelid's whiskers drooped at the site of his familiar world vanished like donuts at an office party. The armadillo loosened its hold on him somewhat, although it still kept his arms held behind his back.

"Are you all right?" Its voice was distinctly feminine. Joshua couldn't help baring his teeth.

"NO I'm not all right!!" He hissed, thrashing around madly. "Who are you people!? What do you want!? Let *go* of me!" He jerked around like a marionette, receiving only an "oh dear..." from the armadillo for his trouble.

"Oi!" the cat leaped into view, tightening its bandanna. "Now you best shut yer gob, ottah, lest you wanna be walkin' the plank! ARR!" it snarled.

"He's an *otter,* Wade." The porcupine reprimanded from behind the mast, where it was tugging ropes furiously.

"Well, that's why 'e goes in wif' 'is *arms* toid, idn't it?" The cat countered, its ears flat.

"But we *need* him," the armadillo said, genuinely confused. "We can't throw him overboard, can we?"

"And otters don't need to use their arms anyway!" The porcupine continued undaunted. "They have their hind feet and tails and stuff!"

"OI, BOTH A YEW SHUT UP!" The feline tugged at his--as it was evident--bandanna, stomping madly. "You don' tell your prisonah you *needs* 'im! Crypes! Yore the lousiest pirates what evah sailed the riffle fravvle braffle..." The cat and the porcupine started in one each other, arguing viciously about the proper procedures for captives. Joshua could only slump against the armadillo's belly, ears flat, confused. He looked around the ship as he did so. It seemed to be the standard small ship package--a tapered deck perhaps one hundred feet square, a raised end with a door to the cabins and stairs to the helm, and a mast with sails that the motley crew was using in addition to the motor. Barrels and ropes and spare cloth were everywhere, cluttering up the deck, and it could only be assumed there was more belowdecks. Finally the ox cleared his throat, which put a stop to the squabbling cat and porcupine.

"The cap'n." The bovine grunted in an uber-bass tone. He opened the door to the cabins.

Out onto the deck strode, in heavy boots, the captain. A long coat swept the deck, patched and stitched and scarred. Upon his head sat a broad black hat, upturned at both ends. Straps and bangles and rings adorned the stately figure, who was a, was a--

Poodle. A poodle all of four feet high. Joshua tilted his head to one side, wondering if someone was going to play a cymbal sting or something.

"Ah, mon loutre friend, please, please forgive us for taking you from your home so wudely," The odd dog made a practiced bow, "It's just that we are so short on time and vee need zee help of a seafaring otter such as yourself, and we awe puwsued acwoss zee watairs by *renardes* of zee foulest kind," Its face was a picture of piteousness. "Dolores, would you please welease our deaw fwiend?" The armadillo did so, the otter shaking out his furry arms and looking around nervously.

"Now is zee time for explaining," the poodle explained, throwing an arm uncomfortably around Josh's hip and directing him to the bow, where the otter seriously considered jumping ship had not the cat been watching him with narrowed eyes, as if to say, "Arr." The poodle pointed to the horizon. "Vat do you see?"

"Nothing?" Answered the mustelid. There was only watery horizon.

"Vat you do not see is a mountainside just over zee horizon," said the poodle, "And in zee mountainside is a cave, a cave which holds zee greatest treasure known to pirate kind--zee Golden Urchin!"

"Golden what?" the otter inquired.

"Golden *urchin,*" quoth the poodle. "Mr.Cutler, do tell our new friend zee story of zee Golden Urchin you tell it so well you know." The poodle led Joshua back to a series of crates stacked on the ground in a rough circle, on which the crew sat, a smaller crate for the poodle and a larger one for the ox. The cat, Cutler, was the last in, and slumped down morosely. "Foine, but only 'cause you buy me 'nip," the cat pouted. He looked into the horizon over Joshua's shoulder and began his story, obviously glad to tell it despite his posturing. He told the story with gusto, gesticulating wildly with his paws:

"Right. Once there was this fearsome pirate, see--Cap'n Ron Knockboots--a great black stallion 'e was, an' 'e wore so many gold rings in his mane folks could 'ear 'im coming from leagues away! 'E was the richest bloke on the high seas, but oddly enough..." The cat leaned forward and poked his thigh with one feline finger, "Ain't no one on 'is crew or in any a port what ever saw 'im actually *pirate* a single bloomin' thing. The 'orse never so much as filched a doubloon off a leaky merchant dingy, 'e didn't! Well, bein' that 'e spent 'is 'ole time sailin' the seas and 'avin' woild and wooly adventures with his trusted crew, where'd 'e get 'is money from, eh?" Wade looked at the otter inquisitively, then pointed at him.

"Well, ain't nobody knowed until the cappn's first mate, an ottah boi the name of Pirate Izzy, was on 'is deathbed that 'e told of a treashah of *unlimited* wealth--a golden urchin what works on two 'inges." Wade opened his paws like a book to demonstrate. "Ev'ry day, like clockwork, you finds a perfect gemstone in it, just sittin' there for ya! You go to town, get rich, and the next day there's *anothah* one insoide!" The gray cat's eyes were wide and shining. "It's a bloomin' fountain of money! Think of it, ottah--you could stuff yourself sick on them rare Northern geoducks every day for the rest of your life! Well, *that's* where we're goin', mate! We're off to find Cap'n Knockboots' Golden Urchin!" Unable to restrain himself, the cat leapt high off his crate and started dancing a jig with the surprised armadillo.

Joshua opened his muzzle, then closed it again. He shaded his eyes with one paw and turned to the poodle. Over the caterwauling of Cutler, he asked: "How, exactly?"

"Ah, we have a map," the wooly dog patted his breast pocket affectionately. "Turns out, Izzy's welatives did not think much of zee map he drew up for zem, but what do zey know poodles are more knowledgeable about zese things, no?" He nudged the otter as if he was in on some great gem of knowledge.

"But then why do you need me?" The scent of all these animals mixed together and the implausibility of his abducted, but-not-quite scenario was thoroughly bewildering. Plus there remained the fact that HE HAD TURNED INTO AN OTTER.

"Ah yes I shall tell you zis but first, *introductions!*" with an effeminate flourish the poodle trotted over to the massive ox threatening to crush the crate his sat on, laying a hand on the bovine's titanic forearm.

"*Zis* is my dear first mate his name is Jacob Bones." Bones nodded his horns cordially, brushing his hair out of his eyes.

"Decayin' Jake Bones!" chimed in the cat.

The poodle moved to the porcupine. "Sally Percival."

"Salty Prickles!" said Wade.

"Salty for short," added Salty.

"Dolores Sharkchum," said the dog of the armadillo.

"Sharkie!"

"Zis is Wade Cutler, whose name you may have already learned."

"Drownin' Wade Cutler to ye, ye sea weasel!"

"And I," the poodle bowed low, "am Renard Corin Basile Camille, zee fourth."

"We just call 'im 'doormat' around here," Wade quipped.

"Hey!" Renard yapped.

"Well, we *do.* An' it's better than being named after a famous fox, idn't it?"

"Hmm... damn it," Doormat mumbled. "Goddamn foxes, I hate zem so much... never leave us alone..."

Joshua stood up, somehow feeling it necessary, and finally waved half-heartedly to the assembled. His tail swished forlornly. The shoreline was all but vanished, his home falling behind them league by league. He rubbed his arm, brow furrowed.

"But why did you kidnap me? What do you need me for? You have this map to the urchin; why am I here? I kind of really want to go home..."

"Ah..." Wade replied, stroking his whiskers in the sunshine, "that's cause ol' Izzy be the one what hided the urchin, an' only an ottah can reach it."

"And there aren't any otters out... here?" Joshua waved a paw around.

"Not as many as you'd think," the prickly Salty polished her claws. "And they're a little...flaky."

"A spirit of the sea told me where we'd foind an ottah--I can do that, you know, bein' so attuned to the powers of the moind an' all." Wade tugged his chest fur proudly while Salty rolled her eyes. "Some great big purple winged lizard, it was. Told me the perfect ottah for the job was just a bit ovah yondah-" he gesticulated toward the vanished shore, "an' there you were."

"But... but... you crossed *dimensions!*"

"Bones be a *superb* navigator."

"Gah..." the otter grimaced in confusion and sat down again. He thought he could vaguely hear Looney Tunes music in his head.

"So we are all now friends, oui?" Doormat's doggy face was the picture of piteousness. "And now you will help us, oui? A full share of zee treasure is yours for zee taking, and we will weturn you to your homeland just as soon as zee urchin is aboard zee Bonaparte--zat is my ship you see."

"It's called the Dirty Dungbeetle," Wade muttered, busying himself on deck. Indeed, all the ship hands were back to managing the small vessel, Bones managing the helm and holding a compass gingerly in one monstrous fist, Sharkie disappearing into the ship's hold, and Salty mending sails.

Joshua tapped his claws together idly. "I get to go home after you have the urchin?"

"Oui, oui!" Doormat gushed. The otter sighed and rubbed his temples. It wasn't like he could swim for shore anyway...

"All right..." Calamitous cheers arose from the deck, although Joshua couldn't help but wonder how much of a choice he had in the matter. Doormat was shaking his paw furiously. Wade leaped down from the rigging and before the otter could react, had sniffed him.

"'E's tellin' the truth!" the cat proclaimed. There was more cheering.

Huh?" Joshua questioned the cat.

"I can smell a lie," the cat put a finger on the side of his muzzle and winked. The atmosphere got decidedly more jovial, the sea air smelling fresh and clean.

"You know what this means!" Sharkie leaned out of the cabin door with a frying pan in paw. "He needs a pirate name, Wade!"

"That 'e does, mate!" the cat proclaimed, explaining to Joshua: "You see, I'm a bit of a poetic genius, as it were-"

Salty snorted.

"An' if yore gonna travel wid' us, you needs a pirate name! Stand up-" The cat dragged the otter to his feet. "'Old out your arms--" the otter did so. "Arr..." speculatively, Wade paced back and forth before mustelid Joshua, brow furrowed in a fierce scowl of concentration. Hemming and hawing, the cat looked the mustelid up and down, peered in his eyes, sniffed him a few times, and finally stamped his foot and declared:

"Kawouso! 'is new name is Kawouso!" A bell seemed to ring somewhere.

"Kawouso?" Echoed Salty incredulously. "That's a departure from your normal naming. You usually stick a 'bloody' or 'smelly' or something equally repulsive in."

"Well, that just goes to show that the ones wit' the gross names *deserves* it, eh?" The cat whirled, tail bristling.

Kawauso the otter folded his arms and looked off into the cloudless sky. Kawouso... yeah. It seemed to fit. It felt right, like something he would have come up with himself. Wade was indeed good at naming things.


The rest of the day passed by in a series of vignettes.


"So..." Kawouso was up in the rigging, where Wade was keeping an eye out in the crow's nest. The otter had his tail hooked through the ropes to prevent falling (already it had become a cherished appendage.) "You guys are pirates, then?"

"Arr... that we be, me wide-eyed sea pup," the feline affirmed.

The otter felt a twinge of guilt. "So you steal stuff?"

"Well..." the cat seemed reluctant to answer. "I mean, we're *gonna--* we *'aven't...* just yet..." He rubbed his neck and looked away over the horizon, as if ashamed.

The otter loosed his arms and let himself hang lazily on the rigging. "Well, if you--we--get the urchin, you really won't have to... you could just kind of party, like Knockboots, right?"

"Aye..." the thought seemed not to have occurred to the cat before. "That we could, I s'pose."


Later in the afternoon, Kawauso leaned on the splintery railing and stared at the frothy surf not too far below them. It smelled nice, like a spa or something. He drummed his claws on the railing impatiently; he was quite comfortable with his otter body by now, and really wanted to do some swimming, but Doormat had assured him that he'd be left behind in a thrice should he go overboard. So swimming would have to wait, unfortunately.


"Red Sails! Red sails, cap'n!" Wade was yowling frantically from the crow's nest as the skies began to darken. The crew rushed to starboard, spinning Kawauso around in their wake. They were all leaning off and staring directly into the golden sunset, where Kawauso could see, if he squinted, the tiniest blobs of sails.

"Misseur Bones, ninety degrees to powt!" Doormat yapped to the ox, his black nose peeking over the rail.

"Aye!" The bovine thundered to the helm and spun it wildly as the rest of the crew scurried to make the necessary adjustments to ropes and winches and poopdecks and whatever other nautical stuff fits here. The otter knelt by the railing next to the trembling doormat, a cold cube of fear in his gut. "What is it?"

"It's zose goddamn foxes!" The poodle shook his little furry fist at the distant ship. "Zey call zemselves zee Ninetail Clipperz, and zey are merciless bullies to poor ships such as ourselves! Dwunken, disgwaceful louts zey are--no wespect for culture! We can only hope zey are too dwunk on zere pwecious, how you say, *sockee* to follow us."

A few tense minutes later the ships had again disappeared over the brink of the horizon, along with the sun, and the ship had resumed its course.

"Better run the ship quiet, tonight, sir." Grunted Bones from behind, making Kawouso jump.

"Oui, oui," the poodle assented as the rest of the small crew huddled in a circle. "No lights or dancing tonight. I weel not be licking any more foxy boots." Doormat shuddered.

"Are they after the urchin?" Sharkie wanted to know.

"How could they know?" Wondered Salty.

"Ain't no way!" Wade chimed in.

"Zey are probably just looking for twouble and we are unlucky," Doormat scowled. "But if zey find us zey will find zee map and zee otter zey need. We must not be found." Murmurs of assent. "Come, let us have a simple suppair and go to west. We should awwive at the cave early tomorrow morning."

The troop headed into the cabins save Wade, who was to keep watch. The last one in the procession, Salty hesitated, quills bobbing, then turned back to the cat, who was reaching for the ropes.

"Hey, you go to supper. I'll take the first watch."

Wade looked back, eyes gleaming in their catlike way in the low light. "Urr... you sure?"

The porcupine jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Just go, you lout."

Wade shrugged and leapt of the ropes, heading inside. As she began climbing, she heard "thanks." She smiled and shook her head. What a knucklehead.

The morning of the big day dawned clear and bright, like the day before--at least that's what the otter could tell as he opened one shiny onyx eye. His tail curled around him and the sight of his furry self caused some momentary disorientation before the previous day's events caught up with him. He patted his muzzle. Yep, still an otter. His hammock swung lazily in the bedroom/storeroom, his rump bumping into a barrel of salted meat on each downswing. Around him, the rest of the crew began to stir and roll out of their hammocks. Kawouso couldn't help noticing that Bones' was held up by at least ten ropes braided together.

The otter rubbed the morning sun out of his eyes as he straggled onto deck, Sharkie departing for the kitchen. Doormat was already awake, getting the nightly report from Wade as Kawouso emerged.

"Not a fox in soit," the cat said, yawning widely, "Oi think we gave 'em the slip." He looked at the otter just in time to see his eyes widen, smirked, and gestured over his shoulder. "Oh, and land 'o and stuff."

Perhaps only a mile or so away, a tall rocky plateau of golden rock rose out of the water, crowned by emerald greenery. It looked like a big lump of banana pudding.

"Huh..." Kawouso moved to the bow, leaning out over the rail and letting the cold sea spray wake him up, peering at the island with a rising sense of excitement. A real treasure hunt...

As they were rapidly approaching the island, breakfast that morning was a hasty meal of salted meat and raw vegetables. Kawouso managed well enough with his new jaws, trying not to look like a slob. Finally the assembled were in their ship-working positions as the island loomed larger and larger. A kind of excited silence fell over the assembled. The otter leaned over the bow and observed the crags and cracks and rocks of the island.

Larger.

"Ah... so where do we land?" Kawouso inquired of Doormat. The poodle chuckled to himself.

Larger.

"Seriously, now. Shouldn't we be weighing anchor or something? Guys?"

Much larger!

"All right, everyone into zee cabins!" Doormat put the map into his pocket with a satisfied little nod and scampered into the cabin, followed by everyone except Bones, who still stoically manned the helm, or "bulled," as it were. Sharkie leaned out of the door, armor shining.

"Come on, Kawouso!" she called.

"Are you people *insane!?* You're going to hit the cliffs!" They were a hundred feet away and coming fast!

"It's OK! We'll be fine!"

"What?" Seventy-five feet!

"Hurry!" Fifty feet!

"I'm getting off this ship!" At twenty-five feet the otter realized he had to escape this fruity psycho-ward of a crew lest he share their suicidal fate! Squealing in an otterish way, the mustelid hauled tail from the bow, over the deck, up the stairs to the helm, past the humming Bones, and over the rear railing as the ship closed the distance to the cliffs!

KEERAAAAAASHERASHERASHERACKLE!!! A terrific noise stung Kawouso's ears as he free-fell to the ocean, slipping into the water with nary a splash. Then--oh, rapture! Oh, heaven! The water was so cool and perfect! Kawouso was home! Like a ribbon he twirled and swirled, dove and circled in the emerald depths! Where before he'd have run out of breath soon, now his lungs were comfortable and fully oxygenated long after submerging! If only it would never end!

Eventually he remembered the ship, and stopped swimming guiltily, letting himself gently float to the surface. A little yellow fish swam by nonchalantly. As he rose, Kawouso prepared himself for the sight of the broken, shattered carnage that must surely come next.

His head broke the surface, and he saw.

Well... he saw the entrance to the cave where the treasure supposedly was... definitely large enough for a ship to pass through... and there was the Dirty Dungbeetle, docked at a beach some fifty feet inside the cave. The otter tilted his head in confusion, swimming forward hesitantly. There were pieces of stuff that looked like white and yellow eggshell floating in the water. It looked like sheet rock, or plaster.

The cave entrance was covered in plaster!

Kawouso heard yelling from the ship. Wade and Salty were waving to him.

The inside of the cave was grey as December, dark and dreary, with an upper jaw bristling with stalactites. It was a dome some hundred feet high and much farther around. Kawouso padded out of the water on all fours and pushed himself up to a standing position, his plain white T-shirt and grey shorts dripping. The crew was laughing uproariously, and the otter crossed his arms.

"You're all insane," he grouched. "You could have told me it was a fake wall!"

"Now, now," Wade tossed him a towel of sorts. "We was just 'avin' a bit o' fun. Besoides, ye got ter swim, dincha?"

"Eh..." It was awesome, but he wasn't about to tell *them* that.

"Huddle, everyone, huddle!" Doormat called some fifty feet hence, his high-pitched voice echoing across the cavern. The crew and Kawouso huddled up around the map, which the poodle had spread on some dry sand in the dim light. It was time for the battle plan.

"Zee crew going in weel consist of Kawooso, Wade, Sharkie, and moi." Doormat said the last one with a bit of a regretful sigh. "Salty and Bones weel, of course, stay behind on zee ship as we discussed, keeping an eye out for anyone approaching zee cave. Now see zee map here," the dog tapped it with a claw. The map showed a winding snake of a tunnel that seemed to alternate between tunnel paths and bridges through oddly geometric areas of water. Paths branched off like tree limbs. Four Xs were marked on the map, the last one drawn with little horns. This one sat in a circular room toward the top of the map, and just beyond it was a smaller room with a crudely-drawn urchin inside it. The map ran from south to north, with a large half-circle marking the cave entrance.

"Vee vill follow zis path here." The poodle had marked lightly a rough reverse-S of a path. "Zis way we may be for to taking zee most direct path. Sadly, it means vee must pass zee three Xs here, and zee last one here."

"Does the map tell you how to avoid the traps?" Kawouso swallowed nervously.

"Erm... ah... why you worry do not worry friend ottair, we go first, yeah?" This was not reassuring.

"Right. Now you told us precious lit'ul about this one 'ere." Wade poked at the horned X with a claw. "Wot's this one? 'e don' look too happy."

"Oh, zat is just some sort of 'test' Izzy zee ottair also mentioned on hees deathbed," Doormat said. "What 'e is proposing is seely and makes no sense. We need not worry about zis one." He balked at the suspicious eyebrows, and sighed.

"Izzy said zat zee ghost of Knockboots would make sure zat nobody unworthy of zee urchin would have it. See? It ees a silly thing. We needn't worry! Zere's no such thing as ghosts, you know." "That's wot you said about floiyin' purple oracles, too, and we all sawr it!" Wade was clearly disturbed by this latest news.

"What ees zis? My brave kitty is afraid?"

"Yes!"

"You must not worry!" The poodle's scent only slightly belied his confident facade. "We seemply go in and ask rrull nicely for zee urchin you see! Vee are poor yet virtuous, and piratey rogues! If we are actors, zee audience, she loves us already!"

"And if Knockboots says no?" Salty wrung her hands nervously.

"Zen we beg," Doormat said matter-of-factly.

The old wood door had almost rotted away; a wretched moldy thing with a crude, salt-encrusted rope handle. Here was the first X; the first trap. Doormat, Kawouso and Sharkie were huddled against the wall to the hinge-side of the door. Bones and Salty were watching from the ship. Wade had the rope in his paw. Wrenching it mightily, the door swung open, fell off its hinges and disintegrated on the sandy floor while Wade high-tailed it to the others. When no flames or spikes or rolling boulders came out, Doormat breathed a sigh of relief and said "Zere, you see? Nuh-"

With a great clatter, a huge pile of stones fell down from the ceiling where the door used to be, bouncing wildly around the cave. Kawouso ducked one that nearly bopped him on the nose. When the shower had passed, there was still an opening large enough to crawl through. Sharkie uncurled herself. "Everyone all right?" Everyone nodded, and the armadillo opened a pouch around her waist and started passing out torches.

The first passage was cramped, hastily dug, and smelled strongly of the sea. The procession went Wade, Doormat, Kawouso, then Sharkie, who thought it best to bring up the rear on account of her shell. They all carried torches, the cat stopping every few paces to burn cobwebs, of which there were plenty. Fifty feet of this led to the first room, where a curved section of bridge connected the passages over a roaring underground river. Pale light snuck in through cracks in the ceiling. "Zere is anozair X here." Doormat snuck around Wade and sniffed at the bridge and the chamber. "Hmm..." He stomped on it with a boot.

CREEEEEBOOSH! The entire bridge fell down on one side, leaving the other somehow attached to the cave wall. Doormat yelped and bolted for the exit, stopping only when Sharkie grabbed him. Kawouso peeked over Wade's shoulder, taking care not to burn him with his torch. "Hinges! It was a hinged bridge! When you step on it, it just falls and you go with it!"

"Aye. But it appears that ol' Knockboots 'ad a sense of honor," quoth the cat. "Look 'ere." Lowering his torch, it was clear that the far side of the railing, the side that was attached to the cave wall, had fallen over to make a ladder bridge which could be crossed on foot. So over the rushing waters the party went, stepping gingerly on the slats, crossing safely over to the next cave tunnel.

"One more X," the poodle said, "before zee ghost which may or may not be zere. Hmm..." he raised his torch and investigated the passageway. Two things immediately became apparent; one, the floor here was mostly swept clean, and was a smooth slate color. The second apparent thing was that the wall was honeycombed with holes spaced three inches apart, from the ceiling to the floor. The poodle pursed his lips. "Hmm."

"Well, this don' look too bad, eh?" Wade said. "Juss' a bunch of 'oles, is all." Kawouso sniffed the air fruitlessly, the holes like eyes piercing into his fur. His heart was pounding, the cave atmosphere taking its toll.

"We should watch where we step," Sharkie suggested. The group did so, stepping forward on pins and needles, the dark holes watching them coldly. Stepping only where the other stepped, holding their tails in one crooked arm, the ragtag party shuffled forward scarcely a foot a second, Wade in the front lightly tapping the ground with a paw before stepping down. The tunnel kept going mercilessly; five minutes of this paranoid shambling still left them twisting and turning, going uphill and down, never knowing when the next step they took would bring death from the walls. Kawouso's nose stung from the scent of fear emanating from his odd companions... and himself, he supposed. As the shamble continued, finally Sharkie in the rear cleared her throat.

"So... what're you gonna do with your share of the treasure?"

"Aherm..." Wade grunted as he led the group around a suspicious spot. "Well, I tell ya, ah... what oim gonna do is, I'm gonna go back to ol' Puerto de Pato an' oim gonna axe me love Katalina ter marry me roit then an' there oi am! An' oim gonna show up in one o' them fancy suits, too! The ones with those little hats you put on, you know?" The mood began to lighten considerably.

"Who's Katalina?" Kawouso asked in a mockingly scandalous tone, glad for the reprieve from the silent terror of the tunnel. Before he could hear the answer, his webbed feet hit a slippery patch of dusty floor, and he stumbled, furry arms flailing. "Whoa!"

"Careful!" Sharkie leaned forward and grabbed him under the shoulders, her cool scaly claws setting the otter back on his feet.

As she did so, she let go of her tail. It swung behind her and hit the ground with a *smack.*

  • Click.*

The group froze. Sharkie snatched up her tail again and looked wide-eyed at the small section of the floor that had had lowered itself. "Oh, *no!*"

ft...ft...

"Do you guys hear that?" It was like a hiss in the tunnel behind them!

ft, ft, ft, ft!

"Ye gods, RUN LADS!" Wade yowled! Doormat lost no time, his little poodle claws gouging the stone as he shot forward like a little furry bullet! The hissing spitting sounds were coming faster and faster up the bend! It was a mad scramble! Kawouso started sprinting as fast as his shorter otter legs could take him, already panting! The flames of his torch streamed out behind him as the tunnel turned to the left, turned to the right! Scramble up the hill! Slide down the hill!

FTFTFTFTFTFTFTFTFTFT

"Yeeeeaowr!" Light! Light! The otter leaped as hissing darts began to nip at the fur on his tail!

"Ohhh..." The stone at his back felt good, the sunshine coming through the roof of the non-tunnel cave even better. Kawouso had a paw over his face, although it was a little difficult with the flatter shape of his head. He could hear both Wade and Doormat panting; the two of them were probably in about the same position he was. The only thing he couldn't hear was...

"Sharkie!" The otter sat bolt upright, peering into the darkness of the tunNel behind. The darts had stopped flying... after a few minutes. Kawouso padded over to the tunnel entrance, which was black as death. "Where's my torch?!"

"Dropped it, lad. We all did." The grey cat adjusted his bandanna morosely, thought better of it, and took it off, letting his pointy ears stick up normally. "Sharkie's got 'em."

Aggrivated, the otter paced furiously. He ran a paw over his muzzle. He hadn't known the armadillo long, but...

"Don' you worry about Sharkie, lad," Wade said without much confidence. "She's an armadillah! Tough 'ide an' all that."

"Shouldn't we search for her?" Kawouso felt cold and small.

"We'd do more 'arm than good in there." The cat stared at a wall. "But 'ere--" He leapt to his feet and hollered into the tunnel of death. "SHAAAARKIE! OY! YOU ALL ROIT?" After the echoes died down his response was a rumbling and grinding. The animals backed away. "What did you do?" Kawouso cried.

"I..." the rumbling grew louder and louder until... a medium-sized hedgehog rolled out of the tunnel and flopped out on its belly.

"SHARKIE!!!" The assembled cried joyously! What *appeared* to have been a hedgehog was in fact the armadillo herself, her shell bristling with dark grey metal darts. The poor thing looked like a pincushion, but on her belly on the soft sand of the cave floor. She appeared to be in high spirits. "Hiya!" She waved to the assembled.

"Oy, ya little Salty-wannabe, ya little dunce, yew..." Wade clonked her on the head playfully and set about plucking the darts out of her shell, soon followed by Doormat. Once he was sure it wasn't hurting her, Kawouso helped, too.

"Cripes, whadja make us worry fer, huh?" Wade said.

"You *know* I can't run very fast." She drummed her claws in the sand and smiled. "But those darts were no match for my super-tough shell! I'm sure a *lesser* mammal would have met their end, but..." The party chuckled. In just a short while they had Sharkie back on her feet, a little scuffed and ragged but none the worse for wear. She made a little bow to everyone.

"What's wrong?" She asked of Kawauso. He was averting her gaze.

"I'm sorry I stumbled..." he mumbled.

She hugged him. "It happens! If I had a doubloon every time Wade had an accident and put the rest of us in danger, we wouldn't *need* the Golden Urchin! They don't call him 'Drownin' Wade Cutler for nothing!" Kawouso laughed, much relieved, Doormat laughed, Sharkie laughed, and Wade laughed hardest. "'Tis true!" he affirmed. Thus did the poodle, the cat, the armadillo and the otter make it through the three preliminary traps set forth by the equine Captain Knockboots in hiding perhaps the greatest monetary treasure upon the Seventeen Seas of the dimension of Earth413. They rested, they feasted on rations, and they stared down the door that stood between them and destiny.

The End... for now.