The Heart of the Jungle

My first full length novel published for sale!
Over 80,000 words!

Awesome cover by Riddle August
You can find him on FurAffinity or on DeviantArt

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Synopsis:

Florie was an archaeologist, but she considered herself to be quite plain and boring. Nothing ever happened to her like in the adventures she read about in the Penny Dreadfuls or the dime store novels. So when she was swept up into her own adventure while on field assignment, she was woefully out of her depth. Nothing worked out the way it did in the books. Especially not the dashing heroic figure that came to her rescue. Usually it was a big, strong, strapping man, rugged and tough. Taraji was certainly rugged and tough, but she was no man.

Content:

Snake, Leopard, Dog, Cetacean, Lesbians, F/F, Oral, Cunnilingus, Breast Growth, Lactation, Mild Weight Gain, Unbirthing, Endosomatophilia, Pregnancy, Hyper Pregnancy, Rapid Pregnancy, Preg-Flation, Tentacles

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Chapter 1
Adventure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Bullets whizzed by, slicing through leaves and shattering branches. It showered the couple in splinters of ancient, old growth wood. The jaguar, tall, strong, and proud, crouched behind a fallen log, trying his best to protect the lady just adjacent to him. He popped his head up from behind the log, leveled his pistol, and fired. One shot caught one of the cultists in the shoulder, sending him to the ground in a twirl and a hail of incomprehensible swears. Another pierced right between the eyes of another, having taken aim on him with a rifle, ready to make the kill.

“I’ve only got seven shots left!” the feline growled.

“They’re not going to let us escape! They’ll hunt us to the ends of the earth!” the lady shot back.

She was beautiful, fair and cunning. She was already working on something that the jaguar had assumed would be not worth the effort. She ripped part of her white blouse off, tearing from one of the sleeves, then wrapped it around a stick. She shoved a hand into her spotted cat savior’s vest to retrieve a flask, then poured its contents across the cloth.

“I had hoped to save that for one last drink!” the cat said, trying not to sound angry at the lady.

They were desperate, and he was willing to let her take whatever steps she thought might help.

“You can deduct it from the balance you owe me!” she replied with a smirk.

A silver-plated lighter supplied a flame, igniting the makeshift torch. Once it was blazing, the deer shielded her eyes from its brightness. It lit up the relatively dark rainforest, telling the cultists exactly where they were. But then it wasn’t to stay with them for very long. The lady brandished the flaming branch, took a strong draft from the flask and popped up from behind the log and spat. She made sure to create as fine a mist as she could as it was pushed through the torch’s light.

A cloud of flame erupted, casting illumination in all directions. The jaguar took advantage of the sudden brightness and rattled off a few more rounds. Three more cultists fell. What he had not counted on was how close two of the others had gotten. The deer had dealt with them. The burst of flame had been meant specifically for the two that were so dangerously close. They shrieked in terror and pain as their robes were ignited, sending them fleeing and tumbling about through the underbrush.

“Not bad!” the jaguar grinned.

“Not bad yourself!” the deer threw the torch, hitting another of the insane, fanatical zealots in the face.

“It might buy us enough time to make for the river! They’ll be blinded by the flash!” the cat gripped the lady’s wrist and began running.

They disappeared into the trees, leaving the trail behind in favor of following where their ears told them the rushing water was coming from. It was a short trip. They screeched to a halt as they found themselves atop a cliff looking over the rushing white water of a river. It was too steep to try and climb down, and the cultists were right behind them. They had no time to rush along the cliff’s edge to find a safer way to the water.

“It looks like we’ll have to jump! I just hope they don’t try to follow! I don’t want them falling on our heads!” the jaguar said.

“I just hope once we get far enough away from the temple with the Idol of Mor’Takal it will lose its power and they’ll stop chasing us!” the deer replied.

“If you believe in that sort of silly superstition! I’m just interested in seeing it put in a museum where it belongs! Are you ready?” the cat took hold of the woman’s arm again.

“No, but that doesn’t really matter. You owe me quite a lot. If we get out of this alive, you’d better make it up to me, Charles Mason!” the deer pushed into his embrace, forcing a strong kiss between them.

It was likely the last they would ever share. The rocks below could just so very easily dash them to bits if they didn’t jump far enough. The spotted cat took hold of the deer as they kissed, wanting to savor it just one last time. He adored the taste of her lips. And if they managed to get back to civilization unharmed, he had every intention of tasting them again.

“I always make good on my debts, Margaret. And it’s Chuck!” the feline spun, fired his revolver into the heart of the jungle several more times until it was empty.

With no option remaining, the couple looked to one another, nodded, and leapt.

Florie was quickly and suddenly thrown off balance as she took a bad step. The roads in so remote a town were not known for being terribly even. The coral snake yelped and stumbled, bumping into a short vulpine woman in a very colorful garment in front of her. Thankfully, neither of them were thrown to the ground, and neither dropped anything they were carrying.

“Oh my goodness! I’m terribly sorry!” the serpent cried out apologetically.

The fennec woman just turned and gave her a strong frown, muttering something under her breath. Florie sighed and hugged her book to her chest. It was the one comfort she had allowed herself on this trip. The university had needed her to investigate some relics produced on an excursion to the jungles of the primal continent, and so, with only a few days to prepare, she was sent. Thankfully, they had arranged for her lodgings, meager though they were. Travel had been difficult. Precious little had been available for entertainment or creature comforts.

Thankfully, the little town she had been sent to had a wonderful library that happened to possess a surprisingly robust collection of Penny Dreadfuls and dime store novels. The one she was reading now, ‘The Idol of Mor’Takal’ was keeping her happily enthralled.

The slender, scaled lady navigated her way through the busy walkways trying to return to her dusty little apartment. She was trying very hard to keep her spirits up. Florie tried to look at it like it was an adventure, not unlike what was going on in her little pulpy novella. She did wish that she could meet her own personal Charles Mason. The devilishly handsome rogue who would sweep ladies off their paws. She didn’t care that he had a new romantic interest every time a new book came out. She wouldn’t mind a quick bit of excitement before going back to the little broom closet she called an office in the basement of the university.

The trip to the rustic, wooden structure that served as her flat came quickly enough, once she stopped trying to read and walk at the same time. Florie pushed open the door and stepped inside to find the place to be an absolute mess. Her things were scattered throughout the room, the bed sheets were in terrible disarray, and what little she had in flatware had been broken into shards all over the floor. A chill raced up her spine just as the door was slammed shut behind her.

“Hello, Missy. Let’s go for a little walk.” came a hideously villainous voice from an unseen assailant.

Florie screamed as a burlap sack was yanked down over her head and multiple hands took hold of her. She dropped her book and fought with all her might, but it was to no avail. She simply wasn’t strong enough to overcome the men that had captured her.

And what was worse, she wouldn’t get to finish her book.

“Let me go! You can’t do this!” shouted Florie as she struggled against her bonds, “You’ll never get away with it! I’m a citizen of the United European Consortium! They won’t stand for one of their people being kidnapped!”

The coral snake squirmed against the ropes binding her wrists and ankles as she sat in a very uncomfortable wooden chair. She had been plopped down into it rather harshly, making her bottom ache a little. They had not bothered tying her to it. She wouldn’t be able to get very far just hopping along. A group of men stood around her, ensuring any effort she made would be met with an immediate response.

The dust was starting to get to her, making her nose itch. The room was dark and musty, lit only by a few narrow shafts of light coming through the ceiling above. It had all the earmarks of a shabby, abandoned storehouse on the outskirts of the little town. If only she still had her glasses, she could make out her captors more clearly.

A hateful, mirthless laugh gave her reason to silence herself.

“You really think the UEC is going to kick up much of a fuss for a little nobody like you?” said a dog of indeterminate breeding.

“You’ll find they can be most persuasive when they have need to be!” Florie spat back.

A hand cupped under her chin, forcing her to crane her neck upward uncomfortably. With the dog so close, she could focus on him properly now. He smiled at her in a manner she could only identify as cruel. She had seen that kind of smile plenty of times. It was a staple of the sort novels she had become addicted to.

The Penny Dreadfuls had some lovely gems hidden amongst the countless lesser titles. And the ones she had adored almost always showed some villain on the cover with that exact smile. And she was just beginning to discover the illustrated magazines that tended to follow along the same line. She had heard they were called ‘comic books’ in the Americas. It was by no means high brow literature, but she could not help herself. She loved them.

And now she was facing down her own villain right out of the adventures she had read so much about.

“I’m lookin’ forward to seeing the look on your face when you realize no one’s comin’ for you,” the mutt growled menacingly, “You can’t find a wine finer than seeing an uppity imperialist’s spirit break.”

Florie shook her head out of the canine’s grasp, even trying to snap at him with her fangs. She missed by quite a large margin but it made him back away. Even if the act was more to mock her efforts to show spirit. It drew a few laughs from the rest of the men she still couldn’t make out.

“Why are you doing this? If I’m as much of a nobody as you claim I am, why go to the trouble of capturing me? Ransom can’t be your motivation.” the black, red, and yellow serpent allowed herself a hint of a hiss purely for the derisive nature of it.

If it weren’t for the situation, she wouldn’t have let it slip. She prided herself on beating her race’s natural speech impediment.

“Yer right. I ain’t interested in ransom,” the dog crouched to put himself on eye level with the somewhat diminutive snake, “I’m more interested in what you got rollin’ around in that noggin of yours. Yer supposed ta be some kinda expert on relics and the like.”

Florie dipped her nose down a little, keeping her eyes on the canine as she pulled her head back. She was alarmed he knew about her area of expertise, but it wouldn’t do him any good if she chose not to cooperate. Then again, that was usually how people like her ended up tortured or dead in those books she loved.

“If you’ve antiques you need verified and dated, you should seek the services of a second hand shop owner. I’ll not be helping you with anything!” she announced defiantly.

She couldn’t control her trembling, signaling just how afraid she truly was in spite of her brave facade.

“Oh look at this one. Stiff upper lip and all that. I like her.” called out one of the other dogs.

“Ya hear that, sweetie? One’a my boys here sounds like he’s taken a shine to you. And he ain’t the gentle type. Now if ya help me with what I need help with, I promise, no one here’s gonna hurt you. We’ll even letcha go free if I like what I hear from ya.” the mutt grinned.

It was difficult to trust a face like his; that of a man who looked like he would slit a throat as soon as say hello.

“And if you don’t like what you hear?” Florie asked.

“Well, that’s the real question, ain’t it?” the mutt pulled a chair close, turned about back to front and sat in it with his arms folded over the head, “See, I’m real good at my job. A man’s gotta take pride in his work if he’s gonna be happy in life, ya know? And I take a lotta pride in what I do.”

The canine withdrew one of his paws from the folded-arms posture, brandishing a metallic object the snake could easily identify before he did anything else. The dog pressed a round protrusion that was clearly a button, sending a blade flashing from its housing with an unsettling click.

“Threats of violence, pain, and torture have always been found to be ultimately self-defeating,” Florie said with a shaky voice, her eyes locked on the switchblade, “After a certain point, the victim will say anything they think their tormentor wishes to hear just to make it stop.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true,” the dog nodded, then moved to lightly drag the tip of the blade down the scaled lady’s cheek, “But it sure is fun gettin’ there. C’mon. All I wantcha ta do is answer some questions about something. Why’s that so much ta ask for?”

“Had you and your men approached me like civilized members of society, I might have been more willing to cooperate. But since your brutish men shoved my head into a burlap sack, then dragged me to heaven knows where, I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request,” Florie was proud of herself for keeping up the strong act, watching as the dog’s face screwed up in confusion until she translated, “Means ‘no’.”

The mutt, now understanding what she was saying, shrugged and stood back up.

“Suit yourself. I guess I’ll just have to let Nick here have a little fun with you. He’s got a real way with the ladies. Who knows, he might be able to loosen your tongue better than I can.” he pulled the chair back away and waved a hand for the aforementioned ‘Nick’ to approach.

The new canine’s muzzle was stretched into an excited, disgusting smile. He clearly did nothing to tend to his teeth. Florie had been able smell his terrible breath through the sack that had been pulled over her head while they were kidnapping her. Now she knew who was on her left the whole way to wherever she was.

“Thanks boss! I promise I’ll be real gentle-like. Wouldn’t wanna damage that pretty face.” Nick pressed in close, cupping a paw under her chin just as the mutt had earlier.

The snake tried to pull out of his grasp but he was insistent. He dragged the snake up onto her paws, both of which were tied together to prevent her from running. The rope around her wrists and torso kept her arms from being of much use. She complained loudly, trying to turn her head away as Nick leaned in and dragged his tongue across her cheek. The act left a slimy trail of drool across her usually pristine scales. They had dulled quite a bit since she had gotten to this little town.

The odious dog’s hands began to explore her figure, trying to grope at the serpentine woman as she struggled against him. Now her mask of defiance was starting to crack. She shrieked and fought to get away, forgetting about the fangs she had tried to use earlier. She had never been a terribly good fighter.

“Alright Nick, that’s enough. I think she gets the idea.” the mutt said, stepping in to stop the would-be rapist.

“But boss! You said I could!” Nick complained.

Florie turned her head to get a good look at this monster that had been set upon her. He was a retriever of some sort. He would have been handsome if it weren’t for the fact that he looked like he had never once in his life bothered with his personal hygiene. His fur was matted and clumped up. His teeth looked like a few had turned rotten. And his eyes were yellowed, likely from a life of hard drinking damaging his liver.

She figured he wouldn’t last too terribly much longer no matter what happened to him. She especially didn’t want to catch whatever foulness he might have caught from his undoubtedly questionable sexual exploits. She didn’t have much time to properly process it all before the struggle between the two canines forced Nick to let go of her and she fell to the floor. A cloud of dust kicked up in the drop, making her nose tingle all the more. She was on the verge of a sneeze.

“Are you questioning me, Nick?” the mutt asked sternly.

Immediately, the retriever lowered his head and backed away contritely.

“N-no sir, I ain’t questioning you. I just… I just thought-“

“Well there’s yer first mistake, thinking,” the mutt turned and knelt next to the fallen lady, “I trust my point has been made. Feel like being a little more cooperative now?”

“Since you’re likely to kill me either way, I might as well see what all this fuss is about.” Florie sputtered, trying to get the taste of stale dust out of her mouth.

“There now. See? That wasn’t so hard.” the mutt stood up and waved for his men to bring something in.

Two of the dogs vanished through a doorway. There came the sound of rummaging around before it fell quiet and they returned, both of them on either end of a crate the snake judged to be three quarters of a meter long. They acted as though its contents were extremely delicate, setting it down on the floor before pulling the lid off so she could peer inside.

What Florie saw gave her reason to question a great many things. Was this some sort of prank? Or was this real? And if it was real, how on Earth had they come by such a thing? And just what did it mean?

Inside the crate there was a great deal of straw lining, meant to protect the precious cargo it was nestled around. That cargo took the shape of a structure that appeared to be made of extraordinarily fine crystal with remarkable clarity. It wasn’t nearly as long as the box it was stored inside, but it was sleek and came to a blunted point at one end. What startled her the most was that it was shaped clearly like a skull, but unlike most skulls she had seen.

“What is this?” Florie asked breathlessly.

“This here is what’s got me out here in this god-forsaken jungle,” the mutt sounded a little annoyed, as if the whole thing had been a lot of frustration with very little payoff, “Ever heard any legends about a crystal skull? Said ta make men wealthy beyond reason but also drive’em mad?”

“Silly superstitious nonsense. I don’t believe in such things. I only believe in what I can see and measure and prove,” the snake replied, finding her strength of will returning, “I need my glasses. I can’t make out the finer details without them.”

The mutt cocked his head to one side and gave a jerking nod, gesturing to one of his men. Before Florie could ask what was happening, something was pressed down onto her nose and pushed back against her face a little too roughly for her liking. She made a surprised yelp of displeasure before she noticed that her vision had cleared. She blinked a few times, scanning the room to get a better read, realizing someone had rather rudely shoved her glasses onto her face.

“Alright, there. Now you can see properly. Now take a good long look at this thing and tell me what you make of it.” the canine said, his annoyance bubbling just below the surface.

The coral snake remained quiet for a few moments as she studied the skull made of crystal before her, finding a number of odd engravings along its surface. They were in a language she had never seen before, but it did seem oddly familiar. Her lips moved as she tried to piece together words she thought might fit, parsing through possible translations in her head.

When it took her a little too long to answer, the mutt took her by one of her shoulders and sat her upright so she would look up at him.

“It’s considered polite to share with everyone in the room,” he spoke in an oddly civilized manner given his prior behavior, then quickly jumped back to a louder, gruffer tone, “So what’s on yer brain, sweetheart?”

Florie frowned as she was interrupted, looking over her glasses at the dog.

“It is considered polite to at least know the name of the person addressing you when speaking to them.” she replied with a strong touch of indignation.

The dog grumbled and released her shoulder, sitting down next to her to rest his knees.

“Craft. Xander Craft. Now tell me what you know about this skull!” he practically barked.

“Well, Craft Xander Craft, what you have here is quite a mystery. I can see two possibilities.” Florie answered.

“And what exactly are those two possibilities?” Craft’s tone made his annoyance quite clear.

“One, it is a fake. An elaborate ruse perpetrated by a very talented artisan. Perhaps it was meant to be a set piece for a film or a play. Why they would go to such detail is beyond me. Zealotry for one’s craft I suppose.” the snake said.

“Well that is certainly not the case. What’s the other?” the dog’s aggravation remained present, though he was doing a good job of reeling it back in.

“Two, it’s genuine. Though genuine what remains to be discovered. There are markings along the side that look like they are part of some language I’ve not come across before. I thought perhaps I could try translating by using similar pictograms or glyphs but nothing seems to fit terribly well,” Florie was in her element now, feeling like perhaps she could potentially gain a bit of leverage on the situation, “Where did you find this?”

“That’s none of your concern. Can you translate the language or not?” Craft began to curl his lip a little.

He had gotten this close to finishing his job. He wouldn’t let a little stumbling block like this keep him from his reward. Florie looked him in the eyes closely for a moment as she considered her options. She could try and pretend to translate it, but that likely would lead to a short delay and a quick end. She needed time to devise a way out. Time to be kept alive. She needed to be indispensable.

“No.” she replied.

“Then you’re no use to us!” Craft snarled, taking the woman by the arm and hoisting her to her paws as she protested.

“Does that mean I can have her now, boss!?” Nick chimed in hopefully.

“I don’t care! Do whatever you want with her, then kill her, and dump the body somewhere it won’t be found until another one of her egghead friends finds her in a thousand years!” Craft shouted angrily as he shoved Florie into the retriever’s arms.

Nick cackled happily, taking hold of the snake roughly, all too eager to extract what he desired from the poor lady. Just as Florie was deciding that perhaps she had made the wrong decision, a new voice joined the cacophony.

“Mr. Craft, where are your manners?”

Everyone in the room stopped, frozen in their tracks, Nick included. His grasp on the snake remained quite strong though.

“This isn’t anything you should concern yourself with. I’ll find the answers you’re looking for. I just need time.” the mutt said.

“Shhh, do not speak. You do not need to trouble me with excuses. I understand that it is a difficult job, and you have done well to get so far in so little time,” the new canine was taller than the others and his ears stood erect, making him look even taller, and his accent was decidedly from much further east than anyone in the UEC, “I am not in so large a hurry that a lovely young lady must suffer and disappear because of it.”

“She’s seen the skull. We don’t need her wandering around asking questions, sticking her nose into things she shouldn’t be.” Craft replied, his annoyance slipping away, replaced with a sense of bargaining.

“This is true. She has seen the skull. And she is an expert in her field. You should use that to your advantage.” the new dog said.

“She’s already said she can’t translate the markings.” the mutt complained.

“Yes, but you did not bother to ask if she will not, or if she cannot,” the tall canine walked over towards Florie and Nick, waving for the retriever to let her go which he did immediately, “I apologize for the manners of my colleagues, Dr. McLaren. It is so difficult to find good help that doesn’t try to rush through things unnecessarily.”

The snake was relieved that a more civilized mind was holding the reins of this operation, at least in the short term. Her knowledge of pulp novels and comics told her this would likely be the most ruthless of the entire group, merely putting on a pleasant face. This was someone who knew the old saying ‘catch more flies with honey than vinegar’. And to that end, he took the time to free the lady of her bonds, both at her wrists and her ankles.

As soon as she was released, Florie took several steps away from the retriever so badly in need of a bath, stopping when she realized she wasn’t interested in being near any of the men. They had all moved to surround her in an evenly spaced circle, just in case she developed any thoughts about escape.

“If you wanted my expertise, you could have just rung me up like a normal person, or perhaps sent me a letter.” the lady complained.

“Yes, yes I could have,” the alsatian dipped his head slightly as a sign of embarrassment, “In fact, that was my preferred method. However, Mr. Craft was not content to wait. I apologize profusely for his ill mannered attempt to request your assistance.”

“So, you’ll let me go?” Florie immediately insisted.

“I have no intention of holding a lovely young lady hostage. However, I must ask for extraordinary discretion on the matter. As you have said, it could be false. If that is the case, I would much prefer it to be discovered quietly behind closed doors rather than after revealing it to the public. A man’s reputation is important, yes?” the dog offered an unsettlingly warm smile.

“And may I ask who it is that is pulling on the leashes of all of these brutish men?” the snake raised an eyebrow, peering over her glasses at the alsatian.

“Oh, where are my manners?” the tall canine bowed in a very formal fashion, “I am Griffin Redwood, collector and purveyor of fine antiquities and ancient relics.”

Immediately, Florie wanted to shoot back a very biting ‘And what is a ‘purveyor of fine antiquities and ancient relics doing with such thugs under his employ?’ but she thought better of it. She needed to buy herself more time to stay alive, and this most civilized dog was the way to go about it.

“Florie McLaren, professor of archeology, or at least I would be if I were interested in teaching. But something tells me you already know quite a lot about me. I feel somewhat at a disadvantage.” the coral snake replied.

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about you. I take it upon myself to learn as much as I can about those I wish to draw upon the services of,” Griffin said, turning and extending an arm to guide the lady back towards the crate with the skull, “When asked about translating the markings, you replied with a ‘no’. Is this a cannot or will not?”

“Cannot. At least not with the available references.” she was growing bolder than she would have thought wise were she reading this in one of her books.

For a moment, the alsatian seemed puzzled, looking around the dusty storage room with the shabby roof.

“Forgive me but… I do not know what references you are referring to.” he said.

“Exactly my point. I’ve no references at all to use. I’ll need my books in order to try and determine the proper translation,” Florie said, “If there is a translation to be had. As far as I can tell, it could be nothing but gibberish.”

Griffin smiled, sensing her slightly sarcastic tone. She had been put through quite a lot and she was feeling a little spiteful it turned out.

“Ah, yes, I do see your point. What can we bring to you in order to aid your translation? Are there any specific indexes you have in mind?” the dog asked.

“Off the top of my head, yes, there are a few. But it would be better if I could actually make use of a library.” Florie sighed, adjusting her glasses.

“I would prefer to keep any research pertaining to the skull confined to our facilities. But we can go and fetch whatever books you might need. Mr. Craft–” Griffin turned to look at the mutt, “Go to Dr. McLaren’s place of lodging and gather her things. She will be staying with us. Find a library. She will provide you with a list of books to procure for her.”

“Now look here, I ain’t a servant. You wanna play house with the snake, that’s fine, but go pay one’a yer personal assistants ta do the nursemaid work.” Craft growled quietly.

“Xander,” Griffin dipped his nose softly as he gazed at the shorter canine, his tone turning noticeably more stern, “What did we agree upon?”

“Don’t you go throwin’ that in my face. I know what we agreed. And this ain’t part of it.” the mutt’s lips began to curl softly in contempt.

“Are you refusing to do the work I have requested of you? If so, I can find someone more willing to fill the job.” the alsatian turned to look away, sounding very casual about ending the other’s employment.

For a tense moment, Craft appeared as if he were on the verge of assaulting the taller canine. His paws were clenched tight, his teeth bared, and his face poisoned with several creases of rage. Then he relaxed his posture and turned to leave.

“Fine. Nick, you’re with me. The rest of you stay here and keep an eye on our… ‘guest’. Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her.” Craft grumbled as he slipped into sarcasm.

Florie watched as the two dogs left, then turned to see the alsatian bowing slightly with an arm extended once more to usher her out of the room. Her experience through fiction might have told her this was the most dangerous one of the group, but he was certainly quite gallant. That was often part of the mask those most ruthless villains wore to disguise themselves.

“If you would come this way. The men will bring the crate. We must get you settled into accommodations more becoming of a lady of your stature.” Griffin said.

The snake dipped her head in thanks and walked towards the doorway she had been offered.

Chapter 1
Adventure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Bullets whizzed by, slicing through leaves and shattering branches. It showered the couple in splinters of ancient, old growth wood. The jaguar, tall, strong, and proud, crouched behind a fallen log, trying his best to protect the lady just adjacent to him. He popped his head up from behind the log, leveled his pistol, and fired. One shot caught one of the cultists in the shoulder, sending him to the ground in a twirl and a hail of incomprehensible swears. Another pierced right between the eyes of another, having taken aim on him with a rifle, ready to make the kill.

“I’ve only got seven shots left!” the feline growled.

“They’re not going to let us escape! They’ll hunt us to the ends of the earth!” the lady shot back.

She was beautiful, fair and cunning. She was already working on something that the jaguar had assumed would be not worth the effort. She ripped part of her white blouse off, tearing from one of the sleeves, then wrapped it around a stick. She shoved a hand into her spotted cat savior’s vest to retrieve a flask, then poured its contents across the cloth.

“I had hoped to save that for one last drink!” the cat said, trying not to sound angry at the lady.

They were desperate, and he was willing to let her take whatever steps she thought might help.

“You can deduct it from the balance you owe me!” she replied with a smirk.

A silver-plated lighter supplied a flame, igniting the makeshift torch. Once it was blazing, the deer shielded her eyes from its brightness. It lit up the relatively dark rainforest, telling the cultists exactly where they were. But then it wasn’t to stay with them for very long. The lady brandished the flaming branch, took a strong draft from the flask and popped up from behind the log and spat. She made sure to create as fine a mist as she could as it was pushed through the torch’s light.

A cloud of flame erupted, casting illumination in all directions. The jaguar took advantage of the sudden brightness and rattled off a few more rounds. Three more cultists fell. What he had not counted on was how close two of the others had gotten. The deer had dealt with them. The burst of flame had been meant specifically for the two that were so dangerously close. They shrieked in terror and pain as their robes were ignited, sending them fleeing and tumbling about through the underbrush.

“Not bad!” the jaguar grinned.

“Not bad yourself!” the deer threw the torch, hitting another of the insane, fanatical zealots in the face.

“It might buy us enough time to make for the river! They’ll be blinded by the flash!” the cat gripped the lady’s wrist and began running.

They disappeared into the trees, leaving the trail behind in favor of following where their ears told them the rushing water was coming from. It was a short trip. They screeched to a halt as they found themselves atop a cliff looking over the rushing white water of a river. It was too steep to try and climb down, and the cultists were right behind them. They had no time to rush along the cliff’s edge to find a safer way to the water.

“It looks like we’ll have to jump! I just hope they don’t try to follow! I don’t want them falling on our heads!” the jaguar said.

“I just hope once we get far enough away from the temple with the Idol of Mor’Takal it will lose its power and they’ll stop chasing us!” the deer replied.

“If you believe in that sort of silly superstition! I’m just interested in seeing it put in a museum where it belongs! Are you ready?” the cat took hold of the woman’s arm again.

“No, but that doesn’t really matter. You owe me quite a lot. If we get out of this alive, you’d better make it up to me, Charles Mason!” the deer pushed into his embrace, forcing a strong kiss between them.

It was likely the last they would ever share. The rocks below could just so very easily dash them to bits if they didn’t jump far enough. The spotted cat took hold of the deer as they kissed, wanting to savor it just one last time. He adored the taste of her lips. And if they managed to get back to civilization unharmed, he had every intention of tasting them again.

“I always make good on my debts, Margaret. And it’s Chuck!” the feline spun, fired his revolver into the heart of the jungle several more times until it was empty.

With no option remaining, the couple looked to one another, nodded, and leapt.

Florie was quickly and suddenly thrown off balance as she took a bad step. The roads in so remote a town were not known for being terribly even. The coral snake yelped and stumbled, bumping into a short vulpine woman in a very colorful garment in front of her. Thankfully, neither of them were thrown to the ground, and neither dropped anything they were carrying.

“Oh my goodness! I’m terribly sorry!” the serpent cried out apologetically.

The fennec woman just turned and gave her a strong frown, muttering something under her breath. Florie sighed and hugged her book to her chest. It was the one comfort she had allowed herself on this trip. The university had needed her to investigate some relics produced on an excursion to the jungles of the primal continent, and so, with only a few days to prepare, she was sent. Thankfully, they had arranged for her lodgings, meager though they were. Travel had been difficult. Precious little had been available for entertainment or creature comforts.

Thankfully, the little town she had been sent to had a wonderful library that happened to possess a surprisingly robust collection of Penny Dreadfuls and dime store novels. The one she was reading now, ‘The Idol of Mor’Takal’ was keeping her happily enthralled.

The slender, scaled lady navigated her way through the busy walkways trying to return to her dusty little apartment. She was trying very hard to keep her spirits up. Florie tried to look at it like it was an adventure, not unlike what was going on in her little pulpy novella. She did wish that she could meet her own personal Charles Mason. The devilishly handsome rogue who would sweep ladies off their paws. She didn’t care that he had a new romantic interest every time a new book came out. She wouldn’t mind a quick bit of excitement before going back to the little broom closet she called an office in the basement of the university.

The trip to the rustic, wooden structure that served as her flat came quickly enough, once she stopped trying to read and walk at the same time. Florie pushed open the door and stepped inside to find the place to be an absolute mess. Her things were scattered throughout the room, the bed sheets were in terrible disarray, and what little she had in flatware had been broken into shards all over the floor. A chill raced up her spine just as the door was slammed shut behind her.

“Hello, Missy. Let’s go for a little walk.” came a hideously villainous voice from an unseen assailant.

Florie screamed as a burlap sack was yanked down over her head and multiple hands took hold of her. She dropped her book and fought with all her might, but it was to no avail. She simply wasn’t strong enough to overcome the men that had captured her.

And what was worse, she wouldn’t get to finish her book.

“Let me go! You can’t do this!” shouted Florie as she struggled against her bonds, “You’ll never get away with it! I’m a citizen of the United European Consortium! They won’t stand for one of their people being kidnapped!”

The coral snake squirmed against the ropes binding her wrists and ankles as she sat in a very uncomfortable wooden chair. She had been plopped down into it rather harshly, making her bottom ache a little. They had not bothered tying her to it. She wouldn’t be able to get very far just hopping along. A group of men stood around her, ensuring any effort she made would be met with an immediate response.

The dust was starting to get to her, making her nose itch. The room was dark and musty, lit only by a few narrow shafts of light coming through the ceiling above. It had all the earmarks of a shabby, abandoned storehouse on the outskirts of the little town. If only she still had her glasses, she could make out her captors more clearly.

A hateful, mirthless laugh gave her reason to silence herself.

“You really think the UEC is going to kick up much of a fuss for a little nobody like you?” said a dog of indeterminate breeding.

“You’ll find they can be most persuasive when they have need to be!” Florie spat back.

A hand cupped under her chin, forcing her to crane her neck upward uncomfortably. With the dog so close, she could focus on him properly now. He smiled at her in a manner she could only identify as cruel. She had seen that kind of smile plenty of times. It was a staple of the sort novels she had become addicted to.

The Penny Dreadfuls had some lovely gems hidden amongst the countless lesser titles. And the ones she had adored almost always showed some villain on the cover with that exact smile. And she was just beginning to discover the illustrated magazines that tended to follow along the same line. She had heard they were called ‘comic books’ in the Americas. It was by no means high brow literature, but she could not help herself. She loved them.

And now she was facing down her own villain right out of the adventures she had read so much about.

“I’m lookin’ forward to seeing the look on your face when you realize no one’s comin’ for you,” the mutt growled menacingly, “You can’t find a wine finer than seeing an uppity imperialist’s spirit break.”

Florie shook her head out of the canine’s grasp, even trying to snap at him with her fangs. She missed by quite a large margin but it made him back away. Even if the act was more to mock her efforts to show spirit. It drew a few laughs from the rest of the men she still couldn’t make out.

“Why are you doing this? If I’m as much of a nobody as you claim I am, why go to the trouble of capturing me? Ransom can’t be your motivation.” the black, red, and yellow serpent allowed herself a hint of a hiss purely for the derisive nature of it.

If it weren’t for the situation, she wouldn’t have let it slip. She prided herself on beating her race’s natural speech impediment.

“Yer right. I ain’t interested in ransom,” the dog crouched to put himself on eye level with the somewhat diminutive snake, “I’m more interested in what you got rollin’ around in that noggin of yours. Yer supposed ta be some kinda expert on relics and the like.”

Florie dipped her nose down a little, keeping her eyes on the canine as she pulled her head back. She was alarmed he knew about her area of expertise, but it wouldn’t do him any good if she chose not to cooperate. Then again, that was usually how people like her ended up tortured or dead in those books she loved.

“If you’ve antiques you need verified and dated, you should seek the services of a second hand shop owner. I’ll not be helping you with anything!” she announced defiantly.

She couldn’t control her trembling, signaling just how afraid she truly was in spite of her brave facade.

“Oh look at this one. Stiff upper lip and all that. I like her.” called out one of the other dogs.

“Ya hear that, sweetie? One’a my boys here sounds like he’s taken a shine to you. And he ain’t the gentle type. Now if ya help me with what I need help with, I promise, no one here’s gonna hurt you. We’ll even letcha go free if I like what I hear from ya.” the mutt grinned.

It was difficult to trust a face like his; that of a man who looked like he would slit a throat as soon as say hello.

“And if you don’t like what you hear?” Florie asked.

“Well, that’s the real question, ain’t it?” the mutt pulled a chair close, turned about back to front and sat in it with his arms folded over the head, “See, I’m real good at my job. A man’s gotta take pride in his work if he’s gonna be happy in life, ya know? And I take a lotta pride in what I do.”

The canine withdrew one of his paws from the folded-arms posture, brandishing a metallic object the snake could easily identify before he did anything else. The dog pressed a round protrusion that was clearly a button, sending a blade flashing from its housing with an unsettling click.

“Threats of violence, pain, and torture have always been found to be ultimately self-defeating,” Florie said with a shaky voice, her eyes locked on the switchblade, “After a certain point, the victim will say anything they think their tormentor wishes to hear just to make it stop.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true,” the dog nodded, then moved to lightly drag the tip of the blade down the scaled lady’s cheek, “But it sure is fun gettin’ there. C’mon. All I wantcha ta do is answer some questions about something. Why’s that so much ta ask for?”

“Had you and your men approached me like civilized members of society, I might have been more willing to cooperate. But since your brutish men shoved my head into a burlap sack, then dragged me to heaven knows where, I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request,” Florie was proud of herself for keeping up the strong act, watching as the dog’s face screwed up in confusion until she translated, “Means ‘no’.”

The mutt, now understanding what she was saying, shrugged and stood back up.

“Suit yourself. I guess I’ll just have to let Nick here have a little fun with you. He’s got a real way with the ladies. Who knows, he might be able to loosen your tongue better than I can.” he pulled the chair back away and waved a hand for the aforementioned ‘Nick’ to approach.

The new canine’s muzzle was stretched into an excited, disgusting smile. He clearly did nothing to tend to his teeth. Florie had been able smell his terrible breath through the sack that had been pulled over her head while they were kidnapping her. Now she knew who was on her left the whole way to wherever she was.

“Thanks boss! I promise I’ll be real gentle-like. Wouldn’t wanna damage that pretty face.” Nick pressed in close, cupping a paw under her chin just as the mutt had earlier.

The snake tried to pull out of his grasp but he was insistent. He dragged the snake up onto her paws, both of which were tied together to prevent her from running. The rope around her wrists and torso kept her arms from being of much use. She complained loudly, trying to turn her head away as Nick leaned in and dragged his tongue across her cheek. The act left a slimy trail of drool across her usually pristine scales. They had dulled quite a bit since she had gotten to this little town.

The odious dog’s hands began to explore her figure, trying to grope at the serpentine woman as she struggled against him. Now her mask of defiance was starting to crack. She shrieked and fought to get away, forgetting about the fangs she had tried to use earlier. She had never been a terribly good fighter.

“Alright Nick, that’s enough. I think she gets the idea.” the mutt said, stepping in to stop the would-be rapist.

“But boss! You said I could!” Nick complained.

Florie turned her head to get a good look at this monster that had been set upon her. He was a retriever of some sort. He would have been handsome if it weren’t for the fact that he looked like he had never once in his life bothered with his personal hygiene. His fur was matted and clumped up. His teeth looked like a few had turned rotten. And his eyes were yellowed, likely from a life of hard drinking damaging his liver.

She figured he wouldn’t last too terribly much longer no matter what happened to him. She especially didn’t want to catch whatever foulness he might have caught from his undoubtedly questionable sexual exploits. She didn’t have much time to properly process it all before the struggle between the two canines forced Nick to let go of her and she fell to the floor. A cloud of dust kicked up in the drop, making her nose tingle all the more. She was on the verge of a sneeze.

“Are you questioning me, Nick?” the mutt asked sternly.

Immediately, the retriever lowered his head and backed away contritely.

“N-no sir, I ain’t questioning you. I just… I just thought-“

“Well there’s yer first mistake, thinking,” the mutt turned and knelt next to the fallen lady, “I trust my point has been made. Feel like being a little more cooperative now?”

“Since you’re likely to kill me either way, I might as well see what all this fuss is about.” Florie sputtered, trying to get the taste of stale dust out of her mouth.

“There now. See? That wasn’t so hard.” the mutt stood up and waved for his men to bring something in.

Two of the dogs vanished through a doorway. There came the sound of rummaging around before it fell quiet and they returned, both of them on either end of a crate the snake judged to be three quarters of a meter long. They acted as though its contents were extremely delicate, setting it down on the floor before pulling the lid off so she could peer inside.

What Florie saw gave her reason to question a great many things. Was this some sort of prank? Or was this real? And if it was real, how on Earth had they come by such a thing? And just what did it mean?

Inside the crate there was a great deal of straw lining, meant to protect the precious cargo it was nestled around. That cargo took the shape of a structure that appeared to be made of extraordinarily fine crystal with remarkable clarity. It wasn’t nearly as long as the box it was stored inside, but it was sleek and came to a blunted point at one end. What startled her the most was that it was shaped clearly like a skull, but unlike most skulls she had seen.

“What is this?” Florie asked breathlessly.

“This here is what’s got me out here in this god-forsaken jungle,” the mutt sounded a little annoyed, as if the whole thing had been a lot of frustration with very little payoff, “Ever heard any legends about a crystal skull? Said ta make men wealthy beyond reason but also drive’em mad?”

“Silly superstitious nonsense. I don’t believe in such things. I only believe in what I can see and measure and prove,” the snake replied, finding her strength of will returning, “I need my glasses. I can’t make out the finer details without them.”

The mutt cocked his head to one side and gave a jerking nod, gesturing to one of his men. Before Florie could ask what was happening, something was pressed down onto her nose and pushed back against her face a little too roughly for her liking. She made a surprised yelp of displeasure before she noticed that her vision had cleared. She blinked a few times, scanning the room to get a better read, realizing someone had rather rudely shoved her glasses onto her face.

“Alright, there. Now you can see properly. Now take a good long look at this thing and tell me what you make of it.” the canine said, his annoyance bubbling just below the surface.

The coral snake remained quiet for a few moments as she studied the skull made of crystal before her, finding a number of odd engravings along its surface. They were in a language she had never seen before, but it did seem oddly familiar. Her lips moved as she tried to piece together words she thought might fit, parsing through possible translations in her head.

When it took her a little too long to answer, the mutt took her by one of her shoulders and sat her upright so she would look up at him.

“It’s considered polite to share with everyone in the room,” he spoke in an oddly civilized manner given his prior behavior, then quickly jumped back to a louder, gruffer tone, “So what’s on yer brain, sweetheart?”

Florie frowned as she was interrupted, looking over her glasses at the dog.

“It is considered polite to at least know the name of the person addressing you when speaking to them.” she replied with a strong touch of indignation.

The dog grumbled and released her shoulder, sitting down next to her to rest his knees.

“Craft. Xander Craft. Now tell me what you know about this skull!” he practically barked.

“Well, Craft Xander Craft, what you have here is quite a mystery. I can see two possibilities.” Florie answered.

“And what exactly are those two possibilities?” Craft’s tone made his annoyance quite clear.

“One, it is a fake. An elaborate ruse perpetrated by a very talented artisan. Perhaps it was meant to be a set piece for a film or a play. Why they would go to such detail is beyond me. Zealotry for one’s craft I suppose.” the snake said.

“Well that is certainly not the case. What’s the other?” the dog’s aggravation remained present, though he was doing a good job of reeling it back in.

“Two, it’s genuine. Though genuine what remains to be discovered. There are markings along the side that look like they are part of some language I’ve not come across before. I thought perhaps I could try translating by using similar pictograms or glyphs but nothing seems to fit terribly well,” Florie was in her element now, feeling like perhaps she could potentially gain a bit of leverage on the situation, “Where did you find this?”

“That’s none of your concern. Can you translate the language or not?” Craft began to curl his lip a little.

He had gotten this close to finishing his job. He wouldn’t let a little stumbling block like this keep him from his reward. Florie looked him in the eyes closely for a moment as she considered her options. She could try and pretend to translate it, but that likely would lead to a short delay and a quick end. She needed time to devise a way out. Time to be kept alive. She needed to be indispensable.

“No.” she replied.

“Then you’re no use to us!” Craft snarled, taking the woman by the arm and hoisting her to her paws as she protested.

“Does that mean I can have her now, boss!?” Nick chimed in hopefully.

“I don’t care! Do whatever you want with her, then kill her, and dump the body somewhere it won’t be found until another one of her egghead friends finds her in a thousand years!” Craft shouted angrily as he shoved Florie into the retriever’s arms.

Nick cackled happily, taking hold of the snake roughly, all too eager to extract what he desired from the poor lady. Just as Florie was deciding that perhaps she had made the wrong decision, a new voice joined the cacophony.

“Mr. Craft, where are your manners?”

Everyone in the room stopped, frozen in their tracks, Nick included. His grasp on the snake remained quite strong though.

“This isn’t anything you should concern yourself with. I’ll find the answers you’re looking for. I just need time.” the mutt said.

“Shhh, do not speak. You do not need to trouble me with excuses. I understand that it is a difficult job, and you have done well to get so far in so little time,” the new canine was taller than the others and his ears stood erect, making him look even taller, and his accent was decidedly from much further east than anyone in the UEC, “I am not in so large a hurry that a lovely young lady must suffer and disappear because of it.”

“She’s seen the skull. We don’t need her wandering around asking questions, sticking her nose into things she shouldn’t be.” Craft replied, his annoyance slipping away, replaced with a sense of bargaining.

“This is true. She has seen the skull. And she is an expert in her field. You should use that to your advantage.” the new dog said.

“She’s already said she can’t translate the markings.” the mutt complained.

“Yes, but you did not bother to ask if she will not, or if she cannot,” the tall canine walked over towards Florie and Nick, waving for the retriever to let her go which he did immediately, “I apologize for the manners of my colleagues, Dr. McLaren. It is so difficult to find good help that doesn’t try to rush through things unnecessarily.”

The snake was relieved that a more civilized mind was holding the reins of this operation, at least in the short term. Her knowledge of pulp novels and comics told her this would likely be the most ruthless of the entire group, merely putting on a pleasant face. This was someone who knew the old saying ‘catch more flies with honey than vinegar’. And to that end, he took the time to free the lady of her bonds, both at her wrists and her ankles.

As soon as she was released, Florie took several steps away from the retriever so badly in need of a bath, stopping when she realized she wasn’t interested in being near any of the men. They had all moved to surround her in an evenly spaced circle, just in case she developed any thoughts about escape.

“If you wanted my expertise, you could have just rung me up like a normal person, or perhaps sent me a letter.” the lady complained.

“Yes, yes I could have,” the alsatian dipped his head slightly as a sign of embarrassment, “In fact, that was my preferred method. However, Mr. Craft was not content to wait. I apologize profusely for his ill mannered attempt to request your assistance.”

“So, you’ll let me go?” Florie immediately insisted.

“I have no intention of holding a lovely young lady hostage. However, I must ask for extraordinary discretion on the matter. As you have said, it could be false. If that is the case, I would much prefer it to be discovered quietly behind closed doors rather than after revealing it to the public. A man’s reputation is important, yes?” the dog offered an unsettlingly warm smile.

“And may I ask who it is that is pulling on the leashes of all of these brutish men?” the snake raised an eyebrow, peering over her glasses at the alsatian.

“Oh, where are my manners?” the tall canine bowed in a very formal fashion, “I am Griffin Redwood, collector and purveyor of fine antiquities and ancient relics.”

Immediately, Florie wanted to shoot back a very biting ‘And what is a ‘purveyor of fine antiquities and ancient relics doing with such thugs under his employ?’ but she thought better of it. She needed to buy herself more time to stay alive, and this most civilized dog was the way to go about it.

“Florie McLaren, professor of archeology, or at least I would be if I were interested in teaching. But something tells me you already know quite a lot about me. I feel somewhat at a disadvantage.” the coral snake replied.

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about you. I take it upon myself to learn as much as I can about those I wish to draw upon the services of,” Griffin said, turning and extending an arm to guide the lady back towards the crate with the skull, “When asked about translating the markings, you replied with a ‘no’. Is this a cannot or will not?”

“Cannot. At least not with the available references.” she was growing bolder than she would have thought wise were she reading this in one of her books.

For a moment, the alsatian seemed puzzled, looking around the dusty storage room with the shabby roof.

“Forgive me but… I do not know what references you are referring to.” he said.

“Exactly my point. I’ve no references at all to use. I’ll need my books in order to try and determine the proper translation,” Florie said, “If there is a translation to be had. As far as I can tell, it could be nothing but gibberish.”

Griffin smiled, sensing her slightly sarcastic tone. She had been put through quite a lot and she was feeling a little spiteful it turned out.

“Ah, yes, I do see your point. What can we bring to you in order to aid your translation? Are there any specific indexes you have in mind?” the dog asked.

“Off the top of my head, yes, there are a few. But it would be better if I could actually make use of a library.” Florie sighed, adjusting her glasses.

“I would prefer to keep any research pertaining to the skull confined to our facilities. But we can go and fetch whatever books you might need. Mr. Craft–” Griffin turned to look at the mutt, “Go to Dr. McLaren’s place of lodging and gather her things. She will be staying with us. Find a library. She will provide you with a list of books to procure for her.”

“Now look here, I ain’t a servant. You wanna play house with the snake, that’s fine, but go pay one’a yer personal assistants ta do the nursemaid work.” Craft growled quietly.

“Xander,” Griffin dipped his nose softly as he gazed at the shorter canine, his tone turning noticeably more stern, “What did we agree upon?”

“Don’t you go throwin’ that in my face. I know what we agreed. And this ain’t part of it.” the mutt’s lips began to curl softly in contempt.

“Are you refusing to do the work I have requested of you? If so, I can find someone more willing to fill the job.” the alsatian turned to look away, sounding very casual about ending the other’s employment.

For a tense moment, Craft appeared as if he were on the verge of assaulting the taller canine. His paws were clenched tight, his teeth bared, and his face poisoned with several creases of rage. Then he relaxed his posture and turned to leave.

“Fine. Nick, you’re with me. The rest of you stay here and keep an eye on our… ‘guest’. Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her.” Craft grumbled as he slipped into sarcasm.

Florie watched as the two dogs left, then turned to see the alsatian bowing slightly with an arm extended once more to usher her out of the room. Her experience through fiction might have told her this was the most dangerous one of the group, but he was certainly quite gallant. That was often part of the mask those most ruthless villains wore to disguise themselves.

“If you would come this way. The men will bring the crate. We must get you settled into accommodations more becoming of a lady of your stature.” Griffin said.

The snake dipped her head in thanks and walked towards the doorway she had been offered.