Co-authored by "Tyrone Black" (real name withheld).


It was 11:47 P.M. The street corner at Froggore and Main was dark, lit by only a few dimly flickering street lamps. In the light, one could see a cobbled street, a graffiti covered mail box, abandoned buildings, and a little apartment-like structure with bars on the windows. The curbs were chipped and crumbling, the storm drains in disrepair. The smell of garbage wafted up from a nearby alleyway. There was a sudden roar. A shiny black van with no license plate zoomed up to the section of street beyond the mailbox. A door on the side of the vehicle slid open, and a fuzzy black body was thrown out. The door slammed shut and the van sped off into the night. The body had wings, and it was dressed in a pair of blue jeans. It lay on the ground, groaning, sore from a multitude of bruises and cuts on its body. It lay in the street for some time.

"Aw gee," said a voice. "Not another one!"

"Hoo hoo," something grunted. "Ungh, ungh."

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. I wish someone would teach that Pandram gang a lesson."

"Ungh, ungh."

"Okay, so I don't know if it was Pandram or not. But who else could it be? I certainly haven't heard anything."

"Ungh, ungh?"

"Sure beats the heck out of me! I was wondering that same thing! You'd think if you could fly, you wouldn't get the tar beaten out of you like that."

"Ungh, ungh."

"Yeah, we'd better get him inside. It's creepy out here."

The black creature felt himself being lifted by a pair of hairy, muscular arms. He saw the apartment approaching. The door opened, and he was being taken up a rickety narrow staircase. They went down a graffiti painted hallway, and through a battered looking door.

The interior of the room was nicer than the exterior. It contained a plasma TV, a DVD player, an SSX 3 video game console, a fancy glass coffee table, a pair of fine black sofas, a large bed, a kitchen area, and a small bedroom to the side. A Hamtaro Hamzo sword was attached to a wall on one side of the room. There were also a pair of framed landscapes.

The black creature was laid on the bed, and covers were pulled up over it. It slept.

When it awoke, it looked around and saw a mangy looking gray rat in a wife beater sitting in one sofa, playing an aerial shooting game on the video game console. A giant brown gorilla sat on the sofa across from it, playing with the second controller. They played the game for awhile.

The gorilla turned its head, glancing at the black form on the bed. "Ungh ungh!"

The rat glanced at the gorilla. "Now don't be a sore loser. I shot your plane down, fair and square."

The gorilla pointed to the bed. "Ungh ungh!"

The rat turned his head and looked. "Wow!" He put the controller down, scampering over to the bed.

A black jaguar-like muzzle raised up. A pair of moss green eyes met the rodent's stare.

"Hey, mister!" said the rat. "Are you feeling okay? It looks like you had a rough night!"

The black creature rubbed its face. His body was aching all over from aches, pains, cuts and bruises. He felt his body and noticed he'd been bandaged. "Unghhh. What happened?"

"That I don't know. I thought it was Pandram, but I could be mistaken."

"I've never heard of Pandram. What is it?"

"They're a gang. They've been running all over Gardenia, causing trouble."

"What's Gardenia?"

"It's a country. We're actually in Gardenia State, which is the center of the country."

"Oh." The jaguar head frowned. "Somehow...I don't think these...Pandram people...were the ones that did this to me. I'm...not from around here."

The rat scrunched up his face. "Then where are you from?"

"I...don't know."

"Ungh, ungh."

The rat turned to face the gorilla. "I was getting to that." He turned back around. "My name is Templeton. What's your name?"

"...Nightshade."

"HA HA HA!" Little bubbles popped up in the air around the rat's head. "That's a funny name!"

Nightshade made a face and winced as a pain shot through his body.

The rat chuckled nervously. "Of course, it's a great name!" The rat chuckled nervously. "I once had a good friend with that same exact name! Heh, that's why I laughed. It's not like your name is that funny or anything."

"Hoo hoo hoo," the gorilla chuckled.

"In order," Nightshade said seriously. "I doubt you had any other friends who shared my name, because Nightshade's not my original name. It's just what people called me behind my back, when they thought I couldn't hear them. If you want to laugh at my nickname, go ahead. But understand as you do so that it was well earned."

The rat coughed, becoming more serious. "Er, sorry. No offense intended." He stopped smiling. "So...do you know anything about what happened to you?"

Nightshade shrugged. "Not really. I don't even know where I came from, or how I got here."

"Boy isn't that something?" Templeton shook his head. "Well, welcome to downtown Gardenia. You've certainly come to the, er, scenic part of town, heh heh heh."

Feeling discomfort in his wings, Nightshade turned over on his belly.

The rat moved over toward his head, staring at him. "This is a good city, even though it's got its rough spots. I live down here because I love the jazz district, and I want to help revitalize it. Boy, I love good jazz music, don't you?"

Nightshade didn't reply fast enough.

"Of course you like good jazz. People only hate jazz because they hear that crummy imitation stuff in elevators and they think it's all alike. But once they hear the real stuff, boy, they just can't get enough of it!" He grinned.

Nightshade wince as pain shot through him again. "Where I was raised, music was the last thing on anybody's mind. So don't presume to tell me what music I enjoy, because I don't know myself."

Templeton sighed. "Boy, you must be really sore to be so grumpy!" He shook his head. "So...what do you like to do for fun?"

Nightshade propped himself up on his elbows, looking at the rat. "Well, I like to read, and tinker with electronic gizmos, and fight. I also like to fly." He tried to extend his wings, but they felt a bit sore. "Ow."

"Huh. That's neat." The rat paused. "What do you mean by fight? Do you like boxing? Pocket Beast Fighting? Karate? Historical reenactments? Or are you just a scrapper troublemaker type?" He squinted. "Or maybe you fancy yourself a hero! That's it, isn't it?"

"As far as fights go, I much prefer to get in on the action first-hand. While I have engaged in Pocket Beast Fights before, that was a long time ago. I really don't know the first thing about it anymore. I'm not your average scrapper, but I'm no hero either. I don't go looking for trouble; but when trouble finds me, I'm perfectly happy to greet it, entertain it, and send it on its way."

"Oh." Templeton frowned. "Well, okay. So what books do you like to read? Fantasy? Science fiction? Horror? Crime? Suspense? Mystery? Nonfiction? Westerns?"

"Fantasy. It's just so much better than reality these days."

The rat smiled. "I enjoy a good fantasy book myself. I just love stories about wizards and dragons and knights!" He pulled the Hamtaro Hamzo sword off the wall, swinging it around dramatically. "Come hither, foul dragon! You will terrorize this village no further!"

The gorilla clapped appreciatively. Templeton bowed and put the sword back.

"Ungh, ungh."

Templeton looked at the clock. "Not yet. It's only 10:30."

Nightshade stared at him with a confused expression on his face.

"He was asking about the Muttonchop show. Gardenia has a great radio station. At about four o'clock, I like to tune in and listen to it. I tell you, the guy has his finger on the pulse of Gardenia! You just never know what he's going to talk about! I just love keeping up on the current news...and he's funny to boot!" He paused. "I think it would be great to work at a radio station just like Muttonchop. All you have to do is sit in front of a microphone and talk and they pay you for it! Isn't that a great idea?"

"If you say so," Nightshade replied with a yawn.

The rat sighed. "Well. Political talk radio isn't everybody's cup of tea, is it, now? Of course, they do have other programs on during the day. At midnight, Phantasmo comes on. That's a paranormal talk show. And there's a show about relationships with Tookie Luvluv, and if you don't like all that, there are plenty of music programs, and you can always change the channel to another station. We have plenty of TV programs, too."

Nightshade stared at the floor.

"I know what you need. Breakfast. No wonder you're so grumpy." The rat went into his kitchen area, busying himself with cracking eggs into a skillet. He turned on an electric range and set the skillet on it.

Nightshade sat up, staring at the strange creatures.

The gorilla waved a controller at him. "Ungh ungh?"

He shook his head. "No thanks."

The gorilla shrugged and went back to playing the game.

"Have you ever been to Nook's Casino, Nightshade?" the rat said as he scraped the eggs around in the skillet. "It's a really great place. They've got all sorts of games, an arcade, a buffet and everything! It's awesome. I go there every chance I get. Though I really only go for the food. I've never been at a better all-you-can-eat buffet. What about you? Do you like to gamble any?"

"I prefer contests of skill to games of chance. Win or lose, you do it on your own."

The rat nodded. "That's certainly a proper attitude to have. There's far too many lazy animals out there, that's for sure. Too many animals think that they can just get everything handed to them on a silver platter." He scooped the eggs onto a plate, covering it with shredded cheese, then began chopping up bell peppers and onions. "Do you cook any?"

"Not really. My skills are average at best. I don't have any problem following a written recipe, but don't expect me to write one of my own. My favorite kitchen utensil is a microwave, and my favorite cookbook is a phone book."
Templeton chuckled. "There is a college in town, you know. Would you ever consider going to cooking school, or any school?"

"It's crossed my mind, but I haven't had time."

The rat shrugged, finishing up his chopping. He started sprinkling the eggs with the vegetables. "I hear they have courses that can fit any schedule. Maybe you should check them out some time. If cooking interests you, that is." He started on another omelet. "Do you like to fish?"

"Don't know. Never been fishing before. Maybe we could try it out."

"Ungh, ungh."

"That's a good idea." Scrape, scrape, scrape. Sizzle. "How about treasure hunting? Do you like to dig for treasure?" Scrapity scrape. Sizzle sizzle.

"Been there, done that, got the t-shirt," said Nightshade. "And if not for my wings, I'd wear it."

"Ungh."

"He's probably talking about something else, Bongo. We might have to show him how to root for antique bottles sometime." The rat brought out a giant omelet and a fork, handing them to Nightshade.

"Wow. Thanks." He started eating.

The rat picked up two more plates and forks, bringing them to the coffee table. The rat folded his paws. The gorilla did the same, and a Catholic table prayer was said, with extra stuff about souls in purgatory. The two of them genuflected and started eating.

The three of them ate in silence for awhile.

"Do you like to collect things, Mr. Nightshade?"

"To an extent. But if I can't find a use for something, I don't waste strength lugging it around."

"Oh. Well, you've got a point. I've certainly got more than enough junk around this place. Animals do collect a lot of useless trinkets. So, I guess you like to travel a lot, don't you?"

The bat/jaguar shrugged. "I'm not afraid of change, but there's no point in seeking it out if you're happy where you are."

Templeton's tail tapped against the linoleum floor. "So...what would you like to do today, Nightshade? I'm off work today. Fancy going fishing or anything? We don't have to go fishing if you don't want to. We could go on the town or do anything you want to do, really. If you want to go with us and look for antique bottles, or go bug collecting, we could do that...or we could...visit the Pokemon center, or..." He took out a brochure from a drawer, handing it to Nightshade. "Here's a map of Gardenia. See anything that catches your fancy?"

The jaguar face stared down at the map. "What's Koala Aeronautics?"

Templeton shrugged. "It's a factory. They make parts for airplanes. I'd take you down there, but I think they're closed on weekends. Anything else you'd like to do instead? We've got an amusement park and museums and libraries..."

"Ungh, ungh."

"And a bowling alley and a pool."

"Grrrrrrr. Grunt, grunt."

"Oh you and that cave! There's nothing in that cave. Don't be silly."

"Grunt, grunt."

"Well they say monsters are in there, but that doesn't mean anything. That's about as kooky as that Count Spatula legend."

"Ungh ungh."

"Right. And that rumor about the spaceship outside Flummox. Or that Yeti they supposedly spotted near Bericson Ski Resort."

"Do you know where Pandram is?" said Nightshade. "I think it would be fun to teach those guys a lesson."

"Ungh unnnnnnh." Templeton shrugged. "Those guys wouldn't be nearly as dangerous or infamous if they were easy to find. Good luck on that one."

"Of course," Nightshade said sheepishly. "Stupid of me to ask. Pandram'd have to stay a step ahead to keep their reputation. Never mind then."

"Anything else you'd like to do instead? Maybe something else you'd like me to explain about something on that map?"

Nightshade rubbed his chin, trying to remember what happened the previous night. He stared at the map.

Let's see. At some point while I was sleeping two nights ago, a group of freelance leg-breakers kidnapped me. He remembered being tied to a chair in an old warehouse. The gangsters had spent the morning beating on him for no apparent reason. They seemed too serious about it to be just having fun. I don't know who hired these goons, or why, but if I were a gambling beast, I'd say my old godfather had something to do with it.

He had clawed his way through his ropes when his attackers had taken a break for lunch. He got loose, and they came back. He used every trick he knew to fight back, but was too weak from starvation to keep going. The attackers called in a mob of other goons and they beat him unconscious. Now he was in some stranger's apartment.
The next thing to do is to adapt to this set of circumstances. "Is there a good shopping mall around here?" He asked. "I'm going to need a few things for myself."

Templeton nodded. "I guess you could always sell the things you get, if you don't like them. Weird Barkway is the best mall around here. Bear-Ister Mall used to be good, but now it's practically closing. Do you have any money?" He paused. "Never mind. You just got beat up by a gang. Of course you don't have any money." He went to the door. "Well, let's go, Bongo. The bus should be coming shortly."

The gorilla got up, following Templeton to the door. All three of them went out into the hallway. Templeton triple locked and deadbolted the door, and they went down a staircase to the street outside.

They walked up to a purple and green polka dotted sign reading "Rabimi Stop," seating themselves on a nearby bench.
The gorilla looked at its watch. "Ungh."

"Maybe it's running a little late. Unless we missed it."

Nightshade heard a soft pattering sound. He looked up and saw a great fuzzy shape standing there. It was shaped like a bus, except it was hairy and brown. The thing was lined with a series of round windows, and it had sixteen legs.
A round hole opened on its side with a hiss, like it were some sort of bus door. Templeton walked up to it, gesturing to a staircase inside. "After you, Mr. Nightshade."

Nightshade stared at the thing for a minute, then crept inside, looking around. It was like a furry school bus. Very bizarre. He climbed up the stairs and saw a hippopotamus creature in a Greyhound uniform in the driver's seat. Crowds of animals occupied the seats. Some stood, holding onto a ceiling rail. Nightshade just stood there, gawking.

Templeton and Bongo came up the stairs, dropping some coins into a box in the middle of the aisle. They went down the aisle, taking a position at the rails. The door closed, and the vehicle began moving. Nightshade was thrown into the middle of the aisle. He brushed himself off and stood up, grabbing a rail.

The scenery rushed past them in a blur. The doors opened. A koala and a bird climbed out. The bus went on.

A large parking lot came into view. Templeton grabbed a hairy tentacle hanging from the ceiling. The bus stopped. He and Bongo moved to the staircase, marching out the exit.

Nightshade went after them.

They were in a parking lot of a large brick building with a glass barrel vault roof. He could see big signs on the sides of the buildings reading `Squirrel's' and `Duckinson 12.' One sign had a bright red circle for a logo, with a dog tag hanging from a ring in the center. The bold white text near it said `Barkit.' A gate on one side of the parking lot read `Weird Barkway.'

He looked back and noticed the bus was gone. "Whoa! I didn't even hear it go!"

Templeton chuckled. "I take it you've never ridden in a Rabimi before."

Nightshade shook his head. "That was strange."

"Well, we're here. Anything in particular you're looking for? Or are you just window shopping?"

"Actually, I want to get some clothes, an on-the-go mini manicure set, maybe a choker and some motorcycle gloves..."
Templeton fiddled with his whiskers. "I don't know if we'll find all of that here, but we can look around and see. I know Barkit definitely has clothing."

They pushed through a set of double doors, entering a department store. An unfriendly looking lemur in a security uniform stared at them as they passed the cart corral.

They went to the women's section, to a place where they kept purses and perfume. Templeton grabbed a package, handing it to Nightshade. "Why exactly do you need a manicure set? I normally just use a claw trimmer, myself."
"I like to keep them in good condition in case I need them. A DIY manicure is well worth the extra effort for results that you just can't get from a claw trimmer alone."

"Well, all right. I guess that's not too terribly strange. At least you're not buying makeup and lipstick."

Feeling particularly good about himself, Nightshade took the comment in stride. With a deadpan expression, he joked, "That might be an interesting possibility!"

The rat chuckled and shook his head.

They went down the polished floor to the men's section in the back of the store. Nightshade tried on several pairs of jeans, until he'd found some decently priced comfortable ones. He got about four of them.

"Got everything you wanted?"

Nightshade shrugged. "I was wanting some black cargo pants, but they've only got tan cargo pants, and black slacks."

"It's Barkit. What did you expect?"

"Ungh ungh."

"Yeah. If you want something like that, you'll have to go to Rot Topik."

They paid for their purchases and went through an archway at the end of the building, entering a shopping complex. A theater could be seen in the distance. To the right was a place called Weirdenbooks. A sign stood directly in front of them, depicting a map of the mall.

Templeton glanced at the map, then led them up a hallway to a black store filled with black clothing. Rot Topik.
A young female mink in a prison striped shirt sat behind the counter. She had piercings in her little ears, one in her nose, and one on her lip. She smiled at the three strangers as they walked in.

Nightshade smirked and started browsing. The store contained t-shirts for all sorts of strange rock bands. Slipnut. Kornfed. Meatalicka. System of a Cow. Bearilyn Branson. Doggie Demon. Dog Zombie. He didn't know any of them. The PA system was playing some sort of death metal song involving a lot of growling. He looked around and came across some "Flapp" cargo pants. He grabbed four pairs, then some biker gloves. They didn't carry chokers, but they did have a wide selection of dog collars. "Hmmm..."

The gorilla stretched, looking a bit bored.

"Got everything you want?" said Templeton.

Nightshade shrugged. "I was hoping they'd have some chokers."

Templeton asked the clerk about it.

"Sorry. We just ran out of those."

"Oh well." He looked at Nightshade. "Anything else?"

"After creating a new look for yourself completely from scratch, there's no better way to unwind than with a good movie," Nightshade replied. "And after that, I daresay lunch would be the next item on the agenda."

Templeton shrugged. "Nothing else here?"

"Nope."

"Well all right. I'll just pay for this, and we can go see what's playing!" The rat took the purchases to the counter.
The mink rang up the purchases. "Who's your friend there?" she said, pointing to the jaguar/bat.

"Oh? That's Nightshade."

"Nightshade, huh?" She smiled. "He's kinda cute."

Nightshade grinned, but said nothing.

Templeton smirked. He paid the girl, took the receipt, and walked out to the hallway.

Nightshade followed him.

"See you later," the female said with a wink and a wave.

"Yeah," Nightshade stammered, waving back.

"Now let's see what's playing," Templeton muttered.

"Ungh ungh."

Nightshade turned and followed the two creatures up a hallway, passing a video arcade filled with flashing lights and funny noises. They walked ahead, coming up to a ticket booth surrounded by ropes. The booth contained four desks. One was closed. The other three were manned by creatures in theater uniforms. There was a female rhinoceros, a lady duck, and a fat warthog girl. A wall to the left of the booth displayed a few posters for the newest movies. The booth itself contained a series of square digital displays listing show times and the titles of the movies, including some not shown in the posters.

One movie was entitled "THE CAMPBELL HOUSE." Its poster showed an eerie looking stone house at night. All of its windows were dark except for the upstairs attic window. A caption below read, "IT WAITS."

The poster below it said "VASOXYL." It depicted a ferret creature in a trenchcoat brandishing a fuzzy weapon.

Beneath that one was a picture of a red bird in a tuxedo, standing in a white background. It was chomping on a rose. The logo was in a Times font. "YOUR TENDER BEAK."

Next to that one was a giant picture of a white bear's face. The bear had its fist raised in the air. The logo said, "SNUGGLE: THE MOVIE."

Above that one was a movie called "THE BURGLAR." The poster showed a hand trying to reach up a wall for a burglar alarm.

Below was a poster depicting a group of creatures in spandex outfits. The shadow of an evil looking creature stood behind them in the background. "PHOTON SQUAD III: REIGN OF CURGOT. `Bottled lightning!' - Gardenia Tribune."

The top poster on the next column showed a squirrel grinning as he pointed at the rear end of a green bird in a bikini. "TAILFEATHER. `Laugh out loud funny!' - Taco Gazette."

Next one down: "THE KATTENMAUSES." A male mouse in a vest stood with his arms crossed, towering over a group of figures in the background. There was a female cat in a dress, who held a paw to her mouth, a little female cat with a bow on her head, and a small male mouse with a striped shirt. Both of the small ones had their mouths hanging open in apparent shock. A caption read "`Bring the kids!' - Bernard Weasler."

Below was a poster showing a group of owls with armor and medieval weapons. "BROTHERHOOD OF CORDERO. `Faith and Honor.'"

There was a cardboard cutout of a pair of ducks with guns standing a few feet in front of the concession stands. "PROSPECT. `Bearantino's Finest!' - Roger Ebeart."

The rest of the movies didn't have posters.

The clock in the middle of the ticket booth display read 11:00.

"Hmmm..." Nightshade studied the digital schedule board for a minute before he made his selection. "'Brotherhood of Cordero' looks like a good one."

Templeton glanced at the board. "The next show's not for another forty-five minutes. What do you suggest we do until then?"

"I think I saw an arcade on our way here. How 'bout we take a look in there and see what's what?"

The rat shrugged. "Well, all right."

They bought their tickets, then went down the hallway a bit, coming to a glass window displaying rows of video game cabinets, game booths, and machines. They walked around the corner, coming to the entrance. The arcade contained an air hockey table, gun games, ride games, boxing games, sword games, joystick games, and a variety of ticket games, including skeeball.

Nightshade's ears perked up at the sound of dance music and the sounds of shuffling feet. He looked over his shoulder. There was a large elevated tile floor platform in the middle of the room. A fat ferret in black clothing was dancing on it. Next to him, a skinny frog in jeans and a Green Lantern t-shirt was strutting about. Both were breaking up a sweat, trying to imitate the dances being shown on a monitor across from the platform. They were flapping their arms around, spinning, twirling, side stepping, and all sorts of other weird things. It almost looked as graceful as real dancing. An illuminated sign above the monitor said `Simon C. Owl's Dance Fever.'

"A monkey could dance better than that," said a voice. "Unless you are a monkey."

"Oooh! Ungh ungh!"

"Settle down, Bongo! It's just a game!"

The gorilla let out a loud roar.

The two dancers jumped off the platform in fright. They turned tail and dashed out the exit.

"I'll give you a point for creativity on that one," said a voice. "Wait. Where did you go?"

Nightshade stared at the machine. "`Simon C. Owl's Dance Fever?'"

Templeton nodded. "It's what all the kids are playing these days. It's mighty good exercise, and not nearly as clunky as those old games where you stomp the pads. Want to try it?"

Nightshade shrugged. "Looks interesting."

"But didn't you say that you came from a place where there isn't any music?"

Nightshade shrugged. "I said I didn't remember what music I liked. I didn't mean that there wasn't any music."

"Oh."

The voice spoke up again. "I'm only going to give you a minute to get back here, or I'll end this game right now."

Nightshade stretched his wings a bit. They were still sore. He folded them up and stepped up on the dance platform, staring at the monitor. At the moment, it contained a starry black background.

A snowy owl in a blue shirt appeared on the screen. "Now who are you, pray tell?"

Nightshade shrugged. "Call me Nightshade."

"Okay. `Lampshade.' I am Simon C. Owl, host of Dance Fever. Would you like to continue the previous game, or would you prefer to start from the beginning to get yourself better prepared?"

"Um..."

"You don't look like you've played this before. I highly recommend you start at the beginning or you'll look like a complete nincompoop."

Nightshade shrugged. "Fine. Start from the beginning."

"Ungh, ungh." Bongo stomped up behind the platform, watching him.

The owl disappeared, its image replaced by a gray hippopotamus in ill fitting white leotards. It stood in a basketball gym with a shiny wood floor. A caption appeared on the bottom of the screen, reading "Tyrasha Nebraska, 20th Place Semifinalist, DF1."

"I'm gonna teach y'alls how to dance. So just watch me and do what I do, aight?"

"Um...okay?"

Techno music started blasting out of the speakers on the bottom of the machine cabinet. The hippo did something like the Cabbage Patch, followed by The Butterfly and The Robot. Nightshade imitated the movements the best he could.
The hippo grabbed a bag of chips, munched a handful, then started clapping. "Okay! Okay! Y'all's doin great! Now Shawntay is gonna take over! You just follow what he does and keep going, aight?"

"Aight," Nightshade mocked. "That's real professional, you know?"

The hippo ignored him, walking off screen.

A chipmunk in a basketball uniform came out. It did the Peculator, the Egyptian, then started doing some other weird dance moves. It waved its fingers in front of its face, belly danced, then started break dancing.

Nightshade kept up for awhile, but it got progressively more bizarre, and he kept messing up the movements. As keen as his eye for detail was, he needed to practice a move more than once to master it. The fact that the game asked for freeform dance moves to go with it didn't help his score any. Simon didn't think he was being creative enough. The machine let out an irritating buzz.

A white face appeared on the screen. The words `GAME OVER' appeared over the picture. "You and that gorilla over there have a lot in common. You both cannot dance to save your life."

Bongo let out a roar.

"Easy, Bongo!" Templeton shouted. "I don't want to have to pay the arcade owner for a broken machine!"

"Ungh ungh!" Bongo tapped the side of his chin with his fist, then pointed at the monitor.

"Yes, Simon is a doo doo head, but he's a rich doo doo head. It's not going to hurt him any. All it's going to hurt is my bank book."

The gorilla sighed, rapping his chin with his fist again.

Nightshade looked around and saw a machine with boxing gloves attached to it. It was called `Heavyweight Boxer.'

This looks interesting. He walked over to it.

"Want to try this one?" said Templeton.

"Sure."

Templeton put some money in a token machine, plugging in a few coins. He pushed the start button. Nightshade put on the gloves, watching a three dimensional image of a skunk making practice swings at him. The gloves were weighted, unlike real gloves. His movements were also limited within a frame of positions, making it difficult for him to do the attacks he really wanted to do. After accidentally making a few bad shots, Nightshade gave the creature a jab, making contact with its face. The skunk's head turned sideways. It hopped back and stepped forward, attempting a swing. Nightshade bopped it on the side of the head.

The skunk started blocking his punches, but Nightshade was coordinated enough to get through the defenses and smack the image a few more times. The skunk fell to the floor, unconscious. In the next two rounds, Nightshade successfully knocked the skunk down in a matter of seconds.

The next boxer, a rabbit, was unnecessarily challenging. The targets were hard to hit, and the gloves wouldn't cooperate. The game over screen came up a few seconds later.

Nightshade put the gloves down. Behind him, running along the wall, was a game involving a samurai sword and a large monitor. He got Templeton to put some coins in, and he tried it out.

The game, Samurai Nightmare, involved hacking zombie samurai to death in feudal Japan. Sword movements were ignored when they went outside the defined sensor areas, and he was penalized for moving too close to the boundary line in the middle. He figured out a technique that worked and managed to chop a few ninjas in half before a ghost samurai killed him. Another frustratingly stupid game.

He tried out a gun game called Video Carnage after that. It was your basic mounted machine gun setup. Like any game of that sort, it didn't provide the player with enough cover, and the bullets kept coming.

Templeton looked at his watch. "It's almost time for the show."

Nightshade moved away from the machine and let the game win. He followed Templeton and Bongo back to the theater.
The rat bought some sodas and a bucket of popcorn at the concession stand. They went up a carpeted hallway, going in theater three. It was an average theater. The screen was large, the walls had curtains on them, and it was dark. Slideshow commercials about area businesses and snacks in the lobby flashed on the screen, interspersed with bits of trivia about movies. The room was crowded, with animals occupying seats on every row.

They marched up a staircase, seating themselves in the top row. It was a bit uncomfortable for the jaguar-bat. The seats weren't designed for wings. He managed to squeeze into the chair, sitting on the edge. They waited for the show to begin, eating popcorn and slurping sodas. The slideshow commercials were replaced by movie previews. There was a movie called `Night Squad,' where a group of animals were fighting villains in a dream world. Following that was a preview for a western called `Sagebrush,' and then a movie about UFO abductions. Then the `be silent' commercials came on. The speaker system had somehow been set up to make it seem like a baby was actually crying in the back corner of the audience.

Bad classical music began playing. "And now for our feature presentation!"

The screen went dark.

An old scratchy sounding voice began to speak. "Before the universe came into being, Quaro existed. Time did not exist.

The stars did not exist. Nothing existed but Quaro."

The old voice began crooning some incomprehensible song. Snap. Crack. A spark appeared in the darkness. Then a flame. The voice spoke again. "Quaro sang, and the phenomenon of light came into being." The voice sang as the flame touched an object in the middle of the screen. The object caught fire, and Nightshade could identify it as a wooden torch. The torch illuminated the face of an aging Peregrine falcon. Its eyes were enormous, framed in yellow. The sides of the face were black. Its beak was gray and yellow, curving into a sharp hook shape. "He sang and the stars and planets were formed. He sang and life appeared on this planet."

The torch touched down on a pyramid of wood. The entire structure caught fire.

The falcon was dressed in a white robe of something like buckskin. He stood inside a circle of animals with feathered headbands. They sat on logs and on the ground. Some of them wore loincloths. Others wore brown outfits similar to the one the falcon wore. Tipis marked with strange symbols could be seen in the darkness.

The smoke from the fire almost seemed to be wafting into the theater. Nightshade thought he could smell the smoke.

The falcon walked around the fire, looking into the audience. "He sang and the Ancestors were formed. Gopo and Jeao were their names. They were male and female. Quaro gave them the responsibility to farm the land, to protect it, and watch it."

Nightshade noticed that animals in the theater were starting to nod off. A few of them got up and walked out.
"In the center of the land was a sunflower that Quaro had sung into existence. Quaro showed this flower to Gopo and Jeao and said, `You may farm, you may plant, you may dig up and move any plant in the land, but do not pull this one up, for death lay beneath.' Gopo and Jeao obeyed, farming the rest of the land, and raising large crops."
The camera moved to a small buckskin clad figure near the back of the crowd of animals. A grey owl chick. The creature had its arms crossed, a bored expression on its face. Its eyes wandered, traveling around the faces in the crowd, looking on the ground, staring into the sky.

Someone up in the front row was chattering and murmoring to someone next to them. Nightshade sighed in annoyance.

"Now, Tojo was a spider that lived in the trees of the land. One day, when Jeao was farming alone, he came down and spoke to her. `Jeao. See that flower in the middle of the field?'

"`Yes,' said Jeao. `Quaro says not to pull it, or we will pull up death.'

"`Nonsense,' said Tojo. `I have been beneath this flower. You will not pull up death, but treasure. Untold wealth lay below that flower. Quaro just doesn't want you to have it, because he wants it all to himself. Here. I will show you.' And so Jeao went with Tojo to the flower."

"Rodup."

The owl chick turned around, staring at the tipi behind it.

"`Now,' said Tojo. `All you have to do is pull on the plant, and it will come out of the soil.' And so Jeao began pulling. But it would not come out. Again and again, she tried to pull it out, but she could not. So she called for her mate Gopo to help her.'

"Rodup." A tiny green body hopped out from under a fold in the bottom of the tipi. The thing was like a cross between a frog and a cockroach. "Rodup."

The owl chick hopped off the log, creeping after it.

Nightshade looked around. The theater was strangely quiet. The seats seemed...emptier.

"And they tugged and pulled on the flower with all their might, until at last the roots came out of the ground. And a black substance poured out. It rushed across the land like a flood, causing weeds and thorns to spring up. The soil became difficult to tend. The creatures became frightened of Jeao and Gopo. Then the substance touched them as well. They gained the knowledge of good and evil, and with it they learned of their mudoqa, the corruption of their souls, for they had disobeyed the command of Quaro."

The owl chick lunged for the creature, and it hopped behind the tipi. The chick gave chase.

The camera cut to a view of the falcon standing in front of the fire. A rabbit in a loincloth came forward, pulling a fat figure along with him. It was too dark to see much of anything clearly, but the figure appeared to be dressed in a gray suit that looked entirely inappropriate for the time period. A black cloth had been draped over its head, and it was tied up in ropes.

"Boy, that's an anachronism," Templeton chuckled. "I thought this was a medieval film."

"Shhh!"

"Elder! We found this spy sneaking around our village!"

The falcon stared at the figure. "Good job, Moonshadow. Let's see who this intruder is." The elder grabbed the edge of the cloth and pulled it away.

The face was white, fat and hairy, like a Persian cat. It had one missing ear, and a wart on the side of its muzzle.
Nightshade gasped. He tapped Templeton on the shoulder. "How did he get in a movie?" he whispered.

"Who? That guy in the suit?"

Nightshade nodded. "His name is Don Catalioni!" he hissed. "I know him! He's a mob boss!"

Templeton shrugged. "I guess you've got to have connections to get in this business."

Nightshade glared at the fat face. It's not fair.

"What is your name, spy?" said the elder.

The cat only spat a hairball at him. "Let me go now, or I'll burn this whole village to the ground!"

The falcon gave the cat a stern look. "I am not afraid of you."

"You will be."

With a look of disgust, the elder gestured to the rabbit. "Take him to the hot house. Bind him up until he behaves like a civilized creature."

The Don was led away, into the dark.

The camera cut to a scene of the owl chick running along the edge of the camp. The tiny creature still eluded its grasp. It hopped through the grass, over rocks, around a massive lapine creature tied to a post, through a patch of mud.
The creature hopped between a pair of gnarled, warty green-brown feet with yellowing toenails. A massive hand wrapped around the chick's neck, lifting the poor creature's body up into the air. The owl chick gasped for air as it flailed its legs and arms around, helplessly flapping its wings. The camera cut to a view from the owl's eyes. An ugly warty green face with long pointy ears and yellow serrated teeth grinned at the audience. Stars began swimming across the screen.

The camera cut to a view inside a wooden hut. The walls were thatched. A small fire was lit on one side of the room. Don Catalioni was tied to a post on the opposite side, looking miserable. The rabbit in the loincloth sat behind the fire, glaring at him.

The camera cut to a close-up of the Don's hands. One of them came off, and a second hand came out. The hand reached inside his vest, pulling out a shiny black revolver.

The camera cut to an exterior view. There was a loud cracking sound, then a sharp cry. Crack. Crack. Crack. Silence.

The camera went back to a view from the owl chick's eyes. The green face filled the screen, with sparkly things swimming across the image.

"Put him down!" a voice croaked.

The camera cut to a view of a frog wielding a bow and arrow. It was dressed in buckskin and had a primitive looking archer's brace on its left arm.

The monster only let out a gurgling laugh, holding the owl up as a shield.

The frog pulled back the arrow on the bowstring, bringing it all the way up to the side of its face. It let go.

The arrow buried itself in a feathery shoulder. The owl screamed.

The monster laughed, throwing the owl to the ground. A second later, there was an arrow buried in its chest. A second and third one followed. The monster fell to the ground.

The frog hurried to the owl's side. It yanked the arrow out, and blood started pouring from the wound. The frog reached a scaly green hand into a pouch on its side, pulling out a small bottle. It poured something on the wound, then took out something like a needle and thread, stitching up the wound.

The camera went back to an exterior shot of the hut. The crudely constructed door came open and the Don stepped out. He reached into his pocket, took out a cigar, and lit it.

Nightshade glared at the cat, gritting his teeth. He really hated the fact that he somehow had managed to get an acting role. He didn't like the character Catalioni played, either.

The camera cut to a view of the frog leaning over the owl chick.

"Dreamcloud? Is that you?"

"Yes, Starflower. I am sorry I hurt you."

"What happened, Dreamcloud? What was that monster?"

"I do not know."

A giant ball of flame erupted in the middle of the camp.

The frog pulled the owl up on its feet. "We must get away from here. It is not safe."

"But what about mother and father?"

"Come with me, and hurry! Once you are safe, I will return to save them."

The two hurried off into the woods. The sounds of yelling and screaming filled the theater. They sounded close, like someone was screaming from the seats.

Nightshade clenched his fists. Either this was a really good movie, or he was really getting upset about Catalioni being in the film.

The camera switched to a view from the end of the camp, directly above a thorn bush. The hot house was on fire, and so were many tipis. Female animals clutched their children, running aimlessly across the camp.

There was a whistling sound. Something made an arcing motion through the air. Nightshade heard the sound of crunching plastic. He leaned over the seat, trying to figure out what had just happened.

Crunch. Thunk. It sounded like hail, coming from inside the theater. He tapped Templeton on the shoulder. "Did you hear that?"

Templeton shrugged. "I hear they have stereo surround!" he grinned.

Nightshade furrowed his brow.

Bang! This one sounded close. Nightshade looked down and saw a metal spear head jutting out of the seat in front of him. A long wooden shaft jutted out from the opposite side. He pulled it out, showing it to the rat. "So what's this, then? 3D?"

Templeton's eyes bugged out. "Egads! What kind of theater is this! It's a lawsuit just waiting to happen!" He stood up.

"That's it! I want a refund!"

Crunch! A spear buried itself in the wall just inches above the rat's head.

Templeton paled. "Or not." He ducked down behind a seat.

The camera cut to a view of a wooded area choked with weeds. A lake could be seen in the distance. Templeton sighed in relief.

"Now just stay here and wait for me," a voice croaked.

"But I want to help, Dreamcloud!"

"No. You stay here. It's too dangerous."

An audible sigh.

"Starflower, do you remember the story of Gofuou?"

Sigh. "Yes."

"Remember what happened to Gofuou when he didn't stay and do as he was told?"

Sigh. "Yes. The Niojino ate him all up."

"You don't want the Niojino to eat you, do you, Starflower?"

"No."

"Promise me you'll stay here and wait until I get back."

"I will, Dreamcloud."

A familiar gray shape shoved its way through clumps of ragweed almost as tall as it was. The ugly plants brushed against the bird's shoulders. Its feet made sucking bog noises whenever it walked.

"Run!"

Starflower's eyes widened. He picked up his speed, his small body rushing through the mess of weeds and brush.

The camera cut to the owl's face. He pushed forward, the sounds of sucking mud becoming increasingly louder.

The owl became larger and larger, until its body filled the entire screen. Then it was all gray and you couldn't see anything.

Thud.

Something lumpy was lying on the stage in front of the screen. The lumpy shape stood up, gasping in surprise as it stood up. "What strange magic is this?"

Nightshade stared at the figure in disbelief.

Nightshade tightened his grip on the spear in his paw and ran down to the person in front of the screen. "I know not what sorcery brought you here, Starflower," he said, standing up straight to give the impression of a warrior, "But I am willing to help you, if I can."

Starflower gasped. "How do you know my name!" It backed up to the screen. "It must be a demon!"

A green shape fell onto the stage. It brushed itself and stood up. It was the frog from the movie.

"Dreamcloud!" Starflower hissed. "Watch out! We're in a cave of demons!"

The frog pulled out its bow, fitting an arrow in the bowstring. It pointed it at Nightshade. "Stay where you are, demon!"
"I'm not a demon," said Nightshade. "My name is Nightshade. I know I look a bit strange, but I don't mean you any harm."

The frog stared at him.

Nightshade tossed the spear aside.

"He knew my name, Dreamcloud!" said Starflower.

The frog's eyes narrowed. "If you are not a demon, then why do you know my friend's name?"

"I...I..." Nightshade stammered. "You were up on the movie screen."

"Movic...?"

"Screen?"

Nightshade pointed to the projection screen behind them. "Movie screen."

The two creatures stared at the screen.

"What is the meaning of this?" said Dreamcloud.

"I'm not sure. Maybe this `Moving Scream' of his allows him to spy on anyone he chooses."

Dreamcloud glared at Nightshade. "I forbid you from viewing anything else on this Movic Scream!"

Nightshade shrugged. "No problem. I didn't like having spears thrown at me anyway."

"Ask him if he can see my parents."

"You! Can you use this Moving Scream to view Falling Leaf and Graymoss?"

"I have no idea who you're talking about."

"Liar! You are a wizard, and you are using this Scream to spy on us. I demand you show us Falling Leaf and Graymoss!"

"Look. My friends just bought me a movie ticket. We have no control over what happens on the screen. If you want, we can talk to the projectionist or something."

The frog's fingers trembled on the arrow. "I should kill you right now."

"Here! I'll show you Graymoss!" said a voice from the back row. Nightshade looked up and saw Templeton waving his hands over the projection box. A giant bunny rabbit appeared on the screen, blocking out part of the image of the woods. "Hello! I'm Graymoss! Nice to meet you!" he said out of the side of his mouth. He then made an elephant. "And I'm Falling Leaf! We're all here and safe!"

"Ama!" Starflower cried, pointing at the screen. "There she is!"

Templeton stared at his paws. "I did that good, huh?"

"Put your hands down!" the frog shouted, aiming his bow at Templeton.

The rat put his arms behind his back, grinning sheepishly.

The bow was lowered, then aimed at Nightshade again.

The screen displayed an image of an old vixen dressed in buckskin. She was bleeding from a broad cut across her chest.

"Ama! No!" The owl jumped through the screen.

"Wait!" Dreamcloud shouted. But Starflower was gone. The arrow remained pointed at Nightshade. The green head nodded towards the screen.

"You want me to go through there?"

Dreamcloud nodded. "You're coming with us. You're too dangerous to be left alone with this Movic Scream."

"What about my friends?"

Dreamcloud didn't answer. He just nodded at the screen again. "Move."

Nightshade looked at the arrow, shifted his gaze toward the screen, then looked Dreamcloud directly in the eyes. "I won't be your prisoner," he said with a serious frown. "I'm through with being pushed around. If you're going to shoot me, then do it and be done with it. Put an arrow into me if you like. At least I'll die free. But if you want to help your friends, then stop wasting your time threatening me." Inspiration hit him. "There's one thing you need to understand: We may yet become allies, against a common foe. Don Catalioni, the intruder in your village; the one who had been discovered by Moonshadow. I have been looking for him for some time, that I might finish what he started between us a long time ago. I only wish I could have found him sooner, so that no others would be made to suffer under my burdens."
The frog stared at him. "How did you know about Moonshadow!"

Nightshade pointed at the screen.

The two of them locked eyes. "I do not know of the intruder you speak of. All I know is that there were Huruts in the village." Dreamcloud was quiet for a long time, never letting go of the arrow. "You are brave, strange creature. I have only seen bravery like this in a Gaku Scout." The green hands slowly brought the bow back to the slack position. "I will let you live. I will certainly regret this decision. The world would be better if you were dead. It is likely that this is just a trick to get me off guard so you can destroy me with your magic."

"I don't have any magic," Nightshade cut in. "All I can do is trade for favors from someone who does."

Dreamcloud stared at him. "Trade? What do you mean, trade?"

"I mean, like I said, I can talk to the projectionist, and we can, I don't know, change the reel or something, if you want. Can I get my spear?"

The frog glared. "No."

Nightshade glanced around the theater. All the seats were empty except for the two in the top row. "Then can I bring my friends along with me?"

"No. I do not trust them. I barely trust you."

Nightshade stared at his friends, sighed and shook his head. "I suppose I can understand that." When he looked back at the frog, tears could be seen running through his facial fur. "But would you at least grant me a simple moment to say goodbye? Or would you be so heartless as to deny me that as well?"

"Heartless? Me?" An incredulous, angry look crossed the frog's features. "Let me tell you what's heartless! Numacafo was heartless! Five hundred villagers, slaughtered right before my eyes! My elders! My best friends! My mother and father! No, I suppose that's nothing compared to a lone Gaku Warrior telling a magician's demonic familiar not to conspire with his allies!"

Nightshade sighed. He looked towards the seats and saw the ape and the gorilla creeping down the staircase.

"Hold!" Dreamcloud shouted, drawing out an arrow. "Stay where you are!" The two came close to the stage. Dreamcloud stuck the arrow in the bowstring, pulling it back. "Move no further!"

"You heard him," Nightshade sighed. "Stay where you are."

Templeton stopped. Bongo grunted and seated himself in a nearby row.

"Templeton." Nightshade's wings drooped. "Listen. I don't know if I'm coming back. The items I got from the BXP are yours to keep. You guys deserve it. You're the first people in three years who haven't looked at me with fear or distrust."

"Um, well...okay." The rat swallowed. "I'm gonna miss you, buddy!"

"Ungh ungh!"

"You said it, Bongo!"

Dreamcloud shook his head.

"We must go now. Hurry. Go through the Scream."

The bat jaguar stepped up to the screen, putting his hands up to the surface. Instead of touching a rough, bumpy surface, his hands went through air.

"What a nice guy," he heard someone mutter behind him.

Nightshade stuck the rest of himself through. He felt tingling sensations all over his body. He saw a flash, then he was standing in between a group of tipis.