Bystar stumbled up to the shack, panting. This one?
In his head Mercury's answer rumbled like a twelve horse carriage. Get closer, you fool! You're not seeing the letters clearly. Honestly, I don't know how you survive with your pathetic little mustelid eyes!
Bystar sighed and dragged himself forward. Better?
There was silence for a moment while he dutifully flicked his eyes back and forth over the text that topped the door, concentrating as hard as he could on the shapes.
This is it, Mercury pronounced. Now in, and don't come out until he's hired you and agreed to the task.
Bystar paused to lick his sore paws and shake some of the dust out of his coat. His tongue flicked over his nose and he took a deep breath. This was it.
He scratched at the door as loudly as possible. After a moment it opened and he was faced with a pair of feet.
"Hello?" said a deep voice. "Who's there?"
"Down here," said Bystar, looking up - and up - into a face almost hairier than his own.
The feet jumped. "Ah. Hello there, little fella." The feet shuffled, and a pair of knees came into view, followed by a torso and last of all the face. "What kin I do fo' you?"
Bystar licked his nose. "Uh, I'm here to see... Roy."
The man's eyebrow shot up towards his hairline. "Roy? What do you be wantin' with Roy?"
Bystar shook his head and cowered against the concrete.
"Ah, never mind. I'll take ye to 'im. 'e's out back. Do you want to walk, or do ye want me to carry ye?"
"I'll walk, thanks," said Bystar, raising a tentative foot.
The man stood. "Righto then. This way." He held the door open as Bystar scurried through, then closed it with a slam.
Bystar stared across the large room, filled with raucous noise, people dashing back and forth, laughing, shouting.
"Don't mind the noise." The hairy man's voice boomed down to him. "'s always like this day after a recruitin' picnic."
Bystar trotted close by the man's heels, wary of getting stepped on in the commotion. His ears lay pinned back against his head and he tried desperately to block out the noise.
"What's that, a walking mop? We called the cleaners, but they said they wouldn't be here till this afternoon!" Laughter bounced around the room.
Bystar cringed low against the ground and slunk after the feet.
"Ah, leave 'im alone!" said the hairy man. "'e's 'ere to see Roy."
A sharp crack echoed from one corner. Bystar jumped.
The hairy man grinned. "Don't worry. 's just Fenlay, showing off for the new recruits."
Bystar looked in the direction indicated and saw a group of young-faced people sporting bright coloured armbands surrounding a sparkly, pointy hat. The group shifted and Bystar realised that the hat was actually perched on the head of an odd looking man, short and clean-shaven.
Bystar jumped as a boot nudged his side. He looked up at the hairy fellow. "Sorry, coming."
The hairy fellow lead him out to the back of the building, stopping where the paving crumbled to a halt and became a sparsely-grassed yard, fenced with old, silvery pails and bordered by large trees whose branches bent low and swept the ground. The fellow nodded towards a solitary figure on the other side of the yard near the shed. "He's over there."
Bystar nodded and licked his lips. "Uh, yeah, great. Thanks."
The fellow grunted and stomped back inside.
Bystar slunk across the yard, weaving in and out of the assorted strange objects that littered the remains of the lawn. He jerked to a stop and doubled up as a particularly virulent scent reached his nose. He sneezed and gulped, then sneezed again. What was that? His eyes began to water and he dragged himself aside. Whatever it was, he wasn't that interested in finding out. He sneezed again and moaned.
Oh come off it, said Mercury. It stinks, move on.
Bystar shook his head. "Try...ing..." His head spun and he sneezed again.
Something gripped his neck and lifted him off the ground. The air cleared and he inhaled in gasps.
"Hello," said a voice.
Bystar rubbed his eyes. Slowly they stopped watering, and with a final blink he could see again. The ground rocked back and forth several feet below him. He shrieked and curled his legs up underneath his body.
"Aw, there now, I've got you." An arm came around underneath him and cradled him against a warm body. Bystar looked up into a face framed by wavey blonde hair. "You okay?" A finger tickled his chin.
"And what's a pretty little thing like you doing out here?"
"See... Roy..." Bystar panted.
The girl stared at him for a second, then seemed to accept what she saw. She hugged him tight. "Of course. I'll take you right over." She carried him over to where Roy was picking up some of the strange items from the ground and placed him on an old table. "Roy," she said, "there's someone here to see you."
As Roy straightened the girl darted off giggling. Roy stared after her for a moment, then shook his head and turned towards the table.
"You again," he said. "Now look, ferret, I don't know who you think you are-"
"Oh my, of course!" Bystar grinned. "How rude of me not to introduce myself. My name is Bystar Marmo Stor Flale. Most people settle for Bystar." He leant back on his haunches and gave a mock bow, which he finished by twirling his whiskers between two claws.
"Bystar," said Roy in a monotone. "Right."
"So," said Bystar. "You've had time to think about it... What do you say?" He watched as Roy froze, staring off into the distance. Bystar sighed. He'd done this at the barbeque, too, and it had taken nearly a full five minutes to bring him back to earth.
Bystar was just considering biting Roy on the leg when Roy sighed.
"I don't think so." He shook his head. "There's no business for randomly offing evil overlords, these days."
"But he's evil," said Bystar, aghast. "You can't just leave him up there, ruling evilly over the people, foisting his evil plans on the innocents of the world."
Roy leveled a look at the ferret. "Actually, yes I can." He picked up the metal contraption. "These days planned demonstrations, rallies and ... tend to work better than assassination attempts."
Bystar sighed. "Well, can I at least hang around with you guys then?"
Roy raised an eyebrow. "You want to join the Good Guys Against Evil society?"
Roy rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Just make sure you go to the secretary and pay your fee, okay?"
Bystar looked affronted. "I'm a ferret, how am I supposed to pay fees?"
"You're the one who wants to join. You figure it out." Roy glanced at the ferret. "No thieving though. We're watching you."
"Come now, that's not very nice!" said Bystar. "Surely you can afford to make an exception for one such as me. Especially since I come with... valuable information." Bystar rubbed against Roy's leg.
Roy shook his head and stepped towards the door. "Actually, no. We're low on funds. We could really use your fee, actually."
Need cash, do they? Mercury spoke in his head. Well, we can help them there. Tell him about the Key.
What? said Bystar. What's that got to do with the price of membership in GGAE?
But you're the one that needs the Key. How's it supposed to benefit him?
It's not. But he doesn't have to know that.
"Are you alright?"
Bystar glanced up to see Roy looking at him with a strange expression on his face. "Uh, yeah, fine." He sidled up to Roy. "So, you could use my membership fee, yes?"
Roy looked at him consideringly, then nodded. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Deviran's doing a pretty decent job of running the place these days. People aren't exactly racing out to donate to us any more."
Bystar nodded. "I see. So." He paused, waiting to see if he held Roy's attention. "If I told you I had a way for you to get your hands on a large sum of cash, would you be interested?"
Roy looked skeptical. "We're strictly a legal association."
Bystar arranged his features to look offended. "I have no idea what you mean."
"A ferret tells me he has a way to get his hands on a large sum of cash, I'm not exactly going to assume he has a bank account he's willing to donate," said Roy.
Bystar shuffled his feet. What do I tell him? he sent to Mercury.
Don't worry. What we're suggesting isn't strictly illegal.
He shook his ears. "Well, what I'm suggesting isn't precisely illegal."
Roy rolled his eyes as he turned away. "Righto," he said over his shoulder. "I'll talk to you later then, shall I?"
Mercury, help! He's not listening! Bystar felt a panic rise in his stomach.
Well do something then! Mercury screeched into his mind.
He clapped a paw to his head. Like what?
Sing a song, do a jig? Do I look like I care? Just get him back here!
Roy was nearly to the back door of the clubhouse.
Bystar! I don't care what you do, but if you do not make him listen to you I will do painful and horrible thing to you. What are you, a ferret or a rat?
Bystar grimaced. I'm not a rat!
Yes you are. No good useless rat. I should have sent one of your fleas out there instead.
No! Bystar bounded across the grass and crashed into the back of Roy's foot just as it was ducking through the door. "Ooph!" Bystar gasped as the door slammed shut around his ribs. "Help," he said hoarsely, "please?"
Roy kept walking.
"Roy!" A high-pitched voice cut across the general din in the room. "Look what you've done! Oh the poor little fellow..."
A pair of hands scooped Bystar up and out of the doorway and snuggled him in close. Bystar groaned. Not another girl.
He glanced up. This one was a brunette, long waves of hair trailing down her shoulders front and back and tickling him behind the ear. He flicked his ear.
"Roy Stanson, stop right there!" said the girl, striding over to Roy. "Look what you've done. This poor little creature was nearly decapitated because you didn't watch what you were doing." She glared at Roy, and Bystar could feel the anger steaming off her.
Roy held his hands up defensively. "Don't blame me, I didn't even know he was there! Last time I looked he was on the other side of the yard."
Bystar looked back in time to see the girl narrow her eyes. "You know him, then?"
Bystar turned to Roy, who gazed back consideringly. They stared at each other for a minute, then Bystar licked his nose. "He knows me. I'm trying to help him, but he won't listen."
The girl yelped and jumped, and Bystar squeaked as the floor danced horribly near. He shot out a paw full of claws and scarpered up onto her shoulder.
"You... you can speak?"
Bystar nodded, trying not to laugh as the girl simultaneously tried to peer closely at him on her shoulder and tried to back away.
"Talk?" muttered Roy. "He never shuts up."
The girl shot Roy a glare. "You knew he could talk, and you didn't warn me?!"
"What was I supposed to say? 'I'm not sure if I want to admit to knowing the ferret, but either way, watch out, he talks.' I don't think so."
"Well you could have said something!"
"Ahem." Bystar rubbed an ear against his leg. "Charming as this conversation is, it's not strictly relevant to the point at hand."
Roy and the girl stared at him. "Point?" said the girl.
"Yes, point. I'm trying to give Roy a hand here, knowing he's short on funds at the moment, but he doesn't seem to want to listen to me."
The girl shot Roy another glare and he turned red. "I... It's not that... It's just..."
The girl raised an eyebrow and Roy fell silent. She turned to Bystar. "I'll listen to you," she said. "What's your idea?"
"Well," said Bystar, licking a foot to conceal his happy grin. "It's dead simple, really. There's this thing, an artifact, well, it's called the Key of Power. It's a Powerful Artifact of Doom. Fetch a fortune with the right buyers."
Roy gave him a skeptical look. "Oh come off it. PADs went out years ago."
"Yeah, well, this is an old model." He stared defiantly at Roy.
"Oh come on, Roy," said the girl. "Why couldn't there by an old Artifact hanging around? It's not like it's unheard of."
Roy expression changed and he seemed thoughtful. "But what would old Deviran want with a PAD? He's not exactly the traditional type."
"No, but his palace is, everyone knows that the last guy was as traditional as they come."
The girl had a serious expression on her face. "That's true, Roy. Vlardir was into that sort of thing big time."
"True," said Roy.
Bystar suppressed a grin. Thank goodness for the girl. A few more minutes and Roy would be eating out of his palm. "And that's why the Artifact is the Key - 'scuse pun - to your problems. Deviran's not the least bit interested in something like that, so he doesn't bother to keep it under guard. And he's evil, after all, so nicking it off him is like doing the world a favour."
Roy chewed on his lip. "I don't know about the whole stealing thing, still."
"Oh don't be ridiculous," said the girl, putting her hands on her hips. "I don't care how good a job he's doing. He's the evil overlord. We're the Good Guys Against Evil. Against. It's in our job description to take him down."
Bystar scratched frantically at his ear. Must. Not. Grin.
Don't get cocky, said Mercury. He hasn't agreed yet. Try using the words 'defeat evil' and 'free the downtrodden'. They really seemed to work for him last time.
Last time? said Bystar. Last time he said no, in case you've forgotten that minor detail. Which is why I am here again now!
Just do it, said Mercury.
Bystar sighed. He turned to Roy and tried to be upbeat and peppy. "So, how bout it? You up for defeating evil and freeing the downtrodden?" He gave Roy what he hoped was a hopeful look.
Roy screwed up one eye. For a moment Bystar held his breath, sure that Roy would say no. He opened his mouth.
Leave it! said Mercury, and he snapped his mouth shut.
"Oh Roy, come on!" said the girl. "Can't you see it's important to him?"
Roy sighed. "Alright. I'll do it."
"Ye-ah!" Bystar punched the air. "Atta boy, Roy. You won't regret it."
Roy looked at him sideways. "Don't make promises you can't keep," he said, and stalked off.
"Don't mind him," said the girl. "He just gets narky when he doesn't come up with a good idea himself." She stretched her arm out over a bench. "You hungry?" she said.
Bystar nodded and scampered down her arm.
"Here you go," she said, tearing a chunk off a nearby sandwich and handing it to him.
Who was eating out of whose palm? cackled Mercury.
Bystar jumped and accidentally spat out the bread.
"Something wrong?" asked the girl.
Bystar reluctantly licked up the bread. "No," he said, Mercury's voice bouncing off the inside of his skull. "Not a thing."