Chapter 4: No Man’s Land

" two gonna...escort me over there, or's your plan?" Riffraff rubbed his hands together lamely, glancing down between the two wolves as they sat beneath the shadow of the concrete base. Lone was fretting with a dented pistol, his ears only half-lifting to acknowledge Riffraff as his mind paged through several potential plans of action.

Mahihko, on the other hand, tossed an amused smile upward. "You want us to escort you? Honey, outta the three of us here, you are the absolute least likely to pass as a prostitute. Plus you’re like super-tall. An' muscular." He paused thoughtfully before grinning toothily. "You’d be a great pimp, though! I mean, if I could choose my own pimp, I’d choose you. Every time."

Lone glanced up with a sour expression. "What the hell are you two jabbering about? And why do I feel weirdly insulted you’d choose this giant horse to whore you out, over me?"

"Because he’s a giant horse," Mahihko retorted mildly.

Riffraff blushed and awkwardly took a step backward, clearing his throat quietly. "That uh…that doesn’t really answer the question. Look, you two are real dandy, but…I’d really like to get back to the two fellas who are…you know, actually from my world. Because right now, I’m on a strange world, with two semi-strangers from another strange world." The equine tapped two fingers together sheepishly. "No offense, but…I’d like some normalcy back."

"Dude, one of your two ‘normal’ boyfriends is a demon. An actual, straight-up demon," Lone replied drolly. He looked down for a moment as his hands worked the slide of his compact handgun a few times before eyeing the horse again. "Yeah, we’ll get you over there. Think we’ll need your buddy’s help to get the hell out of here, anyway."

"He’s technically a fallen angel," Riffraff corrected, his expression laced with discomfort.

"That makes him even worse," sang Mahihko. He chuckled before reaching out to grab his fellow wolf’s muzzle. Lone blinked stupidly and then scowled as the smaller male levered himself upward with the help of his face. Mahihko hopped to his paws and began tugging off his turtleneck, continuing to talk through the dark fabric. "That means he was a baaaad boy up in Heaven, and they kicked his ass out." His head popped free a moment later and he flashed another grin, the bright sun glinting off his multiple piercings. "Does he like the dick too much? I been kicked outta my fair share of places for liking the dick too much."

Riffraff stared down at the cheerful wolf with something like horror etched across his features. "I…I don’t…he doesn’t…"

"C’mon, Hiko, the poor guy’s traumatized enough," Lone grumbled, ejecting the clip from his pistol and glancing at the top of the mostly-full magazine. "And you get kicked out of places for stealing more often than dicking. Stop trying to convince everyone you’re a slut before you’re a thief." He slid the clip back into place and shoved the gun into its holster before climbing up to stand as well.

Mahihko didn’t seem all that insulted, simply smiling once more as he tied the dark-blue sweater neatly around his neck. Lone scowled at this, but Mahihko huffed in response, tapping the smooth fabric with a pink claw. "This is cashmere, sweetie. I ain’t gonna just leave it, ‘cause I highly doubt I’ll find an outlet store around here to shoplift for a replacement."

Lone rolled his eyes and strolled forward, leaving the shade of the so-called ‘Blue’ base to take a closer look at the stretch of half-desert, half-grassland landscape between the two military structures. "You’re the worst. It’s gonna end up getting torn, or dirty, or stretched, and you’ll be pissier than you’d be if you’d just left it behind, and guess who gets to deal with it?"

A slight contact with Lone's hip made him twitch and he looked over his shoulder just in time to see Mahihko pointing the short-barreled shotgun at his face with a wink. "Stop bein’ a whiny bitch, you whiny bitch."

"That’s mine, put it back," Lone grumbled, patting at the now-empty holster above his tail as if it would somehow undo the almost-perfect snatch from his companion.

"If I had a nickel for every time," Mahihko remarked cheekily before swiftly flipping the sawn-off around to grip it by the barrel, offering it to Riffraff. "Hey, Seabiscuit – you know how to use one of these?"

The horse took a step back from Mahihko, frowning slightly at the firearm. "I’m a croupier, not a gangster."

"You’re a what?" Lone asked dumbly, turning to face the horse confusedly.

"A dealer, hon, like at a casino," Mahihko provided with a chuckle. "I knew a blackjack dealer once. But he sucked." He paused and added thoughtfully: "Both at dealing cards, but also on dicks."

Riffraff shifted awkwardly as Lone sighed loudly and rubbed at his face with both hands. "Again. The worst. The hell’s it called a croo-pee-ay for?"

"Um, well, the word originally meant--" Riffraff began, only to be swiftly cut off by the other wolf.

"A croup is a horse’s butt!" Mahihko nodded wisely and then gestured toward the equine awkwardly clutching the double-barrel. "It means someone who rides all up on a horse’s ass!"

"Wouldn’t that be someone behind the players, then, and not on the other side of the table?" Lone asked dryly.

"I dunno, I’m not from his crazy-ass, nineteen-fifties-ass world, ask him." Mahihko shrugged and once more shook the shotgun at Riffraff.

Riffraff sighed again, looking helpless as he shook his head slowly. "I have a feeling you two wouldn’t actually care about the history. And I really don’t want the gun, thank you."

Mahihko pursed his lips and squinted defiantly up at the horse. "Boy, it ain’t a question, you need somethin’ in case the shit hits the fan. Which it kind of already did, but you know. Here, watch. It’s easy, and you don’t gotta do shit unless you’re about to die, yeah?" Riffraff made another face, but reluctantly crossed his arms and gave the wolf as much attention as he could bear to offer. "Good!" Mahihko laughed and nodded firmly as he held up the shotgun with both hands. "Now watch!"

He began to point at the various parts of the gun, calling them out as he did so and shifting the firearm each time for the benefit of the tall equine. Riffraff found himself listening despite himself, even as he scowled when Mahihko flipped the break action lever and snapped the weapon open to send the two unspent shells flying toward him. "Couldn’t be easier to reload!" Mahihko exclaimed, grinning and whipping a hand out to deftly snag the buckshot rounds from the air before slipping them back into the breech and snapping the shotgun together in one movement. "Got it? It even cocks itself when ya close it, all you gotta do is check the safety and pick your barrel!" He winked and flicked his thumb across a vertical lever on the stock of the shotgun as he continued: "Left…right…or my favorite, both at once!" He knocked the selector into the central position and then promptly pointed the weapon at the horse’s crotch before pulling the trigger.

Riffraff screamed and leaped backward in horror as the shotgun clicked softly, his face drained of all color, while Mahihko guffawed cheerfully and jabbed the gun at him a few times. "Aw man, you already forgot the safety lesson! I’m ashamed 'n hurt!"

"Mahihko…you’re an asshole," Lone remarked before holding his hand out. "Gimme that back before one of you two gets hurt."

"Oh hell no!" Riffraff yelled in a strangled voice, lunging forward and snatching the shotgun from Mahihko’s grip with trembling fingers. "You’re mental! You’re absolutely mental! I feel safer with Graceful than I do with you!" He clutched the break-action weapon to his chest, frowning immensely and grumbling, "I will shoot you the next time you pull some nonsense like that again."

But Mahihko seemed pleased more than anything, taking a step back and laughing brightly, clapping his hands a few times. "Aha! See, he likes guns, now! Mission accomplished!"

"I don’t like guns," Riffraff mumbled disconsolately, relaxing slightly but keeping an iron grip on the shotgun with one hand as the other pushed his bangs back from his eyes. "I just really hate you."

"Join the club," Lone chimed in, earning two middle fingers from the smaller wolf. "Let’s go, before you two assholes end up either shooting each other or screwing each other, or both, because I know Mahihko’s capable of all three."

"The challenge is doing them simultaneously," Mahihko chirped, winking as he trotted toward the center of the canyon. He glanced over his shoulder to the roof of the base, but the three soldiers were nowhere to be seen. He shrugged and gazed forward once more. "Guess we’re on our own."

"We might have had a chance of getting some help if you didn’t break every possible variation of the Prime Directive when we got here," Lone replied moodily as he idly checked the small packs miraculously still attached to his hip and thigh.

"The hell is a Prime Directive?" his counterpart demanded. "That sounds like cop-talk." Mahihko squinted at the other wolf, leaning forward slightly. "You a cop? You been a cop all these years? You gotta tell me if you’re a cop! Entrapment! Also I have sex-tapes of us, I will burn you to the ground!"

"That’s…no. I’m not a cop, and. No. Stop quoting movies. That’s not how it works," Lone responded tiredly before blinking a few times. "Wait, you recorded us?"

"Always assume the camera is rolling!" Mahihko announced loudly, jabbing a finger into the air emphatically. "I only need a waiver if I try to sell it!"

"Also not true," the other lupine sighed. "And you really don’t know what the Prime Directive is? How the hell do you know what a croo-pee-ay is, but not know about Star Trek?"

"Because I’m not a nerd," Mahihko shot back easily. "Also, give Secretariat your back-holster so he doesn’t have to keep holdin' his gun like a rookie porn star doing his first double-handy."

"I’m not a nerd, you’re a nerd," Lone mumbled. "Star Trek is the shit. And um…I mean…it’s…my holster, though." He glanced up at Riffraff uncomfortably, receiving an equally awkward look from the even-larger horse. "I mean. You know. It’s made for…my size. And he’s…bigger?"

"Yeah he is!" Mahihko purred, licking his lips and stepping closer to the equine to make him hurriedly back away once more. "Stop being a baby. He’s not gonna steal your precious butt-pocket. Because that’s basically what it is. A pocket for your gun, on your butt."

Lone sighed again, rubbing slowly at the bridge of his muzzle but grudgingly undoing his belt with his other hand to remove the holster above his tail. "Fine, fine."

"What are these names you keep calling me?" Riffraff asked, though his hesitance made it clear he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He reached out for the leather holster when the white-furred lupine offered it, tucking the shotgun under one arm as he examined the simple accessory. "I’m not familiar with them and...I don’t know if you’re insulting me or not." He didn’t find it overly difficult to piece together how it worked, taking a moment to undo his own belt and string it into place at the base of his spine.

Mahihko reached out automatically to help guide the horse’s huge hands as he made the first attempt at holstering the sawn-off, giving an amused smile as he did so. "Guess you guys don’t have the Triple Crown in your world, eh? Let’s just say that in our dimension, horses are known for two things. Running races and huge co—"

Lone groaned, swiftly cutting off Mahihko. "My gods, you are impossible. You lead the way, so you can get shot first." He gestured grumpily with one arm, sweeping it with mock graciousness in front of himself.

"Touchy, touchy!" Mahihko snickered and then gave Riffraff’s rump a firm slap as he pranced past. The horse yelped in shock, hopping forward and immediately blushing once more. "Alright, boys. Into the breach, let’s go find his ménage a trois, have a fivesome, and then figure out how to get back home." He began to wander into the dusty canyon basin, his paws guiding him toward a small patch of green in the midst of the desert-like surroundings. "And don’t forget! I still gotta see me some alien dicks!"

Lone shook his head slowly, giving the speechless equine a helpless look and halfheartedly motioning after his companion. "Well uh. Let’s…get going, then. I’ll watch the rear, I guess. Hiko’s better at navigating than me, anyway, much as I hate to admit it."

"We’re going to die," remarked Riffraff, his tone surprisingly calm. "I’ve said that a lot these last few weeks. It hasn’t happened yet, but you two are just as insane as Graceful and Amdusias. And now we’re on another world. So we’re going to die, and we’re don’t even know where it is that we’re going to die."

"We…might not die," Lone replied lamely. "Just because we ended up in the middle of a war zone doesn’t mean we’re gonna die."

Riffraff rolled his eyes, giving Lone a mild look over one shoulder. "I know you’re trying to reassure me. I hate to tell you that I’m afraid it isn’t working."

"Yeah, well…yeah, okay, fair enough," Lone muttered. "You’re not wrong. This blows."

Ahead of them, Mahihko had just reached the leafy tree that stood next to a large boulder among a collection of wild grasses and shrubs. As he turned to call back to his companions, his ears suddenly swiveled toward the entrance to the canyon and his slender frame went stiffly alert. His periwinkle eyes narrowed slightly and he instinctively ducked behind the boulder while gesturing rapidly to the other two. "Get over here!" he hissed. "I hear something coming!"

Riffraff seemed less than convinced, frowning a bit but then widening his eyes in surprise when Lone grabbed his arm and yanked him forward to the shabby cover of the irregular boulder. "I don’t hear—oh."

He could now make out what the wolves’ more sensitive ears had picked up – it sounded almost…familiar. His frown grew deeper and he couldn’t resist poking his head around the rock to if his hearing was playing a trick on him. Neither lupine moved to stop him, as they were both peering over the top, themselves.

The distant whine became louder and louder, burgeoning into a growling roar that echoed through the otherwise quiet box canyon. The small plume of dust rising up beyond the tree line made it almost impossible to imagine anything other than a motorized vehicle…and sure enough, an open-topped transport came tearing into the distant end of the valley a moment later, a single driver behind the wheel of the armored truck

Lone focused immediately on the soldier in the driver’s seat, taking in what he could despite the surrounding clouds of dust and what he imagined was likely an unsafe speed for the jeep-like vehicle. It was another one of the ‘chupadore’ creatures, though this one appeared older than the ones they’d met so far. His hair was grey and cropped short – a far more military-appropriate style than any of the so-called ‘Blue’ soldiers. Both his armor and hide were red, though, leading Lone to assume he would be driving directly to their destination. The other three were much younger…maybe this guy’s a leader. Or just some old dog of war still in the game…guess it wouldn’t be a shock if this world really is in a constant state of conflict…

Mahihko, on the other hand, had his eyes glued to the mounted artillery. It looked almost like a minigun or oversized Vulcan cannon, complete with the shielded belt of ammunition feeding into one side. Even their weapons don’t seem all that alien, at least not the ones we’ve seen so far. A chaingun is a chaingun… "Whoever this guy is, we should steal that gun for Riffraff," he whispered, cracking a half-smile. "Your little baby shotgun is just so…small in his big horse hands…"

"Shut the fuck up," Lone grumbled, nonetheless giving Riffraff an awkward glance. "He’s fine. Hoping he doesn’t need to shoot anything, anyway."

The three of them continued to watch as the chupadore – in full armor, no less, whatever his rank might have been – turned slightly and made a beeline for the opposite base. Lone assumed his guess was correct, and now could only hope that this newcomer and his fellow Red soldiers would be even half as reasonable as the last trio. He leaned forward slightly, squinting at a vague shape in the distance, just ahead of the speeding jeep. Wait, what is that? Can he not see…

As if to answer his incomplete thought, the driver of the armored vehicle blew past the simple barrier, smashing into a wooden sign that had been hanging from the rope. They were too far to have even spotted it, let alone read it, although Lone supposed it must have not been that important for the driver to have simply driven through it. Or maybe he’s just in a hurry?

The two wolves both relaxed somewhat, Lone moving to the side of the boulder as Mahihko pulled himself up to a crouch atop the warm stone, keeping his stance low. Riffraff glanced at his companions curiously, allowing his own body to calm slightly. "Are we going to follow that vehicle in?"

"Might as—"

A thundering explosion interrupted Mahihko’s carefree response as all three heads whipped around in surprise to stare at a sudden expulsion of flame, detritus and smoking steel from the area just in front of the distant concrete structure. The ground shook from the force of the impact and the smaller lupine guessed some sort of landmine had been triggered, judging by the massive pillar of sand and dirt that billowed upward from around where the military vehicle was last seen. "Holy fuck," Lone remarked, slowly moving back behind the rock but unable to tear his eyes away. "Did…that dude just get blown up by his own team?"

But somehow – perhaps even miraculously? – the sound that followed the unexpected boom and subsequent screech of metal was a voice, gruff and defiant as it pierced through the thick cloud of smoke: "Grr…confounded furgledurgler!" Is he…alive??

The three strangers all shared a confused glance before staring in disbelief as a figure emerged from the billowing smoke with no visible signs of injury. It was the same chupadore that had been driving the vehicle, somehow unharmed, with nothing beyond some charred smudges across his battle-worn armor. The older male didn’t even look all that shell-shocked – rather, his expression seemed…grumpy.

A slight breeze had kicked up, helping push away the bulk of the dust and smoke to reveal the now-inverted armored jeep. Its massive tires were still slowly spinning as a steady stream of black smoke rose up from the engine. The explosion from the mine had apparently caused it to flip, though by some phenomenon, the driver seemingly escaped with hardly a scratch. But rather than be grateful to be alive, the stocky grey-haired chupadore looked supremely grouchy as he gave his likely-totaled vehicle a once-over, his hands on his hips while he continued to mutter under his breath.

"Sir! Are you okay?!?"

Mahihko’s eyes narrowed and in a single movement, he let himself slide backward atop the boulder to drop behind it once more. Probably not a good idea to go running out now…let’s see what we’re dealing with on the other side, first… He nodded once to Lone, and the wolves settled back into observing for the time being. Riffraff was more than content to simply follow their lead, licking his lips nervously and hoping his companions hadn’t encountered a fate similar to the scene that had just unfolded before them.


Graceful snapped awake as the curse left his tongue on instinct more than effort. He immediately regretted the movement, however, clutching his head with a low hiss of pain and shutting his eyes tightly. He’d been stirred violently from his unconsciousness and wasn’t yet sure why, nor did he care at the moment. "Fuck…my brain feels scrambled," he muttered, automatically searching out his pack of cigarettes with his free hand. He managed to light one with minimal effort even as he continued cradling his forehead, teeth clenched around the smoldering cylinder in a vain effort to drive back the agony.

"I would wager by the increase in foul language that you, too, have awakened."

Amdusias’s voice floated into the pony’s ears – somehow soothing, as always, despite the pulsing ache behind Graceful Melody’s temples. Graceful frowned immensely but grunted in reluctant relief. He forced himself to sit up on the uncomfortable mattress, swinging his legs slowly around to plant his hooves against the cool concrete flooring. "Yeah, I’m up. Now for fuck’s sake, get me the fuck out of here."

"Were it so simple," the demon intoned from the adjacent cell, his tone only slightly less caustic than the pony’s. "As your body and mind are still recovering, thus are my own. We both strained ourselves to an inordinate degree to make the bridge to this strange world." There was a pause before a strange, muted rapping came from the demon’s cell. "This mysterious blue force blocking the smaller entry is…not permeable. It is some kind of solid light energy. I cannot affect it, at least not in my current state."

Graceful scowled and exhaled impatiently through his nostrils despite finding it difficult to even stand, let alone stomp up to the front of the cell and demand compliance. His eyes glanced toward the translucent barrier between the wall of the cell and the bars at the front, imagining the alien technology was manipulated by a remote switch or panel of some kind. "So you can’t use your magic. Fine. You’re still a lumbering hulk, or do you keep forgettin’ that? Just bend this shit wide and get us free. Ain’t no sign of guards, and there are plenty of bars that ain’t covered in this blue mess."

"I cannot physically force myself through, either," Amdusias muttered, now sounding almost embarrassed.

"What, is it iron, or somethin’ like it?" Graceful frowned again, idly wondering if there would be new, foreign resources here in this strange world that would also be detrimental to the demon’s physical form. That’s the last thing we need…more hazards for the fallen angel to avoid…

"No," Amdusias answered stiffly before sighing, a dull thud echoing from his cell that Graceful imagined to be the demon’s head slumping against the wall. "I am…extremely weak right now, little one. My last manipulation of energy depleted me nearly entirely. It is very exhausting to stop even one projectile, let alone three."

"Well ain’t that peachy," Graceful Melody grumbled, massaging his forehead as he puffed angrily on the stale cigarette. "Wait a tick…" He slowly looked down at himself, realizing only now that not only was his overcoat still hanging from his slight shoulders, but it still had the same weight that he’d long ago become accustomed to. Don’t tell me these schmucks forgot… Biting lightly on the smoldering butt to hold it steady, he reached into his trench coat while continuing to cradle his forehead…and emitted a guttural laugh a moment later as he produced his battered handgun. He marveled at it for a moment, shaking his head slowly in disbelief before remarking loud enough for his confined companion to hear: "These buffoons didn’t even take my piece. The hell kind of soldiers don’t disarm their captives?"

"The kind of soldiers who probably do not wish to be soldiers," Amdusias replied mildly. "These…familiar and yet alien creatures do not strike me as particularly -- and forgive me for this -- aggressive." Graceful immediately pursed his lips, causing a cascade of ash to spill over his chest. "I can feel your scowl from through these walls," the demon grumbled. "But I beg you to listen. Let us consider the manner in which we appeared before them. If they are, in fact, currently at war, and if we did, in fact, startle them enough that they believed we were either enemy spies or simply an unexpected threat…it is not so difficult to imagine that frayed nerves and radicalized expectations encouraged a violent reaction."

"Sure, I don’t blame ‘em for trying to get the drop on us on the roof," the pony countered, tapping the barrel of his pistol against the bed frame idly. "That was a heated moment. But why the hell they try to perforate you when you wandered inside to ask for help, eh? Unless you came in doin’ your fire-breathin’ act, full of brimstone and fancy-fury, I find it rather discourteous of ‘em to make a run at shooting up my demon."

"I am not your demon," Amdusias responded in a snippy tone before sighing. Graceful heard the distinct sound of the reptile’s long, two-tipped tail rapping quietly against the wall – a sure sign that the demonic entity was about to present a thought that likely wouldn’t fit the equine’s mindset. "I do not believe it was the initial intent of that flaxen-haired fellow to discharge his weapon. I am fairly certain the larger of the three shouted something to extricate the murderous instinct of his compatriot."

"That boy ain’t no ‘fellow’," grumbled the equine. "But I suppose considering how Tubby was acting up top, I could believe he coaxed the dandy into taking a shot. He’s got a mouth on him."

"And you are a renowned judge of mouths," Amdusias deadpanned, earning a low chuckle from his equine companion. "Perhaps you can put your own to good use and secure our safe passage from these confines."

Graceful barked out a laugh despite himself. "I don’t know if you mean some sweet-talkin’, or sweet-lickin’, but I suppose I’ll give ‘em both a try if I can’t just shoot my way out…wouldn’t be the first time for either…"

"Now which one of you knuckleheads let me drive straight into a mine field?!"

The three Reds shared an awkward glance before Donut cleared his throat and tilted his head slightly. "I put out a sign!"

This earned Donut a firm squint from the veteran soldier prior to him turning around and only then noticing the wooden panel lodged into the grill of his overturned vehicle. Donut looked over his shoulder curiously to see Grif rolling his eyes and Simmons showing simply a pained expression. It was quite the introduction to his new CO – the sergeant of Timae’s least valuable Red outpost, aptly known to everyone simply as ‘Sarge’.

The grizzled soldier yanked Donut’s sign free from the front of his damaged vehicle, clutching it in both hands as he leaned forward to examine it. Sure enough, the absurdly neat penmanship spelled out "Mine Field, KEEP OUT!", complete with little hearts over the i’s. "Hrm…so you did," Sarge muttered, turning toward the soldiers and then gesturing expressively to the sign. "Private! This isn’t regulation font! No wonder I couldn’t read it!"

"Or maybe you need to get your eyes checked for some regulation glasses," Grif quipped, promptly wincing as Sarge chucked the broken sign at his head.

"Can it, Grif!" the sergeant growled. He was cut off before he could continue, however, when Simmons quickly stepped forward with both hands held up.

"Uh, sir! Sorry to interrupt, but uh…I think we have something bigger on our hands than Grif being an ass…"

"Simmons! You know there’s nothin’ on Omega’s big round ring bigger than Grif’s ass!" Sarge retorted.

Grif scowled but otherwise seemed unimpressed by the insult. Simmons, on the other hand, completely ignored it as he jabbed a finger repeatedly at his damaged chest-plate. "Sir! Two…aliens showed up!"

"Aliens? Son, I been all around this planet and I killed just about everything at least once, and I can tell you without a doubt there ain’t no durned aliens on this world! Else I woulda shot one by now!"

"I think that’s the point of aliens," Grif remarked dryly. "They aren’t from this world. And you know I make it a point to never agree with Simmons, but...for once, he’s not just being a weird nerd. There’s two guys in the brig, which means I think we’ve earned a week off, sir."

Sarge’s eyes widened slightly, giving Grif’s usual sarcastic tone the usual lack of response. "Hot dog, did you miserable rookies finally catch us a coupla Blues?! And you were savin’ the interrogation for me?"

"Not…exactly, sir," Simmons replied slowly before pointing at his dented armor once more. "I don’t…think they’re with the Blues, but one of them did shoot me! Like…six times!"

Sarge bent forward to examine Simmons’s damaged armor, bellowing out a hearty guffaw. "Simmons, I really didn’t think ya had it in ya! But look at this, yer first real battle damage! You’re a man, now, son! I think I might actually be proud of you!"

Riffraff’s eyes widened from behind the boulder, reaching back blindly with one arm to grab one of the wolves’ tails. Lone barely managed to muffle his surprised squawk and glared over his shoulder, but the horse was still staring at the four alien creatures as he whispered frantically: "Did you hear that? They have them! That has to be them, Graceful always shoots first…and it sounds as if they’re still alive, too!"

"Yeah, yeah, we heard it too," Lone grumbled, yanking his tail out of Riffraff’s grip before peering past the rock to watch the specifically effeminate chupadore flailing his arms while shouting about ‘huge demons’ and ‘stolen tea’. "Thing is, I don’t exactly think we’d get a warm welcome if we came tromping out right now…the dude who just got blown up by a land mine seems like he might be a little…violent."

"All of you are a little violent," Riffraff mumbled, fidgeting a bit. "Please…we need to do something…"

"Yeah, we do!" Mahihko exclaimed cheerfully. "And I got just the plan, baby!" He grinned broadly as the other two gave him a doubtful look. "We just need…" He paused and slipped close to Lone, making the other wolf shift awkwardly and flush a bit…before his embarrassment turned to grouchiness when he realized Mahihko's hand was buried in his hip pouch. "This!"

"Stop going through my stuff, you thief," Lone replied in a sullen tone before blinking as he noticed Mahihko was holding a cylindrical object in his hand. "Hey, is that a…no wait, I don’t carry grenades. How did…that…"

"Sweetie, if I had to carry all my own shit, I’d never be able to wear these fantastic outfits," Mahihko reasoned before winking confidently. "Thank you for unwillingly hauling my luggage, sugarlips. Now! Time to put those big, sexy muscles to good use!"

Lone rolled his eyes but held out his hand grudgingly…only to look more than a little hurt when Mahihko shoved the grenade into Riffraff’s palm. "That’s…wow. Rude," the toned wolf uttered.

"Sorry, darling! You’re a beautiful specimen, but ah…" Mahihko cleared his throat before making finger-guns at his scowling companion. "Ya just ain’t strong enough!"

Riffraff looked at the cylinder in his hand uncomfortably. "Remember when I talked about not being a gangster? Yes, I believe a grenade is even worse than a shotgun."

"Eh, calm your tits, it’s a smoke grenade! We ain’t gonna kill anyone, at least not now," the wolf explained before peeking over the top of the boulder once more. "No time to argue! These boys look like they’re about to head inside, and if you’re truly scared ‘bout your buddies, it’s now or never, my friend!"

Riffraff exhaled slowly, frowning immensely and staring at the cylindrical device again and then looking toward the four soldiers, concern etching across his features. "And Lone, you still have a super-important job," Mahihko added smoothly, flashing a bright smile at his still-grumpy partner. "We need YOU to go shoot your gun, like…over there somewhere," he paused to gesture vaguely at the edge of the box canyon. "You know, somewhere over there. Once the grenade goes off! So!" He clapped his hands together and glanced up between the two taller males. "Our big friend Riffraff throws the grenade, doesn’t suck, gets it close to the furry lizard people things, Lone runs as fast as his manly legs can carry him ONCE it goes poof, distracts them with a couple bang-bangs, an' then I make the introductions. Got it? Yes? Yes?"

Lone tried to protest almost immediately, but Mahihko simply reached over and yanked the pin out of the smoke grenade, holding it up with a toothy grin. "Hope so!"

"Oh dear," Riffraff stammered, eyes widening slowly as he stared first at the unnaturally upbeat thief, then at the much-less-composed explorer; Lone’s expression about matched the horse’s, both their faces blank with shock.

"I’d probably go ahead and give that little puppy a real nice throw in about…oh…right about now," Mahihko announced kindly as he tossed the pin over his shoulder with a solemn nod.

"Gods be damned," the horse groaned, gripping the small device tightly and focusing on the soldiers for a moment. He felt a familiar spark race through his body and he closed his eyes. Lone caught this, but hardly had time to do more than give a horrified face as the equine blindly hurled the grenade over the boulder. He didn’t even look!

"Well color me unbamboozled!" Sarge exclaimed. "Simmons here took one for the team! And--"

"It was actually six, sir," Simmons mumbled.

"Six inches, maybe," Grif interjected with a smirk.

"Shut it, Grif! And then our new recruit discharged his weapon at the intruders! All while the resident jerkoff sat around with his thumb up his ass!" Sarge barked out a laugh. "You didn’t even have the decency to get shot in the face!"

"And I’d be happy to help anyone else discharge their weapon if they need a hand, too!" Donut chimed in excitedly.

"Now that’s the spirit!" Sarge replied with a clenched fist and broad grin while Grif and Simmons made matching faces of disgust. "Grif! Since you’re still the failure of the group, get this mess cleaned up! We’re gonna go interrogate us an alien!"

Grif opened his muzzle to offer some witty rejoinder, but was stunned into silence when a metal object dropped squarely onto his forehead. His retort became a yelp of shock and slight pain and all three of his cohorts turned to him in confusion as the cylinder bounced off of his face.

"Oh shi-"

A dull pop made all four soldiers flinch automatically before the grenade rapidly expelled a thick cloud of off-white smoke even before it hit the ground. "Smoke, it’s just a smoke grenade!" Simmons yelled to no one in particular as the chupadores moved closer together if only out of instinct.

Lone almost missed his cue, having been so distracted by the weirdly perfect placement of the grenade by the horse. It took a firm shove from Mahihko to send him stumbling out from behind the boulder the moment the non-lethal device began to spew its payload, and he nearly tripped before turning it into a sloppy sprint toward a cluster of straggly trees at the edge of the basin. He unholstered his handgun with a grimace, not liking how far he was from the pitiful cover but knowing he had to cause the distraction sooner rather than later. He glanced back toward the boulder in time to see Mahihko scrambling over the top and flinging himself forward in an exaggerated leap. Lone cursed under his breath but immediately yanked the pistol’s trigger three times, sending the rounds screaming several feet above the growing plume of thick smoke and hoping the startling reports would cover his partner’s acrobatics.

Mahihko landed smoothly but still tucked his slender frame into a quick somersault before sprinting toward the strange creatures as he heard their confused voices clamoring over one another. Lone’s distraction worked better than he intended – the definitive sound of a shotgun burst out of the blinding haze, scattering motes of smoke wildly for a moment before they quickly collapsed back onto themselves. The shot went considerably wide, but Lone still winced and dove for the cover of the vegetation ahead of him.

"It’s gotta be those dirty Blues!" the older voice proclaimed from within the cloud of smoke. "They never fight fair! Take this, you grubby bastards!"

Mahihko’s ears caught the unmistakable sound of a pump-action cycling and he swiftly leaped to the side a moment before another roar sent a load of buckshot flying out of the smoke and into empty air. This guy’s somethin’ else!

"Holy shit, Sarge, you’re gonna shoot one of us!" one of them shouted between coughing fits.

"Only if you do a better job getting in my way!"

Mahihko smiled slightly despite himself, quickly pulling up the tied-together sleeves of his sweater to cover his nose and muzzle before producing a slim pair of goggles seemingly from nowhere and slipping them over his eyes. He was able to spot one figure near the edge of the cloud, waving his arms wildly and almost clear of the smoke and it was just enough of a glimpse to let him dart past, barely avoiding contact with a flailing arm. He crouched low and glanced around to spot the shadow of a soldier with both arms extended, the vague silhouette of a handgun swinging back and forth in the thick swirls of smoke. There’s one.

Mahihko ducked under a sweep of the soldier’s arms, then quickly shifted to the side and held up a hand to delicately catch the barrel of the gun as it swung back toward him. "Simmons! Is that you?!? Should I shoot?!"

"For fuck’s sake, no!" choked out the voice Mahihko assumed belonged to Simmons and he took the moment of confusion to deftly wrap his fingers around the end of the handgun and firmly jerk it upward. It came free of the soldier’s grip with little resistance and the wolf quickly tossed it to his other hand as he slid toward the owner of the shotgun.

"Hey! That’s my gun, give it back!" cried the chupadore before he broke into a coughing fit. Mahihko ignored the jumble of confused responses from the other soldiers, instead focusing on the eldest of the four as he shoved the stolen handgun into the front of his waistband. The smoke was slowly beginning to dissipate and so he decided to do what came naturally and simply reached around to firmly grab one of the sergeant’s buttocks.

"Sweet mother of a swamp-thing! Grif, stop trying to steal my cookies! How’s about a face-full of buckshot to go with that fistful of my ass!?" As the shape of the older chupadore shifted around furiously, Mahihko saw the long barrel of the shotgun whip through the smoke just in front of him. And there’s two. Suspecting a much tighter grip from this veteran, Mahihko snapped a leg up in a rapid kick to the blinded soldier’s wrist, resulting in a surprised grunt from his target. He immediately reached up with both hands to grasp the shotgun by the middle, twisting it toward him while yanking backward at the same time and being rewarded with a horrified yell from the gun’s owner. "My baby!"

Mahihko quickly backpedaled, reaching up with one hand to remove the goggles as he backed out of the disorienting cloud. He let the simple eye-wear drop down onto one arm to hang loosely as he shook his muzzle free of the turtleneck’s protective shroud. The shotgun was exceptionally heavy, but he just managed to heft it up with his dominant hand as the other plucked the stolen handgun out of his waistband, leveling it at an incidental angle as he waited patiently for the smoke to settle.

"Okay, what the actual fuck is going on?" the orange one shouted, managing to stumble free of the disappearing plume before any of his compatriots. "What kind of stupid…uh…oh shit…" His voice trailed off when he noticed Donut’s magnum pointed at his head, staring stupidly at the beaming lupine.

"Grif, I swear on your soon-to-be-dug grave, if you have your grubby fingers on my…HOT SNAKES IN A COOKIE JAR, it’s a GOT-DAMN WEREWOLF!"

Mahihko laughed despite himself but gamely kept the shotgun aimed toward the veteran, continuing to wait calmly for the other two alien creatures to wave the last of the smoke away. The blond-haired one noticed him first, letting out a high-pitched shriek and immediately clinging to his companion, who was shocked enough that he gave his own undignified yell even as he tried to wrestle his arm free from the other male’s tight grip. The wolf grinned broadly at this, half-waving the handgun in a cheerful gesture. "Well, hi there!"

Grif lifted his hands automatically, even as he remarked with no small amount of annoyance: "Holy shit, there really are more of you."

"Grif, I knew it! You traitorous bastard!" Sarge yelled, taking a step not toward the alien creature holding his weapon, but toward Grif himself. "How could you? Oh, I always knew you’d disappoint me more than ever before, but workin’ with goldarn SPIES for the BLUES?"

The wolf cleared his throat, gesturing with the shotgun a few times in Sarge’s direction. "Yeah, hey, look – we’re just talking, ‘kay? No need to get nasty. I think we’ve got enough of a grasp of the situation ‘round here, so uh…" He paused and whistled loudly over his shoulder before turning back to the four chupas with a winning smile. "We aren’t Blues. In fact, we ain't even from nowhere near these parts."

Sarge screwed up his muzzle, leaning forward slightly with a suspicious squint. "You squirrelies?"

"I don’t…believe so?" the lupine replied slowly, looking somewhat confused for the first time. "Never been accused of that, at least?"

As he spoke, another wolf wandered toward them from a tiny grove of trees, while an even-larger figure poked his head around the boulder that sat in the middle of the canyon.

"What in tarnation is going on?!" Sarge barked, looking between the trio with a deep frown. "Simmons! You tryin’ to tell me these are aliens?!? Don’t look like no damn aliens I seen on the TV before, these boys look soft!" He eyed the smallest of the three once again, locking onto his shotgun and grumbling, "Don’t think a little fuzzy thing like you can handle a real man’s weapon, now that I get a good look atcha."

"Hey now, old timer! I might be a svelte li’l side-piece, but physics is physics – you’ll still get a real nasty diagnosis of shotgun-to-the-face even if it breaks my arm afterward," reasoned the confident lupine. "But seriously! We ain’t here to start some shit."

"Then why don’t you put the guns down?" Simmons suggested nervously, rubbing a hand self-consciously across his perforated chest-plate. "I would really like to not be shot again."

The alien chortled, giving an amused shake of his head as he looked over his shoulder at the approaching horse. "You hear that, Riffraff? Sounds like your little pony boyfriend already had himself a party without us."

"If by ‘party’, you mean ‘shooting at anything that moves’, then no, I’m not at all shocked to hear that," the equine mumbled, his expression almost sheepish as if embarrassed for the behavior of his tiny, angry companion.

"Oooooh, that’s a much bigger horse," Donut noted with a particular lilt in his tone that made Simmons yank his arm away violently, hurriedly stepping away from his enamored compatriot. "I like these aliens!"

The smallest of the three strange creatures grinned broadly again as he sized up the chupadore in the pink armor before he waved the large magnum toward the soldiers. "Oh, I know what will help cool off all these taters!" he proclaimed while Simmons quickly ducked behind Grif, his eyes locked warily onto the pistol. "Introductions! Everyone likes introductions."

"Nobody likes introductions, you weird spaz," Grif retorted, even as he grimaced and leaned slightly away when the lupine peered directly at him, very purposefully aiming the stolen handgun at the paunchy soldier’s groin. "Please don’t shoot me in the junk, tiny space dog," he added awkwardly, lifting his hands for the second time that day.

"A dog? A dog?" The alien huffed dramatically and struck a pose, holding the magnum to his chest and swinging the shotgun wide. "I am a wolf, you adorable furry mandarin. And my name is Mahihko." He tilted his muzzle toward the horse, his multitude of piercings gleaming in the setting light of the sun: "This big boy is Riffraff, and he’s not with us. Well I mean, he is, but he’s not from the same place we are. We just got lucky as hell to be gifted with such an Adonis, am I right? I mean LOOK at him! And this…" He tapped the taller lupine with the tip of the oversized shotgun, making him flinch backward with a horrible expression. "Is Lone. He’s my pack-mule."

"I am not just a pack-mule!" Lone seethed, shoving the shotgun away from himself and stepping forward with a scowl, crossing his arms moodily. "Also, you guys look exactly like the other guys, other than your colors. What the hell is this war about, some kind of…racism or some shit?"

"Just…just like…JUST LIKE THE BLUES?" Sarge sputtered, stomping forward to thrust a fist toward the Lone. Mahihko lazily pointed the shotgun at the angry chupadore again, raising one eyebrow slightly when the older male snorted and jabbed a finger at him instead. "We ain’t nothin’ like those dirty Blues! And this ain’t the first time I had a gun trained on me, son! And I doubt it’ll be the last! So if you ain’t gonna pull that trigger, gimme back my weapon and let me show you how it’s done!"

"Oh, I like this one, he’s feisty!" Mahihko commented brightly. "Sure, you can have your gun back! Ya gotta promise not to shoot us, though. Also, we gave you our names, so it’s only polite that –"

Riffraff stepped forward hesitantly, cutting off Mahihko with a mix of sheepishness and urgency. "Uh…excuse me? Is…is Graceful Melody okay? He’s um…he’s the…little…"

"The little asshole that tried to kill me?" Simmons provided, frowning immensely. "Why is it that all the shortest of you…alien-things is the most violent?"

"Hey, I haven’t shot anyone yet!" Mahihko complained. "Don’t you get all heightist on top of bein' racist, lumpin' all us little bastards together."

Simmons gave a pained look, his eyes continuing to trace toward the two guns in Mahihko’s grip. "Uh huh. Sure." He made a face but then glanced back to Riffraff, seeming to note the genuine concern on his features. "Yeah, uh…yeah, that…scary pony guy and his giant lizard-thing are locked up in the cells."

"Simmons! I thought you were loyal! Now you gone and given up our greatest bargaining chips to these space-critters!" Sarge bemoaned, shaking both fists toward his soldier. "Now we got nothin’ to stop them from probin’ us, gat-dammit!"

"Oooh, when do we get to do the probing?!?" Donut asked, hopping from paw to paw eagerly as he clasped his hands together. "I’ll go first, Sarge!"

Sarge pumped a fist into the air with a laugh. "Now that’s what I call dedication! Take notes, Grif! I don’t even know this new private’s name, and he’s already offerin' to gather intelligence so we know what to expect from the enemy!"

"I’m a hundred percent sure that’s not what Donut meant," Grif muttered, finally letting his hands drop to his sides.

"We’re…we’re really not here to do that," Lone began awkwardly, before being rapidly shushed by his companion.

"Hey, hey, hey, you don’t know that, maybe we are!" Mahihko nodded several times before winking at Donut. "We’re open to suggestions." He then turned toward Sarge, glancing over him for a moment. "So! You guys totally failed your part of the introductions, but luckily, I’m a great detective, so I can guess you’re Sarge, the fluffy one is Grif, the scared one is Simmons and the cute, pink one is Donut?"

"It’s lightish-red!" Donut protested, though he still wiggled his clawed fingers at the wolf with a titter. "But thank you! I love your piercings!"

Mahihko flashed his teeth in a broad grin. "Honey, you play your cards right and you can see the rest of ‘em! But! Onto business!" Without further thought, he tossed the shotgun into the air, grabbing it by the barrel and then offering the butt of the weapon to Sarge, meeting his steely gaze evenly.

Lone’s eyes widened and he stumbled forward to stop the gesture, only to be halted when Mahihko idly pointed the magnum at him with a playful smile, even as he continued to speak to the soldiers: "We’d really like to get our friends out. And we’d like to do it without anyone else getting shot."

"Please don’t point that at me, you don’t even know how their guns work," Lone mumbled as he crossed his arms disconsolately. "You’ll lose all your street cred if you accidentally shoot me in the face."

"Not to mention you won’t have a face anymore," Mahihko added helpfully. "Which would be creepy."

Sarge only hesitated for a moment before yanking his shotgun out of the wolf’s grip and immediately cycling the pump to clear the chamber and load a fresh round. He leveled it at the alien lupine, squinting and looking almost like he was hoping for a reason – any reason – to pull the trigger. Mahihko turned toward him but remained calm, eyeing him coolly. The chupadore narrowed his eyes further, letting out a low, slow growl as he slipped a finger into the trigger ring and steadied his stance. The entire group found themselves frozen in awkward silence, sharing slow, uncomfortable glances.

Letting out a frustrated snarl, Sarge finally hauled the shotgun upward and swung the barrel away from the small creature’s head. "Got…damn…little…smaggersmogging…how am I supposed to shoot ya when you ain’t even gonna point yer gun at me?" he complained, gnashing his teeth together. "It’s like aiming at a goldarn child! A puppy-child! Why are you so tiny? It’s just unfair!"

Everyone breathed out a collective wheeze of relief as Mahihko chuckled and shrugged amicably. "Don’t judge a book by its cover, cap’n. I compensate where it counts." With that, he spun the magnum around in his hand, gripping it by the enlarged, square barrel and holding it out to Donut. "Worth keepin’ that in mind," he added easily as Donut giggled and took back his firearm with both hands.

"What a lovely little gentleman!" the soldier gushed, clutching the pistol to his chest and making both Simmons and Grif shuffle back to avoid having the barrel point at them yet again. "We could use more manners like yours around here!"

"Don’t get too excited, he’s a nasty little bitch when he wants to be," Lone grumbled, his body releasing tension at last. He stepped forward to join his compatriot and then jerked his head toward Riffraff when the horse nervously approached. "Since it seems like we’re not all gonna shoot each other at the moment, can we please go see his friends before he explodes and kills us all?"

"Great flaming wombats! You aliens are explosive, too?!" Sarge exclaimed, staring at Riffraff and receiving an equally shocked expression. "Grif, you idiot! You’re gonna get our base blown up! We gotta get those bastards outta there!"

With that, Sarge spun around and jogged toward the base as his fellow soldiers looked at each other for a moment. "The hell did I do?" Grif grumbled before rolling his eyes as the other two followed the sergeant. He turned to pursue lazily, then paused and sighed, glancing over his shoulder at the three alien creatures. "Well, c’mon. Faster you get your stupid friends out, faster I can go back to avoiding work…"