Murikeer glanced up from his perusal of a thick, dusty tome as someone knocked on his door, rattling the heavy wood with several short raps. "Eya, skunk, ye in there?" came a gruff voice, half dog, half man. Muri blinked, drawing his brows together in a confused scowl as he stood, closing the book with a dusty thump and walked toward the door. Lifting the latch, he drew it open slightly.
A grizzled, grey furred muzzle smiled a snaggle-toothed grin at him through the crack as a large, thick hand pushed upon the door. Muri did not resist the intrusion, as the newcomer was wearing the same tabbard that the ermine had been wearing. "Put yer shirt on, cub." The broad shouldered old wolf commanded, his gravelly voice tinged with warm good humor. "Aint no night ta be sittin aroun yer cell waitin fer the sunrise."
Muri blinked at him as he stepped back, holding the door with one hand as the wolf pushed it open. He wore a shortsword on a faded brown leather belt on his hip, but the skunk could see that it was peace tied with a bright scarlet sash. "No pike?" he asked, accepting his shirt as the wolf snatched it from the hook under the single shelf in his room and handed it over.
"Heck no, cub." He smiled warmly, flashing his teeth as the smile reached his dark brown eyes. He was missing one fang from the top of his maw, his two lower fangs broken off just below the tips. The rest of his teeth were in similar ragged condition, but Muri saw that they were clean. His lupine cutlery had been smashed in combat rather than through poor care. "If ye get outta control, I'll jus throttle ye wit me hands." He chuckled warmly as he extended one thick, battle scarred arms and clasped his hand on Muri's shoulder, "C'mon, young un, let me show ya what's to be doin nights aroun Metamor."
Muri staggered as the Wolf pushed him out into the passageway and drew the door shut with a heavy thud behind him. Llyn had left him in his rooms a couple of hours earlier, while the ermine was still standing guard over him. She had things she needed to do that night, she explained, though she did give him a good hour to select a few books from the library. The librarian fox had been kind enough to let him take the books to read in the privacy of his own room. "I thought you were here to guard my door, not drag me all across the Keep."
The wolf barked a companionable laugh as she slapped Muri on the back, leading him onward, "Hell no, boy." He growled warmly, his battered teeth gleaming against the grey of his muzzle, "I'm gonna be yer escort, cause standin there at that door be about the most borin' thing a wolf can do."
"Seth did not seem to mind."
"Seth's a boy, no a man." The wolf barked, laughing again as he led Muri down a broad flight of polished marble stares. Muri seemed to remember that the stairs had been a lot further away before, but then, he was new to the Keep, so could not be too sure. "Me name's Harragan, son, sergeant Harragan."
"Murikeer." The skunk offered, following the wolf's lead as he shook his head slowly, pulling his shirt on. The old fellow was certainly sure about what he was doing, so he figured he might as well make good of the situation. The wolf grinned aside at him and nodded.
"I be knowin that, cub." He woofed, his tail swishing lazily back and forth. He carried that bushy appendage straight out behind him, unlike most of the other keepers that Muri had seen. But then, it had a couple of subtle kinks along its length that revealed his cavalier attitude did not always carry through without problems. He steered the skunk toward a heavy, age-worn wooden door. "So ye tell me, cub, what's yer poison?"
Muri murred in confusion, looking at the slightly taller wolf. "Poison?"
"Drink, boy, drink!" the wolf laughed as he pushed the door open. The courtyard beyond was dark for the most part, a few scattered torches along the far curtain wall glimmering fitfully in the cool evening air. Muri fluffed his fur under the fabric of his clothing, tugging unconsciously at a hem where it chafed. The wolf pulled the door shut as Muri looked about the bailey, watching as a pair of guards walked slowly along the far wall. One was tall and obviously human, the other short and stout, species unidentifiable.
"Oh, well. I never gave it much consideration before, sir." Muri offered as they turned and began walking down a well worn path along the pale grey wall of the Keep proper.
"Yeah well, boy, I be gonna give ye th' chance t' find out." The wolf rumbled amiably as he sauntered down the path ahead of the skunk, one triangular ear turned back. He had two simple rings in the edge of that ear, which glimmered and flashed in the dim light of the torches they passed. "I din think ye was goin to want ta sit there waitin fer your lady friend t' come back, so we jus goin to socialize for a coupla hours."
Muri blinked, the fur of his tail flattening for a moment as he looked at the back of the wolf's head. The rings in that one ear flashed as the wolf's ear flicked. "Socialize?" Muri quailed, gritting his teeth. That meant crowds, and crowds meant humans.
"Aye, yeah cub." Harragan nodded, his ear twitching forward as he swiveled the other back to listen to the skunk walking behind him. There were no rings in his other ear, but the ragged edge hinted that there may have been at one time, but they had been ripped out by some past fight. "A good place to be, we goin. Plenty o' good folks."
Muri oh'ed, curling up one corner of his lips. He sighed at the thought of having to suffer through the boisterous jocularity of a crowd of half drunk soldiers in some military mess hall. The peace of his evening just went south, he sighed and shook his head sadly. "Where is this place?"
The wolf stopped, reaching back to place one hand on Muri's shoulder as he raised his other hand and pointed to a small, comfortable looking building nestled up against the Keep wall like a runt puppy at its mother's teat. "There it be." The wolf grinned his snaggle-toothed smile and thumped Muri's back, "Tha Deaf Mule she be called, a right warm an' friendly place as ye'll ever see." He boldly led the skunk onward, waving a grey furred hand to a friend who was heading into the building just ahead of them. The deer stopped in the process of pushing open the swinging door, hailing the wolf with a smile.
"Kanf!" Harragan barked as they crossed the avenue, dropping his hand from Muri's shoulder as he clasped the deer's extended hand and pumped it vigorously. "Kanf, this be Murikeer." He hooked his thumb back at the skunk who had stopped a few feet away, patiently waiting to be led into the tavern. The warm murmur of patrons reached their ears as the two old friends greeted each other. "Th' old 'orse wanted me to stand at 'is door all night." The wolf laughed as he turned and gave Muri a good natured wink of one dark brown eye. "But the lad need to get out, get a breath 'o night air and see wha' Metamor be about."
"See what we are about?" the deer asked, his voice almost a mere whisper as he turned his attention to the skunk. His antlers gleamed in the flickering light of the torches lining the avenue, freshly cleaned of his summer velvet. Tall, scalloped ears twitched in the skunk's direction, "He new?" Muri and the wolf nodded at the same moment as the skunk tried to work out the deer's strange accent. Eastern, he suspected, but not any he was familiar with. There was a fluting, sing-song nature to it that seemed to accent the way it worked through the deer's long throat and muzzle, almost hypnotic.
"Ayep." The wolf growled humorously as he nodded, "Jes arrived a few days ago, he not seen much yet."
The deer laughed and pushed the door open once more, motioning with one long, slim arm for the two to precede him into the tavern. The murmuring voices of the patrons rolled across them as the door swung open, along with the warm smell of fresh food and drink. "So the first place you take him is the Mule, Harragan?" the deer joked as Muri slipped past him, the wolf ahead of him and nodding as he chuckled. "You're going to put a taint on him quick, I see."
Muri was led through the foyer, the walls of the short passageway adorned with an eclectic collection of warm clothing, hung there by the patrons populating the room beyond. Muri's steps slowed, but only for a moment as the wolf, after hanging up his sword belt, pressed a hand against his back and pushed him onward. "C'mon cub, aint no one in there gonna bite ya." Muri's tail lashed behind him in agitation, striking the wolf's hips as the skunk moved forward, his fur ruffling up.
Behind the two of them the deer snorted a laugh. "Unless, of course, you ask."
Muri chuffed, taking in a deep breath and steeling himself for the crowd as he moved into the taproom. The place was crowded with patrons, almost every table populated with a circle of animated guests. There was a bar along one wall behind which two tenders were working. A massive bull morph and a river otter morph moved around one another with fluid grace as they filled mugs and traded jibes with the patrons seated or standing at the bar. It was impossible to tell, beyond those two, who worked the floor or was a patron as the place seemed lost in complete chaos.
"Hoay!" the wolf grunted as he stepped into the taproom, "Busy this night." The deer merely nodded as Muri surveyed the crowd. He let out a short sigh, giving himself a shake to settle his jangled nerves and ruffled fur. At least to first inspection there seemed to be not a single human in the place. Fur seemed to dominate the crowd, in a plethora of natural colors, shapes, and sizes. Tails moved behind chairs as ears twitched like small, fixed birds on rounded, furry perches. The heavy reek of mixed animal scents slammed into Muri's nose with more force than he had ever experienced before, sending him back a startled step as his whiskers flattened back against his muzzle. His ears backed, flattening down upon his head as he flexed his long fingers.
Ohhh, to be lost in the dusty pages of an ancient book at that moment seemed the most pleasant of heavens in comparison. Sucking a breath of air through his teeth, Muri plunged into the crowd as the Wolf led onward, the deer moving close behind him. He wondered briefly, in that moment, if this was how a soldier felt when he plunged into the thick of a battle. Something caught the corner of his gaze as the wolf lead him toward the bar, pulling at his attention.
Harragan waved to friends as he sidled up to the bar, keeping his charge close with one hand as he turned his muzzle toward the heavyset bull juggling mugs of fresh ale in his massive hands. "Donny!" he barked, his voice cutting through the low rumble of the surrounding conversations, "Ay bull! What wit tha crowd?"
The bull turned limpid, brown eyes in the wolf's direction and shrugged his brawny shoulders, turning to tap another cask of ale. One of those at the bar, a tall, slender weasel with a prominent white streak across one side of her angular muzzle, turned a frothy grin toward the wolf, "Stepping be burned flat!" she chittered happily, raising her mug in a jaunty salute, "No more Lutins at the Stone!" A smattering of applause filtered through the crowd around her as the wolf nodded. He knew that, the news raced through the keep like wildfire. Andre and his cavaliers had really done well in ridding Metamor of that whore's bed of disgusting vermin. The weasel belched loudly, earning a bit of laughs, "Now we celebrate!"
"Hay, Muri." Harragan barked as he turned toward the skunk who stood close at his back, pushed close to the bar by the milling crowd of patrons and waiters with trays heavy with food and drink who moved back and forth. "Muri, hay, you listening?"
It was obvious that the skunk was not. He was looking toward the far end of the taproom, his ears pricked up alertly as he leaned up on the pads of his splayed paws. He had heard something quite out of place in the milling throng, a sound that cut over the susurration of the crowd like the report of a naval cannon. Upon initial contact, it had sounded like to stout pieces of flat wood cracking together, then tapered off into a more subtle series of sharp clicks that were almost lost in the mumble of voices and cackle of laughter.
It was a sound Muri was familiar with, though, but had not expected to hear. The clatter of billiard balls on the break. There was a pool table somewhere in the crowded tavern, and he was determined to find it. His fear of the crowds was forced into momentary abeyance as he moved away from the bar, and the wolf, and the security of the two soldiers he had a nominal attachment to.
It had been one of Heiorn's favorite pastimes, playing billiards on a finely crafted table in the central manor of his small villa. He also used the game to teach the mechanics of magic, illustrating the give and take, cause and effect results of magic on the world. To the inept, the movement of the balls was utter chaos, just as the effects of the magic they unleashed was chaotic. With time, practice, and proper instruction the movement of those troublesome spheres became an art, a finesse that was lost on many, even some of the most powerful mages the world had ever known.
And thus their magic. Powerful as they might be, the effects of their magic was not guaranteed, nor easily controlled. They could not see the movement of the world's force, as they had no way to internally visualize how their actions would work upon the world about them.
Then, of course, there were the permutations that radiated outward from the origin of spells. Much like the movement of the cueball after striking its target and shooting off in a different direction, perhaps striking other unintended targets. In turn, the movements of those unintentional strikes that filtered outward like the ripples on a pond.
Muri finally managed to slither through the crowd; twisting, ducking, turning and stepping rapidly to avoid colliding with a single creature in the thick, milling throng. He found himself at the edge of a relatively clear area toward the far wall of the tavern, in the center of which was the source of that earlier harsh crack. It was massive as pool tables went, the intricate wood of its construction carved thick and stout though the surface of the table itself was the same size. It was covered with a pale green felt that gave it a strange, almost alive look against the age darkened wood, much unlike the stone-like appearance of Heiorn's slate grey felt and filigreed bountifruit wood table.
The number of balls and their colors seemed pretty close to those Muri was familiar with, the cues wielded by the heavy reptile and beaver working around the table achingly familiar. Muri blinked at the smaller of the two players with some amazement for a moment. Not because of the rather mundane species, but because of the rather atypical pattern of his fur. Beavers, as a rule, were brown. This one was. black and red. The pattern of those colors was not natural either, forming a checkerboard across his body from muzzle to paws, the squares almost uniform in size though around his face they were slightly smaller. What had ever possessed the Keeper to dye his fur in such a wild display the skunk knew he would probably never understand, and hoped he would not find the need to duplicate. None of the other furred denizens of the tavern, at least, seemed inclined to such flamboyant decorations, which was reassuring.
He stepped back as the beaver moved around to his side of the table and leaned in, lining up his cue for a shot. Shifting back between two occupied chairs, he rested his hip against a table as the beaver brought the cue back, hovered a moment, then shot it forward. Muri knew the shot was going to be wide off the mark, causing the beaver to miss his shot and scratch even before the tip of his stick connected with the age yellowed cueball.
Indeed, the beaver's shot grazed the side of the striped ball he was aiming at, careered wildly off two rails, and dropped smoothly into the side pocket nearest him. The target ball spun and bounced off one rail, rattling through three others before coming to rest against the rail by a far corner pocket. The tall, heavyset lizard playing against the beaver clucked admonishingly and retrieved the cueball, saying nothing to his stymied opponent. Muri smiled and chuckled, warming to the scene despite the thick crowds pressed in around him.
Feeling a sudden snatch at his tail, though, suddenly brought all of that back, sending a startled jerk through his body. He turned his head swiftly, only to find a slender young opossum holding the end of his tail in one of her delicate looking hands and making a pitiful face to her friends sitting around the table as she held up the tip of her own tail. "Now why, oh why could I not have gotten a tail like this?" she moaned, her face holding an expression of playful anguish as she patted the furry tip of Muri's thick, monochromatic tail for a moment before releasing it. Turning her head, she smiled warmly up at the frightened skunk, her small, dark eyes gleaming with mirth as she patted him lightly on the hip. "I do so envy you, stranger." She giggled, then returned her attention to her friends.
Swallowing his momentary fright, the skunk could only nod woodenly, twitching his tail out of reach as he moved away from that table, seeking the safety of an empty chair along the far wall. Considering the density of the crowd Muri would have expected to see more folks paying attention to the game at hand, but such was not the case. Save for an occasional glance and a few pointing fingers no one seemed to care. The game was obviously mismatched, with the heavy lizard obviously far outclassing the equally heavyset but far shorter beaver.
As would have been expected, the game was over in short order as the lizard ran the remaining solid colors from the table, then dropped the eight ball into a side pocket with a touchy but flashy cut shot. The cue rolled the length of the table after grazing the eight with a caressing brush that rolled it lazily into the side pocket as the cueball bounced dangerously close to the near corner pocket and came to rest in the center of the table's far end. Muri chuckled at that ending move and branded the grinning reptile a showoff, and master pool player.
The skunk believed himself a capable player, but had to admit to himself that it had been almost four years since he had last felt the cool, smooth wood of a cue in his hands, which had not been furred at the time. His feet had been flat too, and he had been a good four inches taller. Such changes were going to affect his game, he knew, but he was going to play once again.
Painfully expensive and difficult to build, such tables were rare in the extreme, especially as most who had the gold to afford them would not be bothered with the complexity of learning the game. It was not nearly as portable as, say, a game of castles or a handful of bone dice.
"Well, Michael, are you for another game?" the lizard asked, his voice a deep, rumbling hiss as he grinned at the resigned looking beaver. That stout, furless muzzle was filled with short, very sharp looking teeth of uniform length from front to back, but Muri was unable to easily identify the species of reptile the pool hustler had become. Considering his formidable stature, Muri could only hazard that he had been a rather stout human before he had become. whatever he was.
The beaver gave a short grunt as he scowled at the handful of striped balls still scattered haphazardly about the table, "No way, Cope, not again tonight." He laughed as he tossed his cue to the lizard, who caught it with an easy flick of one hand. "I'm going to get a good flaggon of spiced mead, sit down with some friends, and get delightfully ripped."
The lizard, Cope by the name the beaver had given him, hissed a short series of clicks as he shook his massive head. "Why so glum, my furry friend?" he asked as he turned slightly to lean the sticks against the outside of a corner pocket, then began gathering up the remaining balls.
The beaver ruffled his parti-colored fur and shrugged, looking up at the lizard, "Women." He grunted. Cope let out a heavy laugh as he dug a couple of balls from one net pocket.
"That 'pine still leading you on about reversing what she did to your fur?"
Michael shook his head shortly, assisting the lizard in retrieving the solid colored balls from the pockets. "No, not that." He mumbled, paying the skunk seated nearby no heed, just another furry face in the crowd, "Hell, so far as I've determined, she can't undo it!" he flicked a trio of balls down the length of the table where the lizard gathered them up, placing them in the rack as he prepared to play another game. "She's caught up with that striped cat of hers and can't be bothered with me."
The lizard nodded, his expressionless face intent on the arrangement of the balls within the triangular rack. "I can follow you there, my friend." He rumbled as he finished the rack, sliding it around a few times, then left it to place a consoling hand on the beaver's shoulder, "I never would have thought her your type anyway, so why don't you enjoy your drink, on me."
"On you, you skinflint?" the beaver laughed, smiling up at the lizard's down-turned muzzle. Cope nodded warmly, his teeth gleaming with another tight lipped reptilian smile.
"Just tell Donny to put it on my tab." He chuckled as he waved the beaver on, "And send someone over here to lose a game with me!"
Muri stood up from his seat at that, pushing what he had heard of their conversation from his mind, though he did make a mental note to beware encountering a female porcupine. Whatever she had done to that poor beaver's fur he did not want repeated on his own pelt. "No need, Cope." Muri called over the surrounding murmur of the crowd, which caught the lizard's attention immediately. "I haven't enjoyed a game of pool in a long time."
"Ahhh, good." The lizard's tight lipped smile again, this time with an edge in his flat, lidless eyes as he turned and walked back to the table, looking down at the shorter creature. Muri felt a slight twinge of trepidation when looking onto those cold seeming reptile eyes, but it was something deep down, more instinctive than his fear of humans or crowds. The natural, instinctive caution of a small species facing a very large predatory species. He quelled it easily as he reached for one of the cue sticks laying on the table, only to have it snatched away by the lizard.
It was, admittedly, the more intricately crafted of the pair, and longer. The brass ferrules and endcap also indicated it was rather heavy, which was why Muri's hand went toward it first, he preferred a heavier cue. He did not miss a beat, though, merely picking up the other instead. "Sorry, friend, but this cue I had crafted personally."
"You'd have to." Muri chuckled as he let the remaining cue slide through his hand, testing the smooth surface for nicks and slivers as he let the butt end fall to the floor. He examined the leather tip and found it to be slightly worn but otherwise satisfactory. Whoever it was that owned the table and the equipment for it obviously took some care to keep them in good condition. After examining the balance, tip, and the condition of the shaft, he smiled across the length of the table at the lizard, who was quietly chalking the tip of his own cue. "Who breaks?"
"You do, you're at that end of the table." Cope offered, pushing the white cueball down the table with a negligent flick of one clawtip. The smooth lacquer ball had gone a little off white with age, but there were no nicks or other imperfections, and it rolled in a smooth, straight line down the table. Muri read that with a smile, as it meant the ball was balanced well and the table was amazingly level.
He rolled the cueball under the knuckles of his fingers for a few moments as he examined the rack. The lizard arranged the balls in a Urassa pattern, the standard rack turned to one side so that there was a solid and stripe at either of the far corners. The one was still at the peak, with the eight in the center, no corresponding colors touching as he would have expected from a more common rack. He was familiar with the pattern, but Heiorn had never favored it. He rolled the ball slightly to the left of the table's center line as Cope took the frame away from the rack, hanging it from a peg in a rafter above the center of the table.
The lighting could have been better, he mused as he stepped back and leaned over the table, drawing the cue through his fingers. He could easily remedy that with a witchlight, but he did not want to tip his hand so swiftly, for he had no idea how well a sudden use of magic, however simple, would go over in such a crowd. At least, with the smooth black fur covering his fingers, he would not need to powder his hands.
Pressing the tip of his tongue against the back of one long upper canine tooth, he slid the cue swiftly forward, connecting the tip to the cueball with a solid, clean strike. The white ball zipped across the felt in a straight line without a lick of spin, hammering into the one ball slightly to one side. The sharp crack as it struck the break was beautiful music to the skunk's ears, filling his mind with memories as his heart rose in his chest, briefly free of the crushing weight of his omnipresent fear.
Balls scattered in all directions as the cue glanced down one side of the rack on a direct line with the far left corner pocket. Its trajectory was changed almost instantly, though, the scattering balls rattling it off course as the power behind the cueball struck the nine and sent it hurtling into the corner pocket. Three balls reached the opposite corner pocket, none of them dropping as they clustered, then broke up slightly. The rest of the balls rattled off the rails, drawing up toward the head of the table as the thirteen was bumped into the right side pocket by the eight.
All in all Muri thought it a good break for not having lifted a cue in four years. Not one of his best, to be sure, but that was to be expected. He raised his stick as he watched the balls arrange themselves upon the table, then winced as the cueball came to a halt between the eight and two in the near right corner. He would not be able to hit any of his striped balls without first hitting the eight or two. Considering the lizard's rack pattern and the rules behind that form of play, the eight was not neutral.
"Snookered yourself." Cope chuckled lightly as he moved up toward the head of the table. Muri examined his options, then nodded. Lowering the end of his cue, he tapped the white ball into the rail, where it rattled the eight out into the open and left the two untouched. It was not the best position he could have left the lizard in, limiting his shots with the blocking eight, but gave him an initial clean shot on the two into the near left corner. The lizard would be hard pressed to clean the table, at least. The seven was firmly seated between the ten and fifteen down in the far right corner. Getting it to drop would also drop one of those two balls. Even trying to draw it out might give the skunk a free drop.
"It's been awhile." He admitted as he stepped aside to give the reptile room for his shot. "I'm Murikeer, by the way."
Leaning over his shot, the reptile turned his thick muzzle toward the skunk, then extended one platter sized, slender fingered hand.
"Copernicus." He rumbled, his blunt tongue pressing up against the back of his upper teeth as he clipped the natural hiss short. Muri figured it must have taken him some time to overcome the sibilant accents his new head had given him, which said a great deal for his hopes at remaining somewhat human. The skunk smiled warmly, reaching across to give the reptile's large hand a quick shake, his grasp firm. Cope's grip was almost crushing in an unconscious sort of way, his clasp fur and steady, though the touch of his skin had the familiar cool smoothness of a snake.
Murikeer stepped back to rechalk his cue as he let the lizard turn his attention back to the shot; two into the left corner pocket. The lizard walked around the table as the cueball rolled away, leaned down and gave it another quick jab with barely a breath to aim his shot. The four fell, the cueball ricocheting off at a sharp angle to drop the six with the same shot. Muri sucked at one of his long canine teeth as he watched the lizard work the table as smoothly and effortlessly as a boatswain might a glass-calm lake.
Copernicus glanced up and grinned a toothy smile as he moved around the table to take his next shot. Muri chuffed a brief laugh as he stepped out of the way, and merely watched. "Where'd you learn your game, Murikeer?" the reptile queried in that deep, rumbling hiss as he lined up his next shot. His shot on the six was simple and direct and he hammered his stroke through, sending the cue speeding down the rail after dropping the solid green ball to sink the five even before the six had stopped rattling in its pocket.
Muri rested the soft fur of his cheek against the cool wood of his cue stick as he leaned on it, "One of my Masters favored the game." He explained quietly, not taking his eyes from the play on the table, "He liked to use it as something of a teaching aid."
Copernicus shifted the gaze of his bright, lidless eyes to the skunk for a moment curiously before leaning down to line up his next shot. This stroke was far more leisurely than the previous, merely grazing the three, then angling toward the center of the table. The orange three ball calmly rolled across the felt of the tabletop and dropped smoothly into a corner pocket. Muri clucked his tongue against the roof of his muzzle as he watched the reptile make a run on the table.
"Cause and effect, action and reaction." Muri explained as he moved out of the lizard's way yet again. Only one open shot remained, and the cueball was in line for an easy shot. Where he intended to drop the ball, though, was unknown as the shot was directly down the centerline of the table. Stretching the advantage of his taller frame, the lizard leaned far out over the table to line up his stick, then hit the cueball with so much force it was a blur. Muri never would have expected much control from that much force, but the target ball, the one resting lightly against his eleven, shot away from the point of impact in a perfectly straight line. It hit the bottom rail, came back up between two of Muri's striped balls to strike the top rail, returned the length of the table once more to drop in the only open lower corner pocket. Despite the power he had used, the cueball rolled clear, bouncing off of one rail and stopping in the center of the table.
"Nice shot." The skunk said.
All of the solid colored balls save two had been removed from the table in short order and with little apparent effort on the reptile's behalf. Only the seven and eight remained; the first nestled tight between two stripes while the other sat, unmolested, some three hands away from the top left corner. Copernicus chalked his cue as he smiled down at his black and white opponent wearing the simple countryman's homespun clothing. "This one is going to be a good challenge." He rumbled as he set the chalk down and blew across the tip of his cue, "Do you think I can actually sink it?"
Muri smiled up at the cold visage of the reptile and shook his head, "Not without dropping one of my own first." He reported with a nod, not looking toward the tight cluster. "You can't get enough play on the ball for another pocket."
Copernicus looked to his shot as he wandered around to stand next to the side pocket nearest the cueball. "You're probably right." He nodded, "The luck of the break, I guess." True to Muri's assurances in some regard, the seven stubbornly refused to drop between the two stripes bracketing it into the corner. The lizard's powerful shot only served to loft the cue up when it struck, the seven coming back out of the corner in a direct line opposite the movement of the cue, which dropped straight back down and rolled back along its original line, trailing the seven. Muri let out a startled chuff at that peculiar maneuver, which only served to tighten the ten and fifteen in the corner. The seven struck the left rail a mere inch shy of the side pocket, bringing a dissatisfied hiss from the reptile as the cueball cracked against it lightly, both balls coming to rest some distance apart near the center of the table.
Free to play his own game, Muri whistled at his crafty opponent. "That was an original shot, I'll give you that." He offered by way of mollification for the lizard's missed shot. Copernicus just grunted a good natured rumble and nodded, stepping aside to let the skunk line up his shot.
The eleven was separated from the cue by the width of only three fingers, the line already set for a clean side pocket shot. Muri took advantage of the positioning to drop the eleven, drawing the ball back with a little reverse draw on the cueball back into the rail nearest him. Glancing up at the reptile standing across the table from him, Muri switched the cue around behind his back as he turned and rested his rear against the edge of the table. Laying the soft plume of his tail across the green fabric surface, he lined up the difficult shot off the rail with the cue behind his back, his tail acting as a secondary bridge. "Action and reaction, cause and effect." He reiterated over his shoulder to his opponent as he caught his tongue between his teeth, and gave the cueball a firm strike.
The cueball sped directly toward the pair of balls clustered in the bottom right corner, striking the fifteen solidly enough to force it past the ten as the cueball jumped slightly and reversed away from the corner. The ten rolled across the table and dropped into the left corner pocket as Copernicus quietly clapped his large hands at the shot. Muri stood away from the table, pulling his tail away as he turned to examine the rest of his shots.
"Not bad." The reptile rumbled quietly to himself as the skunk flashed him a boisterous grin and circled around to sink the fourteen in the right side pocket with a quick, sure stroke. Circling the table, he quickly chalked the tip of his cue, rubbing his thumb across it after setting the chalk down. Leaning into the shot, he struck the cue a little low as he pushed it into the twelve, which dropped smoothly in its destined pocket as the cue rolled back and to one side a short distance, leaving the skunk with a clean, direct shot on the eight into the upper right corner.
"Check, and mate." Muri reported without looking up as he laid the cue stick for his shot. Cope could only gape at the swift, easy defeat he had been served up by the newcomer, whose name he had yet to even memorize. His brilliant, lidless eyes focused on the eight ball as the skunk drew the cue back, then struck.
But the stroke was untrue. As Muri drew the cue back he felt the butt end strike something, a cry rising up from behind him as his stroke progressed, striking the cueball sharply off center and sending it caroming into the rail. It bounced from top rail to right, then crossed back over the table to fall in the side pocket as the skunk stood and turned about to see who he had hammered with the butt of his cue stick.
Short, fat, splattered with foamy ale, his face screwed up into a petulant scowl, the human child looked up from his soiled green surcoat at the skunk, his face flushing a brilliant scarlet. "You fucking vermin!" he howled, holding up his arms as the foam of his spilled drink rapidly stained the sea green silk a darker leaf green. "You spilled my goddamned drink!"
Murikeer blinked, leaning back into the pool table as the fat kid railed at him. The child's heavy jowls shook with the force of his anger as he wiped a spatter of foam away with a quick flick of one beefy hand. "I'm sor." he began, his voice stammering as the rotund child's hard grey eyes bored into him.
"Sorry! Sorry!" he bawled angrily, his entire body shaking as he took a step toward the skunk, who quickly sidestepped lest he get trapped against the immobile weight of the pool table. The lizard stood on the other side of the table watching the exchange with a curious tilt of his head. "You'll be sorry all right." The petulant, tenor voice of the offended boy suddenly lost its offended shriek and evolved into something far more sinister. "You have no idea how much this shirt costs, do you, you furry vermin?"
Backing away, Muri could only shake his head though he knew pretty close how much such a shirt might cost. His wardrobe had consisted of almost a score of them, most gifts from petitioners for Heiorn's magical boons. The child pursued him, waving the half emptied mug he had been drinking from to punctuate his vitriolic words as the skunk retreated before him.
"Three garrets! Three! You know how long you will be working to earn that in repayment?" the shorter human growled in that oddly out of place tenor whine, "I'm going to have you slaving for months! That's all you furry beasts are good for, manual damned labor." He would have pressed the point home with the tip of one thick little finger against the skunk's chest if Muri had bothered to stand still, but the skunk was having none of that. He backpedaled as swiftly as he could, managing to navigate around obstacles behind him by using his tail as a man suddenly blinded might use their hands.
"Loriod was right in what he said about you creatures." The child hissed, spittle flecking the corners of his mouth, pouty lips drawn thin in his anger as he bulled through a few startled animorphs already displaced by the retreating skunk. "You're good for nothing. Nothing, do you hear me? Lord Loriod would have the lot of you pushing oxcarts if that foul smelling horse you call lord had not used his pet mage to burn him to a cinder!"
"I." Muri stammered, not having a clue what the child was ranting about, hoping only that he would cease his pursuit soon. The skunk's fur was ruffled, his ears backed against his skull as his tail lashed behind him in agitation. He felt like he was back in the hamlet of Lyrannis again, a mob of angry, superstitious townsfolk banishing him with pitchforks and thrown rocks because he was different.
Because he had been a beast, no matter that he walked like they did and spoke in their own language. That had been before he knew the hunt had been called against him, before men began facing him with swords instead of pitchforks, bows instead of thrown stones. His eyes rimmed white in growing terror as he felt hard wood pressing suddenly against the back of his shoulders. Heat melted through his fur as he reached back to brace his hands against the warm stone of the hearth. The Keepers sitting at tables nearby did not seem to notice the attack that was occurring right in their midst as the fat child stepped up toward the skunk, pressing his advantage.
"You!" he kid spat, his ale leaden voice heavy with poisonous scorn, "You you you! It's always you beasts!" he hissed up into the shivering skunk's face. "You pander to that black plow-beast you call your Duke, bow to his whim! You should not have the power that you do, because you are nothing more than beasts. You should be laboring under the proper rule of those who are still human, not lording over this castle and the lands you wrested by murder from the hands of the good Lord Loriod!"
Muri shook his head jerkily, pressing back as far as he could from the raging human leaning so close he feared he could feel the heat of the fat child's flesh seeping through his fur. He tried to sidle away again, only to feel the warning singe of the hearth's fire hiss through the fur of his tail. He could not go the other way, for there was a massive roof beam immediately to his left, and a table just beyond that which was crowded with tavern patrons.
His eyes came back to his assailant as the tirade continued, letting out a startled chutter as he felt the soft tip of one fat finger poke him in the center of the chest. He stuttered out a series of chuffs as the fur of his hackles sprang up, his tail beginning to shake behind him in growing agitation. The words of his aggressor were punctuated by repeated, hard pokes from that finger.
"I am going to have that hopped-up plow-horse make you pay for what you have destroyed, you furry vermin, on my own lands, my own terms." He glared up into the skunk's face, ignoring the high pitched chatter of the terrified animorph's fear. Bringing his other arm forward, he looked down into the frothy golden ale remaining in his mug, then jerked it up, intending to splash it directly into the skunk's face.
By that time, Muri was far beyond noticing that it was only a half mug full of ale that was being launched at him. All he saw was the coming attack, and his instincts took conscious control of the situation away. Ducking, he spun away from the golden wave of ale that sloshed from the mug. He pressed against the stone of the hearth with his hands as he raised one foot, planting it in the center of the fat child's gut and launching him backward with a powerful kick. The fabric of the child's stained surcoat rent with a harsh rip that was lost in the overall din of the surrounding revelry as he let out a startled cry at the attack, then the pain of the skunk's claws tearing at his soft flesh.
Having launched his assailant away from his immediate vicinity, Muri continued to spin, his tail lashing around, then up as he blasted the general area with a liberal dose of his defensive spray. Utter hell erupted almost instantly as the pungent, oily vapor coated his attacker and the hapless raccoon into whose lap the child had been kicked. Continuing his turn, Muri came back around, ending up in a half crouch as he looked for his assailant.
The night had been going amazingly well for Rickkter. After several long days spent preparing for and carrying out the assault on Stepping Rock it felt good to finally be able to kick back and enjoy a few cool mugs of Donny's fresh ale. Seated at the table around him were some of the friends he had gathered about him in recent months, all swapping tales about some of the things they had done in wars of their past. The shrew, Kwaanza, was seated across the table from him, putting away more ale than the raccoon would have ever imagined and seeming to remain sober.
The wolverine cavalry commander, Andre, sat next to the small shrew nursing his drink with a bit more care, intending to mitigate the effects of the hangover he knew he was going to suffer from the next morning. Already the tavern had taken on a sort of soft, pleasant blur beyond those seated at the table with him, the warmth of the fire easing the ache of the last two days from his bones. Two of his lieutenants were also gathered at the table enjoying the evening, having just met the 'coon after witnessing his devastating prowess at the sacking of the Rock.
One of the members of the Writers' Guild, a fox he had seen about by the name of Nahum, was standing next to Andre, listening avidly to their stories of bloodletting and the overly exaggerated deeds of valor they mixed into the retelling of their rather valorless actions of war.
None of them paid much heed to the skunk moving backward past their table, thinking in their rather tipsy minds that he was merely trying to warm his backside near the hearth. Nahum, momentarily displaced by the skunk and the human following him watched the strange duo curiously, his ears canted to catch the last strains of Andre's depiction of what a Lutin skull sounds like under the hoof of an enraged warhorse. It was obvious to the fox, who was still nursing his way through only his second mug of honeyed mead, that the skunk was not intending on warming himself. He was trying to escape some enraged, obese age-regressed Keeper.
Self styled 'Lord' Aniris, or 'Ol' Squat' as Nahum had heard the kid referred to before in more than one or two stories. One of the late and unlamented Lord Loriod's cronies. Impotent and enraged because of it, he had a nasty habit of preying on young girls who had yet to face what affects the curse had in store for them. Nahum quirked up one corner of his muzzle as he turned, intending to circle around the table and separate the disgusting little copy of Loriod when the skunk did just what the fox would have expected.
He sprayed the kid.
Not just sprayed him, but kicked him a good six feet through the air, directly into Rickkter's lap. Nahum knew immediately that that was a big mistake as the skunk's spray reached his nose and sent him into a fit of sneezing. Rippling outward from the hearth like a tsunami from an earthquake, Keepers began leaping from their seats, bellowing in a mix of anger, fear, or drunken mirth, and charged the single exit en masse.
Rickkter seemed to explode up out of his chair with a furious bellow as the squealing pig of a Keeper landed in his lap and the skunk's virulent spray filled his nose with an ungodly stench. Immediately the AR began to retch, purging the contents of his stomach onto the floor and Rick's boots, enraging the raccoon even further. With an animalistic bellow of pure rage Rick grabbed the back of Aniris' stained, tattered surcoat and launched him away with a powerful heave of his arms.
With a shriek, the fat AR crashed into a cluster of overturned chairs, shattering them, then merely lay there and retched out his pitiful existence. The raccoon glared at the soiled black of his wardrobe for a moment, a harsh growl bubbling in his throat as he hissed through his teeth in a vain effort to breath past the pungent reek the skunk had left on him. Nahum could only lean on one of the nearby tables and gag, sneezing between breaths before getting the brilliant idea of using his tail as something of a filter. He grabbed the fluffy appendage and pulled it up as far as he could, twisting his torso to bury his nose in it as he tried to make sense of the chaos. He frowned as he picked up the traces of the skunk's spray sticking to the tips of his fur. He had not escaped unscathed after all.
The door was packed with a stream of bellowing, gagging, screaming patrons trying to escape the lingering, heavy stench that was quickly filling the taproom. Some had gotten so desperate as to push open the windows and escape through them. Donny was trying to sort out the entire situation at the door, but was meeting with relatively little success.
Andre was rolling on the floor, having upset his chair as he tried to push himself out of range of the brief cloud of the skunk's spray, laughing so hard Nahum feared he would choke to death. Beside him the shrew, Kwaanza, was gagging as she tried to laugh as well, her gut heaving as she stood on hand and knees and shook her head violently. The wolverine's two lieutenants had joined the general mass exodus, using windows instead of the one door to make their escape.
Hissing, Rickkter then turned his attention to the panicked looking skunk crouched on the stone lip of the hearth as if waiting for the entire military might of Metamor to come crashing down on him. No small part of it was about to as Rickkter, growling more like an enraged animal than the man he had not so long ago been, advanced on the skunk.
Turning his head, Muri's eyes settled upon the advancing, black clad raccoon, and did not need his spirit sight to feel the magic gathering about him. That mage was about to unleash something on him, some spell so devastating that it would be lucky if there was a single fur left of him for Llyn to bury. He let out a startled chitter of fear, his musk entirely exhausted, so turned to the next best thing; his magic. Placing a hand upon the warm stone of the hearth's lip, he gave a short upward pull.
Both the raccoon and the only remaining patron nearby still on their feet, a fox, let out startled oaths as the floor heaved upward, bucking under their feet like an angry beast. Nahum was sent sprawling, while Rick merely seized the edge of the fireplace to steady himself. By the time the churning floor had stopped moving, though, the skunk was running. All the raccoon saw was the bright flicker of his white striped tail disappearing through one of the windows.
Charging across the room, Rick trod over the bawling form of the fat child who had fallen in his lap, scattering chairs and a couple of tables as he made for the window. Leaning on the sill, he saw the flicker of the skunk's tail as he ran across the avenue, making for the far corner of the Keep proper. With a short hiss of rage, the raccoon raised his hand and unleashed the spell he had meant to reduce the skunk with earlier, but was just a breath too late.
Stones scattered from the corner of the Keep as his spell crashed into them, blasting a broad, shallow slab of stone from the grey walls of Metamor Keep a heartbeat after the skunk darted out of sight. He was raising his foot to the sill of the window, intending to pursue his fleeing quarry, when he felt a pressure against one side of his throat.
That touch brought him to an immediate halt as he felt the prick of cold steel through the thick fur of his throat. Had his hackles not already been rigidly ruffed upright because of his current rage, the presumptuousness of this new opponent's touch would have had him bristling. As it was he felt like an enraged porcupine. He turned his mountain-leveling gaze on the grey wolf standing rock steady at the other end of that sword, staring at him with hard brown eyes. His look said more than his momentarily fled voice ever could, that 'I-may-have-missed-him-but-someone-else-will-gut-him' glare that should have sent any sane foe to seek another target.
The wolf, though, was unswayed. "Leave off 'im." He growled levelly, the tip of his sword unwavering. Rick knew that disarming the fool was a fifty-fifty proposition unless he used magic to flay him where he stood. In most circumstances he would have thought little about it, but the way the wolf was standing, his sword held at arm's length and unwavering despite the weight, and the posture of his body said a great deal. He knew a good bit about swords was one, and his posture said that he knew one, perhaps more, of the eastern martial techniques. His free hand was not raised in the artistic pose of a western light blade fighter, nor was it held in the superfluous tension that was required of a student under the tutelage of an eastern master. His pose was relaxed; all in all very experienced. One flick of that sword tip, a mere twitch of the snaggle-toothed wolf's wrist, would open Rick's throat from ear to ear.
Rick threw up his hands in a thwarted gesture and took a short step back, out of range of the sword's tip, his hot glare never leaving the wolf's calm, hard brown stare. Without even a nod the wolf stepped over the windowsill, dropped to the ground, and began jogging toward the corner around which the skunk had vanished. A rabid looking snarl plastered on his muzzle, Rick was turning to walk back to his table when he spotted another form standing irritatingly close. It was the reptile, Copernicus, a pool cue held in one hand as he stared down at the raccoon. Hanging from his other hand, limp as a sack of rotten potatoes, was the fat AR that had ruined a perfectly peaceful evening.
"This one accosted the skunk." Cope reported, his cold, immobile reptilian expression turning toward the child as he gave him a good, solid shake. The fat kid squeaked, blubbering, a thick yellow contrail of viscid smelling spittle trailing from his fat lips. The lizard stared balefully at the seemingly youthful Lord Aniris and shook his large head slowly, "Cause." He then looked up and waved one heavy, scaled arm at the slowly fading chaos of the now almost empty tavern, pointing with the length of us cue stick, "And effect." From the doorway Donny placed his heavy fists on his hips and just glared balefully at the few remaining patrons and the destruction caused by their overly hasty retreat.
Rick chuffed, cocking back one arm and gracing the AR with a stinging backhand just because it was somewhere he could vent his overweening frustration. He stank, mostly of that accursed skunk's spray, and some little because of the disgusting contents of the fat human's inverted stomach. Growling darkly, he stalked from the tavern, ignoring Andre's bellowing laughter and Kwaanza's higher pitched, piping titter. Standing in the center of the tavern, his tail draped over his muzzle, Nahum could only shake his head.
"I've *got* to write this down." He muttered through the thick fur of his tail, a nervous giggle escaping his muzzle, "I have got to write this."