Whistling quietly to himself under his breath, Murikeer wandered through the torch-lit hallways of Metamor Keep with his gaze focused upon the book held in one hand. He paid little heed to the passages through which he walked, using peripheral vision to guide him around anything that might get in the way. His end destination was Kwaanza's training ground where Llyn had once again taken up her duties as the shrew's secondary instructor. Muri had seen somewhat less of her since joining with the stern battle mage Rickkter in a loose partnership of teaching and learning. She had left a brief message at his door the day before wondering where he had taken himself to hiding of late, not knowing of his partnership with the raccoon mage. She had been on a short patrol and he had neglected to inform her.
His trip was a leisurely one, for he knew that Llyn would be at the same location for the better part of the morning, and possibly into the afternoon. His attention was focused more upon the book he held in one hand than on his direction or step, though he kept enough of his senses trained beyond the ancient, faded letters to keep himself from walking into others.
Not that there was much apparent worry on that score. His roundabout route was, thankfully, keeping him more or less away from the busier areas of the massive Keep. He could hear the distant, muted susurration of the plaza market and the harsher, guttural murmur of soldiers in training as little more than far off echoes. Occasionally a voice would issue from a room he wandered past, or a servant would scuttle by him on their appointed errands.
Hearing a voice raised in anger, though, brought his attention more to his surroundings, shattering the quiet contemplation of his reading as he looked up. He found himself standing just to one side of a shadowed intersection of narrow hallways. Doors stretched down either side of his passageway, with small nooks here and there near those doors denoting it to be some sort of residential passageway. Comfortably warm in decor and solitude, the passageway was nonetheless obviously meant for the less well-to-do, for there were no windows save one at the far end, nor even casements or the odd arrow loop.
The abutting corridor, on the other hand, was much wider, the stone floor insulated with a thin carpet of woven rush. Along one wall were tall, narrow casements facing the rising sun, which cast the entire passageway in a stark yellow light. The sun was high, on toward noon, casting the far side of the hallway in a somewhat softer light, which seemed like shadows to eyes used to the sunshine. Muri had been walking through interior passages with naught to stare his eyes save torches and his own witchlights where needed, so he was able to see the confrontation a score of paces away before either party noticed him.
Both were rather familiar to him, though each because of different circumstances. They both stood almost even in height, though one was willowy slender while the other boorishly stout. The slender party, a female that Muri had met once unknowing, and once to apologize for that first meeting, was cowering against the cold stone of a buttress. She had reached behind herself and clasped the stone and wrapped her tail around her slender legs as she stammered at the demands of her aggressor. The other, substantially more massive though perhaps something less than a hand shorter, was familiar to Muri in a most infamous way.
He appeared substantially different than he had at that first meeting, where Muri had only seen the cold, hateful leer of his round face over the lace and brocade of his expensive and ale soaked shirt. Since that brief meeting his hair had gone from dark brown to livid pine green and stuck up from his head like the fur of a startled cat. His skin had also assumed an amazingly alien hue. It was not longer the pale white of a pampered aristocrat. His face and hands looked like old, crusty stone or ash; grey dusted with white.
Pausing in the shadows at of the intersection, Muri simply waited and watched. He thought it best to let the lady extricate herself if she had the means. He'd learned from a rather feisty young lass from some distant place called Sondeshara that men should not march in where ladies can fend for themselves; it bred laziness in them if they had no understanding of their own strengths.
Of course, the land she had hailed from had a few different customs from either Pyralis or Sathmore. Or Metamor, for that matter.
"Where is the throne room?!" Aniris snarled at the female cornered before him, glaring up at her with eyes gone brilliant green to match his hair and grayish yellow skin. His fists were clenched tightly at his side, a scroll nearly crumpled beyond readability in one of them. He had been wandering the halls of this Gods cursed labyrinth for hours trying to track down the Duke or that green skinned lackey Thalberg to deliver his complaint. Not once had he seen hide nor hair of either party, or even their retainers, guards, servants... nothing!
"I do not know, sir." The rat before him whispered, her voice a harsh, inhuman rasp that grated upon his hearing. She had a totally animalistic stench about her that made his stomach turn; fur and cheese and homespun and lavender all interlaced in a heavy miasma that only added to the overall reek of the Keep. He was so angry, though, that he did not even bother to cover his nose with the pomander clasped around the scroll in his left hand, though he knew the perfumed oil was probably seeping into the fine leather of the document.
"What do you do here, woman?" he growled, sounding almost animal himself for a moment.
"I work in the Duke's kitchens." She offered quietly, not meeting his hard gaze. Her whiskers were drawn back against her long muzzle, teeth barely glimpsed as she whispered her response at him. He refused to notice the tail wrapped like a skinned snake around one of her legs, the tip twitching at the hem of her simple skirt of homespun cotton.
"Where is the Duke's kitchen, then!?" he barked, leaning forward abruptly, bearing his face close to hers. She might be taller than he was, but she certainly knew her place when facing a noble. She cowered, which was as should be.
Not moving her hands away from the pillar behind her, she angled her head slightly to one side, "That way, sir, but I could not tell you." She glanced down at her feet, noticing briefly how her splayed, claw tipped paws differed from his small, dark blue leather boots. "The path is never the same day to day."
"Gods be damned castle!" Aniris grumbled in general, his eyes narrowing as he looked up from the very same examination of his boots and her paws. Curious thoughts tumbled through his head as his eyes came back up, slowly, to meet the gleaming dark pebbles at served as the rat lady's eyes. How much really did change when they went animal, after all? He glanced briefly down toward either end of the passageway, seeing only shadows at one end, and an empty courtyard at the other. Taking a short step forward, he leered up at her, one corner of his small mouth drawn up in a sneer, "Then you can just show me then." He said, his voice suddenly deceptively calm as he brought up his free hand toward her upper arm.
Moving purely by reaction, the female rat brought her hand up and across, shoving his grasping arm wide as she shimmied sideways away from him, leaving the security of the stone at her back. Aniris cursed under his breath as his arm was thrust aside. "Yashua's balls girl!" he roared, the frustration of the past five hours finally shattering as he crushed the pomander into a dripping mess in his hand, "You damned vermin are going to be my end!" he threw his arms up in a futile gesture of impotent rage, "That skunk near destroys half that damned tavern of yours, and the watch commander takes the costs from my own coffers! Then that damned alchemist of yours poisons me!" he waved his free hand at his appearance, the blue of his surcoat clashing badly with the brilliant green of his eyes or the darker green of his hair. "That overblown stud you call a lord is going to hear of these injustices if I have to beat a path to his chamber doors!" he turned on the rat, who had been trying to creep down the wall away from him during his tirade, his hand flashing up and back as if to strike her with his open palm.
His strike halted at the nadir of his swing, nearly turning him about when he surged against the staying force in the attempt to strike her. He glanced back over his shoulder at the owner of the tight, uncompromising grasp upon his wrist and gave a startled squeak, the rage suddenly draining out of his face as the taller skunk glowered down at him. The tall, darkly furred keeper's whiskers were drawn back in anger as he gave the short, fat human a full measure of the teeth snarling down upon him.
"You will strike no one of this Keep, little fat lord." Muri chuffed harshly as he released Aniris' wrist, thrusting him away as he strode past him to stand between the angry noble and the startled lady. His tail lashed angrily back and forth behind him, the fur bristled out and making it seem twice its normal size. The fur of his shoulders was similarly ruffled, though the effect was only to make his shirt fill out slightly.
Aniris dropped pomander and ruined scroll as he rubbed his abused wrist, pointing an accusatory finger at Murikeer. "YOU!" he screamed, tears the color of brandy spilling down ashen gray cheeks, "You're the cause of ALL of this! You paid no heed to where you waved that bedeviled stick around, and sprayed me because of your own incompetence!" he kicked the scroll savagely, scented oils leaving brief traces on the cool stone as it tumbled away. "You left me there to be beaten like a common peasant by that ring-tailed beast!" he pointed at the dark swelling across the left side of his face, which was almost invisible because of the strange coloration Pascal's unguents had left his skin. "I nearly died because of you!"
Muri stood still for a few moments as he listened to the case being leveled against him, arms crossed behind his chest as he glared at the fuming human. He did not glance back at the rat, his ears telling him she had not fled. "Your scroll said as much?" he grunted, hooking one finger toward the discarded document without unfolding his arms.
Glaring across at it, Aniris nodded, "You will stand before a magistrate and answer for the assault you delivered upon me, as will that hellspawned raccoon!" he stormed over and reached down to snatch up the wrinkled statement, "I'll have the tavernkeep and that lying lizard before justice as well!"
Muri canted his head to one side and cut a very narrow grin at the short, rotund human, "Upon whose testimony?"
"MINE!" Aniris screamed, hammering his chest with his hand, affronted by the very imaginings of this upstart creature gainsaying his word, that of a lord of the very lands that supported the kingdom.
Muri chuffed once, quietly, then shook his head. "If you can go anywhere to give your statement, then I'll turn myself in willingly." He said quietly, pointing to the floor at Aniris' feet.
Looking down, Aniris gasped suddenly, his voice breaking into a childish wail as he found himself standing at the precipice of a yawning abyss. Windmilling his arms, he managed to keep himself from toppling forward into the chasm. Even the female rat, standing safely several paces behind the skunk, let out a startled gasp. He tried to take a step back, but noticed that the abyss was behind him as well.
He stood upon a long, precarious pillar jutting up from one wall of the abyss, small particles of shattered tile falling even as he watched. From across the chasm Muri clucked his tongue against the roof of his muzzle, shaking his head as he stood upon the very bring of a disastrous fall with complete aplomb.
Unfolding his arms, Muri wandered to one side and picked up a long beam that had fallen from the ceiling when the floor that had held it up disappeared into the gulf. Laying it carefully across the narrowest part of the abyss, he propped it upon the slender spire upon which Aniris stood, ashen gray face gone as pale as it could. "Lord Aniris, if you would hold still for a moment, I'll help you." He said as, without a single moment of hesitation or apparent fear, walked the length of the teetering plank and came to stand before the shorter, much more rotund child.
Digging into a pocket, he drew out a pale blue stick that had been sharpened at one end. Placing one hand upon the child's head, he poised the pencil before his brow, "Please be still, this beam is not as balanced as it looks." He muttered as he touched Aniris' brow with the tip of the pencil.
It was a simple grease pencil, which Muri had crafted a few days after starting lessons with Rickkter. It allowed him to draw his practice runes with much more accuracy than a mere peace of ungainly chalk could do, and there was little risk of it breaking half way through a complex symbol. Digging the tips of his claws into the child lord's scalp, he pulled his lips back, baring his teeth as he traced intricate symbols in a focused circle upon Aniris' forehead.
For his part Aniris merely stood there, eyes closed as he grasped at Muri's forearm. His legs shook as if with palsy, but he managed to remain standing in place, his entire body radiating a tense fear. He knew that at any moment the pillar would give way, or Muri would slip, or the board would break. Something, some small moment of incaution, was going to see him dashed like a melon upon the rocks below.
He paid no heed to the cool touch of the pencil upon the flesh of his forehead, nor when the skunk began tracing different designs upon the lids of his eyes, or the upper curves of his cheeks just below his eyes. For those long minutes he was more than willing to suffer the indignities this skunk had to offer just so long as he closed the yawning gulf before him, or helped him across the plank if closing the earth was beyond his skill.
A mage that could open the earth at a whim deserved a great deal of respect, no matter if he looked like an overgrown animal or the Magister himself.
Eventually the skunk did finish his humiliating drawing and step away, releasing Aniris' head from the rather painful clutch of his long claws. He did not, though, tender any assistance toward getting Aniris from the tiny island of tile that was all that remained of his section of the passageway.
Steeling himself, the short, fat child opened one eye and looked down.
At first he could only gasp, for the chasm was still there.
But then again, it was not. He could see the yawning depths, but it looked as if the chasm was under a thin layer of mist that looked a great deal like intricately pattered tile. Even as he watched the chasm faded and the tile became more substantial, until it dominated his view. Looking up, he glared at the skunk who was once more standing a few paces away and staring at him.
"What did you do, beast?" he growled as he raised his hand and rubbed at his forehead, determined to rid himself of whatever indignity the skunk had visited upon him with his drawing.
Muri shrugged one shoulder, "I used a rather simple illusion, that is all." He offered.
Aniris opened his mouth to argue, but found himself unable to refute the truth of the skunk's statement. He could only glower. Bending down, he picked up his dropped document once again, "The Duke will hear about this as well." He hissed as he waved the damaged scroll toward the skunk and the rat standing slightly behind and to one side of him. Muri shrugged and nodded, then suddenly stepped forward, arms unfolding from his chest.
Aniris raised his hands in a futile attempt to ward off the skunk's assault, but could do little as the scruff of his expensive velvet surcoat was seized in strong hands. His feet nearly left the floor as he was shoved forward by the growling beast, only to be jerked up short by the hand on his collar when he tried to fight free. Dragging the struggling, cursing bundle of overweight, age-regressed aristocrat across the passageway, Muri yanked open the first door he came too and shoved him into the dimness of the room beyond, then slammed it shut and shot the bolt.
Strange as it seemed, the bolt was on the outside of the door rather than the inside.
Brushing his hands together, he turned and walked back across the hallway. He smiled as he came to stand before the startled female rat, and sketched a deep bow.
"Milady Kimberly, it is nice to be seeing you this fine morning." He murred in the best courtier drawl he knew. She blinked and stared at him as he came out of his bow, her hand clutched at the bodice of her gown. His sudden change came as yet another startlement to her, and she found herself momentarily at a loss for words. Her ears turned forward, unfolding from their pinned position upon her head as she swallowed. She let her whiskers relax, seeing them unfold from either side of her muzzle in the periphery of her vision like a small army if miniature pikemen raising for an assault. "I had meant to seek you out." He continued as he stepped up and offered his arm, "For I do have a debt I owe you."
Kimberly merely looked at his arm for a few breaths before suddenly realizing herself and unclasped her hands from her gown. Placing the tips of her fingers along his forearm, she looked up into the warm smile crossing his angular muzzle. "A debt, sir?"
He chuckled as he turned and began walking, gently urging her along. "Muri, milady, I'm merely an man, no lord." He affirmed as he reached across to pat the back of her hand. They both paused for a moment and glanced back as a muffled scream came to their ears, accompanied by the brilliant coruscation of shattering glass. Smiling, Muri nodded to himself as they resumed their walk, "I broke one of your possessions, lady, and had intended to see what it was to see if I might repair it. If not, to replace it."
Kimberly glanced down at her feet, consciously willing her tail to unwind itself from her leg as she tried to relax. The fat AR's assault had left her badly shaken, and the sudden hole in the middle of the keep floor had been almost too much to bear. "T'was a perfume bottle only, Muri." She offered quietly, biting he lower lip as she fought down the urge to nibble on something. At that moment the fur of her own arm looked enticing, but she refrained. Better to wait until she got to the kitchens and could make use of a bit of kindling.
Placing his hand proprietarily upon her knuckles, he nodded slowly, "A perfume bottle indeed, is a no small indulgence. And then the perfume itself."
"There was no perfume in it." She interrupted quietly as they turned across the courtyard at the end of the passageway. In the distance behind them came another thin wail and the muffled tinkle of shattering glass. She looked up as she sensed Muri's change in posture, meeting the warm gaze of his dark, animalistic eyes. Much like hers, or Charles' own eyes, with the same depths of intelligence there; of humanity.
"What wonderful scent had you intended, if I might ask?"
She shook her head, shrugging one shoulder slightly as she looked away, unable to hold his gaze, "I... I do not know." She looked back over her shoulder, "What did you do to him?"
Muri raised his head to follow her gaze, nibbling the inside of his lower lip for a moment before answering, "I gave him himself." Kimberly could only scowl at the cryptic response, which made him smile. Sometimes magic lent one to be enigmatic when mystery was not needed. "I drew the jhanz rune upon his forehead, the rune of truth. I added malhor to that, the 'eyes of a stranger' as it were. So, while he wears both runes he will see the truth of himself as if through the eyes of a stranger." He stepped forward to open a door as they came to it, letting her precede him through it into the warm shadows of a service hallway. The smells of activity were stronger here, a mingled pot-pouri of mingled animal and human scents that was overwhelming to the senses of the unknowing, but welcome to those at ease with the feelings of calm familiarity they engendered.
The scents gave him a feeling of hominess despite the massive edifice around him, like the smell of an old barn or farmhouse. "As for the hole in the ground, well, that was merely an illusion."
Kimberly chuffed a breath through her nose, "A very good one."
Muri quirked one corner of his muzzle up in a grin as his whiskers twitched. His tail swayed amiably behind him as he nodded, "Your compliment flatters me, madamme."
"What will happen to him?"
"That... well, is up to him I guess." Muri shrugged. He had no idea what seeing himself would do to the arrogant child lord. It might drive him to any manner of extremes. One thing was certain though; he would not be the same when he came out of that room. "I don't think Kyia would allow any harm to come to him, despite his intentions."
Kimberly only nodded as they turned a corner, looking up as two others came into their view. Her muzzle opened in a delighted smile as she recognized the two other keepers approaching them. One was a rat, his fur a pale brown, garbed in loose leggings and a simple leather jerkin edged with black. His head was turned slightly as he spoke to the taller keeper walking with him. Much taller and more slender than a rat, the ferret stopped a pace before the rat did, having seen the skunk and female rat several seconds before Kimberly's bright voice echoed down the hallway and caught the male rat's ears. "Charles!" she piped energetically as she fairly leapt toward the other rat.
Muri's steps came to a stop as he was released, his eyes quickly appraising the rat and the taller, yellow clad ferret at his side. Both carried slender wooden staves which looked somewhat odd to Muri, their balance different than a simple quarterstaff. Judging from the tousled condition of the ferret's fur, and the male rat's slight but noticeable limp, they were just returning from a morning practice session. Muri nodded his head slowly as the ferret's eyes met his, a brief challenge met and accepted before his attention was turned toward the happy greetings of the two rodents.
Hugging his lady to his side, Charles rubbed the fur of his cheek against her own in warm greeting for a moment before his eyes focused on Kimberly's escort standing at the corner. He could smell a small bit of fear lingering about her, but not immediate. She had been quite glad to see him, showing almost a certain degree of relief over her normal welcome. She released him after several long seconds, her tail finding and twining about his own.
"Well met, Murikeer." Charles offered coolly with a brief nod at the skunk, who nodded in return, watching the rat as if unsure of his next action. Their first greeting, after Charles' return from the raid on some northern keep, had been brief, and strained when the rat had learned that a minor injury suffered by his Kimberly had been the skunk's responsibility.
"Charles, Muri helped me." She chided, cuffing him lightly on the shoulder with one hand as she noticed his less than warm reception, "A disgusting little gray man nearly assaulted me in the corridor because he could not find his way around the Keep."
Charles' whiskers drew back against his muzzle for a moment as he scowled, his attention drawn away from the skunk for a moment, "Gray man?" he churred curiously. That phrase was something he would never have expected to hear from his love's lips. Gray men were assassins!
Kimberly, not knowing his thoughts, merely nodded and sighed, resting her head upon his shoulder, "Yes. I guess one of Pascal's potions went down wrong."
Charles coughed a brief laugh as he nodded, much reassured by that simple statement, "When don't they." He muttered, more a statement than a question. He turned his gaze back toward Muri, who had not moved as he watched the pair. "I guess I owe you a debt of gratitude, Muri." He offered, extending his hand. Taking a few short steps, Muri accepted the preferred hand and shook it briefly.
"There is no debt owed, sir." The skunk replied warmly, clasping the rat's hand firmly before releasing it, "I was lucky to have come along."
"Tell me who this gray man was." Charles muttered as he looked at his hand for a moment. Something about the skunk was certainly magical, that was for sure. Almost sondeckis, but not quite. The magic was right in some ways, but different in all the ways that mattered. A true mage, but one who's powers were very similar to the inward focus of Charles and Garigan.
Muri waved a dismissive hand, "He's been dealt with most effectively. I'm sure Kyia will watch over your lovely princess and see that their paths never cross again within her walls."
Kimberly tittered as Charles tightened his arm across her shoulder momentarily, smiling at the skunk's compliment. "Then I'll take your word on that then. You are new come to Metamor, I know. It's nice to know that there are still outsiders coming in to fill our ranks."=09
"I was changed long before I came to actually settle here." Muri amended as he fell into step opposite the tall ferret. They four walked slowly down the passageway, the quiet click of their claws lost in the background murmur of castle life, only their voice and the sharp raps of the staves held by the ferret and rat announcing their presence. "I was studying magic down in Sathmore until the change came upon me."
"You were not changed by the curse?" the ferret asked, his harsh voice cutting into the conversation for the first time. Muri turned his attention to the taller mustelid and shook his head slowly.
"Oh no, I was affected by the curse, but I was very young when I was cursed, so it did not manifest until I was older."
"Beyond Metamor is not a good place to change, I'd wager." The ferret replied before smoothly stepping ahead of Charles and Kimberly to open a door. He let everyone through before allowing it to swing slowly shut behind them.
Muri chuffed and nodded, "Not indeed. I was hounded by hunters for almost a year, until I made it over the mountains and onto the Giant Downs."
Charles glanced aside at him, "You made it through a pass in the mountains? You did not go through Metamor?"
"Not so much a pass, but yes, a lower area among the peaks. It was difficult going." Muri shrugged as he rubbed at the fur of his forearm momentarily, chasing out a small knot, "As for Metamor, well, I figured they would be just like any other human kingdoms."
"The stories they tell in the south are really as bad as that?" Charles asked.
"Stories?" Muri looked quizzically at him, "I've not heard anything of Metamor save what my father told me."
"The stories told by traveling minstrels, of deamons and beasts and dark magic." Charles reiterated.
Muri shook his head, moving behind their small group as a boisterous mob of soldiers walked past. The score of heavily armoured Keepers consisted mostly of brawny, statuesque men and Amazonian women with a few strong animals thrown into the mix. The close proximity of that many burly, armed humans nearly made Muri flee, but there was no where to go. They were in a short passage with no where to go except back, which would have put him out in front of the group and made him an easy target.
He jumped when he felt a touch upon his forearm, and glanced down to find Charles looking at him closely, whiskers twitching. "Humans hounded you pretty severely, didn't they?"
Taking in a long breath, Muri nodded, letting it hiss out through his nose. "That's what caused the entire incident at the Mule. I was attacked by a human."
"The same human that almost struck me, Charles." Kimberly offered softly as she placed the tips of her fingers against Muri's upper arm consolingly. Only Garigan stood off a few paces, watching quietly. The ferret glanced over his shoulder at the backs of the soldiers.
"There'll be a lot more here in a couple weeks." He pointed out before turning back to them. "Harvest fest is in two weeks. Will have the entire valley here."
Muri quailed, the fur of his tail pulling tight at the prospect of a few thousand more humans to contend with.
"Sequestering yourself in your rooms will do little good, I'm afraid." Charles offered as they resumed their walk. The warm scents of fresh cooking came to their noses, setting four whiskered muzzles a-twitch as they inhaled the heady aromas. "And if you're a mage then you'll want to be at the library, which is quite popular that time of year. It's the only place educated Matamorans can acquire new reading material for the winter."
"Glen Avery." Muri said suddenly as he passed Garigan, who was holding another door for them. The loud bustle of a feast-hall met their ears as the door was opened, the scents of keepers and food rolling over them like a morning mist. "There's an Inn up there that would give me a room for a few days."
"Glen Avery's my home." Garigan offered as the door slowly swung shut behind him. "Nice place."
Muri nodded slowly in agreement as they followed the rat and his lady across the hall toward two massive tables set with an amazing assortment of different foods. The first held drinks and vegetarian fare while the second was laid with breads and meats both cooked and raw. "What could you tell me of it?" he asked the ferret quietly, "I only saw it for a brief time on my way through."
A bright smile creased the ferret's furry muzzle and his whiskers
twitched as he began to regale the skunk with the many tales of Glen