Dancing with Shadows

by Charles Matthias

It was not an unusual sight to see somebody leaving the library with a book under each arm. But when that person was Habakkuk, it was always a humorous sight. The kangaroo's arms were much too short to easily carry tomes in that fashion, and Charles found himself chuckling as he watched his friend perilously set one large foot before the other.

However, when both of the books had been dropped to the ground, frightening a small flock of birds in the trees overhead causing them to scatter into the clear blue sky, Charles felt compelled to assist his friend.

The books must have been old, for several of the pages had fallen out when they'd struck the cobblestones. The rat morph quickly approached and helped shuffle the pages back into the old musty leather bound grimoires.

"Thanks, Charles, but I can take it from here," Habakkuk tried to snatch the volume from the rodent's paws, but of course, trying to out muscle him was a futile gesture.

Charles had noticed the title of the book. It was not the words that caught his attention, but the scripting. "Can you actually read this?" he asked curiously, pointing with one claw to the arcane letters.

Zhypar nodded after a moment. "Yes, it is one of the few books of Southern Origin the library still has. Apparently, it had been caught behind a shelf and was missing for the last few years. I found it today while scouring the histories."

Charles grimaced. Despite what he already knew of the roo, this was an even more startling revelation. "How did you learn to read this?"

"My father taught me."

"And how did your father know?"

"His father taught him."

Charles handed the book over at last, gnashing his teeth together. He pulled out his chewstick and immediately began to relieve the tension that was building in him.

"Thanks for the help," Habakkuk stacked the two books on top of each other, and carried them in front of him easily. Almost effortlessly in fact. Charles could not help notice it.

Still, he could not let it bug him. The whole thing was probably a coincidence. After all, if Charles knew the special script of Marzac, why not Habakkuk? Still, seeing those old runes disturbed him greatly.

However, there were other affairs that he simply had to attend to today. The growing mysteries around his friend would have to wait. For instance, he had an appointment with Wessex that he was already late to. His visit with Will Hardy had taken longer than expected.

When Charles finally did arrive at the mage child's room, he found it to be quite disturbing. Affixed all over his work bench were drawings of the same symbol, over and over again. It was a red shield in which was inscribed a hand. In the palm of that hand was a white sword. Charles put his paw over his chest as he stared at it in utter shock.

"Ah, Charles, glad you could make it. I see you've noticed my current problem." Wessex came up from behind him as if from nowhere. "And I can tell that you've seen it before. What is it?"

The rat realized that he had been tricked quite cleverly by the young mage. "It is the symbol for one of the mage clans of the South. Which one exactly I cannot tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because I do not know which one it belongs to," Charles replied.

Wessex nodded, pulling one of the drawings down. "I drew this from memory, because it was my only link with the man who was behind Loriod if you recall. Zagrosek was his name. You said that was southern, and that this is southern. It seems we have an enemy to the south now."

"He could be disenfranchised from his order," Charles proposed. "Most of the southern mage clans care nothing for what happens in the north. From what I know, they prefer to fight among each other. This one may have lost interest, and joined up with Nasoj for all we know."

"That is a possibility I had considered. But also, I recently came into possession of a very interesing book that your kangaroo friend, Habakkuk had possessed."

"Habakkuk?" Charles was dumbfounded. What hadn't he stuck his long snout into lately?

"Yes, it was written in an archaic tongue, but what I have translated doesn't seem to mean much other than to describe the symbol itself. A hand stained white from a sword. What could that mean?"

"The stained hand brings the dark cloud," Charles whispered quietly to himself, remembering yet again another line from that poem he'd read only a week ago.

"What was that?"

"Nothing, what were you saying?"

Wessex turned back to the emblem and began tracing his fingers across it. "Well, as you know, heraldic symbols describe things about the wearer. The presence of both a shield and a sword on this emblem give me the impression that whatever order he belonged to, it was designed to both defend and attack.

"Now, a hand usually represents power. Either their power came through their hands, or they possessed power over others, be it political or otherwise. I don't know enough about the southern lands to say, and since Loriod burned most of the books on the south, I guess I'll never know."

Charles shrugged. "Like I said, I don't know which one this represents. Ordinary people usually do not get caught up in such affairs. I think you can rule out the elemental mage groups though, each of those have their element marked into the emblem. Very easy to tell."

Wessex considered the words and then nodded once. "That makes sense. Will you tell me if you remember anything else?"

"Absolutely," Charles lied. "I'll let you know if I find anything out either."

Wessex smiled, and patted Charles on the arm. "Thanks! I'm glad we have you on our team now."

Charles chuckled. "Don't thank me yet, wait till you here what I find out."

"Of course, well, good day then!"

"Good day to you as well!" Charles called out as he left the mage in his room with his drawings and other imponderables. Taking a deep breath, the rat made his way out of the hall, and ran down the steps two at a time. He pulled out his chew stick, bit it in half, and then tossed it aside.

Stopping momentarily in his room to grab another one, he ran all the way down to the Deaf Mule, nearly knocking over a few people in the process. Once there he played a little bit of pool by himself and against whoever who challenge him. Charles lost a good number of games, but at the very least they gave him something to do.

The afternoon stretched on into evening, and soon many of the regulars began to find their way to the Mule. When the trio of Nahum, Tallis, and Zhypar showed up to take their evening meal, it occured to the rat that he had nearly wasted the entire day here. However, there was nothing to be done for it now. Sitting down with his friends, he ordered his own meal, asking for a slice of chicken to supplement his bread and soup.

"So," Nahum said as he grinned from ear to ear, "I hear that Alacious beat you at pool today."

Charles nodded after biting off a hunk of the bread. The gerbil had beat him, which was only a sign of his inattentiveness. "Yes, he did. What of it?"

"Oh nothing. Just wondering if the great Charles Matthias is losing his touch?" Nahum prodded.

Charles chuckled lightly, glaring over at the kangaroo before returning his attention to the fox. "No, just an unlucky day. How have you all been?"

"Oh, doing fine," Nahum replied.

Tallis then grinned mischievously. "Which means that he didn't get beaten up today from running his mouth."

Nahum smacked Tallis in the back of the head with one paw, and then took a drink from his mazer, and let out a hearty laugh. "You silly rat!"

Tallis shrugged as he drunk from his own decanter. "I had an eminently boring day. I did run into that newcomer, Rikkter, swapping overblown stories with Misha though. I'm not sure which of them is the worse liar!"

"I think you might find that neither of them exaggerate as much as it seems," Habakkuk remarked glibly.

"How would you know?" Matthias asked pointedly. He wanted to kick himself for letting a bit of his frustration slip over into his voice.

Zhypar shurgged. "I haven't met him, but from what I've heard, he does not seem the sort that needs to exaggerate. Have you met him yet?"

Charles shook his head. "I've been awfully busy of late."

"Playing pool, we know," Nahum chided.

After taking a drink from his soup, Charles continued. "Ay any rate, I've been too busy to greet him, I would like to though." Habakkuk shook his head for a moment, and returned to his drink, a move that only made the rat wonder more. "So, are any of you going to submit a story for the Summer Solstice writing contest?"

After another hour of simple chatting, the Mule began to get quite crowded. As he did have some stories to read still, Charles had to excuse himself earlier than he would have liked to. Habakkuk also got up, saying that he had to get back to his studies, mentioning a certain tome that he'd found in the library. Charles did not say a word then, but waited till they were both outside the Inn.

It was a rather nice evening outside; the sun was dipping below the mountains to the west, and the sky was a brilliant mix of oranges and reds. There was a gentle breeze in the cool air, and Charles rather enjoyed the feel of it upon his fur. Yet, he only had a moment alone to spend with the weather before Habakkuk finally emerged from the large oaken doors.

"What are you up to, Zhypar?" Charles accosted him in a dangerously cold voice. The kangaroo stood stock still at hearing the rat's voice. After a moment he turned about clumsily on his large feet, and gave Matthias a confused stare.

"I don't know what you mean?"

"You damn well do," Charles snarled. "You promised me you wouldn't tell anyone. What was the idea of giving Wessex that book on magic clans of the South? And where did you get it anyway?"

Zhypar shook his head. "Charles, I did what I had to do. I was a trader by profession before coming here, and ancient texts were a specialty of mine. I have had it ever since I arrived here."

"I never saw it in your quarters."

The kangaroo rocked his ears a moment. "There are many things people have not seen in my quarters. Or yours for that matter." He leaned back on his large tail a moment, and crossed his arms. "I have not broken my promise to you. But one way or another, you are going to have to reveal who you are to those who can help you."

"And you are trying to force me to, aren't you?"

"I'm just trying to make sure that when the time comes, you make the right decision. And the time will come."

"How do you know?"

Habakkuk stood silently for a minute and then he began to almost hop away. "Good night, Charles."

"How do you know!" Charles shouted after him, but, balling up his paws into fists, he stormed off in the opposite direction towards his own apartments. The rat tried to keep a calm outward demeanor, but still most people got out of his way quite quickly.

As he stepped into his own room, he slammed his fist on his dresser, causing a huge crack to split it down the middle. He'd need it repaired again. Charles paced about for a few minutes, before finally the truth of what the kangaroo said struck him. He would have to admit it sometime.

Grimacing, he kneeled down next to the stone wall, and pressed his palm against a particular block. It quite smoothly slid out of the way, revealing a small cache that had not been opened in almost six years. Reaching inside the blackness Charles pulled out a small bundle of black cloth.

He sat down upon the floor, his tail curling about his paws. Placing the black cloth in his lap, he began to unfold the robes, till he saw it. The insignia sewn into the midnight fabric was of a red shield, with a hand in the center, and inside the hand was a white sword.

Charles traced his claws over it, and wept.

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"Dancing with Shadows", copyright Charles Matthias