by Charles Matthias

chapter 1

Jessica was circling through the sky in the middle of September when she saw the wagon emerge from the wooded road to Lorland, and start upon the rise to Metamor Keep. She'd been circling through the air a lot this last week, usually alone, though once or twice Weyden had accompanied her. Wessex's sudden departure that day had left the hawk uneasy. The note that had returned from Lorland the next day, indicating that Wessex would be there for several days more, had worried her more. After what she had seen him do the morning of his egress, had made those dreams and nightmares he had spoken of in hushed whispers after extracting vows of her silence become truly real for her.

When flying, she found that for a brief time, she could escape those worries, and enter into a different world. Up above the battlements, towers, hutches, and homes she could truly be alone without fear of anyone. Not only did her wings free her from earthly bounds, but it also freed her from every worry that she drenched her life in. The boy magician was her mentor, and now the only one in her life that could be a father to her. Wessex was a hard teacher, but he loved his students more than anything else.

Banking on one wing to peer closer at the hide-covered wagon, she gazed down into the raised seat. Though she was at least ten times higher in the air than the largest tower at the Keep, she could see them as clearly as she could if they were only a few ells away. It was Rupert, Prince Phil's simian aide. These days, his Highness never went anywhere without the Great Ape, and so she knew the rabbit was nestled inside the wagon, somewhere out of sight. With a quickening of her heart, Jessica reasoned that Wessex could be there too.

Spiralling back towards the Keep itself, Jessica tried to compose her thoughts. In the week since Wessex had gone to Lorland, she had watched that wall where the Symphony had been drawn carefully. No perturbations marred its surface, and no mysterious castings were to be seen on it though. In fact, it appeared to be just like any other portion of the Keep, completely innocuous. The only unsettling aspect it possessed was its presence. Given the Keep's tendency to move halls about as needed, its existence was a reminder of what had once been there, and was still locked in place.

The remainder of Wessex's students were unaware of the dire circumstances surrounding that passageway. Her master had infrom her perched her to tell them that he had a bit of magical business to take care of at Lorland, some unexpected incident that had cropped up and needed his attention. They were not to worry, he would be back in good time. And so they had continued to practice their arts, at least the ones that he allowed them to practice without his personal supervision. Jessica could not bring herself to bear the façade of calm though. So instead, she flew.

The weather had certainly been nice for it this last week. The first chill of Autumn had filled the air, but with her thick feathers, she'd hardly noticed. The trees though were beginning to change colours. Bright yellows and pinpricks of red could be seen among the hundreds of shades of green, though to the north, the firs and pines maintained their supply of needles. Though she was not so perceptive as the mammals, the scents of many of the Keepers coming into season was also filling the air, not to mention the native fauna. Excitement for the upcoming Autumnal Equinox Festival was also present. However, Jessica did not share the sentiments of her fellow Metamorians, at least not until she had seen that wagon.

Gliding through the crisp air, Jessica slowly began circling back in to the Keep proper, her eyes always straying to that wagon as it made its way towards the gates. It was making good time, and the hawk figured that she would be able to return to Wessex's apartment at least a good five minutes before the boy was able to reach there. That would give her enough time to make sure that everything was in order in the wizard's rooms.

Her thoughts were a jumble of various chores that might be needed, to all the things she wanted to ask him when she first saw him. Hopefully, none of the other students would be in the workshop, that way they could speak freely of matters dark. Had Wessex been able to find solace from those nightmares at Lorland? Had they grown more fearsome when he returned to that nexus of evil influence Loriod had brought? Too many questions, and not enough answers, Jessica realized. It was entirely possible that even if he did reveal all that he knew to her that she would still have many doubts left.

When her claws finally skidded across the stonework of the tower she knew was closest to Wessex's rooms, her mind snapped back to the world around her. As always, the euphoria of flight ebbed from her spirit as she rested her wings against her back, gravity once more dictating the course of her path. The lone guard overlooking the parapet nodded to her, his ermine coat shimmering in the early afternoon sun. She squawked an abrupt reply, her wingtips jittering the last of the flight out. Then, after the soldier turned to watch the horizon once more, the jagged line of mountains resplendent in the late Summer atmosphere, Jessica climbed down the wide staircase, hopping along on her talons till she was inside the castle proper.

As she'd hoped, the workshop was empty and dark. With a short incantation, she lit the braziers along each wall of the apartments. The wicks flashed with a bright spark, and then settled into a lazy glow. In Wessex's absence, Jessica had taken the initiative to have the floors swept, and the furniture dusted and inspected for any damage. His bed sheets were all washed anew, though some of the more grievously stained had to be burned. She was thankful that none of them had been from his inheritance, as she could not have afforded to replace them.

She came into his personal bedchambers, and gazed idly into the flickering scarlet candle set upon the ivory stanchion. Leaning against the damask lounge, she draped one wing over the smooth velvet, rubbing her short claws-tips across its surface. It was the closest she could come to holding anything in her hands anymore. Though her long black talons served remarkably well in that capacity, they were no substitute for what she had lost. Yet Wessex, her mentor, who had lost all of his family, had done his best to help her focus her powers in a new direction, one that she could use with her avian from her perch. He had always been a source of strength for her, and it wasn't until now that it dawned upon her how she had come to depend on that.

Turning away from the light, she wished her thoughts would turn as well. At least now she also had Weyden, a fellow hawk who had become a good friend in such a short time. He could make her laugh as he tried to get his new body to work right. She suspected that he deliberately messed up because he knew she thought it was funny. But in the end, Jessica found that she liked that he did that for her. Just the other day, they'd flown together up over the plains south of Metamor and he'd attempted to snatch a small rodent from a field of freshly harvested grain. Instead of snatching the critter in his talons, he'd plowed into the ground right before it. Weyden had not hurt himself too terribly, though the bruises along his thighs showed beneath the chartreuse feathers. They'd flown back to the Keep, laughing the whole way, the soldier in Yonson's service making light of his inexperience the entire trip.

The sound of voices in the hallway outside broke her from her pleasant reverie, and she stumbled out into the passage, her talons scraping at the masonry beneath her. Rupert was standing beneath the main transom carrying a load of richly decorated garments, while Wessex and Phil were chatting just inside the sitting room doorway. They noticed the hawk immediately.

"Ah, Jessica! I'm glad to see you," Wessex smiled, his dimples beaming. "I wondered who'd lit all the candles. How long have you been waiting here?"

"Just a few minutes," she said in a shrill cry. Of course, they were all used to her voice now. "I saw your wagon approaching the Keep, so wanted to have everything ready for you when you returned, master."

"Thank you, it looks like you had the place cleaned as well!" Wessex noted, wiping his thumb across a small decorative table resting against the wall.

"I thought you might like to have it clean for you. I didn't know when you were coming back."

Phil waggled his ears in delight as he gazed across the well-kept rooms. "You do make your teacher proud, Jessica."

"Thank you, your Highness." She was not much around nobility, though most at Metamor did not flaunt it as in other countries. It was awfully hard to feel proud of your bloodline when you were part animal.

"Phil, please," the rabbit asked, his eyes bright, obviously not offended, but a little unsettled, by the title.

Rupert held out the garments to the boy questioningly, and Wessex gave a short report, as if he had just recalled something very important. "Oh, put those in the workshop for now. I'll find a place for them later. Thank you!"

"What are those?" Jessica asked as she watched the great ape amble past her and into the room with the large slate floor.

Phil gave Wessex a quick look, so quick, the hawk barely noticed it. But, being an avian, those quick motions were obvious to her. Wessex smiled brightly and shook his head, "Part of what I was doing at Lorland. I'm just tying up a few loose ends, that's all."

Phil then hopped back towards the door. "I ought to check in on my duties. I'm sure my desk is piled with Writer's Guild business by now!"

"Thank you again for all your help, Phil!" Wessex waved his small hand towards the rabbit, who returned the gesture as best he could with his paw, and then hopped out the door, the great ape silently following along behind. Wessex breathed a sigh of relief, and then slowly closed the door to his apartments, the thick oak barely making a sound as the lock clicked into place.

"Are you all right, master? You were gone for a week, and you never sent word."

Wessex nodded slightly, motioning for her to join him in the sitting room. Though she could not sit in the finely upholstered satin chairs he kept here, the boy pulled out a small ottoman that she could perch on. The fabric had been torn from the crossbeams when Nasoj's army razed the ard'Kapler manor at Mycransburg seven years ago, so the wizard used it for those who would unintentionally destroy his finer collections.

Jessica knew it was meant to make her feel more comfortable, and so hopped upon the single solid crossbeam, holding to it tightly in her talons, the black of her claws digging into the furnished wood. Wessex reached into the mahogany cabinet between two of the bookcases, offset by a brightly flickering brazier betwixt them. Drawing out a pitcher fashioned from subdued faience clay, he poured a tap of milk into a small glass. "I see you purchased me some more milk."

Like most things in his apartments, the cabinets were enchanted to keep all food and drink within them fresh for several months. Being a child, Wessex usually only drank milk or juices. At least, that was all Jessica ever saw him partake. "I thought you might like to have your wares restocked when you returned."

He grinned slightly, and then an unsettling moue overtook his features, and remained there. "Would you care for something?"

"No thank you, I'm not thirsty." In truth, Jessica found most beverages distasteful now. A bit of ale or mead was about all she could stomach anymore.

The boy nodded then, and sat down in the opposite chair, his legs dangling from the high seat as they always did. He set the small cup of milk on one of his knees, balancing it idly, as if his spirit had fled his body and was wandering some unknown plane. She let out a shrill squeal, catching his attention. The glass almost tumbled from his leg to the ground, but his art was quick, clutching it in mid air, and floating it back to his hand after a moment. Evocative magic was not the boy's specialty, but no true magician would be without rudimentary knowledge of other practices.

"I've been worried for you, master. And I'm worried now. What happened at Lorland?" Jessica asked again, her wingtips twitching in agitation.

Wessex sighed, and then sipped at his milk. "I think I know what is happening to me, Jessica. After that night, and seeing that Symphony, I knew that this was more than just my inability to cope with Dorson's death. These nightmares have been orchestrated by outside forces, intent on the ruin of all that is decent. Loriod was just a pawn in a much larger game. I too, have become a pawn, one that the forces determined to plunge us into chaos have set their eyes upon.

"Up until that night, I had let them push me, guiding me where they wanted me to go. I did not even know I was being manipulated. Not any more though. Now I am going to push back, I will not let myself be a tool for their design. That is why I went to Lorland. My only clues to unravelling this mystery were there. I know Zagrosek has something to do with this; he is the one I saw in that room, and in the tower of Loriod's castle. He's in my dreams now, and they have led me back to that dæmon-infested room. I need to follow him to the truth, he has to have left a trail somewhere that I can find and use to my advantage. Aside from myself, the only person I knew he had contact with was Loriod.

"Things are a bit more serious than I had expected though, and for reasons which must remain secret for now, I'll be returning to Lorland in a few weeks. I brought back with me some of Loriod's garments so that I might cast an augury on them. If that fat pig met with Zagrosek in any of these garments, I'll be able to discern the entirety of their meeting. It's my only hope to find some way to stop these dreams."

Jessica leaned forward a bit, her talons tightening about the crossbeam. "I can help you with that, master. You know I am skilled in the arts of divination."

The boy shook his head, "No, I am afraid that they might have a way of discovering my search. If you are involved, they might be able to invade your dreams too, I cannot risk that."

"But Loriod must have hundreds of garments! An augury takes quite some time to perfrom her perch by oneself. You'll be searching through all of winter!" Jessica objected, her squealing voice carrying out the door.

Wessex sipped at the milk again and simply shrugged his small shoulders. "It's the only way." He licked his lips thoughtfully for a moment and then sighed. "There is one other thing too, I know you will not like to hear it."

"What is that?"

"When I was at Lorland, I never had those dreams. I was under watch and guard all the time, but there was no need, as I slept peacefully each night. Whoever is giving me these dreams must be able to only reach me if I am in his radius of influence. That means, they are here at the Keep already, or have some focus at the Keep."

"Matthias?" Jessica asked, remembering that the other spectral figure in his nightmares had been the rat. She had never known him personally, though the gossip about the from her percher scribe was rather astounding. All within the last six months he'd assaulted the Duke, been sent on a mission to the far northern coasts, helped win the Battle of Nuln, and was now a scout of some kind. Yet his presence in the dreams alongside Zagrosek was enough reason for her to distrust the rodent.

"I believe so, yes," Wessex nodded, finishing off the last of his milk and setting the tumbler upon the side table. "He knew that I was searching him out, discovering things about him that he'd rather left unknown. I think he is responsible for this, at least in part."

"But you've come back to Metamor now. Won't you start having these dreams again?' Jessica queried, finally realizing the import of what he wasn't saying.

"I believe so, yes. That is why I've worked out an arrangement with Prince Phil to have me sequestered in the dungeons while I sleep. The cells there are proof against most magic, so even if I do have these nightmares, I doubt that I could escape to cause any harm. Word's been sent to Roscoe, and they'll be cleaning one cell up for me this evening."

Jessica gauged by the curious expression in Wessex's eyes that he'd expected her to be horrified by this. In truth, she could not imagine being locked someplace where she could not see the sun and the sky. Of course, she was a bird now, and so she was rather biassed. What concerned her more was that it sounded like Wessex had confided in another. "Does Prince Phil know? Does he know what you've told me?"

The boy nodded again, taking a deep breath. "I had no choice but to tell him. He knows that I've told another, but he does not know who. I trust Phil implicitly. I cannot believe he would be in league with Zagrosek and Matthias." Wessex peered thoughtfully past the hawk for a moment, towards the far workshop which was just visible outside the doorway. "Do the others suspect?"

"Your other students?" Jessica asked in surprise. "No, they took you at your word when you said you had to tie up a few loose ends."

"Good, the less people know about this right now the better. There will come a time when all must know, but not until we can be sure of what we suspect. Right now, Jessica, I simply need you to confide in. I also need you to keep track of my day to day affairs when I visit Lorland. Speaking of which, did anything happen here at the Keep that I should know about?"

Fluttering her wings in an avian shrug, Jessica gripped the crossbeams a bit tighter. "Nothing much has been happening, it has been a relatively quiet week. Rickkter did come by to borrow that book you promised him. He returned it a couple days ago with his own notes scribbled out in a bundle of papers. I've left the papers on your desk, and I returned the book to your shelves."

"He did? Excellent, that is also part of my investigations." Wessex slid from the chair, and put the cup back in the cabinet. Then, the boy wandered out the door and over to his private chambers. Jessica hopped from her perch her perch, and followed after him, not comfortable with leaving the boy alone yet.

Wessex was untying the leather thong that Rickkter had used to secure the bundle of parchment with the same enthusiasm a child had when he was opening a wrapped gift on a holiday. Once undone, the boy's hands worked over the thin sheets, tracing out the script, and grinning recklessly. "Oh, this shall be most helpful! I must thank him next chance I have to see him."

"I'm sure he feels the same way about your notes on Nasoj's curse," Jessica added, standing in the doorway watching her master caper about in delight.

"Oh, no doubt, no doubt!" Wessex turned to his bookshelf and reached for the tome he had lent the raccoon. His eyes then lost their glitter, and his brow furrowed in puzzlement. For a moment he just stood there staring staring, the smile fading into that familiar moue. He waved his fingers before the open bookcase, as if trying to wipe away a cobweb.

"Is something wrong, master?"

"Yes, the spells I placed over the bookcase have been tampered with." Wessex reached in and drew out each of his volumes, one by one, glancing at them and flipping through them. Once done, he set each aside, and moved to the next. When he finally picked up the book that Jessica had let Rickkter take, he stopped, and examined it in even greater detail.

"What is it, master?" Jessica asked again, the concern rushing back through her breast.

"There is something wrong with this book, but I do not know what." He turned to face her, looking through her with those pale eyes. "Find Habakkuk, and bring him here. I need to talk to him immediately."

Jessica pressed her tongue against the inside of her beak, so used to the solid shell that she didn't even think about it anymore. "What's happened?"

"I don't know, but I want to find out." Wessex laid the book on his desk, and then began reshelving the others. "Find Zhypar and bring him here as soon as you can."

"Yes, master. Please be careful, I worry for you."

Wessex smiled to her, a fatherly grin that she had grown fond of. "Do not worry, Jessica, we'll figure this out. No nightmare will stop me."

The hawk simply nodded, her tail feathers twitching slightly with her agitation. And then, she turned on her talons, and did her best to walk gracefully from the room. She was not wholly successful, but she managed. A part of her worried that she may have done something wrong in loaning the book to Rickkter, even though his instructions to her had been to permit the raccoon to borrow the tome. The other part feared that this too was an emanation of her master's ghoulish night-time haunts, an aspect that he'd been too afraid to disclose to a simple student.

Her walk through the many halls of the Keep was conducted in silence. She did not know the kangaroo well, but she knew that he was the new Head of the Writer's Guild, so decided to try there first. They were in an old barracks, ransacked in Nasoj's first attack on the Keep, and had been refurbished to support the scribes when Matthias had arrived and set it up. She'd never before had occasion to visit the building with its finely wrought eaves and scroll-work designed uniquely in the Keep. Letters found their way into the design, as did calligraphy and bookish art. Most could not decipher them from the rest of the moulding, but Jessica was trained in seeing symbols in otherwise meaningless drawings, and so had no difficulty in spotting them.

She found the main doors open, two large oaken beasts with brass knockers that appeared to have been mostly unused. Gripping the handle in her talons, she hopped back on one foot, drawing the door outward just enough so she could sneak a wing beneath the crack. Opening a door inwards had never been a problem for her new from her perch, but outwards had always required a deftness that she sometimes lacked. Even after seven years, she'd fall on her tail feathers every so often after refusing another's help in opening a door.

In this instance though, she was successful, and slipped into the silent chambers. Braziers lined the walls at regular intervals, only a few ells apart. A long two-pronged table sat in the centre of the room, long since discoloured by ink stains from overzealous scribes. The scent of parchment and various inks filled the room, even more so than the odours of her fellow Keepers. The entire area felt so dead, she was afraid that she'd come when no one was about.

Just as Jessica was about to turn and leave, a small piping voice from one far wall called, "Can I help you?"

Her golden eyes glinted in the dappled light, and saw a small rat with curly hair standing in a low doorway. There was a fresh quill clutched between the fingers of one paw, and in the other was a small shaft of wood that appeared to have been extensively gnawed upon. She found her beak opening in delight at the sight of a tasty morsel, but her human nature quickly closed those sharp-edged curves.

"I am looking for Habakkuk," she said, trying to sound as harmless as possible. "Is he about?"

The rat shook his head, obviously a little nervous under the watchful gaze of her golden eyes. "He was invited to an early afternoon dinner with Ambassador Yonson. I think you'll find him in the Ambassador's quarters."

The news delighted Jessica as it would give her an excuse to stop by and see Weyden. "Thank you, uh."

"Tallis," the rat supplied.

"Thank you, Tallis," she echoed, bobbing her head, turning those penetrating orbs from the rat's body. She saw out of the corner of her eye his body's tension ebb in relief. Relations at the Keep certainly were more interesting after the curse, she had to grant that. Leaving the Writer's Guild was much easier than entering, and soon, she was out in the bright sunlight again. Pumping her wings, she launched herself into the air, and began to climb back towards the castle proper.

Yonson's apartments were near one of the spire towers in the lower Keep. So Jessica made her way to the battlements, landed after only minute of pumping her wings and gliding, and after a brief nod to the guard, descended the stairs, plunging herself into the half-light of the castle's interior. It only took her a minute of walking across the stone work along the side of the hall - she was afraid to walk on the carpets for fear her talons might scar them - to reach the entrance to the Ambassador's rooms.

Weyden and Maud were standing outside the main doorway, a finely hewn oak structure decorated with cedar panelling depicting the crest of the unicorn. Maud had been a man before the curse, but appeared to be enjoying the feminine side of things, as her frame was not as conservative as many of the women at Metamor chose to keep it. Even so, Jessica found her affable company at times.

Her attention however was not on the female, but on the red-banded hawk who turned a large golden-ember eye towards her, his beak cracking open in a great avian grin. His unifrom her perch had been modified to support his wings and tail feathers. He had no need of weapons now, as he could not employ any, his beak and talons served well enough. Weyden did not step towards her, but remained at his post beside the closed entrance, though he did call to her, and unfurl his wings in delight.

"Jessica! What a pleasant surprise."

Her eyes glittered at the sight of him, while Maud gave her a playful wink. "I'm on an errand for my master, Wessex. Is Habakkuk in there?"

"The scribe? Yes, he came by an hour ago, and they've been chattering ever since. I don't imagine that it will last much longer though, as Yonson has to meet with the Duke by the fourth watch. Would you like to wait here, with me?" The last had been spoken hopefully, with an earnestness in his voice that calmed her, and brought out her own bird-grin.

"Yes, that would be nice," she replied, her other worries vanishing.

Weyden turned to Maud, though only slightly, gazing at the other guard with one eye. "Do you mind watching this for a moment. I'm going to talk with Jessica down at the end of the Hall for a bit."

Maud flashed Jessica her mischievous grin. Truly, Jessica could not tell that Maud had not always been a woman, for she exemplified it so well! "Of course, I rather doubt that a raging horde will set siege on our charge's quarters in the next few minutes. Of course if they did, I don't think you'd hear them." And she winked at the two hawks before resuming her post.

Weyden either did not notice the jab, or else he ignored it, for he walked over to Jessica, gently placing his wing against her back, and guiding her down the hall, his head leaned low, almost conspiratorially. "You're looking rather lovely this afternoon, Jessica. Surely the brightest point of my day. You seem happier too."

Jessica could not help but lower her wingtips in a blush at the compliment. "Yes, Wessex is back from his trip to Lorland."

"Safely, I hope?"

"Oh yes, he's quite well, and looking better than he has been in the last month." Now why had she gone and said that?

"Sounds like the rest did him good then," Weyden continued, and she nodded quickly. "But I suppose he's going to need your services more though. I will miss your pretty face."

At that hint, she shook her tail feathers, and let out an excited whisper. "Oh, no, he won't need me for his current studies. So I'll probably have even more time to myself. But you're always here waiting on Yonson, so I suppose it won't matter much."

Weyden wrapped his wing around her even tighter, the full length of his luxuriant feathers encircling her. It was like being hugged by a large warm quilt. "We can work it out. The others are willing to give me a little bit of slack every now and then, and I don't think Yonson himself is all too worried about security anymore."

Jessica felt the excitement bubble up in her chest again. "So, will you be able to come with me to the Lothanasi services tomorrow at the temple?"

Weyden looked slightly abashed, an expression only somebody who knew him well or another avian could detect. "Yes, I will be there, as promised." Jessica, being born and raised in Metamor, had attended the Lothanasi temple regularly every month, usually on the feast days. Weyden, coming from Pyralis, was naturally a Patildor, but had expressed interest in her faith, and so she'd offered to take him to the temple at the next gathering.

She nudged him with her hip, letting out an avian chuckle. It sounded more like a screech, but they both knew it was one given in amusement. "I think you will like it. I've always enjoyed giving thanks to the gods for what we have. Good fortune has smiled on us, for the most part."

The Captain of Yonson's guard glanced down her red chest, full of feathers, curiously. Jessica found clothes to be stifling, and so never wore any unless a casting required it. Weyden only wore the blue surcoat to mark him as servant of the Ambassador, nothing below that. "Do you mean the curses?" She nodded once, and then felt the tip of his sharp beak rush through the feathers on the side of her head coyly, "I never thought it a curse myself."

She pushed him away with her wingtip, giggling in merriment at his playfulness. Weyden appeared abashed, and hopped on his talons across to her, and wrapped her once more in his wing, though this time not so closely. "So, which god do you honour this month?"

"Wvelkim, he's the god of the seas," she replied, enjoying the touch of his feathers. "We don't do much for him here at Metamor and that isn't even till the end of the month, but at least it will give you an idea about what we do. You missed the Day of Admission, it was a grand celebration! Merai hin'Dana became a priestess finally. It's good to have more than one Lothanasi priest at the Keep again."

It was clear from the way Weyden cringed slightly at the term "priestess" that his Patildor upbringing still dictated the way he thought. Jessica secretly hoped to change that, though she could not admit it to herself. "Not used to a woman serving as the path between people and the gods?"

Weyden shook his head, "In the Ecclesia it is expressly forbidden."

"The Patildor priest, Father Hough, could have become a woman you know." For some reason, she derived a great deal of pleasure from teasing him like this.

Once more, a mischievous grin spread across his face, the beak opening a bit as he did so. "Maybe Yahshua was with him and insured he would stay a man."

"And maybe Kammoloth decided to show mercy upon an earnest man who had been hurt worse than many," Jessica returned tartly, scratching at the masonry with her claws.

Weyden gazed at her, his mouth still hanging open in that bird-grin, his narrow tongue pressing against the end of his beak. Those golden eyes bore deep into her own for that moment, before he looked away. "Maybe," was all he said.

Jessica found herself involuntarily pressing closer to him, wishing his company, afraid that she had offended him somehow. "Do you still want to come to the temple with me tomorrow evening?" she asked in a quiet voice.

He turned back to face her, rubbing the end of his beak across her own. It was a smooth gesture, one given before she could pull back. "More than ever, my lovely hawk." There was a bit of that assertiveness that she'd seen in him the first day they'd met. He turned her back around, and they began to walk to the Ambassador's apartments. Maud was idly examining the unicorn banner that hung over the transom, while motioning with one hand for them to return. At that moment, Jessica felt a bit dismayed at having to fulfill her master's request.

chapter 2

Yonson dangled the cherry between his thumb and one claw, eyeing his dinner guest playfully. Letting it swing freely between his blunt, dark claws, the lemur asked in an almost disbelieving tone, "Are you sure you don't want one of these delectable sweets? They are the last fresh batch of the season."

The kangaroo sitting opposite him in the lounge that the Ambassador had purchased for his guests with very large tails shook his head once, the long ears waggling back and forth as he did so. "No, it is yours to eat, I prefer my food a tad bit greener."

Yonson shrugged, and popped the cherry in his muzzle, crunching down on the sweet juices with an expression of pure satisfaction. His own tail was curled around the post of his seat like a snake, coiling its stripes all the way to the bauble at the top. "I thought you said that you could still eat fruits."

Habakkuk drew one finger down the side of his muzzle, wiping a bit of the bread out of his fur. "I can, but that doesn't mean they are my favourite things in the world anymore."

The lemur let out a throaty chuckle, and then wiped his paws on the threaded napkin in his lap. They were finishing off the last of the meal that Yonson had ordered for them; a great cavalcade of every fruit available in Metamor, as well as luscious breads drenched in sauces and creams of every colour. Yonson himself was quite fond of the béchamel sauce, as he would repeatedly dip the peaches into the buttery cream and gently suck on the pulp for several moments before chewing the treat and swallowing.

Habakkuk's eyes trailed over the food, selecting one last slice of the cheese flavoured crumpets, and then washed it down with a bit of the white wine that had been served. They then worked their way past his host, and to the decorations adorning the Ambassadorial suite. Most of it was supplied by Thalberg and his eager staff; draperies, sways, were festooned across the marble lintels, each of those being hand sculptured into florid designs, ironically including caricatures of animals frolicking in open fields. As Metamor had no had any official ambassadors living with her walls since before Nasoj's curse, the design was probably at least ten years of age.

Then there were the personal items that Yonson had brought with him. Zhypar studied the books snugly holstered within the mahogany case abutting the wall; many were titles that he recognized, a few appeared to even be some of the works that the Writer's Guild had put together for sale to the Midlands. By the binding and relatively glossy print upon their spines, he could tell that the ones he did not recognize had to be newer books that had not circulated this far north yet. Given the structure of the lettering, he could see why, they were all from the Southlands, and the western-most continent at that. Probably manufactured in Boreaux, as the engravings appeared to be rather reminiscent of the Boreaux heraldry.

Habakkuk tried to decide which craftsman had fashioned those bindings, when Yonson interrupted his pondering. "You never did answer my earlier question, you know."

Zhypar turned to face the lemur once again, who was finishing off the last of the fruits. The succulent plum disappeared beneath his mouth, though a bit of the purple juice trailed out one side of his muzzle. He wiped at the spill with his cloth napkin, and licked at his nose. The large golden embers of his eyes bore down on the kangaroo though, demanding attention.

"I'm afraid I have forgotten what you asked!" Habakkuk admitted drily, laughing at his own inattentiveness.

"How is it that you of all people ended up here at the Keep? I still remember that day when I was only a blue that you managed to cross the Algra Hook without assistance. Put the blacks of my clan in quite a tizzy. And now here you are again, like you've been following me about."

The kangaroo continued to chuckle for a moment before sipping at the wine. It tasted like grain, something he'd always despised before his change. Now it was quite one of his favourites. "Well, I came here after the curses were in place. About four years ago now I think. I'd been here several times before, I left the Southlands about eleven years ago after all. Shortly after I met you in fact."

"But why did you come to the Keep?" Yonson pressed, his tail twitching around the pole. It was sometimes even more expressive than his face could be now!

Zhypar sighed and then simply let his smile grow upon his face. "For no better reason than love."


"Yes, my lover was trapped here at the Keep at the time of the curses and, so I finally decided to join him here, in hopes that we could be together. But it was not to be."

Yonson nodded. "Strange that after all these years that we'd find each other again. Even when I left the Hook, many of those blacks were still talking about you with those same shocked expressions on their faces."

"Well, it is the testing grounds for your clan," Habakkuk intoned, still lost in his own reverie. "Did you ever walk it?"

"No, I was sent to Southern Pyralis shortly before I would have undergone the trials to ascend to black, and was never called back."

Zhypar nodded absently as he licked a bit of the sauce from his muzzle. It had been so long ago, shortly before he left the Southlands all together. His trek across the Algra Hook had been arduous, but it had also been unprecedented. The Weathermongers had taken him captive and locked him in one of their cellars. For a whole week, he waited, only seeing one other person in that entire time, the lowly rank blue Weathermonger of the name Yonson who had brought him his food.

And then they let him go, without explanation, they put him on a ship, and sailed him off to Kitch to the South. He'd never returned of course. Seeing Yonson now was quite a surprise to him, and so he had of course accepted the dinner invitation when it was offered.

"And now you are the Head of the Writer's Guild here," finished his unspoken thought. "Quite an interesting coincidence that we both end up here. There are not too many of us Southerners here at the Keep. I know of you, Rickkter, and that rat Matthias. Are there any others?"

Habakkuk shook his head once. "I do not believe so. Most of the Keepers were born here or in the Midlands."

Yonson peered out the window for a moment, his golden eyes glistening. "I can see why. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is unfortunate that your enemies to the North make appreciating it nearly impossible."

The kangaroo gave him a bewildered stare. "You appear to be enjoying yourself. I'd say that you love being a lemur."

The Ambassador cast his eyes towards his black palms, and then shook his head after a moment. "Not as much as I intimate. True, I am intrigued by this new shape I wear, it is not the body I am used to. I suppose in another year or so I may be more disposed towards it. And yourself? Being a kangaroo must be difficult for you."

Habakkuk waggled his ears a moment. "Not as hard as it may appear. It took a while to become acquainted with this tail and these legs, but now, it is natural for me."

The lemur's gaze returned once more to the afternoon sun just visible in his open window. The jalousie were held open by two ivory rods, letting the air flow in, but little else. "I have business with the Prime Minister shortly," he intoned absently. Finally, after a few moments of silence, his eyes settled on his dinner guest. "It was good to have you over, Zhypar. I'm glad to know that I have one friend here. I do hope to see you around more often."

Habakkuk rose from the lounge, his thick tail brushing over the satin lining as he did so. "I've thoroughly enjoyed myself, Yonson. I do hope that you may let me borrow a few of your books one day. You have a few tomes that appear new to me."

Yonson barked a laugh, his pelt twitching, and his tail uncurling from the post. "You haven't read something? I remember that collection of grimoires you hauled with you across the Hook! I cannot imagine there ever being more books than that! It is little surprise they made you Head of the Writer's Guild, what with your experience." Yonson turned once to stare at the paltry selection his library could offer. "I'd certainly be willing to let you borrow some of my books, but not today, for I must be off."

"Of course," Habakkuk nodded, making his way towards the door. The lemur stood at his side, a bit shorter, but certainly the better dressed of the two, garbed in the blue finery with the Marzac heraldry embossed in the centre. Habakkuk wore a simple chartreuse doublet, his most expensive gown, and one he reserved for specific occasions. Neither had commented on their finery, as it was clear that Yonson's would only embarrass the roo.

Outside in the hallway though, stood one of the two guards who normally flanked his door. The other had one wing draped across another hawk, and was speaking to her in a low voice, though considering their avian throats, any sort of whispering would inevitably be heard by other animal morphs. Both Yonson and his guest grinned as the captain of his guard clumsily lurched back to his post.

"Ah, Jessica! What a pleasant turn of events," Yonson's tail twitched erratically as he spoke in sarcastic delight. "I can see that I am not the only one pleased to see you." Weyden's beak drooped even lower as he fussed at his already loose jerkin.

"Greetings, milord," Jessica bowed her head low, though only briefly.

Habakkuk stood back while Yonson stepped out into the hall. "I have a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister. Weyden, would you wake up Larssen? I'll want him and Maud to be my guards, as if I really need any here at the Keep.'

Weyden started to move from his post, but his talons would not lift from the stone. "What do you want me to do afterwards, milord?" His pupil kept trailing back to Jessica who was standing off to one side.

"You may have the rest of the evening to yourself, though I doubt you'll choose to spend it that way," Yonson waved one paw dismissively, at which both hawks appeared to brighten.

Taking one cautionary step forward, almost as if he were afraid that any eagerness on his behalf would cause the Ambassador to change his mind, Weyden made his way to the door across the room, and ducked inside.

Habakkuk noticed Jessica approaching him, and turned his attention to her, instead of Yonson's guard commander. "What is it? Do you have some message for me?"

She nodded once, her wings twitching. "Yes, my master wishes to speak with you. He did not tell me why, but he made it very clear that it was urgent."

The kangaroo nodded and gazed back at Yonson. "I'm afraid that I have business elsewhere too. Thank you for the delightful dinner."

Yonson nodded and inclined his head respectfully. "I do hope that we can dine again. It has been most pleasant seeing you again, Zhypar."

Habakkuk gave his own farewells, saw that Jessica was watching the door Weyden disappeared into, and so departed by himself. Walking was rather awkward, as his feet were so long. On occasion, he would allow himself the diversion of hopping from one place to another. It was amazingly quick, and immensely satisfying, but it tended to stretch the seams of his pantaloons a bit too much. These being his good clothes, he walked to Wessex's laboratory.

The Keep was as usual rather kind to him. It was a rarity when he would glimpse a staircase inside her walls. Thankfully, tonight was no different, and he strolled leisurely along the corridors and passageways until he was before the single door leading to Wessex's apartments. The door was open as it usually was. For somebody who lost their entire family because the defences were down, the boy wizard was quite trusting of his fellow Keepers.

"Wessex? Are you here?" Habakkuk called out as he stepped beneath the transom. The hallway joining his rooms was well kept, and the scent of lighted oil permeated the air.

The boy poked his head out of the first room. "Ah, I've been waiting for you. Come in, come in! Can I get you something to eat or drink?"

"No thank you, I was just dining with Ambassador Yonson."

Wessex nodded, closing the door to his apartments behind him. He then bolted the latch and motioned for the kangaroo to follow him into his study. Slightly confused, Zhypar trailed along behind the boy, taking the lounge as he usually did when visiting others. On the table between the chairs was a single book, one that he recognized immediately. It was the Sudenhart Arcanum, the very book he had loaned to Wessex several months back.

"Is it about the book?"

Wessex nodded abstractly, his mind obviously very disturbed. "When I returned from Lorland, I found that my magic containment spells on my bookshelf had been tampered with. I think somebody has done something to this book, and I figured you would be more familiar with it. I haven't had the time to peruse it completely yet, or to even work out a complete translation for even one section. So, I thought you might be able to tell better if anything has happened to it."

Zhypar slid the tome into his paws, gently cradling the weathered binding and yellowed pages. He'd carried this volume for how long now? "And this book was in your shelf the entire time you were gone?"

"No, Jessica took it out so that Rickkter could read through it. She then replaced it." At the kangaroo's questioning glance the boy shook his head. "Impossible," Wessex declared. "I specifically attuned Jessica to the wards so that she could do just that very thing. She also claims to not have tried a casting upon them, so it must be something else."

"Are you sure your magic is working the same as before? I understand that things were not well for you this last week." Habakkuk's voice was low, repeating things that no Keeper had heard. Wessex did not appear to notice the incongruity of the question.

"No, I know it is not that. This has to be completely anomalous to the bookshelf."

Zhypar nodded and began flipping through the pages, noting each rune from memory. As he quickly skimmed the pages, his fingertips intuitively reached for the grooves in each page, rubbing them softly, inviting the memories of his own studies back into his mind. And then, the grooves were in the wrong place.

Stunned, Habakkuk focussed on the two pages, trying to discover where the page between them had gone to. Running his narrowest claw down the spine, he could feel the place where the page should have been attached. It was gone, as if it had simply never been placed in the book. Flipping through several more pages, he found a second place that possessed the same effect. The rest of the book was unchanged from his memories.

Closing the tome and gently laying it back on the table he sighed. "I'd say that you were right to seek me out. Something has happened to the book, but I cannot be sure by whom yet. I have a suspicion, but I will need to confirm it."

"Who is it? And what did they do to the book?" Wessex asked eagerly. The lines of strain clearly showed on his features, despite his youth.

Habakkuk drew one of his blunt claws across the spine of the tome as it lay on the table. "There are two pages missing. It appears that they have been cleanly removed; no trace of them exists except in my memory."

"What pages?"

"Two groups of mages were taken from the book. I know because the pages were not adjacent."

"Do you have another copy of Sudenhart Arcanum?" The kangaroo shook his head, and the child's sigh was heavy. "Is there any way that you can get those pages back? They might be vital for my research."

"I can assure you that they won't be, but I can try." Zhypar rose from the chair and rubbed his palms together. "If you will excuse me, I will test my theory."

Wessex nodded and waved one small hand negligently. "I have too much on my mind right now. Do infrom her perch me of what you discover."

The kangaroo simply lowered his head once, and back out of the room, and then into the halls of the Keep once more. Given his present demeanor, he found himself hopping lightly, despite the fact that it could tear the fabric of his doublet and hose. At the moment, that was no longer important to him. But he was fortunate that Kyia smiled once more upon him, and made his trek to his own apartments a short one.

Removing the fancy dress, he slipped on something plainer, a baggy set of tan pantaloons with a small vest. Bending over, his long thick tail dangling in the air behind him, he searched through his wine cupboard, passing by several brews distilled in Metamor and the Valley for something a bit rarer. The bottle was a dun grey in colour, and the liquid inside a pale chartreuse. The label had drenched in a downpour while being shipped, and so some of the smaller words had been smeared, but the vintage was clear, "651 CR, Arabarb".

Setting that to one side, the marsupial began scouring another drawer, running a claw over various bottles of fine powder, before finally tapping one a bright yellow in colour, of an especially fine texture. Selecting two tumblers from the shelf, he ran a single finger through the base of each. Satisfied at some unseen sense, he gently unscrewed the very top of the bottle with fine yellow dust. Sprinkling a grain or two into each cup, he resealed the bottle and replaced it in the drawer. Then with his claw, he rubbed the bottoms of both cups. Habakkuk peered down into the depths of each, holding them up to the window that he might see better. The yellow sparkles of dust were not visible.

Satisfied, Zhypar took the two tumblers, and the bottle of Arabarb wine, and left his rooms, hopping along at a rapid click through the halls of Metamor. It was not often that he felt this way. Anger was not an emotion he suffered a preponderance of. He would not have used the somnolent powder if it had not struck him now.

It did not take him overly long to reach his destination once again. Doing his best to organize his thoughts cohesively, he knocked three times at the door, and waited. The face of a raccoon was soon to be seen as the wooden structure opened wide. "Habakkuk? What can I do for you?" Rickkter asked in some confusion.

Zhypar held forth the wine and two glasses. "I thought we might share a drink, and talk. We are both Southerners, and aside from a few paltry conversations during the Festival, we have never really had a chance to become acquainted."

Rickkter's eyes traced his visage, as if scanning for some duplicity. Then they glanced briefly at the bottle held in the kangaroo's paw. "What sort of wine is that?"

"It is from the villages south of Arabarb, I travelled that way about ten years ago. Have you ever had any?"

Rickkter shook his head, and then stood apart from the doorway, obviously curious. Habakkuk was sure that this move was a surprise for the raccoon, who was busy studying him to determine whether he represented a threat. "No, I've never had the pleasure."

"I thought as much; fine stuff, though hard to come by these days thanks to Nasoj." Habakkuk walked into the room, and scanned it briefly. What attracted his eye first and foremost was the large bookcase standing against one wall. It was a modest collection at first glance, but given the condition of quite a few of the tomes, he was sure that it was an expensive collection as well.

"So, what can I do for you?" Rickkter asked, as he gently shut the door. From the sound of his voice, he was still trying to determine the kangaroo's intent in coming here.

Zhypar saw a small writing desk with a stool, and so set the wine and glasses upon the desk, and walked over to the bookcase. "This is quite a collection you have here."

"Why thank you," there was a hint of pride in the raccoon's voice. "I've been collecting it for most of my life."

"You've done rather well for yourself then." Habakkuk turned back to the wine and with one swift motion of his claws, popped the cork. "One advantage to being an animal I suppose." He flashed a grin to the raccoon, who returned it uncertainly, watching his sudden guest pour the frothy brown liquid into the two tumblers. Rickkter took the proffered cup, but held it at first. Zhypar took a quick draught of his own, and grinned brightly at the slight maple in its flavour.

Habakkuk turned back to the collection of books, though he could hear Rickkter sniffing at the wine. Its odour was strong enough that it would be impossible for him to notice the somnolent he'd placed in the cup beforehand. "I see you have Haskell's translation of Urgundum." Habakkuk muttered as he fingered the volume.

"Ah, yes," Rickkter replied. "Quite an expensive work, but well worth it. Have you ever seen it before?"

The kangaroo nodded. "How much did you pay for it?"

"Ten gold in the market, the seller wouldn't reduce his price. This was during my travels through the Southeastern kingdoms."

"I wouldn't pay ten coppers for it, because it is not worth even that," Habakkuk remarked dismissively. He could hear the raccoon sputter behind him. Obviously, he had sampled the wine.


"Just what I said, Haskell's translation is atrocious, there are mistakes on nearly every page. You wasted your money, Rickkter." Zhypar turned back around and faced the very surprised raccoon. "I have a copy of Urgundum in the original. I can copy out a translation in a month or two for you that avoids Haskell's errors."

"You have a copy of the original?" The raccoon asked in disbelief.

Zhypar nodded once, and then gazed back at the bookcase, "Were you at Fellos?"

It was obvious that his desultory manner had completely offset Rickkter, who simply spluttered again, drinking the wine much faster than he might have otherwise. "What? Fellos?"

"You know, the city with one of the greatest libraries in all the Southlands that the Eastern wizards sacked sixteen years ago. Were you ever there?"

Rickkter shook his head once, obviously very disturbed by the change in questions. "No, I've never been to Fellos, before or after it fell. Why do you ask?" There was a dangerous glint in the raccoon's eye, one that he probably was not trying too hard to hide.

"Oh, I was merely curious." Habakkuk ran his finger down the spine of one of the books, and then levered it out for the raccoon to see. The edges of the pages were blackened in spots. "The reason I ask is because some of your books obviously were at Fellos when it was sacked."

The worry creasing Rickkter's brow lifted to some extent, and he gingerly walked over to the bookcase, joining his guest. He took the book that Habakkuk had indicated and began leafing through it. "Ah, yes I remember where I got this one." He reshelved it. "That was part of a modest collection that I acquired in Beliheim. I didn't ask where some of the tomes came from, just that they were complete."

"The spine on that volume is unique, the burns clearly showing the time it was taken from Fellos."

"It's not alone in the category of being a little singed around the edges," said Rickkter as he walked along the length of the case, running a claw along the spines of a series of books to create a series of thumping clicks. "I've found that there are no better people to buy off than soldiers who have no idea the true value of what they've taken."

Habakkuk chortled drily at that, taking another sip of his wine. Already, he felt calmer than he had been when he'd hopped over here. Though the presence of a few books in Rickkter's collection, that though he had heard of them, he had never seen them before, did fill him with an uneasy disquiet. "And how do you think I felt about this wine?" He winked at the raccoon, and then indicated that they sit upon the rug, as the chairs available were not the sort he could make use of.

Rickkter joined him on the rug, his long striped tail laying behind him. The mask of his features appeared slightly calmer than before. No longer did the raccoon appear to be out of his element as he had only moments before when Zhypar's questions had come from nowhere. To further lull him, Habakkuk asked more simple questions, inquiring of his journeys, and telling about a few of his own, revealing the ins and outs of life as a travelling merchant. Soon, they were in animated friendly conversation.

After an hour or so, Habakkuk was not sure how long it had been, all he knew was that a good bit of the wine bottle was gone, the conversation turned to their first days at the Keep. "I understand you caused quite a stir when you arrived. I was busy with Writer's Guild affairs much of the time, and so had to satisfy myself with the rumours."

"I rarely do not leave an impression anywhere I go," Rickkter confirmed, appearing quite full of himself, and the small dose of the drug.

"I heard that you and Charles had a bit of a fight when you first met."

"Oh, who told you that?" The raccoon looked as if he were trying to be suspicious, but the somnolent was doing its job well.

Habakkuk waggled his ears, feeling its effects course through his own blood. It was a subtle thing, the somnolent, he doubted the raccoon would realize anything untoward had happened at all if he were careful about what was said. "Very few secrets remain secrets here, Rickkter, I would have thought you knew that."

"True," the raccoon murmured softly.

"Charles is an interesting character of course. Who would have thought that a Sondeckis would ever come to the Keep." Rickkter's ears had perked high at the mention of that name, and his eyes had gone wide with surprise. "Oh, didn't you know? Surely you must have. I, being from the Southlands, and having read many books, was able to recognize him for what he was after a few simple years of observation. Knowledge is a powerful tool after all, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes, I enjoy employing it. I always like to know more about my enemies than they know of me."

"Of course, given that you and Charles fought bitterly at your first meeting, and the nature of your unspoken feud, I could just as easily determine that you were once a member of the Kankoran."

Rickkter's brown eyes snapped up and his tumbler stopped half way to his muzzle. He regarded Zhypar for several seconds before setting down his drink. Using the tips of his claw, Rickkter made a point of pushing it away from himself. "I didn't think this was a simple social visit."


"You don't make a statement like that in casual conversation."

"So you're not going to deny the fact that you are Kankoran?"

"No point in denying what you already know as a fact."

Habakkuk regarded the raccoon for a moment, his eyes tracing across the visage of his cool host. And then he let out a short laugh, displaying an inordinate amount of sang-froid in the face of such obvious alertness. "Do drink your wine, Rickkter. I'm not here simply to discommode you as you now appear to think. Why should it surprise you that a man such as myself, from the Southlands no less, would be able to recognize your from her percher allegiances? Especially since I just demonstrated that I knew what Charles was."

"Some things are best left as secrets," Rickkter murmured in an unpleasant grouse.

The kangaroo laughed merrily again. "My good raccoon, ever since you arrived, you have done naught but demonstrate for all to see your wide range of abilities. You do recall our little boxing match in the Mule those months back, do you not? Did it ever occur to you that I might have wished to fight you so that I could confirm my suspicions as to what you were? Why should it surprise you that when you make plain your abilities to all, that any would figure out who you are?"

The raccoon still stared sullenly at his untouched tumbler. "I have not shown much of my abilities. Not yet at any rate." Then he reached out and took the wine bottle in his paws and poured himself more of the deep chartreuse fluid. "But, I suppose that you are right. But that still makes this conversation more interesting. If you were coming here simply as a social visit, you would not flaunt your knowledge of me before my eyes. You are here for another reason. I want to know what."

Habakkuk let loose a grin. "What makes you think I would tell you so easily?"

As expected, the humour was lost on Rickkter. "You see, this is why I would have been a horrid politician. I detest these kinds of song and dance routines. You came to make a point, so do hurry up and make it."

Zhypar was certain that Rickkter meant that unearthly stare of his to be penetrating. He was probably used to others flinching or averting their eyes from that gaze. Habakkuk was not the sort to be daunted by a glare, no matter how much power backed it up. "In that you are also right; this was not just a social visit, though I had hoped in some small way that we could use it for such matters, as we already have. Now I think it is time to deal with the more important questions. I asked you earlier if you were at Fellos. You said you were not involved in the sacking of that city. Now you admit to me that you are a Kankoran, and that enclave played a major role in the destruction of that peaceful city. Did you lie to me?"

Rickkter shook his head. "I was not at Fellos, I can assure you of that. My involvement with the Eastern mages responsible for the sacking of Fellos was not for some time afterwards. You still haven't answered my question, why are you here?"

Nodding slowly, the kangaroo took another drink of the wine, and savoured the taste for a moment before speaking again. "Diamonds are interesting stones, are they not? While many of the more precious gems, when crushed, create powders of far more wealth and usefulness than just as part of a lady's choker, diamond powder possesses no magical properties whatsoever. It is useful only as a stone, and even then, most useful when properly cut. So I ask you, what good is the power to crush diamonds?"

The somnolent must have cooled the Kankoran's temper somewhat, as he responded calmly, though still dangerously. "Simply having that power is useful in itself. There may come a time when one needs to crush diamonds. Knowing when to do so is more important."

"Well spoken," Habakkuk nodded, and watched the raccoon sip experimentally at the wine. "You are right, whether one does so or not is the most important thing. Your posturing and games of deceit have crushed diamonds. So to has Charles in his latest travesty. You both act to protect your secret, but in the end, only make the truth plainer to all."

"I already said I wasn't one for song and dance. What do you mean?"

"Well, there is a certain book in Wessex's possession that rightfully belongs to me. I let him borrow it as he needs infrom her perchation contained therein in his own studies. It details the magical enclaves in the Southlands, or at least, what they were about one hundred years ago. Now, recently, two nonconsecutive pages have been removed. One of them detailed a clan that was destroyed in the purges sixteen years ago along with the Felikaush. The other, was the clan who orchestrated that purging."

Rickkter's face had gone blank, and his muscles tensed, nearly as tense as they had been when in combat or in preparation for combat. His gambit had worked. "Now, there really is only three people who know the contents of that book, Wessex, myself, and now you since he allowed you to read through it while he was away at Lorland. I find the defacing of tomes to be repugnant, and would rather treasure them than vandalize them. Wessex has no interest in destroying something that might help him unravel his current mystery. That leaves only you with any motive for removing those pages."

"What are you suggesting?" Rickkter prodded, a very unpleasant moue hiding beneath his mask.

"Well, the pages themselves were seamlessly removed, obviously by either a very delicate solvent, or through magical means well placed. In either event, you, an amateur alchemist, and an admitted Southern wizard, would have the knowledge necessary to create the effect. Also, your past is shrouded in mist, despite what you have revealed. It would only make sense to assume then that you have had an association with the Order of the Ebon Dragon at some point in the past, and do not want that secret to be revealed."

Rickkter stood on his feet, finishing the last of the wine before tossing the tumbler to the ground at Habakkuk's large feet. "I could always claim to be from Vorick, hiding that to protect myself from any untoward persons finding out. Considering what I've heard happened to the books Metamor had on the south, disproving that would be a chore."

"No, I am certain that you were a member of that order. Your vague response about Fellos hinted at it as well." Habakkuk finished his tumbler, and ignored the spilled wine soaking the fur of his feet. "And, I never mentioned what the other sect was. You have correctly named the second group that was removed from the book. Congratulations, you have incriminated yourself."

Rickkter blinked in disbelief, his mouth opening to say something, but then closed again in silence.

"I would not be overly concerned about others knowing this fact though. I am not in any rush to reveal that secret. I am simply warning you that your actions then and now have led me to realize this truth. Your attempt to hide in the shadows have only made you plain as day to one as knowledgeable as myself."

Rickkter stared for a moment, and then collapsed back down on the rug with a huff. "At least you are no better off than I." The roo cocked an ear. "Before I could not have cared less about you. You were a scribe — albeit one who favoured a good fight — and not a concern. But you have come here and said what you said, revealing that you are far more than you appear. Like so many of us are. Using your own analogy, it is easier to see what is in the light while standing in the darkness. Yet you still have me at a disadvantage, Zhypar. You could easily take this bit of news to your friend Matthias, giving him yet another reason to hate me. Yet you have told me you will stay silent. Why?"

"Like I said, I simply wished to warn you to be more cautious, and not to try to hide yourself quite so energetically. After all, 'A quick motion in the shadow is more visible than standing still in daylight.' I trust you will try to remember this in the future?"

The grimace on the raccoon's face told Habakkuk plainly that he would, and that he was mad at himself for failing one of the Ebon Dragon's own maxims. "And just who are you?" he asked in his native tongue. "Why are you so concerned about Fellos?"

"I am, or was, a merchant of rare books. I have read many things, many things that came from Fellos. Do you know that they prophesied their own destruction a thousand years ago, and that it would signal the beginning of the end?"

Rickkter raised one eye ridge. "I had not heard of that. What makes you think that they were telling the truth?"

"Well, your little collection here is one indication. You are aware that the Leqquan Twelve have never been successfully collected? Wizards have tried for ages, and have only ever found eleven of the books. Another one of the prophecies of this doom comes from the reuniting of all twelve volumes. Why are you collecting them? I see seven of them here already." And what he did not say, was that one of them happened to be the volume that no other wizard had ever procured.

The raccoon followed his gaze, favouring Zhypar with a light snort. "Bah. It's more of a hobby, I don't seriously expect to find all the Twelve. No one has managed that feat in twenty-eight hundred years. Though Ginzberg of Rodney, Lestrade the IX, and your own precious Fellos did manage to collect eleven of them."

"And they were all missing the one critical piece that would make the whole thing work," said Zhypar.

"You appear to be awfully knowledgeable for a simple merchant. I believe there is more to you than you are willing to admit."

"Quite possibly." Habakkuk favoured him with a waggle of his ears, and then finished the last of the wine in his tumbler. "I do have one last warning for you though. Do not attempt to retrieve the Sondeshike from Charles. He has used the altar in the Sondeckis Shrine as a reliquary for it. You will not be able to take it from him as long as it remains on that altar."

Rickkter appeared distant. "I will have it back."

"Yes, you will, but not right now. I will have a little conversation with Charles, and point out just how much he has dishonoured himself by keeping it."

"He won't give it back. He'll kill you first," Rickkter growled sullenly, plans obviously from her perching behind his eyes.

"If the rat ever threatens me, I'll break his arm," Zhypar added forcefully, before gathering up the bottle of wine; the coon raised his eye ridge yet again at that declaration. Habakkuk fitted the cork into the nozzle, and retrieved the other tumbler. "I ought to be going now, I do believe I have left you with several things to consider."

"Just one thing," Rickkter held out his paw, motioning for the kangaroo to stay. "You are not the convivial sort, that much I know. Yet how is it that you are able to remain friends with all those whose secrets you expose?"

"Who says I have?" Habakkuk flashed him a quick grin, and then made his way out the door. The raccoon just sat in silence, unsure of what to say to his departing guest. Once outside and in the hall, he breathed a sigh of relief. He set off at a brisk hop, knowing that Wessex would be most delighted to hear that he would not have to worry about vandals again.

chapter 3

Abafouq stood against the trestle of the bridge spanning an ice flow between two promontories in the glacier field. Bundled up in furs and leather thongs, he watched the birds circling high overhead, clouds trailing along in the evening air, and the last rays of the sun glinting off the rocky mountaintops. Beneath him, the ice river was gurgling, a few patches of the thin sheet breaking apart in one of the last days of warmth they would have before winter set in fully. He was determined to enjoy it as best he could.

Despite the solemnity of his environs, his thoughts were a maze of ideas and plans and proposals. Questions ranged through each, most of them centring around the note he had received a few weeks back from the Åelf. So many things that he had read about, so many little stories and possibilities that he'd never expected to see in his lifetime were finally coming together. How he wished he could be involved in the actual events playing themselves out then stuck up on this glacier only able to watch from a distance.

Abafouq was unusual for a Binoq, though any human ever seeing him would never know it. His short dark hair was curled about his ears, bundled tightly together under his bearskin cap, and his small hands burrowed beneath the jerkin to fight against the cold, much like any other of his diminutive race. What was different was that few of his kind even lived this far into the glacial passes, where the Nauh-kaee ruled. They did not take kindly to trespassers in their demesnes, but that was another reason why Abafouq was peculiar.

Scraping his boot against the stone-hewn bridge, Abafouq turned away from the sky-scape and headed back to the small home built into the side of the mountain. Lifting aside the thick canvas, he scrambled down the sloping pathway of stone, and into the anteroom. Slipping free from the heavy jacket, he could feel the artificial warmth filling his bones. He had lived on this glacial plateau for so many years now, that he almost forgot how warm the hearths of his people's homes could be.

Moving to the next room in the cave, the dim light from Geurnef's enchantments cast the place in brisk shadow. With a single word, he was able to call them back from dormancy, giving the main room a more pleasant illumination. Abafouq pondered when Geurnef would return from his hunt. It had been several days since he had seen the Nauh-kaee who had taken him in. It was not unusual for him to leave for weeks at a time though.

Pulling the gloves from his fingers, he traced the small digits over the cache he had chiselled from the very stone. It was not too large, as he did not have much to store within it. A few books, some papers of his own, and his ink and pens. It was hard to come by ink in this clime, as it had a tendency to freeze on any journey through the mountains. So he very seldom used it.

Also, the message he had received from the Åelf was kept within that chamber. Every night for the last few weeks he had read it over again, trying to decide what he could do about it. There appeared to be little that he could do, trapped as he was in the glaciers. But Abafouq hated feeling so useless.

The sound of the claws against stone broke his mind free once again. Standing beneath the canvas covering the door was Geurnef. He was at least three times the Binoq's size, and appeared to be nothing remotely human in shape at all. Almost pure white, from the feathers adorning his upper half and wings, to the tawny fur covering his hindquarters and long narrow tail. His hooked beak was black though, a glossy black that reflected the ambient light that came from each of the walls. The chimæra peered coldly at Abafouq, not bothering to greet him as he entered.

"I'm glad to see you have returned safely," Abafouq said, addressing his keeper in a respectful fashion.

"Still reading that note?" Geurnef spoke, but not in words that could be understood by many ears. The Nauh-kaee do not speak the tongues of humans, or even the Binoq, for their throats lack the capability to do so. Yet their intent is inherent upon their voices, and those to whom they wish to be understood, would know what they said. In all his time here, Abafouq had never understood the speech of any Nauh-kaee except his keeper.

"Yes, I have been trying to decide what to do about it. I think I need to see these things for myself, instead of waiting here to discover them months later."

The white head turned to focus on the unkempt mattress, and the table at which he ate. Geurnef pulled a small white satchel from across his back and set it on the table. Abafouq knew it would contain fruits and meats from the lower lying mountains. It was his means of survival.

"So what shall you do?"

"I wish to go to Metamor itself. That is where all of these people have gathered. I want to speak to this Felikaush directly."

Geurnef gazed at him with those unreadable eyes. Like the rest of his body, they were white on black, an obsidian as unfathomable as most of his race. "It is a month-long journey just to leave the glaciers if you wish to head to Metamor. That will leave you travelling in October without shelter. You would die in such cold, and you know I am not large enough to carry you."

Abafouq had thought of the same thing himself, and so sighed. "I will meet this man, I do not wish to watch from afar forever."

"I doubt you will." Geurnef turned then and started towards the canvas leading back into the anteroom. "Once the Spring thaw arrives, we will go visit Metamor."

"We?" Abafouq asked in some surprise.

Geurnef tilted his head to one side. "Qan-af-Årael's message was for both of us. And I would like to meet this Felikaush as well."

The Binoq considered that for a moment, and then pointed out, "But the shadow without a shadow will be revealed by then."

His benefactor stopped a moment beneath the canvas. Its tapered hide lay against the smooth white fur of his back for a moment, while the feathers of his wings bristled slightly. He appeared to wear that same contemplative look as he had when he pulled a shivering Binoq from a snow drift several years ago. "Well, things aren't supposed to become interesting till after that, so you might as well as wait. There will be quite a bit of work to do this Spring."

Abafouq sat open mouthed for several minutes even after the Nauh-kaee had left. His eyes finally turned back to the cache, and the message he was holding in his small hand. With a sigh, he slid it back beneath the rocks, and walked over to the table to see what sorts of delights awaited him in the satchel. He could read it and any of his other books again later.

Gazing resolutely up through the high pinions and bright minarets clothed in ivy towards the bright stars overhead, Qan-af-Årael studied their story. Every night, the stars sung hymns to the deeds done of men, Åelf, or beast, and that would be done by them as well. Even though the motion of the stars was carefully structured by a hand far wiser than he, and could be predicted years in advance, there were subtle changes that could not be accounted for. There were only a few times during each night that one could observe and know the story, and so of course it mattered where the clouds were. Another factor was the brightness of each of those distant suns, though on this night that hardly mattered.

His ageless face betrayed none of the concern he felt at this night's story. It was of something in the future, a change that had not been foreseen. Every night these last few months, at the appointed hour, the constellation of master and servant had been visible. Tonight, the master was gone, vanquished behind a dense matting of dark grey clouds, leaving only the servant standing, and even then his left arm was missing. There was a melancholy dullness to their light as well that gave the ancient Åelf pause. The story was not a pleasant one this night.

Lowering his head, the angular features contorting into a frown as he peered into the depths of the forest outside his tower window. From far below came the sounds of the festival of colours and lights. Even so, the foliage between himself and the distant Earth was too great for any of the dancing embers to reach him. Though it had been a century or more since he had participated in any of the festivals outside the rebirth ceremony, he knew exactly where they were in the rituals. At this moment, they would be drawing a deep band of maroon across their foreheads. With one slender finger, he mimicked the motion, though there was no paint to darken his pearl grey skin.

Qan-af-Årael knew however that this was a story that would not wait for him to overcome old memories. Taking a deep breath, he called out, "Andares!" in his soft tones through the glistening chamber. Only a single glowing jewel set in a sconce provided any light in this, his upmost chambers. To watch the stars he needed the darkness about him, and so that was all the light he would allow here.

His student had of course been waiting for him in the room below, and so rushed up the stairs, taking two at a time so as to be at his master's immediate call. "What do you desire?" was his immediate question. Often times, Qan-af would have his student write down the stories he would see in the stars, other times he would make the boy find them himself. Tonight though, he had something completely different in mind for the young Åelf.

"Andares-es-sebashou," the ancient figure pronounced. "I need you to travel to the lands of the west, to the lands of the humans."

The shock was plainly evident, a small change in the angular jaw-line. "Has the story revealed this to you?"

It was hard not to possess a bit of pride at such a bright young student, but now was not the time for such fleeting emotions. "There is a task you must perfrom her perch there. You will find a man with only one arm grieving for his dead master. I want you to deliver a message to him."

Andares appeared sceptical for a moment, taking a quick breath. Even in the dim illumination, Qan-af knew of the boy's fears. "You will invite him to come meet with me. But warn him that he must come before the new year of his people, or it will be too late."

"And the message I will deliver to him?"

"It is a simple thing, enough for him to come here, for I cannot leave these walls just yet. Tell him that his master's death is part of a larger story. The story that I have told to you."

Andares-es-sebashou nodded his head slowly, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "The lands to the west are many, how will I know when I find him? Many of these humans may have lost limbs over the course of their fragile life."

"His will be a recent wound," Qan-af-Årael supplied. "Also, he will likely be wearing black, as the custom of many humans is to don black to show their mourning. Also, follow the stars as I have taught you, they will lead you to him."

"Of course, my master," Andares inclined his head respectfully, almost abashed, as if he were ashamed of himself for not thinking of such things himself. "When do you wish me to depart?"

"Tonight. Gather your things and go. The journey will take you many weeks. I shall see you again when you return."

Andares started to speak, but then slowly closed his mouth, the thin lips set in a resolute moue. "Of course, my master." Then he turned about, and rather leisurely made his way down the stairs, leaving Qan-af-Årael alone in this tower of Ava-shavåis.

Turning once more to the stars, Qan-af noticed that the clouds had shifted slightly. The master was still obscured, but the servant had his arm back, and there appeared to be a slight brightening of the stars to either side of the servant's head. Turning away from the sky, the ancient Åelf resisted the urge to shudder, instead forcing himself to listen to the sounds of the festival rising from the boughs below. He would have no more of that story yet to be told this night.