"A trial. Whose stupid idea was it to give that damn lutin a trial. She should be hanged from the gates, like the filthy monstrosity she is," Misha mumbled as he hustled down the hallway.
"Everyone deserves a fair trial, Misha," Hough said, running to keep up with him.
The fox stopped and looked at the priest. "No, not lutins. Lutins deserve a swift death and nothing more. They're nothing but evil abominations that don't deserve to live."
"Everything deserves to live Misha, even lutins," the boy priest countered.
"NEVER!" Misha shouted. "After what they did to my sweet Caroline . . " his voice trailed off into a whisper. Then the fox turned and strode away down the hall faster then the boy could keep up with.
The audience chamber was crowded with people. It seemed that everyone at the Keep was here today. Misha recognized a lot of the people, including several of his fellow Long Scouts. He noticed Yonson seated near the front of the room. The ambassador had finally finished changing. "A first for Metamor. We've never had a lemur before," he thought to himself. The fox took a seat near the front of the room next to a male mountain lion who he vaguely recognized as a cook. Before Misha could ask the feline any questions a woman stepped through the door and walked past him.
At the front of the room Malisa stopped, turned around, and stared at the crowd for a moment looking somber in her role as Prime minister. She held up her hands and the crowd quieted down. "Lead in the prisoners."
The first one into the room was a tall, female, wolf morph dressed in loose, baggy clothing. She reminded Misha a little of Raven. But unlike the usually emotionless Lightbringer, Christina's body was a mass of conflicting emotions. Her ears flicked back and forth as she surveyed the crowd nervously. Walking with the wolf was a tall strawberry blonde woman wearing worn and dirty traveling clothes. Misha knew her to be Oren's sister Felice.
The fox was surprised to see a kangaroo come shuffling into the room next. He hadn't known there was another kangaroo besides Zabakuk around. "That must be Jesse, Oren's friend," Misha thought to himself. "The older woman holding the roo's arm must be his mother, er, ah, father. With the curse it's hard to keep things straight."
Last into the room was a short male otter with a small dragon on his shoulders. Oren looked serious and calm, but Gornul looked frightened. Holding his hand was Vitra, at least he thought it was Vitra. The curse had taken hold of the lutin and her body was partly covered with white and black fur. Misha wondered what she was. Her new body was too skinny to be a skunk, in spite of the black and white fur.
"That can't be Vitra," Misha thought to himself. "Lutins aren't effected by the curse, but who else could it be?"
The seven defendants took their place at the front of the room facing Malisa and stood quietly.
The Prime minister looked at the group and spoke in a somber tone of voice. "Vitra, the charges against you are being an enemy of Duke Thomas and Metamor Keep. Of consorting with Nasoj a known enemy and criminal. Of entering Metamor Keep for the purposes of destroying its defenses and allowing other lutins to kill or enslave all within those walls."
"Oren, Gornul, Jesse, Kim. Christina, Felice," Malisa said. "The charges against you are aiding and abetting the enemy, and allowing the entrance of a dangerous enemy into Metamor Keep and endangering everyone within," Malisa said somberly. "How do you plead?"
"Vitra's no danger to the Keep," Oren answered. "She's a good and caring person."
"She's a lutin," Misha commented out loud. "There is no such thing as a caring lutin."
"Quiet. You'll have your chance to state your opinion Misha. For the moment Oren is speaking," the Prime minister ordered.
At the mention of his name Vitra turned and stared at Misha. He could see the surprise and the fear in her eyes. Part of him was proud that he was so good at killing lutins that his name alone instilled fear. Another part of him was horrified of being known as a killer. He looked away, suddenly ashamed.
Oren brushed himself off with his tail, tugged downward on his vest, and proceeded to address the assembled crowd. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and spoke. "Thank you, my Lady. On behalf of my associates, and myself I am authorized to plead "not guilty. It is my intention to prove that Vitra is no danger to the keep nor its inhabitants, nor is she the enemy. By extension, that my wut associates and I are innocent of the specified charges."
A shrewd-looking raccoon approached the Prime Minister's position. "And it is of course my intention to prove that our friend the otter does not possess the right to make such a judgement and is therefore guilty of said charges by criminal negligence."
The otter frowned. "Who are you?"
"Rickkter," the raccoon replied, "Self-appointed court Devil's Advocate."
"Rickkter!" hissed Vitra. "What are you doing here, you butcher?"
The mage's gray ears perked. "You've heard of me?"
"Yes I have! Few haven't. Your head is wanted by over half the tribes north of the valley. Reward is wealth and a personal promotion and commendation from Nasoj himself."
"Nice to know my reputation has spread so far in such a short time."
"Why the name devil's advocate?" asked Oren, hoping to steer the conversation in a less dangerous direction.
"Well, that seems to be the capacity I've been acting in lately." He bent his head and looked over at the Prime Minister. "It seems to be my position to question the validity and sanity of Thomas' decisions in certain matters, to keep the best interests of Metamor in mind."
"Vitra is a lutin," said Rickkter, "plain and simple." He swept a hand in her direction. "That's plain to see for anyone, and I needn't tell what a lutin is. We all know that lutins are, and have been for centuries, the enemy of Metamor Keep. No lutin has been trusted, nor is there any real reason to do so. It is my recommendation to this court that she be executed for the safety of all."
"Vitra isn't a killer!" Oren countered. "She's a warm and caring person."
"Warm & caring?" Rickkter said laughing. He turned to the crowd. "Has anyone here ever heard of a warm & caring lutin? I'm sure the survivors of last month's raid on Mycransburg never heard of a caring lutin."
"All right Rickkter. We are all aware of what a lutin is and does," Malisa said. "There's no need to go over old ground. Oren, as defense for Vitra, it is you who shall speak on her behalf."
"Your Grace, CHP! Lady Minister, fellow wut keepers and citizens of wut wut Metamor..." Oren was very nervous, and growing even more nervous as his apprehension manifested itself in his speech in a growing vicious cycle.
He paused once again to calm himself, and continued, hoping he could make it through to the important part. "The argument against myself and those who have accompanied me to trial this day has consisted largely of the hng hng notion that this wut woman is a danger to the keep. It is my greee... my intention to demonstrate that this is not the case."
A murmur arose from the crowd. Oren waited for it to die down and continued. "I would like to call Vitra to testify on her own behalf."
"We don't need to hear what a lutin has to say!" bellowed a voice from the back of the room.
Oren wheeled around, his composure fading. "Lady minister, I'd like to chur change course if you please. I wish to call Pascal the alchemist."
This time, Malisa had a difficult time restoring order.
From where he sat, Rickkter called over in an annoyed tone of voice, "Lady minister, what relevance has Pascal to this case?"
Malisa fixed a stern gaze on the raccoon. "If we listen, perhaps we may learn. Proceed, please, Oren."
The technicolor porcupine was already on her way up. Oren quietly thanked Yahweh she had been in attendance. He was half-sure she'd be locked up in her workshop, oblivious of the outside world. "Miss Pascal, thank you wut wut for coming."
"Am I correct in understanding that you have a certain amount of understanding of how the curse of Metamor works."
Pascal smiled and got a faraway look in her eyes. "Inasmuch as anyone can understand it. It's never quite elementary figuring out how two or more dissimilar spells affect one another. Why just the other day, I was saying..."
"And yet, if I'm not hng hng hng incorrect, you ppprrrrr were the one to explain to Duke Hassan that the magics had mixed, making the transformation spell, to the best of your knowledge, irreversible."
"Well, yes. He was livid that day. Were you there, then, Oren? You should have seen his face when..."
"No, I wasn't there. It was less than a year ago I wut arrived at the keep. If you recall, I came to you to discuss my further transformation."
"Oh, I remember. That was the same day you were arrested. Yes... I told you that it was probably because of your antimagic that the change took so long and had such a strange effect."
Oren turned to address the crowd. "For those of you unfamiliar with my condition, I was wut wut changed into an otter prior to my arrival in Metamor Valley. The curse has rendered me younger and female. The form you see is merely an approximation of my former self, permitted by my unusual resistance to magic."
A low murmur ran through the audience. It seemed there were quite a few people who didn't know just how to take that. "Miss Pascal, in your grrrr expert opinion, does the curse affect lutins?"
"No. Humans, it does, of course. Elves, too. We think dwarves, possibly. Brownies are a maybe. So are grugs. Halflings are definitely..."
"BUT... ppprrrr... not lutins."
"No. None of the creatures which were in Nasoj's service at the Battle of the Three Gates would be affected."
"What about Grunch?"
"Bluenight? Well, it's true that he is a lutin, or at least was... but he's also a quarter human. Technically a hobgoblin, or would that be hob-hobgoblin?"
The raccoon walked over to Misha. "Who is Bluenight?" he whispered in the fox's ear.
"You've never heard of Bluenight?" Misha responded.
"No I haven't. I can't keep track of everything that goes on at the Keep," Rickkter replied.
"He wandered into the Mule a few months ago. He changed into some sort of lizard. He's a member of the Writers guild. Seems he's quite a good writer."
"Misha, Rickkter. You have something to say to the court?" Malisa asked loudly.
"No, My lady," the fox answered. "Just discussing some items."
"If you wish to talk, do so outside the room. Otherwise please keep quiet."
"Yes, Lady Minister."
The Minister turned to the otter. "You may continue Oren."
"And how long did it take him to change?" Oren asked the porcupine.
"A couple of weeks before he began showing signs of change," was Pascals answer.
"A couple of weeks, not including the time already spent in the Valley."
"Right. The less human someone is, either the less they change or the slower the change takes effect, usually the latter. I've seen this not only in Bluenight, but also in yourself, in Desuka, in..."
"Jesse Roo?" said Oren, striding confidently across the floor, leaving Pascal looking perplexed. "How long was it between the time Vitra was introduced into your household and the time she was escorted, fully changed into a humanoid zorilla, into the keep?"
"Only a couple of days."
"A couple of days. Ladies and gentlemen, our expert witness has testified that the curse of Metamor does not affect lutins, yet here Vitra sits, changed bodily, just like every one of US."
That got quite a few people angry. Malisa called for order and bade Oren continue with her lips pressed tight and her gaze darkened.
"I think that we have sufficiently established wut wut by this point wut wut wut that Vitra ppprrrr is not an ordinary lutin."
"No, but she is still a lutin," interjected Rick. He was leaning back in his chair, looking for all the world like a cobra calmly observing a meal. "If your argument is true, then I can find a child raised by wolves, bring that child to be cursed, and claim, by your logic, that the curse affects wolves. What she is doesn't matter, it's where she was raised. And from what I've seen, she has no human upbringing, only lutin. Therefore, how can you claim she is harmless?"
"For that, I would hng hng like to allow this court to discover from her own lips. I call Vitra, widow of Ushka and daughter of Norchk of the Bloodborne tribe to testify."
Kim Roo leaned over to Felice and said, "Your brother is an incredible ham."
"Yep." replied Felice with an enormous grin. "He's gonna get us all killed."
Calmly, Vitra rose to her feet and moved to the position which Pascal had just vacated. She could feel the eyes of a thousand keepers upon her, waiting for her to slip up and provide them an excuse to kill her. This was what she had wanted when she had come, but it was different, now. Her new friends, the otter, the dragon and the kangaroo, had shown her that she was neither a monster nor worthless. She had a reason to live, now, and hoped that she would be able.
"Vitra, I would like you to tell everyone about yourself. As much as you can."
"What I say?"
"Begin with what you so recently learned about the circumstances leading up to your birth."
Vitra swallowed hard. "You think that smart?" she whispered.
"Better to get the truth out now. Go ahead."
The hobgoblin cleared her throat and began. "My father is lutin. My mother is... was human. Mother had powerful magic and mind power. Father was very strong, even for lutin, and is kin of those who change into animals. They were brought together to create child who is most powerful of any human or lutin."
"You?" asked Oren.
"No. Is brother, Nekril. I was not wanted."
"Not wanted by your parents?"
"No! Parents love me. It is those who brought my parents together who said that I must die. Father took me and ran away. Mother was with us and carried Nekril. They wanted to go to small village in south of Giantdowns to hide and protect us. Father escaped with me, but... Mother did not escape. I believing she was killed by those who chased us."
Oren could hear the assembly chattering about the meaning of this. He paused Vitra's story to make a statement. "My friends, Vitra has just revealed something potentially condemning. Drawing upon the terms used in stories of the future, I would sum it up by saying that she is the by-product of a eugenics program gone awry. It is entirely possible that she has enough power to equal any four keepers here. However, I wish to draw your attention to a more important fact. She has told you this freely and under no duress. She is trusting us with information which we could use to call for her death."
"How do we know she's not withholding anything else?" someone called.
"Let's find out. Vitra, tell us more."
The zorilla took a deep breath. She spoke slowly, being very careful to use correct grammar. "I grew up on the outskirts of a village in the southern Giantdowns which has no name. My father cared for me by himself. It is an unusual thing for a male lutin to care for his children. I think, perhaps, he learned it from Mother. The other lutin children made fun of him for it, but he did not care. He hunted for food to keep me fed. He made clothing for me. He taught me the ways of our people, even though he was not like others."
"You miss him?" asked Oren.
"Yes. I never love other lutins, but Father I love, and I miss."
"What about Ushka?"
"Ushka is only other lutin I love."
"Tell us how you met him."
"I was young... I was a young woman. Father believed that it was time for me to be married. I said that I did not wish it, but he would not let me do otherwise. He gave me to a horrible, horrible man. His name was Amak. He did not want me for a wife. He wanted only a slave for himself and his children. He made me work every minute I was awake, and when I did not work enough, he would beat me. He always called me lazy and stupid, and so did his children. They were not my children. I did not bear children because Amak did not love me as mate." Vitra could not help but cry at the memory.
Oren petted Vitra on the head and purred to her, not caring how many were watching him comfort the "enemy". When she had regained her composure, he bade her continue.
"I was sent to river one day. Amak had cache of wine he kept there so that it would always be cold. When getting wine, Ushka was passing by. He saw me cry because I was so very sad. He ask why I was crying. I tell him about Amak and his children. Next thing I see is Ushka going into house to tell Amak to treat me well. Amak was very angry. He attack Ushka with sword, try to kill him. He not know Ushka is wizard. Ushka fight back with magic. Ushka kill Amak and burn house."
"That's... rather drastic, isn't it?" asked Oren.
"Ushka is not like that. He used to be, but he changed."
Vitra bowed her head and formulated her answer. "Ushka... He told me many times of how he used to be a very evil lutin. He would kill many, many people in cruel ways in order to power his magic. He even killed the woman he was first supposed to marry."
"And what happened?"
"He told me of the day when the guilt and shame became too much for his soul to carry. He cry out in despair. That was when he meet strange man with holes in his hands."
There was a burst of noise as the people around the courtroom discussed this.
"Quiet!" Malisa shouted, and the noise subsided to a quiet, background buzz. "Go on, Vitra."
"I became Ushka's mate, and traveled with him. He taught me the magic of healing, and we went from village to village making the sick lutins well. Everywhere we go, he tell story of the strange man who said he was forgiven and made all the voices of those he had killed fall silent."
"Said he was forgiven? Does this man have a name? Is he lutin?" Oren asked.
"He never say name, but he says it not lutin. It human man," was Vitra's reply.
Oren cast a glance at Father Hough, then at Desuka. It was not the look of someone making a point, but rather one asking an unspoken question. "So then... Ushka was a healer."
"And was it in the capacity wut wut of a healer that he joined the army of CHP! Nasoj?"
"No! He not want work Nasoj at all. He say Nasoj evil man. But Nasoj say all lutin man work for him or die. Ushka not want to, but he join army. He want stay alive for me."
Oren could see that Vitra was getting quite emotional. He took her hand and stroked the fur on her arm. When she was calm again, he bade her continue.
"Nasoj did not want any healers. He was interested only in Ushka's fire magic. He used my husband to help him control creatures of darkness that he had summoned."
"Is that what he was doing when he was in the valley?"
"Yes. Many of these creatures escaped. Ushka was to help to recapture them. He bring me because he not bear be apart from me... I from him... he is... k... killed..." Vitra began sobbing uncontrollably. "He is killed by dark creature. I... I weep for many hours, but other lutins, they not cry for my Ushka. They say he stupid. They say I stupid for be his wife! They beat me! They rape me! They all laugh and say I stupid woman deserve to die. I hate them! I HATE them!" At this point, the lutin woman had her fists against her chest, her eyes clamped shut, and her muzzle open in screaming. Her entire body quivered with anger and pain and her words dissolved into a cry of sorrow.
Oren, ignoring decorum and the courtroom, embraced the lutin and cooed to her as she cried aloud.
"Lady Minister?" said Kim, rising slowly. "May I suggest a recess, as Ms. Vitra is obviously in no condition..."
"No!" barked Vitra. "Not finished. Let I go on."
"Are you sure?" asked Oren.
The otter backed off. Vitra took several deep breaths and continued. "When other lutins go, they leave I. They think I dead. I wish I dead, but I not. I hate I self for being lutin. I hate self and not want to live without Ushka. I get up and come to Metamor Keep. I know people in keep kill I. Nasoj say they evil monsters who love to kill lutins, so I go there and hope for they to kill me. I not get there. On road, I meet Oren and Gornul. I ask they to kill I, but they not do it. Then Gornul..." she paused, looking to the dragon for permission to tell the next part of the story. Gornul gave her a nod. "Gornul was having small troll in stomach. I see many of these in North. Trolls very tiny, when they eaten, they tell person who eat them to do bad things. Troll know I. He know I take many trolls out of stomachs. He tell Gornul to kill me, but Gornul not do it. Troll hurt Gornul, until I save him and make troll come out."
Oren turned to the crowd. "To clarify the point, Gornul had unknowingly swallowed this troll while eating some snow plums brought back to the keep by a patrol. He is still receiving treatment for the damage his uninvited guest did."
"You and dragon very kind. You show me that you are not evil, and you show me that I am not evil for being lutin."
"If I can wut wut back up here..." said Oren. "Why did you believe CHP that the Keepers were evil?"
"Lutins say keepers evil because they defied Nasoj, and that they became monsters because they so evil."
"We're considered evil because of our bodies?"
"My friends and fellow keepers," said Oren. "Grrreee we know that we are not evil. We know that we are not monsters. We know that we are simply people inside, despite the many and various ways Nasoj's magic has twisted our mortal shells. We know from firsthand experience that it is wrong to judge a person based on the shape, size or color of their body. All I ask of you is this; look beyond the black fur and the green skin to the heart that lies underneath. Judge not this woman based on what she is, but who she is. And for those of us who have already seen the inner beauty that is Vitra, daughter of Norchk, I believe that you will find that we only did what we knew was good and right. I thank you."
Rickkter stared at Vitra. "You want to prove yourself. Tell us what you know."
She looked the raccoon straight in the face, "What kind of information do you want?" she said calmly.
Rickkter's ears swiveled all the way forward. "Wow, that was easy. Just like that? You have no compunction about betraying your people?"
"People here at Keep my people. Lutins my enemy. What you want to know?"
"I can think of lots of things you can tell us, Vitra," Misha commented.
"What, wht, wht, will happen to her if she does tell you everything," Oren asked. "How do we know she won't be punished anyway?"
"At the moment, you don't. No more than we know what she'll tell us is the truth. If she tells the truth, then she will have nothing to worry about."
"Okay, I've heard enough," said Malisa. She rose from her place at the head table. "Rickkter, Misha, come with me." With a flourish of her dress, the Prime Minister left the court standing in recess and disappeared with the two animal morphs in tow.
"I've asked you two here for very simple reason. Misha, you're our most senior authority on lutins. As head of the long scouts, you've been further and seen more than any of us. Rick, you're just one of the most vocal of the opposition. And now I want your opinions."
Misha thought that over, his bushy tail sweeping out behind him. "I don't know how accurate some of what she told us about their society is, especially the parts about this Ushka. But we have been hearing rumors of those darkmen for some time, and Oren did bring back one of their heads. If she has information on those, I think it's worth the risk of her staying."
"I concur," said Rickkter immediately. "If she can give us something useable, then she can stay."
Malisa cocked an eyebrow at the raccoon. "Rather sudden of you. I had expected more of a fight."
"I'm a person who knows the value of good insider information," he explained at length.
"Thank you for you advice," said the Prime Minister as she nodded. "I think I've reached a decision."
"Attention, attention," called Mal. The court was quick to settle down. After hearing both sides, I've determined that Vitra may remain at Metamor Keep." There was a burst of cheering from Oren's group as they all stood up and hugged each other. "She will remain under guard for a duration of a week, or until I have been satisfied as to her unconditional allegiance to Metamor."
"Don't worry madam Prime Minister," said Oren, "I'll make sure she's safe."
"Oh, I don't think so, Oren," said Rick.
"Wut.. what do you mean?"
"This trial has raised more issues than just Vitra's future, Oren," said Mal as she looked over a sheet of paper. "There is still the question of what we're going to do with the rest of you."
"We saved her life, and that's a crime?" cried Christina.
"You took in a member of the enemy force, gave her shelter and protection, and neglected to inform your own side of the occurrence. Next, you brought her HERE, within the very walls of Metamor where no Lutin outside of Bluenight has ever been. And again you neglected to tell anyone of this. Did you think that you could commit such a crime and get away with it?"
"We only wanted to protect her from what would happen when you found out."
"And it is now the job of this court to determine what the results of that action will be." Rickkter strode forward, his long tail swishing around dramatically behind him. "You're a story teller, weren't you, Oren? You've also been learning some history, if what I hear is accurate."
Oren was hesitant to reply. "Yes, all of that is true."
"Well, I'd like to tell you a story then. It's a fascinating piece of history. About the middle of the southern shoreline of this continent, there is a place called Innes. Lovely place. I was there once, and would love to go again, but," he held up his furry hand and wiggled the fingers.
"At any rate, there was once a king, a King Gregor. Gregor was a good and a just king, much like our own Duke Thomas. Now, Innes was not on the friendliest terms with the kingdom to the east. They had hated each other for generations.
"As King Gregor was traveling along the western border of his kingdom one evening, his caravan happened upon an injured young man. The man had been half beaten to death, and left there on the road to die. The king, being the compassionate ruler that he was, took the man with him to his castle and nursed him back to health.
"When that was done, it was discovered that the man was a scribe. He had a way with languages, and a retention rate that was simply marvelous. Since the man had no work, and he wanted to repay the Gregor for his generosity, he offered his services. Over the course of a month, the man proved his worth and was given more and more important tasks.
"That was until one day when he just vanished. After three days they began a search for him. Nothing. A week later it was found that very vital military information had been stolen. Four days after that, the neighbor to the north attacked."
Oren could see where it was going. "It turned out the young man was a spy," concluded Rickkter. "He had been sent to gain the sympathies of the king, and thereby get close enough to steal the required information. And because of it, the entire kingdom of Innes fell."
"Very vivid, Rick," commented the otter. Then something struck him. "Were you in Innes at the time? Did you fight for Gregor?"
"Gregor? Oh, no I didn't side with him. No, I was on the side of the invaders. And THAT is why I know the value of a properly placed spy. We suffered perhaps thirty- percent losses, while Gregor sustained closer to eighty percent. Back to the argument of defectors, though. Personally, I have nothing against them. I've been in winning battles that were winning battles because there was someone to betray their side. I've also been on the side that was betrayed, and suffered the loss that can occur when someone sides with the enemy."
"Leave it to you Rickkter to know a story of betrayal," Misha commented.
"I can't believe this is happening!" whispered Jesse to Christina. "From the way this is going, they're actually going to kill us! We've got to do something about it."
"Yeah, no kidding," growled the wolf. "But what?"
"Um, well, since Rickkter seems to be the main voice of the opposition, I think we need to attack him. Can you scan him, see if there's anything there we can use?"
Christina frowned at the kangaroo. "It's against the rules to scan someone without their knowledge or consent, you know that."
"Yeah, but if we don't do something fast, they're going to execute all of us!"
That did it for her. "Good point."
Christina leaned forward a little, focusing on the raccoon where he stood bickering with the otter. "Um, his mind feels really strange, Jesse."
"Strange?" whispered the 'roo. "Strange how?"
"Well, I just did a surface scan, to get the feel of it. It's all prickly. I've never felt anything like it."
"Well, we don't have a choice. Do it."
Flicking her ears in agitation, Christina leaned back. She was only like that for a few moments before she pulled back with a startled yelp and clutched at her head. The whole court turned to watch her actions as she writhed on the floor.
"Oh, Great Maker," mumbled Rickkter, looking at Christina with a mix of contempt and scorn, "he's also got a telepath with him."
"How do you know she's a telepath?" asked Malisa.
"Simple, she tried to scan me. That's something that's impossible for any telepath to do unless I permit it. You see, my mind is shielded against those types of intrusions. It's something done for all southern mages once they achieve certain rank."
The Prime Minister turned to Yonson, who was out in the crowd. "Is this true ambassador?"
"Yes, it is, my liege," he said nodding. "Upon reaching the rank of purple, my rank, all mages are imparted with such enchantments to prevent a telepath or psionic mage from stealing any sensitive information. In the past, enclaves have fallen because of such things."
Malisa looked over to where the she-wolf still clutched her head, being tended to by Jesse and Felice. "Will she be okay?"
"Of course. That was just a light scan, thankfully. The spell reacted with opposite force. It could have been lethal, but her power isn't strong enough for that."
"Erg, how do you know?" growled Christina. "And I'm a mind-mage, not a telepath."
"Can you manipulate the physical world purely with your mind?" asked Rick. "Can you perform any acts of manipulation outside the human body or the realm of the mind?" She just glowered at him. "If not, then you're simply a telepath. I knew a psionic wizard once, and you only possess a fraction of his power. Though it does raise an interesting point. Why would you be trying to scan me if you are as innocent as you claim?"
"You're trying to get us hanged," Jesse shouted. "We have a right to defend ourselves, anyway we can."
"You have the right to invade my thoughts?" snarled Rickkter, the hackles on his neck visibly raised. "You have the right to poke around inside my mind, my very being, simply because you feel that the evidence is weighted against you and the facts point to your guilt?" He took an aggressive step towards the group seated behind the table. "If you'd do this to me, what's to keep you from doing it to the Prime Minister? After all, it's her hands your fate is in. If anything, the taking of such action is only further proof of your own guilt."
Malisa slammed the flat of her hand down on the table, the entire court visibly jumping. "ENOUGH! Rickkter, back off and get a hold of yourself." The Prime Minister fixed Christina in a deadly gaze. "He was right about one thing; such a stunt will not be tolerated in my court room. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
Both wolf and kangaroo nodded solemnly. "Yes Prime Minister," they said in unison.
"My apologies, Lady Minister," Rickkter replied, bowing deeply.
"Now we will wait until the court mages can cast the spells necessary to prevent a repeat of that idiotic stunt," the lady Prime Minister said in a stone cold voice.
The court sat in silence for several minutes until Wessex and several other mages arrived and performed the necessary magic to block all mind magic. It was a long, hard silence that wore on everyone's nerves. Finally Wessex stood in front of the room and bowed the Malisa. "The room is now shielded from mind magic," He said, then turned and departed.
"You may continued your examination Rickkter. There will be no further theatrics from anyone," Malisa said out loud.
"I'd like Jesse to step forward," the raccoon announced.
The kangaroo stepped uncertainly up to replace Oren and stood nervously shifting around.
Rickkter picked up a piece of paper, scratching behind his ear as he began pacing in front of the 'roo. There was a very puzzled look on his face. "You and your mother were housed in cells five and six, right Jesse?"
"Yes we were."
Rick was still looking a little confused. "Now, it says here that there is hole in cell five that wasn't there before you arrived. The hole is about eight feet wide and goes through the solid brick that the cell's made from. That brick is three feet thick itself." Assuming an innocent yet inquisitive look, the raccoon asked, "How?"
"Um, well... it was there when I got there?" ventured Jesse.
The court erupted in laughter, though Rickkter did not share it. He just rotated on his heel until he was looking at the Prime Minister.
While Mal had shared a chuckle or two, she was quick to regain her composure. "I've read the reports, Jesse, and I know what happened. Answer the question."
The kangaroo looked at his feet and shuffled nervously. "Well. It seemed a little stuffy in there and I needed some fresh air."
The whole room broke up in laughter, even Malisa was openly laughing. It was several moments before she held up her hand and restored silence. "Couldn't you just have asked to be let out for a walk?" she asked, giggling.
Rickkter turned away and growled, slapping a hand over his face. "Wei inzen gekunder wen degander!" he exclaimed, leaning his head back and raising both hands to the heavens.
The room was silent except for a small chuckle from the Ambassador from Marzac.
"Ambassador Yonson?" asked Mal.
The lemur touched a finger to his snout in a display of mirth before he regained control. "My apologies, Prime Minister. It was just that I hadn't heard that expression in some time." When he saw the look on her face, he elaborated. "It's an old bit of southern slang, an expression of frustration. Roughly translated, it's 'The lunatics have taken over the asylum'."
"I ask a simple question, all I get is gibberish," Rickkter muttered before turning and walking over to the marsupial. "Since I can't get any straight answers that way, let's try something different. You've admitted that you took Vitra into your home. That's true?"
"Yes," Jesse confirmed
"What did you think of Vitra when she first arrived? Weren't you angry at Oren for bringing a lutin into the Keep?"
The kangaroo shook his head. "No, I was surprised, but I wasn't angry. Oren trusted her and that was enough for me."
"That's it? You didn't bother to wonder if she was a threat?"
"Vitra's a very nice lady. All you have to do is get to know her and you'll realize she's no threat."
The raccoon shook his head. "That is what this court is here to decide. Exactly how did you intend to explain a lutin to everyone?"
"We were going to hide her for a week and then claim she was my sister and that the curse changed her into a lutin," was the explanation.
"Did you really think his plan would have worked?" Rickkter asked. "Do you mean to tell me that you thought that none of your neighbors would notice that you all of a sudden had a full grown sister that you 'forgot' to tell everyone about?"
"We were going to claim she was my long, lost sister, kidnapped as a child by lutins. She had just managed to escape."
"You actually expected people to believe that fairy tale?"
"Well, not everyone is as paranoid as you are."
"The world's too dangerous not to be paranoid. It keeps me alive. I'm done with the witness," Rickkter said, shaking his head in disgust. "Would Oren please step forward."
Rickkter waited patiently as Oren stepped forward and stood in the spot his friend had just vacated.
"Before coming here, you were a soldier in the Hipoccian army, were you not?" Rickkter asked Oren. "And Hipocc is a relatively small land located to the south?"
"Yes, wht, wht, on both," Oren answered.
The raccoon muttered something to himself before speaking out loud. "I would like for Felice to step forward and testify."
Felice exchanged looks with Jesse and his mother before stepping to the front of the room. She was markedly nervous as she watched Rickkter pace in front of her a few moments. The innocent demeanor he assumed before speaking to her didn't help much either.
"So Oren's your brother, is he?"
"Yes, he is. We lived most of our lives in Hipocc. It's only recent circumstances that have brought us to Metamor."
Rickkter took a comfortable seat against a banister, his thick tail drooping behind him. "Could you please tell the court about your home land? About how things were back there, what the land was like and the people?"
Felice closed her eyes and started to speak. "The land of Hipocc is fertile and green surrounded by undisturbed natural beauty. There is a great deal of farming done, but also much hunting and gathering. The land provides for us well. The people there are loving, and caring. They are also very creative, and constantly striving to be, make, and do the best in all things. There are many good times to be had. They are also fiercely loyal to Yaweh. You'll be hard pressed to find a Hipoccian who isn't. They know that to spurn the protection of their God means death. This is because they live in the constant shadow of their ancient enemy, Devil's Strand."
"Wow. Sounds lovely. But I was wondering, could you tell us about the Devil's Strand?"
Felice's look of mild bliss over the memory of her home instantly dissolved into one of hate and rage. "The Stranders are walking evil. They even murdered our parents. The Stranders are a society dedicated to magic, but the types they employ are evil ones, frequently requiring the torture and death of innocent human victims. For all of its recorded history, Hipocc has been the primary force holding Devils Strand back from expansion. Out of necessity, the Hipocci have cultivated the art of antimagic. This includes potions (which have come, over the years, to make all Hipocci very resistant to magic), runes, wards, incantations, anti-enchanted objects, and of course, the raising of the beloved thirdaks. All of this WAS Hipocc, until one of their own betrayed the village. He cast a counter-spell (the only kind a Hipoccian can cast) on the magic-repulsion devices surrounding the town."
That brought a small twitch of a smile to Rick's lips. He dismissed Felice and called Oren once more. "You were in the Hipoccian army, correct?"
"Yes. I chp was, for several years."
Rick nodded, though it could be seen that this was a mere confirmation of what he knew. "And in those years of various capacities, you have had opportunity to kill various members of the Devil's Strand?"
Oren could FEEL himself being set up here, it was just between the pressures of the trial itself and the memories that Felice had called up, he couldn't quite see it. "Yes... but chp, chp, were ALL bad."
That got a smile out of Rick. And it wasn't a smile that Oren liked one bit. "Now what would you do if a member of the Devil's Strand presented themselves to you with the request that you end their life? Remember that you are under oath."
Oren's mouth tried to work, but he just couldn't form the words.
"Answer the question Oren," Rickkter demanded. "What would you do?"
"I, wht, chrp, hut, hut, hut," The otter stuttered unable to speak.
The raccoon held up both hands. "Never mind an answer. Let us continue. Return to the present, instead of Hipocc. you were at Metamor. And instead of a Strander, you were greeted by a lutin. As you are well aware they are the enemies of the place you now call home, the people you now call friends. You were supposed to be guardian of Metamor and its people, yet you gave aid and shelter to the enemy that has plagued it for the last few hundred years. You freely admit that you would and have killed enemies of your old homeland, but you won't here. What could be the reason for that? You've spoken of an alliance between the strand and Nasoj, could it be you're working for them both?"
"What other reason would you have for bringing a lutin into the Keep?" Rickkter said coldly. "What? What reason Oren. Why don't you answer me? Are you afraid of the truth?"
Felice jumped up, "My lady Minister. He's badgering the witness."
"Don't you mean he's raccooning the witness?" someone muttered and the room broke up in laughter.
"Rickkter," Malisa started, "Stick to facts, not wild flights of fancy."
"My apologies, Lady Minister," Rickkter replied, bowing deeply. "Just that in certain situations my imagination gets the better of me."
"Sometimes?" Came the muttered comment from the crowd, and the room buzzed with laughter. The Prime Minister silenced the noise with a wave of her hand.
The raccoon morph looked at Oren, sighing with deep regret and he folded his hands behind his back. "You have never even have killed a lutin, have you? The only thing you've killed were that group of escaped Darklings. You said that they needed to be controlled, to be exterminated, so perhaps that's what you were doing. As for taking in Vitra, who knows? Perhaps that was even another step in invasion plans. A way for her brother to more easily track her."
"No!" the otter countered. "All Stranders are evil. I know that, but don't know if all lutins are. Lutins have never hurt me."
"So you're saying that you kill a Strander so readily because they killed your parents, and you left her alive because you have no grudge against her people?"
"Prr... well, yes. I suppose so."
"You suppose so," quoted Rick as he looked over the crowd. "All of you who've lost family -- mothers, fathers, sons or daughters -- to Nasoj's forces over the years, raise your hands." Oren and Rickkter both watched the hands go up. There were a goodly number of them.
"Any of these people would have done the deed without a second thought, Oren. Their motive may be pure revenge in some cases, but either way they still place the lives of those at the Keep above the lives of their enemies. Where do your loyalties lie?"
"With my friends!"
That got the raccoon's attention and he quickly whirled back. "Now that is a very interesting turn of phrase. When you came here, you swore an oath to Lord Thomas and the people of Metamor, pledging your life in their protection, did you not?" asked Rick. "You swore to defend it against the enemy to the north and all their minions. And more importantly to this trial, you swore to uphold the laws and order for which Metamor stands."
"That's not true. I mean it is true. I mean the part about the oath." Oren was getting very flustered. "But.. but I didn't mean for things to turn out this way."
"How did you expect it then, Oren? When you got back you never mentioned any of this to George the Patrol Master. Nothing about trolls in plums or lutins begging to be killed. As the Patrol Master he is a person of high rank and your commanding officer. Why did you not inform him of these events?"
Oren sat there and fidgeted for an answer. "I didn't know I could trust him. The only person I know I could trust with this is the Duke. We were going to tell Thomas before bringing her into the Keep. The threat of Nekril forced Jesse, Kim and Christina to bring her in prematurely."
Something in the otter's testimony struck Rickkter and he swiftly turned back with an almost amazed look on his masked face. "You never WERE going to tell any of us this, were you Oren? From what Jesse has told us and what you've already said, this was just going to be your own little secret. You'd hide her out at Jesse's house, wait until she had changed fully, then you'd bring her here and feed us that bogus story as to her origin. You never had any intention of telling anyone at the Keep about Vitra, the Strand, any of it, did you?"
"The original plan was to wait seven days, tell everyone that Vitra was Jesse's sister, and that the curse had turned her into a lutin. Then we would talk to the Duke, tell him the truth and get her asylum. We didn't anticipate that she wouldn't stay a lutin, nor that someone was out to kill her."
Oren closed his eyes and took a long breath, trying to regain his composure. When he resumed talking Oren spoke in a calm voice. "I am a warrior sworn to protect the Duke and Metamor Keep. Never would I willing do anything to harm either. I helped Vitra because my heart told me it was the right thing to do. I knew she wasn't my enemy. An enemy doesn't walk up to you and asks you to kill them. I said it before and I'll say it again. Vitra is not an enemy of the Keep. She's no danger to anyone here. I know that's true because my heart tells me so."
A silence fell over the room, and it seemed to stretch forever. Finally the raccoon spoke. "Thank you. You're dismissed, Oren."
The otter hesitated before he started walking back to his seat.
"Before you leave, Oren," Rickkter asked. "I was wondering if you could define for me a keeper."
The otter stopped and turned a rather puzzled look to the raccoon inquisitor. "Pardon?"
"I asked if you could define for me a keeper. A Metamoran."
"Interesting you should ask. Just yesterday I was explaining to Ana that a keeper is someone who has become, due to the curse, a mixture of human and animal, or man and woman, or adult and child. But it is because of the type of heart which characterizes a keeper. We stay here and endure the curse because we have chosen lives of self-sacrifice, living for a good greater than our own."
"Ah... so you concede that a person is more than their body?"
"That," said Oren. "Is what I've been trying to tell you all along."
"I have been a warrior for a good many years, in many places all over the world," started Rickkter. "Despite what some think, it is a sacred trust. We are charged with defending those who cannot do it themselves. Metamor Keep has a tradition of upholding the defense of not only the pass and the lands there-in, but of defending the midlands and all those beyond.
"Oren, you and your accomplices have violated that trust. You gave shelter and aid to an enemy of everyone here. You brought her here, within these walls, without our knowing. Then you lied to your superior officers, and then you concealed important information from those whose job it was to deal with such matters. When things turned bad you tried to use devious and dishonest methods to achieve your goals." The raccoon turned and looked at the Prime minister. "Madam Prime Minister, these people have violated not only the trust that had been placed into their hands, but the laws of Metamor itself."
Rickkter leaned against the banister, lowered his head and closed his eyes. He sat like that for several seconds, composing himself. "What I'm saying, Oren, is that you endangered my home. You placed everyone at Metamor, and possibly the rest of the midlands, at risk by doing what you've done. Now if this were any other time in my life, I could just move on. But I can't, I'm stuck here, by the same spell that once saved my life. And I will not allow you, or anyone else, though foolish actions, to endanger it.
"And that is why you must be punished to the full extent. We don't know what could have been done to you, and we can't risk her being a spy. And to save the lives of the hundreds at the Keep, and the thousands in the valley, I recommend that you be put to death." He turned to Malisa. "I've made my arguments, my liege. The final decision is yours."
The room dissolved into a storm of noise and Malisa held up her right hand to bring quiet back to the room. "This court will stand in recess, while I consider a decision." The woman turned and left the room.
"That," remarked Misha, "was absolutely vicious."
"Thank you," said Rick, giving him a toothy smirk.
"No, I really mean that. For a person that professes no interest in politics, you certainly manipulate a person's words well," the fox commented.
Rickkter just shrugged, "I just prefer to see all possibilities brought to light."
Misha looked at his friend in a new light. He may be loyal to Metamor, but he was still the same cynical, paranoid loner he had been when he had arrived all those months ago. "You know Rick, I'm glad you turned down my offer to join the Longs. You're too vicious."
"If you call telling things as I see them vicious, so be it."
"You like ripping into people too much. You really enjoyed tearing Oren apart, didn't you?"
The raccoon looked at Misha with a cold stare. "Is that what you believe? I've seen many of my friends killed because of someone doing a good deed, like Oren did."
"That doesn't mean Vitra shouldn't be give the benefit of the doubt."
"Misha, Metamor Keep survives by the barest of margins. We don't have the luxury of such things. We have to do anything possible to survive."
"Even if it means killing an innocent person?"
"No one is really innocent."
The fox just stared at his friend for a moment before speaking. "What do you think of Oren's testimony?" Misha asked, changing the subject.
"I think that Oren's a first rate storyteller," replied Rick quietly turning a little away from the crowd. "True I haven't been here that long, only a few months, but somehow I never saw lutins as that. Your opinion?"
"I've never seen anything like she's described, no. And I've been further north than most people. But lutins are a very erratic breed, the one consistent thing about them is that there is nothing consistent about them. They adapt and change constantly."
Rick scratched behind his ear a moment. "Has she been given a thorough magical exam, checking for any enchantments that might have been placed on her?"
The fox thought a moment then shook his head. "Wessex examined her. Why?"
"Ever hear of a double sight enchantment?" Misha hadn't. "It's an interesting construct. It permits the caster to see everything that is going on though the subject's eyes. All that is then required is a scrying tool of some sort, like a black mirror, a pool of water or a pool of mercury. I saw it used once, and it was an extremely effective tool."
Misha really didn't like all this knowledge Rickkter seemed to possess. "Do you think Nasoj might cast one?"
The raccoon shrugged. "Only one of many things I could think of. Never underestimate the enemy. When orthodox strategies fail, try something completely different."
"I've been fighting Nasoj for eight years, very little surprises me anymore. I know one thing," the fox commented. "I want to know more about that brother of hers, before he pays us a visit."
"Do you believe what she said about that?" Rickkter asked.
The vulpine nodded solemnly. "We've been hearing stories about someone crossbreeding lutins to improve the breed. It's nothing new. Various attempts have been made over the years. Not just by human wizards, but the lutins themselves. What's a surprise to me is the level of power involved. No one's ever breed a lutin as powerful as what she's describing."
"Can they do it? Just how powerful is her brother?"
"If her brother has the strength of a lutin combined with the magic power of a human, he could be very powerful," Misha answered. "And very dangerous.
Wessex said she's a powerful mage in her own right. If she's the failure, I'd hate to think of how powerful her brother, the success is."
"If there have been attempts at crossbreeds before, how come we've never heard of them?"
"They're pretty rare. It seems it's pretty hard to breed a half human, half-lutin. The biology of the two don't quite match," Misha explained. "But several lutin warlords have been crossbreeds, usually with ogres but some were half humans."
"You've never heard of a half lutin Keeper have you?"
Misha didn't immediately answer but looked at the floor. "Well, no one has ever officially called half lutin."
"But . . ." Rickkter prompted.
"There are stories, you know; bar talk. Gossip really, the type of stuff you usually talk about after a few beers. Most of the stories center around various keepers." He gave a short yip of a laugh. "But at least one Duke is supposed to have been half ogre; Kegan the Strong."
"You serious?" Rickkter asked.
The fox morph nodded. "Oh yes. You ever see a picture of Kegan? He certainly had the looks of an ogre. Six and a half feet tall, five hundred pounds of solid muscle and butt ugly."
"Kegan was one of OURS right?" Rickkter asked.
"Ok, just checking." Rickkter laughed. "Anyone living who's a half lutin?"
Misha's ears drooped. "Lutins generally limit their raids to looting and burning, but occasionally they decide to have fun with their captives. Anything that might result is usually aborted before the pregnancy goes too far, but sometimes . . ." he fell silent. Rickkter could see the fox close his eyes and stood shaking for a moment. Rickkter clasped his friend on the shoulder but didn't say anything.
After a moment Misha stopped shaking and continued speaking. "Do you know Finbar?"
"A ferret isn't he? One of your Long Scouts."
"When I first recruited him, I investigated him and his family. The whole village was excited about it," Misha said in a cold and distant voice. "They all happily told me how great a fighter he was and how I'd never regret having him in the Longs. His friends and family were open and answered every question I asked except one. No one ever openly said what happened to his father. The most I could uncover was that he had been killed in a raid some nine months before Finbar had been born. His mother Alena said Finbar was the worst and best thing that ever happened to her. I never understood that until now."
Rickkter looked at his friend in shock. "You mean Finbar is half lutin? Finbar?"
"He was born exactly eight months, ten days after a lutin raid on his mothers village."
"You knew he was half lutin and you still let him become a Long Scout?" the raccoon asked.
"I suspected it, but had no proof. All I had was a vague rumor and some even vaguer ideas. He was so dedicated, hard working and he hated lutins with an incredible passion. I found it hard to believe he was related to those green monsters. I just didn't want to believe it. A person chooses to believe what they want and I chose to believe that he was human. Besides my instincts told me to trust him."
Time was growing short. In minutes, the trial would commence once again. The seven prisoners sat huddled together in a specially prepared holding room. It wasn't at all uncomfortable. The keep herself had seen to that. The tension in the air, however, made any relaxation difficult. Oren looked to his sister. Her dirty clothes and downcast eyes gave him a twinge of guilt. She should not even be here. "Felice?" he said. "I'm... I'm sorry."
Felice scritched her brother's head. Her nails felt sharp. Could she be changing already?
"It's okay, Bro." said the freckle-faced woman. "I'm here with you, and proud to be."
"We all are." said Kim.
"We know we're right," said Christina.
"Trust Yaweh." said Jesse, placing one paw on Oren's shoulder, and one on Vitra's. "It's going to be all right."
Vitra's green lip began to quiver with emotion. "You all so good to me. I thank you so much for being so kind and..." She couldn't finish. Gornul sat beside the zorilla and nuzzled her arm.
"We believe in you," said Oren. "We know who you are. We just need to make everyone else see that."
"That's why we're here," said Kim. "We're here not because anyone roped us in, but because we have faith in one very precious green-skinned girl."
Suddenly, the walls shook, and the keep itself seemed to groan in pain.
"What was that?"
"I don't know!"
"Hey, the door's open!" cried Christina.
"Let's go take a look," said Oren. " Someone might need help!"
Half of the courtroom was strewn with rubble. A huge hole marred the front wall. Framed by the chaotic scene, floating five feet above the ground, arrogantly grinning and draped in a pitch-black shroud, a picture of pure evil in all of its beauty and horror, Nekril.
"I wish to thank you all for putting on this farcical performance for me," he sang as he strode forward on thin air. "It has been most entertaining, but primarily, it has served to alert me to the presence of my dear, sweet sister."
Vitra's blood was running cold from fear. She knew that she was about to die, but she would not back down. Squaring her shoulders, she stood her ground.
Misha and Rickkter burst through the courtroom doors. They surveyed the scene, seeing half the gallery cringing and the other half preparing for a losing battle. They saw the hobgoblin standing in the air and the prisoners now free. There was only one conclusion to be drawn.
"Do you still doubt me?" said Rickkter. "Their friend has come to free them."
"Free Vitra?" Nekril responded merrily. "No, silly raccoon, I have come to kill her!"
"Aw, and take away all my fun?" asked Rick as he started to edge around the floating figure, looking for an opportune point of attack.
"Why?" asked Oren. "Why grr she die?" To himself he thought that he must keep the invader talking until help arrives.
"Why? If you're creating a super weapon capable of annihilating your enemies, you don't leave your failures lying around for anyone to study."
"How did you know she was here?" asked Misha.
"How? Him." Nekril pointed, and from his finger shot a beam of light, which ended on the forehead of a very confused looking lizard.
"Grunch? He led you here?"
"Don't be stupid. Grunch couldn't lead milk to a cheese press. I've had him under a double- vision spell for some time. You just never saw it because you were too holy to dare look at a slovenly little lutin. Not even he knew that he was working for me."
"I am not slovenly!"
Nekril waved his hand. Grunch flipped backward over his chair.
Misha raised his axe, and Rickkter pulled out a long dagger, its edge razor sharp.
"Now to business," said Nekril, ignoring the fox and the raccoon. A cold wind whipped the lutin's shroud as he declared, "Sister, it is time to die."
"You'll not touch her!" cried Oren as he stepped between the two.
"Oren of Hipocc, the childlike warrior," said Nekril with a bemused smile. "I'm curious to see if the rumors about you are true. Are you really invulnerable to magic?" A beam of energy shot from the green man's hand, striking Oren squarely in the chest. The otter stumbled backward a step, but withstood the blast. His tail began shrinking, his ears lengthening, his teeth growing longer.
"LEAVE HIM ALONE!" shouted Felice, stepping part way into the eldritch beam. She clasped her brother's hand, and immediately, he began to revert to his lutrine form.
For the first time, the monster's face showed the smallest trace of concern. Sweat appeared on his brow as he brought his other hand up to accompany the first. Then, the magic stopped. Nekril's head had disappeared, surrounded by a sphere of coruscating patterns of colored light.
"Gornul?" said the otter in amazement. Surely enough, up on the table stood the little dragon, every muscle in his body straining, putting everything he had into the ball of light which surrounded Nekril's head.
Felice turned and shouted to Misha and Rickkter, "Now! While he's blinded!"
Not being one to neglect an opening, Rickkter flicked out a paw and cast a quick spell at Nekril. Twin arcs of light leapt from his fingers aimed at the floor around Nekril and quickly circumscribed two circles around the dark lutin. The spell was designed to splinter the stone floor, projecting the shards at an angle towards the center, where Nekril happened to be. The hobgoblin screamed in pain as the stone shrapnel pierced his body.
That was all the archers stationed around the courtroom needed. In one instant Nekril was filled with a half dozen arrows. An instant later the room hummed once more and there were six more arrows in Nekril.
Any sane person would have assumed that the battle might have ended there. However, the floating invader let loose an agonized bellow and with a burst of mental force, shattered the bubble encasing his head. The process also sent Gornul flying backward into Christina. He then began pulling arrows out of his flesh. The wounds began closing as soon as the arrows were free.
Kim and her son, Jesse exchanged a glance and a nod. Silently, they murmured their special spell to one another, then on the last syllable, let a pair of magic missiles fly.
The lutins eyes registered irritation for a brief moment as the missiles hit their marks, and two arrows exploded inward into his body. The courtroom rang briefly with the howl of a wounded monster before Misha stepped in to finish him off.
Swinging his axe in an arc over his head with both hands he threw the great axe at Nekril. The lutin looked at the axe that was slowly flipping end over end as it flew at him. With a smirk on his face and a flip of his hand he sent the axe flying backward straight at its owner. The smirk turned to shock as the great axe did a U-turn and flew back at Nekril.
The lutin screamed and shook his fist at Vitra. A black fog enveloped Nekril moments before the axe reached him. When the cloud dissipated the axe was embedded in the wall, and there was no trace of Nekril.
Malisa walked slowly down the hallway towards the Duke's apartments. She had just finished her meeting with Rickkter and Misha regarding what to do with Oren and his group. Misha wanted to let them off with a light sentence, and even Rick had lessened his stance after the fight with Nekril. Still, she was having problems deciding. It was one of her first truly big decisions as Prime Minister, and she wanted to make the right one. Still, it was a difficult one to reach. She decided to retire to her chambers to consider what Rickkter and Misha had said, all in the light of what had happened in the courtroom.
It had been over two hours since she had sequestered herself. Normally she wouldn't have accepted the messenger, but he said it was both urgent and from her father. She had arrived at the Duke's personal apartment by this point, where she gave a quick knock before entering.
"You asked to see me father?" Malisa saw that Thomas was seated behind his desk wearing an unusually grave expression. On the other side of the room, near one of the large book cases reading a volume he had plucked from it, was Zhypar.
"Yes I did Mal," replied the Duke. He motioned for her to have a seat before his desk. Malisa frowned a little as she took her seat. In all the time she had been around Thomas, it was rare to see him with such a grave expression. She wondered what could be troubling him and if it might involve her. Thomas folded his hoofs beneath his chin and regarded her a moment. "How goes the trial?" he eventually asked. "Nothing that you can't handle, I hope."
"Oh, no. In fact, your summons interrupted my final deliberations on the issue."
Thomas nodded to himself, but Mal saw how his eyes drifted in the direction of the kangaroo for a second. "So what is the verdict?"
"Who said anything about reaching one? I'm still deliberating some issues. While it's been agreed upon that Vitra stays, provided she gives us all the information we ask for regarding her people. It's Oren and the rest that I'm unsure of." Reaching up, Mal brushed some hair from where it had fallen in front of her face. "There were some excellent points raised during the proceedings, and Rickkter was quite vocal on several issues. I'm still trying to decide which should be dealt with and which should be disregarded."
The duke nickered. "Yes, that raccoon does tend to cause a stir in a court room." But his smile faded quickly and he looked away, clicking his hoofs together. Mal just let him stare at the wall. With a tired sigh, Thomas looked up at her, giving a brief and smoldering glance in the probable direction of the 'roo. "I want you to find them innocent."
Straightening up a little in her seat, the Prime Minister was visible taken aback. "Pardon milord?"
Thomas sighed once more before fixing his gaze on his adopted daughter. "I said I want you to find Oren, Jesse Roo, and the others all innocent. You can impose some form of minor punishment on them so as to maintain a balance of justice, but nothing too harsh. But whatever it is, Oren must continue his training as a Long Scout, and above all, none of them must die. It is vital that you do this."
Malisa was still greatly puzzled by all of this. "Fatherů why are you doing this?"
For the third time she saw the duke shoot a quick gaze at Zhypar. She turned to look this time as well, but only found the roo as she first saw him, leaning against the bookshelf reading through some random volume.
"For the time being, Mal, you just must trust me. I have an excellent reason to believe that Oren will be critical to the future of Metamor; neither he nor his friends must be harmed. I am asking this as both your father and the Duke of Metamor Keep. At the present time I cannot give you the reasons for what I've asked, but only ask that you trust me in it. This is nothing personal between us - I think you're doing a commendable job of Prime Minister so far - it is for the good of all Metamor that I'm asking you to do this."
Malisa sat there silently considering what she had been asked. Her authority was being undermined and she was being ordered to possibly throw the verdict in one of the Keep's more eventful trials in recent memory. But then again, she could see how doing this was affecting Thomas, and she had never known him to steer her wrong in the past. So whatever it was that he had learned about Oren should be taken seriously.
But it was ultimately still her decision. She told him as much.
"Yes, I realize that and there's nothing more I can do about it." Mal saw him give Zhypar one more glance. "I hope you make the right decision. For all of us."
Most of the rubble had been removed by the time the Prime Minister had returned. She noticed that the room was an armed camp. Everyone seemed to be carrying a weapon. Misha was dressed in full armor and there were no less then seven of the Long Scouts with him. Rickkter was also there, his katana rested in a sheath hanging from his belt. A dozen knifes hung from a strap that crossed the raccoons chest.
Malisa stood in front of the group, there was no need to signal for silence, the room had quieted the moment she had entered. "I have reached a decision on the charges brought against the defendants."
"Christina, your mind mage powers are a rare and unusual gift. A gift that needs to be guided and nurtured. Therefore I order that you be examined and tutored by the Keep mages. The details of which will be worked out later to every one's agreement."
The lady pointed to Jesse. The kangaroo shifted nervously. "I find you guilty of destroying public property. IE: the cell in which you were residing. Your punishment is to do public service and repair the damage yourself. Do you know anything about bricklaying?"
The roo shook his head. "No my lady."
Malisa smiled. "Well it seems you're going to learn."
"Felice, Gornul, Kim, your involvement in this affair was minimal. I find you innocent of all charges."
The lady Prime Minister looked at the otter. "This has been a difficult case. I've spent a long time debating what to decide. Oren, earlier today I witnessed you stand your ground and deliberately risk your own life to protect Vitra. We may doubt the wisdom of your choices but we can never doubt your courage and sincerity. Metamor desperately needs such courageous warriors. Therefore I find you not guilty of all charges. However, you will receive double guard duty for a month, and your present training and service continues, until I personally feel that you have learnt to follow orders and rules of the keep."
Rickkter started to say something but Misha placed his hand on the raccoons shoulder and he kept silent.
"This court stand adjourned."
Rickkter and Misha shuffled into the Mule, stopping briefly at Donny to get a pair of glasses and a bottle of whisky. They thanked him and took two seats at the far end of the bar. Both pounded back full tumblers before saying anything.
"We are so screwed," said Rick.
"Yup," concurred Misha between laps at his drink.
"This day has been bad all around," Rick groaned. "But at least some good has come out of it."
"How could good POSSIBLY come from this?"
"Well, we know that Vitra was telling the truth, at least to a degree. We know that Nekril is as powerful as she said, but at the same time we can defeat him." Rick swallowed some more of the harsh liquor. "But by the same token, we know that those Darkmen are more than just a random occurrence. Of course Nekril is the biggest problem of them all."
"We know that the breeding of Lutins has been successful, to a degree. Wouldn't Nasoj stop after what happened with Vitra?"
"Why would he? Misha, it worked. Take another look at the rubble of that court to see how well it worked. And if you think that the unexpected creation of Vitra would stop him, I'd put good money on your being dead wrong. A mage, or even a good cook, does not discard a working recipe simply because they botched a single batch. If anything, it just went to show him what was wrong the first time so he could correct it."
The fox shook his head. "I don't agree. Breeding a perfect creature isn't a simple task. It's not like building a house or a tower where you can step back and measure things to see if it's all lined up straight. A flaw or mistake might not show up for decades, if at all."
Misha suddenly burst out laughing and Rickkter looked at his friend as if he had gone crazy. "What do you find so funny?"
"I imagine that Nasoj mustn't be too happy about his prize lutin being beaten so badly."
"I wouldn't laugh so loud Misha. We haven't seen the last of Nekril. He will be back for revenge."
"Not so soon. Nekril will sulk somewhere for a long time and brood over his defeat," the fox explained.
"But he will be back, someday. And next time he will be after all of us instead of just Vitra."
"So? We defeated him once, we can certainly do it again."
"And people call me arrogant. Nekril is very powerful, Misha. And he is a real threat," Rickkter warned.
"He's not a powerful as he thought he was. I've killed a lot more powerful wizards in my life. Don't misunderstand me Rick. I realize just how big a threat he is and I will take the appropriate precautions. It's just that I'm not going to lose sleep over it."
"And I've killed my share too," said Rickkter. "It's just that I'm wary of those who manage to get away alive." He lapped up a little of his drink. "How will the other Longs treat Oren after this, though? Even with the acquittal, somehow I doubt they'd forget what he did with Vitra."
"I don't know about that. It's not the fact that he brought a lutin into the Keep that has the Longs disturbed. It's the fact that he lied about what happened. That's a serious thing, a very serious thing. The first cardinal rule of a Long Scout is 'Never lie about what happened, and never lie to a fellow Scout.' But he was right in his belief about Vitra. She isn't a normal lutin. He was right in sparing her and bringing her to the keep. He was wrong in not telling anyone."
"You mean you agree with him bringing her here?" Rickkter asked incredulous.
Misha nodded in reply. "She's too valuable a resource."
"I never said she wasn't. It's just his method that I can't condone. Though it's not like I have much of a choice, what with that verdict," he admitted bitterly as he took a drink.
"I see you still don't trust him."
Rick snarled a little. "Nah. After what he said and did here, I don't think I'll ever trust him. Hell, I'd trust the rat over him. At least with Charles, I can make a pretty fair guess in his actions towards those he's assigned to protect. And I know he can put duty above his personal feelings."
"Rather cold, Rick. Even for you."
"It's a cold world we live in, my friend."
The fox shook his head. "I can see why you were a mercenary, Rick. No one would hire a paranoid like you full time."
Rickkter gave his friend a devilish grin. "Are you still considered a paranoid if they really ARE out to get you?"
As long as he lived, Misha figured that the raccoon would always be a puzzle to him. "Right now I just want to finish my drink and get to bed. This has been a LONG day."
"I'll drink to that," said Rickkter, raising his glass. Misha gave it a clink with his own and the two hurriedly downed what was left.
"Bricklaying!" cried Jesse Roo. "She expects me to do masonry!"
"It's not that terrible," said Oren. "I'll show you what I learned. Besides, you DID promise to fix the wall beforehand."
"It's just like the ending of one of your stories, Oren," said Grunch. "You know... the one where the fellow steals a keg of Blackest ale?"
"Any story in which ~I~ have to do physical labor is not quite an intriguing one," said Jesse.
"I remember that story," said Oren. "That was from the 'In Real Life' series. Speaking of which, there's a story you did..."
"OH, is that farmer's cheese over on the table? I simply must try some!" cried the lizard as he scurried away.
Oren let out a hearty laugh. It was good to finally be out of the dungeon and celebrating his freedom with his friends in the tower.
At the refreshments table Grunch met Achin, who flipped him a gold piece.
"What's this for?"
"I was wrong about Vitra," said the dog.
"But we never made a bet."
"No, we didn't. However, I hired you to perform a service for me. You did a lot more than just clean the floor. I figure this is adequate payment for the real service you did." With that, he wandered off to talk to Shamgar and Blake.
Just then, an armor-clad woman with a big orange mustache walked through the door. "Excuse me, gentle keepers, but I do believe I've found something that belongs to you folks."
There was a flutter and a flurry, and the room filled up with tiny little dragons.
"SQUEE!" cried Gornul in delight, elated at seeing not only his father, but his entire family.
It was late, Misha should really have been asleep, but instead he was in his office. The fox sat at his desk drinking tea and trying to read reports. He was tired and he was feeling the effects of the drinks he'd had with Rickkter earlier. Still the fox resisted going to sleep, he had so much to think about. Oren's trial filled his thoughts. At first it had seemed so simple; Oren had brought a lutin into the Keep. That made him a traitor, a plain and simple case. It was plain and simple until the trial had started.
Oren and Vitra had both spoken eloquently and had made some very important points. So much had happened to him in the last few weeks. So much pain and loss, and he still had to decide what to do with Oren. The otter had broken some very serious rules. But he had made a powerful argument about why he had acted like he did. And Misha was very surprised by how well Oren and his friends had done against Nekril. The otter was a powerful fighter and would make a great Long Scout. Misha had to hand down some sort of punishment, but what? A soft knock at the door interrupted the fox morphs train of thought. "Come in."
The small shape of Oren came timidly through the door. "Hello Sir," the otter said quietly.
"Oren," Misha said, surprised. "I thought you would be celebrating."
"They still are, but I don't feel like celebrating right now. Can I ask you a few questions?"
"I know I was found innocent and was ordered to continue training to become a Long scout, but what will really happen to me?"
"You'll do some drudge duty around here most likely, and we'll make sure you get a lot more training."
"That's enough, " Misha said with a laugh. "After you've run around the Keep for the fourteenth time in one day, I think you'll change your mind."
The otter's ears drooped a little. Then he looked at Misha. "About Vitra and Nekril. What do we do about him? He'll be back to finish us all off."
"We'll increase the magic protection, and the number of guards. I'll talk to Wessex and Magus about the mage. And I'm sure Kyia will have a few things to change to stop him from coming back."
"That's all? He's very dangerous. Shouldn't we do more?"
"We will, eventually. We don't want to move too quickly, that's what got Nekril in trouble."
"It just doesn't seem like enough protection. He means to kill us all."
"I understand Oren but he's not the first person to threaten Metamor Keep. Metamor Keep is at war. Has been since Nasoj came to power. We can't afford to sit around and worry about Nekril. There's too much to do, too many battles to fight. Life continues, and the war goes on."
Malisa walked slowly down the hallway, her thoughts idly working over the turn of events.
She stopped and turned around slowly, watching as her father stood at his office door.
Thomas stepped forward and looked over his daughter, noting her stern look. After a pause he spoke, "I heard your verdict. Your punishment of Oren seems slightly funny, especially in light of your behavior a while back."
Looking down, Malisa thought a moment before replying. "What I did, I did with no possible, viewable, danger to the Keep." She looked up at the Duke and finished, "What Oren did could have been the destruction of all we have here." She paused, chuckled a little and added, "No, his punishment was just."
Thomas shook his head with a deep smile, and Malisa found herself smiling back. "Anyway. You said Oren had to be kept safe, so with double guard duty and me keeping an eye on his training, it will be a while before he gets into any more trouble."
Thomas laughed out loud and nodded. "So true."
Another quiet moment grew between them, and Malisa fought with the need to find out what her Father was keeping from her. Finally, with a sigh, she turned and continued off towards her room, but was once again stopped by Thomas. "I have to ask, daughter. How were you going to find them before I spoke to you?"
A silence hovered over the hallway for a moment and the Prime Minister thought back. "In the interests of the keep's safety, and because of the severity. Probably, guilty." She walked off, silently to her room. To think over the dark demons of responsibility, and to thank the maker that, this time, the responsibility wasn't going to plague her for years to come.
When Oren returned to the tower, he took to the top floor so that he could be alone with his thoughts. He found no solitude, though. There leaning against the rail, looking out at the valley below, stood Vitra, her tail softly swaying in thought. Though the otter sought not to disturb her, Vitra bade him hello.
"How did you know I was here?" Oren asked.
"Got ears like wolf." replied the striped weasel. "Even before change."
The Otter came up and looked out at the valley from beside the weasel. In the distance, he could see the lights of Lorland. They were like tiny stars littering the ground, each with a story to tell about the one who lit it. So many lives, so many people. The scene was deceptively peaceful.
"I am thinking," said Vitra. "What life be like for me, now? I am of Metamor Keep, now, and yet I still feel me not belong yet."
"Give it time," said Oren. "Because you know what?"
"The Keep loves you, even if the keepers haven't come around, yet."
Vitra smiled, and caressed Oren's shoulder. "And you? You love I?"
Oren hesitated for a moment. If he said what he felt, Ana would surely beat him senseless. And yet, he had to confess that there was a deeper love in his heart than that of a simple kinship. It was something which he had never felt before, not even with Ana, and he found that he could only reply, "Yes, Vitra. I love you."
Side by side, the otter and the weasel stood together and watched the peaceful lights of Lorland merge into the greater light of the rising sun, and for once, Oren dared hope that the future would be as bright as this.