by Charles Matthias

A hot bath was definitely Charles's favourite way to spend the hour before dawn on those bleak November mornings. Outside, in the frosty air, snow was gently falling onto the grasses and streets. It was the first decent snow of the season, and from his inspection before coming to the baths, it was just the right consistency for snowballs -- puffy, but a little wet. With a bit of relish, he imagined himself and Lady Kimberly frolicking later that day. He could almost feel the packed snow smacking against his muzzle as she giggled in delight.

Charles smiled then as he slipped deeper into the hot steaming waters of the public baths. Few rose this early to bathe themselves, most preferred to do that at the end of the day, to take off all the sweat and oil. That was one of the reasons the rat came at this hour, so that he might have the entire pool to himself. Opening his eyes, he could see his whiskers dropping, heavily-laden with water droplets. He wiggled them, and watched a small spray fly in either direction. With a low chuckle in his throat, he dunked himself, and let the steaming water wash through his head fur.

When he rose, he wiped it from his eyes, and leaned back against the marble tiles once more. Sighing in contentment, he crossed his arms behind his head and rested there, his body rising to float just beneath the water's surface, his tail flitting from side to side. Looking down to his feet, he twiddled his toes, the claws slicing through the rising steam. Each one had been neatly trimmed, and cleaned already. In fact, he could still feel the gels working through his fur as he bobbed, wrapped in the pleasant warmth of the pool.

It was not that Charles did not have things to do that day. As it was, he had a great many chores to run before he could spend some time with Kimberly. The most important of which was to compose a letter to have Raven send to Jerome once again. The last time he'd done that had been shortly after the Patriarch's murder, and many of the Lothanasi at the temple had greeted him by name and asked him how things were for him. In the end, what had been a fifteen minute errand turned into a three hour series of conversations. So, he'd scheduled a large chunk of time that morning for his visit to the temple.

Thankfully, Misha was letting him rest for a week or so after his trip to Devil's Strand, and so he was using that time to both recuperate and give full attention to his other responsibilities. Now that he was engaged, he worked even harder to spend more time with Kimberly, often times dropping in on the kitchens unannounced to snatch her away for a harmless tryst. Garigan received a great deal more attention as well, his training intensified to where the ferret spent nearly all of his time in the Sondeckis Shrine or his quarters. The only exception to this was when he was sitting in the arboreal gardens, his back to a tree, and his mind searching for the Calm. It did not surprise Matthias at all that his pupil might find one in the midst of nature.

Thinking of that, Charles realized that he had never discovered the new Calm he needed to truly touch the Sondeck while a rat-taur. Uncurling his arms, he stood up in the pool, savouring the blessed warmth, determined to seek it out again. Yet, as his eyes strayed across the room to one of the doors, any thought of shifting to his taur shape was vanquished. Through the hazy mists, he could see another Keeper coming into the baths. Squinting to make out who it was through the steam, he noted the long, thick tail, short arms, and sloping posture that were the hallmarks of only two denizens of Metamor Keep that he knew of.

Grimacing, he waded deeper into the pool, towards the thicker steam, hoping that the approaching kangaroo would not notice him in the bath. However, Charles's eyes fell upon the clay washbasin he'd used earlier to clean his paws so as not to dirty the pool, and he knew that hiding would be a useless gesture. In fact, it only took a moment before the marsupial had hopped over to the basin, and nudged it with the thick claws upon his long foot.

"Is that you, Charles?" Habakkuk's voice called out into the mist as he gazed curiously into the opaque mass.

Matthias swam a few strokes, returning once more to the shallow, and cooler end of the pool, into plain sight of the kangaroo. "Hello Habakkuk. What are you doing here?"

Zhypar appeared mystified at the question. "Oh, the same as you of course. To take a bath. Have you seen the snow yet? It's already as deep as my thumb-claw on the terrazzo."

The rat nodded as he stood upon his paws on the pool floor. "I smelled it when I came here earlier. It is going to be very beautiful out when the sun rises."

Habakkuk waggled his ears as he worked his legs out of his breeches. They slipped along his tail, and with one swing of that thick appendage, were deposited in one corner of the room. "And it's perfect for snowballs. I think I'll have the Writer's Guild snowball fight today after our session. You are welcome to join if you wish. We'd love to have you."

Charles had to admit he was tempted by the offer. He'd always enjoyed frolicking in the snow with his fellow writers, packing the snowballs, flinging them and seeing them smack his friends in the noses or backs, sometimes even their tails. And it wouldn't be just Habakkuk there of course, but all of his old friends like Tallis and Nahum as well. Still, this was his first winter with Lady Kimberly. That decided it for him.

"Lady Kimberly and I will probably have one of our own, if she can get away from her duties. If we're still full of energy we may join you later."

The answer appeared to satisfy the kangaroo, who was bending over the marble edge of the pool. Rather gracefully then, he hopped on his hind legs, and slipped into the steaming water, barely even making a splash. "Oh this is nice," he said, his eyes closing and his ears laying back against his head. He then turned to Charles and favoured him with a lopsided grin. "I'll let the others know you might be coming. They miss you, you know."

Matthias swirled his paws through the water, finding his anxiety at seeing the roo tempered by the warmth and the innocence of the conversation. "I do miss their faces too, so I will try to make it."

"Congratulations on your engagement, by the way. I'm not sure if I ever got the chance to tell you that."

"You hadn't, then again, I haven't seen much of you lately. I've been on patrol for most of the last two months it seems," Charles sighed, his voice a bit dreamy at the thought of his fiancèe. She was always the brightest part about the patrols; returning to her face made every discomfort worthwhile.

Zhypar leaned over his own wash basin, breaking a soap pellet in his paws and rubbing them together firmly. A filmy soap covered the fur in short order, which he began to work up along his arms. "Even when you are here, you appear to have your paws full. When was the last time you just sat down and had a lazy meal at the Mule?"

Charles grimaced then, quite delighted at the amity of the conversation. This had been the Zhypar Habakkuk that he'd been very fond of. This was the kangaroo he called friend. "Not too long ago actually. Though I cannot remember much of that night, I'd drunk more than my usual. There was a big fight too, started when these two dogs started courting Arla, embarrassing her completely in front of the rest of us. That's all I can remember about it at any rate!"

The kangaroo laughed. "I heard about that. You were singing with a pair of dingos by the end of the evening."

The rat nodded, a smile creeping back across his face. "Ah yes, I remember that now. We'd gotten tired of beating each other up and decided to share some drinks."

"Did you ever find out their names?"

Charles gazed speculatively into the water, blinking several times as he searched the vaults of his memory. "I'm afraid not. I probably wouldn't have too much trouble discovering it though, I'm pretty sure they were regulars at the Mule."

Habakkuk nodded, even as he rinsed his arms off with a small towel and drained it into the wash basin. His visage appeared thoughtful for a moment, and then, looking away briefly, said, "There is something that I've been meaning to ask you for a while now."

"Oh, what is it?"

"Have you given Rickkter back his Sondeshike?" The question startled Charles, as it had come from nowhere. Yet, his surprise lasted only a moment, to be replaced by contempt and anger.

"Why do you have to pry into other people's affairs, Zhypar? What is between Rickkter and I is none of your business."

The kangaroo did not say anything immediately, merely continued to rinse the grime from his arms and chest. Then, his eyes took on a lighter shade, and he smiled softly. "You once said that a real friend will tell you when you are being stupid. That's what I'm doing for you, Charles. Keeping that Sondeshike when you know he never meant to give it to you is a foolish mistake."

Charles felt his blood seethe. "The Sondeshike is a relic of my clan, and it is disgraceful to see it in the hands of my enemy!" He then peered in sullen shock. "And how did you know of it? Neither of us have gone about announcing its existence."

"He who has eyes to see, and ears to hear, and a good nose like mine, will find out a great many things. Besides, in the rumours surrounding your fight with Rickkter several months back, staves were mentioned. Also, Rickkter used the Sondeshike in his duel with Yonson. He told me of it when I ate with him a couple months back."

Habakkuk put the towel down then, and gave him a penetrating stare. "And it is you who dishonours your clan by breaking your pact with Rickkter when you sacked Stepping Rock. Andre spoke of finding the two of you together, fighting side by side, with the Sondeshike in your paws. You should return it to the Kankoran as soon as possible."

Charles splashed water at the kangaroo in anger, and swam to the other side of the pool. "I will do no such thing! And stay out of my affairs, they are not your concern." He climbed up the masonry, wrapped a towel about his shoulders, and stormed off, even his clothes forgotten on nearby bench.

Zhypar watched the water drip from the end of his nose as the rat left. Turning to one side, he waggled his ears in secret delight. Charles had also left his wash basin behind.

Rickkter paced back and forth, eyes fixed on the long metal rod laying within reach of his arm. Yet, he repeatedly noted the broad slab of hard granite that it lay upon, and the porcelain angel that kneeled before it. To touch a Sondeckis Altar or anything that lay upon it was death for one born without the Sondeck. And so Rickkter paced, staring at the weapon that was rightfully his, and one that he would have back, if only he could figure out how to knock it from the altar without touching it.

He'd already tried to push it off with a long wooden rod, but as soon as the rod had come in contact with the Sondeshike, it began to rot, crumbling as if dust the more he pushed. The raccoon had even thrown the rod at his prize, but it crumpled as if nothing, and the Sondeshike lay upon the altar undisturbed. He'd considered shooting an arrow at his quarry, but he knew that too would fail.

Disgusted, Rickkter turned to the windows, and gazed out to the white day. It was still snowing, much lighter than in the early morning, but the gentle fall of snowflakes made the grey sky shimmer in the early afternoon sun. Keepers were frolicking in the white majesty, rolling about and wrestling, or just plain throwing snowballs. It had been many winters since he had seen snow this early in the season, and it had been even longer since he had played in it as did the Metamorians.

That was one reason why he had come to the Sondeckis Shrine this day. Charles was out with his lady friend, and he'd seen Garigan dancing among the trees. He'd hoped to have been able to knock the Sondeshike off the altar with a quick jab, and then take it with him, but he'd been here for an hour, and had not been able to even move the blasted thing!

Then of course, the entire room was filled with the power of his sect's enemy. It was like an ooze, the slimy touch of algae on his skin, clinging to it even after he'd drawn it back. His stomach turned over repeatedly as he forced himself to stay, to unravel the mystery of the altar, and of his weapon. There were many times however, when he would bend over, and take a few moments to just regain his breath, as the air chocked him with its putrid fragrance.

Scanning the room again, he tried to think of anything that he could use to dislodge that stubborn staff. The weapons cabinet was locked, but of course that was no problem for Rickkter. Even so, he doubted that they would fare any better on that altar than his own rod had. The hearth was filled with a pile of barely glowing embers, but he was not sure what good they would do, as they were certainly nonmagical.

What he needed, the raccoon realized, was something that was charged with the Sondeck. He had to find something that possessed Matthias's magic, and something that would be more cooperative than the rat or the ferret would be. Casting his eyes about the Shrine, he briefly considered the weapons locker again, but discarded the notion. He would not know which blades had been used after all, if any. Garigan was a yellow still. If he remembered correctly, the Sondeckis did not begin such training until they were at least a green.

Gazing further, he caught sight of the Sondeckis banner hanging over one wall. Against the yellowed clay, the black cloth was quite noticeable, a reminder only less subtle than the constant pervasive residue the Sondeck left behind that he was in enemy territory. Studying the heraldry for a moment, his eyes mostly focussing upon the white blade in the centre, a new idea formed in his mind. A small grin creased the sides of his dark grey muzzle, even as he began to unsheathe his katana.

Standing as high as he was able, he pierced the black fabric, and began to slice his blade through the recalcitrant banner. It hung limply, the heraldry folding in on itself as if in defeat. With a quick stab, he severed the last threads, and the offending sign disappeared beneath the folds of the obsidian cloth. Rickkter slid his katana back in its home at his side, and picked up the banner in one arm, striding back towards the altar.

Waves of revulsion filled him as he drew near that reliquary. With one arm about his belly, for fear that he may be unable to hold himself in check this close to the source of discomfort, he approached further, holding out the banner in his other paw as if to ward off the malignant torture. Though it was quite ineffective, he did manage to reach the altar with his stomach contents inside of him. Grinning slowly, he tossed the banner upon the altar, the black waves of cloth billowing out before him to lazily settle upon the Sondeshike.

And turn to ash. Before his eyes, the banner shrivelled and crumbled, until all that was left was a few scraps that the wind had blown away in the instants before they too would have vanished. A low growl escaped his throat, even as he backed away from the Sondeckis altar, the face of the angel sardonic, as if to mock his attempts to reclaim what was his. He snarled louder then, an animalistic sound that gave vent to his fury as he erupted with every curse, in all the languages he knew, that he had ever learned in his life. These were quite considerable in number, but as he continued his unwholesome litany, his rage slowly abated for the moment. This of course was a sound that did not go unheard by Charles, who was at that moment returning from the fields of Metamor, his fur dripping from where he'd rolled about in the snow, wrestling with a few of his former fellow writers. Lady Kimberly and he had spent quite a bit of time that morning frolicking, and so, when she had tired, she'd just watched him spend some time with his old friends. It had been the most enjoyable first day of winter that he'd ever known.

Yet, when he'd gone to the Long House to check on Misha and the others, he'd heard a strange noise from the Shrine. Matthias knew that Garigan was still out in the woods showing some of the younger Keepers how to make a proper snow fort, so was instantly wary. Pressing his ear to the door, he listened, but could only hear the click of claws upon the floor as some figure walked through the Shrine. Sniffing at the air, he discovered to his chagrin that his nose was still a bit numb from being buried in the snow by Nahum only a short while ago.

Taking a deep breath, he plunged into the room, his arms charged and ready to see who could have broken into his sacred demesnes. The torches burned in their scones, casting a respectable amount of light about the claw floor. Even the window was open, the bright white of the snow-covered rooftops reflecting the suns rays inwards. The rat had little trouble seeing the solitary figure, draped in a dark cloak, and scowling at both the altar and what had just entered the room.

His eyes narrowed, unwilling to release the power he'd grasped. "What are you doing in here, Rickkter?"

"I'm here to reclaim what is mine, and you know it," the raccoon's voice was harsh, and a bit of spittle flew in the rat's general direction as he spoke.

Charles stepped further into the room, his arms held out before him in a defensive posture. "The Sondeshikes belong to the Sondeckis, you know that." His voice betrayed every last bit of his contempt. "I do not care how you took this weapon, but it was stolen from my clan. You have no right to it."

Rickkter crossed his arms them, scowling but maintaining his usual arrogance. "Oh, and I suppose you reclaimed it for your precious clan?"

"Of course," Matthias remarked, crossing his own arms.

"You are the one who stole the Sondeshike from me, not the other way around," the raccoon countered.

"You gave it to me, remember?"

Rickkter pointed a sharp, black claw at the rat, his eyes narrowing. "We had a truce at Stepping Rock. I saved your life by letting you use the Sondeshike. You betrayed that truce bey keeping what you knew was not yours to keep. I gave it to you because I needed someone to watch my back, even if it was you, so don't prevaricate or play games with me. I have no patience for that sort of thing."

"So you intend to steal it from me?" He let his eyes make a quick scan of the room, noting the destroyed banner. "I will have to ask you to recompense me the cost of the material to make a new banner you realize."

Rickkter laughed at that. "I do not need a Sondeckis to lecture me on morality, especially when he's demonstrated he's just as willing to bend the rules to suit his own needs as I am." He then gave the rat a rather piercing gaze, more curious than anything else. "It is too bad that you were born with the Sondeck, Charles. You might have made a good Kankoran."

The barb had its desired effect, as the rat smouldered in rage at the invective. "I will not let my clan's most holy weapon be in the hands of an enemy, no matter the reason!"

His adversary snorted contemptuously. "You Sondeckis are all alike. While we were headed towards Stepping Rock Manor, I thought perhaps you were different from your clan. Now I see that all you cared about was using our truce as an excuse to take the Sondeshike away from me. Tell me, do you actually care about Misha or Caroline, or are they pawns in your little game too?"

Charles jabbed a finger in the raccoon's direction then, his whole body ready to boil over. "Stepping Rock was always about them, always! How dare you suggest I was only interested in personal gain!"

"Then how dare you suggest to your student that we Kankoran are only interested in personal gain! I was there because of my friend as well!" Rickkter returned the vehemence in equal measure, his paws drawn tight into fists at the side of his cloak. "All you Sondeckis care about is twisting the world to your little high-minded view, while you do not hold yourself to the same standards. Hypocrites, all of you!"

Charles simmered a moment before the most salient feature of the raccoon's words struck him. The fire that burned then was no longer the simple hatred that the Soneckis and Kankoran shared for another, but something more personal and visceral. "You talked to Garigan? I told you to stay away from him. I warned you what I would do if you were to hurt him!"

Rickkter scoffed, his eyes sullen. "I simply told him the truth about your clan, and exposed the lie of your propaganda."

"Don't you dare go near him!" Charles shouted, his voice rising in octaves along with his fury. His paws opened and closed, the claws digging into his flesh, though as of yet, they had not broken the skin of his palm. "And get out of this Shrine! I don't ever want to see you in here again!"

"Then give me back my property."

Charles took a very deep breath, almost losing control over the volume of his voice. "I said get out of this Shrine. I don't ever want to see you in here again!"

Rickkter appeared inclined to return with another antagonistic remark, but then pulled tight his cloak about his chest. He knew that should they fight here, in the presence of the overwhelming stench of the Sondeck, that he would almost certainly lose his life. So, glowering intently, at the rat, he did his best to let the anger fall from his shoulders. Snorting contemptuously, he held his muzzle high in the air, and regally stormed from the room, being sure to kick the dust off of his paws as he left. He shot a warning glance at the rat though as he passed through the door, "I will have the Sondeshike back."

Charles returned the gaze with equal intensity, though he refused to say a word, instead letting his eyes speak volumes, never once backing down. The door remained open, a fact that Matthias was not in a hurry to change. Balling his paws into fists, he watched the aperture for a few moments, listening to the receding click of the raccoon's paws. When he was sure that Rickkter had left for good, the rat turned his attention to the altar.

Running his paws across the granite surface, he could feel his own rage boiling beneath its surface. The magic of the altar fed directly off of a Sondeckis's anger, a red hot force that would destroy any not prepared to accept it. With every beat of his heart and stroke of his flesh, Charles allowed his own anger to be bled off into the stone, securing its power and hold over the Sondeshike laying atop its smooth surface.

Breathing slowly, he lifted his paws, his heart once more calm. It also brought a bit of soreness into his muscles, and he realized that he was beginning to feel the effects of the snowball fight. Grimacing at the sudden weakness he felt, he stumbled across the room towards the torn banner. It was too high for him to reach the tear as he was, a fact that soured his mood even more. He'd either have to become his taur form or ask Garigan to reach up and take what was left of the banner down. He had no idea where he was going to find a replacement for it.

Charles pushed such concerns out of his mind. He would have to worry over that later, as he still had yet to check in with Misha to see if the fox had any assignments for next week. Of course, there was no guarantee that Misha would even be there, but Matthias knew that his friend liked to do a little bit of work before dinner.

However, when he turned around to leave the Shrine, he saw another figure standing in the doorway. Also dripping from the melted snow sticking in clumps to his fur, Habakkuk bore a small washbasin in his paws, as well as a pair of breeches draped over one shoulder. The kangaroo hopped into the room, standing just a short metre from the altar, staring at Matthias, his expression one of disappointment.

"What do you want?" Charles asked sourly, examining the bowl and clothes for another moment. With a start he realized just who they belonged to. "What are you doing with those anyway, they're mine?"

Zhypar nodded. "You left them in the baths this morning. As to why I'm here, well–" he stopped then, and then took another step towards the altar. Holding his arms out, short as they were, he upended the washbasin upon the altar. The water splashed across the surface, quickly dripping off the sides. Discarding the basin, Habakkuk wrapped the breeches about his right paw, and then grabbed the Sondeshike.

Charles had felt a momentary surge of panic as soon as he realized exactly what the kangaroo was doing, but the warning cry died in his throat. Some dark part of him wished death upon the scribe, and kept him from giving alarm. Yet that same part was quick to act when it realized that Zhypar was still standing there, quite alive and unharmed, the Sondeshike retracting to its compact form in the kangaroo's paws.

"That's mine!" Charles cried out, vaulting across the distance in a few easy steps. His hand clenched the Sondeckis between each and ever claw, before wrapping itself around Habakkuk's throat, and tensing tightly. "Drop it or I will crush your neck. I swear it." The rat's voice was quiet, but carried an intensity not easily forgotten. His eyes were livid with rage, his whole body radiating enough anger to melt all of the snow littering Metamor's fields.

And then, the rat heard the metallic spring loose in the Sondeshike, and felt a sudden searing pain in his right elbow. Leaping backwards, he cradled his right arm, staring in befuddlement at the strangely twisted appendage, noting that his forearm had a few more twists in it than it ought to have. Tearing agony filled him as he cradled the broken arm, and stared up at the kangaroo, who held the extended Sondeshike, his eyes cold.

With a terrible shame, Charles knew that Habakkuk had used the Sondeshike to break his arm, extending it just beneath his elbow. The force of the metal ferrules had been enough to splinter the bones. "Don't ever threaten me again. You bring dishonour to your clan by holding this weapon. And you will continue to shame yourself as long as you possess it. Return it to Rickkter soon, or you will doom yourself, and nothing anybody can do will be able to save you."

"What are you talking about?" Matthias cried out, despite the pain. He had crumpled to his knees, holding the wounded appendage to his chest, trying to find something to splint it with, but nothing was within reach.

"I assure you, you do not want to know," Habakkuk murmured, his voice still very cold and very distant. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he flung the Sondeshike into one corner of the shrine, and began to walk out with a slight hop to his step. Before he left, he unravelled the breeches from his paw, and tossed them to one side, as if he were sickened just by being in contact with them.

"Habakkuk!" Charles cried out, letting the pain show through in his voice. Gritting his teeth together, the rat drew his arm close to his belly, and walked over to the altar, picking up the Sondeshike in his left paw. It was still wet from the water that Zhypar had spilled across it. Why had he done that? Matthias could not help but wonder between lances of pain shooting up his shoulder. The rat could not recall if he'd ever broken a bone in his arm like this before, and was pretty sure that he hadn't for he was not likely to forget a pain like this.

Gazing over at his clothes, a bit of understanding began to fill him. So close to him for so long, of course they would have a touch of his Sondeck. Setting his weapon upon the altar once more, he realized that he would need to begin locking his door and the door to the Shrine. He had no doubt Rickkter could still find a way through both, but at least it would not be as easy for him should he think of such a method.

A sudden jostle made him shudder and bit down on his teeth once more. Of course, all of his planning was moot if he did not have his arm tended to soon. Stumbling from the room, he hoped that Misha did not see him until after he had visited Coe's. He really did not wish to explain this one.

"So just how did you do this to yourself?" the raccoon healer asked as he pulled the white bandages about the splint tight. Matthias winced again, his fingers fluttering as Coe did his work.

"I was practising and simply didn't see the column," he remarked between breaths. He wished that the healer had given him the mead to drink down so he wouldn't have to think about the pain. A visit to the Mule was already on his mind even as he sat there, tail curled about the chair legs, threatening to snap the wood in half at each new discomfort.

Coe gave him a very cynical look, and then chuckled drily. "Now, Matthias, we both know that is as likely as you falling down the stairs. The break is from underneath, and there's a circular bruise about the size of my fist on your elbow. What really happened?"

Matthias grimaced and snarled between his teeth, finding it impossible to speak any other way through the pain. "Look, I know you've let other patients slip through here without admitting what really happened. Just tell others what I told you, it was an accident while practising."

Coe cinched the bandage too tightly then, causing the rat to jump in sudden searing pain. Gazing in sudden cold anger at the raccoon, Matthias murmured quietly. "Somebody jabbed me with a staff, and I wasn't ready for it. Nothing you need to worry yourself about."

The Healer nodded as he loosened the cinch. He took out a roll of bandages then, and proceeded to wrap them around the rat's arm several times. After the each time around though, he would take another of the wooden rods, and secure his upper arm in place. "Now, you'll need to wear this for a couple of weeks. I suggest you give that arm a bit of rest until then, so no more practising like this.'

"Only a couple of weeks?" Charles asked between his teeth again.

"The splints are magical, they'll help mend your bones faster. I'll want them back of course, so don't go undoing this bandage."

"What should I do about it when I bathe?"

"Don't get it wet either, you don't want the bandages to stick to your fur after all."

Charles grimaced once more, sighing disconsolately. "But today was the first day of snow."

Coe waggled a claw as he tied off the last of the bandages. "And I don't advise romping about in that either. I'm restricting you to the Keep grounds until your arm is healed. You'll be of no use to anybody if that splint comes loose."

Matthias sighed, and gazed at the bandages, then over to the raccoon, who was putting the roll of cloth back into his desk. His eyes then went past the grey-furred Healer to the door at the far end of the room, which was slightly ajar. For a brief moment, he thought he saw a flicker of light reflecting there, as if in a pair of eyes.

"Brian," he called then, capturing the raccoon's attention. "Who is in that room?"

Coe turned to look at the door, and shrugged, casting his head and tail downwards. "Vinsah." With one paw, he gripped the handle, and closed it completely.

"How is he?"

The raccoon appeared to deliberate something for just a moment, before he spoke softly. "He is still in a coma I'm afraid. I've had to feed him magically for far too long now. Still," he gazed over at the door, as if speaking to it, "he could recover any day now."

Charles nodded, gently stroking his left paw across the bandages. He tried to bend his arm, but the sudden agony was too much, and he brought it back close to his chest. Coe grimaced and reached back into his desk, "If you would wait just one moment, I will give you a sling for that."

The rat waited a few more seconds, before Coe produced a blue strap of cloth. He helped Charles drape it over one shoulder, allowing his arm to rest freely and without too much discomfort. He flexed his left paw, trying to reach into his other pocket for a few coins. "How much will it be?"

"Five silvers, and I promise I won't let the truth slip in this case."

Charles dug out the requested coin, and swore to himself. He'd wanted to be with Lady Kimberly for dinner at the Mule this evening, not to get drunk. Depositing the silver pieces in the outstretched paw, Matthias did his best to smile at the coon, before turning about, and storming angrily out of the Healer's quarters. He did not know, but he was going to make Habakkuk regret ruining the start of winter for him like this.