The grunts and smacks or people fighting came to Rickkter's ears as he entered Long House. He entered the main hall and was greeted by an unusual sight. The room had been cleared of all the furniture. In place of the carpets, which had been pushed to the walls, the floor was covered with straw mats. This left the middle of the floor clear of all obstructions.
In the center of the cleared area a large crowd was gathered around two figures that were fighting. Pushing through the crowd the raccoon examined the combatants. The smaller of the two fighters (a pine marten morph), was dancing in circles around a large centaur like creature. Rickkter quickly recognized the vulpine features of the centaur. It was his friend Misha in his taur form. Both opponents were armed only with a long staff. He folded his arms over his chest and started to study Misha's movements with the staff. Already some weaknesses were noticeable.
Standing in place Misha was carefully watching the circling marten as she danced back and forth. Suddenly she darted forward to strike at the vulpines hindquarters. With surprising speed the foxtaur spun around and intercepted the blow with his own staff. Then he charged forward knocking his opponent to the ground. In a second the tip of the staff rested on the martens chest. "Good fight Danielle," the vulpine said.
After Misha removed the staff from her chest Danielle slowly stood up, rubbing her bruised backside.
"Now that you're done with her, how about a real match, Misha?"
The foxtaur turned around and smiled down at his friend. "Ah, I wondered when you'd show up, Rick, good to finally see you. Speak with Kershaw about some getting some padding. You still have that metal pike of yours?"
"No, I don't," Rick admitted in a low growl. "I must speak with the rat again about returning it." Turning tail, he made his way over to his friend the red panda.
"Are those too still bickering over that staff?" A large condor asked. "Why?"
"It's a very important symbol to both of them, Baldwin," Misha explained.
"They're going to kill each other over that silly thing," Danielle commented.
"Nope. Whatever they're feeling for each other they'll never come to blows in Metamor. Both have too much to loose."
"Are you sure about that?" Danielle said. "Matthias is one of us, but Rickkter is a rogue. He does whatever he wants regardless of how it effects other people."
"How much do we know of the two of them?" Baldwin asked. "All we know of Matt is that he arrived here at the Keep seven years ago, nothing before then. What was he before he came here?"
"I still have questions about Matt," Arla commented.
Misha fixed a cold gaze on all three long scouts. "Matthias is a close friend and I trust him with my life. I would not have made him a long scout if I didn't trust him."
"We still know nothing of his past," Baldwin said.
Misha shook his head. "I know more about his past then anyone realizes, even Matthias. His reasons for keeping them secret are no ones business but his own."
"Um, boss?" Misha looked down and saw Arla standing next to him. The female border collie was looking over where the raccoon was strapping on arm pads. "If I may ask, why did you invite him here for this?"
"As I've already said, I want to put this body to a full test, I want to see how it handles in a fight."
"And you don't trust us to do that?" asked Arla as her tail bristled.
Misha folded his arms over his chest, prancing around on all four legs. "No offence to your ability, Arla, but yes." He shot her a wry smirk. "How many of you would be willing to try and beat your boss to a pulp?"
"Probably more than you'd expect." Arla flicked her tail at him. "So you asked someone who considers you his best friend?"
"I asked him, because I know he won't pull any punches. Rick has an odd ability to separate business from personal, and I made it clear that this was business. You've all been giving me a good workout, but if I know Rickkter, this is going to be hell." He saw Rickkter tightening the last belt on his chest padding. "Ready?"
Rickkter accepted a staff from Baldwin, twirled it over his hand, and caught it under his arm. He smiled at the 'taur. "Let's dance."
"Wait one moment," Kershaw said grasping the raccoon by the arm. "Your padding isn't on straight."
The red panda started adjusting the chest pad. "This padding has to be on straight or it will do you no good and you could get seriously hurt."
Rickkter lightly swatted away Kershaw's paw and began to adjust the strapping himself. "We're just sparing, no one will get seriously hurt. I've done this thousands of times, and aside from a few bruises and the odd broken bone, I've not had anything adverse occur."
The panda shrugged. "You never know what will happen in a fight. A person could be killed. Accidentally of course."
Rickkter smiled, showing a muzzle full of sharp teeth. "I'm too experienced a person to get killed doing this."
"I wasn't thinking of you being killed," Kershaw said coldly.
The raccoon looked at the panda trying to gauge what was going on in Kershaw's mind.
"Come on Rick," Misha said impatiently. The fox took up his staff and side-stepped into position within the ring as Arla and the rest retreated to the sides lines. Rickkter took a stance opposite him, the end of his staff on the flagstone. A quick bow of formality and the two friends began to circle.
Twirling the staff in intricate patterns Rickkter moved slowly closer to Misha. He was taking his time, trying to measure his opponent's reaction. The foxtaur stood stone still, his body betraying no emotion or ideas. He held the staff in both hands at an angle, the classic ready position.
The raccoon brought his weapon around in a great loop, then dropped the butt on the ground standing less then five feet from the taur. He looked at his opponent calmly. "Well?" he asked in a questioning tone.
Misha knew better then to charge the raccoon; that was what Rickkter wanted. Instead he stood his ground and didn't move, waiting for his opponent to attack. "Well what? I'm waiting for you." The crowd chuckled.
"I came here for a fight and all I get is a staring match," Rickkter commented sarcastically.
The fox stuck out his tongue. "We could always make faces at each other?"
Rickkter's eyes flashed with delight. "Now where would the fun be in that?" Everyone laughed at that comment, even Misha.
The fight started suddenly when Rickkter attacked with blinding speed. He charged straight at Misha staff flashing before him. There was a flurry of blow as the staffs cracked against each other. Misha pressed forward, trying to use his heavier weight to bully the raccoon. Rickkter nimbly moved backward keeping just within the length of his staff but out of range of the taur's bulk.
Unlike Misha's previous opponents, Rickkter fought with a conservative air. The foxtaur was having to work to try and corner the wiry 'coon and could tell by Rick's blank expression that he was making a thorough analysis. Which was good, as that was exactly what he had been asked to come for.
The two moved slowly across the floor of the hall trading blows back and forth as they went. Occasionally the crack of the staves colliding was replaced by the meaty smack of wood hitting flesh. After several long minutes the two separated, both a little bruised and winded but not really hurt.
Panting lightly, Rickkter leaned on his staff and looked at Misha, who was standing about ten feet away. "Pretty good, for a start," Rickkter commented.
"Thank you," Misha replied, panting.
Rickkter walked over to him and held out his paw. "Let's see one of those front paws of yours."
Misha lifted one foot and put it in Rick's paw. It was odd balancing on only three legs, but Misha could still do it.
"Um, not as sharp as I had figured," Rickkter commented as he ran a thumb against one of the claws. "Still, with all that weight behind, it a kick from your legs could do some real damage. If you don't brain your adversary, you could probably tear their face off."
"I was thinking the same thing. Sheer weight will do lot of damage," Misha added enthusiastically.
"Just be careful of that soft underbelly of yours. Dancing on your hind legs could earn you a spear in the stomach."
"Good point. I'll have to remember that. You ever fight a centaur Rickkter?"
The raccoon shook his head. "No, never even seen one. Shall we go again?" The foxtaur nodded in return and they both backed apart once more.
This time it was Misha who attacked first, charging forward with his staff held over his head. Rickkter frantically back-pedaled away from the charging taur, but four legs move faster then two and Misha closed swiftly. There was no subtlety in this attack. Misha brought the staff down on Rickkter's head. The raccoon blocked the blow with his own staff and the two weapons came together with an earsplitting crack that echoed throughout the room.
The raccoon dropped to the floor and rolled between the vulpines legs. But instead of rolling out from under Misha, Rickkter stopped in a crouch under him. Before Misha could move, his opponent used his palm to thrust the staff against the exposed rib cage. While Rick's thrust wasn't as hard as it could be, it was still enough to make Misha jump and yip, along with several of the other scouts who were watching at the sidelines. Rickkter was quick to scrabble out form under Misha's legs, coming to a halt several feet away from his opponent. Standing up quickly Rick readied himself for the foxes next attack.
Misha's paw clutched at his side where the staff had hit him. They weren't broken, but there would be an ugly bruise there tomorrow. Of course he realized Rick could have broken them if he wanted to and this was all part of the exercise. But the realization did nothing to lessen the snarl that came from his muzzle.
With the staff leveled like a lance Misha charged straight at the raccoon. Rickkter waited till the last moment and then deftly side stepped the onrushing foxtaur. As Misha passed Rickkter struck out with his staff, delivering a stinging blow onto the vulpines rump. With a yelp Misha spun around to lash out at his attacker, but his nine hundred-pound body was more cumbersome and the raccoon morph easily dodged the blow.
Misha stopped about ten feet from Rickkter and rubbed the sore spot by his tail. "You'd better be careful with that staff Rick," Someone from the crowd yelled. "A little lower and you'll make Caroline very unhappy." The whole group roared with laughter. Misha just scowled at the raccoon without saying anything, a low growl coming from his throat. As soon as he saw the raccoon look away to retort, Misha charged forth again.
This time he managed to catch his wiry adversary unawares. Almost. At the last instant, Rick managed to bring his staff up and brace it against the attack. A loud crack resounded in the Long Hall, followed by a series of short, sharp reports as Misha pressed his advantage.
He scored a few painful hits on Rickkter and worked the raccoon almost to the edge of the fighting ring. With a sweeping motion, Misha brought his staff up and around, slamming down hard on Rickkter's own from above and using his weight to bear the raccoon down. Misha was careful to keep his front legs close together so the raccoon couldn't try the same escape twice.
Instead, Rickkter snarled loudly and right into the foxtaur's face, and managed to straighten up a few inches. This caused Misha to press back harder which almost resulted in his falling flat to the floor when Rickkter pulled out from underneath. It was luck that allowed him to get his staff up to block Rickkter's sundering blow.
The raccoon's next attack was straight across Misha's face. The staff had been swung with full force and the blow sent the vulpine reeling backwards in pain. Rickkter didn't let up, he kept attacking, rapping the staff repeatedly against the taur's body.
Misha backed away quickly trying to clear his head before Rickkter knocked him unconscious. Relentlessly the raccoon pressed his advantage, slamming the wooden weapon into his friend again and again. There was a feral look in his eyes and he snarled loudly.
In spite of the blurry vision the fox-taur brought up his staff and desperately tried to block his friends attacks as he backed away. Finally he stopped retreating and stood his ground trading blows with Rickkter. A flash of inspiration came to him and Misha reared up on his hind legs and lashed out with both front legs.
Rickkter saw the blow coming and his staff cracked hard against both limbs just before they hit him in the chest. The powerful blow sent the raccoon flying across the room and he landed hard on the mat and rolled several times before coming to a stop.
Rickkter sprang to his feet quickly enough, expecting a second assault. He brought his staff up to the ready position and glared over at Misha, his lips still drawn up in a snarl and his ears plastered against his skull. The fur at Rickkter's neck was standing on end, and his tail was bushed out to about three times its normal size. It was all a disturbing contrast to the cool façade he had worn before. Misha didn't press his advantage. Instead the taur stood where he was, panting hard. The taur just shook his head and waved his hand. "How about a little break? I think we both need it," was the vulpines explanation.
Rickkter rubbed his shoulder while holding the staff with one hand and nodded in agreement his fur and composure relaxing. "Sure, sounds about right." The blows from Misha had packed a lot more force then he had expected and his whole body hurt from them. His ribs hurt from that kick to the chest, but at least it hadn't broken any ribs. Still, pain was nothing new to him and he dismissed it.
"What was that last attack about?" Misha asked rubbing his bruised face. "You were really out for blood."
"That's what you get for cornering a raccoon. I never liked having that happen to me," Rickkter explained. "Plus I wanted to see if you could handle yourself in a real fight."
"You're alive aren't you? That means you passed."
"If this is passing I'd like to see what failing is like."
"No you wouldn't," Rickkter answered ominously.
A silence fell over the group. "I believe you're right," Misha answered calmly.
"That kick of yours packs more power then I realized," Rickkter commented, still rubbing his shoulder and changing the subject.
"It does. I didn't expect to send you flying across the room like I did."
Rickkter walked over behind his friend. "If your front legs can pack a punch like that, let's see what your hind ones can do." Misha turned his upper torso so he could see the raccoon standing about two meters behind him with one paw held up in the air. "Come on. Try and hit my palm."
"Are you sure about this, Rick?"
"Yeah, come on. Hit me." He slapped his palm.
Misha lifted one hind leg and aimed a haphazard kick at Rickkter's palm. His foot made a whack as it connected with the raccoon's glove, knocking the hand back.
"Okay, that was good, but now lets see what you can really do. I want you to hit my hand as hard as you can Misha. Just pretend that it's a Lutin or something and hit as hard as you can."
This time the snap the glove made echoed around the hall and spun Rickkter half around. "That was good," admitted Rick as he shook his paw. "Those things can do a hell of a lot more damage than your front ones, and you really should try using them more."
"I'll try, but keeping balance is tricky. Center of balance is quite different with four legs than two."
"Hey, how long a reach do you have? Exactly how tall are you when you're rearing on your hind legs?"
"Quite high, but I've never really measured it. Might as well do it right now and see what it is," Misha answered as he walked over to a wall. Rearing up on his hind legs, Misha placed his front paws on the wall as high as he could reach.
The raccoon walked under his friend and stared up at the fox's front paws in surprise. "Your front feet are at least ten feet off the ground."
"I told you it was high."
"Notice how your whole underside is exposed?" Rickkter commented and tapped Misha's stomach with the end of his staff. "Even a small dagger could penetrate right into your heart and kill you instantly. A very tempting target, and you'll want to get some good armor for it"
Misha nodded. "It would get one of my hearts at least."
"One of them?" Rickkter asked stepping out from underneath his friend.
The taur dropped back down onto all four legs. "I have two hearts. One here," he said tapping himself on the chest of his torso. "And one here," Misha finished tapping his lower body.
"Interesting," Rickkter commented. "I suppose one heart just isn't enough to move all the blood in that large body of yours. Although you could probably survive being stabbed in one of your hearts. At least until you could get to a healer. What about your stomach?"
"I eat about five times as much food. It's the same food, just more of it. This body is different, but not completely alien. It just takes getting used to."
"What's the hardest thing to adapt to as a taur?" Rickkter asked.
"The size. Not just the height and weight but the length as well." Misha pointed at his tail, "From my front legs to my hind legs is almost six feet. That's a lot of body to maneuver around in fight."
Rickkter nodded. "That's the one thing I've noticed. Your one major flaw though all of this is that you're still fighting like a human. Stop being human! You're not taking full advantage of your taur shape. Stop thinking like an infantryman and start thinking and fighting like a war horse."
Rickkter leaned on his staff and tapped the side of his head. "You're still thinking like you have two legs, not four. Don't just bully your enemy with your weight, lash out with your legs more, both front and rear. Claws or not, those are powerful weapons. And don't underestimate the shock value of a lance or spear. With a thousand pounds of body behind it, a spear will kill almost anything regardless of size. And let's not forget you and that axe of yours."
Misha yipped. "That'll be something to scare the piss out of those lutins. And speaking of fighting, are you up for another round?"
Rickkter gave his head a shake, then turned and walked off several feet. He gave his staff a quick flourish and turned back with the weapon gripped in both hands. "Anytime you are."
The next round began quietly. Both fighters were a little battered and weary of the other. They moved slowly towards each other, weapons held at the ready. Misha struck at Rickkter in an almost lazy swing, one the raccoon easily blocked. That was followed by a flurry of sharp staccato raps as the two traded blows. Then just as suddenly the exchange stopped as Rickkter backed away a few steps.
Rickkter started to slowly circle his friend, calmly twirling the staff as he moved. Misha watched the raccoon carefully turning slowly to keep Rickkter in front of him. Suddenly the raccoon rushed straight at the taur, staff raised high for a blow. Misha brought up his staff to counter the strike. At the last moment, just before they came to blows, Rickkter stopped and danced to the side just out of Misha's reach. The taur spun around to face his opponent but he moved to slowly and the raccoon's staff cracked across his back.
Misha tried to hit Rickkter but the raccoon had already danced out of range moving around to the taur's rear.
"Come on, Misha," he taunted. "You're up there, I'm down here. War horse, remember? You've got hind legs, use them."
Misha growled and lashed out blindly behind him with his hind legs. That forced the raccoon out, and with a small hop, the 'taur turned and swung his staff. Rickkter danced further out of reach as the wood grazed his shoulder.
Rickkter suddenly dropped his staff, reversed direction and rushed straight at Misha. He ducked the vulpines blow and leaped onto the taur's back like he was getting onto a horse.
Misha was startled by his sudden passenger and spun around in surprise. Rickkter clamped his legs around Misha's barrel like lower body and reached forward and tried to pin the taur's arms. The staff Misha had been carrying clattered to the pavement as the two wrestled arms.
The vulpine spun around in circles trying to dislodge his unwanted passenger but to no avail. Then he tried bucking the raccoon off by hopping up and down but Rickkter remained attached like he was glued there. Finally an idea came to him. Misha dropped to the floor and rolled completely over. At the last moment, just before his legs would have been crushed, Rickkter jumped clear.
Misha barely had a chance before Rickkter charged at him, his staff again in hand. The vulpine didn't try and reach for his staff, instead he turned around and kicked the raccoon with both hind legs. The blow didn't hit the raccoon full force but it was enough to stagger the warrior.
Scooping up his staff from where he'd dropped it Misha charged straight at Rickkter. The Long Scout rained blow after blow on his opponent, not giving him the chance to recover. The raccoon furiously countered the blows, ducking, dodging and twisting. Misha continued his assault, pushing the raccoon back step by step until he was backed against a wall.
Misha reared up on his hind legs and lashed out. Rickkter dropped to the floor and rolled to one side. Spinning around in a circle he swung his staff low to the ground aiming for Misha's hind legs. The taur tried to dance out of the way, but his big body moved too slowly.
With a loud CRACK Rickkter's staff took both of Misha's legs out from under him. With a yelp the fox-taur collapsed to the ground. The raccoon looked up and saw nine hundred pounds of vulpine falling towards him.
Rickkter tried to roll out of the way and made it, almost. He was caught in the back by Misha's front leg and sent flying across the floor. He slammed into the far wall with a loud thump.
The raccoon's head was spinning and he was seeing stars when he slumped to the ground. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought to remain conscious. Stupid stone walls. Why couldn't he have hit a nice soft bystander instead?
The splash of water to the face brought him back fully, making him gasp and blink his eyes. When he saw it was Kershaw who had doused his face with cold water, Rickkter gave his head a shake that doused the red panda. He then turned so that his back was to the wall and slumped down against it. His head was still spinning, his ears were ringing, and his whole body hurt.
"How do you feel?" the Panda asked.
"Like I've been kicked by a horse." Rick grinned and put a hand over his ribs. "Since I hurt like hell, that must mean I'm alive. At least pain is good for something, there."
Kershaw laughed. "I don't think you've broken anything, but you're going to really hurt tomorrow."
"What do you mean tomorrow? It really hurts now, but pain and I are old friends." The raccoon gathered his strength for a moment before forcing himself to stand up. The weary fighter leaned on Kershaw to steady himself. "Where's Misha?"
Kershaw pointed across the room and Rickkter looked in the offered direction. Misha was about five feet away lying stretched out and unmoving like he was dead. Several people we kneeling over the taur.
"Misha?" Rickkter asked, concerned.
The raccoon forgot all his pain and brushed off Kershaw's support. Moving as quickly as possible he made his way over to his friend. "Misha, are you all right?"
Misha gave a wave of his hand. "I'm still alive," he said in a tired voice.
Rickkter knelt next to his friend. Danielle was carefully feeling the vulpines hind legs. "They don't look broken Misha, but your left ankle is swelled up to twice its normal size."
Changing position the raccoon checked his friends legs himself. "The leg isn't broken, but the ankle is. I'm afraid you're going to be limping for a while." He flicked his eye ridges up. "Sorry about that. I guess I was still thinking of you as human, too."
"Wonderful," Misha said sarcastically. "It already hurts like hell. At least it was a great fight."
Rickkter smiled then winced at the pain that caused in his face. It had been a very long time since he had been in this situation. "Well, I hope you're not too upset with me for that." He stuck out a paw in offer to help Misha up. "Come on. You're still got three good legs left."
Misha's locked at his wrist, and with the help of several other Long Scouts, Rickkter was able to haul the foxtaur to his feet.
"Lord you're heavy Misha. You need to go on a diet," Baldwin commented and everyone broke out laughing.
"Well, I think that just about does it Misha," Coe commented as he inspected his handy work. The foxtaur's ankle had been wrapped in broad bandages to keep it mostly immobile. Brian had joked that it was a while since he had a horse to do it on. "Just keep your 'taur from for a few more days and you should be fine. Be thankful you have three more good legs to stand on."
"Like I said, Misha," Rickkter commented from across the room, "nothing to worry about." The gray raccoon was fiddling with the edge of his own wrapped shoulder and side, his fur apparently snagged. "I almost always return my partners in the same condition I found them."
"I just hope that Carol isn't too upset by this."
"WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU TWO DOING?" came the loud shout from the doorway. Standing in it was a very irate looking pair, a female otter and a skunk behind her.
Misha's ears drooped and he tucked his tail between his legs. He gave a small wave of his hand. "Hi Caroline, honey. You look good."
The otters eyes narrowed. "Don't honey me," she said advancing on Misha. "I leave you alone for an afternoon music lesson and you go off and do something stupid and macho."
"It was just a little sparing match," Rickkter said, trying to explain as he pulled a tunic on.
The otter turned and pointed her finger right at Rickkter's nose. "You stay out of this. I'm going to let Kayla deal with you."
Turning back to Misha, Caroline motioned with her hands. "What is this? You said you were thinking of testing out what it's like to be a foxtaur, not get the living daylights beaten out of you!"
"That's what happened," Misha explained, limping closer. "We were just sparing and things got carried away."
"A likely story," Caroline said as she came up to meet her lover. "What damage did you suffer this time?"
"Just a bit of a sprained ankle."
She didn't answer but just looked at him with a cold glare.
"Well, all right its broken," Misha admitted. "But a few days rest and I'll be fine."
"Couldn't you test your body without getting your head split open and your bones broken?" she growled at him.
Misha spread his arms wide. "It had to be through test! And when we got to fighting things just got out of hand," Misha explained.
A look of anger crossed the otters face. "Why did it get out of hand? I'll tell you why? Stupid Machoism," she spat. "Just to prove who's the best fighter you two beat each other to a bloody pulp."
"NO!" Misha shouted. "I asked Rickkter to fight me because I knew he wouldn't hold back. I knew he would do everything in his power to defeat me. I needed to be able to push myself to the limit for this!"
"You knew he would batter you?" she hissed, her eyes narrowing. "Why did you do it? You like being beaten up?" Caroline asked incredulous.
"I . . " Misha started to say but faltered and looked at the floor averting his eyes from Caroline.
The otter put her finger under Misha's chin, gently holding his muzzle, and lightly pushed his head up. "Why, my love?" she asked quietly.
"When, a person is a taur," he started hesitantly, "they can fight better and can run away faster. If you and Craig . . "
Caroline clamped Misha's muzzle shut, cutting him off in mid sentence. "No my love," she said in a calm voice, pointing at his nose with her other hand as she looked him right in the eye. "It was simply bad luck. There was nothing you could have done about it."
"Maybe not, but I can prevent it from happening again."
Caroline opened her mouth to protest but Misha grabbed her in his arms, pulled her off the ground and kissed the otter. Caroline resisted a moment then wrapped her arms around his shoulders and returned the kiss. It was a long time before he lowered her to the ground.
"You know how much I love you, honey," he whispered, his forehead touching hers.
"Yeah, I suppose I do," she said, reaching up and rubbing the thick fur of his cheeks. "Come on, then. Let's get you back to your place and we'll see what we can do about the rest of your injuries, you dumb oaf."
"Well, I'm glad to see those two reconciled over this," admitted Rickkter as he straightened out his tunic at his waist. He looked down at the skunk beside him.
Kayla turned and looked up at him, her blue eyes searching his face. Then she reached up and grabbed him by the ear.
"YEEAAGGHH! Damn it!" Rickkter cried as she dug her claws in and started to drag him out of the room.
The last part Brian Coe managed to catch was her demanding what the hell was going through Rick's head, as she dragged the other raccoon down the hall. Brian grinned to himself and gave a roll of bandages a quick toss in the air. He was certainly glad he only had to deal with the injured most times, not those who cared for them later.