The Three Sides of Truth

by Charles Matthias and Chris Hoekstra

chapter 1

Even though it was a rainy afternoon outside, the calm drizzle soaking appreciated into the thirsty earth, inside the Sondeckis Shrine it was just one more tool for Charles to use to find his Calm. The Calm was very important to the Sondeckis, a place of solace inside themselves that was far removed from the chaos, fright, and anger that otherwise dominated their existence. Without it, Charles reflected, every child born with the Sondeckis inside of them would die by the age of twenty-five, if not sooner, from the madness that would eventually envelope their minds. Their power generated the anger and rage in increasing portions as time went on. Only through the use of their power, and the techniques he was presently teaching Garigan, were any of them allowed the gift of longevity.

The ferret was sitting down with his legs crossed, and eyes bent out the window, watching the rain fall steadily. His chest raised and lowered, the brilliant heraldry upon his yellow robes glistened in the sultry afternoon air. His face was a spectacle of his soul, at times occluded, but at others very revealing. Matthias glimpsed torrents of sorrow at his lost home gush forth and spill into the battlements and gutters as did the sky's tears. But even that profound loss lasted only a moment before it was replaced by a sullen anger that appeared to exist in every single strand of fur, and collect at the tips of each of his whiskers. Then that too passed away from his pupil's visage, to be usurped by an unfathomable expression, one that the rat could only classify as confoundment.

And this continued for some time, as the steady lull of raindrops, shattering the stillness of the undulating surface of the ponds in the gardens, as well as the heads of any Keeper unfortunate enough to be out in that mess, soaked up all of Matthias's own anger and frustrations from the previous week. The lessons taught by a master Sondeckis to their pupil were not solely designed for the student. The teacher, as in any subject, was supposed to learn from their lessons as well. So far, Charles had rediscovered so many ways to control his own emotions. It was with some regret that he admitted, his behavior in the past, and the decisions that he had made were largely guided by his hot blood, and not the cool temper of reason.

How many people had managed to rile his anger to the point where he could no longer stand being in the same room with them? Habakkuk, for one. That meddling marsupial had largely been to blame for his admission to Wessex a couple months back about his friendly relationship with Zagrosek. Of course, that Wessex had seen Zagrosek do those things was more startling in itself, but he did not need to be associated with an evil man in that young wizard's eyes. Charles wondered on many occasions what had happened to his old friend, for surely the Zagrosek that he knew would never act as the boy had described. Still, the entire situation was Zhypar's fault, giving away books of ancient lore, and then continuously hinting that he was about to reveal all that he knew was an even worse crime. That had been the reason that Matthias had made him the Head of the Writer's Guild. There was such a huge backlog from all the adventures Charles had been on in the last few months of his tenure, that Habakkuk would be swamped for months with work.

The other figure whose very presence made the rat's hair stand on end was Rickkter. Though the Kankoran hadn't really done anything of note to offend Charles, and had kept his promise not to make a nuisance of himself or to reveal their secrets, his proximity was enough to make Matthias's blood boil. The ancient enmity between their clans was over a thousand years in the making. What had the original crime been? The rat remembered reading about it at one point. All he recalled was that it was a rather pathetic excuse to cause a thousand years of bloodshed and hatred. But, with so many dead on either side, their paws were still covered red in the blood of their enemies. That was the more real pain, the names that they had lost to each other. And for that, the hatred and the slaughter would continue. Whenever the rat saw the Kankoran, all he could think to ask himself was, had this one killed anybody I knew?

Grunting in annoyance, Charles dragged his thoughts back to the present. Just thinking about those to had filled him with a quiet rage. The Sondeck liked rage, it fed off of it, and the rage fed off of the Sondeck. If allowed to go unchecked, both would be uncontrollable. When he'd found Garigan several months ago in the Glen, he had been witnessing the effects of the power of the Sondeck allowed to build up rage too far. It was rare for somebody possessed of the power in the Southlands to live past the age of ten without his clan noticing and bringing them into the fold. It made Charles wonder just how many people in the north were born with the power, but died as a result of it because there were no Sondeckis to help them.

Garigan finally looked up an expression of simple peace passing across his face. It was a moment so profound, that Charles recognized it instantly. Many times he had seen that visage upon the faces of his instructors. It was the Calm. Charles stood up, and walked gingerly over to his student's side, the clicking of his toe claws on the clay barely audible against the pelting of the raindrops across the masonry outside. He did not touch his student, not when he had found the Calm. It was such a tenuous place, any distraction could knock the ferret from his precarious perch over the torrential sea of his own emotions. To progress in rank to the green, Garigan would need to master the Calm, hold onto it despite everything occurring around him. The trials normally lasted a full day, but since he was the only Sondeckis here, some other arrangement would have to be found instead.

Unfortunately, though, the moment of Calm was short-lived, as the consternation flooded his features, his whiskers fell, and his eyes brimmed with the disappointment he must have felt at losing his perch. Lowering his narrow snout, he breathed a muffled sigh, and his grey fur appeared to quiet as well, laying back and settling down like pieces of hay floating down to the stable floor.

Charles pressed his palm against Garigan's shoulder, running a claw across the smooth yellow fabric. "You are improving steadily, my student. Do not let this setback disturb you."

He shook his head, eyes casting about the clay walls, and towards the window where the rain drizzled in, forming a small puddle as it soaked into the material. "It was so peaceful for a moment. It was as if everything I ever wanted in life had come true, and I no longer had any worries whatsoever." He pursed his lips thoughtfully, and then turned his head to face Charles, gazing a moment past towards the sculpted angel standing before the grey stone altar. "It was like I was standing with God, and He had His arms wrapped about me. I felt that way at my first Service here at Metamor in the new Chapel. I wanted to hold onto the moment, but it just kept slipping away like... like...."

"Like what?" Matthias prompted, leaning over till he was hunched almost like a squirrel, with his tail sticking up in the air, despite the robe.

"Like trying to hold mercury or hot wax, it just dribbles through my fingers, till all I have left is the memory of it being there." As if to demonstrate, Garigan held up his paws cupped tightly together. He then spread his claws wide, and waggled them slightly, before dropping them to his lap again. "I wish I could stay up there longer."

"You will," Matthias reassured him, comradely patting him on the back, "it will just take time. It took me several months before I was able to hold on for more than a minute or two."

"How did you hold on?"

The rat shook his head, his eyes returning to the stormy day. "Even if I told you, it would do you no good. It would probably do you more harm in fact, delaying your mastery of the technique by a year or more."

"But why?" the ferret asked in some confusion.

"Because you would be trying to emulate me. Each Sondeckis must unlock the secret door to their Calm on their own. I can give you pointers, help you understand some of the things you are seeing, but I cannot tell you how to stay there." Crossing his legs, Charles sat down on the cold clay floor, though he could feel the power inside of it. "Perhaps you would like to tell me what you saw while you were there? I might have heard of something similar to that from my days at Sondeshara. Perhaps it could prove helpful to you."

Garigan opened his mouth to speak, and then coughed slightly. "My throat is dry, do you mind?" He pointed towards the open window with a suggestive paw.

The rat chuckled slightly. "Actually, I think I might need something to drink too. It is not often you get clear water like this."

They both walked over to the window, their foot-paws disturbing the rain-pocked puddle just inside the sill. Garigan leaned his upper half out into the inky grey landscape that enveloped the Keep, and opened wide his long snout. Charles waited as the drizzle soaked through the ferret's robe, garbing him in a dull vermilion, and streaked through his fur, giving it the texture of morning grass, and the color of an old man's beard. Some of the rain even fell inside his pupil's cavernous mouth, glistening off of his narrow, sharp, musteline teeth.

After a few minutes, he pulled himself back in, dripping more water onto the clay, and standing back to let the rat have his turn. "Ah, that was good. Before I had fur, I used to do that all the time in the summers when it rained."

Charles grinned but said nothing as he dipped his head out under the frothy deluge. His claws held onto the wet sill, even as he tried to ignore the rather long drop to the terrazzo below. After his fall from Heraclitus's back some months back, he'd not been able to look down from heights the same way again. That same sense of inevitable doom always filled him when the ground was not right under his paws. He had to wonder how the dragons or the bird morphs here at the Keep were able to handle it. The idea struck him that it would make a delicious story to have a bird morph be acrophobic, and then he recalled that he was no longer in the Writer's Guild, and filed the notion away for another time.

The water was delicious though amazingly difficult to drink as half of it missed his mouth and landed in his eyes. And when he finally drew himself back inside, the black of his robe was even shinier than before, glistening from the raindrops like finest obsidian. Garigan was already removing his robe, the tunic beneath mostly dry still. Charles slipped his off with practiced ease, and gently laid it out on the altar to dry off. As always, his paws closed over top the shield, inscribed by a palm with a white sword in the middle.

"So, what exactly did you see and feel while you were in the Calm?" he asked, his voice quiet, almost reverent.

The ferret rubbed his forepaws together slowly, as if to bring warmth back to them. The rain had lent a chill to the air that was common in the summer. Charles could feel it sinking through his wet fur despite his best efforts to warm himself. "Well," Garigan began, his speech slow, as if he were searching for the words, and not finding them, "it was like climbing a tree. There was this huge tree inside of me, it stretched upwards forever, or at least it looked like it did. You remember the pines we have in Glen Avery?"

"How could I forget?" Charles replied, a grin creeping over his features. And indeed, how could he? The trees there were larger than any other he had ever seen before in his life. They had been so wide around at the base that many of the Glenners had built homes into them, including Lord Avery. He doubted that he could have fit the trunks of any of them into his quarters, even if his door were wide enough to accommodate them!

"Well, it was even larger than that, with branches radiating out in all directions. They were thick, but even as I climbed up them, they buckled under my weight, and some of them even broke. But there was this one point, where suddenly the branches stopped, and all I could see was this single spire of wood leading into the heavens. I cannot think of any other way to describe it."

Charles saw that his pupil had nothing more to say, so asked, "And was that your Calm?"

The ferret quickly nodded, a few drops of water falling from his muzzle and into his lap as he did so. "Yes, I was only there a moment. But the view was stunning, I remember that much."

"What was it of?"

He blinked once, and appeared to concentrate on some wisp in his thoughts. Then, sighing, he shook his head forlornly. "I don't know what it was. Nothing."

Matthias nodded slowly, and then brushed a bit of moisture from his fur. "Once you can remember what you have seen up there, you will have a much better chance of holding onto your Calm, that much I can assure you. Otherwise, I'll have to think about this. The Sondeck, though we live with it all our lives, is a very personal thing, and is often mysterious to anyone but its owner. But, it is the tool that we have been given to fight with, and we shall do our best to comply to its needs."

The ferret perked up at something the rat said, his short ears nearly standing up. "There's something else I've been meaning to ask you, master."

"And what is that?"

‘Well, I'm not quite sure how to put this," he began, idly scratching the clay floor with one claw. "When I was living at the Glen, I knew what I had to do. I was a scout and defender of my people. I would wake up early in the morning, make my rounds, ensure that no Lutins or other monsters were about, and then head back in late at night for sleep. Not everyday of course, but close enough to it. That was my life, and I knew why I was doing it too. I was protecting my people, and serving them. I loved to do nothing else in the whole world.

"I suppose what I am trying to say is, that before I fought for Glen Avery. Now, now that I am becoming a Sondeckis, I do not know what I am fighting for. What does it mean to be a Sondeckis? This all feels so meaningless to me. Right now, all I really am doing any of these exercises for is to control my anger. I want another reason."

Charles took a deep breath, listening to the distant peal of thunder. Standing up, he walked to the window, and closed the shutters, casting them in even fainter light. They could hear the rat-a-tat-tat as the sound of the rain intensified when it struck the paneled shutters. Taking a small candle, he dipped it into one of the lit braziers, and walked around the room lighting the remaining lamps, including the two set upon ivory stanchions on either side of the altar. Charles had brought the latter in a few weeks ago from one of the storerooms in the Long House to help with the lighting.

"I suppose you should hear part of the story of the Sondeckis. It is a long and old story." Charles blew out the single candle he held, and laid it down on the dry clay beneath his paws. "I shall try my best to keep it short, but you ought to know something about the situation in which our clan live."

Using the wax on the extinguished candle, Matthias began to trace the outline of the four main landmasses of the Southlands. Starting with a hooked downward sweep, he drew another next to it, and then a small line leading downwards, and then a dab over top of it. "This is a rough map of my home, it does not look very big, I know, but the Kitch Steppe here," he pointed a claw at the lower end of the first down stroke, "is longer than the Great Northern Desert to the East.

"Now this place," he tapped the top of the second stroke, "is where Sondeshara is - my home for many, many years. It is in the middle of the only desert in the Southlands, leagues upon leagues of nothing but sand and shorn rock. That is part of our protection from the other magic clans, as few can survive the rigors of the heat. Sondeshara itself is built on top of a salt mine, where occasionally I would work, as you needed to eat salt anytime that you had to leave the protective walls. It was a harsh life, yes, but we needed that so that we might be able to do that for which we were born.

"Politics in the Southlands is much the same as it is here up North. You have your scheming nobles, greedy tradesman, and then the underclass who struggle just to have enough money to buy bread for their children to eat at night. Oh, not all of the nobility were ambitious, nor were the merchants ravenous for wealth, just as it is here. But many more would be so if it were not for our clan, the Sondeckis.

"You see, the mage clans in the South each serve a purpose, though some of them are horrific, like the Kankoran, or the Hevay." Garigan gave the rat a questioning glance and Charles explained himself. "The Hevay are the Earth Masters, their goal is to constantly change and mold the landscape about them, often times with disastrous consequences for the villages and towns in the vicinity. We Sondeckis along with our allies have tried to root them out and destroy them wherever we find them

"But for ourselves, we are the champions of the underclass. We defend the poor, the down trodden, and the oppressed, as no one else will. We do our best to persuade the local authorities that it is in their best interest to look after their charges. Usually, we only have to warn them when their excesses are becoming too great. Sometimes though, they believe themselves invincible, or us powerless, and they ignore our ultimatums. When that happens, we kill them."

Garigan started suddenly at that, his muzzle hanging open in shock at the ease with which the rat conveyed such regicidal practices. "You kill them?"

"Yes, they leave us no choice. We are not an economic power to financially provide for the oppressed ourselves. We Sondeckis have the power to kill, but we try to do it only if there is no other choice for us.

"The only other time when we will kill anyone is to prevent a war. We have often had to intercede when one noble house becomes too greedy and rapacious, and tries to subjugate his neighbors."

"I cannot imagine that it would happen that often, knowing that the Sondeckis would just kill them if they tried."

Charles shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately, it happens quite frequently. Normally, we just give them warnings too, and they back off. But they are always testing to see how far they can push their neighbors before we step in and stop them. So you see, we are the keepers of peace and justice in the Southlands, at least those areas that are not controlled by our enemies the Kankoran. The name Sondeckis itself means Seekers of Justice."

"And Sondeshara?"

Charles brimmed with pride telling his student of these things. For the first time in so many years, he could talk of them freely. "Sondeshara is the house of Justice. And Sondeshike, which is our most holy weapon, someday I will have one to show you, means Weapon of Justice."

"And Sondeck?" Garigan probed further. The expression on his face was one that did give Charles pause. He did not appear to be as excited to hear of their mission as he had thought he'd be. In fact, the ferret's visage showed disquiet and concern more than anything else.

"That doesn't actually translate well, but at best one could describe it as Soul of Justice. I'm not very good with the origins of words. I know a few of my friends back in the Southlands who could give you a better understanding of what these ancient tongues mean, but I cannot."

Garigan tapped the clay thoughtfully for a moment, and then did his best to grin. "I heard that the Southlands use a different tongue than us Midlanders."

Charles nodded then, and spoke a few words of his native tongue to demonstrate, "Icsh beväzenn wei Sondeckis". After seeing his charge totally confused, but satisfied, the rat gently stood up and touched his black robes. "Now, I think it is time I taught you some of it. I do hope that one day you will be able to stand in the halls of our clan, and on that day, you will need to know my tongue. The first words though, that you shall learn, are ones that you yourself have searched for in the past, but have been unable to find."

Garigan stood as well, towering a foot above the rat. "What are they?"

"Why, the proper words to the Song of the Sondeck of course, or as it is more accurately known in my tongue, Sondeckunliesh." And at that, the ferret did break into a wide grin, one that the rat knew he could trust. Touching the ancient symbol upon his black robe, he felt the words bubble up out of him as if from the very depths of the Earth herself. It was the most beautiful sound that ever graced his ears.

chapter 2

The rain had added a sharpness to the air, something Rickkter found refreshing. He couldn't remember the last time it had rained at Metamor. But at least the light downpour was a definite relief from the heat of summer. Which was an odd thing for him to consider, as he had spent the better part of his life in climates far more hostile than this one and confined his travels to those lands of warmer climes.

Must be the fur, he reflected as he flicked his tail to one side and sat down on the ledge of one of the covered span between two of the Keep's main towers. Reaching for a bag whose top he had run under his belt, the raccoon opened it and withdrew a handful of cherries. A sweet indulgence during a self-imposed break. He was still organizing the last of the information from Scratch, and Jon was asking about a half dozen scrolls from few months ago. It was very tedious work, but it was work all the same. Unfortunately he wasn't getting paid for any of it. But that was what his work as a regular soldier was for. It didn't pay anywhere near as well as when he was a mercenary, but it was enough, and he still had a lot left over from old times. And there was talk of wiping out a smallish outpost to the north of the valley by the name of Naven...

Rickkter gazed out through the rain over the valley of Metamor and let his mind wander to matters other than business as he bit into the sweet fruit.

He couldn't say how long he had been just sitting there, looking, thinking and eating, but the bag was almost empty when he was started from his revere by a flash of black and white out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to see what it was, he was greeted by a very strange sight.

The envoy consisted of three animal morphs, a hawk, a woman and a very odd looking animal in the centre, all of whom were engaged in animated conversation. Rickkter couldn't place the centre one's form, but he recognized the pearl gray doublet and hose, filigree and light purple cuffs and unicorn crest upon the left breast of the coat. The whole effect of the outfit was rather odd on an animal of light gray fur who had black hands and feet. Rickkter even raised an eyebrow as he noticed what had to be the person's tail bobbing around behind his head.

"Ambassador Yonson?"

The entourage stopped and the centre figure looked at Rickkter and smiled. "I'm surprised you recognized me, Rickkter. I trust things are good with you?"

"Yes, they are." He figured there was no point delaying. "An interesting change, Ambassador. What is it?"

"Ah, this," said Yonson as he gazed down at his own body, "I'm told is that of a lemur. Native to only one island in the south."

"I've heard of those," said Rick, as his eyes roved up and down the ambassador's body, "but I've never seen one before. Interesting."

To a degree Yonson's body was similar to his own, yet still quite different. Yonson's muzzle was less pronounced, and his mask was smaller. That was off set by his large coppery eyes that always seemed to be looking everywhere. The tail was the most unique feature of all, to Rick's mind, being as long again as Yonson was tall. Well, if it wasn't curved over at the top, he might it actually be longer.

"Yes, it is quite an interesting change," the ambassador concurred. He copped Rickkter a grin. "I wonder what it is with the curse transforming southern mages into ring-tailed mammals?"

Rickkter chuckled and shook his head. "If you ask me, its prime underlying criteria for choosing form seems to be a high sense of irony."

The lemur smirked. "Too true." He paused and sniffed at the air, gradually drawing closer to Rickkter. The raccoon could see his nostrils rapidly moving back and forth as he sniffed. "Um, what is that you're eating? If I may ask?"

"These?" inquired Rick holding up one of the dark red sphere. "Cherries. They're in season now. I wanted something sweet, and these got my attention down in the market."

The ambassador was licking his short muzzle and making nervous motions towards the fruit with his paw. "Um... may I?"

Rick shrugged. "Sure," he said, rolling the cherry along his index finger and flipping it at Yonson. The lemur snatched it out of the air with both hands and greedily sunk his teeth into the juicy meat of the fruit. Rick minded him to be careful of the pit.

"Um, that was quite good," commented Yonson as he finished his morsel. Swallowing the last of it, he added "I'll have to get some myself. I seem to have quite a craving for fruit of late."

"Most likely it's your form taking over. I still get the odd hankering."

"Well, I have to admit that those were good. I've never had them before."

"They're more native to this climate," said Rickkter as he bit in half another of his own.

"I must secure a few of these delectable treats for my larder," Yonson mused, a grin crossing his muzzle, the tan fur stained from the juices.

The raccoon continued to regard Yonson oddly for a few more moments. "I thought you might." He sucked off a bit of the cherry that was still clinging to the pit then spit it over the ledge.

"Aren't you afraid of hitting someone?" asked the hawk in his raspy voice.

"Not really," said Rick as he gazed over the ledge. "Anyone with any sense is inside or under cover right now, so I don't worry." He looked up and at the rain falling over the valley. "Truly miserable weather. But you could always do something about that, Ambassador," he added with a smirk that set the whiskers on one side of his face on end.

Yonson favoured him with an amused grin, the sides of his muzzle pulling back towards his masked brow. "Oh I am certain that I could, but what if it summons an even worse storm only a week later? Or perhaps blizzards throughout all winter. Maybe even a drought. I've only been here at the keep a scant two months. I've not observed the local weather long enough to even begin to attempt a casting of that magnitude.

"Normal procedure for my kind stipulates at least one year of observation before even a simple cantrip is cast. My kind is very careful about such things, for the weather is always in flux, and every beat of a bird's wings changes something."

Rick stopped him before he could go any further, laughing pleasantly. "That was a bit more than I needed to know. But thank you for the stimulating conversation anyway."

"I apologize for my exuberance," Yonson's tail waggled in an almost hypnotic fashion for a moment, and then he looked past the raccoon to the sky. "I must be going. I have a few appointments that I cannot cancel or postpone."

"I shall see you another time then." Rickkter gave the Ambassador a side-long grin. "Perhaps we might have a rematch sometime."

"Perhaps," Yonson replied as he made his way across the parapet.

"But this time, no staffs!" the raccoon called after his departing companion.

The lemur chuckled once more and then left Rickkter to his own thoughts. Giving the bag a little shake and seeing how few of his snacks were left, he returned to his thoughts. But he soon found those drifting back to the other southern-mage. During his years of experience facing forces from many different lands, Rickkter had slipped into the habit of war-gaming situations from opponent's points of view, working out the scenario based on what he would do in their shoes. And as he automatically started doing that for Yonson, he didn't like some of the conclusions that came to mind.

Yonson seemed to be playing the same game of hiding his past magical allegiances that Rick was. But Rick knew his reasons for doing so very well. He was from a diverse enclave, one that contained mages of all the different castes. It was the only place where those few of his profession resided, as their purpose was the countering of the other clans. Yonson was apparently from an enclave dedicated to weather, and from the match they had concluded a few months ago, he was quite well trained. Another puzzling fact.

Rickkter's own ascension to the rank of black was one of unique circumstance. The Kankoran had already trained him very well in the arts of fighting and he had been able to pick up the rudiments of magic from a few endowed with that ability that his sect dealt with. Which is what caught the eye of the leader of the Ebon Dragons, another fateful occurrence.

Yet Yonson's own rank of purple was one below Rickkter's and he had managed to defeat the Battlelord in single combat, a task not easily accomplished. Slowly sucking the juices from another cherry, he drew two conclusions; one was that Yonson possessed more power than he led on; second, if the former was true, there was no reason why he shouldn't have ascended to black and still been with his enclave. Most mystifying. That staff was the really puzzling thing, as weapons of that quality were reserved for the more senior wizards. True, there were several ways he could have come across it, but Rickkter still didn't like any of them.

The last question about the Weathermonger's past that nagged him was the alignment of Yonson's former order. Being weather, it was impossible to say. There were more than a few of them around. Yet it still bothered the raccoon. If he was noble, there was no reason for the rat to fear him as much as he did. The noble orders were pretty much bedmates with the Sondeckis. Same for if he was noble-neutral or pure neutral. Neutral enclaves just didn't really care about the affairs of others as long as their own goals could be accomplished and they were often relatively harmless. The last alternative was a dark or dark-neutral alignment. Given that, Rickkter wouldn't have to worry much while it would only serve to further compound Matthias' fears. For centuries, Ebon had been one of the mightier of those enclaves, though it preferred to keep its affairs to itself to a great extent. Less chance of Sondeckis involvement that way.

But the speculation was not much good to Rickkter here. He hadn't spent much time in the actual southlands in many years, confining his interests to the lands on the south-east end of this continent. He hadn't directly witnessed the political situation since he left, and things could have changed.

He grimaced as he spit the pit over the ledge.

Actually, there was little chance of that. Things had remained pretty static for well over two thousand years, despite the efforts of the Kankoran during the last millennium. Rick had a few fleeting thoughts about contacting old friends, but there was no chance of that. Instead he focussed his thoughts on remembering the weather orders that were situated around Marzac, trying to reason out which of them would make such an alliance with the famed cursed chateau.

There wasn't a lot of choice in the matter. There were only about six or so weather factions to begin with, half of them being noble, one neutral, and the other two dark. The neutral one was on the tip of the south western peninsula, so it was out. Of the darks, one resided near Marzac and the last, The Windriders resided near Rick's old enclave on the eastern shores. And one of the nobles was in the middle of the north coast. So he had two nobles and a dark to choose from. The dark one Kyocera's Defenders would be a very likely candidate, as it would definitely desire an ally as it had to defend against two nobles. The nobles both made equally unlikely candidates, as Rick had remembered them both being very stable and quite close to the Sondeckis. And that was when a splash of moving gray and brown coming towards him broke his train of thought.

"Speak the devil's name, and so shall he appear."

The ‘devil' stopped in his tracks and turned around. "What?"

The perplexed expression on the ferret's face was enough to illicit a satisfied chuckle from the raccoon. "Hello Garigan."

"Unusually cordial for you, isn't it?" replied Garigan as he took up a slightly defensive posture on the other side of the walkway. "From what I've learned about you, I wouldn't expect such civility. I've never known any mercenary to have much of it."

"Oh, your words wound me, good sir," said Rick, doing his mock imitation of some pampered noble, clutching a paw to his chest. "Tell me, do you think you're better than me?" Rick asked, abruptly switching to a lighter tone as his ears perked up and he dropped the paw. "Do you think that because you were born into a kingdom and permitted to enlist in an army, that somehow means you are better than I? Is it my fault that I had no king to serve, came from no land with an Emperor to employ my services in such a fashion, and that I even lack even a family name from which to draw on? Are you any better because you've killed for god and king, while I've done the same just to keep myself alive with food in my belly?"

"Well, I... uh... no," stammered Garigan. He was still coming down from the feeling of high that the Song of the Sondeck had put in him. Between that feeling, what Charles had told him afterwards about the Sondeck, and Rick's surprise conversation, he was quite unprepared to deal with the raccoon.

"And you shouldn't be," affirmed Rick as he leaned back and ate another cherry. "It does not befit a novice of your rank to presume such things."

"I wouldn't say that it's presumption." Garigan took up a position well away from the raccoon and crossed in arms over his chest. "I know more about you than you might imagine." Rickkter's white-fringed ears perked up some and turned towards the ferret, though the rest of the ‘coon showed no interest. "Charles has told me enough of your old sect for me to understand how heinous all Kankoran are."

"Ah, the Kankoran," hissed Rickkter, drawing out the n at the end.

"Yes, them. You exist in secret, you kill from the shadows, and you never engage in direct confrontation unless backed by some powerful magic order." Garigan couldn't resist letting a sneer come to his lips as he looked down at the ‘coon. "The Sondeckis are fair and honourable, you are all cowards."

If the words bothered Rick, it didn't really show until he turned his eyes to Garigan. They were narrow, dark brown slits residing within his black mask. "From a Sockecki, that is bold talk. From a Sondecki who is of the mere rank of yellow directed towards his enemy of far higher rank, they are utterly foolhardy and suicidal." But then Rick's gaze softened and he returned to his snack and to looking out over the valley. "Of course I could hardly expect more from one as ignorant of the truth as you are."

"As I said, I know more about the structure of the southlands than you might imagine. Charles has been giving me lessons there, as well as how to use my magic. I know how you live in the shadows, preying on the weak. I know how you ally yourselves with dark and corrupt enclaves in an attempt to destroy all that the Sondeckis have built up and tried to preserve..."

"You really have no idea of the reality of the whole situation, do you?" interrupted Rick, unable to stand hearing more. "Your kind is no better than how you paint mine. You are the heir to a legacy of deceit and subversion. You are part of a conspiracy to subjugate an entire people against their will and virtually against their knowledge. Your great and noble order is nothing more than a self-righteous pack of spies and assassins."

The ferret could feel the anger coursing through him. The insults to both him and his new-found order had touched a nerve and set a burning hate. Now that he knew what the Sondeck felt like, like a living think that fed off anger and created a rage of its own to further fuel it, he felt it building, begging for a release. But then the words of his master came back to him, and with them the knowledge of exactly who he was talking to, and he managed to reign in his anger and force it back down. "You don't know what you're talking about," he finally managed to say.

Rickkter laughed, his procyonid face lighting up with mirth. "Oh, don't I? And how long have you been privy to the situation? A few months or so, at the most? I've fought their influence for years, and I think that I know a little more than yourself." He snorted and leaned back a little more. "Your master spouts his own propaganda, much like the rest of them."

"And he tells most interesting stories about your sect as well. One of the prime ones is that you're a pack of mercenaries trying to plunge the entire area into anarchy."

Rickkter shook his head, favouring Garigan with a clicking of the tongue as though the ferret were some small, backwards child. "No, you are both so wrong. We seek only to restore the natural balance which the Sondeckis have corrupted." He spread his arms and leaned back to look up at the sky. Garigan gave more than a moment's though to giving Rick a little push. "We serve nature and its inherent balance. And the balance of nature is something that an animal morph from Glen Avery should know well."

Garigan folded his arms over his chest and thought for a moment. Considering who he was talking to and the various hints that Rickkter had been dropping, it was not too difficult. "Survival of the fittest?"

The raccoon favoured him with a murr of approval. "Exactly. You see, we believe that events should take their natural courses, with only the strongest enclaves surviving and doing away the weaker ones. Your side fosters an environment of unchanging stagnation." His gaze softened and he spread his arms once more. "We only seek to let things go their natural way."

Garigan mulled over the concept, trying to think like the raccoon and pick apart the argument. "Rather callous reasoning. I've heard of the stories you tell, and I have one that I think you'd find interesting. It takes place in Glen Avery several years before the original curse.

"There was this one woman who had lost her husband in a raid several months earlier. Even then we had problems with Lutins crossing our borders. Her only surviving child, a son, lay ill in bed. She did not have the money to afford healers for her boy, as the raids had taken almost everything she had. Her husband was dead, most of her animals had been slaughtered in the raids, and what little food they had was spoiling in the parched summer.

"Now, the point of all this is, according to your reasoning, it would have been certainly all right for that boy to die. He was weak, he was expendable, let him die. Casualty of circumstance. By your very reasoning, you would not have lifted a finger to save him."

"Do you think that this woman's boy deserved to die? A hard-working lad whose father had just been killed, and he takes ill, his mother unable to help him as she has no money? He is certainly weak, and could never have recovered on his own. Is that reason enough for him to die? None of us thought so, so we banded together and did what was required to help the boy. Because we choose to do what was fair for him and his mother he's alive today. With you, he would be dead."

Rickkter slowly chewed and swallowed before speaking again. "You have it right, but backwards. We are a small sect, comparatively to yours, so we cannot afford to simply give away our services. We have our own needs for survival, much like the healer in your story. Because of that limitation, we only provide services to enclaves that can afford them. Call it mercenary in nature if you will, but even a regular army has taxes levied to pay for itself. Again, like the healer, we are dedicated to helping those who desire our help to be free from the influence of the Sondeckis and permitted to do as they see fit. But again, there are costs. Sondecki persecution has managed to keep our numbers small, so we must be careful. But, we are still dedicated to alleviating the blight that the Sondecki have placed upon the south."

Garigan couldn't believe what he was hearing. The story had not even moved the raccoon! Matthias had just spent an hour extolling the virtues of the Sondeckis, how they endeavoured to keep the world sane, orderly, and, above all, just. Now here was Rickkter, telling him that this view was corrupt and that the world was better served by chaos and disorder. There was only one thing that Garigan could say to that. "You're insane, you know that?"

Rickkter snicked, smiling so much so that it looked like he was snarling. "I've been told that before. But what is sanity but the measure of the majority?"

"The Sondeckis are dedicated to bringing order and harmony to the southlands," Garigan asserted angrily. How he wished that Charles were with him now to answer this arrogant raccoon's viscous lies. Despite his better judgement, he couldn't not stand up for his sect. "It is their purpose to ensure that justice prevails and order reigns."

"The world is not to be put in order," quoted the raccoon. "The world is order incarnate. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order."

"That is crazy! What you're talking about is chaos and injustice! Without the order that is enforced by the Sondeckis, the entire region would be plunged into a state of total war. What you're talking about is just pure evil."

Rickkter shrugged, looking like he had heard all this before. "The universe knows not good and evil. It only knows what is and what isn't. Good and evil exist only in the human mind, and under different conditions in each. Therefore we are our own final arbiters of right and wrong."

Garigan moved his paws over his eyes, lightly digging in his claws. This is not what he needed right now. "That's it, I'm going to quit now before going as insane as you are."

Rick barked a laugh. "Ha! I knew you would fold. That's why I like doing things like this! It gives me something to think about, in addition to the apparent frustration it gives you. It makes me reevaluate what I normally take for truth. Arguing with you and having to defend my point not only strengthens my convictions, but it causes me to notice my errors and search for answers to those questions." He smiled, flashing Garigan his canines again. "Thank you so much for this pleasant diversion." The ferret just violently shook his head and angrily stalked back into Metamor, still holding a paw to his head.

"Ah, I love doing that," reiterated Rick as he leaned back and plucked the last of his snack from the little bag. He sat there quietly, examining the deep red colouring of the fruit and how the light reflected off the skin, and thought about how long it had been since he had seen a Sondeckis. Had to be... damn, well over twelve years now. And those hadn't lasted long in any case. And then there was the matter of southern mages in general. There had been a few around the southern regions of the east end of this continent where he had spent many of his years after Deanna's death, but he had never really interacted with them and had never even seen them when he was in lands further north than Heathcorte.

But now life had turned his whole world upside down yet again, he considered as he bit into the cherry and savoured the sweet juice as it slid over his tongue. He was stuck in a body that wasn't his -- not really -- and stuck in a magical fortress that was isolated through political attrition from the rest of the word, as well as its physical geography. He was stuck here with not one but two Sondeckis, one of which was a black and whom should have killed him. And just when he didn't think that things could possibly get any more bizarre, who shows up by a true southern mage acting as ambassador to the most famed haunted castle in all the south lands?

Rickkter spit the pit into his hand and looked at it as he stood up and walked to the middle of the walkway. The rain had stopped by that time and there were some people walking around outside again. Whenever his life got this complicated in the past he would always just pull up stakes and move on. But he didn't have that option here. Within the eighteen or so miles of the Metamor Valley he was safe, but beyond that his form was liable to get him at best run out of town and at worst burned at the stake. And Matthias and Yonson were only two of the complications he had encountered since coming to Metamor.

"Damn it all," he mumbled as he winged the pit off into the distance. He watched it arc through the clear air under the still leaden clouds until it had fallen to where he couldn't see it any more. "Boom."

At least it got Rick smiling once more as he turned on his heel and clasped his hands behind his back. Now it was back to the books, with more dead languages and lost magic. It was tedious and not very exciting at times, but at least he could loose himself in it. And right now, there was nothing more he wanted then to try and forget the current situation

chapter 3

The ferret stomped his way down the marbled halls, passing tapestries, statues, and other works of art without notice or comment. His recent conversation with the raccoon still circled low through his thoughts, preying upon every decent intention that Charles had imparted to him earlier that day. He could hear that the rain had started again through the shuttered windows. With a bit of malice, he hoped that Rickkter had been drenched when the clouds broke once more.

Garigan greatly missed the sense of calm and ease that his training lent to him. The Sondeckis Shrine itself was a refuge for spirit freeing it from all the turmoil that plagued the rest of his days. He was half-tempted to return there and confront the rat with Rickkter's words, that he might explain it all away and reassure him once more of his clan's inherent righteousness. Yet with a pang of guilt, he knew that such action would only lead to a scolding for associating with the Kankoran anyway.

Stalking the halls of the Keep like an angry boar rooting through the brush, Garigan glared at the marble walls, the terrazzo floors, the balustrades, the tapestries, the frescoes, and the statuaries. He was so incensed by the raccoon's arrogant demeanor and slanderous tongue that he nearly grabbed a faience urn from atop a pedestal and smashed it to the ground. However, he resisted the temptation, continuing on his way past the colourful pottery and down into a plainer, less ostentatious section of the Keep.

At times like these, he truly missed his home. Glen Avery was a beautiful town in the trees, a citadel of nature, a place where life grew together. The friends he had left behind to follow Charles were many, from Angus the badger, his mentor at the time. Then there had been Shelley, a girl turned boy who had been his scouting companion. Lars, the brewer, Walter, the tailor, and Mrs. Levins, a hedgehog whose pies were unequaled anywhere. And then of course there was Lord and Lady Avery, with their two children Christopher and Darien. All of them were faces he sorely missed.

To whom could he possibly turn here at the Keep? Misha perhaps, but he was usually busy with his Long scout affairs, and would simply send him to Charles. He didn't really know many of the other Longs, and most of the rat's friends were simply too urbane or too busy to deal with an uncultured woodsman like Garigan. He had tried making friends here, but aside from the fox and his teacher, there were few who he found himself comfortable around.

"Garigan?" A voice called from behind him. The ferret turned about on his heels, and peered at the strange figure before him. Standing just outside an open wooden door was a mammal with small angular head, large hips and long feet, with a wide thick tail held behind him.

"Oh, hello, Zhypar," he remarked as the kangaroo hopped lightly towards him.

"Is there something wrong, you look a bit lonely," Habakkuk held out his dusty red-furred paw in a gesture of friendship.

Though he knew he should not, as this was one of the other people his master had warned him away from, Garigan could not help but accept the offered paw. "I suppose so. I've just had a rough day. I'm sure you've had a few of those."

"Oh, we've all had our share. I'm not too busy right now, did you want to come in and sit down for a while? You look like you need a friend."

Taking a deep breath, knowing that Charles was sure to berate him now, he said, "Sure."

Habakkuk smiled, waggled his ears, and then turned back and walked gingerly to his door. Garigan followed after him, and was greeted by a rather modest chamber, of similar proportions to Matthias's room. The single bed, longer than the rat's, and bent oddly in the middle, occupied one corner of the room, while a high paned window allowed light to stream in across it. A writing table with a large seat stood against one wall, while next to it was a large oaken bookcase, filled with patchy, leather-bound tomes of various sizes and shapes.

Unlike the economy of the rat's chambers, this one did possess other furnishings. Two chairs set in the centre of the room around a small dining table fashioned from pine added to the genial atmosphere of the place. At the kangaroo's beckoning, Garigan set his long frame down into one of the velvet-cushioned chairs. Habakkuk busied himself by the modest cupboard next to his desk.

"Would you like something to drink?" his host asked, showing the stunned ferret the array of wines inside that stained cupboard.

"Oh certainly, I could use one right now," Garigan found himself saying, though he was not inclined to reveal secrets to this outsider.

Zhypar poured him a glass of wine, and handed him the cup. Garigan took it between his paws and gently sipped at the nepenthe. His host regarded him curiously for a moment, and the ferret had to admit he probably looked awful. Yet he did not say anything right away, but waited patiently. It grew increasingly clear to Garigan that he would have to broach the subject.

"That is quite a collection of books you have there," he observed, taking another drink from the wine as he did so. "How many do you have?"

"I have a little over a hundred books in my collection now," Habakkuk grinned, and walked over to the shelf. He ran his paw over the spines of the tomes, fondly rubbing the cracking leather.

"Where did you get them all?"

"Oh, here and there. I traveled quite a bit before I settled here at Metamor about four years ago." Habakkuk drew out one tome, and opened up the pages. He handed it to Garigan, who puzzled over the strange unreadable text. "Be careful with this one. It is over four-hundred years old."

"I cannot read it," Garigan remarked, lightly touching the runes drawn upon each page. The parchment was yellowed and cracking in places. He was afraid that if he tried to turn a page it would disintegrate.

"Of course not, it's an ancient Southern dialect that died out a century or two ago," Habakkuk took it back from him. He glanced over the page, as if to inspect it for any imperfections that the ferret's touch might have imparted. Then, he closed it gently, and replaced it next to its shelf-mates.

"Can you read it?"

"Most of it. I'm going to copy it down onto fresh parchment and have the binding replaced in a few months," Habakkuk returned to sitting down, though his deep brown eyes were still locked upon that tome.

"Where did you ever learn to read that? I mean, if it has been a dead tongue for a century, who taught you?"

"My father taught me, he was a merchant as well. Rare books run in my family like blood. We've always been quite facile with other tongues."

Garigan set the cup down upon the table before him, the wine having warmed him slightly. "So you have travelled all over the world?"

Habakkuk favoured him with a quick grin and a waggle of his ears. "Not all of the world, but much of it. There is something to be said for travel, just as there is for living one's whole life in the same valley."

"What is that?" The ferret asked, genuinely inquisitive. The last time he'd had a conversation with the kangaroo, he'd been cryptic and deliberately challenging. He'd also been drunk, but then again, most everyone had been at some point during the Summer festivities. However, at present he was quite amiable and clear. There were no mysterious hints at foreboding futures, nor was there any gentle prodding to redirect his thoughts. It was a simple friendly conversation. After his chat with Rickkter, this was exactly the sort of thing he needed.

"I may have seen quite a bit of the world, but there were very few places I ever knew as well as I now know Metamor. Your knowledge of Glen Avery has been accumulated over the course of your whole life. You must know every tree and bush in that area."

"Well, there are one or two that surprise me when I would go scouting," the ferret remarked whimsically. "I do think I see what you mean, I'm lost here at the Keep most of the time. And I've been here for almost three months now."

"There is more to it then that as well. When I travel, I would always be meeting new people, but rarely would I be seeing any of them again. How many people here at the Keep do you know yet?"

Garigan shook his head, his whiskers drooping. "Not too many."

"But I'm sure you know every person at the Glen," Habakkuk could not suppress the grin upon his muzzle.

"There are some I know better than others, but I do know everyone," Garigan picked up his glass again and took a long draught of the wine. "And I miss them all terribly." He finished off his tumbler and handed it back to the kangaroo. "Could I have a bit more, if you do not mind?"

"Of course," Zhypar took the glass and refilled it from the same bronze bottle. "When will Charles let you return?"

"When I've..." he caught himself before he began to speak of his training. A very uncomfortable expression crossed his face, an unpleasant moue that surely his host would notice.

"When you've what?" Habakkuk pressed innocently.

The conversation at that point did not feel the same anymore. No longer was it free from burdens, but had wandered into dark, stormy waters. "I don't really know."

Habakkuk took a sip of his own glass, and then nodded. "I believe what you meant to say was, ‘When I finish my training.' Is that not what Charles has brought you here to do, to train?"

"I think I should leave," Garigan stood up from the chair, but he felt the kangaroo's paw upon his arm.

"Garigan, I already know, you will do no harm in what you say here. Charles knows that I know what he is. You are both Sondeckis. You do not have to fear revealing any secrets to me." It all had been said so fast and so kindly, that it took the ferret a moment to realize the import of the words used. When it became clear to him that the kangaroo knew the name of his clan, his whole body tightened reflexively, and he slowly sank to the seat, every muscle tense.

"How do you know?" was all he could say, and that barely a whisper.

Zhypar's muzzle broke wide into a grin. "I am from the Southlands as well as Charles. My specialty is in ancient texts. The order of the Sondeckis is clearly delineated in some of them. It was not hard to deduce that our friend the rat is a Sondecki, just as you are. There has not been a day I've seen you since you came here when you have not been wearing yellow. Charles too wears black in his costume. It was all a simple matter of observation and deduction."

The ferret sat speechless again for a few minutes, returning his snout to the glass before him. Finally, he mustered the courage to ask, "Why would he not want me to talk to you then?"

"Probably because he was afraid I'd convince you to publically announce your allegiance to the Sondeckis. In that he is wrong. I've no desire for you to do anything of the sort," Habakkuk's voice was sincere, but once again, there was a cryptic quality to it. It was as if he was not saying everything, but leaving the most important pieces out.

"How many people know, besides you?"

"Five, I think. I am not entirely sure about three of them, but I suspect that if they do not know, then at the very least they are suspicious."

"Who are they? Please tell me, it may be good for Charles to know. I doubt he'd come and ask you for your advice, but I think he might need it."

Zhypar shrugged his slender shoulders and took another sip of the wine. "He may, though I believe you are correct. Your master does not trust me. Very well then, I shall tell you who I believe knows of his identity." He took another drink, and then refilled his glass once again. Garigan handed him his own, and was soon returned another tumbler-full of the bright brassy liquid. "Foremost is Rickkter, but I believe you are already aware of that."

"Painfully aware," Garigan muttered into his wine.

"Wessex also knows, although I am not sure what good the knowledge has done him. The other three would be Prince Phil, the Duke, and Misha Brightleaf. I do not think he has told Lady Kimberly the name of his order yet, but she does know most of who he is. And I do believe that Yonson is oblivious to his allegiances, so you can calm your master's fears about that."

Habakkuk then leaned forward, a sly grin crossing his features. "Now, why were you moping about the halls just now? It was a bit more than just homesickness, that I can tell."

Garigan downed the wine, needed to get the memories from his system. "I ran into Rickkter earlier today. He said some disturbing things about the Sondeckis. It rather upset me."

The kangaroo laughed mildly at that. It was a friendly laugh though, and it did not offend the ferret. "Did you really believe that a Kankoran would tell you the truth about their mortal enemies? You are one of them you know. Why should it surprise you to discover that he would enjoy inflicting pain upon you by twisting everything that Charles has undoubtedly told you of his clan?"

Garigan gazed down at the empty cup. "I suppose it shouldn't," he remarked glumly. "I just didn't know what to say, and Rickkter is so sure of himself. Plus, he has been there, and I have only heard of it. How can you argue with that?"

"Easily, you simply demonstrate the lie. What sort of things did Rickkter tell you about the Sondeckis? Or even about his own clan, the Kankoran?"

"Well," Garigan plumbed the memories he had just tried to expurgate for how it had all began. "I told him what Charles had told me of the Kankoran and he told me such was a foolhardy move, and a suicidal one."

Habakkuk simply grinned wide at that. "Yet you are still here. Why do you think that is?"

"Because he does not want to have Charles come after him?"

"Exactly," his host crowed in delight. "Rickkter knows that he cannot defeat Matthias if our dear friend truly wants to see him dead." Suddenly, the kangaroo's expression changed from one of solemn discourse to pleasant inquiry. "Though what you're describing does puzzle me a little. How is it that you got involved in this whole mess in the first place?"

"Well," started Garigan. While hesitant at first, he did eventually tell of the whole confrontation with the raccoon on the causeway, though Zhypar had to do some liberal prodding at a few points. When it was all finally over, the kangaroo let out a disgusted snort and took a deep sip of his wine.

"He was playing with you, you know. It was just a cruel game on his part, probably devised for no grander reason than to take advantage of your current mood and relieve his boredom." Garigan didn't take that pronouncement too well, raking the claws of one of the arms of his chair and favouring Zhypar with a mustelid's clicking growl. "Oh, I wouldn't take it too personally, Garigan." Growling less, Garigan shifted his angry glance over to the kangaroo. "You see, Rick knows full well that he can't harm Charles directly, so he's going through you. This whole incident was probably designed to upset you and make you lose focus. And from the look on your face when I found you, I think he managed to do a pretty admirable job of it."

"So all this was a game designed to get at Charles?" he spat.

"I would think so, yes. Those two have hated each other almost from the first moment. Do you know that when they first met, they nearly did kill each other? I had to prevent your master from finishing the job while the Kankoran was incapacitated from the change."

"Why did you do that?"

A look of seriousness crossed his companion's brow. "That is a question that you should ask your master. The reasons are personal, and I believe it should be his right alone to decide if they are to be revealed.

"You are right though, the only reason Rickkter did not kill you is because he knows that despite his bluster, he would not survive another confrontation with Charles. Not because Rickkter is weaker than your master, mind you - face to face, they are an even match - but because he is trained as an assassin whereas Rickkter is not. There is no guarantee that Matthias could even summon the stealth necessary to prevail upon the raccoon in a moment of weakness, but Rickkter was wise not to take that chance. If it were not for your master, you would probably be dead right now. So, Rickkter was right as well, it was a foolhardy thing to do. I recommend you stay away from the Kankoran."

Garigan felt ill at the realization that he had been stupid to confront the raccoon like that. He licked the side of his cup, wishing there were more wine there for him to sup. Zhypar finally noticed that his guest's tumbler was empty, and grabbed the wine bottle and refilled it. He then brought the bottle back with him, and set it upon the table between them.

"What else did he say?"

"He said that the Sondeckis were a bunch of spies and assassins dedicated to subjugating people against their will and fostering unchanging stagnation upon the world."

Habakkuk laughed drily. "The Sondeckis are spies and assassins. I imagine even Charles told you that." Garigan only grimaced unpleasantly, his whiskers twitching in a fantastic array. The kangaroo took a sip from his own glass, then cleared his throat. "And what did he say about his own enclave?"

Garigan thought another moment, trying to conjure the poisonous words back to his mind. It was not easy, and it made him bubble with rage at the arrogance. "He claimed they were trying to restore the natural order of the world that we had corrupted. He wanted to ensure that the strong survive while the weak die."

Habakkuk nodded thoughtfully at those words, closing his eyes for a moment. "Perhaps it would serve you best to hear a story. This is a true story, of events that unfolded in the Southlands many years ago. There was a great city, named Fellos, on the southwestern shore of the Eastern continent. It was the home to one of the greatest libraries this world has ever known. It rivalled the one here at Metamor in fact. I was there many times in my younger days, for a merchant of my nature, it was irresistible. Many of the books you see in my collection are from the library of Fellos.

"There was a group of wizards who dwelled there, known as the Felikaush, who spent much of their time in study within that library. Their research was given to any who asked it, and they exacted no price for their labours. Even the Kankoran had in the past benefited from their generosity. The one thing the Felikaush would not do though was declare allegiance to any other order, or to any ideal other than the preservation of knowledge. Those were their only maxims."

"So they helped both sides?" Garigan asked curiously.

"Yes, they did, both the western and eastern clans were indebted to them. Yet the Kankoran joined forces with a few other enclaves to the east many years ago. Their purpose was to purify the Eastern continent of all forces not allied with them. Fellos, along with a few other towns, was totally destroyed. The library was sacked and burned, and much of the knowledge was lost. One can only assume that they took most of the tomes with them when they left.

"The siege lasted only a few days, Fellos had never been extensively fortified, its residents preferring the walls of books instead of mortar and stone. When what defences they did have crumbled, the force swept through the city, killing everyone there. The Felikaush did not have strong enough magic to repel the invaders, and were destroyed. Fellos is now just a memory. In another fifty years, it will be simply a place in history books."

"So Rickkter is wrong then and Charles was right?" Garigan asked, sensing that he had yet to hear all of the story. For some reason, he doubted that he would the kangaroo would tell anymore of it.

Zhypar appeared uncomfortable at the new question. "Not entirely. No doubt the Kankoran propaganda that Rickkter fed you would make his order to appear to have a nobler goal other than self-aggrandisement. In truth, as I believe my story demonstrates, they are only interested in expanding their own power and influence throughout the world. They may claim they want to restore the natural order of things, when in reality they just want to impose their will upon everyone else."

"He said that's what the Sondeckis do."

"Then Rickkter is a hypocrite and a fool if he truly believes that. They are a force for chaos, nothing more. They could no more restore the natural order than could the Sondeckis right every wrong committed on this earth. If the Southlands had to chose between the Sondeckis and the Kankoran, they would be marginally better served by the former. The latter would make them slaves, and when they can no longer serve, they would be ground into dust."

"So you believe the Sondeckis should hold sway?" Garigan probed further.

"No, I do not."

"Why?" That answer had stunned him.

"The Sondeckis feel it is their duty to preserve order and justice. Charles has told you this, correct?"

"Yes, that's what he said. It sounds like the right thing to do to me."

Habakkuk mildly laughed. "Of course it would; you are Sondecki." He rose from his seat though and gestured to one section of his bookcase. "All the books on this shelf are histories. They detail revolutions, wars, times of peace, times of suffering, and times of great advancement. Rickkter was right about one thing, if left unchecked, the Sondeckis would force stagnation upon the Southlands. There would be justice, but the price would be the banishment of all new thought. I am a lover of thought, and cannot stand for that.

"I know you do not like to hear anything that raccoon said be called the truth. But in his own way, he was do something useful for you. The Sondeckis do not like change, for they fear what it could do to the people. The Kankorans on the other paw enjoy such revolutionary conduct. The two enclaves are a counterbalance to each other. They need each other, though neither will admit it. The Southlands are best served to have both. With the Sondeckis, justice is done, and with the Kankorans, stagnation is avoided so that they might grow and prosper."

Garigan shook his head, quite confused now. "How can one cause good by intending evil? Rickkter said that they want to upset the order on the continent and plunge it into total chaos. How can that possibly be for the good of the people?"

"Spoken like a true Sondecki!" Habakkuk crowed in delight. "The Kankoran and their allies are dangerous. Not because of their power, though that plays part, but because they admit that is their goal, and they act upon it." He then peered thoughtfully at his guest, his eyes gazing over the soft grey fur and the supple frame sitting upon the velvet cushions. "Did you want to leave Glen Avery?"

"Well, no, of course not."

"But, you did anyway. Why?"

Garigan's brow furrowed into a moue. "Because I needed Charles to teach me. Otherwise, I would have gone insane."

"And you see, sometimes keeping things the same can cause more harm then a little discomfort at change," Habkkuk smiled, and finished off the last of the wine, returning the bottle to the cupboard. "Furthermore, the Sondeckis are not infallible. They have made many great mistakes in the past, including rather recently."

"Charles has said nothing of this!" Garigan protested.

Habakkuk leaned a little closer, "Perhaps you ought to ask him why he left the Sondeckis in the first place. Why would he have left such a noble institution if it were perfect? He has only retaken his title because of you. That chance, random meeting, is what has sparked all of this. Matthias has changed quite a bit, but he is still heading down the same path. It is not really taking him anywhere."

Zhypar rubbed his chin thoughtfully with one paw a moment. "Perhaps you should hear yet another story. Though I was not personally present for all of these events, I will tell you what I know of them. In the Southlands, there was another village, Akenburg, in the fields north of Makor and abutting the Darkündlicht Mountains. They are for the most part shepherds and tailors, selling their cloth to the southern villages.

"Akenburg was run by the Tailor's Guild. They did their best to make sure the sheep were in good health, and that the money would continue to flow into their coffers, so that they could purchase food from other villages. Well, an industrious young citizen of their hamlet, not a member of the Guild incidentally, invented a machine that allowed thread to be spun onto multiple spindles. His machine could have increased production ten fold."

"That sounds rather useful, I bet Walter would have loved something like that," Garigan murmured, not sure he saw the point of this tale.

The kangaroo grinned at that, "Yes, it would have served the people of Akenburg quite well. Except that you see, the Tailor's Guild did not think so. They saw his many spindle machine as a threat to their authority, and made up wild stories of the suffering it would cause. They took those stories to the Sondeckis."

"How could anyone not see what good this man had one?" Garigan asked in astonishment, obviously uncomfortable with the direction this tale was taking.

Zhypar shrugged his shoulders. "The Sondeckis believed the Tailor's Guild completely, after all, they had been watching over the people of Akenburg for centuries now, and had managed to keep things fair. The man was threatened, and forced to leave his home by the Sondeckis. So he took his invention with him and sold it to the tailors in another village, this one known as Melagrin.

"The people of Melagrin were able to outsell Akenburg drastically that next season. And so in the following winter, the people of Akenburg starved because they did not have enough money for food. But the story does not end there. The Sondeckis had not even seen their mistake yet."

"How could it get worse?" the ferret demanded.

"I will tell you," Habakkuk declared tapping the table for emphasis with one claw. His thick tail slapped the sides of the chair legs in his ardour. "The Tailor's Guild complained about the situation yet again to the Sondeckis. By now, our young inventor had made quite a success of himself, selling his machines to several villages." Zhypar paused a moment, noting Garigan's confused expression. "Your enclave responded by killing him this time, and then systematically destroying every one of his machines in the hills north of Makor. Their actions served to deny everyone the benefits of more production. Because there was less thread, fewer clothes could be made or mended, and so, like in the centuries before, many people died in the winters from lack of warmth.

"The Tailor's Guild had what they wanted, and the only thing that really mattered to them. They had their power." Habakkuk leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "The biggest irony of all perhaps is that only a few years later, the Guild themselves reconstructed the many spindle machine that the man had invented, and used it themselves. Akenburg prospered now, much to the detriment of the other villages around them, who found their coffers empty in the winter.

"The Sondeckis interfered again, forcing the Tailor's Guild to give up the secret of their machine, and stability was once again returned to the area. But in those intervening years, because of the Sondeckis trying to maintain the status quo, many suffered and died. Now tell me, where is the justice in that? Had the Sondeckis not interfered, that young man's invention would naturally have been spread to everyone anyway, and he might still be alive helping others. What do you think of that?"

At seeing that Garigan was still silent, Habakkuk continued, "Have you ever heard the expression ‘there are three sides to every story: your side, their side, and the truth'?"

Garigan shook his head, eyes still lost in thought.

"You have what Matthias has told you. Rickkter's version of events is quite plain. And I have told you something of the truth between the two. I do not believe you are ready for all of it yet, but at least you can pick your path." Habakkuk then favoured him with one of his grins. "I recommend the truth. Makes life more interesting that way when you can actually see it."

"And you possess the truth?"

"Not entirely," Zhypar cocked one head to the side, his long brown ears waggling yet again. "I have my own biases as do we all. The trick is to see past them. Your own clan does the greatest harm when it fails in that. They mean well, trying to enforce their version of justice. But sometimes, it is not justice at all, as I have told you. The Kankoran have their purpose in upsetting the status quo, forcing change through confrontation. They ensure that power does flow and that nothing stagnates. And that is exactly why the Sondeckis and the Kankoran need each other. They balance out each other's excesses, and the whole is better for it."

Habakkuk continued then, pausing only to take a breath. "Ironically enough, things aren't as different as they appear. Both Rick and Charles have a great deal in common. They are very well trained at what they do; they are both rather worldly." Zhypar's expression cooled until it was a look bordering on disgust. "They're also stubborn, arrogant, and don't know when to back down. They irrationally cling to their pasts and refuse to acknowledge the future until it comes up and kicks them right in the arse." Leaning back, he gripped the cup still in one paw, only to find that it was empty. The look of disappointment was fleeting, to be quickly replaced by that same unpleasant moue. "I swear, sometimes I think those two and their petty conflict is going to be the end of me."

Garigan just sat on the other side of the table, not really sure what to say.

Habakkuk came back to himself after a few moments and turned to the ferret. "Sorry about that. It is just that the blindness the two of them can sometimes exhibit can be so frustrating."

Before Garigan could respond, not that he had anything in particular to say, the kangaroo leaped onto another question. "Do you know what the names of the orders mean?"

"I know the Sondeckis," replied Garigan. "That is Seekers of Justice. What's Kankoran translate to?"

"Bringers of Chaos," said Zhypar. He smirked at the look on the ferret's face. "As I said, it's a dangerous enemy who acknowledges such a purpose. Then again, an enclave who admits they're assassins is equally suspect. Did you enjoy being a scout for Glen Avery?"

"Oh yes, immensely!"

"Have you ever participated in an ambush?"

"Oh, I was thought to be a natural at hiding myself and striking the enemy from behind."

Habakkuk flashed him that grin once more. It never appeared to be far from the kangaroo's face. "You certainly will make an excellent Sondecki then. But to do that, you had to leave your home town. You had to change. Ironic, isn't it?" The ferret blinked a few times as he digested the words, and then finally, a simple smirk crossed his muzzle. If he hadn't changed, he would have done something terrible. "I suppose I see what you mean now. It helps to shake things up a bit every once in a while. Sometimes, justice takes care of itself."

"Exactly. And in that, you are even wiser than your master. But that is for another day."

Garigan set the cup down on the table and stood from his chair. "I probably ought to head out. I have a lot of thinking to do."

"Yes, you do. I'm glad you stopped by. You can trust me, I will not reveal your secrets," Habakkuk extended his paw in a comradely manner.

Garigan shook the older Keeper's paw, and grinned slightly. A sudden thought struck him though just as he was turning to leave. "Do you by any chance know what ‘Icsh beväzenn wei Sondeckis' means? Charles said it to me earlier, and I've been wondering about it ever since."

The kangaroo looked thoughtful a moment and then grinned. "It is good to hear my old tongue again, though your accent is atrocious. If you were to go to the Southlands and speak like that, nobody would understand you."

"I do not have an accent!" Garigan protested in consternation.

"To a southerner you do. Do not feel bad about it, I've been told that when Charles first came here his accent was so thick that almost nobody could understand him." The ferret did chuckle lightly at that, and without another word, Zhypar continued. "Icsh beväzenn wei Sondeckis. That is rather like the rat. Translated literally, it means ‘I breath a Sondeckis'."

"That doesn't make much sense," Garigan muttered.

"No, it does not. A rather strange habit of our tongue is that most of the verbs have two meanings. In this case, ‘breathe' also means ‘live'. So what he said was, ‘I live for the Sondeckis'. That sounds much better doesn't it?"

The ferret grinned again. "Yes, it does. Thank you, Habakkuk, you have been a friend."

"Thank you for the pleasant company. Best of luck in your training." Habakkuk's thick tail raised up high as the roo bowed ever so slightly.

With that farewell, Garigan departed the writer's rooms, and wandered out into the hall once more. He started to make his way towards the Mule, despite the amount of wine he'd consumed, he'd had very little to eat so far. He was going to regret it tomorrow, but at the moment he wanted to do one little thing, so shunted such worries from his mind.

Taking a deep breath, he said, "Icsh beväzenn wei Sondeckis." It felt very good on his tongue.