Was his life really that dull? wondered Jon as he walked down the halls of Metamor Keep. Sure he had been keeping busy, but did he really need to do such a thing to relieve the monotony? Patrol duty wasn't a mandatory function at Metamor. There were almost always enough warriors or scouts at any one time. But lately things had become somewhat unsettled. There was a sort of unspoken frustration among the warriors. Jon had noticed it during his evenings at the Deaf Mule. And now here he was, volunteering for a quick tour outside the Keep. He'd heard that George, the Patrol Master, had been going around reminding Keepers of their commitment to the safety of Metamor. It was sort of the unwritten rule at Metamor, that while patrol wasn't mandatory, all able bodied individuals should do it once or more a year. This wasn't exactly a favorite chore of Jon's, either. Then again, most would hate it too if they were a six foot tall deer, and it was hunting season for the near by towns.
Oh, it wasn't actually that bad. They wouldn't likely to run into any hunters anywhere near the Keep. The curse kept most of them away, and the Lutins took care of the rest. In fact, that was the reason for the patrols. Those little bastards had attacked a great number of the caravans that came by the keep on their journeys, and ever since its founding, Metamor Keep was the last line of defense between the Midlands and the lands to the north. And during the Battle of the Three Gates it had nearly fallen.
In the course of the battle, Nasoj, a sorcerer from the Northern Lands, and his wizards cast three spells down each of the Keep's main gates. Spell one transformed its victims into incredibly buxom women or over-proportioned men. Spell two made its victims full animals. Spell three infantilised its victims. The Keep wizards were able to partially reverse the spells, but not totally. Even if a person wasn't affected by the original spells, if they spent more than two weeks or so at the Keep they would be randomly affected by one of these spells. Rate of affection could vary from as much as a week, to as little as three days. But by the end of two weeks, you were changed. Regardless.
But that was ancient history. Well, not exactly ancient. It had only happened a mere six years ago. Being caught in the effects was not as bad as one would expect. After the initial shock, most of the victims grew accustomed to their new forms. Jon was no exception. He was a court writer, a Quartermaster, and an amateur Artificer. The latter was something to keep him occupied, and he already had two store rooms devoted to that hobby of his.
As he rounded the corner he was greeted by Brian Coe, who was turning in off an adjacent corridor. "Hi there, Jon," the raccoon hailed him.
"Brian. So good to see you." The two linked up and continued their conversation as they walked down the hallways. "So what are you doing here? George finally coerce you into pulling patrol duty, too?"
The raccoon gave him a one sided grin. "Got it in one, my friend. Aye, that jackal finally wrangled me into it." He shrugged in resignation. "Ah well. Who knows, it might be exciting."
"Yeah, when has it ever been exciting?" Jon snorted. "Go out for a day or two. Wander around the woods. Try and avoid getting killed if we happen to run into a band of Lutins. Come home. Yeah, Brian. Real fun."
"Well at least you have that little amulet of yours there, Jon boy. That thing has saved your hide on more then one occasion, if I'm right."
Fingering the gold setting and it's ruby center, Jon was forced to agree. "Maybe, you're right. But this time I think I'll be going out as myself. The deer archer, instead of the lizard foot soldier."
The amulet that Jon wore had a unique property to it. Quite by accident he had discovered that with a simple twist it could transform the wearer into a six foot tall lizard killing machine. A creature that seemed almost bread to combat. Jon had had the pleasure of using it on several large Lutin raiding parties, with outstanding effectiveness.
"Suit yourself. I just think that you make a better infantry man then an archer."
Jon ear-smiled at him. "You just remember that when you're hacking away at those Lutins with that short sword of yours, and I'm perfectly safe, a good distance away, putting arrows into them."
Coe stifled a laugh. "Okay then, Jon. You got me there." Both spent the rest of the trip to the armory engaged in small talk of the Keep and its residents. As they were rounded the last corner, they were stopped short by a familiar voice.
"Oh, it is so very droll
To be a poet on patrol.
In sooth, I do prefer my lute,
But Lutins will I gladly shoot!"
recited Wanderer, in a resounding tone as he strode down the Keep's hall. The deer and raccoon had both turned at the melodic ode, and were waiting for the wolf to reach
"Greetings, Wanderer. What are you doing here? Volunteering for patrol duty?" Jon queried.
"Simple, my illustrious cervid. I spent a bit of time with Alain a few nights ago. He says there's something peculiar going on in the grounds up north. I've also heard the same thing from a few of the others. So after George came to talk with me about doing my share of patrol around here, I figured, that I might as well do my part." The wolf gave a quick look at the other two. "I see he got to you two as well?"
Brian nodded. He then turned and gestured for the wolf to join them. "Come on. Let's see what that Jack has to tell us before going out."
It turned out that the master armorer had something unusual for the small band of Keepers. "All right guys. Because George is insisting that everyone capable put in their time, I've decided to give you a simple run this time out. Perhaps you've heard, perhaps you haven't, but there is someone running loose in the woods around the Keep.
"The patrols for the last week have been reporting that they've seen someone scouting the northern expanse of the grounds." Jack flashed those gathered a meaningful look. "The only thing is, none of them have been able to catch him. The most they get is a quick look, a glimpse, and then he seems to vanish. He's supposedly a human, dressed all in black, and apparently very well armed. Even the canines, and those with excellent senses of smell, can't seem to track him. They tell me it's the eeriest thing they've ever seen. Like the forest opens up and swallows him."
"Sounds like a wraith to me," interjected Coe. "Perhaps you should bring the Lightbringer in on this."
Jack shook his head. "We already thought of that. She says no, this is not the doing of the gods, or any other supernatural being. There is a real flesh and blood person out there. However, the only hard evidence of his existence we have are a few fire pits that we've found where he's camped. Aside from that, nothing.
"Seems this individual knows what he's doing" continued Jack as he walked over to a large map of the keep and the surrounding grounds. "We see that from these marks that he's going in a deliberate circle to the north of the keep. And according to Magus, he's going right along the perimeter of the spells, too. Seems to know exactly where they extend to." He tapped one of the red marks in the series. "Except for this incident three days ago."
"What happened there?" inquired Brian.
Folding his arms across his chest, the master armorer answered with a perturbed look on his face. "According to the first patrol that found it, it was a massive Lutin encampment. At most fifty, it looked like."
"Poor devil," muttered Wanderer.
"Poor Lutins is more like it," Jack shot back. "From what those who found it can tell me, they were wiped out. To a man. Not one of those miserable little bastards left alive there."
"Wait a minute," said Jon as he stepped up. "You mean that there is someone running around out there that could elude the patrols for a week, AND take out a Lutin encampment THAT big by themselves, AND walk away from it?!"
"That's what I'm saying."
"And you expect US to go after him?!" Jon saw Jack nod. "Oh, no, no! This is not a good idea. Send team four, or team six, or team eleven, but not us. Not against someone like that." Jon was getting pretty upset over the idea of the patrol, or so his frantic pacing indicated.
"Relax, Jon! You would never be sent out on a mission like this if it was thought was any real danger. The teams you suggested are already out there, and they were the ones giving the reports about our friend vanishing into the woods. They even called in the special scouts for this one."
Jack started heading towards the weapons lockers as he continued his brief. "And you know what a nose Misha has on him. We should have had him, when that fox ran across his trail, but he just seemed to disappear into the woods. I've never seen Brightleaf so upset over losing a quarry. First time something like that has happened to him, I guess." He removed sets of light leather morphic armor, one for wolf, raccoon, and deer respectively.
"All I want you to do is poke around that area to the north where he should be. If you're lucky you might spot him, and if you're luckier you'll have satisfied George's idea of patrol time and be none the worse for wear."
Jon grumbled his aggravation as he selected his favorite expander bow from the rack. "I hope you're right Jack. The last thing I would want to have happen is for us to get killed by some unknown like this." Jack got a good laugh out of that, and continued with the usual mundane brief as the others outfitted themselves for patrol.
As they headed out of the armory Jack had a few more instructions. "Oh, and if you see Bryan, get him in on this as well. It's good to have a scout when going about in that part of the country. He supposedly came in with one of the other groups today day."
They found Bryan just outside the north exit of the Keep. He was just standing there, almost as if he were waiting for them. "You have an uncanny sense of timing you know that?" commented Jon as they walked past the cobra.
"Yesss, I've been told that" hissed Bryan as he fell in line with the rest of them. They headed out from Metamor and into the Giantdowns, the doorstep of the hostile Northlands. At least the country surrounding the Keep was peaceful, or nearly so. The Lutins did stir up their share of trouble. But, as it was, this day the four Keepers made their route without event. It was a few hours before something interesting came their way.
"Wait up, guys,"called Wanderer.
"What is it?" inquired Coe, as Wanderer walked around the crossroads they had reached, sniffing intently at the ground.
"Someone's been here. Recently. As in the last hour or two, I would say."
"Which way did he go?" asked Jon, taking over the questioning from Brian.
Wanderer waved his hand around for a few moments. "He went... that way."
"All right every one. Let's switch to a lower morphic form so it's easier to catch up with him." Jon put Bryan into the saddle bags wore, since it was his only practical mode of transport for the cobra, then he changed to a full deer. Morphic armor was a bit uncomfortable at this stage, as it's speed was just behind that of the wearer. The change completed, Jon kneeled down to allow Brian access to the harness that was there for him to ride with. Wanderer could keep up on his own.
'All set here?' Jon mind-sent to the rest of the party. Receiving an affirmative, they were off. Being full animal allowed easier tracking of their quarry, as they could now each pick up his scent. After about half an hour of running through the trails and pathways that littered the woods, they came to the far edge of a clearing. It was one of a handful that Jon knew. It contained the crumbling ruins of a Tened settlement. Edging around the clearing, keeping well hidden with in the tree line, it was only moments before they spotted their target.
They found him sitting calmly amongst the ruins, apparently finishing his lunch -- and for all intents and purposes, oblivious to the world. Or so was the expression the traveler wore on his face. Their quarry was a man of about thirty years of age, with a full, close trimmed black beard, and a head of shaggy black hair down to the shoulders at the back of his neck. He was dressed all in back leather including gloves, the only colors being the golds and silvers of the metal portions of his outfit, as well as a red dragon carved into the sheath of his sword. Jon was slightly disturbed by the fact that the partols weren't lying when the said he was also a very well armed man.
'What do you make of it Brian?' mindsent Jon.
'I don't really like it.' The raccoon had dismounted and inched forward a few feet. 'Look at what he has on him. That sword is not quite your standard broad sword, nor rapier. More of a hybrid. He's got at least three large knives on his belt, that we can see from this angle any ways. Note the bolts strapped to his thigh. Looks like they're for a crossbow that he must have. Perhaps on his other side.' He pointed with his muzzle at the travelers large pack. 'That looks like an expandable bow he's got there.'
'And note the throwing knives strapped to his chest,' pointed out Wanderer. 'See how the handles reflect the sunlight when his chest moves, but the tips do not? I'm willing to bet that it's poison on the ends, and not a leather sheath covering them.'
'Good thinking Wanderer' conceded Brian. 'So how do you want to do this Jon? We need to do something fast, because he looks to be finishing his meal.'
When he turned his attention back to their quarry, Jon saw that this is true. He thought quickly then ordered them into action. 'Okay, here's the battle plan. Coe, I want you off to the left, and a bit behind him. Wanderer, directly behind and a bit to the right. Bryan, you stay as you are and come up to his right, front, side. I'll come up the middle, see what he wants. I need the rest of you in position in case he doesn't take too kindly to meeting us. We don't know what his intentions are, and he's been eluding our patrols for a week now, so I want to play this very carefully. No chances.'
'You DO remember what he did to thossse Lutins, don't you Jon?" inquired Bryan.
Jon let a puff of breath from his nostrils. 'And that's exactly why I want you in position before I move. If we're lucky, one of us should be able to take him out if things go sour. Now move!' As he watched his friends move stealthy into the surrounding forest, Jon returned to his higher morphic form and reconsidered his decision.
'I hope I'm right about this,' he thought as he drew his own expander bow. 'If what the patrols said is accurate, all the times they encountered him he never attacked them, he just seemed to vanish into the forest... I just hope it holds out.'
Jon notched an arrow, and hunkered down to wait. However this is plan ruined when their quarry, finished of his meal, suddenly stood up, snatched the bow off his pack, grabbed a quiver of arrows from the side facing away Jon, and started to walk into the center of the clearing. 'What is he doing now?!' thought the startled Keeper, as the traveler clipped the quiver to his wide belt and drew out a single black arrow.
As he reached the center of the clearing, Jon had a lovely profile view as the traveler raised the bow, and with a small click, expanded it to the full five foot length of a long bow. Much to Jon's horror, the stranger's next move was to notch the arrow, turning to the side in the process, and aim it directly at the buck's head.
"All right, that's far enough. No body moves, or your deer friend here gets it!" shouted the stranger. "Okay, you the deer, the one in the bushes, stand up. Yes I know you're there, so don't think that I'm bluffing." As Jon was about to comply, the stranger loudly shouted something else. "Hey!! I said nobody moves! You, the raccoon, the one fifteen feet to my back left side. Stop right there, or you get it next." He paused for a few seconds. "That's better. Same goes for you, wolf."
Now this whole display had the buck completely dumbfounded. He couldn't even see Brian and Wanderer, and HE was looking in the direction that they were located in! So how could this guy do it?
His revere was interrupted by their quarry again. "In case you missed that the last time, I told you to stand where I can see you, deer. And tell your friend the cobra, that if he gets within so much as ten feet of me, he gets to find out how I got the nick-name Snake Eater during my time with the Ka'ri, in the Bandi Desert." He ended the entire speech with a slight cough.
Jon stood up slowly so as to avoid provoking the stranger. Although he was still holding the bow, the tension was off the string, and the arrow point directed to the ground. "Okay then. Easy does it," assured the Keeper. "We're not here to hurt you. We've come from Metamor, and we're only interested in what you're doing up here. Nothing more, okay?"
The stranger gave him a pleased smile, then relaxed the tension on his bow. "Good. I was beginning to wonder when they would send someone after me. Someone who was actually capable of catching up with me. Step out where I can see you better."
Jon took a few steps forward and the two archers eyed each other for a few seconds. "Interesting." commented the stranger. "I'd heard that the Keep will do this to you, but until this moment, I've never had the chance to get a good look the result. Most intriguing."
He retracted the bow and returned the arrow to its quiver. "You can tell your friends that it's alright to move again, though that cobra had better keep his fangs in his mouth." He hooked the bow to a free latch on his belt. "I'd like to meet your merry little band. Something tells me that we're going to be spending a lot of time together."
When the others emerged from the woods and came to stand beside him, Jon saw that they all wore the same expression of bewilderment that he himself was experiencing. "Well, now that we're all here, how about some introductions?" inquired the strange man who had so quickly turned the tables on them.
"Well, I'm Jon, one of the Quartermasters at the Keep. This is Bryan, one of our many scouts" he explained, gesturing to the six foot tall cobra. By some sort of unspoken agreement, Jon had become the sole voice of the group. "The wolf is Wanderer, and the raccoon is Brian. And who, may we ask, are you?"
"Of course you may," agreed the stranger. He gave a light cough that he muffled with his gloved hand. "My name is Rickkter, and for lack of a better description that you would understand, I am a warrior-mage. And I have come here to join your little community up at the Keep."
Jon gave a small laugh as he look around at his group of friends. He turned back and asked Rickkter, "So what's with all the lurking around the Keep? You've had the patrols going out of their minds, over what you might be doing up here. That's why we were so concerned when we found you." He gave a small shrug of his shoulders. "That, and you were quite well armed, even after your little exploit of a few nights ago."
"Well, I apologize for causing any of the Keep's members concern," said Rick as he scratched his bearded chin. "It's just that, well, you people don't exactly have the best reputation in many lands. Stopping for a brief stay in town, I was given all sorts of horror stories by the locals, upon telling them of my destination." Raising his eyebrows, he continued his narration, seeming to look right past the little group. "Actually it's much like that in all the lands. Stories of what happened here are used to frighten little children, scare off travelers. They say that you're all daemons and that if anyone stays here long enough they lose their soul. All that. I actually haven't heard a lot of positive things about Metamor in my travels, so I was naturally more then a little apprehensive about going there."
"We've heard all that stuff before," confirmed Brian.
"Then there were the... Lutins, I think they're called?" Rickkter saw the confirmation on the faces of the Keepers. "Well, I was warned about them as well. I ran into a large encampment of them a few nights ago. Since I heard how dangerous they were, and that you guys hunted them, or such, I decided to help you out." Rickkter was smiling now. "It was very enjoyable. I've not seen panic like that in a long time."
"Yesss," intoned Bryan. "We heard that you might have done that. Now our quessstion for you, isss how doesss one man take out a sssmall army of Lutinssss, and live to tell about it?"
Rickkter ran both his hands through the shaggy mane of his dark black hair and stretched at the same time. "It wasn't as hard as you would think. I had a warriors best friends with me on that hit. Darkness, surprise, confusion, terror, and superior weaponry and firepower."
"Firepower?" asked Jon. Rickkter responded by waving his hand, fingers curling back into the palm, producing a small burst of light and sparks. There was the smell of brimstone left hanging in the air. "Oh."
Getting a concerned look on his face Rickkter stepped up to the group. "Jon," looking the deer square in the face, "your name Jon, right?" Seeing the slight nod he continued. "Okay, Jon. Now did you bring anyone else from the Keep looking for me? Any of those with a still human appearance?" Rickkter had removed a small crossbow from it's clip on his wide belt, and was drawing the string back.
"Uh, no. This is all that we've brought." He looked up at the warrior. "Why? You see someone?"
"Not exactly." Rickkter selected a bolt from his thigh, and placed it in the crossbow. "Jon, I need you to do me a favor." He reached up and grabbed the deer by the shoulder with his other hand. "Duck." Jon had no time for protest before Rickkter had yanked him over, bringing up the bow in one fluid motion. There was a sharp twhip from the crossbow, as the bolt was loosed. This was followed shortly by the scream of pain from the trees on the opposite end of the clearing. The scream caused the whole group to immediately turn towards the sound.
"Excellent," commented Rick, the bow still raised. "Come on. Let's go see what we hit." And with that, he was off across the clearing at a quick jog.
Coe stepped up close to Jon. "Did you see that?" he asked in a low voice. "How the hell did he do that? He couldn't see him, and the way this breeze blowing the target would be down wind, so he didn't smell him. I was watching his eyes as he talked with us, and there was no indication of his focusing on anything specific, and I doubt, very highly, that he heard him. So how did he do it?!"
Jon shook his antlers as he answered. "No idea. It's just like the first time with you three." He started after Rickkter. "The only thing I've ever seen that was even close to that, was one time out on patrol with Jennifer."
"Doesn't she have that power to sense what's around her?" inquired Brian. Jon's nodding confirmed this. "But I thought she abhorred killing, because it involved the feeling of death? That, and I didn't know that her powers were that acute."
"They're not," responded Jon, a determined look on his face. "She can sense danger, enemies, sometimes number of enemies and location. Other things too. But I've never heard of her doing anything that pinpoint, like Rickkter did here." He turned to look at Brian. "Was he really that dead on, with his measurements?"
Brian shook his head. "Damn near scared me to death, when he shouted it out. I couldn't believe it." He looked Jon square in the face. "What do you think? Do you trust him, enough to bring him back to Metamor?"
Those questions are left unanswered, because right then they come across what Rickkter hit with his bolt. Actually it should it be said, who. Lying there on the ground was a man. A man with Rickkters crossbow bolt through his right shoulder, and Rick's boot on his chest. Rickkter turned up from his quarry upon the arrival of the Keepers. "Ah, there you are." He looked back down into the unshaven face of the man on the ground. "Now tell them, what you told me."
"I... I was sent by Side Show Moe. He heard that your friend here was coming to Metamor. Sent me up to see if I could capture one of you Keepers. Lost your friend after the second day, and have been wandering around looking. Saw you Keepers come up one of the roads, and decided to see if I could get me one." The man looked fearfully at the four morphs standing around him. "Please. I only did it for the money. My family is going hungry at nights, and I really needed this. Don't kill me. Who'll feed my little ones, when I'm gone?"
"Hum.... what do you think?" asked Rick to the rest of them. "Believe what he's saying?"
"Aye, we've heard of this Moe," affirmed Wanderer. "He tried something like this not too long ago. You might as well let this guy get back to his family. Moe never could hire good help."
"I don't know about that. He did trail me, and speaks of talent. In addition, he said he was going to try something with one of you..."
"No, I swear!" protested the man. "I... I was only going to see, on the off chance, if I could capture one of you. It was only for the money." Then in a weaker voice, "please don't kill me."
"Rickkter..." said Jon in a firm voice. "Let him up. After what you did, and now that the rest of us know he's here, I doubt he'd try anything."
"Oh, all right. If you insist." Removing his boot from the man's chest, Rickkter grabbed the man's tunic, and hauled him to his feet. He briskly turned the man around. "Now, you realize I do want my bolt back."
Jon and the rest now saw what had been hidden by the man's body before that. While
the bolts in Rickkters quiver on his thigh had solid tips, the one protruding from the man's back had a three bladed point to it. Rick reached behind the man's injured shoulder, pinched the tip of the arrow, and gave it a small tug. The blades obediently retracted, reforming the long, smooth tip of the bolt. "There you go," said Rick right before yanking the whole thing out of the man's shoulder. The man's scream at the sharp pain only gave Rickkter the chance to smile and have a quick laugh at his expense. "Now go on, git outta here!" he shouted. The man almost fell over his own feet in the process of escaping.
Rickkter simply shook his head. "Pitiful excuse for a mercenary." He returned the bolt to the quiver on his leg. "Almost makes me ashamed to call myself one."
"You're a mercenary?" inquired Wanderer.
"Was. Been in and out of it, over the years." He started back to the clearing, and his pack. "Mostly I do it when I'm in need of money. It pays surprisingly well, for one of my talents. I prefer being a bounty hunter more, though. Gives me a chance to travel, see more of the world. And it tends to pay far better. At least for the jobs that I take."
"That's it. We're not going any further until I find the truth about something" shouted Coe as he stepped to the forefront of the group. "Something about you doesn't add up. Okay, several things don't add up, but I only want to know one right now. Why would a self professed mercenary and bounty hunter come here? You said you know of the curse, and the fact that you've been avoiding the spell's influence for the last week is proof of that, yet you say you want to join us at the Keep. Since you're in no danger of being changed anytime soon, you have no reason to stay there. My question again; why?"
The mercenary tuned his green eyes to meet the raccoon's brown eyes. "I was wondering when you were going to get around to asking that. I suppose I couldn't have avoided it for much longer."
He started back off to his supplies again. "You see, I've been traveling the lands for the last two years looking for something. A cure. And after visiting with the best healers, mages, alchemists, and any others who might know something about what's happening to me, I've come here as a last ditch effort." He picked up and quickly reshouldered his pack. "This is my last chance. Curse or no, I've got nothing to loose by coming here."
"You're ssseriousss?" hissed Bryan.
"No reason to lie." Rickkter adjusted his pack and started off to the south. "Now let's get back to the Keep. I've go something important to tend to there."