A Place Where There Is No Darkness


by Chris Hoekstra

"Now I assume that a place like this has an alchemist?" asked Rickkter.

"Of course. There are few of Pascal's skills in all the lands," confirmed Jon. Coe, Bryan, and Wanderer had each went their separate ways upon depositing their weapons with Jack. Rickkter had refused to relinquish his own to the castellean's custody. The mage claimed he would rather leave them in his quarters, when he was assigned them.

"That's good. There's some business that I need to take care of before I get settled and you show me around some."

"Well, I don't know if I'm the best qualified for that. Copernicus is famous for his tours of the Keep, and he's the one that usually handles these sort of things."

"If you can track him down, then I'll be happy to go. But if you can't, then I guess you're still my tour guide for the time being. I should be a little while with... Pascal, I believe you said his name was?"

Jon ear-smiled and nodded. "Yes, that's her name. And her lab is a little ways to go."

"Excellent." For the rest of the trip, Rick and Jon engaged in small talk, the majority of it centering around the Keep's history, and the Battle of the Gates. Rickkter had an unusually high interest in the spells, especially the second gate.

"Well, here we are," said Jon, as he pointed at a doorway, a little ways down a perpendicular hall. "I should have your quarters and such arranged with Cope in a little while. Meet me at the Deaf Mule, it's the local pub, in about an hour or so. I should be done by then, and then we can begin with the real tour of this place." Without another word he was off to tend to his business, leaving Rick to tend to his.

Rickkter reassessed his situation as he strolled over to the doorway. 'This should prove interesting,' he contemplated. 'Been awhile since I worked with a female alchemist.' Reaching the heavy iron bound door Rick tried the knob, only to find it locked. 'Since it would be rather rude of me to pick the lock...' he thought before giving the portal two good, solid hits, with the side of his fist. Rick was never one for polite knocking. He believed that if you wanted in somewhere, it was best to make sure that they heard you.

It was a few moments before the knock was answered by an oddly colored porcupine in a red robe. The porcupine's eyes quickly took in her new visitor, growing slightly larger at the assortment of weapons strapped to his body. "Um, hello. Can I help you?"

"Greetings," spoke the warrior in a disarming tone. "My name is Rickkter, though my friends call me Rick. I'm a new arrival at the Keep, and need your assistance for something."

"Well, you might as well come in then," she affirmed holding open the door.

As Rickkter walked in, he took quick note of the lab's equipment. Instead of the usual wood fires, he spotted numerous valves and active gas burners, amongst a good many glass beakers and other specialized apparatus'.

'Quite the modern facility we have here...' he considered.

At least the rest was the same as a normal alchemist's lab. The ingredient bottles, the shelves of containers and books, and the workbenches cluttered with experiments. It was one of his favorite sights. "I just need a small corner to work in, and probably some supplies. I'm running low on a few key ingredients."

"You're an alchemist?" asked the bewildered porcupine.

"Well, yes and no. I have preliminary training from Akkron, but I never finished my tenure there. It was... conflict of interest that forced me to leave."

"I don't think I've ever seen one in my profession go about as well armed as yourself," she commented, once again looking over the small arsenal strapped to Rickkter's body.

Holding his arms out to the side, he glanced over the weapons himself. "It does seem a bit much, but I find uses for all of it. And besides, if I didn't take something, I _know_ I'd need it! And speaking of unusual, I don't think I've ever seen a porcupine that looks like it fell victim to a mad artist."

Pascal gave a small, amused laugh. "I've not heard it put quite like that before." She directed the warrior to one of the tables. "I think that should suit you. It's all I have open at the moment."

"It'll do fine. I've made this in far less adequate places over the last two years."

"I was just wondering something. Where does a warrior of your apparent caliber find the time to learn about alchemy? I doesn't seem a skill you would acquaint yourself with."

"Well, it's always been sort of a hobby. Since you probably don't know, I am also a mage. I've always found alchemy a good supplementary skill to have, and since I wanted to learn more, I started a four year tenure at the Great Library at Akkron. I only got a year and a half of it finished."

Setting his heavy pack on the floor, Rickkter rummaged around before coming out with a medium sized black box. The box's sides were lined in white, runic glyphs of protection and preservation. "I eventually came to realize that I was a warrior, a soldier, not the type of person suited to running experiments and such all their lives. But I like any other mage, I do enjoy tinkering and experimenting. In the last two years I've also been able to pick up a few additional pieces of knowledge and skill. Not a lot, but I do know my way around a lab."

"So have you been here long? I'm usually one of the last hear of new arrivals."

"Not really." After placing the box on the table, Rickkter went back for a cloth bundle which he placed next to the box. Pulling a string, he unrolled it to reveal an assortment of surgical and alchemical tools. "I just arrived here. Jon's little party picked me up a few hours or so ago, to the north of the Keep."

"So your the one who's been causing the patrols to go out of their minds all week," exclaimed the porcupine as she scowled at Rickkter. "We thought you a wraith or something. That vanishing act of yours spooked a lot of those on patrol."

Rickkter turned back to the box, placing his hands on its side and opening it with a soft click. "It's an old trick I learned early in life, when I discovered I had some talent to control the magic. I use the forest's natural energy fields to alter and confuse my scent." He took a pewter cup carved with strange runes and glyphs from its place in the box, and returned his attention to the multi-hued porcupine who was silently watching him. "Even against some of the worlds best trackers, it's only failed me less then two dozen times. And those were against ones of similar training, and a few creatures that can see through my tricks.

"But I digress. Once I've gotten set up, that should only take me a few minutes, then I'll return you to whatever it is you're currently involved in." Placing the cup on the table, he removed a scroll and a multitude of small leather bags and glass bottles. "But, first things first." He picked up a near empty bag and opened it for a quick inspection. "Just as I thought; empty. Do you have some eucalyptus that I could use?" he asked, turning back to Pascal.

"I should," confirmed the alchemist as she headed over to the assortment of shelves and tiny drawers, Rickkter at her heels. "It's not that an ingredient that I commonly use, so if I do have any, you're welcome to it." She began pulling open some of the drawers. "Now if I can only remember where it would be... Um... why don't you try over there, Rick. See if you have better luck," she instructed, pointing vaguely at the shelves on the opposite side of the small lab.

"So why did you let them find you, after all this time running around?" Pascal called from her side of the room.

"I'd seen enough to know that you weren't the threat I was told you were. Also, Metamor and its spells were the prime reason for my being here." He moved a few of the containers around on a cluttered shelf. "Jon was telling me that everyone has their own reason for coming here. For me it was because I had no other choice. You see Pascal, I'm dying. Have been for the last two years."

The little porcupine halted in her searching. "Could you say that again?"

"What I'm making now is the only thing that's kept me alive for all this time, as I scoured the lands for a cure. This elixir was the closest thing I've ever found, and I've been to the best of the best. Alchemists, mages, healers, medicine men, anyone who might know something about my disease. And after all my searching, I've come here in the hopes of a cure. Actually, that's the second reason. Eucalyptus is a prime ingredient in this elixir, and as you can see I'm out of it." Rickkter picked up a jar of small dried leaves off a lower shelf. "Would these be them? I can't really read your writing."

"Give me a moment, and we'll see," she said as she started across the room.

"No bother for that." Instantly Pascal's head was filled with the image of the jar, almost as if she were seeing it through Rickkter's eyes. The image lasted for a few seconds and then cleared.

"How did you do that?" she asked in a bewildered tone.

"Telepathy spell."

"That's no telepathy spell I've ever seen!"

"Really? How's it different from what you use here?"

"For starters, it was a non-consensual spell. The ones used at the Keep only work if the person on the receiving end agrees to it." Pascal seemed on edge over having such a spell used on her. "Secondly, they aren't that quick or forceful. Lastly, they can't provide such a clear image, unless the person on the other end is equipped with a telepathy spell of their own."

"I knew that magic between the south and the north was different, but I never figured it would be this bad." He held the jar up to Pascal. "But this is the right stuff, correct?"

"Uh, yeah it's eucalyptus all right." She closely followed Rickkter as he went back to his table. "Would you care to tell me where you learned such a spell?" A trace of agitation was still evident in her voice.

He stopped on the way back to pick up a small burner from it's place on a shelf. Plugging it into the nearby gas outlet, he turned to the scroll. After uttering a few words in a foreign tongue, he opened it as well.

"No need to get upset. I'm going to be here awhile, or should if this works as I hope it will." Rickkter quickly rigged the stand, the gas burner, and the mug the way he wanted it and began to mix his ingredients. He turned on the gas, lighting the burner with a distracted wave of his hand over the top of it. Measuring out exact amounts with the small tools in his case, Rick added them to the strangely carved pewter cup.

"I've been to a great many of the places that teach magic in the south and the east. That spell was from a three year apprenticeship under one of the masters of the Order of the Ebon Dragon. They're an extreme group of select mages. During the training, all novices must have a number of enchantments placed on them. One is that telepathy spell you just saw. At times in our training we needed to be able to show the masters that we were doing things correctly. Other times it was used to teach, with the master showing the novice how to manipulate the fields of magical energy."

"I've never heard of that order."

"That's not a big surprise. They're a very secretive sect."

She gestured to the cup. "So where exactly did you get this stuff?"

He walked across the lab and filled the cup with water. "When I was diagnosed with my illness I was fortunate to be at a temple where they train some of the best healers in all the civilized lands. They have a vast library of medical texts, and were able to provide me with this elixir." He returned to Pascal and commenced heating and stirring the concoction. "As I said, it's all that's kept me alive for the last two years. Without it, I would have been dead within six months, probably less."

"I'm sorry," whispered Pascal.

Rickkter added a pinch of some black powder from one of the bags. "Don't be. We all must die. It only matters when, how, and whether it is with honor. I've had a good life, but I'm not ready to give it up just yet."

She placed a paw on his shoulder. "That's good, Rick. I'll go dig through the Keep's library, see what I can find that might help you."

"Oh, there's nothing you can do for me." He uttered a few words and tossed a small pinch of red powder at the cup, which gave off a burst of white smoke. "I already said I've been to the best healers and alchemists in the world. Seen the best mages and shamans, read ancient books and scrolls on anything that is relevant to my disease, or any resembling it. From all those, I've gotten nothing. Not even a name. This elixir is the closest thing I've got to a cure, and it isn't enough. And besides, I want to enjoy the end. I've spent the last two years rooting around in basements, storerooms, and libraries looking for a cure. It's all gotten quite tiresome."

"So then why did you come here? Why all that lurking around the woods, deciding whether to actually come in or not?"

He started stirring the bubbling elixir with a slim glass rod. "About eight months ago, I was at a small pub in the city of Irixx. I was sitting at the bar, having my drink, deciding which of the nearby universities to visit next. In walks this kid, swear he didn't look over twelve years old. He goes up to the bar, orders a meal and an ale. Bartender says they don't serve kids there. So this kid argued with him for a few minutes, before the bartender caved." He flashed Pascal a meaningful look. "Now all this got my attention. So I went over to his table, asked 'what's going on?' Now, I'd heard of Metamor at that time. Not a lot, mostly the name, and something of the curse. The two of us got to talking, and he told me more about it. It seemed he was one of your diplomats, out on a trade mission. After that, the idea of the curse was always in the back of my mind."

"And now, as a last act before you die, you've come to see the curse first hand." She gave a snort of disgust. "My God. We've become a tourist attraction."

"No. Not that at all." He tapped the dark purple liquid off the end of the rod.

"There, done." Rickkter drew one his large knives and placed it next to the pouch of tools. He quickly removed his gloves. "Now for the personal touch." He picked up the knife in his right hand, and held it against the left over the bubbling pewter cup. With a quick slash, he opened up his palm.

Pascal winced, giving a quick intake of breath through her teeth, as she backed up a few steps.

"Ah, it's not as bad as it looks," he informed her with a slight grimace. As the blood dripped into the elixir, it turned the purple mixture a pale white. Taking up the stirring rod, Rick resumed his mixing, creating a uniform white liquid. "I've had far worse done to me. And after doing this every few days for two years, you get use to it."

"I'm surprised that your hand is in as good a condition as it is."

"Oh, it's not like that." Rickkter placed the rod down again and returned his attention to his hand, which is now slowly dripping on the wood floor. "As you'll see, I have many talents." He covered his left hand with the right, and when it was removed Pascal was amazed to see that the torn flesh had knit itself back together. "I learned how to heal myself early on," said Rickkter, wiping his hand off on a spare rag. "Very valuable skill for a warrior. 'Never hesitate to self medicate.'"

"So what are you going to do for the two or three days that you're staying here?"

Rickkter blew off a thin layer of white mist that had formed over the cup. "Who said I would be staying only two to three days?" He coughed a few times. "I figure that I have perhaps a month of life left in me. There is nowhere left to go, so I've decided to try a last desperate effort to save myself." He took a small sip off the mug. "I said I knew of the curse. Your diplomat was very explicit in explaining it to me. Also most of the people I've talked with about this place told me what it does, all in no specific terms. I've come here because of the Second Gate. I figure that the only chance I have to live, lies in having that spell completely rebuild my body. It's my last option. I've got nothing to lose."

Pascal gave a serious nod. "Ah, now it makes sense. But what about the other two Gates? You only have a one-in-three chance of getting your way, you know. The spells are completely random. What do you think would happen if you were affected by one of those?"

Rickkter sighed before taking another swallow. "Then in all likelihood, I'll die. As near as I can tell, while the second gate completely rebuilds the body, the others only reshape it." He gave his chest a light tapping. "And I highly doubt that I'd make it."

Pascal turned her back to Rick and shuffled back over to her own work. "Then I bid you well in your quest, Rickkter."

Rickkter finished taking his elixir and quickly repacked his stuff. As he was walking out the door after packing up, he swiftly turned back.

"Pascal. I just thought of something. Would you be so kind as to join me for dinner some time?" Pascal responded, stopping cold in her tracks. "I can see by your reaction, that this isn't an offer made by many. Look at it this way; at best, it'll be a fascinating evening; at worst, a free meal. It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to talk to one of your skills. Jon speaks highly of you."

"I... I'll think about it."

"That's all I ask," he said as he closed the door.

Walking down the halls, Rickkter's ears were greeted by the sounds of his favorite melody: the sounds of men and women at training. The ringing steel drew him to the gymnasium like a moth to flame. 'Ooh... Now this I like!' he thought as he took in the view upon rounding the corner.

Walking along the side wall of the gym, he paused to watch some of the archers at their work on a small indoor range. 'Not the worst. Not the best either.' Walking over to where the infantry are practicing, he received a pleasant surprise. 'Now this is impressive,' he considered as he watched a small shrew go one on one with a well built human. Leaning up against the wall, he crossed his arms and enjoyed the show.

It continued for some time. The human is using a claymore, the shrew a saber. While in Rick's opinion, the claymore was the superior weapon, the shrew out fenced her opponent at almost every turn. With a quick thrust and parry, the shrew managed to disarm the larger human. She grinned up at him, her sword pointed at the man's chest. "I think that's my match. Care to try it again?"

"Not this time" admitted the human. "You've given me enough of a thrashing this week. I'll see you next time."

"All right," the shrew conceded. "See you then." She was halted in her own departure by the sound of applause from behind her. Moving from his position on the side-lines Rickkter walked up to her, still keeping up his slow rhythmic clapping.

"Very impressive. It's not often I've seen someone handle a sword with such grace."

"And who are you to make that judgement?" asked the shrew.

"Someone who's seen fighting all over the world, and can recognize innate talent for what it is."

She gave the dark stranger a slight smile. "Name's Kwanzaa. And you are?"

"Name's Rickkter."

"And why haven't I seen you around here before?"

He shrugged his shoulders, the black leather creaking slightly. "Probably because Jon's team just picked me up this afternoon. I've decided to, uh, join your little family here at the Keep." He pointed at Kwanzaa's unsheathed blade. "That's an interesting sword you have there. Mind if I take a look at it?"

"Hmm... I don't know." She looked Rickkter over with a critical eye. "Seems you already have enough blades to concern yourself with there."

He gave her a reserved laugh and a grin. "Oh, come on, Kwanzaa." Grabbing the hilt, he drew his own sword out of its sheath. "You show me yours, I'll show you mine."

Her expression changed to one of bemusement. "All right Rickkter." She tossed him the saber, hilt first. "You got yourself a deal." Rickkter caught it effortlessly, and returned the throw in kind.

"I've never seen a sword of this construction before," she commented as she inspected the blade. "What's the style called?"

Rick gave Kwanzaa's saber a few casual rolls with his wrist to test the balance and weight. "It's called a katana. It's forged in a pair, called a daisho, with the wakinzashi, a smaller version of the katana. They are made only in the east, and are generally handed down from generation to generation. The metal on that particular blade has been folded about eight hundred times."

The shrew gave an impressed grunt. "The design is very innovative. While the handle is large enough for two hands, the sword is light enough so as to enable you to use it with only one. The blade's design is very interesting, combining a broadswords length and width with a rapier's slight upward curve." She ran her claws along the edge. "Sharp as a razor blade, and about the right size for easy control." Kwanzaa put the blade through several common sword fighting maneuvers. "I like... especially the dragon carved into the blade near the hilt."

"Yours is quite well made also." Tapping his knuckle on the blade, he put it to his ear close to listen to the soft ringing it made. "How old is it?"

"About fourteen years, give or take."

He gave her a startled look. "That's all? You must get an exceptional amount of use out of it then." He ran his fingers along the edges of the saber. "From the level of damage I can see, it seems a real shame that such a finely crafted weapon would be made from such low quality metal."

Kwanzaa bristled slightly. "And how old is this blade then, oh world traveller?"

Rickkter didn't even redirect his attention from her sword. "Two hundred years. It was given to me by my first master, on his deathbed. Alas, he had no children and I was his only student at the time. I've been wielding it in combat for the past sixteen years."

This gave Kwanzaa some pause as she returned to practicing with the weapon.

"Now this has been all well and good," said Rickkter as he placed the saber point first on the ground, hands on the pommel. "But let us have a match. Give you some real competition for once."

She smiled as she handed Rick back his katana. "All right then, warrior. Let's see if your blade is as quick as your mouth."

With the weapons returned to their owners, Rick dropped his pack and crossbow and followed Kwanzaa to a fighting circle near the middle of the gym. Giving each other a sign of respect and fellowship, they stepped back in preparation for combat. Pleasantries exchanged, the match was on. Kwanzaa opened with several lunging thrusts. Rick met her attacks with several fierce counters, and launched his own offensive at the soonest opportunity.

The ringing steel of the two combatants soon drew the attention of the majority of the gym, and a crowd started to form at the circle's edge. It was not often that they were witness to such a show. The crowd's shouts and applause rose and fell with Kwanzaa's movements, as she was naturally the Keep's favourite. The audience of Keepers provided a living backdrop to the intricate ballet of dodging bodies and ringing steal at the circle's centre. The performers didn't disappoint their audience either. Both Kwanzaa and Rickkter displayed their wide range of skill with their respective blades, jumping low blows and making spectacular blocks, as the combat ranged from both elegant fencing, to brutal, close-in scuffles. It was in one of these close scuffles that the match came to an end. Both Rickkter and Kwanzaa came up on their respective opponent with their blade laid against the other's neck.

"Hum... this is a bit awkward" commented Rickkter as his eyes moved along the saber's length.

"You might say that" concurred Kwanzaa, her eyes doing the same thing.

"Shall we call this a draw?"

Her eyes took in the situation one more time. "I think that might be prudent." Rickkter gave her a slight smile, as he waited for her to move her blade. Seeing as she wasn't going to be forthcoming in that regard, he swallowed his pride and removed his first. While not conceding the match, it did show that he gave in first. 'Enough time to recover lost honour later,' thought Rickkter, as he looks into the smiling eyes and face of the female shrew.

"Good match, Rickkter," offered Kwanzaa as she extended her paw, thereby restoring a small portion of Rick's lost honour.

"Good match," he affirmed, clasping her paw. Rick resheathed his katana. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and meet Jon over at the local pub, the, uh, Deaf Mule, I think it's called."

"Great! I can use a drink after that match, and I think that you could use a guide for the time being," informed the shrew as she clapped Rickkter on the back. After Rick recovered his pack, they headed out in search of a couple of cold ales to quell their thirsts, both commenting on the other's performance during the fight.

"I've got something interesting to report to you, Thomas," related Thalberg as he entered the throne room. "It seems we finally caught the person that was running around the northern expanse of the Keep's territory."

The Duke didn't even bother to turn up from his work. "So which team was it that get's the credit?" inquired Thomas. "Six or eleven? They've both been after him for awhile now."

"Actually, neither." This got the Duke's attention, or so the fact that he had stopped writing, and had raised his eyes to meet the alligator's indicated. "Seems that with all the trouble around the Keep these last few days, Jon Sleeper, Brian Coe, and Wanderer decided to volunteer for patrol duty. Along with Bryan Derksen, they found him. I've just read the preliminary reports, and talked with Brain and Wanderer myself. It's pretty incredible, my liege. They happened across his trail by luck and tracked him to a small clearing. There, they were going to ambush him, surround him in case he posed a danger to them, before they questioned him. He somehow turned the tables on them and took them all by surprise."

"So how did they finally capture him?"

"They didn't really, milord. Seems that they were expected. He said that he was waiting for the Keep to send someone capable of catching him. I know, it sounds a bit suspicious to me as well," responded Thalberg to the look Thomas gave his last statement. "He told them some of his reasons for coming to Metamor, asked some questions about the rest of the party, and shot a trespasser."

"Could you repeat that last part again?"

"It seems that he was followed from town, or so he claims. One of Moe's men."

"I thought we dealt with that creep a few months back."

"It appears we weren't as thorough as we thought. I'll speak to Phil about it later today.

"Now according to the reports, our friend, his name is Rickkter, shot this mercenary from across the clearing while carrying on the conversation with our four Keepers. The odds of him knowing that the mercenary was there were minuscule at best. He seems to have some power to sense what is around him, almost like Jennifer. And that's not the really interesting part."

"This should be good," stated Thomas as he leaned back to hear it.

"It seems that he's dying. He said he's been all over the continent searching for a cure, and has come here as a last attempt to save himself. When he arrived, he asked to see Pascal as soon as possible. He went up to her lab, and that's the last Jon saw of him. Jon arranged some quarters for him, and said he was going to meet up with him after that."

"Very interesting..." remarked Thomas, as he stared into space for a few moments. "Did our guest say if he had any profession?"

"Actually, yes." Consulting the papers with him, Thalberg came up quickly with the answer. "He claims to be a warrior-mage. It fits his profile, and explains how he was able to elude the patrols and wipe out that Lutin encampment. The only thing that bothers me about this is his level of power. Alain Blackthorne is a heck of a warrior, but only a mediocre mage. This Rickkter seems to be a professional in both. He could prove dangerous."

"That's it, get him in here," Thomas ordered. "I want an explanation of exactly what we're dealing with here. If he's as powerful as you say, then I also want Magus, Bob, and a good company of guards in here as well. There is something about this warrior that I don't trust, and I don't want any chances taken."

"Of course, milord," affirmed the alligator as he closed the massive door's to the Duke chamber on his way to arrange the requested summons.

When Jon entered the Mule, he was greeted with the sound of roaring laughter. It only took him a few moments to locate the source of it

"... so, anyway, there I was sneaking up on this small group of Lutin's. And just as I'm about to make my move, one of the dirty little beggars turns around. Of course I _had_ to go at that moment," explained Kwanzaa."You should have seen his face!" she said, punctuating the narration with a sharp laugh. "It was something like...AHH!!" she said, giving an exaggerated expression of pure fright. This only caused Rickkter to laugh all the harder, pounding on the table while he cracked up.

"I see you made a new friend" commented Jon as he walked up to the table where the two are seated.

"Ah, Mr. Sleeper! It's good to see you again," acknowledged Rick as he wiped the tears from his eyes. "Kwanzaa here was just telling me some of the adventures she's had on patrol." He flashed the Keepers a mile wide grin. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy that! This place is looking better all the time." He took a long pull off his stein. "Um, and at my urging, she's told me some more about you. I didn't know you were an artificer."

"Well, I've not had much opportunity to work on that hobby in the last while." He gestured to his cervid body. "People tend to have a bad reaction when a talking deer asks how much a particular relic is going for. But down to business for a moment. I've just arranged a room for you, and the Duke has requested the pleasure of your company."

Rickkter grimaced. "I figured that he would." He turned and looked to Jon. "If all this goes well, as I hope it will, and I can arrange some kind of permanent residence, I'd love to see what you've got in your collection. I've always loved rooting through piles of junk, seeing what I find. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've pulled!" He gave his companions a short laugh. "Knowing my luck, the Keep will choose to make me a packrat."

Jon eargrinned at him. "Never know. Stranger things have happened."

Rickkter drained the rest of his ale. "We had best be on our way, then. I find that important people like that don't like to be kept waiting. But first, I must tend to my stuff. While I'm use to carrying this stuff on long marches, that doesn't mean I like it."

"Of course. Your room is on the way."

Finishing her drink, Kwanzaa stood, slamming her mug down. "Excellent! I'll join the two of you for a bit. At least until you get settled, Rick. I want to see where they put you, so I know where to go for a rematch. That, and I want to see just how many weapons you've really got on you there!"

"You two fought?"

"Oh, yes," Rickkter stressed. "On my way here, I ran across the gym. Saw her and challenged her to a match." He turned to the shrew. "And it was quite an enjoyable match, if I must say so."

"Aye, Jon. You should see him fight. For once I'll have some decent competition here. Heck, he even bought me a free drink out of respect for my swordsmanship skills. I think he's smarter then he looks," said Kwanzaa with a large smile, her whiskers twitching in amusement.

Rickkter reshouldered his pack. "Well, common you two. Let us get rid of this junk."

Entering the small quarters, Rick gave them the quick once over. "Nice. Simple. A bit small for my needs. I'm going to have to do something about that later, but for the time being this will do me very well."

He tossed the pack on the floor, his cowl on the bed, and began to disarm. This took longer then one would expect. The strap of throwing knives were hung on a post of the dresser, the quiver of arrows from his pack, leaned up against it. On the top of the low dresser went his quiver of cross-bow bolts, his main belt of knives, several other blades, the crossbow, and a handful of wicked looking daggers he revealed were hidden in his boots and at the small of his back. He placed the collapsible bow next to the arrows, and the katana next to the bed, within easy grasp.

"Okay..." remarked the wide eyed shrew. "I think that's about the most weapons I've ever seen come off one man. How do you carry so much?"

"Practice. I've been doing it for the last eighteen years or so." Rickkter opened his pack and rooted around a few moments before coming out with a fresh tunic. "I've been wearing this outfit for the last few days. Might as well make myself presentable for thepresentable royalty." Turning his back to the two morphs, he pulled off his top, tossing it casually on the bed.

"Oh, my God..." uttered Kwanzaa. The warrior-mage's back was a criss-crossed with a fair deal of scaring. Some of it consisted of slashes, along with several marks that looked like the puncture wounds made by arrows. Others were marks that looked like lashes from a whip. His left shoulder was an ugly mass of tissue that looked to have been caused by a fire. What was really striking were the three sets of massive scars on his back; two sets of four near his lower back, one set at the right shoulder blade.

"Ah..." said Rick in a slightly chagrined tone. "I see that you've taken notice of my little collection." When Rick turned to face them, both Jon and the shrew saw that his front was in similar condition, although there were several areas where the scaring looked to have a pattern to it. They also saw that the burn on his arm extend all the way down to the middle of his forearm where it seemed to fade out. Rickkter was a reasonably well built man, but the scars tended to draw the most attention away from his physique.

"You didn't think that I was invulnerable, did you? When you're a mage of my style, you tend to draw a lot of unwanted attention in battle. These are all reminders of mistakes that I should never make again."

"Your arm..." whispered Kwanzaa, "what happened to it?"

"Ah, yes, that one. I got that many years ago. I was fighting another mage, and the fireball that he threw was stronger then the shield that I tried to bring up." Rickkter trailed the backs of a few fingers along a particularly rough section. "You can still see the marks from the chain mail that I was wearing at the time."

He quickly pulled on the tunic over his head, ending the gawking of his friends. "Now let us go meet the Duke," he said as he slipped a small pouch onto his shoulder. "I don't like to keep important people waiting long. I find that they tend to get cranky."

Neither Jon nor Kwanzaa noticed when the warrior stealthily tucked a small piece of steel into the left sleeve, a cohesion spell activating to accept the artifact.

"One thing first. How come your hands and face are in such good condition as compared to the rest of you?" asked the shrew.

"Magic. I used my own, or had others use theirs, to heal those injuries. I find that excessive scaring on the hands and face tend to distract people whom I deal with. Vanity probably factors into it as well. Also I need to keep my hands in prime condition. Without my weapons, I have virtually no marketable skill. The other scars were kept as reminders of what not to do." He gave his friends a wry smile. "Plus I've found that some girls find them sexy."

"What are you doing here?"

"I was told to report, milord."

Duke Thomas turned on the page. "I said I wanted Magus. Do you have any idea of who it is that we're bringing in here?"

"I'm sorry milord, but I couldn't get him. Wessex was the most powerful mage I could find."

"Where is the fox?" asked Thomas in a dangerous tone.

"I assume in his quarters. I hailed him several times, banging quite loudly on the door each time. I got no answer. And since I recalled the urgency with which steward Thalberg dispatched me, I took it upon myself to find you another mage. Wessex was the first I came across who possessed what I deemed acceptable power."

Duke Thomas grumbled to himself as he paced the vast room a little. He had really needed the fox here, but if Wessex was all he could get, then Wessex would have to do. He just prayed that this Rickkter wouldn't try anything that he wasn't expecting.

The horse turned to the child-mage. "I hope you're prepared for anything today, Wessex. You're about to be meeting a very unique individual. You might even be forced to kill him before this meeting is over."

Leaving Kwanzaa to go off to her other duties, Jon and Rickkter proceeded to the Duke's personal audience chamber. Along the way, Jon was left to wonder why they would do that, as the main court was usually used for such things. Business at Metamor was almost always conducted out in the open for all to see.

"You're adjusting yourself surprisingly well, Rickkter," complimented Jon. "I've seen a lot of people come here over the years, and you are without a doubt handling your new situation better then many of them. Most have real problems dealing with animal morphs. The transgenders aren't nearly as bad, but many find the AR's or age regressions quite strange. Nothing like seeing like a twelve or thirteen year old child ordering around a three hundred fifty pound, muscle bound warrior to upset your sense of order."

"I've seen a lot of strange things in my travels," Rickkter informed him. "I've done a bit of learning with some of the tribes of the deserts and the mountains, dealt with some of the creature of magic that roam the lands. I don't think there's anything here that can really shock me. Not after my life."

"Well that's good. Because if you're staying here you are going to be hit with one of the spell eventually. And the Keep seems to have a strange sense of humor about choosing what you become. We have a kangaroo, a moose, many different birds, a beaver, and a whole host of other oddities. And that's only the second gate. I wonder what you would look like as a woman, or a teenager. That would actually be pretty funny! You as a kid, all decked out in your weapons like that!" He shook his head with laughter. "Would be a sight."

"Ug, don't remind me. I was fourteen once, and it was hell. I don't want to be like that again. As for the transgenders, I would hate that as well. Most of my old friends would be trying to get into my pants, then." That got Jon roaring with laughter, or as much as a deer can. "For the animals, I don't think anything without opposable thumbs would work for me. Can't make full use of my weapons without them."

Rickkter figured that he might as well keep the little piece of information he had told Pascal on a confidential basis for now. He didn't want his new friend to see exactly how desperate his situation really was. Besides, there was no reason to worry the deer anymore then necessary. Plus, he figured that the Duke would be asking him this information soon enough.

"You never know," continued Jon. "You might end up as something that you don't expect. Perhaps a even a dragon."

"You're kidding me! You have dragons here?!"

"A few actually. One is Saroth, the resident weather wizard. The other is Cerulean. Actually Cerulean is a real dragon. He's been at the keep for... ages."

"Oh..." whispered Rickkter in awe. "That would be beautiful! I've worked with dragons before. Magnificent creatures! Grace, beauty, and tremendous amounts of power all wrapped into one package, that has the added ability of flight. That... that's me right there."

"Well, you never know. We haven't had a dragon in a while, and the spells seem to cranking out the unusual lately. Last to be changed was Michael. He was the beaver I mentioned earlier. You actually might want to talk to him. He was one of the last one to experience this and he might be able to help you cope with the change, when it finally comes. Actually there was another one after him, Oren. But, uh, he's kind of an odd case. You should talk with Michael."

"Wise advice. I'll do that," conquered Rickkter as they turned into the Dukes part of the central tower.

Jon grew more then a little concerned as they entered the anteroom off of the main audience chamber. He noticed that the guards outside had been tippled to a total of six instead of the usual two, and he could guess the reason. The thorough frisking that the pair were given illustrated that point further. Rickkter simply clapped his hands behind his head and rolled his eyes as the guards briskly checked him over. They neglected to check his forearms.

As the pair entered the room, Jon couldn't fail to take notice of legion of guards lining the way to the throne. Rickkter seemed to take notice of this as well, but aside from a small glint in his eyes, Jon couldn't detect any other reaction. He was beginning to appreciate the fact that the warrior had chosen to disarm before coming here.

"Greetings, Lord Thomas," said the artificer as he gave a respectful bow. Rickkter echoed the statement, but with only a small inclination of the head. He then assumed a relaxed, self-assured stance, his hands clasped behind him.

The Duke and the others sized up the mage standing before them. His wardrobe was of fine cut for one in his profession. Not noble or striking, but one that seemed to accentuate the man. From his down-turned boots to his fresh tunic, the man was dressed entirely in black. Black tunic, and black leather pants and boots, made up his current attire. The exceptions were the pouches at his waist, and the accents on his sleeves and collar. The accents were done in gold thread. His set of four dark tan leather pouches sat on his wide weapons belt, the pouches held closed with bone pins. All in all, his clothing was unremarkable for a warrior except in its lack of symbols or decoration of any kind.

"It is considered customary to give a full bow to show your respect for a person of such power as Duke Thomas," said the second of the pair of equine. The grouping upon the dais was quite a conglomeration. One horse in the middle, flanked by a second stallion and a young boy of no more then twelve years of age.

Rickkter addressed the second equine. "And who would you be?"

"Prime Minister Bob."

"Ah, a politician-mage. That's a new one on me." Rick could detect traces of residual magic on the Prime Minister with his magic sight.

"I knew he would be trouble," mumbled the boy.

"Speaking of trouble," said the warrior as he looked around the room, "I don't know whether to be flattered or frightened about all of this." He turned his gaze to Lord Thomas. "You have in here twenty-five guards, a pair of mages, and a ring of several personal guards. What? No dragon?"

"He wouldn't fit through the door," said Bob matter-of-factly.

"Why did you come here?" asked Duke Thomas, ignoring his Prime Minister's quip.

"To request residence, and perhaps to find a cure which has eluded be for so long. Exactly what I told the patrol that found me."

"Why did you not enter directly?"

Rick gave the horse-king a lop sided grin. "For the exact same reason we're having this discussion under these circumstances. Trust. I didn't trust you, and you most certainly don't trust me." The mage's brow creased as he looked around the room again. "I've only received a frostier welcome in Canborough. And they had another mage and a dragon on hand to welcome me. Of course the circumstance of my greeting were entirely different..."

He quickly refocused on his inital discourse. "In my travels here, I have heard the most amazing tales of horror that you can possibly imagine. For six of the last eight months, all I've heard is that the Curse is just that; it's a most horrible curse. If it wasn't for places like the university at Elvquellin and other allied establishments of learning, along with the odd kingdom, I wouldn't even be here. They still hold this place in very high regard."

"Where did you acquire your skills, Rickkter?" asked Bob.

"I thought this was a formal greeting, an introduction to the power structure around here. When did it turn into an inquistition? And since everyone here seems to knows my name, I think that introductions are first in order. I like to be able to address my inquisitors properly." Rickkter was being careful to control his voice, despite the annoyance he felt creeping into it.

The middle equine spoke up. "I'm Duke Thomas Hassan V; the other mage is Wessex; and you already know the Prime Minister. The others are simply my guards, and you needn't concern yourself with them."

Rickkter gazed amongst them, several light coughs breaking his calm form. "Fair enough. I've received my training in lands far removed from here. I was trained in stealth, evasion, survival, and above all combat, in the east. The purpose for such training was to be a soldier in a shadow war that has been raging for centuries." Rickkter commenced pacing in front of the dais. "I've not found any techniques in all my travels that could equal what I learned in that part of the world. My magic training is another matter. That part of my profession is predominantly southern."

"Which taught you that advanced spell you confused our soldiers with?" asked Wessex.

"What makes you think it was advanced?" asked the warrior mage. He pointed to the two mages. "How long can either of you maintain a level two, and a level four enchantment at a twenty-five percent power level, for?"

Wessex shifted around a moment. "Seven, perhaps eight days if I was careful."

"I've done it for up to nine in the past," said Posti.

They had just told Rickkter two things. One was the direct answer to his question, the other was which was the most powerful between them. "Impressive. I did it for seven days, a personal best. I might have made eight, but that battle with the Lutins drained me quite a bit. That was a prime factor in my coming in. I had lost the element of surprise."

"Which enchantment was the level two?" asked Wessex.

"The sent one." The boy gave the answer a doubtful look. "Why is it so hard for you to believe a spell can confuse a sent? There are ones to eliminate or alter sounds, lights, and all manner of other things. Why not smell? It's simple air magic, really. A changing of the odors from my self to match those of the surrounding forest. It has a periphery addition that cancels out tracks and signs of passing as well.

"Or so it was suppose it," amended Rickkter with a grimace. "There was one individual, about a day ago. He got VERY close to me. Since he didn't feel human, and I didn't fully trust you people yet, I used a teleport spell to evade him. That sapped almost all of my remaining manna, actually. And thus Jon, Wanderer, and the rest of the party was able to find me. As well as that damn incompetent mercenary."

Wessex didn't like this warrior. He was genuinely irritated by the other mage. The man was too self-assured, too arrogant. And also far too knowing for one his age. World traveler, yes. That was obvious in his demeanor, and a touch in his voice. But it was his magic that disturbed the mage the most. One so young, yet so well versed? It didn't seem possible, or likely.

Unless he had received some 'accelerated learning' somewhere along the way. Wessex was reminded of a mage not too long ago who had made a similar leap in powers.

But, Rickkter was continuing with his speech to the Duke. "You know Duke Thomas, that if all this goes well, you are going to be the first ruler to gain my employment on a permanent basis. Usually I do single jobs before my wandering takes me elsewhere. While I have worked both campaigns and multiple jobs spaced months or years apart, I have never accepted a permanent position. And they have been offered."

"Then why should we accept your services?" asked Posti.

Oh, Rickkter could feel the love in this room.

"Because this place is a war zone, we all know that. Metamor was always the last line of defence between the northlands and the midlands. What I've heard from talking with Jon and a few others, is that you can use all the help you can get. Especially now, when many consider you freaks and daemons. Lastly, think about the advantage you would gain if you were to have a magic user whose sole purpose was to go out and defeat the enemy. Your other mages could remain protected, as they already appear to be, yet Metamor would gain the advantage of a strong magical presence in the field.

"My purpose has always been to tip the balance of situations in my side's favour. While I haven't always been successful -- there are only so many things one man can do -- I've succeeded more times then I've failed."

Rickkter could see that he wasn't getting to them that way. He decided to try a different approach. If he couldn't get them by saying what he could give them, perhaps he could make them see what they could give him.

"Milord," he began again in a humble tone, "I have been searching for the last two years. I have been attempting to save myself from a disease that has been causing my lungs to waste away. And this is my final destination in that journey. Metamor is the last bastion of hope that I have left and I've come to accept that the curse is my only chance for survival. You all know that already, but what I haven't told many is that I have maybe a month left, and no where else to go.

"During my travels, none have been able to cure me. Some have been able to help, allowing me to extend my life beyond the original estimate, but none have been able to halt or reverse what has been done to me. And thus I come here. I have exhausted my list of contacts, and run out of places that house knowledge or skills that could lead to my salvation. It is this... or nothing."

He waited until that last piece of information had sunk in with the rest of the group before continuing. "Based on information that I've been able to gather from various sources, and from a diplomat of yours that I met once, I've come to believe that Metamor's curse is my sole prospect to perhaps repair what has been rent. Any even then, it appears that the second gate is the only one of the three with that ability." He turned a hard look to the dais. "I think you can see my predicament, milord."

Rickkter had just laid it all open. He hadn't wanted to do such a thing. Personally, he had been expecting that the Duke would have instantly taken the opportunity the warrior had presented him. But the horse refused to bite. So Rick had tried a different attack, going for his heart. He hoped that Thomas really was as enlightened as he was suppose to be.

The Duke considered what the warrior had just told him. Jarvas had said that this man was dangerous, temperamental, and above all else, far more then he seemed. Thomas took into consideration several of the things that the other king had warned him about this person before speaking. "What about our own archives and healers? We have some of the best in the northern midlands."

"Oh, I have all intentions of looking into both of them as well, along with examining some of your old store rooms. But do you really think your healers can surpass the skills and medical knowledge of," and the warrior proceeded to rhyme off a little over a dozen names. They ranged in location from the far east, to the south, throughout the holy land, and even included a few names that none in the room had heard before then. "But I do intend to look into them. Though my expectations of success are not that high."

Rickkter paused to collect his thoughts and scratch his beard a little. This really wasn't working anywhere near as well as he had hoped. "All I am requesting is a place to live, and a chance to survive. Is that so much to ask? Think about what you'll be getting in exchange. A master warrior, one who is well versed in magic. You have already seen a demonstration of my skills in that area. I can speak six languages fluently, and another two passably. My services as translator would most likely be to your advantage, as many of those languages are southern and eastern, parts of the world far removed from here. I also possess extensive knowledge on those areas. In addition, I can provide tactical and political information on all the places that I have traveled through on my journey here. And I think that I have information that you need to hear badly if you want to continue the reforging of old alliances."

The mage looked up at the Duke, his sole audience. He didn't care about Bob or Wessex, only Thomas. Thomas was the exclusive power at the Keep, and it was him that Rick had to turn. "You have to ask yourself if you can willingly pass up what I offer you today. And if you're willing to condemn to death a man who has never caused you an ounce of harm. I just hope, for both our sakes, that you make the right decision."

The Duke had been watching Rickkter very carefully during the entire discourse. He had not focused on the man's bearing, nor his actions to any great degree. What he had focused on was the man's eyes and his words. Perhaps that was why the warrior had chosen those unassuming clothes, to further draw attention to where he wanted it. And both his voice and his eyes had spoke volumes. This was a man use to getting what he wanted, with few to no questions asked. Jarvas had warned him of that as well.

The voice alone bespoke of the power and influence that Rickkter was used to wielding. But it was the eyes that really interested the stallion, for the eyes are windows to a man's soul. Rickkter was not lying when he said he was well trained. But what kind of training could provide a person with the skill of reducing their eyes to mirrors of jade, eyes that let out only what their owner wanted them to?

Thomas weighted what he saw in the mage's eyes against what he felt about the man. As ruler of Metamor and its lands, it was his responsibility to ensure their safety. Rickkter had made several good points, though. Another mage would always be helpful, especially a warrior of his caliber. But Thomas still didn't trust the way the man arrived, the way he acted in the throne room, even his general character. The Duke made his decision, and he hoped that it was the right one for all of them.

"I regret to inform you that I am denying you residence at the Keep. You are to be

escorted outside the influence of the spells as soon as possible, and you are to continue on your way. You will find no help here. I wish you luck in your journey."

Rickkter's expression seemed to shatter. "What?" he whispered. "You're turning me down?"

"I apologize, but my decision stands."

"You have just condemned me to death!"

"I'm sorry."

"No, you have yet to be sorry." Rickkter's expression grew positively livid. He took three slow steps towards the dais, his eyes growing cold and his teeth becoming barred. "If you turn me down, if you exile me from these lands, I will be forced to take my offer elsewhere. And I cannot promise you where I may journey next."

"Are you threatening to go to Nasoj."

"Nasoj was the original caster of the curse. I'm sure he can give me what I require."

"Is that a threat?" inquired the Duke. He was not a man used to being treated in such a manner, especially in his own throne room.

"Will you reconsider my offer?"

"I don't like being treated in such a manner." He was hoping he knew what he was doing by pushing the man like this. Frankly it was the only thing he could think of to get to what lay beneath the mask.

The warrior's eyes narrowed, the Duke only being able to make out the faintest of their greenish coloration. "It seems we take threats the same way; we're only comfortable giving them. Will you reconsider my offer?"


"Then you leave me no choice. I would much rather serve you, as I am both here and I know where you stand in the scheme of things." Rickkter pointed an angry finger at the Duke. "But I will not hesitate to do what is necessary to preserve my life. And if this comes back to bite you, always remember that I asked three times for you to reconsider, and you denied me each time. You denied me the opportunity at even so much as a chance of salvation!"

Rickkter knew that this was a monumental gamble on his part. Threatening a king in such a manner was not the smartest thing do to, especially not in the king's own court, and most assuredly not when surrounded by guards and mages intent on killing you. But that was the oath that Rickkter had swore himself. No matter the outcome, he wasn't leaving Metamor. He refused to accept the lingering death that he had eluded for so long. Duke Thomas was either going to give him the chance he required, or he was going to do what the warrior couldn't do himself and end it. Either way, he was going to do exactly what Rickkter wanted him to. The result was not the one the mage would have preferred.

"You won't get the chance." Thomas looked up to his guards. "Detain him."

Metamor's guards were a finely trained group, and Thomas had assembled the best of them, to say nothing of his own personal guards. But as good as they were, with the state that Rickkter was currently in, they stood only a small chance.

Due to his considerable, and almost continuous, training in his youth, Rickkter's was reaction was one of pure reflex. The first guard that came up behind him met with an elbow to the face. He went down in a heap, clutching his nose from where it had been shattered. The guard received a quick kick to the jaw that finished him off. It was both for honor and other reasons that forced Rickkter to react as he did. The next guard came from the front, his sword drawn. Rick simply grabbed his arm, flipping the man onto the hard marble floor. The guard let out an exclamation of pain as his arm was twisted out of shape.

The instant the first guard had fully hit the floor, a space of only moments, Posti had thrown up a shield in front of the dais and Wessex had the beginnings of a powerful spell boiling at the tips of his fingers, in preparation for Rickkter trying anything deadly. Wessex was stalled in the casting by the feel of the Dukes arm extended across his front. When the mage looked down, Thomas gave him a glance telling him to let the drama play out.

But the exchange on the dais was not something Rickkter had noticed, as he had been more concerned with the encircling guards. For an instant he split his gaze between the group coming at his back and the one coming to his right. He took two steps forward, grabbed an oncoming guard from the group to the right, and threw him into three of his comrades from the other side. He then met the one coming up from behind with a full spin kick to the head, sending him down in a heap.

The warrior-mage was getting frustrated, as there were simply too many attackers for him to deal with in such a manner, and he didn't want to give away his true nature as a fighter. A fleeting thought of why the other mages hadn't tried to use their power yet crossed his mind, before being replaced by his determination to get his hands on a weapon to even the odds. Perhaps he could salvage something yet.

The next guard to advance had her sword drawn, just as Rick wanted. He just stood there as the woman charged. When the woman was about to run him through, the warrior spun into her, placing his hands above the soldier's on the hilt. As he hit her, he threw his shoulder into the woman, the sudden stop causing her loosen her grip enough for him to gain control of the weapon. Never even breaking his twist, Rickkter came up in one smooth motion with the sword stopped right against the woman's neck. His green eyes held the look of fire and ice; her blue ones only held fear and surprise.

The two held the gaze for mere moments before Rickkter's attention was drawn elsewhere. It was the sound of a great deal of steel being unsheathed at close quarters that had distracted him. His gaze roved over the ring of soldiers, all of them having drawn swords which were pointed at the warrior and his hostage. When he looked towards to dais, he saw the sparkling shield that Posti had thrown up in front of the Duke. Rickkter saw the magic cracking around the upraised hands of the young mage, and the deadly expression Metamor's triumvirate was giving him. His own gaze melted as he turned once more back to the woman with the sword at her throat.

He blinked as he looked into her wide blue eyes, cocking his head to the side a little in the process. She was only doing her job, and had done nothing to harm him personally. Sure, she had attacked him, but that was only the correct response to his actions. Hell with it, he wasn't going to do this. He was tired of such things. He decided that it was finally time to end it. End it all.

Rickkter sighed, looking once more over the gathered officials, his gaze momentarily lingering on Jon. With a defeated gesture he withdrew the sword from the woman's neck, tossing it onto the marble steps. The implement made a loud clattering sound as it landed, skidding a few feet away. He then turned away with a regretful expression, his hand rubbing his forehead. The throng of guards moved out of his way, allowing free passage. While they still had their steel barred, they were not eager to try something with an individual such as this. When he was a good distance away Rickkter stopped and stood there in silence.

It was almost a minute of dead silence before he spoke. "I apologize for my actions, milord. It was partly reflex. In my profession when a man comes at you deadly intent, you must always reply in kind. The rest was simply anger. As for my words... well, you have just sentenced me to conceivably preventable death. Without the possible help that I may find here, I stand no chance. I think that I might just as well head into the north, see how much damage I can do before they finally kill me, or I expire of this damned illness. A final unpaid, and unappreciated, service to the folks of Metamor.

"That is if you don't execute me for my actions here. Frankly I don't care either way." He once more reclasped his hands behind his back, looking out one of the nearby windows. "I've grown weary of this life and all its frustrations. If you want to end it for me now, then feel free to do so; I will offer no further resistance."

Thomas was moved by the warrior reaction. Not completely turned, but the panic, fear, and regret in the man's eyes looked genuine. Even though he was offering his head on a platter, he was done so in a way that showed just how much Rickkter didn't want to do it. Also his look of profound loss and dejection was rather moving. From a man whose profession demanded concealment of emotions, this was a powerful demonstration of what Metamor might hold for him. He appeared genuinely afraid of his possible death, though still resigned to the quick one that was at hand. A rather odd paradox. That made the Duke weigh the man's next request a little differently.

Of course that had been Thomas' intent all the time in provoking the warrior. He had needed to see what was behind the mirrors, and he figured that this would be the best way. Sure, it had been a gamble on how far he would go, but Thomas had confidence in Posti and Wessex to ensure that it didn't get truly dangerous. He was very thankful Rickkter hadn't killed anyone, either. Though Brain and his healers would be busy for then next little while.

"What about your threat of going to Nasoj?"

Rick snorted. "A mistake. Something to see if I could get you to reconsider. It was... a rather dumb thing, said in the heat of the moment. I can accept being changed here, as I would still have relative freedom. Besides, you're still respected in some parts. Nasoj... well, while I have worked for some evil individuals, I would never sell myself into the comparative slavery that one such as he offers." The warrior turned his defeated expression to the stallion. "What is you pronouncement? Exile, death, or a chance? My money is currently on death."

"No, I don't think that that little outburst warrants your life." Thomas ignored the looks Posti and Wessex gave him. "But I am still unsure as how to proceed. Never have we had to deal with one of your nature, and your actions have demonstrated an unpredictable nature."

"Duke Thomas." Rick had leaned his head forward, pinching the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed in thought. "All that I ask is that you give me forty-eight hours. I'm told that the curse takes a minimum of seventy-two to take hold. Will you give me two days to consult your library and healers before passing sentience?"

The horse was silent for a long time. "In view of the serious nature of your illness, and your lack of other destination should this fail, I will grant your request. You will have two days, starting at dawn tomorrow. During your time at the Keep, you will be under watch. You may not always know it, but it will be there."

The Duke addressed Jon. "Mr. Sleeper. Since you know our guest so well, I want you to stay with him for the first day or as long as required. You will show him around, and you will make sure that no harm comes to one of our kind." He turned back to the warrior. "Do you agree to these terms?"

"Of course, of course!" The tone in Rick's voice showed just how badly he was grasping this last straw the Duke had offered him. "They are all what I would consider acceptable, in view of the circumstances. Guards would be only natural, and I have no problems with Jon. As long as my requests for any information that I may require is not hindered, then I will wholeheartedly comply with your instruction."

"And if they are?"

The mage gave a small, wry smile. Some of the old arrogance coming back, Thomas could see. "I won't have much say in the matter, now will I?"

"Very well. Two days hence you will once again be summoned. I will pass sentence at that time, based on your actions within the Keep until then. Is that understood?"

Rickkter crossed his wrists over his heart, bowing in a highly respectful manner. "Of course. I can only hope that I have some good news to report to you in that time. And if not... well, I hope that that meeting will proceed smoother then this one has."

The horse-king acknowledged the bow. "Dismissed."

"What the hell was that?" demanded Posti after Rickkter and his escort had departed.

The Duke glared back. "A demonstration. I wanted to see the truth of who we were dealing with here."

"You could have gotten us all killed!"

"He was right about what he told us. And if you had been listening to what he said, you would realize that he was telling the truth when he said he never harmed us."

"He stalked the patrols for a week!"

"I think he was just testing an unknown enemy. Do you deny that he had ample opportunity to inflict harm? Do you deny that he chose to use his powers on the Lutins rather then us? Think of the havoc those Lutins could have wrecked had they made it to the caravan routes. Misha reported that they were of the Dripping Blades. For them, havoc would have been an understatement."

"Pardon my tone, but that was not ample justification for provoking him the way you did."

"No, you're perfectly correct about that. I had ulterior information on our guest. Three days before today, I received a message from King Jarvis. The courier was delayed several days by adverse conditions along the roads, or he would have been here sooner. The letter conveyed details of a traveler that we should be expecting."

The Duke nodded towards the closed door. "Rickkter had been in contact with Jarvis several weeks before. The king had been debating whether to forewarn us or not. It's a good thing he did, or I would have ordered our guest killed on the spot."

"Why did you let him live? What did Jarvis tell you?"

"That our friend is exactly what we just saw. His primary facade is one of arrogance, and high-bearing. Jarvis reported the Rickkter is extremely knowledgeable about what he is after, possessing a great deal of information relating to his search. I think that Rickkter really has been to all the places he says he's been to.

"And as we just saw, he has a rather nasty temper. Jarvis speculates that this stems from some old position of power he use to hold, as well as being commissioned for powerful jobs. Being a mercenary and bounty hunter would also probably lend themselves to this condition."

The Duke leaned back a little, grumbling as he did so. "Finally, the good king warned us not to let him out of the keep. He wasn't specific as to what prompted his feeling, but he says that that warrior IS as dangerous as he appears. Now I don't know whether Rickkter was truthful about his saying that he wouldn't go to Nasoj or not, but we have no guarantee that Nasoj won't go to him."

He glared at both the stallion and the AR. "Now I don't know about you, but I will not let our enemy gain possession of such a weapon. As Rickkter also pointed out, we have seen a demonstration of his power. We know Nasoj very well, and we've seen how he can enslave some to his will. Personally, I don't want us to have to face what the combined forces that the pair of them could produce, if I can do anything to prevent it. Besides, he may even be useful to our own cause."

Posti mulled it all over, his tail swishing behind him. "What are you going to do if he turns out to not be to our liking, or vice versa?"

The Duke's resolve never wavered. "Kill him."

Rickkter and Jon were walking down the hall in a mournful silence. The pair continued trudging up the halls in silence for several minutes before Jon spoke up. "I can't believe you actually went and did that. I don't think I've ever seen a performance to match it."

"I don't think I've ever done anything that would match it," said Rick as he ran his fingers through his hair to slick it back.

"What did you expect to happen in there?"

"Certainly not that. I guess my temper got the better of me."

"And that certainly is a temper you have."

"Back was against the wall, no way out. In a situation like that you can only attack. You have nothing really to lose."

"So what are you going to do now?"

"Just what I said. Look, read, talk with the healers. Hope," he shrugged.

"Brian is one of the best healers around. I'm sure he can do something to help."

"Brian a healer? Really? Hm, I hope you're right about him."

They walked a little further in silence. "And at the end of two days?"

"At the end of two days... I hope that the Duke will have had a change of heart." He gave the deer a serious and worried look. "I really don't want to die like this, Jon."

"Something tells me you won't. Men like you don't die from nameless diseases." Rickkter chuckled a little, the action bringing a small smile to his face. "You obviously don't read enough literature." Rickkter's smile vanished as he shook his head. "I wish knew for sure." They turned onto a large, open stair well. "Where are we going?"

The artificer smirked at his warrior companion. "You said you wanted to check on the storerooms, did you not? Besides, I think you mentioned a desire to see my personal collection as well. I think that might cheer you up some."

Rickkter shook his head in laughter. When it came up he was smiling. "Oh, you're a good friend, Jon. I hope that we can spend more time together when this is all over."

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