A Place Where There Is No Darkness

Waiting Games

by Chris Hoekstra

Author's Note: (( and )) indicated another language.

"So what do you think?"

"I've never seen anything like it before."

"How so?"

The other shifted around a little. "For starters I've never seen magic like the kind he has working on him. Well, that's not entirely true. I have seen it, just never in the same place all at once.

"You see, I had Posti sit in on the examination. He told me that only a small part of the magic that Rickkter has to keep him alive is his own. Most is healing magic far beyond anything either of us has seen. I've seen mages cast elementary versions of those spells, but the complexity of these are astounding, as is their interweaving. Posti and I identified several that shouldn't even have been able to co-exist. The bridges that were use to accomplish that are fascinating."

"So what did you learn of him?"

"The definition of miracle. That man shouldn't even be walking around. Personally I think that a month is optimistic. The only reason that he's still up and around is that the spells are kept in an almost perfect balance. But that is only a delaying action. That much I know for sure. Magic can only sustain flesh for so long. An example is heavy exertion. The spells will compensate for a short time, but the damage is getting to be too severe for them to hold off for more then a few minutes. Anything truly lengthy and strenious brings on a violent coughing fit."

"Does that match he had with Kwanzaa?" He had been asking around about the subject of their current conversation, to see where he might have been nosing around.

"In a way, yes. I asked about that, and he said that the elixir was primarily responsible for that. Apparently it can assist his body in regaining normal function for a time. But he pointed out that that time is growing shorter. Where it was once several days, now 'tis only a matter of hours. And if he misses taking it for more then three days... not a prayer."

The first was silent for several long moments. "What are your impressions of him?"

"He's not going to die, at least not if he can help it." The second traced out two patterns on his chest that matched up roughly to the human lungs. "From the scaring I saw, he had some very radical procedures done. Few looked painless."

"Could you do anything to help him?"

"Nothing that hasn't already been tried," he responded, shaking his head. "I can't even tell you what he has, much less how to cure him. He asked me to spend some time with him in the library, and I agreed. I have no idea when I'll find the time, but I will."

The first nodded. He had expected as much. A man like Rickkter figured out all the angles before he entered any situation. "Suggestions?"

Brain shrugged and gave his opinion. The Duke could only nod before sending the healer on his way. What the raccoon had told him had corresponded with what the others had already said. Perhaps it was worth the risk after all.

"You summoned me, my lord?" asked Rickkter as he poked his head in the door.

"Yes I did. Please, come inside."

The warrior mage took a speculative glance on either side of the door before entering. His reflective look remained, his black eyebrows almost disappearing under his hairline as he surveyed the room. He turned a questioning look to the Duke, his eyes conveying the unasked question.

The Duke snorted and turned back to his window. "Yes, we're alone. No ring of guards, no mages overseeing my protection. Just you and me. Although you might want to know that if I don't leave this room ahead of you, you don't leave it either."

"That sounds fair." He stepped up to an adjacent window, sharing the Duke's magnificent view of the valley from his tower. "What is the verdict?"

"Cut right to the chase, don't you? Before I answer that, how did your search go?"

Rickkter grunted in response. "I'm asking about a verdict, not working alongside Pascal on a serum I only recently came across. So the answer to your question is no. Just as I suspected it would be."

"Brian was of no help?"

Rickkter's sigh conveyed just how disappointed he was. He relayed the details of his exam with Brian, details that the Duke already knew.

"He also said that your knowledge of your condition was surprising for a warrior."

The mage cocked an eyebrow at the Duke. "Why must everyone always assume that us warriors are brainless knuckle draggers? I have been suffering for the last two years, milord. When you make an elixir almost every three days for that time, when your only concerns are where to go next, and when almost your every thought is spent trying to figure out how to beat this thing, you get to know about its workings inside and out. Besides, I picked up a lot of the medical terminology in that time. When you hear specific phrases repeated over and over, you lean to ask what they mean." Rickkter sighed again. "I'm sorry to say that Brian couldn't teach me anything new."

"That makes my decision all that much harder. And all the medical texts yielded nothing?" It was another question that he already knew the answer to. Rick confirmed what Brian had told him. The Duke continued to contemplate the scenery in silence for a few moments. "When you first came here your manner was quite different from your current demeanor. What is the reason for this turnabout?"

"Trust. You see, trust is based solely on action. At least it is for me. Words, titles, and appearances are meaningless unless you are able to fulfill them. I didn't know what kind of a ruler you were, how you treated your subjects, or how you conducted other manner of business around the keep. After asking around a little I was pleasantly surprised with finding you to be a most fair and equitable ruler. One who listens to his subjects, rules with a just hand, and knows how to play the deadly game of politics. In short, the kind of person for whom it would be an honor to serve."

"Was that all?"

Rickkter grimaced. "No, not really. I also have an instinctive and vehement hatred of politicians and nobles. Remember what I said about actions being the basis of my trust? I find that politicians tend to be creatures of talk and indecision. Never mind that most of them are corrupted for their own goals, or lie more then a preacher will tell the truth.

"I've run into my share of nobles and bad rulers. Usually it's on the field of battle, a place where they have no business being. There were numerous times that the weaker force I was on was able to decimate a superior force due solely to shoddy leadership on their leader's part. It's even happened to my own side a few times, and I barely made it out with my skin intact. I didn't want that happening here, not when there is no chance for a retreat."

"Interesting view of the world. Must make it hard to work with those people."

"Not as much as one would expect. You don't contract an individual of my talents for some low priority job. I have advised kings, and I have worked with armies. I have been right, wrong; I have attempted the impossible and succeeded; I have hesitated; and I have panicked. But I have never preformed any action, that at the time of commitment, I didn't believe gave my side the best chance at winning. And if I am permitted residence here, I will serve you just as loyally -- if not more so -- as I have served those others whom I've worked for.

"I hope that our last meeting hasn't prejudiced you against me, but I was never very good at games of politics. I'm the person that is called in when the politicians have failed." Rickkter raised his brow with a cheerless expression. "Usually that's at the point where the situation is almost beyond repair. I am a warrior, Duke Thomas, pure and simple. I have a warrior's instincts, and a warrior's mind. I react to threat as such, and the results are not always pleasant.

"But I will serve you to the best of my ability, should you accept my services."

The pair stood in quite silence, gazing out at the valley. Rickkter had said everything he had wanted to, leaving Thomas with the final judgement.

"I'm curious. You said you were offered positions of power in the past, yet you also said you turned them down. Why would a person of your nature turn down such a thing?"

"Let me put it this way. When was the last time you had a day totally devoid of activity? When was the last time you didn't have someone coming to you over some matter? When was the last time you've had the evening to yourself with a good book, or even a dinner with a beautiful lady? I bet that you can't answer any of those questions, or if you can the answer is astounding in its sheer size.

"You see, milord, I have never craved position. I only crave the power which it brings. In my life I've achieved a measure of success in this area. By being a bounty hunter and mercenary, I have the luxury of no ties to a home. This allows me to roam freely, amassing either payment or knowledge before moving onto the next land. In my profession, needs for my services are short lived, allowing me to name a generous price for a single job. Why would I want the responsibilities of power, when my carrier gives me just the perks?

"With such an existence, I get to work with many improtant people and have them listen when I speak, and all the other advantages that come with power, but with almost none of the drawbacks. Why would I want rulership when I have this? If I wanted power like that, I would never have left the south." Rick folded his arms in front of himself. "And I would have been dead a year and a half ago."

"You gave up position to become a mercenary? I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing!" snorted the Duke.

"I didn't give up position to become a mercenary. I gave up station, and all its restraints and responsibilities, for the world. And I would never change that decision were I ever given the chance. Sure, I have been almost killed numerous times since then, but oh, how I have lived! My only concern is how long I can go on living, milord."

"Call me Thomas. And I'm granting you an extension."

"Beg pardon?"

"I said I'm granting you an extension. I spoke with Cutter, Christopher, Jon, and Misha, in addition to Brian. They all told me that you have behaved within the boundaries of what was outlined in our agreement. They also told me other things about you that were in your favor. I don't know what you and Misha discussed, but he seems to have a high opinion of you. Based on what I was told by them, and by your watchers, I am going to give you the chance to look some more, perhaps find what you are searching for. You will have until you find a cure in the books, or until the curse takes you. And if you do wind up with the curse, then we'll have to evaluate how best to put you to use. If by some chance you don't succeed... well, I hope that your suffering will be short lived."

"Thank you, milord. I can only hope that the latter part of your offer is unnecessary."

"I said call me Thomas," said the stallion, his tail flicking around behind him. "I suspect this will prove an interesting time for you. There is one condition to your stay here, at least for the meantime. That is, you cannot leave the Keep. You are to remain confined within these walls during your entire time of research, or until the transformation has run its course."

"Any particular reason for such an odd restriction?"


Rickkter nodded, averting his gaze from the horse once more. "Ah. So despite my actions while residing within your walls, and despite your own words to the contrary, you still do not fully trust me."

"There is still the odd possibility that you are not who you say you are. The chance that Nasoj has some influence over you."

"Duke Thomas, if I wanted to cause Metamor harm, we would not be having this pleasant discussion right now. Considering that I have spent approximately sixty straight hours in your library, a good many of them at night and by myself, the damage I could have caused there alone would have been catastrophic. Knowledge is perhaps the greatest weapon a person can possess, and Metamor is abundantly well armed. Not to mention the devastation I could cause here with you, or in the other areas I've been."

"Oh, I don't think that your magic would do you much good here."

"Really?" Rickkter looked around for a few minutes, then smiled. "My compliments to your mages. A truly first class dampening field."

"You had best get going. You said you wanted research time, and besides I think that your watchers are getting lonely without you."

"Oh, yes. If there is one thing I'm doing for you, it's giving some of your soldiers an excuse to take part in some of your fine literature."

Thomas nickered. "Yes, that was one of their prime complaints."

"Well the next time you see them, you can give them my compliments. I never even saw them."

"You weren't suppose to. That was the whole idea."

Rickkter shook his head as Thomas and him headed for the door. "You must introduce them to me sometime." He turned to the horse as the Duke opened the main doors. "I always admire people able to best me."

"I wish you luck, warrior. It's my hope that Metamor contains what you require, no matter what form it may take."

Wessex strode into the library, intent on investigating the new warrior-mage. He still couldn't get over what Rickkter had said and done in the court room. And to think that the Duke had not only let him live, but had let him stay on! The man simply rubbed Wessex the wrong way, and he was determined to find out something about the mysterious mage.

"So Fox," he said, stepping up to the librarian's desk, "what has our visitor been up to these last three days?"

"You mean my new fixture on the third floor? Come and see for yourself." The pair walked out to the central area of the library to get a clear view of the different levels. Cutter pointed up at a table on the third floor. "There you go, that's him."

"What's he doing?"


"Is that all he's done?"

"Aye. He just sits there engrossed in his books. Sometimes he gets up to walk around. Goes to the window for that. Sometimes to relieve himself. Never for very long, in either case. There was one time, though. He was gone for a good period just this morning."

Wessex grunted. He was slightly disappointed. Somehow he had expected Rickkter to have done something more... devious by now. "What is your opinion of him?"

"Hum, can't really say. All that I've seen his him reading. Actually, his reading selection tends to concern me. According to Chris, it leans more towards the ancient and higher levels of magic, in addition to all manner of medical knowledge. You see," continued Fox, tilting a little over towards the age regression, "when he came in, he requested to see a few very specific books of magic."

"That doesn't sound so bad. Lots of people come here for that kind of thing. Metamor has one of the best reputations in the midlands for preserving knowledge. Only Akkron surpasses us in that respect. Besides, he did say he wanted to research healing and cures."

"He wanted to see our copies of Daemonolatreia, The Book of Dzyan, Mysteries of the Monolith, The Winstone Shards, and Mysteriis Metaphysical, as well with a long list of other books. And when I refused to let him see some of those books, he actually went and retrieved his personal copies of them." Wessex' face took on a look of pure astonishment, his jaw positively dropping a few inches. "And I was wondering, Wessex, if you had ever heard of Book of Enoch or the Tamar Manuscripts."

"Um, yes I have," stumbled the mage. He couldn't believe at coming across a person with access to such things. "Enoch is an incredibly rare text. It details solely with psychological spells and magic relating to the mind. Pure psionics.

"As for Tamar... well, that's considered the holy grail of magical tomes. Supposedly it's a repository for some of the most profound magical insights and spells ever conceived. It covers topics ranging from alchemy, to enchantments, to artifacts, to all manner of spell type, formulae, recipe, sigil, incantation, and the like. Only fragments of it exist now. Also some of the highest books of magic contain spells supposedly based on information from that book. Where did you hear those names?"

Cutter sighed and pointed up to the third floor. "Our friend up there. He asked for Enoch when he first came. And he wanted all those books because he was doing correlation work with the Manuscripts. According to Chris, he doesn't have Enoch, nor Dyzan, but he does have the rest of them."

Wessex visibly started, doing a double take and leaning closer to Fox, his face a mask of utter astonishment. "Could you say that first part again?"

"What? That the mage that has been living on the third level of my library for the last several days, is supposedly using some books of frighteningly powerful magic to do work on your fabled holy grail?"

That gave the child mage a great deal of pause. Anyone who had access to that kind of material was far more then he appeared. "Has he had any visitors?"

"Not really. Wanderer stopped by briefly to ask what Rickkter was doing. He used the excuse of wanting a particular book, but the way he kept glancing up at the third floor was enough to tip me off. Brain was in just the other day. Him and Rick poured over the medical books for a while before Brian and he left for a time. While Jon was in solid for the first day or so, he's only checked in a few more times since then."

Wessex leaned back against a shelf, drumming his fingers on the book spines as he stared at the other mage. He was going to have to keep an eye on this one. Despite Rickkter's benign appearance, there was something about him that he didn't trust. Knowledge perhaps? Material of that nature was never to be taken lightly, more so, when by all rights the mage handling it shouldn't have skills to do so. As the child mage looked once more at Rickkter, he vowed to keep a close watch on this one.

As Chris turned the corner of the shelves, he came once again across the figure of the Keeps newest guest. Even with his diminished vision he could tell that the figure was still hunched over his mound of books, as he had been almost ever since he came into the library.

"How long have you been at this?" he inquired of the scholar.

Rickkter rolled his head upward in a tired manner to gaze upon the bear. "Well let's see. What time is it?"

"About ten in the morning," Chris answered upon checking his pocket watch.

"What day?"

"'Tis Friday."


"You've been going at this since Monday?" asked Chris in an incredulous tone. Chris had been in and out of the library, and even though he had seen Rickkter there almost every time he looked, he still found that had to believe.

"Well, not really." The mage cradled his bearded chin in his hand and stifled a yawn. "I spent almost all Wednesday night with some people that Brian reccomended I talk to. We ran into a few translations and some other things that gave me trouble. Fascinating individuals. There was one, I can't remember his name. Scatterbrained as all hell, but still quite interesting."

Rickkter suppressed another massive yawn. "Damn it. I really have to get some sleep. I'm going to fall over at this rate." He moved around some of the accumulated papers and books, coming up with a small glass bottle. Chris recognized its shape immediately. "You know, these little potions of Pascal's are the most wonderful things. I wish I had them when doing my alchemy training. Would have been the greatest things," he said around yet another yawn.

"How many of these things have you had?" asked Chris as he looked at the warriors fatigued expression.

"Only four, or so."

"'Four, or so'?" repeated the bear. He could see almost six of the bottles poking out of the pile of papers and books. "We had better get you some sleep before you keel over."

"Sounds good to me."

"May I inquire how you search went first?"

"It's over, I'm done. I've cleaned out your repositories of high magic, healing magic, alchemy, and medical cures." Rickkter picked up a handful of papers. "Knowledge, power, desire, and information on so, so many things." He tossed back the papers on the table with a violent thrust, then slouched back with a dejected expression. "Nothing. Close to six days, and nothing."

The tutor gazed upon his subject. Where he had appeared truly sure of himself at the beginning, he now looked very burnt out and quite defeated. His eyes had dark bags under them, and his face held a wide-eyed and glazed appearance. Rickkter looked like hell.

"Well, since it is over, you might want to relax for a good while. You don't look well from your ordeal here."

"Oh, I think that would be highly advisable," concurred Rickkter as he stood at the table. He quickly repacked all his notes and books. Chris was still amazed at some of the titles he saw the warrior return to his carrying bag. Chris said he would take care of the library books if Rickkter would agree to go and get some sleep. The warrior conceded with a tired laugh and staggered to the door, Chris acting as a persudo escort. They met Fox at the exit, Rickkter giving him a tired and exaggerated good-bye before finally leaving.

"Quite a strange one we have there," commented Fox, after Rickkter had departed.

"That he is..." Chris admitted.

"Did you hear that?" asked Fox in a started tone.


"I'm not quite sure," said Fox, heading to the door. "Sounded like a thump."

The source of the mysterious noise was revealed quickly enough once they opened the doors. Rickkter hadn't made it more then twenty feet down the hall before collapsing. He was sprawled out on the floor, slumbering peacefully.

"Well, we can't just leave him like that," muttered Fox as he strolled over to the unconscious warrior. "Help me here, Chris."

Chris grabbed one of Rickkter's arms and placed it over his shoulder, Fox doing the same with the other. "What are we going to do with him?"

"Do you know where his quarters are?"


"Ashes. Neither do I." Fox gave a light growl of frustration, then struck out down the hall. "Come on, Chris. We'll stash him at your place until he wakes up."

"How are we going to explain this to him when he awakens?"

"We'll leave him a note or something. Now, come on. He's heavier then he looks."

Rickkter came to, feeling a nice soft bed under him. This was funny, because he didn't remember making it back to his room. Upon opening his eyes and looking around he saw that it indeed wasn't his room. He decided to simply lay on the large bed and enjoy its feel for a few moments.

After several minutes, Rickkter felt that his strength had returned enough to warrant actually rising. As he sat up he felt something slide off his chest. Finding that it was a sheet of paper, he felt around with his magic for something to read it by. He quickly located and lit a nearby oil lamp.

The note was in an elegant script of a practiced scribe, its contents short and to the point:

"Dear Rickkter

As you should have noticed by now, these are not your quarters. Since neither myself nor Fox knew where your were lodging, we could only do one thing. These are my quarters, and I would kindly thank you leave them at your earliest possible convenience, making the bed upon your departure.

Yours truly,


Rickkter received a short chuckle from the letter. 'At least the sleep helped some,' he reflected as he stood and stretched. He quickly put the large bed back in order, thankful that Chris had decided to simply dump him on top, instead of covering him with a sheet.

He settled on seeing Pascal next, as it was getting seriously late for his next dosage. He was starting to feel quite lightheaded. He snuffed out the lamp and headed for the door.

Rickkter quickly open the door to the hall, only to be greeted by a loud wacking sound from the other side. He reflected that this was odd, considering he didn't feel the door hit anything.

Looking around to the other side, he was amazed to see the form of a female skunk morph pricking herself off the floor. It seemed that she had been carrying an armload of papers when she hit the door, for they were scattered about on the floor.

"Oh, I'm dreadfully sorry," sputtered Rickkter as he bent down to help her recover her papers. "I should have been a little more cautions when opening doors around here."

"Think nothing of it,I should be watch where I'm going, instead of reading reports all the time. I would probably run into less doors that way," she said in a chagrinned tone, trying to make light of the situation.

"I hope I didn't injure you with that."

"My, what a gallant gentleman you are," remarked the skunk as she organized the last of her piles. "No, I'm fine. The nose is a little sore from where it hit the door, but that's it."

"Here, let me take care of that," said Rickkter has he reached out and laid the tips of the fingers on his right hand on her nose, releasing a small flow of magic in the process. She pulled back almost instantly at his touch, a shocked expression on her face.

Rickkter realized the error of his action almost immediately. "Oh... I'm sorry."

He decided quickly to change the topic. "Um... these look like field reports," he said, redirecting his attention to sheet of paper he was holding. "Where are you going with them?"

"I work in Intelligence," said the skunk as she stood, having finished gathering the fallen reports. "I was taking these down to storage."

"Well, I'll, uh, leave you to it then," Rickkter told her as he passed his papers over. "What is your name, by the way? I might have some business in Intelligence, and I want to know who to ask for."

"My name is Kayla," the skunk told him as she started down the hall once more. "Mine is Rickkter. That's a beautiful name you have." He gauged her reaction for a moment. "No one's told you that in a long time, I would gather it."

"You can't imagine how long," expressed Kayla in an embitter tone, as she turned her back on Rickkter and disappeared down the hall.

Scratch re-entered the lab, as he had just finished running an errand for its owner. Assistant to Metamor's resident alchemist was a fairly good job. The fact that he was deeply in love with her made it all the better.

He was greeted with a rather odd sight. On the other side he found a stranger dressed in a dark jacket, standing with his back to the door mixing ingredients into some sort of metal cup. While not unusual for other members of the Keep to come up there, it was strange not to see Pascal observing them. He found that the little porcupine was very protective of her things. Which was understandable, since many of them, if mixed in the wrong proportions, could bring down a good portion of the Keep.

"Pardon me. Is there anything I can do for you?" asked the tiger of his human guest.

The stranger turned quickly at the unexpected greeting. His eyes quickly took in nearly seven foot tiger morph. "I might ask you the same thing."

"It's all right, don't worry about him," said Pascal to Scratch, as she came out from the back. "That's Scratch," she said, addressing the stranger. "He's working as my assistant."

But the situation seemed to have already bored the warrior, as he had returned to his work. He gave the tiger a quick wave over his shoulder. "Nice to meet you."


Padding over to Pascal, Scratch asked in a hushed tone, "What is he doing? I thought you didn't like others messing around with what you have here. Why are you not over there with him?"

"He's an alchemist." Scratch gave her an unbelieving look. "I didn't believe it either, at first. After I saw him do that the first few time, I changed my opinions of him somewhat. He's actually very competent."

"Nice to know we won't be blown to bits," joked the tiger. "So what else do you have for me to do today, o prickly task master?" inquired the tiger in a jovial tone.

"Something a little different. I want you to start leaning Amaric, as most of what I use is written in that language. So you'll be working on the translations, while I do my work."

Scratch growled to himself as he took the pair of books Pascal handed him and grabbed a seat at a free lab bench. Languages were never really his strong suit, and Amaric was a complicated language to master.

As he sat there trying to concentrate on the obscure print, his attention kept going back to the stranger. There was something about him that seemed familiar. He simply wrote it off to deja vu, and redoubled his efforts on the book. He was making good progress on an especially difficult paragraph when the stranger got his attention again.

"I'm done for now, Pascal. Thanks for the use of your equipment again. I hope to see you around here again. And don't forget, that offer of mine is still on the table."

"Umm... Okay, Rickkter. I'm still thinking about it. I'll let you know what I decide."

"That's all I ask."

Pascal turned back from the door to find Scratch staring at the closed door in what could only be described as profound surprise. His tail further served to accentuate his emotional state. "Scratch? What is it?"

'No... no, it can't be him.... not after all these years...' Scratch blinked a few times to bring himself back to reality. A memory from his past had just resurfaced, and with it some scary possibilities.

The memory was of a man. He had been dressed all in black leather, complete with a head of shaggy hair and close cropped black beard, just like the one who had been there not a few moments before. That man had a companion with him, a large man possessing a head of ruddy red hair.

It was several years ago, in a tavern in Rocklyn, where the incident had occurred. Scratch and several other member of the Guild had stopped in for the evening, and were pretty much keeping to themselves. It was not the man that drew the young thief's attention, but the soldiers that came looking for him.

Scratch's group noticed the Switzers instantly, as their reputation and bright colored livery were well known in those parts. Of course the group of thieves thought that the elite corp of the kings guards had been meant for them, but that was not the case. The leader of the Switzers went over to the bar keep to ask the man something while the rest fanned out throughout the now silent tavern.

The leader apparently got some satisfactory answer from the bar-keep, for he went to the man with the black hair and asked him something. It wasn't clear what the exchange was, but the next thing that Scratch knew the entire group of guards was trying to prevent the pair from making a break for it. That was a sorry mistake. The massive man with the red hair took on several all by himself, his companion in black using a deadly style of hand to hand combat Scratch had never seen before. Either way, the pair managed to make it out of the bar, laying out a good many of their attackers on the way.

As the big man was on the way out the door he called to his comrade, who at that time was knocking in the teeth out of some poor sergeant. Scratch had only heard the man's name mentioned that one time. It was sort of difficult to forget such an unusual name, and besides, the sight had kind of stuck with him.

Pascal finally snapped him back to reality by waving a paw in front of his face. "What are you looking at, Scratch?"

"Um... nothing. He just reminded me of someone. Someone from long ago."

"You never did tell me all that you did before coming here..."

"I'm sorry Pascal, but that's the way it will have to remain. I still don't feel comfortable about talking about my past. Sorry." He quickly switched the topic. "What did he mean by 'the offer is still on the table'?"

Pascal stood silent for a few moments as she drummed her fingers on the table. "That's something for me to worry about. You go back to your work, I have some thinking to do."

The bar was noisy, loud, crowded, and alive with happy patrons. It was a good night, considered Rickkter as he walked in. Catching sight of Misha and a few of his companions, he decided to join his friend for a few ales. He ignored the dark looks a few shot him upon his entrance.

"Hey there, Misha! My friend! How ya doing?"

"Rickkter! I was wondering when you would show up! Where have you been for the last several days? I've actually just been telling these two about you, and that book you had with you a few days back." He waved Rickkter to an open seat. "Come. Sit. Have a drink, and enjoy the evening with us."

"Sounds good." Rickkter whistled at one of the servers. "Round of ales for this table!" He looked back at his fox companion. "Not going to introduce me to your friends?"

"Oh, of course. Where are my manners..."

"You have manners? Since when?" inquired a female otter with a slightly mischievous grin.

Misha had an instant comeback. "Since never, and that's why I'm asking. I was hoping you might know where they went." The whole table erupted into laughter at that one. "The funny one here is Caroline, and the badger is Will Hardy, her father. Now tell me, where did you vanish for those days? I know this place is disorientating, but I didn't think it was that bad."

Rickkter gave a quick laugh. "No it wasn't that. It was the material I needed to research. I've been living the in library ever since we last met. I finally passed out around ten this morning. Pascal's little potions are blessing when you're on them, but they're a curse when you're coming down. Just woke up actually. Stopped at Pascal's, then decided to come here for something to eat, perhaps a game of pool or something to clear my head."

About this time the drinks arrived at the table. "No need for you to get anything out. For the next little while, any who drinks and eats with me, does so for free. I have some money, and I might not get the chance to use it after this. Enjoy it while you can." Rickkter turned back to the server. "Oh, and could you bring me a plate of whatever the kitchen has ready at the moment?"

The next while was spent on socialable conversation. Rickkter took up most of the discourse, fielding the usual questions from the others. Where he came from, how he arrived at Metamor, what he planed to do now. As with most of the others who've heard his tale, they are understandably sympathetic when hearing about his terminal disease. The conversation switched to the other side when his meal arrived. Rickkter heard about Caroline's victory at the Easter Festival archery competition, in addition to her and Misha's exploits as scout in the north. Most of Misha's tales were quite unbelievable, and Rickkter vowed that he'd tell the scout some of his own exploits. As soon as he has the time to appropriately blow them out of proportion. Caroline seemed to find the last part particularly amusing.

"Well this evening seems to be going particularly well," commented Rick as he wiped the remnants of his meal off his beard. "And now onto the amusement. Who's up for a game of pool?"

"I'm considered a fair pool player," Will spoke up. "Let's see if we can get the table for a few games."

"Great. Shall we play for money? A wager always makes the game more interesting."

"Oh, I like the sounds of that. First you give me free ale, and now the opportunity to take more of your money."

Rickkter grabbed a cue off the wall rack, and tossed another to the badger. "I warn you, Hardy. I'm no slouch at pool."

"Neither am I," assured the aged badger, a wide grin on his muzzle. "Ten bronze?"

"Sounds good to me."

The wager settled, they had to wait several minutes for the table to clear. It was a game between two of the age regressions. They could still play because the table had been lowered to their height. When they finished, Rickkter racked and Will broke. Will got half his balls sunk before Rickkter cleared the table. Caroline applauded Rickkter's victory from the sidelines where her and Misha had grabbed seats. Will got a little closer the second game before having to pay another ten bronze.

"Come on Misha! He's murdering me here!" implored the badger. "Help me out, he's taking all my money!"

"Yeah, and Donney wouldn't want that. Would have to put you on a bar tab again. All right, lets see what I can do about it." The third game went to Rickkter, the fourth Misha. Anti was upped to twenty-five bronze for the fifth and sixth games. By this time a small crowd of spectators had begun to gather. Rickkter didn't disappoint, and cleared the table in record time. It would seem that the crowd was very interested in his ability, and there was a name whispered amongst them that Rickkter couldn't quite make out.

"Okay, that's it." Misha conceded. "You're too much for me. I'm going to quit before going broke."

"Oh, and to think it's been ages since I've played like this!" Rickkter turned and shouted a challenge to the rest of the bar. "Any other takers here tonight?" he called out to the Mule's patrons.

"I'll have you a game," returned a brash voice from behind the crowd. As the contender pushed his way forward, the mob began to applaud and cheer.

"Now you're in for it, Rickkter." Misha pointed at the large approaching lizard. "That's Copernicus, the Keeps undefeated pool lizard. Have fun!"

"So what are we playing for here?" Cope asked as he grabbed a cue off the wall.

Rick went around the table retrieving the balls from the pockets. "8-ball. Usual game. Twenty-five bronze a round. Play till you're sick of loosing."

"Then you might as well pay up now. Save yourself the humiliation." The crowd roared at this stinging barb.

"I don't intend to loose."

"Whatever. I just hope that you have the money for this."

"Rack 'em up. Let's see what you got."

It turned out that Cope had quite a lot. He wasn't undefeated around Metamor for lack of trying. He was undefeated due to a high quantity of luck tempered by skill. Both players got to only three balls apiece when Cope sank his all in rapid succession. Next game was similar. Rickkter was down to only the eight ball, when Cope cleared away his remaining balls. Stakes were upped to forty bronze. Cope devastated Rickkter over the next two rounds. Pretty much the entire bar had gathered to see the high stakes slaughter. They got some good laughs as Rick beat his head on the side of the table after witnessing some Cope's amazing plays. Rickkter managed to narrowly loose three twenty gold rounds to the skills of the lizard. By this point Rickkter was getting quite desperate, and Will was practically rolling on the floor in glee over his avengement by Copernicus.

"Okay, that's it. Final game. And some changes for this last round."

"Shoot. It's your money," acknowledged Cope, as he leaned on the edge of the table.

"Change of game type: Snooker. One turn each. Highest run wins. I know that's a little unconventional, but it should work here. And the wager is double or nothing." The audience gave a collective gasp of amazement. Never had a game gone for so much.

"You're on." Cope placed a restraining paw on the warriors chest. "But first I want to know something. You're in the hole quite a bit here. Now I've never asked before, but how do you plan to cover this, if you lose?"

Rickkter gave Cope the evil eye before reaching back under his light jacket. He came out with a highly ornate jeweled dagger. He waved the dagger in front of Cope's face. "This is easily worth ten times the wager. So is it a deal?"


Rickkter slammed the dagger on the side of the table and walked over to the other side to get the snooker balls from their niche in the wall. As he was setting up the balls, he heard Will yell something from the other side of the crowd.

"Oh, this is too much. I got five silver on Copernicus!" This touched off a flurry of betting. Unfortunately it was all for the Keep's favorite.

"What?!" cried Rickkter as he stopped setting the colored balls on the table. "Isn't anyone going to bet on me, here?"

"Sorry Rick!" shouted Will. "We only bet on sure things!" The mob cheered and applauded the statement. Rickkter's only reaction was to direct an imploring look at those assembled.

"Ah, hell," commented a white rabbit morph as he stepped to the front of the crowd. "I've been watching Cope play for years. He's bound to loose one of these times." He tossed a few coins on the accumulated pile. "Five on the warrior."

"Damn it, why not?" chimed in a short, plaid colored beaver at the front as he tossed on his money. "Phil thinks it's a good bet, I'm in. I get payed tomorrow, anyhow."

"What, that's it? Two out of all of you is willing to actually gamble?" demanded the warrior.

"Ah, why not? I'll have pity on ya there stranger," said a the slightly scaled lady at the far end of the crowd. "If you win, I'm loaded. If you loose, it wasn't that much. Besides, I've been waiting to see someone beat Cope for years, too. Put him in his place."

"You always did have a strange sense of humor, Quiz," called Copernicus. That final bet set off another flurry of betting, all of it in Copes favor.

Rickkter went to the other end of the table and prepared to take the break shot, when he got an idea. "How about we sweeten this a little more, Cope. Loser buys drinks for the entire bar." The crowd roared with approval at the sounds of that.

"Can you pay?" asked the lizard.

"Can you?"

Copernicus laughed at the comment. "Take your shot. Let's see how you do."

He did better then expected. In fact the whole ordeal lasted only several minutes. With quick and brutal precision, Rickkter commenced clearing the table of all the offending pool balls. He was down to the last few red balls when he finally missed the shot. The worst part was that fatigue had set into the point where he could feel it coming. When the ball missed its target, the only thing he could do was hang his head in dejection.

Looking up, he stood and slid the last counters into place on the scoreboard. "One-hundred twenty-two, Cope. Think you can beat that?"

"Oh, that was a nice hustle on your part. Suckered me into a game that you're good at. While snooker isn't my usual diversion, I intend to make you regret your decision to challenge me. Make way for Lizard Lips the Undefeated!"

Rickkter grabbed a spot on the sidelines by Caroline and watched Cope go to work. The lizard took his time, lining up his shots carefully. He made several multiple-bank shots, some that Rick would have sworn would have been impossible. Copernicus was up to one-hundred thirteen when he made his fatal mistake. Through an error on a previous play he had inadvertently snookered himself, lining up his cueball with an obstructing ball in the path to the object ball. In a bold move he went for a quadruple bank shot.

And missed by a hair.

"I missed!" exclaimed Copernicus. "I never miss!"

"Something only has to happen once to be proven possible. I win."

The crowd, which had been silently watching up to that point, broke into applause.

"Oh, and I think that the rest of the bar would like their drinks." The Mule's cheering increased with cries for the promised drinks mixed into the applause. "Hey Donny! Give 'em whatever they want! It's all on Cope's tab!"

"You're an evil man..." muttered Copernicus as he walked over to Donny before rejoining his friends at another table. Rickkter tossed his cue on the table, grabbed his dagger, and went off to the table where the pile of bets were sitting. Caroline stopped him and gave him a quick hug, Misha patting him on the back.

"At least someone made some money off that game," said Rick as he made it to the table. "I guess you're going to be quite happy for the next while. I've never seen anyone rake in this much off me." He grabbed a seat at the table. "So how about some introductions? I'm Rickkter. You can all call me Rick."

"I'm Phil," said the rabbit. He turned a little to look at the lizard. "I can't believe that you beat Cope. No one's ever pulled that off. I've seen him play for years, and this is his first loss."

Rickkter shook his head. "I didn't beat him. He beat himself. That's the only way to loose at snooker."

"That was still amazing. I've only seen him come close to loosing once. That was really, really good. Where did you learn to play like that?" inquired the beaver.

"Simple. I was bodyguard for Levi Meilleur for about three months."

"Who's he?"

"Just about the best snooker player in all of New Cartage. He showed me some excellent tactics. I've put them to use many times tonight."

Sorting through the pile of coins for her share, the snake woman spoke up. "I've heard of Levi. Impressive. I'm Quiz, and the oddly colored beaver over there is Michael. And I still find it hard to believe that you did it. I've never seen shooting like that."

"Thank you very much. Even I find it a bit hard to believe." He shrugged his shoulders, a bemused grin on his bearded face. "Just my night, I guess."

Rickkter turned back to Michael. "So you're the other new addition to the Keep. And from the looks of it, a close friend of Pascal's. What is it with her, and such odd colors anyway? You in the plaid, and her in that mosaic of hues. Yeah, I was told about you. We have to meet sometime soon, have a talk about what I can expect in the coming weeks."

"Deal. I'll tell you what to expect, in exchange for you showing me how to shoot pool a little better. I've been wanting to improve my skills, and my other friends are always too busy."

"Hey, no problem. I'll be happy to educate you in the ways of the cue." Rickkter leaned back and stifled a large yawn. Reaching into his pocket he withdrew and clicked open a pocket watch. "Damn. Only ten o'clock? Well, I must be going. Thanks for the confidence in the bets and I'll see you all around."

"Okay Rick. Catch you later," dismissed Michael.

"Sure Michael. If I'm not here, I don't know where I'll be. I'll try and find you in that case."

Dan reflected that Saturdays were always busy days at Metamor Keep. Even though it was the weekend, the gardening staff usually ended up working the hardest on those days. Especially since it was near the end of spring.

Walking up the path, he noticed a strange figure sitting on one of the garden benches. The figure was of a man with black hair and beard, dressed in a dark tunic and pants, reclining on the bench. He had his head rolled back, looking up at the sky with closed eyes, his arms laid across the top of the bench.

"It's a truly beautiful thing you have here, you know that," said the stranger when Dan got closer to him. "It seems like it's been ages since I stopped to enjoy the simple things in life. Like just sitting here. Enjoying the harmony that I feel this place radiate."

"What do you mean?" inquired one of Metamor's batonists as he stepped up behind the stranger.

"Nature, my friend. I have an unusually high..." The stranger dropped off mid-sentence when he turned around and saw who he was talking to. "Damn. I didn't know the Keep could do that to you," said the man as he resumed his previous position.

"Well, not all of the polymorph victims get to become birds or fuzzy mammals here," replied the morphic grasshopper in a slightly miffed tone.

"I apologize for my inconsiderateness," said the stranger without moving from his bench. "It was just a shock seeing you. Perhaps we can get off to a better start this time. My name is Rickkter. You are?"

"I'm Dan. One of the quartermasters at the Keep." He walked around to side of the bench to get a better view of his companion. "So what are you doing here at Metamor, Rickkter?"

"Waiting," said Rick in a darkly pained tone. "Waiting for the last week. Waiting to see if the gamble I took in coming here works out."

"Ah, yes! Now I remember. You're the dying man." Rickkter rolled his eyes a little at the appellation. He'd already been told that by some of the other passers by. But he supposed it was only natural that such things would spread. Dan walked over to check some of the irrigation equipment. "I've heard what little there is to tell about you. Very interesting. How much of it is true?"

"Depends on what rumor you want me to tell you about."

"You're a southern mage?"

"I am."

"You killed a hundred Lutins by yourself?"

"Closer to fifty."

That got Dan's attention for a moment. He had figured that one was rather far fetched, but since that was true he might as well try for the big one.

"Did you really try and kill the Duke and several of his guards?" That was the really hot rumor running around the keep about this man. But it was so preposterous that it had to be false! Rickkter would have been killed instantly if he attempted such a thing. So now that he had the chance to find out, Dan decided to take it.

"Well?" asked the grasshopper when he didn't receive an answer for several moments.

The look that Rickkter was giving him was one of annoyed threat. The kind that wolves give their pups when the pup was bothering them during something important.

"You shouldn't listen to rumors, my dear grasshopper. You run the risk of finding out unpleasant truths that way." The look in Rick's eyes reinforced that message better then his low and rasping voice did. Dan quickly turned back to his work. Perhaps it was better to let such things be after all.

Dan had just finished restoring the flow to the jammed sprinkler when he picked up on the light scratching sound from behind him. He turned and saw Rickkter held a small art pad and was drawing on it with something.

Deciding to investigate he walked up and peered over the side. Much to his amazement it was a high detail charcoal sketch of himself.

"That's quite good," commented Dan as he looked over the picture once again. "I've never known a mage who was an artist."

"Our profession requires that we are able to copy highly detailed diagrams. I like to keep in practice." Rickkter noticed Dan's interest in the picture. "Would you care to see some of the other works I did this morning?"

Dan waved his antenna's in an affirmative manner, and Rickkter passed some over. They we all done in charcoal, and most were in surprisingly high detail. The first was of a wolf morph standing atop one of the outer walls. It was an early morning shot, the rising sun highlighting the character all the more. Another was of a pair of lovers out for an early morning stroll, the picture done from behind and showing them holding hands. There were a handful more of general life around Metamor to go with them.

Rickkter calmly sat and watched the gardener as Dan went through the different pictures. "I think we got off on the wrong foot before. Will you accept the picture as a form of apology?"

"No... I could never accept such a thing."

"I insist. Here." Rickkter took back the portrait and scrawled his name and date at the bottom of the picture. He rolled it up and passed it back to the grasshopper morph. "There you go. Perhaps one of the last works I do. Who knows, it might even be worth something someday."

"Thank you then." Dan took it and passed it his other set of arms to place in a bag he had.

Rickkter gave him a reserved smile and a shrug, as if to say it was nothing. "You see, the thing was that you're about the tenth person to ask about those rumors going around about me. All I wanted was a quite morning to try and get over the failure of the last several days. But people come. They ask inane questions, they point, they try and look at me from afar, thinking I won't notice." He turned away and scratched his beard. "Pisses me off.

"That... that's actually one of the harder parts of my profession. When you tell people that you're a mercenary they immediately classify you as an evil person. I remember this one time in Gilchrist Cove. I had just reached the end of a very frustrating night of looking through old books for something to help me, and I just needed to unwind. They have the most wonderful hanging gardens there, you know. I was wandering amongst the flowers, something like here, when I came upon a lovely looking young lady also out for a late evening stroll. We talked about the plants a bit, and it was all going very well. She was a captivating person. Then when she asked what I did, I went and answered truthfully." Rickkter bowed his head as he sighed and rubbed his forehead. He brought it up quickly.

"I might just as well have told her that I was a leper. She made some very transparent excuse and got away from me as fast as she could. That was the final nail in the coffin of my evening. It's so hard sometimes..."

"What can you expect? No one like you has ever come here before. You are a self admitted killer for hire, yet all your pursuits here have been scholarly. Since you got here you have sequestered yourself from the rest of us. It is only natural for us to be curious about you, especially considering the circumstances surrounding your arrival, and your isolation has only served to enhance that. How are we suppose to react?"

Rickkter had gotten a tired look on his face and turned away from the morphic grasshopper. Dan pressed on despite that. "Most people here are often very interested in new arrivals, Rickkter. We don't get them much more now, except by accident. Yet no one knows what to make of you. Most are quite leery of your motives, and of your general character. They don't trust you. From what I've head, dangerous wouldn't even begin to describe you. I'm sorry if this offends you, but I think you're a person who can appreciate the truth of a matter."

"'And there they drink the blood of babes, offering the dead carcasses to their dark gods. There is nothing there that has not been touched by the hand of the darkness. There you will only find the evil ones and their servants. Seek your salvation elsewhere, least you join their ranks of the profane and the damned.'"

"Pardon me?" said Dan, cocking his head in a questioning manner.

Rickkter turned back to him, fixing the keeper with a tired and oddly vacant gaze. "That was professor Jivan D'Antrez at Theadosia University. One of the people I asked about this place. Like many, his opinion of this place isn't the highest." The warrior rose to his feet with a rumbling cough. He turned to spit into some bushes. "To think that those individuals who came by this morning actually asked me why I feared coming to this place. Yet how was I suppose to act when all I had to go on where the opinions of other people, and the rumors perpetuated by them?"

The warrior mage collected his things and continued on his sojourn though the gardens without another word. Behind him a very puzzled grasshopper was left to ponder the sense in listening to rumors.

As captain of the guards, Andre often enjoyed his surprise inspections of the troops manning the different battlements. While it was true that they weren't at actual war with anyone, like the patrols, the guards were essential to the defense of the Keep.

He was grinning mildly after reaming out one of the lower ranks when he caught the poor soldier asleep on duty. If there was one thing Andre's form as a wolverine gave him, it was intimidation value. He couldn't think of a person in the Keep who would argue with him when he got that way.

Andre's current destination was the next guard station along the outer wall, to apply some more of his unique form of "encouragement" to those on duty. The figure he encountered as he was strolling along the curtain wall was not one he had expected to see.

"What are you doing up here, Rickkter?"

The warrior was leaning against one of the battlements, his shoulders hunched, as he glared out across the valley. "I wanted to go someplace where I could think in peace. I tired the gardens, but they got a little too crowded for my taste. Dropped off the few things I had then, and came up here. Been trying to work things out ever since."

"Any success?"

Rickkter shoved off the stone, stretching a little. "Not really. Too many things I can't figure out by myself. What brings you here?"

"Oh, just doing the rounds. Making sure that everyone is doing their job. You know how it is."

Rick grinned, an evil, suppressed cackle coming from his throat. "I know what you mean. I do so love it when the place I'm sneaking into has guards that prefer sleep to attentiveness."

Andre actually barked a laugh at that. "Well, I don't think you'll find much of that around here."

The warrior grinned back. "Mind if I tag along? It's not like I have a great deal to do."

"Of course not."

The pair continued along the outer wall at a leisurely pace, Rickkter with his hands clasped behind his back. "I was wondering, Andre. Can you tell me what it's like? To lose your humanity?"

Andre came to a quick stop, spinning Rickkter around by the arm to face him. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Rickkter pulled free and sat himself down on a nearby battlement. "I mean what is it like to be changed into an animal? I already know about the instinct part, but I don't know how far it goes. Also, what is it like to be changed so totally into an animal?"

"What..? What are you talking about?"

"I just what to know what it's like to be changed. I figure you're liable to give me a straight answer."

"Well... it's not that simple to explain. To some it might have a romantic ring, but for most it doesn't. Adjustment varies from person to person, form to form. Some take the change better then others, some break down totally. We've had the odd suicide over the years. Most of us have lived with it for so long that it's rather a sobering affair to look at it like this."

"Hm, and how did you change initially?"

"Oh, I myself was here for the original curse. Up on the battlements slaughtering Lutins when it happened." He then proceeded to give a quick outline what happened to him and the other animal morphs during the course of the battle. Rickkter had him go back and recount several aspects, most relating to behavioural alterations.

"Well, at the battle of the gates it was quite different then what is experienced here. It was like I was human and hacking at Lutins one moment, next I was animal. I have brief memories of tearing through Lutins as I tried to get out of the Keep. The next few days are fragments, flashes. I eventually recovered when the counter spell was strengthened enough to reach me. Why are you asking all of this anyway?" inquired Andre after answering several more questions.

Rick chortled. "Why else would I be asking? I'm about to be completely changed. For better or worse, I don't know. All I do know, is that in all likelihood, it'll be for the rest of my natural life. And I can tell you, I still am not comfortable with that fact."

"Then why did you even come here?" demanded the wolverine.

"Because I didn't want to die!" retorted the mage through clenched teeth.

Andre just stared at Rickkter a few moments with his arms folded across his chest, his muzzle hanging open. The wolverine then turned to look over the expanse of the Keep, and, very much to Rickkters surprise, started to laugh. "You know, I think for the first time, I'm beginning to understand you. For the first time since I first laid eyes on you."

Rickkter looked him with a quizzical expression.

"You're not in control," replied Andre as he turned back. "I don't think that being transformed bothers you as much as you're making out. If that was all, you wouldn't be nearly this worked up. What you can't take is the fact that the Curse is the one thing you can't control. Everything up to this point has been done the way you wanted it to be. You either played by the rules, or invented new ones that would allow you to win. Take your arrival here, for instance. You only surrendered because you wanted to. I feel that you could still be out there, driving the patrols out of their minds. You've had control of every single aspect of this entire incident, but you can't control the most critical factor, the Curse. It's the one thing you have to leave to fate. And it's eating you up inside."

The darkly clad warrior mage looked at the wolverine for the longest time, the wind blowing his hair around slightly. He eventually turned away and snorted. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

Andre shrugged. "Maybe I do, maybe I don't. I only call 'em as I see 'em. But unpleasant truths about ourselves are often things we refuse to accept easily, if at all." He shrugged once more and recommenced his inspection.

The mage was a little slower to get going. He sat there thinking for several long moments before finally seeming to realize that Andre had departed. Rick was quick to catch back up. "So where to now?" he asked, no trace of anything but casual interest in his voice.

"One of the main guard stations, this one over the eastern gate."

Rickkter nodded as he followed Andre. Inside they found a typical guard post. A few weapons mounted for easy access, and controls for the ponticulus and gates. As they were coming in, a wolf morph was leaving out another door to make his rounds. There was another warrior looking out one of the many arrow slits that lined the wall.

"Keeping busy, Bradfox?"

The man turned a friendly expression to the wolverine. "Oh, you know my day. Eight hours of watching for something to happen, then being pleasantly surprised when it doesn't."

Andre chucked and gave the room a quick once over before engaging Bradfox with the usual conversation. As he did so Rickkter preformed his own pseudo inspection of the room. Unlike Andre, the warrior mage had a far more critical eye when looking over the different parts of the room. Of course the wolverine kept his eye on the mage as he went around to the different parts. When he was done his quick circuit, Rick just stood beside the captain of the guards waiting till the discussion was over and they could move on. His face was impassive, and he had his hands clasped behind his back in a nonchalant manner.

Andre cocked an eyebrow and glanced over at the warrior-mage. "Find anything of interest, Rickkter?"

Rick was about to answer when Bradfox cut him off. "Rickkter? That maniac that was running around after our patrols all week?"

"The one and only."

Bradfox stepped up to him with an aggressive stance. "I was on one of those patrols you stalked," s'he hissed. "The Duke should never have allowed a psycho like you into the Keep in the first place."

"Are you going to attempt to correct his oversight?" asked Rick, his voice a calm monotone with only the slightest edge to it. He still hadn't moved from his original stance.

Bradfox's lip curled back in a sneer and s'he moved up a few inched, preparing to say something when Andre placed a large paw on hir chest, firmly holding the irate warrior back. "What he hell do you think you're doing?" Andre growled, his face a mask of displeasure.

"But, I..." Bradfox stammered.

"But nothing, soldier. Like it or not, the Duke has given him residence. You have a problem, you take it up with him. Until then you are to act accordingly. Is that clear, soldier?" he added in an icy hiss.

"Of course sir," replied Bradfox in a sincere tone, but one with a noticeable sarcastic tinge that belied its true nature.

"See that you remember those words and act accordingly," admonished Andre as he started for the door.

Bradfox's eyes flicked over Rickkter again, a sneer once more returning to hir face. "At least they seem to be keeping you on a tight leash."

"Who said anything about that?" asked Rick from the door. He smiled and gave his eyebrows a quick flick, departing before Bradfox had a chance to retort.

Rickkter quickly rejoined his guide, and the pair spent the next several hours. While most of the other warriors weren't the friendliest, they were hospitable. It was evident that many resented Rickkter accompanying the captain on the inspections, though Andre made it clear on several occasions that the mage was only an observer. When it was all over, Andre actually commented on it.

"I expected as much," admitted Rickkter. "After all, I did spend a week playing around with the holes in your defenses. A little resentment is only natural."

"Little, hell. I would hate to see what some of them would have done to you had I not been there, acting as your escort."

"And for that I thank you. I hope that the rest of your day is better then this."

Andre bade the mage farewell and watched him depart. The man was a walking mass of contradictions and mysteries. As he headed off, Andre hoped that he would survive long enough for some of that to unravel.

Rickkter was on his way down from the upper reaches of the main spire of the Keep itself, trying to determine the best way to reach the lower levels, though not really caring how long it took him. His attention was distracted by one of the many fine tapestries and that he didn't notice the small coyote until the morph almost ran him down.

"You might want to be more careful there. You're the second 'run-in' that I've had in as many days."

"I do apologize, sir, but I have messages to relay, and I am in quite the hurry."

"No harm done." The warrior extended his hand. "I'm known as Rickkter, but call me Rick."

"Kee. Pleasure to meet you, but I have to be off." He was halted in his departure when Rickkter refused to relinquish his grip. He saw that the man's face had acquired a look of puzzlement to it.

"The, uh, eyes," said Rick, as he pointed at Kee's face, his index finger of the left hand wagging between the 'yotes green eyes. "Were they like that before the change, or did that come after?"

"They have always been like that." The coyote was becoming disturbed by the line of questioning.

((Eastern?)) asked Rick with a grin on his bearded face and a cocked eyebrow.

((Yes... yes!)) exclaimed Kee in his native tongue. It had been far too long since he had met a person from his own part of the world. He pumped Rickkter's hand with renewed vigor. ((How did you know?))

Rickkter tapped his temple next to one of his eyes. ((I find that the eyes are a dead give away.)) Kee saw that Rickkter's own eyes were of a vivid aqua-green with a distinctive ring of yellow around the pupil.

((It's been so long since I've talked with anyone from back home.)) The messenger started down the hall. ((Come, come. We can talk as we go. So tell me, how are things back east? I've not been in contact for ages.))

Rickkter grimaced. ((Things are not as well as they have been. You must understand though, Kee, I was only born in the east. I was raised predominantly in its southern portions. I did spend a little time in its interior many years back, and I again returned just under two years ago. As a matter of fact, what type of eastern name is Kee, anyway?))

((What kind of name is Rickkter, period?)) asked the 'yote with a grin.

((Okay, that's fair I suppose.)) He chuckled a few times before turning serious. ((As I was saying, things are not well. There was a severe drought that wiped out several major centers of population, and the plague has been unusually overactive these last few years I was told. It's made the shamans and medicine men of the different tribes I visited quite nervous. Then there is the matter of the Toreador Empire.

((It seems that the toe-hold they had on the boarder of the eastern lands the last time I was there, has grown considerably. They've taken out a few of the larger armies of the civilized regions, and have swept across the rest of the east like locusts. They have taken particular dislike to the different tribes in many areas. They have even gone so far as to institute 'ethnic cleansing' programs,)) spat Rickkter. ((They had already taken care of the Tharan and the Maldori when I last went through.))

Kee lost several steps. ((No... no, it can't be,)) he whispered.(( Not the Tharan...))

((I'm afraid so. Most of the other tribes are falling into line after those two examples. The shaman of the Peldath that I spoke with just before leaving that part of the world, he said that he doesn't believe it long before they start to outlaw shamanistic magic altogether.))

((This is a dark age for the east then,)) muttered the coyote. ((Surely they aren't all complying with this? Are there not still those that offer resistance?))

((There are. There always are. One is the Ka'ri. I hear that the Toreadors are having a virtually impossible time dealing with them.))

((Yes. The Ka'ri are most formidable,)) Kee smiled. ((Then again, the Bandi isn't forgiving to those that aren't. It heartens me to know that they have not fallen.))

((Oh, I don't think that the Ka'ri will fall to them. Their shaman once told me a saying of their's: 'Time is a cycle. All things rise, and all things fall. All things must eventually pass. That is the cycle of life, the cycle that is inescapable except for the chosen few. And we are that chosen few. We have been here from the beginning, and we will be here to the end. We are the witnesses of time, and none may destroy nor infringe on a manifest destiny such as that.'))

Kee nodded as he mulled over the refrain. Something about it struck him, causing him to look at the black bearded warrior once more. ((What do you mean, their shaman told you? The Ka'ri will never fall because no one dares go into their land, and from what I see, you don't look Ka'ri yourself.))

Rick smiled to himself. ((It is a long story, my new friend. Suffice it to say that I know the Ka'ri way of life quite well. The Bandi was where I spent my youth, and in a way I do miss it, even with it being the virtually inhospitable wasteland that it is.))

((You are a most curious individual, Rickkter. Is there a chance that we can take this discourse up again later? While I do enjoy this talk of home, disturbing as it is, I'm growing quite late for my deliveries.))

"Of course," assured Rickkter, slipping back into the common language. "I should be at the Mule in the evenings. I find that I like the company, even if some of it doesn't care much for me. Just look for me anytime after six and you should be able to find me there."

"I look forward to it." Kee stopped, giving Rickkter a small bow and traditional eastern blessing of departure. Rickkter returned them then watched the small coyote speed his way down the hall, his colorful livery almost streaming out behind him as he weaved through the sporadic crowd.

Charles was navigating the halls of Metamor, on his way to the Writers Guild. He had been rather occupied with various tasks for the last few days and had a hunger to get back to his literary endeavours.

He was running over a love scene scenario in his head when he came across a rather unusual looking individual. It was a darkly clad man with back beard and a head of unruly back hair. He appeared to be roaming the corridors in a seemingly aimless fashion. Must be that new arrival that Charles had been hearing sporadic whispers about.

"Ah, excuse me kind sir," said the traveler, addressing Charles. "I was wondering if you could tell me how I may reach the Mule from here. I was given directions previously, but I fear that in my inattentiveness, I have become disorientated again."

"Certainly," said Charles. Coming to stand next to the man, he turned to face the same direction down the hall, using his clawed hands to illustrate his directions. "Just go down here until you pass two intersections, then turn right at the third. Then you want to go left down the first passageway, then right again. The Mule should be straight ahead there. If not, then it's usually another two lefts, and a right. It also helps if you focus on your destination."

"Ah, thank you. I greatly appreciate your help," said the stranger, extending his hand.

"Think nothing of it" assured Charles, not really looking at the stranger as he clasped the proffered hand. The instant the two hands came into contact, both parties suddenly stared at each other in complete surprise before jumping back as if they had suddenly discovered that they were holding a poisonous snake.

((Kankoran!)) hissed Mathias in a venomous tone. ((What are you doing here?!)) Rick flipped his wrist to expose a six inch piece of steal, which at a touch of his hand, expanded to a six-and-a-half foot fighting pike. ((I might ask you the same question Sondeckis,)) replied the other warrior as he went into a defensive posture, pike griped in both hands.

The only thoughts going through Charles' head were of this man, this soldier of darkness, who had come into his life, his _home_, a person who represented everything that he had left behind those many years ago. All the corruption, all the evil.

And then he thought nothing. His mind became clear and focused on his goal: to wipe out his sect's most hated enemy. To do what he had been trained to do. The rat and the warrior began to circle each other, both searching out weakness in their adversary. Charles carefully considered what he was facing. The man had an almost two foot hight advantage and was armed with that pike. From his stance and poise, Charles could tell that he was not some rank amateur of the Kankoran sect.

His adversary made the first move, swinging in the pike low at one end, then quickly bringing in the upper portion, hoping to catch Charles off guard. It was a basic move, and the rat easily avoided it. He brought his fist around into the mans side in the classic response. The result was not expected.

The man moved to avoid the end of the Charles' blow, catching and pinning the rats arm beneath his own. The Kankoran gave Charles two quick, sharp hits to his face with the palm of his hand, then released the temporarily stunned rat to give him a hard kick to the chest that sent his sprawling.

The entire attack and counter had taken only a few moments, Rickkter's movements accelerated to an astounding degree by the enchantments the Kankoran used. His palm had been a blur of movement, Charles' body was barley able to register an interval between the hits.

Rushing back in quickly, Charles aimed low, attempting to take out the man's legs. His strike was met by a block from the pike, numbing the rat's entire arm as a nerve was struck.

Hobbling quickly back, holding his arm in mock pain, Charles laid a trap for his adversary. Taking the bait, Rickkter quickly closed the distance, brining in the pike for a death blow. Charles changed his orientation instantly, catching the weapon in both paws, gripping it so that it divided into thirds. Rickkter instantly shifted his own grip to match Charles' in an attempt to wrestle the weapon away from the smaller rat.

As they grappled for control of the weapon, Charles used his power to gain the upper hand. While the Kankoran were quicker, more agile, and tended to use their whole bodies when they fought, none could match the force projection that one of the Sondeckis could produce.

It was then that the Kankoran did something completely unexpected. He let Charles have the pike. Not anticipating this sudden release, Charles staggered back for a moment. That moment was all the other fighter needed. With blinding speed, he swung his boot around and made contact with the side of Charles' head. Charles went one way, the pike the other.

He was back on his feet almost as soon as he hit the ground. When he saw Rickkter going for the pike, Charles swiftly moved to block him. Being a rat was convenient, as Charles could move somewhat quicker then when he was human.

The two fighters faced off against each other for only the briefest of instances, then they both resumed their hand to hand combat. For any normal person, it would have been impossible to follow the action between the two. Sondeckis were inherently swift fighters, but the Kankoran were faster. It was almost more then Charles could do to keep up with Rick's blinding strikes. Having ascended to the black, Charles knew a good deal of his enemy. He knew that even at ranks as low as blue, a Kankoran had to be able to throw a minimum of two hundred punches a minute. His opponent was obviously well above that.

When Rickkter went for a roundhouse kick to Charles' head, it gave the Sondeckis the opening he needed. Deftly ducking the leg, he came up and delivered his own offensive bout to Rick's chest. While the warrior managed to block a few blows, and had his magic to shield again the others, Charles was able to put a good hurting on his enemy.

Winding up, Charles unleashed a vicious move taught to all blacks. Rickkter seemed to sense this beyond his haze of pain, and tried to back up. As it was, he only caught the very edge of it. But that was still more then enough to send him a good distance down the hall.

Charles gazed with contempt at the fighter, sprawled out a good dozen paces down the corridor. He watched the man as the warrior jumped to his feet in a compact fighting pose, eyeing the rat and the pike not more then several feet in front of Charles. Charles coolly walked up to the pike and picked it up in both hands. Gripping it around the middle, he called his power and attempted to twist the weapon into a useless hunk of metal.

His jaw dropped open when he applied the necessary force. Instead of bending in half like it should have, the pike channelled the magic along its length, focusing it at the tips. He was holding a Sondeckis fighting staff! The Sondeshikes were some of the rarest weapons, handed down from generation to generation of fighters, all the way back to the founding of the order.

He was still staring at the weapon when Rick came up to retrieve it. Distracted by the implications of a Kankoran with a Sondeckis weapon, Charles didn't notice it until Rickkter swept the rats legs out from under him. The other fighter managed to regain possession of the pike as Charles went over. The Kankoran tried to drive one of the blunt ends into Charles' skull, but the rat was too quick. He managed to get a paw up to stop the end, and use his other to take hold of the pike and slam it, and its owner, into the ground next to him. Not being quite fast enough to redistribute his weight, Rick hit the floor hard.

Trained to accept and dismiss all manner of pain in battle, the Kankoran sprang up to a crouched position almost immediately. Charles had made a similar feat, but had to jump back quickly to avoid Rickkter's slash with the end of the pike.

The two fighters backed off to reassess strategies, both panting with exertion and glaring at the other with undisguised hatred.

The Kankoran lowered one end of the pike to the ground, the length of the rest running parallel to his arm. Charles' eyes widened as he realized what the man intended to do. Time seemed to slow for Charles as the Kankoran raised his right hand. The Sondeckis could actually pick out the individual tendrils of fire as the flowed around the other fighter's open hand, flowing over the fingers to coalesce into the brilliant ball of red flame in front of the palm. Charles had only a fraction of a second to react when the fireball was unleashed.

In that one instant, Charles was thankful for the thousands of hours of training that he had endured. The thousands of hours that now allowed him to react instinctively.

He immediately drove forth his palm, putting all his weight behind the blow, and calling up every last nuance of magic he possessed to form the shield in front of it.

Charles could feel the roaring heat around him as the fireball was disrupted by the force of his magic. He was thankful the Kankoran had chosen to throw a magical fireball, not an elemental one. While the elementals were weaker, the Sondeckis magic didn't work nearly as well to disrupt them. Even so, the sheer power and ferocity of the thing almost overwhelmed the black ranked Sondeckis.

Charles now knew the man to be magic user in addition to a fighter. And he knew of only one type of mage that fit that classification.

He looked up just in time to see the other fighter bringing his pike down in an overhead blow, aiming to cave in Charles' skull. Charles' paws were immediately up, grabbing the end of the weapon. Using the man's own advancing energy, and assisted by his already charged up magic, Charles flung the Kankoran over his head and into the wall behind him.

Unfortunately there was no wall there, only an open stairwell. The other fighter landed hard on his feet, teetering on the edge of the drop for a second, while he flailed his arms in an attempt to regain his balance, before he finally fell over.

The Sondeckis quickly stalked over to the precipice, intent on finishing the job. The hatred he felt for such a person overwhelmed his being.

"Charles!?! What's going on here?!"

The rat whirled at the sound of the voice behind him, prepared to strike down the new threat. Slowly coming up the hall was a large white rabbit of some sort, and Charles instantly set himself in the position to do away with it.

And then the world fell back in.

"Phil..?" whispered Mathias in an almost shocked tone, as he slowly dropped his stance. His gaze went between the approaching rabbit and the bottom of the stairs where the other fighter should have lain. "Oh, Abba! What have I done?" he moaned, as he sank to his knees and placed his paws over his eyes, his tears leaking between his clutched claws.

« Previous Part
Next Part »