A Place Where There Is No Darkness

Illumination of the Past

by Chris Hoekstra

Rickkter was sitting at a table with Kee, enjoying the start of the evening. He had spent a couple of hours pacing around his small quarters, trying to determine what to do about the situation with the Sondeckis. After his injuries had all been healed to within acceptable limits, he concluded that the rat was no real threat, at least not at the present moment. Since he was still running free in the Keep, there was an excellent chance that no one knew of his true nature. And since revealing the rat would also put him in danger of discovery, he vowed to leave the matter till time permitted proper action.

Until then, he would simply enjoy his time before the change. Or his death. Whichever came first. Fortunately Kee was providing a good measure of help in that department. Rickkter found the coyote a very intriguing companion, probably an opinion shared amongst the other keepers in relation to himself. The little messenger had interests spanning a great deal of the east, and he asked about many things that Rick himself couldn't provide answers for.

((Who are you waiting for?)) asked Kee.

((What do you mean?))

((I mean you've been turning and looking at the door every little while since I got here. Now in my experience, that means you're expecting someone. I'm just wondering who it might be.))

Rickkter shrugged his shoulders and answered in a nonchalant tone. ((Just someone who I thought would be rather interesting to talk to. That's all. I've actually been hoping that she would have shown up before now.))

At that last part the coyote's ears perked up noticeably. ((Oh, a lady. How amusing. Anyone I would know?)) he asked, his tail swishing around behind his chair.

((There she is now,)) said Rick as he began to rise from the table. ((It's been a pleasure speaking with someone from home, Kee. We'll have to do this again.))

Kee turned around to gaze at the door and did a double take at who he saw standing in it. ((Wait... wait a minute,)) stammered Kee as he snagged Rick's sleeve. ((You don't mean Pascal, do you?)) Rickkter nodded. ((How did you get her to come here?))

((I found it was like so many other things in life. I asked her to.))

Pascal turned from her searching of the bar at the sound of the familiar voice greeting her. "Oh, there you are. Shall we dine?"

"We shall," concurred Rick.

The two draw a little attention for the other patrons as the pass. Not a lot more then either party would garner alone, but still a goodly number. Pascal suddenly turned around when she realized that Rick was not with her any longer. She saw that he had stopped at the fortepiano. He was just standing there, both hands positioned as if to play. He blinked a few times before pressing several of the keys. Satisfaction comes over his face as he repositioned his hands and closed his eyes.

The warrior then launched into a beautiful rhapsody. Pascal soon realized that he was playing a piece that was taught to most beginners. It consisted of only several bars repeated over and over, with some additional parts added after several repetitions. What was astounding was not that he was playing it with his eyes closed, but that he seemed to have the fingering of a maestro. He played for not quite a minute before breaking contact with the keys.

Pascal was nodding to herself, even after he had stopped playing. "Not bad. I've not heard that variation. Do you play often?"

"No. And this isn't my instrument," Rick informed her as he blinked to clear his eyes. "In fact that's the only thing I can play."

"So you improved it?"

"In a way. That was the result of a psychic experiment I underwent years ago. I had a friend who was a telepath, and a very good one at that. He was the one that could really play. Unfortunately that little piece was the only thing I managed to retain out of a whole series of tests."

"I'm surprised you agreed to have it done to you."

"What I've had done to my body would astound you, Pascal." There was something in his eyes that bespoke of a sinister edge to that statement.

Pascal nodded once more, a bemused look on her face. The pair then continued over to their seats.

"I was wondering if you would ever come," he commented as they reached a vacant booth near the back.

"I didn't know if I ever would. But I decided to ask around a little, see what some of the others could tell me about you. It wasn't a lot, but it was intriguing. And since I love a mystery, here I am."

Rickkter snorted. "Well, at least I managed to convince you to do it, albeit in a rather round about way. Still, I'm thankful you made it." The undertone of sentiment in the last sentence was lost on the porcupine as she sat opposite the warrior in the booth. "Since I asked you here for a meal, how about we get that first?" Pascal nodded. "Now if only we could find a server..." Rickkter remarked as he looked over the milling throng.

"This is almost always the worst thing about this place," mumbled Pascal, as she tried in vain to help her companion in his task. The two of them failed to get the attention of several of the servers that got within range of their voices.

"Look at that!" Pascal pointed out a pair of servers who were just standing around at the end of the row of booth that her and Rick occupied. "I can't believe this place at times."

Rick just grumbled his understanding as he leaned out a little to glare at the pair of servers. He then lifted his right hand and poised his fingers as a man who was throwing dice would. He then gave his hand one, two good flings, snapping his fingers on the second. Pascal was following his gaze towards the servers and was amazed to see the hair of one of them blow up as though from a gust of wind. The server looked up then turned in the direction the wind had come from, catching the eye of the warrior. Rick waved then beckoned her over with two of his fingers.

"Ah, so that's how you get service in this place," mused Pascal as the pair settled down once more.

"Can I take your orders now?" she asked in a slightly miffed tone.

Rickkter absently gestured to Pascal. "I'll just have a salad," she told the server.

"That's it? It's not like you're paying here. Go ahead, treat yourself."

"Uh, no. Just something light."

"I offer her the world, and she takes a salad."

Pascal glared at him for a moment before turing back to the server. "Make that a large salad, please."

The warrior chuckled and turned to the server. A devious smile came over his face. "I'll have the spiciest thing you've got. I don't care what it is, just as long as it's good and hot."

"Anything to drink?" asked the server as she scratched down the orders.

"A bottle of your finest wine." He pointed at the server to reinforce his point. "And I mean your finest, not your most expensive. I find there is often a difference."

"Will that be all?"

"Yes, I think so."

The pair sat there in an uneasy silence, each looking out over the bar, trying to figure out something to say to break the tension. Pascal was the first one to say something.

"Um, look, Rickkter--"


"Rick then. I feel there is something you need to know before we start. I'm, uh, seeing someone else at the moment. Someone who is very special to me."

"Oh, really," commented the warrior as he perked up a little. He folded his hands under his chin. "Who's the lucky guy?"


"Scratch, Scratch..." repeated Rickkter to himself as he tried to place the name with a face. "The tiger?" he asked with a puzzled expression when the answer finally came to him.

"The same."

The warrior turned his gaze to the bar, a mildly astounded look on his face. "Well, I suppose we can't really choose who it is we fall for, can we?" He turned back with a small smirk. "Would you believe I was once involved with a healer?"

Pascal returned his mildly astounded look, only with more of a sarcastic undertone to it. "No... not you."

Rickkter smirked. "It's true. Her name was Deanna. True beauty in human form. You know, I was even considering starting a family before this whole sorry affair started two years ago."

"No," said Pascal with a look of mock incredulity. "Not you."

Rickkter nodded back, a mildly silly grin on his face. "It's true. After several years of plying my trade around the world, I, uh, got tired of people trying to kill me. So I went back east, decided to take a position as a protector mage for some small city. Settle down, find someone I care something for, and try and make something of my life." He sighed deeply, his eyes showing the slightest regret. "But circumstances dictated otherwise, and here I am. At any rate, I wish you and Scratch the best of luck for your future."

"Well, that's good to know. Porcupines are polygamous by nature, and I'm glad that dosen't bother you."

"Why should it? I assume that you can still have your own friends, still speak with who you want. And that is all I want. Simply one last dinner with a woman who struck my as a fascinating individual. Do you have a problem with that?"

Pascal never got the chance to answer, for at that moment the food arrived. Rickkter graciously accepted his plate of stir-fry, pausing to close his eyes and inhale the aroma. The wine was uncorked and poured into a pair of glasses before each party. Lastly the server left a pitcher of water for Rickkter and wished the pair fine dining before departing.

Rickkter quickly started on his dish, but was quick to stop, pausing chew slowly on a beef strip and contemplate the flavor with a growing expression of displeasure. He leaned out a little towards where the server vanished.

"You call this spicy?!" he yelled after her. "I've tasted dirt with more bite then this!" He settled back into the booth with a disgusted expression. "I asked for spicy and I get mild, at best." Taking the wine glass, he gave it a cursory look before sipping at it. "At least the wine lived up to its promise. Excellent vintage."

"Do you mind if I try a bite of yours and see?" asked Pascal.

"Sure you can handle it?"

"Bah. I can handle spice. In fact, I might have ordered some myself, but I only wanted something light. Besides, I'm an herbivore. That kind of limits my options."

Rick gave her an absentminded gesture to go ahead. "Well, zooology as never my strong suit."

The 'pine selected a small green piece and gave it a few cursory sniffs. Pascal downed the whole morsel in two bites, and immediately started at the aftertaste. While not really spicy going down, it BURNED afterwards! She gave a few tight coughs, her eyes going wide.

"You must have had some pretty potent dirt," she wheezed. Rickkter smirked a little at the porcupine's antics as she tried to dispell the taste.

"So you've got a problem with my food?" inquired a large man in a short sleeved shirt. From the apron, Rickkter assumed he was the cook.

"Yes, I do," the warrior informed him. "I asked for the spiciest thing you had. You gave me this."

The cook looked at Pascal, who by this time had calmed down and had recomposed herself. "Your friend doesn't seem to agree."

"She isn't eating it," Rickkter told him in a hard tone. "Now, do you have any wahnasa?"

The cook balked. "Devil's Horseradish? Why, yes we do--"

"Is it in here?" demanded the warrior, cutting him off.

"Why, uh, no. It's too potent for that. We only use it to make sauces for banquets and other large events. Never for single servings."

"Put it in," Rickkter told him, sliding the plate back. The look in his green eyes made the chef think twice about arguing that point.

"Of course. I'll be back in a few moments."

And true to his word he was. "I hope this meets with your approval."

Rickkter stabbed a small green pepper with his fork, popping it in. He grimaced slightly, squeezing on eye shut, and his forehead breaking out instantly into a sweat. He coughed a few times out his nose before swallowing. "Perfect," he croaked.

The cook was quite glad to hear that, although both parties could detect the sarcasm in his voice when he said so. He then left Pascal and Rickkter to their respective dinners. The two of them resumed eating in silence, Rickkter seeming to take a kind of perverse pleasure in the potency of his stir-fry. Pascal poked around her salad a little. Eventually the porcupine couldn't take it any longer.

Still focusing on the food, she asked, "Why did you ask me to be here, Rick? I'm not the most popular person at the keep, nor the most sociable."

The warrior though this over carefully. "Various reasons. I find you enticing as a fellow intellectual. You look like an interesting person to talk to." He stirred his own dinner around a little before turning his gaze to the crowd. "I know a lot of people, Pascal. My contacts are scattered over the midlands as well as the south. Almost none that I will probably ever see again. And the truly sad part is that I have almost no friends among them. No more then a handful."

"What about those around here? Surely you've made a few new ones in the last six days."

Rick shrugged, still not meeting the porcupine's gaze. "I have. Jon, Kwanzaa, Misha. Especially Misha. But, uh... that's really it. I've offended most of the power structure, and Cope seems most upset over his narrow defeat." He turned back to the alchemist. "And of all the people I've met, that leaves you as the prime candidate for me to share an evening with."

"That still doesn't fully answer my initial question: Why me?"

"Because of all the people I've met so far, I easily view you as the complex and possibly one of the deepest of all of them. I don't know. It's just that I've always viewed all truly learned people with a high respect. And of all those I know of, you're the only one that I would really want to talk to on a night like this one."

Pascal was somewhat taken aback by such a thing. She was just about the last person that most people would choose for such a thing. That this warrior was proving to be such an enigma was her prime motivation in coming here tonight. But what he was telling her was only confusing the poor 'pine more then she already was. She decided on a wise change of subject.

Pascal took bite of a tomato slice. "So what have you been up to these last few days, Rickkter?"

"Well, mostly looking around the Keep. After I got done with that book of mine, I decided to see what this place held." He bit off another one of the cyan peppers. "I spent a good deal of time in the gardens. Did some sketches of life around the Keep. I would show them to you but alas, I don't have them with me. I usually spend my evenings here, with the rest of the crowd.

"Mostly I've been looking at the different animal forms. You have some very interesting individuals here," he said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis.

"So what would you choose to be Rickkter?"

He thoughtfully chewed on a mouthful. "Still not entirely sure. I figure with my talents, I would want something with opposable thumbs. I can't make full use of my weapons without them. Fortunately you have all degrees of transformations here, some closer to human then others. I must say, that wolverine looks like it would be an excellent pick. An animal known for its aggressive tendencies, bad temper, and good combat form. I met Andre already when I dined once with Misha. Then again, Brian's form would work as well. Raccoons do have a high manual dexterity. That would be an interesting body, and the mask would suit me perfectly.

"I've been looking at the canines the most, actually. I noticed that you have a great many of them around. Wolves, foxes, and I've met the pair of coyotes. Kee is quite the individual. And was Devon that crazy before the transformation?" Pascal gave him a reserved smile at that one. "The felines also hold a great deal of interest too. Superb night vision, lightening quick reflexes, and built in weapons." Rick smiled and flexed his hand in a mock gesture of extendable claws. "But, you know Pascal, it's the rarer ones that hold the most of my interest.

"Of those, and transformations in general, I think that on the top of my list would be dragon. Those majestic creatures have always amazed me, ever since I saw one as a boy. Black, blue, green, red, spotted, striped, I've seen quite a few. It's a shame that the silvers and the golds are extinct. Those were suppose to be the grandest of all dragon kind to behold.

"But of course those are only the ones that I would want," he added, shuffling around the contents of his plate with his fork. "From what I've heard, the odds of anything like that are slim to none. Looking over the rest, I think that avian would be about the worst of the more common transformations. I haven't seen any of them with the great deal of agility that my profession requires. Don't know about equine or anything along those lines. Rodent wouldn't be the best either. The size difference I've seen in most would force me to completely relearn how to fight and use my weapons."

He smirked and laughed a bit. "Considering my past, I think the most ironic transformation would be if I was made a snake. I've eaten, god knows how many in my life time." He flashed Pascal a smile as he took in a forkful, giving his eyebrows a quick comical raise.

"No, I don't think so Rickkter," said Pascal after a moment of munching on a carrot. "I think that the most ironic form, considering your personality and profession, would be a sheep."

Rickkter almost choked on his food. Pascal could only giggle as she watched him try to chew it all and not have something go down the wrong pipe, while he laughed at her suggestion. He proceeded to crack up rather hard for about a minute more, eyes watering, hand slapping the table, before he had managed to get enough of the food down to talk.

"Never, ever, say something like that to me when I'm eating," he panted with a good natured smile, as he wiped the tears from his eyes. "Great Maker, sheep. That's one I hadn't though of. Rickkter, the killer sheep, ho-waa," he commented, striking a mock fighting pose with his hands. Both dissolved into laughter once more at the image.

"That would be interesting. Another one would be skunk," he continued after calming down some. "I've only seen one of those around. Heck, I don't know what I'd end up with. It's all so random and the selection is so huge. Though at this point, I'd be happy with anything that allows me to live."

"Sheep would be fascinating. You could shear yourself in order to make your own clothes." Rickkter rolled his eyes at the very idea. A smirk came to the alchemist's muzzle as yet another form popped into her head. "I have a better one, Rick. Opossum."

"Oh, God no," he laughed.

"I would love to see such a thing. Your new battle tactic would be to play dead. Let's see how well all your training dose you then."

Rick's face contorted in contained laughter. "Pascal, please. Enough is enough. No more, at least not tonight. I don't need my imagination having any more ideas to play with. Believe me, it's bad enough as it is already."

"I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist. Besides that, I don't get many chances to speak with the new arrivals about this kind of thing. Scratch was already changed when I met him, and although Michael right after he came here, we, uh... didn't have the best start. There was something once but not now. I was just never much of a people person," she admitted, shrugging her shoulders.

"Did you ever hear the expression 'the devil is in the details,' Pascal?"

"I have. Why do you mention it?"

The warrior smiled like the cat that just got away with eating the canary. "Because it's so true tonight. Here the two of us are, regaling each other with tales from our pasts, yet we have no way to confirm what is being said. We trust each other to be telling the truth, keeping it honest.

"You see, I can tell you that I have been to Elora. I can even tell you the year that I was there, 702. Now if you knew the history of Elora, you might be able to figure out what I was doing there. But unless you do, all that you know was that I was there in Christos Reckoning 702. Nothing more. You don't even know for sure what I might have done, as you have no idea of the month, either."

"Well, you're right on that account. I don't know Elora at all. I've never even heard of that city before."

Rickkter smiled from behind his wine glass as he raised it up to take a drink, his eyes betraying an inner amusement. "Look it up sometime. It's a rather enchanting episode of history."

"Why don't you just tell me?"

"Look it up," he reiterated, the bemused expression still on his face. "It'll make things more interesting that way."

"Not going to tell me?"

He shook his head, still smiling. "You're not seeing the point. And that point is why I asked you to dine with me. I don't know why, but I think you're one of the most honest people I've met since I've come here. Someone who I can tell anything to. Or maybe I have it totally wrong. Either way I don't think it matters."

"We're all puzzles to each other, Rick. Even ourselves. Especially ourselves," she added with a small, barking laugh. "Some are better judges of character then others. I gave up trying to figure out other people a very long time ago. Do you have any idea how old I am?" Rickkter shook his head. "I'm thirty-nine years old."

Rickkter looked a little surprised, and opened his mouth to say something. Frowning he closed it again, then just looked at the porcupine with a perplexed expression. "I would say that you don't look it, only I have no idea what a thirty-nine year old porcupine is suppose to look like."

Pascal laughed. She considered it odd, laughing around such an individual. So complex. One moment he could be disarming and friendly, the next hard and deadly. 'The devil's in the details' he told her. And here she was, the recipient of those details. She still wished she could understand why her, of all possible people.

"Do you know how life is supposed to be lived, Pascal? I believe that it is to be lived moment to moment. Because, after all, the moment is all we really have. The past is behind us, and the future is unattainable. The present is all we're really sure exists, and that only exists in the passing of moments of consciousness. So we must take full advantage of the moments, appreciating what we have while we still have it." He chewed on another piece of spicy beef. "Do you know how that's different from how people actually live their lives?"

Pascal nodded. "People live life like they're immortal. They procrastinate, they put off, they hold grudges, and they fixate on the future while ignoring the present. It's sad sometimes. I mean, this is all we get. Most people seem not to realize this and go on squandering what little they have. Some say I've done that with my own life. I don't believe so. I believe that I've spent it doing exactly as I wanted to. Alchemy was the only thing I was ever good at, and I'll be happy to continue as long as I'm permitted to do so."

Rickkter gave her a soft smile. "I once heard a great expression about life. It was 'I am going to live forever or die trying.'. I, uh, have tried to keep that in mind these last few desperate months. It's helped some," he shrugged.

Pascal nodded. "You know, I've heard a lot of things said about life. One of the better ones was 'Abba, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can--'"

"'--and the wisdom to hide the bodies of the people I had to kill because they pissed me off.'" Rick smiled. "It's not a wise idea to try and match wits with me in such a contest. Few survive."

Pascal went back to the last vestiges of her salad. "Well, I wasn't going to anyway. I would never challenge anyone so woefully unprepared for such a duel."

Rickkter scowled at her. "'Life is a party at which you arrive after it has begun, and depart from before it has ended.'"

"'You don't get to choose how you're going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you're going to live.'"

"'Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.'"

"'And in the end it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.'"

"'The Gods that were smiling when you were born are laughing now.'"

Pascal had to smirk at that one. "'Don't be afraid your life will end; be afraid that it will never begin.'"

"'Time is the fire in which we burn.'"

"'Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.'"

Rick was slightly stalled by that one. "'There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.'"

"'The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind you when you're done.'"

That last one brought the mage to a dead stop. He blinked a few times before bowing his head and turning outwards to the bar. "Damn. That one hit a little too close."

He turned back to the 'pine. "You wanted to know why I asked you here? Well, I didn't entirely tell the truth. Truth is that there is no one left who truly remembers me.

"Sure, my name has been recorded in connection with a few battles, but my name was all that was set down." He propped his elbows on the table, holding his hands out before him in an almost imploring manner. "I have held books in these hands that have been sealed for centuries. Fifteen hundred, two thousand years old, sometimes more. And I was the first to lay eyes on them in untold generations."

He rubbed the tips of his fingers together as he gazed with a sorrowful expression upon them. "And I have seen them crumble to dust in my hands, these very hands. I have seen words, histories, and names of great people and famous places all crumble away to nothing. And one day that will be my name gone to dust.

"I believe that everyone, regardless of station in life, wants to be remembered. They want to leave their mark on the world. And the most convenient way to do this is to have a living legacy; children. Someone to carry on your values and your memory. In that way, a piece of your attains immortality.

"I have none of that. So I must do the next best thing. I wanted to talk with you because I wanted someone to remember me for me. Not for what anyone else says, nor what some damned history book written by some scholar in a small, dark room, but for what I tell you here, tonight. Even if goes nowhere beyond you, at least someone will have perhaps understood. At least a little. I would like to leave something behind, in case this really, truly is the end."

In all her life, Pascal had never heard anyone tell her something like that. She just looked into his sorrowful green eyes. Needing something to do, she grabbed her wine glass and drank a little over half of it. Rickkter was right, it was excellent stock. Lowering it from her lips, she looked back at the strange man seated across from her. His face still held a curious, pleading look to it. Damn, it. Despite all he told her this night, she just couldn't understand him!

"You know, Rick, you're not like what I would expect from a mercenary. You're not cold or distant. You're, uh.... well, I don't know what to make of you, really."

Rickkter chuckled a little, what could only be described as relief overcoming his features. "I'm unique, that's what I am. I have done things few others have done, seen things few others get the chance to. Traveled more then many." He tapped his temple, drawing Pascal's attention to his eyes. "Even these are unique. Especially for around here. Distinctly eastern. I don't know where the yellow came from, but it is distinctive. Like me."

"Interesting. I equate my colors along the same lines. Something that exemplifies me." She raised her wine to her lips and asked, "So what has being a soldier taught you above all else?" before taking a drink.

Rickkter scratched his chin a moment. "I think it would be the concept of rape, pillage, then burn. They're no good if they're crispy." Pascal almost choked on her wine as she tried to contain her laughter. "That was for the sheep joke," explained Rick as he settled his chin into his hand.

"'Rape, pillage, then burn'?" reiterated Pascal. "Where on earth did you ever get something like that?"

"I had a lot of strange teachers and associates through my life. I've had opportunity to use it as well. The battle of Denang, the sacking of Jordan. Few others, here and there. I've dueled with a wide variety of evil creatures; even fought a werewolf and a dimensional shambler once. Exciting while the rush lasts, painful when you're recovering."

"Hard life?"

"Very. But not without its rewards. Money is excellent. Taxes are non-existent. Scenery changes. You get to meet lots of interesting people, many of whom want to kill you." Pascal snickered a little at that. "I can't really say what else. Perhaps that people always seem to want to affix you with all kinds of titles, commendations, and metals. I've had many titles in my time. There are only a handful of favourites. They are Philosopher King, Warrior Poet, Barstool Prophet, and Homicidal Geneus. Almost each reflects the contrasting portions of who I am as opposed to what I've done.

"There have always been three passions in my life. They are simple ones, but they are overwhelmingly strong, and have governed my life for the last twenty years, at the very least. They are the quest for adventure, the search for knowledge, and the illusive pursuit of love in this cold, cruel world. These passions, like great winds, have blown me this way and that, on a wayward course spanning the breadth of this continent.

"I have sought adventure first, because it brings a rush of emotion and an almost always tangible sense of excitement. Of all the other forces of my life, it was this one that has defined me the most. It was what was responsible for keeping me moving from place to place, always in search of something new and fantastic, something I hadn't seen or done before.

"I have sought knowledge second. After all, knowledge is like power and wealth. The more a person has, the more they want. Despite my warrior exterior, I've been told that I have the heart of a poet." He smiled at her. "Hence the appellation Warrior Poet. I have wished to understand the hearts and minds of men, as well as the ways of the universe around us. And in that quest... I don't how to judge my success. And you see, that's the problem with knowledge. The more you have, the more you realize that what you do have is but a minuscule portion of the whole. I've only scratched the surface of the fields that I've studied.

"Take alchemy for example. I know some. I can replicate simple experiments, and I know how to use a moderate percentage of the more modern equipment. I even know some of the fancier tricks involved in the profession. But compared to you, I'm virtually the village idiot! And yet I still bet that not only do I know some things that you don't, but that I know of people who know even more then you! And that is why I believe my second quest will go on incomplete. One -- even several -- lifetimes just isn't enough."

Rickkter collected his thoughts for the last part, downing a little wine. "And lastly, I have sought love. And that is perhaps the most fruitless of my searches. I have some friends scattered all over the world, but no one that I truly care about. Oh, there have been those. A pair of men I have loved like fathers, another two that I would have dearly called brother. And then there was Deanna. A true spark of the purest love that was taken from me a little under ten years ago.

"The ecstasy that I felt being with her -- ecstasy so sweet, that looking back at those few years, I would have sacrificed all the intervening ones for just another day with her." Pascal could see the warrior was getting misty eyed at the retelling. She almost caught him blinking a few tears from his eyes. "It was the heaven that saints and poets have imagined," he whispered.

"I.. I know the affection that two people can feel. That's how I feel about Scratch. After years of almost total self imposed exile from social settings, he was one of the first to really make me feel like a whole person. There was also Michael, but... but it just wasn't right with him. I tried to explain things to him, but it was never right. With Scratch it is. I don't know how to say it otherwise. It just feels RIGHT!" She shook her head. "Does this even make sense?"

The warrior had folded his hands under his chin, resting his chin on his thumbs. "Yes," he whispered in a soft, kind voice. "It makes perfect sense, Pascal. That is true love. And I would bet that thirteen years ago, I wouldn't have made any more sense if I were to try and explain what a most beautiful healer ever saw in a scraggy warrior. That is true love, and you should touch it as often as you can. It comes maybe once in a lifetime. Twice if you're one of the truly lucky ones."

Rickkter blinked away the tears from the corners of his eyes. "Tell me Pascal; if the chance were offered, the chance to live your life again, would you do it? Would you want to live it all again, making the same mistakes as before?"

Pascal studied the table top for a long time, one of her claws tracing out some of the patterns in the wood. Would she ever endure it all again? It came to her with a mild smile.

"Yes. This is my life. I've found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me."

"No regrets?"

"Not enough to matter."

Rickkter leaned back with a satisfied smile. "Me too. Me too. Life is a grand thing isn't it, Pascal? A little strange, and often very warped in its ideas at times, but still very worth living all the same."

"To life," said the porcupine, raising the glass of wine to the warrior.

"And to death," he said, returning the gesture, "to which life is inextricably linked, and which will probably come as the greatest adventure of all for me."

The pair clinked the fine crystal and partook of the last of the choice liquid.

Pascal wiped a little away from the end of her muzzle. "You know Rick, a wise man once said that you shouldn't be afraid your life will end; be afraid that it will never begin."

Rickkter stared into his glass, at the small drop of dark red liquid that rolled around at the bottom of the bulb. "Truer words were never spoken," he whispered.

The warrior was silent for a few moments longer. He set his glass down and reached across the table. Taking Pascal's paw, he gave a light squeeze. "Thank you, Pascal. Thank you for allowing me, possibly, this one last grace. For the pleasure of talking with someone who understands, or who will at least listen and provide council. Thank you... my friend."

"You shouldn't be talking like this is the end. Even if this doesn't work like you expect, I'll still try my hardest to save you. After all, you did say that you have close to a month left."

"Yeah, that I do. But just in case, know that you've helped ease some of my burden just by being here tonight. After this is all over, if there is anything -- anything -- that you need, I will be here. All that is required is for you to ask."

"Oh, something tells me that you're going to be around for a long time, Rick." She pointed at him in a playful manner. Probably the alcohol in the fine wine starting to go to her head. "Now that we've gotten over all of that morbid stuff you've clouded your head with these last few days, what are we going to talk about for the rest of the evening?"

"Anything. Everything. Dreams, desires. All but what we've dwelled on for too long already."

And so the pair did. The rest of that evening was spent laughing, sharing, and drinking to all manner of pleasant things. And when the Mule closed in the wee hours, the drunken warrior and the tipsy alchemist were the last ones out the door.

Gregor was used to seeing some of the residents of Metamor at their worst. Oh, not as much as the healers, but when people came to the mess after a night of drinking and/or brawling, they rarely looked their best. Still, it was a little unusual to see such a person after noon.

"May I help you?" hesitantly asked the capybara.

"Coffee," was the dark man's only reply.

Gregor was quick to get it for him, as he'd had some experience with grumpy warriors. And this man didn't look in the mood to be trifled with. "Here you go," he said, holding out the mug of hot coffee.

Much to his surprise the man took it and downed in all in a few gulps. "More," he said, passing the cup back over. Now he knew not to toy with this person. Anyone able to pound back an entire cup of steaming coffee like that was someone to give a wide berth.

The warrior accepted the second cup a little more gracefully. He sipped slowly at the hot liquid as he turned his back to the cook.

"Hangover?" ventured Gregor.

"What else?" asked the warrior in a harsh and raspy tone as he rubbed his eyes. "But that's the price one pays for good wine and better company, I suppose. That and a headache from sleeping too late the morning after."

"Well, just give me two coppers for that coffee, and I'll let you sober up in peace."

Rickkter grumbled loudly as he rooted around for some change. Finally pulling out a the correct coinage, he slapped it on the counter and went back to contemplating his dark brew. Well, at least the night before with Pascal had went good. Such an interesting and fascinating individual she was. But what was he going to do now? he wondered as he drained the rest of his cup.

Waiting. Always the worst part of anything. Maybe that wolverine Andre had been right about him. But Rickkter got no further in his thoughts, as he recalled his little offer with that beaver, Michael. Well, at least it would give him something to occupy his time.

As Rickkter entered the Mule, he quickly managed to spot Michael and make his way through the near empty bar to where the beaver was sitting next to a large bearded man.

"So, Michael. Still up for those pool lessons?"

"Uh, sure. We were just done here, right Lindsey?" he asked of the large man.

"Sure Michael. I have things to do that I've been putting off too long. The Chief is insisting that I learn my way around the paper work. Been nice to finally meet you, Rick. Mike was telling me a little of your game yesterday. Nice to see someone finally pull it off." The warrior and the lumber man grasped hands, grinning and looking into each others eyes. They held that pose for several seconds.

"What are you doing?" inquired Michael.

"Seeing who has the stronger grip," Rick replied through clenched teeth. They continued to stare for several more seconds before Rickkter relented. "Okay, okay, you win. I have to play pool with that hand, you know." The warrior paused a few moments. "Could you please let me go now?"

"And if I don't?" smiled Lindsey, through his bushy red beard. He still maintained his vise-like grip, a grip Michael knew well from their good friendship.

"This." Rick reached over and lightly hit the lumberman on the arm so quickly that Michael almost couldn't see the black bearded warrior move. Lindsey gave a start, releasing the warrior. The lumberman backed up as he clutched his arm. "Don't worry," said Rickkter, "that was just a light hit on the nerve. You should be fine in about a minute." He raised his eyebrows. "I did ask you to let me go nicely, don't forget."

Lindsey's face took on a deadly cast, turning a shade of red that matched his beard. Michael could swear that the big man was going to actually lash out and hit Rickkter. His face then cleared and he titled his head back and roared with laughter. "Don't worry, I was only pulling your leg, warrior. I like to find out what people are made of. And I like a fighting spirit! Take good care of the kid, here." He walked out of the Mule laughing all the way.

Michael and Rick headed over to the table, as it was free of activity during the brief lull of the early afternoon. "So how have you been doing?" asked Michael.

"Been better," admitted Rick around a rumbling cough. "Bad night, last night. Stupid coughing kept me awake for half of it. That, and I'm hung over." He let out another cough, his eyes closing as if in slight pain. "Since my schedule seems to be free for the next while, I figured I would see if I can track you down and--"

Whatever else Rickkter might have tried to say, Michael never got to hear. Taking a single deep breath, Rick launched into a violent coughing fit. He managed to stagger over to the bar and motion for something to drink. Donny was quick to provide him with a glass of water. Rickkter still coughed for a few more seconds before calming enough to drink. It seemed to help him, as he was able to pant and wipe at his eyes without hacking and wheezing.

"Damn, are you all right?" asked the worried looking beaver.

Rick groaned a little. "It happens sometimes. It's nothing I'm not used to. Don't worry about my discomfort, though. I've had far worse done in my life."

"Like what?"

"Let's see here..." Ticking each one off in a finger Rickkter proceeded to rattle off a list of horrors that he's been through. "I've been stabbed, slashed, beaten, had most of my bones broken, been shot numerous times with arrows, and lit on fire -- twice," he said flicking up two fingers, "-- and to top it all off, I've even been struck by lightening. That last one really clears the sinuses, I'll tell you!" He let a little chuckle and a mile wide grin come to his face, at the expression that was upon the face of his audience "What? Did you think I was infallible?"

"You took on fifty Lutins by yourself!" retorted Michael.

"So what? Fifty of those little green annoyances aren't that bad. You want to know how I did it? Fine, I can tell you if you want to know. And pay attention, you will be seeing this again."

"Pardon? Seeing this again?"

"Oh, sorry. Just something coming back from my old days of as a mage-in-training. That was something my instructors always use to say when they had something important to tell you. It was sort of a sign to wake up and pay attention.

"Back to the Lutins. Have you ever heard the term 'divide and conquer?' That's what I used to take them out. First were the sentries. They numbered fifteen, and I killed them one by one. I'm very good at the art of stealth when I have to be. That left thirty-five. Sounds like a lot right? Well, I neglected to mention that I attacked in the middle of the night. Right at about three in the morning. That's usually when your enemy is at his worst. Been on duty for hours, and dawn is still at least two more away. There were nine more of them on duty in the camp, the rest were all sleeping. They made the mistake of clustering around the command tents.

"Now, Michael, if there is one thing you don't really want to concentrate your troops in one area like that. It allowed me the perfect opportunity. What I did was concentrate a good portion of my power in one large fireball. It had some liquid property to it, so when it hit it splashed. I figure that perhaps ten were instantly killed, another eight or ten set on fire. I was down to maybe another fifteen in fighting condition, and those were not truly focused on me and the threat I posed.

"Okay, picture this from the point of view of one of the guards. It's the middle of the night and all of a sudden your camp is lit by a huge fire ball. You now have your fellow Lutins running around on fire and screaming for all that they are worth, further adding to your confusion. You wonder where your commanders are. Too bad, that fire ball was aimed directly at their tent and they are charred corpses at this point. Next you see a figure slip out of the woods and hastily dispatch several of your comrades. Amidst all the confusion and the terror you are feeling at the suddenness of the attack, you choose to take up your weapon and try to exact some revenge for the members of your party that were stabbed in the back and otherwise cut down. But the attacker is too swift. He has already dispatched the others, and is now coming for you. You try for a stab, but he has longer reach and cuts you down before your poorly made sword makes up even half the distance. The last thing you see before the blackness claims you is your own blood spreading out onto the ground beneath you.

"And there you go. That is how one mage can kill fifty Lutins without really endangering himself. Always remember Michael, the aggressor makes the rules."

"Then how do you beat them?"

Rickkter's face acquired a malevolent cast. "Change the rules."

With a loud crack, Michael broke the rest of the billiard balls. "That doesn't sound like the most honorable way to defeat an enemy. I thought all soldiers had codes of honor that they followed."

Rickkter grimaced as he looked out over the bar. "Just how do you mean?"

"Well... don't you usually prefer to face the enemy on open terms? You know, like in daylight on the battlefield, and all. That sort of thing."

Rickkter pointed to the balls on the table. "You want to get the three. That's your easiest shot. The six and the one you can try for after that."

"You're not going to play?"

"I'm trying to teach you how to. Now take your shot." He waited until the beaver had aligned himself on the other side of the table. "As for your question, I don't believe in that kind of fight. I was taught victory by any means necessary. And I believe that it is still the best way to fight. If you stab your enemy in the back there is less chance that they can return the favor. If you kill them while sleeping, less still. In war, all that matters is killing the enemy. Let strategists and politicians argue battle tactics and matters of honor. When you're a soldier, all you care about is coming out alive."

Michael couldn't help but notice the icy tone that Rick's voice had begun to acquire towards the end of the speech. Still, he was interested. Might as well see where it would take him.

"But if you fight by any means necessary, that also means that you don't fight by any rules. If you don't fight by any rules, then how can you change them to ensure that you win?"

That brought an impressed smile to the warrior's face. "Excellent observation. But there are rules that I do observe, they're just in no way conventional. The first is to never fight they way you're expected to. Your enemy expects you to come from the east, come from the west. Or the south, or the north. But never the east. Most expect attacks during the day, which is why I prefer to attack at night whenever possible. Most importantly, I believe that you must use every single advantage you have to crush your enemy as quickly as possible. Give them things that they have no experience with and have never even heard of before. Do that, and almost every time they will be unable to counter it to any degree of effectiveness. And if they do... change it again.

"That's what I did here. Your patrols are not very magically inclined, so I used that to my advantage. Most mages rarely use magic outside of the lab, and even then it only tends to be for very specialized tasks. No warrior or mage could have done what I did, because each lacks critical skills that the other possesses. Because I am both, I could do it. I use magic whenever and wherever I can. I don't think I've used flint to start a fire on more then two dozen occasions in my life. I'm told that I have a... flamboyance, with the way I use my magic."

Rickkter leaned on the table glaring out over the little, colored balls. "Now logically you would assume that the more a person uses magic, the more of it they have. Thus I create the illusion of extreme prowess though some ostentatious use of my power. The fact that I use methods, spells, and techniques that no one from this part of the world is familiar with, helps greatly. After all, it's not how big it is, but how you use it that counts."

"I'm sure you've been asked this, but why didn't you come in directly? With that kind of power, how much of a threat could we pose?" The beaver nudged the cue, sending the eleven into a corner pocket.

"Have you ever played chess, Michael?"

"Uh, no I haven't. Why do you ask?"

"Well, you see, I took an approach to Metamor much like a chess master takes to his opponent. I observed you at some length before announcing my presence. Oh, I could tell that I had been spotted several times, but I still kept up my observations. I did that, because much like a good chess player will study the games of his opposition, I study the conduct of my opposition. Yet I do not underestimate -- several times in the past I have come to grief from doing so. I am wise in the ways of good and the ways of evil, and I am not jaded enough be unable to tell the difference."

"So what did we appear to you?" said Michael as he went back to studying the table, trying to ascertain where to shoot next.

"Let me put it this way. Rumors of what has happened here have been greatly exaggerated. And you want the fourteen."

Michael took the suggested shot, bouncing the ball of the corner of the pocket. "I'm not entirely sure how to take that."

Rickkter scratched the underside of his beard. "Perhaps I should show you how to play chess, Michael. It's a classic game of strategy. Also does a good job of promoting creative thinking in tight situations."

"Perhaps. But I so rarely have free time." The beaver looked over the table a little. "What should I take next?"

"The nine. Right, center pocket."

"I can't make that."

"Yes you can. Just bounce the five off of it."

Trying and missing the shot, Michael decided that a change of subject would be wise.

"So how's the change progressing?" asked the beaver as he tried to determine the next shot.

"Not all that fast. Hair on the arm seems to be thickening up," Rick commented as he looked at his hairy hand. "What I saw in the mirror this morning shocked me all the more." He ran his fingers through the hair at the sides of his head. "Look at this!" he said, pointing out a few gray streaks at the temple. "I'm turning into a bloody old man! I know my father was gray at whatever age he left me, but I didn't expect it to happen to me so soon!"

"Probably the change," said Michael chuckled, as he looked over the warrior. With his diminished eyesight he had to strain to make out the miscoloration of Rick's hair. The fact that the hair was black to begin with helped some. "I don't know of a lot of animals with gray fur. Perhaps gray fox or wolf. Maybe something else. Could be feline. Then again, the color could change anew on you. It happened to me. Actually mine was quite different, I've been told. I was making good progress for the first week, then it kind of stalled. Took close to a month for it to finally run its course, which it did in the space of a few days."

"So how did you come here?" asked Rickkter as he moved to another side of the table.

"Why are you asking?"

"Because I want to hear a story different then my own. Is that so much to ask?"

"I suppose not." And so the beaver launched into his own tale. He told the warrior of his family, his mother and siblings. Then of how the plague came and took them. He hadn't thought of his family in a long time, but despite the intervening time he still found it hard to talk about them. Understandably, he skipped over that part quickly. He then told of his short lived experience with the caravan as a guard, and the unfortunate incident that caused him to reside at Metamor.

"You should be thankful for that, Michael. You wouldn't have lasted long."

"I took down one Lutin all right," he retorted with some consternation.

"Luck. You shouldn't even have been alive to take that shot. It was you, not that other soldier who should have taken the first blow. You were cannon fodder, like it or not. They need people like you so that there is less chance of losing an experienced soldier."

Michael was completely floored. He had never even considered that before. He just stood stunned for several moments.

"Don't take it so hard," Rick consoled him. "As cold as that may have sounded, that's the reality. Sure, you might have lived long enough to gain some experience and become more the cannon fodder to them, but it's more likely that you would have died by some gang of highwaymen intent on sacking your caravan." The warrior sighed as he looked over the conglomeration of little colored balls. "All armies need expendables. It saves the lives of more valuable, more experienced soldiers."

Michael shivered at the very thought. "What shot should I take now? I'm thinking the twelve."

The pair continued the lessons for at least an hour and a handful more games. The talk was almost all confined to the game and what shots to take. Rickkter was quick to correct Michael's stance, demonstrating the proper way to hold the cue, and to make sure that the draw was always straight. While Michael pointed out that Copernicus didn't always do it that way, Rick reminded him that Cope had been playing for ages and was as close to a natural as they come. Michael accepted that, and was notably pleased when the new stance and hold improved his game. The mage was just embarking on demonstrating some of the subtle nuances of judging the geometry of the balls when they received their first disturbance.

"Oh, Michael," said a voice from behind the pair. The two at the table turned to take in the female rat in a uniform of one of the cleaning staff. "I was hoping you knew where Charles might be. I've been looking all over for him."

"Um, sorry, Kimberly, but I haven't seen him," replied the beaver.

Kimberly redirected her questioning gaze to Rickkter.

"I don't even know who you're talking about."

She looked away, with a dejected expression. "Well, thank you anyway. I'll try and see if I can find him elsewhere. He's just been behaving so odd lately, and I'm worried about him."

"Really?" commented Michael. "Well, I do hope that you find him then. Do you have any idea what could be bothering him?"

The little rat shook her head. "No, I don't. But, thanks for your concern, Michael."

Michael once again expressed his interest in Charles before bidding Kimberly farewell and resuming his game. "I was wondering something, Michael," said Rickkter after taking a shot. He had decided to play a game, and was doing a fair job of letting Michael play a few shots as well. "What is it like to have a family?"

The beaver was somewhat puzzled by that one. "Why are you asking? Didn't you have one?"

"Believe it or not, I never did. No family, no homeland, no king, no council, no emperor, no family name, and no ancestry that I can trace beyond my father. I don't even know his real name, nor that of my mother. I remember things that we used to do when I was about six, seven years old. I know that he taught me a little magic, but nothing beyond that. I am... I am myself," Rickkter shrugged. "Nothing beyond that. I ask you only because it's something I've never experienced. Looking over my life, I find myself curious about such things."

Michael was holding his cue with the butt on the ground, his paws wrapping themselves around the top of the shaft. "Ah, I see now," he whispered in a quite tone. "Where can I begin?

"Having a family means never being alone. There is always someone to help you or play with. I remember trying so hard to find a little time alone and never being able to do it. There was always someone around. It meant having to share everything, especially toys and clothes. I was always stuck with my brothers hand me down clothes. I didn't own a new shirt until I was sixteen."

"But it's great because if someone picked on you your older brother could beat them up for you. I remember my oldest brother Donny teaching me how to fish. Jake liked to sneak up and tickle me. It never mattered the occasion, he could always make me laugh." The beaver laughed a little, though it was tinged with bitterness. "I'd give anything to laugh like that again. Or just to talk to them, even for a little while." He shook his head. "I miss them all so dearly."

The warrior mage nodded a little before he bent over and took a shot. The loud crack as two balls split and entered the corner pockets was the only sound that was made. "It's a horrible feeling, isn't it?" asked Rickkter as he straightened up.

"What is?" Michael asked, his voice still choked with emotions over his family.

"Being a survivor. Coming out alive of a situation when no one else dose for no reason whatsoever."

"You can't imagine," whispered the beaver.

"Oh, yes I can. I can imagine far worse," said the warrior as he slammed the three ball into a side pocket. "Was there anything you could have done to prevent the plague killing your family?"

"No, of course not."

"My point exactly," said Rick as he straightened up. When he looked down at Michael his eyes seemed filled with sorrow. A hurt and pain in those green eyes that seemed to be so much stronger then Michael's own. "There was nothing you could have done to prevent it. Not in my case. Mine is... very different.

"It was a good number of years ago. Many... many years ago. I was doing dangerous work, as usual for my life. And... through a mistake on my part, twelve of my closest friends paid with their lives. Worse then that," he choked out, "was the fact that the woman I loved more then anything else was amongst them."

Rickkter reached up to wipe at his eyes. "And I was spared, I was permitted to go on. You cannot imagine a horror worse then that. To have all that taken from you, and then to be allowed to simply walk away. That pain is almost unbearable."

"Did you ever think of ending it all?" asked Michael in a quiet tone.

"More then once for a very, very long time afterwards. But like all things, I got over it. Well, I got past it, at any rate." He folded his arms over his chest and looked out over the bar yet seeing none of it. "Take your shot."

"It's still your turn."

"Just shoot, damn it," hissed the warrior mage though clenched teeth.

Michael concluded that arguing would get him no where here. He took his shot, missing by a wide margin. "Why did you bring it up if it obviously causes you so much pain?" he asked as he moved to the side of the table away from the warrior.

Rickkter sighed, his whole frame relaxing as he sat upon the edge of the table. "Because this is the end. The end of it all. I choose to look back at my life because I fear there is nothing to look forward to. We all must come to an end, and this looks to be mine." He smirked humourlessly. "Pascal and I had a pleasant conversation about that the other night." He turned around a little more so that he was looking at Michael from over his shoulder. "I can see that you two have something very much in common. What is your relation to her, out of curiosity?"

The beaver grimaced a little before giving up his story. He told of meeting Pascal when he first arrived at Metamor. Then how the two of them had started seeing each other on a more regular basis, how things grew into something more. He even went on to explain about his coloring, how he did it all for her, only to have her drop him for that damned tiger, Scratch. Rickkter listened patiently to the whole tale, not even saying anything when the beaver's tone turned harsh and bitter towards the end.

"Do you think the old expression is correct, Michael?" asked Rick as he glanced over at the troubled beaver. "'That it is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all'?"

"I don't know," said Michael in a quick and sharp tone. "What do you think?"

Rick shrugged. "I think that if love is true, if you feel it in your heart, then it's worth it. Having experienced both love and loss, I can tell you with certainty that it is worth it." Rickkter gave his cue a light tap, casually rolling the eight ball into a pocket on the other end of the table. "I think that's enough for now. Besides, it's getting late and I'm hungry. Come on, Michael. It's my treat."

The Mule was how it usually was lately, and on any other night actually. The regulars were at their seats, the servers hustling and bustling to keep up with all the orders. There were the sounds of singing and laughing fighting to be heard over the voices of the Keepers. All in all, it was a good night.

Over at one of the far tables was seated some of the Writers Guild. They had just gotten out of one of their usual meetings, and had decided to stop in for a drink. Tonight the grouping was Phil, Nahum, Tallis, and Zhypar. Strangely, the Reverend Doctor Johann Nathaniel Melchior Channing Friedrich Hernandez Sebastien Wells (de LaFontaine) had been absent from the meeting that evening. But the moods of those gathered at the table was still high, despite the absense of their colleague. Actually, Habakkuk was in a more rambunctious mood then normal.

"Come on Nahum! I'm in the mood for a little one-on-one here. I haven't had a good bar brawl in ages."

"No way Habakkuk," dissuaded the fox as he leaned back in his chair. "I'm still feeling it from where you hit me during the last tournament. Find some other sucker to take your nervous energy out on."

Jumping up from his seat, the roo shouted a challenge to the rest of the room. "All right, listen up! Who here is tough enough to face me in a little one-on-one? Who wants to go at it?" For the most part the room resounded with laughter. Habakkuk was well known around the Keep for his fighting prowess. "What? No one brave enough to try and take me on?"

"So it's a fight ye wants, eh laddie?" called a new voice from the other side of the bar. Habakkuk turned to find that a darkly clad stranger was the one who issued the challenge, the man standing beside his table and wearing a malicious grin.

"You sure you want to do this, Rickkter?" asked Michael. Rickkter had spent the last few hours teaching Michael the basic points of shooting pool. The beaver had actually made noticeable progress. He no where near Levi's standards, nor Cope's or even Rick's. But he was getting better, as Rickkter had told him a few times. "Zhypar's the three time champion of the Writers Guild fighting contests. He's never been beaten before."

"Ah, I already dethroned Copernicus this week. What's one more?

"You want someone to fight? Fight me," he shouted back at the kangaroo.

Zhypar had heard of this one. Claimed to be a fighter and a mage of some renown. Eluding the patrols for a week hadn't earned this individual many friends amongst the other warriors. He had heard a few rumors of this man, but Zhypar was never one to back down from a fight. Any fight.

"All right then. You want some pain, I can oblige you." Both contestants walked over to a reasonably clear section of the Mule and prepared to square off. Zhypar warmed up with a little shadow boxing, Rickkter with some stretches, his joints creating some interesting musical crackings along the way.

"You might want to move some more of the tables back," Rickkter told Zhypar. "I don't know what kind of fight you have planned here, so I don't know how much room I'll be needing when I use your face to clean the floor."

"Very funny. Since you're new here, I'll go easy on you. Fists only, no kicks, throws, or jumps. Upper body shots only permitted. Looser is the first one to submit or be knocked unconscious." This was Habakkuk favorite form of fighting, as he had a mean left hook on him. Kangaroos were excellent natural boxers, and Zhypar had enjoyed a good brawl long before being changed.

"Just the way I like it. Simple, quick, and brutal," said Rickkter with a deadly glare.

"Then let us begin."

With that the two fighters began to circle each other, Zhypar wearing an arrogant grin, Rickkter with a look of cool aloofness. Habakkuk made the first move with a right jab. Rickkter dodged, landing a punch on Habakkuk's ample jaw.

"Not bad..." commented the roo as he backed up a few steps to regain his senses. He moved in and tried the same move again, only this time caught Rick with an unexpected left hook. That staggered the other fighter back a few paces.

"Okay... that... that was a good shot," remarked Rickkter as he gave his head a good shake, his head of black hair going every where. He gave his jaw a rubbing, then slicked back his unruly hair. "So that's the way you wanna play it? So be it!"

Rickkter came in close and avoided several of Habakkuk's strikes, even block a few with his forearm, before delivering a barrage of stinging shots to the roo's face and chest. The two contenders continued to slug it out, Rickkter landing far more shorts then Habakkuk. An exception was when Habakkuk crouched to avoid one of Ricks's solid right hooks, giving the roo perfect opening for a hard left to the kidney that sent the other fighter reeling.

Unlike his opponent, Rickkter went for the series of quick stinging strikes, rather then the slower power punches that Zhypar favored. He also moved around more then his opponent.

Rickkter closed the fight with a flurry of punches to Zhypar's breastbone. The pattern he used was to drive his palm into the chest, whirl in so avoid any potential hits and land the elbow in the same place as the hand, knocking his opponent back further and stunning them with the sharp pain. After a half dozen repetitions of this move, Rickkter put Zhypar out of his misery with a spectacular barrage of punches. Three right jabs, followed immediately by a savage left hook, and concluding with a brutal right uppercut that lifted the kangaroo clear off his feet and landed him flat on his back a meter behind.

A crowd quickly gathered around the fallen fighter to ascertain his condition. "Is he alright?" asked Rickkter in a strained voice to the crowd. The warrior was nursing a eyebrow that had become split open during the fight and was rubbing his chest. His complexion was unusually pale and sweat streaked as he leaned on a table for support.

"He should be fine," commented Nahum. "His chest and his jaw look like they're going to hurt like hell for a few days, but other then that there's nothing serious."

"That's good..." squeaked Rickkter. "He fought well..." He might have tried to say more but was caught in a violent fit of coughing and hacking. He almost doubled over from it, and would have if the table hadn't been there to support him. Placing a handkerchief up to his mouth he continued to choke and gasp for breath, his face a mask of pain.

"Rick... are you alright?" asked a concerned Michael.

Rickkter's face was dripping sweat, and when he removed the handkerchief it came away bloody. "Get me... to the healers.... now..." he managed to gasp out between wheezing coughs. This last message seems to be too much, as his legs gave out and he collapsed to the floor.

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