A Place Where There Is No Darkness

End Game

by Chris Hoekstra

"So in her I do confinde
And she keeps me satisfied
Gives me all I need...
Only knowledge will I save...
Rover Wanderer
Nomad Vagabond"
-- Metallica, "Wherever I May Roam"

"How is he?"

"He's dying. How should he be?" responded Coe, to the porcupine alchemist.

"Is it really that bad?"

"I'm surprised he's still breathing. His lungs were already deteriorated to an astounding degree. Do you think you could replicate that elixir of his?"

Pascal pondered for a second before shaking her head. "I only saw him make it three times during his stay here. He claimed that he had to take it every few days or the disease would kill him. He said without it he would have been dead almost a year and a half ago and that it was all that kept him going in his search for a true cure. It was a few days since I last saw him make it. But I don't remember enough to replicate it. Rick was making it every few days for two years, don't forget. He knew it backwards and forwards, I'm sure."

"Aye, I think he knew that disease better then anyone." Coe began walking away from Rickkter's room. "Damn it! He knew -- more then even I did -- how bad off he was and what heavy exertion could do, yet he still challenged Habakkuk."

"How is Habakkuk anyway?"inquired Pascal, as she tagged along behind the raccoon healer. She had heard the whole story from Scratch, who was there to witness the fight.

"Pretty banged up. Rickkter did a number on him. I'm going to see him now. You can check on our warrior friend if you want. Right now he's awake, and I don't know how long he can hold out."

As Pascal pushed open the door to the room, she saw the warrior laid out on the bed, his face pale and haggard. His former cloths are gone, the talisman laying on his chest the only thing that couldn't be removed. His body seemed to have shriveled from the last time she saw him, almost as if it has given up the fight to keep going after all these years.

"How are you doing Rickkter?" she asked in a quite voice.

His eyes slowly fluttered open as he looked at the porcupine alchemist. Pascal noted that they seemed to have dimmed a few shades, the green not as vibrant as it use to be. "I'm dying, Pascal. How are you?" His voice sounded like iron being slowly dragged over loose gravel.

This made her smile, despite what she was seeing as she looked into his face. "It would seem that we've both been better. Is it really that bad for you?"

He closed his eyes as he turned away from her. "No. Not really. I just feel tired. It's also getting hard to breath, and I'm feeling a bit light headed." A small smile spread on his lips. "You know, this is the most rest I've gotten since I've arrived here? Oh, how's, what's his name? The one I fought?"

"You mean Habakkuk? I saw Coe outside. He says you banged him up pretty good, but aside from that, he's fine."

"You know Pascal, I don't think that I'm going to make it through this," Rickkter sighed.

"Don't say that." She leaned a little closer. "By saying it, you accept it. That's the first step towards believing. And if you believe it, then you resign yourself to it. If you're going to beat this thing, then you have to fight."

He rolled his head from side to side, and gave her a weak laugh. "Fight, Pascal? You're telling me to fight? Great Maker, I've spent my entire life fighting. That's all I've done. I fought to survive during my training as a child, I fought for advancement as a mage. I fought against odds and troops that would make most seasoned soldiers turn and run for their lives." Even this small rant seemed too much, and Rickkter broke into a slight coughing fit. "In all those things, there was only one supreme goal that I fought for. That was my life. It was my most precious possession, and I wouldn't give it up willingly. Or I didn't think so until recently."

"What did you tell me over dinner? 'I'm going to live forever, or die trying', wasn't it?"

Rickkter just lay there for some moments, staring at the ceiling. "I think that I've grow tired of that line also. It's almost come to signify the battle I fight. And this is one battle I can't hope to win." He moved his arm out from under the bed covers. "You see this, Pascal? The transformation that I wanted has stated to take hold." And indeed it had. His arm hairs had grown more profuse, into a thicker and somewhat lighter black. Rickkter lowered the arm over his chest, the fingers coming to rest close to the talisman he wore.

"The thing is, I don't know that I'll make it. I've been fighting this loosing battle for the last two years. And they have been long and hard years. I was always use to the idea of dieing in battle, something quick, instantaneous." Laying his head back further into the pillow, he squeezed his eyes shut. "This is nothing like that. It's a battle of inches. And every day it's been gaining on me. Despite all my power, all my knowledge, I haven't been able to beat it. It's killing me an inch at a time!"

Rickkter seemed to have grown a bit stronger during the retelling, as if the rage had contributed a strength to his body. This strength abruptly left him, and he collapsed back onto the bed. "And with all it's persistence, I think it's finally won. My only consolation in all this, is that I might get to finally see Deanna again..."

And now Pascal finally understood. She was seeing his true emotion and thoughts for the first time. He hadn't come to Metamor right away because it would mean admitting another loss. He was forced to when his eucalyptus had run out. But even at that time, he knew that it was a final fight. That's why he had been so absorbed in that book he found. He didn't want to face what was coming. Even though the disease had beat him back once again, he still fought on, trying, vainly it would seem, to defeat it. By the gods, after two years of this sort of thing it was no wonder he was ready to give up. This was what he had tried to tell her over dinner the day before.

"You will make it Rickkter." Seeing that he seemed to not hear her, she raised her voice and tried again. "You hear me warrior?! This isn't going to end like this, and we both know it! You lived through the battle of Denang, you survived the sacking of Jordan. Hell, you dueled creatures that most have us think are legends. You claimed to have battled with the best of the best. You survived all that shit in your life, and you're going to come out of this too." He had opened his eyes as was staring up in amazement at her. "You're a survivor, and you told me as much! They tried to kill you before, and you threw them back. You're too good to let this happen to you. You are going to fight this, and you are going to win. And if you don't, the gods help me, I'll dig you up and kill you again myself!" The porcupine was near tears over the incident.

Rickkter just looked at her standing there, shaking from emotion, for the longest time. His wheezing for breath was the only sound in the room. "Please," he rasped in a quite tone. "Sit down. There are some things that I need to tell you about myself. I need to tell this to another soul, before it's too late."

"No, Rickkter. I'm not going to listen to you do this. You're not going to admit defeat this easily. You may not see the good in you, but I do. I see how you're struggling to change. You can't let it beat you now, not when you've come so far. I see that you have the strength to beat this thing, and all you need to do is realize it! You say you've fought all your life, well fight this!"

He looked forward, his eyes closed, a peaceful smile on his face. "You're the second person who said she saw the good in me. And you remind me some what of her." He turned his eyes up to her. "Now will you please sit and listen. If I'm going to fight as you say, there are some things that I must say. That I must... confess..." His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "Please. You once confided in Michael, he told me so. Now will you let me make that request of you?"

"All right, all right. If you need to tell me so badly, this had better be good." She pulled the rooms one small chair around to the side of the bed. "There are more important things for you to spend your strength on."

He closed his eyes as a smile spread on his bearded face. His hand sought out Pascal's paw, and he gave it a reassuring pat. "Thank you Pascal. I knew I picked the right person when I asked you to join me for dinner that night. Now all I ask is that you sit there, and listen to what I have to say. And if anything happens, to remember me for who I was. I don't know if I can get it all out in one telling, but I don't think I'll be able to do it later. I have to do it now. It all started twenty-five years ago, in the Valley of Shale, in the far east..."

Claudia was walking down the hall looking over the reports for some of the sick, when she saw one of the patient's visitors leaving. Much to her shock it was Pascal, Metamor's reclusive alchemist. "Pascal? Is that you?" Moving closer to the stooped figure, she repeated the quarry.

Pascal turned sharply on the healer at the realization that she was being spoken to. "Yes, yes it's me. I... I was just here seeing a friend." She waved a paw vaguely in the direction of Rickkter's room.

Claudia had been a skilled healer for a good time, and she knew not to press the alchemist when she saw the look in her eyes. The look held a realization that someone close to them was about to die. It was never a pleasant sight, but then again healers were used to seeing the unpleasant side of things.

"Which one? The warrior?"

Pascal let out a heavy sigh. "That's him. They say he doesn't have much of a chance. I decided to see him once more before the end."

"Did he express any religious views?"

Pascal gave her a sad smile as she folded her arms across her breasts. "Not in so many words, no. Why are you asking?"

"Well, as you should remember, Raven has been know to intervene on behalf of the gods in extreme cases such as these. You could always see if she can do anything."

The porcupine got a puzzled expression on her face. "You know, now that you mention it, I don't recall Rickkter ever mentioning going to a cleric. It seems strange, as he was so desperate for a cure."

"Seeing as how he never expressed any religious beliefs, then I think we should see if Raven can possibly help him. I just hope the price won't be too high."

Pascal nodded in assent. "It's worth trying. Couldn't hurt him. Or at least, I hope not. Um, I'm kind of occupied with a project at the moment. Do you think you could ask on my behalf?"

"Sure Pascal. I'll do what I can. In fact I'm on my way to that part of the Keep now." Claudia quickly made her way down the hall avoiding the small porcupine as she shuffled woodenly the other way.

The wolf morph strode calmly down the halls of the Keep, her hands clasped before her robe. She was the Lightbringer, Metamor's intermediary between its inhabitants and the gods. Today her task was a different one. She was to see if there was anything that could be done for one of the dying at the Keep. It was something that she had been known to do, if the situation was desperate enough. In recent times she had been called upon to preform this duty a great deal. Scratch was saved several months back by the goddess Akkala, Chris a few months ago. Now there was someone else that required her assistance.

Rounding the corner she was brought up short. Raven had been a cleric for many years, and knew well the feeling of divine energy. She stood there, he whiskers twitching in concentration, as she tried to hone in on the source. She eventually determined that the source was a room several doors up the hall. She quickly advanced on the door, her tail swishing out behind her in agitation.

Upon opening the door she discovered a man lying on the room's single bed. She could immediately see why her services were enlisted. His face was ashen and her ears are filled with the wheeze of his breathing, as he lay there sleeping. What really drew her attention was the talisman suspended from his neck. His hand was lying near the deep black, gold, and ruby amulet. She now realized that this is the source of the energy.

The Lightbringer walked over to the bed, reaching out for the amulet. Moments before her paw grasped it, the man's hand snagged her by the wrist. In her shock she tried to pull back, only to find his grip strong, despite his weakened condition. She gazed into the ashen, black bearded face as the eyes came slowly open.

"I wouldn't do that, cleric," spoke the man in a cold and harsh voice. While that of a dying man, the tone conveyed a sense of deadly warning. "You would be dealing with things that you can't possibly hope to comprehend." Releasing her paw, he closed his eyes and returned to his previous position. "Leave." His tone was sharp and bitter. "There is nothing you can do to save me. My fate is my own. The gods would never have anything to do with one of my kind." Brian Coe was going to check on his latest patient, only to be brought up short when he saw who came out of the room. He paused as he watched the Lightbringer slowly back out the door, an expression of profound fear on her face as she clutched the small wooden talisman at her neck.

"Mistress Lightbringer? What is it?"

The wolf whirled on him, a startled look playing across her features. "That... that man. There... there is nothing I can do for one such as he." Coe was left as perplexed as he came, as he watched Raven turn tail and vanish down the hall, her clerical robes flying.

Pascal had a fierce headache as she came down the infirmary's hall. She had spent the last day or so tearing through all of the Keeps medical texts that Rickkter hadn't gotten to, or according to Brian held the best promise for something. 'Now I understand why he was so willing to finally give it up,' she thought as he gave her temples a rubbing. 'How can a head so small, hurt so much?'

As she came into the main hall of the infirmary, she saw the form of Matthias coming out of Rickkter room. The rat was facing the other way, looking down the hall as he softly closed the door behind him. He then sadly walked off down the hall, his tail dragging behind him.

Pascal made the wise decision about the strange sight, and filed it into the back of her mind. As she entered Rickkter's room she saw that the battle inside him still raged on. She noticed that the hair on his arms has begun to fill in more, and change from black to a lighter gray. Even some of the hair on his head had begun to change, and his beard was looking very grizzled. But his illness was hard at work also. He seemed to have shriveled more since she had last saw him, and his face was ashen. This was a rather horrible contrast with his full beard of black hair. His breathing had degraded to a shallow, rasping gasp. She was still debating which side looked to be winning, when she was startled by a new voice from behind.

"What are you doing our of your lab, Pascal?"

The alchemist did a double take when she saw who she was talking with.

"Habakkuk? Is that you?"

"I really look that bad, hun?" Pascal thought bad was an understatement, but kept that appraisal to herself. One of Habakkuk's eyes was completely swollen shut, and the entire left side of his face looked to have decided to followed suit. She concluded Scratch must have been pretty merciful in his description of the fight. "I just came in to see how he was doing. Wanted to ensure that he'll still be here when I've healed enough for a rematch. And what are you doing down here? Don't you have your bizarre experiments to run?"

She turned back to Rickkter. "He's my friend. One of the few that has ever voluntarily done such a thing. I just don't want to see anything happen to him before the curse can do it's work on him."

"So do you know if he'll make it through this?"

"I'm not sure about that. I'm really not. Coe tells me that he has a fifty-fifty chance of coming out of this alive. Very touch and go. The only other one to be saved by the curse was Phil, and you know what he's like now." Zhypar let out a heavy sigh. "Aye. I'm in the Writers Guild, don't forget. But you're also forgetting about Phil's body guard, Rupert. He was also dieing, and the Curse saved him. I just hope that Rickkter makes it. Would be a shame to loose someone like him, to something like this."

"Yes it would," concurred the porcupine, her eyes clouding over.

He opened his eyes slowly at first. They felt dry and opened stiffly. After blinking them a few times, he took in the room in which he lay.

'Well this isn't the other side. Would be better appointed. Guess I'm still at Metamor.' While his visions was still a bit distorted -- he simply wrote that off to prolonged sleep -- he did notice that his sense of smell seemed to have picked up a lot. It seemed that he could almost pick out each of the rooms individual smells. The linen, the candles, and... something else. Rolling his head to the side he saw Pascal sitting next to the bed.

"Good to see you finally woke up. We were getting worried about you. You've been unconscious for almost six days now." She smiled warmly at him. "Seems you were right after all. The curse did save you. In case you're wondering, it's progressing well now. Just give it a little more time, and you'll be a full raccoon. At least you got one of the choices you wanted."

He turned his head back towards the ceiling, a smile crossing his forming muzzle. "Well this is a record." His voice was still a tad harsh from disuse over the last few days. "I've only been awake for a few moments, and already three good things have happened to me."

"And those would be?"

"First, was that fact I woke up. In my condition, that's always a positive sign. Second, was that the change took a form that I can live with." He took his arm out from under the cover and admired how the change is coming. The fur has come in nicely, and the hand partly reformed with a thin covering of black fur. He commenced picking at the claws on the fingers with his thumb. "The third was that you were here when I did. Means a lot to me, Pascal."

Pascal gave the room a sort of nervous glance. "Um, Rickkter. If you remember from dinner, I told you there was something between me and Scratch."

"Oh, I remember. And I understand, believe me. I've seen love before. Heck, I was in love once myself, as you well know. I recognize the look. I just needed a friend to see me through this thing. Thank you for being that friend. And that's all I would like you to be for me; just a good friend."

Rickkter shuffled around the bed a bit. "All this talking has tired me out, Pascal. I would just like to rest for a little while. Feel free to go, now that you know that I'm fine. If you see Misha tell him to drop by soon. There are things I want to talk to him about. And do see if you can get me some reading material. Perhaps Tamar, or Mysteriis Metaphysical."

Misha's keen ears picked up some unusual sounds as he walked down the halls of the infirmary. It was quite an odd sound, and he couldn't quite place it. The closer he got to Rickkter's room though, the more the sound intensified.

When he pushed open the door he saw Rickkter, or at least the raccoon he presumed was Rickkter, sitting in the bed. The raccoon had thrown his head and was giving a sort of slow, mournful laugh towards the ceiling. His cheek fur and the corners of his the mask around his eyes were wet with tears.

"Half-an-hour..." he croaked. "Half-a-fucking-hour..." He gave a few more pain filled laughs. "God damn cure was half-an-hour away..."

"Rickkter?" asked Misha in a worried tone. "What are you talking about?"

The raccoon turned his shattered gaze to the fox, the his paw coming up under his chin. "Misha... I forgot you might show up today." Rickkter covered his face with his paws and wiped the tears from it. "Oh, damn. I just had the most unpleasant discovery."

"What did you find?" Misha asked as he sat down next to the bed. He noticed that Rickkter had been reading the Tamar Manuscripts, as they were open on his lap.

"This," he said gesturing to the open pages. Rickkter still wore a wide-eyed, shattered expression on his new face. "The cure."

"The cure?"

"Yes... the god damn cure!!" he shouted at the book. "Description of the disease, a name, and an elixir that reverses the effects and repairs all damage." He uttered a bitter laugh. "It's called Spurr Syndrome. It's an obscure disease, and the only reason for its inclusion in the Manuscripts was because one of the authors suffered from it." Rickkter leaned his head back, smacking it against the wall. "And if I had looked at it for another half hour, I wouldn't be here now," he moaned.

"Come on, Rick. It's not that bad."

"Bad?" Rickkter inquired in a mocking tone. "No, this isn't bad. It's fucking horrible! After two years, I wind up being a few dozen pages away from what I sought! Great Maker, what a sense of timing..."

"Look, it's really not that bad. This way you really do get a fresh start, a true chance to start over. Take it for the gift that it is, Rick. Not many in situations like yours get such a second chance such as this."

"Hee, second chances indeed..." Rickkter muttered just under his breath. He breathed out a tired sigh, cradling his muzzle on his palm as he stared out across the room. "Yeah, suppose so. There's not a lot I can do about it now. But to be so close to something like that. Oh, damn it all!"

He sighed and looked towards the ceiling. "You know Misha, I've heard it said that the universe runs on a complex interweaving of energy, matter, and enlightened self interest. Great Maker, I hope that's true."

Rickkter's gaze lightened a little as he turned back to the fox. "So how have things been since I was last out there?" he inquired as he flipped the cover to the manuscripts close. "Everyone missed me, I take it?"

Misha leaned back and laughed. "You're incorrigible." He spent the better part of the next two hours talking with Rickkter about happenings at the Keep. He was pleased to notice that the raccoon's mood had lightened noticeably by the time he left the room.

When Pascal came in the next day, she was surprised to not find Rickkter still in bed. After a quick look around the room, she located him standing naked in front of the room's full length mirror admiring his new form. It seemed that the change had been completed since she had last seen him, and the Keep had a new raccoon morph to add to its ranks.

"I was wondering if you would be in today, Pascal" commented Rick as he ran his hand over his arm near the shoulder. "So what do you think? Looks good, no?" he inquired spreading his arms in a dramatic pose.

"I suppose. If you like plain old black and white for a color scheme." Rickkter got a chuckle out of that one. "But on you, I think that blacks, whites, and an abundance of gray with a little brown is a good mix."

Rickkter hadn't moved his gaze from the mirror since the onset of the conversation. "Nice to see I've got your approval. Means that you won't feel the need to repaint me, like some of your other friends. Say, could you check my back for something? I can't reach that far behind."

"Oh, but Michael looks so cute now." She stepped up behind and began to give him a light scratching. "What am I suppose to be looking for?"

"There should be three sets of large scars back there. One around the right shoulder blade, the other two near the base of the spine."

Pascal looked over his shoulder as she searched for the scars he said are there. She watched his eyes in the mirror as she looked for the scars, and noticed that they seems to glaze over in pleasure, a small sound of satisfaction emanating from deep within his body. "Sorry, they're not there."

"Damn it," cursed Rick as he snapped out of the trance. He broke away from the porcupine and tossed on a robe sitting on a near by chair. Giving the cord a quick tie, he resumed his study of his new features. "You know, it's like looking into a mirror... only... not."

"So why were you interested in those scars?"

"Oh, they were souvenirs," informed Rickkter as he crossed his arms in front of himself. "Proof positive that werewolves really do exist." He heaved a sigh into the mirror. "Seems that the magic of the Keep has had an unexpected effect on me. I have this one enscrollment on me that grants accelerated healing. Seems it has fused with the curse. When my body was rebuilt, all my scars went with it. Real shame. I really liked some of them."

He leaned closer towards the mirror and spread the skin around the eye to get a better inspection of it. Even the eyes had changed. That was the worst for Rickkter, actually. Uniform brown, instead of their old green, a strange shade of aqua-green with a tinting of yellow around the pupil. As Rickkter had pointed out to Pascal, they were unique. At least for this part of the world.

"That gives me some concern about the rest of my enchantments. If it fused with that one, I hesitate to think what it might have done with some of the others. In fact, based on what I feel now, the curse has been playing hell with my cloaks and masks for sometime. It's going to take me a long time to see what's what again. And to fix whatever I can." He shifted his gaze around, seeing what his head looked like from different angles. "Might as well make sure that the important ones still work."

Pascal saw him smile slightly, his whiskers perking up. "What was that about?" 'Truesight works,' he mindsent. His grin widened when he saw Pascal's startled reaction. 'And it would seem that the telephaty still does as well.' Pascal's vision shifted to Rickkter's point of view. The raccoon was considerate, and banished the vision when he saw the 'pine wince.

"Sorry about that. I had to make sure that was still fully functional. The rest I can do myself. I just hope that none have been too seriously damaged by the change."

"I'm sure you can get over the loss of one or two," Pascal said, blinking and wiping at her eyes. She REALLY didn't like telepathy spells.

"Yeah, so am I. It's just so... depressing to see everything I was being stripped away from me." Reaching out his arm, his paw made contact with the cold, unyielding surface of the glass. "All that I once was, gone. The man who I was is no more."

"Mourning your own death?" asked Pascal as she turned her gaze back up. She was wearing a slight smirk.

"Bah, you're right. This is depressing," concurred Rickkter as he shifted his gaze to meet that of the porcupine's reflection, the grin on his face a testament to the infection of good humor.

Finally breaking his scrutiny of the mirror he started to head out of the room. "In my mind I still am who I was when I came here. Perhaps a little more humble, but still me. Guess I just needed a sense of closure. I'm going to see if the tailors are done with my clothes yet. Brian said he was going to drop those off with them."

"Oh, there is something I'm curious about. Why do you think that Matthias would have been looking in on you here?"

"Matthias?" asked Rick with a blank expression.

"Yes. Charles Matthias. He's one of the Keep's rats. He's a little shorter then I am, tanned fur. He's one of only three rats you'll see above ground. He came in a few days ago, while you were unconscious. I saw him leaving at one point when I came to check on you. Do you know what he might have wanted?" "I'm afraid I do," grumbled Rickkter. "Where can I find him?"

"I wouldn't know for sure. But he's the head of the Writer's Guild. I can give you directions to that part of the Keep."

"Please do. It seems that me and Charles need to do a good deal of talking."

Charles looked up from the manuscript he was reading. Since it was the afternoon, he was at the Writers Guild going over a few stories he had been meaning to. In through the door had walked a raccoon morph. By his darkly colored garb and distinct facial markings, Charles could tell it wasn't Brian.

"So you're the one they call Charles?" inquired the 'coon as he walked around the room.

"I am. What is it you want from me?"

"An answer. One simple answer, to one simple question. Why am I here?"

"How am I to know that? Everyone comes to Metamor for different--"

"No, that's not it!" He angrily spun around and stalked over to Charles' desk. "I mean why am I still alive? Pascal told me that you had come to see me a few days ago. By all rights, I should be dead. Why did you spare me?"

((Ah, Kankoran,)) said Charles as he leaned back. ((I see you made it through the change. Interesting form...))

Rickkter slammed his paws loudly on the table. "I'm not here to exchange pleasantries," he growled. "I want answers! And the foremost is why?!"

"As I was saying," continued Charles, completely ignoring Rickkter's interruption, "that is an interesting form you have. The mask is the biggest irony of all. Your kind always did hide in the shadows, afraid of operating in the open when it didn't suit your plans."

"And I think that your's is even more ironic." The raccoon leaned a few inches closer. "I've always said that Sondeckis were vermin to be exterminated."

"Now that wasn't a very nice thing to say." The grin on the rat's face was quite sardonic.

Rick struck the desk again. "Just answer the question! WHY AM I ALIVE?!"

Charles clicked his claws on his desk as he regarded the exasperated Kankoran with a cool and calm expression. "I have my reasons for it."

"Reasons, reasons, we all have reasons. Reasons for this, reasons for that. Justification is a prime component of the human mind." He grit his teeth as he leaned a few inches closer, his muzzle drawing back in a snarl. "I should finish what we started the other day. Right now."

Charles' own face took on a deadly cast. While being only a rat, he could look rather fearsome when the need came around. "Do you really think you can beat me?"

Rickkter's look of menace quickly dissolved into one of disarmed arrogance. He backed off of Charles' desk, and turned to grab a chair. He sat down quickly, steepling his paws before him as he resumed his glare at the rat.

"I think that we both succumbed to emotion the other day, there in the hall. I figure that now, with both of us thinking clearly about the situation as we are, we could probably reduce this entire room -- maybe even a good part of this building -- to rubble, and not even scratch each other." He leaned back, his arm going over the back of the chair. "Don't worry. I have no desire to attempt that again. Besides, if I wanted to kill you, I would have done so the moment I stepped through the door. A good thing for you that Shan'Agrek are not concerned with matters of the sect."

The rat's brow twitched in the slightest. "A rogue?"

"Yes," said Rickkter in a bitter tone. "We've been called that. Rogues, freestaves, renegades. Many names, one affliction; dishonor from the sect."

"I would be most interested in hearing about that."

Rickkter stared at Charles for a few moments, his tongue running along one side of his muzzle. "Only if you answer my question."

"Agreed. But you go first." Matthais knew that he should answer first but he wanted to see how far he could push this warrior.

The Kankoran grumbled in annoyance at his counterpart. But in the end he relented; he wanted to hear this reason far more then he cared about this Sondeckis finding out something insignificant about his past.

"It's simple enough, really. I showed potential -- very high potential -- so I was sent to train with a master, a Julan. The catch was that the Julan they believed best able to train me was already an old man, one very advanced in years. He had even sworn off the sect upon his retirement. I don't know what the Kankoran did to get him to take me on, but he did. Of course there was the risk that he would die while I was under his tutelage. I knew that as well as the elders, but I choose to go anyway. I knew the risks of dishonor, but I couldn't pass a chance to be trained by one of the best, a veritable legend."

"What was his name, your Julan?"

"That is something I will not divulge, at least not to you. Suffice it to say, after three years of training under him, the inevitable happened. He gave me his daisho, a few parting words of wisdom, and then rendered me Shan'Agrek."

"So that's when you joined a magic enclave and became a Battlelord?"

The raccoon sneered back, his long whiskers further accenting the action. "That part wasn't in our deal. I've fulfilled my part of the bargain, now you fulfill yours. If there is one thing about Sondeckis, it's that even deserters retain the sect's high sense of honor." He raised his brow for emphasis. "At least those that live."

Charles gently stroked the fur on his chin with one paw, his eyes never leaving the Kankoran. "You should realize, that by the sheer fact that I am still alive after all these years, that I must have been powerful in my sect. You are right, though. I could have killed you at any time. Yet the world is a much larger place here. Events are going on that we cannot control, and the old prejudices would do us no good. We are both Keepers now, whether we like it or not."

The rat leaned forward slightly. "Killing you profits me nothing, but costs me greatly. That is why you are still alive. It is in my best interest that you be alive for now."

The raccoon snickered as he picked at his tunic. He didn't believe a word of it. At least not all of it. "Well, we certainly have a dilemma here, don't we?" Shifting around, he propped a foot up on Charles' desk and crossed his arms over his chest. "Here we are, a pair of great warriors, both holding each other over the same barrel."

"What magic enclave did you come from?" the Sondeckis asked again.

"What does it matter?"

"We both know that wizards never go rogue from a southern magic order, at least not without seeking a new, more powerful house immediately. I think that they might be very interested in what happened to such a promising young wizard from all those years ago. And we both know that any of the enclaves that would take you on, a Shan'Agrek, would probably send someone capable of dealing with you. They would, in all likelihood, destroy the Keep just to get at you." This was a similar ploy that Lorid had used on Charles not a few months before, and the rat was finding that being on the other side of it most enjoyable.

A smirk spread over Rick's gray muzzle. "You think that? I can tell you they won't. They will send one person after me." His look became hard and deadly serious. "They will send my best friend, my comrade in arms, to my new home, to kill me. Against him, I will have no chance. When he is done with me, he will kill the few others who know anything of my connection with them. And then he will leave. The only evidence of his passing will be the bodies of the handful of keepers that know of my connection. I think that after me, you would be the next to die. And you won't even see it coming."

Charles yawned, slouching back to show his grave concern for such a threat. "So there is a Battlelord out there who you think could do that to a Sondeckis?"

"Who said he was a Battlelord? I could probably beat one of those. No, my friend is a Mindbender."

Charles started briefly, but quickly regained his composure. Benders were the absolute last mages a person would ever want to face down.

"That's right," said Rickkter, playing on the brief flash of panic he saw Charles give. "After he's finished turning my mind into something resembling warm pudding, he will come to see you and finish the job. And if you think that your enchantments will save you, I can assure you they won't. The whites have ways around them, and I'm sure my friend will be made aware of them. Even my own would be brought down before I could do a thing about it."

Charles shook his head. "You are quite delusional if you think yourself important enough for the whites to divulge secrets they've kept for thousands of years."

There was a gleam in the raccoon's brown eyes that bespoke of reasons for another opinion. "Think what you may, I know it to be true."

Charles considered the situation once again. "You said something about each of us having the other over the same barrel?" he asked with a wry grin.

"Yes. I can't tell anyone of you without risking death, and likewise you can't without being destroyed yourself. Thus, we've reached a stalemate."

"So what are we going to do about it?" The two warriors of a centuries long shadow war sat back and simply stared at the other. Both took measure of what they saw, and both considered their options. Finally it was Rickkter who spoke.

"I was told that the true measure of power is in the ability to never need to use it to its full extent. I think that if you managed to live this long without letting on your true nature, then I won't blow your cover. After all, you did choose to spare me. I can do the same in return for you. I won't interfere with your life, you don't interfere with mine?"

Charles nodded. "Agreed."

"Good." Rickkter stood up and headed back out of the Guild.

"Rickkter," called Charles to the back of the departing raccoon. The rat had taken his chewstick in both paws. "That pike you have, the Sondeshike. Where did you get it?"


The chew stick made loud snap as it broke.

"I lost a lot of good friends at Memphis," said Charles in a low tone.

"So did I," said Rickkter as he looked over his shoulder.

"Do you have it with you now? Tucked inside your sleeve perhaps?"

Rickkter turned and raised both his arms. With a wriggling of his wrists, he worked the fabric of the sleeves down his arms. All that was there was his blank and gray fur. He turned his arms around so that the rat could get a good look.

"I have it somewhere safe. Don't even think of trying to steal it from me, either. If it goes missing, I'll know it was you who did it. We're the only ones at the Keep who know exactly what it is and therefore its true value."

"Are you sure of that?"

"Oh, very sure."

Charles idly tapped his claws on the table. "Good bye then. I hope never to see you darken this office again."

"As do I." And then Rickkter turned out the door and left the Sondeckis behind.

Metamor Keeps newest member and warrior-mage was sitting in the back of the local tavern watching the crowd go about its business as he nursed a celebratorie bottle of twenty year old scotch. He was currently marveling at the skills of Copernicus at a game of pool. It would seem that the lizard was taking his single loss a little hard, and was laying into his unfortunate opponent with a vengeance. Rickkter couldn't help but smile at the memory of the lizard's face as his cue ball rolled past its intended target, in that game of only a few nights ago.

He also couldn't help being distracted by the feeling of that smile. It was one of many new sensations he was just becoming accustomed to. The mage reached up one of his black paws and began to feel the odd contours of his new muzzle. It was so strange to have a smile that projected a few inches from the rest of one's face. The whiskers were another source of vexation. Long bloody things, too. He was lost in the sensations of picking at his canines when a familiar voice snapped him out of revere.

"So what do you think of the change now?" asked Michael.

Rick toasted his young friend with his half full tumbler. "It is with out a doubt the strangest thing that has ever happened to me. Well, so far."

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