Richardson scratched again. In the past two weeks, he had seen more than he cared to of the supposed curse, and his disbelief was about to wear completely out, not to mention his fingers. Heck, he had itched more in the past three days than he had in his whole life. Halion was still saying the curse had him now, but, until he had some personal proof of it. At least, proof other than constant itching. "Kid, just read up."
"Okay, okay, sheesh. I'll try to figure it out." Halion, when not hackling him about how the curse had him now, seemed to either want to ride Richardson's cycle, often causing mass destruction while he was at it, or make cycles for his friends. Richardson had let him make a few, and sold them to the families. Unfortunately, he had to curtail Halion's enthusiasm over the cycles, so that he wouldn't get run off to one of the villages farther north as a hazard to pedestrians.
"The more you read, the more you'll get to do, as you will understand more of it, and be better equipped to handle situations in the workshop and come up with cooler things eventually." At least Richardson didn't have to badger him too much about reading up and learning new techniques and concepts. The kid was an able and quick study. Heck, just the day before he had to forcibly put Halion in his bed because he wanted to finish reading a text on catapults and their operations. "And don't stay up late either. You need some sleep."
"Aww... man..." The kid took a sad look at Richardson, trying to get some extra time.
Richardson smiled at the kid's complaint. He had been right about one thing when he met the kid. He definitely had that thing in his voice that made you love up on him. Heck, in two weeks he had managed to turn him into a loving surrogate father. He still wished he knew what went through the boy's head, though. He wondered if the kid was hurting as badly as he thought on the inside, hiding it in an attempt to impress him. He hoped that the kid's losses wouldn't hurt him as much as his own losses had scarred his life for the past 13 years. "Don't even think about it."
"Okay." The kid was glum, but accepting. In fact, he had been unusually compliant for a kid of his age. Richardson was getting worried about him.
"Now try not to burn the place down while I go wash up for the night." Richardson chuckled at his small joke, knowing he had managed to accomplish such a feat himself once. In less time, too. That little mini-nightmare was what had put him into technical study and out of harm's way in alchemy and chemical study. He still could recall that hasty, frantic night. Heck, he wasn't sure anymore how exactly that flask had gone off... all he had done was accidentally shaken it up slightly.
"When are you going to tell me about the time you burned down your teacher's house? You said you had done it once, but you won't tell me how." Halion was prying into a part of it Richardson didn't want to drag out. His teacher at that time was his now deceased father...
"When you get a little more understanding of the world, Halion. Some things are best kept to small measures in childhood." Richardson had a little more bark in his voice than he wanted. No, actually, near the end, it sounded a lot like an actual bark... He decided it might be a good idea to check himself quick.
"Told ya several times..." Halion quipped as Richardson made his slightly panicky way to the washroom, slamming the oak door behind him.
"Please let me be normal," he chanted as he looked over his face in the mirror mounted above the wash basin, studying every detail for a change. He sighed as he realized that besides a slight blush from panic, nothing had changed. He felt his body around, looking for changes other than in his face, and found he was still normal. No, wait, all his hair seemed to have a red twinge. "Probably just my imagination..."
"You normal still, or should I go for the infirmary?" Richardson winced at Halion's boldness. The kid was still pretty rough at the edges on the timing. Then again, he had problems himself.
"Just keep it up, and you can sleep in a chair tonight!" Richardson barbed back as he washed up.
"Slept in worse. I'll just get back to my reading." Halion had a definite edge in his voice Richardson didn't like. Heh, the kid was too much like him for his own good.
Richardson stretched, having been rudely awakened by sunrise. He yawned, trying to clear some of the sleep for him. Then it hit him, the yawn he just had sounded way too much like a yip from a dog... He ran his tongue over his teeth, feeling definite amiss-ness. And there seemed to be more tongue as well. He bolted up, feeling something on his back end getting squashed up against the bed before he jumped to the floor. "Not good..."
"Huh... wa..." The kid was too sleepy to give him the whole truth, and Richardson was in too much of a panic to have intelligent though on the matter.
As he shoved the door to the bedroom open, he could definitely feel something was up. His balance was more nimble than normal, and it almost felt like he had a layer of fur between him and the door. As he ran across the main space, he picked up another bad sensation, his feet were barely touching the ground, being balanced on the ball of the foot instead of being the normal flat-footed stance. As he shoved the wash room door opened, a detached part of his mind noted that his hands seemed fuzzier than normal, much more so, and were a neat, dark black/maroon in color. What he saw in the mirror as he skidded to a halt was definitely NOT the face he had gone to bed with.
The scream supposedly woke several light sleepers several miles away.
"Richardson, what's going on!" Halion came running, before skidding to a halt in the doorway to the washroom. "Woah!"
Richardson had changed into a fox. Fur a shade of red deeper than blood, a black streak running from the back of his head to just above his eyes, which were a piercing green. There also seemed to be miniscule traces of a nearly black blue in the fur. He had sprouted a good yard of tail in the night, which was still stretching out slightly and filling out to full poofyness, with a black tip instead of a white one. His feet had shifted to match, with the same colors as the rest. It seemed his hands had changed least of all, remaining mostly human, but still getting the fur the rest of him had, as well as a slight pad on the palm, which seemed as much as it wanted to change. "Does it look like I'm having a sane moment here?" he screamed, much more loudly than he would have preferred. Actually, maybe a howl more than a scream.
"Um, I'd better go get the Coe to look at you..." Halion moved to exit the room.
"Don't you leave me like this! I'm coming with you!" Richardson's sanity was hanging by a thread, and anything that could stabilize it he was gonna stick with. "Just let me get a robe."
"Now do you still think the curse isn't real?" Halion asked as Richardson's tail fuzzed him in passing.
"Kid, give me a major break..."
Just after getting checked out...
Richardson shook slightly as he walked out of Coe's office. 'Nothing wrong with him'... Like becoming a half-fox in the night wasn't abnormal. He felt his tail shake in tune to the waves of semi-sorrow and severe irritation at what had happened to him.
"So, I take it you've been given a clean slate of health?" Halion's perkiness in the face of the situation was about to drive Richardson over the edge.
"Kid, just watch your mouth over the next few days. I'm about a hair's breath away from completely snapping, and your comments are only making things worse. As is, I've got to... learn to deal with being furry, having a tail that's as long as my legs, if not longer, and having pointy ears and a muzzle. I may be healthy physically, but I'm critical in the mind." Richardson's tirade caused a few heads to peek out from behind doors, some fuzzy, some normal looking. But, it accomplished what he wanted, and got Halion to quiet down. A bit too much, in fact. The kid got really quiet, in fact, nearly deathly quiet. "Ah, perk up kid, as long as you don't bug me about my new self, I'm still my old, annoying, loveable self..."
The kid chuckled at that, and got into step with him. "So, what is it you're planning on having for lunch? Or should I just get something myself and let you figure that one out for yourself?" The kid had one thing going for him, no matter what the situation, he adapted.
"Actually, I was wondering that bit myself..." Richardson knew the one best way to take a person's mind off of anything was food. Especially since the fastest way to his heart was through that highway.
Two days later.
At least Richardson had only gotten his new tail caught in a door once since he'd changed. He had to thank the higher-up in the universe for that small favor, and turned his gaze back out the window. The room had changed again when they got back, the outer door dropped down to plain oak, and Halion had been moved out of his room into his own separate bedroom just inside the main door. At least two things were now established without a doubt: A, his grandfather was right about this place's changing shape, and he would probably be gloating at Richardson's conversion the next time he saw his favorite grandson, something Richardson was not looking forward too; and B, the curse was indeed real, and very much a part of him now. "At least I've still got something of me left..."
"Hey! A caravan from the south just arrived, and there's this girl down there asking for you!" Halion's shout startled Richardson; it seemed much too loud for his new, more sensitive ears.
"Don't shout so loud, and what's her name?" Richardson ran to get himself his best pair of pants and over shirts that had been retailored to fit his changed body, a solid black outfit with a gray band across the shoulders, and a red undershirt.
"Um, I think it might have been Dier, Diess um..." Halion's further attempting to figure out the name was cut off by a loud whoop from Richardson as he recognized the name. His love had come looking for him. He hoped, that was...
Courtyard, less than 10 minutes later.
"Hmph. I should have figured he'd market that unsafe contraption of his..." Akalia Diess muttered as she gazed out over the gathering crowd. A few of the kids were astride some of those cycle things he had put together, and it seemed the people here were just as annoyed by them as the people back home were. Then again, the people back home were idiots, so she supposed they didn't really count for much.
"A wise man does what he can within the laws of good reason to survive..." Old man Nathan Richson was in another of his philosophical moods. "Barring of course, that wise man happening to be my grandson..."
"Ain't that the truth..." Davison, Richardson's old buddy seemed to find Nathan's sentiment rather in tune with his long-time partner in trouble. "Besides, at least it's this instead of something more serious, Richardson always finds some kind of trouble."
"I can already tell he's gotten into more trouble than he could have ever possibly believed." Nathan had a cheer in his voice that neither Diess nor Davison had wanted to hear. The kind of cheer Nathan got when he proved someone wrong. "In fact, I think he's just coming down the steps, rather agitated, actually."
"Huh?" Diess decided the old man had finally taken a left turn into crazy world. She didn't see Richardson, only some morphic fox person wearing something like his favorite outfit. Then something clicked, that was Richardson's favorite outfit. "Oh, boy, he's in trouble this time."
"Heh, I think he'll never doubt magic again." Nathan got back and hid in the front wagon as Richardson bounded up. Or, at least what Nathan claimed was his grandson anyway. Diess wasn't quite convinced yet.
Richardson skidded to a halt, slightly wincing at the cold paving tiles beneath his feet. "Wow... um, Diess, what has inspired you to make this crazy trek after me, especially with only that nut, Laon?" He was still surprised they had come after him.
"Yeah, it's him." Davison was more than slightly shocked at his friend's new appearance. "Um, what in the heck happened to you?"
"Well, all I can say is that you guys need to clear out before it happens to you." Richardson began to shove them back to the wagons they had come in, when he heard a voice he had been dreading for the past couple of weeks.
"A wise man controls his impulses, and learns to accept destiny..." Nathan Richson poked his head out of Diess's wagon. "But you are neither wise, nor accepting. But that tends to be normal for you," he cracked as a follow-up, giving the three newcomers a good laugh. "Help me down, you impulsive rapscallious fox."
"Did you have to bring him?" Richardson moaned, just before getting knocked upside the head with his grandfather's cane.
"And be courteous to your elders. Especially the ones who know far more than you could ever hope to know." Nathan's voice now held a slight bit of contempt as he used Richardson as a stepping stool down. "Heh. at least you've gotten something out of getting turned into a fox. You used to look like a dog aesthetically speaking, now you really do!"
"Sheesh, your puns are still deadlier than those katanas you used to wield." Richardson knew this conflict of wits well. Diess and Davison both shook their heads at the signs of brewing conflict. "And why in the heck did you come up here, you're too old for this kind of gallivanting around."
"I made a promise a long time ago that I would come back here, to the very keep itself, and I intend to absolutely make good on that promise. I still owe my life to it." That remark snapped at least 3 heads around. "And that is the absolute truth, my boy."
"Well, you've come, now it's time to go back." Richardson wasn't in the mood to let his last bit of faithful family get killed merely because of some superstitious promise. "Besides, if you haven't noticed, this place isn't exactly safe. They just got ransacked less than a week before I got in. You need to get back to where you belong."
"I belong with you. You're the only family that I have left, besides your murderous brother." The crowd had begun to disperse from this reunion by that point, but the few remaining turned back, a little treachery was always a crowd holder. "Besides, it wasn't like we had a choice in coming up here."
"Huh? Why those overbearing crones... No offense."
"None taken. We complained a bit too much to them that they overdid your punishment, and they threw a hissy fit and sent us to 'Assist' you in your duties. I believe they said something along the lines of 'If you're so worried about his failure, then you can help him out, for what little it is worth.'" Nathan shook his head at the reminder of the stupidity of that moment, and looked out over the crowd, hoping to see a face that was quite familiar to him. "Besides, by this point, me getting completely changed around can't hurt me more than I already am hurting."
"So, bud, you're stuck with us, for better or worse." Davison seemed to be loving the utter defeat painted across his friend's face.
"So, if you and your fuzzy rear want to stay intact, you better help us up to where you're staying," Diess growled, in her slightly hostile, yet loving way.
"Richardson!" Halion finally worked his way over to where they stood.
"Who's the twerp?" Halion gave Davison a hurt look.
"Now, now. The kid lost his parents in the assault, and I've sorta gotten stuck with watching over him. Plus, he's my new apprentice." Richardson gave his old partner a scalding look.
"Heh, figures you'd get yourself in over your head. In more ways than one." Diess tussled the kid's hair, then grabbed something out of the back of her wagon. "Oh, and I believe you forgot this with us."
"Huh?" Which was all Richardson had time for before his staff whacked him in the face. "Hey! So, I didn't loose it, other than leaving it behind."
"Yeah, well, take better care of it, and don't take that fuzzy new tail of yours off with it either." Diess was having a fun time with him, his change still had him rather shell shocked and in a not-so-brilliant state of wit. "I want to do that."
"Come on, we've got to get settled in..."
"Okay, Halion, get the door." Richardson could barely see around the huge stack of stuff he had brought up from the wagons. It seemed they had brought all of their belongings from the south, and his as well. It was only his new muzzle that kept him from getting completely smothered by the mish-mash of old things.
"Huh, what is it?" Richardson stumbled through the door, barely able to see. He decided to drop his stuff so he could find out what in the heck was going on. "Oh, now I see what you mean." The room had gotten changed around again. While the room appeared to be slightly smaller, there appeared to be another bedroom off to the side. There was now a small fireplace by the door to the workshop, and where there was a table before, there was now a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf jutting out to screen the backside of the living area. The chairs had been increased to three, and there was now a chest to one side that could be used as a stool. "Hmmm, I guess somebody is watching out for us."
Nathan smiled at his grandson's words, knowing quite well who was watching out for them, and exactly why. "Thank you Kyia..." he barely breathed as he sat down in one of the chairs, feeling winded from his trek up to the apartment.
"Who?" Richardson realized he had heard the name before, often being thanked for the people's survival.
"The spirit of the keep, ya deaf fox." Nathan felt some of his old adventures coming to mind. Heck, he had Kyia to thank for the Katanas that had kept him alive all these years, at the promise of his return. "She's the one who's been doing a number on your room, preparing for us. If what I've heard is true, she's probably been hurting the past few weeks. Ah, I've owed her a lot over the years, including my living long enough to sire your father, and thus making whatever destiny you have possible. It's been fifty years that I've been waiting to have an excuse to come back to here, now I'm finally back."
"If you say so..." Richardson un-cracked his back as Diess and Davison fought their way into the room, and dropped their stuff in the middle of the floor. "Halion, we're going back down for another round of stuff, check to see what else has changed, and start putting the books and stuff we brought up in alphabetical order. They may not stay neat, but I'm going to start neat."
"Not going to fight me over the existence of a magical being, Richy, my boy?"
"After the past few days, I have no defense. You were right, about at least part of it, and I was wrong, happy?" Richardson steeled himself for the gloating.
"Heck, that's all I've ever wanted to hear. Don't just stand there, we ain't getting any younger, go get some more stuff!" Nathan whacked one of Richardson's hands with his own staff, and put it on the wall.
"We're going..." Richardson grumbled as he walked out the door. "And don't scare Halion with some of your stories. Those tales were enough to give me the creeps."
"I take it you want me to go look for your room?" Halion could see that there was something about Nathan Richson, something that had happened a long, long time ago that made him someone to respect, even more than Richardson.
"Heh, good to see someone knows the proper respect for old men who've had too many trail miles." Nathan rocked his way out of the chair, and followed his grandson's protégée. "I must say, Kyia set this place up good for us."
"Yeah, she even gave us our own kitchen." The came around the concealing bookcase, taking a good look around the dining room.
"Reminds me of my early travels, so long ago. It's kinda surprising really, it's been fifty years that I've gone through the world as much as I could, correcting the wrongs, protecting the innocent, the whole hero blather. Heck, I would have been in it for the money, but I got coerced into being a hero type by Kyia. Ah, I won't go into it more than I have to. Suffice to say, she can be deceiving at times." He took a look in the direction of His grandson's room. "I think that where-ever I'm going to stay, it's going to be down those stairs."
"We never had another floor before..."
The pair slowly picked their way down the stairs, coming to the sub-level of the apartment. "I think the door on the right leads into another part of the workshop that got set up upstairs. The left one I know is a storage room."
"How could you know that?" Halion was feeling confused as Nathan slowly walked ahead, purposefully, knowing what awaited him.
"I've walked this hall before, many a time. It's a much older part of the keep than you would know." Nathan turned the blind corner, making Halion run to catch up. "I know things about the keep most nowadays would rather not know. Heck, I spent a good ten years of my life here, exploring the dark places, finding the secrets she would show no other. My view of the world was sort of tainted to the grim by those early expeditions, but, the things I learned on those little excursions have saved my life more than once before, and will again, if Kyia manages to have her way."
"Just who are you anyway?" Halion stared as Nathan turned another corner, coming into the light of another window, and slowly walking the final stretch of hall that led to another door, another room. Nathan gestured for Halion to go back.
"Kid, I'm a legend who has come to his true home for the last time, the time to die I hope, taking my secrets with me. A bit of advice for you kid, enjoy your innocence, whatever is left of it. If you knew a half of what I did, you'd kill yourself over it. Now go on and do what Richardson told you to do." Halion grimly headed back up to the main room, worrying about the strange old man that was his adoptive father's grandfather all the way.
"Time to face what is to be..." Nathan felt the largest surge of philosophy he had ever had, and wondered what he would have done differently in his past if he had known his path would have led him here. He pushed the door open, and waited for the demons of his past to take him.
"It took you a while."
He opened his eyes, not upon a sea of dark, but upon the room he once occupied, so long ago. "I should have guessed you wouldn't let me go, even now, when I am of no use to order and justice anymore." Nathan walked slowly in, taking a circle around Kyia as she watched him with amusement.
"Who said you were ever too old to be of use? Certainly not your grandson. Even now, he still respects you for the master you are. Even now, you have a place. And I believe you owe me something back." Kyia held out her hand, and Nathan knew his time had probably come.
"So be it." Nathan Richson pulled out something he had kept hidden for years, the source of his near immortal luck, and the reason he had not been allowed to die. A talisman that came straight from the beginning of the universe. "And I assume you want the Katanas back as the agreement stated as the symbol of my soul?"
"No, you still need them, and I was joking about taking your soul. You should know better, especially after this long." Kyia closed her hand around the talisman, and quirked a smile at Nathan. "It is a good thing to have you back. They need you, and your experience, now more than ever."
"Why is it I was afraid you were going to say that?"
"Because you knew it from the time you left. Welcome home..."