"What are we going to do?" asked the young girl in a panicked tone.
"Hope that we can out run them," replied the older woman as she tried to regain her handhold within the rocking carriage. It was swaying back and forth badly on the rough road that led to the keep. The breakneck speed the driver was going wasn't helping make the ride of his passengers any more comfortable. "Will you watch where you're going?" hollered the older woman as the carriage almost barreled into a thick patch of pine.
The younger woman tightened her grip on the frame of the open carriage window as she watched the scenery whip by. What was suppose to be a simple job now had a real chance of getting them both killed. In fact, they had enlisted the services of the carriage specifically to avoid this type of situation. Their driver said that he could get them to Metamor safely and they had both agreed, despite the man's rather hefty fee.
All had seemed fine until they had reached the first checkpoint. The driver explained to his passengers that it was good practice to alert the patrols as to their arrival. It was well known what had transpired at Metamor, and both women had agreed to listen to the driver. But that was before the Lutins had attacked, of course. The younger woman figured that the checkpoint was well known to the little green monsters, and that was why they had chosen to attack. And now their driver was running his team for all they were worth, trying to get both his charges and his own scrawny neck inside the protective walls of the keep before the Lutins could put arrows into the lot of them. As the carriage jumped a foot in the air from hitting a pothole, the young woman considered, with a sick feeling in her stomach, that it seemed the Lutins were herding them in a specific direction.
All of a sudden the older woman's head snapped up. "They just killed the driver."
And sure enough, the carriage almost went off the road. The young woman's fingers strained to hold on, while her older counterpart was thrown roughly against the wall of the carriage. The younger woman momentarily regained her grip as her elder companion staggered to her feet. It was only a momentary regaining, because as soon as it was done, the carriage was brought to a violent halt, throwing both its passengers to the front of the compartment. The young woman managed to cushion the impact with her shoulder. As she was thrown to the floor, she saw her older companion's head connect with a corner of the edge of the luggage rack, producing a shocking spray of blood.
It took the younger woman several moments to recover after the carriage had finally come to a complete stop. It would seem that she did knock her head a little after all. But when she saw her travelling companion, it snapped her back to reality. The older woman was lying there on the floor, a large pool of blood slowly spreading beneath her.
The young woman could hear the sounds of their pursuers even as she crawled over to help her companion. She took the older woman's head in her hands, using the hem of her dress to try and wipe away some of the blood that was seeping profusely from the other woman's head. She could hear the evil sounding voices of the Lutins drawing closer to the carriage. She only hoped that she could remember some of what she had been taught. While still a novice, her power was formidable when she applied it.
But suddenly the air was split by two explosive crashes, the voices outside changing their tone from aggressive cries of plunder to those of surprised terror. Those cries were soon joined by shouts of battle, the second set having a more human tone to them. The young woman smiled a little as she pressed her dress to the forehead of her companion. It could only be one of the patrols from Metamor. Soon the sounds of ringing steel came to her ears. Yes, it could only be them.
"Hold on, Chandra," she whispered to her unconscious companion. "It'll be okay in a minute. Just hold on there."
As if to defy her wishes, the head of a Lutin poked its way through one of the open carriage windows. Both women had been told what those creatures looked like, but seeing one in the flesh, knife in hand and prepared to kill them both, was quite another thing. The young woman screamed with fright as the thing gave her a sadistic grin and commenced climbing into the disabled carriage.
It never got more then half of its upper body through. Without warning a crossbow bolt exploded from the Latin's forehead, showering the interior of the coach with blood and little bits of gray matter. The body slumped over, half in and half out of the carriage, its bronze knife thudding useless to the floor.
The sounds of the brief battle outside were dieing down now. So was the flow of blood from the older woman's head, and her young companion shifted her skirt around a little to a clean section. When she looked up, she was looking into the masked visage of a raccoon.
"Are you two all right in here?" asked the 'coon as he placed a paw on the window sill and looked around a little inside the carriage.
This time the young woman's scream was one of pure, hysterical terror. If a talking raccoon wasn't bad enough, his face was half bathed in blood and he was holding a large, blood coated sword. The raccoon only slumped his shoulders and turned away a little as the young woman continued to shriek.
"*Rickkter!*" shouted a voice from outside the carriage. "Get away from there!"
"WHAT?!" asked the 'coon, as he turned away from the hysterical woman and held his arms wide in an imploring manner.
"Just get away from there!"
"What?" inquired the warrior once more as he began to move away.
"Just get over here!" demanded the other voice, a little closer this time, the young woman noticed.
"Alright, alright. Just try and get my bolt back," replied the fading voice of the raccoon.
"Don't you know it's not a good idea for you to greet the guests?" shouted an imposing female warrior as she came into view in front of the window. "Just stay over there with Bender and the others, and let me see if I can fix this mess."
The young woman had calmed considerably upon laying eyes on a human figure. The female warrior turned to face the two in the carriage. "Are you all right?"
The young woman swallowed. "I'm fine. Perhaps a little bruised from the rough ride, but unhurt other wise. It's Chandra here that I'm worried about. She took a nasty hit to the head, and has been unconscious ever since."
"Well, if we can get her to the Keep, then she should be okay. My name is Jione, by the way. I can help you get Chandra out of the carriage where we can see if anything can be done about her head."
"Thank you. My name is Selena."
"Well, come on Selena. Let's see what we can for you two."
"So how is he?" asked Kwanzaa.
"Ah, Vertti's fine. Coe patched up the leg and he says that he should be walking on it again within the week. It wasn't that serious an arrow wound, despite Vertti's expert opinion to the contrary."
"That's good to hear."
"Hey, you know Vertti. Can't keep him down. When I went to check on him, he was acting his old self." Rickkter grinned, his tongue protruding a little out from between the front teeth of his muzzle. "I asked him, 'hey, Vertti! How are you feeling?'. And he said," and Rick did a perfect impression of the AR's accent, "'I am great, man! It only hit six inches from my bab-a-lyons!"
The table of warriors cracked up over that one. Vertti was well known for his filthy mind. The fact that he was stuck as a twelve year old only heightened the image further.
"Why is it that guys always use that area as a central point of reference?" asked Kwanzaa. "I mean, you could get shot in the head and you would be like, 'hey guys! I just got shot in the head! Three feet from my bab-a-lyons!'" The table roared with laughter at the shrew's half-assed impression of Vertti. "And my buddy. He got shot too. He was ten feet from my bab-a-lyons. My God! It's a wonder I can sleep at night with all this stuff happening so close to my bab-a-lyons!"
"So how is our other subject?" asked Bender after the rest of table had calmed itself some. Kwanzaa sure knew how to put on a show.
"Still unconscious, I'm afraid," said Rickkter before he took a pull of his cold ale. "Though Brian is rather optimistic that she'll awaken before the curse can take her."
"That's good to hear," reaffirmed Kwanzaa. The others at the table muttered their ascent. Each one of the keepers at the table had been a member of the welcoming committee that had intercepted the stricken carriage. When they had found it, they were forced to dispatch the modest sized Lutin raiding party that was about to lay claim to it. But all the keepers were competent soldiers, and the only injuries they had suffered were by Vertti. By a chance of bad luck he had taken an arrow hit during the first few moments of the engagement. He was quite upset at "being left out of the fun."
But the Lutins had been dispatched quickly enough without his assistance. It was the occupants of the carriage that had presented the problem. One had received a nasty knock on the head, the other a bad fright. Fortunately Jione had been able to calm the second down quickly enough, and they had all worked at getting the carriage back on the road and to the Keep post haste. Dropping off their pair of charges with the healers, the warriors had retired to the Deaf Mule for some well deserved drinks. The summer heat was murder, more so for the animal morphs with their fur coats.
"So what's going to be done with them?" asked the wolf morph, Bender.
Rickkter licked a little foam off his muzzle. "Well, after hearing about the curse and its possible effects, the younger woman, Selena, agreed to wait back in town until we send for her. She asked that the older one, Chandra I think her name was, accompany her, but Brain said it was best not to. Head injuries are very unpredictable, and he wanted to keep her for observation. But if she's not awake by the morning of the third day, we're sending her to town. Brain was adamant about her not being caught by the curse if we can at all help it. So was the woman's companion, for the same reason."
The shrew nodded. "Good to hear. At least we reached them before worse could happen." The table then launched into the usual discourse of warriors, their laughter blending with that of the rest of the tavern.
The woman slowly came awake. Her eye lids felt like lead weights as she tried to open them. The sight that greeted her was unpleasantly out of focus, and she closed her eyes with a slight groan.
"Oh, good. You're awake," said a pleasantly musical voice.
"What? Who are you?" asked the woman, sitting up a little and opening her eyes. She let out a small shriek when she saw who she was talking to.
"Relax, relax," said the raccoon, holding both his paws up in a disarming manner. "My name is Brian Eirik Coe, and I promise I won't hurt you."
The woman in the bed pulled the sheets up to her breast, her eyes roving over Brian. "What are you?"
"I'm a healer."
"Since when has being a raccoon been a prerequisite for being a healer?"
"About a third of us at the Keep look something like this ," replied the brown raccoon. He noticed the blank look the woman was giving him. "Do you know where you are?"
Her eyes wandered back and forth a little. "No."
Coe frowned a little at that. "You're at Metamor Keep. You were injured in a Lutin attack almost two days ago. Do you remember anything about that?"
The woman blinked a few more times. "No."
Brain let a little mental groan. "Can you tell me your name?"
The woman was very quite for a few moments. "No," she whispered.
'Damn it,' thought Brian. "Well, according to a friend that was travelling with you, your name is Chandra. Your friend was named Selena." Brain paused to look for some kind of recognition. "Does any of this ring a bell with you?"
Chandra began shaking her head, the shaking becoming more pronounced. "No, none of it means anything to me. I can't remember anything. Where I came from, who I came with, even who I am. Nothing at all! It's all a blank."
"Well, I hope you get better," said Brian as he touched her shoulder. She flinched a little at his touch. "I'm going to keep you here for another day of observations. That's cutting things awfully close with the curse, but I just want to make sure nothing else is wrong. You took a very nasty hit on the head."
"Do you think I'll ever get my memory back?"
Brain bit his lower lip with one canine. "I really don't know. Maybe, maybe not. I hope so, though." Brian headed for the door. "You can get dressed if you want. Selena left your things here in case you woke up. I'll arrange it for someone to show you around a little."
"Now, Scratch," lectured Raven as she strode around the tiger, "one thing that you must learn if you are to become a servant of Akkala, is how to call upon her power to promote healing in others." The Lightbringer clasped her hands behind her back, tapping the space between her shoulders with her switch.
"Now in order to do that you must first learn concentration." The wolf morph glared at the back of the head of the tiger who was sitting cross legged on the temple floor with his eyes closed. "You do know about concentration, don't you Scratch? *Scratch?*"
There was a loud crack as the switch connected with the pads on Scratch's palm a few scant inches from his nose where he had snatched the switch out of mid air. The tiger cracked his eyes opened, his gaze sliding upwards to meet that of the wolf. "Don't... do that. I already asked you to please stop it." He gave the switch a hard yank, pulling it from the wolf's grasp. "I told you I had a bad night, and that I have a splitting headache. This didn't help the first time, nor the time after that, nor will it help this time." Scratch winced and rubbed his forehead. "So would you please find a new method to express your frustration?"
Raven sighed and folded her arms as she looked down at her pupil. "You're really in that much pain, aren't you, Scratch?" The tiger could only nod. "Okay, off with you. You're no good to me if you can't pay attention to what I'm saying."
"Thank you, Mistress Raven," muttered Scratch as he rose to her feet.
The Lightbringer turned back to the altar with its scented candles. "Go on, come back when you feel better."
Scratch murmured one final thank you as he pushed through the doors of the temple. He reached up and rubbed the fur between his ears as he walked down the hall, reflecting on his situation. His night had been horrendous, plagued by all manner of bad dream. When he had finally awoken to the lightening gray of the dawn, it had also been to a ferocious headache. He had hoped that breakfast with Matthais would have cured that, but it only seemed to grow worse.
Of course Raven had been no help. She had been in a rather uptight mood of late, and today seemed to be no exception. The wolf had spent the first half hour berating him for his lack of progress in learning the clerical techniques, and for his inattentive behavior of late. Scratch's nose still stung some where her switch had expressed her displeasure. How he ever managed to restrain his temper to keep from killing the priestess, Scratch didn't know.
The tiger grinned a little as he shifted his scratching to behind his ears. He found that scratching there seemed to help when he had a headache. His mood today also wasn't the best. If he so much as caught a glimpse of that damned beaver Michael, he was liable to turn the annoying little rodent into a pre-mid-day meal.
Scratch stopped and looked around the hallway he was standing in, trying to determine where his feet had been leading him. When he realized his location, he let out a murring sigh and started off towards the familiar door, his long tail lashing out behind him. That was one funny thing about the Keep's architecture; it almost always seemed to know where you needed to go, and rebuilt itself accordingly.
He rapped twice and walked in the door. "Hello, Pascal."
"Morning, Scratch," called the porcupine alchemist from within her collection of ingredient shelves. "You're off a little early today, aren't you?"
"You could say that," confirmed Scratch as he grabbed a stool. Leaning an elbow on the nearby work bench, he clutched his head and let out a muted hiss. His head suddenly felt as if someone had rammed a white hot spike through his brain.
"Are you all right, Scratch?" asked Pascal in a concerned tone from her end of the lab.
"Not really. I have a headache you wouldn't believe. In fact, that's why I'm here."
"Oh, my poor kitty," cooed the 'pine as she went over to Scratch and wrapped an arm around his broad shoulders. She reached up a little and began to fuzzle the fur behind his ears. "Is there anything I can do to make it better?"
"Umm, you're already doing that," replied Scratch around his deep purring. "But I was thinking of something more long term. Do you have any of those little white pellets you gave me when we first met?"
Pascal murred a little. "Is it really that bad, Scratch?" The tiger nodded a little against her paw. "Okay, I'll see what I can do for you." The alchemist smoothed out the fur at the back of the tiger's head and walked over to her sets of shelves.
As Scratch leaned his head on his propped up hand, he reflected how lovely Pascal could look at times. Especially now, in her element like she was. He smiled weakly as he realized his headache was good for something after all. Every sound seemed louder then normal, and while it had bothered him a lot at first, now it only soothed him. It was odd to hear the clicking of her quills when she was so far away from him. With a loud sigh, he relaxed his eyes and tried to the same with his mind.
"I was wondering, Pascal. What are your feelings towards Rickkter?"
"Rick? He's just a friend. That's all, really."
"A friend like Michael?" asked Scratch, cracking open an eye.
Pascal turned around from the odd contraption she was at to look at the tiger with the lazy, accusing expression. Much to Scratch's surprise she barked a laugh at him and returned to her machine. "If there is one thing you should know, it's that Rickkter is notn Michael."
"No attraction to him?"
Pascal shook her head as she yanked down on the device's lever. Picking up the small white pellets the machine produced, she walked over to the sitting cat. "You know you're the only one for me, Scratch. Rick is just a friend, and he desires to be nothing more." She gave him a pair a the white pellets and a glass of water. "Here you go, I hope they help."
"Thanks," muttered Scratch as he opened up and downed them in a single gulp, washing them down with the water as an after thought. "More, please."
Pascal blinked at him. "Two is the recommended dosage."
"Please, Pascal. Two more."
A look of concern came to the face of the multi-colored porcupine. "If it's that bad, don't you think it would be wise to go and see Brian?"
Scratch wiggled a pair of fingers into a spot just over his left eye where a fresh spot of pain had cropped up. "If it gets bad enough, then I will. I'm just tense.... tired... frustrated. I just need to get outside, need to run. I figure between that and what you gave me here, I'll be fine in a few hours. So can I get a few more?"
The look of concern hadn't left Pascal's face. "If you say you'll be fine..." She saw Scratch nod sluggishly. "Okay."
Scratch downed the second set of white pebbles without any hesitation and without the benefit of water. His head really wasn't feeling that good. He rose from the stool and took the porcupine alchemist in his arms, placing a small lick on her forehead.
"Thank you, Pascal. I hope this helps some. If not, the run is liable to."
"You're not going to forget about our dinner date, are you?"
Scratch's whiskers perked up a little as he smirked at her. "Now how could I forget a dinner date with my favorite lady? Don't worry, I'll be back long before dinner."
Pascal stood on her toes and gave him a lick on the nose. "Hurry back, then."
Brain knocked twice and entered the small infirmary room. "How are you feeling, Chandra?"
"Oh, better. Better. More so since I got into some comfortable clothing," replied the middle-aged woman as she closed the last few buttons on her blouse.
"Excellent. I would like you to meet someone." Brain stuck his head out the door and beckoned to someone in the hall. Much to Chandra's surprise, in walked a five foot tall rat morph. "This is Kimberly," said Brain by way of an introduction. "She helps me with some of my patients sometimes. I've asked her to show you around the Keep a little."
Chandra smiled and nodded a indulgently to the rat. "Pleased to meet you Kimberly."
"I want to keep you here until tomorrow, at the longest," continued Brain. "Your memory loss is very concerning."
"Do think this little tour could help?"
"I have no idea," shrugged the raccoon. "Could help. Then again, maybe not. But almost anything is better then keeping you cooped up here. Besides, you might as well get a chance to see the Keep before you leave tomorrow."
"Why is that? You never did really explain it to me." asked Chandra as she came to stand with the other two.
"Because if you don't leave before the third day, there is a chance that you'll be affected by the curse. Everyone here is victim of that spell, and I highly doubt that you would want to succumb to it."
"Well, then I had best get started," said Chandra with a smile. Brain returned it, and told her that if she should feel faint or unsteady, or anything of that nature, to get back to the infirmary as soon as possible, and to send for him if he was not there. Then Chandra and Kimberly were off though the halls of the Keep.
"So how long have you been at the Keep?" asked Chandra after they had gone down the hall a little ways.
"Oh, not all that long. Only a few months, really."
"How did it happen?" asked Chandra as she paused to look out one of the windows. "If you don't mind my asking."
"No, I don't really mind. I did it to escape an arranged marriage to a filthy pig. Like you, I was waylaid by a Lutin attack. But I choose to stay to ensure that I would never have to go back. Since then I've made a number of new friends and fallen for a wonderful rat."
Chandra smirked a little, but it carried with it a good naturedness to it. "Pigs to rats, eh? At least you're moving up in the world."
Kimberly returned the comment with a light laugh. She then directed the older woman down one of the side passages.
First on the tour was a showing of the main court. The sight momentarily stunned Chandra and it took her several seconds to take it all in.
"Impressive isn't it?" asked Kimberly, a satisfied smile on her face as her tail twitched happily behind her.
"You could say that."
The main court was one thing that all but the most jaded visitor found most impressive. Not only was it quite active, but the formality there was unlike anything witnessed in any similar setting anywhere. Animals, humans, and children interacting in a hectic and very busy setting. Kimberly pointed out a few of the people she knew, such as Phil and her fallow rat Tallis, and describing the jobs of some of the other people. But the court was still a busy place, people coming and going all the time, so the rat decided that it would be best to continue. Chandra readily agreed.
The pair was on their way past the mess hall when they ran into a group of the Keep's warriors. One of the group spotted the rat and the older woman and broke off to come over to them.
"It's good to see you're up and around," said the warrior to Chandra. "Feeling better I take it?"
"Um, yes I am," replied Chandra. "But... just who are you?"
"Oh, I apologize for that. My name is Jione, and I was on the team that rescued you from the Lutins. Your friend Selena was quite concerned for you when I found your carriage."
"Well, it's nice to meet you Jione. My friend Kimberly here," she explained, gesturing to the rat waiting patiently to her side, "has been showing me around the Keep a little."
"It's good to see that you're up and around. I'll leave you two to your tour then. Goodbye Chandra. Kimberly."
"Wait, Jione," said Kimberly to the departing warrior. "Would you care to join us?"
Jione turned around slowly, eying both of the other women carefully. "I wouldn't want to impose."
"You wouldn't be," assured Kimberly. "You would be good company and give a different view of the Keep. Besides, I've never really done this tour thing. I would appreciate your help."
"Well, if you insist," conceded the warrior as she rejoined the other two.
The three women continued with their tour, Jione providing a little additional cometary to that which the rat was giving. At Chandra's own insistence she told them some of what being a soldier at Metamor meant and what she did on patrols and welcoming committees and the like.
"Oh, wait. Here comes another member of the group that found you," said Jione as she indicated the stairs. "That's Rickkter. One of the more... interesting keepers you're liable to meet. Oh, Rick!" she called.
Rickkter quickly turned at the sound of his name, and seeing Jione quickly began towards the three women. He only made it a few paces before his entire posture seemed to alter.
The raccoon slowly came to a halt, his last few steps taken very hesitantly. His hands floated few inches from his sides, as his face began to acquire an expression of total panic. Rickkter's eyes widened and his ears went flush with his head as he stared at the woman in the centre of the group.
"Zin-Gll'Hanaan," whispered the warrior-mage in a sharp hiss. "Zin-Gll'Hanaan," he repeated a little louder, beginning a steadily increasing retreat. He was almost running back down the hall when he shouted "L'ebumna ce'haiie li'hee Zin-Gll'Hanaan!". The phrase Zin-Gll'Hanaan echoed back to the women from up the hallway after the raccoon had turned down another hallway.
"What was he talking about?" asked Kimberly. "What in Abba's name is Zin-Gll'Hanaan?" The rat looked up at Chandra, her eyes questioning.
Chandra only shook her head. "I have no idea..."
His head was still pounding as Scratch strode down the hallways that lead out of the Keep. He could feel his tail whipping around behind him, clearly expressing the anxiety he was experiencing. He needed out of here, he needed the open country!
Memories of being a tiger were filling his mind when a fast moving form ran smack into him. Much to Scratch's surprise, the form was Rickkter. As the panicked raccoon disengaged himself from the tiger, Scratch's keen nose picked up the unmistakable odor of fear emanating from the warrior. Rick's panicked visage and flatted ears confirmed that something had given him an awful fright.
"Hey, what's going on?" called the thief to the quickly departing warrior. Rickkter was constantly looking behind him, like he was afraid of something that might be perusing him.
The raccoon swallowed noticeably and pointed a shaking claw back down the empty hall, continuing his retreat for the stairs. "Zin-Gll'Hanaan. Zin-Gll'Hanaan ep-eeth. K'yarnak ya hai." Rickkter whipped around the corner of the first landing to the stairs. "Zin-Gll'Hanaan! Hai Zin- Gll'Hanaan orr'e ep fl'hur!"
Scratch could only stand there and shake his head. He really didn't need that, not with the day he had been having. He had heard that Rickkter was a little strange, but this was plain ludicrous. The tiger resumed his journey down the empty hall to the outside as he slowly shook his head. Maybe if he had been able to understand what the raccoon had been jabbering about, but it was all incomprehensible chatter to him.
But then he was outside, and nothing else mattered but the warm feel of the summer sun on his fur. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply of the scents and aroma's around him. It was at times like these that he was thankful for being blessed with the form of a tiger.
Scratch made the quick jog to the outer gates in record time. A quick explanation to the guard, a gender-morph named Gillian, and he was out in the open. Oh, the summer time, the smells of the forest. All were combining to try and chase away the tight pounding inside of Scratch's head. It was a good day for a run, and the tiger in him demanded Scratch take full advantage of it.
He made his way to a small clearing that he knew of and began to disrobe. While his clothing was modest, and he did have a fair supply of it, there was no reason for him to needlessly destroy it. Wrapping it up carefully in a bundle, he hid it in the hollow of a tree that he had sought out for just that purpose. His possessions taken care of, it was now time for Scratch to unwind in the best possible way he knew how.
Closing his eyes he pictured himself as a tiger, strong and swift. In moments he felt both his front paws connect the ground, signalling him that the change was done and for him to open his eyes. When he did so, the world looked like a very different place. It always did when one only stood a few feet in hight. Scratch let out a satisfied purr as he surveyed the clearing, his long tail whipping about behind him in an impatient manner.
The purr was brought up short by a shot of pain lancing across his forehead. Scratch quickly raised his head once more, resolving to get going and hope that Pascal's medicine would help him. With that, the tiger vanished silently into the forest, in search of something to relieve his frustrations.
"So what do you think of the Keep?" asked Jione as the trio of women settled down on one of the stone benches in the terraced gardens. They had just finished running the gauntlet of a full tour of Metamor, and all were a little sore on their feet.
"It's magnificent," confided Chandra. "I have never seen a structure of such beauty. At least not that I can remember," she added with a laugh. "But I think that the gardens are the most beautiful."
"Yes, that's one thing we can all agree on," said Jione. "The ground keepers do a wonderful job with this place."
"This entire place is beautiful," said Chandra in a serious tone. "The grounds, the gardens, the Keep itself." She just shook her head sadly and gazed out over it all once more.
"Remembering something?" asked Jione.
"I don't know. Just a feeling that I don't get to be around beautiful things enough."
The two keepers didn't really know what to make of that, so they just left it. Each just sat there on the bench staring out over the gardens, thinking their own private thoughts. It was Kimberly who finally broke the silence.
"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm hungry," said the rat. The other two women quickly agreed with this and decided that the next part of the tour would involve some of the fine food served at the Mule. Jione and Kimberly were quick to their feet and ready to go.
But when Chandra tried to stand she was suddenly hit with a wave of nausea. Seizing her forehead with one hand, her other one found the back of the stone bench in an effort to hold her upright. She felt light headed and very woozy.
"Are you all right?" inquired a small voice from behind Chandra. Probably that rat, Kimberly, Chandra realized.
"No," she replied clenching and unclenching her eyes. "I don't know if... ough..." Chandra's legs gave out and she collapsed back into the bench. Kimberly and Jione were quickly at her side.
"Come on, let's get you back to the infirmary," said the warrior as she and the rat carefully lifted the third woman off the bench. Chandra could only nod weakly as she was carried away.
It was a bad day. It was a really, really, really bad day, reflected Scratch as he re-entered the temple. Unlike what he expected, the run hadn't helped with his headache. It had been just as bad in his tiger form as in his more human form. If fact, the pounding discomfort with it's intermittent sharp spikes had caused him to loose more then one potential meal.
Now that he was back in the keep, his headache seemed to have gotten worse, if such a thing was at all possible. It felt like his brain was being squeezed out of his head, as well as being torn to pieces in the process. To say nothing of the fact that he was now also very famished.
But even so, he still loathed going to Brain for help. He never had any real affinity for healers, despite the raccoon's often kind nature. Which was why he was about to ask just about the last person he would want to for help.
"Mistress, Raven?" inquired Scratch as he knocked on one of the temple's inner doors. "Are you here?" He repeated his request a second time in a much louder voice.
"What is it, Scratch?" came the voice of the wolf from the archives at the back. Fortunately she had been on one of the upper levels and had kept the door open to indicate she was down there, so she had heard Scratch's calls.
"Mistress, Raven?" asked Scratch once more. "Where are you?"
The wolfen cleric was slow to appear from the stairway to the archive. When she did, it was with a book in hand and an expression of displeasure from being disturbed. "Right here, Scratch. What are you calling me for? I already excused you from your lessons today."
"I, um, came to request your help, Mistress. With my headaches."
"Was there nothing Brain could do for you?"
"I haven't been to seen Brain. I saw Pascal, but what she did was of no help. I was hoping that since you know a great deal of the mind, and of controlling it and the body, that you could possibly help me in this."
A grave expression came to the face of the high priestess as she set aside her book and walked to Scratch. Stepping close she peered into both his eyes then took his head in her hands. She used the first two fingers of her paws to lightly rub at the tiger's temples, gazing deeply intohis eyes the whole time.
"Is there anything you can do that might help?" asked Scratch after the Lightbringer had withdrawn.
Scratch trailed Raven as she walked over to one of the small storerooms along the right side of the temple hall. From within a small cabinet she withdrew a pair of bottles, a large piece of colored chalk, along with a few small tripods for burning incense. She then returned to the central portion of the temple, a wide open area.
"What I am about to show you, you would not otherwise lean about till at least the middle of your training. For several centuries the Lightbringers have been using a method of meditation known as the Circles to aid us. The circles shut out, to the cleric's mind, all influence from the outside world. The only things that get through are things that the subject desires, allowing the subject the luxury of total concentration. That is their main purpose, and the purpose that we will be using them for today. I believe that their harmonizing effect will help dispel your pain." She gave the tiger a hard look. "That is if you can muster the concentration for it to take effect."
Scratch gave her a weak smirk. "If this will help relieve the pounding that I'm feeling, then I will try my best."
"There is no try, Scratch. You either do or do not. Now, come. I shall need your help to properly set the circles."
With the two working together, they made short work of it. First Raven drew out a complicated pattern at the centre of the floor with the chalk, then had Scratch pour out the contents of the bottles into three ever widening circles. Fortunately the tiger's keen eyesight permitted him to pick out the marking that were already scratched into the floor for that exact purpose. After Raven had quickly set and lit the tripods, she had retreated to the edge of the whole thing to stand beside Scratch.
"What do I do now?" asked the tiger.
"Simply sit in the centre as if you were to meditate, as in our daily lessons. I shall stand behind you this first time and assist your mind. At first you will feel a sensation like falling. After that, I cannot tell you. 'Tis different for everyone. But when you are done, when you feel that your mind has returned to a calm state, all you must do is concentrate on returning and you will. Though I caution you against doing anything else while you are under the influence of the Circles. Opening and harmonizing your mind are but two things they do. You do not have the proper training to go any further."
"I have some research to perform in the library, Scratch," said the Lightbringer after the pair had gotten settled. Scratch was sitting cross legged at the centre of the chalk signet with his eyes closed, Raven standing behind him with her paws on his shoulders. "Since I don't know when you will come back, I cannot promise that I shall be here. If that should happen, do not touch anything. Simply leave the temple and I shall clean up afterwards."
"Of course, Mistress."
"Good, Scratch. Good," said Raven as she lightly rubbed the cat's shoulders and closed her own eyes. "Now I want you to relax. I want you to open your mind to me. Feel the power, Scratch. Let it consume you, let it take you down into your mind, into the core of your being. And do not be afraid, for I shall be with you to ensure that you don't go too far."
Inhaling a final deep breath, Scratch let go of everything... and fell.
"Who are you?!" screamed Chandra to the void. Her voice came back with a harsh, distorted echo to it. "What do you want?"
"Who are you?" replied a mocking voice that was not her's. That other voice had a dark, silky quality to its reverbrating echo, that seemed to drip of power. "What do you want?"
"Stop that!" demaned Chandra in an exhasperated shriek. Her echo sounded pittiful and weak in this distorted vacuum that she found herself in. Turning to gaze at the rushing sky, she hugged closer the cloak she found herself clothed in. It was an unusual garb; dark blue with silver and white symbols stitched into it, as well as a multitude of colored beeds in different patterns.
Chandra didn't know what this place was, or how she got here. It seemed like a lucid dream, only she had no recolection of any dreams nearly this vivid. A cold wind that cut through her cloak, forcing her to turn the other way.
Right into the face of another woman dressed in a similar fashion to her, only with a raven perched on her shoulder.
"Who are you?" asked Chandra in a shaky voice.
"Who I am is not improtant," replied the pale woman in a tone that had the quality of velvet rubbed the right way. "It is who I bring that should concern you."
Another gust of cold wind caused Chandra to turn around and clutch her cloak tighter. Her eyes took in a second woman who seemed to form out of the swirling ether as she walked towards Chandra. This new woman appeared to be one of dark beauty, complete with a head of long hair. She was dressed in black jerkin, tunic, leggings and boots. The woman smiled a little at Chandra's sharp intake of breath.
"Greetings my servant," said the strange woman with the jet black hair.
Chandra's eyes roved over the strange figure as she hugged he cloak closed. "Who are you?" she asked in a voice that was held firmly in control, despite what its owner was feeling.
"Who am I?" asked the strange woman, cocking one of her pencil thin eyebrows. "My what an odd question, especially coming from one of my most loyal servants."
"Servant? What are you talking about, I don't even know you."
"Yes," commented the dark woman in a vaguely displeased tone of voice. She clasped her hands behind her back and turning away from Chandra. "And that is the whole problem. You see, Chandra, I know you, but you, apparently, do not. You are a frightened woman, with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of your potential." The dark woman slowly turned back to Chandra, her icy gaze riveting the other woman where she stood. "That is something we'll have to remedy."
"How are you going to do that? I can't remember anything, and the healers tell me that it's unknown whether I ever will again. How are you going to help me?"
The daedra laughed, once -- a short, humorless sound. "Healers," she said disdainfully, grimacing as though the word were a bad taste in her mouth. "What do they know of such things? Just so you will know, my name is Lilith. But you will call me mistress. Is that clear, Chandra?"
Something in the woman's voice made her Chandra fear the consequences of not doing so. "Yes, mistress," she replied weakly.
"That's good, that's very good," commented the daedra as her gaze bore into the mortal woman. "And now for the really important part; to restore you what is rightfully yours."
"What do you mean?" asked Chandra, her eyes flickering over the barren void that she found herself and this strange woman in.
"Remember," whispered Lilith as she stepped up to Chandra. "Remember..." she whispered once again, clasping Chandra's head between her hands. And Chandra did.
"I tell you, it was the strangest thing I've ever seen," said Kimberly to Brian. "From what I've been told of Rick, that was not normal. It wasn't even close to in character for him."
"You mean that all he did was look at her, and then he took off?"
"Yes, that's it exactly," confirmed Jione.
It had taken the pair some time, but they had managed to track Brian down. They had caught up with him in one of the main, multi-level intersections near the library. There they had then spent the next several minutes relating all that had happened on Chandra's tour of the Keep, up to and including her fainting spell. While Brain was gravely concerned over the fainting, and promised to look in on Chandra at the soonest possible chance, he was none the less quite intrigued by Rickkter's behavior.
"We ran into Tallis on the way to find you. He said after that, Rickkter went down into the cellars," Kimberly told him. "He locked himself in a room and threw up a great many magical shields. About fifty feet of corridor in front of his room is crawling with magic. It's scared the other rats something awful."
"You're right, that is odd. Did Rick do anything else when he saw Chandra?"
"Well, he did say something at the time, but none of us could understand it," added the Jione.
"Hum. What was it?" inquired Brian, pinching his chin between his thumb and forefinger.
"Um, Zin-Gll'Hanaan I think it was. Does it mean anything?"
The raccoon shook his head. "No, not to me."
A flash of movement and a splash of colors from the corner of her eye, gave Kimberly an idea. "Kee!" she shouted down the corridor where she saw the movement. "*Kee!*"
It was a few seconds before the tawny coyote morph stuck his head back around the corner. "Did someone call me?"
Kimberly beckoned Kee over to her, the raccoon, and the female warrior. "Yes, I did, Kee. I was wondering if you could help us with something."
"What would that be, my lovely lady Kimberly?" asked the 'yote as he came up the group, rocking back and forth on his heels as he waited for an answer. None in the group noticed the arrival of the Lightbringer from the library and into the hall.
"You're from Rickkter's part of the world, are you not?" The messenger nodded. "We were hoping you could tell us the meaning of something. Do you know the meaning of the phrase Zin-Gll' Hanaan?"
Kee's reaction was not expected. First his green eyes went very wide, and then his pointed ears turned back to lay flush with his head. Last was his tail retreating between his legs. "Where did you hear that name?" he hissed.
Kimberly looked amongst the puzzled faces of the other group members. "Rickkter. He said it earlier today. About this one woman we were with, the one injured in the Lutin attack a few days ago."
The Lightbringer was standing at the threshold of one of the other corridors, quietly listening in on the conversation as she casually thumbed through a well worn manuscript.
"The woman. Is she still at the Keep?" The small coyote looked to be on the verge of bolting at the slightest provocation.
"Um, yes she is."
That did it, Kee was gone. The instant the confirmation left Kimberly's lips, he had whirled and was off.
"Kee, wait!" called Jione. The coyote came to an uncertain stop some distance down the hall, turning a frightened face to the large warrior. "What does Zin-Gll'Hanaan mean?"
Kee's eyes wavered over the three quizzical faces. "Soul Hunter," he answered. Then he turned tail once more and was gone down the nearby stair case.
The three keepers standing in the intersection all whirled at the loud bang that came from behind them. Their collective gaze quickly moved from the fallen book to the fleeting form of the Lightbringer as she rushed down another passage away from them. Never in all their time at the Keep had any of them seen Raven do something like that.
"My God," whispered Jione as their gazes all turned to each other.
"Let's pray that she's still asleep," stated Brian as he started out quickly towards the infirmary. The other two fell in quickly behind the fleeing raccoon.
Of all the things that were feared, all the monsters of childhood and myth, few were more deadly or as terrifying as a Soul Hunter.
The large oaken doors to the temple opened almost effortlessly at her touch. Lightbringer temples were always such a pleasure to enter, as they were almost all immaculately kept. Looking over the interior of the Metamorian temple, Chandra was pleased to find that this one was no different. A harmonious blend of stone and wood, with a main corridor leading to the inner chamber lined with frescoed painting. And her target sitting right in the middle of the whole affair.
Chandra's walk was calm and casual as she approached the back of the sitting tiger. This was whom her and her student had been sent to collect. "Hello Julian," she said in a quiet and cold voice. Much to her surprise, the tiger didn't react to her, just continued to sit calmly. But Chandra was used to odd reactions from the overconfident. And according to her mistress, this feline was nothing if not confident. Which was precisely the reason that she had been sent to deal with him.
"Do you even know what I am, Julian Saunders?" asked Chandra. She didn't give the tiger time to respond. "I'm a Soul Hunter. And I've been set for yours."
That got a reaction from the stoic form. Scratch visibly cringed and hunched his shoulders, like a person who had just received a nasty static shock. "That's right, now shall we do this the easy way, cleric? Or the hard way? I do hope you choose the hard way. It'll make taking you so much more rewarding."
What the Hunter didn't see was Scratch's face. His jaw was jaggedly opening and closing, as if trying to fight off a scream, and his eyes had completely rolled back into his head. His claws were nearly digging into his legs as all the muscles of his body locked rigid.
"So what will it be, cleric?" inquired Chandra as she withdrew. She always liked to torment her victims. Like a cat with a field mouse, she enjoyed how they squirmed.
The figure of the tiger morph calmed its taut shaking, quite visibly relaxing. His tail even began to swish around behind him a little. "The hard way of course, my dear," came the reply in a gravely voice that seemed to drip evil.
Chandra's expression became one of puzzlement and she backed up a little. That didn't sound like a voice capable of coming from an individual who looked like that. She held the stone in her palm out before her like a shield.
The tiger form slowly unfolded itself and rose to its impressive seven foot height. When he turned on Chandra, his face was wearing an expression of pure malevolence. "I'm sorry, my dear. Julian isn't here at the moment. May I be of assistance?"
Chandra lowered he glare and raised the stone. "Who are you?"
"Me?" inquired the tiger with the black voids for eyes. "I am simply known as Sivikian."
Chandra began to gather the power around the stone. "Well Sivikian, I don't know what you did with Julian, but I don't think you'll be around long enough to stop me."
The tiger only smiled, a great deal of his teeth showing in the process.
That was all the provocation that Chandra needed. With a thought she unleashed the magic that had been coiling around the stone in her palm. A deadly arc of crimson-white light shot towards the tiger.
And shattered against the palm of its intended victim.
Chandra gave a startled intake of breath and backed up several feet. The tiger just grinned, cocking his head to the side as his magic coiled around his upraised palm. It was a combination of a liquid blackness and a vivid aqua blue that seemed to coil and blend together. There was an equally vivid display of amber light coiling around the talisman at the tigers neck. Sivikian made an evil, purring rumble deep in his throat as he admired the fear on the face of the Soul Hunter.
"Surprise. It's amazing what a conglomeration of clerical, shadow, and dark magic can produce if blended correctly by someone of proper knowledge." He lowered his paw and began to advance on the Hunter. His expression lost all facets of amusement. "Let us see how well the rest of what you know stacks up."
"Now I want you to say behind me. I don't care what you see, or what you think you see, you are only to react on my command, is that clear?" Raven instructed the guards standing around her. She had recruited a small contingent of Metamor's armed guards to help her with this. In case things really went to hell inside.
The Lightbringer paused slightly as she prepared to throw open the first set of doors. She had managed to use her own clerical magic to track the Hunter here. She didn't know why she hadn't picked up on it before this, but she was positive that she had the Hunter now. Mustering up her determination, she threw open the first set of doors and marched into the foyer. Her eyes were fixed upon the second set of doors and she barley registered the magnificent frescos around her. Summoning up her power, Raven hin'Elric laid her paws upon the brass handles and threw the inner doors wide.
Her resolve faltered when she saw the condition of the temple. It was... red. Blood red. And in the middle of the whole melee, with his back to the door, was... "Scratch?"
The seven foot tall tiger morph seemed to waver back and forth for a few seconds before crumpling to a heap on the floor. Raven spun on the guards. "You stay here. If anything happens to me, don't hesitate to kill the one responsible, no matter who you think it is." Seeing the soldiers nod, she cautiously advanced into the temple, her senses on overdrive.
The temple itself reeked of blood, and it was no wonder. It was everywhere. She just hoped that it wasn't from Scratch, or anyone else important for that matter.
Her trek across the slippery and sticky temple floor was uneventful, though she still kept a wary eye to the shadows and ill-lighted sections. Eventually she reached the fallen tiger. Squatting down, she gently turned him over.
Even thought Scratch was well muscled, it was like moving a rag doll. Like he had no control of his limbs. The wolf cleric gave the deathly silent temple one more glance before turning her attention to her pupil. She compassionately smoothed out the blood soaked fur at Scratch's cheek and released a small amount of healing energy into the tiger. Scratch's eyes fluttered open and he gasped in a deep breath. The breath was almost immediately cut short as he started to gag and choke. Raven helped him onto his side as he continued to bring up bloody chunks and bile. It was several long moments before he calmed himself.
"What happened in here?" said the downed cat as he tried to choke back the last of it.
"I was hoping you could tell me," replied the Lightbringer.
"Ug, what is that?" inquired Scratch as he looked at the nauseating puddle beneath him.
"That, I believe, is what is left of our Soul Hunter."
"Soul Hunter?" said Scratch as he gingerly sat up.
"Yes, Scratch. That's what the woman that you killed was called."
Scratch blinked a few more times looked over the room before focusing on one of his paws. "Oh, good god! What happened?!"
The brow of the Lightbringer wrinkled in puzzlement. "You mean you don't know?"
"No!" cried Scratch in a panicked tone.
"What do you remember?"
Scratch's horrified expression took in the blood soaked room. "Nothing. I remember you showing me how to meditate, then the next thing is lying on the floor with you waking me up. Nothing in between."
"You're absolutely positive?" inquired the Lightbringer, a hint of agitation creeping into her voice. She didn't want Scratch to lie to her over something like this.
"No!" he yowled. "I think I would have remembered tearing a person to pieces like this."
Raven nodded and stood up. "You had best tell the Duke about this," she said to the group of guards still huddled at the door. "And get sheriff McCormick. She's going to want to know about this as well." The guards were quick to depart from the bloody scene to notify their respective targets.
Raven turned back to the bloody tiger on the floor. "Are you all right, Scratch?"
"I... I think so." He slowly got to his feet, albeit in an unsteady manner.
The Lightbringer's head was swivelling around the room. "Good to know. I want you to see if you can find something for me, Scratch. 'Tis a stone about the side of my palm. It should be wide and flat, with several large facets. 'Tis very important that we find it."
Scratch consented and began looking. He was feeling very woozy, his body feeling like it wasn't his own and was having trouble obeying his commands. His cat eyes managed to catch a glint out of their corner that drew his attention. With his tail lashing around behind him, he walked over to the object.
Much to his surprise it was his amulet, the Amulet of the Dove. A mystified expression creased his brow as he leaned down for it. It puzzled him how the amulet could have gotten all the way over there. He reached out a paw to take it back.
The instant his fingers closed around the cold metal, a surge of pain rocketed up his arm, forcing him to let go of the talisman with a startled shriek.
"What happened?" Raven called from the other side of the temple.
"No, don't worry. It's nothing," replied Scratch, shaking off his hand. "I just found another piece," he lied.
Fortunately Raven was more concerned with her search and quickly accepted his answer. Scratch clenched his paw and looked once more at the harmless lump of metal. He decided to try again, despite what happened the last time.
At least there were no adverse effects the second time, and Scratch rehung the amulet around his neck. No sooner had he resumed his search for Raven's mystery stone then he heard the wolf cry out from the other end of the room that she had it.
"Come, Scratch," she beckoned, walking to the door. "Now that I have the proof, you and I had best explain what transpired here tonight."
"So what was she? Exactly?" asked Scratch.
Raven paused from the last of the cleaning. The pair of them, and a small host of the less squeamish acolytes, had spent the past few hours trying to clean the mess in the temple. While the human body was only so large, it was amazing what could come out of it. And amazing the surface area that it could cover. The fight that Scratch had had with the Soul Hunter proved that principle with a grizzly clarity. And since the temple was sacred space, only the Lothanasi had been permitted to clean it all up.
"A servant of darkness, Scratch. One that serves the daedra and all their dark whims."
"Yes, I recall you telling Thomas that. Is that why he ordered the search for her companion?"
"Aye. But I don't expect that they'll find her. If what I was told is true, I think that she was a juniour, a Hunter in training, if you will. Chandra here was the true servant. Even so, whoever sent her and her companion will take measures to ensure that she escapes. No, they won't find her."
"But is there any more?" pressed Scratch. "Any that you didn't want to tell him and the court? Anything... truly deadly about them?"
After the attack, Raven had actually spent some time with the Duke trying to explain what had happened there. While the Lightbringers were pretty autonomous, an incident such as a dead body involved the Keep's central power structure. Whatever Raven had said to Thomas in his private audience chamber was enough to still the stallion's concerns.
"You weren't suppose to learn about any of this for a long time, at least not till the end of your training. But I think that the circumstances warrant my telling you. I'm going to have to start with the nature of the Soul Hunter itself." The wolf arranged her robes as she settled herself on a bench.
"Soul Hunters are individuals of a unique purpose. They are... I think the closest analogy would be divine bounty hunters. They are sent out by either the gods or the daedra to hunt down any that have earned the wrath of whatever deity declares the bounty. While daedra employ them far more then the gods, 'tis not been unheard of for one to be sent under the orders of Kammoloth or Dokorath."
Scratch was getting the last of the blood from within the groves of one of the statues. "Sounds pretty deadly. But why would the gods use them? Wouldn't they have the power to eliminate the person themselves?"
Raven shrugged. "Another difficult question. You see, the gods and the daedra are not omnipotent, nor omnipresent. They do not know everything, and they can only be at one place at one time. While it is not generally known, there are ways to hide from Their sight. It was actually another group that was the whole reason for the creation of the Soul Hunters.
The high priestess removed the strange six-sided stone that had been found near the majority of the body from her robes. "Do you know what this is, Scratch? 'Tis called a soul stone."
"Is that anything like the soul gems that Agemnos uses?" asked the tiger as he took a seat next to Raven.
"Yes and no. In a way the stone is a refinement of the gem. Where as a gem only houses a person's life force, the stone holds the whole soul, mind and everything. The gems are more... power sources. Like those stayner power cells that that porcupine alchemist of yours uses. The stones are... very different.
"Do you see the runes painted onto the facets all around the top and bottom except for this one face?" asked the wolf as the traced a claw along the strange designs. "They are meant to hold and contain the persons soul until the stone is destroyed or the runes removed. These runes are painted on. That means this was meant to temporary. She only wanted to capture your soul and deliver it to whomever it was who sent her. If they were etched, that would mean that the stone was to be your new home for eternity. As is, the runes can just be erased to free your soul at a later time and place."
The tiger shivered at the thought of being imprisoned in such an artifact, no matter the length of time spent in it. "A purely evil device."
"Oh, on that we are both in perfect agreement," commented the high priestess as she turned over the blood red stone in her paw. "But they are a device far older then the Soul Hunters. Do you remember that I said there was another group that the Hunters were formed to root out? They were called Necromancers."
Raven grimaced slightly. "While death mage is the direct translation, 'tis also a misleading term. Originally they had no name, they were merely servants to the god and daedra. Death mage was coined due to the nature of their service.
"You see, they were sort of the clerics of old. Three, four thousand years ago, the world was a very different place. The magic was fresh and powerful, the elves roamed the lands, there were creatures of all manner of beauty and diversity. And the gods and daedra walked amongst us.
"But as I already said, They are not omnipresent. With all that was required from Them in this plane, They did not have time to conduct affairs in the other realms. So They each choose a select group of loyal followers, and They imparted upon them knowledge of the magic necessary to leap the barriers between the different planes of existence. The Necromancers became kind of a super-cleric. They held more power then any other mortal before or since. They were the true emissaries of the gods. Their work often involved dealing with departed beings in the lands of the dead, hence their name.
"But as with all power, it was ultimately corrupting. The 'Mancers began to pool their knowledge, to expand and grow in their capabilities." Raven gave her wolfish head a sad shake. "Realizing Their mistake, that this group of mortals was growing too close in power to Them, the gods and daedra combined forces -- some say that even the Elders were involved in this -- and corrected Their mistake. In what is known as The Great Purge, all the Necromancers were destroyed -- and with them, all knowledge on breaching the barriers between planes. They killed all those that were once Their loyal servants.
"Well, not all. Some managed to get away, hide underground and in secret. They became very good at concealing their art from the prying eyes of the divine beings. Thus the inception of the Soul Hunter. They were charged with seeking out and eliminating all Necromancer they came across. They were to use the stones to house the 'Mancer's soul for transport and judgement."
"So how do the stones being older then the Hunters figure into this?"
"The stones were originally the tools of the Necromancers themselves. Dealing in the lands of the dead is often an extremely hazardous affair for mortals. The stones housed a soul selected by the 'Mancer to act as their familiar, as a bodyguard of sorts. The runes on a Necromantic soul stone also alter the mind of the imprisoned being, binding them to the 'Mancer."
Scratch nodded slowly. He had never heard of the Soul Hunters before this, nor of Necromancers in such terms. But if all this was true, there was one thing he had to ask. "Why would a Soul Hunter be sent for me?"
Raven only sat silently, he head shaking back and forth slowly with her ears bent in a vexed expression. "I honestly don't know. I know that they have been kept on as simple enforcement since the majority of Necromancers were exterminated down through the millennia. The gods and daedra know a good thing when They see it, I suppose. But personally, I can't say why you were attacked. Do you remember anything about it at all?"
It was the tiger's turn to shake his head. "No. As I told you, it's a complete blank."
"What do you remember?"
"I remember coming in here, asking you for help with my headache. I remember you showing me the Circles. I remember meditating, falling into my mind." He paused, his mouth hanging open as he looked for the right word. "And that's all. The next thing I can clearly recall is waking up with you standing over me. That's all, honest."
Raven let out a dejected sigh. She had heard all that before. "Then I guess there is only one more thing to take care of tonight." The wolf rose from the bench and disappeared down the stair well that lead to the Lightbringer archives. Scratch waited patiently for several minutes before she returned. When Raven did so, Scratch was much amazed to see that she was carrying what looked like a war hammer. It was polished silver, its surface covered with runes and glyphs of pure and noble nature. Raven beckoned him and he joined her at the altar.
"Since this seems to be a night of advanced leaning, I want to show you something important. The gods and daedra, both, have declared that all Their followers are to destroy Necromancers and their devices. While it was a Soul Hunter who possessed this stone, it is still categorized as a Necromantic artifact and must be destroyed."
With that final declaration, Raven raised the hammer above her head, uttered a quick incantation in the divine tongue, and brought the hammer down. There was a horrific cacophony of shattering glass as the crystal broke. When Scratch looked back it was just a small pile of fine red dust. Raven scraped it into her paw and blew it away. "There, that finishes it."
"Good to know. I'm going off to bed, if you don't mind. Between this Soul Hunter business and the rest of the day, I'm totally worn out."
"Pleasant dreams then, Scratch. I'm going to sit here and try make some sense of this whole affair," said the wolf in a dejected tone. "I'm also sorry that you had to miss your dinner meeting with Pascal to clean this up. I know how much you look forward to spending time with her."
"Think nothing of it, Mistress," assured the tiger as he started out of the temple. "I'm sure I can make it up to her. Somehow."
"Oh, Scratch," called the high priestess to her departing student. "How is your headache, by the way?"
Scratch stopped dead in his tracks, blinking a few times before turning back to Raven. "It's gone," was the only thing he could offer in the way of an answer.