by Ryx

It took several loud knocks to rouse the skunk from his slumber late the next morning, coming to his ears muffled as if by some distance. Three firm raps followed by a few moments of silence, then three more. Muri propped himself up on his elbows and blinked before reaching up to rub his eyes with two fingers, squeezing the bridge between them as he slowly sat up in his bed.

Squinting, he opened his eyes and stared at the square of sunlight glaring brightly from the polished stone wall of his room, wondering for some long breaths why it was there in the first place. His room had no window. Glancing around, he was rather startled to find that he was not in his room.

Or, at least, it did not look like his room. The previous morning he had awakened in what could best be described as a monk's cell; six feet wide by ten feet long, with a single shelf under which were four hooks to hang his clothing from. The room he found himself in was some four feet wider and another six feet longer, with a bureau on the wall opposite him and a small writing desk in the corner at the foot of his bed. Above the desk was a shelf, and two more were mounted on the wall to either side of the window in the wall at the head of his bed, which itself was a little wider.

He grunted, startled at the strange new environment, and quickly slipped from the bed. Whose ever it was would probably be highly offended should they return to find him sleeping in it. Or in their chambers for that matter. He ruffled the fur of his head as he looked around stupidly. Llyn must have worked him over far more thoroughly than he imagined, and had to chuckle at that. It had been over three years for him, a mere month or two for her. They had remained in the high valley far beyond sunset, coming down aided by the light of a handful of his witchlights. He had drained the magic out of the stone, letting the magic unweave itself before leaving, and made sure it had cooled safely.

He had not realized just how tired he had been until he laid down the night before, falling almost instantly into a deep slumber. He did recall, though, that Llyn had escorted him to his own room before seeking hers.

What had happened in the interim was a complete mystery.

He started slightly at a distant knocking, the muffled voice of some petitioner reaching his ears, "Wake up in there, cub!" a deep voice rumbled through the wood of his bedchamber door, prompting Muri to respond. He opened the door, and paused at the transom, taking a moment to examine the room beyond, which was appointed warmly in pale earthen tones and deep golden wood. The furnishings were not expensive and had an ageworn look about them, but they appeared to be comfortably constructed for the particular anatomy of an animalistic form. The room's ceiling was vaulted, with a spiral staircase leading up to a balcony level above his bedchamber door. Walking across the room, he looked up to see that the back wall of the balcony was lined with empty shelves, a single wooden door set in the center. Other than the furnishings the room looked unused. It lacked any formal decor or personal nick-knacks that he would have expected.

The knocking, though, was coming from one other door in the lower level of the room; a heavy, iron banded door of age darkened wood that looked strong enough to withstand a siege. He crossed to the portal and drew open the bolt, then stepped back as the door slowly swung open.

Beyond that portal stood a muscular monstrosity in fur the same hue of Muri's own, but whose shoulders were nearly twice as broad. A massive feline head graced those shoulders like a shadow of carved obsidian, blunt tipped triangular ears focused forward as the massive Keeper's brilliant emerald eyes pinned on him. Muri felt a brief moment of distress at that cold, green stare, but managed to quell it as he stepped aside. The panther was garbed in well worn brown leathers which sported some manner of intricate ranking. The skunk had yet to learn much about Metamor's military, but figured by the complexity of the heavy feline's rank that he was rather high in the Keep's military hierarchy.

Stepping through the door, the cat's eyes briefly scanned the room as he reached back and swung the door shut. The heavy construct thudded heavily as it closed, the latch rattling loudly in the general quiet of the room, echoing from the austere stone walls.

"I am Captain Eindah of the Metamor Keep Guard." The panther rumbled, his voice seeming to grab Muri's bones and rattle them as he stopped in the center of the room and turned to face the skunk, who had not moved from his position by the door. The skunk had drawn a small bit of protective magic about him, fearing that this impressive feline was the owner of the rooms he had found himself in, but quickly let it go upon realizing that he faced something more akin to a city watch.


The panther nodded, settling his massive hands upon the wide sword belt resting at a comfortable angle upon his hips. The thick black tail swished lazily behind his calves, the tip curved up in a calm position. "Murikeer Khunnas, recently of the Giantdows, I have received the report." He explained, cutting Muri off in mid introduction. "I have also received three other reports of some note which is the reason I have come to speak with you personally."

Muri cringed at the cold formality of the captain's voice, fearing that he was about to be banished for the chaos and destruction he had engendered since his arrival but three days before.

The captain waved a hand toward one of the chairs clustered around a low table of some dark wood, "Have a seat before you fall down, cub." He rumbled, the dry formality melting slightly from the baritone rumble of his voice. Muri nodded stiffly and did as he was asked, dropping heavily into a chair without bothering to get his tail through the hole in the back. He merely wrapped it around to one side as he grasped the arms of his chair and watched the panther with an expressionless gaze of impending dread.

Waiting until his host had settled down, the panther slowly shook his head and settled into another chair with a good deal more grace. "Relax, cub, I'm not here to send you out the gate." He rumbled as he steepled his fingers before the short taper of his broad muzzle. "I'm merely here to discuss a few things with you. One of the first is that I have been informed that you are a mage." Muri took a deep breath, holding it for a few moments before letting it out through his nose, glad to hear that his fear of banishment was mitigated for the time being. Looking across at the panther he merely nodded.

"That is good to hear, for we've painfully few practitioners here. There are a few rules that you need to follow here, primarily as a restraint from casting anything destructive beyond the wards of your own practice chambers or lab."

"I have no lab." Muri commented, finally finding his voice. Turning his head, the panther looked up toward the balcony.

"Then what's up there?"

"I don't know, these are not my rooms." Muri admitted with a shrug, "I just woke up here."

The captain laughed, his long white teeth gleaming against the black fur of his muzzle, "You have not been here long, cub, you'll get used to it. Kyia's preparing for you." Muri scowled, his whiskers folding back as he raised an eyebrow curiously at the panther. "You went to bed in one room, and woke up in another, right?" he asked. Muri nodded, looking once again at the undecorated room. "Kyia figures you're going to be sticking around, so she prepared a room for you."

"Nice of her to warn me." Muri commented dryly, settling into the chair a little more comfortably and draping the length of his tail across his lap. The panther's emerald eyes returned to him as his large black head nodded.

"As for the second report, I was rather distressed to receive from Duke Thomas himself." Muri winced as the panther drummed his fingers together in front of his black muzzle, "Apparently you decided to give a small group of the local Sensates a dose of your spray. The Duke and an entourage of dignitaries had the poor luck to be downwind, and nearly cut you down as you ran through them."

Muri could remember the scene vividly, and nodded with a quiet sigh. "Sensates?" Those humans had been terrifying with their forwardness, and deserved what they got so far as he was concerned.

"Whores, for the vernacular. Such pursuits are not expressly illegal here, though they are frowned upon. A small number of Keep citizens have chosen to experience all there is to be found among the many varied species now living here. Most of them are human, though there are a few among the other species."

"And they set upon me because?"

"You're rare." The panther rumbled, leaning back into his own chair, the slats under the cushion creaking with his weight, "Skunks are very rare here at the Keep proper. To my knowledge you are only the second here."

"I see."

"Why did you spray them?"

"Why?" Muri shrugged slightly, "Humans terrify me, and finding four of them in my face was more than I could handle."

"Did they attack you?"

"No, though I did not escape untouched."

"Nor did they. Though you are not barred from defending yourself from being attacked, I would prefer you did not spray anyone else. The third report I received only yesterday morning was the incident in the Mule two nights ago."

Sucking in a breath through his teeth, Muri nodded, "Once I figure out how I am to earn a living here I will recompense the owner for the damages I caused."

Eindah waved a dismissive hand, "Those have already been taken care of by the perpetrator of that entire fiasco. Donny was most pleased to exact the cost of repairs, and I suspect a few improvements, from Baron Aniris' coffers."

"He was the fat kid? How did he become a Baron?"

"He's one of the age regressed. His actual age is something closer to sixty years. Unfortunately the youth he was blessed with has given him a great deal of newfound health, and he's going to be an annoying nuisance for many more years to come."

"He did seem particularly disgusting, and apparently hates those who are not human."

"He's one of Loriod's cronies, steeped deeply in the fat lord's twisted ideals."

"What was he doing in that place then? He was the only human I saw there."

"Slumming, I suspect, looking for someone newly changed and vulnerable to his hatred so that he might elevate himself by humiliating them."

Muri sighed quietly, digging his fingers into the soft fur of his tail trying to find some sort of consolation in the warm softness. "I'd say he succeeded, though I am not newly changed."

The panther roared a deep chested laugh, whiskers twitching as he shook his head, "No, I'd say he was the one who was humiliated. Kicked, sprayed, and beaten rather badly by a very irate raccoon, he was barely conscious by the time the watch could get in. Then he was forced to dig into his own pockets to repair the damage that was caused in the chaos."

"And I was sent running like a cockroach exposed to sunlight." Muri muttered.

"Cub, in your place, I would have run too. Your spray also happened to nail one of the most powerful mages we have here."

Looking at the massive, competent looking killing machine that was Captain Eindah the skunk was rather impressed by the admission that the panther would not willingly have faced the enraged raccoon. "The raccoon? Who was he?"

"The battle mage Rickkter." Eindah reported with a quiet rumble, then stood from his chair with a liquid "A soul I suggest you avoid as long as you can." Muri stood as well, following the broad shouldered feline across the large parlor of his new chambers. Stopping at the door, the panther lifted the latch and looked back over his shoulder, "As for your fear of humans, I suggest you get over it." He rumbled as he pulled the door open, "There are thousands of them at Metamor. If you cannot get by with them, I suggest you move to a village that has fewer of them. Glen Avery, for example." Muri caught the edge of the door as the captain moved back out into the corridor, "But whatever you chose to do, I am telling you stop spraying things around here." Pulling a pair of fingerless gauntlets from his belt the panther shoved his fingers into the heavy leather, flexing his hand, "I'm taking the guard off your door, but keep in mind that I will hear about anything you do that causes problems."

"I understand, and will try to contain myself in the future, captain." Muri replied quietly as the panther pulled on his other gauntlet. Nodding, the panther turned and moved down the stairwell to one side of the foyer just beyond Muri's front door. Across from the door was a single casement looking out upon tiled rooftops and the foothills to the south of Metamor.

Duly impressed, Muri closed the door and turned to explore his new dwelling.

Pascal did not look up from her work as she heard the scuff and click of boot heels upon the floor of her foyer, knowing that the visitor would let himself in without worrying about knocking. He always did, though he did have the wisdom to look into her lab before actually barging right in. He had learned his lesson amazingly well when he walked in on a spell that changed the pride of his existence entirely.

Once a woman, the visitor had become a man during the Battle of the Gates, and went on without pause to gather a small group of other confused gender transformed warriors and secured the west gate with a tiny force of soldiers. A mere guard at the time, the newly become man had possessed the presence of mind to seal the gate, thus trapping the scattering animals within the Keep where hasty counter spells had granted them some semblance of their former humanity.

The porcupine did look up from her tome as the shadow of her visitor occluded the light cast by one of the glowspheres resting in sconces along the walls of her lab. She found herself looking at a tall, slender human of indeterminate years. He was perhaps middle age, with the good looks of a true rogue. Had she not known him before the arrival of the mage Rickkter she would have considered this male to be a sycophant of the battle mage with his severe black leathers, neatly trimmed beard, and carefully groomed ebony hair that had been blonde until he carelessly stepped in on one of the porcupine's experiments. He looked down at her book with stunningly green eyes for a moment before tossing something across the tabletop toward her.

"You would not happen to have a spare, hon?" he said with the same sardonic smile that seemed to be as much a part of his face as the thin moustache above his lip. The porcupine had never seen any other expression on his aquiline visage; whether in pain, anger, or sorrow he always seemed to have that rakish smile. No one attempting to read his moods by his face could even begin to understand what was going on behind that smile.

"Nope." She said as she picked up the morph ring and slipped it into her pocket, "They're an absolute nightmare to create."

"Most unfortunate." The man sighed with an expressive shrug of his square shoulders. "I've grown fond of being a panther."

Pascal chuckled, "I assume it worked, then?" she asked. The captain nodded.

"I don't reek of skunk musk, do I?" he smiled and winked, bending smoothly at the waist in a humorous bow, "It worked marvelously."

"Unless you were trying to seduce that reclusive intelligence secretary, I don't see how you would." The porcupine said with a shrug of her own, smiling at the man's bow. "If you need it again, you know where to find me."

"As always, beautiful." Eindah winked, then turned about smoothly on the heel of one boot and exited her lab with the crisp step of a born-to-the-sword soldier. Pascal shook her head at the flamboyant flirt, then turned her attention back to the complex formulae scrawling across the pages of the tome before her, all thoughts of the guard captain fading from her mind.

Muri stared at the door for several long moments after the panther had made his exit, shaking his head slowly. He had been given a very light, and somewhat companionable, reprimand from one of the highest ranking officers in the entire Keep. The event had left him a little shaken, and greatly relieved at the leniency of the people of his new home.

Now, if only the humans he encountered could be similarly as supportive. Only the female child and red haired amazon he had met two days past had given him anything resembling tolerance.

Chewing the inside of his cheek lightly, he shrugged and turned away from the door to examine his new rooms. The main chamber was austere in its décor, but magnificent in its architecture. The walls were of the same deep gray stone of the rest of the keep, deeply recessed between slender seeming buttresses that vaulted toward the gabled ceiling some thirty feet over his head. He imagined that it would be a challenge to keep heated during the winter with such a high ceiling, but the room had a modest hearth at each end of the room between tall, slender casements looking toward the east and west. Thick marble mantles stretched over each hearth from casement to casement, as yet unadorned with any decorations.

Used to living a rather spartan existence, Muri did not think he would ever be able to do justice to the magnificent architecture with any sort of decoration. He walked over to the southern casement of the east wall of his room, looking at the distorted colors swimming through the rippled, imperfect surface of the hand blown glass panes. Each window was some four feet wide, recessed deep within the casement and angled slightly toward the south. He figured the casement on the other side of the hearth angled slightly north. Leaning into the casement, he unlatched the windows and pushed them open, the distorted image beyond the window springing into sharp focus.

Rooftops stretched off into the distance to the east and south, all some distance below his lofty perch. Another tower stood some distance away, the topmost windows on a level with Muri's own. Beyond the shale and clay tiled roofs of the inner Keep the tall curtain wall stood, stark and grey in the midmorning sunlight. Guards, their silhouettes softened with the distance as to make their species indeterminate, walked along those walls, the gleaming steel of their pikes winking in the bright sunshine.

A knock at his door disrupted his quiet contemplation of the breathtaking view, prompting him to slip down from the casement. Five quiet raps that were almost lost through the thick wood of the door, echoing tentatively through the massive parlor. His claws clicked with the same hesitant softness as he crossed the floor, as if sound itself seemed hesitant to disturb the hushed vastness of the room. He had to smile as he reached the door and laid his hand upon the latch. It was much like his cavern, but not nearly as cold, much more brightly lit, and the ceaseless plink of dripping water was blessedly absent.

Lifting the latch, he pulled the door open with that smile still in place on his muzzle.

The mirror effect hit him once again as he found himself looking at a black and white image so much like himself, yet subtly different. The visitor was looking down as he pulled the door open, examining a sheet of parchment held in one hand. Pale, oceanic blue eyes turned up as the visitor realized that the door was finally open, blinking once as they roved up from his feet. Muri gasped and took a quick step back, his tail lashing forward around his hip as he suddenly noticed that, unlike his visitor, he was not yet clothed. Luckily he had his tail to shield himself.

"Kayla!" he exclaimed as the female skunk's eyes came up to meet his, a look of shock settling in place on her short muzzle. "Oh dear, I'm sorry." He stammered, stepping back another step. The other skunk's tail flicked and swayed in short, swift strokes, subconsciously revealing the deep embarrassment that was rushing through her. Short, rounded ears backed and whiskers folded against her muzzle as she directed her eyes to an empty stone planter near the doorway, fur ruffling up under her light, forest green dress for a few brief moments.

Both stood rooted in utter shock for several heartbeats before Muri was able to collect his scattered wits, "Wait here a moment." He chuffed huskily as he pushed the door shut, though did not latch it. Turning about, he swiftly made his way across the parlor back into his bed chamber. Yanking open the wardrobe door, he was glad to find his garments neatly hung within just as he had hung them from the hooks under the single shelf he had in the room where he had turned in to sleep the previous evening. Snatching down his robe, he quickly threw it on as he made his way back to the door.

Taking a moment to settle his ruffled fur, he cinched the sash snugly about his middle, then pulled the door open. "Kayla, hi!" he churred warmly, "Shall we try this again?"

The slender female mephit tittered brightly, covering her muzzle with one slender, black furred hand as she nodded, "Yes, please." He nodded emphatically, the rapid twitching of her tail still revealing her rattled emotions. Muri drew the door open fully and stepped aside, waving an arm toward his room, bidding her to enter. She did, stepping through the doorway, her gaze immediately rising toward the ceiling, then darting around the large room in amazement. Swishing his tail, Muri leaned against the edge of the open door and watched as she examined the room, smiling to himself as he surreptitiously admired his visitor.

"What brings you?" he asked after several long moments, regaining some of his composure. Kayla finished her cursory examination of the room with an impressed hiss of air through her short, sharp musteline teeth. Her eyes turned toward Muri, who was now thankfully clothed in a thick robe of age worn brown terrycloth. Her embarrassment upon seeing him there before her completely bereft of any clothing was deep and utterly complete; so much so that she could /still/ feel the residual heat of her blush as it slowly faded. If Bryce had looked half as good, even as a skunk, as this Murikeer did she would have felt a great deal more put off at his two year silence.


"Who?" Muri asked as he let the door slowly swing itself shut. The shallow 'v' of the hinges made the door swing half way in either direction because of its own weight, which made operating the heavy slab of wood in one direction relatively easy. In the other direction it was substantially more cumbersome to operate.

"Rickkter, the raccoon." Kayla continued as she turned toward him more directly. Muri let the door close with a muted thud, the latch rattling into place. Turning from the door, he let his tail describe a loose half circle as he turned around, then shrugged one shoulder.

"I only know a handful of people here, Kayla, and none of them are raccoons."

Kayla chuckled softly as she nodded, "Oh, you've seen Rick, I'm sure. You had to run away from him, after all."

Muri's jaw dropped open slightly as his fur suddenly ruffled up, tail brushing outward at the body-rending spell the raccoon had nearly caught him with. As it was he had felt the fringes of its effect, and spent the next half hour shuddering as he tried to still his stomach. Luckily the old snaggle-toothed wolf guard had found him and helped get him back to his room. "Oh, him." He managed after a couple of moments, whiskers drooping.

Kayla nodded, smiling brightly, "Yes, him. He was most upset at being sprayed."

"I was not aiming for him."

"He figured that much out, I gather. He was still put quite out of sorts by the whole thing."

"You came here to warn me away from him?"

"No." she shook her head. "I came to suggest apologizing."

"To the homicidal raccoon mage?" Muri chirruped in amazement. The idea of going anywhere near the combat mage filled him with a cold dread.

Kayla smiled and nodded, "Of course." She counted off on her fingers, "And Andre, Nahum, Kwaanza, and everyone else in the line of your spray, and the tavernkeep Donny, whose staff had to clean up after you. Didn't your mother ever teach you manners?" she chided warmly, her tail swaying slowly behind her, a white slashed shadow that seemed to make the dark forest green of her dress lighten in contrast to her fur. "You apologize to those you've wronged in error."

"I never had a mother." Muri stated matter-of-factly with a one shouldered shrug. "I guess, though, you're right."

Kayla blinked at his admission, suddenly not liking the taste of her own foot. "Oh." She murred, inwardly berating herself, "I'm sorry to hear that."

Muri nodded his head slowly and smiled, "It's okay, milady." He said reassuringly, "I, unfortunately, never knew her, so there's nothing there to miss or feel heartsick about. My father loved her dearly, which is all I need to know about her." Scratching one of his ears he shrugged again, his mind turning more to his lost father than the mother he had never known. "Where can I find this Rick?"

"I could never direct you there." The female skunk replied as she glanced around the room again, "The Keep's always changing, so there's no telling what hallways to take. As far as I know all you have to do is /want/ to find him, and you will."

"That simple? You can't take me?"

Kayla shook her head, patting the thick leather satchel slung from one of her slender, squared shoulders. "I've work I must be doing. As it was I thought that's what I was about doing until you opened that door."

Muri could only give her a confused, quizzical look.

She chuckled and walked toward the door, "I thought I was knocking on steward Thalberg's door, not yours. Kyia knew I meant to find you at some moment, so I guess she forced the issue."

Muri glanced up at the stone walls of his parlor and smiled, "Thanks then, Kyia." He murred quietly, then returned his dark eyes toward the lady standing a few feet away, his ears twitching forward. "I had meant to find you as well, to thank you." Kayla's eyebrows rose slightly. "For helping me get myself in order the other night, after that encounter with those Sensates."

Kayla chuttered and shook her head slowly, short whiskers twitching, "Whores, you mean? I was glad to help. It's not often I see one of my own kind around here." She smiled warmly at him, the sunlight shining in the window behind her splashing across the western wall and casting the tips of her fur in a lambent gray lumination. Her pale blue eyes were cast dark in the silhouette the sunshine cast her in, light reflected from the walls giving them a soft glow. Swishing her tail lazily, she reached up and rubbed one side of her muzzle as she looked at him contemplatively, "I'd hate to see Rick do you harm. He's not an enemy to have around here, of anyone."

Muri had to nod in agreement to that statement, his chest heaving as he let out a sigh. The Duke was the only other soul Muri yet knew at Metamor who had the power to banish him. Not slay him outright as that raccoon had attempted, though the horse lord certainly had the influence to follow up on an execution order. "Skunks are uncommon, from what those humans said."

"Very, there's only six or seven in all of Metamor that I know of, though there may be others. Skunks tend to be rather reclusive, either by their own choice, or because they are ostracized."

"I would have thought our musks would be pretty much accepted along with everyone else's." Muri lashed his tail lazily from side to side as he crossed his wrists loosely before himself.

"They are, but not entirely. I guess we also get into the fear of our own infamy." Kayla's voice dropped to a quiet whisper as she pulled her eyes away, looking toward one of the slender stone buttresses along one wall but not seeing it. Muri could only nod slowly. The actions of his first half week at Metamor had already secured him enough infamy to earn a personal visit from the captain of the guard.

He smiled warmly at her, the tip of his tail twitching, catching her gaze and drawing it back to him. "Well, I don't think we need fear our own infamy now." He murred warmly as he sketched a short bow, "We are no longer alone, either in specie or companionship. If you ever feel the need to call on me, I'll be pleased to hear you."

The lady skunk curtsied happily and nodded, "If you are not otherwise secured." She smiled as she stood, moving toward the door.

Muri followed, suppressing a wince at the sharpness of her observation, "I apologize for her coolness, milady." He offered, moving to one side as he unlatched the door and let the weight of the wood pull it open. "I did not realize she would be as unliking of you."

Kayla shrugged a shoulder, her tail waving lazily behind her as she slipped through the opening gap between door and the archway in which it was set, "She's a possessive one, but good in her own way." His face unmoving at that last comment, Muri only nodded. Llyn was good, yes, in many ways.

And he knew them well.

"I am sure, but I learned long ago to tolerate the attitudes of others regardless of their motivations. It makes living a great deal easier than walking on eggshells trying to placate everyone." He said with a smile, nodding his head in a slight bow once more. Kayla smiled, blue eyes glinting in a stray lance of sunshine as she turned away, tail describing a graceful arc behind her. He watched until she disappeared down a set of stairs just beyond his door, then closed it.

Muri looked quizzically at the door he came to face for the second time in his short journey. It was a rather unremarkable slab of iron banded wooden planks darkened with age. Nothing about it indicated that it was the door he was seeking, into the library. Adjusting the strap of his satchel a little on his shoulder, he raised his hand and rapped three times on the door soundly enough to make the latch on the other side click. The first time he had found himself facing this same door he had turned about and walked away, thinking perhaps that he had become misdirected. From what Kayla and Llyn had said he could do that quite easily in the ever shifting passages and rooms of Metamor Keep.

At least they did not move while he was watching, he mused. And usually not while he was in them either, though that had happened last night while he slept. He had at first thought that the castle had formed the new rooms around him without moving him, but one look out the windows of his parlor and new lab told him otherwise. His first room had been pretty close to ground level, the new rooms were in some tower. He chuffed as he waited quietly at the door. He had been given an entire story of the tower. There were more chambers above and below, reached by a spiral stair descending down through the southern side of the tower.

His ears pricked forward as the door pulled open, causing him to blink in surprise. He had not heard the latch lift, nor had he heard any scrape of furniture across wood or stone flooring in the room beyond. Yet the denizen of the room he had found himself directed to was opening their door with haunting silence. Hard, dark eyes glared out from the dim opening, looking down a long, angular muzzle at him as the creature they belonged to folded long whiskers back against an angular muzzle and snarled. Muri hissed a breath through his teeth and took a step back in the face of such vitriolic wrath leveled upon him, but met those hard eyes defiantly. His tail, normally swaying freely behind him, suddenly stilled, the fur ruffling up in sudden surprise and nearly doubling the apparent width of his tail. Under his light clothing his fur did the same, hackles rising up across the back of his shoulders.

"You?!" the masked carnivore growled, his voice harsh with anger as the door was drawn open fully. The sudden swift movement sent dust and stray leaves scuttling across the floor with the shifting air. Neither forest creature noticed though, their eyes locked in a swift, harsh power of wills. Muri's instincts wailed at him to back down, turn, and flee, but he knew he could not. His opponent was vastly more powerful, and as angry as a cat with wet paws. One of the skunk's hands tightened down upon the leather of the satchel slung from his shoulder, the fingers of the other flexing, then relaxing as he prepared to cast a hasty ward of defense should the angry raccoon unleash another spell at him. Shields had never been his strength, despite the fact that earth magics had some of the most powerful shields going. None of his teachings had touched upon those powerful spells, and the books he had been given also had little to say on the matter.

Thus he had always been pretty well bereft of shielding magic, but what he did have would suffice with the prodigious power flowing through Metamor at his grasp.

"What by the nine hells are you doing here?" the raccoon persisted, his hands balling into fists, then flexing open. Long, dexterously slender fingers extended in a reactive stretch common to all mages preparing spells, pale gray claws reflecting dim sunlight.

Muri gave his tail a swift flick as he held the raccoon's gaze challengingly. "Minding my manners." He churred, his voice smooth despite the quavering of his spirit.

The raccoon's dark mask warped as his brows drew down in a scowl, white teeth gleaming brightly as he grew gray furred lips up in a confused snarl, "What?" he grunted, taking a step forward into the light. His eyes narrowed as he glanced briefly over the skunk's shoulder at the courtyard beyond. He'd spent a late night poring over a musty old tome from the eastern wastes, now held by the Ebony Horde. In the end his research had been a complete waste of time and tedious effort. What he had at first thought was a small journal of some modest wizard turned out only to be the maundering poetry of a love-struck though particularly powerful apprentice some five hundred years now dead. Oddly enough the girl had placed a respectable degree of protective wards on the book, which had initially led the raccoon to believe something worthwhile was secreted within.

The evening had been frustrating, and particularly fruitless. He had spent it bent over a worthless little book with the last lingering itch of this very same skunk's musk filling his nose enough to make him sneeze. His door had been at the end of a narrow corridor just off the library when he turned in, and now he found it recessed in a long arcade lined with decorative balustrades. Thick bushes beyond were alive with small birds that had stopped in on their southward migration to feast on the decorative berries ripening in the brightly lit courtyard.

He had arisen less than an hour earlier and had not yet bathed, groomed, or even eaten. The bright sunshine was painful on his aching eyes, and the skunk facing him had that peculiar, subtle musk that only set him to thinking about the reek he had been forced to contend with for some two days. Combined with the frustration of the long night, it put him in just the right mood to contemplate reducing the mustelid to a smear on the flagstones.

"I came here to make peace, raccoon." The skunk replied, clarifying his earlier enigmatic statement and pulling the dark brown eyes of the raccoon away from the courtyard.

"The name's Rickkter. And what do you mean 'to apologize?'" the 'coon rasped, narrowing his eyes against the glare of the sunlight, "I do not recall asking to be sprayed in the first place."

"You left me little time to attempt an apology after the fact." Murikeer retorted, his tail snapping from side to side behind him.

The raccoon grinned toothily at the slightly shorter mephit, "I was not concerned about an apology. If you had just held still and let me kill you then it would have sufficed." He hissed, letting the skunk get a good look at his long, sharp teeth.

Muri's eyes narrowed as he nodded, "Living is something I'm rather addicted to." He quipped dryly, the long plume of his thick tail twitching behind him. "Even as it was you nearly succeeded; if I had zigged rather than zagged. I'd consider that a rather harsh reaction."

The raccoon's snarl hardened as he lurched from the doorway so swiftly Muri had barely a heartbeat to register alarm before feeling the strong hand of the raccoon closing around his throat. He let out a startled mrreck of alarm which was cut off abruptly as he felt his back slammed into one of the stone balustrades firmly enough to knock the wind from his lungs. His head rapped solidly against the stone as well, only the padding of his fur saving him from a painful crack against the stone. As it was his ears rang and flickering motes of light danced across his eyes as he tried to fend off the savage assault with his free hand. Some distant corner of his mind yammered a terrified stream of epithets upon realizing that the raccoon had his paws off the ground, but he forced the panic down, raising one foot against the raccoon's gut, toe-claws flexing.

"Harsh?" the raccoon hissed darkly, his muzzle close to the skunk's, his own acrid musk itching Muri's nose, "You haven't seen harsh, kid." He growled as his dark brown eyes scanned the startled skunk's face, noting for a brief moment the hard points of those claws against his gut. The skunk's muzzle hung open slightly, white rimming his dark eyes as one hand clutched at Rick's wrist. "Think you could either erect a shield or use those claws before I could snap your neck, whelp? I wouldn't try it." He glared down at the skunk and let out a heavy chuff, then released Muri's throat, letting him fall as he turned about and stalked back to his doorway. "There is no danger here, to you or anyone else. Humans are a big part of this place, and it's best about time you figure that out and dealt with it."

Muri staggered against the column, barely managing to catch himself on one paw as he fell, then slumped to his knees as he rubbed his throat with one had. "Did they hound you?" he gasped, coughing, tail drooping as he bowed his head. "Did they hound and chase you across half the continent because you were a raccoon?"

Glaring down at the skunk the raccoon merely crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. "Humans have done much worse to me, kid, and not because I was this." he waved a hand at himself, at the gray fur and long tail, his whiskers vibrating. His still sometimes despised what he had become, knowing that the cure had been close at hand only after succumbing to the change as a matter of survival.

Muri looked up with a glare of his own, the heavy satchel of books dragging at his shoulder. "A war mage?" he chuffed, sinking back against the column, "You brought that on yourself. I had no choice." He waved a hand at his appearance, "I became... /this/, while I was in middle Sathmore. Suddenly I was no longer human. I became nothing more than a fancy pelt for some lord to hang on his trophy room wall. They hounded me across all of Sathmore, all the -" Muri muttered angrily as pulled himself up into a crouch and leaned against the stone, still rubbing his throat as the raccoon stood in the doorway across from him in the shadows cast by the lip of the arcade above them.

Rick waved a hand in a sharp gesture, arresting the skunk's explanation into the root of his ear. "Save your breath." He growled, dark eyes narrowing as he watched the skunk pull himself up, "I heard your entire story yesterday from Kayla."

Muri blinked up at the raccoon, his brows drawing down as he searched the dark carnivore's eyes for some signs of duplicity. The sudden injection of the female skunk's name into the argument brought the skunk's edged retort to a sudden halt. It was expected that she would know a few here at the keep, Muri figured that much, but this raccoon? Rick hardly seemed her type. He had to chide himself inwardly for that thought, for he only knew Kayla by two apparently chance meetings, which is the sum total of the number of times he had encountered this raccoon as well. "You two know one another?"

"We do." Rickkter said as he nodded as he adjusted his loose robes and cinched the sash a little more snugly. He had spent the most of the morning in meditation, attempting to restore some level of sanity to his life. And it had helped to quell his nerves some, which was probably the reason that he was talking to that skunk instead of seeking one of the cleaning staff to deal with the red, black and white smear that would have been left. Now, seeing him crouched against the pillar like a cornered bird preparing to fight, the raccoon found some trouble feeling the same contempt for the skunk he had been ruminating on for the past two days. The fellow had a spine, regardless of his fear of humans. His dark, almost black eyes watched Rick closely, never straying from the raccoon's dark brown eyes. The young mage's eyes were hard, but not cold and thankfully not challenging.

The skunk knew when he was outclassed at least, though he was not about to back down quite yet.

Muri chuffed, his eyes flicking over Rick briefly, "You." He chuffed, pointing one finger up at the mage, "You're the mage who crafted the amulet she wears, then?" he asked as he stood, his body unbending smoothly. He extended his spirit sight over the physical image of the world around him, whistling inwardly at the brilliantly scintillating coruscation of the thick weave surrounding the war mage. The deepest and most firmly ingrained were months if not years old, shimmering with a deep, steady light that comes with the comfort of long exposure. Others were protections, layered deep one over the other freshly erected within the past few hours. Still others were from items he wore on his body, though all radiated the same illuminations as the others, keyed to the mage who created them.

To the last one they were all turned inward, verily impossible to pick apart from without even by the best of weavers.

Then they suddenly seemed to wink out of sight, vanishing into the raccoon like startled night-flies exposed to light. Muri blinked at the easy masking, tearing his attention back to the physical world and meeting the mage's gaze squarely.

"Are you quite done ogling my enchantments?" Rickkter asked dryly, his voice dripping sarcasm. "Because if you are, then I believe you said something about an apology."

His thoughts momentarily cast in disarray as he tried to contemplate that the quiet lady Kayla might be friends with this grating, nearly homicidal raccoon, Muri could only blink for a moment before nodding. Shifting the strap of the satchel he was carrying he took a deep breath. "Well, there's nothing I could really put into words that would assuage the anger that you rightfully have toward me." He started, meeting the raccoon's cold, dispassionate gaze once again, "I do offer my apologies for ruining your evening, for that was not my intent, however hollow you might feel that consolation. I merely wished to remove that disgusting, fat child from my presence before he pushed me into the hearth." His tail curved around one hip, the tip brushing back and forth on the cool stone floor near his foot, "I'm a skunk, and well, when attacked I do what skunks do." He offered.

"You fall back on instinct rather than your magic?" Rick countered coolly, earning an upraised eyebrow from the skunk. Muri twitched his ears back for a moment, then forward again as he tilted his head slightly. Strange, Rick thought for a moment, how two different skunks adopted different methods of getting across the same expression. Kayla could not raise only one eyebrow, nor was her muzzle as strangely expressive as this male skunk's, albeit more beautiful than his. Instead, she used her ears, short whiskers, and other subtle mannerisms to express the same momentary inquisitive confusion as the young mage before him.

Watching the raccoon, the skunk shrugged, "My magic is paltry compared to your own. I have no one to learn further from, so I make do with what I have."

"Find an instructor."

Muri chuffed and sighed, "There are only a handful of mages powerful enough to teach me here. One is a child so deep into his research I cannot even /find/ him, another I know only by name and no one has seen for years, and one I've angered so far he's tried to blast me and choke me at every meeting." The skunk twitched one ear as his dark eyes met and held the raccoon's dark brown gaze again.

The raccoon let out a quiet grunt at that last, "I'm not teacher material."

"All magi are teacher material, it comes with the learning." Muri countered as he brushed down the fur of his tail, pausing for a moment with a sharp hiss of breath as his fingers became entangled in a snarl of fur. "I've been reprimanded by the captain of the guard about my... actions the past couple of days. If you can teach me better spells, I will have less need to reek up my opponents." Glancing down at his tail, he disengaged his fingers, his eyes roving to the thick bag at his side. Taking a breath, he let out a short sigh, "So... ?"

"Well, I would say yes, but you'd make a lousy warrior mage with your reflexes and your heavy reliance on those animal instincts. Though I am glad you managed to keep them under control this time. So I guess our business is concluded." He backed up and started to close the door. Muri stepped forward as Rick was pushing the door shut, slapping one open hand upon the age smoothed wood, and stared hard into the Raccoon's eyes. He tried not to think immediately upon the powerful wards woven over the surface of the door, invisible to those without the ability to see magic, but numbingly noticeable as he forced the door to stop. "Wait." He churred, "I never stated I had any desire to be a battle mage. My sphere does not encompass that sort of magic, I focus more on the Earth." He dug his fingers into the door, ignoring the tingling of the wards trying to subtly urge him to go elsewhere. Muri knew there were much stronger, less subtle magics underlying the surface spells, ones that would trigger a much more powerful response if Rick so chose. The magic on the door, unlike that on the mage himself, was not turned inward and protected from outside manipulation. By its very nature it could not be, for the spells themselves were designed to influence others, and therefore had to have a pattern that could be touched.

And that's what Muri did. He knew that the surface spells would only push at him for a short period of time before the stronger spells became active, and those would be somewhat less easy to ignore. Without taking his gaze from the raccoon he extended a small tendril of his attention into the complex threads of power laced through the wood, pulling here or pushing there, and cleared the wood around his hand from their influence. He did not destroy them by unweaving the patterns, nor did he even affect how they worked, he merely created a safe hole where his hand was.

Watching this, Rick was forced to admit that the young mage did possess a good degree of strength and talent if he was so easily able to distort the area covered by his thickly woven protection spells. Admittedly, almost any good journeyman could see and in some ways affect the weave of simple spells, but Rick had seldom seen any who could do so which such facile ease... and none of them while carrying on an argument. "I do not need to stand and face my enemies, I merely bury them." Muri's hard stare became a challenging glare as he tied off the pattern in a temporary tangle, "Be they a single foe, or an entire army." He hefted the heavy satchel from his side with his free hand and waved it toward the raccoon standing silent in the door arch, "And I can pay. In barter, at least."

Not yet mollified by far at the apology or actions of the much younger mage skunk, Rick was forced to inwardly admit some curiosity at the books the skunk had in his sack. He'd taken a swift glance at the magic about the mephit when he first opened the door, and was surprised at the power of the wards on all four of the books. Initially he had paid minor note to the magics he could see emanating from the bag. Now, looking closer, he noticed they were of unusual complexity for the work of one as low as this skunk, the weave of one looking particularly familiar as well. Releasing the door, he let the skunk push it open and stepped aside. He waved one hand curtly to invite the skunk inside. "Okay, we'll discuss business inside."

Muri looked over the titles, openly gawking at some of them. The diversity was staggering in itself, the magic of them almost blinding to his spirit sight. He couldn't even make out most of the top shelf because each of the ancient books were so thickly wrapped in shielding magic all they did was glow brilliantly with magic. Even while still under Heiorn he had never seen so many powerful books in such a small place. Of course, the old magister had been very vague about why the apparent size of his collection was so small, considering his age and experience. Muri had seldom questioned that, though, for by some strange quirk his old mentor had always been able to produce just the right book for the lesson he was teaching. Going over the titles on the lower shelves as he ruminated about his old master, Muri found himself staring at a book that brought his hackles up in a rush. "You use blood magic?!" the skunk chuttered, scowling at the beaten leather cover of the book. Legends had it that all books of blood magery were bound in human skin, a fact which Muri knew well but had never actually witnessed.

Rickkter turned back and groaned when he saw the skunk's expression. "Oh, don't you give me that look. Don't you dare. After you have used that stuff to stay alive for two /years,/ then you can talk. Magic is magic, pure and simple. It's the user that determines the intentions of it."

Muri chuffed, turning his attention away from the book, "The method of discovering such magic, though, leaves something to be desired."

Rick shrugged, leaning his hip against the edge of his desk. "So what do you know? I'd like to have an idea of how much time I'd have to invest in your training."

Muri frowned for a moment, pulling up from the recesses of his memory all of the things that Heiorn had ever taught him, the core essential rules of magic. "I know earth magics, though have not had enough access to knowledge to strengthen what I have learned since I fled north. Illusion as well, which I am far better at than Earth simply because I used it constantly the past couple of years. I've invented a few spells that I had never seen mentioned in any treatise." He paced slowly across in front of the raccoon mage's heavily laden bookshelf, ticking off on his long, black furred fingers all the points of his apprentice teachings and the tests of his journeyman ascension. "As for other schools of magic I only know esoteric bits and pieces. Runes and Fire being primary among them. No blood magery or necromantic stuff beyond what is needed to counter it, or air simply because it does not mesh well with my training in the Earth."

Rickkter scratched under his chin as he listened. He continued to do so for almost a minute after Muri had finished. "Well I think I can show you at least one thing," Rickkter said, holding up his paw. A point of dim green light appeared at the top. "You said you knew something of runes, so this simple icon might prove interesting." The two went over to the raccoon's desk, where he shuffled around the mess on it until coming up with a scrap piece of parchment. "Now watch carefully. This is going to be an interesting show."

Muri watched on as Rickkter put his claw to the paper and started drawing a rune there. The was actually rather complex, and Rick forwent the usual method of mixing a tincture of dye to draw it. Instead he used a bright green glow similar to a witchlight, that stayed where his finger traced it. Above the intricate nature of the rune itself, Muri was fascinated by the light-writing. Heiorn had used it, but complained that it never lasted. The rune was an intricate weaving that consisted of several minor glyphs, some of which contained dark elements that the skunk was going to ask about when his host completed the drawing. Nodding his head once slowly as he examined the finished tangle of seemingly indecipherable lines, the raccoon grasped the edge of the paper and tossed it aloft with a flourish. Muri watched quietly as the spell flared to life, the thick parchment aging and decaying before his eyes. By the time the pieces sailed to the floor, they had degenerated almost to dust.

"What was that?" he churred, his ears twitched forward curiously, watching the last few sections wink out. The paper simply wasted away to nothing, which was an effect that Muri could not understand the practicality of unless one were a courier carrying a sensitive document. "That little rune was something I picked up in Kinsburn. It's one of grossly accelerated decay. They use it to execute prisoners." The skunk's head snapped up. "If the offence is minimal, they place a large one on your chest and you die as soon as it reaches your heart. If a major offence, they place two small ones on your feet." "That is barbaric!" he cried. "Dark magic, there." Rick shrugged. "True, when used in that way. But if you use it on, say, a wooden door, or a metal lock, or a large boulder, then it becomes a spell of extreme benefit. As I said, good or evil is all in the application."

Nodding, Muri chuffed and ruffled up his fur, then let it slowly settle as Rick turned to look at the satchel he had set upon a table near the door. "If it's any interest to you, I can show you how to inscribe it once I've gotten an understanding of your abilities." The raccoon said over his shoulder, to which Muri merely chuckled and nodded.

Glowing a lambent blue-green in the air in front of the raccoon was the same rune, etched on a faded simulacrum of the destroyed parchment. Rick let out a soft curse and backed away from the floating rune as his eyes tried to focus on all of the intricate elements of it at the same moment. He relaxed only once he saw that the key union lines were severed, rendering the spell frightening to look at (for one who knew its effects), but otherwise quite harmless.

"I remember some things, especially drawn or written things, the first time I see them." The skunk explained as he extended one hand and poked a finger through the center of the rune, causing it to dissipate in a silent swirl of tiny motes. "It's a darned handy talent for an illusionist." He walked past the raccoon, whose muttered oath was a garble of languages Muri could read, but could not understand when spoken. Opening the satchel, he drew out the four books his master had given him almost four years past, stating that they would help the skunk survive.

Muri had known then that the books were quite valuable, and as gifts from his mentor and second father, they were more valuable yet, in a more personal way. "These books are all that I have, save the one I've penned laboriously on birch-bark parchment over the last several years. They were gifted to me by my master, a mage named Heiorn."

Rick did not acknowledge the name, though it was quite familiar to him. Twice in the past that name had crossed his path, both times as an agent or diplomat. Once for the foe, and once for the ally. A powerful mage with a reputation that had once interested the raccoon as a possible teacher when he was much younger. That interest had passed, a brief folly, in the face of yet another contract.

The last time he had heard the name of Heiorn Iylmantern had come from the mouth of a dying man in the darkened halls of besieged Myn shortly before it was liberated by a daring assault from the tiny militia of neighboring Tygia. The dying man had been an assassin, sent to slay any mage associated with the Duke of Myn. His first target had also been his most foolhardy selection, and proved to be his last.

"Your master must have been powerful indeed, then." Rick said instead as he picked up one of the books, "Not one of these books has been seen in almost a century." He set the book down and tapped one claw tipped finger on the ageworn blue cover, "This is the Gustarthe, Uhmnas dae Uraeth. The Book of Stones." He opened the cover slowly, quite amazed to find that the pages were pristine white, the dark gray ink as clear as if it had been penned a month past rather than nearly eight hundred years. "I've seen one translation of it in Normanin, and the owner claimed to inform me that the original had been lost some centuries ago."

Muri could only shrug as he traced his fingertips across the first pale white page, which was only written with the name of the original creator of the tome, the letters written vertically down the center of the page, typical of ancient Gulahn. "This is my primary illumination, where I got most of my earth magics from. Illusion was something that came more or less naturally to me. Elemental magic was much more tedious."

Rick nodded as he pulled the pages up, letting them whisper across the tips of his fingers. Each was pristine white, the ink fresh and dry though Rick could see the age of the book in some of the deepest protective wards on it. "Elemental magic is also far more powerful."

Muri conceded the point as he held up the second book. Jacketed in deep scarlet red leather, its visible age was, like the Gustarthe, quite young. The wards which wreathed it, though, were some of the oldest Rick had ever in his life laid eyes upon. Opening the cover, he looked at the strange scrawl within for several moments before it dawned upon him what he was looking at.

He nearly dropped it in surprise.

"Where did your master come by this?" he rasped as he flipped swiftly through the book. He had never seen a complete translation of the work, though he had seen translations of the translations, and translations even of those. The book was truly ancient, filled with the almost unreadable scrawl of one of the earliest human kingdoms. "And why did he ever give it to you?"

Muri shrugged, watching as the raccoon reverently set the book down, open to one page almost to the back of the book. That page seemed a little different than the rest, the scrawling letters of the lost language more concise, laid out with much more care. It was, much to Rick's shock, a poem.

A love poem, if legends were correct. Only the true original book, the journal of Anef the First, Speaker of the Nine Who Fell, was ever known to have the poem. When it was first translated, the melancholy ruminations of a mage's love life were not considered worthwhile to translate. By some reasoning lost to the dusts of time, the poem had been left out, the original book thought long lost.

Yet Rick held it in his paws, the ancient rice paper pages still a pristine honey gold, the black ink as fresh as the day it had stained those pages.

"There are many very good incants in that book, though it's taken me a lot of work to understand the language. It's pretty old, for I've only seen bits and pieces of it in some of Heiorn's older books. If what he told me was correct, that is the personal journal of one of the first mages ever to put his thoughts to paper, while the Elves still ruled most of the world." Muri offered as he pulled the remaining two books from his satchel. He knew that the book the raccoon mage now held was worth more than almost any other tome ever known, but he had not known that at the time it was given to him. Only after painstakingly working through the undulating characters of that ancient language did the book's true age reveal itself to him.

Further proof of its authenticity was the fact that it did not end as a normal tome would. The ancient mage's entries simply ceased, some thirty pages shy of the back of the book. Those remaining pages were empty save for the last two, which had a few scrawled notes and reminders, much like any distracted mind might jot down to look back upon later. The last entry was simple, but ominous.

"Jogoduun will fall."

"The Nine shall fall with it."

He'd seen those words before, in one of the better translations. There were more words as well, written in the same hand.

"I am sorry, Kayla. I warned them against the folly of Jogoduun and Yajakali's wrath, yet they must proceed."

"I am sorry, Kayla. The price of ambition is blood. Speak well of me to our sons."

Unsettled, Rick set the book aside and turned to the two remaining books. One was instantly forgotten in lieu of the other, which was far more valuable to Rick himself than even the last journals of Anef the First. Very rare, it was one of a collection of twelve books he had been slowly gathering through the many years of his travels.

He had seven of the series already, only two of which were originals. The one this young mage from the northern woods just brought before him was one of the rarest originals, the final book of the series. Within its pages, which, like the other two books were pristine, was an elusive key that would begin to unlock some of the enigmatic secrets and spells in the other eleven.

"Now I 'm not sure how useful that one will be to you," burred the skunk as Rick picked up the tome. "It is solely runes, and there seems to be a lot of sections missing from it. Rather it makes reference to a lot of books that I lack."

If Rickkter had heard, it made no difference, as the raccoon's eyes were distended to the point where they were about to fall out on the page. Setting the book the table, he went to the shelves and removed pair of thick books from the upper shelf, the one with the glass doors. Muri noted that the shields on both had lethal defensive qualities to their weave. He paged open the top book on the way back, setting it above the one on the table before looking through the other he had brought. Whatever was in them, it made him smile and laugh. Laying out all three, Rick slumped back in his chair and rubbed his still grinning muzzle.

Muri frowned, the tip of his tail dancing around his ankles. "What is it?"

Rickkter looked up. "You have no idea what this is, do you?" he said, pointing to the center book.

"A book called Salochim K'naa Notis. A rarity according to Heiorn. Were it more complete I might have found more use for it. As is, even the complete parts are beyond my understanding."

Rickkter chuckled, his smile widening. "Oh, it is rare. The best that most people can do in regards is the odd recopied section. It is incomplete, because it is part of set of twelve that was broken up to protect the spells inside. No one has completed the set in centuries."

"Are you talking about Leqquan?" Muri wanted to know. "I know that Fellos came close. They had only been missing one of the three the key volumes that would unlock the whole set." Rickkter leaned forward, flipped closed the cover on the thickest volume and slid it over. Muri looked at it and blinked before carefully prying back the cover. "No, this isn't." He lifted the cover and turned to the title, pausing once more. "Are you sure it's not a copy?"

"Positive. I have six of the other volumes to compare it to. It is a completely authentic, penned by the infuriatingly enigmatic hand of the Leqquan himselves."

Muri's tail swayed slowly behind him as he looked at the two tomes that Rick had brought forward to test against the one that had been sitting under the other three for the last couple of years. He had studied it, learning something of the runes within. All were relatively simplistic of their own, but when combined they yielded a pleasantly broad array of useful and sometimes amazingly destructive spells. Yet, no matter how he combined them, Muri had found long ago that none was ever 'complete' in the best sense of the word, parts were missing. Some he had been able to provide from his memory, but the glyphs they completed were some of the simplest. The book was nothing of its own to him, though he knew if he had more of the set he would be able to do much more. He quirked one corner of his muzzle into a small, rakish grin. "How would that be in barter then?"

Rickkter rubbed his paws together, pressing occasionally on a knuckle to crack it. "You have some very tempting items here. All extremely rare, all very valuable. Most wizards would kill to get their hands on even copies of these, and it amazes me that a journeyman like you would have them. Those two," Rick pointed to the ancient book and the last book he had not bothered to examine, "were thought lost forever." He steepled his paws before his muzzle and inhaled deeply. Reaching out, he divided the books into two piles, one of which he slid back to the skunk. "Those are yours. Though you should correct the one on the earth magics using the Trowbridge translation in the library or my own. It clarifies some of the inaccuracies Gustarthe originally penned into it. I already have a copy of the other one, though I envy your having the original." He placed his claws on the remaining two. "These are mine. Notis is mine to keep, as it is of no use to you but profound use to me, and I will take a copy of the journal before returning it to you.

"In return for this, we'll enter into a fellowship. We're too different for a true apprenticeship, and besides I prefer dealing with equals more. I'll teach you what I know in your areas of interest, and in return you show me how to utilize earth-magic better, especially those illusions. You also get access to materials that the Keep library, vast as it is, does not have in areas most mages regard with suspicion and even fear. So is it a deal?"

Muri nodded slowly as he gathered up the two books and slipped them back into the simple leather satchel he had been carrying them in. "Equals sounds a great deal more appealing than master to apprentice, though I do conceed that I'm quite a bit behind you as far as experience and such goes."

Rick chuffed and shrugged one shoulder, "You're almost half my age too, skunk." He arched furry eyebrows across the table as he traced the runic inlay on the cover of the Notis before him. Only the originals had the canus curvatures around the edges of the central ovid construct. A small detail, very difficult to replicate, and too expensive to even bother forging. "You'd do well to remember that."

Muri laughed briefly, "It'd do me little good." He said as he turned toward the door, "I've a few other errands to run and such. What times would be good for me to visit?"

Rick shrugged again, most of his attention focused on his new acquisitions, "Tomorrow, whenever. I'll be here. We'll let our schedules meet where they may." He waved a dismissive hand toward the his monochromatic visitor, who merely nodded and closed the door with a quiet thump behind him. Only when the relative gloom of his room displaced the sunshine beyond the closed door did he look up and scowl. There was a big hole in the wards he had placed on the door, one that was going to end up leaving them in shambles if he tried to untangle them.

With a sigh, he shooks his head and returned to his work. Time enough later to recast them.