Casualties of War

by Chris Hoekstra

"Innocence is the first causality of war"

chapter 1

The stones of the dungeon stairs were cold and damp to the touch. Which was saying a lot coming from an animal morph with a rather thick fur coat. Rickkter advanced slowly, his katana held in both hands before him and the tip of his raccoon tail twitching back and forth in anticipation as he reached the bottom.

From the dim light of the sputtering flambeaux spaced unevenly along the corridor, he could make out an intersection about thirty yards away. His warrior instincts told him that this would naturally be a perfect place for an ambush. At least it was a rather wide corridor, perhaps fifteen feet across, and provided some room to maneauver. Using his mage senses, his truesight ability, his world dissolved into a storm of light and energy. Reaching out with his mind, he sought the answer as to what was beyond those walls in the darkness.

Rickkter's magic sight was unlike most other mages from the northern part of the world. Theirs was mono-directional, and could be extended to great lengths, sometimes to several miles depending on the power of the mage. Rick's was omni-directional, and could only be extended to a mile at the most, and then only sustained at that point for a few seconds before the information feedback became far too much for him to handle. But this was only thirty yards, and in a very confined space.

The long whiskers on his face twitched appreciatively as he felt the life-forces of the four Lutins lying in wait for him at the intersection. One for each corner. A simple ambush to execute, and one even simpler to disperse. Rickkter's breathing was deep and even as he approached. He waited until the last moment... and then he struck.

That was one of the supreme advantages of not playing fair like Rickkter did. His enemies rarely expected that they were going to be hit as hard as they were.

When the first Lutin came at him, from in front and to the right, the raccoon brought down his katana directly into his face, splitting the green figure open from forehead to sternum. As the body fell to the ground, Rick spun down the right divergence of the hall. He yanked his blade free and decapitated the one Lutin on his left, the katana going clean though both his head and his up-held sword, before he was left to deal with the other two.

Rickkter never really liked Lutins. Scavengers and filthy creatures Lutins were, all dressed in rags and stolen weapons. The two he was up against had on stuff that looked to have come from a half-dozen different sourse, none of it haveing seen a wash since it left its previous owners. That was one pitfall of being an animal morph; a Lutin's stench could really affect you.

These two were markedly nervous, facing off against this darkly clothed raccoon with the large crimson blade who had already halved their numbers in a single strike. Their small eyes darted around in their heads as they tried to determine how best to attack. Growling to himself, the Lutin on the left decided to launch himself first at the warrior. He only succeeded in impaling himself on Rickkter's sword.

The other thing he did was use his falling momentum to wrench away the blade from the warrior's grip as he fell to his death. This gave his friend an opportunity to move in with his own sword in an attempt to dispatch the keeper. And if he hadn't been dealing with a mage, it might have worked.

Realizing what had happened, Rickkter didn't even bother going for the sword, instead backing up a couple of paces, cupping his hands before him and collecting a small, yet concentrated orb of magic. With a sharp exclamation, he unleashed the condensed ball of air at the Lutin. The force of the impact was enough to remove the Lutin's entire head, tossing the body backwards and coating the slimy stone walls with wet gray matter. Whipping around, Rickkter made a quick examination of the small passage to assure himself that there were no more Lutins. Satisfied there weren't, he dislodged his blade and resumed his inspection.

Not many would be doing what Rickkter was doing. By standard procedure, all warriors worked in pairs and never left the side of their partner. But, as he had just demonstrated, Rickkter was an exception. Few could handle themselves as well on their own as he could, which was why he had been given the unenviable task of basement sweep while the rest cleared the upper levels of the outpost.

Well, Rickkter originally did have a partner. A mink morph named Chapman, who had been shot with a Lutin arrow during the initial assault on the outpost. The two medics were looking after him, so that left Rick the odd man out. Not that he minded; it left him one less thing to worry about. And down here, in the middle of a Lutin run edifice, the less he had to worry about, the better.

He quickly determined that none of the little green abominations were hiding out in the store rooms on either side of the intersection, so he moved down some more. There he found a set of six iron bound doors, obviously the dungeon portion of this particular building. He glanced behind himself once more, satisfying himself that he was still alone, before returning to the first door.

The fastening was a simple padlock affair. Raising his sword, he brought it down quickly, severing the clasp in a shower of sparks. Just like the Lutin's sword, Rick's runic blade made very quick work of the lock. Simple iron never stood a chance against magic like the sword contained. Popping off the remains of the clasp, he kicked it open to ascertain if there was anything inside. He was halted by the darkness of the cell, which he resolved by igniting a small ball of tumbling yellow flame above his black-furred paw. Nothing but a very moldy pile of straw met his eyes.

He repeated this down the line until he got to the last door. The lock on this one got his attention, as, unlike the others, it appeared almost new and clearly used. Rickkter took a moment to peer though the window but met only blackness. There were hints of a semi-familiar scent that his nose picked up, but the stench of excrement overrode it. Giving up, he brought the sword down on the lock and kicked open the cell.

Unlike the previous five, this time he proceeded slowly, going in blade first, the sword itself gripped tightly in both hands. Just beyond the threshold he stopped and listened for anything that might give away another person. With his newly attuned hearing, even heartbeats or breathing could do that. The only ones he could detect were his own and an individual at the far end.

Well, that was good enough for him. Breaking contact with his sword, he raised one hand and called forth the familiar ball of flame. As the cell was thrown into stark illumination, Rickkter's heart almost leapt into his throat.

The figure on the far end had been tied to the pallet spread eagle and her clothing completely removed. Both had been done for easy access for the jailers, most likely. An exception was a thick leather muzzle that obscured the person's face. That was most likely for the protection of the jailers, as mustelids had sharp little fangs.

The prisoner was covered with her own filth, attesting to the fact that she had been like that for a good while. From the look of things, the animal morph had been raped repeatedly, and severely beaten on numerous occasions. Having been a warrior for a good part of his life, Rickkter was very familiar with what such situations looked like, despite never taking practice in it himself. That in itself was a rarity for mercenaries.

The raccoon was gravely concerned as he set the witchlight to hover in the middle of the ceiling and made his way over to the figure tied to the bed. Yes, from the look of things that person had been there a good long time. The ropes around her wrists and ankles had worked their way into her flesh, the fur surrounding the cuts caked with the dried-on, deep red ichor. Reaching out with a free hand, he ran it along the bloody brown fur at her neck and tilted her head upwards a little to get a better look. Unfortunately the muzzle was in the way and he couldn't make out who it was. Rick quickly sheathed his sword and drew out a large knife that he kept for close in fighting. Its razor edge slit the leather bonds almost effortlessly.

His eyes expanded almost to the size of gold pieces as he lifted the restraining mask and gazed upon the face of the face of the prostate form. "Great Maker," he whispered before setting her head down and bolting for the door. "Medic! Get a medic in here now!"

"So how is she?" demanded Rickkter.

"Better," replied Stanley. The red wolf wagged his tail in an agitated manner, one that accentuated the expression on his face. "They say you helped a lot. Especially applying magic to the hands and some of the internal bruising. I've been told she has a much better chance now."

It had taken Rickkter a few minutes to get the attention of the main detachment of the raiding party after he had made his way topside once more. They had been involved in cleaning up a particularly tough pocket of resistance. The warrior-mage managed to end that with a pair of highly destructive spells that actually blew out the far wall of the central building that they were clearing.

Stanley hadn't been the happiest person in the world about that, as he was hoping to take back a few prisoners. He was quick enough to put those concerns aside when he had heard who Rick had found in the dungeon and what had been done to her. Rickkter had then returned to the dungons to get the abused prisioner. He swiftly severed the bonds that held her down before gently taking the unconscious form in his arms upstairs to be cleaned up and tended to.

"Good," growled the raccoon. "Now what about them?" he asked, pointing with his knife at the three bound Lutins sitting in a corner under guard.

"They're to be taken back to the Keep for questioning."

"Why can't we do it here?" asked Rickkter in a frosty tone. "I know that there are a lot of things that I would like to ask them."

The red wolf took in the large knife the raccoon was holding, and the expression of barely restrained fury on his tightly closed muzzle. "Because I would like to bring some of them back alive so that other people have a chance to question then. And with the mood you're in, I don't think you're the best person to do it."

"Why not?" he snarled, once more whipping up the arm with the knife to point the ten inch razor sharp implement at the three quivering green figures. "After what they did to her, they deserve some retribution."

"Look, I know she is a close friend of yours--"

"That's only part of it!" snapped Rickkter. "Besides... you saw how she looked when I found her. This is the least of what they deserve."

Stan twisted his ears about as he thought about that. And about what else he had seen in his years battling the Lutins. He had seem some pretty god awful things, things that gave him nightmares at times. Scenes like the one in the basement were some of the worst. He considered the condition of the prisoner when they had found her, and imagined what she must have endured at the hands of the little green freaks. He looked at the three pitiful examples in the corner, then back at the black garbed raccoon. Rickkter's anger at the whole situation radiated from every part of his body. He wanted revenge so bad that even Stanley could taste it.

"Okay, Rick. You have an hour to learn whatever you can from them."

It took the loud incessant pounding on the back door a while to rouse Will Hardy from bed, but it eventually did its job. Rubbing his eyes, the aged badger sat up in bed, listening to a few of his joints crack in the dark. He braved a glance at the clock on the table next to his bed and saw by the incandescently glowing green hands he had Pascal make up several years ago that it was close to two-thirty in the morning. Who could be calling at this hour?

Well, the only way to find that out was to answer that horrible knocking. Will stood up, and grabbing a large dagger that Misha had given him some years back before heading to the stairs to answer the back door. When he did so, he received a rather large surprise. Standing there, glowing in the light of the full moon, was Rickkter and a tall red wolf morph. Both were still dressed in light armor and chainmail, and looked to have gotten back from a patrol or a raid, or whatever it was that warriors like them did.

The badger was about to ask what the raccoon was doing in his backyard in the middle of the night only to be cut short when he saw the look in Rick's brown eyes. Even since he had first met the brash warrior at dinner, he had never seen such a look of pain and grief on his face.

"Hello Will," said the wolf in a soft, and somehow consoling tone. "I need to tell you something. It's about Caroline." And then he told him what they found.

The badger's scream of anguish echoed up several blocks in the still of the night at Metamor Keep.

chapter 2

Misha's awakening was similar to Will's. A loud banging intruding on his sleep, demanding that he answer the door and resolve whatever matter it signaled. He had just gotten back from a small patrol that he had taken as a favor for a fellow Long Scout so that scout could spend time with a sick kid, and Misha really needed sleep. Caroline was due back from a two week patrol of her own in about five days, and he wanted to do something special for her. He was not greatly pleased when he found Rickkter was the source of the disturbance.

"Okay, Rick, what the hell are you doing here? Do you have any clue as to the time?"

"I just hiked for close to twelve hours straight to get here, I'm very aware of the time, Misha. Now get dressed. This is important."

"Could you at least tell me what it is that you would drag me out of bed at this hour?"

Rickkter yawned deeply, his sagging shoulders showing quite clearly how tired he was. Misha noticed for the first time that he was still in his light armor with a jacket thrown over, yet without weapons. "You've got to see for yourself. Words don't do it justice."

Something about the raccoon's demeanor made Misha hold his objections. "Um, okay. Just give me a few minutes here." Rickkter followed him into the apartment, flopping down on a chair, totally beat. "So are you and that skunk Kayla still seeing each other, Rick? Caroline and I were wondering if you two would like to join us again. In fact, I'm planning something for when Carol gets back from patrol later this week."

"Somehow I don't think that will work very well," mumbled Rick as he cupped his hand in his chin.

Despite the hour, Misha was alert enough to catch the tone and expression on the 'coon's face. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Rickkter visibly winced. "Damn it..." He sighed again, his shoulders sagging even more. "Misha, do you know where I just came from?"

"I heard it was a sweep and clear raid, you and about thirty other soldiers. One of the southern outposts at the north end of the valley, right?"

"Yes, it was the Naven outpost that we wiped out. Do you know why we're back at close to three in the morning instead of tomorrow?"

Misha could feel his trepidation mounting. "You found someone."

Rickkter debated how much he should say, then decided he might as well do it now. "We found Caroline. From what we managed to find out, she had been their prisoner for close to a week before we got there."

Misha could swear that his heart had stopped beating. "Wha... what did you say?"

The mage stood, motioning for his friend to follow. "Come on, she's in the infirmary."

The fox barely had his top on before he was out the door and racing through the halls of Metamor trying to get to his love.

"Is anyone with her now?" demanded Misha as he jogged down the corridor.

"Will. I went to get him before I got you."

"Why him before me?"

"Because he's her father," snarled Rick. "She is still his child, and he deserved to know as soon as possible. You may love her, but not like he does."

Misha slowed to a fast walk after a little ways, his anger cooling. "How did you find her?" he asked softly, his voice containing a quality that said he was almost afraid of the answer.

"Well, as you know, I was on a sweep and clear at Naven. In the basement there I found a locked room with her in it. She was tied down to a bed..." He stopped abruptly and continued walking. "I don't think I should tell you any more. You're too close to her to hear it now."

The fox whirled, slamming his hands into the raccoon's chest bringing him to a grunting halt. "Damn you, tell me what you found!" he snarled, almost all of his pearl white teeth showing.

Rickkter roughly brought up his hands, breaking the hold the scout had on him. "You've been on those raids before, you should know. It was a locked room, and she had been tied to the bed. They had beaten her repeatedly, muzzled her, and broken all of her fingers in several places." The effect this was having on Misha was profound. The foxes face had visibly acquired more and yet more acute horror the longer Rickkter talked. But for some reason, be it his anger at the situation or his general exhaustion leading to a temperamental state, Rick couldn't make himself stop.

"They had left her down there for at least several days while they tortured and raped her repeatedly--"

Misha flinched quite noticeably. "They raped her?" asked the fox in a distant tone, interrupting Rickkter.

That finally stopped him. Rick was quiet for a moment before continuing. "Yes," he said, his voice a soft tenor. "Somehow I doubt that she could have survived much longer before we found her. That treatment had been going on almost constantly, and there is only so much the human body can endure."

At last Misha could bear no more, and he lurched violently away, clamping his paws over his ears. "By Abba," he wailed. "Oh, Caroline!"

Rickkter realized just how far he had gone over the line. "Shit. I shouldn't have said all that." He came up behind Misha and started leading him on again. "Come one, she's just a little way down here."

The fox was still wearing a completely stunned expression. "What I don't understand is why she didn't just shift to her otter form and escape. Surely she could have gotten out of the restraints then."

"She couldn't, Misha. The whole room was enchanted to prevent that. They expected to contain keepers in it, and were duly prepared."

Reaching up, the fox wiped at his eyes. "Oh, dear Caroline."

The pair entered the infirmary. "We did what we could for her on site. The other healers here were finishing up when I left Will to get you. He's taking this pretty hard." Rick opened one of the doors, revealing a heavily bandaged otter morph lying in the bed and a dreadfully haggard older badger sitting next to her. Misha's legs almost gave out from under him and Rick was forced to catch him and hold him steady. When the raccoon spoke, his voice was sympathetic.

"I wish it had been anyone else who found her besides me, Misha. Now go on."

Wordlessly, Misha nodded and staggered over to the bed, his eyes swiftly filling with tears. Rickkter waited until the fox had made the edge of the bed before closing the door behind himself. Being the bearer of bad news was never something he took pride in.

As he started up the hall, he caught sight of a familiar black and white form coming the other direction. He met her before she could reach the door. "What are you doing here, Kayla?"

"Phil sent me to speak with Misha about Caroline. There are some things that need clearing up. He would have come himself, but between the elevated attacks recently, his running of Lorland, and his old job, he's being run ragged. In fact, it was Rupert that convinced him not to come. He cares a lot for his highness, and knows the stress he's been under. Though I'm surprised that Phil relented as easily as he did."

Rick grunted in interest. "I'm surprised that you're up at this hour."

"I help out getting different materials and reports that he needs, as well as transcribing anything he wants done quickly." She started to go around Rickkter. "And if you could excuse me, I need to talk to Misha about a few things now."

Her path was blocked by Rickkter's up-raised arm. Her blue eyes looked up to him. "You're not going to disturb him. Even for this. He has just been woken up in the middle of the night by one of his best friends, who has told him that the woman he loves has just been brought back near death after being taken prisoner by the enemy." He took her by the shoulder and started leading her away. "Business is the furthest thing from his mind. Though if you insist on seeing him, tell me what it is and I'll see if it's worth interrupting him."

Kayla's look was one of disquiet at hearing the specifics of what had happened to the otter. "I think I can understand that. I'm only here because Phil asked me to see if he was up to it." She smiled slightly up at Rickkter. "Though I am rather glad to see you again."

Rickkter's smile was less genuine, but he could sympathize with the skunkette. "And I you. Though I would give anything for it to be under better circumstances."

Kayla nodded. "I know. Though as to your question, it was mostly about Carol's partner that I wanted to talk to Misha about."

The mage looked rather ill. A slight snarl curled his lips and his ears turned back till they rested on his skull. "Yes, I know about him. We found out about him and what they did to him during the on-site questioning. What they did to him was almost as bad as what happened to her."

Just like the smaller two-man teams from the raid that Rickkter had been on, all Long Scouts acted in teams of at least two. It was a logical idea, the system designed to ensure that one will always watch the back of the other and that there was always a way to get information back to the Keep should something happen to the other.

"Then you know her partner was Craig, a prairie dog morph. Did you see what happened to him, where we could find the body?"

"No, I didn't see. But from what I heard during the questioning, I'm rather thankful for that. At least he didn't suffer long, according to what we were told. That'll all be in the reports tomorrow. Tell Phil that the last lutin will be able to tell him what happened readily enough, as well as a lot else. After he saw what we did to his comrades, he's been babbling all the way back here. We actually had to gag him and knock him out a few times just to shut him up."

"Well, I was hoping to have something more to tell his family later this morning."

Rickkter flinched. "He had kids?" asked the 'coon in an shaken tone.

"Yes, a wife and two kids."

The raccoon growned loudly and slumped back against the wall, knocking his head a bit. "Damn it all," he muttered.

Kayla reached out and touched his arm lightly. "It wasn't your fault, you didn't know. Leave this to Misha and Phil, it's their department." She rubbed her hand down the dark jacket he was wearing over a mail shirt. "It's late and you look dead on your feet, so how about I escort you back to your room? Since my business here seems to be at an end."

Smiling, Rickkter turned and slipped his arm around hers. "I think that I would like that very much."

"So you don't think there's any chance of my talking with Misha about this?"

"I don't think that you'll be seeing much of him tonight."

The door to the personal recovery room several doors down slammed open, causing the pair to turn around. Misha appeared from it, moving swiftly in the opposite direction from them.

"Or maybe not." He broke away from Kayla and began to call to his friend, only to have the name die on his lips as he fully noticed the stance of the fox. "Oh, shit."

"What is it?" asked Kayla.

Rickkter turned back to her, taking one of her paws in his in an apologetic manner. "I'm sorry, my dear. I have to go now. I need to stop a friend from making a very stupid mistake." He gave her one last smile, then started after the fox, his bushy tail bouncing around behind him.

Rickkter finally caught up to the scout in the armory. Somehow -- probably the damnable variable internal architecture of Metamor -- he had lost his friend shortly after leaving Kayla. Presumably a combination of Misha needing to get to his quarters quickly, and not wanting anyone to follow, had caused it. The Keep always did seem to read strong emotions well. Eventually the mage gave up on that idea, and focused on a place he knew Misha would have to go. That was how he had gotten here.

"Okay, Misha," he panted. "What the hell are you doing here?"

The Long Scout looked up from strapping on a belt with a pair of large hunting knives on it. Jack was also there, helping Misha gather his equipment. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm going out."

"No you're not. Not if I have anything to say about it."

He closed the clasps on his mail tunic. "Guess what, Rick. You don't."

"This is crazy, Misha. Caroline is lying there right now, unconscious, and who knows what else. When she comes around, she will be wanting you. But you won't be here, will you? No, you'll be off getting yourself killed."

The fox stalked in front of Rick on his way to a different part of the armory. As he did so, he flashed Rick a snarl, showing a good many teeth.

"Damn it, I know what you're feeling like," said the mage, trailing behind his friend. "When I saw her, I practically tore the place apart. I know what it's like to feel pain for a loved one, but I don't want you doing anything stupid in the process."

Misha turned to the mule. "Do you have my axe?"

The castellan held it out for him. The fox snatched it wordlessly and began to head off. "Misha!" shouted Jack. "You forgot your bow," he said, holding it out.

The fox shook his head. "No," he replied in a icy cold tone of voice. "This is going to be axe work." As he ran the bottom of one finger alongside the sharp edge of the blade, there was a feral look in his eyes that made Jack shiver involuntarily, his equine tail jumping about.

The raccoon was getting noticeably frustrated with his lack of progress. "God damn it, Misha! Why aren't you listening to what I'm saying?"

The fox's head snapped up. "If you loved her like I do, then you wouldn't be asking that kind of question. Seeing her lying there.... you just wouldn't ask."

"You didn't see it all, Misha!" screamed Rickkter. "I was the one that found her, tied down like some animal so that those sick fucks could do whatever they wanted to her without fear of her fighting back. I was the one that carried her upstairs in her arms," he growled, holding out his arms as through the otter were still there, lending emphasis. "I helped bandage her up, to try and fix what they did to her."

"And you killed those responsible for it!" Misha shot back, his voice as much a yell as Rickkter's. "Of that I have no doubt. Those teams never leave survivors, and I doubt that any would have been left alive this time. They all got what they deserved, but not from me! Now it's my turn for justice! My turn, Rick! And I fully intend to take it." He shouldered his way past his friend, stopping on the way out to adjust his poncho, which was slightly askew.

Rickkter snarled at him, an odd yet rather threatening sound from a raccoon. Hunching his shoulders, he held his right arm out level, his hand open. "Jack!"

The castellan had already guessed what the warrior might want, and was holding out Rick's sword. Much to his surprise, the mage grabbed the handle and yanked it quite violently out of its scabbard. He angrily stalked past the fox and took a defiant position in front of the exit to the main court yard.

That puzzled the other, and Misha frowned as he finished making sure that his camouflaged poncho was adjusted to his liking. He took up Whisperer once more and walked up to Rickkter. The raccoon never budged, just stared at him with a burning expression.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Misha asked, gesturing with the axe.

"I said I wasn't letting you do this. Now turn around and go back inside."

Misha was never one to let people treat him like that. He hefted his axe, putting his grip several inches down the handle. "Out of my way, mage."

Rickkter swatted Misha's axe away with his sword. "This won't work, Misha. If you were to think -- I mean really think about this -- you would realize you only have two options. Either you turn around and go back to that room willingly, or I put you in a bed next to her."

The fox growled, edging around the raccoon a little. "And if I don't like those choices?"

"Then the only way you're getting out is over my dead body. Because if you don't kill me, then as soon as I'm able, I will hunt your ass down and drag you back here any way I bloody well can." He glared defiantly at Misha. "I'm not Andre, I'm not Will, I'm not George, and I'm not Wessex. You can't intimidate me this way."

The fox snorted. "Bah. You wouldn't hurt me. You're too loyal to your friends for that."

When he answered, Rickkter's voice was like that of a lake in winter. Calm, frozen, and dead. "I've killed friends before. Don't make me do it again."

"Whoa, now wait a minute here..." said Jack as he started to come around from behind the counter.

"Stay our of this Jack!" yelled Rickkter, whipping up his sword and pointing with the blade at the mule. The deadly tone of his voice, despite the fact that Rick's eyes never left Misha, froze the castellan to the floor. "This is between me and him."

Misha turned to the side slightly to think about it as he watched Rick lower his sword once more. The Long eventually reached a decision. "If that's the way you want it." Instantly he snapped back, whipping his axe around. He had it angled so that the flat of the blade would catch the mage up-side the head, putting him out cold.

One of the many things that Misha was renowned for in the use of his great axe was speed. Despite its almost five foot length, he could wield Whisperer like it was a simple hand axe. That was why it was all the more shocking when the axe was brought to a ringing halt against the blade of Rickkter's now upraised katana.

The raccoon had the sword gripped in both hands, bracing it against the blow, and was glaring hotly at the fox. Misha was totally shocked, both by the block itself and ringing in his head. Whisperer had the unusual property of sounding a bell in wielder's mind each time it came in contact with magic, the chime being louder the more potent the magic it had come in contact with. The bell he was hearing now would have to be the equivalent of sticking his head inside one of the bells in the steeple of the church he used to attend as a child. He had known that Rick's blade contained a powerful magic, just never the full extent of that power.

"Will you reconsider?"

The fox's anger boiled over, and with a howl of rage he lunged at the coon. Despite that anger, he still maintained enough control to only try and knock Rickkter out. He wasn't about to kill his friend, but he had all intents of removing him from his path. All of Misha's strikes were countered, Rickkter only giving ground on the most grudging terms. Towards the end of the foray, Misha had lowered his axe to try and determine which way to attack, when Rick snapped up a kick that caught the fox right on the underside of his muzzle. Misha hobbled back, clutching his face.

"Last time offered, Misha. Please take it."

The fox glanced down at his paw, noting the red wetness there and on his lips. He had hit him! Rickkter had actually hit him! And hit him hard, as well. But why would he be acting like this?! He was just as crazy, if not more so at times, than Misha himself. This was a person who could slaughter a small battalion of Lutins and feel nothing. Yet here he was trying to prevent Misha for doing what was his to do by right! The fox just couldn't understand it.

But then his anger and grief came to the surface, and he howled a anguished battle cry and launched into a frenzied attack. This time Rickkter really had to really work to keep the axe at bay, as Misha only cared about getting his friend out of the way and not how he did it. The scout managed to use the axe to make a small slice above one of Rick's eyes, and even slash a line across his chest, the blade going through the mail Rick had on.

There was one thing that was working in Rick's favor, and that was that Misha was fighting on pure emotion. That meant that he was making mistakes and acting irrationally. All that the mage needed to do was wait for the opening he knew eventually must come. And when Misha swung the axe around for a killing blow that missed, that over exertion allowed Rick the opening he needed. Twisting his wrist, he brought the flat of his sword down hard, right on the prominent bone on the side of Misha's wrist. It was a pressure point he had been taught to use when with the Kankoran, and it worked as it always had. With a yelp, Misha clamped his other hand over the one that held the axe, leaving him completely exposed.

But Rickkter didn't stop there. As soon as he had his opening, he gave Misha a fierce right cross to the jaw, following through then snapping back the elbow to catch the fox on the side of the head. The combination of stunning blows caused Misha to finally drop the axe, the implement clanging to the floor with dull, reverberating thuds as the blades kicked up dust and stone chips.

Rickkter still wasn't done. While Misha was still too stunned to react, he gave the fox a pair of sharp right jabs right between the eyes, staggering the scout back a few feet. Then the raccoon moved in and delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce. With his sword still in hand, Rickkter stepped right up to his opponent, grabbed his shoulders, and drove his knee up as hard as he could into the Misha's gut. The mage had a few inches advantage in height, and it showed as he popped the fox clear off his feet once, twice, before letting him go.

Despite the severity of the beating, Misha managed to stay on his feet, albeit he was doubled over and holding his stomach as he moaned in pain. Grimacing as he did so, Rickkter raised the sword in both hands and brought the edge of the hilt down on the fox's back, right between the shoulders. That dropped Misha like a load of bricks.

For a long time the only sounds in the armory were the panting of the raccoon and the gasping and sobbing of the fox doubled over at his feet. The warrior mage redirected his gaze from Misha to where Jack stood rooted in the floor gaping at the pair. The castellan had heard that the two were close, but never in his life had he seen two friends beat on each other to such a degree. Rickkter turned his glower to Jack, and instantly the mule knew just how dangerous he could be. The look in the mage's eyes was madness, as though it were someone else entirely who was doing the fighting. But then that look was gone, replaced by a morose compassion as the figure on the floor finally recovered his voice.

"Oh, god, Rick!" half-croaked, half-sobbed Misha. "Why did you have to do it? Why couldn't you have just let me go? Can't you see I'm in enough pain already?"

Rickkter hunched down and placed a comforting paw on the foxes shoulder. "I know, my friend. I just couldn't let you do it. In the state you're in, you'll go out there and you'll get yourself killed before long. You're angry, you're running on emotion, and you're not thinking straight. That means you'll do something stupid, and then where would Caroline be?"

"Oh, Carol," he croaked. "How could they do that to her? How could they hurt her like that?"

"I don't know," whispered the mage. "You can never really--"

"And all I want is my just revenge. I want to make them PAY for what they did to her! You already had that," he cried. "You fucking killed them back there, you made them pay. Why are you denying me that same chance?" He hung his head, covering it with his paws as he broke down again.

Rickkter took the fox's shoulders in both his paws. "Misha look at me." When the scout didn't respond, he shook him again. "Hey, look at me! I'm not denying you your revenge, only telling you to wait until you know all the facts. Right now, you just want to go out and kill. You're not thinking about that poor young woman lying in the bed back there. That's where your first concern should be. You wait till you know her condition, you want until she's come through this, then you can go and avenge her."

Misha had raised his head to gaze into his friend's eyes. The fox could clearly make out the hurt in those brown eyes, and the burning desire for revenge just below that. Reaching up with a paw, he wiped at his eyes. "Okay," he muttered. "Okay, Rick. I'll do it your way."

The raccoon smiled, squeezing his friend's shoulders. "That's good. Because when you do go, I'll be right there at your side. You can lead us to hell and back, and I will follow. But until that time, we wait until we know about Carol. When she comes around, when she's finally recovered, then we'll go. And I'll be right at your side for the while thing. But NOT UNTIL WE KNOW!" he concluded, shaking Misha lightly.

The Long Scout's eyes showed a steely determination to them. "I hope you keep your word, Rick. Because before this is over, there will be hell caused the likes of which even you cannot possibly imagine."

Rickkter stood. "All in good time, my friend." He held out his hand and helped the shaky fox to his feet. "Now you get back to that lady in the infirmary. She needs you the most right now. I know Carol's a strong woman, but she's going to need both you and Will if she's going to make it though this."

The fox agreed and headed out. Whether his walk was unsteady due to the torrent of emotions going through him or lasting effects from the fight, it was hard to say. Rickkter waited until he was out the door before stooping to pick up his katana and Misha's great axe. He sluggishly carried them both over to Jack and set them on the bench before the armorer.

"I've never seen anything like that before," commented Jack as he accepted the weapons. "Why didn't you just let him go?"

The raccoon's expression was one of pain that he could never show anyone else just then. "Because he's my friend."

"Hell, I got lots of friends," snorted the castellan.

"I don't," whispered Rick as he turned and walked off.

chapter 3

When he got back to the door, Rickkter found Misha standing there, staring at the wooden portal. In the quiet stillness of the infirmary, Rick walked up behind his friend and looked at the door. He noted the tears glistening against the fox's white cheek fur as they leaked from his eyes. Misha was the first to speak.

"I don't know if I can go in there, Rick. I don't know if I can face that again."

"You're going to have to, my friend. Remember what I said; she'll need you and your love to make it through this." He waited, but the fox didn't budge, just looked at the door. "I've never told you this Misha, but I envy you and Caroline. I really do." The two friends locked gazes, Rickkter's sorrowful one with Misha's shocked one. "Every time I see you, I can't help it. I see how much she loves you, how much she means to you, and it just reminds me of what I once had. There is very little I wouldn't do to experience that again. That is why I did for her what I did, and why I stopped you for going out."

"You know what it's like to have this happen?" Misha whispered.

"Worse. I know what it's like to lose them completely. I could never do that to anyone I care about. If either you or Carol had died, I never would have been able to forgive myself. That was why I was so surprised that you had no problem with her being a Long. The last time I fell in love with someone in the same profession, I was responsible for her death."

"I never knew."

Rick shrugged. "Few do. It's not something I like to talk about. At least with you, she has for a second chance." Without another word, Misha opened the door and entered. Rickkter, following behind his friend, was taken by surprise with the fox's yelp of astonishment. When he pushed his way in, Rick saw that it was because Caroline was awake and talking with her father.

Misha rushed right over to her, only to have Will stand and reach out his arm to catch the fox across the chest. Misha directed a pleading look at his old friend. The badger moved his muzzle up next to the fox's ear and whispered a few things to him. Rickkter's acute hearing managed to pick up that it was mostly that Carol was still sore, so not to get too physical with her, and that she wanted to talk to him. At that point Will caught sight of Rickkter standing there with his ears perked up, and lowed his tone to where Rick couldn't make it out any longer. Satisfied that he was no longer needed, the coon turned and headed out to try and get some sleep for the night.

But he was to be denied that a little while longer. As he was heading out, he heard a door close behind him and someone call his name. When he turned around, he saw that it was Will. The jeweler looked to have aged about ten years since Rick had seen him before that night. "I need to talk with you about something very important."

The mage groaned. He really didn't need this. All he wanted to do was get some sleep, now that he felt his part in the whole sordid affair was done. But the tortured look on the badger's face waylaid his concerns. The very least he owed Will was to hear him out. "Okay, fine. We'll do this outside. I need the fresh air just to stay awake."

They took a quick way used by the Keep staff, arriving outside in a short time. Rickkter took time to revel in the cool night air. Tilting his head back, he closed his eyes and deeply inhaled of the cool night air. After being cooped up in there with Misha and when he had brought Carol back, he needed it. The effect was refreshing, and after a few deep breaths, he opened his eyes to gaze at the heavens. It was a clear night, and from the darkened section they were in, he could clearly make out the stars. God, it had been a long time since he had just stopped to look at them like that.

But the voice of the jeweler brought him back to reality. "I asked to talk to you because I need your help, Rick."

He should have just said no. He should just have went to bed and not even bothered with Will. But he didn't, and he could somehow guess what was coming. "How can I help you, Will?"

"I've never... I've never been a violent man, Rick. Even now, in this body with all its instincts, I'm still not prone to losing my temper. I'm not like you and Misha, I don't derive any pleasure, or whatever, from that kind of thing. Hell, I haven't even fought in years. But I want this. More then you can possibly imagine, I want their blood. I'm asking to go along with you and Misha when you finally do."

Rick had been right. "What makes you think we'd be going to kill them over this?"

"I saw his face when he stormed out of that room, Rick. I saw the murder blazing in his eyes. I felt the exact same way that he did." Will chewed on his lower lip a moment. "I don't know what you did to get him back, but I thank you. And now I'm asking your help."

"I can't make that decision," said the warrior in a regretful tone. "That one is up to Misha, as it will be all his show out there. Though since it's you, I think that he'd welcome it."

Will Hardy closed his eyes and nodded solemnly. He was taking the whole thing better then Rickkter had anticipated. That was when he decided to ask one of the last things that Rickkter would have ever expected.

"I want you to show me what happened," he asked in a low tone.

The raccoon balked visibly. "No. If you knew what you were asking from me, you wouldn't be asking at all."

Will spun with surprising speed and latched onto the raccoon's jacket. "Don't play games with me! The others, the healers, even they wouldn't fully tell me," he snarled. "I know you have the ability to project images, even imagined images or memory." He slammed Rick up against the wall with each word to accentuate his point. "I WANT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENED!"

By the pale light of the gibbous moon and the distant stars, Rick could make out the anguish on the badger's face. He could see the eyes, how the tears that flowed from them shone in the starlight against his dark gray fur. "She is my little girl, Rick. She's my baby, and they almost took her from me. Of all the things in my life, she's the most important. She's all that I have left of Sarah." His tone was pleading now. "Please, Rick. I have to know."

It was rare to encounter people of such strong emotion, reflected the mage. Most would have just forgotten about the whole idea of what happened, concentrated instead on the future. Almost no one wanted to know such things. But in some primal way, Rickkter could understand the desire of Will to learn just what he would probably be better off not knowing.

"If I do this, you must do one thing for me first."

"What? Name your price."

"You must forgive me," he whispered, "for what I am about to show you."

Will stopped and looked at Rick, stealing himself for what was to come. "There is very little that you can show me more horrible then what I have already witnessed."

Letting a puff of breath through his nostrils, Rickkter closed his eyes and proved how wrong Will had been.

The badger only let out a single strangled cry before letting go and retreating along the wall of the Keep. He stopped, doubled over, and clutched at his stomach as he dry heaved from the lingering memory of what he had been shown.

What Rick had shown him was an image of Carol as the medics patched and cleaned her up. He dared not show her father the images of her in the cell for the precise reason of what Will was doing right now. Despite what he had said, no caring father could take seeing their child in that kind of situation. It was simply too much... for anyone.

Rickkter stood there, feeling a cool night wind brushing his exposed fur, as he waited for Hardy to recover. In a situation like this one, there was simply nothing that he could say.

Will regained his senses, eventually. Straightening up, he adjusted his tunic then turned and walked back to the raccoon, the tears stainging his dark gray fur. "When you are ready to go, I shall be there with you." Nodding, Rickkter turned ushered the badger back inside, leaving the night to itself once more.

The wooden door to Caroline's room creaked as it opened. Will pushed his way in first, saying a soft, yet comforting hello to his daughter. When Rickkter entered, he saw that she had managed to sit up a little, propped up against some pillows.

Caroline looked pretty much what someone would expect of a person who had endured what she had. Both her eyes were black, one swollen completely shut. The other one was heavily bloodshot, almost totally red around the iris. The skin around that one was a puffy, dark purple. Her jaw was swollen in places, illustrating how her captors like to slap her around. There were several thick bandages on other parts of her body. Even though the blanket was pulled up close to her, Rickkter could make out the wrap around her mid section, attesting to numerous broken ribs. She had one of her heavily bandaged hands resting on her lap, the other in the gentle grip of Misha, where he kneeled by the bed, now resting his head on the bed's side. Both Rick and Will could clearly make out the wet tracks in his vermilion fur from his crying.

Caroline's one good eye wandered to the two at the door, then back down the Misha. Her tone was a surprising flat monotone when she spoke. "You said that Phil would probably want to talk to you about this, Misha. I think that now would be a good time for that. And please take Papa with you. I want to speak with Rick alone right now."

Misha sat there on the floor, looking very lost and dejected. He rubbed her hand against her cheek. "I don't want to leave you. Not till you're better." Another tear rolled down his cheek. "Please don't make me leave you."

"My love." She waited until he met her gaze. "Go. I will be fine without you, and I need to talk to him myself. You go and see Phil. Clear it away now. Okay?"

Misha closed his eyes against the tears once more. "Okay, honey." He snuggled against her hand once more. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Promise."

Rickkter and Will actually had to help the fox get to his feet. Even after that, Misha leaned heavily on Will for support on his way out the door. Rickkter closed the wooden door softly behind him before turning back to the otter on the bed. He decided to take the seat that Will had been using, on the side away from the door.

"Are you feeling better?" he asked timidly, after managing to find a comfortable position.

"I've been better," she replied in that monotone voice he had heard her using with Misha.

There was no humor in it, no sense of anything, really. That voice was something that greatly un-nerved Rick. It was flat, dead, devoid of all feeling. Maybe it was some sign of a defense mechanism, her cutting herself off from all her feelings. He had seen similar things before. Hell, he had done similar things before.

The otter gazed at her wrapped hands. "I remember them breaking these. They came in right after they first captured me and did it. They said because I was an archer, and because I had killed their own that way, they were going to punish me. The leader, a foul-smelling little runt, he snapped them one knuckle at a time." Rickkter winced at the retelling, his ears switching back.

She looked at the mitt of bandages before continuing in her dead monotone. "All I remember is the incredible pain and the screaming. They seemed to enjoy it. I remember one coming in a few days later to... pleasure himself... and he said that he had won a dagger because he had been the one to make me scream the loudest." She lowered her hand back to the blanket. "He then twisted them even more out of shape. To prove his point." Caroline waited until Rickkter had turned back to her. "Did you do this for me?"

Rick closed his eyes and nodded sadly, his ears still flush with his skull. "I know that you're an archer. Your hands are pretty much your life." He opened his eyes, and looked upon his own hands as he flexed his fingers open and closed. "I'm a mage. And a scholar. And a warrior. Without working hands, I don't know what I could do. I can sympathize with how important they would be to you." He looked away from her, towards the wall. "I just wish I could have undone everything."

"How do you mean?"

"You'll never be able to regain full use of them. The damage was too severe and remained untreated for too long. You'll recover... perhaps eighty, maybe ninety percent of what you had, if you're lucky. But your shooting will suffer. I'm sorry, I tried my best but the damage had been left untreated too long."

Caroline was very quiet for a very long time. "Thank you," she said with the first trace of any emotion in her voice.

"You don't understand. When I saw you there... I... I can understand how Misha felt when he stormed out of here." He stopped, seeming to lose himself in the memories. "I was the one that found you there. My first thought was revenge. To quite literally tear the place apart. And I know magic that would have been capable of doing it as well, were I to pay the price. But then I remembered something that I was told a long time ago; 'Help first. Revenge will come later, after you've taken care of those that you're doing it for'. It was something that I had to teach Misha tonight."

"He told me that," she said. "I've only seen him like that once before, and it wasn't this bad. He said that you made him realize just how blind he really was. I don't think that I've even seen anyone do such a thing for Misha. When he gets something into his head, there is no stopping him. How did you bring him back to me?"

"I, uh... I... well... let's just say that I was never one to take no for an answer."

"You're a good friend, Rick. To both of us."

"There was also something else. I never thought I would have use of it." He waved his hand absently towards her lower abdomen. "I drew a rune of termination. To stop the possibility of anything coming from what they put you through."

She moved her hand reflexively to her belly. "Where did you learn such a thing?"

"It doesn't matter. It's just one of many things I wish I had never learned. One of so many things."

The infirmary room was quiet. Rickkter sat, not wanting to meet Carol's look, Carol sat studying her rescuer. The only sounds in the room was the breathing of the two morphs, and the odd sputtering of one of the mounted oil lamps. "What happened to them?" asked Carol at length.

"Dead. All but one are dead. We only brought him back because we wanted a prisoner. Originally we had three." Rickkter leaned his head back, massaging his neck with both hands. "I suppose the rage took over, the desire for revenge. One of the other soldiers, Kershaw, he and I decided to question two of them, under Stanley's oversight. You could see how what they did to you affected everyone. Even though Stanley let us go far beyond what he probably would have done normally, still he had to rein in Kershaw a few times." Rick paused. "Me, too."

Caroline looked up at him and blinked her one good eye. His gaze slid over and he looked into the deep brown of gaze. He could see the beginnings of something there. "I don't know what you did to them, Rick. Somehow, I don't think I want to. All I want to say is whatever you did, it was just. What they did... well, you saw the results." She saw Rick clamp his eyes closed, a small tear flow from one of them. "Thank you for all that you've done for me. I wish there was a more profound way to say it.... but... thank you."

Rickkter nodded, wiping at his deep black mask. "You're a friend. There is very little that I wouldn't do for a friend. Especially one who was in the pain you were." He hastily stood up, startling the reclining otter. "I have to go. Will and Misha will be back soon. I'll leave you till they get back."

"Please," said Carol as he tried to snag the edge of his jacket. "Don't... don't leave me. As... as strange as it sounds, I feel better with you here. The... the waiting was always the worst, just lying there in the dark waiting for them to come and... and hurt me again. And I don't want to be alone right now." She held out both her arms to him. "Can you please just stay with me until the others get back? Please?" she whispered.

Rickkter was tired. He was tired and sick to his stomach from all that had gone on, yet he couldn't very well say no. He could see her pain, and some of his empathy showed in his eyes alongside all the other feelings. With nothing else to do, he nodded wordlessly and climbed in next to her, wrapping an arm protectively around her as she snuggled up to him.

"It'll be all right," he softly cooed as he stroked her fur lightly. "You're home now, and everything will be okay. Just sleep now, and your love will be here when you wake up."

Misha and Will were greeted to the sight of Rickkter sitting on the edge of the infirmary bed with Caroline curled up next to him, her head resting on his lap as he slowly stroked the fur on her shoulder.

"Shhh," he whispered, his downhearted gaze never leaving the sleeping form of the otter. "She finally got to sleep a little while ago and I don't want to disturb her." He silently stroked her chocolate brown fur some more before looking up at Misha. "Come here, my friend. I think that you should be here when she wakes up."

Misha's expression was almost like someone had stabbed him through the heart as he took in Caroline's condition once more. Will's paw on his shoulder re-assured him some. When he moved his eyes to Rickkter, he saw that his friend really did care about Carol. Maybe not as much as him and Will, but he did care. Wordlessly Misha nodded and walked around to relieve his friend.

Rickkter was especially careful not to disturb Caroline as he moved out and let Misha take his place. Just as he was almost there, Caroline seemed to start, shifting and mumbling in her sleep as she pressed up against the fox. Misha was quick to put his arm around her and sush her back to sleep. "Don't worry, love. I'm here, it's all right." She just mumbled some more, and clutched him tighter in her sleep.

Will stopped the raccoon before he could take his leave. He took the mage's paw in his own, much larger one. "I want to thank you again for bringing her back to me, Rick. You can't know what that means." Before Rick had a chance to reply, Will had pulled him into a rather fatherly hug, giving him an appreciative slap on the back. The mage eventually managed to untangle himself and with a few mumbled words tried once more to leave the room. It was there that Misha caught him.

"And I want to thank you, Rick. For stopping me from going."

Rickkter paused at the door to take in the scene once more; Misha on the bed with Caroline slumbering on his lap and Will taking up a chair across from the two lovers. Yes, Caroline would be all right, he repeated to himself as he opened the door.

"It was what I would've expect you would do for me, were the situation reversed," he said.

Misha tried to say something but was never able to get it out. Instead he hugged his otter closer to him, lowering his gaze to her again. The raccoon took that as his cue to leave at last.

Finally alone out in the hall, Rickkter raised up his arms and let off a full body stretch. He flexed his fingers, raised himself up on his toes, gave his tail a vigorous shake and stretched his thin, black lips back over his prodigious teeth. The raccoon held that position for a moment before slouching down once more and turning to his quarters.

All he wanted to do was go to bed and finally get some sleep.