Entertaining Guests

by Ryx

Murikeer's senses, as usual, woke long before he actually bestirred himself. Ears, largely quiescent during his sleep, began to twitch and swivel about, listening to the sounds of his home, seeking sounds that did not belong where they were heard. Sensing nothing out of place, he passed to his next awakened sense; smell. The black nose was not nearly so mobile as his ears, merely dilating his nostrils as it took in the scents of his home, like his ears, scrying out odors that were misplaced. Despite the powerful skunk musk that was a constant underlying aroma, he could smell quite well, far better than he once had. One grows used to scents that they live in, so his nose took little notice of the strong odors, and the less powerful scents of leather, stone, and dampness.

Again, nothing untoward came to his senses, so his body did not awaken with a start, drifting slowly upward away from his last dream. He yawned and stretched once, languidly, before opening his eyes, his tail unwrapping from his torso. He shifted from his side to his back, propping himself up upon his elbows using the knuckle of one hand to rub the sleep from each eye in turn, and looked around. Despite his being a little over a hundred feet underground, the warm sight of sunlight greeted his sleep blurred stare, causing him to blink repeatedly before his eyes adjusted.

The illusion he had created to give him a view of the clearing just beyond the entrance of his cave was one he found himself particularly proud of. He had never seen or heard of a linked illusion in his studies before, stumbling across the concept early on in his development of the cavern as a home. It was actually a pair of illusions, one at the entrance of his cave that would 'see' the clearing, and another that would show what the first 'saw' at the location it was placed. In this instance, on one wall of Muri's sleeping chamber.

As with all illusions, it was weakened by the fact that Muri knew it was an illusion, which gave it a wavering, water-like translucence as his mind tried to banish it. He had yet to perfect an illusion that would be clearly perceivable even by one who knew its nature. He looked into the pool of sunlight and greenery, dampening down his need to not believe in order to make the illusion clearer, so that he might see if anything outside his dwelling had changed.

The clearing appeared as it had the previous evening; a simple opening in the forest with an animal path leading up to a crack in the mountainside. Nothing new and out of place stood out to catch his attention, which was a good thing so far as he was concerned. He took great care to prevent any hint of an intelligence living in the cave so that the odd wandering hunter or lutin who came upon his cave would not carry word to their tribes of a hermit in the forest. He learned long ago that those choosing to live alone had to be just as paranoid as a mouse to avoid discovery.

Satisfied that no one or no creature had stumbled upon his home, he rose from the pile of fur and moss that served him as a bed, summoning a small witchlight with a negligent wave of his hand. The small, bobbing sphere of sunlight appeared obediently above his right shoulder, a little higher than the level of his ears, and followed him as he ducked through the stone archway leading out into the larger central chamber. Like a bubble in water, if rose toward the vaulted stone ceiling, drifting around the slender pillars if ancient, pale stone stalactites, until if found a place to rest, shedding its steady sunlike glow through the large room.

A simple spell, that witchlight, something almost every apprentice learns within weeks of understanding the basic concept of weaving the flow. Until they learned binding, though, they had to concentrate to maintain the light. Muri had progressed well beyond that point, having passed into his Journeyman status shortly before the change overtook him.

That change, the result of an evil spell cast upon a besieged keep by the dark wizard Nasoj some seven years ago, had changed Muri from man to skunk. Not an immediate and instant transformation, as Muri had been too young to feel the spell's nefarious touch, but he was caught regardless. As he reached puberty some years later, the magic decended upon him like a deadfall trap, crushing his previous innocence under its evil weight. The effect had caused him to leave his mentor, but not under the circumstances of a journeyman's questing. It had been outright flight, and nearly ended Muri's life.

Yet all of that was his past, two years and more gone, and he had come to terms with his transformation. He found he rather liked himself now, despite the fears and anger of his early days. His fur was soft, far softer even than a normal skunk's pelt, owing to his habitual cleanliness. He was stronger, much more agile, and much more alert than he had ever been as a human. And he was alone.

His only regret, that loneliness. He knew there were supposedly others that had been turned by those spells, becoming animals like himself, but he feared them. Humans had persecuted him when they found he was changing, and he had developed a deep, nearly narcissistic fear of them. Man, in general, and everything man created, gave him a fright now, as if, in becoming an animal, he had developed an animal's natural fear of humankind.

Muri crossed to the far side of the main chamber, which served him as a work and storage room, moving into the narrow passageway that lead up, toward the world of light and fresh air. His cave had many natural openings, which allowed for the movement of air, but Muri had been forced to seal more than a few of them to prevent unwanted native visitors from moving in. He had once found a bear in his bedchamber, which caused a few days of chaos. The bear had not been after Muri as food, in which case he would have had to bring it down, it had merely been looking for a winter home. Muri had convinced it that another side-chamber would server better than his bedroom. When spring came Muri abandoned his cave long enough to allow the ravenous bear time to leave without seeing him as a breakfast item.

Emerging into the light, Muri stretched and smiled, taking in a deep breath of cool forest air. The opening of the cave faced south and east, which let the sun fill the entrance, and the clearing, in early morning warmth and sunshine. Even north of the great wall the summer days grew rather warm, and this day would be no different. The skies were particularly clear, a few high wisps of mares'tails hinting at a front to come in the next day or so.

He glanced once more around his clearing before stepping through the illusion shroud that was a barely perceived shimmer in the air across the entrance. He knew that in his bedchamber below his image would be seen walking into the bright white glow of sunshine. His tail swished and fluffed behind him, an expression of his buoyant heart as he stepped into the light and stretched once again, letting the sun's heat soak into the blackness of his fur.

His cave, unfortunately, was like any other cave, and prone to being constantly cool. In winter that 'cool' was warm in comparison, but during the summer months it was downright chilly no matter how many heating spells he bound. Only his sleeping chamber retained a comfortable level of warmth due to its small size.

Moving to a large slab of stone naturally jutting outward from the mountainside, he climbed up to its smooth top and sat down. Crossing his legs, he looked around once more, then centered himself with the rising sun, and closed his eyes. His hands rested, palm up, on his knees as he focused his thoughts, centering his will. For several long minutes he rested there, unmoving save for his ears, which never stilled, though his thoughts were turned away from what they heard. His breathing and pulse slowed, until a casual observer might think he were in a coma.

Around him flowed the chaotic pattern of the world power, the life energies that imbued all things, moving like water from one source to another. Muri felt that current around and through him, his own more focused flow mingling with the free, unconfined rush of energies around him. He let his conscious merge with the pattern, for a time not seeking to put any order to it, allowing its energy to refresh him, to replenish what he had used in the day previous.

He felt the intricately woven tapestry of his energies begin to unravel, to mingle with the chaos of the currents around him. As the last of the rigid structure fell away, he felt himself totally freed of himself, his calling, and his loneliness as he mingled and became one with the life of the land around him. He continued to let himself blend in, loosing his essence entirely, a task which he seldom did for the risks involved. One could become lost forever in the currents of the world power if they let themselves become too fully enmeshed in the land.

He needed to cleanse himself entirely of the intricately woven tapestry of the power that he had created for himself, a task which he did each day, reordering his own energies only once he separated from the pull of the currents. Once he sensed the last of his 'identity' trickling away, he began to reverse the process, gathering up as much of the surrounding magic as he was able. It was like grasping at water, it coursed around his grasp, pooling then leaking away, but it was not a distressing event. He knew he was gathering what he needed, what he could hold in himself at any one time. Today he would have to take in more, much more, than he normally needed, in order to perform the task he had set for himself.

Drawing back into his mortal shell, he began to feel the pulse of his heart, mingled with the whisper of the land in his ears. Order returned to the river coursing through him, containing the energies he carried back up with him, filling him with the rush of life and power. A tempting path to follow, that power, which caused the corruption of the weak willed or overly ambitious. Nasoj was a name that sprang instantly to mind.

Muri inhaled a deep breath, coming back to himself at length, and opened his eyes. His ears denied what he saw when they focused on the far side of the clearing. A single lone Lutin, standing silent and unmoving in the open a score of paces from where Muri perched, watching him with intent, beady black eyes. The lutin wore furs, all the pale white and mottled greys of a snow leopard, the Lutin's totem animal. He carried a short spear, tipped in a long, slender blade of carved antler. Despite its being bone, Muri knew the lethality of those spears.

He hissed and grabbed at the energies he had just contained, weaving them into the quickest offensive spell he knew, which would be far more destructive than necessary, but his need was haste, not precision. He brought his hand up, wreathed in crackling energy, and was about to unleash it upon the Lutin when he noted the creatures wards and counterspells.

The Lutin was a shaman, and not a weak one for his young age. With a strangely accented southland bow, he smiled at Muri and inverted his spear, thrusting it into the earth at his feet.

Muri let out a rather feral growl as he gritted his teeth and deconstructed his spell, pulling the energies inward again, tainted with the weaving of lightning rather than the task he had set to mind. "Keletikt, nos dajha." he nodded his head as he unfolded his legs and dropped down from his lofty perch. He knew quite little of the Lutin's language, which was as much body language as vocal, a few greetings and basic phrases, such as the neutral greeting he had just offered.

Keletikt was tall, for a Lutin, nearly as tall as Muri himself. His skin was a pale, dusty grey, a color that was distinct among his kind, which were normally variants of dark green. His hair had been shaven, save for the hair at his temples, which had been braided and decorated with beads of emerald and fire agate, bot of which were common stones in the mountains. Muri had a small collection of his own, though they were kept in his lab, not worn on his person. The Lutin's arms were long and slender, crisscrossed with the scars of battle and ritual, and amazingly strong. Short, bowed legs ended in large, broad feet currently garbed only in light sandals.

"Nos kijrah, Miriakhar." Keletikt grinned with sharp, very white teeth, "I frightened, khendin, sorries." he stepped toward Muri, pulling a leather wrapped item from his belt and handing it to Muri with out ceremony, "A season passes, I come. New knowings." he stepped back, his voice sharp and rough as he tried to remember the words Muri had taught him. Kel learned Muri's language much faster than Muri learned the Lutin tongue, so they used it to converse when they met.

Muri and Kel had come upon their friendship in a rather unorthodox manner shortly after Muri had found his way to the northlands. Winter had come upon the land, leaving Muri with little in the way of anything to keep himself alive. No food save the seeds missed by squirrels and birds, and nothing but his own fur to ward away the cold. His misery made holding his magic near impossible, and Muri faced death more from the harsh northern wither than he had at the hands of the hunters that chased him into the mountains.

Then he woke one morning and looked out to find a gangly Lutin struggling to drag a recently slain deer from under a snow-fallen tree. Muri, not knowing or caring what the Lutin's reactions might be, swiftly moved to assist him in getting the deer free. Neither spoke or paid a great deal of attention to one another in that task, merely working together to get it into the cave and out of the cold bite of the wind. While the lutin skinned the deer, Muri had gone out and brought back wood, and summoned a small fingerblaze to light a fire.

Kel told him only much later that he almost slew the skunk once his prey was safely in the shelter of the cave, no matter how helpful Muri had been. It was the nature of his people, a survival trait. Muri's summoning fire without flint or steel had saved his life, a simpler spell even than a witchlight, but one that not a single Lutin tribe shaman had been able to understand.

Shamans dealt with the spirits of the land, not the elements. They had some knowledge of earth and water magics, but only insofar as they dealt with the spirits of those elements. They conversed with the nymphs of the land, both light and dark, though none to Muri's knowledge followed either aspect of the Lightbringer gods. Muri knew nothing of the spiritualism of the Shaman, though he too knew the nymphs of the land, of the light side

That winter both had come to an easy companionship. Kel was an apprentice shaman, roughly the same rank as Muri had been, taking his spirit quest. A year-long lone trek through the land learning the spirits of the land and surviving. Many did not return. Throughout the winter each learned of the other's people and language, through the exchange of magical concepts.

Muri learned a few of Kel's skills, though he could only make due with the concepts of shamanic powers, taking a bit here and a bit there from greater spells and summonings. Kel, on the other hand, was able to learn Muri's path with an ease that would have left the skunk's old mentor jumping to keep up the pace of learning. Muri was no great mage or wizard, so could only teach the most basic concepts of magery, as he had taught new apprentices while under Heiorn's tutelage. Kel proved facile in his ability to work the concepts into his own manner of usage, changing the nature of his understanding and showing Muri a few new things as well.

When the snows melted with the coming of spring, Kel simply vanished in the night without so much as a fare well. He left behind a more knowledgeable Murikeer, who could now survive on the teachings of his father, his mentor, and a young Lutin shaman.

Over the two years that followed he would turn up on occasion and they would share new knowledge and stories.

"Kando, Muri." Kel returned to his spear and pulled it from the ground, "Watch." He brushed the dirt from the point, checking it for nicks with the habitual ease of a hunter. Without warning, he raised the spear, then slammed the butt end down. Flares of light erupted from a dozen points around the clearing, making Muri jump with a start. They were simply illusions, not real fire or lightning, but the effect was nonetheless startling. Kel had cast several small spells, then bound them to one final action. A trigger.

Muri, once he overcame his momentary start, chuckled. "Kando jhas! Good, Keletikt. Good. Explain?" He put the task he had intended for the day out of his mind, it could wait. For now, learning would take precedence. The Lutin smiled, giving a short, rattling chuckle of his own as he sat down, laying his spear across his lap. Muri moved to sit facing him, crossing his legs and letting his tail curve around to one side, resting motionless on the grass. He set the bundle Kel had given him in his lap without paying much attention.

The Lutin seemed anxious, looking at Muri, then the package in his lap, then pointed a slender grey finger at it. The carved garnet circle on his ginger gleamed in the early morning sunshine, "Go, please, look." Muri looked down, then nodded and pulled away the leather wrappings.

In his lap was a pair of daggers in sheaths. The hilt of one was long and slightly curved, carved intricately from some creature's antler, with a figure of an upright skunk on either side. An engraving of Muri. Glimmering blue topaz were the eyes of the figure, matching the blue of Muri's own eyes. The second blade had a more utilitarian look to it, though was very finely crafted. Muri unsheathed the first one, whistling softly through his teeth. The blade was polished jade, but with a slender edge of steel worked into the leading edge, giving it a very usable bite. The craftsmanship was far superior to anything Muri had ever seen in the south, despite the very limited amount of steel that could be found in the north.

"Exquisite," he breathed, holding it up to let the sunlight gleaming from the blade, then sheathed it again, "far too precious to be a gift." he shook his head as he placed it back in his lap. He knew that, despite its obvious worth, he could not return it without causing affront.

"Keletikt know Muri magic, only magic in all tribes." the Lutin's chest puffed out, "Kel have power in many tribes, give thanks to Muri." he waved a hand at the blade, "Good blade, not for hanging on wall." he shifted his spear and looked at Muri with an intense gaze, black eyes shadowed with his back to the sun, "Other for skinning, first for ritual."

"Your gift is accepted with open heart and free spirit, Keletikt, and held with pride." Muri bowed from his seated position as he laid the blade back down and examined the second. The smaller one was crafted of polished steel, the edge keenly sharp. Muri's only blade was lost in his trek over the mountains, stuck in the ribs of a particularly persistent tracker who took it with him in a several hundred foot tumble down the mountainside. Muri had made due with shaped stone and sharpened bone. This new gift was more important in the northlands than nearly any other.

"Now Kel show thread of magic, to hold spells. Muri teach stronger illusion?"

"Muri learn, and teach, good Keletikt." Muri re-wrapped the bundle and laid his hands upon it, feeling pride, and a momentary abating of his loneliness.