Fun and Games

by Chris Hoekstra

"Hello, Will. How are things?"

"Rickkter!" said the badger as he smiled. "You're looking pretty good for someone who just had a weathermage beat the hell out of them."

The raccoon bowed his head a little and chuckled to himself, shaking his head. He turned his widely ginning visage back to his friend, who was standing behind the counter inside a brightly colored tent. "Yeah, the arm's a lot better this morning. A little sleep helped." He nodded to the otter who was leaning on the table inside the tent. "Hello Carol."

"Afternoon, Rick," she nodded. "Dad's right, you do look a sight better."

Rick swished his tail out a little behind him. He held out his arms, spreading his cloak and knocking the hilt of his katana with an elbow in the process. "Well I figured I might as well try and look good today, what with the competition and all."

"The duels?" asked Caroline.

"But of course. That's why I have this," said Rickkter, lifting his katana several inches out of its wooden scabbard at his hip.

"Would that be the sword I've heard mentioned in connection with your?" inquired Will.

"No, not this one, I'm afraid. As expected, there's a rule against enchanted weapons. And if they won't permit enchanted, there isn't a chance in hell they'd let in what I have. Thus, I have this. Not as good as my usual, but still of excellent quality."

"May I see?" asked the badger. Rick passed it over, and Will. The jeweler maneuvered the long blade in an awkward manner. It was plain both to the mage and the scout that he hadn't handled a weapon in years. "It's... a nice weapon." He returned the katana to its owner. "Best of luck that the competitions."

"Yeah, I'm looking forward to this," admitted the raccoon as he slid the sword home. "After all that's been going on in my life, I want something simple."

"Since when have you ever liked things simple, Rick?" asked Carol. "You probably like a fight more then anyone else I know. Even when we met up last night, when you had your right arm in that sling, you still never let up." The otter leaned over towards the raccoon a little. "Do you have a death wish or something?" she asked good naturidly.

"Well, I've enjoyed talking to you both, but I really have to get going for practice," said the mage, ducking the question.

"I should really be going, too," said Caroline. She leaned over the counter and kissed her father on the gray fur of his cheek.

The elder Hardy smiled at his daughter. "You're right, you should if you want to find a decent spot for practice."

It was then that Rickkter choose to speak up. "Since I'm going in almost the same direction, may I act as your escort, Caroline? I also think that a lovely lady at my side might help my image around here some."

The two mustelids looked at each other. Caroline shrugged. "Okay, Rick. I don't have any problems with that."

"Excellent," he replied. The mage turned and gestured for her to follow him, his long whiskers perked up good-naturidly. "Shall we go?"

Caroline smiled at her father, then picked up her bow and quiver and joined the mage. The otter and the raccoon strode side by side though the fairgrounds, past the many booths that sat to either side. "So how are things going with you? Better then last night I hope. Misha and I were a little worried when you just left us like that. What was that all about, anyway?"

The warrior mage rubbed his right forearm a little. "That little bolt of Yonson's magic that I caught. It seems that my own self healing skills weren't up to the task. Brian took a look at it then sent me to see one of the other mages. It seems there was still a residual charge of some kind left over. Well, he managed to remove it, and by that point I was too exhausted to find you two again."

Caroline guffawed. "Going like you do, how did you ever manage to live as long as you have, Rick?"

"Skill, luck, tenacity, and just being too damned stubborn to die, I suppose. Mostly luck though, I think."

The Long scout burst out laughing. Few people besides Rickkter could pull off saying something like that. She almost missed it when he dropped back several paces and headed off towards one of the last stalls. He stopped at a booth with several ale tanks and a small blue dragon.

"And who would you be?" he asked of the dragonnette. The response was not what he had expected, and he reeled back slightly. "What the..?"

Caroline quickly came to his rescue. "I see you two haven't met before, Rick. My guess is that he projected an image of a storehouse filled with corn? Well, that's his name. We all call him Gornul."

"Really?" said Rickkter as he turned back to the dragon. "Fascinating." He rolled his eyes back in his head in thought for a moment. "Let's see... my name would be," and he leveled his eyes at the dragon. This time it was Gornul who started. Rick chuckled, his tail swishing behind him a bit in amusement. "Never met someone with a talent like yours before?"

Gornul shook his head.

"Well, now you have. And it's a pleasure to meet you." He reached out and gave Gornul a light scritch.

"What is all this?" asked Caroline, her eyes roving over the barrels stacked behind the counter.

Gornul then went on to explain to the pair in his own particular way what black ale was, and how Oren was selling it.

"Ah, interesting. Mind serving me up some?" asked Rickkter. The blue dragon shook his head. "Why not?" Gornul sat on his haunches and held up his clawed hands in a imploring manner, shrugging his shoulders. "Ah, can't work the taps?" guessed Rickkter.

The dragonnette bobbed his head. He projected a comical picture of him straining against the taps. Both Rickkter and Caroline chuckled. "Okay, I see. Too tight for you."

Gornul flashed him an image of a dragon patting a raccoon on the head as a pet owner would an animal as a reward. Rickkter snorted and straightened up a little.

"Well, just tell that otter friend of yours that I'll be back sometime to have some of this."

The dragon gave Rickkter a nod and a toothy grin. He leaned into the farewell scritch the raccoon imparted on him.

As the two warriors resumed their journey, Caroline was wearing a very amused grin as she glancing at Rickkter every so often. "What?" asked the raccoon after a few minutes, his own tone and expression one of puzzlement. Carol's smile broadened at that.

"You," explained the smirking otter. "I don't think I've ever seen you behave like that."

Rickkter looked away and over the grounds, giving his shoulders a small shrug. "What can I say? I love dragons. I would have given almost anything to have been changed to one when I transformed. Instead I got this." He turned his gaze to the sky, raising his arms to accompany the gesture. "Irony at its highest form!"

The long scout shook her head. "You've got to admit it suits you, though. From our first meeting till now, I think that it fits you perfectly, Rick. Speaking of first meetings, I'm surprised that you and Misha have hit it off so well. I've actually been wanting to comment on that for a while now. He doesn't usually like mages."

The raccoon chuckled. "Ah, but you must concede that I'm not your average mage."

Caroline readily did so, much to Rickkter's bemusement. "Yes, you two make quite the pair."

"That we do." They walked on a little further, finally coming into sight of the archery range. "You know, Carol, I wish that Misha had been from my part of the world when I was still a mage. The two of us, we could have been the best -- the BEST... of enemies."

Caroline frowned. "Is that a compliment?"

The raccoon turned a serious glance to her, clasping his paws behind his back. "Oh, of course, of course. Any time you call a person an enemy it is a compliment. It means you deem them lethal enough to kill, which is most likely their duty and attitude towards you as well.

"And Misha would make an exceptional enemy. For the two of us, we are almost perfectly matched. I am strong in magic, he is not. He is strong is stealth and tracking, I am not. I am somewhat more temperamental, and he is often far more analytical. And that is why he would make the perfect nemesis for me."

The warrior mage got a wistful expression on his face, the black of this mask seeming to swallow his eyes. "You see, Carol a good enemy is not someone who you can defeat in one strike. No, they keep coming back at you, forcing you to rely on all your skills and knowledge. It is someone who compels you to strive to heights that you would not otherwise have the motivation to attain. They compliment you almost that perfectly, and test you to your limits."

By that time they had reached the practice ranges. Carol stepped up to a free target and selected a trio of arrows with which to begin her practice. "You hold a high opinion of him."

"While it would be a sign of respect to call him nemesis, I can think of no honor higher then calling him friend."

"And I'm sure that he feels the same way about you," said Carol as she buried an arrow in the center of the target. "I did get him to tell me of that one meal you two had right after you first came here. He was impressed with your proformance, though I was less then enthralled."

"Oh?" asked Rick, his round gray ears perking up.

Carol buried a pair of arrows in the center of the target in quick succession. "Yes. It was over OUR dinner. And afterwards, I didn't have much of an appetite left."

Rickkter chucked, lowing his gaze momentarily. "Just be thankful we didn't get around to mentioning shurtal."

Carol selected another arrow andput it into the small cluster already on the target. "I really shouldn't be asking, but I can't stand not knowing. Okay, I'll bite. What is it?"

The mage smirked wider at the irony of what the otter had just said, his whiskers perking up a lot. "Sheep testicles."

Caroline groaned loudly, slouching her shoulders. "Why did I have to ask?"

"Just one of the many third and fourth world delicacies I know of."

She reiterated just how repulsive him and Misha could be at times, to which Rickkter cackled malevolently. The mage stepped back and let the otter make her practice shots in peace for several minutes. However, he soon began to grow restless.

"I can see why you won the spring festival," commented Rickkter as him and Carol were at the far end of the range retrieving arrows from the target. "Excellent control. I was wondering if I could try my hand at it."

She shrugged and returned the arrows to her quiver. "If you want. I believe I can let you have one volley, and that shouldn't cut into my own time too much."

When the two had returned to the front of the range, Carol handed him over the long bow. Rickkter took a moment or two testing the pull before accepting an arrow from the otter. "It's been a while since I've used one of these," he commented offhandedly.

"What, a long bow?"

"No, a non-enchanted bow. I've always preferred a little magic to help me out of tight situations." In preparation, he lined himself up with the target, slowly licking the side of his muzzle. Confidently he drew up the bow and loosed the arrow.

"Hmm, let's try that again," he remarked, rolling his right shoulder in an attempt to loosen up some of the still stiff muscles. Caroline looked where the arrow had landed on the third circle from the bull's eye. She nodded and handed over another arrow.

The raccoon got that one a few inches closer. He repeated the process with several more arrows, only landing one in the bulls eye. "Well, I think that's about par for my shooting. It's been too long since I used one of these anyway." He tried to hand back the bow to the otter, only to find her gawking at the arrangement on the target.

"I through you were supposed to be a weapons master of some kind," she admitted.

"I am. My speciality is close combat weapons. Staffs, maces, war hammers, even picks. My preferred weapons are blades." He hefted the bow. "I only use these on rare occasions."

Caroline finally recovered her bow and started heading to the end of the range to retrieve the arrows. "I just find it strange, that's all. I just always assumed that you would know how to handle all kinds of stuff like this. Including bows."

"No, it's not like that at all. The ones I use have sighing enchantments on them, amongst other things. They're really interesting, as it's almost like a beam off the end of the arrow point indicating where it will go. Then there are stabilization enchantments, and a host of other ones. I've used them mainly my whole life, and as you just saw, I'm not that good without them."

Rickkter shook his head, his hand resting on the hilt of his katana and a sad expression on his face. "No, this... this is the only thing I've ever been really good at. I left a mage order just when I was starting to make progress. I failed my master there. I tried alchemy for a year and a half." He shook his head, tightening his grip on the sword. "Failed that as well. Was a healer once, but only with a loving hand that tried to guide me. Without her I was nothing. Been a bodyguard once. Almost succeeded and gave my life for my ward. I recovered and decided that wasn't for me as well." He sighed once, gazing at the far off target with their neat clusters of arrows. "For almost my whole live, this is what I've been. It's all I've ever been any good at."

By that time Caroline had recovered her arrows and they were walking back to the head of the range. "None the less, most people would kill for what you have. Your talent in magic is almost beyond my understanding, and I would love to have that. Yet I can never have it. At least with archery, it can be taught. You need a good deal of natural talent to work magic, and I don't have it. To each their own, Rick. Be thankful that you have as much as you do."

Rickkter shrugged and went back to watching her shoot. "You know Caroline, I've never really liked archers before."

"How's that?" she asked, sinking a third arrow into the cluster on the target.

Rick reached up and rubbed his right shoulder. "How many times have you been shot?"

"Never. Why?"

"Well, I've been shot six times. You can't imagine how that hurts. I was shot once in the chest, once in the thigh, once in the arm, once in the forearm, and twice in the back. There are few things more excruciating then having an arrow dug out from where it got embedded in your shoulder blade. And there is damned little that can be done to counter an attack like that. Archers attack from a distance, and with almost total impunity. I've always preferred hand-to-hand, in-your-face combat."

"I'm not all that different from you, Rick. You use magic to achieve an advantage, I use this. Many can't counter what you throw at them, and, as you said, damn few things can be done to stop an arrow. That way it gives me the luxury of striking out from afar and still maintaining protective cover. Unlike you, I like to stay out of the thick of things as much as possible."

"Oh, but the thick is so much fun!" protested Rickkter good- naturidly. "Nothing like lots of people trying to kill you to get your blood flowing."

"Yeah, usually onto the ground!"

The mage chuckled at her quick comeback as he diverted his attention to the other archers. He reflected that Caroline really was getting to be quite like Misha at times. With a pang of sadness he stood back to watch the otter shoot for a little while longer.

After about five minutes he said, "Well, it's time I headed out. I need to warm up for my own event as well." He looked down the range at the target. "I think that Misha should be thankful he's not in this competition. Against you, he wouldn't have a chance."

Caroline chuckled and returned a smile. "Well, thank you very much, Rick."

"Speaking of the fox, where is he?"

"Oh, I thought you knew. Andre's squire was injured in the competitions the other day, and Misha was asked to fill in."

Rickkter laughed at the image of Misha on a horse. "Oh, I wish I could see that." He nodded to the otter. "My best to you. May you have a repeat of the spring festival."

"Thank you Rick," said Caroline, smiling. "I wonder who the moron was who decided to hold these at the same time?"

The coon snickered. "I don't know, but it probably has to do with the fact that the duels almost always out last the other two. Though knowing how you shoot, this year may be a record."

"Well, if you're still in the competitions by near the end, Misha and I will make it a point to stop and see how you do. Though knowing how you fight, you'll probably already have seats waiting for us."

The warrior mage gave the long scout dirty looks, but one tinged with good humor, as he bid her farewell and headed off.

Ah, yes. Young lovers, he thought as he headed off. Although Misha wasn't that young. Yet they were lovers all the same, and had demonstrated as much las night. However they could certainly stand to ease up on their public displays. Not only were those rather nauseating, but they had the tendency of reminding him of his past. When he was like that, so long ago.

But his melancholy revere was broken when he caught something strange out of the corner of his eye. It was the brown bear that he had met upon arriving at the Keep, Chris, Metamor's personal tutor. He was sitting in a bizarre contraption with that girl who he'd come to watch after. The bear was reclining in a chair with large wheels wrought from iron and padded with wood sidings. His feet rested in an almost boot-like apparatus, keeping them from scraping the ground. Rick noticed that Chris' legs were quite shriveled, exemplifying the time he had spent bed-ridden.

Rickkter strode up to him and clasped his hands behind his back, assuming that calm and cool air particular to seasoned warriors. "Ah, Christopher. It's good to see you're up and around. As it were."

"Good morrow t' ye, Rickkter. How d'ye fare?"

Rick shrugged. "Fair. Events are still attempting to sort themselves out." The mage looked up at the white haired girl standing to the side of the bear. "Your student?"

"Aye," commented Chris as he gazed over at her. "Lurene's helped me a great deal lately."

Rick inclined his hear towards her in greeting. "Always good to meet another mage, my dear." Lurene smiled in return, but Rickkter could clearly make out how nervous she was around him. His whiskers twitched in a sad smile and he returned to the ursine. "What is that you have there?"

Chris looked down at the chair, grinning and giving the wood rims an affectionate slap. "Something Bryan crafted for me. He calls it a wheel chair. The festival has provided adequate opportunity to fully test it."

"Well, at least you're mobile once more. Good to see that. It was just when I heard what had happened..." Rick shook his head. "I'm sorry that I couldn't have been there for you, Chris."

"Whatever d'ye mean?"

Spreading his arms a little so they could clearly see current mode of dress, Rick elaborated. "What do you think the job of a mercenary is? We're paid to do the killing that our employers are either unable or unwilling to preform themselves. Though in this case, I believe it could only have aided you."

Chris shook his head, a slight smile on his muzzle. "I've no need for sympathy. Besides, 'twas my duty."

Rickkter nodded his head. He had leaned long ago not to argue about such issues, let alone with someone of Chris' stubbornness. "Well, at any rate I had to say hello. My best to the both of you for the rest of festival." Chris and Lurene both bid him farewell and the coon started off once more.

Deciding to take a short cut, Rick turned and started behind the tents and booths. As he was rounding the corner of one of the tents he happened across a very familiar sent. While it still kind of unnerved him to recognize a person from their smell, he was gradually becoming accustomed to it. He walked up silently behind the black furred form.

"You know the stands are better for viewing these things."

The skunk turned around swiftly at the voice. "Rickkter! What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I was on my way to the duels and I saw you here." He stepped up beside Kayla, looking out over the field. "Why would you ever want to watch them from here?"

She turned back to the field, folding her arms across her chest. "They don't want me up there," explained the mephit, pointing with her chin to the stands. "I've tried it before, and they never seem to accept it. So I decided long ago to not bother them and find places where I can be by myself."

Rick gazed off at the stands, quite far off from their secluded position. "How long ago was a long time'?"

"Since the beginning, six years ago. I got caught in the initial casting."

The raccoon softly "aahhh"ed. "I think I could understand it at the beginning, when people were still getting used to their forms, but not so much now."

Kayla seared a little, her blue eyes showing a cold rage. "You got lucky. We're both rare transforms, but yours is infinitely more preferable to mine. You don't have to endure the looks or the whispered comments. I keep myself clean, but it still happens, and not always with the animal morphs. I've had to endure a good number of nobles who turn up their noses and give me looks of barely concealed disgust." She snorted and looked out over the field. "There's no one that would want me there."

"I would," he said softly. She turned back on him, her mouth slightly open, a shocked look on her face. "I would," he repeated. "If only for some company. But since I'm in the competition, then I can't be up there. Though I would like to look and see you up there in the stands."

She looked him over once, trying to detect any note of insincerity. He stood there, letting her examine his intentions. He didn't really know why he was saying it, only that in some way it was true. Ah, his mind was so confused lately and the morning wasn't helping any. Stuff that he had buried for many years seemed to be coming back out of the blue to haunt him. Usually with a vengeance. Sometimes things just never seemed to make sense to him.

"I'll think about it," was her latent reply.

He nodded and replied in a soft, languished tone. "That's all I can ask of anyone. Though I do hope that you'll reconsider," he concluded, realizing that his own time was short. Wishing the skunkette well, he headed once more over to the registrations.

"Well, if it isn't my masked psychotic of a fellow warrior," came a voice from behind him, startling Rickkter out of her revere. He turned to meet the smiling face of a shrew.

"Kwanzaa! I was wondering if you would be here." He gave the proffered paw a quick slap in greeting. "Nice to know I'll have some decent competition."

"Oh, I'm going to give you more then that. And so is everyone here. If Yonson can take you down, that means that the rest will want a piece as well. And just coming off such a fight, so they'll be smelling your blood."

"Just what I need," griped Rick as they reached the register. "MORE people trying to kill me."

The shrew chuckled to herself. "Well, there is the prizes as well. I hear first place is an item called the Dragon's Claw. An enchanted bastard sword that has cutting enchantments that allow it to go through plate armor like butter. It even has Shockers, doubling the force placed behind any blow." Her whiskers twitched in anticipation as she talked. "A magnificent piece of weaponry. Second place is the Marshak's Teeth; four daggers that penetrate all armor."

"You're right, that does sounds nice," admitted Rickkter as he waited for Kwanzaa to finish signing up before doing so himself.

But the officials weren't going to let him go as easy as that. "I'll need to inspect that sword of yours first. To ensure that it meets regulations." Rickkter grudgingly complied, lying out the sword on the table. One of the official's assistants, one of the minor mages Rickkter recalled, picked up the sword and gave it an intense inspection. "What is this blade type?" asked the young woman.

"Katana. Eastern origin."

The woman nodded and handed it back to Rick. "It's clean," she informed the official. He finalized Rick's entry and the raccoon and shrew went to do some warm up exercises. Both choose wooden dummies that had been outfitted with a sword and shield on balance set-up that would allow it to move depending on how it was hit.

Both fighters began with elementary moves, to loosen up their muscles. Rickkter, however, soon began to improvise. He began adding in kicks and punches, attacking the dummy as if it were a real person, all the time accelerating his strikes against its shield and sword arms. After about a minute, it got to the point where the dummy was almost in constant motion, and Rick was ducking some of the blows in order to avoid them. In fact, several of the other participants, including Kwanzaa, stopped practicing to watch the almost deadly ballet the raccoon had going with the wood dummy. It ended when Rickkter gave the shield a hard kick, spinning the dummy. He ducked the other arm and came up swinging. His sword hit with a dull thunk, burying itself two inches past the edge in the wooden head.

The audience broke into a smattering of applause as he backed off, panting and rubbing his right arm a little. The applause finally registered to Rickkter after a few seconds, and he politely waved them off.

"Very nice, Rick," commented Kwanzaa. She noticed the way he activity working at his arm, massaging the muscles. "Arm still giving you trouble?"

He retrieved his sword from the dummies head, having to give it a good tug to dislodge it. "A little. Just stiff. Though this helped a little I think." Both turned as they heard the trumpet sounding the beginning of the contest. "Well, my friend. Let the fun begin."

All the contestants were paraded out onto the main field and the rules were explained. It was all random draws to determine the order each round, single elimination. Which only made sense, in that a good many of the losers weren't in any condition to go on beyond that round. A win was declared for incapacitating an opponent, disarming them, or getting them to concede. Hits to the facial areas and eyes were illegal, as were intentionally lethal maneuvers. The preliminaries out of the way, the contestants dispersed to the sidelines. Rickkter and Kwanzaa took seats together.

Neither got selected for the first so they engaged in a little casual conversation. Rickkter hadn't been too receptive at first, but after watching the fighters for close to a minute, he seemed to lose interest. It was similar for the next two matches, but not the third. The third match had a large equine in fine ring-mail armor against a common soldier, a gender morph. Rick held up a paw to break Kwanzaa off in mid sentence and leaned forward as he intently studied the horse.

"Who do we have here?" asked Rick, moving his paws slightly away from where he had folded them under his chin.

"The young human is Damon, one of the regular soldiers. This is only his second tournament to date, and was really looking forward to perhaps winning something. It doesn't look like it will happen, though. That's Jabril he's up against. Jabril is one of the nobles from the western region of the valley, and a veteran of close to ten years of tournaments. He's won three of the last five." Kwanzaa paused and the pair watched Jabril masterfully worked his way through Damon's poor defenses, swiftly disarming the lad. "And he looks to be on his way to a fourth."

Rickkter was running his claws back and forth lightly under his chin as he studied the horse intently. "You're right. This one we will have to watch."

The next duel went by in the same manner as the first few, Rickkter only really paying attention at the beginning to gauge the fighters. The two morphs looked up from their conversation when the officials called Rickkter for the next round. Kwanzaa offered to join him, and they walk out together. Much to the amusement of both, Rick's opponent was a young noble. The man was dressed in fine garments of maroon and purple, most of it being for flash rather then practicality in a fight. He was followed by a small entourage of lackeys, all of them fawning over their master.

"Who is this guy?" asked Rickkter with a disgusted tone.

"That is Tyrel, formally Teresa, of the Barrett family. Nobility from the southern end of the valley."

"Is he any good?" asked the raccoon, as he dawned of mail gloves over the thin leather ones he already had on. His eyes never left the princeling, as Tyrel was primped and preened by his lackeys.

"I couldn't tell you. I've never seen him fight before." One of the lackeys handed his master a fancy rapier, one with a highly elegant guard of gold. Kwanzaa looked up at the raccoon, noting the expression on his masked face. "You're smiling, Rick. Stop smiling like that. I know what you're thinking, and you can stop it now." The warrior drew his sword in response. "Oh, geeze. Well, just try not to hurt him. Too much."

"But of course," rumbled Rickkter as he took the field, a mad gleam in his brown eyes. Finally, for once today, he could engage in something he knew so well there was no fear of annoying social blunders, or conflicting emotion. His mind went calm, and his being focussed on his opponent. Him and his blade were one, and they would not fail.

When Rickkter had finally gained the center of the field, his demeanor had changed, reducing itself to an expressionless mask that gave away nothing. Or, at least that was the way it was supposed to be. The very tip of his tail was twitching back and forth, belying his true emotions of anticipation. With a few quick words, the judge retreated from the field to let the two contestants go at it.

Rickkter started slowly circling the noble, lashing out with several weak hits against Tyrel's sword to try and provoke him. It eventually worked, and Tyrel launched into a series of quick trusts and jabs. The raccoon countered and pressed his own offensive. The noble didn't seem to take too well to it, and began getting angry. And sloppy.

"What's the matter boy? Can't stand a racoon better with a sword than yourself?"

That only outraged Tyrel further. He let out a bellow and took a running lunge at the warrior. Rickkter, being far more skilled then his opponent, expertly guided the young man down his side. Tyrel whirled quickly, coming back at the coon again. And again Rickkter drove him past. That scenario went on for several more passes, with the young nobleman getting only more frustrated. But there would be more later that he would have to save himself for, and Rickkter decided to end it.

The mage spun once more with the passing noble, and adding a nimble swish of his blade, he laid open the young man's tender, unprotected backside. Tyrel dropped his sword instantly and fell to the ground with a girlish shriek, clutching his hands over his freely bleeding posterior.

Rickkter, on the other hand, turned back to the howling stands, bowing individually to each and their wildly applauding spectators. With a flourish, Rickkter resheathed his blade and strode back to the bench where Kwanzaa was waiting for him. Tyrel's lackeys were busy helping their employer hobble his way over to Brian's tents for stitching.

The shrew had her muzzle covered with one hand as she tried unsuccessfully to contain her laughter. Her shaking shoulders showed just how much she had enjoyed the performance. "I thought you said you weren't going to hurt him."

"I said I wouldn't hurt him too badly. That was just a light hit on the bum."

Kwanzaa erupted in laughter. "That was a grand spectacle," she said as the raccoon reclaimed his seat. "I don't think that Tyrel or the Barrett family is going to forget that one any time soon."

Rickkter cocked his head in an affirmative manner. "Probably. Somehow I think that Tyrel will remember me whenever he tries to sit down for the next while." Kwanzaa rocked back and foth with laughter at that barb, her infectious humor eliciting the smallest of smiles from Rickkter.

The next match went predictably quick, as it was between a pair of leopard morphs. Rickkter leaned back and carefully observed the two felines fence. Each was a snarling, spotted picture of controlled fury. Rickkter just sat there, a cold gray form as he watched impassively. That was one thing that Kwanzaa was learning about him; when it came to battle or any kind of serious fight, he was able to turn off all emotion and focus his whole being on what was happening. The deadpan look he got at times could be frightening.

Next match was Kwanzaa's. Rickkter wished her the best, and gave her a small departing smile.

As she took to the field, she saw that her opponent was a human male, one at least twice her size. It was Gordon, an old friend of hers, that she was going up against this first time. Sizing him up, she saw that he wore a light breast plate over hard leather armor, and that his weapon of choice was a rapier, as always. She continued to assess him as the judge, an opossum morph, gave a quick recap of the rules and introduced the contenders to the audience. By the time he had backed off, she was prepared to fight. She didn't even really hear it when he called for the match to begin.

Gordon opened first, with a lunging thrust at the shrew's mid-section. Kwanzaa skillfully avoided it. She tried for a similar maneuver, thrusting at his chest, but he managed to block it. The shrew jumped back and both fighters went on the defensive. Slowly circling each other the two fighters began to strike out at each other. Most were quick thrusts, meant to test defenses and look for weaknesses, and frantic and frenzied offensives resulted when such openings were thought to have been discovered.

As the conflict wore on, it became clear that overall skill would be the deciding factor. But that was one field that Kwanzaa had the advantage in. As Rick had told her, she had a natural skill. She also had speed and agility, two things that her bulkier opponent lacked. During one of Gordon's aggressive thrust, she managed to slip inside his defenses and wedge her saber firmly against his.

With a quick thrust, she knocked her opponent's sword up and away. Kwanzaa planted the tip of her sword firmly on his chest. "That's match," she huffed, as Gordon glared down at her.

The judge was quick to validate the judgement, and Kwanzaa returned to the side-lines while the large man left the field. She noticed Rick gazing at her over the tips of his paws from where his muzzle rested on his chin. His gleaming brown eyes never missed a move she made.

She took a seat, looking at the coy raccoon in puzzlement. "Studying me?"

"I like to study all potential threats. It gives me an edge later on."

"And of course you like the edge."

"Of course. High ground is always tactically better."

"Except in this case, where someone could push you off."

Rickkter gave her a gurgling snarl, one more of playful hurt than real threat, and hunched back over. He returned to his study of the other contests, an activity that Kwanzaa was quite content to let him indulge in. It gave her the opportunity to do the same. And her study included one more party than his.

"Looking for someone?" asked the shew after a time, noticing how Rickkter was studying the stands.

That was when he finally caught sight of the familiar black and white figure that he had been looking so hard for. The mephit was sitting perched on the very end of one of the stands. He smiled and returned his attention to the two contestants. "Not any more."

The two comrades continued to watch the dwindling contestants slug it out. Much to her relief, Kwanzaa witnessed the elimination of several dangerous contenders. Unfortunately Jabril seemed to be the force behind much of them, though Rickkter had his share. But if there was one thing she noticed as the matches wore on, it was that Rickkter seemed to take more and more of a dislike to Jabril. He devoted the whole of his attention to the equine's matches, sometimes imitating the noble's movements to himself as he watched. About the only thing that Kwanzaa noticed was consistent was the constant and growing look of displeasure on this face.

"Okay, why don't you tell me who it is that has your hackles up before you wind up doing something drastic?"

Rickkter growled. "Three people. There are three people here that concern me. Foremost is Jabril. It's rare to find a noble with such skill and aggressiveness. A real killer, that one. Next is that blonde man, Byron. What do you know about him?"

Kwanzaa scratched her nose, her long whiskers twitching. "Well, he's not a Metamorian, I can tell you that. I hear that he came from the lands just beyond the mouth of the valley, specifically for this festival. He's apparently a mercenary, or so he tells the people in the taverns he frequents. Also that technique he has, where he knocks his opponent's sword up and away, he's been demonstrating that since he got here. Mostly he challenges people to a fight with money, or enters such a small contest -- you know the kind of contest I'm talking about? Like a personal version of this?" Rick nodded. "Well, he usually gets a big wager going, and then manages to do that. I haven't heard of anyone beating him yet."

"Um, very troublesome," rumbled Rick.

"So who's the third?" Rick only moved his eyes, his whiskers going up in a subdued smile when he saw Kwanzaa clue in. "Me? You consider me your competition?"

"You did beat me once, when I got here," he said. "I haven't had a chance to try again, so I must go on what I know. And therefore I intend to keep my eye on you."

"So why are we talking like this?"

" Friends close and enemies closer.'"

Not having anything to say to that, Kwanzaa sat back and played spectator. As luck would have it, the next match turned out to be between Byron and an equine morph. The stallion had a long mane, barrel chest, and the demeanor of someone looking for a good fight. He was shaking his head, snorting and pawing at the ground.

On the other side stood the mercenary, Byron. A rather gaunt man with a long chin and exceptionally long blonde hair, he wore only simple leather armor and blade. But the two morphs watching him from the sidelines knew just how well he was with that rudimentary weapon verses the stallion's saber. As the match was about to begin, Byron casually drew the blade, looking very unconcerned.

"This is the end of the first round," whispered Kwanzaa. "Last chance to see if he can be eliminated or we could end up facing him." Rick only hummed lightly in acknowledgment.

The crowd fell to a hush as the bout began. The raccoon appraised it as quite uneven, since Byron was a fencer and the equine just relied on his strength and stamina to get by. While such tactics might work out on the battle field, in a place like this, they were tended to be of limited use. As the horse was quickly finding out. Byron was simply too good for him.

Skillfully using his opponents own energy against him, the mercenary managed to loosen the grip the horse had on his sword. When he felt his opponent had a feeble enough grip, Byron simply moved his sword under and thrust up and back. And up flew his opponent's sword.

Both the crowd and horse watched the saber arc through the air and land in the up stretched hand of Byron. The blonde man smirked as he jammed the sword in the ground. The stallion only glared at him as he retrieved it and then departed to the sounds of the jeering crowd.

"There's no way you can beat him," observed Kwanzaa. "This is the fourth time I've seen him fight, and I can't see a flaw in the technique. He simply out fences you, and then whack," she made a lifting motion with her hand, "he relieves you of your weapon."

Rickkter licked his muzzle, running his tongue repeatedly over one of his canines. "You know, you're right," he said after a while. "We can't beat him at his own game."

Kwanzaa smiled, her black eyes shining. "So you're saying the solution is not to play his game?"

"Exactly. If you can't win, change the rules."

By that time the names for the next round had been reshuffled and drawn again. Rick looked up as his name was called for the first match. Along with Byron. "Well, it looks like you'll be getting a chance to test your theory," observed the shrew.

Byron was already waiting, swinging his sword around in lazy arcs, keeping his muscles loose. Rickkter drew his own sword, choosing to simply have it out and clasped in his paw.

Introductions were quick, and the rules glossed over, then the fight was on. Rick circled Byron, twirling his katana around his wrist, the blade humming as it cut the air. But such tests of defenses could only go on so long, and Byron was the first to crack. Lunging forth, he brought his blade down on Rickkter's. The coon blocked with the flat of his own, and tried for a low shot. The peal of Byron's sword as the two met once more resounded across the field.

Rickkter pressed his offensive, slowly but surely driving the mercenary back. The crowd roared at the display put on by the two. The only thing was, Rick was growing quite frustrated at his inability to penetrate Byron's flowing defenses. It seemed that for every move he made, the mercenary had a counter. With one hard thrust, Byron blocked Rick's sword and slowly forced its blade to the ground. Each struggled as they tried to gain the advantage. But as it was Byron's blade that was on top, it was he that finally gained it.

"All right, vermin," he growled at Rickkter. "Now it's my turn." Snapping up his sword, he launched his own offensive. He came at the raccoon viciously, his strikes like lightening as he tried to catch Rick off guard. But while he didn't succeed in that, he did succeed in forcing Rick to make a hasty retreat.

And finally Byron got the upper hand. Locking his blade and Rick's in a series of quick turns of his around Rick's katana, Byron trust up and broke away the coon's sword, sending it a good ten feet into the air.

But as Byron stepped back to catch his sword, his head leaned back to track the flight of the blade, Rickkter made his move. Sprinting ahead, Rickkter wound up with a vicious right hook which he let loose on Byron's jaw. That caught the prize fighter completely unprepared and knocked him flat on his back. Rick spared a quick glance up and caught his falling blade. Moving quickly, he stepped forward and kicked Byron's own sword free, and then planted his katana at the man's neck.

"Match!" called the judge, and the crowd erupted into applause. Rick gave the scowling mercenary an ugly look, then withdrew his sword and headed once more for his seat.

"That was... inventive," commented Kwanzaa. Rickkter only grunted as sat down. The two friends sat in silence to watch the next bout.

Jabril snorted loudly, and glared down. His expression showed just how clearly he would like to get his sword back so he could commence with turning Rick into a rug for his antechamber.

Well, this fight had drug out long enough, figured Rickkter. And it just dawned on him how to end it. Shifting his left leg back a little so it took all of his weight, he brought back his right leg, bending it at the knee...

...And slammed it with as much force as he could muster right into Jabril's groin. Of course the horse was wearing armor, but then again so was Rick. He also used the spot right above the knee, where he wasn't liable to get uninjured. Which was more then could be said of Jabril. Even with his protection, he still was "hung like a horse".

After three good wallops, Rick let him drop. Jabril went without protest, aside from a high-pitched whinny. His large eyes had bulged out to their whites, and his panting was ragged as he curled up into the fetal position on the ground. Rickkter never even gave him a second thought as he shook his head and sheathed his knife. As the aids of the fallen lord rushed to attend him, Rick trudged over to his fallen sword. He didn't both returning it to its wooden scabbard, and let the tip drag as he left the field.

With a loud groan, Rick collapsed and stretched out on the bench. Kwanzaa was next to him, a look of agony on her dark- furred features. "Oh! I'm not even male, and that looks like it hurt."

"You want to see painful, look at this," said Rickkter holding up his left hand. Kwanzaa could see that his glove was slashed open, and the black fur at his wrist had a wet look to it.

"That blade of his was a hell of a lot sharper then it looks," he said as he pulled off the mail glove and its leather covering. The shrew saw the small, neat line that traversed the coon's palm. "I had to go and catch it by the blade," he mumbled patting himself down for something to act as a pseudo bandage.

"Well, at least you managed to eliminate him from the competition," she said as Rick found a scrap of cloth and swiftly bound his hand.

Rickkter laid his head back once more. "And now the trick is to keep anything else bad from happening for the rest of the tournament."

"Ho, Brian! I got another one for you!" called Rickkter from the entrance to the healer's tent. He gently set down the kit-fox morph who was clutching his oddly misshapen shoulder.

"What have you brought me this time, Rick?" asked the other raccoon.

"Nothing too severe. A dislocation of the shoulder. It was caused by a bad fall."

"More like a bad throw," mumbled the fox.

"Same difference."

Brian placed his hand on the fox's good shoulder. "Well, if you just lie down, we'll see what we can do about popping it back in. Thank you, Rick, you can leave now."

"Well, there is one more thing I need to take care of." He help up his left hand, and Brian saw the dark stain of blood running down from beneath his lacerated glove.

"Egh. Washbasin is over there, as well as some stitching."

Thanking the physician, he went over the basin where he gingerly removed his gloves. "Ah, Zhypar Habakkuk," he said to the roo who was sitting next to the basin, "it has been too long since we last spoke."

"Indeed it has. Are you still in the tournament?"

Rick grimaced as he washed off the gash. "Yup. Good thing there are just a few more rounds left. I don't know how much more my poor, abused body can take."

Zhypar chortled. "You're not going to win, you know."

Rick shot him a perturbed glance. He picked up a threaded needle and carefully went to work. "Now you don't know that. I've fought and survived with worse done to me. What is a little pain?"

"A little pain indeed," he chuckled.

"And you're so certain of this?" asked Rick, redirecting his attention from the needle.

The kangaroo shrugged. "Call it a feeling."

Rickkter grumbled something about never trusting other peoples' feelings, and went back to stitching his hand. Zhypar sat there and casually watched him work. "You wear the pain well," he commented.

"All a matter of mental control," said Rick, throwing down the bloody needle. He reached over for a small roll of bandages and began to wrap his injured hand. It was just a quick stitch job he had done, one more to preserve his hand until he had opportunity to use his own healing magic on it.

"The pain still to come is that which must be worn well."

The raccoon stopped what he was doing and glanced at the roo for a moment before returning to his work. "Interesting choice of words. Where did you hear them?"

"Um, I read them someplace, I believe. Ages ago."

Securely tucking in the loose end of the bandage, Rick made sure it would hold. "I just find it a little odd, as I used to have a friend who once told me the same thing."

"Well, it's good to know that there are people with some taste in reading in this world."

Rickkter could only shake his head and bid the kangaroo farewell.

"And so the man of masks set out, to see what he could behold. But only darkness greeted him. Only his death, foretold."

That caused Rickkter to stop dead in his tracks and the hackles at the back of his neck to rise. He slowly turned around and once more approached the former contender. "What about you Zhypar? Are you just a simple scribe who fancies a little sword play every now and again, or is there more to it?" The mage's eyes narrowed and his voice dropped to a hiss. "What are you Zhypar Habakkuk?"

The roo never got a chance to reply, as in bust a trio of medics, escorting a large human male, clutching at his front. The blood on his chest and the look of agony on his face showed just why he had three healers with him.

Brian was instantly on the scene. "Okay, I want everyone who can move, out of here now!" The rest of the only slightly injured moved to comply, that movement often accompanied by moans and groans of pain. Rickkter and Zhypar shared one more look before heading their separate ways.

The last few matches went quickly, the competitors eliminating their rivals quickly, or being vanquished just as quick. When it finally came down to last two matches, pretty much everyone could guess who would be in the final bout.

Kwanzaa finally relieved her opponent of his weapon, planting a quick hit to her chest and being declared the winner. She didn't bother to leave the field this time, as she knew he would be coming.

Not being one to disappoint, Rickkter had already been waiting for that second last match to finish. When the dejected female warrior left the field, he drew his katana and advanced.

"So, it's come down to us," he observed standing there with the late afternoon sun glinting off his sword. Kwanzaa's eyes couldn't help but be drawn to where the blood had dried along the side of his face. She also noticed how gently he treated his left hand, remembering that he had been doing so for the last few matches.

"Okay, you all know the rules," said the possum, "so let's keep it clean." He clapped once to signal the start, then backed off.

But Rickkter and Kwanzaa didn't move, only stood there eying each other. It had been a long, long afternoon, and both contenders could feel the strain all the way to their bones. The sun was setting, and a small breeze was picking up and rustling the grass of the torn and bloodied field. Rickkter stood silent in his armor of chainmail and blood-stained black leather. Kwanzaa faced him in her suit of hard brown leather, only a few nicks and cuts showing on her charcoal black fur. Her black eyes gleamed in the sun, same as the worn blade of her saber.

Rickkter struck first, his blade cutting the air has he swung it in-behind and brought it down towards the shrew. It came to a ringing halt where it met the flat of Kwanzaa's. Slowly the raccoon withdrew, his blade scraping along the shrew's. Kwanzaa lowered hers about mid-way, all the while glaring at the coon. She then tried a pair of lightening like thrusts, both of which Rickkter turned away. Backing off a bit, the two resumed their careful study.

What followed the brief exchanges was a full and out battle. While the extended fighting had taken its toll on both fighters, they refused to give into it. Fencing seemed to be the style of the match as neither got too close to their respective opponent. It started more as a semi-lethal ballet, with the ringing steel providing the musical accompaniment. The two wove and dodged, testing each others skills as opposed to physical strength.

The crowd was anxious to have the duel over with, as the day was growing late, and this event was the last to finish. Their roaring cheers shifted with the tide of the battle, increasing whenever it looked like one of the fighters would pull of a victory. After shifting back and forth for several minutes, they seemed to be firmly on the side of Rickkter as he drove the shrew back with a series of lightening quick advances.

But Kwanzaa still had a trick or two left. When she sensed that Rick was going to be moving in for the kill, she feinted to the left. If he hadn't been so worn from the extended fighting, Rickkter might have not gone for it. As it was, he tried to counter, only to have Kwanzaa hook her blade over his and drive the katana from his grip. Before he could do anything else to react, he felt the cold steal of the point of her blade underneath his chin. When he looked down, he saw that she was smiling broadly up at him. His hand started drifting for his secondary blade.

Kwanzaa moved her saber up ever so slightly. "Uh, uh, uh. You're not pulling that tick on me. Back off." Rickkter reluctantly moved his hand away from the knife. "Very good. Now say you concede."

There was a chuckling in Kwanzaa's mind. Very good, my dear,' mind sent Ricktker. Very good indeed. But if I were to concede now, I would wind up with your sword through my jaw. If you could please lower it a few inches...'

While hesitant to do so, as she knew just how crafty Rick could be, Kwanzaa eventually did so. Rickkter looked right at her, a look that bespoke admiration more than malice. "The match is yours. I concede." He raised his voice so that all could hear. "I concede!"

And thus it ended. There was a silence for a moment, but that was shattered by the thunderous applause of the massed spectators. Many stood in a standing ovation, and Rickkter and Kwanzaa both gave graceful bows to the stands.

"On behalf of all of Metamor Keep, I congratulate you both," said Duke Thomas, after the crowd had calmed down. He then called them forward to receive their prizes.

Rickkter retrieved his fallen blade on the way. He kept his injured left hand held gingerly across his front. Stepping up onto the dias, he looked over those gathered there. It was the usual assortment of nobility and political power. There was Thalberg, not quite at the forefront, but there all the same; a gray squirrel with a pair of younger ones, who could be none other than the Lord Brian Avery Rick had been hearing about; Ambassador Yonson, looking at the raccoon with a rather smug and bemused expression; the rest were all minor lords or princeling from the rest of the valley. And of course, standing in the middle of all of them, Duke Thomas Hassan V.

"You two have demonstrated yourselves to be two of the finest fighters in Metamor Keep. And now you shall receive your reward." The horse beckoned to a pair of his aids who immediately came forward bearing a closed box and long object covered with a shroud. It didn't take much imagination to determine what that was.

Thomas called Rickkter forward first. "Your prize is the Marshak's Teeth." He opened the box and retrieved one of four wicked looking, yet very ornate daggers. "These have been enchanted with armor breaker spells by some of the finest forgers of such weapons in the midlands." He returned the weapon to the box, closed the lid and handed it to the raccoon. "I trust that you will make good use of them."

Turning to Kwanzaa, Thomas gave the shrew a satisfied smile. "And now for you. You, Kwanzaa, who has proven herself to be the finest of the finest. And here is your just reward." The horse turned to his aid, who lifted the cloth off the sword. Thomas picked it up by its scabbard and slowly withdrew the gleaming blade. Kwanzaa's black eyes were glued to the prize as Thomas reversed the sword and held it out to her. "The Dragon's Claw, an enchanted bastard sword of the highest quality. Now receive your prize" He let her take the sword, and was rewarded with a beaming smile as she gazed upon the fine weapon. Motioning for the two of them, Thomas once more presented them to the crowd. As the Duke raised his arms, the audience erupted into applause.

Rickkter and Kwanzaa bowed once more to the crowd before being dismissed by the Duke. On their way down, he informed them where they could collect the rest of their prize.

"Well, this was certainly fun, wasn't it, Rick?" asked the shrew as she hefted her large purse of one hundred Garrets. They were away from the crowds, behind the main stadium.

Rickkter pocketed his twenty. "You did give me a good run. And if there was anyone I had to lose to, I'm glad it was you."

The shrew gave him a sly smirk. "Modesty, Rick? From you? That's something I wouldn't have expected."

"Well, let's call it my attempt at trying to lose gracefully."

"Hey, if you wanted that, let me treat you to dinner." She shook the bag. "Something tells me that I'm going to be treating ALL my friends."

Rickkter nodded. "Okay, I'll make it a point to stop by." Kwanzaa patted him on the shoulder and the two parted company. Rick waited until he was alone, before stopping and yanking off his soaking wet glove. His entire paw, from the wrist on down, was colored a sick, dark red. Grimacing as he did so, he began to remove the hastily done stitches. When he was done, the mage clenched his hand and focussed his healing magic into it. Finally feeling the wound close over, Rickkter sighed and leaned against a near by support.

"An impressive campaign," said a voice from behind. "I don't think that I've enjoyed a tournament as much as that one in a long time."

Rickkter turned into the face of the one whom he had been waiting for. A small smile came to his black lips. "That's good to know. I always try to please the audiences at these things."

Kayla returned her own small smile. "Then you achieved it admirably. It's a pity that you didn't win. That was a handsome prize they offered this year. It will be a long time before they offer anything that prestigious again."

"I don't let it worry me. I have other weapons, and the money isn't that large a concern. All fun and games today."

"And it looks to have been a little rough on you," the skunkette commented, reaching up to touch the cut above Rickkter's eyebrow.

He flinched when she brushed the wound. "Well, you don't need to go and make it any worse." Kayla backed off, looking a little hurt. "Um, look. I'm going to clean up," he said, holding up his reddened paw, "then I'm going to dispose of these things in my quarters and meet some friends of mind for dinner. I would appreciate it if you would join us."

Her brow furrowed as she considered it. "That's the second time today you've admitted that you've wanted me to accompany you somewhere. I have to ask why."

"I don't know. Maybe because after three days of walking around here seeing all the lovers -- young and old -- and of spending time with Caroline and Misha, I've gotten a little lonely. It's been a long time since I've spent any time with anyone like that. Just not many friends, I guess."

"What about Kwanzaa? You and her seem pretty close."

"Nah. She'll be busy the center of attention, showing off her new trophy and being the toast of the rest of the soldiers. I'm sure they'll be getting her to buy them free rounds with her winnings as well. And she also offered me to buy dinner. Besides, you still owe me for all those lunches you never show up for. So, is that too much to ask?"

Kayla considered his offer very seriously. It was not something made by many. She looked Rickkter over once more, looking at his deep brown eyes, the one with a few inches of blood caked into the fur above it. Well, she was never one to turn down a free lunch, especially when it was offered twice.

"Not at all. I look forward to this evening."

"Excellent," beamed Rickkter, giving her one of his few genuine smiles of the day. "I'll just take care of my business, and then we can go and eat." The pair then turned and continued on their journey to the Keep.

That was the thing about the Deaf Mule; it never changed. Any time of year, a person could come there and see pretty much the same scene. It was just that during any kind of celebration, that atmosphere was amplified at least ten times over. People had crowded it to near capacity, and the servers were being run ragged trying to keep up with the demands.

The noise of it all hit Rickkter and Kayla like a physical thing as they entered. They at once moved to the side of the entrance and surveyed the room, trying to find either a seat, or someone they knew that they could impose upon. Unfortunately they couldn't locate anyone right away. Rick saw Copernicus at the pool table, taking on and crushing all opposition; Kwanzaa amidst a large group of fellow warriors, regaling them with her tale of the duels and how she downed all of her competitors; even Devon doing his jester routine much to the pleasure of the crowd..

"Hey Rick!" called a voice from behind.

The coon and the skunk turned and were greeted by the smiling pair of Misha and Caroline. "Hello, my friends," said Rick. "I was hoping to see the two of you here."

"Yes, well so were we," said Misha as the foursome moved to the side of the flow of traffic. "I wanted to offer my congratulations on your narrow loss in the duels. An impressive victory, none the less. And I have to say, you're looking surprisingly good, considering what I saw towards the end there."

"Well, it's nothing a little soap, water, and a lot of magic couldn't fix." They all laughed at that, despite it being the obvious truth. It had taken Rickkter close to half an hour to get all the blood out of his fur. Fortunately Kayla had insisted on helping, and using the sink in his small lab, they had made quick work of it. About the only real evidence of what had happened was the damp look to several sections of his coat.

The fox turned his eyes to where Kayla shyly stood, trying not to look too uncomfortable. "I notice you found someone of your own to share the evening with. It's good to see you, Kayla"

Rick turned and gave the mephit a small smile. "I suppose you could say that. And while we're on the topic of competition this festival, how did you do in the jousts?"

"About the same as you," said Misha with a shake of his head. "Sir Andre lost to Sir Saulius."

"A shame." The rest mummered agreement. Rick smiled. "Almost as big a shame as my missing you trying to ride a horse."

The reast laughed."Well, I don't think you'll be getting another opportunity for that any time soon," said Misha, as he rubbed his backside to accentuate the point.

"And how about you, Caroline?" asked Kayla. "Were you in anything?"

"Yes, archery." The otter grimaced. "You'll be disappointed to know, Rick, that it wasn't a repeat of the Spring festival. Donna, took it from me. I knew she had been practicing, but she really surprised me this time."

Rick clapped his paws and gave them a vigorous rub. "Well, since it looks like we're all losers, how about we get something to eat and console each other over our different losses?"

The other three readily agreed. Misha shot Carol a quick glance. "Kayla, why don't we leave the boy and go ahead and scout out a table on our own?" offered Caroline. Kayla quickly agreed and the two mustelids disappeared into the crowds. Misha grabbed hold of Rick's arm and took him to an out of the way section of the bar.

"So what made you bring her along?" he asked along the way.

Rick shrugged. "I don't know. Probably the same thing that happened between a healer and I almost thirteen years ago."

"Which was?"

The raccoon twitched his head to the side in an off-handed manner. "No idea. I don't even pretend to explain mutual attraction between people. Magic, alchemy, philosophy, advanced theory relating to the very nature of the universe itself; all of those I will cheerfully delve into. But such things as love?" He shook his head. "That is something that I'll leave to the philosophers, and the poets, and the dreamers; those who can best define it. For the rest of us, it's just something that must be experienced."

Misha's tail twitched merrily. It was good to see his friend finally back to his old self. "So what would this be, then?"

"Look, let's cut to the chase. What did you want to ask me?"

"What makes you think I wanted something?" asked Misha, feigning innocence.

"Because you wouldn't have dragged me over here just to ask about my love life."

Misha chucked and shook his head. "Okay, you got me." He became very somber. "What do you know about the Long Scouts, Rick?"

The mage shrugged. "Not a lot. An elite band of warriors." He smirked at his friend. "Also that you're their head and that you've been on a recruiting drive of sorts lately."

The fox chuckled. "You don't miss much of what goes on around here, do you?"

"I try not to."

"Well, you're right on all counts. In fact, Donna, the gender- morph who beat Caroline, is one of our better field operatives. The Long's are actually an elite band of scouts here at the Keep. Now, we've given this a lot of thought. Would you like to join?" Misha asked. "With your magic and combat skills you'd be a natural."

"I'll think about it," said Rick. He paused and gazed out at the tavern, trying to look for the distinctive white streak on back of Kayla. He looked for about a minute. "I've decided, Misha. The answer is no. Thanks for the offer."

"Our job is more than just killing and fighting," Misha countered. "You'd be doing a very dangerous and, and very, important jobs."

"I've had commands thrust under my nose," said Rick, pointing with his finger. "And I'm still here, alone. I really don't relish the idea of being an actual soldier again. Five years of that is more then enough."

"You're sure?" Misha asked, pressing the matter.

"Very sure." The cold look that flashed in Rick's eyes ended that line of questions. He softened it by adding, "Remind me to tell you about them some other time, okay?"

Misha's gray eyes glinted with mirth. "Don't think I'll forget it either."

"I wouldn't expect it." He looked over the mulling crowds once more. "You would think that they can find a table for four in this mess?"

The fox flicked his tail in his own expression of a wince. "Well, it won't be just us there. I asked Carol to look for a table for eight. Lord Brian and his wife will also be joining us."

"That's only six. Who are the other two?"

"Charles Matthias and Kimberly."

Rickkter only turned away and shook his head. "Well, at least you told me before we were actually at the table together." He looked back at his friend. "It seems I won't be joining you after all."

"Why?" Misha asked. "Don't tell me you're going to let that stupid feud ruin a good evening?"

"Don't even pretend that you understand what is between the rat and I," growled Rick. "You know nothing."

"You're right Rick, I don't understand. And I never want to. This feud of yours is a senseless and idiotic waste of both time and energy."

"All the more reason for me to say no."

The fox just stared at his friend for a moment and then shook his head. "Do whatever you want."

Rickkter remained silent, looking away and growling softly to himself. The perfect end to the perfect day.

By that time the two ladies had returned, chatting merrily between themselves. "Well, come on you two," said Carol. "We've already got a table, and the others are waiting for us."

Rickkter removed himself from Misha, standing next to the skunk and across from the others. "Um, sorry Carol but I don't think I'll be joining you tonight. It was good seeing you and Misha though, and I hope to do so again before long."

Misha sighed and put his arm around the slender otter next to him. "I hope so as well, Rick. I'm sorry to hear your decision. On both counts." The four said goodbye once more before the two long scouts disappeared into the swirling crowd.

"I though we were going to have dinner with them?" inquired Kayla.

Rick looked over the crowded room once more, his gaze lighting on where his good friend was joining a most hated enemy. He shook his head and turned back to Kayla with a mock smile. "No, not here. Frankly, it's a bit too crowded for my tastes. Why don't we go out to one of the pavilions? Those look to be less crowded, and the food is just as good."

The skunkette smiled and slipped her arm through Rick's. "Then lead the way."

"I think you were right," commented Kayla as she looked around a little. "This is better than the Mule. Not nearly as crowded and the evening air adds to atmosphere."

Rickkter looked up from his small meal to gaze out at the grounds as well. He had to admit that she was right, though. The night was just right. It was cool, but not unpleasantly so. Which was an important fact for individuals with their own fur coats. And there, out in the open, their conversation was more private and more normal. They didn't have to shout to be heard over the other patrons of any of the taverns. And the single candle in its holder on the table lent a certain feeling of closeness to the atmosphere. And most importantly, he hadn't across anyone he was prone to loath.

"You're right. Far more to my tastes," said Rick as he went back to picking at his dinner. He had ordered filleted fish. It wasn't a usual fare for him, but his seemed to have a craving for something different lately. "I was wondering, what do you do in intelligence?"

Kayla grimaced and went back to her soup. "Nothing spectacular. What you saw when we first met, that was about it. I'm one of the ones that handle the organization of it all. I summarize things, give them to Phil or whoever, or go and get stuff when requested." She pointed the spoon at him. "A very tedious job, and quite devoid of glory. Unlike yours."

"And being in situations where death is a constant factor is glorious? What you saw this afternoon is pretty close to the reality of my job." He took another bite. "Trust me, be happy where you are."


And so the idle banter progressed, the topics ranging from weather, to travels, to the festival and those attending. Both parties went back and forth until the meal was finally concluded.

Kayla wiped her muzzle with the napkin. "So what do you want to do now?"

"Well, the evening is only just starting," commented Rick as he looked over the crowds, "and I don't know about you, but I missed the first few days of this. So I'm going to try and make up for it." He gave her a devious smile. "Would you care to join me?"

Kayla feigned indifference. "Well... I suppose I COULD go with you..."

The raccoon laughed as he got up and came around to her side of the table. "Oh, come on. I promise to TRY and act accordingly."

Kayla chortled as she casually leaned on her hand and looked up at him with her sparking blue eyes. "My, my. How can I resist an offer like that?"

Rickkter laughed, a rare contented laugh. He held out a paw to her. She looked at it a time, the up at him. "Come on," he said, beckoning her. "The night is still young, and we have so much time to try and make up for."

Kayla gave him a small, reserved smile. "I really don't know what to make of you, Rickkter." She put her paw in his and he pulled her to her feet. He made momentary note of the pleasant softness of her black fur there. "So where shall we go first?"

With a sweeping gesture, Rick drew her attention to the scope of it all. "Wherever you want to. I have no real destination in mind myself."

"Then we had best get started."

The first leg of their wandering took them along a row of merchants. There were people selling everything from items of clothing, to trinkets and home made jewelry. They stopped to partake in samples from a few booths that sold food, and admired others that showcased the different pieces of art. Alas it was all leftovers, the pieces that hadn't sold during the first few days of the festival. They walked the rows of booths by the light of touches and other burning sources of luminance, as darkness descended upon Metamor Keep.

Next were the games. Mostly the two just watched others play. While Rick didn't really get into them, Kayla did. She smiled and laughed, sometimes applauding, at the antics of some of the children as they played. After watching for some time, she suggested Rick try his hand at one of them. Since it was the closest one, he choose a knife throwing event.

Rick dug out a few bronze and gave them to the paunchy man running the event. In return he got six daggers and a wooden target to use them on. Rick spared the dagger a quick appraisal. He noted that it was quite well used, and rather dull at the edges. Not what he was used to, but it would do.

His first shot hit the center, but was not as close as he would have liked. The second and the third were close behind. He lightly tossed the fourth dagger, testing its weight and balance. While it was true his arm was still bothering him a little, his aim had never been this bad. He pulled his arm back and took very careful aim at the target. This time he felt the knife go astray.

"How many people have won this even today?" asked Rick.

"Oh, not a lot. Your kind doesn't seem very good with the blades."

The warrior tapped the point of the fifth blade on the ledge. "Do you mind if I use my own for the last two throws?"

The man thought it over. "Only if you can get it in the bulls eye each time. Anything else and you lose."

"Deal." The carny nodded, and Rick reached back withdrew the single Marshak's Tooth dagger that he had kept to show those who asked to see it. He had had opportunity to do so several times during the course of dinner. Now he took the expertly crafted blade and buried it dead center of the target, the dagger penetrating to its hilt. The raccoon smirked at the look of recognition on the fat man's face as he went to retrieve the dagger. He promptly returned the dagger to the center of the target, much to the carny's chagrin.

"Masterfully done," commented Kayla as they were walking away.

"You could say that," said the raccoon pocketed his winnings . "So where to now?"

"How about over there?" suggested the skunk as she pointed at a dark purple tent attached to a wagon. "You can see what your future holds."

Rickkter's ears perked up. "You really believe in this?"

"No, not really," she admitted as she started over. "I've always found it good for a laugh. Most of them are just fakes and con artists. Or so my dad was always telling me."

"Most are. But you do run across the odd genuine psychic. Not many, but there are a few around, here and there."

They paused in the entrance. There was a sign declaring that the psychic, Madame Saint-Germain, was disposed with a customer at the moment and if they could please wait. Kayla suggested they look at what this Madame Saint-Germain had for sale. Arrayed on a pair tables were different charms, incense, herbs, and scrolls on how to tap into one's own prophetic powers. Another sign proclaimed that the items were protected by a taboo curse, and that dire consequences would befall any who chose to brave that warning by stealing an item.

Kayla was examining a crystal amulet on a leather thong when the tent flaps parted and out came a rather disheveled looking human male followed by a short, thin woman. She looked the part of a classic fortune teller, what with her violet robes, large gold rings, and long strings of beads. She bid her other customer farewell and turned her attention to Rickkter and Kayla.

"Oh, hello there. I wasn't expecting anyone else tonight," said the psychic. Rick noticed how her silky smooth voice didn't really fit her image, further reinforcing his opinion of her being a mere charlatan. She ran her fingers through her locks of raven black hair, shaking it out. "I've been working all day, and was hoping to get something to eat now."

Kayla moaned dejectedly, her lush tail drooping. "We were hoping to possibly hear something of the future."

Madame Saint-Germain smiled weakly as she looked at Kayla toying with the amulet. "I'm sorry to disappoint you. At times my talent is sporadic, and I don't see anything for you right now." She nodded towards the amulet. "Interested in buying that?"

"Feel free, Kayla," called Rickkter from the other side of the booth. "I'll pay."

When she looked over at Rick, Madame Saint-Germain did a quick double take, her eyes going wide. She flicked her gaze back between the skunk and the raccoon. While Kayla was diverted momentarily with the bauble, Rick noticed the slip.

"Um, I don't think you'd like that one," said the fortune teller as she reached into her robe. She came out with a leather band with a small metal disk impressed on it. The band had three short beaded leather strips hanging from it. She presented it to the skunk. "This suits you far more."

Kayla looked at it, picking at the pewter seal with one of her claws. "Thank you."

"Think nothing of it." The psychic spared Rickkter a look. "If I could speak with your companion in private a moment..." While Kayla thought it odd, she agreed to wait outside.

Madame Saint-Germain walked over to where Rickkter leaned against a table, his arms folded over his chest. She looked him over and idly stroked her chin. "You do know that a very dangerous future lies ahead for you, don't you?"

"I've been told so."

"I wish that I could do more for you, for I see something of the pain that is to come."

Rick closed his eyes and gave her a single sad nod. "Others have said as much."

"All that I know is that the paths of the future are many. Be careful which you walk."

Unfolding an arm, he pointed at the back of the mephit standing a little ways away. "So what do I owe you for the bracelet?"

"Nothing," said the psychic as she tucked in her robes. "A gift. Something that I've had for a long time. Something that might bring her luck."

"I thought you said you didn't see anything of her future."

Madame Saint-Germain smiled, her eyes sparking with the hidden wisdom of the ages. "There are many paths to the future. Some cross in unexpected places."

"So what did you two talk about?" asked Kayla after Rick had come back to her. When he asked what made her think they talked, she said "Because it seemed a rather long time to spend haggling over the price of a simple piece of jewelry."

"She had a few things to tell me. Nothing I haven't heard before." He took the bracelet from her paws, noting the pattern on the seal; A sunburst overlapping a crescent moon. "Here, let me put this on." Deftly, the raccoon manipulated the small leather bonds, knotting them securely. He brushed the black fur of her arm where it had gotten ruffled. "There. A little something to remember this festival by."

Kayla admired the bracelet, then gave Rickkter what he was fast learning was a special smile of hers. It was where just the bottom of her teeth showed and her blue eyes seemed to shine. "And I have to say it's been one of the most enjoyable in years."

Rickkter returned the smile. "Glad to hear it."

The two animal morphs turned at a loud exclamation from down the field. They saw that a stage had been erected, and that a troupe of performers had set up a stage around multiple flambeaus and torches. The bard on stage was calling out to all the keepers that the show was about to begin, and that they had best get seats.

The raccoon inclined his head towards the actors. "Shall we finish off the evening with this?"

Kayla looked then nodded. "I think that sounds about right."

They selected seats near the middle of the audience and made themselves comfortable. "Ah, the play What's This Life For," said Rickkter upon hearing it announced. "An excellent comedy of errors." He leaned a little closer to the skunk. "You know, I saw this once before, on my journey here. It was in Holden, at the Aubury theater. Magnificent structure, and a fantastic performance." Whiskers twitching, Rick leaned back. "I think you'll like it."

Kayla leaned back in the chair as well, idly toying with the leather band. "Somehow I think so, too."

The pair both sat and watched as the actors came out on stage and began. They laughed at the funny parts, awwed at the tragic parts, and generally had a good time. During the fourth act, Kayla leaned over some and rested her head against his shoulder. A little while after that Rick moved his arm up and over his shoulders, making himself more comfortable. The pair stayed liked that, comfortably nestled against each other, for the remainder of the performance.

They stopped outside his room, Rickkter turning to face her. "So did you have a good time, my dear?"

Kayla smiled shyly, her eyes flicking momentarily down before meeting Rickkter's. "Honestly? I think that it was the most enjoyable evening I've had in a long time." She took his paw in hers, looking deep into his eyes. "I don't know how to thank you."

Rickkter's smile was a little weaker and a bit more nervous. He looked away from her, then back, and inclined his head a little towards his door. "Um, would you care for a quick night cap before bed?"

Her smile broadened slightly, the tips of her canines showing slightly. "Okay. I think I can take one... small drink before bed."

Rickkter was quick to trip the magical wards that locked his room and lead them both inside. The skunkette started momentarily as the candelabra scattered around the room burst into flame. That elicited a small, pleased smile from Rick. He quickly poured a modest amount of wine from a bottle that he already had out on a cabinet near one of the windows.

"Here is to a day of many surprises and many good friends, new and old." They clinked the glasses and drank of their contents, Rickkter more so than Kayla. He swayed a little upon lowering his glass. "I don't know about you, but I am pretty much wore out."

As Rickkter took to the couch, setting his wine on a table next to it and slouching deeply with his feet up, Kayla chose to wander the room a bit. She was drawn to his library, and the multitude of old manuscripts it held.

That was one of the things that fascinated her about Rickkter's library. The shelves held tomes of all size and origin, to say nothing of content. Kayla paused at a small book that was lying on the edge next to its brethren. The spine cracked when she picked it up and the smell of ages long since past rose up from the worn pages.

As she turned the pages, she realized that it was a book of poetry. Wonder of wonder, she thought. Love and purpose sitting next to monsters and destruction. She smiled a small smile to herself and returned the book to its place.

"Rick?" she asked, coming around to face him. "Ri--"

What stopped her was the look on Rickkter's face. The raccoon had his eyes closed and his chin resting on his evenly rising chest. He was asleep. Kayla couldn't help but chuckle softly. "Oh, Rick," she sighed as she reached out and stroked her paw down the side of his head, stopping at the bottom. Her hand stayed there and her eyes turned sad. She leaned over him and gave his forehead -- right where the stripe on his nose broke the white band above his eyes -- a tender kiss.

"Thank you for a wonderful night," she whispered. Having nothing more to say, Kayla stood and began to extinguish the candles around the room. As she was going out the door, she spared one last look at the barely distinguishable form on the couch. And then she was gone.