I'll be Watching You

by Chris Hoekstra

This is ridiculous, thought Nathaniel, as he stepped over yet another charred and mangled corpse. Nathaniel couldn't understand it why the Lightbringer had roused him from bed so early to come all the way out here. Of course she had remained close mouthed during the whole trip, silencing any question that tried to make it past his lips. At least they seemed to have reached their destination, or so Raven's calm and slow survey of the battlefield indicated.

Nathaniel decided that this would be as good a time as any to try his query once again. "Mistress Raven. What are we doing he?" he asked, around a rather large yawn.

"Looking for something," replied the lupine cleric.

I figured that already, thought Nathaniel. Of course he could never voice such a thought. Instead, "What would that be, mistress? From what I can tell, we've missed the action by a good number of hours." The smell of the already decaying carrion helped to reinforce that point. "What could possibly be of interest around here?"

"And _that_, dear Nathaniel, is why you are the acolyte, and I am the high priestess," the Lightbringer said simply, as she strode back over. "We are not looking for any 'action,' as you so put it, but rather for some hint of the force that caused this level of destruction."

"From the tales that I heard the warriors returning from here yesterday, it was that new addition to the Keep, Rickkter, that did this."

Raven turned her sharp blue eyes onto her acolyte. "I already know that. That is why I'm here. No ordinary mage, even one of Rickkter's... ‘talents' ... could cause this. At least not alone." She turned back to the wasteland of a valley, throwing her arms wide. "And if you would just open your mind, then you would see that this area is saturated with divine energy. Not a mere residue left behind after a simple act of one of the gods, but *total* and *utter* saturation!"

Nathaniel frowned, then following his mistresses instructions, opened his mind to the surrounding energy.

The closest parallel would be a person walking into a slaughter house that had been filled to capacity, then sealed for a week in the middle of a horrible heat wave. It was like the energy was a physical manifestation, and opening his mind was like opening a door to that slaughter house and being slammed in the face with the fumes.

"By Akkala!" moaned the gender morph, as he doubled over, clutching his head. He attempted to focus all his thoughts on shutting out the sensation.

"Oh, Nathaniel, are you alright?" asked a concerned voice from beside him. Nathaniel realized that Raven must have noticed his distress, and that the hand held softly on his back must be her's. "I apologize for my ... lack of consideration. I should have realized your mind is not accustomed to experiencing energies of this nature. Even my own is being taxed to its utmost limits by the strength of this aura."

"Don't worry about me, mistress," assured Nathaniel, as he straightened up. He gave his head a light shake to clear it, and his eyes a few blinks to help remove the residual effects of the assault. "It's the only way I'll lean," he added with a weak smile.

"That is good, Nathaniel... ‘tis good. Why don't you look around here a little for some physical clues as to what did this. I'm going to go and try to find the center of this occurrence."

Raven walked over toward near the center of the valley, Nathaniel deciding to keep near the edges.

He could see why the other warriors were so amazed at this. It was incredible that rest of them weren't all killed with an onslaught like that. He turned to look outwards at the battlefield. Even from his poor elevation, he could still see the fantastic level of destruction. Huge areas of charred and burnt grass, some even scoured to the bare earth underneath. He could also make out the many furrows that were burned into the earth during the battle.

He was told it was incredible. Fire coming down from the clouds to smite the Lutin ambush, bolts of it raking through them. Some keepers even claimed to see beings made of fire themselves, sweep down and ravage the enemy. Nathaniel found it hard to believe that such carnage could be caused within the space of only a few seconds.

Surveying the site once more, he noticed that the Lightbringer had neared the center of the circles, a massive, deeply blacked patch of earth. He reflected that her behavior at this point was rather odd. She seemed almost unable to pass a certain circle. She kept pacing back and forth along its perimeter, clutching her wooden talisman, her ears laid back as she shook her wolfish head in frustration. While crossing it on occasion, she always seemed to make a hasty retreat, as though being closer to the blackened piece of earth caused her some kind of physical pain.

It was about an hour before they headed back to Metamor Keep. Nathaniel could tell from Raven's stance as she stalked across the battlefield that she was not in a pleasant mood.

"Did you find what you were looking for, mistress?"

"Yes and no," growled the Lightbringer. "I fear that this trip has yielded still more questions then it has answered."

Nathaniel was about to ask what his mistress intended to do now, when his attention was drawn to a large raven that alighted upon a nearby branch. Raven's own attention was also drawn to the bird. The raven settled its feathers after its flight, then let out a squawk to ensure it had the attention of the two clerics, before looking directly at the Lightbringer.

The two stared for almost a minute at each other, Raven's shining blue eyes locked onto the bird's dark black orbs. When whatever exchange between the two was over, the raven gave a few more warning squawks before taking wing once more. The two clerics were left behind to ponder the encounter, the wolf trying to understand the message she had received, the acolyte wondering what the message was.

When Nathaniel asked as to the content of the message, Raven only gave him vague and ambiguous answers, before finally ordering him to silence. This unnatural behavior only reinforced Nathaniel's opinion of Raven's odd mood that day. The two clerics remained silent for the rest of the journey back to Metamor.

"Oh, there you are Brian," said Jione as she caught up with the raccoon healer. "I've been trying to find you for the last two days, but you've made it quite difficult."

"Well, I do apologize for that, Jione," said Brian, as he turned to meet the amazon. "What with all the injured we got in from that battle, I've been almost constantly on the go. But we're both here now, so what is it you wanted to talk about?"

"Bender, actually. I was wanting to thank you for all that you did for him."

"Please Jione, I was only doing my job. There's no need to thank me, or lavish parse on me, for that. I'm a healer, and that's what I do," dissuaded the robed raccoon.

"Nonsense. The way I hear it, Bender would have died without you there to help him."

"Look," said Brian, with a decidedly uncomfortable look in his eyes, "I did nothing special. If you want to thank someone that profusely, thank Rickkter. Without him Bender wouldn't have made it through this alive. It was Rick that really saved him."

"How do you mean?" asked the amazon, with a peculiar look on her face. "I know without that teleport spell Bender would have bled to death, but how else? When I asked him about it, he said that he helped in what little way his own medical experience could provide."

Coe gave a light snort. "Do you know where he got that experience?"

"No. I was more concerned with the life of one of my men than where Rick leaned what was needed to help him," Jione replied tartly.

The healer's dark brown ears flicked back quickly in embarrassment. "My apologies. It just stuck me as interesting when he said that he learned it from an old love he had years ago. Both that and his admitting to have learned more on the battlefield just didn't feel right to me."

"Brian, what are you talking about?"

"I don't know where Rickkter learned about medicine and healing, but I can tell you it wasn't on any battlefield. I've dealt with those kinds before, and I've worked along side them. They are often quick, crude, and -- for lack of a better word -- sloppy in their methods. They are often accustomed to doing their stitch jobs with a minimum of labor, neatness, and concern for the patient's discomfort. All that matters in the field, is getting the wound closed before the person bleeds to death. Also, most combat medics aren't all that well versed in medical terminology. They use common names or slang to describe the injuries inflicted to the body. Most of these people haven't even attended proper medical school, and have picked up what they know on the field, from another surgeon.

"Rickkter is none of those things. When he first came in with Bender and Moorley, I expected the standard warrior synopsis. You know, ‘he was stabbed in the arm and side,'. Perhaps size of the wounds if I was lucky.

"Rickkter didn't do that. The summary of injuries sounded more like a second year medical student, rather then a professional soldier. He used full and correct terminology to describe the injuries inflicted to Bender's arm and chest. He did, however, use a few terms that I was not familiar with when discussing the facial injuries and possible internal damage. I know that they were different, Jione," said Brian, silencing the warrior's forming question, "but I could tell by their sounds and the syntax that they were used in, that they were not battlefield slang."

Jione and Brian started walking down the corridor of the infirmary to check on Bender. "So you're worried because Rickkter seems a little better trained then normal? If you had seen him in the field, then you would know that he seems to possess a great number of diverse skills."

"Oh, I have no doubt that his skills are quite diverse," said Coe, turning his eyes up to meet Jione's for a brief second. "I haven't even told you what he did after that."

"He already told me that he helped a little with the healing of Benders injuries."

"Rick did help. There is no doubt of that. And that's what's bothering me the most. When me and my team finally started working on Bender, Rickkter insisted on helping. Moorley left as soon has he got the chance. That's what I get from most people, actually. They can't stand to see what we have to do to our patients, even more so when the patient is a friend."

The two turned into one of the small recovery rooms off the main hall. Jione could see Bender was still sleeping off his injuries. He had been awake briefly before that, talking a little with Jione during her last visit. The right side of his face was still a mass of bandages, as was his arm. Jione lightly stroked the fur at the top of the wolf's head as Brian began his task of refreshing the bandages and poultices. She was still thinking of how she could make this up to the wolf archer when Brian called her attention.

"I want you to see something," he said, pointing at Bender's arm. When Jione came around the bed, she saw that Brian was cleaning the left over salve from the wound. Most of the surrounding fur had been cut away to give the healers clear access to the incision.

"Notice the stitching. It's quite finely done. Pay particular attention to the looping. I've never seen it done in this style. When I asked about it, Rickkter said that it made removal a much quicker, cleaner, and less painful process. He claimed to have used it on himself several times. That was before he learned how to incorporate magic into the process, of course."

Brian reached into his bag and pulled out two small containers of salve. He spread a small amount of each on the wound before re-bandaging it. Jione moved back when Brian used a particularly foul smelling agent.

"Now, notice the face here," said Brian, as he moved refresh the bandages on Bender's face. "Rickkter did a lot of work here. Since the knife wound in his chest was the major concern, me and the rest of the team were working to try and repair the massive damage. Since Rickkter finished the arm faster then any of us expected, we told him to work on the facial wound, see if he could keep the disfigurement to a minimum."

The healer pulled off the wrapping to reveal the rest of the wolfs face. "Look at this," said the raccoon, as he traced his claw along the long, thin stitch line. "Even though it was a massive wound, laid open clear to the bone, and even though it's been three days since it was inflicted, the swelling is almost non-existent. As for disfigurement, when the fur grows back over the scar, it should only leave a small line. I don't think it will be really noticeable at all, except for this part near the muzzle, where the fur thins out.

"I've worked with mages once or twice before," continued Brian as he spread some salve on the cut. "They're a magnificent asset to any team like mine. Rickkter used magic here, and I would also bet he used it on the arm where he would have had to repair any internal damage. You know, the muscle and any nerve that was damaged. It's because of that, that Bender is in as good a condition as he is. Heck, it's only because of Rickkter's intervention that he's alive at all."

"I know," whispered Jione. "He would have died out there, without Rick."

"He would have died here, too," said Brian as he moved to the massive wound on Bender's side. He looked at the pained expression on the warriors face. "You hate seeing him like this, don't you?"

"Of course. I can't stand the idea of losing anyone on a mission. I've had it happen to me before, several times as a matter of fact. You're a healer, Brian. You know what it feels like when someone whom you're responsible for dies under you."

"Oh, I know that feeling all too well," said the healer with a haunted look, as he smoothed the facial bandages. "And from what I've seen, so does Rickkter. When we tried to remove the knife from Benders side we, uh, ran into some complications."

"Like what? And what could a glorified army surgeon do here to gain your notice?"

"Bender's heart stopped on two separate occasions," said Coe as he removed the bandages on the wolf morph's side. "I know of a few methods to get it going again, and they worked the first time." He could see that Jione had gone pale at the description of such a complication. "I think it was loss of blood that prompted it. We had to have him open a lot longer then I would have liked, to repair all the damage that Lutin knife did.

"During the second time, none of what we knew worked. I was about to yell for someone to get Magus or someone else with magic, when Rick decided to jump in. I'm not sure what he did, but when he placed his hands on Bender 's chest, you could see a sort of glow forming around them. Whatever it was, he got Bender's heart going again, and from what I saw when I reexamined the internal injuries, it healed some of them as well."

Having finished his task on the massive scar on the archer's side, Brian dressed the wound and began to clean up. "You should have seen Rickkter's face. It went from panic to dead set determination in a matter of seconds. I don't think there was any way he was going to let Bender die.

"By the time Rickkter was done with the face and arm, we had almost finished our end. He watched us work for a little while, asking about some of our techniques. He looked a little woozy at that point. Then again, we had no idea as to the amount of magic he had been using before that. I find it incredible that he held out as long as he did.

"When we had finished sewing him up, Rick requested that he be permitted to look over the wound before we applied a few more salves and the dressings, see if he could do anything more. I could tell he was quite worn out at that point. I can just imagine what he must have felt like after using that much magic. Actually I have a pretty good idea, because as he was applying some on Bender's side, he collapsed. He came around quickly enough, but agreed to get off his feet for a little while. We put him up in the bed next to Bender and he slept like the dead for about an hour and a half while we worked to check our work one last time."

"Damn," said Jione, as she once again started stroking the head of the wolf. "I never knew."

"Neither did I. He surprised all of us, really. I'm very grateful to Rickkter for what he did there. Without him, I don't think Bender would be recovering as quickly as he is. But I still want to know where he learned his techniques. He's a colorful individual, and I'm very interested in leaning where one such as he could acquire such knowledge. He seems to know far too much in areas that he has no business knowing anything. It's really quite disturbing."

"Um, who are you talking about?" asked Bender, as he weakly opened his eyes. "Hello Jione," said the wolf, as he turned up his gaze to meet the commander's. "Nice to see you here today. Care to fill me in on what you and Brian were talking about?"

"I'm sure she'll be happy to, Bender," said the healer as he grabbed his bag and headed for the door. "I'm off to check my other patients. Rickkter seems almost solely responsible for making my life extraordinary hectic, lately. I'll have to talk to him about this later, make a note to ask him to cease and desist. I really need the rest."

chapter 2

Raven was *not* having a good day. She had been up for a good part of the night trying to find reference in the Lightbringer archives as to what could have caused the disturbance she had felt yesterday. She had actually gone to the archives first thing, but temporarily abandoned it in favor of talking with those that had been there. From the descriptions she had received, it had only served to elevate her level of concern.

Fire deities and beings in the Lightbringer mythos were fairly limited. Of course there was Yajiit. The fire goddess was renowned for her fire attacks and any instance involving copious amounts of heat. Her method of travel was that resembling a shooting star. Raven had seen Yajiit in the sky on a few occasion, and knew her signature mode of conveyance. She had actually met the goddess face to face on one occasion. Yajiit is, to the mind of the Lightbringer, the most remarkable of the deities to behold in person.

There were the volcano nymphs and Hell Hounds that both appeared as fiery beings, but their power is far less than Yajiit's -- they simply scorched the earth where their feet fell, rather than causing it to burst into flame. Vulcan nymphs were limited in power to short-range, line of sight fire spells, and Hell Hounds had fiery breath. However neither was capable of the sort of attack that was described by the soldiers.

The problems arose from the level of power that was involved. Yajiit, due to her rather destructive nature, was quite well documented. It's not like the goddess meant to do the damage she caused much of the time, it was just that things in this plane didn't react well to her aura of fire. Yet in all the documented instances of her attacks, there was never any description of damage on that scale. Nor did any of the descriptions match what the soldiers had told her. Yajiit was not known for throwing bolts of fire down from the clouds. While the described fireballs were in line with what the goddess could do, such things as the lightning and beings of flame had never been seen before. For starters, Yajiit had no such servants! She could also cause walls of fire to come up around enemies with a gesture, or send columns of fire from her hands like a divine Greek Fire projector. And then, of course, there was the effect when she touched the ground...

It had been late at night when the Lightbringer had completed her research. Deciding to check the site out herself in the morning, Raven had retired to bed. After all, she was familiar with the habit of most soldiers to exaggerate the tales of their exploits. Normally she would have dismissed their extravagant claims as just that, but she had felt the power that emanated from the battle several miles away from the Keep. This continued unease had resulted in a restless, and sleepless, night for the she-wolf.

She had eventually decided to forego sleep and make some further inquiries into what she had felt. It was during her preparations for contacting Samekkh that she realized she had felt that construct of power once before. When she had visited that dying man, Rickkter, a little over a week ago. His talisman had seemed to radiate an energy signature of similar origin.

Much to Raven's puzzlement, Samekkh wasn't in a talkative mood. While the God of prophecy was quite glad to see the cleric at the beginning, when she had mentioned Rickkter and his connection to the incident had occurred earlier that day, Samekkh suddenly turned closed mouthed and defensive. When Raven had pressed him for some more information, the God vehemently denied all knowledge and warned Raven to drop he line of inquiry. He told her that if she continued on her present course, then it wouldn't come out well for all parties involved.

This odd behavior had shaken Raven to her core. While she normally regarded Samekkh as a friendly, almost fatherly figure, she had never known him to act that way. And she couldn't be sure that the prophets last words were a true prediction, or a method of warning to get her off the trail.

Raven had dove into the archives again, hoping to find some information on what could lead a God to conceal such information about a mortal, especially from one of their most trusted clerics. She also wanted to track down any references to the writing she had seen on Rickkter's talisman. While she had only gotten a quick look at it, she remembered what some of the characters looked like.

Again her search was fruitless. The writings held a few close parallels in the oldest of the Lightbringer texts, but nothing that matched nor made any sense. All this futile searching was beginning to get to the high priestess.

Raven spent a brief time reconsidering her actions. Perhaps if the gods wouldn't answer her questions, then she could get them from someone less powerful.

Kyia was the nymph who resided in the lands in and around Metamor. From the power that she could draw from the lands around the Keep, she was almost on par with a goddess. Raven figured that Kyia was now her best hope of getting a straight answer without a great deal more work.

Deciding on a different approach, Raven summoned the nymph and proceeded to discuss business of the Keep and surrounding grounds. Kyia was receptive enough. She even showed concern over Raven's faked insomnia. Again the discussion had gone downhill when Raven mentioned the incident to the north.

Kyia played dumb at first, pretending that the incident was outside her lands of influence. Upon insistence from Raven, the nymph finally admitted to knowing of the occurrence. However like Samekkh, she refused to say anything of its origins, though she was clearly disturbed by the concept of whatever was behind such power. At the end Kyia gave Raven a similar warning about perusing the origins of the occurrence up north. However, unlike Samekkh, Kyia appeared far more fearful as to the result of Raven's probing.

Raven had temporarily abandoned her lines of inquiry in favor of more direct methods. Deciding that it was light enough to investigate the site of the incident first hand, she had roused Nathaniel and left on a pair of horses while there was still a few hours of darkness. She had no intention of going into that country alone, and besides, Nathaniel could use the experience. While he was only an acolyte, he did seem to be showing potential.

Of course that search was more frustrating then her investigations of the night before. After feeling the still overwhelming residual aura of divine power, Raven had received a personal message from the gods to cease her efforts.

Of all the occurrences of the last little while, she couldn't understand the purpose of that message the most. As far as she knew, all her searching had turned up nothing of use. Why would the gods go to the trouble of sending her a warning to stop her investigation, then? After a quick and restless attempt at a light nap, the Lightbringer was preparing to call on Akkala in order to try the gods again for some answers.

Raven ran a series of questions through her mind as she set up the votive candles in a small circle. When all was in preparation, Raven knelt before the alter, spreading her arms in the proper gesture of submission and reverence.

She glanced up at the icon, the wooden, twin cross that was the focus of such awesome power. Thinking of what she had been told three times now, the Lightbringer only hesitated briefly before beginning the ancient incantation that would reach out across the planes of existence to bring the attention of Akkala to her. Raven had to do this. She needed answers about what had transpired in that valley the day before. How could she protect Metamor unless she knew the extent of what she was dealing with?

But she had no time to think of such matters. The goddess had answered her summons, and would be wanting to know the purpose behind them. Raven could see the light rose glow playing upon the floor, then a light flash as the goddess arrived fully in this world. When she heard that magnificent voice speak, it seemed to melt away the tension and concern of the last few hours. When Akkala spoke, it was like the sweetest music.

"Raven, my child. It is good to see you after all this time." The wolf woman rose her head to look up at the sapphire-blue eyes. They held an odd sadness almost sad twinkle there, something that Raven had never seen in all her years dealing with such divine beings. "You have called upon my services?" asked the goddess of healing, an in her eye.

"Yes, Lady Akkala. There was an incident to the north of this location many hours ago, and I have need of information on that and on and the man in them. He..."

"I figured that was why I was called her, my child," said Akkala, holding her hand up to forestall her cleric. "Samekkh has already mentioned your investigation to some of the others, most notably Kammoloth. It was decided that you would choose me next, so I am permitted to answer a small number of your questions, in exchange for your agreement to no longer pursue this matter with any other being of mythical or divine nature. Do you agree to these terms?"

Raven chewed her lower lip with one of her canines for a few moments. She choose her questions carefully, before agreeing to the offer. "How do the gods know of Rickkter, my Lady?"

"We had some dealings with him almost nine cycles ago." The gods measured time not in years, but cycles of the planet.

The Lightbringer waited a few moments to see if any more information was forthcoming, before asking her next question. "What was the nature of this involvement?"

"He stumbled onto something that we didn't think it would be possible for any to ever find again. What it was, and what Rickkter did with it, I am not permitted to discuss. The Others have forbid it."

This line of questioning was growing more and more disturbing for Raven. "Did it have anything to do with the occurrence north of this structure a day ago?"

"In a way." The goddess of healing was being almost as closed mouthed as the others, but at least Raven was getting *something* of value. Or so she hoped. Since Akkala did not appear to be volunteering more on the subject, Raven pressed on.

"Did this involve the fire goddess, Yajiit?"

"No. My sister had no involvement in that affair."

"Were any of the other gods or deardra involved?" This was in fact Raven 's greatest fear. To have a dark cleric residing within the walls of Metamor.

"No. None of the pantheon were involved."

"Then what caused such an occurrence?"

"I cannot say," informed Akkala, as she strode behind her cleric. "I am sorry, Raven. But I've been informed that your questions are at an end. There will be no more inquiries along this line, is that clear?"

"But I have so many more things to ask..."

"It matters not. You have agreed to keep your part of the agreement. And I have kept mine. I have answered your questions to the fullest that I was permitted by the Others."

She came around to face Raven again. "If it is any consolation, I can tell you that Rickkter could never harm you, at least never harm you and still live. The restraints are strong enough to prevent such a thing. It was only his persistent work and ingenuity that allowed him to slip their control for the brief time necessary to call down what he did. That has been corrected and cannot happen again."

Akkala took the distressed cleric in a warm embrace. Raven could feel the calming energy flow into her and dispel some of the feelings she had been having.

"But after all this, I still don't understand anything about what I'm to do about that man."

Akkala held Raven out at arms length. "It is not for you to do anything. The only thing you must do now is to heed all our pervious warnings, and leave Rickkter to himself. Cease delving into the matter up north. I assure you, he isn't a threat in any of the ways that you think he is. Take to heart what I have told you, and leave that man's past alone. No more asking the gods or other beings about such instances as occurred to the north."

"Agreed, my Lady," the wolf admitted reluctantly. "I will do as the gods instruct and cease asking them what they wish left to themselves." Raven turned her blue eyes to meet the goddesses'. "Thank you for answering my questions. And your company."

When the two had broken a final embrace and the goddess had departed, Raven stormed out of the temple to go and track down the individual of her frustration. She had noticed that while Akkala and the rest had forbade her from asking anyone else, they hadn't said anything about asking Rickkter personally.

Much to her surprise, she found him seated on a stone bench a short distance down the hall, almost as if he were waiting for her to come after him. He looked... he looked like hell. There were gracious amounts of blood on him, and the priestess could clearly make out where his armor had been, as those were the few areas of fur lacking blood stains. An entire side of his face was covered, going right down his neck. That was in addition to his hands and arms, which were crusted a dark maroon. Rickkter was leaning his head back as he slumped in his seat. Raven could clearly see his back stone, gold, and ruby talisman hanging around the neck of his simple, low cut white robes.

"*Now* will you take their advice and back off?" asked the raccoon.

"Not until I have some satisfactory answers," growled the Lightbringer, as she came to stand toe-to-toe with the warrior.

Rickkter came to his feet slowly, obviously feeling some pain from his injuries. When he straightened all the way up, his gaze was level with that of the wolf's. "The gods are very selective with whom they share things with nowadays. Be thankful that they deemed your questions worthy of their attention. You should take what you were given and forget anything else you may have found, or think you found."

"Well, they did forbid me from dealing with them or any other, but they said nothing about *you*," accused Raven, jabbing a finger at the warriors chest.

"Unlike the gods, you have no hold over me,"said Rick with a sneer. It looked rather disconcerting with his face half bloodied as it was. "I don't have to answer questions of yours."

Raven hin'Elric, high priestess of Metamor Keep, stood there and seethed at the raccoon warrior who stood defiantly in front of her. She was _not_ use to being treated in such a manner, and was not going to let the warrior leave until she got something! From the look in his brown eyes as they stared at her with a determined glance, she knew he would not give up anything willingly. They were like two cobras facing each other, trying to determine who would be the first to strike.

"You've been warned off four times now, Raven. I think that's a record. The gods must have something truly important planned for you. Usually they're not nearly that forgiving."

"And you would know about that, would you not, Rickkter?" said Raven, sensing an opening and going for it.

"Oh, no. You'll not get me that easily. I've played this game with individuals far more talented then you, and they all left dissatisfied with what I told them."

"Listen here..."

Rickkter viciously cut her off. "No, you listen! You are now being told a fifth time to stay away. You ignored the gods four times now, and I know that if you don't heed this warning, there will be no more! Ever!"

That sounded entirely too much like a threat for Raven's taste. "I will not be spoken to in this manner..." she hissed, her fur bristling as her lips curled away from her teeth.

"I don't care what meaning you think your position holds for me, but I can assure you it's not even close to the reality." He stepped right up to the wolf, placing a claw directly between their noses. "You will listen this time," he insisted as he stared into her cold blue eyes.

Raven stared back. Even as she fought to control her anger, she found herself marveling at the man's tenacity -- a man could be quietly put to death for treating the Lothanasa in such a manner. She could see Rick's dead-set determination to get her off the search smoldering just behind his gaze ... and something else around the edges. An almost insane fear of what she might find should he fail.

"Even though you're too blind to see it, I'm in fact saving your fool life by telling you this! I see that messages from Akkala, Kyia, and Samekkh, and the rest obviously weren't effective enough to get through your thick skull. You know, Raven, that's the problem when you go digging in the past. You occasionally unearth something best left dead." He let his last statement hang in the air before once again telling her to stay away. Then he turned and stalked down the hall, never once looking back.

The she-wolf laid her ears back, a snarl forming on her muzzle. The man had subverted her authority, openly defied her, labeled her as an idiot and a fool -- and for all the abuse she had gotten _nothing._ Not the slightest hint of what this man meant to the Keep, or to her Order. And Raven was not about to accept defeat from this raccoon so easily. She raised her left hand, and started to form a charge of blue clerical energy at her palm. It didn't matter how arrogant Rickkter was. One Truthsayer spell, and he would tell her everything.

He was almost thirty paces down the hall by that point, and if he heard the sound of the crackling energy, he didn't show it. But just as she was about to release it, Raven felt something go horribly wrong. For an instant, a split second in time, her vision tunneled, growing dark around the edges. She felt her heart stop for that brief moment, and then the world snapped back to normal. She was still standing in the hall, and had a glimpse of a bushy striped tail disappear around a corner, but her power was gone. All that energy she had built up seemed to have just snuffed out.

"You spiteful, arrogant little wench," a harsh voice spat in her ear. Raven spun around, looking for whoever had spoken, before she abruptly realized that the voice was inside her mind. And further, it was a voice she knew all too well...

"Lord Samekkh?" she breathed.

"You call me lord, but you don't act like it," he growled, the anger clear in his voice. "Who do you think you are, Raven hin'Elric? A mortal woman, barely more than a child -- who are you to interfere in our affairs?"

Raven's jaw worked soundlessly, trying in shock to form an answer. "My lord -- is it not my duty to protect my people from any possible threat?"

"Your _duty_ ends the moment it trespasses upon our affairs," Samekkh answered. "We warned you repeatedly, Raven, and you defied us! That will stop, right _now_."

The priestess fell to her knees, gasping as sudden, icy claws of fear gripped her chest. "My lord, by Artela, have mercy!" she whispered.

"What is it that you think you've received?" Samekkh shot back. "You should be four times dead by now, Raven hin'Elric! The only reason you are _not_ is because we still have use of you. In that respect, you are more like Rickkter than you realize -- but do not think for a moment that you are irreplaceable."

Raven nodded, weakly, prostrating herself on the floor. "Aye, my lord," she said, quietly. "It will be as you say. I am your humble servant."

"No, you aren't," Samekkh said sharply. "But that matters little. All that is required of you is obedience."

"Aye, my lord," Raven said again, wincing at the god's words. After a moment, she felt the His presence back off of her a little. She sat back on her legs, staring numbly at the floor. Then Samekkh's voice came to her again, more quietly this time.

"You have not shown respect for the path of wisdom, Raven hin'Elric," he said solemnly. "Until you learn to do otherwise, do not expect to hear from me. I have had done with you."

And then he was gone.

It was a long time before Raven made her way back to the temple. She stepped into the main hall and noticed that the acolytes' chambers were still shut tight, as they always were when she summoned one of the gods. In her haste, she had forgotten to properly complete the ceremony and inform the acolytes that it was safe to reenter the room.

Approaching the altar, she snuffed out the votive candles and burning incense that she had neglected earlier, trying not to think too much about Rickkter. He was right, she reflected, wincing anew at Samekkh's rebuke. Some things in the past were better left buried.

The she-wolf smiled a predatory grin, though, as she looked at the smoking candle. But that doesn't mean that she won't be keeping a close eye on the 'coon. Far from it. If anything, she was more curious now about Rickkter than she had been before -- for obviously the gods had some vital plan in store for him. Who was this man, that he should merit such special attention?

She didn't have the answers yet, but she intended to find them -- quietly this time, and with proper respect for the gods' authority. So they didn't want her looking into his past. Fine. They obviously had their reasons. But that didn't mean that she couldn't keep a careful watch on him in the present. Maybe he wasn't a threat, but he was obviously important in _some_ way.

Be warned, Rickkter, she thought, as she blew away the rest of the smoke. I'll be watching you.

chapter 3

The warrior-mage stopped up the hall, leaning heavily against a wall and holding his face. He had the arch formed by his thumb and index fingers running over his eyes, completely shielding them from the light.

"Okay," Rick mumbled to no one in particular, yet at the same time to those he knew -- those he could FEEL -- were watching him, "I've done your bidding. Again. Are you satisfied?"

The presences answered.

"Well how else was I supposed to deal with her? You wanted your 'precious little secret' protected, well I did that. You wanted her off the trail, well she's gone! You want it done differently in the future... do it yourself!" He cringed at the pain sent in response. "Okay, okay... point taken... will there be anything else you require?"

The voices informed him there wasn't. This time.

"Well then would you please leave me to my ‘miserable existence' once more?"

He felt the mirth of the presences. What he had learned was their equivalent of laughter.

"Yes, I know I'm never alone. But at least YOU don't have to always be here."

With a wave of nausea and discomfort, the precesses left him. Well, all but one, and that one was always there. Straightening, Rickkter moaned with uneasiness as he tried to dispel the feeling. At least it went quickly, which was more the could be said for the night before.

"Rick! Good to see you!" said a voice from behind. When he turned, Rick noticed that it was his brown counterpart, Brian.

"Ah, Coe. What are you doing here?"

"Well, I finally finished with all the other patients, and I decided to check up on you. You're the only one we haven't seen. You just took off and no one's seen you since."

"I can take care of myself," he mumbled.

"I can see that," snorted the healer. Brian reached up and took Rickkter 's head between his paws. He moved it this way and that, peering closely at his patient's blood splattered visage. "How much of this is yours?"

"Almost none, I'm glad to say."

"Well that's good," admitted the healer as he backed off. "Especially after I heard what went on out there."

"You don't know anything about what went on out there," said Rick as he started to head off.

"Then why don't you educate me," Coe said, moving quickly to catch up.

Rick walked a distance before saying anything. "How much do you know about mages?"

"What, you mean besides the obvious? Magic users aren't really that different the other people, aside from your ability to manipulate manna and form spells with it..."

"Exactly. And that is my problem." He stopped in the middle of a four-way intersection and turned around several times. "Where the hell am I?"

"Where do you want to go?"

Rickkter held up his bloody paws. "I want to get rid of this. And since this is from god knows how many of god knows what, I _really_ don't want to clean this off using my tongue. As a matter of fact, I'm still not too big on that whole personal grooming thing."

"Well, you're going to HAVE to get used to it. Because like it or not--"

"Brian, Brian, look," said Rick as he closed his eyes and wrapped his paws around his muzzle. "I really don't need this. If you want to lecture me on the finer points of self-grooming, can we do it later? All I want to do is get to the baths and cleaned up." In a lower voice he mumbled, "I feel like shit."

Coe gave him a tired grimace. "Well, if you want to get cleaned up, the baths are this way." He started down the left corridor, only to stop and look back at Rick. "Um, where are your cleaning supplies and such?"

"Truth be told, I don't have anything that would work now. Hell, I don't have any idea where I would go for that. The most adjustment I've made for this new body is to my clothing, which I needed foremost. There is still a few pieces that I need to get back. As for the rest..." He shrugged.

Brian shook his head in dismay. "Well, I can lend you some of my things for now. Since you're the first raccoon to come along at Metamor itself inside the last several years, you should know that most of the grooming supplies for us are a bit specialized. I have Pascal make when she has time. Be thankful that I just had a batch made before you arrived." He grinned. "I suppose I'll have to tell you a lot of things about your new situation."

"Can we save the lecture for later?" groaned Rick as he once more cupped his muzzle. "All I really want to do right now is get cleaned up and be left alone."

Brian might have been offended, but the look of pure, abject misery on the other 'coon's face waylaid any thoughts of that. Instead he left Rick to wait until he returned with the supplies. Rubbing a paw on the side of his head, Rickkter was quick to concede. When he eventually returned with the small leather bag, it was to the sight of the white robed mage crouched on the floor, doubled over with his head between his legs in the classic position for relief of nausea. It was with some relief that he noted how quick Rick responded to a hand on the back. The two then started out towards the baths.

What conversation there was on the way down was rather stilted, Rickkter 's answers being mainly monosyllabic.

"Have you tried shifting yet?" asked Brian, both out of idle curiosity and the fact that it was one of the few subjects he had yet to broach.


"Shifting to your more basic form," said Brian as they pushed open the doors to the baths. Both were assailed by a light wall of escaping steam. "You know, like in our case becoming a real life raccoon instead of the raccoon-human hybrids we are now."

Rickkter blinked several times, as if the statement took time to properly register. "We can do that?"

"Yes, of course we can. All of us," acknowledged Brian as he gestured to the other occupants in the room. Considering the hour, there was only a handful of other individuals, most of them choosing to mind their own business. "We can consciously shift from our current forms to what we would look like were the curse still at full effect. The procedure for it is simple. Just imagine yourself as your alternate form, in our case a basic raccoon.

"Does it require manipulation of magic? Because as I said, I can't use any at the moment."

"Um, I don't think so. Everyone can do it, regardless of magical ability. You'll most likely experience some odd sensations as your body shifts, but that's normal. It helps if you close your eyes the first time."

The mage just stood there in the steam thinking the thought over. Slowly a smile spread on his muzzle. Brian was slightly confused by its look of manic glee. His attention was fully captured when Rick started to change, however. Rickkter had thrown his head back and had his arms lifted to the sides and was now visibly growing smaller. In moments there was just a rumpled robe on the floor with a moving shape underneath it.

In all his time at Metamor, Brian couldn't recall when he had ever heard a pure raccoon laughing. Or at least he assumed that was what Rickkter was doing as he crawled out from under the crumpled robe. Rickkter made a quick survey of the baths before sitting back on his haunches. It was then, when his paws went up to his neck and the chain around it, that Rickkter made another sound that Brian had never heard before. Brian had never heard a full raccoon scream in frustration. Rickkter then started madly, violently tugging at the golden chain around his neck, as he loudly chittered and thrilled.

"Rickkter, Rickkter! Calm down a moment! You can't talk when you're in that form. Use that telephey spell of yours."

{It's this fucking thing!} eventually came the voice inside Brian's head. He tugged hard on the gold chain with each word. {I want it *off*!}

Coe crouched down to his animalistic friend. "Well, can you tell me what it is?"

{It's a pain in the ass, that's what it is!} shot back Rick. Brian could feel the venom in the warrior's voice. But then the smaller raccoon's expression cooled and he lowered himself onto all fours. {But there's not a lot I can do about it. I knew it was one hell of adaptive spell, I just didn 't think it could weasel its way past something like the Curse. Can you tell me what it looks like now?}

Reaching out, Brian slipped his fingers around the small black stone and lifted it closer. He informed Rick that the chain itself hadn't changed, but the amulet itself had. The ruby at the center was now a small red stone set into an oblong oval of the original black stone. Of the gold characters, there were only two small ones that were flush with the central component.

The raccoon that was Rickkter sighed. {Well, thank you anyway.} He walked back to where he left his robe and then returned to normal size before dawning the garment once more. "Now that that's over with, let's get on with the rest of it."

Coe agreed, directing Rickkter to where they could find some hot water and buckets to fill one of the tubs. Between the two raccoons, the tub was quickly filled with lightly steaming water.

"So are you going to leave me, Brian," asked Rickkter as he pulled off his robe, "or are you going to continue your lecture?" He bundled the robe up, tossing it against the wall were it slid down to a bench below it.

"If you don't mind my being here."

Rickkter hissed as he lowered himself gingerly into the hot bath. "You' re a physic, Brian, and I am a warrior. Modesty is not in either of our vocabularies."

"As long as you have no complaints." Coe took a seat on the bench as Rickkter slowly slumped further down under the water. This was actually the first opportunity he had to see how Rickkter's transformation had finally changed him. Unlike himself, Rick's body wasn't drastically changed. His legs were still close to original size and not as squat as Coe's own. The upper body also wasn't drastically changed. It was just as muscled as ever, only now it was covered with a dark gray pelt. The only real notable changes were his hands and head. The hands were very close to a real raccoon and the head was pretty much a full transformation. While some morphs still retained their hair, Rickkter had not. His entire body was covered in a dark gray fur and the distinct striped marking Coe had come to know so well over the years. The tail was essentially the same; thick and hanging almost to the ground. He idly wondered if Rickkter had gotten used to it yet.

"A question first, Rick. What did you mean those times when you said you couldn't use magic?"

Rickkter just floated there several moments more, his head leaned back against the iron side with his eyes closed and whiskers drooped. "It's called burnout. There are several methods of channeling magic. I use one where I draw on the surrounding mana and directly channel it into spell for. Others use a method of storing it. The drawback with mine is that if you use too much then it causes some kind of damage. Think of it in terms of a muscle. The more you work at it, the more you can lift, right? Same applies to magic. More experience means you can channel more. And like muscles, it's also partly the individual; some are just born able to manipulate the mana better than others."

"I'm friends with Chris and Magus, I know that well enough," said Brian with a nod. He reached over and gave the edge of the tub a quick slap. "Come on. You've soaked long enough. Time to teach you how to use some of this stuff."

Rickkter made a few groans in protest, but eventually righted himself. Small rivulets of water ran from his thick fur as he accepted a small, unstoppered bottle from Brian. He poured some gritty yellow power into his palm, staring at it for several seconds before directing a completely baffled expression towards the healer.

"Better get used to that, Rick; it's your soap." The warrior gave a very started look at the yellow mound. "You just scrub a little of it into your fur. It lathers up like real soap. I know it doesn't have the most pleasing smell, but it's all we've got."

It took Rickkter a little while to get the hang of using the stuff, but when he did he made comment of how well the heavy grit worked on caked blood. In return, Brian joked that they both were in professions where they were familiar with that fact. It was also much to Brian's pleasure that Rickkter seemed to be lightening up the longer he talked and scrubbed. They way the soap always turned a vibrant pink always unsettled Brian in some weird way. But after a lot of the cleaning power and a good deal of scrubbing, he was clean again.

"Well, thank you for your help," said Rickkter as Brian helped pour a final bucket of water to help rinse off the last of the lather. Rick stood up and ran a hand down one arm, wringing the water from the dense fur. "Um, how long does this usually take to fully dry off?"

Brian's laugh echoed off the vaulted ceiling. "Another drawback to fur. You're going to be spending a good part of the rest of the day chilled and wet."

"Great, just great," mumbled Rickkter as he stepped from the tub, water coming from his fur in a heavy rush. With his arms held up at his sides, Rickkter gazed critically over his water-logged form, then let out what could only be described as a fascinate murr. Brian had enough time to frown and start to ask what was going on before Rickkter started to shrink. After that he just had to back off quickly to avoid the tide of water that was cascading off the other raccoon.

Rickkter's procyan laughter echoed once more through the steam filled chamber as he walked off a distance, raising each foot to shake off the water as he advanced. When he had reached a reasonably clear section of the marble floor of the baths, Rickkter vigorously shook out as much water as he could. He soaked the floors, walls, and even managed to spray the ceiling. Advancing to another dry area, the process was repeated.

"Ah, much better," observed the mage upon returning to full size. He shot the healer a smirk. "I figured that when we shift, our body loses a lot of surface area. And since the water is separate and not changed with us, the excess just comes off."

"Excellent logic," admitted Brian as Rick shrugged into his robes.

Goodbyes were swift, as Coe had to return to his patients and the effects of the burning out were overtaking Rickkter once more. With a quick handshake, the two parted ways.

Rickkter staggered into his room, fighting an ever losing battle to remain upright. The act he had put on for Brian was more taxing than he would have figured. At least he was finally back home. And he was clean. After the last night of torment, still covered in dried blood as he was, the sensation of his newly cleaned fur was one to revel in.

"His newly cleaned fur." The expression had a bitter taste to it, like ashes. Damn, but it was going to take some time to get used to the idea of having a permeant fur coat. And he was going to have to go and get all kinds of grooming supplies. As he slumped to his knees in front of the fireplace, he was glad that Brian had volunteered to make him a quick list of what he'd need.

But that would take care of itself tomorrow. Today, all he wanted was to relax before a nice, hot fire. He had already discovered that wet was not a pleasant state of being. Tossing on the last of a few longs from beside hearth, he reached out and extended a small tendril of magic to set them ablaze.

The pain caused him to yelp sharply and fall back, clutching his left arm tightly. His ears were flush with his skull and his eyes were clamped tightly shut as he whimpered and tried to dispel the pain. It felt like someone had driven a lance right up though his entire arm.

It was his magic, of course. Or rather the fact that he had burned out too much to use it. Damn, he was just so used to using it for the simplest tasks, it was hard to remember that he couldn't do that at the moment. All he could do was sit there and concentrate on dispelling the anguish.

His hand shook as he reached out for where he kept the flint and steel, the pain dulled to a manageable level. They were there mainly for backup, as he never had any need of them before. Starting fires had been something he had learned from his father when he was only six years old. Rickkter's lack of practice was evident in the many minutes it took the fire to finally catch. But at least it did, that was all that mattered to the raccoon.

The battle and the overuse of magic had taken a grievous toll on the mage, evident in the agonizing manner in which he removed his robe, tossing it in a small pile before the hearth. Rickkter sighed once before shifting to his full raccoon form. At least that was one, small, magic that he could still use. The raccoon curled up within the folds of the robe, the heat from the fire pleasantly warming one side, intent on a pleasant and undisturbed rest. And as the void of sleep claimed him, it was to the subtle and constant observation of the one presence that he could never escape.