by Firemane

She brings me in, and lays me in my cot. I laugh and kick as she tickles me, and bask in the love in her smile. She calls me Thomas. The irony of this new name, the last in a long, long string of them, is not lost on me. She arranges my sheets, then leaves me alone with my secret, inexpressible thoughts.

I say that I have had many names, and it is certainly the truth. I have been called Mazrin, Darkling, Philomel, Aristes, Dawnkiller, Heartreaver, Widowmaker... the list is nigh endless. I also have a curse. Many curses, to be honest. My newest curse and my newest name I recieved together, in this strange land of Metamor.

Through the curtains, I can see the stars, who have just begun their appearance. Before they have all shown themselves, I will likely be asleep, but between now and then, I will tell my tale to the stars, the only audience who can perhaps still understand me.

It's strange, how many compensations I have in this limited body. While the white cloth swaddling my loins is a testament to just how much my body has forgotten, I find that I can remember my life in crystal clarity. All of it, for once, and that's saying quite a bit. I was young-- for the first time, that is--when mountains were islands and valleys were seas, when older races than man still walked among us.

I have been a wizard, a warrior, an alchemist, an architect, a cleric of several dieties (most of whom have been forgotten, but none of whom apparently forgot me), an assassin, a bard, a philosopher, a king... as with my names, the list is long. I had power. I had money. But most of all, I had ambition. There were prizes out there that no other man could claim, and I intended to make them my own. The first, of course, was immortality. Every petty sorcerer wants that. But even that couldn't content me. Once I had achieved immortality (as I naturally assumed I eventually would), I planned to take on godhood.

Oh, yes, it's easy for you to laugh about it now, but I was dead serious. And I came close. Oh, how it aches sometimes to think about just how close I came.

I know a dreadful secret. Want to hear it? The gods aren't all that special. A great poet once said "The very rich are different from you and I," to which another wit replied, "Yes, they have more money." So it is with the gods.

Oh, certainly, they're powerful. But they aren't omnipotent, and they aren't without flaw. But here's the part they really hate to be reminded of; They can be killed, just as you or I. Well, just as you, I suppose. Doesn't really count, in my case. Godhood is like a members-only social club. And it's awfully hard to get in unless you're born into it. But it's possible. Everything is possible, don't ever let anyone tell you differently. In order to become a god, you must first wield the power of a god. Then, you must meet certain criteria, such as moving from the terrestrial plane to an adjacent plane, being immortal, having a following of worshipers, that sort of thing. I had all of that. Actually, I think one of my guises or another may still be worshiped in some parts of the world. I wonder if they'd still make sacrifices to me if they could only see me now.

Finally, you must kill a god, in order to take his place in the scheme of things. Sound easy? Try it some time.

I could have gotten away with it, though. I had picked out a minor Deadra, one of the "dark" gods who play around in this area, and I challenged him. I could have taken him. I had twice his power, perhaps more! But he didn't fight me alone. It seems the other gods may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing they agreed on. They didn't want me to set a precedent for putting them out of buisiness. In retrospect, I guess I can see their point. I mean, if you let one mortal achieve godhood, everyone's going to want to do it. To make a long story short, since I'm already starting to feel drowzy, they ganged up on me.

I had thought they would simply destroy me, scattering the ashes of my soul throughout the universe, but they had other ideas. Death was too good, it seems, for an ambitious mortal like me. They wanted to humiliate me. So now I am an unwilling servant of the gods.

I have mostly served in the capacity of assassin. While the gods do not act against each other directly, their minions have more lattitude. In my day, we called that Barstock's Principle, but that's not important right now. When my job was done, Death would seek me out, generally in a violent fashion. But the afterlife holds no rest for my soul. When Death's embrace should have carried me to my eternal fate, I instead found myself awakening in a new body, my mind a haze. Memory and knowledge would spring to mind when needed, but I lived through countless years moving from one fleeting existance to another, never to remember my past, serving my punishment but never remembering my crime. Sometimes I would live for a week, sometimes I would have decades before my target presented itself. Even now, when I have little else to do with my time but think of such things, I find that I can't decide which was more cruel.

But I digress. I awoke some miles to the West of Metamor, my mind engulfed in the usual miasma of forgetfulness. I found myself stretched out on a rock, in the sun, clad only in a loin-cloth. I stretched, and found myself possessed of powerful, supple muscles. Examining myself more closely, I found myself covered in short, tawny fur. The spirit remembers, even if the mind cannot, and I experienced an interesting feeling of displacement. While I have only rarely experienced incarnation in an inadequate body, never had I found one so much to my liking. And yet, it was also very strange. What manner of creature was I? I was by this time somewhat used to wondering who I was, but it was something altogether different to wonder WHAT I was.

A nearby shriek brought me back from my reverie, and I dashed foward, ready for battle. Running through a stand of trees, I came upon a small pond, in which two young women were bathing. Their shrieks continued as they splashed each other with the chill water. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, I paused a moment to admire the view... they were, after all, bathing. I would have left had one of them not spotted me. She screamed, and this time the water had nothing to do with it. I advanced toward them, and the other added her voice to the first.

A fair-sized stone was all it took to silence the nearest of the two, and I caught the other as she was wading her way out. She struggled, of course. I've never understood why they do that, since they do it so poorly. I snarled at her, and was surprised by the sound that I produced. My voice was like muted thunder, a low rumbling noise that promised violence. The sound had the desired effect, however. She stopped struggling.

"Get your hands off of me, you filthy Keeper!" She spat, "If you harm me, there'll be Hell to pay, do you hear?" I laughed. I was getting to like this form.

"Oh, I don't doubt that there will be Hell to pay, my dear." There always is, my mind added. I cataloged that thought for later analysis. "After all, I've already killed your companion. I doubt anything I do to you could do more than add fuel to the fire." Her eyes grew wide as I mentioned her friend, who was at that moment floating face-down in the pond.

"My father will kill you when he finds out." She promised, "You should have stayed in Metamor with the other freaks." I felt a flicker of anger, quickly quashed. Anger serves no purpose other than to cloud the mind. One must always be in control of the situation.

"A brilliant idea, my dear. If you'll hold on just a minute, I'll find out everything I need to know." She shied away as I reached my paw toward her head, but another low warning growl made her still again. The knowledge came back to me, as it always did, and I emptied her mind. A probe that would have pierced a master telepath's defenses ripped through her weak mind like paper, and in an instant I knew every thought she'd ever had, every secret, every sin. I let her drop. I had no fear that she would incriminate me. As blank as my memory was, her mind was a far, far more barren territory now. If she was lucky, she might one day remember her own name for more than a few moments. She was hardly likely to remember me. I set off, in the direction of Metamor Keep.

The girl's mind was, of course, tainted by her limited perspective, so it was with few expectations that I entered the land of Metamor. I soon found, however, that much of what she knew was correct, in general if not in technicality. The land did seem to be under some sort of curse. But if it was a curse, it was certainly the most curious I'd ever seen. Men and women of flawless skin and beautiful proportions, sage children, and beings graced with forms such as my own. I was hailed by a passing couple, one of whom was a bear, and the other seemed to be some form of rodent, and I waved in return. No reason not to be friendly with the natives, after all, especially if one seems to be wearing the local garb. Actually, upon inspecting the other animal-men, I realized that I was probably very under-dressed by the local standards. A situation I would have to remedy. Fortunately, women are forever leaving their clothes-lines unguarded, and after a couple of mistakes, I found a set of clothes that would fit my bulky frame.

As I progressed toward the Keep, the land became more and more cultivated. I passed near an outpost, which seemed to have been designed by a madman. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought so. Extensive scaffolding hinted that the place was undergoing remodelling. I sincerely hoped it was toward something more tasteful, though it was difficult to imagine how it could be less so. Still, the depravity of man knows no bounds, as my own life certainly proved. I continued, past soldiers in livery whose device included a carrot, if my eyes weren't decieving me. I began to wonder exactly what sort of madness I'd gotten myself into.

The road I was on led me further into Metamor. The farmland gave way to uncultivated patches of woodlands to either side of the road, which eventually led me to the gates of the Keep itself.

"State your name, and your purpose in visiting." The gatekeeper (is that a gateKeeper, I wondered?) intoned, sounding bored. It took a brief moment, but it came to me.

"I'm Paradox, and I'm visiting friends." He jotted something down, after inquiring about the spelling of my name, and nodded me inside. Pretty lax security, I thought. Then again, I guess you can probably tell friend from foe by sight. Or at least, they probably thought they could. I realized that, though I'd gained entry to the Keep, I had no idea why I'd felt it necessary to do so. Here I was, dressed as a peasant, poor as a peasant, behaving with no more thought than a peasant, and no idea of what I was supposed to be doing. I felt confident, however, that all would be made apparent.

I wandered, not paying much attention to where I was going, and found myself nearing some sort of tavern. A sign above the door marked it as the "Deaf Mule." Oh, well, I reasoned, if I could't have a purpose in life, I could at least connive someone into buying me a drink.

Fortune smiled upon me as I walked into the bar. I was scanning the crowd, considering challenging the lizard at the pooltable to a friendly wager, when I heard a cry of "Checkmate" from across the room. I turned, and found a strangely familiar racoon smiling a strangely familiar arrogant smile at the beaver sitting across from him. I did a quick double-take, and rubbed my eyes, but the beaver's coat didn't change. I didn't think beavers came in plaid, but I accepted it as I'd accepted everything else that had happened recently.

"Well, Rickkter, looks like you win again." The beaver admitted resignedly, collecting the pieces back to their starting positions.

"Don't feel too bad about it, Micheal." A fox comforted, from behind the racoon, "You're starting to make him think about his moves."

"How can you tell?" The beaver asked. The fox smirked.

"Simple. Watch his hands."

"No coaching from the audience." The racoon warned. Something was stirring in the back of my mind, but I couldn't quite place it.

"Hail, fellows." I boomed, using my new voice to it's best advantage, "Mind if I sit in and watch?"

"If you like." I sat and observed a couple of games. By the time the first was finished, I'd remembered everything I needed to know. By the time the second was done, I was eager for the game.

"Say, there, Micheal, mind if I try a hand at it?" The beaver looked from me to Rickkter, then shrugged.

"Sure. I don't seem to be doing much good against him." I smiled. At least, I think I smiled. I'm not sure how well the facial gestures translated.

"Then watch me have a go at it. Maybe you'll learn a few tricks."

"Tricks aren't going to let you win this game." Rickkter warned me.

"Ah, spoken like a true Master. Would you care for a friendly wager?" Rickkter, true to form, couldn't resist. I allowed him the luxury of going first.

"Knight to Bishop Three." I intoned, making the move I'd announced. Rickkter glared at me, but made his countermove. "Ah, Ricky, still as predictable as ever." His head snapped up from the board so quickly I could swear I heard his teeth rattle. I moved my piece, after calling out the maneuver.

"Only one man ever dared to call me that." Rickkter managed to bite out, as he considered the board more carefully. I laughed, a sound which seemed to reverberate through the floor and to shake the chesspieces on the board.

"You're also just as big a liar as every. I had the entire platoon calling you that inside of a week." We traded Knights.

"Son of a bitch, it is you." From nearby, I heard someone object to his choice of words, "Can't say I'm happy to see you. Where've you been?"

"Oh, here and there." I lied, "Actually, mostly here for the last year or so." Rick couldn't read my bluffs when I was human. I'd wager a sword to a copper that he couldn't read me now.

"That's odd," The fox commented, "I could have sworn I knew all the lions in Metamor." I shrugged.

"The valley is a big place.. and as you can see, I haven't been rubbing elbows with nobility."

"Yes, I noticed the peasant attire," Rickkter commented, moving his Queen out of danger, "It suits you." The racoon's voice could have taught a northern winter about being cold.

"As does your own form." Rickkter smirked.

"It has its advantages. Check."

"The same could be said for most things." I moved my King out of danger, and we continued to trade pieces. I finally began to recognize the emerging pattern. I could tell that Rickkter saw it as well. We sat there and glared at the board in mutual disgust. The beaver looked from one of us to the other.

"What? Why'd you stop?"

"The game's a stalemate." The fox explained, from behind Rickkter, "There's no way either of them is going to win."

"How can you tell?"

"Because there are only so many moves and counter-moves that can be made. They both know all the possible outcomes, and they'll both play to a stalemate. The only way for one of them to win is for the other to deliberately lose. I guess the bet's off."

"It was a good game." Rickkter shrugged, "You can go order your drink if you want it, Phaedron." I stood up, and inclined my head to the group.

"I'm not thirsty anymore." I rumbled, "Perhaps we'll do this again sometime." Rickkter gave me a knowing look.

"Somehow, I doubt that." I left the bar, but crept around to the side of the building. My magic amplified this form's already exceptional hearing to the point where I could listen in on the conversation that followed my exit.

"...amn it, he shouldn't be here!" Rickkter was in the middle of snarling.

"Rickkter, you've said the same thing about Oren, Vitra, Maddog, and that's just recently." The fox replied, in what I took to be a placating manner, "Frankly, quite a few of us felt the same way about you, remember?"

"I don't meant hat I don't like running into him like this, finding him here at Metamor," Rickkter corrected, "Well, okay, I do mean that. But I also mean that it's impossible."

"Impossible is a pretty strong word, coming from you, Rick.. Rickkter." I could picture Rickkter's threatening glare perfectly, and make a good guess as to the beaver's face as well. "Why does it upset you so much that he's here?"

"Because it always bothers me when people I've killed come back to talk to me." Hmmm. I hadn't remembered that. Raised some interesting questions.

"What do you mean, you killed him?" No hiding the shock in either of their voices as the other two animal men chimed in together.

"I mean I killed him." Rickkter explained calmly, "We were on the same side during some little border squabble. He was with us for three months, then he betrayed us by assassinating our general. So we killed him."

"Are you sure he couldn't have survived?"

"Look, it's pretty hard to walk away from having your head cut off and stuck on a pike for all to see, and I was the one working the axe," the racoon snapped, ""Wait... someone's list.." I canceled my spell, and began walking briskly away from the tavern.

Rickkter not only learned how to play chess since the last time I saw him, he'd apparently learned a few other things as well. Still, I didn't think I had much to fear from him. The fact that Rickkter could even consider playing in my league was pretty amazing, considering the head-start I had on him. Then again, by all accounts, he still owned his own soul.

Such diversions were amusing, but I was no closer to solving my own problems. Night was rapidly approaching, and I would need a place to sleep. Once again, the solution presented itself, as I found my way into the stables. The horses didn't react as strongly as I'd feared they might, but I suppose that they were used to being around animal-men. Acquiring food might become a problem, but I was sure that I could steal what I needed. Still, I knew it would be better to find legitimate employment if I would be around for any length of time. News of theft spreads quickly.

I wandered again the next day, my stomach loudly protesting my lack of breakfast. By good fortune... and I admit, a bit of instinct on my new body's part... I managed to procure a couple of rats, which I devoured whole. I decided that any disease they might carry would be unable to kill me, and if it did, what of it? Talking with Rickkter had stirred up old memories, and I was trying to piece things together. Had I been decapitated? If so, how did I get here? If I'm an assassin, who am I supposed to assassinate? I reasoned that it would probably be someone important to the Keep. Royalty, clergy, a military leader, something like that. Perhaps a mage. I was sure that it would come to me eventually.

Actually, as it happened, I came to it. I found a small band of what I could only describe as fops congregating outside an audience chamber. An exchange of pleasantries soon led me to understand that they were present to try out for the position of court bard, the previous bard having met with some sort of unpleasantness. The idea amused me, and it seemed the most unobtrusive way of getting myself introduced to the local court. The line before me was considerable, which suited me, allowing me to think of some appropriate snatch of doggerel. Of course, the term bard has different interpretations, depending on who you ask. For some, the bard is merely a jester, a court fool. For others, the bard is a sage, a recorder of vocal history. Others find that a bard is simply a poet. From what I'd been given to understand, the previous bard had been a little of all three. Unfortunately, most of the tunes I could remember were tavern songs, which hardly ever sound as good when you're sober. Unless I could get the entire court drunk (which is easier in some kingdoms than in others), I'd have to think of something else.

I was inside the audience chamber before inspiration struck me. I bowed deeply, with a flourish that would have been impressive in an imperial throne room, and surveyed my audience. Gods help me, I thought, the animals have taken over the farm. I saw a rooster--with cleavage, if you can imagine that--a lizard of some kind, and sitting in a chair was a strange creature, the likes of which I have never seen. He had ears that were rabbit-like, and flat feet and well-developed haunches, similar to a rabbit, but his face was much more narrow, somewhere between a fox and a rat. There were others, but they seemed rather run-of-the-mill, comparatively. I was asked my name, which was my cue to begin.

"Ah, my esteemed lords and ladies, that is the problem, for you see, I know it not." If I hadn't known better, I'd have thought I detected a hint of a smile on the rooster's beak. "I have come before you seeking it."

"I see," The creature spoke up, apparently feeling game enough to play along, "And what makes you think we know your name?"

"Oh, wise and learned sir," I dearly hoped I had guessed the creature's gender correctly, or my audience might come to a rather abrupt end, "My only hope is that you can guess it, for if you do not, I am condemned to be forever nameless."

"What can you tell us, then?" The rooster asked, which was just the opportunity I was looking for.

am Beginning and End,
Everywhere and Nowhere,
Everything and Nothing,
Common yet Rare.

I --
am Shadow in Light,
Burning Cold,
Sunny Night,
Tarnished Gold

I --
am the Wealthy Beggar,
the Wise Fool,
the Noble Savage,
a Broken Rule.

In Death I Live,
Enslaved I am Free,
By Taking I Give,
What can I be?"

From out of sight, my answer came, in stentorian tones.

"You are that which you are not, you are not what you are. Thus, you are a Paradox." My heart surged as the black stallion stepped into view. "A fine riddle. I only learned it from Mong a few weeks ago." The rooster bowed.

"Indeed, your Majesty. It is popular in my homeland, but I did not know it had spread so widely."

"A bard must be well travelled, m'lord." I went down on one knee, then came back up to be dismissed. I left to make preparations.

I spent some time observing the stallion from concealment, and discovered his identity and his defenses. The Duke employed mages of considerable talent. Though I could probably overcome their wards it would be far easier to do things the old-fashioned way. No sense in taking more risks than necessary. Finding a weapon proved difficult, but I finally found a servicable knife in the kitchens. I had just finished secreting the half-foot blade in my vest when I heard the sound of soft footfalls on stone. Cursing my carelessness, I looked for a place to hide, but found no space that would conceal my massive frame. I made a quiet dash for the door, but it was to no avail.

"What do you think you're doing here?" a high-pitched voice demanded of me. I turned to find a rat dressed as a scullery maid wielding a ladle in a threatening manner. "Well?" I spent a moment weighing my options, and decided to talk my way out. Bodies tended to be discovered at the worst possible times, and I had more important things to attend to.

"I... got lost on my way to the Library." I lied. She smiled and lowered her "weapon," and I knew I was out of any danger.

"You must be hungry, then." She saw my puzzled look, "Oh, you know how the Keep is. If you get distracted from where you're going, you end up somewhere else. I'll bet you had your mind on dinner when you should have been thinking of books!" I bowed my head in mock-shame.

"I fear you have the right of it, my dear. The life of a scribe is a hungry one." She gave me a sharp glance, just for a moment.

"Well, I make it a point not to let cats go hungry." I looked at her, and she smiled, "Well, just in case any of you start getting ideas. Come, there's some bread and some cider, if you want it. It isn't the same as what Gregor makes, but it's still soft from the oven." Bread sounded like a good change of pace from what I'd had for breakfast, so I accepted her offer. The bread was rather bland, but I suspect my carniverous form had something to do with that. She chatted with me, in the gossipy way peasants have, mostly about my job as a scribe. I tried to describe it in terms as bland as possible, to discourage further conversation, but she was rather persistent. When I finished, I thanked her, and went again on my way.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering the corridors, trying to find my way back to the Duke's chambers. I'd taken note of the scullery maid's words, and kept my objective in mind constantly, but the walls seemed to warp and curve into circles. I was halfway to my goal when I was intercepted by a convoy of armed guards. I didn't feel like taking the chance that they weren't looking for me. While the Duke might be warded, his soldiers were not, and they fell before me like keggler's pins. I fled down the corridor, taking the turns by feel. By ill-luck, I ran into another patrol, and I could hear the first hot on my heels. This was not going well. An old trick sprang to mind, and I conjured a clamorous explosion and a cloud of smoke. The guards milled about in confusion before catching sight of me down the left corridor. With a mixture of frustrated animal sounds, they assembled themselves and gave chase.

When they were out of sight, I dropped my cloaking spell and continued on my way. I found a nice, clear courtyard, and sat on the edge of the fountain, making a great show of being unconcerned.

"Alright Rickkter." I called, "You can show yourself now. We're all alone." The racoon appeared in the courtyard as though he'd teleported there. "I must apologize for my rudeness. You HAVE learned a few things since the last time I saw you. I have paid you a great discourtesy by underestimating you. What gave me away? How did you know I was making my move? How did you know when to raise the alarm?" The racoon smiled.

"You gave yourself away, Pheadron... or Paradox, or whoever you are these days. Having your head cut off must have dulled your wits. I didn't raise the alarm, Kimberly did."

"The scullery maid?" I laughed, amused by the irony of it all. I expected to be hunted by the lion, but instead I am betrayed by the lamb. "The philosopher-king thwarted by a peasant. How poetic. Well then, come on. The two of us meeting again can't be a coincidence. Surely one of us is meant to fall this day." He drew his weapons, a pair of short, curved blades. "Tsk, tsk. You would strike down an unarmed man?"

"I've done it before. I prefer overkill to underestimation. Safer that way."

"Ah, but I was fated to die that day, my purpose finished. I have not yet completed my task here." He brought his swords into position. I almost recognized the form, but it looked as though he'd made alterations, possibly to accomodate his new body. I didn't have time to analyze it in depth.

"All the more reason to kill you now."

"So be it." He ducked out of the way of my first blast, and managed to parry the second. I began to wonder just how long it had been since I'd last seen Rickkter. His new form made his age impossible to judge, but he seemed much more capable than the young man I remembered him as. As I switched from one style of magic to another, from Elementalism to Magecraft to Mind Magic to Sorcery, he adapted his technique, his own style flowing and shifting to counter whatever I could throw at him. But I knew that he would fail, for I had centuries of experience and knowledge to fall back on, whereas he had mere decades. The air around us began to blur and haze with the afterimages and residues of the powers we were channelling.

"We are much alike, you and I," I opined as we fought, hoping that dividing his attention between his defense and my words would prove a fatal distraction. "You simply lack the ambition necessary to attain my level of power."

"First time I've ever been told I lack in ambition." The raccoon commented, as he made a most dexterous evasion of my lastest attack, "Most complaints I get run in the other direction." I laughed.

"You merely do what you must to survive. But base survival means nothing. To wield power is everything. What will you do at the end of days, when all that remains of you is a hollow shell?"

"Yeah, yeah," He quipped, as his swords flashed red and blue and sparks showered around him, "Life's a bitch, then you die. Get over it."

Had I room to spare in my thoughts, I would have cursed his name, for the amounts of power being expended here would surely draw the attention of other mages in the area, none of whom where likely to be friendly. No matter what spell I threw at him, the racoon seemed to pull one defense after another out of his sleeve.

"But you don't have to die. Mortality is for the weak." And for the slow, which Rickkter certainly wasn't. Dammit. "Someday, you'll understand that. And then you'll make the same choice I did. You'll choose to live!" And if I had anything to say about it, he wouldn't get the chance.

In one motion, I drew and released the knife concealed in my vest. We both knew that my throw was high and wide, but Rickkter wasn't sure that he could allow the blade to pass unmolested, lest some enchantment cause it to find his back. His form shifted as his swords followed his will while his mind deliberated and moved ever so slightly toward the flying blade. I sent a spray of multihued darts of light forth from my fingertips, to hasten his choice. He made his decision, and his left hand struck down the knife, as his right attempted to counter my other attack. Checkmate. His one hand could only do so much, and several of my darts struck home. The tell-tale bulge of his armor warned me that my attack would not draw blood, but his face contorted in pain from the impact, which was as forceful as a blow from a Giant's warhammer, and his left sword clattered to the ground. A moment of weakness was all I needed, and when next he looked at me, it was with honest fear in his eyes, pressed against the wall by an invisible force. I stalked over and picked up his blade, exulting in my victory. I pressed the force barrier against him, and I knew that his attention was occupied with maintaining the wards that kept me from simply crushing him.

"Well, Rickkter, you gave me a better fight than I've had since... well, since I can remember. You've learned a lot for someone who's only had one life, but unfortunately, you're not going to have the chance to learn any more." I pressed the blade against his exposed throat, then drew back for the killing strike. "Death. By. Beheading." I savored each word. "Let's see if you handle it as well as I did." A cold tingle washed over me, and I felt a strange watery feeling in my muscles. It lasted only a fraction of a second, but Rickkter, true to form, didn't let it go to waste. He managed to get his right arm moving again, and put his sword to good use. He knew how to hone a blade, I'll give him that. The sick feeling of warmth was my only indication that he'd made his mark. I fell back, preparing to make my counterstrike, but another shuddering wave of.. otherness ripped through me. It was all I could do to fend off Rickkter's offensive. I made a half-hearted feint to Rickkter's unarmed side, and to my surprise, he took me up on it. I rolled away and dropped my blade so I could cast my last spell of the combat.

Outside the Keep, the nausea of a quick and dirty teleport mixed with that strange rippling feeling, making me regret more than ever accepting that rat's hospitality. I felt like a wounded animal... I WAS a wounded animal, and the thought of escape became my world. I ran, unsteady on my feet, the rippling feeling nearly constant, feeling as though my limbs were withering away even as I ran. I cursed Rickkter, even as I extended him my grudging admiration. Surprised me again... never would have expected him to use a sleeper spell like that in the middle of combat. Didn't seem his style. I was forced to go through basic mind-focusing exercises just to find the presence of mind to teleport again, this time hiding my trail so well even a mage twice Rickkter's class couldn't find me. I hoped, anyway. I'd been wrong about him so many times already. Gods, if only I'd known him before... the two of us would have been unstoppable. All the gods in the heavens wouldn't have kept us from... no time to think about it. No time to dream. The rippling is worse, almost unbearable, but the pain is gone, the blood has stopped, the trees are so tall, so tall...

And then I woke up again, fully expecting to find myself elsewhere, in a new body. I was only half right, if that. I was still in the woods, and my form was the same... at least, for the most part. I got to my feet, which proved to be a difficult task. My legs wanted to bend like reeds, and balancing on my two feet was akin to trying to ride a log down a flue. I heard voices, and tried to hide myself, but I only succeeded in drawing attention to myself. I tripped over some unseen obstacle, or perhaps only over my own clumsy feet, and returned to the ground.

"Who's there?" A gruff voice called. I froze, lying there on the ground, and began calling to mind a spell to defend myself. The knowledge was there... I could see it as plainly as reading a book, but the capacity was not. I ran through a dozen different forms of magic, but the power would not heed my call. Even simple Mind-Magic was lost to me. A pair of Keepers came into view, and I gave myself up as dead. When the Keepers (who must have been a good five times my height) spotted me, I stood up, but made no move to escape. If my spells abandoned me, perhaps the gods had too. Perhaps I'd meet Eternity at last.

"Are you all alone out here?" The female asked. She was a spotted cat of some kind, and her voice had a purr in it. I made no attempt to answer. The male, a vulpine, began hailing the woods in general. "Poor little thing must have been abandoned." Despite myself, I attempted to run when she accosted me, but she was far too fast.

"Are you sure it's not another AR playing a prank?" The fox asked.

"Look at him, Alec, he's obviously a cat-morph. You can't get the curse more than once." The vulpine nodded. So THAT's what was going on.

"Musta been born that way, I guess. Probably some young girl in one of the border villages got scared and left him here."

"Who could leave such an adorable cub as this?"

"Now, Claudia, don't get any ideas. We're going to go home and see that this boy gets returned to his mother." Claudia didn't answer, as though she hadn't heard him.

They did take me home, and they did try to reunite me with my mother, but, not surprisingly, they had no luck. Claudia was vocal in her opinion that a mother that would abandon a child didn't deserve to have one anyway, and in time, she won Alec around to the idea of adopting me. I would say that my voice was ignored in this, but that wouldn't be quite fair, as my voice didn't seem to produce much that was intelligible. I could form the words in my mind, hear them in my head, but my tounge would not cooperate.

So here I am. From what I've been able to gather from overheard conversations, as an Age Regressed Keeper I should be able to regain at least adolescence, or pre-pubescence at the worst, but my form is static, and nothing I do alters it. In a few years, probably two, but five at the most, they'll realize that I'm not what they think I am, and then someone will put things together and the whole thing will come crashing down around my ears. But until then, I have a warm bed, all the liesure time I want, and best of all, nobody to kill. There are inconveniences, of course. Lack of fine motor control is very annoying when one is used to absolute precision in one's movements, and having others assume you're a vacant idiot is something of an aggravation. But I've had to deal with worse, and I've survived.

More or less.

Goodnight, stars.

"Rickkter?" The racoon-morph turned at the sound of his name in the midst of the merriment of the Deaf Mule. Beneath his tunic was a slight padding inconsistent with the appearance of armor, and a bit of white showing at his collar suggested a physician's bindings, the only outward sign of his encounter with the assassin lion. A young soldier stood beside him. "I was told to speak with you about the assassin. We found these." He dropped a bundle of cloth on the table next to the racoon.

"Where was this found?" Rikkter asked, as he inspected the garments. They were the coarse clothes that Pheadron had been wearing.

"A few ells outside the walls. The assassin left a clear trail for a while, then vanished. A mage is going over the area now, but it doesn't look promising." The racoon nodded, disheartened by the news but not terribly surprised by it. "Has anyone tried a divination?" The guard nodded.

"I was told that the clothes didn't have time to develop much of an attachment with the assassin, and what they did get was a muddled tangle of several powerful spells. Beneath that, the divination just showed that these belong to a pair of farmers near the border. They're both gender-morphs, and they have no idea how the clothing got to the Keep." Rickkter nodded.

"That's about what I expected, but thanks for keeping me informed. Help yourself." He offered, indicating the veritable mountain of cheese on a table nearby, "There's certainly enough to go around." Indeed, there was, for the table was piled with rounds of the stuff, in many varieties.

"A toast!" Someone cried, from the other side of the room, "To Lady Kimberly, the hero of the day!" The cry was taken up, and all eyes turned to the lady in question. The rat-maid's face burned a flustered crimson beneath her fur as a pleasant embarassment brought the blood to her cheeks.

The soft sound of footsteps wakes me from my slumber. I'm not sure if I have retained some measure of my old training, or if it is a function of this new body, but I still sleep as lightly as ever. There is a woman standing above me. I recognize her. Kyia. I wonder what she is doing here.

"Foolish, foolish man. Who do you think brought you here?" She listens to my confusion, and explains. "No, it was never my intention for you to kill the Duke. But I had the opportunity to use your services, and I did so." I still can't understand why. "It's like the game you favor, chess. How you move is not always directly important. What matters is forcing your opponent's hand. So long as I have you here, you can't serve anyone else... and I plan for you to have a long, uneventful life. Do not fear that you will be discovered. Your body will grow at a normal child's pace. You'll stop growing before you reach adulthood, of course, but by then, the memory of the lion named Paradox will have faded. You'll be just another unexplained mystery of the Curse." She turns, and begins to fade away as she departs. "Sleep well, little cub." She smiles over her shoulder, "And for once, try to stay out of trouble."