The Winter Assault

Part 2

by The Winter Assault Writers

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

12/24 – 8am
December 24, Year 706, Cristos Reckoning. Dawn.

A small, glowing ball of light appeared in the darkness and the wick of the ceremonial candle flared to life. The summoned light faded slowly, the flame of the candle strengthening to take its place, and Merai hin'Dana leaned back on her heels with a small smile. Today was a very special day.

Rising to her feet and backing away nine short steps from the altar, Merai turned and walked to the small storeroom where the temple's hand-lamps were kept. After she had lit all of the wall-lamps, bathing the room in soft, warm light, she returned the smaller hand-lamp to its resting place and moved quietly to apse at the back of the temple hall.

It was a cold winter's day, and a chill wind brushed at Merai's long brown hair as she sat down on the sill of the semicircular window. The window had no glass, and remained open year-round— but though the icy wind blew against Merai's face where she sat, the temple itself never grew cold. It was, she reflected, just another one of Kyia's special touches, one of the little things the spirit of Metamor did to make the Keep more comfortable for her human tenants.

Merai looked out at the snow blanketing the valley, its uniform coat of white mirroring the heavy gray clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon. The snow was still falling heavily— indeed, it seemed to be getting worse, and it was becoming hard to see more than a few miles in any direction. Somewhere above her the wind howled mournfully, as though warning of a fiercer storm to come.

In spite of the weather, though, Merai was in high spirits. The Patildor called this "Christmas Eve", the night before their religion's most holy day. For the Lothanasi of Metamor Keep, it was a time to honor and remember their most high god— a god whose name they did not even know.

They called him the Iluvatar, an old Elvish word meaning "All-Father". It was he, the legends said, who created the universe, including the gods, the dragons, the Elves, and of course the humans. Something had happened since then, though, and the Creator had fallen silent. No one knew why, but it seemed as though the Iluvatar had distanced himself from his creation. Lately, the Lightbringers of Metamor had made it their holy quest to restore contact with him.

The month of December had always been associated with the Creator, mostly because none of the other gods would claim it as their own. In truth, that was probably why the Patildor had decided to celebrate their lord's birth in December to begin with. Whatever the motivations, it had turned out that Raven would hold her ceremony for the Iluvatar on the same night that Father Hough held his Christmas Eve service in the cathedral. Since both ceremonies were open to the public, it seemed like half the Keep would be crowding into one holy place or the other this evening.

Merai let her mind wander for a while, thinking of gods and faith and religion, but her thoughts kept circling back to that unseen, mysterious, omnipotent figure. _Iluvatar._ Even the word sounded holy and enigmatic to her ears.

"Will you speak to us tonight, Iluvatar?" she asked softly, staring out at the whirling snow. "Will this be the year you break your silence?" It was the greatest dream of everyone at Metamor who had anything to do with the Order. Priestess, acolyte and commoner alike all longed for the Creator to reveal himself at last. It sometimes seemed a foolish hope, a desperate and impossible dream.

Still, Merai thought, it would be far more foolish for them to stop looking.

At last she rose from the window, turning back toward the hall and the preparations that still had to be made for the evening service. As she took the body of the sacrificed dove from the altar, its blood having finished draining into the basin, her eyes fell upon the twin cross before her. It was the symbol of the Lightbringers and their mission: Heaven Above, Earth Below, Meet in the Middle.

"Come to us, All-Father," Merai whispered. "Your children are listening."

12/24 – 11am

The main door to the courtyard opened briefly, disgorging a gale of wind-driven snow and five bundled forms. Two of them were quick to get it closed again, much to the appreciation of the equine castellean who stood at the room’s opposite end. As the group began to shake the snow from their garments, Jack hiked up the collar on his own overcoat and asked, “So how’s the weather?”

A head wrapped almost completely in a scarf tuned up at the mule’s question. All that was visible under the many layers of protective garments was the person’s black nose, the lopsided whiskers that protruded from that region, the roundish black ears which sat exposed in the tangle of scarf upon his head, and the long striped tail descending from under a heavy winter coat. The raccoon puffed some snow from where it sat upon the end of his muzzle, the sparse flakes joining their cousins already heaped and melting on the stone floor.

“Fucking cold!” Rickkter pronounced.

Jack’s braying laugh echoed about the large chamber. “Get used to it, Southerner. This has been a mild winter for Metamor so far. You’ll be looking at far worse to come in the next few months.”

“He’s right enough about that, Rick,” concurred a wolf that stood near the raccoon, brushing the flurries from the fur on his head. Bender then went to work on his tail. “I’ve seen storms like this last for several days without letting up. Whole houses buried. The way this one’s going, we’ll probably be up to chest deep or more by morning.”

“More in spots where the drifting’s bad,” said Moorly. The equine archer unwrapped the last of the scarf from his own head and shook out his mane. “I’m just thankful that we got in before it really started coming down. I feel sorry for those poor souls who got stuck with sentry duty out on the walls or at the sentry towers tonight.”

“It’s the holidays, Moorly,” said a squat, female shrew as she pushed her way past them and over to Jack. She was working on unbuckling her sword belt to entrust to the castellan. “You know that Duke Thomas has standing orders to keep those to a minimum. Though I could never make sense of the people that volunteered for that duty, myself.”

“Triple pay, that’s why,” responded their commander. Jione was an impressive woman, living up admirably to the term amazon. She pulled the long braid of brown hair from under her fur hat, allowing it to rest down the front of her right shoulder of her open coat. Grinning half-heartedly at the looks her team gave her, she explained. “I did it a few years myself. It helped dealing with having no one to really share Christmas with.”

The rest of the morphs all muttered their understanding, heading around to where they could stow their implements. “So what are all of you doing this year?” asked Rickkter.

“Family,” replied Bender. “My cousins and aunts and uncles, just about everyone, is coming in from further north in the valley. We’re all staying at my parent’s house in the town.” He gave his comrades a wolfish grin. “It’s insane for a few days, but what the hey? It’s tradition.”

“Almost like myself,” said Moorly. The horse had secured his bow and was in the process of returning his arrows. “I’m catching the last caravan out of here for the southern lip of the valley. Damn, I’d better get moving if I’m going to make it, actually.” With a final wave at his comrades, he departed Metamor’s central armory at a brisk trot.

“Well, that’s one down,” said Rick. “What about you, Kwanzaa?”

The shrew brushed at her snout some, delicately plucking at her whiskers to remove some of the irritating flakes. “Oh, I don’t have a lot planned. Probably just meet up with the usual group of friends, make merry and see what comes the dawn.” Rickkter laughed along with the others, his deep brown eye shining. “What about you?” Kwanzaa wanted to know.

“Well, I don’t know about the next few days, but today I have a personal invitation to Misha’s Christmas party. It should be a good one, and from what I’ve been told there’ll be plenty of room and plenty of people. He’s having it in the Long House itself, Long Hall to be exact.”

Bender smirked. “Descriptive name.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“Be sure to enjoy that party,” said Jione.

“Oh, I will. I’ve learned never to pass up free food and drink.”

“Well, that’s not all that’s in store for you. I’ve heard of those parties of Misha’s. No matter who’s in attendance, those parties are always renowned for their antics. That fox knows how to throw one hell of a bash! If you want an interesting story, ask him what happened, oh, three years ago with him and Laura Calamar and the bean dip.”

Raccoon’s had the oddest chuckle, reflected Kwanzaa. “How about you, Jack?” she called out.

The question took the mule by some surprise. “Me? Well, I have nothing special in mind. Probably go to the Mule, have an entire bowl of Jack’s famous eggnog to myself.”

“Sounds like a good evening,” commented Jione. All the animal morphs turned to look at the amazon. “It also sounds like a lot for one man, even one of your stature. Would you mind if I accompanied you?”

Jack’s tail swished back and forth as he pondered, his eyes roving over the fellow soldier. “‘Tis the season of giving and joy. If you’ve no one else to spend it with, than I welcome your company.” Jione just smiled and nodded in return.

With the equipment stowed away, the small team bid each other farewell, departing with handshakes for their respective destinations. Unlike the others, Rickkter took his time and enjoyed the scenery as he walked along. The halls all over the keep were decked with the usual festive decorations; there were many wreaths and pine bough arrangements, which lent a wonderful scent to the air. Stepping nimbly around a ladder where a pair of servants were hanging some holly decorations, Rickkter did a quick pirouette, his hands clasped behind his back. Of course the most notable sensation as he swung around was his heavy tail. It wasn’t an unpleasant effect, the tail lagging behind him like that, so when he noticed the little girl in the dress smiling up at him from the other side of the hall, he gave it a few more whirls. For the next several steps he and the girl spun in a quick, pseudo dance, the raccoon on one side of the hall, her mirroring his movements on the other. He was all striped tail and long coat, she was pigtails and sky blue dress. Rickkter gave the child a simple smile before continuing on his way, his stride unbroken.

The thought of what other people might have thought, a warrior-mage of Rickkter’s reputation acting like a child, briefly passed though his head but was just as quickly dismissed. He had enjoyed the simple sensation of doing it, and the gap-tooth smile of the young child was an additional reward. Besides, it was the festive season! It was a time for good cheer and happiness and all that. And for the first time in a god awful long time, he had reason to be really, truly, happy about this time of year.

So what if it was colder than the ninth hell out there? He was in here. And he had absolutely no intention of leaving the nice warm interior of the Keep for the next several days. That was in fact why he and his team had done that last short patrol; they wanted there to be no reason for being called out last minute. Rickkter’s hearing caught the howling and roar of the wind as he passed a nearby window, but that was almost immediately drowned out by a small, impromptu choir that had set up along one wall of the foyer, a half dozen keepers of various ages and manifestations of the curse lending an oddly rich depth to their mingled voices.

Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know it telling:
yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
underneath the mountain,
right against the forest fence
by Saint Agnes fountain.

Bring me flesh, and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
when we bear the thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went,
forth they went together
through the rude wind's wild lament
and the bitter weather

Rickkter stopped to listen to the singing. The smile on his face slowly became larger, eventually resembling something of a snarl. On an animal morph with a muzzle such as his, a reaction like that could not be helped. Nor could the swaying of the tip of his tail in time to the music. Great maker, it was good to see some things were the same almost the world over.

Sire, the night is darker now,
and the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer.
Ark my footsteps my good page,
tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
freeze thy blood less coldly.

In his master's step he trod,
where the snow lay dented.
Heat was in the very sod
which the saint had printed.
Therefore, true Followers, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
ye who now will bless the poor
shall yourselves find blessing.

(Song: Good King Wenceslas)

"...So, that night, Alexander of the Northlands loaded up his snow carriage with his Goods and the Goods of his passengers to be; all the young children of the village of Northlanders," Jono was saying. "But then! " he Leaps onto a table and stares up at the ceiling, spreading his paws wide, as if encompassing the world, "the dark and terrifying FOG did come down from the sky! And Nobody Could See! None of the children would make it to their parents for the December holidays!"

A collective Gasp! of shock and horror, and a few small whimpers emanate from the small crowd of children in front of the panther, their eyes riveted on him.

The storyteller's temporary mount is towards the front of the room; he's been using it as a prop fairly often during the story. There's certainly enough torches around so that he doesn't have to put any extra effort into making himself visible to his audience— they being the two score-odd children mostly sprawled on the floor watching him with undivided attention— but the room is a small one, and its construction does not suit storytelling. Jonothan Hand, traveling tavern bard, would have to project his voice a great deal if he were trying to do one of his usual performances for the common people in this room. But he doesn't have to here; the children are enthralled by the story, and don't need the extra persuasion he would have to give adults sipping at their beers. A small room, but a cozy one; kept very well warmed by the heating spells set up over the Keep, unlike the outside.

Jono does not get to tell stories to children often. The only thing he does often with children is wish he had them as an audience. Though it can't easily be discovered from his usual means of business, and you wouldn't know it given his nomadic past lifestyle, Jono has a passion for young ones greater than most mothers.

He loves this to death.

"But why couldn't they see?" one child blurts out, clearly unfamiliar with the concept of fog.

"Ah," Jono says, one paw going back up with a finger extended, so as to show that now we are telling a lesson. "Fog is like blowing dust, or mist, all throughout the air!" - waving his paws through same air - "...and when the fog combines with the snows that get as bad as they are Outside now, you can't see but a few feet in front of your face! And you must see further than that if you wish to know where you're going!" he says, smiling. "If Alexander pushed on ahead, he and the children could fall into a hole in the ice, and be," he lowers his voice to just barely above a whisper; this is a Very Serious Thing, "...frozen to death."

Some of the children give little shivers of fear. Others just smirk, clearly thinking Yeah, they say it's all dangerous, but I know that I would never be caught in that .

"But!" Jono quickly says, so they don't have to dwell on freezing. "But, that was when Alexander remembered Randolph, the Magic Reindeer!" He spreads his paws out in awe. "Randolph, who could make his nose Glow with the brightest of lights, penetrating even the Deepest fog, and thus take Alexander and the children back home safely!"

"What's a reindeer?" asks one puzzled child amid a sea of beaming, hopeful faces.

"A reindeer? Why, a reindeer is a horse of the Northlands; they are the ones who pull along the Northlander's snow carriages for them!" Jono says, smiling all the while. He was asked this question before, when he first mentioned them. He doesn't mind, though; better to answer the question so that the children can keep enjoying the story.

"Oh!" says the now enlightened child, now looking hopeful along with the rest.

"But as you remember, Randolph was not treated well by the other reindeer; he was the only one who knew Magic, and thus was feared by all the other reindeer," Jono says, his voice now dropping low, as if maybe our new hope may not hold out; the children's faces follow. "And yet! Alexander did recognize Randolph's talent as being Necessary and Useful in this desperate time, and so he went over to Randolph, and he asked him a question..." Jono drops his paws to his sides briefly, then brings them back up again. "Now, I need some help for this. Who wants to play Randolph?"

He always does this; it keeps the children involved in the story. Plus, it makes a good indicator of how much they're identifying with the characters, as gets evidenced when nearly every child raises their hand. "Okay... hmmm... You three have gone before," he says to three boys who raise their hands every time; the hands lower in slight disappointment, but only slight - everyone Must get a turn, after all. "And you four, also... you did before... and you... Have you gone before?" he asks one bright-faced young boy who is waving his hand energetically.

The boy shakes his head vigorously. Clearly, he's quite qualified for the role. "Okay, you can come up and be Randolph," Jono tells him, and with that every remaining hand drops down.

The young boy who was picked jumps up to his feet and starts to charge up, then remembers what the kids were told the Last time someone ran, and very slowly walks up to the front of the room, beaming as though he'd just been awarded the riches of the whole of the valley. Jono grins back at him; this is the part he loves the most.

He kneels down to face his now fellow actor. "Now, what's your name?"

"Randolph!" the kid says cheerily.

Jono chuckles. "No, no, what's your real name? The other kids need to know who's being Randolph this time," he says, nodding sagely.

The boy ponders for a moment, then, resuming his cheery demeanor, cries out "Josh!"

Jono grins, turning to the audience. "Okay... Everyone, this is Josh, and he's being Randolph for me for this next dialogue."

There are assorted waves from the children, and a collective "Hi, Josh." Josh beams proudly - he gets to be Randolph! Then Jono says "Okay, it's time," and with this Josh - now Randolph - assumes a serious expression.

Jono - now Alexander - knees down in front of Josh/Randolph and places his hands on Josh/Randolph's shoulders. "Now, Randolph," he begins in an understanding tone. "I know that you haven't had a very good time with the other reindeer; that they don't understand your ability to do Magic, and that they get very scared and jealous of your being able to do so. But," he continues, "I need your help to get the children to their parents tonight, or else we'll be stuck here when the Big Blizzard comes, and nobody will be able to be with family for the December holidays! So," he says pleadingly, "I need to know. Will you use your magic light to guide our way through the Fog and the Snow? PLEASE, will you help us?"

"I will! I will! I will!" Josh/Randolph says, almost bouncing up and down in his excitement to play the part.

"Ha HA! I knew I could count on you!" Jono/Alexander says, lifting Josh/Randolph up by his sides and helping him to Fly through the air! "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Josh, meanwhile, is having the time of his life, putting out his arms and Flying, like the birds and bird morphs! And all the kids are cheering and clapping! The children will be able to make it home! The December Holidays will be celebrated with all the Mommies and Daddies! Everyone is Saved!

Unfortunately, the flight has to end sometime so that Jon can tell the story, and so after one swing he sets Josh - now just Josh - back down, and Josh goes back to his seat. The story is now one of a foregone conclusion, but it has to be told anyways, just to make sure that nothing else happens before Randolph can save the day.

Jono looks up, about to resume this course, then notes that between his thanking Randolph profusely for his assistance and his setting Josh down, he's acquired someone new in the audience. She's leaning against the door and smiling broadly.

There has never been any question whether or not she loves kids as well; Joanne Hunter, traveling herbalist/alchemist and healer visiting from Glen Avery, gray vixen, and longtime companion of Jono, has always had a fondness for the youth of the world. But she's never been as expressive about it as Jono. Of course, he's the showman of the duo; she usually just keeps the operation going. But for her, to see Jono performing for the audience of youngsters, to see the smiles on the faces of All the kids - the one doing the storytelling as well as the ones in the audience - and to know that everyone involved is having the time of their lives; this is what makes it worth all to her. She doesn't need to do any storytelling herself; Jono does more than enough for her.

Jono merely answers her smile with a quick wink - storytelling here, Jo, can't interrupt - and goes back to the story.

"And so, with Randolph at the head of the snow carriage, Alexander did go Forth into the snow and the fog! And it was a Long and Hard journey, even with the magic of Randolph's light, but the children were comforted knowing that Alexander would never let them go to harm."

He pauses briefly, then gives the smile of All Has Just Become Well. "And when they got to the village, their parents Raced out to greet them, to hold them and hug them close, because Mommy and Daddy always care for their kids. And Alexander and Randolph were praised as Heroes of the village for bringing the children home safely, and everyone Cheered at their triumph!" he says, bringing his hands High in joyous celebration! And all the kids cheer once more; the children have made it home finally!

Jono brings his hands back down, gives a simple smile, and gives his traditional story-end. "And thus did it come to pass that Alexander and Randolph saved the December Holidays for the Northlands village, and here this story ends." His paws drop completely to his sides, to end.

Applause emerges from the doorway. Not just Joanne, but several of the parents have also come by to witness the end of the story. Jono smiles, nods in acknowledgment to them, then turns back to his soon to be dispersed audience. "Okay, everybody, parents are here, so everyone has to Get Up and start helping out around the house for December Holidays! Have a great day, everyone; I'll see you all again tonight!"

The children for the most part leap up and start heading out the door, chattering excitedly about brave Alexander and talented Randolph, waving good-byes to each other as parents whisk them away to the day's chores, and then it's just Jono and Jo in the room. She walks forward, smiling. "Another successful production, Jono?"

Jono grins, nods almost as enthusiastically as his earlier volunteer. "Certainly. They loved every moment of it."

"One could easily tell," she replies, still smiling. "I take it you've been waiting a long time for the chance to do this again..."

"Ahem, excuse me?" The voice comes not from Jono or Jo, but from someone in the door. A quick glance by Jono identifies him as one of the parents earlier; he's a mouse morph, and clearly a little nervous about this meeting but wanting to get it done. "I just wanted to thank you for looking after Jeremy for us; he can be a perfect terror in the mornings, and we really appreciate your help."

"Glad to be of service," Jono tells him, smiling, and extending a paw. "And you would be?"

"Kevin," the mouse replies, taking the paw after a brief hesitation.

"Good to meet you, Kevin," responds the panther, shaking the paw slowly. "I'm Jonothan, but I go by Jono; this is Joanne, a longtime traveling partner of mine."

"Ahh, nice to meet you both," Kevin says, offering his paw to the vixen, who takes it briefly. "Well, I have to be going now; lots of preparations for the day and all. Again, thank you." He bows his head briefly, then turns and heads off.

The two watch him go, then turn back to each other, both smiling. "So," Jono asks, "what plans did you have for the afternoon...?"

12/24 – noon

The one thing that really struck Rickkter when he opened the door to his apartment was the heat. As there had been no fire going when he had left the day before, the place should have been freezing cold. Instead it was pleasantly warm and there was a modest fire going in the hearth. And there was a particular scent in the air that made him smile slightly. “Hello, Kayla?”

A black and white head poked its way over the top of the couch, the skunk’s whiskers and round, black ears perking up as she smiled. “Welcome back, love.”

Rickkter just shook his head as he began to remove his heavy winter outerwear. He had moved a chair next to the door where he dumped all of the items he used often. “So how long have you been here?” he asked, disposing of his long coat.

“Oh, almost since you left. I spent my time digging through the drawers in your bedroom and the other rooms; I found some fascinating things in the bottom of that large dresser you have.”

Rickkter’s head slowly turned towards her and he was glaring at her from under his brow. Kayla, on the other hand, had raised herself up on her arms and her bushy monochromatic tail was waving behind her. “Oh, don’t worry, Rick, I was only pulling your tail. I just got here a few hours ago and figured you might like some warmth when you arrived back.”

The scarf from around Rickkter’s neck was unwrapped and tossed atop the mound of clothing. “Skipped out early on work just to be here, eh?”

“No, not exactly. The entire office was paid a visit by Phil and his wife, Clover, today. He took her around, introduced everyone, and then kicked the lot of us out. He said that if he didn’t have to work during the holidays, which he was spending with Clover out in Lorland, then he didn’t want any of us being forced to do the same. So now the whole department has until next week off.”

“Well, that was certainly nice of his Highness,” said Rickkter as he took his weapons over to his own personal locker to be stowed. Pressing his palm to the flat plate on the locker door, he opened the iron doors on the vast array of weapons therein. “It means we’ll have a little more time together, at least.”

“Definately an enjoyable bonus. Of course, we’re probably going to spend the next two days or so recovering from Misha’s Christmas party.”

“Yes, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that; when is it?”

“If I remember right, we can start arriving any time after three. It ends when it ends, though from past experience, it’ll probably be close to dawn tomorrow before the die-hards finally stagger off to sleep.”

“That’s what I thought. I’ve heard a few of the horror stories from Kwanzaa and the others already.” He grinned devilishly at her. “Sounds to be a very good way for one to spend the holidays; partying themselves into oblivion.”

“And from what I’ve seen of how you party, you’re not going to be in the best of shape tomorrow when we’re supposed to exchange gifts. So what I was thinking is that in some parts of the world, like where I come from, it’s traditional to exchange gifts the night before so that the next day is free for celebration; religious and otherwise. So how about we do it now?”

“Oh? And then what else would we have to unwrap later?”

Kayla leaned forward on her elbows, her eyes half closed and slowly twitching her bushy tail back and forth behind her head in a most alluring fashion. She stroked her palm back and forth along her lower jaw. “Um, I can think of a few things,” she said in a silky burr.

Rickkter’s eye ridges and ears perked up and his tail took on a very pronounced swishing motion. Before he leaned over, reaching into the lower portion of his weapons locker, Kayla could clearly hear the loud murr of interest that came from deep within his throat. In return Kayla’s smile grew and her tail lashed around faster behind her when she saw the plainly wrapped brown package he withdrew. Walking up to the skunk, the gift stowed behind his back, Rickkter placed a paw on the wonderfully soft white fur at her throat and held her head steady as he leaned down and kissed her. A soft pirr spread up Rick’s paw as their tongues played over the sharp teeth in each other’s mouth. Rickkter eventually broke it off, his hand sliding to the back of her neck. “Um, well. That was definitely worth the wait.” He ran his hand up and around and away as he walked around the couch before plopping down next to the lovely skunk. “So is that all of my present?”

“Not entirely.” Kayla leaned over and withdrew a thick, wrapped package from under the couch. “I managed to pick up a little something for you as well. Let’s hope you don’t have this one.” Rickkter could immediately tell from the weight and size that it was a book and said so. “And as you know, it’s not the fact that you know what a package contains that’s important, it’s the nature of those contents.”

“Very true,” Rickkter snickered, his dexterous fingers working at the string wrapping. He made quick work of it, revealing a modest tome bound in smooth, black leather. He carefully lifted it from the wrapping and turned to the title page. A very, very pleased smile slowly spread on his face. “Where did you get this? I’ve been after a new copy of Urgundum for some time now.”

“Believe it or not, Zhypar.”

Rickkter gave her an incredulous look before throwing his head back and barking a laugh. He shook his head, his eyes rolled back.

“I encountered him in the little shop in town,” Kayla continued to explain, “and he offered his help with selecting something. He said he knew you were looking for that tome, that he even volunteered to make you a copy, but you never came to see him over it. So he gave it to me at a modest cost.”

Rickkter’s gaze was suspicious. “How much?”

“Ten coppers.”

Rickkter threw his head back in laughter once more, albeit this time it seemed he was highly amused as opposed to his previous disdain. Bringing his head down, he gazed upon the book once more and muttered something about devious kangaroos. Then he leaned over and imparted a quick lick on Kayla’s forehead, swiping the length of the white strip there. “Thank you, love. Don’t think I could have asked for anything more.”

“Well, that’s good. I’ve never bought anything for a mage before.” She straightened up and patted the parcel on her lap. “Now let’s see what you bought me.”

“Well, I hope you like it,” said Rickkter as he slid up close next to her. “I’ve never purchased anything for a skunk before. So difficult to buy for, you know.”

Kayla just giggled as she managed to get the bow off and cover open. She paused when she saw what was inside. “Oh, Rickkter. What is this?”

“Something I though the two of us could use together,” he whispered. Rickkter had leaned an arm over the back of the couch and had his head cocked back in preparation for a sensitive attack on Kayla’s neck. “I remember how much you like me brushing that long fur of yours, so what better gift than this?”

The grooming kit was quite complete, Kayla reflected, the brushes and combs it contained being some of the finest she’d ever seen; their handles were made of what appeared to be silver, the pig’s hair was tightly secured and was as varied in grain as the different brushes. Some were wide and flat for areas such as backs and tails, others were smaller and of softer grain for regions of shorter fur such as face and arms. By this time Rickkter was nipping and nuzzling at her neck, making a few deep murrs and other sounds of raccoon enjoyment. Kayla leaned into the nuzzling, purring herself a little, fighting valiantly to keep her waning concentration focused on the contents of the box. “My god, Rick, these are too much. I don’t think I’ve ever received something this extravagant in a long time. Or this... personal.”

“Like I said, you deserve it,” Rickkter reiterated, momentarily breaking off. “I figure that we can try them out tonight.” He started placing small kisses and licks on her neck once more, working his way slowly down and around to her front. “I want to take you, get you out of this dress, lay you down on that bed in there, and spend about an hour massaging every inch of your body. Those brushes weren’t the only things I picked up; I have a small stash of massage oils that are supposed to be good for both our species. After that,” he stopped his little advances and looked her right in the face, “then we’ll find out how well those brushes work. I intend to brush that lovely fur of yours until it shines. We’ll see where it goes from there.”

Kayla reached up, her fingers running through the thick fur at his cheeks, and pulled him into a passionate kiss. “Somehow, I don’t think so,” she admitted after backing off. “You were out on that patrol for over a day now; I’d hate to think of the condition your fur is in under that tunic after all that.” She pulled away from his embrace and walked around behind him, though his head turned to follow her movements.

“What are you doing?”

“Just something special for the man I love. These are mine now, after all, and I can use them any way I want to. And I want to do this for you.”

Rickkter’s hand snaked up and caught hers, holding it gently by the wrist. “I would rather you didn’t. I’ve wanted to use those on you for almost two weeks now. I just want to try and show you how special you really are to me.”

The skunk gazed down at the raccoon on the couch where his paw gently held hers, the man who meant so much to her. Reaching out with her free hand, she drew it over his head and circled one ear, rubbing it gently as she knew he loved so much. “Oh, okay, love. You don’t want me to, I won’t. But you still do look a fright. Sure you don’t want some brushing?”

“Never said I didn’t. You know where I keep my own brushes.”

“What am I now? Your slave?”

“No, you’re just the one standing up.”

Kayla whacked him lightly with the flat of the silver brush, but she complied anyway. Within a few minutes, Rickkter’s tunic was thrown to the side and he was relaxing under the tender ministrations of the female skunk standing behind him. Upon her return, Rick had managed to convince her to add a massage to what she was doing. She did complain when she first heard the idea, but then he reminded her of what was to come. While grudgingly at first, Kayla did come around. Rickkter had known her annoyed attitude and exaggerated huffing were all an act and was now sitting there enjoying himself.

“I can’t believe the knots in these,” complained Kayla as she worked her thumbs around the muscles just below his shoulders. “How do you keep doing this?”

Rickkter groaned deeply, his head tilting back until it was resting on his shoulders. “I have no idea. I’m just glad you’re here to help with that. Those have been aching all day.”

“Yes, you should be glad. Not many people I know would want to handle a raccoon like this,” said Kayla as she shifted her hands higher, kneading the excess skin around his scruff and enjoying the wonderful feel of the soft fur there.

“Why wouldn’t I be glad?” he murmured. “I love you.”

12/24 – 1:30pm

It was nearing one-thirty, according to the clock on Rickkter’s mantle, by the time they were ready to go. Kayla had spent the better part of an hour and a half loosening his muscles and straightening his fur. She had then spent over forty minutes fussing over his wardrobe. She could honestly never understand how some men could care so little about how they looked. But while he complained and bitched and moaned, Rickkter eventually did concede to letting her pick his attire for the evening.

Now he was dressed in a black surcoat over a deep purple doublet. The surcoat had runes and magical symbols sewn onto the cuffs and collar with a golden-copper thread. While Kayla had asked about their relevance, Rickkter had just smiled and said they were for decoration. Of course the mischievous glint in his deep brown eyes told it otherwise. The rest of his outfit was a white shirt under the doublet, ruffled at the neck, and black pants. It was simple, elegant, with as few adornments as possible. Just how Rick liked it.

Currently the two were heading for a stair well. The tower that Rick resided in was not the same as the one closest to where the Long House was adjacent to, so they needed to cross over on a connecting causeway to it. True they could have gone down and through the lower parts of the Keep, but both agreed this was more... scenic.

It was also a little louder. As they were ascending along one of the wide, central staircases, loud, clear laughter drifted up from below them. Rickkter recognized it immediately and left Kayla’s side to lean over the side. “Hey Cope! How’s it going?”

“Arg, Rickkter! What are you doing up there, you masked bandit, you?”

“Just off to one of Misha’s parties at the Long House right now.”

“Long house?” the lizard’s voice echoed off the stone walls. “You’re going the wrong way then!”

“This is Metamor Keep!” Rickkter shot back. “You can stand in one spot and get to where you want to eventually. And as for you, why aren’t you busy at the pool hall hustling all the new visitors?”

The response made Kayla blush and Rickkter laugh. While Copernicus and the raccoon traded barbs over the railing, Kayla wandered up a few steps to the next level part of the stairwell and over to an unshuttered window to admire the snow. Apparently they had moved to a side facing south, away from the brunt of the storm. Folding her arms over her chest, she lost herself in the cold beauty of the world beyond. From their current height, perhaps a third of the way up the central tower of Metamor, the blizzard did have some beauty to it. The way the snow swirled about beyond the glass, the light scraping it made when it blew against the window, did have a enchanting quality to it. If one looked hard enough, she reflected, they could almost pick out patterns in the random flurries.

The echo of Rickkter’s harsh, barking laugh broke her reverie. Grinning out of one side of her muzzle, she shook both her head and her tail. Over the last few months she’d grown to know that sound to mean that Rickkter was finished whatever little contest he was involved in and would soon be coming so they could continue to Misha’s. Lowering her hands so that they were clasped at her waist, Kayla fluffed her tail out behind her and turned half around to wait for him.

“Ha ha, I’ll see you around sometime, you old handbag,” crowed the mage down to the lizard a story below. He laughed some more at whatever Cope did in response then waved him off and turned to face Kayla. The smile that had been on his face abruptly slid off and he almost stopped dead in his tracks. Kayla cocked her head to one side and tilted one of her ears over in puzzlement.

He walked up to her slowly, his tail slowly brushing the backs of his legs as it swayed. When he was a step below her, he reached out, gathering both his paws in hers. Using his thumbs, he rubbed her knuckles in gentle circles, feeling the skin moving under its covering of fur.

“You know,” he began, his eyes never leaving her paws, “I just realized that I haven’t told you how beautiful you look today. And for that I must humbly ask your forgiveness.”

Kayla’s muzzle rose slightly in an embarrassed smile and her tail tried to work its way between her legs. “Oh, Rick. It’s not that serious,” she said, giving his paws a squeeze.

Rickkter brought her paws to his lips, planting a small kiss upon her black knuckles. Like almost all animal morphs, the pads on her palms were dry and slightly rough, but the fur on the other side was wonderfully soft to his touch. “It is to me, love,” he responded, shifting his grasp so that his paws enclosed hers and bringing both sets upwards as he moved to stand on the same level as the skunk. “In all the time I’ve known you, I can’t say when I’ve seen you look more beautiful than now.” Leaning forward, he gave her muzzle a small lick of his tongue. She quickly angled her head and turned it into a kiss.

The outfit that she had on was indeed striking. She was attired in a dress of deep blue, the material thick and warm in the cold weather. Outlines of white brocade were stitched at her wrists and around the bust and neckline. Kayla’s breasts were not large, but the dress worked to accentuate them. The run of white fur from her chin downwards could be clearly seen, as well as the black fur just at the edges of the dress. The back was also cut low, running down to just below her shoulders to reveal the dual white stripes that cascaded over jet black. Around her neck, visible as a thin, shining yellow line against the ivory and jet of her fur, was the gold chain of the pendant Rickkter had crafted for her many months earlier. The only other jewelry she had on was the leather bracelet with its metal disk and sunburst pattern she had received from Rickkter during the summer solstice festival. But the way the dim sun had hit her from behind, illuminating her shining white fur and deep, seductive black, Rickkter had been right: It was inexcusable for him not to have made mention before. Especially considering his feelings.

“Thank you, my love,” Kayla said in a soft tone after they had broken the kiss. She freed one paw for the tangle and brought it up to gently rub the cheek of the raccoon she loved. “I really don’t know of anything else to say to that.”

Rubbing and sliding his head along his fingers, Rickkter smiled down at her. “That first part contained all that is important to me.” He smiled along with her, leaving his head in her tender grasp several moments longer before withdrawing it. “Now come on. We’ve still got to find that crazy fox and his wild party before it’s all over.”

Kayla chuckled; the sound heavily tinged with a skunk’s burr, as she slid an arm around his waist and felt his own do likewise. “In that case I hope the food there is good. We’d die of starvation before having wandered around long enough to miss one of Misha’s parties.”

Rickkter just laughed and playfully batted the end of his tail against the hem of her dress as they started off once more. It was several levels until they reached one that was on the causeway to the next tower, the one that would lead them to the Long Hall. It was a sort of round about way to get there, but they were not in any great hurry and took pleasure in the other’s company. Coming off a set of stairs into a main corridor, the couple was almost trampled by a pair of rambunctious kids; yelling, screaming, and running down the halls totally heedless of anyone else but themselves.

“You know, I don’t think I can recall the Keep being this crowded in a very long time,” Kayla said as she settled her tail after the initial fright caused by the kids. “Of course what with the weather out there, most people would be intent on staying inside.”

“This is a time of families as well,” Rick remarked to her as they watched the retreating form of the two kids. His walk held a bit of a swagger, but it only gave him an excuse for Kayla to hold on tighter. “It seems like almost everyone is spending it with their families. Bender and Moorly are gone with theirs; the lighthouse up on the hill is where basically all the Hipoccians are; even Saroth, Electra, and Sean are off at Magdalain Island. Or they should be by now, as it’s been almost a week since I saw them leave.”

“And where does that leave us?” asked Kayla, giving Rickkter’s waist a quick squeeze.

Leaning over, the raccoon imparted a quick nuzzle. She leaned into it, smiling at the deep murr that her love made as she did so. “We have each other and we have our friends,” said Rickkter. “What more do we need, really?”

“I suppose you’re right,” she conceded in a contented burr.

“Whoop, hold on there,” said Rick as he came to a stop, jerking Kayla back with him. The skunk murrfled at her raccoon love before leaning across him to see what he was looking at.

“YYEEAAGGGHH!!!” came the bellow of the rhinoceros as he stampeded by the couple and heaved a small body onto an expanse of thickly packed straw. The smaller body cried out as well, as it was propelled through the air.

“Dwarf tossing, Shamgar?” Rick asked.

The rhino looked back and panted. “Aye! Though more like AR tossing. I’m hoping to retain my title!” The judge called out the distance the now slightly dazed Keeper had flown and Shamgar smiled. “Looks like I’m doing a good job of it so far!”

Both Rickkter and Kayla politely chuckled and continued on their way to the party. “Ah, Christmas. Some things never seem to change, no matter where you go.” Kayla churred at him in a tone he had learned was one way of her asking a question. “I saw that in the town of Ingersoll several years back. It always amazed me that they considered it festive.”

The signs of the season kept greeting the pair of well-dressed animal morphs as they continued to walk the halls. Kayla often had them stop for a few moments to admire some of the pine bough and holly arrangements as well as listen to the singing of the small choirs, often poorer families from the town, that traveled around the Keep itself in the days before Christmas singing carols in the hope of a few coins as the wind howled impotently outside the windows. Rick was often kind enough to oblige them with a bronze or two and the occasional silver. It took longer than either expected to reach their final destination, though neither one really complained, not after all the festive sights they had seen.

For once Rickkter was not forced to explain his presence to the Long House guard. There was only one guard, and it was quite apparent he was a simple youth who had the bad luck of the draw when it came to duty assignments. He had on chain mail armor and a tunic bearing the red stallion on black field that was Lord Thomas’ personal emblem, the edge of which he was fidgeting with. There was a short sword at his hip and a shield leaning against the wall. The llama looked up at Rick and Kayla when they walked by.

“Pardon me, do you have the time?” the young soldier asked.

“Um, should be about quarter after three by now,” Rickkter told him, stopping a moment.

The llama nodded before thanking him and returning to his fidgeting.

“Waiting for your duty to end so you can join your friends in the celebrating, aren’t you?” Rickkter guessed with a wry smile.

Snorting, the llama lowered his head in embarrassment. “Aye, sir. First Christmas as a soldier, and this time the other guys in my squad all planned a celebration at the Mule. And I was the only one with bad enough luck to get called to guard duty.”

“Well, at least you’re in here, where it’s warm, and not outside freezing your ears off on the walls,” Kayla offered.

The guard smiled at the mephit and nodded. “I suppose, ma’am, but I’d much rather be guarding this place from the inside,” he said, inclining his head towards the open doors of the Long House. The two party guests chuckled before bidding the young soldier well and heading on inside.

Upon emerging from the anteroom of the Long House’s single entrance, both were struck by the spectacular transformation the place had undergone. Where before it was open with rather austere décor it was now awash in color and gaiety. The uncluttered flagstone flooring was crowded with celebrating Keepers of every sort, the walls clustered with chairs, stools, benches, and whatever else that could be procured for the throngs. There were the ever-present pine boughs and holly clusters flanking the old tapestries. Decorative candles were in abundance, adding a certain air and unique fragrance to the otherwise torch lit interior of the Long House. At one end there was a band of four keepers playing for others on a makeshift dance floor. Along one entire wall there were tables bedecked with all manner of food and desserts, flanked by a pair of bars, one for non-alcoholic and the other for alcoholic beverages. Rick could guess which was the latter due to its far larger size. The rest of the free space was filled with milling keepers, all laughing, dancing, or engaged in loud and boisterous conversation.

“Now all we have to do is find that crazy fox who invited us here in the first place.”

The pair soon found their host and hostess at one of the dessert tables, the fox holding and feeding some pasty dusted with icing sugar to the female otter before him, teasingly holding the treat almost higher than her bite could reach. “Not very nice, is that?” commented Rick as he strode up to the pair.

Misha and Caroline looked over at the new arrival, smiles coming to their muzzles immediately. “Rick, Kayla, I’m so glad you two made it,” Misha beamed, the otter echoing his sentiments around the rest of her hard won treat.

“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Rick told him as he stuck out his paw and the fox gave it a strong shake. Misha’s dress did credit to his personality and position, being of fine weave and earthen colors. His doublet was a rich, dark ruby red with a good deal of gold threading in the trim, the shirt under that the color of emeralds and appeared to be made of silk. His pants went with the doublet, though they were of a lighter red. The soft leather shoes on his paws and a very ornate gold dagger on a belt of gold and silver clenched at his waist finished his ensemble.

Caroline, on the other hand, was a figure of striking beauty. She was in a dress that looked to have come from one of the finest tailors in the valley and was bedecked in a multitude of fine jewelry. The dress was a deep, rich blue; not quite navy, but a really deep, sky blue, it had a long hem and long flowing sleeves trimmed with lace. Her small otter ears held a pair of gold hoop earrings and her fingers held a handful of rings, all most likely crafted by her father. The last piece of jewelry was a golden broach around her neck, held there by entwining chains of gold and silver. As a couple, her and Misha seemed to radiate beauty and wealth.

“I see I wasn’t the only one who was forced to get dressed up for this fiasco.” Rickkter commented as he flicked at the lapel of Misha’s doublet.

“Well, we ladies can’t have ourselves be led around here by a bunch of disheveled slobs, now can we, Kayla?” Caroline murred humorously. Kayla nodded in agreement, smiling over at her raccoon.

“Oh, it’s not that bad, love,” said Misha as he gave Carol a hug.

“The food sure looked good,” Rick mused. “Is it as fetching as it first appeared?”

“More so,” Caroline informed him. She turned to Misha. “I’m going to get you back for that pastry, you know.”

He only chuckled. “Somehow I don’t doubt it, honey.”

Rickkter echoed his friend’s chuckle and guided his mephit love over to the other side of the first couple.

There was jelly rolls, apple cobbler, peach cobbler, honey cakes, small custard filled pastries lightly sprinkled in icing sugar, various fresh fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and cherries. For the herbivores there were several varieties of salads and other greens. Kayla clapped her hands before her and gave a little squeak of delight at all the food. The other three had a quick chuckle at that before moving up and starting to pick over the sumptuous selection.

They were spread out in a line – Caroline, Misha, Kayla, and Rickkter pulling up the rear – when they were brought up by Rickkter’s laughter. They all turned around to see him holding one of the baked chips from a bowl of them, its end holding a small amount of brownish paste.

“Beeeaann dip,” pronounced the raccoon before snapping off the paste covered end. He had a wide grin upon his face as he chewed, his eyes dancing with mirth.

“What about it?” asked Misha, one ear flicking about.

“Oh, nothing. Just that I heard that you and Laura Calamar were... connoisseurs of this stuff, and that I should ask you if I wanted an interesting tale about it, I’d ask you.”

The look on the red fox’s face was one of almost pure murder. “Don’t even go there Rick.”

The raccoon, on the other hand, was still smiling and nibbling on various snacks and swished his long tail about. “Oh, come on, Misha! You can consider that my gift for the year. How about that?”

Misha continued to glare. He lifted one finger, pointed it right at his friend and said, plainly and simply, “No.” Then he turned around and started off.

“Oh, come on, Misha!”


“Come on.”


“Come on. Please?”


“Well, are you positive about that?”

Until that time, Rickkter didn’t know foxes could growl that loud.

“Okay, was only making sure.”

They found a good spot next to one of the larger hearths that kept the fierce winter chill from the room, each couple taking a place close to their respective mates. Fortunately the food, wine and conversation soon had Misha back in good spirits. Rickkter finished first of the four of them. Picking up his cup of wine from where he had set it on the mantle, he lounged back against the wall and looked out over the hall full of people, children, and animals, all of them having a very loud and probably very good time, feeling the wine warm his belly.

“You know, I love this,” said Rickkter as he leaned over a little and draped an arm around Kayla. She was licking a little errant filling from her fingers. “I have everything I could want. Good food, good drink, good friends,” he said gesturing with his stein at Misha and Carol, “and most important of all,” he said, his gaze meeting that of the skunk under his arm, “warmth,” he concluded, turning away and pointing with his drink at the fire place.

Needless to say, everyone within earshot burst out laughing.

“Oh, warmth, is it now?” burred Kayla as she slipped out from under his arm and around to his front, grasping the lapels of his doublet. “Well, you just wait until we get back to your place, then I’ll show you some real warmth.”

The crowd roared with lusty approval as she leaned up to give him a kiss.

“I apologize, but I must take my leave of you, Rick,” commented Misha as he looked across the Long Hall in the direction they had come. “Carol, honey, shall we get ourselves some more desserts before some of the other guests start to notice them?”

Carol saw where he was looking, and the rat there. She knew, too, his reason for wanting to return to the table. “Sounds good to me, love. I remember seeing a few things I couldn’t carry myself last time.”

“Then we’ll catch you two later,” said Rickkter as he gave Kayla’s shoulder a squeeze. “I want to mingle a little, see who else is here yet.”

The two waved off the other couple then looked around and surveyed the room, Kayla following his gaze. “Looking for anyone in particular, love?” she asked.

“Just a friend or two,” Rick commented as he finished his drink. “How about you? Who are you going off to see?”

Kayla cocked an ear back. “Oh? Getting tired of me already, are you?”

Rickkter turned back to her with a smirk then ran the side of his muzzle across the top of her head in a quick nuzzle. “No, I don’t think I ever could, especially not that easily. I just want to see my friends, and what we would talk about would probably bore you to death. Same that you and your friends would do for me.”

“Rather, I believe you want to talk about women, and all the nasty things you do with them.” Before he could object, Kayla reached up and tapped his nose. “I know how you soldier types are. Since today is special, I’ll let you have your little fun,” she said with a smirk as she headed off into the crowd, her lush tail swinging around her legs.

Rickkter laughed, shaking his head as he watched her go. Gods, he loved everything about her, from her personality and sense of humor right down to her looks. So what if some stopped when they saw her mephit nature? He had looked beyond that and found something far more beautiful. When he turned around, Rick was brought up short, looking into a deep, auburn red visage of himself.

“Great Maker, Kershaw! You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that. You’ll frighten them to death.”

“Hey, I’m a Long and that’s what I do,” the red panda explained. He extended one of his two full mazers to Rick. “For you, my friend.”

Rickkter accepted, toasting his friend before drinking. The ale was of excellent quality, chilled to just the right temperature. The raccoon paused to savor it before taking a second long draught.

“I see you came with someone quite lovely today,” Kershaw observed.

Rickkter murriffed then lifted his gaze from the ale to look where the red panda was. He immediately saw Kayla talking with Jenn, the wife of Misha’s friend Andre. “You’re right and I’m glad you think so. Though you should really tell her that, might do her some good.”

“Oh, I probably will,” said Kershaw, and flicked his tail. “Assuming that would be fine with you.”

Lowering his mazer from his lips, Rickkter nodded and wiped his muzzle with the back of his paw. “Sure, of course. I want her to have a good time here. This is her first real party in ages, and I know she’s been looking forward to it.” His whiskers on one side of his muzzle rose as he smirked. “Despite some of the more... colorful things we’ve heard about Misha’s parties.”

“Such as?”

A large smile came to Rickkter’s face as he said, “Bean dip.”

Kershaw groaned loudly, looking away and rolling his eyes back. “Don’t even go there, Rick.”

“What? You’re not going to tell me either?”

“No, I’m not.” He drank deeply of his ale. “Misha has standing orders; no Long is to divulge what happened then. You want to know about it, you ask him.”

The raccoon was still smiling. “Sure about that, Kershaw? Come on.”

“Rick, no. I mean it.”

“Oh, okay,” conceded the mage with a deep chuckle. He looked at his friend, seeing that the red panda was wearing a deep black surcoat, gold stitching, and semiprecious stones on the cuffs and buttons along the front. To his waist was belted a six inch dagger with gold hilt and an eight sided ruby the size of an eyeball on the top. Rick could see that his fur had been thoroughly brushed and cleaned, lending Kershaw an appearance more affluent than even Misha’s. “So who did you come with that you had to get so dressed up?”

Kershaw turned and pointed to a gray furred Persian cat who was the center of a gaggle of other females. She clearly stood out amongst her peers, bedecked in a wealth of fine gold necklaces and bracelets. Her white dress had pearls sewn onto its design, the soft white a striking contrast to Kershaw’s darker hues. The trim was white dusted with garnet and black and the entire gown was of superior cut to Caroline’s. The feline stood out in the crowd of Keepers quite starkly. “That is Elizabeth Pudelick, daughter of one of the wealthier money lenders in town.”

Rickkter ah’ed knowingly, smiling as he nodded. “Yes, that makes sense. She’s a very lovely one, there. But tell me, how did you come to be with a noble?”

“By being the youngest son of one of the aristocratic families near Ellingham.”

“Really!” Rick exclaimed, his eye ridges going up. “Why are you not with them now?”

“There is a mutual understanding amongst us; as long as we don’t see each other, things are kept happy.” He drank a mouthful of ale. “It’s a very long story.”

Rickkter nodded as he looked over the crowd. The sight of a particular someone caused him to stop his scanning and grin with a most malicious intent. He turned back to the Long and clasped Kershaw on the shoulder. “Well, my friend, I must be off now. I just saw someone I must say hello to. Wish your lovely companion well for me, and thanks again for the ale.”

“Don’t mention it.”

The two clasped paws, nodding and smiling to each other before heading off into the crowd.

“Arag Shuawen!”

Charles cringed at the voice that called his name out across the large hall. The greeting was followed up with a traditional southern blessing of holiday well being. He turned to see Rickkter swaggering over towards him, noting that the Kankoran already had a half-finished drink in hand.

“Arag Shuawen, sir Charles,” reiterated Rickkter as he reached the rat.

“Ah, Rick. I suppose ‘tis no real surprise to see you here.”

“Nor I you. You are a Long after all, so it’s to be expected. But enough idle banter,” said Rickkter as he clasped his mazer, his bushy, striped tail wagging behind him. “I have something to offer you. A gift.”

“And what would that be?” said Charles. The rat was glaring up at the raccoon, his feelings of hate for Rickkter as strong as ever.

“A simple pledge, nothing more. I simply promise that I won’t kill you for the duration of this party. It would put an awful damper on the festivities.”

Charles just glared up at the raccoon, his own contempt clearly written on his features. “Gee. I’m so... flattered by your generosity.”

The raccoon’s cackling laughter caused the rat’s ears to go flat. “Glad you are. And if you’re looking to return the favor, I have just the thing.” He held up his paws, still maintaining a hold on his drink, positioning them so the index fingers were about six inches apart. “It’s a metal tube yea long, and when you press the correct spot, it expands to about six feet. I think you know what I’m talking about. You don’t even have to decorate it, I’ll take it as is. Yes? No?”

Charles had his arms crossed before his chest and was giving Rick a look that could almost kill a man.

“No? Okay, have it your way. I tried to be amiable, don’t forget. Enjoy the holidays then.” With a quick, casual salute of greeting, Rickkter melted back into the crowd, but kept close enough to observe the rat’s behavior.

He had the pleasure of seeing Charles stand there for a few moments fuming, almost shaking in anger, before turning and stalking off. It was most likely to find his betrothed, which was all well and good; she would probably be able to calm him. But to the raccoon, the whole incident was just another small, yet immeasurably pleasurable event in a day that had been going perfect almost from the moment he arrived back. With a satisfied “ah,” he went off to meet more of the other guests attending.

Watching Rickkter from across the hall, Kayla smiled and sipped at a diminutive crystal glass of some fine liquor, the sweet, almost syrupy drink had a distinctive bite that warmed her throat and belly without the burn of more highly distilled liquors. She never realized until that point how much she missed the luxuries she had been accustomed to when she was moneyed. The fine drink, for example, was a treat she had not indulged upon in almost six years.

Lost in her ruminations she did not sense the quiet form standing at her side, likewise watching the crowd. Slightly shorter and more animalistic in his appearance, the young mage Murikeer said nothing for several minutes as he stood nearby, his hands clasped at the small of his back, thick tail swaying lazily behind him. A smile pulled at one corner of his angular muzzle, long white whiskers twitching as he nodded to a passer by.

The equine’s return nod caught her attention as it was directed close by and she turned her head to see whom had captured the reveler’s attention.

“Muri!” She gasped in sudden recognition, mildly startled at his proximity. That her own swaying tail had not touched him was only due to his avoiding it. He chuckled softly and smiled to her, inclining his head slightly in greeting.

“I’m jealous.” He commented as he bowed deeply, flourishing his well groomed tail and one hand before her.

“Jealous, Murikeer?” She asked, her voice light as she offered a curtsy in return. “That’s not something I would have expected you to say. Of whom?”

Muri stood, a smile revealing the white of his teeth as he raised an arm and pointed, “Of him.” He said, his finger picking out Rickkter across the hall as he shared a few comments with Charles. “You look absolutely radiant.”

Kayla beamed brightly, her ears backing as her whiskers flattened against her muzzle with the sudden heat that raced across her face. She felt her tail fluff as it pressed against the back of her dress and she consciously forced it to relax as she looked away for a moment, her eyes settling on Rickkter almost by instinct. She noted that the rat, she knew that they did not get along but not why to any great degree, seemed positively livid. Thinking of angry people she blinked and looked around hastily.

“Where’s Llyn?” she asked quietly, then quaffed the last of her liquor in one swift swallow, gagging momentarily at the sharp, sweet burn that surged down her throat.

Muri’s arm swung lazily around to wave an open hand toward a small cluster of Keepers at the beverage table. She spotted the mink, in rather simple appearing attire, speaking with a tall, Amazonian redhead. “I feel as if I came underdressed.” He chuckled, “She told me that Misha’s parties sometimes got, well, boisterous.”

Kayla tilted her head as she looked back at him, eyebrows arching at his wardrobe. Far from underdressed, his clothing appeared to have cost nearly as much as Misha’s by cut alone, despite being entirely black. He bowed slightly and smiled, the expensive silk shimmering as he held his arms out to either side slightly, “I fear you see an illusion, beautiful. Hidden is far more mundane garb.” The skunk explained as he stood from his bow. As if to illustrate his artifice the black suddenly faded into white, swirling away like a single drop of ink in a bucket of whitewash. Kayla blinked at the sudden change as a cloak fluttered from his shoulders and pooled around his bare feet.

“Very nice, but what if someone touches it?”

“They’ll feel simple cotton, unfortunately. I’ve been working on the touch, but that’s not important here, now.” He smiled, tail waving lazily, causing the illusory cloak to shift and sway as it split over the root of his tail. “I would like to see you later this evening, after the meal. Llyn and I are going to be attending Father Hough’s ceremonies, so she will be changing into her gown once the actual party here has begun.” His gaze wandered over to the small group of scouts conversing with Llyn. She was not dressed out of keeping with the festivities, wearing a long burgundy dress that complimented her soft mahogany fur, but she informed him it was a dress several years old, worn for the first time in almost as much time. It was striking, he had to admit, though appeared rather plain compared to the vibrant wardrobe sported by a gray feline in their midst. The cat was definitely a noble, to be sure, as was the red raccoon that stood at her side.

“Where?” Kayla asked, interrupting his momentarily wandering thoughts.

“In the library. Fox Cutter is hosting a somewhat more subdued celebration for the children, so the library will be open.”

Kayla tittered and nodded, “The library, of course. Would you be anywhere else, hmmm?”

Muri grinned, “Well, there, or in Rickkter’s lab, and I think he might not understand why I’ve hidden things on his shelves.”

Kayla’s eyebrows climbed upon her brow as she cocked her head, “Oh?”

“Most certainly, which is why I’d like to see you there.” He looked up suddenly and smiled, his eyes drawn once again toward Llyn, who was looking about the hall. He stepped back and swirled away rather abruptly, the white of his cloak fanning out behind him and becoming suddenly a rich, shimmering blue, like a fanciful waterfall from one of the tapestries hanging about the walls. He cast a bright smile over his shoulder as he melted into a nearby knot of dancers with a flick of his lushly groomed tail tip.

Kayla shook her head slowly as she saw him emerge from the other side of the dancers and smoothly intercepted Llyn as she stopped to converse with a slender, thickly furred canine of some sort. “Okay,” she mouthed as she turned her attention back toward Rick, only to find Caroline moving toward her with a group of other Keepers, intending to make introductions.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

« Previous Part
Next Part »