Stepping up to Destiny - Part III

By: Charles Matthias & Christian O'Kane

Stretching his arms wide, Charles stared past the opposite set of bleachers, where the sun was beginning to dip behind the western mountains. It had been a long exciting day, and soon, much of the evening entertainment would commence. They had migrated from the central pavilion to all the smaller shops and other contests much of the day, but now, as declared his stomach, it was time to go get something to eat.

Wrapping an arm about Lady Kimberly's shoulder, Charles gazed into her eyes for a moment. The bright oranges and reds of the yonder sky reflected in the deepest black for a moment before she turned her head to meet his. "This has been a wonderful day!" she declared, and Gornul hooted his agreement.

"Yes, it has. Would you care for me to accompany you to the Mule where we might celebrate with food and drink?" Matthias indicated the castle in which they lived, and which housed the Deaf Mule, with one arm. The gentle breeze blew through his light brown fur, ruffling it slightly.

"I would love to!" Kimberly rose to her hind paws, while Gornul hopped onto Charles's shoulders once again. The rat tried to peer up at the blue dragonette who was reclining on top of his head, but of course couldn't quite see that way. His Lady saw them both, and giggled slightly, one paw held before her mouth to hide it.

It was a nice stroll to the Inn, and the three of them gazed up at the dark clouds, and the colored mountains to the east. The last embers of the sun's light painted the skyline like some vast mural or fresco, bathing it in oranges and reds, and towards the far distance, violets and deep blues. Already, the morning star could be seen blinking just overtop a nearby pinion. For the first evening of summer, it was turning out to be a beautiful one.

Just as they left the Festival grounds, and were out of the crowds - though they were much sparser than they had been in the afternoon - Charles spotted a pair of familiar figures chatting in one of the side gardens. Most of the flowers were in full bloom, with neatly trimmed rose bushes to one side, and daffodils and lilies lining the other. Standing amidst them, in close but friendly discussion, were Garigan and Lord Brian Avery.

"Lord Avery!" Charles exclaimed, happy to get the chance to see the squirrel face to face. He was dressed in much nicer clothes than he'd ever seen him wear at the Glen. His family crest was inscribed into the upper left breast of his teal coat, a tree standing between two mountains. The sleeves were lined with silver filigree so delicate that Charles was sure that they would break if he so much as dared to breath upon them. The patterns seemed to be of triangles and circles interwoven together.

"Charles!" Avery declared, crossing the distance between them with an almost agitated gait. "Good to see you again so soon! Garigan here has been telling me a lot about you."

Matthias held out his paw and Brian shook it happily. "It is good to see you again. Let me introduce you to Lady Kimberly." Charles motioned to her, and the squirrel grinned.

"Ah, she is a pretty one! My Lady." Avery bowed floridly, and kissed the back of her hand. Kimberly chuckled, covering her mouth again in delight.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Avery. Charles has been singing your praises and the praises of Glen Avery. It sounds like a lovely place; I would love to visit sometime."

Lord Avery's long grey tail twitched in delight. "We would love to have the both of you down sometime. I should probably have a guestroom made to entertain such noble visitors as yourselves." His eyes then turned to see the blue dragonette perched upon the rat's shoulders. "And, another hero of the Glen! How are you doing, Gornul?"

The image of a dancing and skipping dragon filled their thoughts for a moment, though one whose tail still was sore from the accident earlier in the day. Brian shook his head, trying to stifle a laugh. "You have to keep yourself from getting hurt. What am I supposed to think if every time I see you, you need a Healer?" The levity was clear, and the dragon ducked his head , his face telling all of his mock shame.

"So, why are you at Metamor?" Charles asked, after they had all shared a laugh.

Lord Avery glanced over the top of the rose bushes back towards the Festival. "Duke Thomas invited me this year. It has been a number of years since I've been here though." He cradled a colorful funnel-shaped blossom in one paw. The flower itself was nestled between the rose bushes in an almost deliberate fashion so that it would be noticed. It took Charles a moment to realize what it was since he had not seen one in over six years. "These flower gardens are absolutely gorgeous, whoever maintains them does a marvelous job."

"I'll tell D'Alimonte you said so," Charles murmured as he tried to conjure the name of the plant from the recesses of his mind. He hadn't seen that particular flora since before he'd come to the Keep.

"Pray tell, what is this flower?" Avery held up the pink blossom to his nose, sniffing gently. "I've never seen anything like it. It is beautiful."

Suddenly, he remembered. "Hyacinth. It's found mainly on the Southern border of the Pyralian Kingdoms, and also in the northern extremes of the Southlands. I wonder how Dan managed to get one to grow in this cold climate."

"He probably had it in the Greenhouse," Kimberly suggested, admiring the blossom as well.

"Well, however he managed it, I am impressed." Avery let go of the blossom, and stared back to his friends. Garigan stood near him, his paws crossed over the yellow stripes on his tunic.

"So, are your kids here?" Kimberly asked. "Charles has told me a lot about them as well."

Matthias blushed visibly at the very subtle look she gave him, and then coughed uncomfortably. Lady Kimberly seemed to be able to do that a lot more, though he did genuinely enjoy it. Lord Avery did not fail to notice the surreptitious looks that passed between them, though he did not comment on them. "Ah, well, I am planning on heading back to the Glen tomorrow, and bring them back with me to enjoy the final day of Festivities."

"Why didn't you bring them with you this morning?"

"I wasn't sure if the Festival would be appropriate for them. But now I realize that they might never get the chance again, so I want them to enjoy at least one day of it. Besides, it will do them some good to get out of Glen Avery for a while. They've never seen a real city, and they ought to.

"One day, one of them will watch over the Glen in my place, and they will need to have a good perspective of the world around them. I might as well start their education sometime. And besides, who doesn't enjoy the Festival?"

"Not a soul that I can name!" Charles exclaimed.

"We were on our way to the Deaf Mule to eat, if you two would like to join us," Kimberly invited, her face one of warm welcome.

Lord Avery shook his head. "Duke Thomas has invited me to supper personally, he wants to discuss the state of Glen Avery with me. I would love to accompany you, but am afraid that I cannot. Although I do intend to visit this Mule sometime. The last time I set foot in that establishment was before the curse."

"You will find, I think, that it is much the same as before," Charles said, his whiskers and face once again turned up in a grin.

"I would not be in the least surprised. Lars's place is not very different from when my Father watched over our people." Matthias could not help but notice that Lord Avery had used the word "our" and not "my". That he was thought to be as much a part of Glen Avery as those born and bred there gave him a certain pride. The bright flame of burning pine filled his bones; indeed, every fiber of his self, even the Sondeck which was usually so guarded against other loyalties.

Charles felt his arm wrap protectively about Lady Kimberly's shoulders. "I hope to patronize his establishment on a regular basis."

"Well, considering how much you made him after Mount Nuln, I think Lars would be delighted to hear that," Avery winked mischievously. In that moment, the rat saw that indeed Christopher and Darien were cut from the same mold as their father.

Kimberly gave him an askance look, and gently nudged his side. "Oh? You never told me that!"

Garigan turned about, chuckling lightly. Charles coughed momentarily. "I was buying drinks for Misha, honest!"

"Does Caroline know?" For some reason, whenever Charles saw his beloved with Misha's otter, he knew that the fox and his futures were being planned secretly behind their backs. He saw them whispering, looking in their direction, and giggling softly every now and then. Just as Brightleaf and Matthias had become firm friends, so too had Caroline and Kimberly, though they seemed more like sisters. That look in their eye always made him uncomfortable, like they were trying to imagine him in any number of compromising situations. Of course, understanding the feminine mind was always an impossible task for any male, and Charles was no exception!

"Probably not," the rat admitted, then wished he hadn't. Certainly Caroline would know now, and Misha wouldn't hear the end of it, just as Charles was doomed to a fate of never-ending lectures on the incompatibility of men and ale. If Kimberly ever found out that he had joined in bawdy song at the Glen -- Matthias shuddered at the merest thought of it!

"Try Sassafras tea," Brian advised sagely. "That is how Angela keeps me honest."

"Hmm," she remarked thoughtfully, turning on her heels slightly. "I'll have to try that."

Matthias looked over to the ferret who was barely containing his mirth, one hand over his mouth, the other on his belly. "Garigan, help! They are conspiring against me!" Of course this only sent his pupil into gales of laughter, rolling about on the terrazzo walkway, his fist slapping the marble stonework.

Kimberly patted his paw with her own. "Don't worry, it won't hurt that much."

Staring back into her face, he finally let out his own laughter, and hugged her tightly about the shoulders. "I suppose we should head to the Mule before it gets too crowded. We can see Lord Avery again in a couple of days. You will eat at the Mule on the last day of the celebration?"

"Invariably. Although I suspect that Angela will insist that she make my drink for me."

"That is very good of her," Kimberly added in support.

"Do you women always do that to us innocent males?" Charles asked, a sporting glint in his eye.

"Innocent?" she chirred incredulously, an almost mocking tone to her voice, though, with Garigan still rolling about the gardens in fits of uncontrollable laughter, it was hard for her not to break out into a grin as well. "I hardly would call any of you innocent! Wait till I tell Caroline this one!"

"I think I can wait for that," Matthias winked, tickling one of her sides with his claws.

She batted away his hands, slipping out of his embrace for a moment in surprise. Giving an exasperated sigh, Lady Kimberly inclined her head to Lord Avery respectfully and said, "Well, it was good to meet you. I'm glad to see you haven't corrupted Charles too much! I would very much like to meet Angela, I hope to see her in a couple of days. Sassafras tea sounds like a wonderful idea!"

Brian waved with one paw, even as Garigan slowly got to his foot paws. "I'll be sure to tell her that. Good to meet you at last, and good to see you again Charles. Best of luck in your jousts tomorrow!"

"Thank you very much, my Lord. And safe journey to you and your family." Finally turning about and leaving the gardens, walking back towards the castle itself, he shook his head, and hugged his beloved tightly. "I do love you, but I wish you'd stop trying to get in the way of manly things!"

"Manly things?" She inquired with that same disbelieving tone. "I'll have to fix that." And Charles stood open-mouthed, wanting to reply, but not knowing how in the world he could argue with that statement of such finality! Indeed, Caroline and his sweet rat must have some hidden manuscript somewhere which detailed the remainder of their lives, and all the manly habits that Misha and he were to be broken of.

Before he could say anything else, Kimberly looked over her shoulder back towards the gardens which were positively glowing in the fading twilight. "Lord Avery sure seems to be a nice fellow."

Charles nodded, rejoicing inside that they had gotten off the subject of his vices. "Thomas and Phil have been telling me of their hopes to eliminate the nobility all together. If every noble was like Lord Avery, then there would not be a need as they say."

She snuggled her head against the nook of his shoulder as they walked towards the inviting establishment, heading for the smaller side door as usual. Somebody had placed wreaths of flowers and pine cones in the eaves, and the large weather vane in the shape of a prancing mule atop the tiled roof had been polished to a crisp brass. The main doors opened and closed as patrons went in and out, carrying the sweet aroma of candle-wax, scrumptious meats and breads, as well as the alluring and permeating odor of Donny's many fine ales and meads. He hoped that Kimberly did not choose today to start stripping him of his manly behaviors.

"Is it true that Lord Avery's children were born as squirrels?" Kimberly asked, her face one of simple curiosity.

"Why yes. I've never seen children with such energy as those two." Charles replied casually, not really thinking about it. His stomach was in control at the moment.

"That's wonderful," she smiled slowly, but it seemed that she smiled with her whole body, not just her face. Charles hugged her close, grinning back as they entered the warmth of the Deaf Mule for their evening meal.

Misha was exhausted. He had been up since dawn, and aside from manning the booth for an hour he had spent the whole day training the newest recruits to the Duke's army. Part of his obligations as a Long scout were to impart his knowledge to the rest of the soldiers. So he had spent the whole day teaching the finer points of using a longbow. The next two days would be spent in field craft, showing them how to move quietly in the forests and meadows, how to recognize a trap, and how to spot an ambush. The list was endless. He didn't expect them all to become experts over night, but if even a little knowledge rubbed off it might save their lives someday.

Having spent so much time as a soldier, Misha had learned to cherish the simple pleasures in life. He was particularly fond of being able to have a hot bath anytime he wanted. Misha usually used the public bath, but this solitary one was perfect when he wanted to just relax by himself. It was also a great place for a private meeting.

The room he was in was small but very finely appointed. Gold leaf covered the door and marble and fine tile adorned the walls and floor. Even the benches that lined the walls were of the finest granite and carved with countless figures. A marble tub big enough to fit the largest morph was sunken into the floor. A small copper boiler in the corner of the well-appointed room heated the water. Misha stoked the fire up and undressed as he waited for the water to get hot.

Misha took two baths. The first was to cleanse the body. The second was to cleanse the soul. After he had finished his first bath the water was filthy with dirt and grime. He pulled the plug and let the water drain away, eventually it would wind up in a cistern in the greenhouse. Nothing in the Keep was wasted if they could help it. As the tub filled up again he placed a bottle of wine and a wedge of cheese next to it. Misha slowly slid in to the tub and relaxed. He sipped the wine, unwrapped the cheese and broke off a small piece to nibble on and let the warm water relax him.

There had been so much to think about lately. Things at Metamor Keep were changing and he was having trouble keeping up with them. Finally he put all his troubles out of his mind. Misha closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep.

A quiet sound brought the fox awake with a start. Standing in the doorway was a white rabbit morph. "Hello Phil," Misha said. "How are you doing?"

Phil shifted nervously before answering, "Well enough. And you?"

Meetings with Phil were always interesting. He had acquired more than just the body of a rabbit from the curse. When the change had occurred during the battle of the Three Gates, Phil had been badly burned. His fire-projector had backfired and he took the full blast straight in the face. The memory of a burning man writhing on the ground and screaming in agony was something Misha found hard to forget.

The change had saved his life, but at a cost. Every morph had acquired the instincts of his form but Phil had more than others. He wasn't reduced to an animal, but it did make him act strangely at times. When he was faced with danger he would run away. He wasn't a coward but the instincts made him do it. Misha being a fox, a predator that ate rabbits, made meetings between them harder. Not impossible, just harder. Having something of a reputation as an axe wielding maniac who collected the ears of anybody he killed didn't help much. Still they got along well enough.

"Matthias gave me his answer about joining the Long Scouts. He said yes," Misha commented.

The rabbit nodded. "That's good. He'll be an excellent Long Scout."

Misha nodded his head, "He wasn't as excited as I thought he would be. Matthias had a lot of reservations. I know he had other motives for joining besides helping to protect the keep."

"I'm sure that won't affect his performance," Phil replied.

"I don't think so either. When he makes a choice, Charles tends to back it up completely. He does nothing by measures. Still I'd like to know what those other motives are."

"How will you train him?" the rabbit asked.

"He's in good physical shape but his abilities are unknown to me. So I'll test his skills first," Misha explained. "I'll start with weapons, short sword, short bow, dagger. After that I'll work on his tracking and stealth skills."

"Don't forget the obvious things," Phil suggested.

"Like?" Misha asked.

"Can he swim?" came the question from the rabbit morph.

Misha laughed and shook his head. "Good point. I'm laying in a tub of water and it never even occurred to me. I'll have to add swimming lessons to the list of things to do."

"How long before he's a full Long scout?" Phil asked.

The fox shrugged. "Hard to say. Three, maybe four months. It depends on how well he does in training."

"I see," the herbivore replied.

"Well I think I've soaked long enough," Misha said, and got out of the tub slowly. He had long ago learned not to do anything too suddenly for fear of startling Phil. Once during a meeting Phil had accidentally knocked a cup of hot tea over into Misha's lap. The fox had jumped up and howled in pain. Before either of them knew what had happened Phil was out the door and halfway down the hall. The instincts had kicked in. Misha walked over to the bench where he had left his stuff. He picked up the towel and started drying himself. "Have some wine and cheese Phil. They're really good."

Phil turned his nose up at the cheese but he did pick up the parsley garnish and nibbled it as they talked. "What do you know about Matthias's magic ability?" he asked.

Misha shrugged. "A little. It's definitely some form of force projection. At least that's part of it. He has other abilities that I'm not aware of yet. I've been in contact with my sister Elizabeth. She's turned up some interesting information. She confirms that the group Matthias belonged to is called the Sondecki. It seems to be some small, southern, magic faction. They might be a guild of assassins, but I think there's more to it than that."

The rabbit nodded his head. "I can't picture Matthias as an assassin. How accurate is your sisters information?"

"Elizabeth is a fourth circle Mage of the Order of the Star, the largest mages guild in the northern hemisphere," Misha answered dryly.

"Impressive credentials, Misha."

Misha laughed. "They are, aren't they? She can at least use them to get a good seat in a restaurant."

"Any solid information on southern factions is very hard to come by," the fox commented. "Liz recognized that sword emblem you gave me, the moment I showed it to her. That is definitely a Sondecki symbol. Also Matthias' known abilities closely match what little is known of the Sondecki."

"Where does Rickkter fit into this?" Phil asked.

Misha realized that Phil had subtly changed the subject, and he wondered what the rabbit was hiding. Pushing him wouldn't get Misha any answers. When the rabbit didn't want to talk about something nothing could. "I think the raccoon was a member of a rival faction. I don't have any dependable information on it yet," Misha answered. "My best guess is that they're very small, and very powerful. It's certain the two groups are bitter enemies and have been for centuries."

"A soldier in a shadow war that has been raging for centuries," muttered Phil.

"What did you say?" Misha asked.

"Rickkter told the Duke that one time," was the answer.

"Leave it to Rick to give a vague and confusing answer," the fox commented.

"What are the two groups fighting over?" the rabbit queried.

The Long scout shrugged. "Who knows. The order has been trying to figure out the southern factions for a long time, to no avail. Southern magic is a lot different from our magic. In the north most mages are generalists. Meaning that they don't specialize in any one aspect of magic. Specialists like earth masters or fire wizards are rare. In the south such specialists are the norm. Some of the brands of southern magic are very rare and seen no where else. Plus the southerners seem to delight in secret societies and hidden orders. Unfathomable southern magic and magic users."

"We know for sure that both Rick and Matt have fled their respective factions," Phil commented. "We don't know why, as of yet."

Misha put down the towel and started brushing his long tail. "At least those two have stopped trying to kill each other for the time being."

The rabbit nodded in agreement as he nibbled some parsley. "But they still hate each other. There is no telling when another round of fighting could break out. We need to keep an eye on Garigan too. That's a complication we could do without."

"Agreed," Misha replied.

"Do you think Matthias is trying to start a northern branch of the Sondecki?" Phil asked bluntly.

Misha thought for a moment before answering. "No. Matthias wasn't planning on taking a student. He just happened upon the ferret. It was blind chance that brought Garigan and Matthias together." The fox stopped brushing and looked at his friend. "Phil, what happens if the Sondecki find out about Matt and his student? One thing my sister emphasized is you don't just quit a group like that. When you join, it's for life. A group like the Sondecki could wreck havoc in Metamor. A lot of people would die before we managed to stop them."

"I know. For the moment we have to concentrate on keeping their abilities secret. We also have to keep digging for information on these two groups. With knowledge we can develop countermeasures," came the answer. "At least we can count on Rickkter and Matthias to keep each other's secrets. If one is revealed they both are."

"The image of those two fanatic groups fighting each other here at the Keep really scares me Phil. They could turn Metamor into a battleground," Misha said.

"All too true," Phil answered. "What have you learned about him?" he asked.

"I've learned he is proficient in fighting, tracking and stealth, with some knowledge of history, and alchemy. He uses magic to supplement them all. Rickkter seems to be most proficient in fighting. Mind you, he is a very powerful person. His mix of magic and fighting is rare, but can be deadly if it's done right. From what I've heard from people who've seen him fight, he does know how to use it correctly.

"Rickkter uses magic to supplement his fighting. He's strictly a close quarter fighter and prefers to use his sword. By the way, that katana is a potent magic weapon. He attacks his opponents with what ever they lack. Against fighters he uses magic, and against mages he employs physical force. He seems to excel at finding an opponents weakness and exploiting it."

Phil shifted nervously at the mention of violence and Misha quickly changed the subject. "I want to approach Rickkter during the fair about joining the Long Scouts. If he doesn't want to join the Longs directly, maybe I can talk him into being a detached scout. From what George and Andre have told me, he's happy where he is, doing small patrols, and the occasional strike. We could have him report to you, me or George directly. How does that sound?"

The rabbit stopped nibbling and looked at the fox. "I don't think that's a good idea. I don't trust him."

"I understand that we know nothing about him, that he's hiding some really deep, and dark secrets. And he's one of the most arrogant people I've ever met, but I know we can trust him," Misha answered.

"How do you know we can trust him?" the rabbit asked.

"I don't have any hard evidence. All I have is what my heart tells me. My heart, my soul, tells me we can trust him," came the explanation.

"I'm supposed to trust a complete stranger without any proof, just because your heart tells you they can be trusted?" Phil replied with cold logic.

"Why not?" Misha countered, waving his brush for emphasis. "It's always been enough before. Besides with Rickkter in the Longs I can keep a close eye on him at all times."

Phil didn't answer for a long time, but finally nodded. "You're to keep a very close watch on him at all times."

"Understood," came Misha's answer.

"I certainly hope your faith in Rickkter isn't misplaced. We're taking a very big risk," Phil commented.

"I understand that point very clearly," was the reply. "Oh, did I mention I had an encounter with Oren this morning?" Misha asked, changing the subject.

"No," came the reply. "What happened?"

"Get this one Phil. He walked up to me in the dining room asked to join the Long Scouts," the fox said.

Phil stopped eating and looked at the fox. "Did you approach him about joining the Longs?"

"No, I didn't. And he knew that little patrol we sent him and Gornul on was a test," Misha commented, the surprise evident in his voice.

"Amazing. We need to keep a close eye on that otter. What did you tell him?" The rabbit asked.

"I told him that we needed time to decide, and I promised him an answer before the end of the fair."

The white rabbit nodded. "Have you decided whether to let him join?"

"No I haven't. He's still an unknown to me. At least I know Matthias personally and I understand how he thinks. Oren hasn't been here long enough for me to really judge him. It takes a certain mindset to be a Long," was the carnivore's answer. "Still, his anti-magic nature would be a great help, and he did very well on that patrol."

"I'll leave the decision to you Misha. I trust your judgement," the herbivore said.

Misha chuckled at that comment. "Thanks."

"Anything else to report?" Phil asked.

"No, I think we've covered everything," was the answer from the vulpine.

Phil patted Misha on the shoulder. "Thank you for the parsley and the wine."

"You're welcome." Misha said with a chuckle, and he waved playfully as Phil left the room.

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