The Three Sides of Truth - Part II

By: Charles Matthias & Chris Hoekstra

The rain had added a sharpness to the air, something Rickkter found refreshing. He couldn't remember the last time it had rained at Metamor. But at least the light downpour was a definite relief from the heat of summer. Which was an odd thing for him to consider, as he had spent the better part of his life in climates far more hostile than this one and confined his travels to those lands of warmer climes.

Must be the fur, he reflected as he flicked his tail to one side and sat down on the ledge of one of the covered span between two of the Keep's main towers. Reaching for a bag whose top he had run under his belt, the raccoon opened it and withdrew a handful of cherries. A sweet indulgence during a self-imposed break. He was still organizing the last of the information from Scratch, and Jon was asking about a half dozen scrolls from few months ago. It was very tedious work, but it was work all the same. Unfortunately he wasn't getting paid for any of it. But that was what his work as a regular soldier was for. It didn't pay anywhere near as well as when he was a mercenary, but it was enough, and he still had a lot left over from old times. And there was talk of wiping out a smallish outpost to the north of the valley by the name of Naven...

Rickkter gazed out through the rain over the valley of Metamor and let his mind wander to matters other than business as he bit into the sweet fruit.

He couldn't say how long he had been just sitting there, looking, thinking and eating, but the bag was almost empty when he was started from his revere by a flash of black and white out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to see what it was, he was greeted by a very strange sight.

The envoy consisted of three animal morphs, a hawk, a woman and a very odd looking animal in the centre, all of whom were engaged in animated conversation. Rickkter couldn't place the centre ones form, but he recognized the pearl gray doublet and hose, filigree and light purple cuffs and unicorn crest upon the left breast of the coat. The whole effect of the outfit was rather odd on an animal of light gray fur who had black hands and feet. Rickkter even raised an eyebrow as he noticed what had to be the person's tail bobbing around behind his head.

"Ambassador Yonson?"

The entourage stopped and the centre figure looked at Rickkter and smiled. "I'm surprised you recognized me, Rickkter. I trust things are good with you?"

"Yes, they are." He figured there was no point delaying. "An interesting change, Ambassador. What is it?"

"Ah, this," said Yonson as he gazed down at his own body, "I'm told is that of a lemur. Native to only one island in the south."

"I've heard of those," said Rick, as his eyes roved up and down the ambassador's body, "but I've never seen one before. Interesting."

To a degree Yonson's body was similar to his own, yet still quite different. Yonson's muzzle was less pronounced, and his mask was smaller. That was off set by his large coppery eyes that always seemed to be looking everywhere. The tail was the most unique feature of all, to Rick's mind, being as long again as Yonson was tall. Well, if it wasn't curved over at the top, he might it actually be longer.

"Yes, it is quite an interesting change," the ambassador concurred. He copped Rickkter a grin. "I wonder what it is with the curse transforming southern mages into ring-tailed mammals?"

Rickkter chuckled and shook his head. "If you ask me, its prime underlying criteria for choosing form seems to be a high sense of irony."

The lemur smirked. "Too true." He paused and sniffed at the air, gradually drawing closer to Rickkter. The raccoon could see his nostrils rapidly moving back and forth as he sniffed. "Um, what is that you're eating? If I may ask?"

"These?" inquired Rick holding up one of the dark red sphere. "Cherries. They're in season now. I wanted something sweet, and these got my attention down in the market."

The ambassador was licking his short muzzle and making nervous motions towards the fruit with his paw. "Um... may I?"

Rick shrugged. "Sure," he said, rolling the cherry along his index finger and flipping it at Yonson. The lemur snatched it out of the air with both hands and greedily sunk his teeth into the juicy meat of the fruit. Rick minded him to be careful of the pit.

"Um, that was quite good," commented Yonson as he finished his morsel. Swallowing the last of it, he added "I'll have to get some myself. I seem to have quite a craving for fruit of late."

"Most likely it's your form taking over. I still get the odd hankering."

"Well, I have to admit that those were good. I've never had them before."

"They're more native to this climate," said Rickkter as he bit in half another of his own.

"I must secure a few of these delectable treats for my larder," Yonson mused, a grin crossing his muzzle, the tan fur stained from the juices.

The raccoon continued to regard Yonson oddly for a few more moments. "I thought you might." He sucked off a bit of the cherry that was still clinging to the pit then spit it over the ledge.

"Aren't you afraid of hitting someone?" asked the hawk in his raspy voice.

"Not really," said Rick as he gazed over the ledge. "Anyone with any sense is inside or under cover right now, so I don't worry." He looked up and at the rain falling over the valley. "Truly miserable weather. But you could always do something about that, Ambassador," he added with a smirk that set the whiskers on one side of his face on end.

Yonson favoured him with an amused grin, the sides of his muzzle pulling back towards his masked brow. "Oh I am certain that I could, but what if it summons an even worse storm only a week later? Or perhaps blizzards throughout all winter. Maybe even a drought. I've only been here at the keep a scant two months. I've not observed the local weather long enough to even begin to attempt a casting of that magnitude.

"Normal procedure for my kind stipulates at least one year of observation before even a simple cantrip is cast. My kind is very careful about such things, for the weather is always in flux, and every beat of a bird's wings changes something."

Rick stopped him before he could go any further, laughing pleasantly. "That was a bit more than I needed to know. But thank you for the stimulating conversation anyway."

"I apologize for my exuberance," Yonson's tail waggled in an almost hypnotic fashion for a moment, and then he looked past the raccoon to the sky. "I must be going. I have a few appointments that I cannot cancel or postpone."

"I shall see you another time then." Rickkter gave the Ambassador a side-long grin. "Perhaps we might have a rematch sometime."

"Perhaps," Yonson replied as he made his way across the parapet.

"But this time, no staffs!" the raccoon called after his departing companion.

The lemur chuckled once more and then left Rickkter to his own throughs. Giving the bag a little shake and seeing how few of his snacks were left, he returned to his thoughts. But he soon found those drifting back to the other southern-mage. During his years of experience facing forces from many different lands, Rickkter had slipped into the habit of war-gaming situations from opponent's points of view, working out the scenario based on what he would do in their shoes. And as he automatically started doing that for Yonson, he didn't like some of the conclusions that came to mind.

Yonson seemed to be playing the same game of hiding his past magical allegiances that Rick was. But Rick knew his reasons for doing so very well. He was from a diverse enclave, one that contained mages of all the different castes. It was the only place where those few of his profession resided, as their purpose was the countering of the other clans. Yonson was apparently from an enclave dedicated to weather, and from the match they had concluded a few months ago, he was quite well trained. Another puzzling fact.

Rickkter's own ascension to the rank of black was one of unique circumstance. The Kankoran had already trained him very well in the arts of fighting and he had been able to pick up the rudiments of magic from a few endowed with that ability that his sect dealt with. Which is what caught the eye of the leader of the Ebon Dragons, another fateful occurrence.

Yet Yonson's own rank of purple was one below Rickkter's and he had managed to defeat the Battlelord in single combat, a task not easily accomplished. Slowly sucking the juices from another cherry, he drew two conclusions; one was that Yonson possessed more power than he led on; second, if the former was true, there was no reason why he shouldn't have ascended to black and still been with his enclave. Most mystifying. That staff was the really puzzling thing, as weapons of that quality were reserved for the more senior wizards. True, there were several ways he could have come across it, but Rickkter still didn't like any of them.

The last question about the Weathermonger's past that nagged him was the alignment of Yonson's former order. Being weather, it was impossible to say. There were more than a few of them around. Yet it still bothered the raccoon. If he was noble, there was no reason for the rat to fear him as much as he did. The noble orders were pretty much bedmates with the Sondeckis. Same for if he was noble-neutral or pure neutral. Neutral enclaves just didn't really care about the affairs of others as long as their own goals could be accomplished and they were often relatively harmless. The last alternative was a dark or dark-neutral alignment. Given that, Rickkter wouldn't have to worry much while it would only serve to further compound Matthias' fears. For centuries, Ebon had been one of the mightier of those enclaves, though it preferred to keep its affairs to itself to a great extent. Less chance of Sondeckis involvement that way.

But the speculation was not much good to Rickkter here. He hadn't spent much time in the actual southlands in many years, confining his interests to the lands on the south-east end of this continent. He hadn't directly witnessed the political situation since he left, and things could have changed.

He grimaced as he spit the pit over the ledge.

Actually, there was little chance of that. Things had remained pretty static for well over two thousand years, despite the efforts of the Kankoran during the last millennium. Rick had a few fleeting thoughts about contacting old friends, but there was no chance of that. Instead he focussed his thoughts on remembering the weather orders that were situated around Marzac, trying to reason out which of them would make such an alliance with the famed cursed chateau.

There wasn't a lot of choice in the matter. There were only about six or so weather factions to begin with, half of them being noble, one neutral, and the other two dark. The neutral one was on the tip of the south western peninsula, so it was out. Of the darks, one resided near Marzac and the last, The Windriders resided near Rick's old enclave on the eastern shores. And one of the nobles was in the middle of the north coast. So he had two nobles and a dark to choose from. The dark one Kyocera's Defenders would be a very likely candidate, as it would definitely desire an ally as it had to defend against two nobles. The nobles both made equally unlikely candidates, as Rick had remembered them both being very stable and quite close to the Sondeckis. And that was when a splash of moving gray and brown coming towards him broke his train of thought.

"Speak the devil's name, and so shall he appear."

The 'devil' stopped in his tracks and turned around. "What?"

The perplexed expression on the ferret's face was enough to illicit a satisfied chuckle from the raccoon. "Hello Garigan."

"Unusually cordial for you, isn't it?" replied Garigan as he took up a slightly defensive posture on the other side of the walkway. "From what I've learned about you, I wouldn't expect such civility. I've never known any mercenary to have much of it."

"Oh, your words wound me, good sir," said Rick, doing his mock imitation of some pampered noble, clutching a paw to his chest. "Tell me, do you think you're better than me?" Rick asked, abruptly switching to a lighter tone as his ears perked up and he dropped the paw. "Do you think that because you were born into a kingdom and permitted to enlist in an army, that somehow means you are better than I? Is it my fault that I had no king to serve, came from no land with an Emperor to employ my services in such a fashion, and that I even lack even a family name from which to draw on? Are you any better because you've killed for god and king, while I've done the same just to keep myself alive with food in my belly?"

"Well, I... uh... no," stammered Garigan. He was still coming down from the feeling of high that the Song of the Sondeck had put in him. Between that feeling, what Charles had told him afterwards about the Sondeck, and Rick's surprise conversation, he was quite unprepared to deal with the raccoon.

"And you shouldn't be," affirmed Rick as he leaned back and ate another cherry. "It does not befit a novice of your rank to presume such things."

"I wouldn't say that it's presumption." Garigan took up a position well away from the raccoon and crossed in arms over his chest. "I know more about you than you might imagine." Rickkter's white-fringed ears perked up some and turned towards the ferret, though the rest of the 'coon showed no interest. "Charles has told me enough of your old sect for me to understand how heinous all Kankoran are."

"Ah, the Kankoran," hissed Rickkter, drawing out the n at the end.

"Yes, them. You exist in secret, you kill from the shadows, and you never engage in direct confrontation unless backed by some powerful magic order." Garigan couldn't resist letting a sneer come to his lips as he looked down at the 'coon. "The Sondeckis are fair and honourable, you are all cowards."

If the words bothered Rick, it didn't really show until he turned his eyes to Garigan. They were narrow, dark brown slits residing within his black mask. "From a Sockecki, that is bold talk. From a Sondecki who is of the mere rank of yellow directed towards his enemy of far higher rank, they are utterly foolhardy and suicidal." But then Rick's gaze softened and he returned to his snack and to looking out over the valley. "Of course I could hardly expect more from one as ignorant of the truth as you are."

"As I said, I know more about the structure of the southlands than you might imagine. Charles has been giving me lessons there, as well as how to use my magic. I know how you live in the shadows, preying on the weak. I know how you ally yourselves with dark and corrupt enclaves in an attempt to destroy all that the Sondeckis have built up and tried to preserve..."

"You really have no idea of the reality of the whole situation, do you?" interrupted Rick, unable to stand hearing more. "Your kind is no better than how you paint mine. You are the heir to a legacy of deceit and subversion. You are part of a conspiracy to subjugate an entire people against their will and virtually against their knowledge. Your great and noble order is nothing more than a self-righteous pack of spies and assassins."

The ferret could feel the anger coursing through him. The insults to both him and his new-found order had touched a nerve and set a burning hate. Now that he knew what the Sondeck felt like, like a living think that fed off anger and created a rage of its own to further fuel it, he felt it building, begging for a release. But then the words of his master came back to him, and with them the knowledge of exactly who he was talking to, and he managed to reign in his anger and force it back down. "You don't know what you're talking about," he finally managed to say.

Rickkter laughed, his procyonid face lighting up with mirth. "Oh, don't I? And how long have you been privy to the situation? A few months or so, at the most? I've fought their influence for years, and I think that I know a little more than yourself." He snorted and leaned back a little more. "Your master spouts his own propaganda, much like the rest of them."

"And he tells most interesting stories about your sect as well. One of the prime ones is that you're a pack of mercenaries trying to plunge the entire area into anarchy."

Rickkter shook his head, favouring Garigan with a clicking of the tongue as though the ferret were some small, backwards child. "No, you are both so wrong. We seek only to restore the natural balance which the Sondeckis have corrupted." He spread his arms and leaned back to look up at the sky. Garigan gave more than a moment's though to giving Rick a little push. "We serve nature and its inherent balance. And the balance of nature is something that an animal morph from Glen Avery should know well."

Garigan folded his arms over his chest and thought for a moment. Considering who he was talking to and the various hints that Rickkter had been dropping, it was not too difficult. "Survival of the fittest?"

The raccoon favoured him with a murr of approval. "Exactly. You see, we believe that events should take their natural courses, with only the strongest enclaves surviving and doing away the weaker ones. Your side fosters an environment of unchanging stagnation." His gaze softened and he spread his arms once more. "We only seek to let things go their natural way."

Garigan mulled over the concept, trying to think like the raccoon and pick apart the argument. "Rather callous reasoning. I've heard of the stories you tell, and I have one that I think you'd find interesting. It takes place in Glen Avery several years before the original curse.

"There was this one woman who had lost her husband in a raid several months earlier. Even then we had problems with Lutins crossing our borders. Her only surviving child, a son, lay ill in bed. She did not have the money to afford healers for her boy, as the raids had taken almost everything she had. Her husband was dead, most of her animals had been slaughtered in the raids, and what little food they had was spoiling in the aprched summer.

"Now, the point of all this is, according to your reasoning, it would have been certainly all right for that boy to die. He was weak, he was expendable, let him die. Casualty of circumstance. By your very reasoning, you would not have lifted a finger to save him."

"Do you think that this woman's boy deserved to die? A hard-working lad whose father had just been killed, and he takes ill, his mother unable to help him as she has no money? He is certainly weak, and could never have recovered on his own. Is that reason enough for him to die? None of us thought so, so we banded together and did what was required to help the boy. Because we choose to do what was fair for him and his mother he's alive today. With you, he would be dead."

Rickkter slowly chewed and swallowed before speaking again. "You have it right, but backwards. We are a small sect, comparatively to yours, so we cannot afford to simply give away our services. We have our own needs for survival, much like the healer in your story. Because of that limitation, we only provide services to enclaves that can afford them. Call it mercenary in nature if you will, but even a regular army has taxes levied to pay for itself. Again, like the healer, we are dedicated to helping those who desire our help to be free from the influence of the Sondeckis and permitted to do as they see fit. But again, there are costs. Sondecki persecution has managed to keep our numbers small, so we must be careful. But, we are still dedicated to alleviating the blight that the Sondecki have placed upon the south."

Garigan couldn't believe what he was hearing. The story had not even moved the raccoon! Matthias had just spent an hour extolling the virtues of the Sondeckis, how they endeavoured to keep the world sane, orderly, and, above all, just. Now here was Rickkter, telling him that this view was corrupt and that the world was better served by chaos and disorder. There was only one thing that Garigan could say to that. "You're insane, you know that?"

Rickkter snicked, smiling so much so that it looked like he was snarling. "I've been told that before. But what is sanity but the measure of the majority?"

"The Sondeckis are dedicated to bringing order and harmony to the southlands," Garigan asserted angrily. How he wished that Charles were with him now to answer this arrogant raccoon's viscous lies. Despite his better judgement, he couldn't not stand up for his sect. "It is their purpose to ensure that justice prevails and order reigns."

"The world is not to be put in order," quoted the raccoon. "The world is order incarnate. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order."

"That is crazy! What you're talking about is chaos and injustice! Without the order that is enforced by the Sondeckis, the entire region would be plunged into a state of total war. What you're talking about is just pure evil."

Rickkter shrugged, looking like he had heard all this before. "The universe knows not good and evil. It only knows what is and what isn't. Good and evil exist only in the human mind, and under different conditions in each. Therefore we are our own final arbiters of right and wrong."

Garigan moved his paws over his eyes, lightly digging in his claws. This is not what he needed right now. "That's it, I'm going to quit now before going as insane as you are."

Rick barked a laugh. "Ha! I knew you would fold. That's why I like doing things like this! It gives me something to think about, in addition to the apparent frustration it gives you. It makes me reevaluate what I normally take for truth. Arguing with you and having to defend my point not only strengthens my convictions, but it causes me to notice my errors and search for answers to those questions." He smiled, flashing Garigan his canines again. "Thank you so much for this pleasant diversion." The ferret just violently shook his head and angrily stalked back into Metamor, still holding a paw to his head.

"Ah, I love doing that," reiterated Rick as he leaned back and plucked the last of his snack from the little bag. He sat there quietly, examining the deep red colouring of the fruit and how the light reflected off the skin, and thought about how long it had been since he had seen a Sondeckis. Had to be... damn, well over twelve years now. And those hadn't lasted long in any case. And then there was the matter of southern mages in general. There had been a few around the southern regions of the east end of this continent where he had spent many of his years after Deanna's death, but he had never really interacted with them and had never even seen them when he was in lands further north than Heathcorte.

But now life had turned his whole world upside down yet again, he considered as he bit into the cherry and savoured the sweet juice as it slid over his tongue. He was stuck in a body that wasn't his -- not really -- and stuck in a magical fortress that was isolated through political attrition from the rest of the word, as well as its physical geography. He was stuck here with not one but two Sondeckis, one of which was a black and whom should have killed him. And just when he didn't think that things could possibly get any more bizarre, who shows up by a true southern mage acting as ambassador to the most famed haunted castle in all the south lands?

Rickkter spit the pit into his hand and looked at it as he stood up and walked to the middle of the walkway. The rain had stopped by that time and there were some people walking around outside again. Whenever his life got this complicated in the past he would always just pull up stakes and move on. But he didn't have that option here. Within the eighteen or so miles of the Metamor Valley he was safe, but beyond that his form was liable to get him at best run out of town and at worst burned at the stake. And Matthias and Yonson were only two of the complications he had encountered since coming to Metamor.

"Damn it all," he mumbled as he winged the pit off into the distance. He watched it arc through the clear air under the still leaden clouds until it had fallen to where he couldn't see it any more. "Boom."

At least it got Rick smiling once more as he turned on his heel and clasped his hands behind his back. Now it was back to the books, with more dead languages and lost magic. It was tedious and not very exciting at times, but at least he could loose himself in it. And right now, there was nothing more he wanted then to try and forget the current situation

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