20 May 1998. The tale of Shikouju continues.
(Artifact of Calderas) (Darkside) (Jynx) (Rephidim) (Silver Blade)
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Feline eyes open to behold a darkened room. The scent of medicine and fresh bandages reaches the accompanying nose.

Shikouju slowly rises from the bed he lies in, a very expensive looking one at that. He clutches a paw to his forhead, feeling extremely disoriented. An open window is present, and from the nighttime sky can be seen the faint glow of the procession. The black cat can barely see it however, due to his eyes' abnormal slow adjusting.

The dull buzz in his head slowly clears … and the aches in his body become faint as well. Fragments of memories separate themselves from the confusion of dreams, as the black Khatta tries to piece together his recent history. He went with the Compass Rose to a land on the surface, at the bidding of some king name Xante. And what WAS the name of that petty little kingdom he ruled? The others … they were planning something in the tower … then … Juniper Jade, Palao Alto, and …

Martinette. For a moment, it is like a remnant of his dream hovering before him, but soon it's evident that reality has reasserted itself at last. There she is, right there in the room, standing in just the proper place to be hiding in the shadows, but not to look like she was TRYING to, for those who have eyes to see. A smile forms on her face as she is discovered. "It's about time," she whispers. "I was afraid you'd never wake up, Tristam."

"Who is Tris-," he cuts himself short as the memories flood back into his mind. The plan was for he and Lady Martinette to 'acquire' a carriage, and act as though they were noble and servant who had been attacked by unscrupulous bandits. All of the 'other' guards were to have ran off in fright, leaving only Shikouju, aka Tristam to defend Lady 'Gossamer'.

Of course, that wasn't the original plan. It could have been far more convincing. Back in the tower, when the notion was first proposed, Palao Alto – the Musician – seemed to get the idea that HE would be expected to play the part of the wounded manservant. Perhaps out of an understandable desire to avoid personal injury – however well-intentioned – he pointed out that in order to be properly convincing, a couple of dead servants and a dead bandit or two would be necessary. When Shikouju volunteered to play the starring role, suddenly the "cowardly attendants" plan seemed far more plausible to the bard, who then volunteered to acquire the carriage. There's no telling how he got it.

As planned, the overturned carriage was found alongside the road that Calderas' most trusted steward would be travelling, on his way back from a hunt. The well-to-do vassal, Ysgard, found the "damsel in distress", and whether out of pity, chivalry … or simply because of "Lady Gossamer's" stunning beauty, he offered her passage to the estate, and promised vengeance upon the scoundrels who would dare inflict untold cruelties upon such noble travellers.

Juniper Jade's alchemy helped to make Shikouju's disguise seem that much more convincing. Perhaps too convincing, as he seems to have been unconscious through a large part of the ruse… but as the last of the fog wears away, and the "wounds" on his person don't hinder him anywhere near as much as they look like they should, it appears that the Philosopher has outdone herself yet again.

Shikouju slowly swings his legs over the edge of the bed, as the final bits of the mental haze disappear. "Good eve to you, Lady 'Gossamer'." Even though no one else is in the room, a good assassin always remains in his role.

The lioness-Khatta makes a motion with her hand, brushing the hair about her flicking ears in a bit of assassin's code that indicates that there's little chance of being heard … but caution is still advised. "Lord Calderas is away on business, it seems, and was not present to greet me, though his chief steward has been most gracious. This household has great hospitality, for I saw that they even took in a travelling bard, and are entertaining a wisewoman from the Nagai Empire."

With a mischievous grin, the lioness adds, "I may be mistaken, but I DO think Steward Ysgard is rather taken with me." She winks at her "servant".

The back Khatta gets to his feet, and takes in the room. It's a servant's room for sure, but still surprisingly nice. At the mention of the 'Naga wisewoman and bard', the feline grins. "Who wouldn't be, m'lady?" The grin broadens. "When will the Lord Calderas himself be available to our 'meeting' with him?"

The lady frowns. "He seems to be surprisingly unpredictable. He does not even tell his most trusted steward when he might be expected to return." Her expression indicates doubt in the truth of the story she's been told. "I've been shown a tour of the manor, however, and promised a tour of the wider estates on the morrow. Alas, Calderas' newest acquisitions will not be part of the show. I had heard some rumors about some new field he received as a gift from a kind neighbor, by the name of Polurgess. Apparently, though, it is a paltry piece of land, upon which not so much as a shrub grows, and the steward would think it shameful to show a lady such a boring sight."

Shikouju sighs. Feigning injury, makes his way over to the 'Lady'. "Well then mistress, we'd best not keep our noble host waiting for our presence any longer." Hobbling, the cat makes his way to the door. "I'm most interested to meet the other 'guests' Steward Ysgard has been so kind as to allow inside the castle."

The lioness nods, and moves to support her faithful servant. "And thank you so much for not fleeing me, as my other servants – cowards, all – were inclined to do. I shall see that you are rewarded greatly when we return to my estates." She grins fangily, then adds, "The bard seems to have disappeared, as that sort is wont to do. He is certain to show up the next time there is food or drink to be had. The wisewoman spoke to me of a map room up on this level that might be interesting to visit. Oddly enough, it's but a couple of rooms away, and it has been left unlocked."

"Well if its unlocked, then one may presume it is open to any visitors!" The cat grins. "We must make a visit to it, so as to better know the lay of the land for our travels." Opening the door, 'Tristam' makes a rather exaggerated bow to Lady 'Gossamer'. "After you, madame."

The lady lioness dips her head in thanks, and exits the room … quietly and quickly making her way along the bannistered walkway just outside the chamber, along to another doorway. This is not an ordinary hallway at all, but more akin to a balcony overlooking a grand hall – dominated in the center by a fountain and impressive statuary. The statues are fashioned of several types of stone, with incorporated crystal structures in a way that would defy mundane means of sculpture. Perhaps there is some truth after all to the rumors of Calderas' dabbling in earth magic. And perhaps it is not mere "dabbling" at all…

As it is, this open view of the grand hall does tend to make one feel exposed, but there is nobody to be seen at this hour, and it is comfortably dark. To feline eyes, there is much to be seen, but so far not a single cat has been encountered in this household. (And the lioness would have surely warned her servant if she knew of any bats in the area.)

Continuing to fake injury, Shikouju follows Lady Gossamer as fast as his acting allow. Taking in the sights of the hall, the feline sets his ears back. If the rumors are true, the last thing he wants go after is a magic user. Dismissing the thought for now, he looks to where the lioness is headed. It is unlabelled, but is more than likely the map room, since it is slightly cracked ajar.

Only once they are both inside, and the door is securely closed, does the lady dare to light a single candle to offer dim and flickering illumination about the room. A quick glance at the door reveals that it is quite well sealed, and that no hint of light should escape outside. Evidently, privacy is paramount for those within this chamber … though the security is somewhat lacking.

The walls are obscured in shelves and racks, upon which are stacked scrolls and tomes, with titles in what must be every language of Sinai. The ceiling is dominated by a fanciful painting of the Procession – composed of angelic beings – making its way through a cloudy and starry night sky.

The most significant feature, however, is a large and flat table, upon which is carved what must be a representation of the lands of King Xante – and its member fiefdoms – as well as portions of the neighboring territories. The natural features have been etched, while the more malleable, political boundaries are painted – and there are signs of recent changes. The map is titled "The Regency of Stalwirland."

"Seems as though our friend Calderas is an ambitious soul," Shikouju suggests quietly, while gazing at the map. "I wouldn't be surprised if he has details on the entire world here."

"Designs, dear," Lady Martinette says in a hushed tone – absently, it seems, as she is intently peering at the surface and tracing the lines. Her fingers glide over the table … but do not touch, hovering expertly but a hair's breadth above the wood. "I think this must be the field we've been hearing about. Not much to die for, it seems."

Shikouju nods, "But die people did, so there must have been a reason." He takes a closer look at the map, and notices something odd. "This is strange, if he took that land with such force, then why not this?" The cat points to a strip of land seperating the conquered territory – within the puny fiefdom of Gessershire – from Calderas' own lands, making the won area not even touch Calderas'. "He's either desperate, foolish, or very sure of himself."

The lioness nods, following Shikouju's direction. "Either that, or insane." She steps around the table, walking around the table, ducking under a stone gargoyle head that juts out from one of the walls – a habit, surely, since she's not tall enough to risk bumping her head against it. "The wisewoman was unable to discern anything noteworthy about the land, except that it's the single most worthless piece of farmland in the kingdom. No crops have grown on it for ages. It's against the king's edict, but apparently a few graves have been dug there. Nobody important or wealthy, however, so tomb-raiding seems hardly a motive."

The ebony feline thinks for a moment, "I suppose the answer may be in one of these tomes, but that could take an awfully long time." After a moment more of contemplation, the cat grins, "Well then, is wisdom cannot find the answer, then I suppose beauty must do." He smiles at the lioness.

The lioness flutters her eyelashes. "Do I detect flattery, loyal servant of mine?"

Shikouju takes the lioness' paw and plants a kiss on it, "Always, m'lady. You charm has a way with men, as you well know." He grins.

The lioness' eyes seem to dampen a bit in the flickering candlelight – though it might just be a trick of the light. "Yes. When we have a chance, we shall have to talk about that sometime, good Tristam." She turns away, and heads toward the door. As she passes in front of the flame, it has a peculiar effect upon the shadows in the room. If one were jumpy, it would seem as if the shadow cast by the wall-mounted gargoyle had elongated to point a way across the table, like some sort of obscure omen. "Now, then, I think I shall pay a visit to Ysgard. He strongly hinted that he would not mind a visitor at this hour." There's a just a touch of sadness to her voice. Part of her act, of course. She reaches for the door handle.

"And as for me, I believe I shall take a look around the grounds, if there are no objections madame. Perhaps I'll get a chance to meet our fellow visitors, " the cat smiles. "They seem an interesting duo. Will you be needing me, 'miss'?"

The lioness rests her hand on her belly, glancing back into the chamber, her other hand still on the door handle. "No, good servant, not yet. For now … " And then her words end, as her eyes go wide. She is not looking at Shikouju. She is looking … just beyond him.

Shikouju freezes, noticing the look in Martinette's eyes. He tenses his body in readiness, "Very good… madame!" On the last word, the Khatta attempts a flip, turning midair to meet face to face with the intruder.

The intruder, it turns out … is nothing more than the stone gargoyle head protruding from the wall. No one else is to be seen, and the carved, vaguely avian head only stares out at the feline blankly. How silly …

The cat sighs, he's getting too jumpy. He returns his attention back to 'Lady Gossamer', "As I was saying madame."

"**SSHHHHHHRAWWWWWWWW-HISSSSSSS**!" The eyes of the stone gargoyle alight in flame, and its beak parts, revealing a barbed tongue – stone, yet as agile as a serpent. The carved decoration stretches outward, away from the wall, weaving back and forth … looking at its feline prey through one glassy eye, then the other.

Even Lady Martinette can't help but to let out a timid "eep!" at the transformation of the statue … and she fumbles as she tries to reach the door handle.

Shikouju hisses! He tries to jump accross the center map, putting it bewteen him and the gargoyle. Great, Calderas is a magic user after all! The cat reaches down and pulls his silver dagger out from under some chest bandages, and readies himself. "Quick, leave the room… m'lady!"

The sound of a door opening, and a feminine squeak of alarm answers the dark Khatta's admonition … and then the sound of the door slamming shut again, accompanied by an ominous click.

The Khatta's heart sinks as he hears the door lock. Gathering up his skills, the feline prepares to fight the strange opponent, readying his dagger. "Come on, you magic drain pipe!"

The avian-serpentine gargoyle head answers the challenge, snapping at the black Khatta. However, it is such a straightforward and obvious attack that, with all its speed and accuracy, the beast's snapping attack closes in on empty air where the warrior previously stood.

Shikouju quickly sidesteps the snapping beak, and returns the pleasure with a swift slash at the gargoyle's eyes while the neck is extended.

The Sable Palm's strike hits true … but as can be expected with metal against stone, the blade merely skips across the surface. Still, sparks fly from the contact, far more violently than would be normal, and the stone creation howls as if in anguish.

There is a sound of stone grating against stone … and the central table slowly lowers, providing the Khatta with less cover from the gargoyle's attacks.

"By the First Ones!" The room must be alive! Not knowing what else to do, Shikouju makes a swipe at the creature's throat, since it seems that wives' tale of silver working against magic is true.

A hollow laughter reverberates through the room, as the assassin's expert swing brings his blade to slice across the stone surface of the gargoyle's temporarily exposed throat. Flakes of stone rain down, showering sparks as they hit the tiled floor, but the attack makes negligible penetration into this unnatural beast's hide. With a low thud, the table pounds against some sort of restraint, and is now flush with the floor, providing a wide arena amidst the wall-mounted shelves and racks.

The gargoyle tries to return a blow, but – perhaps thrown off by the previous attack – clumsily smashes into a nearby bookshelf, knocking a couple of tomes and tattered scrolls loose, the pages falling free and scattering across the floor.

Shikouju balls up and rolls out of the creature's range, dodging the falling literary works. He leaps back to his feet and readies himself once more. His fur stands one end, partly from the gargoyle, but also due to the disembodied laughter.

Another ill-aimed attack misses Shikouju, and the laughter echoes again. It would seem to be coming from directly above, though sparing a glance in that direction would probably be hazardous just now.

As the neck darts forward again, the back cat stabs downward at the gargoyle's head, also kicking a few of the tomes at its face in the hopes of confusing it. The laughter unnerves him even more, and his fur resembles a bottle brush.

The Khatta's first attack is thwarted by more thrashing, but the use of the conveniently-distributed decoys momentarily distracts the gargoyle, which catches a particularly thick tome that wedges in its beak. Taking the opportunity to get past the apparently angry construct's defenses, the black Khatta plunges his blade downward, connecting square between the serpentine creature's glassy eyes.

Unlike the previous slashes, this time the blade sinks into the stone as if it were the flesh it appears to be, and sparks stream out past the handle of the blade. The stone of the gargoyle's form begins to dull, and it immediately loses its fluid motion, hardening into place … and cracking and crumbling apart. The silver blade comes easily free … and perhaps wives' tales have some truth to them after all, on rare occasion.

Shikouju pulls his dagger from the now motionless masonry, and reflexivly wipes it off on his bandages although no blood is present. Backing towards the door, he chances a look up at the source of the laughter, fur still on end.

Despite the absence of the table that had retreated into the floor, the room somehow looks less spacious than it did before. In the middle of the painting on the circular ceiling, something pushes downward, like a face pressed against a damp cloth, and the visage of a leering canine comes into focus, shaped in the stone of the ceiling. "Well done, Sable Palm!" says the not-entirely-disembodied voice. "But my master can easily replace such simple magicks … as he can books and old dusty papers. " This is accentuated by a snap, as a wooden bookcase fractures under the pressure of the slowly descending ceiling.

For the second time, Shikouju's gets that sinking feeling… or is it rising this time? Not knowing what exactly to do, the Khatta runs at the door, smashing into it with his shoulder and pounding on it. His heart beats wildly.

The door is quite solid and shows no sign of budging. It seems that it was built to hold in more than just light and sound. The visage laughs again. "Ah, what a dreadful end for such a prestigious foe! I shall consider myself special for getting to see such a moment. I shall consider myself even more special for the night I intend to spend with the lovely Lady Martinette. She's far more fragile than I expected. But then, I suppose that's only to be expected. You are all assassins, after all … not warriors. Out of your element, forced into the open, like shadows, you are nothing when exposed to the flame." He laughs again. "For what it's worth, you did fool me with that trick of yours. Thank goodness I serve such an insightful master."

Trying to ignore the voice, Shikouju turns his attention to the lock. Using his dagger, he picks at it as best he can, hoping that watching Martinette all those times will pay off.

With precise and skillful movements even in the face of impending doom, the door is unlocked.

However, there is just one complication.

The door is meant to open inward.

"Haw haw haw!" laughs the visage from above, as the ceiling slides down further, partially obscuring the top of the door.

Breathing fast now that doom seems certain, the feline notices that the hinges of tthe door are present in the room with him. As quickly as he can, he tries to pry the top hinge out, but fails to do so in enough time as the ceiling lowers to close.

The visage in the ceiling chuckles. "Heh. Didn't think of that one. Ah well. Good bye, Sable Palm. Oh yes! Apparently Lady Martinette wanted to tell you something very important. She's been babbling," and then the voice switches to a mocking falsetto, "'I should have told him! I should have told him! Boo hoo!'" More laughter.

Panting in exhaustion, and still bristling, although this time with anger, the Khatta runs out of ideas. In a last fit of fury, he lobs his dagger at the annoying poodle-esque visage. "Shut your mouth!"

The dagger flies true, right down the gullet of the stone face. There is a noise like gulk, and the eyes pop open wide in alarm. Suddenly, the face sinks away, as if pulling away from a curtain … and the blade vanishes into the stone. The laughter ceases.

Shikouju falls to the floor, panting and looking up at the ceiling. Did that just really happen?

Yes it did. But, alas, the ceiling is still descending. Closer, closer …


"And that's all I know," says the elderly lioness Khatta, as she leans back in the booth.

"Well, not entirely," she amends. "Lord Calderas lost his most trusted steward, Ysgard. One shouldn't dabble in magic, especially when one isn't a spellcaster."

Shikouju – or what seems to be Shikouju – sits in silence for a while, taking in all he has been told. "These… these stories seem familiar… I even recall that the Sable Palm escaped the room, although I'm not sure how… " He looks the old lioness in the eyes, "but it seems as though these memories were told to me, or read… not that I did them myself, although I do remember them." The feline seems immensly confused, and returns to silence.

The lioness smiles. "Yes, that's how the books go. And I won't even comment on what else the books claim about Lady Martinette and the Sable Palm." Then, with a lightning-fast thrust of her hand, belying lethal reflexes, she snaps out her fingers at Shikouju's face …

… and fuzzles his cheekruff like one would a kitten. "You're a dear," she purrs.

The black Khatta jolts a bit at the sudden movement, but freezes as his cheeks are ruffled by the old woman. A very powerful sense of deja vu comes to the cat, although he never remembers anyone doing such a thing to the Sable Palm before, and living for afterwards for that matter. As he comes back to his senses, Shikouju realizes that he is purring, and quickly stops.

The lioness looks faintly misty-eyed, and then dabs up with a handkerchief as if she's dealing with an errant eyelash. She then gets up and says, "Now, promise you won't stay out too late. This place can get a tad bit rough on nights like this."

Shikouju is silent for a few moments more, but then stands and stares intently at the lioness. "Who… who are you?"

The lioness turns back to look at the black Khatta, with a look of surprise – and it is hard to tell whether it is genuine or feigned. "Who am I? I would have thought… "

But then she lets out a sigh, as her shoulders relax, and she answers, "Family, of course. Not all that is patched is calico, my dear." With that, she summons her guards, and makes her way out of the Missing Shekel as if she owned the place. No thug dares to hinder her departure – or even look her way – as she gingerly steps over the bodies of the fallen.

"Calico?" The ebony cat just stands there, staring at the door as the lioness leaves. What does all this have to do with him? And what did she mean by 'calico'? It seems familiar… as do a lot of things lately.

Then, a light penetrates the fog. A vision that was so hazy earlier comes back as a memory. A black kitten, clutching the doorpost of the bedroom he shares with his young parents – He sees the main room, where his father, his hands blistered from his day's labors, argues with an older lioness, while a pretty calico pleads with him. The lioness seems to be offering something … a glint of metal? Coins? But the gray-furred feline angrily refuses. "I'll have nothing of your blood money! You are no family of ours!"

A name comes to mind. Grandmother.

"Grandmother… " the words come aloud, as recognition slowly dawns. She was his Grandmother, Martinette, mother of Lylia, who was the mother of Feli… Feli Kurai. Shikouju- no, Feli, begins to remember his true self again. Shaking his head, he tries to sort out all that has just happened. Tearing his gaze from the door, he looks back at his stall, and at the cloth-wrapped dagger the old lioness presented him with.

Jynx bends down and picks up the dagger, staring at it for a while, his mind still swimming. Still in thought, he makes his way to the door, dagger in hand, and heads for home. As he disappears in the shadows, he absent-mindedly twirls the dagger, and places it in his belt. He has a lot to think about.

---

GMed by Greywolf

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