May 1, 708 CR
The moon's light bathed Metamor Valley in an azure faerie glow that evening. The last of the crimson twilight had been washed from the heavens leaving only the brilliant silver disk to paint the earth with its sensuous light. In the streets below she could hear impromptu revelry overtaking the Lakelanders. Flutes, drums, lyres, and bells gamboled in boisterous acclaim as the men danced, the women laughed, and the children played. The moon's rays were so bright that they did not even need torches to illumine their merriment.
And it made it very easy for Jessica to fly from Metamor to Lake Barnhardt; and even easier to find her garden atop the barracks and that tall stem with purple flowers framed by long, green leaves. The leaves were curled at the edges like cups and it was not unusual to find a little bit of water at the bottom of each after a rain. But it was not their ability to collect water that drew Jessica week after week back to this barony. What beguiled her was the well of magical force that ever deepened in this simple flower. What had been a puddle only two months before had now become a lake whose depths stretched beyond any shaft of light from sun or moon. Jessica peered into the depths and felt as if she were surrounded by the boundlessness of the sky.
In that time she had channeled many spells through the hyacinth to give them a power that the hawk could never had conjured on her own. Some of them had been brief incantations whose purpose had been served. Others were still anchored to the hyacinth, chains of magic wrapped about one of the purple flowers before curling down the long stem like a vein of ivy into the luminescent pool. Jessica stretched her wings, letting the tips of her feathers brush across the surface, admiring the ripples as they crisscrossed in intricate patterns. A warmth suffused her body, filling her hollow bones with light and a tantalizing energy that drew all of reality into stark focus.
With this well of power at her command there was nothing that Jessica could not do.
She did not taste long of the power, for she also knew that if she dwelt too long in its embrace she could quickly forget the importance of the world beyond. With only mild regret she took a step back from the hyacinth and turned her vision from mage sight back to the mundane. The moon bathed the hyacinth so that the petals seemed to glow a faint nimbus which cast everything around it into subtle shadow.
A riotous dance trumpeted from the streets below and she began tapping one talon in time to the beat. Jessica half-turned her body so that she could for a time face the street and enjoy the revelry. Her husband Weyden and his friends had been stationed here for several months, and after her return from Marzac, Jessica had stayed here with them. Over the edge of the barracks she could see many familiar faces dancing, laughing, cavorting, and drinking. A part of her yearned to glide from the rooftop and join them in their moon-bought joy. And for several seconds she trembled, one talon lifted and fighting uncertainty, inching forward only to fall back and struggle anew.
The spells need you.
Jessica set her talon down and with one last glance at the Lakelanders celebrating the warm Spring night, she returned her attention to the hyacinth and the spells she had anchored within its petals. The first she always checked because it was so dear to her heart was the spell anchored to Maud that kept her a giraffe like her husband Larssen. Her very first attempt at using the Curses to alter shapes had been tested on Maud. She hadn't been certain at first whether she wanted to be a giraffe as well, but Jessica knew that in time she would be happier that way. How well the hawk recalled the look Larssen had given Maud the first time he'd seen her in a body similar to his own. He had loved her as a human, but now he felt complete with her a giraffe. Every time Jessica saw the two of them holding each other, now the same size as one another, it made her heart swell with real joy. She desperately hoped that one day she would be able to make the change permanent without having it anchored to the hyacinth.
As her feathers brushed across the soft, delicate sinews of the petals, images filled her of a large room with a hearth in one wall. A fire danced within the brick lashing light across the room to illumine two figures. Jessica felt her beak crack into an avian grin as she beheld their long-limbed bodies, flesh covered in a yellow hide with brown spots, pressed close together in a warm embrace. Their necks craned together, even as their supple lips tenderly met and their large hands with thick fingers and hard hoof-like nails pressed firmly at their backs.
She felt an immense joy fill her at the sight of the two giraffes in love. But she drew back from the spell after only that brief glimpse; it would be rude to continue watching them. Instead she turned her attention to the other husbands and wives who her magic had helped. So far there was a half dozen Keepers who had come to her asking to have one or the other changed so that they could truly be together as man and wife again. The most notable pair was Richard and Norbert from the Fellowship. Richard had become a rooster and his betrothed Noreen had become a man. Now it was Norbert who was the rooster and Richard had become a lovely hen. There was no end to the sacrifices those that loved each other were willing to make and it gave her such delight in making it possible.
But apart from the families she had helped make more compatible, there were three other spells that drew her attention. She traced the black feathers at the end of her wing across the soft violet blossom and marveled at the eddying magical power within. Through that prism she glimpsed a young dragon adorned with gray scales with red along the edges and down the spiny ridge on his back between his wings. He was curled up in a grotto of trees with another larger dragon with a similar scale pattern, while a cloaked human-like figure rested nearby. They were speaking softly together, but Jessica could not hear their words.
Lindsey. Jessica had not yet been able to glimpse anyone through the hyacinth when her friend had braced Calephas and Gmork so she had not witnessed his transformation into a dragon. She hadn't even felt it when the trigger spell had been removed, trapping her friend in a child's body. The first she had learned of it had been when the seabirds had returned to Metamor a week past to report the good news of their triumph and the freedom of the people of Arabarb.
Jessica had gone to the hyacinth the evening she'd heard the news intent on removing the spell keeping Lindsey young. And that had been the first time she'd been able to see through the reservoir of magic contained in the hyacinth. Just watching Pharcellus teaching Lindsey all that he would need to know as a dragon had convinced her that it was better that he be kept a child. He would more easily learn these things. In time, as he mastered his new body, she could let the spell weaken. It was better for him this way even if he had never asked for it.
Her attention moved to one of the fuller flower cups. The magical energy nearly overflowed from the purple lips of the petals, and when she touched it ever so gently rivulets streamed across her feathers in a cascade of light. Her golden eyes dazzled as the interior of a brightly lit inn came into focus. Patrons of all shapes and sizes enjoyed a bit of food and mead, many of them travelers from all corners of the Valley and beyond. Cleaning one of the empty tables was a young lady skunk, comely in appearance with a soft innocence and gentle confidence in her eyes.
Her name was now Rhena. Over a month ago she'd been an older man named Berchem, a lout of a fellow from Glen Avery. Jessica had saved his life and in the process of trying to understand what had been killing him, she'd tried turning him into a woman to see if altering the Curse would help. In the end it hadn't, but those brief moments as a woman, and the events that had followed, had convinced him that he needed to understand how women felt and what they wanted from a much deeper perspective. What neither Berchem nor Jessica expected though was the power of the hyacinth to heal souls and reshape minds.
Jessica kept a close but discreet watch on Rhena in the weeks following as she traveled across the Valley. And everywhere she went, Rhena told more and more people of her invented past and of her dead brother Berchem. Bit by bit Rhena began to believe the story was true, forgetting day by day that she had ever been anything but what she was now. Jessica had pondered intervening, but the more she watched Rhena's smile, and the smiles of all those around her now in her new life working at the Evening Crow Inn in Lyme Regis, the less inclined she felt to do anything. Perhaps it was better for there to be Rhena than Berchem. Berchem caused people pain; Rhena brought comfort.
If there was some good that Jessica could do to make the world the way it should be, then it was imperative that she do it. The hawk ran her feathers across the blossom one more time, watching the droplets of magical power bounce from her feathers like dancers bounding down the stairs. A few days more and she would visit Rhena one last time. If there were any vestiges of Berchem left in the skunk's mind the hyacinth could bring sweet nepenthe to her.
And with that thought in mind she turned to the final spell anchored through this remarkable flower. In the glint of moonlight she witnessed another scene illuminated with streams of silvery light. The room was small with crates and old furnishings piled over with makeshift pallets and threadbare quilts. A single window with vertical slats like an old sewer drain allowed the moon's light in. Around the shafts of light a dozen children were gathered divvying up food. Some of the children were really adults who could never be older than ten or twelve again and it was these who led the other natural children in their little gang of urchins. Amongst them now squatted a tan-furred meerkat boy.
Jessica's beak cracked in a smile as she watched Kuna interact with the other children. She hadn't quite known what would happen when she first turned him into a child in response to his effrontery for asking her to teach him her power. A part of her expected that Kuna would have returned to the guild begging somebody to help him remove the spell, but instead he had gone into hiding, far too ashamed to be seen by anybody. And when Jessica had gone to check on him, the little beast had tried to attack her with his fangs. If he was going to act as petulantly as a child, then a child he would be.
Besides, it offered Jessica the chance to apply one of the defensive qualities of the hyacinth on her own. Where Rhena had made herself forget ever being a man Jessica would force Kuna to forget he had ever been an adult or a mage. There was a kindness in it as well, for the innocence of a child could heal the wounds of the many rejections he had suffered in the last year in a way that mere forgetfulness could not. When Jessica finally returned Kuna to being an adult she hoped there would be a peace in his heart at last.
Although, as the sharing of food gave way to tumbling and play, she couldn't help but feel a warmth at seeing Kuna joining in with abandon. She had been trying to keep him from stealing, but perhaps he was better off as an urchin. The meerkat looked happier than she could ever remember seeing him as an adult. Her heart warmed to the idea. If he really was happier as a child then she should leave him that way.
Satisfied with her interrogations, Jessica let the last of the flowers bob in the air as she drew back her wings. The somnolent radiance of the hyacinth in the festive light of the moon bathed her in its cool warmth. Her predator's golden eyes glistened as they delved within the arcane flower's being. Within two months of being planted it had become a reservoir of vast strength and yet she knew that it was only the beginning. Soon she would be able to extract some of the bulbs and plant them elsewhere throughout the valley. She felt her body almost lift itself from the ground as she contemplated a vast network of hyacinths, her spells lacing from one to another until the very Curse itself was under her complete control to remove and impose at will. And of course there were many other types of spells she could experiment with.
Why were the Curses cast in the first place?
The question was a fair one and the hawk scratched at the stone surrounding the garden plot as she thought back to that fateful day. Nasoj's armies were bearing down on the Keep having overrun Euper and Keeptowne. But the Keep itself was too well defended for the vile wizard's armies; he needed some unspeakable advantage to win his victory. Transforming every single man and woman in Metamor would make them defenseless.
Jessica's beak cracked in a faint smile. She could practice using her transformative magics to see if they could be crafted into defensive spells. An attacker finding his body suddenly warped would be much easier to defeat.
They will never be able to defeat you.
Not once she mastered the Curses. She stretched out her wing one last time to brush across her hyacinth. With a new goal in mind she leaped into the air and flapped her wings several times, circling higher and higher before heading southeast toward Metamor. Beneath her the Lakelanders continued their feasting and revelry none the wiser.
May 2, 708 CR
Kayla wrapped her arms about James much to the donkey's surprise. She then repeated the gesture for Charles. The rat laughed at her exuberance but could only say, "It is good to see you again as well."
"It's been two weeks," Rickkter grumbled from where he stood beside the pair of tables at the rear of the Deaf Mule. "We were supposed to meet every week until we're sure this Marzac business is finished."
"Things have been difficult," Charles pointed out with a faint furrowing of his brow. He gripped the edge of his red vest with one paw and tapped his buckler with his other thumb. "I have responsibilities to the Glen as well as the fief I've been given. Murikeer is still surveying the holdings Lord Avery gave him. You should be grateful we can still meet at all."
"Now, now," Jessica said with a slight spread of her wings. "We are all friends here."
Rickkter gave her a non-committal grunt. The raccoon sat down and drummed his claws on the table. "Is it just the five of us then?"
"Aye, it will be," Charles replied as he and James sat down together on the opposite side of the table. "Murikeer couldn't come down today. I'll be riding patrols around the Glen for the next three days, and then it is back to scouting my land. Hopefully next week will prove easier."
"I didn't have any trouble," James offered, though the donkey almost shrugged his words as if he wasn't even sure why he bothered saying them.
Kayla smiled at the donkey, even as she slipped an arm through the crook of Rickkter's elbow. "How is that opossum you're sweet on, Baerle?"
James lowered his ears and rubbed his thick lips together. "She is well. Charles is going to help me find something to buy for her before we head back."
The rat chuckled and shook his head, scalloped ears lifting an inch. "Peacock's Feast, that shop with the exotic spices, fruits, and fragrances. Kimberly wanted me to see if they had any cumin anyway. I heard that you did something for the rooster that runs the place..."
Jessica bobbed her head up and down as she perched on a small footstool at the end of the table. The black hawk turned her golden eyes on the rat and then she almost chirped a little laugh. "That rooster is a hen now and the man who helped is now a rooster! They wanted to marry before the Curses were cast and now they might be able to."
"I've seen what you did for Larssen and Maud," Rickkter noted with a sullen frown. "How did you learn to master the magic of the Curse?"
"I watched what the Marquis did to everyone else. At first I didn't understand it, his motions and his spells were so subtle. But after meeting Pelain in the Imbervand such things just started to become clear to me. I have been practicing it on a few Keepers I know who wish the Curses had done something else to them. And I used it on Lindsey too when the Duke asked me."
"I heard that there is news of Lindsey," Charles said as he glanced briefly at the railing where Donny the bull was conversing with another midday patron.
"There is," Rickkter said with a slight nod. "But I want to hear about this power of yours first, Jessica. You say you learned it just by watching the Marquis – may his soul rot in hell forever – but I want to be sure it isn't Marzac again. Forgive my skepticism, but Wessex, your former master, spent years trying to unravel it without any true success, and he also had the assistance of other very powerful mages. I just remember a similar power being used on me last year by one of Marzac's servants. And strange powers have manifested themselves in Kayla and James just before Marzac tried to strike. We need to make sure that this magic is as harmless as you say it is."
"I haven't manifested any strange new powers," Charles pointed out. The rat cast another glance at the railing, and then shifted in his seat. "But that doesn't mean anything. I'm going to go see if we can have food and drink brought. Rick, this may sound odd, but as far as Jessica's power of the Curse is concerned, I trust your judgment. Now, does anyone want anything in particular?"
Rickkter scowled even more fiercely at the rat's back and tail as he walked toward the railing and the heavy-set bull standing behind it washing a bowl with his apron. Kayla noticed the expression and tugged on the raccoon's arm. "What's wrong? Aren't you glad he trusts you?"
"He ought to trust me, but having him say it just makes it worse. It makes me feel very... wrong."
"Silly man, it's not like Charles trusting you is an omen of disaster."
"It feels like one."
Kayla rolled her eyes and then turned her snout toward the raccoon and snagged the tip of his ear between her teeth. "Ow!" Rickkter snapped, yanking his ear out and folding it back against his head. "What was that for?"
Her expression was scolding, but there was a softness in her eyes that could never truly leave, not when they beheld the raccoon she had fallen in love with. "Charles is my friend and you promised you wouldn't be mean to him anymore."
"All right, all right. Enough of the rat. Jessica, I think the best way to see whether your power over the Curses comes from Marzac or not is to see you use it."
"You want a demonstration? I can only turn you into a woman or a child. I cannot change the Curse you already have."
"I don't want you to change me into anything! My body has been changed enough times already by magic. I'd like to keep it just the way it is for the rest of my life if the world would be so kind as to cooperate for once. But I do think I need a demonstration."
James lifted one hoof-like hand. "She can change me. But if you don't mind, I think I'd much rather be a child than a woman."
"If I make you a child," Jessica warned, "your clothes won't fit you anymore. It would probably be easier and less noticeable if I made you a woman."
The donkey's long ears pressed against the back of his head and neck. He flecked his lips and shook his head. "No, no, I definitely would rather you made me a child than a woman."
"Very well, a child it is then. I will try not to make you too young." She turned to the raccoon. "How long do you want the spell to last?"
"As long as it takes for me to study it. But not too long; James has to get back to Glen Avery this evening. Kayla, do you think you can help me watch the spell?"
The skunk nodded as her long tail danced behind her head. "I can try, but if anything happens you'll see it sooner than I will."
"You have felt the touch of Marzac directly. I've only ever felt its effects. If there is any Marzac taint you may be able to recognize it better than I can. That taint can hide. We all know it. Besides that, I want to know what your intuition tells you about it."
Kayla could not argue with Rick's logic and so as Charles began carrying a pair of plates with bread and dipping oil back to the table, she let the world of magic fill her vision. It was a skill she had learned from Jessica on their long journey together, one that eluded her for a few months before she began to notice a faint discoloring of the world as if everything were covered in thin cobwebs. After another month or two of practice she was finally able to resolve those cobwebs into the skein of magic that tangled through all living things and all inanimate matter. To her it seemed as if she were standing in a room with ten thousand different ropes all tangled together and she was tasked with the impossible chore of sorting them all out by texture and then laying them end to end in order to lasso the moon.
Nor did the experience prove any less daunting for her that day. The interior of the Deaf Mule was still filled with the midday crowd of Keepers who'd come to relax with a good warm meal before returning to their daily vocations. The windows were opened to let in the warm Spring sunlight and it seemed to brighten every face and snout present. But between each patron and the many who were busy working the tables or behind the railing with Donny was gathered an impenetrably dense maze of silvery blue strands of energy whose source and destination were mysteries beyond her skill. She was used to solving puzzles and games of logic, but the world of magic, despite her growing proficiency with simpler spells, was a frightening morass that defied the application of logic.
But what she could still see clearly was her friends. Rickkter had moved out from behind the table so he could get a better view and to block others from watching. James stood sort of between the raccoon and black-feathered hawk with one hand holding the waist-line of his trousers. Charles watched everything with a curious glance as he set their food down and went back to the railing to gather drinks.
James had donned simple traveling clothes for the day, all of them a plain brown and green in hue, complimenting his gray hide much as if he were walking through the forest. He kept a short sword buckled at his waist, but at a word from the hawk, he removed his buckler and set it on the bench where it would be safe.
All of this Kayla saw through the complicated weave of magic that otherwise overwhelmed her vision. She let her glance move from donkey to hawk and back again noting the way many of those strands of energy drew taut between them, wrapping themselves about Jessica's wing claws. A warm radiance suffused them, one whose glow seemed one moment a soft lavender and the next a crystalline violet. Kayla almost felt mesmerized by that glow, but quickly turned her attention to James before she could become distracted.
Nothing happened to her friend at first. James stood with one hand on his waistline and the other hanging at his side, thumb rubbing against the thick flesh of his other two fingers, long face and ears turned toward the hawk, with ropey tail bouncing back and forth from one shin to the other. Mixed in with the various lines of forces passing through him, and spread to each extremity of flesh was the black presence of the Curse. It wasn't a substance she could describe in any terms other than black, ominous, sleeping, and sated. Yet when the spectral lines of energy from Jessica reached that mass it quivered like a dog dreaming of the chase. And then James began to shrink.
Kayla had not seen anybody change under the power of Metamor's Curses since the day they were struck. She had seen the effects of the change, and a few times had seen a person in the middle of changing, but in each case, there was nothing perceptibly different from one moment to the next. The only thing she could compare it to was watching one of her friends turn into their feral form, or Charles growing an extra set of legs.
Even knowing that it was going to happen it still made Kayla gasp in wonder. James, the quiet and helpful donkey who never seemed to see his own strength, lost the weight of years in a matter of seconds. He wobbled on his hooves as his height dwindled, face shortening some, while his entire frame softened. After a few seconds, the lavender, violet glow settled along the black presence and everything returned to a quiet pause. James was a child of perhaps no more than ten years in age.
"If my little ones saw you they'd want to play horsey," Charles noted with a laugh.
James looked up at the rat, and then all of them, hanging on to his sagging trousers which were far too large for him now. The ends were bunched around his hooves, while the waist shifted back and forth from hip to hip every time he moved his tail. His tunic was sliding along his shoulders; another couple of years younger and it would have slid down his arms and chest completely. His voice was also that of a child, higher pitched with a playful cadence. "That actually sounds fun!"
Charles laughed again. Kayla couldn't help but smile too. The only one not smiling was Rickkter. The raccoon wasn't looking at James so much as he was looking through him. He had one arm crossed over his chest supporting the second, the paw of which was held out as thought he had been caught in the middle of waving good-bye to someone. It was a look Kayla had seen on him before, right down to the slightly parted muzzle and lightly twitching fingers, when he was trying to puzzle out some deep aspect of magic. He blinked several times and with a chuff, shook his head and lowered his paw, glowering down at the donkey and then up at Jessica. "Well, I don't see anything obvious. I didn't expect I would. But I did expect to be able to follow what you did to the Curse. You may as well have given me a letter in Ċelvish telling me that the instructions are in a warded chest ten miles beneath the tallest mountain in Fan Shoar for all the good it would do me. I don't like not knowing what you did."
"There are many forms of magic you can perform that I don't understand either," Jessica pointed out as she folded her wings to her back. "And nearly every master in the mage guild has some knowledge beyond the both of us. Don't be so upset."
"Yes, but they can all teach others, or at the very least codify it in some manner. If we're to put what you've learned to use, so that we can finally begin to control the curse, this has to be something other mages can learn and use."
"Once I know I can explain it in a way you'll understand," she said. "Give me some time to see what I can write down." She lifted one of her talons and shrugged her shoulders. "It takes me longer to write than it does you."
"You could dictate," Rickkter suggested.
"Words, but not sketches. For this I'm afraid I will need to make many illustrations. I have a few started, but I'm going to need to create many more."
The raccoon continued to glower and appeared as if he wanted to argue further, but finally slumped his shoulders and nodded. "Very well, but I expect you to have something written down when we meet again next week."
"I will do what I can."
"Now..." Rickkter glanced at the child donkey who was admiring his free hand and touching his snout to feel the difference. A chuckle seemed to appear at the edges of the raccoon's snout but they vanished beneath his veneer of irritation. "Kayla, did you notice anything when Jessica cast the spell?"
"Anything that looked like Marzac? No, I didn't see anything like what I experienced, or like we saw on Lindsey."
Charles had the drinks arranged on the table for them all, and his ears perked at the name. "How is Lindsey doing? I think we've satisfied ourselves with this experiment."
"Indeed," Rickkter agreed. "At least for now."
"Do I get to be me again?" James asked as he took a tentative step and nearly toppled over when his pants leg caught on his hoof.
"Oh, of course! That's easy." Jessica narrowed her eyes for one moment and then the donkey started to grow again. A few seconds later, James was back to his real age and trying to straighten out his trousers and tunic which had become tangled during the changes. Charles helped him and then the two friends sat down to enjoy the plate of breads and mazers of mead.
Rickkter slumped into his seat and shook his head, taking a slice of bread and dipping it in the small bowl of seasoned oil. Some of the oil dripped along his snout which he rubbed off with his sleeve. "All right, I'm satisfied. So what's this news about Lindsey?"
"About a week ago," Kayla said with a broad smile, "the three birds we sent to Arabarb returned with the news that Baron Calephas is dead."
"And good riddance," Charles said, slamming his fist into the table.
"Calephas had been trying to create a potion, a set of potions I mean, that would turn him into a real dragon. And apparently he was successful, but he was killed before he could ever use them himself. Do you remember that tiger Keeper who murdered his friend? Wicker Potter?"
"I recall something of that," Charles said with a nod. He tapped the end of his loaf of bread on the side of the dish to let the excess oil drain. "I heard only that he escaped justice and if we ever saw him we were to subdue him if we could, kill him if necessary."
"Calephas had captured him instead and had turned him into his slave. Well, he didn't do a good enough job because Lindsey says they found Calephas and Wicker drowned together. They'd killed each other just before Calephas was able to get away with his dragon potions."
"And the potions?" Rickkter asked.
"Destroyed. Probably by Wicker, but nobody knows for sure."
"Oh?" Kayla interrupted. "Weren't you just going on about how you didn't want your body changed any more?"
"Yes, but... dragon!"
Charles snorted and rolled his eyes before bringing them back to topic. "Why was he trying to escape?"
"Lindsey's mother helped lead the men of Fjellvidden and Arabarb in a rebellion. They were attacking the city and keeping Calephas's army and Gmork distracted. Calephas had his potions and he knew they worked so why would he stay? But he's dead now and the potions are gone. And the one person he used them on was already a half-dragon anyway."
Charles narrowed his eyes. "Who was that?"
Kayla took a deep breath, and in an amazed whisper replied, "Lindsey."
Kayla explained everything that she had been told by Misha and Andwyn of the news from the far north. Her friends listened in stunned awe as they learned of the draconic heritage of their dearest companion Lindsey; not a one of them dared to ask her a question, preferring to hear the tale in the skunk's convivial tones free of pretense or attempts to obscure details for dramatic effect as might have happened if either Charles or Misha had been telling the tale.
They were all delighted to hear of Calephas's death but the news of the creature Gmork and what it did to the Sondecki and their friend Jerome left James and Jessica shaken and Charles seething. Charles ground his incisors on a chewstick as Kayla explained what they knew about this wolf-like mage; he'd reduced half of it to splinters by the time she was finished.
Charles put his chewstick down and trembled with choked fury. "I have never heard of anything like this Gmork. Rickkter, Jessica, have either of you heard anything like it before?"
"No, I have not," Jessica replied with a solemn shrug of her wings.
"And neither have I," the raccoon added with a darkened brow. "Misha asked me about this creature a few days ago. I've spent a good bit of time looking through old books to see if there is anything. I haven't found anything either in the bestiaries of Galendor or Sonngefilde that matches what they saw. It's possible that this Gmork is something new, some new devilry unleashed by Nasoj and now out of his control."
"That's true," Jessica mused. "We don't know many of the things that wizard has done. But if Gmork is his creation, why did he not use him in his attacks against Metamor?"
"Perhaps he kept Gmork back for magical support. He did need mages to help control that blizzard and also to cast the Curses in the first place. If Gmork can really transform some into werewolves, then he may have had some hand in Nasoj's first attack."
Jessica turned her worried expression to the skunk. "Kayla, is there any way of knowing where Gmork has gone?"
"I was told that they fled Arabarb but that's all."
"Most likely they went back to the Giantdowns," Rickkter said, curling one paw around his mazer. "Misha also asked me to think of ways they can better prepare the Longs and any other scouts in case they come across him or his pups."
"I hadn't heard about this," Charles pointed out with narrowed eyes and almost hissing tone. "I am still a Long!"
"That's because I haven't come up with anything yet," Rickkter snapped. "You were inspecting your lands, Sir Charles." He sneered the title with as much contempt as he could muster. Kayla smacked him on the back of the head.
"That's enough of that now!"
Rickkter glowered and downed some of the mead. "It's true."
"Fine," Charles grunted, lowering his snout to look at the last of the bread. He reached for a loaf, but paused before picking any up. "But what about Jerome? Will he recover?"
Kayla's expression turned apologetic. "There's no way to know yet. All we know is that he was turned into one of Gmork's pups but has broken free of Gmork's control. Lindsey and Pharcellus are watching over him. That's all I've been told."
Charles took the bread and dipped it in the oil, smearing it onto the loaf. "They should bring my friend here." He leaned forward and took a bite of the bread with only a little of the oil glistening on one of his whiskers. "A fellow Sondecki may see some way to remove whatever Gmork did to him."
"I will tell Andwyn," Kayla promised. "Another messenger should be leaving for Arabarb in a few days. I'll make sure your message is sent."
Charles finished the last of the bread and lowered his ears. He did not speak so much as sigh, his anger restrained. "Thank you."
"Well, if there is no more news to share," Jessica said after several long seconds of silence, "then I suggest we forget about our troubles and just enjoy our time together. I'm sure there's lots of other things we can talk about before we have to go back to our regular lives."
The suggestion was met gladly even by Rickkter.
They spoke of simpler matters such as Charles's fief, Jessica's marriage to Weyden, James's opossum friend, and of course how much longer it would be before Misha and Caroline finally decided to marry. James even had the temerity to ask Rickkter when he would ask for Kayla's paw. The raccoon demurred but cast a withering glare at the donkey that couldn't quite penetrate their good cheer.
But after another round of drinks, Charles and James decided that if they wished to return to the Glen before nightfall they would need to head out. Jessica hugged them both in her wings, and then Kayla did the same with her arms. Rickkter nodded to the Glenners but otherwise kept his distance. Once they had departed, Jessica also announced she would return to the home she shared with her husband. Kayla and the hawk hugged while Rickkter began gathering the empty mazers and piling them up in one corner of the table. They were about to follow the hawk out of the Inn when a human man in his late teens stepped between them and the door and held up his hand.
"I'm sorry, Master Rickkter. But I was told by a friend to bid you to wait here."
Rickkter frowned and glared at the young man. He was not well-muscled like a soldier despite obviously having once been a woman, but he wasn't weak either. There was a scent of cherry and pine about him; possibly an apprentice in the carpenter's guild. "Who are you? And who told you?"
The young man grinned nervously and swallowed. Doubtless Rickkter's reputation was well known even amongst the laboring class of Metamor. "I am called Eamon. He asked me to tell you one word and he would explain everything else when he arrived."
"And what word is that, Eamon?" Kayla asked, putting a paw on the raccoon's arm to still his gorge.
Eamon's smile wavered for a moment before returning. "The word is Marzac."
Rickkter hissed between his short, sharp fangs and narrowed his dark eyes. "I see. Thank you, Eamon. We will wait here for your employer."
"He's not my employer," Eamon started, but then managed to shut his lips and nod several times. The young man ducked out the Deaf Mule with a patina of embarrassment reddening his cheeks. Rickkter scowled while Kayla slid her tongue between her teeth nervously. A message about Marzac? What could it mean? Thoughts and wild speculation ran rampant through their minds as they settled back down at the rear table waiting their mystery guest.
They waited almost ten minutes before another familiar hawk stepped through the front door to the tavern. Even as he stepped through the doorway he was staring at them with fixed golden eyes. His reddish feathers thrummed with the draft from the door as it shut behind him; all he bore was a sash around his chest to mark him as a soldier of Metamor. Those now clad in feathers often found it too difficult to wear any clothes at all, even when they could manage to slip something on with their wings and usual lack of arms. The most the hawk Weyden ever bore was either a simple vest or military sash. He didn't even carry any weapons for they would have been even more useless than clothes.
"Weyden?" Kayla said in surprise as he stood on the perch where a short while before his black-feathered wife had stood. "What are you doing here?"
"I needed to speak with you both and this was the only place I knew I could find you. My wife thinks I am on a routine patrol today. My friends think I am spending the day with my wife. I hope that neither finds out I lied, but more my wife than they. I'm sorry about Eamon. I had to make sure you both stayed here after Jessica left. I can't risk her seeing me here."
Kayla reached out a hand to touch the hawk on the wing. "What's wrong? Is something wrong with Jessica?"
"I'm afraid there might be. I know you are worried about the corruption of Marzac overtaking each of you who went there. I'm worried that it might be happening right now with my wife." Weyden's voice, already harsh and squawking because of his hawk's throat, now trembled and warbled with a plaintive tone.
Rickkter leaned forward, resting his chin on his fists. "What makes you think so?"
"The day after our wedding I saw her reduce Master Kuna to a child."
"Master who?" Rickker asked with a frown.
"Kuna. He's the meerkat who'd used trickery to win his election as headmaster of the Guild last year."
The raccoon shook his head. "I don't remember hearing about that. The Guild has been in disarray for some time, but I know in the last month it has started to have meetings again. I have already received two invitations to join. The mages here are good folk, but I've always had a distaste for the bureaucratic morass and politicking of Northern guilds. At least the laws of Metamor allow me to forgo membership in the Guild should I choose. It would be quite insufferable to be roped into their guild politics here after fleeing it in my home." Rickkter shook his head again and reached for a mazer of mead that wasn't there. He glared at the empty spot on the table, and then returned a neutral gaze to the hawk. "I can't say I blame your wife for not joining either."
Weyden blinked once and turned his head between the two of them, a bewildered expression creasing his beak. "What are you talking about?"
"The Metamor Mage guild," Rickkter replied, narrowing his eyes. "That is what you asked me about."
"That's what I thought," Kayla agreed.
"I mentioned Master Kuna, the former headmaster of the Guild. The one who perpetuated all of the disarray and was just voted out of his position."
Rickkter shook his head. "I've never heard of him."
"Aye, you said that a moment ago. And then you started talking about the Guild. Don't you remember why I'm here?"
The raccoon blinked and turned to Kayla. She looked at the raccoon and felt a strange disquiet fill her. It was clear that Rickkter couldn't remember why they'd come to the Deaf Mule, and to her astonishment, she couldn't recall either. "No," he said very slowly. "Why are you here?"
"I'm here about my wife. She turned Kuna into a child and now nobody even remembers who he is or anything that he's done."
Rickkter opened his jaw to speak, and then jabbed himself in the arm with one claw. "How many times have you told us this?"
"Let's try a little experiment then," Rickkter suggested. "I'm going to start talking about some adventure from the last year or so. Interrupt me and ask me about this mage again in a few minutes. If I've forgotten it, mentioned the name Zhypar Habakkuk."
"Isn't he the one who..."
"Just do as I ask."
Rickkter nodded and leaned back in his chair, wrapping one arm around Kayla's shoulders. She relaxed into his grip, and listened nervously as he began to describe how he helped Misha reduce the Lutin fortress of Stepping Rock to rubble. Misha had been insane with anger over the death of fellow Long Craig Latoner, and the raping of his lady Caroline. His posture relaxed as the tale progressed. Kayla, despite all of the violence she had seen in the last year still felt nauseated at the raccoon's descriptions of battle complete with severed limbs, sprays of blood, and wails of anguish that dwindled into gurgling chokes and mewling whispers. His jowls quivered with a beastly hunger and challenge as if he were defending some morsel of food from scavengers.
Just when Rickkter was describing what happened when he and Charles were back to back facing a horde of Lutins, Weyden spread his wings and cawed. "Rickkter, do you know why we're here?"
"What an odd question. Do you mean why we're here sharing old stories, why we're here at Metamor in the first place, or why we are here in the world at all?"
"I'm here to warn you about my wife! She turned Kuna into a child! Don't you remember?"
"Kuna?" Rickkter blinked. Kayla could see that he was irritated at having his story interrupted. She felt a little uneasy at Weyden's erratic behavior. What could be bothering him so much? "I've never heard of him. Who is he?"
"This is the third time I've told you. You just keep forgetting it moments after I mention him. You told me to tell you a name if you forgot again. Zhypar Habakkuk."
"I keep forgetting? Zhypar Habakkuk?" Rickkter narrowed his eyes and drummed his claws on the table. And then he jumped backward, paws slamming into the table and his voice chocking in his throat. "By the gods and daedra! A hyacinth!"
"A what?" Kayla asked.
"A hyacinth. Like Yonson planted. You remember that, don't you, Weyden?"
"Aye," Weyden replied with a quick nod, his agitated feathers beginning to relax. "I recall the hyacinth. Yonson was quite upset when it was destroyed in a terrible fire."
"I destroyed it," Rickkter snapped as he managed to make himself sit back down. "Habakkuk proved to me that I was forgetting things just like I had you do now. He knew the hyacinth was there in the gardens. He asked me to destroy it because he wasn't sure what magical protections it might have. And now there is another hyacinth at Metamor. Who is it I keep forgetting? I can't remember their name already!"
"Kuna. He was once the headmaster of the Mage's Guild, but he won his election through trickery. He was ousted not long ago and just after Jessica and I were married, he approached her at our home asking her to teach him her ability to manipulate the Curses. She refused and then turned him into a child. I've not seen him since and nobody I mention him to seems to remember who he was."
"That is the hyacinth's doing," Rickkter noted with a sullen grimace. "Insufferable bloody plant. Kayla, do you have anything to write with?"
Kayla shook her head. "I'll go see if I can fetch something from Donny. I will be right back."
As Rickkter and Weyden continued to talk, Kayla wandered past the other patrons until she was standing at the railing. Donny was at the other end talking with one of the local merchants about a delivery of onions. The badger on the other side assured him that the delay was nothing that he, Donny, should be concerned with. Kayla waved her tail back and forth behind her head, hoping that could get his attention. Donny saw her and nodded, holding up one finger to bid her wait just a moment more. She sighed and turned around, her soft fur shifting beneath her tunic and breeches, looking back across the room to where Weyden and her raccoon were deep in conversation. She couldn't help but smile as she admired the raccoon's angular features, firm countenance, and assertive personality. There was a gentle playfulness beneath his gruff and irascible exterior.
"Did you need more drinks, milady?" A deep, rumbling voice behind her asked.
Kayla turned again and nearly smacked Donny in the snout with her tail as she did. But the auruchs only smiled and regarded her with his glassy stare. "Oh, aye, more drinks." What other reason would she have had for coming to the railing anyway?
Donny poured another three mazers and Kayla wrapped two in one paw and one in the other before heading back to the table with a broad smile.
Rickkter looked up as she approached and smiled. "Drinks, excellent idea, Kayla."
"What about the writing implements?" Weyden asked as he regarded the mazer of mead as if he were afraid something unpleasant was hiding in its depths.
Rickkter rapped his forehead with his knuckles and ground his fangs together with a hiss. "Kayla, could you go ask Donny if he has anything we can write with? And interrupt him if you have to."
This time she was able to remember what she wanted long enough to ask the bull. Donny was gone for only a moment before he returned with a small sheaf of parchment and a charcoal stick. Kayla thanked him and brought both back to the skunk.
"Excellent. Now I can write down what you tell me so I won't need to worry about forgetting. Weyden, start at the beginning and don't leave anything out. What happened to Kuna; I know you've told me a few times now, but I'm lucky I remember his name."
It took only a quarter of an hour for Weyden to explain what he had seen his wife do, who Kuna was, and all the little things that the hawk had noticed in the pair of weeks since. Rickkter wrote everything down, being careful not to smear the charcoal or to spill the mead. He wrote in large letters at the top of the parchment the word 'Hyacinth' and apparently that was enough to rouse his memory. Kayla listened, but found despite her best efforts, she had a hard time keeping any of the hawk's warnings in her mind. The magic forcing them to forget was powerful and frightening.
"Now, what I do not understand is why you aren't forgetting everything," Rickkter said after setting the charcoal aside and wiping his paw off on his trousers. "I can barely keep any of this in my head for a minute and you recall every detail."
"I wish I knew," Weyden admitted with a shrug of his wings. "I don't understand magic at all. I always trusted that to Yonson and to Jessica."
"A mystery to explore later if we can but for now it is an important advantage." Rickkter picked up the mead in his other paw and lapped a few times. He brushed the dripping froth from his muzzle with his sleeve and glanced at the parchment covered in letters. "Our two most important questions: how did Jessica plant a hyacinth, and where did she plant it?"
"I think I know the answer to the first," Weyden admitted. "After the first hyacinth was destroyed Yonson sent me to the gardens to dig up the bulbs. The fire had destroyed most of them, but I was able to save two of them. I thought he wanted to plant it anew next year. I kept them wrapped in soft paper and stored in a wooden box where they would be safe. After we were released from the dungeon they were returned to me and I kept them as something of the ambassador's. I didn't think anything of them. Jessica must have found them after her return; she stayed with us in the barracks and ... well..."
Kayla saw his embarrassment and nodded her head. "Go on."
"She must have found them. After we moved into the Twin's Hearth, I went through all of my things and I discovered the box was empty."
"Well," Rickkter mused, "where was the barracks you both stayed in?"
"Lake Barnhardt. We returned to Metamor after the quarantine was lifted."
Rickkter tapped his snout with one finger and flicked his striped tail. "Lake Barnhardt it is then. I wager the hyacinth is there... somewhere. I've never been there before. Did you see any gardens there?"
"No, never," Weyden replied.
"That doesn't mean anything. I walked past the hyacinth in Metamor's gardens several times without ever remembering it was there. I'm going to arrange a little trip out to Lake Barnhardt." He took the charcoal and added those very words to the bottom of the page. "Weyden, if you need to send me any messages, use Habakkuk's name. Kayla, I will meet you in your quarters this evening to discuss this further."
"Thank you," Weyden said with a long sigh. "I'm so worried about Jessica. She is... too good to do these things."
"Marzac is like that. Now go and keep her from paying attention to us. I'll pay our tab then I will see about hiring a carriage out to Lake Barnhardt tomorrow."
Kayla hugged him round the shoulders once while Weyden professed his gratitude one last time. The three of them rose together and after one brief glance at each others' eyes, went their separate ways.
Although he was suspicious of their friendship with Charles, in truth there was no one better for providing a reliable and quick transport across the Valley than the rats and their new shipping business. It had only been in operation for a few months now but already it was the talk of the merchants and the various guilds, each of whom was eager to discover that they could transport even their low-priced goods and still have a little money left over. While he could borrow a horse, or rent one if need be, he couldn't be sure that he'd be able to remember the purpose of his trip or even where he was going. By riding in one of the rats' wagons, he could keep his note in his paws and be reminded of his duty every time he looked down.
He even kept the letter in his paws as he walked across the streets of Keeptowne. Twice already he had turned down the wrong street in confusion as to where he was going only to look at what he held and chide himself for forgetting so quickly. He hated hyacinths.
The rats – at least the handful that had been at the Keep for several years now; there were several more amongst the Bradanes refugees from what Kayla had said – continued to live in the cellars beneath Metamor Keep despite the success of their business. But they had bought a few homes that had been badly damaged and abandoned after Nasoj's winter attack and were in the process of converting them into warehouses for their sleigh wagons. But this meant that Rickkter had to walk halfway across Keeptowne which left him vulnerable to numerous fits of amnesia.
To his chagrin he found himself standing at the corner of an intersection with Inns on either side and wagons and horses crossing in front of him. Rainwater collected in the numerous depressions in the road where the stones had been worn over the years, while mud tracked in every direction. His nose wrinkled as a passing horse lifted its tail to leave a present for the street cleaners who had one of the foulest jobs in all of Metamor; all of them were still human and paid very well or so he'd heard.
Rickkter sighed and glanced down at the sheet of paper. The large word at the top reminded him what had happened yet again and so he carefully reviewed the text he'd scrawled. He was half-way through the page when he finally recalled that it was Weyden who'd told him his fears about Jessica and that he was out to secure transport to Lake Barnhardt.
"Damn hyacinth," he muttered under his breath as he quickly finished reviewing his notes on where he had to go. With his destination recalled, he lifted his snout and looked about to see which direction he should go to find the rats.
Instead he spat in alarm as a team of horses dragging a heavily laden wagon churned past him, the driver screaming at the fool of a coon standing in the street to get out of the way. The wagon wheels drove through one of the puddles of water, spraying Rickkter from the top of his head down to his booted paws. He lifted one arm to shield himself even as he hopped backward.
"You asinine oaf! I ought to tie you to one of your wheels for a day or three!" He shook his fist at the impatient merchant who was already out of earshot, and then shook his arms to get the filth off.
And then he noticed the parchment again and the charcoal words smearing together into a dense and incomprehensible mess. He gaped in disbelief for a moment but the smearing only grew worse. Even the word 'Hyacinth' which he'd written in large letters was becoming impossible to decipher.
"No," he whispered, and then his paws began to tremble with rage. "No!" He turned left and right, scanning the street for sign of any merchant house, artisan, or even a cook who might have something he could write with. But he saw nothing he could use and so ran down the street, startling several Keepers making ready to cross the street or carrying foodstuffs and cloths. He repeated the words 'hyacinth', 'Jessica', and 'Lake Barnhardt' over and over to himself, stuttering like a madman in his attempt to keep them all fresh in his memory. He had to write it down before he forgot it all again!
Several houses down he saw a sign hanging over a rather well-to-do establishment featuring a Peacock seated before what looked like a decorated and abundantly adorned table. The Peacock's Feast! They always kept a stylus for tracking orders of spices and exotic fruits, vegetables, and shellfish. He remembered visiting them several times in the past when he'd wanted to cook something with the flavor of his homeland, and sometimes just to make a muffin for Misha to set the fox's tongue on fire. He almost laughed to himself as he recalled the way his friend had gagged at the curry filled muffin and then foolishly tried to wash it out with water; fitting revenge for spreading that story about him being injured in battle with a mighty warrior when it had just been some foreign mage's rat familiar and the wound a single bite on the flesh between his thumb and his fingers.
He stepped inside the shop and cast a quick glance around. The scent of various spices assaulted him immediately, but also a faint scent more commonly found in a chicken coop. As the merchants who ran the shop were both now chickens this was not a surprise. He saw the rooster Norbert cleaning a broad table behind which were little labeled boxes in stacks against the wall. The rooster glanced up with his beady yellow eyes and floppy red comb, and then returned to his work.
Rickkter almost pounced the table, the ruined piece of parchment now torn between two of his claws. "Do you have something I can write with? Please, hurry!"
"Write? Of course. Just a moment." The rooster set down his damp rag and bent down to look through another set of drawers.
"Hurry!" Rickkter repeated the litany of words in his mind, even as his eyes were drawn to the names of various spices along the wall, each one bringing out a memory of this pleasant meal or that culinary failure.
"Here we are," the rooster clucked, setting a feather, an inkpot, and a fresh piece of parchment on the table. "Usually we prefer to write down any orders, Master Rickkter."
Rickkter grabbed the feather and dabbed the quill into the ink, and then blinked. He looked at the ruined parchment in his other paw but couldn't make anything out. He tried to remember why he'd come into the shop, but the irritation he'd felt at the soaking he'd received a moment ago had left him confused. And then he recalled that rat Charles talking about buying cumin and he felt himself relax. As much as he thought the rat Sondecki insufferable, even he had to admit that the fellow had a good idea from time to time. Cumin was the perfect spice to give grilled fish a sharp but earthy bite.
He crumpled the ruined parchment and tossed it aside. "I guess since I'm here I can let you write it down. I was hoping for a tablespoon of cumin. And..." he pondered for a moment and then a wicked grin spread over his narrow snout. "Do you happen to have any wasabi? I have a friend who yearns to burn his tongue out."
The rooster fluffed his thick red plumage and squawked. "We don't have any wasabi powder now. It'll take a month or more but I'm sure we can provide some if you wish to wait and can afford the coin. The cumin I can give you now. That will be four moons."
Were he in Sonngefilde that price would have been laughably exorbitant. But cumin was not grown in Metamor Valley and so he dropped the old, crumpled bit of parchment and reached for his money pouch. It may still be expensive, but it was not unreasonable, especially not when it came to Kayla. "Four moons then," he agreed as he reached into his pouch and counted out four silver coins.
The rooster scooped the coins into his apron with a wing-like arm and then began searching through the labeled boxed behind him. His tail feathers spread out in a fan as he bent over. Rickkter shook his head in wonder; this rooster had started life as a woman, and had spent almost eight years as a human male. He had taken to being a rooster very well it seemed. He would have to compliment Jessica on her excellent work with the Curses when next he saw her.
Norbert lifted one of the boxes and set it on the table. It was not very large, nor was there much cumin within, but only the well-to-do could have afforded such an exotic spice in the first place. With deft wing-hands, the rooster took a little glass bottle and began spooning small doses of the pungent, brown powder into it. Rickkter's nose twitched until both box was closed and glass bottle was stoppered.
"There we are," Norbert offered the bottle which Rickkter took and gingerly placed in one of the pouches attached to his belt. "Now, how much of the wasabi powder did you want?"
His grin was malicious as he plotted how he might make Misha regret having so much fun at the raccoon's expense. When he left the store a few minutes later he didn't even bother picking up the crumpled piece of paper on the floor by his boots.