Jessica's hyacinth was now in full bloom in the gardens at Lord Barnhardt's castle, and she squawked with delight as she performed several experiments to confirm its power. Everything she tried worked flawlessly. It allowed her to sustain several incantations far longer than she could by her own power, and yet continued to replenish its power as needed. She found that she could use it to hold almost any one of her spells steady for as long as she needed it to, since her power was supplied by the magic reservoir she had created.
She had tested a good number of her most powerful spells, but each could still be fueled by the hyacinth. She was not sure how far from the flower's power source those spells would remain effective, but, based on what she had seen from Yonson's own use of the concept, it would likely extend at least throughout the Valley.
However, she had yet to try the one spell for which she had originally planted it. She had considered adding a Curse effect on herself, but she was concerned that her power would be hampered by an unfamiliar body. The reservoir had proven itself powerful, and she was also worried that it would be a while before it wore off. Also, if the power continued to replenish itself ad infinitum, she might have to relearn her body before being able to disconnect the spell from that power. She tried to imagine herself trying to reverse the spell as a hatchling, or even more awkward, as a male hawk, but she couldn't see it turning out well regardless.
Jessica finally decided that the risk of trying the spell on herself was too great. She considered various alternatives, and finally decided that she would see how far the power extended while she tested the spells. With this in mind, she took leave of Barnhardt's Castle for a few days, and took wing until she eventually reached the great Keep itself.
Although she had had time to think on her journey, Jessica still could not decide who she should test the Power on first. Undecided as she was, she finally resorted to walking through the halls of the inner Keep, letting the Keep's spirit guide her to an appropriate subject.
She was eventually surprised by Kyia's choice of subjects, as she somehow appeared inside Misha's office in the Long House. Jessica knew that the entire Long House was kept under extreme security, so it was amazing to her that the Keep's spirit would circumvent those measures.
The fox himself sat at a large desk towards one side of the room, examining an array of maps and documents that were spread out evenly across the top, held down by items ranging from inkwells to daggers. He apparently heard Jessica's talons on the stone of the floor, because his ears turned in her direction, followed closely by his eyes.
"Jessica!" he cried, somewhere between shock and delight. "How did you get in here, no one told me to expect you?"
Jessica looked meaningfully back down the passage she had entered, and Misha followed her gaze. "I figure that Kyia wanted me to come here. You see, I was looking for someone to help me test something I have been working on, and Kyia brought me here for some reason."
Misha looked confused. "Does it involve automatons?" he asked, brow furrowed.
"No, nothing like that," Jessica replied. She caught Misha's eyes slipping past her and glanced back to see that the passage behind her had vanished. She turned back to look at the fox, who just shrugged towards her.
"Well, there's no pressing Long business right now," he said.
Jessica found that hard to believe, since she could pretty well scan the notes on the desk with her hawk's eyes. Still, Misha seemed honest, so she could only assume that all of the papers on his desk were just part of the regular monotony of a day's work.
"How can I help?" the fox's voice brought her out of her reverie. She cracked her beak in a smile and motioned Misha away from the desk with her wing.
"Just stand over there against the wall," she responded. "I would prefer to have a little wing room to work with," she continued when the Long Scout opened his mouth to ask a question. Misha seemed uncomfortable about not knowing what she was doing, but stood up against the wall as instructed.
"All right, now stand still..." Jessica usually would not have proceeded without more fully explaining what she was going to do, but she didn't think it was very likely that Misha would let her go on if he knew, and Kyia had led her here after all.
"Surely there is nothing wrong with casting just a temporary spell," she mumbled. She briefly considered how little consideration had gone into that argument, but dismissed any concerns quickly; it was a logical argument, after all.
Jessica carefully constructed her spell, making sure each part of the weave was exactly as needed. She then fitted it into the complex web created by the Curse, and she heard Misha give a sharp gasp.
She couldn't stop to check on the results yet as her construct immediately began to tax her strength. Quickly she tapped into the reservoir that the hyacinth at Lake Barnhardt provided, and tied the spell to that source of power. Tentatively she let it go, ready to control it again if necessary, but the power from the magical flower was well more than enough to hold the spell stable.
When Jessica finally felt comfortable with the stability of the spell, she let her vision shift back to the material world and gasped at what she saw before her.
It was still a fox of the same coloration and similar height to the head of the Longs, but besides this, the clothing the only identifying mark left unaltered. Jessica's spell had succeeded!
A vixen now stood, examining her radically changed body with both eyes and hands. Her chest had expanded, but the jerkin that had covered his chest while he was male now did a remarkable job of covering her breasts without straining. The jerkin was loose in other places, though, giving testament to the fact that much of his muscle had been lost in the transition.
It was lower down that the changes were most noticeable, though. Wider hips made the leggings he had been wearing uncomfortably tight, a fact that she tried nervously to alleviate. Her legs also seemed longer than when she had been a he, and the leggings, once cut just above his paws, now showed most of the area below the knees.
The final change to the vixen's body was something Jessica had not expected. Misha's head had been bald apart from his natural pelt before the change, but it was now adorned by a veritable cascade of raven black hair. The vixen had flicked locks of this hair out of her face several times during her panicked inspection, but it wasn't until the extent of the other changes was realized that she noticed that the hair had not been there before. Once she realized just how much she had changed, she looked in surprise, and perhaps a little fear, at the hawk.
"What have you done to me?" she asked, cracking voice obviously not used to its higher register.
Jessica, unable to stop herself, simply burst out into squawks of laughter. The renowned "mad axeman" of Metamor was now a beautiful vixen, unable to control her voice, let alone wield Whisper. In truth, she was quite a stunning specimen, but it was the fox's reputation that made it so hilarious.
"Stop laughing! Change me back!" the vixen demanded, but Jessica shook her head, still laughing quietly in the back of her throat.
"The point of this test is to see how long I can sustain the spell," Jessica explained. "I can't just remove it now, and besides, being female won't affect your duties as a scoutmaster, will it?"
"You don't work with the people I do. Can you imagine what George would do if he saw me like this?" The tone of the last question was nearly enough to set Jessica off laughing again, but a moment's thought on the question left Jessica just enough time for one comment before she completely lost her composure.
"I imagine he might try to—" Jessica fell into fits of laughter just before she was able to say what both of them were thinking. Jessica's reaction was uproarious laughter; Misha's was more akin to mortification. He obviously had no intentions of getting used to his current body in the company of the jackal…
It ended up taking Jessica the better part of the next hour to convince Misha that she would be all right staying as she was for at least a few more hours. The vixen finally agreed after Jessica had found her a more appropriate suit of clothes. Finally, however, she managed to pry herself loose from Misha's constant outpour of question so she could to seek out someone else on whom she could test the hyacinth's power.
As she left the Long House, Jessica passed by a familiar otter, Caroline. They didn't stop to talk for long, as Jessica was clearly in some hurry, but the hawk did gather that Caroline was bringing food to Misha for his lunch. Smiling her best as the two parted, Jessica quietly linked a scrying spell to the otter so that she could watch what happened when she saw what had happened to her fiancé.
She was laughing too hard to walk for the next fifteen minutes.
When she finally did recover, Jessica broke her scrying link to the couple and hopped down the corridors of the Keep on her talons, searching for someone else on whom she could test this newfound power.
What she ended up happening onto was quite a bit different than she had anticipated. She found herself in a small courtyard located somewhere in the inner keep, watching as a small group of children played at tag while an older woman stood by and watched. The woman's mouth twitched every now and then in a smile, but it was laced heavily with pain, no doubt part of her old age. A quick inspection with Jessica's magic sight revealed that the Keeper was a gendermorph; her age, however, had not been altered by the Curse, and it didn't take magic sight to know that she was suffering from the effects.
Jessica quickly came up with an idea, an idea that would hopefully allow her to do some good while at the same time continuing to test out her new abilities. Switching to her magic sight, Jessica built the intricate weave that she would need to produce the desired effect, then carefully slipped it into the weave of the Curse before hooking into the power supply that the hyacinth now provided her. She didn't once think of asking for permission; after all, she was doing something for the benefit of her target. Nothing could possibly be wrong with using the Power in such a way.
The effect of her weave was instantaneous and noticeable enough that even the playing children stopped to watch as the elderly woman suddenly shrank down in her clothes with a muffled exclamation. When the change had finished altering her, she now appeared about ten years old, where before she had seemed about fifty. The children gasped and began to speak excitedly among themselves, but the woman just stood there, trying to wrap her head around what had just happened.
Jessica saw a few of the non-Cursed children turn to each other, asking fearfully if something was going wrong with Kyia, while the age-regressed Keepers did their best to keep level heads and point out that none of the rest of them had been effected.
Meanwhile, the surprised girl had recovered somewhat from the original shock, and was quickly fashioning a makeshift robe out of what had once been her shirt. She tied it around her middle with her old cloth belt, although she now had to wrap it double around her waist to keep it from dragging on the floor. This makeshift clothing actually did its job quite well, as the shirt was now several inches below the girl's knees.
One of the age-regressed Keepers from the group of playing children walked over to her. He seemed to be a little uncomfortable with how she had suddenly changed, but he had also made up his mind not to let it show. After all, this was Metamor, so odd things happened every day. Everyone just had to fit them into their everyday lives.
"Hi," the child said to the newly-regressed Keeper. "My name's Ryan, what's yours?"
The girl blinked, surprised at his words. He sounded more like he was greeting a new arrival, even though she had been watching them far before being regressed. It took her a few minutes to realize that she hadn't responded to his question, and she immediately tried to remedy the situation. "I… I'm Alice," she stammered.
"Hello, Alice," Ryan said. "Would you like to join our game?"
The girl was still obviously recovering from her change — the confusion on her face gave evidence to that fact — but it quickly gave way to a dimpled smile as she realized what she had been asked. It had to have been such a long time since she had been asked any similar question.
"Would I?!" she exclaimed. Rather than give an answer straight out, however, she just jumped up and hugged him tightly around his neck. He coughed a little bit in surprise when she suddenly restricted his breathing, but he handled it remarkably well otherwise. The girl didn't seem to notice that she had done anything strange and simply stood there once she had released him, bouncing on her bare toes in excitement as she waited for Ryan to explain the game to her.
Jessica observed in silence for quite some time, feeling a sort of warmth that she had never before felt. She had given a gift to the woman, one that no other person on earth could have given without claiming some price from her. It was something truly special, yet something Jessica felt should be truly secret, and so she moved away, traversing the twisting halls of Metamor once more, leaving the sounds of playing children behind.
She still had one Curse effect that she needed to test using the hyacinth's power, and so she once again allowed Kyia to guide her steps for her as she thought of nothing in particular. It took a while for the Keep to guide her to a final destination, but presently she could hear sounds in the distance. She could hear sounds of laughter, barking, and… metal on stone?
Jessica's question was answered before it could be vocalized as she stepped around a corner to see a boy, around ten years of age, running down the halls in front of her. He was followed closely by a metal fox, which yipped playfully as he gave chase in some impromptu game of tag. Jessica recognized Madog immediately, but recognized Father Hough more by reputation than by personal acquaintance. He had doffed his priestly robes in favor of more appropriate play clothes, but was still having trouble keeping up with the automaton. Madog was doing his best to even the playing field by running stop-and-go, but Hough still had trouble catching the fox once he had been tagged.
Jessica stood there for a moment, unnoticed by either boy or fox, thinking. The idea wasn't long in the coming, but she remembered her first test on Maud. She had been able to hold a change into a specific form, but only because she knew the nuances in the spell, and it had still been difficult. Jessica had no examples right now to work from, so she stood for a while, thinking through the little modifications she would have to make to produce the specific, desired effect. She thought through all the people she knew that were changed in that way, and slowly came up with a spell that she was reasonably certain would have the desired effect.
Both priest and automaton had noticed her by now, but neither paid much mind. They were too busy trying to run each other down to care who watched, although Jessica couldn't imagine that they would mind if someone joined them. At that moment, however, she had other things in mind.
Jessica formed the threads of the lattice carefully in her wingclaws, now looking more the professional weaver than the uncertain apprentice as she had when she first attempted such a casting. She set up the basics of the spell, then slowly added to them the little nuances she had decided would be essential for the desired effect. The synthesis of spells made her head swim a little as she tried to sustain the weave, but, grinding her beak together in determination, she kept adding to the weave until it was finished. She would be able to tie it to the power of the hyacinth momentarily…
Finally it was ready, and she laced it into the weaves that already surrounded the boy priest. With her own magical reserves weakened so, it seemed to have just a little bit of trouble getting settled into the Curse. Finally, however, it latched onto the primary spell, and Jessica hurried to link it into the hyacinth's power before almost swooning from stress.
She still managed to shift her sight back to the real world in time to see the effects of her casting. Hough was now leaning down with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath as Madog waited, tail wagging happily as he waited for the age-regressed priest to catch his breath.
As they both waited, however, Hough suddenly gave a short cry and held his hand out in front of him, watching as fur swiftly covered it, creating a black glove. Claws came out from his fingertips, while the same fur that had grown on his hands began to cover everything under his play clothes. He gasped and turned around as a long, vulpine tail came out under his shirt, a brownish orange with a black-ringed white tip. The fur took his face, and it pushed out into a fox's muzzle, while his ears trekked up his head and came to points, colored black against the deep red fur that surrounded them.
Madog had run over as soon as he had seen that something was happening to Hough, and he whined in concern as the boy changed into a fox.
"You all right?" he asked between whines of concern.
The boy priest didn't answer the fox immediately. Instead, he watched the changes finish with eyes wide and mouth agape. As his feet became paws, he looked around in shock, finally settling his eyes on the only other person in the room.
"Did you do this?" he asked Jessica.
Jessica nodded. "I thought you might like to be able to keep up with your friend a little better," she responded, motioning to Madog. The automaton still seemed concerned, but much less so now that he knew that it had been a friend that had caused Hough to change.
Hough could have reacted in any one of a number of ways. He remembered how he had once feared the Curse in all its forms, only coming to terms with how it had affected him after the evil Loriod had been destroyed from Eli's green earth. He still wasn't sure about the Curse, regardless of the number of effected people he spoke to on a daily basis in his Fold. As he looked himself over, however, he couldn't help but feel an immense gratitude, but several questions still hung heavily in his mind.
"Can you change me back?" he asked in a whisper.
"Whenever you want me to," Jessica responded. Hough nodded, but still had one more question that he was almost afraid to ask.
"Do you think…? Is it possible…?" He sighed, settling himself before finally finishing his question. "Could you make it so that I am entirely a fox, so that I can run on all fours like Madog?"
Jessica couldn't hear the priest at all in the question. Replacing him was just a boy, a boy who wanted very much to have one chance to run wild with the metal fox that sat loyally by his side. Jessica was sure she could not have survived having to say no to such an earnest request, but she was certain that his request was quite possible given the nature of the Curse and the power of the hyacinth.
"Have you ever used the Curse to change your age?" she asked. Hough looked sheepishly at the floor and nodded once. Apparently he was not too proud of experimenting with the Curse, even though he had done nothing wrong. "Then you should be able to change into a full fox just the same way."
She wasn't entirely certain how her spell would behave when modified in this manner, but, as she remembered, Lindsey had been in the form of a full kangaroo for a moment while under the Marquis' spell, so Jessica had a good bit of hope that it would work for her own incantation.
Hough nodded and looked at Madog, placing one hand on the magically animated metal fox as he prepared himself to try to realize his desire. He licked his muzzle with a much longer tongue, trying to work away his nerves before slowly trying to settle his mind on the desired change.
Jessica didn't watch how it happened in the physical realm, as she had moved her eyes to observe how the threads of magic allowed the change to take place. When it had just been the Curse acting, the weave showed no intelligible signs of how it altered. As the threads of her lattice slowly reformed around the shifting form of the boy-priest, however, she could tell them apart from the rest of the Curse, and cawed in delight as she watched them smoothly slide into another form. Jessica's heart raced at the sight. She could think of so many things for which she could use this. If she could see how someone shifted between all of the Curse-granted forms, perhaps she would be able to unlock doors to new forms, and even turn the Curse to the Keep's favor.
Or even, perhaps, someday turn the Curse entirely back on itself.
Hough, however, had much more present thoughts in mind. As he settled his mind on shifting between his morphic and feral forms, he felt his body begin to rearrange. For a moment, he was frightened nearly out of his mind, but the changes continued smoothly, and he didn't even feel any pain. He relaxed at this realization, and simply let the Curse alter around him.
Somewhere during the change, his hand slipped off of Madog's back and landed on the floor, but he hardly noticed it, as the soft pads on his new paws cushioned his landing. When he was done, he realized that he had closed his eyes during the change. As he opened them, he found himself looking from a new perspective, up into the automatons eyes. He felt a bubbling joy well up in his heart at this sight, and he gave a happy bark and jumped up to lick Madog's nose.
Madog gave a startled step backwards, but then happily licked the fox kit back, and the two were soon back at their games, leaving the priest's play clothes in a heap behind them. Hough was now well fast enough to keep up with the automaton, and Madog soon found himself trying harder than he ever had before to keep up with his friend. Both of them loved the freedom of it, and Jessica watched, her own laughter joining theirs, for many hours.
Something finally took her attention from the pair as a pair of female voices came down the hall behind her. Jessica glanced backwards and cracked a smile at what she saw.
Caroline was coming up the hall, walking arm in arm with a slightly reluctant looking vixen. Misha was the first to catch sight of the hawk, and she shyly turned her head to try to avoid eye contact. Jessica could see that her ears had gone read inside, and that almost made her crack up entirely before the pair of women reached Jessica's position.
"Hello, Jessica," Caroline's voice said in a friendly tone. Jessica smiled her best, noting how much better Misha looked in clothes more fit for her body. "I was trying to find you so that I could thank you," the otter continued.
"Thank me?" Jessica asked with some surprise. "I thought you would be after me to bludgeon me with a blunt instrument for doing this to your man."
Caroline laughed. "Really? Misha told me you can turn her back, and besides, do you know how long it has been since I have been able to talk him into taking a trip to a tailor?"
The two women shared a laugh, while the vixen gave a very quiet chuckle, although her attention was drawn to the pair of foxes, one real, one automated, that raced through the halls after each other.
"Is that—" she began.
"Father Hough," Jessica answered. "I'd say he liked it pretty well, wouldn't you?"
Now all three women laughed as the two foxes played their game. Jessica's laughter was interrupted, however, when she heard someone call her name.
"Hello?" she answered. Caroline and Misha didn't react though, either to the call or Jessica's answer. They also seemed to be fading, which made Jessica even more nervous. Was someone using some sort of magical power to draw her to them? After the long trip to Marzac, an even more horrifying question came to her. Two of her friends had been taken by a power from Marzac; was it now coming for her?
And if she was taken, what could Marzac do with this power she had?
The voice called her again, and now all was blackness. The women she had been talking to were now gone, as were Madog and Hough, and she found herself scared and alone.
"Who are you?!" she demanded.
Suddenly, light returned to her eyes, but this time it was different.
"Jessica, wake up!" Her hawk's voice finally pulled her from her slumber, and her eyes fell on him first. "Jessica, are you okay? You were sleeping peacefully, but when I tried to wake you, you started tossing like you were having a nightmare!"
Jessica gave a dry caw and calmed her fluttering heart. It had all just been a dream. She had been foolish to think that Marzac had anything to do with it. She simply must have been sleeping more deeply now that she had returned to safety at the side of her lover, and had undoubtedly forgotten what it felt like to be roused out of deep slumber.
Weyden still watched her, brilliant avian eyes keenly examining her every motion. His curiosity demanded an explanation for her startled waking, but the truth seemed far too trivial to bother him with.
"Oh, just an old nightmare," she explained, pressing herself to his side. "Nothing for you to be afraid of, my hawk."
He pulled her closer in a comforting embrace. "There, there," he whispered. "I'm sorry for startling you. You're safe, my love, I will protect you."
In truth, Jessica could do far more to save Weyden than he could do to save her, but her thoughts didn't even travel in that direction. Her hawk was here, watching her. There was no doubt in her mind that he could face the entire host of Nasoj by himself if that was what it took to keep her from danger, and she rested soundly in that confidence.
Now calm in her lover's arms, Jessica thought back through the dream. It was surprisingly vivid to her, unlike so many other dreams that stayed out of mind as soon as she had awoken from them. She could still see the intricate weaves that she had places around Hough at the end of her dream, down to the last thread of magic. Flexing her talons, she imagined performing such a casting on her hawk, but she couldn't for a moment think of anything that could possibly be an improvement. He was hers, and he was perfect for her in every way.
But there were so many others who could use her help. And once the hyacinth bloomed she'd have the power to do so. And it would be good.