Fate of the Shadow Master

by Lurking Wolf

December the 1st, in the year 707, Cristos Reckoning

Lois counted off the days that he had been at the Keep for what had to be the hundredth time that night. It was getting close now, the Curse now seemed to have almost a tangible presence about him. He sometimes felt that he could touch it if he tried, but he would invariably just let himself turn back within himself, using the iron will that his years of life had granted in return for his sufferings. He would stay through the Curse, and he would accept the results.

He looked at his hand again. Sometimes he felt as though it were changing, but it was always just a false, unfounded feeling. There was no change in the callused palm, no difference in the rough nails, no restrictions to the smooth movement. The hand was as it had been since his years as an assassin, no additions, no changes.

This just served to start him thinking again. What would the Curse do to his body? He now had years of experience under his belt, years during which every part of his body had been trained to kill, every muscle conditioned until they could perform their functions under the most extreme conditions, from the dead of winter with no shelter, the heat of battle with no respite, or through the most painful injury without faltering. He prided himself on his control, on subjecting his body to himself no matter what an enemy used against him. It had saved his life countless times, and now he knew that he could be mere hours from losing everything.

He slouched over the table, playing with the coins he had dropped there an hour ago. They had been meant as a tip when he had thought he would be leaving, and they remained there as long as he did, lost in his thoughts. In one moment, everything he had once known could be gone. Would it be such a bad thing? After all, he had wanted to be rid of that side of himself for so long, would it be so bad?

No! He had lived by that nature, using it to put bread on his table, coin in his pocket, a roof over his head! What did he want, to lose the part of him that had saved him from a short life in the streets of some city full of pompous fools too rich to see a poor boy’s need? He seethed, remembering the days he had passed in that sort of a state. He could not live like that, his work had saved him from that!

Had it really? The response to his own thoughts came quickly. Had the assassin he had become truly saved him from that life? If the only way he could truly have lived was by killing others, how did others survive? They were honest workers, men of their word, tradesmen who did an honest day’s work and went to bed without a bounty over their heads. They might not be able to afford what Lois could, but even if they slept with only a crust of moldy bread in their stomachs, they never had to learn to sleep with one eye open lest they be killed for the bounty over their heads.

But Lois could never have been a tradesman, he reminded himself. His father had robbed him of that opportunity. Lois gritted his teeth. His mind summoned what slight images he could remember of his father. They had been long banished; it was ancient history, something that no historian would ever write in an account of Lois’s life. He was nothing but a footnote, or he would be left as that by anyone else looking at Lois from their own perspective.

Lois knew better. He didn’t know much about his father, nor did he care to know more than what he did know, but he could testify to the fact that his father was likely the most prominent of the reasons that Lois had chosen his path.

It was unlikely, to say the least, that any boy would have been put through what Lois had known in his early life. Taken from his family, made a servant of the lord’s household to help pay his family’s debts; it made him furious at the remembrance. It was not so much that the life at the lord’s manor had been bad; in reality, it had been rather pleasant. The thing that made Lois furious was what he always heard from people he talked to about their childhood. The ones who didn’t know about their father almost always had some story of him dying in defense of his country at the very least. Not so for Lois.

CRACK!

Lois startled himself out of his reverie, now staring at the wooden plate that lay in pieces underneath his fist. He pushed the chair back from the table, not noting the looks he got from the other patrons. The owner himself had stopped in mid-motion, holding a pint of ale a few inches from the counter, a little bit of the contents of the container dripping slowly down the side. Silence reigned in the room.

Lois surveyed the table. Not just the plate had been broken, but he had managed to upset the half pint of ale that sat at his own place. It had just started to drizzle onto the floor when Lois next moved. He walked towards the door, taking special care to venture near enough the counter as he did so. As he passed the startled patrons situated about it, he reached into his purse and caught four coins in his hand. He had no doubt that four of any coin would suffice to pay any damages, so he took little care in checking what it was that he threw in the direction of the owner.

After the owner of the tavern had picked the coins out of the mazer it was discovered that he had just been paid enough to refurnish the entire establishment.

Lois couldn’t have cared any less if he had known what he had just done. He needed release, he needed some way to get rid of the pounding, the driving anger that now possessed him.

Kyia was kind enough to lead Lois down the most uninhabited passages of the Keep. At first Lois simply ran, his legs pounding furiously, every step gaining speed until he was moving at a speed that would have prided many of the faster animal Keepers. And yet he ran on, feeling not in the least tired, no fatigue, no pain. He was focused, determined, trying to drive that face from his memories, but nothing worked. His mind ever turned to the man who had sent him down this path.

“Curse him! Curse him! Infamy and ruin to his name!” Lois was running down an empty hall, but his furious, breaking voice echoed throughout halls all through the Keep. People turned their heads, looking for the source of the cries, but were finally forced to conclude that it was their imaginations. At least they hoped it was.

The voice that plagued the halls of the Keep continued its cries, cursing the source of his anger in every language he knew, every curse he could conceive, screaming his fury to the stones of the Keep. He screamed until his voice gave away, and yet his legs still pounded, the thudding echoing down the empty corridors he haunted.

The halls now guided him from the inner Keep, allowing him a swift exit into the lower Keep, and still he ran. Down the main thoroughfare his legs carried him. He felt nothing, heard only the sound of his own footfalls, watched as startled night watchmen watched his progress. All they could guess was that he was pursuing something, but what it could have been, none ventured to guess.

He left the main road, now navigating the thin alleys that led away from it. He tried to find the release he needed by the rapid turns that the alleys demanded of him, but the anger drove him further. He needed something more, and there was only one other thing that could provide anything more.

It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for. A pile of crates were stacked against the side of a building, likely waiting to carry some merchant’s produce to market. For Lois, however, they were his path to the skies.

He climbed the pile without the aid of his hands, timing his steps perfectly and landing with enough precision not to topple them. At the top, he leaped, hands reaching and masterfully grasping the best handholds they could find. The momentum of his leap swung his legs up, his left leg leading and gaining purchase on the roof. It took him very little time to swing his right leg up, and from there he was on his feet without any hesitation.

Lois moved to the ridge of the roof and quickly scanned the area. His anger demanded release, but even the anger could not override the discipline born of experience. Finally, he found a path, and his legs once more moved, although the running was different in that it was now aimed at keeping balance on the rooftop, not sprinting.

In a leap, he had crossed the alley between the roof he was on and the next roof. He climbed this roof, then walked the ridge of the roof, balance almost impeccable, and yet his speed never decreased. The leap he took next was even more difficult than the last one; the next roof was higher than this one.

His fingers found what they wanted as soon as he had crossed the distance. He hefted himself up onto the roof, now with a much better view, and many more paths that he could take. He took very little time considering his path, then once more moved out, leaping from roof to roof, anger slowly abating with each measured step.

Lois didn’t bother counting the roofs that he crossed. They all flashed by, although he somehow still kept his footing at every juncture, and his fingers always found purchase, no matter the difficulty of a jump. It was a skill he had once used to perform his life’s work, now transformed for an entirely new purpose.

Lois didn’t know how long he ran. In the end, he found himself on the roof of a two story home, higher than any of the visible roofs in the area. Looking over the lower Keep, Lois finally got ahold of himself. He sat down on the ride of the peaked roof, chest heaving, legs burning, and the face finally forced to the back of his mind.

If any of his employers from years before had known the private war that Lois endured, none would have hired him. After all, what sort of assassin would the man be who could still not cope with the thought of his father? Surely no man so weak as to be driven to tears by the mere thought of his past could perform such a grisly task.

None but Vincent Lois.

He was a broken man, his slumped form illuminated only by the moon and the stars above. The cold was beginning to get to him, but he did his best to ignore it. He was still warm enough, warmed by the anger that still smoldered within. He would never admit it, but there were tears on his cheek.

The thoughts had returned, of the father that had made the first push to turn his young son to this life. Would he have been different if he had been given the knowledge of where this path would lead? No, Lois assured himself, his father held no esteem for anyone but himself. If he had, he would have shown it instead of leaving his son without anything…

“No!” Lois growled, teeth clenched tightly. His memories had been turning, now in the direction of his release from the lord’s service. He had no home to go to, his father had lost it all in his sloth. His mother had also been dying before he had seen her again. Nothing. That was young Vincent’s inheritance. Nothing. The road, the desolate paths he had trod after leaving his home…? No, Lois had taken those himself. Even they were denied to Lois when his father had lived, instead trapping him within the dark walls of the manor. Love…? Even less! Vincent had no memories of anything that might have been termed love.

The only thing left to Lois at his father’s death? An example. An example, but not one to follow. An example to part paths from, an example showing exactly what a man should not do with his life. Nothing else. Lois had been left to fend for himself, to survive himself, to make himself.

“I crafted this life for myself,” Lois whispered. “I am a craftsman, I crafted this path, built it with my own hands, created every twist, placed every marker. I made myself.” The voice that said this trembled slightly, but contained some pride. “I asked no favors, I have worked for everything I have ever possessed.”

Pride. That is what he felt. He was proud of having built this life for himself. How long had he survived alone? He had never asked quarter, never given quarter. He had fought, bitten, torn his way to where he was now. He had run more risks than many others could ever dream of, and he had survived. What man would not be proud of such a legacy?

He removed his left glove, staring at the palm. A strange scar still marked his palm, the lines almost forming something tangible. He knew what the shape was supposed to be. Only he knew, as the scar was now so intermixed with others of the kind to be recognized.

Sighing, Lois slipped the glove back on. None could ever know what it meant. He himself had defaced the symbol, slicing his palm with his own daggers. He remembered the pain, both of the original wound and of the ones that he had inflicted. The pride was falling. The price for a life such as his was great. The pride melted in his chest, replaced by an empty feeling.

“Hey you, what are you doing up there?” a voice called, shaking Lois back from his considerations.

“Go away.” Lois didn’t know immediately whether his voice was audible only to him, or if he had spoken loud enough.

“Get off of my roof, or I’ll call the Watch!” The voice was female, but held a sense of extreme authority.

“Leave me be.” Lois’ voice held much more vigor in it now. His concentration was fully on the person below now. His eyes dimly saw the figure of a human woman standing in the main road, arms akimbo as she spoke to him.

“The only thing I’m going to leave you is rotting in the Keep’s dungeons, you fool. Get down off of my roof, now!” The woman was not impressed by Lois’ glare. She tapped a foot as though she were a mother correcting her child.

Lois hand tapped the dagger at his side thoughtfully. One more person couldn’t worsen his situation at all. Least of all his conscience, if he still had one. Still, the part of him that had forced him out of the assassin’s trade won him over, and his fingers relaxed. Besides, who was to say that there wasn’t some Watch member watching him as it was.

Lois stood up, stabilizing himself as he felt the effects of adrenaline wearing off. He jumped from the roof, smiling slightly to himself as it became apparent that jumping from the roof to the ground was not the method that she had expected. He came out of his roll, standing a few feet to her side, and leveled a cold stare at her.

“I feel it fit to warn you that I will likely be back,” he said, a slight bit of sarcasm evident in his voice.

“Not on my roof you don’t!” The woman insisted, staring at him with equal intensity. “I just had it repaired. I’m not about to wait through six months of leaks while we save up to fix it again! Next time, I call the Watch first.”

Lois shook his head and walked away. The confrontation had put him in a strangely happier mood, but it only lasted for about thirty steps. From there on, Lois was once more deep in thought.

Although he had managed to burn off his rage aimed at his father, he still had not figured out what he was going to do. It terrified him, despite how much he denied it, that he would change so drastically if he stayed in the Keep. What if he became a woman? He snorted. Disgrace. He would be a thing of ridicule. Then again, it would completely remake him. Likely, he would lose all that he had ever worked for in the way of skills. His life as an assassin would be lost behind that guise better than any other.

Did he want that? The assassin in him cried out for him to find a horse and get out of the Valley before that could happen. Yet, the other side, the side that had pushed him from that profession, insisted that he stay. It would be for the best.

Skills could be relearned. His fighting style could be reworked. After all, flexibility was essential for an assassin. The face of a woman would go far to destroy the man that was wanted dead by so many in the south. Yes. The assassin was satisfied. Once more, he could make himself feared.

The same went for the animal curse. Underneath a coat of fur, scales, feathers, or some other such feature, he would be unrecognizable. A small name change, and a whole new identity could be created. He had, after all, faked his death twice before. Once more could not be too hard.

A child? It would likely rob him of his more effective techniques but… What was more dangerous to an unsuspecting person than a child? Especially to the South, he could still perform adequately…

He shook his head in frustration. How long ago had it been since he resolved to leave that life behind? Why did that part of him always return to haunt him? He thought it had been over those many years ago, and yet… It never left!

How could it? The reminder of those years were all around. From the clothes that he wore, to the daggers always present on his belt. His manner of talking was still how he always used to secure employment. He was always looking to manipulate the path of a casual talk towards whatever he wished to speak of, all while the people around him thought that the reason for that change of subject had been spontaneous. He was still very adept at protecting his past. And yet, by protecting that past, he was drawing on a skill from it.

His steps had taken him towards the inn where he had been staying, even without him realizing it. He looked up at the dark structure. A low light shone from the commons room, but that was the only illumination. He contemplated his fate for a while longer, then marched for the inn.

He would stay, on that he had finally settled. Although he thought that this decision had been reached long ago, it had been just now that he finally found himself fully settled on it. As for why he was staying, however, he felt that he would still have to fight the war between the part of him that still embraced assassination as the thing that had kept him alive and the side that wanted no more to do with his former life.

As he crossed the threshold into the inn, he looked behind him. He thought he caught sight of something dashing through the shadows, but it was gone in that instant. Shaking it off as a trick of the light, he went to his room, falling asleep quickly.


Lois’ dagger left its sheath before he had even regained consciousness. His eyes snapped open a moment later, the blade held in a position that could be quickly used for either defense or offense. This was always the way he awoke when disturbed, but this time he could not see anything that might have woken him.

The dagger was shifted quickly to his left hand as he moved to light a lantern. He did so slowly, making sure that no one ambushed him from the shadows as he did so, but the room remained quiet. As the flame flickered to life though, it went out almost instantly.

Lois eyed the lantern for a moment, fingers tensing on the blade. Ready…

“Afraid of the dark?”

The blade hissed through the air, burying itself up to the hilt in the wall of the room. The lantern broke as Lois dropped it, a dagger replacing it as he stood quietly, listening for any further voices. He moved silently to where the other dagger was, then turned, facing the rest of the room as he worked silently to free the weapon from the wood that held it.

“What is it? Shadow Master lost his nerve?” the voice taunted. Lois twisted, bringing the blade free and dropping into a fighter’s stance facing the source of the voice.

“Show yourself,” Lois responded.

“You are in no position to make demands,” the voice sounded. Lois winced. Curse whoever was trying to intimidate him. They even knew his own ways of intimidation.

“You’ve yet to prove yourself to be in any great position,” Lois responded, shifting slightly to keep himself ready for any sudden attack. His senses were alert, listening, watching, even feeling the changes in pressure in the surrounding floorboards. He felt a slight sag in the wood from behind, and he reacted accordingly. Nothing. Not a mouse was visible behind him.

The voice laughed at the failed attack. “On the contrary, Lois, I have the strongest position possible to my advantage.” The voice had come from the other side of the room. Nothing was visible there, however. Curses, the person even seemed to know Lois’ style. It seemed as though they were throwing their voice just as he did for added advantage.

“No position is impervious,” Lois shot back. “When I do find you, you will sing a different tune.”

The voice laughed. It was no ordinary laugh, but seemed to have its source all over the room, no definite position. Blast, even Lois could not throw his voice that well. “Actually, Lois, there is one.” The voice came. Then, in a grating whisper from directly to his left the invader spoke. “Inside your mind.”

Lois lashed out, all of his force driving left and upwards, throwing his weight into it. Yet, once again, the darkness held no enemy.

Lois’ breath came in heavy gasps. “You’re only trying to intimidate me,” he shot back, finally recovering. Inside his mind? No enemy could gain that sort of foothold, least of all without Lois noticing.

“You’re losing your confidence, Lois,” the voice spoke. Now it was directly before him. Lois made no move however, instead kneeling down in a rather indefensible position, clearly showing his back to any attacker. “What’s this, giving up so quickly?”

“Never,” Lois said, voice hardly above a whisper. He concentrated; nothing would get away from him, nothing would stand and taunt him from the shadows. No man could outdo the Shadow Master at his own craft!

A light sound and a sudden vibration came from his right. No move was taken by Lois however. Nothing visible to anyone else, anyway.

“Come now, Vincent, do you really think that your tricks can work on me?” The voice came from the right direction. Still, Lois didn’t move. He waited, patient. He had to be ready, but he couldn’t jump before the opportune moment.

Two fingers gripped something from Lois’ boot. Every muscles tense, every bit of Lois’ willpower was focused on his next move. A small vibration from the same direction. Another, closer this time. A third. The faint sound of glass being crushed. A fourth, a nearly undetectable sound of liquid being disturbed.

And Lois’ body launched into motion, a cry rising in his throat as he attacked. A dart, hardly larger than the thrower’s thumbnail, led the attack. Lois himself followed immediately behind, both daggers flashing as they sliced through the air.

The figure before him hardly reacted. The flinch he made was nearly undetectable, but enough to make the dart miss by a hairsbreadth. Two more daggers flashed, one connecting with Lois’ own, forcing it up. The second drove below the first, aiming for Lois’ stomach, but was blocked solidly, Lois’ elbow catching his opponent’s wrist, blocking both daggers with one arm. Lois’ second dagger found a hole in the other’s defenses, coming from above and aimed at the head.

And then he was gone. Lois’ attack met nothing but air. His breathing was the only sound audible in the room. “Blast you, where are you?” Lois yelled out, searching for the man he had just fought.

A laugh sounded from above him. “I am the one assassin that your skills cannot defeat,” the voice said, once more echoing from every wall at once.

“There is no such man! Show your face, my daggers thirst for you blood!”

“Do they really? Very well…” The voice stopped abruptly at this phrase, leaving Lois to stare about once more in confusion. Then, from right beside him, the voice sounded again. “Then let them taste it.”

Lois didn’t hesitate. Both daggers slashed, aimed to kill the intruder with one attack. Finally, after so many tense moments, Lois was awarded with the sound of his attack connecting, and a cry of such pain that he had only heard equaled once in his life. The man he had hit staggered back, crying out, until his cries died, the figure crumpling, falling into the center of the floor.

Lois grunted, looking at the dead man who had been tormenting him. Finally, he would be able to sleep soundly.

Lois stepped towards the figure, wanting to see who it was that had been foolish enough to try his talents. He had almost reached the body, when a sudden sound startled him.

THUMP!

Lois whirled about, only to be greeted by the sight of the pool of oil on the floor lighting all at once. He stumbled back, the heat unbearable, until he tripped over the body that lay prone on his bedroom floor. He got back up, not worried so much about the body any more. How had the fire been lit?

He had little time to wonder. The bed lit quickly, the fire too hot for the thin straw mattress that he had been sleeping on. As it went up, the entire room was lit brilliantly, and, to Lois’ opinion, far hotter than it should have been. He cringed, but stood his ground, trying to think of anything he could do. In the end, all he could think of to do was to get out of the room.

That is, it was the only idea, until he found out that the door was somehow locked from the outside.

After pounding on the door for a few moments and trying to get someone’s attention, Lois could only stare at the door and curse his luck. He turned, moving towards one of the room’s windows. It was also sealed, and he could do nothing to open it.

He swore loudly, moving to the other window, only to find it in a similar state. He glanced back towards the fire. It seemed closer now. Blast, he had to get out of this room!

“What’s wrong, Lois? Can’t take the heat?” Lois stiffened. It was the voice again. He whirled about, daggers drawn in the same motion. And there, standing in a pool of what Lois assumed to be his own blood, was the man, smiling evilly at him.

“I told you, you cannot kill me,” the man said, withdrawing a hand from his side, showing the blood from the wound Lois had inflicted. The man’s face was just like many faces Lois had seen in his younger days: White, as if all of the blood were drained from it. And yet, this monster still lived.

Lois only hesitated for a moment looking at the man before he brought his most deadly weapon to bear. Another dart flew from his fingers, imbedding itself in the man’s neck. The man smiled, plucking it from where it had landed and dabbing at the pinprick of blood that rose from the wound.

“Tsk, tsk, Lois. I thought you were beyond these dirty assassin tricks.” Lois snarled as the insult his him.

“I am not an assassin. That part of my life is over!”

“No, Lois, you think it’s over. You think it’s dead, just like you thought I was dead. You’ll never get rid of it, and you’ll never get rid of me. Both of us are part of you, and you’d better get used to it.”

“Liar!” Lois launched furiously into an attack, both blades aimed at severing the head from the shoulders, but the enemy simply disappeared into thin air, leaving Lois with nothing to stop him, nothing to keep him from plunging into the flames.

He screamed as he fell onto the ground, the fire encompassing him. The agony was too much, the searing heat too intense, driving him out of his mind, leaving only the pain to tell him that he still lived…

CRASH!

Lois was up, the motion of drawing his dagger and sitting up so exaggerated that it carried him over the edge of the bed. He was on his feet a moment later, bracing himself against the wall, feeling the sweat beginning to dry in the cool air.

“A dream,” he whispered to himself. The dagger was now held at a relaxed posture, the shock of the dream slowly wearing off. He wiped his forehead with his arm. He had never experienced that sort of a dream before. Never had he felt so sure that he had met his match.

He coughed, still feeling the effects of the smoke from his dream. He knew that it hadn’t been real, but the reflex remained the same. Sitting on the bed, Lois contemplated for a few moments. He had known that face, it had spoken to him like that before, although it had been in the waking world, not in the relative safety of his dreams. The expressions, the mannerisms, the way he spoke… It was so familiar.

And then it hit him. The man that had started him on his path. The man that had offered him the training in assassination. It was the same way of speaking, insulting to bring out the best in a man. And seemingly so untouchable, even in real life. No matter how much Lois was sure that he’d finally cleared the man’s defenses, nothing had ever worked. But why had it taken so long for this presence to manifest itself in his dreams?

Lois realized that he had been working his glove off slowly as he thought. It had reminded of the man’s other contribution to Lois’ life. Lois rubbed his fingers on his palm slowly, remembering, before he actually once more looked at the symbol.

Although marred by Lois’ own self-inflicted scars, the pattern could still be discerned by one who knew what to look for. It was artful in a sick way. The lines were intricate, drawn to perfection by the edge of that man’s dagger. The fire in his dream… That must have been where it had come from.

Lois shuddered. The feeling of the white-hot blade slicing the symbol of the assassin’s guild in his left palm was still fresh in his memory. It had been his final test, to allow the symbol to be etched in his flesh without once begging for mercy. It had hardened him, but it had also scarred him, in more ways than one.

Lois sighed. His discussion with himself last night had to have caused this. The thought of his life as an assassin fresh in his mind, his dreams had taken him in that direction. The dreams would pass.

He began to slip the glove back onto his hand, but suddenly stopped. His mouth moved silently, questioning if his eyes were deceiving him.

The scar was becoming more defined, the others about it fading slightly. No, that couldn’t be right. Lois blinked his eyes quickly, trying to clear his vision, but it continued. Also, his palm seemed to be darkening.

With a sharp inhalation, Lois realized what was going on. The Curse was taking him. But why was that scar showing through so clearly while the others were fading?

This thought was quickly discarded as Lois started to feel hot. Curses, Lois though, he was definitely changing! He shrugged off his coat then, as it became apparent that this was not enough, also removed his tunic. Still, he felt hot. He only hoped that it wouldn’t be quite so extreme when it finished. Perhaps the change brought on most of the warmth.

Lois winced as he felt his hand cramp. He quickly moved his fingers about, looking at then as he did. They were shortening. Lois watched as this happened, thinking all the while that he would have to learn how to use his daggers again. Maybe it was for the best…

His thoughts were cut off as the same feeling began in his other hand. He kept working his left hand while he took off his right glove with his teeth. The same changes were apparent, but also apparent was the light covering of white fur that was beginning on his hand. Also, he noticed that his nails were beginning to lengthen, as well as thinning towards the end until they were razor sharp. By this time, they had also migrated to the ends of his fingers, which seemed to have finished shortening, now a little less than three-quarters of their original length.

Lois noticed that the thumb seemed even a bit shorter relative to the others. He hoped that he could find a way to get around that in his fighting style.

The white fur had started growing all over his body now. It was simply white, plain, with no spot, no stripe, no marking to blemish the surface of the fur coat. At least not yet…

The fur began to climb towards Lois’ face while he watched what he could of the transformation. He felt no pain, only the somewhat uncomfortable heat that the fur caused. His hair started to fall out, replaced by the white fur almost instantly. He caught one of the locks of hair as it fell, looking at it and shaking his head.

“Not much of a loss, I suppose,” he said quietly.

Unseen to him, the scars in his face were covered by the white fur like the rest of the skin. Only the three scars that sliced close by Lois’ eye did not follow this general rule. In stark contrast to all of the fur around them, them were marked in black fur, leaving him with some tangible reminder of the battle that he had been closest to dying in.

Lois stretched as he felt something akin to tightness in his back. As he did, he could swear that he gain a few inches of height. Comparing himself with the window confirmed this; he had gained about six inches.

Just as this realization hit him, he noticed that he had started getting shorter. Startled by this seeming contradiction, Lois was somewhat startled when his breeches started to slip down from around his slimming waistline. He was too caught up in the transformation to much care, but he did take the time to lock the door before his trousers slipped all the way down. The journey to the door did show him one thing, however. His legs were definitely changing.

Once that he was sure that he would not receive any unexpected interruptions, he released his grip on his breeches. His legs had definitely changed, most noticeably in the hips. The structure was different, and the reason for his decreasing height became obvious. To compensate for the increase in body length, his legs were getting shorter. His arms also appeared to do the same thing, although the structure remained far more familiar.

The fur was still unblemished white except for the area where his triplet scars had once occupied. His legs finished changing, and the fur continued down, coating his feet. As his hands had done before, his feet began to become padded. For the first time, the change was uncomfortable, making Lois have to sit on the bed as the pads covered the bottom of his feet, as well as the bottoms of his toes. His toes shortened, and the nails lengthened and sharpened into claws. He winced, although there was no pain. It just seemed to him that he should have experienced some from that change.

Lois began to take stock of the situation as fur covered the last visible parts of his body. What was he? He had not seen anything quite so… Well, white. He was still considering this when the next part of his change occurred. For this, he did feel some pain. His face began to take on a new shape, the skull itself reforming drastically, a short muzzle beginning to force its way away from his face. He flinched as the white muzzle split his vision, then as his eyes moved slightly back away from the new addition on his face. He couldn’t see it, but his eyes had become completely black, contrasting highly with the extreme whiteness of the rest of his form. His nose also turned black, assuming its new position at the end of the muzzle.

Probing about the strange new muzzle with his tongue, he could feel his teeth changing. It was strange. He was used to the relatively flat surfaces of his human teeth, and the new teeth that filled his mouth were all viciously pointed, more suited to the title of fangs than proper teeth. He could taste a slight tang of blood, probably caused by the dramatic shifting that his teeth were undergoing. He spat. Although he had been an assassin, he had never fancied the taste of blood.

His ears had rounded out, losing their lobes while he was experimenting with his new muzzle. They now occupied a much higher position on his head. He took little notice, instead prodding at the muzzle with the tips of his claws. He suddenly flinched and let out a strange chirping sound a pair of whiskers suddenly grew out of his face, touching his fingers and causing a sudden sensation for which he had not been prepared. He chuckled slightly, a sound that came out as more of a chitter than any human noise.

He suddenly felt a strange pain behind him. He reached back, feeling the new appendage that was just now growing from the end of his spine. He took the tail between his fingers and, when it had grown long enough, Brought it around to where he could see it better.

It was mostly white, like most of the rest of his body. The tip, however, for nearly the last foot, was black. The tail, in and of itself, was not too long, not compared to some of the other morphs than Lois had seen, anyway. It was slightly less than half as long as he was tall. It was also about the width of a cat’s tail.

Lois waited for a few moments, making sure that the changes had completed, before doing anything else. Once he was reasonably sure, he once more took stock of his new form.

In the end, the net result of his height changes basically ended in an impasse, with very little height actually lost or gained. His arms were considerably shorter, a fact for which he was not very grateful. Long arms had been an integral part of his battle style. He would have to adjust.

His legs had also significantly decreased in length, perhaps the most concerning of his changes as far as his fighting style was concerned. His stride had a lot to do with some of his more defensive maneuvers. He hoped that this could either be countered or lived with. He would need to take this body out for a run later to see…

His eyes seemed to dull a bit in their sensitivity, and he had some trouble distinguishing colors, although this trouble was limited to colors that were very close to each other. Otherwise, little seemed to have changed. He hoped absently that the creature he had become could see well in the dark. That would counter some of the damage done otherwise.

Thinking again of his battle techniques brought him back to where the change had started. He looked at his hands, wondering how the claws could help him, and if he would be able to use his daggers as effectively with shorter finger… And he stopped. He shook his head, blinking rapidly, then stared again at his palms.

An eerily familiar mark stood out in white on his left palm. The figure of an assassin’s dagger, etched in his hand as a human by the blade of his one time trainer. The strangely intricate letters that were written about the dagger, the creed of that assassin’s guild, clear in its message to all.

‘No life is worth anything except for your own.’

Lois closed his hand. His mind raced, tears threatening in his newly-changed eyes. He realized now that he had been thinking as the assassin ever since the change had come. He felt himself trembling, the rage that had been disrupted by the change coming back as he realized that the Curse had left to him that symbol. Why?

Lois half sat, half fell down onto his bed. His left handed tightened, forming a fist, until he pressed so hard that he felt his new claws digging into his padded palm. Let them dig, he though bitterly. Perhaps they could tear away that mark, that cursed symbol of his past life.

He heard that voice again in his mind, the same that had visited him in his dream of last night. This time, however, the words had been spoken in the waking world, albeit nearly twenty-five years ago.

“This symbol can never be erased,” he had said, his voice as warm as ice as he traced out the shape on the young Vincent’s palm. “Once applied, the mark of an assassin will be worn until death, like it or not.”

At that time, Lois had paid little heed. It had been a choice between performing that strange, painful ritual and death. At the time, accepting the ritual as necessary seemed easy. Now, however, Lois was not sure that he had made the right decision. That symbol!

Lois had come to his paws at some time during his reminiscing, pacing rigidly about the room as he seethed. He wouldn’t let himself get out of control now, though. He was settled on it, determined that this battle would be won on the battleground of his mind. The Keep had already seen too much of his temper, while all the while he had purposed to keep it in check. So many things he had purposed, and they now all seemed to fall apart before his very eyes.

But why had the Curse left him that symbol, and not the other scars that had been used to deface it? “The mark of an assassin will be worn until death, like it or not,” the voice echoed inside his head again. He had thought those words to be some sort of threat, something told to every man who joined that assassin’s guild to deter them from leaving. Now, however, he was not so sure. Had there been some magic involved, something that would preserve the mark against destruction.

Lois almost shouted a curse at this point, but held his tongue. No, now was not the time for that. Instead, he closed his eyes, only the sound of labored breathing now disturbing him. Curses, he was losing himself again. He swallowed, now intent on subduing that fury, willing himself to put out the fire that burned within him without lashing out and making a scene as he had before.

His breathing became more measured as he got control. The trembling increased in vigor for a moment, a strange chill coming over him as he fought back the rage. Then it stopped.

Lois’ body remained tense as he stood there, but he had now subdued it once more. The control that had taken him years to master had one again returned, leaving him standing, the picture of calm, while inside the fires of his anger threatened to burst out again. One thing remained disturbing him, however. This technique was for use on the battlefield, when his life could rest on his ability or inability to control himself. He had never had to use it for something like this before.

It was the Keep. So he thought, and he tried to force himself to accept it. The Keep had held the promise of changing his body forever, and the possibility that perhaps then he would finally be able to fully remove all memory of his life as an assassin. It had taken him now, as he had known it would, but it had betrayed him. It had given him a form that he could live with, yes, but it had also left etched in his flesh the one thing that could never allow him to be free of that life.

No, not the Keep. It was him. Every choice he made led him farther into this mire. He sighed. Everything he knew now, everything he owned, everything he saw, everything he heard… The assassin had controlled for so long, it would not now relinquish its hold on his life.

Nothing he had done could ever destroy that part of him. Everything he had was owed to that way of life. Every coin he now had was blood money, paid to kill in the stead of his employer. His clothing was ideally suited for the task; every article of clothing held come secret, some place to secure a hidden weapon, a poison dart, or a lock pick. His weapons belonged in the hands of an assassin, not in the possession of the man he now wished he could be. His movements, his fighting style, even his manner of speech, he had learned them all as an assassin, and they all still refused to feel right outside of that profession.

Lois looked back at the scar, now tracing the lines with a claw from his right hand. It seemed to mock him, laughing at him as he realized that his hopes of destroying it were dashed. As he traced the lines, the voice from his past again sounded in his ears, but now it again held a message that he had not heard before.

“You are an assassin as sure as this mark mars your flesh,” it said. He fancied that he heard the man laughing now, glorying in the assurance that Lois could not escape the path he had chosen those long years ago.

Lois had to fight the anger back again, then he responded in calm, level tones. “I have defeated enemies far greater than this in the past. I will not be defeated by an enemy that only exists in my mind.”

Again, the phantom voice spoke, light as a breeze on his round ears. “This enemy cannot be defeated by force of arms.” A light chuckle seemed to land on his ears. “A man cannot destroy himself.”

Lois stiffened at that, but settled once more. “A half truth,” he muttered, responding to the voice in his mind. “I cannot destroy this enemy. I can subdue him, however, and I will.”

The voice chuckled slowly, drifting through his head, before a grating whisper finally responded. “I will quite enjoy watching you try.”

Lois was able to control himself far better this time. He made no retort. Instead, he waited quietly for a few moments, making sure that the voice in his mind would not torment him any more, then opened his eyes with a quiet sigh.

“I will not be denied,” he whispered to himself quietly. He looked over his body, finally settling his eyes back on the image in his palm. “This is a new beginning. This mark has no power over me.”

He was finally completely calm, completely settled in his purpose to do away with his former self. He prepared for the day, mind now off of the past and on the future. He was determined to make the latter better than the former.

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"Fate of the Shadow Master", copyright Lurking Wolf