"I can't tell what happened to him," Wessex said to the waiting Misha as he gave his analysis. "It looks like a perfectly natural wolf, albeit a large one. I would usually say that he was just effected by the curse. But, if you say is true, he had just stepped within the curse's borders."
They stood outside the infirmary. They had taken a whole day and night, and then another morning to get back to the keep, as the newly, yet oddly, transformed wolf proved to be as heavy as a soldier with full gear. All the while the wolf still remained unconscious.
"Could the curse be increasing in strength?" Misha speculated.
Wessex shook his head, "No, otherwise some of the others may have succumbed around the keep, and I've seen no sign of that happening. It could be that he already spent a week within the boundary, and didn't clear the magic out of his system."
"That could be a possibility," a voice spoke from down the hall. The fox and the boy turned to face Rickkter. "We had a rough climb from-"
"Where we found him," Misha interrupted with a flat stare. Rickkter looked oddly at Misha, but understood.
"He may have been close enough to the curse boundary," the tall raccoon continued.
"Yes, but does that explain the sudden onset his transformation occurred" Wessex asked, "or the release of power that you mentioned?"
"Maybe he had ways of protecting himself, and that protection failed," Rickkter replied, "when he couldn't protect himself anymore, it came all at once. "
"That would mean he would have to have some sort of amulet, or be a powerful wizard?" Misha guessed.
Rickkter nodded, "He has an extraordinary amount of power. So that might be the answer."
Wessex agreed, "Then he could have lashed out with it as he changed, like a child throwing toys during a temper tantrum."
"And we were the toys," Misha muttered. He turned back to Wessex and asked, "So when are you going to give him legs. If he's affected by the curse. You can counteract some of its effects like before."
Wessex shook his head as he answered, "That was among one of the things that I've been trying to do while you were pacing around here for the past hour or so. Everything just... flowed around him, like a river going around an islet. I can't do anything for him until he wakes up. Until then, he's going to have to put up with four legs. Excuse me gentleman, there is much I need to study before Drake wakes," Wessex walked down the hallway.
Misha slumped against the wall in defeat.
"Come on," said Rickkter to the fox, "I'll get you an ale. You look like you could use one," Rickkter considered the boy wizard's words.
Arla came running around the corner Wessex had disappeared. A mutt appeared just behind her.
Seeing Misha's disposition, she eagerly asked with haunted anticipation, "Is he all right?"
"As well as anyone effected by the curse," Rickkter replied.
"The curse?" she said.
Misha nodded, "He needs his rest. He was fine before we got here," he answered her concern that he may have been injured, "but the change took its toll. He's been unconscious for the better part of a today. He'll be all right."
Arla nodded, shunting away her curiosity and worry for the well-being of one she counted friend.
"You'll tell me if he's awake, right?" She asked.
Misha answered with a nod of his head. And she went back the other way.
"Come on, lets go get a drink," Rickkter suggested.
Misha said to Rickkter, "It's good to see that she cares."
"Ha!" Rickkter exclaimed with genuine amusement, "this about a woman who'd cut your throat rather than talk to you."
"Yes, Arla does tend to have a mean streak," the fox commented, "She's unusually bitter about her transformation, but she is extremely adaptable, and loyal. Lately, though, she's been very reclusive, ever since the Caroline came in..." he trailed off mournfully.
Rickkter didn't answer, he knew what Misha was talking about. He was the one who had brought Caroline in. He sensed Misha's emotions flitter between mournful and to one that blurred the lines of hatred, anger, and vengence.
"Let's go get that drink," Rickkter suggested a second time.
"No thank you. I'd better go over Wessex's study. Maybe I might be able to help." Misha walked past Rickkter.
Rickkter watched Misha turn the corner. He looked back into the room at the still form of the wolf, a shadowed expression across his face. Before he closed the door, he said dark, "I, too, have a few things I need to do as well, and I won't have you threatening this place... wolf."
The smell is dead, lifeless, sterile. It smells of the absence of life, absence of death. It is a smell attempting to cover the presence of life and death: to forget it. The being inside the room felt that even the absence of smell would be more pleasant than the vapors imbued upon its surroundings.
The wolf on the bed raised its head. It's white fur streaks framing golden irises that glared in the sunlight streaming through an opening in the wall. It felt the warmth of it on the black fur of its face.
It paused to smell again, its grayed muzzle twitching as it sought to draw in the air and the tasteless odors.
The wolf determined it was inside a cave of man-things, yet not of man-things. It smelled of animals that were man-things; an odd smell like man-things, but not. There is also smell of man-thing cubs that were older than cubs, and of man-thing females.
It knew it didn't belong there.
The large wolf stood on the bed, and looked around. The hole in the cave wall was too high to jump up to. The cave itself was rock, except for the tree part at either side.
It decided to take the tree-part to the right. It couldn't walk through rock, as it also knew it couldn't walk through a tree, but trees were easier to bend than rock. Maybe this tree-part was like a branch, and would bend.
It's brown furred shoulders ached to be stretched, but the wolf was in unfamiliar territory, and was at peak alertness. It couldn't afford to delay. The wolf didn't even take the time to yawn.
The wolf pushed against the tree-part, but it didn't want to move. It pushed harder, hoping that maybe more muscle to encourage the flat branch to move.
With a click, the tree-part did move, yielding with unexpected ease. The wolf, not knowing the branch would do this, fell forward, barreling into a short raccoon man-thing, and slamming them both into the cave wall. It heard a dog growling to its right, standing next to a dog man-thing female.
The wolf knew that it wasn't supposed to be near man-things, let alone their caves and dens. Without bothering to frighten the dog or the man-things off, it ran down one cave, seeking escape from man-thing territory, in order to find its own hunting grounds.
Arla watched the startled wolf run down the corner. A little peeved at whoever played this prank on them.
"I'm going to have to look for that little prankster," she muttered under her breath, helping Dr. Brian Coe up to his feet. Her dog was licking his face, despite his protests.
"Are you all right?" she asked the doctor.
"Seems so," the raccoon answered.
"I'll tell the guards to look for him. An infirmary is no place for these sort of jokes."
"You should get the guards, all right," said Brian, "but this was no prank."
"What do you mean?"
"That rather large wolf wasn't playing a prank; it was scared," explained the doctor in an urbane manner. "When you find the guards, tell them that Drake may have gone feral."
Arla stopped cold in her tracks. A stillness settled over the hall, the thudding of her heartbeats the only sound for the briefest of instants. Her dog whined, nuzzling her hand.
"How can you be sure?" she asked.
"I'm not, but I saw his eyes briefly, and I've seen that sort of look on one particular individual on numerous occasions: Prince Phil."
She drew in a deep breath, "I think you'd better be the one to get the guards, I'll start looking for Drake. We don't want to lose him. Also, tell them to alert Misha."
Dr. Coe nodded before walking off the opposite direction the wolf had ran.
"Let's find him," she told her mutt, who started sniffing after the trail.
The cave is endless, without a mouth, or a tail. Some smells haven't been disturbed for many, many seasons.
But it is the den of humans, it is no place for a wolf.
The wolf started smelling the human smells, trying to get the freshest scent. Maybe that thing had managed to leave the cave.
Then the wolf caught a familiar smell, faded by the wears of time, much older than the wolf would have thought possible. The smell was its own, to the wolf's confusion, as he had not passed this way recently, but yet it was still his.
The wolf decided to follow it one way. It kept its head lowered, its eyes focused unblinkingly ahead and its ears cocked at either side, listening for danger as its sense of smell continued along the path... until the wolf reached another tree-part. The wolf knew that these branches swung to small dens. Had this been his own den once? It smelled the path to either side of the tree-part, but that smell was even older; far too scarce.
The wolf decided to renew his smell at the branch, and to go back to where it originally caught his old smell, and follow it the other way.
Misha conferred with Wessex over the only items they had been able to recover after Drake's transformation. The fox unrolled the objects from the cloaks he had wrapped over them to protect them from the elements.
"This is what you interrupted my drink for. Not much to show you," Misha said.
"And you say the rest of his belongings on him transformed with him?" Wessex asked Misha, who inclined his head.
Confused, Wessex said, "That doesn't make sense. The transformation doesn't affect the clothes people wear. Even at the Battle of Three Gates. By all reports, those that age regressed where swamped in their clothes, to which I can attest. Those who were affected by the others... um... well..." he flushed at his situation, "shall we say tore their clothes during the change, if they didn't share the same problem as those who regressed. This doesn't make sense."
Misha picked up the crossbow, and was caught off guard when it nearly jumped from his hand as the limbs sprung forward.
"Interesting," he muttered as he turned it over in his hands. He looked at the latches which held the limb in place. Past it, he could see the thick spring inside. "How the heck do you load this anyway?"
"Misha," Wessex said with practiced patience. "Let me examine that, I'd rather not have any arrows flying around because of your curiosity. It could have magical properties, which, I'll remind you, is why I had these brought here in the first place."
"I don't think this crossbow is magical," Misha said, handing it over so Wessex could sweep it for magic properties, "but it seems to have a lot of mechanics involved."
"You may be right," Wessex agreed, "It has a little magic to it, but nothing that would be on the caliber of the usual enchantments one would expect with weapons. That may be because it isn't activated, though." He passed the weapon back to Misha, "I'm going to check the staff next."
Misha noticed a seam in the stock of the crossbow, and a little button, which, after pointing the weapon at an unoffending wall, he pressed. The side of the stock came off, revealing gears, pulleys, and racks and pinions. "Whoever constructed this was a genius," he whispered in astonishment.
"The staff has some magical properties," Wessex said to himself, taking down notes, "There are runes on it, but they aren't activated. They look like runes of defense, but they're very small, and incredibly complex."
"I think I see some runes in this, too," Misha told Wessex. He showed the runes on the gears.
"They look like they may be there for lubrication and protection against wear," Wessex commented.
Misha held the crossbow at ready. "I wonder..." He pulled back on a lever near the fore of the weapon. A rack connected to the gears started the whole assembly rotating. The string pulled back as Misha added more muscle to it. The runes on the gears glowed dimly, yet strong. "Mechanical advantage. This bow has a lot of muscle to it. I would hate to have to load this without these gears."
"I guess those runes really must be for lubrication, and maybe longevity," said Wessex.
"Yes, those gears look very precise, I wouldn't want to make those very often," Misha agreed. He shoved the lever back to its original position, and a bolt loaded itself from inside the barrel.
"Now that's interesting," the fox commented, removing the bolt so it wouldn't accidentally go off and hurt someone. He turned the bow and placed the stock on the ground. He pressed the latch, and the straining limbs bent back, pulling their bases and the springs away from the catch. He placed a hand on either limbs, and pushed down. The springs creaked, resisting the pull, but eventually allowed the limbs to hit another catch, aligning themselves with the stock of the weapon. "For ease of transportation," Misha noted.
Wessex had gone back to his examination of the staff, noticing the other end of the staff, opposite of the spear head.
"Now this is interesting," Wessex told Misha. Misha put down the crossbow and picked up Drake's bag. "I don't recognize the metal, but look at the sculpting on it."
"I noticed it when putting the spear away, but I didn't take too close of a look at it. We were in somewhat of hurry, you understand."
The work to which Wessex referred was the wolf's head counterbalancing the other end of the spear.
"On closer inspection," said Misha, "doesn't that likeness kind of remind you of Drake's own right now? Even down to the facial fur patterns?"
Before the boy magus could answer, a guardswoman burst unannounced through the door.
"It would have been nice if you'd knocked," Wessex said curtly.
"I'm sorry, but Drake is awake," the guard answered.
"Well, then," Wessex said, his anger subsiding, "I guess he could answer some questions I have."
The woman shook her head, "I'm sorry, but that won't happen anytime soon. He escaped from the infirmary."
"Escaped?" questioned Misha, his eyebrows narrowing at her choice of words.
"Yes, Dr. Coe came to us after he and Arla went to check on Drake. He told me to tell you that the wolf has gone feral."
Misha turned his gaze heavenward. "Nothing around here is ever easy," he said, as he stepped toward the door, unconsciously shouldering Drake's pack.
The dog followed the trail closely with Arla close behind it, until the dog became confused at an intersection. Arla used her own nose, and determined the wolf must have doubled back on its trail.
"Arla!" a large guardsman called down the hallway she had come. Arla growled and cursed, as this would give more time for the wolf, Drake, to cover his tracks.
She didn't waste it.
"His trail split. Look for a large wolf down that hallway," she ordered, pointing to the right, "I'll take the left."
She didn't give him time to talk, but was on top of the dog's heels as they chased the scent leaving a slightly offended guard.
She finally reached the end of the trail, and growled again. It ended halfway down the hallway, right at a door. She was tempted to demolish it.
At that time, she heard Misha calling out behind her, "Arla, Stop!!"
"What is it!" she yelled down the hall at the approaching fox.
He reached her in a few strides. "What do you think you're doing?" He demanded.
"Searching for Drake, what does it look like?" she said. "If we're going to catch him we'd better hurry!" She started to walk past Misha-
Only to have Misha block her path. He was calm, despite her belligerent attitude.
"Oh? And what are you going to do when you find the terrified wolf, hmm?"
"It's Drake, and I'm going to find him, what else would I do?" she said impatiently.
"How are you going to catch him?" he inquired in an even, emotionless voice. "With what? For all intents and purposes, you are hunting a wild animal that's taller at the shoulder than your waist, and weighs more than I do."
Her resolve faltered, "Well, I-"
Misha shook his head.
"Arla, you're letting your emotions get in the way, which is Extremely odd for you. You usually keep a cool head, and think things through. Now, you're reckless. Regardless of whether you are Drake's friend or not, in the stage he's in, he could deal serious hurt."
Her silence answered him. She felt like a stripling again. Below the dog whined.
"Now, let's see what we can find out," Misha said slowly, calmly. He leaned down to see what the mutt had found.
Arla wrinkled her nose.
"It looks and smells like he piddled," she referred to her dog.
"Uh-hmm" Misha hummed in agreement, thinking about Drake.
"Bad dog," Arla scolded, although there was a half-hearted jest in her tone.
"Your dog?" Misha looked up, surprised. "This isn't his, Drake did this."
"Drake marked his scent here, but I didn't detect it anywhere else, not in the infirmary or any of the others?
"Why this room?" Misha wondered aloud, "What's so special about it?" He looked around, trying to get his bearings. "As a matter of fact, I've never been down this hallway, before. Have you?"
Arla shook her head as she thought about it. "He said he had been to the Keep before. Could this have been his room?"
"Maybe?" He tried the handle. When it refused to move, he stated, "It's locked."
"Regardless, the trail stopped here, and it doesn't look like he went in," Arla looked back the way they had came, "so he must have doubled back to a fork in the hallway back a ways."
"What is it?" Misha questioned her.
"I sent Kris down that way to look for Drake!"
Misha sighed discontently.
"Let's just hope that he didn't catch up with the wolf, then."
Kris hurried down the hall. He didn't know where to go, he was a guard, not a hunter.
So it was with great surprise that he caught up with the wolf.
Kris had grown up exclusively in the Keep, but she was called Kristin back then. She had heard of wolves, but had never thought of them much as bigger than the normal dogs around the keep.
So it was with great astonishment when he beheld the great monstrosity around the bend, cornered by the end of the hallway. It's muzzle wrinkled in the barest of threats, a rumble reverberating from its chest.
Kris had made the same mistake that Arla had: running into trouble without thinking ahead.
Of course, as he had no wilderness training that Arla had, Kris did all the wrong things. Thinking that this was just an oversized dog, he reached out with his hand...
Only to snatch it back as the wolf snapped at him. Its growl increased in volume..
The guard, at this totally unexpected reaction, withdrew his hand immediately to his sword. Since his change, Kris had the feeling of invincibility, being built strong and agile.
So it was another surprise when the giant wolf jumped on him and threw him like a rag doll.
"NO!" Arla cried out in vain as the blast flung the great wolf into the woods. Trees vanished to ash in the blast, while the forest floor caught on fire briefly, only to be extinguished again as the air became smoke, smothering the fire. The air around them was sucked into the momentary blaze.
Arla didn't think, with a snarl she flung herself at Rickkter, whom had thought the danger was only the wolf. Her fist almost connected, but the raccoon man merely brushed it aside without a second though. She would have drew her sword had Misha not restrained her.
"How could you!" she screamed. Before she fell to the ground weeping.
The raccoon picked himself off the ground dusted himself off.
Misha brought himself to his full height. "I would like to know your reasoning, too, Rickkter," he said, his tone fully indicating that it wasn't a request.
"He was circling around to attack Arla. I was in your line of fire, so I had to react," he walked past to see to the horses, ignoring the scene.
Misha glowered at the mage and then tried to talk to Arla, who was completely inconsolable.
"He wasn't trying to hurt me," Arla kept saying to herself, oblivious to the fox's presence.
Misha scowled, and looked at the smoldering remains of the trees in front of the party. He hugged, Arla, trying to give whatever comfort he could give. He listened around him, but all he heard were the coughing cries of Arla's grief and failure to bring the stranger to Metamor. She had failed.
Then he also made another realization. He listened to the coughs, yet Arla's body was still in her grief, not shuddering as the hacking he heard should have caused..
A voice yelled weakly from the skeletal remains of the copse of trees.
"Could somebody give an old man a hand, here?"
Rickkter's head shot up in disbelief, his wide eye affixing the black clad and soot-stained figure pulling itself over a charred stump.
The stranger hunched over as it tried regain its wind.
"Man, I haven't had the breath knocked out of me like that before," he stumbled toward the three Keepers, to fall flat on his face. He picked himself up again, and felt the soot on his armor. Between gasps and through a smile, he added, "Seems I'm a little singed to the eyebrows, too."
Arla ran toward Drake, now weeping in joy. She supported him over her shoulders as he finally started breathing regularly.
He looked back at the carnage behind him, "Man, looks like I'm lucky just to be singed. Could somebody fill me in with what happened? I seem to have had a little momentary lapse of memory."
"Of reason is more like it," Misha heard Rickkter mutter under his breath.
"The long and the short of it was that you turned into a wolf," Misha told Drake.
Drake glanced at the fox quizzically.
"So?" he replied.
"So..." Rickkter answered, "You went around completely feral for the past three or four days, injured a guard, devoured a couple deer, and was going to attack Arla."
Arla shook her head, knowing that Drake wouldn't have hurt her.
"Did I do all that on purpose?" Drake asked.
"Not really," Misha answered, cutting off any further words from Rickkter, "The guard made a stupid mistake and attacked you when you were cornered. As for Arla, well..."
She was still shaking her head. "I don't know what to think about what happened," she said to nobody in particular.
"Well, obviously Rickkter knew what to do to revert me back to my normal form, or at least sanity," Drake praised the raccoon, "Of course, any sort of mixing of magicks will have a rather explosive effect."
"That's impossible, with the curse," Misha exclaimed, "Wessex would have a conniption, if reversing it were that easy."
"You think that my change had to do with the curse?" Drake asked.
"What else could it be?" said Arla.
Drake shrugged, "Maybe it was just myself. Like an allergic reaction."
"I knew it!" Rickkter growled. "And you had a feeling too, Misha. You're a sorcerer, aren't you," he interrogated the old fighter.
Drake sighed. "You could say that, but I wouldn't. It's sort of an inherent power. I've never really mastered it, but it usually counters magicks, or at least protects me against them."
"But it didn't work, this time," Misha interjected.
Drake took a breath to contradict the fox, but then started chuckling, then laughing out loud.
"Great," Rickkter muttered derisively, "he's insane."
"No," said Drake, calming himself enough to be intelligible, "just an admirer of hubris.
"It did work, just a little too well. I had just thought about it when we entered the curse. I was asking one of your scouts...?" he held off, his eyes asking Misha a question.
"Eva," the fox answered.
"That's her name, I'm really horrible with them. Anyway, I was asking her a question when my power and the curse clashed.
"It's sort of unpredictable, but I somehow knew that I wouldn't be able to hold the curse off forever. I remembered that your scout... Finbar was his name, said that the curse affected humans, and even halflings, so to speak. At least beings with human blood in them. My brain likes to twist things to look at them from other perspectives. So I arrived at the conclusion that if I weren't human-"
"Then the curse wouldn't affect you," Rickkter finished, his eyes rolling in exasperation.
Drake clicked his tongue, "Give this man a cigar. So, instead of blocking the curse off, my magic merely turned me into a wolf. Spontaneous transformation.
"Now," the traveler continued, "I wasn't really fully prepared for it, and the shock of it pretty much overwhelmed my memories and consciousness. I didn't have any time to do whatever to protect my memory, as that subconscious train of thought was almost instantaneous. And so we see the results... You will tell me everything that happened, won't you?"
"Maybe later," Misha interrupted, "its starting to get dark, and we won't be able to make the keep for a day or more. Arla and I will look for camp, you can use my horse, as I have other methods." He turned around dropped his pants, and sprouted two additional legs, leaving the stranger looking in awe, an eyebrow raised.
"I know better than to ask," said Drake, as he shook his head and takes a deep breath, turning his back as Misha transformed into a foxtaur. To the raccoon mage, he said "Rickkter, if you'll help me adjust the horse's tack." The human's expressions flashing to a serious note for but a moment, visible to only Rickkter.
"Should we get something for you to eat, I'm sure you're hungry?" Misha called out as he and Arla headed out.
Drake laughed, "No thank you, I'm oddly full right now."
He heard Misha's laughter as the foxtaur trotted off with a still numbed Arla mounted just after him. Drake looked at the four-footed fox oddly as he watched him leave.
"What do you want?" Rickkter accused
Drake's jaw clenched, his features becoming sharp. Rickkter almost took a step back in surprise as the lighthearted human's attitude hardened to become something he would expect from a veteran general. The discipline that Drake exhibited could be comparable to masters he had known in the past, and sent his hackles on end himself.
"You dug yourself a hole, there," Drake said sternly, not in rebuke, but with criticism that could only come from a professional. "Even for an attack, from what I see of the results, your trick was a little excessive, to say the least."
"Apparently not powerful enough," Rickkter snapped back, trying to match the human, "Did you do anything to them? It seemed they accepted that explanation a little too quickly to not have been 'encouraged.'"
Drake looked off in the direction the two Long Scouts left.
"It wasn't a spell. I'm loathe to use anything of that sort on other people," Drake answered. "Frankly, what I told them was the truth, but from our perspective, your 'counter spell' had a different purpose intended. I tend to think in results, rather than intentions. No harm, no foul anyway.
Rickkter growls, "I'm sure you want to say I owe you one..."
"Nah. No one owes anybody anything Besides, I've always noticed these things balance.
"Which reminds me," Drake continued, sincerity on his face, "Despite your intentions, thanks for turning me back. I don't like the idea of a person like me running around unaware like that."
"Then I'm sure you want me to thank you, too?"
"Don't bother, it was for my own sense of security, anyway. I'd rather people be happier. There's already too much negativity in the world today." Drake pointed his finger at Rickkter, as if scolding him, "But that doesn't mean a certain amount of cynicism isn't welcome. In my opinion, it's healthy."
Drake's discipline melted away, as his demeanor turned to his old, buoyant self, "Actually, that was my older brother's opinion, but we thought so much alike, it didn't really matter anyway. I learned a lot from him."
"Of course," Rickkter said, not letting the change in attitude phase his distrust, but instead amplified it.. "I'm sure you'll tell me about it whether I want to hear it or not."
"Well, if not that, what do you want to talk about?" Drake said blankly.
"Shut up and get on your high horse," Rickkter answered sourly.
Laughing, Drake hauled himself up, and the two followed after the scouts.
"Hold up a moment," Drake said to the others as he reigned his horse in, "I think we're getting close to the line."
"So what are you going to do, start heading south to the nearest village south of here?" Arla asked.
"No, I think I'll go back to the keep with you," he answered dismounting.
"But-" Arla started before Drake interrupted.
"That spell was a good one, I just need to refine it a little better," he said thoughtfully as he looked at his beaten black woven armor, "First, though, I need to change into something more comfortable. Now if only I had my pack. Wait a second..." He checked the saddlebags on the horse, and found his satchel amongst them, "How did this get here?"
"I must have accidentally put it in there when I mounted," Misha responded, "To tell you the truth, I don't remember even bringing it."
"Nevermind," the traveler said. He took off the wolf's head breastplate, snapping it back to a helmet before setting it on the ground. He also took off his bracers and his belt, including the sheathed sword. He was about to take off his armor when he noticed he had company.
"Um," his face flushed, "I don't suppose you could turn around for a minute."
Rickkter barked a laugh at Drake's embarrassment, as did the other two. But they complied to his request.
Drake put on a simple long-sleeved tunic and half-trousers, but curiously left his gloves and boots on.
"So what do you do now?" Misha asked.
"Well, first I need to put all my gear away, or else one of you will. I'm probably not going to have the luxury of having opposable thumbs for awhile."
He put all his armor, neatly folded, into the bag, followed by his bracers and belt. He hung his helmet on the outside of the pack, and strapped the sword to the other side. He stood up.
"Well, here we go," he said. He looked at the three observers.
Arla broke her silence for the past night. "Why do you have to go to the keep, anyway? You're just willing to throw away your life?"
Drake looked at her, his face somber. He said, "I don't have anyplace I'd rather be. Most of the people I know are gone. Here I have friends," he glanced at the three, "whether they consider me a friend or not doesn't really matter. Last time I was here, I was needed. This place has been calling me back home. "
With a wry grin, he added, "Besides, believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've been a wolf before."
Before any more protests, he closed his eyes and, with unexpected simplicity, his shape dissolved into a mist, and then a four-footed wolf stood in place of the man. The same wolf that had escaped from the keep days ago. It had a black mask covering most of his face. White slashes of fur streaked back from around his eyes, fading into the black fur. His heavy muzzle, now almost completely gray around the tip, blended with white fur, which completely covered the lower portion of his face, and continued down his underside. Just past his ears the black fur faded to a gray studded dark reddish-brown, which covered his shoulders. The rest of his body, with the exception of the black fur along his spine ridge, was gray with highlights of brown. Along his tail and legs, the darkest gray continued, until about halfway down his forelegs and hind legs, and at the tip of his tail, where it dissolved to pure white fur.
It opened its eyes, piercing the three with regal gaze. Rickkter tensed in anticipation for the worst.
It's mouth opened and its tongue rolled out in silent lupine laughter.
"Drake?" Arla inquired. "Do you understand me? Do you remember us?"
Drake replied with a string of whining noises. It jumped back, its face twisted in disgust.
His human form replaced the canine one as quickly as the latter had replaced the former a few moments before.
"Well," he started, his faced flushed in embarrassment, "I said I needed to do some refining. Let me try that again." He closed his eyes again.
"Have you ever seen anybody shape shift before?" Misha asked Rickkter as Drake closed his eyes to concentrate.
The raccoon shook his head, "Nope. I heard that some magi used to do it, but it wasn't that useful except for spying. It was also a little dangerous. I'll have to look up on it when we get back."
After a couple more seconds, the wolf stood in front of the three again.
"Is that better?" It asked with Drake's voice, perfectly understandable.
"We can hear you," Misha answered. "Do you understand us?"
"Perfectl-" a loud yip interrupted him.
"What is it?" Arla asked with worry.
"I bit my tongue," he said with embarrassment, licking his muzzle trying to ease the sensation. Rickkter barked a laugh. Drake told them, "It's not everyday a wolf can speak a human tongue." He definitely appeared uncomfortable. But he ignored it as he picked up a shoulder strap to his pack, which he slung over his shoulder, with a quick, impossible seeming motion. Patiently he worked to tighten a buckle around his midsection with his teeth.
"You've done this before, haven't you," Rickkter accused.
Drake growled as he struggled with the buckle. Then, rising up to his paws, he shook himself off, making sure that the pack, with the sword trapped between the pack and his fur, was secure.
He took a gigantic creaking yawn, and arched backward before answering, "I told you before, this isn't the first time I've been a wolf. Misha you can have your horse back. I have to admit, it's sort of intimidating that you have four feet AND two arms. There's something about that that makes my hair, er... uh, fur that is, stand on end," The wolf shuddered.
The foxtaur beamed, "That was sort of the idea. But I have a feeling that you want to get to the keep as soon as possible."
"Okay, I'll meet you there," Drake said, then sprinted away from them at seemingly impossible speed, considering he had a heavy pack strapped to him.
"Something tells me he's going to cause a lot of trouble," Rickkter muttered distastefully.
"Nothing new around here," Misha murmured back with a mocking smile. He grabbed the reigns to the horse and led it forward at a trot. Rickkter followed close behind.
Arla took up a slow rear guard. Alone with her thoughts, not understanding anything that happened in the past week.
"If only I knew what he was trying to say," she breathed to herself, before kicking her heels into her horse's flanks to catch up with the others.