Death lurked behind that dark wall, coloured violet from the midnight air clustered in the halls of Metamor Keep. Waspish white lines smoldered on the buckling mortar, the thin line of cement nearly chipping from the pressure behind it. Clutching the slender shaft of chalk in his diminutive hand, Wessex could only gaze, his face locked in a rictus of terror, at the circles of power and release inscribed upon that abjuring portal. The third and outermost circle, a dotted creation with lines spreading out in every direction like rays from the sun, was missing a few cleft marks around the rim. Though they were not there, he knew them to be ancient chevrons he'd seen only once before in his life. Those absent marks of death were all that had saved the Keep from being swallowed by the eldritch horrors brought forth from the tear left by that censer.
The child could remember that day well in the middle of Spring when he was first shown that dreadful device. Sketched and engraved across its gold surface had been images of demons sodomozing the damned in a myriad of ways, each one different as he scanned about its rim. The tapered edges were festooned with various gems, each one glowing with a sickly venomous light, rubies, sapphires, lapis lazuli, malachite, and others each radiating an unholy aura. He could remember those red encrusted candles standing atop the stanchions on the sides, black charred smoke rising from the diseased wicks; they had been the death knell of Dorson, the tocsin bringing that black man, that nightmarish figure robed in midnight brocade. Zagrosek.
Wessex had been ordered to use the censer to determine just what Loriod had done, or had used it for. Rupert had doused the item with nearly a full sack of the anti-magic powder that Whales had crafted, nullifying its insidious power and seductive fascinations. However, it had cleverly tricked him, filling his heart with frustration, and causing him to leave the room, with only his apprentice Dorson to stand watch over it. Somehow it had invaded the ferret's mind, and twisted everything he saw, until he had redrawn the circles of containment into those of release, and lighting one of the candles. One of them had proven to be enough, allowing Zagrosek to appear, and brutally murder Dorson
The Sondeckis had nearly extinguished all the braziers when Wessex had returned that fateful afternoon. He had only barely enough time to watch the man flee into the shadows, an inky blackness that appeared to span the limitless gulfs between worlds, and watch the censer disappear with him, breaching the barrier to the Underworld. The howls of anguish and torment had drifted up from that yawning aperture, until Wessex had poured all of the sand inside of it, watching it wink out of existence as it passed through. Then, returning outside, he drew closed that door, sealing it into this wall, and forever-after binding the spells and essence of the Keep shut.
None but him could ever break that enchantment, and he had no intention of doing so. In that brief glimpse into the bottomless well he had seen more horror than he could have ever wished upon the vilest of enemies. At first he had not really thought about what he was seeing, as he was too focussed on dumping the sand inside, but with each passing day, those images grew more vivid, until at times they blocked everything else out.
Black shapeless masses floated in the putrid murk sucking and slurping their way along with a ghastly bubbling noise. Creatures that resembled the upper torso of a man shambled along, dragging themselves along by appendages that only vaguely recalled arms. Bulbous protoplasm floated aimlessly, till one of its whip-like tentacles would stumble upon the half-formed souls of the damned, and then it latched upon them, hideous gaping jaws appeared from nowhere, chewing upon the immaterial fabric of the hapless spirit. The empty screams of each victim rang silently upon his flesh, reverberating through to his bones at each stygian shriek. It was all Wessex could do to prevent himself from jumping out of a window to permanently end the horror of those images.
The chevrons decorating the censer had been along its lower base, centered inside the circles of power that Dorson had redrawn. Nine of them spaced in groups of three, each larger than the last, and more intricately fashioned. The first was a simple line with two hash marks across it, no bigger than Wessex's palm. The last was a veritable maze of crisscrosses and cul-de-sacs encompassing several of the larger mortar stones, appearing like several shadows cast from each one. On the wall before him stood the first and last of the chevrons, drawn with an exactness that his feeble hands could hardly have managed in so short a time. Especially when the stones themselves were shifting underneath him from demons pressing against them, trying to escape.
Wessex finally dislodged the rictus from his face, and breathed out slowly. The stench of his own urine was fresh upon his clothes as it was every night that he walked to this wall. By now, it was a familiar companion, one that he welcomed with joyous exultation. For that unwholesome fragrance, no matter how much it offended his nose, was the surest sign that his nightmare had ended. Many times in the last few months he had found himself in the hallway, his pants unsoiled, only to discover that he had not escaped his dream, as Matthias and Zagrosek were standing behind him, their sepulchral cloaks open to engulf him in the pits of blackness contained therein. It was only when that slick wetness filled his trousers was he truly safe.
Or at least, that was how it had been before. While his only jeremiad had been his ruined undergarments, he had been content to confide in his most talented of apprentices, Jessica. Even then, he'd been reluctant to share what had previously only been his personal nightmare, punishment perhaps for allowing that evil chalice to corrupt his thoughts. The hawk had insisted he tell her, and as he had expected, the story had only confused her more. Still, she had demanded that he inform her of any changes in the dream.
It usually only came every few days, and in the recent weeks, it had dwindled in frequency. In fact, it had been only the other night that he had woken up to stare at the grey mortared wall after watching the rat and man merge into that obscene black shape that scalded him as if it were breathing from the heart of a volcano. Never before had it visited him on consecutive nights, and never before had it ended with him drawing ancient runes and wards upon this wall that he had intended to remain sealed for all time. Those lines shifted and rolled as something moved underneath them, some great claw or hand pressing against the surface of finest silk, but in frustration as they were unable to make even the slightest tear in the weave.
And then, just as suddenly, they disappeared. The unfinished diagram stood flat against the hallway, the pale white nimbus of each line nearly faience in color with the approach of the pale blue, twilight dawn. How long had he been sitting here? Wessex did not have an answer to that question, just as he could not fathom the meaning of his being here in this abandoned hallway. He rolled the bit of chalk about between his boyish fingers, blinking in perplexity at the roundel drawn in the center of the circles. The lines radiating outwards from the final circle were directional, and not simply symbolic. The chevrons on the outside circle represented what was to be brought through the portal in the center and drawn outwards, released from their prison.
With a sharp intake of breath, Wessex finally understood what the nightmare was doing. Tentatively, he reached outwards towards the intricate patterns with his short fingers, each one trembling at the dawning knowledge. As he drew closer, he felt a thin film before them, a pale green nimbus enclosing the pattern. It was like dipping his hand in a vat of mucus. Recoiling, he scooted back to the far wall, but the slime coated his skin, sinking into the pores, drawing it numb. Scanning the pattern, he could easily see why, the second circle was a protective ward, but not one that he had ever before used. It was blood magic, the sort necromancers used in their forbidden arts. Scanning the rest of the hallway, the boy mage could see no blood though.
Flexing the fingers on his numb hand, the sensation began to wear off. A moue passed over his face as he realized that the spell had not been completed, and so was only partially effective. Grunting in displeasure, he plunged his hand through the slimy sheen, and began to make small imperfections in the second sphere. The shield ablated rather quickly, and soon the slick muck was no more. Even the nimbus on the rest of the diagram began to fade. Wessex though was suddenly emboldened, he was not about to lose this concentration of power. His nightmare may have used him, Zagrosek and Matthias may have been controlling his dreams, but now he was awake, and he would see what awaited him beyond this wall.
With the chalk, he drew an oculus in the center circle, and then refilled the interior with an inwardly bounded hexagon. Each outward splaying line he slowly and passively erased, scrawling fields and other magical lexicons in their place. The chevrons though, he did not touch. He simply encircled them in warding lines, isolating them from the remaining pattern. By the time he was finished with his scrawling, the twilight was more pronounced, the sun having risen beyond the distant mountains, though it had yet to shine upon the walls of Metamor.
Though the morning was chilly, his clothes were drenched with both his sweat and urine. The stink would surely wake the animal morphs at the Keep if he did not clean himself up. But currently, his mind was on a different plane, and the power that had filled those lines was now his own. Channeling it through him, the wash of bliss at being in touch with such mystical power carrying him over the highest summits of snow-topped mountain peeks, he forced it all straight into the oculus.
The sudden shimmering in the wall did not go unnoticed, for every line drawn against the mortar crawled with life. The oculus blared into brilliant black intensity, boring through the wall to give him a visage of the hell beyond. At the edge of his vision, the chevrons churned and visibly attacked the wards holding them back. With each lash of stroke or stile, Wessex felt a stabbing pain across his chest, and when he brought his hand up to reach, could feel the stickiness of fresh blood staining his nightclothes.
But beyond the drawn window, through the lens of the oculus, he glimpsed something that made him break wide his lips in a scream of eldritch terror, and slash through his own spell with the stick of chalk, dissipating it immediately. The nightmare before him vanished, to be replaced by the wall and the diagram before him. The chevrons disintegrated before his eyes, the dust settling onto the floor and vanishing as if they never were. Only the color of imminent morning could be seen to grace the masonry with its warmth. A profound chill filled Wessex's bones, even as he patted his crimson tunic with his hands in disbelief, his voice no longer capable of fright.
Stumbling, the boy rose to his legs, weary feet barely able to hold him aloft. He rubbed his toes against the tiles, silk with his sweat, urine and blood, a miasmatic concoction that would not go unnoticed were any Keepers to pass this way. Gazing at the pattern still sketched into the wall before him, he realized that it would have to be erased quickly. He dare not use his shirt or trousers lest the blood reactive the dormant spells. His quavering lips mouthed a name, several names in fact, but he could not speak any of them. His tongue was so dry it nearly filled his throat.
Gasping for any breath he could have, the boy slipped down into a crouch, and sat upon the floor. He had no choice now, he must wait. The last time he had left this place with a spell even partially intact, it had cost a Keeper his life. Never again would he make that mistake.
Jessica stretched her wings happily as she settled on the crenellated landing, her talons skirting the stonework with an audible screech. Before the curses, she had been afraid to venture onto the topmost battlements of the Keep. The other children had teased her as they pranced about making fools of themselves while she quietly studied her books. Many of those same children had fallen, not from a tower, but under the sword of Nasoj's army seven years ago. Now she, as a red-banded hawk, was the one dancing and cavorting about these astounding heights, gazing down at the panoply of wonders below as if it belonged solely to her.
In a way it did. Her morning flights were always something that she did alone. Every tile on every roof of every home was hers to savour alone. Every leaf upon every tree was hers to spot. Every animal, be they Metamorian or not, was hers to fantasize diving at. The winds beneath her wings, flowing through her feathers, and filling her beak as she let loose her cry of freedom, all of it was hers.
Until she set her talons upon the hard stonework of the castle, that is. The moment of euphoria slowly faded, like a vision ebbing in the mist, or a dream barely upon the horizon at the moment of waking, ever distant, but ever gleaming. Preening herself one last time, she folded her wings across her back, and then descended the stairwell and into the Keep proper. Usually, Jessica was reluctant to leave the sky, but today was different. After her morning lessons with Wessex, she would head to Ambassador Yonson's apartments, and there meet with Weyden. He had asked for permission to stretch his wings, and it had been readily given. He was not a versatile flyer yet, but she enjoyed teaching him.
As was her new custom though, she proceeded from the tower directly to her master's chambers. Ever since he had confided in her his nightmares, Jessica had made it her duty to see him shortly after sunrise to ensure that he was well. Of course, since he had the dream the previous evening, she expected to find him still curled up in his coverlet, snuggling his blankets like any other child. However, when she saw that the diminutive door was open, and not just slightly ajar, but flung completely open, her heart skipped a beat, and her wings fluttered in agitation.
Ducking her head beneath the marble transom, Jessica clicked her talons across the smooth floor till she was peering her golden eyes into the bedroom. The sheets were a tangled mess kicked to the foot of the mattress, where they lay limply, half-spilled onto the floor. The ivory stanchion had been upended, and was laying across the master's lounge, the scarlet wax dripping onto the damask fabric, inevitably staining it. The mahogany desk was cracked open, but since she had never seen him open it, she was not sure if anything were missing.
"Wessex?" she called out in her avian tongue. The silence of an empty room greeted her in return, and she felt her down crawl. "Wessex, please come out, this is not funny." Still, the quarters remained abandoned and bereft of life. Though it was only the early days of September, she felt the cold of winter frost digging into her bones, filing the hollow spaces with its icy embrace.
Wessex ard'Kapler was a fastidious sort, and was not prone to leaving catastrophes behind him. Especially with his exquisite furniture, the last of his family's once considerable wealth. Only the grand painting of their villa and the bookcases remained untouched. His timepiece had tumbled from the mantle and was lying upon the ground, the glass shards decorating the hearth's interior. No longer having arms, she simply reached out with one talon, and gripped the clock between her long, scaled toes. It appeared to still function, an audible ticking could be heard from inside the wooden frame. Setting it back down, Jessica turned her attention to the other rooms in her master's chambers.
The training room where she and her fellow apprentices spent many of their days these past years, was large, and mostly unfurnished. A few chairs decorated the walls, as well as several barrels of his valuable sands and dusts, along with braziers and a few unlit flambeaux, but precious little else. The center of the room was completely empty aside from a large slate tile. It had been hand smoothed by Wessex himself over the years, and was the location of most of his spell work. The chalk lines could be drawn on any surface, but it was much easier to use a single slab to insure that no imperfections cropped up in the design. It had been many months since Wessex had last let her attempt a casting upon that floor. Her talons simply lacked the manual dexterity that her hands once had.
She did not even call out though, for it was clear that he was not there. Returning to the foyer, Jessica poked her long, sharp beak around the only other door in his apartments. It was his private den for entertaining visitors, and was thus handsomely decorated. Rosettes were sculpted into the arching stonework, bracing each of the inset pillars against the entablature. A thick chartreuse Kelewairian carpet lined the central floor, around which stood a circular table fashioned from mahogany upon which lay some ancient codex that she did not recognize. Three armchairs and two chaise lounges circled it, each made of from fabric imported from Kelewair. Several large iron stanchions stood behind each seat, the dark maroon candles unlit. Though she knew there was an ornate bookcase at the far end, the darkness was too thick for her to see very far. Wessex usually left the braziers in his foyer burning, as he had done today, but they did not cast much light into this room.
"Wessex? Are you in there?" Jessica called out, almost afraid to disturb the darkness for fear that something unpleasant might stir instead of her master. But there was nothing. The blackness was complete, and she neither heard nor saw anything move in that darkened room. Her voice caught in her breath, she backed out slowly, and pondered where he could be.
Peering once more into his bedchambers, to see the upturned stanchion, and the disreputable sheets, the answer came to her. Jessica's heart did not beat more smoothly now that she knew where her master must be. Instead it fluttered even more erratically, as she nearly jumped out the door, almost scraping her head against the transom above as she bolted down the hallway. It was all she could do to keep her wings folded against her back as she bobbed and wove through the corridors, towards the one place in the Keep, aside from the nefarious gates themselves, that could never change.
Wessex was there sitting against the wall, an awful stench surrounding him as he clutched a single shaft of white chalk in his palms, as if that alone could ward off all the denizens of the underworld. Her eyes riveted upon him, she brought herself to a stop, her talons clutching the tiles, scratching them. "Wessex! I was so worried about you. Are you all right?" Her voice screeched out into the air. Even after seven years, it still sometimes caught her by surprise how terrifying she could sound.
He gave her a moue, indicating his shirt, stained red in smears across his chest and abdomen, as if he had been sliced by a sword tip that had passed through his tunic intangibly. He then pointed to the far wall, the one which he had shown her to scrupulously avoid. Jessica nearly gasped as she saw the crossed off spell. Despite her limited understanding, from what she could discern it was a casting of immense power, though it appeared to have been reworked. Several places where wards had been constructed were conspicuously empty.
"Master, what is this?" she asked in disbelief, turning back to face the stricken boy.
Wessex opened his mouth, and moaned softly, pointing at his throat and shrugging.
"Can you speak?" He shook his head no. "What happened?" At that, her master looked slightly irritated, and she quickly realized her faux pas. "Is there anything you'd like me to do for you, master?"
He nodded then, and pointed at the diagram. He then waved his hand up and down, and then clenched his shirt in his fists. She blinked at him, her eyes fixed in a stare only an avian could give. "Do you want me to erase the drawing?"
Wessex violently shook his head in the negative, gripping his shirt again with his fists. He then pointed down the hallway, and then back at himself.
"I'm sorry, I don't see what you want me to do," she admitted ruefully, wishing that her beak would allow her the pleasure of a grimace.
The boy nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. His eyes appeared to be drawn at the center of the diagram for a moment, and then a visible shudder passed over his frame and he turned back to her. Gripping his shirt in one hand, he held it up, and waved it back and forth, up and down, and then pointed at the diagram.
"Do you want me to retrieve something to clean this up?"
Finally he nodded, giving her a warm smile, though a brief one. He waved his hands back to her, and she quickly hurried down the hallway, eager to help her master. What had happened to him last night, and what could ever have possessed him to draw such a horrid spell? The only answer that came to her was too horrifying to even think about.
It did not take Jessica long to return, for which Wessex was grateful. Though his mouth was too thick for him to tell her so, he was proud to have her as his pupil. In that moment, when he saw her return with not only a damp towel over her shoulder, but a small slate board tucked beneath her wings as well, he knew that he had chosen well to entrust her with his confidence.
Struggling once again, his body weary from the exertion of only hours before, he climbed back to his feet, leaning against the far wall for support. Once he had his legs under him though, he felt much better, as if some heavily-laden yoke had been cast off and left behind. She used what manual dexterity she had left in the claws at the end of her wings to carefully lay the slate board upon the ground. The towel she simply let fall from her shoulder as she bent completely over on her legs. He smiled at her, the first time he had done so in quite some time.
"I brought your slate as well, if you cannot speak, at least you can still write." She gestured with one talon at the charcoal black board laying at his feet.
He nodded his thanks, reached down, and plucked it from the ground. It was heavy, especially for a child of his size. He had never been a large man, and as a boy, he was a homunculus. Still, after all the years of schooling he had given his students, he had gained strength in his arms enough to carry a chalk board with ease. Gripping the white, slender shaft in his hand, he began to trace out words. It was a slow process, but it was the only way he could talk until the soreness in his throat ebbed. "Thank you, you did well."
Wiping that clean with the sleeve of his shirt, he went on further to write, "I'll need fresh clothes waiting for me when I finish."
She blinked, her large golden orbs hard set. Her beak, if it could ever do that, appeared to turn down in a frown. "You expect me to leave you alone with that?" Her wingtip pointed to the diagram still sketched upon the wall.
He grimaced at that, knowing that she was right. Erasing the slate again with his damp shirt sleeve, he thought what to say instead. Before he could write anything else down though, Jessica had picked up the towel in one of her feet. "I could help you, just tell me what to erase, and I'll do it."
Shaking his head violently, Wessex reached out and snatched the towel from her talon, tearing it nearly in half across those sharp, black claws. He pointed at himself, and then at the diagram. Grabbing the slate he again, he quickly wrote, "Mine!" and then pushed that into her beak.
She nodded wearily, stepping out of the way. "Please be careful, master. I do not like the way that thing looks."
Neither did he, and yet he knew that it was his own hand that had created that thing, even if he had not been the one controlling it. What had been in the dream this evening? It was so distant, only snatches of it could be grasped, and then like dirty water, it spilled out through his fingers, leaving only the lees to coat his flesh. One image though in the miasma of ghoulish frights did prove clear though. Like every dream before, he had tried to cast a spell of containment upon them before they merged into that black shape he could not name. Only this time, the energy had not been drained, as they had not merged. Instead, the rat and man had stooped over him, trying to drag his arm away from his task.
Could he ever allow Matthias to touch him again? The feel of that rodent's fur against his skin had been like that of rusty needles scraping through open sores. Something inside him told him it was just a dream, and that there was no need to fear the rat. Yet, he knew it was the same voice that had told him it would be okay to leave Dorson alone with that blasphemous censer. Wessex did not consider that disembodied messenger to be a reliable source, and did his best to vanquish it from his mind. Matthias was not to be trusted, being in his dreams so much, it was clear that his involvement with Zagrosek was not just something in the far distant past. Perhaps he was even the one bringing on these dreams? The rat's powers were still mostly unknown, it could be possible.
It was too dangerous to venture near him though, but he must find his evidence some other way. Still, he would have to wait till after he had excised this stain upon the wall. Reaching up with his towel, he began to wipe away the outward drawing lines, starting from the bottom, and working his way around. He scrupulously avoided the two ovals that had contained the chevrons. They would wait till last. Even so, as he gingerly dabbed off each stroke, he would measure the emblem before him, watching for any sign of ambient magic still contained inside. Unlike in the tower, there was no curlicue to self-destruct, but he did not intend to take any chances.
Wessex had every right to be afraid, for the three circle pattern was one of the most potent of castings, known to sorcerers as the Symphony. It was known thus because it was drawn with all of creation in mind, in conjunction with every living thing. Drawn from the inside out, the first circle represented one's self, or the place one was sketching it. The second was the activation component, usually a symbol of the spell being harnessed. The third was the juxtaposition with everything else, determining whether the Symphony took force from them, or returned it. As was the case here, the outward drawn lines had been markers of where the spell would go, while the emblem of a roundel inside the first circle had been to indicate the means of such travel. But the chevrons, that Wessex did not understand. Though he could no longer see them upon the wall, he could still feel the lacerations they had given him in his flesh.
The outer lines all gone, Wessex turned his attention to the circles. He left his own scrawls on the outside intact, as they were containment spells, and they might still be necessary. He peered at the outer circle for a moment, noting where his slash crossed it, canceling it. If he broke that slash, the spells might reactivate, and he could not be sure what would happen then. Closing is eyes tight, he tried to view the wall with only his magic. It was dark, pale and barely visible. Magic still flowed through those lines, but barely, anemically.
But what caused him to start was not the wan light, but the pinpricks of black ooze that seethed behind them, and through the pores that had already been cracked in the wall. He remembered it all too well. When he had left Dorson alone in the room with that thing, it had been trickling that black ooze. In every one of his dreams, that demonic chalice was coalesced with it! And now, the Symphony was practically dripping that ichor.
Reaching down, Wessex drew his chalk across the slate. Jessica leaned over to see what he was scribing, and then her beak fell agape. He held it up for her to see clearly. "Stand back." She did so, running into the wall behind her and pressing herself into it, as if she could merge with the stones themselves. Gritting his teeth, the boy took up the towel again, and with one quick motion, holding back his breath, he broke the outer circle.
No detonation, no screech of pain or torment followed. The wall remained where it stood, unmoving. The Symphony was broken, and no traps had been set upon it. Exhaling slowly, his tongue still thick in his throat, Wessex began to task of slowly excising that circle from the wall. It did not take very long, though he was studious in not breaking the slash mark through the other two emblems. The hexagon he had drawn in place of the middle circle had gone completely blank under his magic sight now that its source of power was totally gone. It could not take nearly enough from Wessex, with the first circle slashed as it was.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the large hawk was still pressed against the far wall. He grinned a moment at that, for she knew better than to interfere in this sort of work. It only took him one moment more to erase the center circle, completely removing any power from the hexagon. The Symphony was almost entirely deconstructed now. The damp towel was just wet enough to remove the chalk, but not soaked to the point where it would have dripped through the whole emblem, and for that he was grateful to his student. At this point, even that could have been dangerous.
Finally, with a bit of relief, Wessex erased the hexagon, and the Symphony was no more. With a tenuous dab, he broke the first oval that had surrounded the smaller of the two chevrons. Nothing happened, not even a tightening in his gut. His sigh of relief was barely audible, as it had trouble escaping his throat. But the tension had left the hallway, and eve Jessica relaxed some. Within moments, every chalk line on the all was gone, and it looked like any other place in the Keep might. He couldn't even see the pores anymore. They were safe from the Underworld for now.
Picking up the tablet, he erased his former message, and then wrote another. Jessica cautiously stepped across the floor, her talons resounding about the hall. "It is done, take me back to my room." had been scrawled across its surface.
She nodded once, and her beak broke wide into an avian grin. "I will, master, and then we need to get you cleaned up, did I mention that you smell awful?"
He nodded, a dry chuckle yearning to escape his lips. But already, his mind had turned to other matters less pleasant.
It was very warm in his chambers, and that was exactly how Steward Thalberg liked it. Grabbing another log from the cast iron bin set next to the hearth, he tossed it into the roaring conflagration, watching sparks snap and fly of in multiple directions. Kneeling down, his red robes bunching at his feet, he held out his hands, claws and all before the bright orange flames. He could feel the heat flowing through him, reinvigorating him. Ever since Nasoj's curse had left him an alligator, nothing else ever felt better than to sit by the fire.
Thalberg's private chambers were decorated in that red satin he was so fond of, but the accouterments were modest at best. He was not a very garish person, despite the image he projected to other Metamorians. That was his job, his life was a different story. A simple bed, nearly nine feet long to accommodate his size, with adjoining side table, as well as a large window in the ceiling to allow the sunlight in. The Keep itself had designed a set of lenses and mirrors to bring the sunlight into this room during all but the early hours of the morning, and the late evening. Sometimes, when his work was done, he would shift to his full alligator form, and lay there basking in the warmth of those blessed rays.
The summer was drawing to a close, too fast in his opinion, and soon the Autumn would be upon them. Already, the air was too chilly for his tastes. His winter wardrobe, which consisted of the thickest wool and cotton that he had been able to procure, was beginning to look quite attractive again. Ironically, he used to love the snow; now if he dared to venture forth into the wintery chill, it would kill him.
Thalberg flexed his thick scaly fingers before the roaring blaze, trying not to remember what snowball fights were like. When they had been younger, his brothers and he would often frolic in the cold with only a jerkin and breeches to wear much to the dismay of their father, then the Steward. That had been twenty years ago, so much had changed since.
The knock that came on his door snapped him for his reveries, and he drew his claws back from the fire. It was a small knock, probably that of an AR. Turning his massive snout towards the main room, he left his bedchamber, and gently closed the door behind him. Opening wide the large oaken door leading to the hallway, he saw Wessex the mage, dressed in a simple smock standing at the door way with a piece of chalk and slate under one arm.
"Hello, Wessex," Thalberg said in greeting, his voice calm, measured, emotionless. "What can I do for you?"
Wessex held up the slate and the Steward could see the words, "We need to talk," written in the boy mages delicate script.
"Is there something wrong with your voice?" Thalberg asked curiously. The Steward had been unable to speak for several months after the curses, since his jaw did not operate the same way as a man's might. Compound that with inflexible lips and a tongue that filled it, Thalberg was lucky to be able to make his voice clear at all. He'd spent months just practicing simple words and phrases, saying them over and over till he had relearned how.
Wessex nodded his head once and looked inside to the single desk that Thalberg used for most of his business. The Steward waved one crocodilian arm towards the couch on the other side of his room. He often used it to relax, as it was more comfortable than sitting at his desk. "Please, sit, let me get you something to drink."
The boy scrambled up onto the red satin, and waited patiently, the slate panel in his lap. Thalberg reached into the cupboard behind his desk, and drew out a carafe filled with some of his favorite wine. He set that down on his desk, and then retrieved two tumblers, as well as a thin reed that he'd hollowed out to help him drink easier. Pouring two glasses, he dropped the straw inside his own, and then returned the carafe to the cupboard.
Wessex grinned in thanks as he took a long quaff of the wine, muttering a very faint, "Thank you," as he set it down.
"What happened to your voice? Sickness?" Thalberg was very familiar with the annoyance of people asking him questions that he could not answer without his voice, and so tried his best to ask yes or no questions. He sat on the opposite end of the couch, his long thick tail draped over the end.
The boy mage nodded, setting the tumbler down in his lap. He wiped the slate with his shirt sleeve, and immediately Thalberg realized the reason for the paucity of Wessex's dress. All of that chalk would inevitably stain the cloth. "I need your help," he wrote, and then continued to scribble, "I want you to tell me everything you know about Altera Loriod." The last message barely fit with in the narrow confines of his tablet.
"Altera Loriod?" Thalberg asked in confusion. "Aside from the fact that he's now dead, thank the gods, what did you want to know?"
Wessex rubbed his shirt across the tablet, and then sighed, taking another drink from the tumbler. His tongue looked thick, but the Steward was no doctor and could not tell what ailed him. "Everything," he breathed hoarsely, a terrible grating sound like roughly-hewn stones rolled across each other.
Thalberg sipped at his wine, the sweet taste washing over his thick yellow tongue and down his throat. "Everything? Well, that's a rather large sum of information." Setting the tumbler down upon the nearby desk, the alligator stretched his long arms wide. It was chillier in his office, he should have remembered to start a fire in the inglenook here as well.
"Altera was originally from Pyralis. Alvarez met her while he was serving as Metamor's diplomat to that region. She was beautiful, if you recall, at least when he married her. Her excesses were many, and most of the court knew of her vices. Alvarez hated her within a year, but could do nothing about her since she was faithful to him, or at least he could never prove otherwise. Alvarez was a good friend of mine, so I often had a chance to be in her presence. I think he liked having me over more after his marriage then before.
"In any event, the curse made Altera a man, an turned Alvarez into some type of water fowl, I cannot remember the exact name now. In a drunken state, he fell from his balcony and broke his neck. Altera took over, and turned the estate into a tyranny. We could do nothing about it, since without him, Metamor would starve. Their crops have fed the valley longer than my family has lived here, you know.
"So, we tolerated Altera Loriod's excesses in lieu of his husband. No one knew quite what to do except live with the insufferable lout. I wanted to disassociate myself with that villain, but wiser heads than mine convinced me otherwise. Not the least of which was my distant cousin Macaban. He informed me that as long as Altera was kept happy, then he wouldn't raise a fuss. Well, that all changed when the taxes on the nobility were levied, Loriod could not bear it. Do you remember the stink that he made shortly after the Battle of Three Gates?"
Wessex nodded at that, emphasizing it quite firmly that he did remember that annoyance quite clearly. "Ah, I can see you felt about it much the same way as the rest of us. In any event, the other Lords, especially Avery and Barnhardt to the north, were quick to show him the necessity of such a tax. But I know he continued to do everything he could to circumvent it. You've seen his castle of course, much of his money went into those projects so that he didn't have pay it back in taxes. He turned one of the main defenses for Metamor's southern borders into a puppeteer's show!
"Now, this last Spring, I do not know what had happened. Macaban had given me no indication that anything was wrong, but starting sometime back in March, Altera was getting bolder. He may not have been very smart, but he was crafty, and he used every advantage he had to assert his place in Metamor. Then he poisons Prince Phil, nearly destroys Macaban's mind, and finally forces us to go to war against him. But I know you remember all of that."
The boy nodded once again, wiping the slate clean to write. "Do you know when he purchased the censer that Rupert retrieved?"
"No, I have no idea where that came from. I never saw it or anything like it ever in his possession. Alvarez certainly never spoke of any such heirloom. We were very close as you may recall; my uncle and his aunt were married briefly after all. I thought that you had taken care of the censer? Has something happened?"
All Wessex could do was scrawl on his slate with that slender shaft of chalk. "Loriod's stupidity may yet cost more lives." He then washed it clean again, took a drink from his tumbler, and then tried to speak, but haltingly, "I need.... Your help..."
"What do you need from me?"
"Carriage..." he stuttered, then took another drink, finishing off the glass. Thalberg picked up the carafe and poured him more wine. "I need... a carriage... to Lorland."
"You want a carriage to Lorland?"
"When would you like it? It shouldn't be very hard for me to find you one."
Wessex tried to speak again, but his throat gave out, coughing repeatedly, and spurting flecks of foam onto Thalberg's robe. With an unpleasant expression, he wrote, "Today, and now."
"It is that important?" The boy nodded, and Thalberg took a deep breath, sucking more of his wine from the glass. "Well, return to your quarters, I will have a messenger come by once the carriage is ready. It should only require fifteen or twenty minutes. Would you like an escort?"
Wessex shook his head no, and drank more of the refilled tumbler. He then scribed, "I need a carte blanche as well."
"What for?" Thalberg asked, his voice waxing suspicion.
Scrubbing clean the board once again, he wrote, "To repossess Loriod's personal possessions."
"I assume you need them for some magical purpose?" Wessex nodded at that, sipping some of the fine wine. The alligator scratched at his long green chin with one black claw, and murmured, "That will be difficult. I shall have to promise recompense for anything you take. You do realize that?" Again, the boy nodded, and so the Steward let out a sigh, but not an aggravated one. "Is there anything else that you will need?"
He cleaned the slate once more and wrote, "That should be fine. Thank you."
Thalberg rose from his seat, as did the boy, who handed the alligator an empty glass back. "I do hope that whatever you are looking for, that you find it. May the gods go with you, Wessex."
He inclined his head politely, and then silently slipped out the doorway, and left the Steward to his job. Thalberg returned to his desk, and pulled a long hemp cord behind him. A messenger would arrive in a few minutes. He quickly penned a note on a small piece of parchment, and folded it in half. Then he set about wording the carte blanche, knowing that it would not make Macaban happy. Afterwards, he turned about on his hind legs, and stared at the empty fireplace. He quickly made amends of that. By the time Kee arrived at his door, there were two roaring blazes in his apartments. It felt very good.
Most of the paint still clung to the walls of the various towers and balustrades at Lorland, though many of the more garish hues had been stripped to reveal the institutional yellow-grey mortar. The arrow towers had been cleared of the junk that Loriod had collected over the years, most of which had been sold to traders for reduced prices. The rest had been collected on the front lawns of the estate and burned. The ashes were sprinkled upon the unsown fields to help revitalize the loam. The money from the sales went to the peasants and upkeep of the fortress.
Even still, as Wessex rode in the carriage that Thalberg had procured from him, the boy could see that much had yet to be done. Though most of the gates destroyed in the battle had been repaired, the tower that had detonated in his fight with Zagrosek still lay in ruins. Many of the faces he had seen after passing onto these lands were still frightened, though there was a confidence in them that had long been absent. The stain that Altera had left on Metamor still lingered, but in the minds and hearts of these people, it was healing, albeit slowly.
As they drew up beneath the colonnade of the porte cochère, Wessex rubbed his throat. It was still sore, but his tongue was not nearly so dry as before. The last time it had felt so hard to speak had been after the ordeal that was the Battle of Three Gates. He and the other mages had been chanting for hours upon end to fight back Nasoj's wizards. In the end he'd ben unable to speak the rest of the day. There was no question in his mind what had been going on last night during his period of sleepwalking.
Cradling the slate beneath one arm, and with a fresh piece of chalk in his other hand, he stepped from the carriage, to stand before the two guards carrying polearms. The carrot heraldry was rather prominent on their bright blue uniforms. Apparently runners had gone on ahead and informed the Steward of the household of his arrival. The ass, Macaban was rushing down the hallway, trying his best to appear dignified as his hooves clopped along the terrazzo tiles. His long ears were combed and trimmed, as well as his short black mane, but the former were flopping back and forth as he cantered to the doorway.
The dull brown eyes swiveled in their sockets till they settled on the boy carrying the slate. The memory of his ‘captivity' at the Keep was good enough to remind him of the importance of this visitor. Picking a bit of hay from between his teeth, he crunched it in one hoof-like hand and genuflected. "Welcome to Lorland, Wessex ard'Kapler. How can I be of service?"
Wessex reached inside his coat pocket, and drew out the carte blanche and handed it to the donkey. Macaban broke the crimson, wax seal and scanned the script. A very confused look crossed his face, his jaw hanging open, the versatile lips mouthing each word in disbelief. "What is this?"
Wessex shrugged, and then wrote on his chalkboard, "A necessity."
"What's wrong with your voice? Was there an accident?" Macaban asked, his voice suddenly concerned.
"Of a sort," Wessex wrote and then pointed at the slip of paper in the donkey's hooves.
"Ah, of course!" The Equine folded the sheet back up and stepped back in through the sculpted door engraved with gold-inlay. Wessex was mildly surprised that they had not tried to sell back the finery displayed here, but then saw that one section was chipped, and was plain copper beneath. He followed after the Steward for a few minutes till they were at the sitting lounge. From what he knew, this was the same room that Loriod had used to entertain guests. The bookshelves were mostly empty though, and the goldfish tank looked to have been freshly restocked.
"I was just having my midday meal, would you care for something?" Macaban sat back down at the divan, and began to push some of the bright yellow hay into his large mouth.
Wessex scribbled a request for wine down, and it was quickly brought to him. The mazer was not nearly so fine as the one Thalberg had provided, but it was serviceable. "As you can see, we're trying to cut back as many expenses as we can here. Normally, I wouldn't eat hay, but I'd rather eat this, than let my people starve as Loriod would have." Macaban indicated his sparse meal with one fore-hoof and then forced another fistful between his thick lips.
Chewing for what felt like a short eternity, Macaban finally swallowed his meal, and picked a few errant strands from his tunic. "Now, what do you need from me that would require a carte blanche?"
Wessex had used his time waiting for the messenger to arrive to pen down a few questions that he wanted to ask upon a slip of parchment. It would save time later he had reasoned. Drawing out the parchment, he carefully tore the first question free, and handed it to the donkey who accepted it from his hand. His dark brown eyes once again passed over the surface, his short-cropped, grey fur bulging as he breathed.
"I don't particularly recall anything arriving this last March. Loriod usually requested that his merchandise be delivered in late Spring or Summer. Less expensive then for the merchants to transport. Probably the only bit of frugality he ever displayed," the donkey remarked caustically. "It could be that something did arrive but he made me forget. The month before he died is an almost complete blank for me."
Wessex had been afraid of that. No magic could totally destroy memories, but they could make them inaccessible. Usually, some stimulus was required to draw them back. The boy mage had been prepared for that, and so tore off the second question, and handed it to Macaban.
"A man in black robes? That seems vaguely familiar, but I can't be sure." He folded his hooves in front of his chest, his ears turned forward on top of his head. A thoughtful expression filled his face, the lips pursed momentarily. "This symbol, do you think you could draw it? It might help if I see it."
Wessex nodded, and obliged him by sketching out the shield, and then the hand inside of it. He had barely drawn the sword before a loud squeal from across the lounge brought his head up sharply. Macaban's arms were flailing about, a rictus of fear had warped his muzzle past recognition, and his brown eyes were rimmed with white . The buttons on his bright blue tunic snapped off one by one as the fabric buckled and tore under the pressure of his expanding chest and shoulders. From out of the donkey's throat came a horrible bray, one of fright and confusion, and utterly devoid of intellect.
The boy mage would have cried out if he could, but instead, he immediately dropped the slate, and tried to reach for the donkey's chest to draw a calming symbol upon it, but one of the hands, now more a hoof, solidly smacked against the side of his face, hurtling him back across the lounge. Blood smeared across his cheek as the boy rolled across the fabric and onto the turquoise carpeting. Blinking the stars from his eyes, Wessex gazed in disbelief as the Steward shed his garments, growing to the size of a full jackass, his tail wiping about madly as he body flailed on the lounge, upending the side-table as he tossed his enlarged muzzle about.
Two of the blue liveried guards came rushing into the room, their mouths agape as they saw the cavorting beast finally find his legs, all four of them, and begin to madly caper about the room, braying at everything, and kicking at the woodwork, smashing the bookcase in his fury. Putting one hand to the side of his face, Wessex wiped the crimson from his cheeks, and then pointed at the best, gesturing erratically with his other hand. He wanted to shout some instruction, but his tongue stuck in his throat again.
Still, the two guards managed to grasp the idea, cautiously approaching the donkey who had freed himself of his clothes, which were in tatters across the floor. They approached from around both sides of the couch, trying to block it off, but Macaban saw the maneuver. He jumped over the couch, his fore-hooves crashing into the cushions, and smashing through the slate that had lain atop one, and then kicked the back of it with his rear hooves, toppling the couch over as it charged for the door.
The first, a bovine who appeared to be even bigger than Macaban in his full animal shape, jumped across the lounge as it fell, and wrapped his arms around the creatures hind legs. Wessex scooted back on his rear as he cringed from the kicking that the even more enraged beast assaulted the Keeper with. The second guard though took the time to circle back around in front of the donkey. Being a skunk, he lifted his tail, exposing the underside of his rear through an open seam in his garments. A sudden spray erupted into the ass's muzzle, causing it to start suddenly, a horrified expression crossing his eyes.
The first guard, blood spattering from his nose and mouth, climbed forward, and grabbed Macaban about the middle. He then bent his hind legs, dragging the beast, who was busy trying to rub the scent off of his nose with his forelegs, to the ground. The second guard then moved in and braced the steward of Lorland with his paws, his breath hard, and his musteline face confused. Wessex, seeing that the animal was trapped beneath their bodies, approached with one hand over his mouth and nose, and drew the symbol across his thick chest. The fear that had filled the animal's eyes fled, replaced by a somber quiet, but the intelligence was still not there.
The first guard lifted one of his arms tentatively and wiped his muzzle dry of the blood. His eye had nearly rolled back in his head from his companion's stench. "What happened in here?"
Wessex traced another symbol in the air, abating the malodorous fragrance, much to everyone's relief. He then retrieved the shards of his writing board, and shrugged helplessly. He was about to fit the pieces of his slate back together, and show the two guards the symbol, when a nagging thought struck him. Macaban had been fine until he had seen the sign of the Sondeckis. Grimacing, he wiped the marks from each of the five pieces that he still had left. Taking his chalk he wrote in the smallest script he could manage, "I don't know," and then, on another piece of the slate he added, "yet."
"Is there something wrong with your voice?" the skunk asked, releasing the donkey, who stirred slightly, but otherwise just lay there nearly comatose.
Sadly, Wessex nodded again, and then set his broken pieces aside. He took out his slip of paper, and mimicked writing upon it. "Do you want something to write with?" The bull asked as he, using his tunic, wiped more of the blood from his nose. He grabbed a piece of the torn cloth, and held it over his muzzle, letting it drain there.
Again, the boy nodded, and so the skunk quickly got up and darted out of the lounge. The entire place was a mess now. The turquoise carpeting had been ripped in several places, frayed in others. The upper half of the bookcase had broken off and toppled over, depositing the meager collection of tomes in a papery heap. The lounge and adjoining tables had been knocked over, the wooded beams smashed in several places, and the cushions torn where Macaban had jumped upon them. The goldfish tank had thankfully been on the other side of the room, and was undisturbed. But it was the only island of sanity in the sea of chaos that had sprung up because of a heraldic symbol.
When Wessex had first examined Macaban those months ago the layers and layers of spells placed upon him had been grievously convoluted and twisted. It had literally taken hours to even pick the first one to cancel. The entire ordeal took much longer. But he had been so busy worrying over Prince Phil's health, that he had not double-checked Macaban's condition. Evidently, a few spells had remained hidden in the donkey's mind, including this one that rendered him feral. There was no question in the boy's mind now, the beast before him, formerly the steward of Lorland, had seen Zagrosek.
When the skunk returned, there were a few more of the blue-liveried soldiers following along side of him, as well as a collie morph whose uniform sported silver-braided epaulets on either shoulder. "Deller says that Macaban has been reduced to an animal," the collie spoke, his narrow snout barely moving beneath the finely combed fur. "Is that true, Gary?"
The bull nodded, dabbing his nose, which was no longer bleeding. "We heard him braying down the hall, and when we arrived, he was already tearing up the place."
"And you?" the collie asked. "What were you doing here?"
Wessex retrieved the carte blanch from where it had fallen during the commotion and showed it to the commander. His dark hazel eyes scanned the text, while his ears went erect, and his tail stopped wagging in alarm. "Thalberg gave you permission to requisition Loriod's property?"
The boy nodded and motioned for Deller, the skunk, to hand him the pen and ink he had brought with him. The monochrome musteline handed both over, and Wessex set about writing a small message upon the slip of parchment he had previously penned his questions upon. Handing it over to the commander, he waited patiently. The guard narrowed his gaze; sharp, yellow teeth could be seen behind the thin lips. "You want me to summon Prince Phil and put Macaban in a stable? Why should I do that? Can't you help him?"
Wessex shook his head then, and pointed at the paper. "What's wrong with your voice?" the collie asked suddenly, as if noticing his muteness for the first time.
Angrily, Wessex snatched the paper back from the guards paws, and wrote a single word across it in large letters. To emphasize it, he did his best to say it as he handed it back, "Now..."
Taking a deep breath, the collie gestured to Deller and Gary. "Take Macaban down to the stables, and give Wessex something for his cheek when you return. I'll go send for the Prince. We'll clean this mess up in a bit." Turning on his pads, he walked out of the room grumbling to himself.
The missive that he had received while taking a spot of tea with Clover had been vague, but urgent. All that his Highness, Prince Phil of Whales, had been able to deduce was that something drastic had happened to Macaban earlier that afternoon, and his presence was required. Apparently, Wessex was there waiting for him and needed to speak with him about what had transpired. From the scratchiness and the tone of the letter, the lapine knew that Captain Hargrove was not pleased with either the boy or what had happened.
Apologizing to his love, the rabbit had Rupert prepare his carriage and deliver him to Lorland. The trip was pleasant, as he gazed at the leaves, some of which were beginning to change colors. A few bright yellows could be seen dangling from the oaks and aspen. In another few months, the sound of the crunching leaves would be heard beneath the carriage wheels, and not just the mud.
He was met under the porte cochère by the collie, Captain Hargrove, who wore a miffed expression, an angry moue typical of the canine. "Your Highness," Hargrove inclined his head respectfully - no more bowing and scraping from Loriod's people, a fact that the rabbit liked.
"What happened to Macaban? Your letter wasn't very clear," Phil said as Rupert, the great ape, helped him down to the ground. Digging his claws in the dry earth, Phil hopped over to the blue-liveried soldier, while an ostler tended to the horse.
"I'm not sure yet what caused the incident, Wessex has not been very forthcoming."
"Where is he?"
"Wessex," Phil asked, as Rupert came to stand behind him.
"He's in Alvarez's studio. I'll take you up to him in a moment." Hargrove's eyes trailed after the ostler who had led the carriage around towards one side of the castle.
"And Macaban? Is he well?"
Taking a deep breath, the collie's tail could not help but wag in agitation. "It is simpler if you just follow me and see him for yourself. This way." Hargrove led them into the castle, but instead of taking the main corridor towards the more elegant wing, he led them by the kitchens which smelled of delicious pastries and fresh carrots, towards the servants quarters and the stables. Phil hopped along after him, with Rupert ambling right behind.
The stables were only half full, many of the animals would be out in the fields helping the Lorlanders harvest the crops. Tack and harness hung from the rafters, while the ever present equine scent drowned out all others. Flies buzzed and flew from back to back, though Rupert swatted at any that dared come near Phil. Two of the blue-liveried guards were standing next to one of the stalls, inside of which could be seen the head of a donkey. The Prince immediately recognized the skunk and bull.
"Deller, Gary!" Phil called in greeting, hopping over to the Lorlanders. Ever since he had been given dominion over the late Altera's land, he had done his best to learn the names of every one of his subjects. By now he knew almost all of the guards and even something about them. "What happened to your snout, Gary?"
"Your highness." they both inclined their heads, and then the bull indicated with his three fingered hand. "Macaban here kicked me while I tried to hold him down."
Phil's eyes went wide, and his ears erect. He'd been told his look of surprise made him even cuter than normal, hardly befitting a grizzled sea captain! "That's Macaban?"
"Unfortunately," Hargrove murmured as he ran his paw through the donkey's mane. Macaban was currently eating some grain from a feedbag, totally oblivious to the animal-men standing about him.
"Is he feral?" Phil had quite a bit of familiarity with being feral himself. Having to sleep in a cage at night was simply one aspect of it. Rarely did he have a chance to see the animal side overcome another of his fellow Metamorians.
"Completely, he doesn't recognize anything or anybody," Deller pointed out. Phil found his nose twitching involuntarily, his stomach turning. It was readily obvious that skunk had sprayed somebody recently, though it appeared to have been dampened somehow. As he leaned in closer on his fore-paws, he could tell that somebody had been the donkey. "It's like he never was a man."
Rupert shifted uncomfortably on his feet behind him, and Phil had to admit he shared the ape's discomfort. "When did it happen?"
"A few hours ago, I sent the letter shortly after we'd restrained him. He'd been alone with Wessex and then suddenly we heard a terrible braying, and there he was, kicking and cantering about the lounge, destroying everything. The mage cast some sort of spell on him, and he's calmed down since," Gary explained, rubbing his tender snout.
Phil turned his head back, gazing up at his protector. Rupert's face was grim, and quite unsettled. "I believe that I should go speak with Wessex now. I'm sure he has some notion of what has caused this."
"I hope he can fix him," Deller muttered, his whiskers drooping.
"As do I!" Phil assured him, taking one last look at the donkey before following Hargrove back towards the kitchens and the other wing of the castle. Those dark brown eyes gazed at them contemptuously as if to say that the feed bag was all his. The rabbit wondered if that was how his eyes looked when he was feral too. The very notion of it sent a shudder down his spine and into his fluffy tail.
The studio was mostly unadorned. Aside from the easel and untouched canvas in one corner, there was very little artistic about this little used room in the Lorland castle. Altera probably had little interest in trying to create anything, only to subjugate that which already existed, and to give himself pleasure at any instance.
Captain Hargrove led Phil and Rupert into the confined chamber, where damask curtains stood open to let the afternoon sun shine across the tiled floor and single couch set opposite the canvas and writing desk. Sitting upon the stool before the desk, which was really too large for him, was Wessex, who was reading over a few slips of parchment in his hands. Phil hopped in and settled onto the couch, while Rupert stood just behind it. Hargrove stood in the doorway, tapping one boot anxiously.
"Wine," Wessex called out in a strained voice. Phil's eyes narrowed as he peered at the boy. He was dressed in a simple white smock, with chalk stains along his forearms. His hair was disheveled, and there was a fresh scar lining his cheek. There was a torn piece of cloth sitting next to his arm that had been stained red by the wound.
Hargrove grimaced, then turned on his paws and walked out the door. Phil waited a few minutes, as the boy had yet to even glance in his direction, only at the door, waiting for the collie's return. The Captain was prompt, carrying a pitcher and a few tumblers. He poured Wessex a glass, and the boy grinned in appreciation before taking a long drought.
"Can I interest either of you in the wine?" Hargrove offered, holding out the carafe in one paw.
"No, thank you," Phil declined, waving one paw modestly.
The Captain nodded, and poured himself a glass, and then set the pitcher down upon a shelf next to a collection of paints long since dried out. He dipped his muzzle into the tumbler, lapping at the warm liquid as his paw began tapping the floor again.
The boy mage took a few long breaths, closing his eyes, and composed himself. Then, he returned to his papers, shuffled them about a moment, and offered them to the rabbit. Rupert reached out, and plucked the parchment from Wessex's tiny hand, and then held it for Phil to examine. "Do you want me to read this?"
The mage nodded, taking another drink from his glass. "I'd tell you myself, but I can... barely speak." In fact, he nearly coughed up all of the wine after finishing such a long sentence. After a tense moment, he caught his breath, and took another drink. "I'm all right," he assured them in a very weak voice.
Phil wished that he could help his friend, but Wessex had always been the type to do things on his own. That he requested the Prince's presence was indication enough that something more than just Macaban's loss of intellect was amiss. Turning his attention to the papers that Rupert held for him, he began to read.
"Phil, I wish that I could be telling you this in my own voice, but alas, it is too weak from a night of chanting to say much of anything as you probably know by now. I couldn't wait for it to return either, so I've written this to inform you that Loriod's Legacy is still with us. I thought that I had removed all of his taint from the Keep in my fervor this last Spring. You know I gave it my best effort to eliminate every last one of his spells that he'd hidden upon others and places and things. Unfortunately for Macaban, it appears that I missed one.
"You do of course remember that wizard who I told you was controlling Loriod? The one I found by the censer when Dorson died, and the one who was in the tower when Loriod died as well. And I am sure that you remember the name that I extracted from him before he was able to escape me. Zagrosek. I've been able to find out more of him since then, as I've kept you and the others informed. He is of a Southern mage clan known as the Sondeckis. I thought that my breaking of his legs and hips would keep him out of our hair for a while. I now believe that I was wrong. I believe that Zagrosek is still exerting his influence to harm our way of life at the Keep.
"I have been having dreams, horrid nightmares in which I am forced to relive the moment when I stumbled upon him after he'd killed Dorson. At first, I thought it was just trauma at having been responsible for my student's death. Then, shortly after the Summer Solstice, a new element came into my dreams. My research into the mysterious Zagrosek, his name and heraldic symbol being all that I had to go on, led me to some rather disturbing conclusions. I have not voiced them to anyone, though I foolishly confronted the individual that I suspected of playing a role in this scheme. I must ask that you keep this secret to yourself for now, as I do not know who else I can turn to for trust.
"The reason I suspect this individual of collusion with Zagrosek is very simple. It all started the day I first mentioned his name in one of our secret meetings. I noticed one of our number flinch. So I sought out to test him repeatedly, by inviting him to my room, after papering it with that Sondeckis symbol, you know the shield with hand and sword. It was obvious to anyone that he knew it. He was rather glib though, so I suspected even more. When Habakkuk supplied me with a tome that discussed many of the southern magic groups, I discovered that they were the Sondeckis, and I learned of their power.
"The Sondeckis channel force, plain and simple. They can strike you with a hundredfold their own strength if they are sufficiently powerful. For example, they could bite through petrified wood if they so desired. That bountifruit wood that your adoptive father, King Tenomides sends you? A Sondeckis could snap that in half with their bare hands."
Phil pushed the papers away with one paw, his mind racing. He did not need to read further to know where Wessex was taking this. He remembered describing what he'd seen his friend Matthias do in the cellars on his first visit to Wessex one day when the mage had inquired about him. Turning on his haunches, he peered over at Hargrove who was now pacing idly, his eyes intent. "Captain, I think I would like something to drink now."
"Of course," he snapped out of his reverie and brought the rabbit a tumbler full of the sweet-smelling wine. Phil took it clumsily between his paws, their animalistic construction barely able to hold it aloft. He drank half of the wine at once, before his eyes were inevitably drawn back to the page.
"I know that you realize who I am referring to now. Yes, you have already guessed it. Your friend, Charles Matthias, is a Sondeckis, just the same as Zagrosek. The day before the Summer Solstice, you were here at Lorland then, I confronted him about it, and he admitted to me that our mysterious wizard and he had been very good friends. Barely a week later, the rat is in my dreams taunting me alongside that murderer.
"I know this is hard for you to accept, since you to are such good friends. I earnestly hope that Charles is not involved. But he is a Sondeckis. And he is dangerous, and we cannot risk letting him know that we suspect him of misdeed. If he is in alliance with his old friend, then he is a terrible danger to us all. What I have told you is the sum total of my evidence against him, but it is not enough to prove that he is a pariah. But it is terribly suspicious and I would not chance assuming otherwise than I have.
"There is only one other person who knows my suspicions about the ex-writer. Forgive me if I do not tell you who; I cannot risk endangering anyone else with this knowledge. But I still have not told you the full truth to why I am here, and to what I think has happened to Macaban. Forgive my long-windedness, but there is just so much that needs to be said. I have kept it to myself for far too long now, and I do not believe that I am capable of handling it on my own anymore.
"Even after Matthias joined the ghoulish cast of my nightmares, little else occurred to bother me except my sudden somnambulism. I have been walking in my sleep to the wall that I sealed. The room that had existed beyond was where the censer had been placed after your servant Rupert stole it from Loriod. Zagrosek tore a hole to the Underworld with that device, a small hole, but a hole nonetheless. Until this very morning, I was not sure quite what he had done, but after last night, there can no longer be a doubt.
"So I continued to walk to this wall, and I'd find myself there early each morning, before sunrise usually. But last night, something else happened. I woke up in the middle of casting a spell on that wall. I won't bore you with the details of the magic that you probably wouldn't understand anyway, so I will just tell you what it would have accomplished had I completed the incantation. That dweomer would have undone my seal on that doorway, and let the hell-spawn that had leaked through the hole free to run amuck in Metamor. I do not believe I have to stress how apocalyptic the consequences of that would be.
"It has become clear to me now that my nightmares are a form of possession. Somehow, Zagrosek and his ilk have gained a foothold in my mind. I do not know to what extent, but I believe that they can only influence me while I am asleep. I do know to what purpose they mean to use me. I was the one who sealed that wall. Only I can undo my own spell. They are trying to coerce me into opening that wall.
"There are only two solutions that I can see. The more drastic and hopeless of the two is for me to die. I do not want to die, but if I am dead, that wall cannot be opened. The alternative is less sure, but is the road I intend to follow. Magic has its own form of scent. Being a rabbit now, I am sure you can appreciate how people leave their scent to mark their path. I am going to find the magical scent of the ones plaguing my mind, and I am going to use that to keep them out, and to possibly expose them and destroy them.
"That is the reason why I am here at Lorland. Aside from that room, we cannot be certain if Zagrosek has ever set foot anywhere else in Metamor. And that room is not fit to be examined. But I know for certain that he was here at Lorland, or at least, he was with Loriod while he was here. It is entirely possible he only was in that tower now destroyed, but due to Macaban's current state, I highly doubt it. But he was with Loriod, and so the scent will be on anything that Loriod had with him whenever they met. I need all of Loriod's clothes. It will be time consuming, quite possibly it could take several months, but I will find him, if it is still there.
"This is the only hope I have left. I am too frightened to let myself sleep now. I cannot trust myself to slumber unless I know I am being watched. I think it would be better for me to remain here at Lorland until my voice returns, just to be safe.
"As for Macaban, there was a trigger spell still upon him. Somehow, somebody knew enough to plunge him into his feral state if shown the Sondeck heraldry. Not only that, but it enraged him to the point that he very likely would have killed me, or at least gravely wounded me. I am not sure what I can do for him at present. I have considered using the same sort of incantation that I prepared for you after Loriod's deviltry left you mindless. It will take a few weeks before I have enough energy to attempt such a casting though.
"There is one reason more why I requested that you come. I needed somebody I could trust to stay by my side for now. I know it is childish, but sometimes this body's needs get the better of me. Will you please stay at my side these next few days? I am frightened and do not wish to face it alone."
Phil drained the last of his wine, and carefully handed the tumbler back to Hargrove. There was nothing else on the parchments, and so he leaned back in his chair and gazed at the child who was staring forlornly at the ground. Turning to his aide, he said, "Rupert, please take these pages and burn them. Do not read a single word on them, just burn them, and scatter the ashes when you are done."
Rupert nodded calmly, removing the unsettling script and quietly leaving the room.
Turning to the collie, Phil added, "Captain, Wessex and I will be staying a few days, would you kindly make the arrangements. I want guards to be inside the mage's quarters at all times while he is asleep. I want two sets of guards outside his door during the night as well. And Hargrove, do not give him a room with a window."
Hargrove wagged his tail in agitation, but nodded his head in compliance. "I shall see to it immediately."
As soon as they were alone in the studio together, Phil hopped from the couch, and drew close to the boy who was wearing a thin smile across his lips. The Prince put one paw on the boys shoulder. "Wessex, I cannot say I believe everything you have confessed to me. I will not believe that Matthias is involved in this until I have definite proof. I have worked with him for too many years for our trust to disappear like that. But I will stay with you these next few days and help you find what you need to stop these nightmares. I cannot be with you forever, but I will try and assist you as best I am able."
Wessex leaned his head down into the rabbit's fur, as the afternoon sun cascaded down over their shoulders. Breathing heavily, a tear finally creasing the boy's cheek, he managed to say in his raspy voice, "Thank you."