Malvoisin

by Wanderer

"What do you see, Apprentice?", the wizard Posti said to his most recent pupil.

"I ... ", the boy stuttered.

"Come, boy, come!", Robert Stein, known as Posti, demanded of the child he had chosen to teach. "Ignore me! Ignore your thoughts, your feelings! What. Do. You. See?"

"Something ... flickering ... ", the boy said, confused.

"Pah!" Posti paused in his pacings. "That's the torchlight. Try again, Apprentice, and this time don't look through your eyes."

"What, sir?"

The wizard frowned irritably. "Inside, boy! Magic can come from any*where* or any*thing*. But first you have to be able to seen it!"

"I ... I don't ... "

"Pah!"

After a moment of glaring at the boy, Posti relented. "I expect", he said, "that you'll need a little help".

A look of relief spread over the boy's face, but was quickly guarded, as though a lantern's wick had been trimmed to avoid showing light to the enemy.

Ignoring the boy's facial expressions, Posti crossed the room to a small chest that lay just behind the door. Taking a small key from his pocket, he spread his arms just wide enough so that, through his robes, his apprentice could not see the place where the wood of the seemingly featureless chest slid aside to reveal the wards of an ornate lock. In a series of fluid motions, he inserted the key, turned it, opened the chest, removed a small pot of ointment, closed the chest, and relocked it. Sliding the cover of the lock back into place, he smiled softly to himself. He knew from experience that the entire ritual had seemed almost arcane to the neophyte, though the boy's untrained feelings would no doubt have registered the lack of active magic. After all, even a backalley thief could do that much.

Besides, he'd learned the trick from his master.

Returning to his apprentice, he opened the small stone jar and scooped a small amount from it with his pointer finger.

"Name?", he said imperiously as he neared the apprentice (who was still staring at the "featureless" block of wood.

The boy started, then caught himself. "I ... my name is Randal, my lord".

The wizard snorted once, disdainfully. "Not your true name, dullard. Not even a part of your true name. Given name, child!"

"K-kindle, sir".

"Kindle. Hmph", grunted the wizard as he stifled a smile. "You aspire to the mastery of flame, then?"

"Yes, sir", the boy said with a smile as his teacher's demeanor changed for the better.

"Hmph", Posti said as he resumed his gruff frown. "We shall see. Now, Kindle, close your eyes".

The boy looked warily at the wizard, eyes narrowed but unclosed.

The wizard rolled his own eyes in frustration. "D'you want to learn or not, boy?", he said angrily.

"Wh ... yes, sir", Kindle replied, catching himself from any disrespect he might've been about to show. "Of course".

"Then close your thrice-blasted eyes!"

Kindle's eyes closed in a fraction of a heartbeat.

"Now", said Posti as he applied his precious cargo to the boy's eyes, "this may feel uncomfortable. It's supposed to. Keeps you from depending on it too much. One thing you have to remember, boy", he said warningly, "never rely too much on any support, or you may find yourself unable to stand without it".

"Yes, sir".

"Now", said Posti as he closed the jar. "Open your eyes".

Kindle opened his eyes slowly, cautiously, his eyelids fluttering as he slowly winched them open like twin portcullises, uncertain whether friend or foe lay beyond the gate.

A whooshn of indrawn breath and a widening of the eyes let Posti know that his aim had been achieved.

"What ... ", Kindle half-gasped, his eyes and mind straining to take in all that lay around him. Shapes of all imaginable kinds lay spread before his eyes. He saw a horse to one side, a dog to another. A man and woman hung in his view at what seemed to be thirty paces' distance, though he knew the room was no more than ten by twelve. The shapes hung there, like shadows with no light. Yet, at some level, they seemed somehow ... right to him.

"Well, boy?", his Master's voice inquired, "Do you like what you see?"

He turned to face the wizard Stein ... and gasped indeed. Where he had before seen an old man in a robe like any other, he now saw a figure like some forgotten god upon the earth. Energies he could not name flowed across it in bright streams of silver fire that coursed like a running stream.

"M- ... Master?", he finally pried loose from his dumbstruck tongue.

Stein chuckled. "Yes, boy", he replied. "I am he to whom you belong for some years yet. I do appear quite differently in this way. But, then, look to yourself".

The boy looked down at himself and froze. The hands he saw, the arms, the chest ... all were limned with a living fire like his master's, though it blazed a lambent green that reminded him somehow of light in a still clearing as the sun filtered through the leaves of the great oaks. The fire was not so bright as his master's, yet it gleamed in a way that his master's did not.

"That gleam", said Stein as he noticed the boy looking at both his fire and Stein's own, "is the bright innocence of youth. Unfortunately, it never lasts".

"Now", said Stein peremptorily, "do you see those shapes out there?"

"Wh-what? Oh. Oh, yes, sir."

"Good", said Stein with a smile. "Grab one".

The boy looked at him confusedly.

"Yes, you!", thundered Stein, his voice somehow louder than seemed possible in this strange place. "I have no other apprentices that I know of, spirits be praised, so I mustn be talking to you! Now get one of those shapes!"

Kindle started forward, and ran into the wall (which, though appearing somewhat transparent, was just as hard as ever).

Stein sighed. "Like this", he said, and reached forth his hand and grasped one.

Seeing this, Kindle reached forth similarly and found himself in possession of a strange shape that seemed to flicker and twist like a living thing in his hands.

"Good", said Stein. "That, my dear apprentice, is the representation of Fire, your element of choice. Now, apply it to that unlit candle upon the desk".

For a moment, Kindle stood still.

"This time", said Posti, "you may indeed walk to the item".

Cautiously, Kindle walked forward until he reached the beeswax taper that stood in the table sconce. Reaching out, he placed the shape he held against the candle.

"The wick!", roared Posti exasperatedly. "Touch it to the wick!"

Quickly, Kindle shifted the shape in his hands to the wick, which began to glow and smolder. In a few seconds, a small flame appeared at the tip of the candle's wick and slowly began to grow.

"It worked", breathed Kindle, aglow with success. "It really worked".

Suddenly, the flame was dashed out by a clot of water that appeared as from nowhere. Looking about quickly, Kindle spotted Master Posti looking serious.

"Not bad", said the master. "Not bad ... for a start. In time, you ... but I get ahead of myself. These", he said with a sweeping gesture at the shapes that seemed to float around them, "are the Shapes". The word seemed somehow to resonate in the air. "These, if legend be trusted, are the patterns from which all Creation was made. By reaching forth and grasping them, then applying them, either singly or in combination, a wizard, if he is experienced enough, can change things in many ways. Over time", he said as he started to pace, "you shall learn to hold more of the Shape in your hands, to make the changes faster and longer-lasting. You shall learn to reach with your mind, to place the Shape where you want it without a touch. But first", he said with a grim smile, "you are going to wash the ointment from your eyes and try that again."


As Kindle finished scrubbing the ointment from his face with one of the rough pieces of toweling from the bench, a knock sounded at the door. "Come!", shouted Posti, irritably.

The door opened to reveal Copernicus, so he called himself, a member of Duke Hassan's household guard. "Wizard Posti", he said after an appropriate bow, "His Lordship wishes to meet with you immediately".

Posti frowned. There was a good chance he knew why this sudden meeting was being called, and a far better chance he was not going to like it. "Has Magus been summoned?", he asked, using the given name of the Keep's most powerful mage.

"Yes, milord", replied the hard-bitten man-at-arms. "Both he and Pascal have been called as well".

Posti snorted once, briefly. He had never entirely understood the court's alchemist. For that matter, what little he knew of him revolved about strange experiments with tree saps and various infusions of leaves. Still, given the current situation ... he nodded once to the soldier. "Very well. Inform His Lordship that I come. Or are you to escort me?"

Copernicus smirked once at that turn of phrase, knowing well that there was little in the Keep that a trained mage couldn't handle. "No, milord. I am summoned to sentry duty on the wall".

Posti frowned once more as he approached the door. If they needed to mobilize this much force this quickly ... he turned to his apprentice. "It would seem, my dear Kindle", he said, knowing full well that the boy had only just swallowed a relieved smile at being exempted from his lessons, "that I cannot stay to supervise. In my absence, you are to practise no magic whatsoever".

"In the meantime", he hurried on as Kindle began to smile, "I shall require you to mend the three robes in my garment chest, fill my personal lantern with oil, and procure a new container of ointment from the alchemist as soon as possible. Also, be sure to sweep the floor and remove that cobweb from the far corner of the ceiling. When you are finished", Posti said as he watched his student's face sag in realisation, "you may entertain yourself until I return".

With that, Posti scooped the pot of ointment into the pouch at his belt and swept from the room.


As Posti entered the room, he could already scent the strange effluvium that Pascal put out. The strange scents were never entirely recognizable, though Posti believed he could detect a hint of woodsmoke beneath the less comprehensible layers.

Surely enough, the alchemist was already seated at the meeting table, his robe showing the wear and tear of several loose cinders from the fire he always kept burning in his quarters to aid with his experiments.

Across from him sat Magus, wearing the plain brown robe he always affected, and gazing off into an unseen distance with an abstracted look about him.

Then, at the head of the table, he saw Duke Hassan. He bowed deeply to the imposing figure, and held himself low until given the command to rise.

"My liege".

"Come, Posti", said the Duke in his friendly manner. "We have much to discuss".

Posti sat at the end of the table opposite the Duke, being careful to arrange his robes to avoid a tripup later. Thus settled, he awaited the first word from his liege lord.

"My friends", sighed Lord Hassan, "we are faced with a grave danger".

"It seems", he said, taking a map from his belt pouch, "that the King's forces in the Giantdowns garrisons have been routed. We are now the only force that stands between Nasoj and the Middlelands".

A deathlike hush settled about the table. Metamor Keep, as it was called, was no sprawling fortress, ready to defend an empire. Even its unusual nature had no direct defensive effect. The Keep still relied heavily upon the surrounding farmlands for supplies and staff.

"Are the armies on their way?", queried Posti.

"Of course", replied His Lordship. "But Nasoj's forces shall be here within days, and the King's armies have at least a moon's travel ahead of them".

"Can we hold out", asked Pascal querulously, his soot-blackened hand clutching at the chair's arm. "I mean, how long can we hold out?"

At a nod from the Duke, Magus spoke. "According to DeMule's ciphering, we have enough food and grain stored to last for three weeks. With rationing and no unforeseen events, we may be able to last until the arrival of reinforcements".

The word, 'may', hung in the air like a ghost at the feast, killing all discussion by its presence.

"I felt you should be informed", said the Duke with the barest hint of apology in his voice. "That you might prepare".

Almost as one, the workers of magic nodded. Already, they were sorting through their knowledge, hunting for the one piece that might hold the key to saving the Keep from capture.

"You are dismissed, gentlemen", sighed the Duke wearily. He knew that their minds would continue to churn until they produced some trace of butter from the milk of facts that he had given them.

He only prayed against ferment.

He bowed his head as the three mages took their leave, each vowing to serve him to the best of their ability.

The words, "or die trying", were left unsaid. They were too well understood.

Once they had left, he rang the bell at his right hand. In moments, a page entered the room.

"Milord?"

"Inform DeMule that I wish to speak with him. Oh", he said when the page began to bow his way from the room, "and send in that new scholar, Jonathan".

"At once, milord", said the page as he backed from the room before turning to dash for his destination.


"You summoned me, milord?"

"Yes, Jonathan", said Lord Hassan as the scholar edged nervously around the door's edge. "I require as much information as - "

A knock interrupted him, and he turned to the door. "Come", he said mildly.

The page entered, slightly out of breath. "Begging ... milord's pardon. Mi- ... mister DeMule ... is here".

Thomas, titled Duke Hassan, nodded once. "Bid him enter".

The page withdrew, and DeMule hove into view. Though not an overly large man, he carried with him some sense of immovibility that made him seem almost a wall made flesh. This once, though, the stubbornness which had earned him his given name was not in evidence.

"Milord?"

"Come, Jack. Sit", Thomas said, indicating the chair beside Jonathan. "Jonathan was just about to tell me all he has learned of Metamor Keep's history".

Jon, all eyes trained on him, froze for an instant in the twinned gaze before clearing his throat. "Ah ... where shall I begin, Your Lordship?"

"The beginning", said Thomas. "And leave nothing out. Even the smallest of details may be vital".

Jon nodded and began. "Metamor Keep", he said as he looked at his notes, "is first noted in some of the earliest parchment and stone records still existing. The name", he said with an inflection that indicated a digression, "is original with these references, and is said to have originally been carved in stone somewhere within the Keep itself, though no records exist of the supposed tablet's origin or location".

"In these records", he said, warming to his topic, "the name actually appears as M'tammur, indicating that the name may be somehow translated from another language. Unfortunately", he said with a shrug, "we have only conjecture to go upon, since no carvings such as were referred to in the text have been found".

"In any event", he continued, "M'tammur was first investigated by Eldin the Fat's armies, and it is in his reign that we find a notation of the Keep's strange properties. Among those described was a form of shield which prevented entry to any point but the main yard".

"This shield", interrupted the Duke. "Can it be used in defense of the castle?"

"Unfortunately", said Jon as he turned another page, now lost in his lecture, "the shield had vanished by the time of the next exploration. No attempts to re-establish it have yet been successful".

Thomas slumped. "Continue".

"It was not until the reign of King Godwin that M'tammur Keep received its popular name of Metamor", Jon said, adjusting his speculara slightly to keep the page in focus, "and not until that time that a permanent presence was established".

"I said to leave nothing out", said Thomas heatedly. "What came between?"

Jon cleared his throat nervously. "Erm ... unfortunately, due to the wars of succession, much of the knowledge was lost. It was not until three generations ago that a complete mapping was attempted. It was then that the true extent of the Keep was realised".

"Which is?", said Jack in the hoarse voice of any overworked castellan.

"Unknown", said Jon as he tossed his remaining notes to the table. "While the shell of the Keep appears to be no more than an ordinary structure, the interior seems to be almost infinitely adaptable ... within reason".

Duke Hassan nodded. "Yes", he said softly. "I recall when the population started to grow, in my youth. No matter how many new castlefolk arrived, there was always room. And the tavern ... "

"Appeared in your 16th year, milord", said Jon in a lapse of etiquette that Thomas quickly forgave and forgot. "Similarly, laboratories and apartments for wizards, alchemists, and the like sometimes appear even before the persons themselves know they are coming here". Jon paused for breath a moment and reordered his notes.

Thomas considered for a moment. "Does the Keep produce anything ... unusual?"

Jon shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately, milord, it does not. That was proven during the reign of the previous succession, which fell to the Giantdown forces one generation before your grandfather retook it. Given the reports from the front of late, however, I do rather wish that it wouldn produce something to help".

Thomas sighed and turned to DeMule. "Jack", he said heavily, "how are our defenses?"


Jack took a parchment scroll from his belt pouch and unrolled it on the table. "I've already drawn up a tactical map", he said, "which illustrates our strengths and weaknesses".

"Metamor Keep", he said with a grudging trace of respect in his voice, "is strange, but well-built. The general form of the outer defensive wall is that of a triangle, with the base as the main gate. Each of the other two gates is placed in a different face. We don't know what the ones who built this place wanted it for", he said with a scratch of his head, "but it makes the place almost impossible to surround".

"Each gate", he said, pointing to the map, "is actually a pair of gates. Each outer ward is a heavy iron portcullis, with the inner ward a set of heavy iron-bound wooden doors. Here, and here", he said, indicating the walls of each gate, "are a series of arrow slits that, while oddly shaped, work just fine with our own arrows".

"If an enemy somehow got through the outer and inner wards", he said, rolling his map into a tight cylinder, "the inner Keep is just as tough as the outer Keep, with many of the same defenses. Whoever built this place", he said as he tucked the scroll away, "was an even better builder than I am".

Thomas smiled briefly. He knew how much that admission had cost his castellan. "Your advice?"

Jack considered briefly. "Unless something changes drastically", he said, "I think we have a better-than-even chance to outlast a siege of up to a month. Beyond that ... " He left the words hanging. There was no need to finish the sentence.

Thomas nodded once. "Work closely with the castle guard", he said tightly. "We can't afford to miss anything that might be of use in the upcoming battle".

"Lord", said Jack, "May I speak?"

Thomas smiled. "I wouldn't expect anything else", he said. "What is it?"

Jack shot a glance to Jon. Thomas quickly understood.

"Jon", said the ruler of Metamor Keep, "you may go now".

Jon, observing the exchange, nodded silently and backed to the door. After he bumped into it, the page quickly opened it and let him out.

"Your Lordship", said Jack as soon as the door was solidly shut, "I wonder if it's wise to have all these ... artists here at such a time".

Thimas smiled. "Jack, the court of Hassan is fabled throughout the kingdom for its arts. I can hardly withdraw my patronage without reason".

Jack merely gazed at him implacably.

Thomas sighed. "Yes, Jack", he said at last, "I understand. Without the full court, we'd stand an even better chance of lasting until the King's forces get here. Unfortunately", he said before Jack could utter a word, "we do not have sufficient time to remove them elsewhere, even had we such a place".

Jack sighed gustily. "I still don't like having so many civilians to worry about".

"Neither do I", said Thomas sadly. "Neither do I".


Jack's face grew dark with worry as he left the Duke's war room. The battle ahead was not going to be pretty. Not that any ever were, he reminded himself grimly, but a battle against Nasoj ... !

A sudden collision brought him from his reverie. There before him stood Pascal, the court alchemist, still smelling faintly of smoke.

"Ah", said the strange little man. "Master DeMule! Just the individual I wish to speak with."

"Pascal", Jack said warningly. "I have no time for ... "

"This really, truly will take but a moment of your time, castellan, if I might have a word ... ?"

Jack sighed. When it rains ... ! "Go on".

"Ah", said the alchemist as he brushed soot from his hands. "You see, I have recently embarked upon a series of experiments which require a cool, rather dry environment. Naturally", he said, rambling, "my current laboratory is of no use whatso*ever* in this matter, as I must maintain the flame in constant readiness for my next experiment. So I was wondering ... "

"I am notn going to help you move!"

"Nonono", said Pascal, waving his hands as though the soot could erase the misunderstanding. "I can deal with this quite well on my own. I simply require an unused wardroom, guardroom, or sentry box. Some place with no windows and no heat".

Jack fumed. Fine time for this, when the castle could be attacked at any ... ! He stopped, an idea forming.

"No heat?"

"No heat."

"Do you need light?"

Pascal chuckled good-naturedly. "No, no, goodness, no. A simple candle will serve for this. You see, I'm precipitating ... "

"Yes, yes", said Jack, ignoring the strange words the alchemist tended to use. "I think I know a good place. Go to the guardroom and tell them I said you could have the extra sentry box between wards one and three".

"One and three?"

"Yes".

"Thank you", said Pascal with a shake of Jack's hand. "Thank you very much. Do come by and see the results next week". With that he hurried away, ambling off in the general direction of the guardroom.

Jack chuckled wryly as he wiped his hands on his tunic. Two problems handled at once. Pascal had a laboratory, and he had a distraction ready for any invading troops that discovered the door where it met the first ward.




Back in Posti's quarters, the wizard and his apprentice were readying the necessary equipment for defensive spells.

"Be sure to include extra chalk for the warding circles", Posti said sternly.

"Yes, sir", said Kindle, mildly. As he readied the beeswax candles, however, he stopped for a moment. "Master?"

"Yes", said Posti, already double-checking his herbs.

"Who is Nasoj?"

"Who is ... ?" The old man turned and faced the boy with a frown before relenting. "Oh, yes, you weren't of age to recall when the news came, were you?"

Kindle shook his head, still curious at what could make his teacher so obviously nervous.

Posti sighed and sat upon the bed. "Well, then", he said, "it is about time that you learned".


"In magic", Posti began, "there are many paths that one may take to power. Some are easy, some hard. Some simple, some complicated".

"Nasoj", he said with a touch of scorn in his voice, "is a cretin".

"Oh, don't look so surprised", he said to his shocked apprentice. "Nasoj is powerful. More powerful than any single mage. Perhaps", he said with a trace of worry, "even more powerful than three mages acting in concert".

He sighed as Kindle's mouth gaped. "It is said", he began anew, "that Nasoj was a failed wizard who discovered - and freed - a spirit of great power and even greater evil. In exchange for granting him power, the spirit asked just one thing: a life for every century he lived".

"Nasoj, I'm sorry to say, liked the idea".

"His one great weakness", Posti continued, "has been his lack of knowledge. As his ... 'patron', if you will ... handles all the proverbial 'scutwork', Nasoj, put simply, knows less about magic than you do".

"But, then, why is everyone so worried?", asked Kindle, his brow creased in confusion.

Posti sighed. "Kindle", he said, "while it is true that no mage should ever depend too heavily upon any support, lest it become a crutch, it is also true that a crutch can lend advantage".

He considered for a moment. "Look at it this way", he said at last. "You are in the courtyard, and you meet a boy, many years your senior, who wishes to fight you. You know for a fact that he is slow in the head. Who will win?"

"He will".

"And why?"

"Because he's ... oh".

"Precisely", said Posti sadly. "If Nasoj can figure out just one lucky stratagem, slip even one spell through our defenses, the amount of power he has backing him could decimate us".

Posti stood, then, and gathered up his pack for transport to the central ritual area. "When last he came, Nasoj was not yet a threat. His spells consisted most often of finding a target and attempting to use fire to burn it to the ground. A simple enough stratagem, and easily countered".

"So why are we worried?", asked Kindle.

Posti smiled ruefully. "Because there are three forts inside the Giantdowns that have fallen to him already".

Suddenly, a horn sounded within the Keep. Posti turned in alarm.

"No!", he whispered. "Not so soon!" Raising his voice, he called to his apprentice. "Kindle! Come! We must get to the ritual site!"


Nasoj smiled upon the walls of Metamor Keep, his eyes glinting in the dim light of the day. As he approached, the sun seemed to run from his gaze, hiding itself behind clouds that appeared as though from nowhere.

"Almost there", he whispered triumphantly to himself. "So very close ... do you feel it, friend?", he asked the one who hovered nearby, a shade that needed no light.

"Yes", came a voice like smoldering pitch. "Yes. Closer. Plan have you brilliant".

"I thought so", said Nasoj smugly. He gestured to his companion, and the illusion faded just as one of his two assistants entered the drab homespun tent.

Nasoj looked coldly upon the intruder, who shrank back like a snail from a torchflame ... and for much the same reason.

The newcomer bowed hurriedly. "We approach Metamor Keep, Master Nasoj".

Nasoj smiled. "Excellent", he said, almost seeming to hiss it. "You are prepared?"

"Yes, Master Nasoj", said his assistant with a gulp.

"Then let us begin".

The shadow that had no source split then, a part of it entering into the assistant. Suddenly, he calmed, seeming to take more than strength from that which now lived through him.

"Yes ... ", he breathed as all of his frustrated dreams of magic took on new life. "Yes ... "

Suddenly, he froze, even his breathing stilled. As he watched, for that was all he could do, Nasoj strode masterfully over to him and placed his hand upon the assistant's throat.

"With a thought", he said, "I can snuff out the very life that enables you to draw breath. With a word", he said as he lifted the man's chin, "I can reduce you to a babbling idiot ... or worse. Remember this", he said with a smile like poisoned water, "and never. Never. Betray me".

Nasoj reveled in the fear he could see in the lone unpossessed portion of the fool's mind. He knew that his two assistants truly believed that he would share power with them when he crushed that foolish weakling of a king. Such naivete was almost refreshing.

"Go", said Nasoj, and the man was gone.

"Remember", said the shadow that had no source. "Our bargain remember".

"Always", said Nasoj with a smile. "Life ... for life".


"Hurry, Kindle!", shouted Posti as they neared the central chamber that had been selected for the protective ritual. "We haven't much time!"

"Posti!", cried Magus as the two of them raced into view. "Quickly, now!"

Moving with unaccustomed speed, the two wizards separated, each to his own work. Even as Magus drew a chalk circle upon the floor and began to limn it with sigils, Posti gathered together the herbs and fumes that they would need and instructed Kindle to fill the brazier at the center of the room with charcoal.

Suddenly, Posti looked around, an unbidden memory stirred to life. "Pascal! Where's Pascal!?"


Deep in a silent, stone-walled room, Pascal arranged the tray of tree sap carefully, letting the wire framework in the tray just be covered by the material. Then, drawing a quill pen from his pouch, he began to write in the open journal before him.

"Ex-per-i-ment ... Num-ber ... 19 ... ", he intoned as he wrote, oblivious to the alarums that his stone enclosure locked away from him. "I ... shall try ... yet ... a-gain ... to form ... the sub-stance ... known as ... lay-tex ... in-to a form ... suitable ... for use ... as ma-ter-i-al".


"No time!", answered Magus as he completed the last sigil. "We'll have to start without him!"

Quickly, Posti gathered Kindle to him. "Kindle, I need you to stand in the circle".

"But, Master Posti, I ... "

"No, Kindle", said Posti in quiet urgency. "We need a third source of power to have the best chance. Just follow me in all I say and do within the circle. Do you understand?"

"Y-yes, sir".

"Good".

As Posti turned away, Kindle began to wonder if it was all right to feel scared at your first ritual spell.


"Quiz!"

"Yes, your Lordship?"

Thomas jumped at Quiz's sudden appearance from hiding. "Quiz, take a message to Jack, at the main ward. Tell him that the pages didn't see Pascal enter the ritual chamber".

"Meaning no offense, your lordship, but why should Jack know where that smoke-sniffer is?", said Quiz, knowing immediately only DeMule would be receiving messages from Lord Hassan at this moment.

"Because Jack was the last person the pages saw him with! Now go, man! Hurry!", yelled Thomas as the liveried man disappeared around the corner of the door jamb. "It may be life and death", he muttered in the sudden silence.


The first wave came without warning, taking half of the first line before the small humanoids were beaten back. Lutins may be small and stupid, many men discovered, but put enough of them on one task and you have an army.

Like ants, the wave of lutins never seemed to actually move, seeming to blink into existence at places farther and farther forward of their original position. Clambering up the walls, the lutins needed no ladders to reach the defenders, trusting instead in their own strength and native skill to propel them to the top of the obstacle.

Yet, even as the lutins advanced, the soldiers within the Keep moved to recover the advantage. Swords out, the remainder of the first line quickly reduced the first wave of lutins to ravenbait, chopping them to pieces even as their small knives clanged harmlessly off of the soldiers' armor.

Once the wall was clear, the archers moved in and began to pick off whole columns of the enemy, their longbows singing and sizzling with the rapid release of arrows.

Behind his home lines, Nasoj snarled. If only the lutins were more effective, he thought, he might not have lost the supplies that the farmers had burned at his approach. And without that warning, the Keep could have been his to pluck like a ripe plum. He resolved to see what his friend could do to the lutins to make them more formidable in battle before engaging the capital.

His snarls died and were replaced with a sly smile as he inspected the golden dome of the protection spell that surrounded the Keep. As anticipated, it was only a little stronger than those at the previous keeps. The advantage of being a loner, he concluded, was that nobody expected you to show up with allies.

"Call them back", said Nasoj to his 'friend'. "It's time".


As suddenly as the first wave came, it suddenly parted, like water before the prow of a ship. As three figures stepped forward into range, archers let fly, only to see their arrows bounce away harmlessly or shatter midflight.

As the figures began to chant, and a light-swallowing aura built about them, the soldiers began to pray. Suddenly, the chanting stopped.

And the world ... changed.


In a stone-walled room, a female porcupine lapped tree sap from a low tray, the victim of crossed spells. Not five yards away, on the other side of the wall, a female black snake coiled and recoiled, twisting in confusion as the memories of a man called Quiz died away. In the castle apartments, a rabbit nibbled idly at the vegetable-based ink on the pen he wielded but moments before as court writer. A horse chewed confusedly at a curtain in the duke's apartments, while rats on the walls nibbled at the deer-sinew bowstrings. In the castle library, a fox and deer looked about themselves in confusion, no longer able to understand the purpose of the lambskin scrolls the fox was gnawing at. A mule had fallen to the ground in the courtyard, his hooves no longer able to grasp the ladder he no longer comprehended.

In the second ward, another insanity held sway. Here the figures upon the ground were female, though not in any sane and well-ordered fashion. They were bloated nightmare-dreams of the female form, with no thought but to please the men they believed would come.

In the third ward, a great wailing was heard as infants, swallowed by garments they wore but moments ago, bawled their sorrows to the mothers that never came.

And Nasoj gloated in triumph ... for he had won.


In the ritual chamber, chaos descended. Firmly in the path of the first ward, Posti strained to stay standing as his hips shifted backwards, his feet pointing and darkening into hooves. Beyond him, Magus suddenly yelped as a fox's tail broke through the rear of his trews and thrust his robe outward. Kindle gasped in shock as his hands grew pale and wizened, becoming the paws of a mouse.

"No!", screamed Posti in a half-whinny. "Hold ... fast! Don't ... lose ... concentraaAAAYYYyyytion".

"I'm trrrryin'!", growled Magus as his hands dwindled, their coat of hair darkening into black fur. "Knnn ... ", he whined before he found his voice. "Knn't hrd nn!"

Posti's mind began to buckle under the onslaught of power that was changing it. Moment by moment, he could feel bits of himself slipping away.

In deperation, he conceived a last ditch plan ...

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

Nasoj smiled toothily as the golden dome began to fold in upon itself, dying by inches and degrees. As he watched, a lutin was over the wall in instants, and the gates were open. As he progressed through the courtyard, Nasoj amused himself with occasional blasts of fire directed at the cowering animals who had been the defenders of his new castle. Their cries of agony were music to his ears. Once they had the other gates open, the lutins could have the animals and babes, while the females would prove an interesting ... diversion along the way.

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

"Kihihihindle!", whinnied Posti as his plan took shape. "Gehehet the ointment! Powhuch!"

With a free clawed paw, Kindle reached dexterously into the belt pouch that was dangling precariously from the last shreds of his master's trews.

"Now!", screamed Posti with all the fury of a stallion, "Smear! It! On! My! Eyes!"

Magus winced as the loud noise startled Kindle into dropping the jar. As it shattered on the floor, a final tear dropped down the fells of fur that now covered his cheek.

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

"Now", said Nasoj to the closest Lutin, "Open the gates".


Reaching down from his now-lower height, Kindle scooped a pawful of ointment from the shards of the pot. Clambering up his changing master, he quickly smeared a healthy amount across the now-closed eyelids. Then, just in case, he smeared some on both himself and Magus.

Suddenly, the circle of three blazed with power. Slowly, too slowly, the edges of the golden dome began to reform.

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

Nasoj held up a hand that stopped his lutins from opening the gates. He chuckled mildly. Someone, somewhere, was trying to reform the spell that had been trying to protect his new palace. He smiled as he intensified the flow of power from his friend.

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

As he regained a bit of his former height, Magus thought quickly. "Kindle, quick!", he barked. "My staff! I left it on the table over there!"

Still maintaining as much flow as he could under such circumstances, Kindle scurried to the table and grabbed the staff that lay atop it. As his paw closed about it, the shimmering aura that enclosed it jumped to new brightness.

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

Nasoj scowled. Something was wrong. The dome was dwindling, yes, but far too slowly. Stretching forth his hands, he sent a double beam of power lancing into the dome. Outside the walls, his enthralled assistants raised their hands and sent forth their own twinned daggers of energy, binding their lives to the work.

u-n-_-_-_-_-_-_

Magus yelped as a new wave of magic caused his fur to ripple in an unseen wind. "Now!", he yowled to Kindle. "Stand it in the fire!"

Kindle placed the unadorned end in the smoldering charcoal and began to raise it to vertical. Strangely, the staff seemd unaffected by the heat. But the upper end, as Kindle raised it, began to smolder and warp. It bucked wildly against his small paws, resisting the forces that were driving in upon it.

Seeing his dilemma, Posti added his own hooves to the contest, and they gained another few inches. But, again, the staff began to warp and twist as the contesting energies met at its peak.

Finally, Magus placed his hands upon the staff and, with a final heave, shoved it into place.

Like a ridgepole in a pavilion, the staff now spread out a tent of golden, shimmering light that blazed like the sun. Posti heard a somewhere within him, like the winch of a portcullis settling into place against its rest. Suddenly, he could stand without straining.

As the golden light swept through the courtyard, Nasoj screamed, a shadow appearing from nowhere to carry him away.

"Mine", whispered the shadow as it sped away. "Mine".

In the wards, the golden light shifted subtly, each ward taking on its own hue.

In the third ward, the remaining lutins were first shot full of arrows, then ripped limb from limb, as the angered female defenders exhausted their anger and humiliation on Nasoj's troops.

In the second ward, the walls were suddenly alive with youths, whose young muscles swept the field before them, driven on by battlefield wisdom.

And in the first ward, a battle the likes of which human eyes had never seen took place. With tooth, claw and hoof, the lutins who had entered were cut down by the remaining defenders, their bones scattered to the four winds.

The siege of Metamor Keep was over.


A month had passed since the battle of the Change, and life in Metamor keep had returned to normal.

"It's WHAT!?"

Almost.

"Jack", explained Posti patiently, "I've tried. As wonderful as this body is, I'd love to have a thumb again. It makes picking things up evern so much simpler", he finished sarcastically.

"Listen", said Jack. "All I want to know is, why can't you change me back?"

Posti sighed. "Jack, I wish I knew. My best guess is that the spell Nasoj used was somehow blended with the protection spell, producing the partial reversion we now have. And yes", he said, forestalling any interruption, "the Keep itself could have had an effect on the spell. Unfortunately, it's hard to say until we perform some more tests."

"Listen", said Jack, angrily, "Half the guard have no thumbs anymore! How are they supposed to hold swords?"

"Jack", said Posti wearily, "I suggest you discuss that with the smith".

"Great, where is he?"

"She, he was on the third ward", said Posti casually. "And she should be at the forge last I ... "

"Good morning, all!", came a chipper and definitely female voice. "Could someone fill me in on the happenings?"

Turning, the two saw that the voice proceeded from a large female porcupine, wearing a familiar, soot-stained robe that was oddly bulked out by the fur and quills beneath. Quills that kept dropping from the tail that dragged behind her.

"Pascal?", said Posti in amazement.

"Yes", said Pascal in delight. "You would not believe", she said, "what a nice change this is for me. I have no idea what caused it, and I'm going to haven to start my experiment over ... oh, that reminds me, Jack, I never did tell you about my ...

"Pascal", said Posti to try and cut the conversation short, "Nasoj invaded last month".

"He did?"

Posti nodded.

"Did we win?"

Posti considered, then gave a reluctant nod. "In a way".

"Humph", grumped Jack. "No thumbs, more washing to do, half the barracks smelling like a barnyard ... "

"Jack", said Posti, rounding on him, "I was doing more than extraordinary work to find the chink in the spell which allows us to transform back and forth from Nasoj's spell's full effect. I'm afraid the clash of the two spells has basically imprinted us".

"Imprinted?", asked Jack, confused.

Posti sighed and Pascal jumped in to fill the gap.

"Oh, I understand now! You see, Jack, in magical theory, a mage can put part of anything into part of anything else. Like painting over a picture on a wall. But, if you use too much paint, the whole thing blends and you can't seperate the two paintings afterwards".

Jack sighed. "Well, that was clear as mud".

Posti patted him on the furry back. "It could be worse. I hear the new cook arrived the day after the battle. By now, the kitchen should be ... "

Posti fell silent as a rapid squeaking arose from the nearby kitchen.

"All right", Posti said as Jack glared at him. "The Keep did do something, and it is worse".

"Malvoisin", copyright Wanderer