by Hallan Mirayas

Warning: Disturbing Imagery

May 22, 708 CR

    Rumor swarmed through Keeptowne and Euper.  First, Archduke Sutt had arrived, hurrying to a meeting, it was said, with the Duke himself, just in time for that gargantuan storm and its stunning, earth-rattling conclusion.  A follower of Nocturna heralding a storm?  Tongues quickly began to wag, only to be spurred further with the galloping arrival of Charles Matthias, also heading straight to the Keep.  An urgent arrival from the Glen?  Had something happened there?  Then Saroth and Tychicus had been seen taking off from Channing's tower, the highest point in Metamor, and sharp-eyed spotters had seen riders aboard.  Some even claimed one of the riders had been Misha Brightleaf himself, bearing his great axe.  The dragons had winged away to the northeast and disappeared into the mountains.  The storm had been in that direction.  Had some new threat surfaced?

    The specter of Nasoj renewed haunted the dreams of many that night, and gained traction the next day as a cavalcade of knights and a coterie of Lothanasi led by the Lightbringer herself hurried from town, heading north.  They were accompanied by a stout wagon cage, a conveyance that drove Sister Sho Rosewain to make the sign of the Yew with bruin claws, remembering her own time spent inside it.  Several others noted with alarm that the Lothanasa had not been bearing the holy sword Elemacil.  Had it been stolen?  What was going on?

    A cold rain began to fall as evening approached, aiding the Watch as they urged people off the streets.  An edict had arrived from Duke Thomas: people and obstructions were to be cleared in a three-street-wide path from Euper's northern gate all the way to the Keep itself, with shutters ordered closed and doors barred until the returning caravan had passed.  Rumor swiftly connected the dots, and quite a few families in the edict's area chose to spend the night with relatives or friends.  But Metamorians are a hardy stock, and many an eye kept careful watch through cracks as darkness fell.

    They were not disappointed.  In the darkest watch of the night with cold rain still sheeting down, surrounded by guards and led by lamplight, the caravan returned to Metamor.  In Euper, the watchers noticed blood washing from under the wagon's concealing black shroud, seeming endless in its supply.  In Keeptowne, keen ears picked up the intermittent crackle and crunch of breaking bone, and the wagon lurched and shook with each one.  At the threshold of the Keep itself, guards and healers alike swarmed out to meet it, led by Patrolmaster George.

    "Secure that wagon!" the jackal snapped, barking orders in rapid fire.  "Get the transfer cart in place!  Make sure the prisoner is secure, and get him into his cell!  We don't have much time left before sunup!"

    Duke Thomas watched from a window above as the Beast of Revonos was dragged from the wagon onto a rolling cart, and drew in a startled, revolted breath at the sight.  Misshapen muscle writhed under shaggy, bloody fur, straining against bones bent in angles and shapes that belonged to neither man nor beast nor the peculiar hybrid blend typical of a Metamorian.  A sound like a tree limb snapping echoed off the walls of the courtyard, then another, and another, as bones gave way and were jerked into a new configuration.  Jagged edges sliced through skin in a crimson spray before being dragged back inside.  Torn flesh knit, fractured bones set... and then the muscle strain began again.  Thomas' gorge rose, and he saw a few guards turn away and retch.  Through it all, the Beast slumbered, held impossibly bound and unconscious by a slim, iridescent ribbon that wound around the Beast's neck, muzzle, and legs.  Limbs, the Duke corrected, as a forepaw spasmed and splintered into a black-clawed hand.  The beast's muzzle in particular was bound tightly, but neither that nor the forced unconsciousness that the ribbon caused could entirely muffle the screams.

    In the middle of everything, Misha Brightleaf cradled the beast's head in his arms, heedless of the danger.  His mouth moved with words that the Duke could not hear over the turmoil, continually wiping bloody froth from the beast's mouth and nose with something that might once have been part of his shirt.  Lothanasa Hin'Elric stood guard with Elemacil drawn, while Wolfram Barhart and Charles Matthias both emerged from the wagon looking battered and worn, bearing the exhausted form of Priestess Merai between them.  The Duke stiffened in alarm at her bloodstained robes, but relaxed when several Lothanasi acolytes converged on her, wrapping her in a rainproof cloak and shepherding her inside.  "Thalberg, send a runner to the Temple to make sure Priestess Merai is all right.  If they're worrying about her getting wet, I would bet against it, but still..."  He heard the crocodile leave the room, but kept his attention focused below.

    Coil after coil of rope was thrown over the writhing beast, trying to pin him down to the table so he could be carted away to the dungeon.  "Absolutely no chains," Archduke Sutt had warned.  "Let not even a single link be near him.  It would be dangerous at best, catastrophic at worst.  Nocturna has foreseen this."  Masons had been sent to remove all such manacles from the dungeon cells, but Kyia had taken care of it before they arrived.  Murikeer, Jessica, and Celine of the Lothanasi had been warding and consecrating the approaches to the cell for a full day, leaving only enough space for the transport cart to pass with its daedra-cursed cargo.

    Another cascade of explosive snaps cracked like thunder as the Beast was wheeled away, and another muffled scream echoed off the stone.  Misha followed alongside, his body bowed with fatigue and grief as much as with the posture needed to keep soothing hands on the beast's brow.  Wolfram and Charles started to follow, but George waved them away as a cordon of guards closed around the cart.  The Duke's ears caught a fragment of orders to report for medical care and debriefing, and nodded in approval.  He'd spotted the protective way Wolfram had been holding his right arm, and Charles walked like a man who had avoided a multitude of broken bones by paying for them with a legion of muscle pulls instead.  He made a mental note to get a report on the status of the dragons Saroth and Tychicus that had gone with them, as he hadn't seen them arrive with the others.  A small group of healers closed on Charles and Wolfram, leading them inside, while the larger remnant followed the departing cart.

    Duke Thomas frowned as he watched the procession fade into the veiling rain, balancing a stab of pity for the tortured creature with the memory of rooms full of wounded after a winter storm.  Another winter storm, he corrected.  As if Metamor hadn't had more than enough of that in years past.

    George arrived about an hour later, his brow deeply furrowed, and brought with him a silken bag that clinked when he set it down.  The Duke raised a brow in response, but sat when George sat.  The jackal blew out a long sigh, rubbed his face with his hands, then folded them in front of him.  "Your Grace.  Thomas.  I've been around.  I've seen battlefields.  I've seen sieges.  I've seen massacres.  In short, I've seen some seriously awful shit.  That?" He massaged his hand across his brow.  "That was way up there.  Top five, at least.  Maybe even top three."  He took a deep breath, settled himself, and began his report.

    "Okay.  The good news.  No permanent injuries.  No deaths.  Tychicus is back at Outpost recovering from a concussion.  Saroth was entirely uninjured and flew south to help Electra with the weather shield.  Merai is exhausted from keeping that beast from drowning in his own vomit or shredding himself on swallowed pieces of bone."

    "I'm sorry- what?"

    "Apparently, he was even bigger than that when they took him down, and he had a belly full of...  Let's just say he had a full belly and leave it at that.  The army at Lik is utterly destroyed.  So, for that matter, is Lik itself." He unrolled a parchment map of Lik and its surrounding area between the two of them, covered with fresh notations.  "That storm appeared directly over top of it.  We're not sure why.  And the beast came from the storm."

    The Duke half-rose and leaned in, his eyes widening as he took in the scope of the devastation.  "By the gods.  If this had been Metamor, those outer bands would have reached halfway to Lorland."

    George nodded.  "We're unlikely to see any threat from that area for a long time, if ever again.  There are some after-effects that I think we'll want to investigate when time allows, but for right now..."

    The Duke sat again.  "For right now, we have enough on our plates," he agreed.  "So are you going to tell me what's in the bag, or am I going to have to guess?"

    George slid the map of Lik aside and then tipped the bag over.  A cascade of metal tumbled onto the table, several of which sank deep into the oak from the force of the short fall alone.  "Adamantite," the jackal explained.  "Hell's answer to mithril.  Nearly indestructible, disruptive to magic in the right configuration, and holds an edge like nothing else I've ever seen.  Remember the armor-piercing daggers Rickkter won two Summer Festivals ago?"  At the Duke's nod, he added, "They've already been checked over by Murikeer, Rickkter, and Raven.  They're safe to handle.  Any enchantments they might have had on them are wiped out."

    "They look like teeth."     "Because they are."

    George carefully spread the teeth out, revealing a full set of lupine dentistry.  "The beast's claws are bonded with it, too.  Just dragging them across the floor etched lines in the stone and, from what Misha, Wolfram, and Charles tell me, they might be the least destructive weapons he has.  Ice breath, blinding speed, strength to rival that of an angry dragon's.  Not to mention able to regenerate in seconds when Whisper blew his entire face off.  Rickkter is still down there, trying to assess what enchantments he's still got on him.  Wolfram said his abilities seemed to diminish as the fight went on, but still..."  The jackal shook his head in disbelief.  "That creature," he said finally, "is a treasure trove of wonders and a freak show of horrors, all in one terrifying bundle of catastrophe.  Fighting him would be... trouble."

    Duke Thomas pried a fang the size of his hand out of the table, carefully noting the depth of the gouge as he turned it in hooflet-capped fingers.  "It's hollow," he remarked, surprised at its unexpected lightness.  Then what George had said a moment before clicked, and he looked up.  "Wait- Blew his face off?"

    The jackal nodded, holding his closed hand in front of his muzzle and then flicking it open in imitation of an explosion.  "Boom.  He bit her.  Left teeth marks, too, which is impressive.  Remember how I said 'disruptive to magic in the right configuration'?"  He held up a fang, emphasizing the razor-sharp tip.  "Specifically, this configuration.  I've already looked at it under as many stacked magnifying lenses as I could get my hands on, and the edge is absolutely flawless.  Whoever crafted this knows his weapons.

    A silent glance shared itself between them.  The name didn't need spoken.  George changed the subject.  "The bag," he said, lifting the now empty silken bag he'd brought the teeth in, "is spider silk, from the giant spiders of the Murk.  It was crafted by one of the dark dryads of Lilith that was living near the capture site.  Lilith really wanted this beast gone from her lands."  George set a small metal ankh on the table next to the teeth.  "A talisman of safe passage for two days through Lilith's lands, presented by Lilith herself.  Definitely not something you see every-"

   The talisman broke in two, corroded to dust in the span of a single second, and then blew away like smoke in a sudden gust of wind.

    The two of them shared a second glance, longer this time.  "I'm guessing the two days just ran out," commented the Duke.  "A treasure trove of wonders, indeed."

    George's lips drew down in a frown.  "The binding ribbon did that too, as soon as Snow was shut in that dungeon cell.  It's a shame.  I would have liked to get a closer look at it.  'Made out of six impossible things', Malger said."

   Duke Thomas did not miss the name change George had used, and set the tooth he'd been examining back on the table.  "So you're sure it's Edward Snow, then, in spite of the changes?"

    "Physically?  Very sure.  I recognize the Mark of Akkala branded into the undercurve of his jaw.  It's him.  Bigger, leaner, dangerous as a poisoned dagger to the throat, but definitely him... physically.  Mentally?  Misha and Charles both said he was acting like he was under a geas- whenever Misha spoke, Snow would break off whatever he was doing and attack him specifically, a weakness they managed to use to their advantage in taking him down.  We'll have to wait and see if that compulsion continues to hold true."

    "And for right now?"

    "For right now...  for right now, we need to find out what state his mind has been left in.  He's still deeply indebted to Lady Akkala, and he's under the direct watch of Kyia herself, so that's two controls strongly in place."

    "How does Akkala figure into this?"

    "He's Marked by her, for curing a case of lockjaw he got from a rusty lutin blade.  Until he pays off his debt to her, if he angers her enough, she could withdraw her healing as if it had never happened.  In his case, that would kill him.  That's why it's so rare to see someone accept a Mark."

    The Duke nodded.  "Very well.  Have Rickkter come see me once he's done with his assessment, and deliver those teeth to the Lothanasa.  I want to make absolutely sure they're inert, and then have them locked away somewhere safe.  Anything designed by the Lord of Rage is to be treated as extremely hazardous until proven otherwise."

    "Including Edward Snow."

    "Especially Edward Snow."

May 25, 708 CR

    Pain greeted Carcarak as consciousness returned.  He hurt.  He hurt everywhere.  He had not felt pain like this since the last time he'd been turned inside out.  Twice.  But pain was an old adversary and easily crushed.  He visualized it.  He gave it a face.  Then he pinned it to the wall with a jagged black sword and left it bleeding to death in his wake.

    His body felt strange.  Quick, well-trained muscle twitches told him that it was not responding in the precise ways it had before.  This was not a surprise.  His Master often carved in new alterations after a battle.  Carcarak would adapt, as he always had.  He wondered momentarily what new gifts he'd been given, but quashed the impulse as pointless.  He would find out soon enough, as he always did.  Right now, priority one was establishing his surroundings and identifying threats.  He was somewhat surprised that he was not already under attack, but then again, he was the Beast of Revonos.  They were right to fear disturbing him.

    The ground felt strange beneath him.  Too smooth, too cool, without the ever-present dust to leave a tang of iron in his nose and the taste of blood on his tongue.  Instead, he smelled something so foreign, he almost didn't recognize it: Dampness.  Moisture.

    In the air.

    What madness was this?

    Golden eyes snapped open.  What they saw confirmed what his nose and his pads had already told him: the walls around him were stone, but not the stone he was familiar with.  The color had been ripped from them, the normal powdery crimson exchanged for a dull, uninteresting gray.  Strange, but not a threat.  He paid it no more attention.

    Fine- another new arena.  He raised his head, teeth bared in a challenging snarl.  When no attackers presented themselves for annihilation, he began to scrutinize every inch of his surroundings, taking it apart in his mind and memorizing every detail, every idiosyncrasy.  The boring stone enclosed an octagonal room, every part visible from the door made of iron bars that appeared to be its only exit.  Warding glyphs glowed momentarily in his eyesight, etched into the door and its bars.  Carcarak snorted, a derisive dismissal.  He was the Beast of Revonos.  He was the Shieldbreaker.  When he decided he wanted to go through that door, he would go through that door, and no puny wards and bars would stop him.  Until then, let those who placed them enjoy their false security.  He paid them no further attention.

    He listened, keen ears snatching up even the faintest of echoes.  There was a short, empty hallway outside this room, ending at another hall that extended too far for the existing noise to tell him anything useful.  True, he could roar or howl himself to create more noise, but that would alert others that he was awake.  Surprise was more valuable.  He kept alert for any changes.

    And speaking of changes, it was time to investigate his own.  What had his Master seen fit to grant him this time?  He lifted one strangely shaped forepaw... and found it to be no forepaw at all.

    "Well, now," he growled, with a voice that had never before been able to voice a single word.  This was worth paying attention to.  Fingers and a thumb- a thumb!- flexed on a massive hand, each one armed with a long, cruelly hooked adamantine claw, and sparks flew when he ground their razored edges against each other.

    Carcarak laughed with malicious delight.  He looked again to the rune-warded door.  His golden gaze stripped it bare in an instant, highlighting every weakness, laying bare every flaw.  There.  With hands like these and claws like this, striking that one spot would unravel it, destroying it in a swift, explosive cascade.  Carcarak's eyes narrowed, peering through the weaves.  Beyond it lay another ward, and then another, each equally quickly deciphered through the haze of its neighbors.  He snorted his amusement and paid them no further attention.  He had more important things to consider.

    Calling to memory his Master's stance, he put his changed hind limbs to new use.  They wanted to shake, to wobble as he rose to his feet for the first time, but he stilled them with raw will.  Strange garb dragged hinderingly at his fur and he ripped the flimsy fabric of the upper garment off with a minimal effort.  He'd just started on the leg garb when he caught a faint motion out of the corner of his eye, beyond the wards.  He snapped alert, claws rising like he'd seen Lady Suspira do in his Master's throne room, and tightened his focus.  The haze of three layers of active wards made it difficult to see beyond, but-

    For a single, blinding half-second, senses already rendered preternaturally keen suddenly, exponentially exploded, snapping his head back in pain from the sudden overload.  He could see every grain in the stone, hear the settling of individual motes of dust around him, feel every whispered movement of the air, taste-

    Blackness crashed down upon him, the moment of hyper-tuned perfection tearing away with a roar like thunder.  Suddenly sightless, he felt clawed hands seize him by the shoulders, felt his feet kicked out from under him, felt his shoulder slam down on barren rock.  He rolled away- 


    Lightning flashed just in time to see a white-furred, metal clawed foot slam into his ribcage, kicking him off a rocky precipice.  Thunder roared.  He fell. 








    Lightning flashed.  Claws snatched at a rocky outcropping, dragging to a stop in a shower of sparks and pulverized bloodstone dust. Seething with fury, Carcarak began to climb. 

    Drift's world spun.  He staggered, then collapsed to the floor, and his hand went reflexively to his head to quell the vertigo.  He hurt.  He hurt everywhere.  He hadn't felt pain like this since-

    His hand?

    Drift's eyes snapped open, and he jerked the limb away as if from molten iron.  "Wh... What?" he asked in a voice that stumbled and cracked from disuse.  He rolled over and sat up, something he hadn't been able to do in... years?  Decades?  He had no idea how long he'd been enslaved.  Time had blurred into meaninglessness a long time ago.  His hands shook as he examined them, turning them over and over as if expecting at any moment for them to vanish in a cruel joke.  Their white fur was still stained with soot and blood, but faintly, as if he'd been sluiced with water and then dried.  "H-how?"

    Memory flashed.  The black axe.  He'd tried to kill himself with it.  Why wasn't he dead?  How had he known it would, or even could, kill him?  How had he recognized the strange creature that wielded it?  Why had he tried so hard to resist killing it?

    More memories surfaced, jagged and disjointed, like pieces of shattered glass rising to the surface of a vat of boiling tar.  The taste of Lord Revonos' blood in his mouth.  The desperate terror in a vampire's eyes as the first rays of sun brushed the peak of her icy prison.  The scrape of the Champion of Ba'al's sword against his teeth as he jammed it into the crack in the wall.  Aedra fire slicing past his cheek.  The crazed, twisted somewhere he'd been thrown through, and the stone-hard something he'd smashed into on his way.  Matching breath with a dragon.  Crushing Ram's shield in his jaws.  The screams of a giant as it roasted alive.  The Rat who had dared to challenge him directly.

    The Rat.  He'd recognized the Rat, had fought him in the arena.  He'd been wearing something... something familiar.  Drift had tried to follow the Rat when he'd found a way out, and been dragged away screaming.  After that, Lord Revonos had... had... Drift pushed that memory away.  He didn't want to remember.  He latched onto questions instead.  How had the Rat gotten here?  Where was here?  Why was the Ram familiar?  Why had-

    Misha!  The name blazed with light the moment it bubbled to the surface, clicking into place on the wielder of the black axe.  Drift instantly flinched, but the expected command never came, and its absence left him gasping.  Trembling, one hand went to his neck.  It found no collar there, and Drift's head spun again, a choked whimper the only sound he found himself capable to make.

    Misha had come.  Misha had come!  Misha had come for him!  He hadn't been forgotten!  Drift's trembling became a full-body shake.  His hands cradled his head as if to keep it from flying apart, and great heaving sobs ripped his throat raw in an instant.  His stomach roiled, reflexively trying to drown the hope that tried to blossom in him, to hide it and bury it before Lord Revonos saw and snatched it away, and he had to fight to keep from retching.  Bitter bile danced at the back of his throat and his heartbeat roared in his ears.

    Even in the midst of his turmoil, Drift scanned his surroundings.  Torture-trained reflex demanded it.  He couldn't have stopped it if he'd tried.  Octagonal room.  Gray, rectangular cut stone for all walls, floor, and ceiling.  (Why did that nag at him?)  One exit, iron-barred and warded.  Ambush points.  Threat vectors.  Choke points.  Weak spots.  He disassembled the wards in his mind with contemptuous ease.  They wouldn't stop him.  A small stone basin set in a short pillar in the center of the room, filled with... was that water?  His head snapped around, jaw dropping open in disbelief.  He couldn't remember when he'd last tasted actual, clean water.  His nose twitched feverishly, his mouth and throat suddenly, achingly dry.  He tried to scramble over, tripping over unfamiliar limbs and snarling a warning menace to any would-be attacker who might be tempted by this momentary uncoordination.  When none did, he resumed his journey more carefully and more deliberately, relearning with each step how to walk on two legs instead of four.

    He made it to the basin, the gray stone around him starting to tug at his memory.  Embers of hope flickered.  He was just on the verge of a drink- that crystalline water, so pure he could smell it, so cold it chilled the age-smoothed stone under his fingertips, faint ripples sparkling-

    His reflection lunged snarling from the pool and dragged him into darkness.  Metal claws pierced his chest and sliced open his belly in ribbons of fiery pain.  He screamed.  Hands slammed into his chest and his ribs cracked from the strain as he staggered backward off a rocky ledge into empty space.  Lightning flashed.  Thunder roared.  A momentary glimpse of his assailant, eyes glowing gold, bared fangs snarling hatred as Drift fell. 







    Carcarak jerked back from the strange not-blood pool, stumbling and slashing wildly with his claws as the world spun around him.  He had just been- How had he gotten over here?

    What in the Nine Hells was going on??

    The room and the halls beyond shook with the roar of his challenge.  What followed after was so alien it chilled him to the marrow: nothing.  Complete silence.  No answering challenge.  No terror-struck skittering.  No sound beyond his own breathing and the rapid beating of his heart.  Nothing at all.  His tail tried to tuck between his legs and he slammed it straight with a spike of pure self-hatred.  NEVER SHOW FEAR.  NEVER.

    Where was he?  This could not be his Master's halls.  The strange rock could be an illusion or a trick, but no stumble that blatant, no confusion that obvious would ever go unpunished.  He should have been buried sixteen deep in an opportunistic mob by now, should have been lashed with his chain for-

    His chain.

    His chain had been broken.  He had attacked his Master, bitten off his hand, and devoured it.  He had been praised for his actions... and then he had been cast out.  That twisted place in between.  In between?  In between where?  The new arena.  His mighty win over all comers.  His slaughter of the fear-beast and its minions.  The sound of a horn.  And then...

    And then?

    Why were there gaps in what he remembered?  Why did he remember only flashes and fragments from then until now?

    Carcarak's eyes narrowed, and a cavernous growl rumbled in his throat.  Crouching in the cover of the short pillar, he fixed his eyes on the doorway and swept his ears.  Carcarak slaked his thirst with the not-blood in the pool, scowling with disgust and loathing over its coolness.  Not the fiery heat and vitality of life drunk straight from the heart of a ruined enemy, not the familiar biting chill of his own ice, but merely lukewarm, without flavor.  Without savor.  He did not like this place.  There were too many unknowns, too much which was unfamiliar.  He would watch.  He would learn.  And when the time was right, he would destroy it all.  For he was Carcarak, the Blood Wolf.  The Beast of Revonos.

    And his name meant Death.


   A grizzled veteran of countless campaigns, George understood the concept of sound and how it traveled. He had anticipated that the beast would listen for watchers.  Based on the creature's reactions spoken of in the debriefing of the previous watcher less than an hour ago, George even suspected it might be getting clues about its surroundings from echoes of dripping water.  If that was true, the slightest sound could reveal he was there.  That was not something he was ready to let happen. Yet.  So he remained stock still and waited, observing and assessing with the cool dispassion of a general preparing for battle, his natural musk masked by a dusty concoction of Pascal's he'd liberated from the Long Scouts' storeroom.  He truly did not know what that thing in the cell was.  It had once been a friend, but he made no assumptions that it still was.  No preconceptions. For now it was something to be watched, listened to, and evaluated. They needed to know what this beast was.  Who this beast was.

   And it truly was a beast. Large and violent beyond measure. And that howl!  He had felt the walls vibrate! This was a creature of power and madness.  A being that lived in a world of savagery and death. It spoke of ripping teeth, slashing claws, and merciless, crushing jaws. It spoke of a creature that knew no match in combat. This was a monster used to killing and destroying all before it. A creature of ultimate mayhem and destruction, which wanted to kill everything and everyone it met. And could do it.

   At least, that was the impression that howl had been intended to project.  Its timing right on the heels of that stagger, the visible confusion, the suspicion bordering on paranoia in its body language afterward as it had settled into a defensive position suggested that the beast was not as certain of itself and its surroundings as it had tried to sound.  Even so, it was arrogant- it had not approached the door to investigate the runes on it, though he had seen the reactions that suggested it had noticed them.  That was fine.  Arrogance was a weakness that could be exploited, if necessary.

    And that was hardly the only notable thing he'd just witnessed.  That strange doubling of actions.  The shift in vocal tone between the two times he'd spoken.  The whipsaw changes of body language, especially the ones centered around those moments of apparent dizziness.  George's eyes narrowed.  What have you been through, Drift?  What have they done to you?



    Watchful distrust kept Carcarak still for a full five minutes.  Then he grew bored.  Where was everyone?  Never in his memory had he gone this long without someone, anyone challenging or pestering him, without a noise to hunt down or a scream to chase.

    Someone had been here.  He could smell that much.  Crouching low to keep his nose to the floor, he tracked the varied scents around the room.  Someone had dragged in the pallet of straw in the corner.  Many feet had come in afterward, with something wood and metal, and then retreated back out the door with- OW!!

    Carcarak jerked back, teeth rippling in a snarl.  Something had struck him!  He rubbed at his stinging muzzle with both hands, hateful eyes glaring at the base of the doorway where he'd just been sniffing.  His head felt like his Master had just stomped on it, but he'd seen nothing to cause it.  Carefully, he moved a hand toward the door, closer, closer- there it was.  A vice started to close on his outstretched fingers, bypassing his defenses as if they weren't even there.  He held his hand out a moment longer, testing if the crush could be resisted, then pulled it back and shook it until the ache subsided.  Black smoke wafted momentarily from his fingers, fading as the pain did.  Interesting.  Tricky.  All around the edge of the cell he tested, and at every point moving too near to the walls drew the same result.  But not the floor itself and-

    He jumped and slashed his claws into the stone ceiling with a satisfying shower of sparks.  No squeezing there, either.

    Very interesting.  Something to be explored later, though.  Coming down from the jump, he had nearly stumbled from having two fewer feet than he was used to, and that absolutely would not do.  It was time to learn what he was now capable of.

    Inhaling deep, Carcarak blasted the floor with ice, building up a thick pillar that he promptly demolished by slamming his shoulder into it.  He built it again, contemplating it more carefully as he cudgeled forth from his memory all of the fighting moves he'd seen in his time in the arenas.  He had a new body shape now.  He had better learn how to use it well, and quickly.  Just because this place was quiet now didn't mean it would stay that way.  It never did.  He had to be ready.

    Ice chunks soon littered the floor, adding unstable footing to be mastered with two fewer feet than he was used to.  He crushed them underfoot when he could, kicked them out of the way when they were too large or ill-shaped to stand in for skulls, or snatched them up in his claws and hurled them when they were sufficiently knife-shaped.

    He had just flung a shard of ice at the warded doorway to see how it reacted when he finally spotted his observer, standing silently in the shadows at the far end of the short hall.  It looked somewhat like himself, but smaller, darker colored.  He had to squint to see past the door wards, the constantly shifting weave of weaknesses and strengths blurring and obscuring details on the person beyond them.  The light flared-

    Thunder roared in the darkness and the storm whipped sleet and wind-born grit into his face.  Lashing out with the blinding speed that had made him the terror of all the arenas of the nine Hells, Carcarak instantly braced against the broken bloodstone plinth before him and kicked straight backward.  His instincts paid off as he felt the strike land, and the outraged yell of its target as it fell from the mountaintop tasted sweet as a balrog's still-quivering heart.  He hadn't even needed to look. 

    -then settled, and Carcarak snorted as his nose tingled with the scent of... something.  He'd started to lock it down past the scent of dust in that moment of bright clarity, but the scent had faded as the light had.  No matter.  The watcher's identity escaped Carcarak for the moment, but he finally concluded that it was not someone he recognized.  Not someone he had faced in the arena.


    Carcarak flashed his teeth at it, once, a warning snarl to let it know that it had been spotted, then returned his focus to training.  It hadn't attacked him even then, he admitted grudgingly, when given the opportunity to do so, so he kept an ear tuned to it and returned to his practice.  When next he glanced that way, the observer was gone, and he hadn't heard it leave.  Impressive.

    Carcarak smiled.  He relished a challenge.

    The smile didn't last.  His limbs felt heavier with each punch and kick, every strike slower and weaker than the last.  The air seemed to be getting thicker, each breath an effort to pull into his lungs.  The next time he inhaled to make a fresh pillar of ice to smash, a spasm of pain in his chest dropped him to one knee.  The room spun.  He tried to snarl, tried to drive back whatever was attacking him, but he had no air.  Colors washed out of his vision as he clawed frantically at the grey mist encroaching around him.  He toppled forward, and the cool stone rose up to meet him.

    He blacked out.

    Drift landed in a crash of splintering wood, the ruined remains of a burned-out building, further worn down by the storm's constant sandblasting and endless stinging sleet.  That didn't make the freshly splintered wooden beam speared through his side any less painful, but he yanked it loose and cast it aside: a minor annoyance.  He coughed blood a few times until the punctured lung healed, but his focus remained skyward, glaring with open hatred up the side of the mountain through the hole in the half-collapsed ceiling.  Shattered pieces of what might once have been bottles slashed at him as he shoved them aside.  Broken platters, shredded baskets, the detritus of whatever this place might have been shifted and slid underfoot.  Blackened tables and half-charcoal benches cracked and crumbled with his passage, a seemingly endless jumbled heap that constantly tried to entangle and trip him.  Even as it fell apart around him, the building was like a starved monster trying to keep him for itself... but if it were, it had underestimated him.  With an impatient and contemptuous snarl, Drift smashed his way through the rubble and kicked through a wall that looked like it had once been chewed upon by a giant rodent.  Beyond, a tumbledown alleyway flanked by more ruined buildings passed unheeded on either side as he set out toward his goal with an intent as keen as a razor's edge. 

    The storm's roar greeted him as the ruins gave way to rising cliffsides, the sleet and sand like a thousand frenzied wasps attacking his face.  He ignored it, dug in his claws, and began to climb. 


    Thunder roared.  Lightning crashed.  Snow and biting wind cut through his clothes like they weren't even there.  And all of that paled to nothing compared to the pure icy terror that froze him where he stood.  Because Revonos himself, Daedra Lord of Rage, was looking right at him.  And he was smiling.

    Xavier Marcus jolted awake with a yell that jerked half the barracks from sleep.  The rolling thunder of his nightmare resolved into the sound of waves breaking on the rocky shore outside, and Xavier locked his mind on its rhythm.  He rolled the blanket over him between shaking fingers, feeling for each rough-spun fiber.  He flared his nostrils and opened his mouth slightly, taking in the smells of the room around him: stale sweat, oiled leather, polished metal, the ever-present waft of sea salt on the breeze.  The sharp sting of ozone shamed him, as it did after every nightmare, but before he could start to focus on it, a dark, weathered hand missing two of its fingers came to rest on his shoulder.

    "Nothing to see here, gentlemen," intoned a deep, sonorous voice, a wellspring of experience and calm that made the night air tremble to hear it.  "Nothing to be ashamed of.  Battle scars come in many forms, and we honor them whatever they may be.  Go back to sleep."  The hand tightened in reassurance while Xavier gathered his composure, then led him quietly from the barracks and shut the door behind them.