February 19, 708 CR
Due to the tightly secretive nature of Metamor's intelligence community, it was rare for Andwyn to meet with any of his spies without a good bit of prior planning. They could not risk compromising their positions as secret operatives in their posts around the Midlands, and some few were also forced to hide their identities within the Keep itself. One such spy had requested a meeting with the spymaster, however, and the situation had been deemed important enough to deal with immediately.
It was dangerous when a spy began to question his orders.
Andwyn knew this more than most, and he pondered his course of action as he waited in his office. He had no worry that his man would have trouble finding the location. Despite the Keep's constant shifting, Kyia seemed content to allow the bat and his fellows some measure of privacy. Few were the times when any of them even saw another soul within the twisting corridors during their ingress.
The spy entered the room as soon as Andwyn's voice responded to the pattern of knocks he used. The man was dressed in a robe that entirely occluded his features while still believably reflecting the rags of some unfortunate beggar. Andwyn smiled at the wound strips of cloth that dangled behind the man as if to hide a tail, especially when his guest pulled back his hood and mask to reveal a completely human face framed by unruly curls of auburn hair.
Taking no chances, the freckle-faced young man quietly recited an obscure passage that had been given to him as his identification upon his joining the ranks of Metamor's shadows. Andwyn nodded as the words were spoken perfectly before dropping from his inverted perch on the rafters of the room. He landed smoothly on the ground, tucking his wings about him as he did, and took his place on the chair behind the desk in the center of the room.
The spy had already approached the desk, standing until his senior offered him the seat on the opposite side. The bat watched as his charge settled, thinking wistfully of a time when he could have taken his own seat as comfortably. He was far more used to clinging to the ceiling with the claws that the Curse had given him now. It was more comfortable, and it allowed him to remain unnoticed by even the most cautious of observers.
Old habits die hard…
Still, taking his seat at the desk as was customary when dealing with such matters. It may not have been Andwyn's preferred method of relaxation, but it was both more comfortable and less unsettling to most of the people with which he spoke. He was still human enough to put up with such things from time to time, but he would be returning to the rafters soon after the present business had been dealt with.
"You requested a meeting," the spymaster spoke in a quiet voice.
The young man nodded. "I wish to discuss my present target."
Andwyn nodded. He knew exactly to whom the young man referred, and would have even had he not reviewed the young man's record. He might have hesitated before identifying the man for longer if they had not been sitting in his office, but he made absolutely certain that this office was safe at all times. "Vincent Lois," he responded as a simple statement of fact.
The spy had settled into a more comfortable posture across from Andwyn. He nodded slowly. "I wished to speak with you about some doubts I have about him," he admitted.
The bat kept his eyes settled on the man in a steady stare, his wings fluttering with just a hint of motion before they settled once again. "Doubts can be deadly for men of our trade," he noted without a hint of emotion.
The young spy cast about for something else to focus his eyes on. He found it difficult to do so, however, not because of a lack of things to focus on, but because of a surplus. The spymaster’s quarters, already cramped in size, were filled from corner to corner with shelves, their contents managing to seem both organized and superfluous at once. Few of the things that the younger spy could cast his gaze upon had an apparent purpose, and he supposed that such was part of the design of the room. One did not simply become a spymaster without knowing how to hide important things in plain sight.
"I realize that, sir,” he finally continued after abandoning his search. “That is why I came to you."
Andwyn kept his eyes focused on the human, by he offered a small nod of approval. "What can you say of Lois so far?" he asked.
The young man sighed, but both of them knew that the information would be important to their continuing discussion. "It has been a difficult exercise," he admitted. "Lois has not been hiding at all, but he spends much of his time in the upper Keep. Staying close enough to him to observe and far enough away to remain inconspicuous while at once braving Kyia's constant shifting is always an entertaining diversion." The remark was clearly intended to be somewhat humorous, but it was delivered with the same bland lack of enthusiasm as might have been used to describe the weather.
"You are prepared for it, however," the bat replied.
The young man sniffed. "Of course. My training saw to that."
"What can you tell me of the man himself?" Andwyn queried.
"Since returning from his patrol, he has occupied himself with a variety of things. As per previous information, he has continued to train his apprentice since her return from a brief absence. Recently he personally contacted a tinsmith, Snow, regarding the creation of a lighter, more effective replacement for the severed leg of Master Gerard Oakthane, which was very recently completed."
"Have you managed to infiltrate his quarters?"
The young man nodded. "He does not check the surroundings as much as a man of his reputation might be expected to. I have now infiltrated his chambers twice while he was within them, and he made no extended search that might have turned up my location."
"Or perhaps he noticed your presence and no extended search was warranted."
"Sir? Are you so uncertain of my abilities?" The question might have carried with it some hint of pride, but instead connoted nothing but disappointment.
Andwyn offered a barely-visible smile along with his response. "I do not question your abilities so much as I recognize those of the man who you have been assigned to watch. I personally searched his quarters when he had first arrived in Metamor, with Lord Thomas' warning to deliver once the assassin arrived. When I announced my presence, he did not even show the least sign of surprise, and he was able to identify me by name before even turning to face me. Lois is more aware of his surroundings than many others, but he is also extremely self-assured. He will not necessarily reveal you simply because he realizes that you are watching. Do remember, however, that Lois has now lived almost twenty years since joining the most deadly profession in the Midlands. Overconfidence is no boon against him."
The young man sat silently for a few moments, taking in the words of the spymaster. He straightened his back a bit before he spoke again, and the subtle confidence that backed every word remained unaffected. "With respect, Master Andwyn, I wonder how much of a threat the man is at all."
Andwyn's face lacked some of the familiar expressiveness that was taken for granted by many humans, but he managed to convey the emotion of a raised eyebrow using a similarly uncomplicated set of gestures. "You have read the available information on the assassin, correct? Of course you have, you would not have been assigned to him if you had not." His gaze remained level on the young man's face for a few moments of silence before he spoke once more. "The answer to your considerations is that Vincent Lois is a deadly enemy. He has not been active for the past few years, perhaps, but the debriefing from his recent patrol would suggest that he has lost none of his skill for dealing death."
"I recognize his abilities, sir. I wonder more regarding his motivations. I have seen no time in which he has either done or planned any harm to any man or woman in this Keep."
Andwyn managed an odd sound that suggested a derisive snot from his muzzle. "You are privy to his private thoughts, then? You have taken counsel with his conscience? Witnessed the machinations behind his eyes as he considers the very best way to kill every man he meets?"
"No. Have you?"
The sudden and very serious interjection brought the Keep's master of intelligence up short. Few dared to challenge him on any matter, and those who did often outranked him. The rest, at least those who knew of him and what I was he had done during his prior assignments, didn't dare to question his orders, his methods, or his observations.
The human refused to let the utter silence dissuade him, however. He met the bat's gaze, even as he kept a white-knuckle grip on the edge of the writing desk before him. He had challenged his commander, and he was not going to back down now.
"I have watched Lois myself and read the reports on his activities for the past few months. I expected a testing assignment, an extended game of cat and mouse with a superior opponent. I expected to see the things you suggest -- the seared conscience, the dark counsels in private, the devious workings of a twisted mind -- and I have seen none of them. Instead, I have observed a man who has done more for those he knows than I ever have, and done those things in so short a period as to be ridiculous."
"Oh? What conclusive evidences of reform has the man shown you since you have observed him?" Andwyn did not threaten, did not deride, but he certainly made it plain that he expected a sufficient explanation for the sudden challenge.
"According to the debriefings, first by Alexander hin’Valius and then by Gerard Oakthane, regarding the patrol on which Lois was sent in anticipation of the ducal wedding, Lois is the reason that every member of the patrol survived the exercise."
"With the exception of Master Gerard's left leg," Andwyn noted drily.
"Better to live with one leg than to die with both," the younger spy countered in a loose echo of the Canticles. "Be that as it may, the information we have from the patrol suggests that Lois rescued Gerard from a lutin shaman and all those that followed him. The loss of only a leg in such a situation, given that neither man has been magically trained, is remarkable."
"I would also note that Gerard and Lois returned nearly the entire path from the Giantdowns without crossing paths with a patrol until reaching the inner cordon," Andwyn replied. "Perhaps they were simply lucky and avoided every patrol whose path they might have crossed as they moved south. Perhaps, but not overly likely. I see a far better chance that one of them wished to reach the Keep without being waylaid. I suggest that he knew that he would not be questioned upon reaching the Keep given the state of health of his companion."
The spy across the desk slumped back a bit, by his expression did not change. "You have no proof."
"Neither have you. The fact is, entire point of his patrol was to distance him from the Keep until after Lord Thomas' wedding. Despite the loss of Gerard's leg, the two still reached the Keep early. Lois gave himself an opportunity to perform an assassination of any one of a number of noble lords and ladies in attendance with his return."
"None of them died."
"Yet." Andwyn's face was entirely serious and accepted no question. "Lois didn't just happen to survive his years as an assassin. He got very good at it. I personally can confirm one assassination he performed that did not kill the target until a week after our man had left the city in which the mission was carried out. He simply observed the way the man lived, and quietly set a trap on a rarely-used living area, one that only the target used."
"It has been a month since the nobles left."
Andwyn gave a mirthless chuckle. "Lois has had quite a while to think since his last assassination. I would not be completely incredulous if I discovered that he managed to kill someone with several years' delay."
"You still assume far more than I do. Lois returned to the Keep with great haste, quickly enough that the Healer was very nearly able to save Gerard's leg. That is fact, with not a question or doubt."
"They might have diverted to Outpost to receive help more quickly," Andwyn noted.
"You know as well as I do that Hareford has no surgeon of sufficient skill to deal with the severity of the injury. It would have been amputated on the spot without the least chance of saving it. The Keep was their best chance."
"And how did Lois know that?” Andwyn allowed the question to hang in the air for a moment before moving on. “Do you have any other reasons that I should consider Lois reformed?" he finally asked.
The spy sighed, but nodded. “His recent actions relating to Master Gerard also belie his reputation. He took from his own wallet to finance the creation of a new limb for the man. I would not be as surprised if Lois stood to gain something from it, but I can see no way in which he might profit from the enterprise.”
“He profits from the enterprise when his actions cause others to forget his past.” Andwyn directed a pointed glare towards the younger man. “Keep in mind, Lois is now nearing his fortieth year of life, and twentieth year as an assassin. He will have learned not to rush by this point in his career. It is this ability to manipulate short-term events to effect the long term that makes him dangerous. That is why I have assigned you, among others, to watch him. We cannot guarantee that he presents a threat; that is true. Being hasty in concluding that he is no threat at all, however, is folly.”
The young man shook his head for a moment, but he could not argue with the intelligence chief’s assessment of the situation.
Andwyn rocked on his chair for a moment. He knew that the young man was not trying to challenge his authority. He was just falling victim to a tendency that Andwyn had long since been rid of. “You want to think the best of people; it is a trait that is admirable in almost any situation. Any situation, except for espionage. As spies, we must be naturally and invariably cynical. Nothing our targets do should affect our opinion of them in any way. We are employed to report the hidden facts about our targets, not our own opinions about them, regardless of the nature of those facts. Decisions can be made later based on the information we deliver, but it is not for us to make quick judgments.”
The young man was silent for a while, tugging at the collar of the hood that was designed to hide his entire face when he was on a mission. He still seemed a bit conflicted, but it was not long before he finally relented and gave a short nod. “Forgive me, sir. I believe I spoke out of turn. I realize the importance of my mission, and will make all effort to see that it is completed. It is simply that this man unsettles me. It seems to me almost as though we are tracking the wrong man, as though the true Vincent Lois has switched places with this one to throw us from his track.”
Andwyn nodded. “Such fears are not entirely unwarranted. Although I have never heard of Lois doing anything similar himself, paying a man to carry the name of an assassin for a short time has been attempted before, with varying degrees of success. Vincent Lois is a man I have been tracking for some time, however. I can personally assure you that we are spying on the right man.”
“Why is he so important?” the young man asked. “According to the information I have been given on the man, he has only ventured this far north once before, and assassinated no one while he was here. At that point you were not even involved in deciding the course of Metamor’s intelligence. How and why have you been personally tracking him for so long?”
Andwyn smiled. The young man was good, jumping on so small a slip of the tongue. The bat considered that faking that it was simply a mistake would be easy, given how difficult it was for humans to read his face, but he decided that misdirecting the young man would be just as effective.
“Lois is of interest to this entire Keep due to his choice of careers,” Andwyn replied. “In addition to the danger of him being hired against us, there was also some talk of using him for our own needs. It was decided that he was too dangerous to be trusted, but we kept eyes on him regardless.”
The man on the far side of the desk nodded slowly. “Is there any thought of using him now?” he asked.
Andwyn stretched his wings a bit in his approximation of a shrug. “He would need to show himself trustworthy for a while longer, but it has not been ruled out,” he admitted. “With his participation in the patrols, he is already aiding us. Assassination is a bit of a more sensitive matter. Ideally, it implies him being alone, in the same room as a high-profile target. He has set precedent for selling information, or even counter-assassination attempts, to the man he was hired to kill. We need to be absolutely certain of his allegiance before we allow it.”
The human had already started to replace his disguise by the time the spymaster had finished, and he nodded his understanding at the end of the bat’s statement. “I had best get some rest while someone else is following Lois, then,” he said, voice muffled through the scarf that covered his face.
Andwyn nodded. “You’re a very skilled spy,” he confided with the young man. “But, don’t let your doubts steal away your chances for success.”
The human conveyed his gratitude briefly before he turned away and headed for the door for a moment. Before he had reached the doorway, however, he turned back to the spymaster. “I have one more question,” he said slowly. “How long has he used that name?”
“Pardon?” Andwyn looked up from where his eyes had strayed to a few of the numerous notes meticulously organized on his desk.
“Vincent Lois. How long has he used that alias?”
February 21, 708 CR
Vincent Lois had never been accustomed to callers, even during his recent experiments with legal professions. When the rapping came on the door in the early afternoon that day, he couldn’t think of too many options for who it might be. Perhaps it was Paula, coming early in anticipation of the evening’s training. Perhaps it was one of his fellows from the patrol, come to inform him that they were finally being given a new assignment. Beyond those two options, however, the only other option he could come up with was some official news from the Keep. That would certainly be interesting.
Sighing, the ermine stoppered the inkwell that he had been writing with, cleaned the quill, and left the writing supplies in a somewhat organized heap on the desk.
He always answered the door personally out of force of habit. Despite having nothing to hide, his years as an assassin had made him somewhat paranoid. He slid the bolt lock open just as the knock came again. Stepping back, he opened the door to a comfortable width and greeted the person at the door.
“Ah, so you do remember me!” the large man said with a wry grin.
Lois chuckled quietly. “I’m sorry I haven’t visited since I had you take me to the Healer’s.” Lois stepped back to allow the large man to enter. His friend did so, glancing about in a sarcastic appraisal of the contents.
“I think I had expected something a little less… sparse,” he commented drily.
“You think?” Lois shook his head as he stepped back over towards his desk. “You need to pay a little more attention to your own opinions, it seems.”
Balrog shrugged stiffly. “I never know what to expect with you, so this really isn’t much of a change.” He turned towards the ermine. “How are you, Lois? Recovering well, I hope?”
Lois nodded. “I recovered quickly,” he admitted. “I haven’t taken much time to do social calls, mostly because of training Paula. You remember her, or at least I hope you do. I’d suppose that you’re careful enough to recall which people that you’ve revealed your secret to.”
The disguised lutin gave a lopsided smile, running a hand over the scars that hid his magic tattoos. “Of course I remember her,” he said. “Her reaction to my true form was quite satisfying. How is her training going, by the way?”
“Very well,” Lois said, giving an approving nod. “She is a remarkable talent. She was originally training with two-handed weapons, but she is definitely more suited to light weapons. I don’t remember if I had mentioned it before, but she has shown an ability that makes her training extremely easy. She is clairvoyant.”
The lutin raised an eyebrow. “I have never heard of that ability,” he admitted, sounding impressed. “I can see why lighter weapons would be preferable for her.”
Lois nodded. “I am excited to see her develop, and to see her in the field as well. She should be joining a patrol soon, and I can only imagine that she will be a boon to whatever team she is assigned to.”
“Is that confidence based on your training her, or on her skill?” Balrog asked.
Lois chuckled and shook his head. “I think they are both important. She has skill, but she was working with the wrong weapons before. Provided that she is allowed to use a pair of daggers, or even a shortsword, she will do well.”
Balrog nodded, looking around the room again. Lois watched him for a few moments, waiting to see if he would say anything else. Finally, he decided to break the silence himself.
“So, you didn’t just come here to talk about my apprentice and me. Is there another reason for your visit?”
The disguised lutin rubbed the back of his neck for a few moments before nodding. “There is another reason, yes,” he admitted. “I have thought about this since we worked together several years ago. I wanted to ask for a favor then, but I was never able to get it out. When I saw you again I started to think about it, started to stew on it, and I decided that I have to ask, even if you won’t help me.”
Lois looked at his friend with a silent sort of appraisal. He wasn’t certain what his friend would ask him, but he only knew of a few things that could be involved with asking him for a favor. “I may be able to help you, but it will depend largely on what the favor involves. There are some things I can do, and there are some things that I will not be able to do.”
Balrog nodded and sighed. The light in the room was low, so Lois could not see well what the expression on the man’s face was, but he could tell simply from Balrog’s voice that he was conflicted. “I confided in you years ago about why I left my tribe in the Giantdowns. The chief and shaman are both intense supporters of Nasoj, despite all of his failures. Many of the tribe have demanded that we stop serving the mage, but the shaman is too powerful, and has too much influence for anyone to truly challenge. He has mercilessly killed many who challenged the chieftan’s position. They have turned fear to their advantage, and the tribe does not dare to challenge them anymore. They need to die.”
Lois kept his expression neutral for a few moments, but it quickly changed to a look of distaste. “You want me to assassinate them,” he said quietly.
The lutin misunderstood the intent of the statement. “I have saved some gold since last we met. I can afford to pay you if you need money.”
“No,” Lois said coldly. “I will not take money to kill.” He reached down and picked up a pack that was set by the desk. He searched through it for a few moments before hissing a curse and dropping the pack back to its place. “I have turned my back on that part of my life. I am not going back.”
“Lois…” The lutin rubbed the back of his neck again, trying to find a way to rephrase the request to make it more attractive. “Metamor itself is at war with my tribe. It would not be an assassination so much as an act of war.”
Lois hissed in anger again. He drew a bottle from where it had been deposited in a drawer beside his desk and poured himself a glass of the cheap wine inside it. He sipped slowly, trying to calm his nerves. “Act of war… That is how I always justified myself. Always nothing more than an act of war, justifiable by anyone who might challenge me…” He took another sip, glancing at Balrog as he did. The lutin was frowning, but did not seem to feel threatened at Lois’ outburst.
“You already work with their patrols,” Balrog pointed out. “You will kill my people in acts of war whether you justify it or not. How much different is killing two lutins, two lutins who need to die to prevent further bloodshed, while they are in their tents?”
“I cannot do it, I will not do it anymore,” Lois insisted. He took another sip, only to find that he had already drained the glass entirely. “I am sorry, Balrog. Our friendship remains unaltered, but I would not return to assassination if the Duke asked me to.”
Balrog winced. He had truly hoped that he would find some help from his old friend, but he could not force him to perform an assassination if he did not wish to. “I am sorry for suggesting it,” he said with quiet sincerity.
Lois shook his head as he retook his seat, a paw clasping his temples between two claws. “I am sorry, Balrog. I did not mean to speak so harshly.” He looked up at the man, watching as Balrog shifted. “You have confided in me; allow me to confide in you. I have sought to do away with my reputation as an assassin for years now. I can no longer justify the deaths I have caused, and I wonder how I justified them before. I hope that I can somehow make amends for the pain I have caused, but I fear that I can never do that now. The one thing I cannot justify is returning to that path after having left for so long.” He managed to look Balrog straight in the face for a moment. “I wish I could help you, I really do. I realize that having to leave your own people because of their decisions is difficult, but I am not the solution.”
The lutin nodded. “You do not need to say any more. I respect your decision, even if I had hoped for something else. One day, I will return to my tribe, but I cannot do it while those two still live.”
Lois nodded and sighed softly. “Then I hope that they both meet an untimely demise at the end of a Keeper’s blade. I can do nothing further.”
Balrog nodded to Lois, even managing to smile. “And I hope that you can escape the shadow of your past.” He moved towards the door. “I do not have time to remain for long, I will be leaving with a patrol in the morning and I need to prepare.”
The ermine nodded and stood to see his friend to the door. The latch was still undone, so the lutin had already opened the door by the time he arrived. Lois gave the man a solid pat to the back as he arrived.
“Take care of yourself in the field,” he said. “We need you alive so that you can make your return to your tribe once things have changed.”
Balrog chuckled quietly. “I’ve survived in the human world for far longer than most other lutins survive in our ancestral home. I think I will be fine for several days of work in the wild.”
The two shared a final laugh together before Balrog left. Lois watched him until he disappeared beyond the bend. Sighing, he turned back to the rest of the room, looking around with quiet frustration. He wondered about what he had done since leaving the life of an assassin. What had he truly done that could redeem a man from such a long life of dealing death? Was there anything that could truly wipe away the bloodstains that covered him from head to toe?
Such considerations lasted only a few moments before he silenced them. The silence in his mind was something he had become used to over the course of years. It was the only way to escape from the answers to his musings.
February 29, 708 CR
Lois marched through the halls of the keep with purpose, seeking out the small room that had become a second home to him over the course of the past few months. Around him, the sounds of the howling blizzard blotted out even the constant staccato of his own claws against the stonework of the floor. Despite having walked for several minutes already, Lois had never escaped the sound of the blizzard amid the unnaturally shifting hallways of the upper Keep. He had been south of the storm during the assault a little more than a year ago, but the howling winds brought to mind the possibility of another such attack. He doubted that anyone in the watch would sleep well this evening, at any rate.
Regardless, as he entered the training room once again, he found that Kyia had made certain that both he and Paula would be comfortable this evening. Instead of the balcony and the wide open vista that generally occupied the far wall, a small window, visibly set in an extremely thick wall, was the only access to the outside world. Still, looking out through the window revealed a veritable curtain of white falling from the sky, and the wind whipped across the mouth of the open window, causing unnatural wails to reverberate through the window’s depth. Lois wondered if Kyia’s adjustments had actually made the storm seem less threatening at all.
“I’ve never seen a storm remotely like this,” Paula commented as she entered. She was already prepared for the evening’s activities, having learned from their plentiful training exercises beforehand. Although she lived in the town below, she had seen the storm coming and found an excuse to be absent from the house when it arrived. She began to stretch as Lois continued to stare out the window. He could not even see lights from the town below, although he wasn’t certain if it was perhaps a trick of perspective due to the depth of the window. A flash, and he saw strange, fingerlike tendrils of lightning striking in the distance, only to scatter off of some sort of barrier, no doubt erected against the storm by the Keep’s mages.
“I am ready,” Paula announced. She was waiting for him in the middle of the room, and he slowly turned to join her there. He stretched a bit himself for a few moments, but he had already prepared beforehand and did not need as much adjustment as Paula did.
“You say you have not seen a storm like this? What of the assault last winter?”
Paula seemed to shiver a bit as she recalled the event, but she recovered after a moment. “It was a blizzard, yes, but most of it was snow, ice, and wind. I do not recall much lightning or thunder then. I wonder what might have happened to anger all of the elements so, and all at the same time?”
Lois shrugged. “I do not worry myself with the workings of the pantheon. By what I have heard from their servants with whom I am personally acquainted, they tend to be too fickle to predict on the best day. I think as likely as anything, one petty god or another was insulted by a daemon somewhere, and is throwing a tantrum outside to vent a bit.”
Paula shook her head with a sideways smile. The two of them began their practice to the sound of the howling wind, talking very little as the storm seemed to try to sink its icy fingers through the stone to reach those within. Although the room was colder than usual for certain, neither Paula nor Lois noticed any other effects from the storm. Some of the swirling snow managed to cling to the first few inches of the window’s depth, but none of the flakes came into the room. The wind simply kept the air in the room moving, and neither of them minded that provision.
They were soon sparring, each of them holding one of Lois’ daggers. Paula’s skill had definitely reached a very good level by this point, aided at once by her preternatural foresight and her recent training. Lois was still able to best her handily in most situations, but she had learned to identify her own errors very efficiently after each defeat, and she was remarkably skilled at learning from past mistakes. So long as she was given an opportunity to make mistakes in an environment that would not kill her, Lois was certain that she would soon be a match for almost any man in the Keep before very long.
And then, a sudden red flash lit the room from the window behind them. Thankfully, they were both too shocked to land the blows they had been dealing in their current duel, and they turned to watch the window. Another blood-red flash lit the room, and then a thunderous rumble shook the room through the very stones that made up its floor.
“Did the spells fail?” Paula breathed with some concern.
Lois’ long fur was on end. “That wasn’t the storm,” he said, speaking to himself as much as Paula. He walked to the window and stared out, but the storm had not ebbed and the only thing he could see for certain was snow.
“Stay here, Paula. I’m going to have a look.”
The young woman followed him as he stalked towards the doorway. “Stay here? Where are you going? I could help!”
Lois turned and looked her in the eyes. His expression was serious, but not truly angry. “Paula, there is a blizzard out there. The Curse gave me the form of an animal that can take the cold. You’re hardly prepared for it. Stay here, and stay safe.”
He was gone before Paula could say another word. She wanted to argue, but the fact was that he was right. She would probably freeze to death well before she accomplished anything remotely profitable. She returned to the training room and began to run through some drills on her own.
And then she noticed that Lois had left his daggers.
The assassin noticed the same thing a few moments later, but he had already committed to investigating the strange occurrence, and he didn’t have time to return for them. He wished that he had anticipated leaving the Keep; he would have at least thought to bring other weapons. Perhaps the creeping paranoia that he had become accustomed to during his assassination career might prove to be one thing he kept to in the future. At least in that time he was never caught without a weapon.
As it was, he found his way to the exit quickly, only to see the portcullis closed. At the moment there were no guards posted at the gate, which struck Lois as odd, but he was not about to question his luck. He considered trying to open the gate briefly, but decided that he didn’t have the time to waste.
He focused on his body and mentally molded it to change into its most feral form. Almost before he had a solid image of the shift he desired, his body began to change. The ermine was glad that he had attempted this shift a few times since taking the Curse; it made shifting feel far more natural.
Soon he was small enough to slip through the bars of the portcullis, and he took several steps out into the howling storm before shifting back. He reached back through the bars and took his discarded clothing, but simply bundled it and hid it in a pile of firewood against a nearby house. On second thought, he pulled out a light shirt and slacks from the rest of his clothing and put them on, allowing the wind to whip the material into a wrinkled mess.
As he began to run, the former assassin realized that he had very little idea where he should be heading. He began to run down the main thoroughfare through the city before pulling up short. A cart had crashed ahead, turned sideways for some reason Lois couldn’t guess. The snow was already piling high around the broken wheel that rendered the mechanism unusable, so the only way around it was to go over it.
Lois turned down a side road and began to dodge through the alleys between houses before running into another obstacle. A pile of barrels had been tumbled from where they were stacked only moments before. Lois would have blamed the storm, but the position of the nearby houses should have shielded the stack from the wind.
Lois scowled. It seemed that something was trying to block his passage, but there was one way he knew to circumvent these barriers. He used what was left of the stack to jump to a low-hanging roof nearby, and from there leaped to the next building.
Where the ground level had been subject to the spiraling winds and slicing snow, Lois found that his higher perch was even worse. The winds threatened to hurl him bodily from the rooftops, and the snow came not just from the sky, but also blew at him from where it had clung to the surrounding shingles. He had to squint through the ice that tried to tear at his eyes, growling to himself at yet another obstacle. His fur snapped this way and that, trying to be blown with the wind even though the wind refused to go in a constant direction.
Steadying himself, the ermine tried to run to the far side of the roof, intending to jump the gap. His paw hit a slick patch as he ran, and sent him sprawling and sliding down the slanted roof until his claws again found purchase. He grunted and lifted himself back up; at the very least, his fall had taken him to the far side of the roof.
He blinked as he looked down. Another pile of debris blocked the alley. He could not identify what it was from his perch, but it looked again as though it had been intentionally thrown there to stop a pursuer. Lois held a paw across his face to shield his eyes from the blinding snow. Looking about, he realized that he could see similar barricades in the nearby alleys. Suddenly, the truth came to him.
The intention was not to block a pursuer. It was meant to channel someone in a specific direction. He turned his face and gasped as the constant wind made it difficult to breathe. A few moments later, he had dropped from the roof and landed in a roll in another alley, one of the few not completely blocked. He followed it, now paying the barricades the attention they demanded and veering to attempt new paths as they were opened to him.
He was almost ready to vault over one of the strange barriers when he heard screams on the wind, words lost in the howl of the wind but emotions hanging clearly on the edge of the voice. Rage…
Lois looked for a pathway, but found the only one that led the direction he wished to go was blocked. Growling, he again used the barrier to take him to the roofs, and this time he meant to stay there. He made full use of the claws that the Curse had given him, running on all fours to increase his stability as he leapt from roof to roof. The wind tried to stop each of his jumps, but he would not be denied now.
More voices now, and more emotions. Grief… Disbelief…
Lois was almost blinded by another flash of light amid the storm, and then the screams came again, desperate now. The ermine willed himself to move faster.
A sudden haunting, horrible cry stole all strength from the ermine’s body even though it was cut short. He missed the next jump, claws sliding hopelessly on the icy rooftop, dropping him to the ground in a heap. The former assassin wretched as he attempted to rise, body contorting as his mind flashed with visions only he could see.
A baroness whose only crime was being born a commoner… A revolutionary with high hopes and a righteous cause… A merchant, ruthless in business but a gentleman at home… A thirteen year old boy, a victim of his uncle’s lust for power… A mage, his last moments spent shielding his child and apprentice from a hail of thrown daggers…
Lois gasped, crying with a wretched agony that only he could feel as the flashbacks came like nightmares that were only too real. Their voices joined with the scream he had heard, echoing through his skull as memory united with the present to torment him. With the pain unrelenting, the former assassin growled in agony and frustration, forcing himself to his paws. The tears that clouded his vision were no longer due only to the cruelty of the wind. He gasped in agony once more before stumbling out into the snow-whipped street.
There were more cries now, the voice so strong that the words nearly survived the savage winds. Lightning lit the sky once again, followed in dangerously close succession by a roll of thunder. Lois kept moving until he was brought up short by another barrier. He cursed between gasping breaths and once more used it to mount the rooftops. He steadied himself for a few moments before moving on, following the constant screams as well as he could through the force of the wind. The screams became wilder until they joined with the howling of the wind.
One more rooftop… Climb to the peak, slide down the other side…
The ermine took the moment’s respite to breathe, heavy gasps filling his burning lungs. He coughed as he turned, and looked down on the scene below him, eyes wide with shock and horror.
The scene below was a masterpiece of chaos, painted in blood and snow. A building lay in pieces, discarded planks and bricks scattered too thoroughly to blame on the storm. Some of the rubble even seemed to smolder, lines of smoke rising in spiraling eddies as the wind caught them and bore them about. Laying on the snow a few paces from the building were a pair of forms, intertwined with no grace as they turned the snow red with their mixing blood.
Those who still lived below were speaking, but the former assassin failed to notice the words. Instead, his gaze was transfixed in horror on the man furthest from his perch, his dark hair hanging down onto the plates of his pitch black armor. Lois did not recognize him, but the man saw him sliding to a stop at the edge of the roof, and the moment he spared to glance at the ermine and sneer in his direction sent a gut-wrenching chill up his spine.
Fortunately, the man was otherwise occupied, and his gaze was elsewhere in moments. In one hand he held a cruel black chain, its links wreathed in a simmering flame. At the end of the chain and bound in a collar was the largest wolf Lois had ever seen, white but for a single, sloppy streak of red. Another chain, this one silver that gleamed with inner radiance, held to the collar of the wolf as well, and led to a regal lady whose back was turned to Lois. He could only see her gleaming armor from where he watched.
Whatever dispute held the two gods on the corner of the street reached its conclusion, though not without several more harsh words exchanged. Their argument over, the two withdrew from the others who had gathered. In a flash half of light and half of shadow, the two were gone, and the wolf with them. The wail that lingered behind chilled Lois anew, but he was able to choke back the flood of memories that tried to cripple him again.
Composing himself, he dropped to street level, approaching a side where no one would see him fall. He doubted that anyone present would react well to a man coming out of nowhere at this point. Instead of approaching them, he moved towards the bodies, allowing his face to fall into a shocked expression. It was surprisingly easy after what he had just witnessed.
He could tell from the roof that the two were dead. There was far too much red in the nearby snow for either of them to be alive. The ermine simply wished to maintain a believable alibi.
He did not go unnoticed by the small crowd that had gathered before his arrival, and he found himself at the point of several swords before he could even stand. He collapsed back into the snow, raising his arms to show them that his paws were empty.
“Peace!” he exclaimed with a desperate tone to his voice. “I heard screaming. What happened?”
“Go home,” a grizzled raccoon told him gruffly. He held the hilt of a well-kept katana in his paw, although he turned the blade to allow Lois to stand. “You cannot do anything to help here.”
A female cat gave the raccoon a sidelong look before turning to speak to Lois herself. Although he was no religious man himself, Lois could tell by her clothing that she was a Lightbringer. “Take care, sir. There are Daedra about this evening. I suggest you return home with all haste and remain there for the rest of the night.”
“I think the Daedra have gone,” another young woman suggested grimly from beside the cat. “They have what they were here for.”
Lois looked between them. “Why were they here? Did the Daedra kill that man and the girl?”
The raccoon still did not seem amused, but he was the first to speak. “No, that was Master Snow’s—“
“Yes.” A black leopard stalked up beside the raccoon and glared at him angrily. “Yes, the Daedra killed them.” He kept the glare focused on the raccoon for several more moments before he stalked in another direction, fuming silently to himself as he paced through the swirling snow. He kicked a drift with one paw, the cloud of powder he raised spiraling in the wind.
Lois watched him with his jaw agape. “Master Snow?” He looked at the raccoon, but the man turned away, mumbling about having said too much. The Lightbringers had turned away as well, and Lois remained alone, standing in the snow.
He wouldn’t have… He couldn’t have…
But the words of the raccoon rung with truth, and Lois could not deny it. How could that sort of man do such a thing? What could have happened to make him so desperate?
Lois finally staggered off, back towards the upper Keep. Paula would be waiting, and she would begin to wonder if he did not return soon. Lois had to know what had happened, but there were no more answers to be found tonight. He stumbled back up the road, wind blowing through his fur in gusts. He was not certain what he had just witnessed, but it made his head swim. The smith involved with Daedra? It didn’t seem right.
The ermine set his jaw. There were too many questions here. He would find the answers.