The Illusive Chain
Link 1: Coincidence
March 5, 708CR
The silver light of the full moon emerged from behind the clouds, lending an eerie glow to the white powder and leafless trees that made up the winter forest. Across the quiet expanse of woodland that surrounded the Keep, a trio of men moved along with surprisingly little caution. The snow muffled their footfalls, and the promise of the end of another stressful patrol had removed perhaps a little of their care. One form moved ahead, showing both speed and stamina as it crested one rise after another, barely slowing even as the man’s companions fell further and further behind.
Balrog gasped out a gust of steam as he pulled up short after another rise, squinting at the form of their leader as he extended his easy lead. He was joined a moment later by the last of his companions. The young man was one of the lucky age-regressed Keepers who could assume a more mature age than most. As he stood beside the disguised lutin, there was little difference in their heights. There was a clear difference in their maturity levels at least; Balrog, even shrouded in an illusion, showed the effects of dozens of years of battle. The spells he had designed to disguise his body exaggerated those old wounds to cover the maze of tattoos that helped him maintain his vital illusion. The young man off his right shoulder, however, was a stringbean, permanently trapped as a boy who would never quite manage to mature into a man. His skin was marred by a few pesky scars, but not a one of them had been caused by weapons. It quietly gave testament to how close his apparent age was to his actual age, and made it clear that he had not been in the field for long.
That was not to say that he was a burden to his patrol. The quiver of javelins that he carried on his back had been used to great effect not a month prior. That day he had put a pair of the deadly instruments to their fullest use. The thin-bladed scimitar on his right hip had been similarly bloodied in that battle, though only once. That he had done most of the work in killing a band of five mercenaries that the group had encountered on patrol had certainly raised Balrog’s already high opinion of the boy.
The young human smiled and clapped a hand on Balrog’s shoulder. “Getting tired, old man?”
The good will the boy had earned was, however, only barely enough to save him from more than a severe glare in response. Balrog could barely manage to laugh convincingly. “The commander is setting an uncomfortable pace this evening,” he grumbled.
“When does he not?” was the rueful response.
“Better catch up with him before he notices that he’s lost us,” Balrog said, getting his legs moving once again.
His fellow groaned before following, but move he did. “I could go for a good drink after this patrol.”
The disguised lutin did manage to laugh at that. “You know you’re not old enough to actually have what I could honestly call a good drink,” he pointed out.
The boy shook his head as he matched Balrog’s strides. “And how is Donnie going to verify my age? I tell you, if you are old enough to be Cursed, you should be old enough to drink the hardest liquor that the Keep can brew. I’m fighting for the Keep’s defense; if I’m old enough to die on the battlefield I should be old enough to drink myself to death.”
Balrog shook his head with an amused smile. “Vic, at your age I would not be so hasty to try to kill myself regardless of the method. With people like Nathan setting a sprinter’s pace in a marathon, the world needs no help finding ways to kill you.”
Vic shook his head, but kept moving. They had almost completely lost sight of the patrol commander, save for a few fleeting glimpses as the man darted expertly from shadow to shadow. His black fur aided him greatly in his attempts at camouflage, although his almost rushed pace complicated that matter more than a little.
A few moments later, however, the man disappeared completely. This sudden departure from the norm encouraged Balrog to increase his own speed. The commander’s attitude always leaned closer to the dramatic than the stealthy, and the thought of this backfiring was hardly new to Balrog’s mind. If Nathan had managed to run into the teeth of an enemy party without the aid of his companions he would no doubt be able to hold his own for some time, but the disadvantage of numbers would be concerning.
His worries were assuaged moments later as he saw the man again, silhouetted against the trunk of a large tree, looking at his surroundings in a way that almost seemed distracted. His black fur, touched by the light of the full moon, looked closer to silver, and the strange design of his clothing, which mixed white, grey, and black in a chaotic patchwork, was easy to lose against the background of snow and trees. Balrog kept his pace up, and soon had reached the quiet wolf.
“Commander?” Balrog moved up next to the patrol commander, gasping for his breath. “Is something wrong?”
The wolf turned to look at him, but he didn’t speak for a few moments. By the time he did, Vic had come up alongside the two of them, looking confused but clearly more focused on catching his breath than on asking about the reason for the halt.
“Something’s wrong,” the wolf finally said.
“Do you know what it is?” Vic asked.
The wolf began to cast his gaze across the snow again as though considering his answer. “I’m not certain, it’s just… It’s only a feeling; I do not know what it could mean.”
Balrog rubbed the back of his head. “Nothing specific enough to act on?” he asked, almost sounding hopeful.
The wolf dropped into a crouch and closed his eyes as though concentrating on something important. He hesitated again before saying anything further. “I don’t know what this is, but it’s too strong a feeling to ignore.” He bounced on his paws for a few moments, pressing his palms together before him and rubbing them back and forth. “I don’t think we should go to the Keep.”
Victor groaned and kicked sourly at a drift of snow. “Any chance you might be wrong?” he said in almost a requesting tone.
The wolf shook his head slowly, but surely. “Hareford,” he muttered.
Victor groaned outright and began to march around the area in frustration, grumbling about missed drinks and warm beds. Balrog decided to continue the conversation. “Why Hareford?” he asked. “The Glen is closer by several hours; even Lake Barnhardt is a shorter journey. Is something happening at the Outpost?”
The wolf remained silent for a few more moments. “I don’t know,” he finally stated. “That’s as much as I can divine from what I have been given.”
Balrog chuckled bitterly. “What good is being psychic if you can hardly understand your own visions?” he remarked.
The wolf stood and favored him with a sympathetic smile. “You know that as well as any of us Balrog. It is confusing, yes, but when has this ability ever proven less than helpful?” He turned and took a few steps towards Outpost, and away from the Keep. “There must be something important at Hareford. We’ll find out what when we get there.”
Vic still looked sour to the idea, but he knew better than to make it an issue. He nodded to the commander and stood up straight. “Commander, could we at least find time for some rest? I do not know if I could remain alert for the entire journey.”
The wolf nodded. “Of course. We’ll find a more sheltered area and take a few hours to camp. I’ll take first watch; perhaps having some time to consider will reveal why we are needed in Hareford.”
The trio turned back to the north, the black wolf taking the lead once again. Victor looked at Balrog in exasperation, the older man giving him an understanding smile. The boy responded in kind, and the two of them once again moved to catch up with their commander. It seemed that it would be a longer night than they had originally expected.
March 6, 708CR
With Lois in a cage and the threat of plague weighing heavily on his mind, Alex passed his evening in a state of restless contemplation. In the end, he rose well before dawn and waited beside an eastward facing window to watch the sky brighten as the sun slowly painted its far reaches.
As it turned out, he was not the only one to have trouble sleeping that evening. His first inkling that one of his companions was also restless was a spicy tang his sensitive nose detected coming from behind him. He turned slightly, and caught a glimpse of Lucy approaching, carefully carrying a small, steaming pot with the help of a cloth. She nodded to him, setting the pot on a nearby table before drawing out a pair of cups as though from midair. While her apparent age could not have been much higher than ten years, the subtle confidence with which she executed every daily task spoke of her hidden years.
“Ever drink tea?” she asked quietly.
He shook his head. “It smells good, though,” he admitted, turning back to the window.
She silently poured a cup for each of them without further inquiry. The lynx sniffed the proffered beverage experimentally. It combined a spicy scent that he did not immediately recognize with a second, sweeter flavor that complemented the first flawlessly. He took a sip of the concoction, and nodded in approval.
“It is quite delicious,” he stated. “Thank you.”
Lucy took a small sip from her own cup before responding. “I had gotten this for my father in the Keep before we left, but did not have the time to leave it with him. With the quarantine and Lois’ situation, I expect that it will be disappointingly stale by the time I return, so I decided to use it now. My father also drinks it to relax, and I think that is a use we can both appreciate at the moment.”
Alex sighed with resignation. “Have you taken a look at Lois yet?”
“Yes,” she replied. “It was only a brief look last night; I wasn’t certain where to start, and I needed some rest. I think I’ll finish my drink and take another look at the earliest possible convenience.”
Alex nodded his understanding. “Where is Julian?” he asked.
She tilted her head and nodded towards one of the barracks walls. “Sleeping in the next room,” she replied. “Based on my experience, we do not have to worry overly much about waking him. He has unprecedented skill when it comes to sleeping through any situation.”
“Do you think he might have any useful input into the question of reversing the spell on Lois?”
Lucy shrugged. “It is possible. He spent quite a bit of time in Nasoj’s base of operations. He might be familiar with spells I do not recognize. I am likely the more experienced party when it comes to enchantments, however, so I will perform the initial examination.” She sipped her tea once more before turning to look at him. “Do you have family in the Keep?”
He shook his head. “I don’t have any family remaining in the North. Much of my family moved south after Nasoj’s last attack prior to the Three Gates, and my father lost his own life during that battle. As far as I know, my family in the South is still alive and well, but communications have been difficult to maintain since the Curse. Attempting to visit is a near impossibility for the same reason. I worry for those within the walls; plague is perhaps the worst way I know of to die. Gerard and his family also concern me, but I do not have as personal a concern as some others.”
Lucy nodded. “My father should still be outside of the walls, and I know he can take care of himself. I do not worry overmuch for him, but I am concerned about what this could mean for Metamor. Trade relations are difficult as it is, and there are bound to be many merchants trapped within the Keep during the quarantine. Things may become much more difficult, very quickly.”
Alex sighed before quietly taking another sip of the warm drink. It truly was relaxing, he decided. He would have to find some of this tea for himself once the walls had reopened.
The two continued to drink together, but conversation stalled until well after they had finished their cups. By that time, the edge of the sun’s disk was visible over the horizon, and they both realized that they had a task to tend to. Lucy collected her teapot and the cups, and left to stow them with her belongings before they began their work.
Alex arrived in the private room first. It had been set aside for their use after the situation had been explained. With Outpost’s denizens preoccupied with other things, it would likely be up to the mages in Alex’s patrol to do what they could on their own to reverse the effects of the spell on their companion.
Several chairs which had originally been set about the central table had been moved to the side to give more room for mages to stand as they made their investigations. Against one wall, a small metal stove was set, a low fire burning in it to warm the room. The small wooden cage that held the ermine sat in the center of a rough-hewn wooden table. A cloth covered the cage, and Alex withdrew it softly, setting it beside the cage on the table. The small creature within looked at him without recognition as light was once more allowed to enter its prison. It seemed to inspect the bars for a few moments, but quickly became disinterested, seeming to conclude that escape was impossible. There was nothing of the assassin’s usual cunning in those actions.
Lucy arrived not long afterwards as Alex was taking time to add fuel to the fire, bringing along a slightly bedraggled moondog. Julian nodded wordlessly to his new commander, eyes straying immediately thereafter towards the weasel in the cage.
The youthful mage was the first to approach the imprisoned creature, however. She brought a pack with her, but set it beside one leg of the table without opening it. Instead, she quickly turned her focus to the animal between the bars of the cage. Alex could tell, despite his lack of training in any such art, that she had already begun to use magesight to attempt to divine the nature of the spell that had forced Lois into his most animalistic form.
Alex, with nothing he could do to help, stepped over towards Julian, who held a cup of the same concoction that Lucy had shared with Alex shortly before. He sipped at it even more slowly than the lynx had his own, holding it with his fingers splayed about the rim and swirling it about the cup in one hand with movements that seemed oddly practiced.
“Did you drink much tea on your prior assignment?” Alex asked, voice hushed in consideration for Lucy’s efforts.
The moondog shook his head and drank another few drops. “I haven’t had any since before my home fell.” He glanced at the cup as he resumed the swirling motion with his wrist. “It does bring to mind thought of more peaceful times, I must say. Ginger and peach was also a favorite blend of my master. I will have to ask Lucy where she found it.”
Alex nodded. After a few moments more of watching Lucy inspect the weave of spells around the ermine, he leaned back towards the moondog to whisper another question. “Do you know of any spells that Nasoj might have been working on that could explain this?”
The moondog frowned deeply. “I did my best to explore any new attacks that might be used on the Keep as they appeared, but I never heard of any such spell beyond the simple fetish stone, and that requires contact with the spell’s target to produce a lasting effect,” he explained. “Fetish stones were largely used only by lutins after their inception. Human mages decided that they didn’t like having to be within an arm’s length of their targets, so they have largely abandoned their use. Lutin shamans like the intimidation factor, though. Many still keep them about to make themselves feel more powerful than they actually are.”
“There’s no sign of any fetish stone here, however,” Alex muttered with a sigh.
“Exactly. The implication seems to be that this shaman discovered a way to project the same effect over a larger area.” He shook his head, clearly disturbed by the thought. “In that case, I am not certain why we were not also forced into our fully Cursed forms as well. We felt the magic, so it could not simply have been targeted at him alone. For some reason, however, he not only felt it, but has been under its effects for at least twelve hours by now, with no signs of improvement.”
Lucy continued to explore the magic surrounding the cage’s occupant, stepping about its perimeter with her eyes squinted, as though trying to see the finest details of some complicated construct. The two men waited for some time, Julian carefully refueling the fire once while the young mage focused on her work. He returned to his commander’s side immediately thereafter. Still, Lucy made no apparent progress, and the hours stretched on.
“Do you think you could be of some assistance?” Alex asked at length.
“No. Not at the moment, at any rate,” he answered without hesitation. “I trust Lucy’s eye in this more than my own. I have had barely a month to study the effects of the Curse firsthand. Also, after how she assisted me when I first arrived, I know she is unfazed by difficult challenges.”
The two watched for a few more minutes before Lucy stepped back, blinking a few times and shaking her head. She walked towards them with a look of confusion on her face.
“Every mage worth their salt has looked over the Curse in hopes of being the miracle worker who will reverse it, and I am no exception. I have seen the Curse in all of its forms more times than I care to enumerate, and I see nothing in Lois’ case to suggest that there has been any modification to it whatsoever. The magic surrounding him looks like any other Keeper to whom the Keep has given an animal form. There are no missing threads, nothing extra, and nothing to explain why he is on all fours in a cage instead of having this conversation with us.”
The three stood in silent contemplation for a few moments before one of them spoke. Julian was the one who finally broke the silence. “I do not particularly enjoy the fact, but bitter experience has made me a cynic of necessity.” He lowered his voice and continued. “Is it possible that Lois used the opportunity provided by the shaman’s failed casting to play a wounded deer gambit?”
Lucy looked confused, but Alex gave a soft nod. To Lucy, he whispered, “Feigning a wound to your own advantage. It could be such a ruse; his past suggests similar escapades have succeeded for him before.”
The young mage shook her head sternly. “There are certain mannerisms that animals have that no man can imitate, even one Cursed with the form of an animal. I have seen quite a few ermines in my time among trappers, and this one acts no more different than any of them. Lois is either the best actor in the Midlands, or his mind has been reduced to that of an ermine.”
Alex rubbed the fur on the back of his neck for a few moments. “His credentials as an actor are unquestioned, but I do not believe he had either time or reason to learn how to effectively emulate the tendencies of a feral ermine. Also, it would be far too risky for him to attempt an escape here.” He glanced at each of his companions. “I believe there is no duplicity involved. If he had wanted to escape, he would have done so during the mission.”
The two others nodded in silent agreement. His logic made sense, even if the lack of apparent magical tampering did not.
“So the question becomes, what am I missing?” Lucy asked.
Alex shrugged. He realized with more than a little distaste that his only answer so far had reflected his ignorance concerning magical matters. “I am no mage; I cannot offer an informed opinion. Julian?”
The moondog sighed as the question finally fell to him. “I could take a look, but I am no enchanter, and living in the North has not provided me with an abundance of opportunities to inspect the Curse. Nasoj is not particularly talkative regarding the circumstances surrounding his greatest failure.”
Despite his misgivings, Julian did take the short walk to the table to try his hand at seeking the cause of the assassin’s downfall. His expression was skeptical at best, but he allowed his magesight to come to the forefront and began to examine the spells that held the ermine. He remained focused for quite some time, but his inspection was far briefer than Lucy’s. He stepped away, shaking his head at his inability to discern anything useful.
“I am a war mage, not an enchanter,” he said as he returned. “I barely understand what I am seeing in this tangled weave.”
Lucy hardly seemed surprised, but Alex openly groaned in disappointment. “So… What do we do now?” he asked.
“We keep trying,” Lucy responded, although she showed no great deal of confidence. “The Keep cannot help us now, not here, not during a quarantine. I do not know what mage in Hareford I would trust over my own experience. Perhaps Nestorius himself, but he has more than enough to worry about as it is. As difficult as the situation may be for us, it still affects only one person.” She walked back over to the table and withdrew her pack from the floor underneath it. She pulled several articles from within, setting them together on the table. Among them was a stick of chalk, a wooden bowl, and a bag full of other magical articles.
“I hope no one intends to use this table for anything but magic in the near future,” she commented as she picked up the piece of chalk. She waved it before her for a few moments as though it could write on air, and then began to sketch expert lines on the surface of the table. Her lines were unerring in their precision, but also took quite some time to draw. “The two of you may wish to find something else to do for a little while,” she said, never raising her eyes from her efforts.
Alex watched her work for a few minutes, but being unable to understand the focus of her efforts made it difficult to stay engaged. Although he did not know what she might be doing, he decided that it would serve him better to leave her to her efforts. Nodding a brief farewell towards Julian, he ventured out into Hareford. Perhaps he could at least discover what their role would be during the ongoing quarantine.
Balrog took the last watch, and he roused the others just as the morning sun appeared over the eastern horizon. It seemed that Nathan had not slept at all, as he waved the stocky man towards the youngest member of their party before Balrog ever got close enough to shake him. Victor took a solid shake of the shoulder before he moved, but his discipline quickly showed through as he nodded to Balrog, groaning quietly as he drew himself to his feet. He ran his fingers through his thick brown hair once, and somehow every strand fell in place exactly as it always did. The young man claimed to know nothing of magic, but Balrog somehow wondered how he could so easily control his mop of hair without some supernatural aid.
The three of them were quickly prepared to move, and they were soon well on their way, Nathan once more setting a healthy pace while his companions kept up. With several hours still to go before reaching Outpost, however, the black wolf at their fore made certain that they all stayed together. His companions were thankfully up to the task of keeping his pace now that they were rested, and they made good time as they made for the haven of Outpost and whatever summons had called Nathan’s attention.
The journey passed in silence as such patrols were often wont to do, and barely a word passed from one of them to another before the stark stone walls of their destination rose into their view. None of them questioned it when their leader accelerated his pace. He clearly had not been able to determine anything further from his vision of the previous evening, and he wished to know what its intention might have been as soon as possible.
Their reception at the walls was a little more complicated than usual, and it took little time for them to discover why. Vic looked as though he had been shot through by a crossbow when he heard the word plague uttered from atop the walls, and Balrog had to clap a hand on his shoulder to steady him. A few brief words sufficed to clarify that the patrol had left the Keep several days prior to the quarantine, and their entrance was permitted to allow them to rest from their work.
Of course, rest would have to wait for a more opportune moment.
The black wolf who headed the patrol wasted no time in making his way to the keep to seek out information about what might have caused the strange premonition that had struck him outside of Metamor.
It comforted him somehow when he realized that, had he not redirected his team only an hour from the walls, the plague would have kept them out all the same. While he had confidence in the discipline of Balrog, the youngest member of the squad concerned him. Faced with the idea of being trapped away from his family while still so close to them, the wolf wondered if Victor would not have rushed the gates had they gone to Metamor as planned. All things told, it was for the best that they had turned back sooner rather than later.
The lupine scout was unsurprised when he was informed that speaking with Hareford’s commander would require more than tales of some vague premonition. Nathan sighed, but he was unable to think of any reason that would seem more important enough for the guards to grant him entrance. He thanked them for their work, and stepped aside with a shake of his head.
Few people ever respected the claims he made regarding his abilities, and he could hardly blame them. All he could ever claim were vague emotions and impressions, while others who claimed some form of prescience could at least present some idea of particular events they foresaw. As much as he wished to do so himself, he could not clarify much when he understood very little himself.
As he mused over his thoughts, however, he heard another man speaking with the guards who oversaw the security of Hareford’s keep. It seemed to be an innocuous conversation at first, as the man inquired as to potential patrol responsibilities in the near future, revealing him as another Metamor patrol commander who had been trapped without the walls by the onset of the plague. The guards told him that all commanders were to remain available in case of their services being required, and there is where the current of the conversation caught Nathan’s attention.
“I am willing to be sent on patrol, of course, but my patrol has been handicapped by the loss of one of our members. His mind has been overthrown by the Curse and some unknown working of our enemies. We are doing all we can to break whatever it is that holds him in that state, but until we succeed it will be difficult for us to operate at our fullest capacity.”
The wolf turned to see who was speaking. The lynx who stood at the door was perhaps half a head shorter than he was himself, but his bearing suggested that he had quite a significant degree of experience as a military commander. The topic of the man who had been somehow affected by the Curse’s magic was what truly interested the wolf however, and he approached with hardly another thought.
“I understand, but Sir Dupré is thoroughly occupied with the details of the Keep’s defense over the course of the quarantine,” the guard was responding. “Barring extraordinary necessity, I cannot defy my orders and allow you to see him while he is occupied by such vital affairs.”
The lynx clearly felt similarly regarding the guardsmen’s orders as Nathan did, as he expressed his understanding with resigned understanding. He nodded to the guards and turned to walk away, only to come face to face with the approaching wolf.
“Excuse me,” the wolf said by way of introduction. “I overheard what you said. You have a friend that needs magical assistance?”
The other Keeper eyed him warily at the question, either because of the clear implication of eavesdropping or because of his unexpected appearance. Whichever of the two it was, the reaction was thankfully brief.
“That is correct,” he confirmed with a short nod. “Why does it interest you?”
The black wolf hesitated. He considered telling the man about the truth of what had brought them to Hareford, but he worried at what the reaction might possibly be. Even Balrog was uncomfortable with the idea of such a power, and Nathan knew and trusted him. A stranger could not be trusted with such information.
“We received a request for aid while we were on patrol in the area,” he responded. He actually felt quite proud at the amount of confidence he managed to put into the words. “Our party’s mage has studied the workings of the Curse for some time, and I believe that he would be able to help remove any magic that might be working to reinforce it.”
The lynx evaluated him silently for a few moments before finally nodding. “Very good. My party is attempting to find a remedy in the barracks. You should be able to locate them with very little difficulty; we have not made our presence secret at all, so you should be able to ask almost anyone about where we are.”
“All right, then. Who should I ask for when I arrive?”
“My name is Alex,” his counterpart replied.
The wolf nodded with a broad smile. “Well met. My name is Nathan. I will go to seek out my company’s mage and meet you and your party within the barracks.”
Without further farewell, Nathan left to find Balrog, leaving Alex to observe the wolf’s retreat with uncertainty. As much as he felt relieved by the help that had been offered, its unexpected arrival left him feeling suspicious. After a moment’s hesitation, he set a brisk pace towards the barracks as well. Lucy and Julian would no doubt expect warning before a stranger came knocking, and Alex also hoped speak with them privately before the wolf arrived. They could not risk letting their guard down just yet.
With their commander occupied elsewhere, Balrog and Vic ventured towards the barracks to store their supplies. Neither of them were prepared for the baths just yet, as they wished to first be certain that the subject of the vision did not require immediate attention. Once everything had found a place, the two made their way to the barracks’ mess hall. Victor sat without question at one of the empty tables while Balrog went off alone. He returned after only a brief absence, bearing a large flagon in either hand.
“It’s not as good as the Mule, but what is?” he commented, giving his companion an encouraging smile. He placed both vessels on the table, pushing one to Victor. The young man could easily smell that his patrol partner had brought him some of the darkest liquor available.
Victor, head held in the palm of one hand, caught the sliding container and held it briefly before him before pushing it back. “I really do appreciate the thought, Balrog, but I feel that I need my wits about me for the present,” he said, voice quiet and pensive.
Balrog sighed and took the returned flagon, sliding his already-empty ale to the side. “How are you holding up?” he asked, taking a gulp of the hard liquor. The boy had a point about the need for a clear head, but he would not have to worry about that himself for three or four more pints.
The boy shook his head slowly, taking his time before he answered. “To be honest, Balrog, I’m scared out of my mind,” he replied at last. His voice shook uncertainly as he looked at the man across the table.
The disguised lutin nodded in understanding. “I cannot say that I personally relate, but plague is a frightening concept in any context. At least we’re safe here for the moment.”
“That isn’t what frightens me,” Vic replied seriously. “What about my mother and father? My sister? They’re all in the Keep’s walls. Balrog, my sister is only three years old, if she catches the plague…”
Balrog slapped the table with his open palm, stopping the boy’s speech and drawing more than a few unamused glares from around the room. “Stop,” he ordered in a voice that permitted no question. “This is the Keep we’re talking about. Healer Coe and his assistants are the most competent group of medics that I have ever encountered. If any place in the world might be capable of defeating the plague at all, it is the Keep.”
“I realize that, but there has never been a nation that defeated the plague. It is not an enemy that you can fortify against, nor one whose plans you can understand and thwart. It is a cold, merciless, pitiless killer. The healers can be the best in the world, and men will still die in a plague.”
The older man frowned, taking another draught give himself time to think. “It is true; plague is not a rational enemy. That does not mean that dedicated men cannot control it if they make sufficient effort.” He tapped the table with one finger a few times to draw Vic’s attention. “I cannot lie; the next few weeks will be dangerous, but panic is precisely the reaction that we need to avoid. Panic would send the plague to the rest of the Midlands in the arms of men who believe that they are saving their families. Panic allows men to run to the north, telling all our enemies that the Keep is weakened. Panic is as much the enemy as is the plague.”
Victor nodded. He paused to take a slow, shaky breath before responding. “I understand. Still, what if I could have been there? What if I could be there with my family to help and comfort them?”
Balrog shook his head. “I hear that the quarantine has been in effect since early in the afternoon yesterday. Even if we had returned to the Keep as intended, we would simply have seen the flag ourselves, and we would have been forced to take shelter somewhere else, even if perhaps not here. Our change of plans had no effect on whether or not you are within the walls.”
The young man conceded the point, but still was not satisfied. “Whether or not I could have made it, I still wish that I could be there.”
“As much as I hate to say it, you might have done more harm than good within the walls,” Balrog noted. “You are neither a healer nor a mage, so your role in aiding the Keep would have been negligible at best. You would have been just one more avenue that the plague could have used to get to your family at the worst. Also, knowing you, you probably would have fought to stay on your feet for several hours after being affected yourself. It would not have been worth the dangers.”
Victor finally admitted that Balrog was right, but the concern on his face was still clear to see. The older man gave a supportive smile.
“Don’t worry; give it a few days, a few weeks perhaps, and this will be just a passing memory. You will be with your family, and the joy of reunion will be all the greater for the peril of the days between.” He gave a self-satisfied smile before taking one last gulp to finish his tankard. “In the meantime, we may have need of your javelins and your sword before we get to that far end. Our skills will undoubtedly be of use with the Keep’s usual patrol routine disrupted.”
Vic nodded with a noticeable increase in confidence. “As long as they give me enough time to rest before our next venture, I am certainly willing to provide such a service.” He shifted in his chair to sit up a little straighter. “In the end I suppose you are correct; I am far better suited to this role than I would have been to any inside the Keep.”
Balrog smiled. “There, that’s much closer to the irrational degree of confidence I expect from you!”
Victor managed to laugh briefly at that. “I think you meant that as a compliment, so thank you. I did learn from the best, after all.”
Balrog waved his hand vaingloriously and dipped his head in a mock bow as though he had been given some great recognition. “What better thing to do with my life than to pass my flaws on to the next generation?” he asked. The young man before him chuckled again, but his eyes quickly turned to the side as his mind ventured into the darker reaches of thought once more.
“Are you certain that you wouldn’t like at least a pint of ale?” Balrog asked, trying to turn Victor’s attention back to the positive.
“You may drink mine, thank you,” the boy replied. Looking up, he continued, “Actually, it seems that we may both be needed as it is.”
Turning to follow Vic’s gaze, Balrog saw Nathan approaching their table quickly. The wolf waved a paw to beckon them, and Balrog was quick to make his way towards the black wolf.
“I think I may have discovered the subject of my vision,” their commander announced before either of them could ask how he had fared. “I have need of a mage. Balrog?”
The disguised lutin gave a nod, while Victor stepped forward. “Will my help be required?” he asked.
Nathan shook his head, though he did offer a smile. “I do not believe so, Victor. Feel free to take some time to relax. In the meanwhile, I’m certain those in your company would appreciate it if you could wash away the grime and stench of the last few days.” This last advice he gave with a wink, and Vic nodded his thanks as he made for his quarters. Balrog and Nathan watched him go for a few moments, and then the wolf turned and led the way through the halls without another comment.
“I did not want to confront you in front of Victor, but you know I still don’t like how much you depend on those visions of yours,” Balrog said as they went along.
“You’ve said this much before, and I have constantly reminded you that it has only ever proven useful,” the wolf replied. He spoke in a friendly tone, but one that made it unmistakably clear that he was tired of hearing the same arguments from his mage.
Balrog shook his head, running a few steps to close the gap that the wolf was working to open between them. “I would not have such a problem with following them if they were simply visions, devoid of emotion or motives, but your reactions always indicate that such is not the case. You looked devastated when I found you last night, as though your closest friend had died.”
“Indeed, my visions are almost entirely emotion,” the wolf admitted. “Rarely are they so much visions as they are foreign emotions expressing themselves to me from an unknown source.”
“That is why I have a problem with this,” Balrog insisted. “Emotions do not come from nothing. If there is emotion, then there is consciousness behind it, and if there is consciousness then there are motives. Anyone whose motives you follow without question can control you, and whatever foreign entity is the source of those emotions can as easily be evil as it can be good. Think about it; what emotions did you feel last night?”
The wolf stopped and turned to him, the gaze of his golden eyes stopping Balrog where he stood. He hesitated for a moment, but did give an answer. “Terror,” he stated at length. “I felt terror, and then uncertainty, and finally nothing.”
“Very positive emotions, don’t you think?” Balrog asked with biting sarcasm.
“Negative emotions do not indicate the presence of evil,” Nathan pointed out. He leaned closer to meet the shorter man’s gaze more effectively. “Besides, I think you would be more than willing to go along if you knew for whose sake we are here.”
Balrog hesitated, but he decided that it could cause no harm to continue in that vein. “Very well, who is it that requires my aid?”
“They tell me that your friend Vincent Lois was brought here last night,” the wolf replied, measuring his speech carefully. “Some spell has locked him into the form of a feral animal, and his companions have not been able to remove the spell from him despite their best efforts. Of course, if you are not interested in going along with something you don’t understand, I suppose we could simply leave him in a cage.”
Balrog eyed him carefully, seeking any sign of a bluff, but he saw none. “And have you wondered why it would have to do with him?” he asked calmly. While this news was unexpected and did concern him, he was not the sort to allow an argument to go to his opponent. “You met him once, on a tourney field, and your only interaction with him left him so badly bruised that he had to see a healer. Why would your visions concern you with his fate?”
The wolf straightened and shrugged to relieve the tension that had found its way into the muscles of his neck. “I am not certain, but they have come from men I don’t know at all previously. In the end, the ability is supernatural; almost by definition that liberates it from any subordination to human logic.”
The shorter man crossed his arms, but he said nothing. While he did wish to continue his questioning, his concern for his friend was finally winning out. “Very well,” he conceded at last. “Let us see what we can do to help him, at least. We can continue this conversation later.”
“Follow along, then.” Nathan turned and with three quick steps was already around the corner before he spoke again. “We’re almost there.” Balrog sighed and followed. Although he did not look forward to the confrontation, he would have to revisit the subject of his commander’s visions at a later time.
Lucy was finishing her careful line work when, with a quiet knock on the doorframe to announce his return, Alex stepped back through the door into the room. Lucy looked up just long enough to give him a smile and a nod, acknowledging his presence. Julian, who was just replacing the fuel for the fire in the wood-burning stove that heated the room, finished his task and dusted off his hands before turning to see Alex in the doorway. His demeanor remained generally cold as was his custom, but he acknowledged his commander’s presence with a nod as well.
“I may have found some help,” the lynx replied quietly. Lucy did not look up from her work, but Julian favored him with an inquisitive glance. “Another patrol commander arrived to speak with the commander of Hareford immediately after I was turned away. Evidently he had received word that someone was in need of help within these walls, and came to see what was needed. He has gone to fetch the mage under his command, and should be here before very long.”
“When did we send out a request for aid?” Julian asked quietly.
Alex sighed. To say that he had not considered the same question himself would have been untrue. It had caused some hesitation when the wolf had announced his purpose as well. “We did not,” Alex confirmed with a sigh. “I do not know; perhaps after our arrival last night someone saw fit to send out a call for help.”
The moondog shook his head. “That makes no sense. It is one man, a man whose life is not even particularly endangered by his situation. With the threat of plague within the Keep’s walls, there is no reason that such a request would have been sent.”
Alex had to agree. “We are in no position to turn down help,” he stated regardless. “We can ask them what they heard when they arrive. Be prepared to fight, but let’s be certain that we do not make the first move in aggression and then live to regret it.”
The moondog responded by adjusting the sword that hung at his hip. He was the only one of the three to still be wearing his primary weapon, although Alex would have little use for his bow indoors, and Lucy was far more capable with magic than with any weapon. Alex’s paw went to the dagger that he kept as a sidearm, though he continued to hope that he would not need it in the near future.
Lucy finished her work with the chalk, spinning it about her fingers before storing it somewhere with such effortless grace that it simply seemed to vanish. Leaning close to the tabletop, she began to collect every small fragment of chalk that dared to stray from her meticulous piece of magical artwork. Finally satisfied, she replaced her supplies in their pack and placed it back underneath the table.
“Now, let’s see if this helps reveal anything,” she whispered. By themselves, the chalk lines did nothing, but Lucy activated the enchantment with a little additional effort. The lines glowed visibly, even to the magically inept commander of the patrol. She immediately resumed her examination, leaving Alex to watch in ignorance.
“I am not familiar with the function of these lines,” Julian admitted, watching her work from a distance.
Lucy chuckled quietly as she again opened her eyes to the magical world. The ermine within the cage was looking at the glowing lines of magic with apprehension, but with nowhere to run it simply stared at the strange sight without understanding. “It would be somewhat difficult to determine exactly what this spell does without already knowing.”
“Please, I’ve waited in ignorance long enough already. I don’t need any assurances that my confusion is justified,” Alex said, sounding annoyed.
“In the presence of other magic these runes will react in different ways to indicate various sorts of magic. In this case, the way it reacts should tell me if there are any hidden spells or traps on Lois. I could proceed without it, perhaps, but I am uninterested in triggering any traps that might leave me in a similar state to his.”
“Wouldn’t hiding the spell have required some time?” Julian asked. Lucy looked at him for a moment with a grim expression before shaking her head.
“Yes, it would, and that confuses me. It seemed that the spell was cast from a distance, and whatever preparation was done would have had to take place in Lois’ absence. There should not be any traps, but by the same logic, Lois should not be under this spell either. Clearly the latter of those two does not apply, so we cannot assume the former.”
Julian nodded soberly, and then joined Alex to watch the young mage work. He could detect the slight changes in the weave of Lucy’s enchantment more easily than Alex could, but he did not know what they might mean, or whether they might simply be part of the spell’s natural function. Lucy did not offer any insight into the process, so he was forced to guess at her progress on his own.
What progress she was making was interrupted briefly after it began. A knock on the door drew her attention away. Alex took a deep breath, nodding towards the portal as he moved to answer the knock. Julian gripped the sheath of his sword in his left paw, but remained relaxed enough to avoid seeming threatening. The lynx wondered how often he had been forced to tread that thin line while in the company of his enemies. Whatever the answer might have been, he was glad to have him by his side.
Opening the door revealed a pair of men, one cursed into the form of a black wolf while the other remained human. Alex immediately recognized the wolf as the one to whom he had spoken earlier. He was dressed in clothing that was clearly intended for camouflage on patrol, rather than to keep up appearances among polite company, its patchwork of blacks and whites designed to escape the eye on cold winter nights. There was not a blade to be seen on his belt. Instead, a pair of stout wooden rods was secured in harnesses on either hip. The strange weapons drew Alex’s eye for a moment, but he avoided lingering on them long enough to cause suspicion. The man was nearly his same height, so meeting his gaze for a moment was fairly easy.
The man standing beside the wolf helped to redirect the lynx’s gaze. He was of a very stout build, and the truly impressive number of scars that crisscrossed his bare skin spoke of many years spent in battle. His head was bald, but his beard had been expertly woven into a pair of black braids that hung down to his chest. He wore no weapon, but Alex doubted he would need one to be a difficult opponent. If the lynx’s surmise was correct, the man would not depend on strength alone in combat, either. According to what brief discussion he had undertaken with the wolf, the man was also a mage of some power. A well-trained mage was easily dangerous beyond even the finest of swordsmen.
The wolf smiled as he saw the familiar lynx standing near the door. “Hello again, Commander Alex. I have come in the company of my party’s mage, as promised. This is Balrog; he will certainly be of a great deal more aid to you in this effort than I will myself.”
Balrog nodded to each of the members of the party in turn, although he clearly lingered at the sight of Julian before continuing on to Lucy. When he spoke, his voice was very much what Alex has expected, a gruff, deep voice colored with a slight accent that implied foreign upbringing. His manner of speaking, however, was quite distinct from the lynx’s expectations.
“Greetings, gentlemen. Milady.” He favored Lucy with a short, respectful bow. Alex could see her rolling her eyes, but she accompanied her sarcasm with a smile that clearly showed some gratitude for the consideration at least. “My commander informed me that a member of your number was subjected to a spell that reduced him to feral in mind and body, and I would like to contribute my own experience and knowledge to rescue him, with your permission.”
The formality of his speech almost made Alex laugh outright, but it certainly did help to cool the tension that the lynx felt mounting in the room. Either the man was sincere in his desire to help, or his acting was camp in its most distilled form. Whatever the case, Alex favored him with a smile and a nod in return.
“You are correct,” he confirmed. “Our companion was seeking to scout a lutin camp for information, and it seems that he ran afoul of the shaman.” He waved to the cage on the table. “The effects of the spell used against him are clear, but the nature of the magic eludes us.”
The man stepped forward as the wolf beside him took a step to one side to let him pass. The man squinted at the white-furred creature that crouched low between the bars, focusing intently to make out every detail that presented itself to his gaze.
“I see no trace of a fetish stone,” he observed. “I suppose that is likely the first thing that you ruled out?” He glanced to Lucy. It seemed that he had determined that she was a mage, likely due to her proximity to the caged ermine. She nodded, and he sighed with a shake of his head.
“I cannot fault your investigation, then, although I am sorry to say that it leaves us very short on possible causes. To my knowledge, fetish stones are the only implement that have been used to affect such a change since the Curse itself.” He grumbled and stroked his chin as he rounded the table. Looking at the chalk lines that had been drawn about the cage, he gave a pleased nod.
“Good, I see that you are certainly capable with enchantments. You suspect a hidden spell, then?”
Lucy almost blushed at the implied compliment, but the mention of their present business returned her attention to the problems of the present. “I have inspected the weaves of magic around him to the best of my ability, and I cannot detect anything foreign besides the Curse itself.”
Oddly, it was the wolf that responded, not the mage. “That is odd,” he remarked. “Most warriors have at least some enchantments to aid them in battle, especially during missions of stealth.”
Alex shrugged. “The only magic I use is intended to make my archery more useful in various ways, and thus is applied to my weapons and armor rather than my own person. I expect his was a similar situation.”
“I do not mean to suggest that every man has such enchantments, but a great number of them do, myself included,” the wolf insisted. “I am simply trying to note something I see as odd if it might perhaps suggest some useful course of action.”
“Unfortunately, they are right,” Balrog replied. He had been staring at the former assassin in silence while the others discussed the situation as hand. “If he had been under any sort of enchantment prior to encountering this spell, it is little more than a faint echo now, and those would be both difficult to find and useless to our current pursuit. The magic we need to find should be new and currently active, and pulling at loose strands in the dusty reaches of age-old enchantments will not lead us to any breakthroughs in that venture.” He sighed and scratched his head in confusion as he continued to stare at the creature behind the bars. “What devious device has the enemy used against you this time, Lois?”
“Lois?” Julian looked to Alex, who nodded and gave a subtle gesture towards Lucy. Julian continued to pounce on the use of their companion’s name by a stranger as he stepped towards Balrog. “How do you know his name?” he asked pointedly.
Lucy, despite being at a disadvantage of both height and strength, interposed herself between the stocky man and the cage with a hard scowl. Alex and Julian confronted the wolf, although Julian’s body and attention were still turned to face Balrog. He slowly unsheathed his weapon with his right hand and pointed its tip towards the wolf, while a ball of flame developed in his left, the orange of its base giving away to a light blue hue the further the flames licked into the air.
The human stood straighter and turned slowly to face the man who had challenged him. “I know Vincent Lois from many years ago,” he explained. “We met a decade ago, perhaps more, in the lands south of this Keep. We made a business of culling the smaller groups of lutins who escaped your patrols and harassed the local farmlands. I understand your suspicion, but there is no reason for us to come to blows.” He raised both hands in surrender, specifically turning his gaze to the moondog. “No, I cannot prove it to you, at least not until Lois can provide his personal vote of confidence.”
Julian glanced towards Alex, watching as the lynx stepped towards the wolf. “Perhaps that may be so,” he conceded. “However, that is not the only thing that you inexplicably know. For instance, how did you know that we were here, or that we were in need of help?”
“I told you, we received a request for help while we were returning to the Keep last night!”
“That is impossible; we sent no request for aid, especially not last night!” Alex declared hotly. “We had not even returned to Hareford until late in the evening. What is the truth, then? How did you really hear about us?”
While the wolf looked ready to insist on his earlier explanation, a loud sigh from his human companion brought him up short. “Sir, I realize that you do not want to so easily reveal your secrets to strangers, but revealing the truth is infinitely preferable to being skewered on someone’s blade.” The man nodded to the wolf seriously. Nathan looked quite unhappy with his companion’s conclusion, but he was forced to admit that Balrog was correct.
“All right,” he said with a quiet growl behind his words. “I did not wish to reveal this needlessly, but it seems that the current situation affords me very little flexibility. I was telling the truth in a way when I claimed that I had received a request for help, but the nature of that request is what I did not admit. I have the ability to detect echoes of events either present or future. Last night while returning from Metamor, I felt a great cry of distress from the northern reaches beyond Hareford. As is often the case, I could not determine the reason for the feeling, but I have learned not to ignore such flashes of foresight when they are given to me. When I heard you speaking with the guards at the keep, however, I made the connection that your companion was the one whose distress I detected.”
“This all seems like quite a convenient set of coincidences,” Julian noted, never lowering his guard. “Why would your patrol, which you have already admitted was nearly to Metamor when you detected Lois’ distress, not only detect the cry for help from so far away, but also just happen to have a mage who is friends with the man in question?”
Alex nodded his agreement. “Julian speaks for my thoughts as well,” he agreed. “It seems more likely that the two of you, and perhaps more, have been tracking Lois for some time, and only now do you see an opportunity to strike him down while he is vulnerable.”
Again Balrog spoke, still holding his hands in the air in calm surrender. “I know that your suspicion is not unfounded, but I would ask you to rethink your logic. If either of us had wished to kill Lois, we could have done so immediately after our arrival. A fire spell used on Lois’ cage would not only have likely dealt with him in a matter of moments, but it would have distracted the attentions of either one or both of my fellow mages in this room.” He nodded individually to both Lucy and Julian, who was still brandishing the wreath of flame which danced about his paw with a will of its own, never once singeing his short fur. “As a friend of the man, I realize that Lois has more than a few enemies, but I also know that he has spent most of the past ten years slowly culling the numbers of those that seek to do him harm. If we wished the same, we would have not spared any risk to see him killed immediately.”
Alex nodded slowly. “You make a few good points, but you still show no proof.”
Nathan took up their defense next. “As Balrog has already stated, our stories could be proven if Lois was released from the spell, but until then you must either find a reason either to trust us, or to utterly reject our claims. At this juncture, can you truly find enough wrong with our words to justify shedding our blood on friendly soil? Can you truly afford to reject our help because of a few doubts?”
Lucy maintained her position between Balrog and the cage, but she nodded her agreement. “We have made no progress on our own. Any help that we can come by would certainly be helpful.”
“Can we trust this help, however?” Julian argued.
Alex stepped towards the wolf to look directly into the man’s eyes. The wolf met his gaze fearlessly, although even he could not stand the odd inspection without cocking his head inquisitively in utter confusion. Alex’s face betrayed no emotion, however, and he avoided even blinking as he stared the wolf down. Finally, he gave a sigh and stepped back, only to repeat the process with the human. Balrog took the inspection in stride, although he did once glance towards his commander with a helpless smile and a shrug of uncertainty. Finally, Alex stepped away from both of them and waved to his own companions.
“Stand down. I do not believe that they mean any harm to Lois. Do not lower your guards entirely, but let them try to help at least.” He nodded to Julian, waving for him to sheath his blade and dispel the fire that still guttered along the pads of his paw. The moondog was none too happy with the sudden orders, but he obeyed them with no question, although he kept himself in position between the two strangers. Lucy, who had never prepared a combat spell at all, simply stepped aside, joining Alex and Julian between the other two. Balrog gave a grateful smile.
“Thank you for your vote of confidence,” he said with a quiet sincerity. “I will do what I can to see the spell broken. I hope that we can cast aside any suspicion once it is done.”
Nathan said a few similar words, but Alex’s attention was instead on the moondog, who was waving him to a private corner with no degree of subtlety at all. Alex apologized for his quick departure, and Julian waved a paw, keeping the sounds of their conversation from leaving the corner where they would be speaking.
“Would you care to explain to me why we are so quick to trust them now?” he asked with a harsh cast to his voice. “A few moments ago, we were seconds from attacking them on suspicion of intent to harm Lois. What changed your mind so quickly, and what in heaven’s name were you staring at?”
“I was looking for tells, signs of deception on their part,” Alex explained. “With little else to go on, their argument was valid: we cannot deny their help simply on suspicion of some kind of treachery. If they had given me some other reason to suspect them, we would at least have forced them to leave. As it stands, however, they gave me no reason to suspect that they are here for any reason besides a wish to help break the spell.”
“I thought you said that you were no mage,” Julian observed.
Alex nodded. “Still, there are some things that are simply human nature, and require no magic to detect. I had a friend who taught me much about the ways men react when they are deceiving others. They are not perfect, but in the absence of absolute certainty I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt, at least for now.”
Julian met his commander’s eyes seriously for a few moments, looking worried while still managing a small smile. “Very well then,” he said quietly. “They still make me uneasy. That said I remain extremely fond of the idea of help. While I have had little time to appreciate Lois as a friend, what I have seen convinces me that he is a valuable comrade-at-arms. Especially considering how he was able to kill the shaman at the camp last night.”
He kept his gaze fixed on his commander to drive home his point, and while Alex managed to remain composed for the sake of appearances before the others in the room, he felt his heart sinking within. He kept his eyes fixed on the moondog’s face, but he knew that he would fail his own tests of sincerity now. “You suspected something, then?”
Julian chuckled. “You forget, I worked for Nasoj for quite some time. He is evil, yes, but one thing that should never be confused for evil is stupidity. Nasoj is not stupid, and that means that he knows not to leave any sensitive information, especially written information, in the possession of such petty creatures as lutins. They can be as easily bought as stolen from, and he is well aware of that fact, and the Keep has learned the same over the years. It is for just such a reason that military doctrine regarding dealing with lutins prescribes little or no search for intelligence following engagements with lutins.”
Alex sighed and rubbed the fur on the back of his neck. “It was supposed to be a secret. The chief and shaman of this lutin tribe have been in power for years, and they have gathered more and more power as time has gone on. The scoutmaster decided that it was in our best interests to have them removed, and let the naturally vicious politics of lutins help cull the numbers of their followers.”
The moondog nodded seriously. “I do not question the Keep’s decision; I only question your lack of trust in me. If you can look these two strangers in the eyes and come to trust them in a few seconds, certainly you can extend that same consideration to me.” He kept his eyes on his commander, his gaze serious but not truly angry.
“I’m sorry,” Alex replied in a subdued tone. “I could say that they did not give me enough time to get to know you, but your point stands. I should have been able to trust you.”
The moondog gave him a sympathetic smile. “You cannot undo what is already done. All I ask is that you do not make the same mistake again. If you can trust a stranger, you can trust me. We are, after all, not strangers anymore.”
The lynx smiled. “I will take care to keep you informed in the future. For now, let us both keep an eye on our pair of strangers, shall we?”
The moondog nodded, and waved a paw to dismiss the spell that kept their conversation private. The two stepped back towards the group, finding that Balrog was examining the entrapped ermine with intense focus, and Nathan had found a chair and sat, watching his companion at his work without comprehension. Lucy gave her two companions a look of exasperation; it was clear that she did not appreciate being left alone with two men she did not trust. She had managed however, so she simply rolled her eyes and shook her head when Alex shrugged his shoulders innocently.
“Anything?” Alex asked.
“Nothing new,” she replied. “I can tell what he is doing because of the enchantment I have created, and he has seen nothing that I have not seen already.”
“Let us hope that the winds change, then,” Alex muttered. He sighed. Since he had been unable to speak with Sir Dupré, it was as likely as not that they would be called upon to aid in the quarantine patrol routine before long. He hoped that they would find their solution before that time came.
Link 2: Deliverance
The sun had set hours before the last torch was extinguished and the occupants of the room left the ermine to his rest. They had made no progress as every poke and prod, whether from Balrog or Lucy, had revealed nothing more than what they could see at the surface. They had continued their work well beyond the point of exhaustion, but they had finally been forced to admit defeat. They hoped, perhaps vainly, that they could find the missing piece in the morning.
Nathan followed Balrog at a distance as the man walked slowly through the halls. The human scratched at his chin and twirled the braids of his beard around his thick fingers. Nathan was unwilling to shatter his contemplation in most cases, but he had detected something in his friend’s manner that made him decide to violate that tendency.
“You have an idea, don’t you?” he asked pointedly.
Balrog turned halfway, still walking, as though he had forgotten that he was not alone in the halls. After seeing his commander he turned his attention once more to the path of his feet. “I did not see anything foreign amidst the weaves of the spell,” he replied.
“That is not the answer to the question I asked,” the wolf noted.
Balrog sighed heavily. “You read me too well, my friend,” he admitted.
“And you avoid the point like the—like a priest avoids a brothel.” Nathan winced at how near he had come to making a comparison in bad taste. Balrog clearly detected his change of direction, but he was not inclined to mention it. He had other inclinations.
“They do?” He snickered. “I’m happy I never considered the occupation.” Nathan was about to deliver a scathing retort when his companion raised his hand to forestall him.
“Yes, I am avoiding the point. You are, of course, correct.” He sighed as he made the admission, but continued on. “Although I cannot see any evidence of tampering in the curse, the effects are clearly identical to those of a fetish stone. I would surmise that the shaman attempted to cast the spell held within the stone as a last defense, evidently a successful measure. My only questions are how it worked, and why there is no evidence of it afterwards.”
“No progress on those answers, presumably?”
Balrog sighed with a shake of his head. “Logically, there should be no way it would continue to function. A fetish stone should be necessary as fuel for the spell, or the worst that Lois should have experienced would be a momentary disorientation. Much like a pyrock must be present to sustain a magical blaze when a mage is not present, the fetish stone needs to be present or the effects of the countercurse would reassert themselves immediately.”
Nathan shrugged. “Well, as you said, a pyrock is needed to magically sustain a fire spell, but only fuel and air are necessary for a fire to spread after the spell has been cast. The actual spell may be gone, but the fire itself could continue.”
Balrog stopped in his tracks as his commander spoke. He turned with an odd look on his face. “Sir, that is a fascinating comparison,” he said, a hint of admiration in his voice. “’If fuel is present…’ What sort of fuel could this spell consume, though?” He shook his head, pacing the short distance from one wall to the opposite in contemplation.
“Well, as fire burns wood, so magic burns mana, or so I’ve heard. Perhaps he was simply near enough to a magic nexus for the additional mana to further the spell?”
“No.” Balrog shook his head and increased his pace. “If that sort of thing could happen, any spell cast near Metamor would have the same inexplicable properties. Using a nexus requires conscious effort, and if this was a dying last defense as I have postulated then he wouldn’t have had the time to perform something that complicated.” He paced a few more steps before turning to look at the wolf. “Keep talking, though. You have at least made some interesting observations.”
Nathan shrugged. “I think I played my trump too early, I can think of no theory more suitable.”
Balrog chuckled quietly, slowing his pacing as he turned back towards the black wolf. “There is something there, I think. At the very least, it gives me a place to start.” He sighed. “You are correct about one thing; mana is the fuel for magic. How this bears significance is the elusive point.” He shook his head and kicked at the stone of the floor in annoyance. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that pacing around the area is likely to provide us with the answers.”
“We can try again tomorrow,” Nathan advised. “I think Victor has been left to his own devices for a little bit longer than I would generally advise. I would like to check on him before it gets too much later.”
Balrog nodded. “I hope he has found the baths and a good meal or two. And, hopefully, he has managed to keep himself calm. The plague certainly had him shaken this morning.”
Nathan nodded. “I often miss them, but times like these I am happy that my family stayed in the Midlands. It gives me less to worry about in the meanwhile.” He waved to Balrog and continued down the hall. “Come; let’s go find Victor and get some rest. Perhaps the answers we need will come to us over the night.”
Balrog stood still for a few more moments, but he finally nodded and followed after his patrol commander. The two of them were already under suspicion from Lois’ patrol. Even if he thought he had some revelation about the spell which his friend was suffering, returning tonight would only result in more suspicion, if not outright hostility, from their hosts. He would have to renew his efforts in the morning.
At least he had been able to maneuver around Nathan’s probing for now.
Victor had managed to fall asleep before their arrival by some miracle. It was clear by the chaotic state of the bedding, however, that his was not a restful sleep. His face twitched back and forth from fear to rage and back again, never seeming to resolve itself as though even he had no clear idea how he should feel.
Nathan shook his head in concern for the younger scout, but he had no power over dreams to be able to aid the young man in whatever internal struggle he was facing. He silently gave Balrog a friendly pat on the shoulder, and left to go to his own bed across the room. Balrog nodded to his commander, but turned to watch the boy for a few moments more. He could barely imagine the thoughts that tainted Victor’s dreams this evening.
Victor continued to toss, occasionally muttering in his sleep, raising and lowering his voice as though trapped in an argument with an unseen opponent. Finally, as his nightmares reached a fever pitch, he leapt from his bed with a strangled gasp, his hand sliding uselessly across the plain surface of the small bedside table before his momentum tipped his body over the side of the bed and sent him tumbling to the wooden floor in a heap. He was quick to rise back to his feet, eyes flashing about in panic as he searched the table desperately.
“Looking for this?” Balrog, who had taken a seat and made himself comfortable nearby, held out a short knife in a plain leather scabbard. Victor eyed him for a few moments before his face was briefly colored by anger. He turned away, coughing dryly as he tried to catch his breath, frowning and ignoring the older scout for a few moments as he walked over to where a basin of water had been provided for the use of the barracks. He removed the top in a careless gesture that almost sent it rattling to the floor, a fact which he ignored as he splashed his face with the cool water once, twice, and again. He leaned over the small tub for a few moments afterwards, chest heaving as he tried to calm himself. At least his awakening had not roused any of the others in the barracks.
“What good would the knife have done you?” Balrog asked gently.
“I dreamt I was being attacked,” the age regressed young man insisted. He wiped his face with one hand and shook it to remove the droplets of water that still clung to his skin. He turned to look at Balrog, the bitterness in his expression readily apparent to the older scout.
“You and I both know that you’re hoping to protect your fearless image,” Balrog scolded. “As it is a vain hope, I suggest you answer my question again, honestly this time.”
Victor softened a bit. Although Balrog’s tone certainly suggested a reproof, it was spoken as one man to another, and not as a man to a child as Vic had heard so often before. The fact that Balrog still knew how to treat him as a friend and not as an infant to be punished cooled the fire in his breast, and he took one more moment to settle himself before he responded again.
“You are correct, of course,” he admitted in low tones. He turned away from the basin of water, leaving its lid to the side, and sat on the edge of his bed. He glanced about the large room, glad that no one seemed to have been disturbed by his sudden waking. “I dreamt of the plague.”
“What would the knife have done to stop the plague?” the older man asked.
Victor shook his head. “I don’t know. The things I dreamed, the horrors… I couldn’t let them go on. I had to do something, anything to stop it.”
“That is why plagues are best dealt with by healers,” Balrog advised. “Against such an enemy, force of arms is nothing. Men like us have our uses during a plague, but against the plague itself we have no power. You and I are in the best position we could be in at this time. We have the opportunity to aid the healers by quelling panic without risking the malady ourselves.”
“You told me of this already,” Victor observed.
Balrog gave a crooked smile. “Sometimes repetition can help make the first telling easier to recall.”
Victor nodded, but his head remained low. He shook briefly where he sat and looked up at Balrog. There was far too much of the frightened boy in his eyes.
“I saw my family taken by the plague, Balrog, and I saw myself returning to the Keep only to find that no one even knew where to find their bodies. I said my goodbyes to the ashes of a funeral pyre, to the ashes of dozens burned to save the rest. In other nightmares I can laugh because I know that such things are ludicrous, but this dream I know can be real and it terrifies me.” He managed to avoid sobbing outright, but the tears were already running down his cheeks. He waved his hand as though he would continue, but despite the movements of his lips he could not manage to say anything more before terror stole his voice.
The two sat there for a long while, Balrog quietly giving his friend the time he needed to compose himself, and Victor doing his best to keep from crying aloud and disturbing the others who slept in the nearby bunks. Balrog did notice a few people taking notice of his hysteric companion, but a withering glare turned them away in a moment. Victor was far beyond the point of caring by then, but his companion did not believe that he deserved to be the subject of any negative attention from others. Many of the others in the barracks were likely feeling similar emotions, but had hardened themselves against the full weight of the situation through training, alcohol, or a combination of the two.
It took some time, but Victor finally calmed down enough to stem the flow of tears. He took a few more moments to make certain that they would not begin again, and then returned to the basin to wash away the marks left by the tears.
“How do you do it?” he asked, his voice weak.
“My family is far from the Keep, and even if they were not I would find it hard to wish the best for them. For my friends?” He shrugged. “I have several friends still in the Keep, yes, but last I saw them they were well. I suppose that I simply do not think that there is any sense dwelling on the worst unless the worst should come.”
Victor chuckled quietly. “I suppose that I am not gifted with quite so much apathy as you are, my friend.” He covered the basin once more and returned to the bed, slumping in exhaustion. “My family… I don’t have anything beyond them! You and the Commander, you’re friends but that’s a professional necessity, no offense to either of you. Besides patrols and training, my family is my entire life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. How I would live without them…”
“They are still there, Victor. They are still in the Keep, and they are alive,” Balrog said.
“How do you know?”
Balrog sighed and played with his beard between his fingers. “I don’t know,” he admitted quietly. “I don’t know it any more than I know that the Keep’s walls still stand. I don’t know them, but I believe that both things are true.”
Victor shook his head. “You’re beginning to sound like a Patildor,” he groused.
The older man shrugged. “It has often been said that every religion was founded on at least one indisputable truth, and the challenge lies in determining what of the rest is also truth. I suppose I would say that faith is one thing at least that they have right. It is patently impossible to live your life believing only in the things that you are able to see. At some point it is necessary to believe in something unseen.”
The young man bobbed his head in agreement, although he was clearly still doubtful. Still, he had calmed enough to change the topic of discussion. “Did you make any progress with your efforts?”
The mage shook his head. “We weren’t able to solve the problem, no.” He paused. “Do you even know what it is that we are doing?”
His younger companion chuckled and shook his head. “Commander Nathan was in too much of a hurry to tell me, and you were just trying to keep up with him. I decided it wasn’t important for me to know.”
Balrog smiled, happy to see his friend return to better state of humor. “We are trying to help a man who has had his curse returned to its full force. He is trapped in the form of an animal, and we cannot find the reason.”
Vic frowned. “I’m sorry that I cannot be any more help,” he remarked. “I have no knowledge of magic to be able to even discuss its use, though. Perhaps the best way I can help you is simply to let you get some rest. I’m certain that you need to be up early tomorrow to try again?”
Balrog nodded. “Yes, we will need to try again tomorrow morning. Are you certain that you will be all right alone?”
“No, I’m not certain,” Victor admitted. “Still, there are some things you just have to believe, right?”
The older scout chuckled and clapped a hand on the younger man’s back. “That you do. Rest well, my friend. You will see your family again soon.” He set the knife which he had taken back on the bedside table before standing and walking quietly towards his own bunk.
“Balrog?” He turned to see Victor still sitting on the edge of the bed. “Thank you for staying by me. I really needed some encouragement tonight.”
“Don’t mention it. If we can’t depend on our friends, then who can we trust?”
As Balrog walked away, Victor stayed on the edge of his bed for a few moments. Finally, after some more thought, he finally managed to lie down and find some more peaceful rest.
March 7, 708 CR
Julian was woken in the morning by an insistent tugging. At first he thought that someone was physically pulling on him, but as he slowly recovered his consciousness he recognized a distinct feeling that was slowly becoming familiar, that of his bond to Lucy being stretched to its limits.
As he expected, the young mage’s bunk was empty, and seemed to have been that way for some time. Groaning, he managed to slide off the bed that had been provided in the barracks’ common rest area. The cracks in the windows, all shut against the winter chill, still confirmed to him exactly what he suspected. The sun was still several hours from its own waking. The moondog shook his head and ran his fingers through the fur at the top of his head as though he still had human hair. How someone so young could bear to sleep so little and survive was well beyond his understanding.
It took him little time to prepare himself for the day. Years with the wizard Nasoj had drilled discipline through his skull like a well-rehearsed catechism. Whether it was to gain favor with his superiors, or to seek opportunities to assassinate the man he claimed to serve, he had always taken pains to make brutal efficiency his most noteworthy trait. He never should have bothered; it was rumored that the dark wizard never slept. Even if that claim was false, his rest was taken behind magically sealed doors, doubtlessly leading to more and more numerous and sinister traps to fell those who managed to step beyond.
He took a moment to be certain of where the bond led, but his initial guess was accurate. She had returned to the room where the ermine assassin would be kept until they discovered a way to reverse the spell that now bound him.
Or, perhaps, until they admitted that there was no solution.
He shook his head. Cynicism was too easy a trait to cultivate in the company of the Keep’s enemies. While he sometimes regretted the circumstances that had forced his abandonment of that post, he never once regretted the opportunity to live amongst friends again.
The door to the room was shut fast when he arrived, and Julian rapped on the wooden surface twice to alert Lucy to his presence. He could not detect any movement on the far end of the bond they shared, so he gently pushed the door open and slipped inside.
The room was a little chilly after the stove had been left cold for the night, but the chill was quickly being banished by the fire. Lucy had already prepared for the day, it seemed.
The mage herself was standing at the table in the center of the room. She glanced up casually to observe who was entering, but it seemed that she had already determined the answer using their mutual bond. She turned back to the cage on the table shortly, watching its small inhabitant sniffing about warily.
“I realized after last night that we forgot to find food for him yesterday,” she explained before Julian had ample opportunity to ask why she had returned at such an hour. “Thankfully I know a few things about what ermines eat, and the average Keeper’s diet is varied enough that finding something that he can safely eat was little trouble.”
Julian nodded and watched the trapped creature for a few moments. It seemed that the ermine was wary of being handed food without having to hunt for it, but he was slowly beginning to gravitate towards the food out of desperate hunger.
“Don’t treat him too much like a pet, or he might come to you expecting food even after we bring him back,” he cautioned with a touch of sarcasm.
Lucy sighed and shook her head softly. “Please, do not even joke about that,” she muttered. “I know you were not at the Keep at the time of the Curse’s original casting, but after witnessing it myself, I find it difficult to tolerate even honest jokes regarding it.”
Julian placed a paw on her shoulder to comfort her. “I am sorry for upsetting you,” he apologized.
“You couldn’t have known without living through it,” she responded in a low whisper. “The curse was meant to be the final blow to the Keep before Her defenses could even be fully brought to bear, and as such it was intended to be very, very final. Nasoj is not one of those fools who stands above his enemy and gloats as they die to give them an opportunity to kill him with their last breath. Should anyone under his command try to do such a thing, I am certain that he would impale them both with the same spear.”
“You credit him with the quality of mercy,” Julian said with some chagrin. “With what I know of him, the two would beg for something as kind as a spear before they breathed their last.”
Lucy hissed bitterly. “When the Curse struck, the effect was instant. For a few brief moments I was aware enough to be confused. Then, nothing. There was nothing but oblivion as I became an outcast in my own body, forced to lie and wail as a babe while unfathomable chaos unfolded about me. With the defenders gone, Nasoj’s horde began to overrun the walls.
“We all know the story from there; the countercurse was forged and the defenders fought back with all of their desperation and rage until the day was won. Many stories are hidden in those few words, but in the end I found myself thrust into an entirely new world.” She paused for a moment before continuing. “In the early days there were many stories about what the Curse could do, and of the limits of the countercurse were barely understood. Whispers suggested that some were never saved by the counterspell. Some said that some Keepers had left and wandered forests as mere beasts, others lost in Kyia’s halls as strangers in their own bodies, a few more weeping in nurseries… Never did I determine if there was any truth to the rumors, but with no chance of recognizing his face, it was a week until I found my father.”
Julian winced. “I am sorry to hear that. At least you did find him at the end of it all.”
Lucy nodded. “Yet there are others who were not so fortunate,” she admitted with evident sorrow. “Those who died in the battle could tell no one who they were. There are unmarked graves by the hundred to their memory, but many still do not know what became of their loved ones in those days. Some even still hope in those terrifying old rumors, thinking that perhaps their loved ones wander about the forests in ignorance of their pasts, perhaps to be awakened at the end by the return of some lost memory.”
“Could the Curse truly do that?” Julian asked.
Lucy shrugged. “The exact nature of the interplay between Curse and countercurse is unclear to me. The tangle of their weaves is so complex that I have heard it said that even the pantheon would have difficulty unbinding it. Is it possible that there are those who have remained fully Cursed? Perhaps, but I have never seen one myself.”
“Are you certain?” Julian asked. Lucy began to answer, but then followed the moondog’s eyes to the cage at the center of the table. The realization of what he was saying struck her like a boulder from the sling of a trebuchet.
“No mark of outside magic besides the Curse and countercurse, and yet he remains an animal… Could it be?” She danced about the table, shifting her vision to see the magic that bound the former assassin. She saw nothing that she had not seen on the day before, but now at last the pieces seemed to be falling into place.
She quickly refocused her vision on the physical world. “If what you suggested is the case, no amount of prodding will reveal any anomalies in the magic that binds him,” she explained. “We need to start approaching this from another angle. Do you think you can find Balrog?”
Julian nodded. “As I understood, his entire patrol is resting in the common bunking area. They should be easy to find; Balrog at least is distinctive enough to be very recognizable.”
“Go find him. I don’t know exactly how to handle this, and the more magically-inclined minds we can fit in the same room, the more informative our discussion may become.”
Julian did not wait for her to say anything more. He quickly departed from the room in search of the human mage, while Lucy began to rummage about in her pack in search of something. The moondog was correct in his conclusion; he was able to find Balrog with very little delay. The bunks in the barracks were actually quite empty with so many deployed to secure the valley during the time of the quarantine.
Balrog was quick to prepare and Nathan, woken by his companion’s stirring, was ready even before the mage under his command. Julian also notified Alex of the breakthrough, but the lynx took his time to wake up, and even as Julian left him sitting on the edge of the bed he wondered if he would simply lie back down as soon as the moondog stepped around the corner. It was not vital for Alex to accompany them for the discussion, however, so Julian did not bother to check on him again before leaving with Balrog and Nathan in tow.
They found Lucy waiting for them, a pot of tea sitting incongruously atop the wooden cage in the center of the room. She had evidently not been expecting Nathan to join them, but a fourth cup joined the three she had already prepared in moments, all filled with the same dark liquid that perfumed the air around it. Julian and Nathan took their cups with nods of gratitude, while Balrog sniffed at his skeptically before taking a sip of his own. He nodded approvingly and echoed the gratefulness of the others before he stepped back from the table to enjoy it with the others.
“I heard that you had some sort of breakthrough,” he said. “What have you found?”
Lucy explained her theory as the rest listened. Even Nathan seemed to be able to follow the discussion without much effort, and that allowed Lucy to finish her explanations very quickly. Balrog took one more sip of his tea after she finished, thinking through all that she had proposed.
“It does sound possible,” he decided. “To be honest, however, I had always thought that the stories of people remaining in their fully Cursed forms after the countercurse had been cast were no more than legends. The nature of the interplay between the two spells would tend to favor the hybrid forms that we all wear.”
Lucy conceded his point with a nod and a wave of her hand. “That may be true, yet all of us may adopt the forms that the Curse originally forced upon us with little more than a simple exercise of will. Perhaps the magic cast two nights ago forced him into the form of an animal, and with no similar exercise of will he has remained in that state.”
Balrog nodded and twisted his beard over and around his thick fingers. “It seems almost probable,” he stated. “It is so far the only theory I have heard that accounts for the lack of magical influence with more than a wave of the hand. The question that remains unanswered, then, is why his mind was not returned to him. I think we can agree that this is the case?”
Lucy nodded. “I have seen many Keepers take on the forms of animals for training exercises or purposes of utility, and the difference between these people and a person whose mind is completely lost becomes clear after only brief observation.”
Balrog nodded. “I have noticed the same in my own observations. If there is no magic beyond what encompasses every other Keeper’s form affecting him now, then why has his mind not returned?”
There were several moments of silence before someone spoke. It was Julian who finally did break the silence. “I do not mean to be pessimistic about our chances, but perhaps his mind is utterly overcome. Perhaps there is nothing left.”
“Is that even possible?” Nathan asked, looking about the room. “Wouldn’t there have been signs before a man’s mind simply collapsed?”
“One would expect, yes,” Balrog admitted. “Still, with so little certainty about anything, we have to consider any reasonable possibility. Perhaps…” He sighed, rubbing his forehead to stall for a few moments. “Perhaps destroying Lois’ mind was the intention of the spell. If Nasoj or his allies could perfect such a spell, he could quickly and totally defeat Metamor without even needing an army.”
“No, that can’t be it,” Lucy insisted. “That, at least, we can confirm. Although Lois was the only one to show long-term effect from the spell, all of us felt the magic. Whatever was cast that night, it had a wide enough area of effect that it should have done the same thing to all of us.”
“You failed to mention that before,” Balrog noted. He sighed and paced about the table, venturing closer to the stove that heated the chamber while keeping his eyes on Lois. “That complicates matters even more, but I would say that it makes your original theory even more likely.”
“That is what I was thinking as well,” Lucy agreed. “If some people affected by the original Curse did not take their hybrid forms, it would parallel the effects of this spell among our patrol.”
“If this theory is correct, is there anything we can do to save him?” Julian asked. “Lucy, did you ever hear what became of the Keepers you mentioned after the Curse?”
The small mage shook her head with resignation. “Honestly, I have not even thought of the stories much since I found out that my father was safe,” she admitted. “I never thought they would be important.”
Silence fell over the room as everyone present attempted to think of a way to apply their new theory. A few moments after it had begun, the silence was broken by the sound of knocking on the chamber’s door. The lynx on the other side did little more than grunt to Julian as the moondog opened the door, and took the cup of tea he was offered by Lucy with barely a look, downing most of it in one gulp before wincing at the amount of unsweetened spice in the flavor. Lucy chuckled quietly.
“Rough night?” she asked.
Her commander regarded her with an exhausted glare. “Why should it be easier to sleep in a bed of leaves on the forest floor than in an actual bed?” he asked. His tone was mournful, but was clearly meant in a very sarcastic way. “At least I’m up now. I’ll be more talkative once my brain joins my body in wakefulness.”
He was filled in on the speculation that had circulated about the room during his absence, and he listened while taking his time to finish off what remained of the tea in his paw. He nodded in quiet thought as they regaled him with their theories, finishing his cup of tea just as Lucy finished her explanation. He scratched at the fur on his chin for a moment before speaking.
“So, if he was forced into the form of an animal and has lacked the ability to change back, but was not magically prevented from it, could he not be similarly forced into his hybrid form?”
Everyone in the room fixed him with an incredulous look. Alex noticed after a few moments, glancing like a trapped deer at an assembled pack of wolves. “What? I know I’m barely conscious at the moment, but if our enemy can force Keepers into their most Cursed forms by means of magic, why could the process not simply be reversed?”
“That actually makes some sense,” Lucy admitted.
“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” Alex griped, playing with the small cup between his claws. “I may not know how to cast magic, but I’m intelligent enough to make logical connections.”
Julian chuckled and shook his head. “Is that even possible? I mean, it makes sense, but I’ve never heard of it being done, or even attempted.”
“I don’t think it ever has been attempted,” Lucy confirmed. “It would be of barely any use to our enemies, and the only people in Metamor I can see using it would be a prankster here or there, and I doubt any common urchin would have the magical experience to even consider the attempt.” She paced around the room a bit in deep thought. Lois, still trapped in his cage, watched her go, likely hoping that she would provide him with something more to eat before long. “If we did attempt it, it could return him to his hybrid form, but what of his mind?”
Balrog finally spoke up. “Well, our theory so far is that his mind was somehow weakened by the original spell. Perhaps, trapped in the form of an animal, it is simply more natural for him to think as an animal?”
“I can confirm that from experience,” Alex replied. “While not to such an extent as Lois is experiencing, I can certainly say that instincts and animalistic actions are far more natural when I take on my feral form. I don’t know if it is related at all, but I cannot see a change of perspective as a negative influence.”
“The question now is whether the attempt could harm him.” Nathan, who had been standing by the wall of the room listening in silence for quite some time, added his thoughts to the discussion.
“No,” Lucy argued with a shake of her head. “The question is not whether the attempt could harm him; the question is whether it would harm him more than remaining as he is. With so little understanding of the spell that was used against him, I can only assume that the longer he spends as an animal, the less likely it is that he will be able to return to normal. If no one objects, I say that we should make an attempt as soon as possible.”
Nathan scoffed incredulously. “You admitted mere moments ago that you do not even know if such a casting is possible. How can you go from that admission to recklessly creating a spell from scratch within seconds?”
Lucy’s confident expression soured as the wolf objected. “Just because I have never heard of the spell being used before does not mean that I do not understand the theory behind the Curse well enough to conceptualize such a spell with little trouble. You seem rather intent on preventing any possible aid to Lois very suddenly. If I didn’t trust you, I would suspect that you stand to lose something from the reversal of this spell?”
The wolf snarled at her implication. Despite the clear difference in size and the advantage of strength heavily leaning towards the wolf, Lucy stood her ground. The others in the room seemed frozen, waiting breathlessly for the two of them to make their moves. Although the moments stretched uncomfortably long, Balrog finally stepped between the two hostile Keepers.
“We gain nothing from this argument,” he barked, staring at the wolf particularly. “We need to take action, or Lois could be lost for more than a few days. I will not allow that!”
Nathan cooled slightly, but made no move to apologize. Instead, he spoke tersely to Balrog. “We need to discuss these matters privately,” he said in a growl. Without waiting for his friend to acknowledge his words he turned and stalked through the door.
Balrog sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I am sorry,” he said, turning to the rest of the company in the room. “I do not know what he is thinking, but I assure you he means only the best. I will go see if I can determine why he is so agitated this morning. Hopefully the matter can be resolved quickly.”
As the human stepped through the door to follow the wolf, the three remaining people in the room looked towards each other.
“Should we follow him?” Julian asked.
Alex hesitated, but slowly shook his head. “I believe you two have a casting to prepare? I suggest you begin, and leave the tension to the men who actually know one another.”
Nathan was waiting a length of the hallway away from the door when Balrog emerged, shaking his head in clear disagreement with his commander’s antics. The wolf scowled in return, but softened a bit. Having time to think about what had happened was clearly wearing through his resolve.
“What are you thinking, Nathan?” the mage asked, rapidly closing the distance to his commander. “We need to help Lois as quickly as possible. If the magic already has a foothold in his mind then there is no telling how long we have until he is beyond our help. There are risks, but some risks must be taken.”
“I do not argue that, I am trying to protect you. I do not need to know much about magic to realize that this spell you are discussing would require a lot of power.” He waited to let his point drift home, his tail sliding against the stones of the adjacent wall. “I know that you cannot cast powerful spells while maintaining your illusions. There is enough tension in that room without you revealing your secret.”
“With all due respect, everything was rather calm until you had your outburst, sir.” The use of the title was as much for shock value as for actual respect. Although their respective ranks entitled Nathan to some amount of respect, Nathan had never insisted on any sort of title and Balrog never used one. “I do appreciate the concern, but you have already revealed your own secret. To insist on keeping my own out of fear would be selfish.”
Shaking his head, the wolf nevertheless conceded the point. “All right,” he muttered. “I do not think it wise, but I know you well enough to realize that convincing you to abandon this folly is beyond hope. Rest assured, I will be prepared to intervene should things get out of control.”
“Don’t,” Balrog insisted. “There may be shock, and weapons may be drawn, but I believe that these people are level-headed enough to keep their cool long enough to hear an explanation before decapitating me.”
Nathan chuckled at the darkly humorous exaggeration, leaning his head back against the wall and pointing his muzzle towards the ceiling. “You had best hope that your theory is correct,” he commented. “I don’t think I need to tell you that any one of them could easily kill you.”
“You assume that I would reveal myself without immediately erecting the strongest defensive spells I know,” he quipped, giving a sly wink. “A simple steelskin spell will at least slow a hasty blade.”
For the first time in their conversation the black wolf gave a genuine smile and a wag of his tail. “I worry far too much about you, it seems,” he admitted.
“As one friend to another, I would not have it any other way.” Balrog gave Nathan a playful punch to the shoulder. “Just don’t go stirring up unnecessary drama in the future. Remember, it’s more likely that I’ll save your life in a fight than the opposite.”
“You save me, old man?” Nathan scoffed, giving an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “I’ll remind you of that after I’m finished prying Lucy off your face in five minutes.”
Balrog chuckled and turned back towards the closed door to the meeting chamber. “Come on; if you’re going to be rescuing me from militant children in a few moments we had best start by provoking their ire.”
Nathan followed dutifully behind his friend, his amused smile momentarily disguising his concern. He hoped that Balrog was right, but he would not be caught off guard if the opposite proved true. He briefly held the grip of one of his weapons, feeling the familiar texture of the decoratively carved wood, but released it after only a moment. He would honor Balrog’s request unless the situation truly spun out of control.
The return of the two companions from the hallway found the remaining Keepers already deep into the task of discussing the appropriate spell for their use. Balrog entered first, but all eyes were on the wolf behind him as the two of them entered.
“I want to apologize for my outburst,” he apologized. “I merely wish to advise caution as we proceed. The last thing we need is for a spell to go wrong and create even more serious problems. If you feel prepared to proceed, I will defer to your better judgment.”
“In matters of magic, it is often wiser to defer to the mages,” Lucy snarked in reply. Immediately growing more serious, she nodded to the wolf. “I appreciate the apology. I suppose it is as likely my fault as anyone else’s. If I hadn’t come here so early this morning we could all have enjoyed a little more sleep and avoided such tension.”
A few nervous chuckles were the only response to her suggestion, but it still represented significant progress towards deflating the tension in the room. Balrog stepped forward.
“What have you decided so far?” he asked, making an effort to quickly change the subject.
“The spell itself I can create on my own with little problem, but actually casting it may be another issue,” Lucy replied. “Any way I think about it, I cannot see any manner in which it would not require a massive investment of power. While a fetish stone simply completes what the Curse already started, our efforts would be attempting to fight against the Curse. While I suppose that the countercurse might help a little bit, we still have to contend with the fact that Lois is evidently not doing anything to aid our efforts.”
Balrog nodded his understanding while looking about the room. “I suppose that our efforts would be aided by an enchantment of some sort?”
Lucy nodded. “For safety if nothing else,” she confirmed. “I should be able to draw the lines myself, but it may take quite some time. I don’t suppose either of you would be able to help in such an effort?”
Julian shook his head as he responded, “No. I am a battlemage, nothing more. While I could perhaps sketch some rudimentary enchantments for myself, I hardly feel that I would supply any help to anything of this scale.”
“Fortunately, I do have experience with enchantments,” Balrog replied. “As a matter of fact…”
His hesitation was more than enough to tell Nathan what was coming. He stretched as he felt the nervous tension trying to lock up his neck. While he had promised Balrog that he would not intervene unless it was vital, he still made a point to put himself in an advantageous position. If things did snowball out of control, he did not want to be caught out of position.
The hesitation also drew the eyes of everyone in the room, which was likely Balrog’s intention. He was clearly feeling a good deal of nervousness as well, but as a man who was so often faced with the need to diffuse situations gracefully he nevertheless remained composed.
“There is one thing I have told very few people which I feel should be revealed to you now so that it does not cause problems later. Nathan already knows this, but this is a secret that I have trusted only to a select few people who I would call friends.” He walked a few steps so that he stood at the center of the room. “I will warn you in advance that this revelation can be shocking, so I hope you will respect my trust in you by controlling your reactions.”
Before anyone could question him, he made a single gesture and cut the flow of magic that constantly fed the illusions around his body. While a few of the scars that marked the skin through his illusions still marred the true off-green hue of his skin, quite a few of them morphed and coalesced into a miasma of interconnected runes that ran the length of each arm, around the back of his neck up onto the dome of his bald head, where the lines joined to into a single, intricate sigil on his forehead. As the magic left them, the runes died from a radiant blue glow to show that all of them had been sketched by a knife, the scars arranged with remarkable precision across his skin.
To those watching the important change was that the human man that had been working with them for more than a day changed utterly, showing that beneath an expertly woven illusion stood a lutin. Lutins were hardly an uncommon sight for them, but this was the first time in many years that Alex and Lucy had met a lutin that was not actively trying to kill them.
To their credit, Julian was the only one whose blade emerged from his scabbard with a harsh whisper of steel against leather. While Nathan immediately placed himself between the moondog and the lutin, it was Alex who halted his companion’s actions.
“Julian, stay your blade!” The moondog leveled a glare at him.
“He’s a lutin, he’s the enemy!” He remained rooted where he stood, however, and made no move towards the lutin.
“He is a friend. He has neither threatened us nor made a move to attack, and he revealed himself of his own will. Stand down!”
“What of the war, sir?” Julian hissed.
“Our war is against Nasoj and his scum, not lutins,” Alex replied. He took a breath to calm himself before continuing. “I realize that you have missed some recent events due to your recent escape from the North, but Metamor has begun to foster alliances with the lutins. Times are changing; you cannot simply attack any lutin who may cross your path.”
“Thank you for your vote of confidence, sir,” Balrog said, nodding to the lynx. It was clear in a moment that his voice had not been modified by illusion at all. The gruffness was still there, but so was the impeccable, if accented, delivery of Common speech. He took a deep breath and played with his beard, another part of the illusion that proved genuine. “To tell the truth, I have been living among your people for far longer than the peace accords. I am nearing my twentieth year of living among humans, and I have never regretted it.”
Lucy approached him slowly, her focus solely on the enchantment that the lutin had sketched into his own flesh. Balrog permitted her inspection, even helped her by showing her the marks on his arms.
“These are scars,” she said. She looked appalled. “Did you do this yourself?”
The lutin nodded. “All shamans of my tribe are heavily tattooed in this fashion, and it is considered a mark of weakness to allow another man to mark your skin for you. The process took me three days. My predecessors have attempted to do it in one night before, but many are the stories of those who died in the attempt, or were driven mad by the pain.” He smirked. “Also, few are those who have attempted to weave an enchantment over their own bodies as they worked.”
Lucy shook her head. “How? I mean, your arms perhaps I can understand, but your neck? Your head?”
Balrog winced. “That was another reason for the length of the effort. I was forced to use magic to sketch those lines. To do so without wavering while using magic and in pain was hardly a simple matter. As you can see, however, I was successful.”
Lucy crossed her arms and shook her head as she marveled at the complexity of the enchantment. “Well, you can say whatever you will about him, but whether he’s a man, a lutin, or a giant, I would kill for a hand that steady.”
She got an uneasy chuckle from most in the room. Even Julian finally relaxed enough to slide his blade back home in its sheath, although he did so with clear hesitation. Still, Balrog nodded to him gratefully, a nod which was returned with honesty despite Julian’s hesitance.
Nathan continued laughing for a few moments after the others had stopped. “Well, I was expecting quite a bit more trouble than that,” he admitted as he made a clear show of removing his paws from his weapons. “I will admit that I was quite a bit more difficult to reason with at first than any of you, Julian included. Of course, the Keep had not yet been making open alliances with the tribes, but that is another matter.”
A few more chuckles responded to this admission, and there was at last some semblance of peace in the room once more. There was still a great deal of uncertainty, understandably more than before the revelation, but it was nothing that could not be worked through. Considering the difficulty of the effort that awaited them, however, all could not help but fear that peace would not last.
“Shall we begin?” Balrog suggested. “As has been said already, the longer we wait, the riskier this business becomes.”
Lucy nodded. “Yes, you’re right. We’ll need most of the floor area for this; Julian and Nathan, if you would be so kind as to move Lois and the table to one side? I need to discuss the enchantment with Balrog.”
Julian kept an uncertain gaze on Balrog for a few moments before nodding and collecting the cage containing the ermine. He set it onto a nearby chair, and returned to aid Nathan as he lifted the table and shifted it to one of the walls.
Lucy and Balrog stayed to one side, the young girl quietly discussing her idea for what sort of enchantment they would need as her companion listened. The lutin stood beside her, quietly considering her ideas as she spoke. Alex watched them, clearly impressed by the lack of hesitation shown by his party’s mage. She stood beside the lutin as though he had never lowered his illusion, speaking with him on thoroughly civil terms. While the lynx had spoken up on Balrog’s behalf a few moments ago, he still had no doubt that conversing with him in such close quarters would still be difficult.
Balrog was hardly a bystander in the conversation either. Every few moments he held up a hand to forestall her speech and suggested an alternative. Although he could not understand their discussion, Alex could read Lucy’s body language well enough to see that the lutin’s suggestions had much merit of their own.
Nathan and Julian remained by the table once they had finished moving it, the ermine in the cage to their side watching them in confusion. They stood in silence, Julian eyeing the lutin still, and Nathan glancing around the room with no certain focus. Alex caught Julian’s attention and stepped towards the door, away from the prying eyes and ears of the rest of the room. There was no need to take the trouble to be secretive, however; Julian again raised a shield against eavesdropping as he joined his commander.
“You surprised me,” Julian admitted as he faced the lynx. “I did not realize that your trust extended to lutins as well as strangers.”
Alex absorbed his newest companion’s quiet criticism without reaction. He would dictate the direction of the conversation. “I know that you are used to Nasoj owning the allegiance of every lutin in the North, but that rank is nothing but pretension at this juncture. Many things are changing; surely you must know the extent of Nasoj’s weakness more than most.”
“Only the man’s allies are weak,” the moondog cautioned severely. “The man himself has lost none of his considerable power. I tell you, some may run from him now in fear of another failed engagement, but at the first word of a battle cry from the north they will turn back as quickly as they did at the first. The fear he commands is the truly dangerous thing about Nasoj, and the man is more than aware of it. He will allow you to seek out allies among his subjects without comments, because trusting them will make you hesitate to cut them down when they rally back to his banner.”
The conviction behind the moondog’s words shook Alex’s confidence slightly, but he was acquainted with the responsibility of command, and knew that he could not show it. He stood his ground, intentionally waiting to give Julian some time to calm himself. The moondog tried to maintain eye contact, but he glanced away after a few moments of heavy silence. He shifted uncomfortably where he stood, putting his paws on his hips.
“I believe you are earnest in your concern,” Alex assured him. “You know far better than I do the strength of our enemy. Although that may be true, however, I trust these men. If they wished to harm Lois, they could have done so at any time over the last day. They have provided real help in your investigation. Now, Balrog reveals this secret, which he knows could mean his death, without being prompted or suspected of anything.”
“He might have been concerned that the attempt to save Lois would have put him under scrutiny. It could all be a gambit to keep our trust.”
“You do not think I have considered that?” Alex asked pointedly. “I have decided to trust them for a variety of reasons, but not the least of those is that I trust you and Lucy to make quick, decisive decisions should a threat present itself.”
“That is why I drew my blade,” Julian insisted.
“I never criticized you for that,” Alex pointed out. “I merely took the time to assess the situation myself and decided that he was not threatening us. You have done exactly what I wanted you to do so far, but there is danger in remaining so clearly suspicious of him.”
Julian snorted and shook his head slowly, but his downcast eyes were focused beyond the floor as he considered. “You want me to make him feel comfortable,” he mused to himself.
“Exactly,” Alex replied. “I am aware of the possibility of danger here, but I am also aware that Lucy knows what she is doing. Many hands make light work; even if he does intend some trickery, Lucy will be able to see it coming. Until such an attempt is made, I trust her to make use of a second enchanter to accelerate the process.”
Julian allowed himself a thin smile. “You’re harder to read than I expected,” he admitted.
“This is not my first crisis,” Alex pointed out. “Be careful, but don’t be obvious about it. For now, strike up a conversation with Nathan. Talk to him about anything, but keep his focus on you. If something happens, I will need you to fight him on your own. As Balrog can sustain a powerful illusion for an extended period, I would be helping Lucy if he tries something.”
Julian nodded. “Does Lucy know what you are planning?” he asked.
“I haven’t told her about it specifically, but I trust that she knows to be careful. I may not have worked with her for very long, but I know that it is dangerous to be on the receiving side of her ire.”
“Very well,” Julian muttered. “I will go to my assignment. I do not know how comfortable I can seem alongside a lutin, but I will do my utmost to be convincing.”
“Good. If all goes well, perhaps we can teach you that not all lutins are out for your blood.”
The two men ended their meeting, and returned to the room. Nathan was now sitting on the chair where Lois had been placed earlier, having moved the cage to sit on the table once more. He looked up as Julian approached, giving a small smile to acknowledge his presence.
Alex took up his post beside the door. With an undisguised lutin standing in their midst, he didn’t want any visitors to enter unannounced. Balrog himself had moved to the center of the room alongside Lucy, both holding a small rod of chalk in their hands. Lucy had already sketched the central circle, and was instructing Balrog as to the pattern of curves the man’s hand would need to trace to join their halves into a working whole. The discussion was brief, and soon the two were meticulously fashioning the enchantment with careful hands. Alex stretched. Hopefully, the process would not take terribly long.
Several hours passed by as the pair of mages created their chalk masterpiece. Alex marveled as the two started half the room apart at some point, and their lines constantly joined perfectly when they reached the center, never wavering even by a hair. Although he had originally been impatient for them to finish, the fascinating detail that their work required kept him mesmerized, and the noon hour came and went without him even noticing the first pangs of hunger. They finished perhaps an hour later, although they both stepped carefully in and out of their design for several more minutes, making certain that no line was out of place. Finally, they both agreed that it was finished, and they stepped outside the lines to rest for a moment.
“When do you think you will make the attempt?” Alex asked.
“I could use a few moments of rest, but I should be prepared soon,” Lucy opined. She did not seem agitated at the question; she simply answered honestly.
Balrog nodded his agreement. “I do not believe that either of us is incapable of working the magic immediately, but some brief respite would certainly help alleviate the cramps from the past few hours.” The two mages shared a quiet chuckle at his words, and Alex shook his head. He was amazed that the two of them could even walk straight after spending so long in various uncomfortable positions during the process.
Julian was still managing to keep up a slow conversation with Nathan, though it had been quite a while since it had been very active. Now that the mages had finished their work, however, the two canines were more interested in the discussion taking place near the door than they were in each other’s words. They both stood and made their way over, being careful to walk around the border of the linework rather than crossing through it.
“Should we recess for food before we attempt the casting,” Nathan suggested.
Alex turned to the mages to see both of them shaking their heads. Lucy acted as their spokeswoman.
“Time is of the essence,” she declared. “While I am certain that neither of us would mind a bite to eat, I think that we should be able to cast the spell safely before we leave for the noonday meal. I would rather see this done now. I am unwilling to let food be the reason our efforts fail.”
Balrog nodded his agreement wordlessly. With neither of them expecting to be extremely involved in the process, neither Nathan nor Julian expressed their opinions. If the mages were prepared for the attempt, then none of the remaining trio would argue with their decision.
“Actually,” Balrog said, testing the flexibility in his joints, “I believe that I am ready to begin whenever you are.” He looked to Lucy, and she nodded.
“Yes. I’ve caught my breath at least,” she confirmed. “I will get Lois; Balrog, make one last pass to be certain that there is no debris on the floor that might interfere. The rest of you…” She hesitated. “I would actually recommend that you leave the room if at all possible.”
Alex winced. “I would prefer to be here, just in case something goes wrong.”
“That is precisely why I would prefer you leave the room,” Lucy replied. “This is the Curse we are fighting. Only rarely do things go as planned when mages play with its threads. While mages may be able to take precautions, we cannot focus on our own safety as well as yours.
Alex hesitated. He glanced over to Julian, and the moondog waved his paw towards the door. The lynx nodded, and he gestured for Nathan to follow them as they went to the door. The wolf made no protest, and the three of them, cracking the door only a little bit to keep from revealing Balrog, slipped out into the hall and left the mages to their work.
With a deep breath, Lucy smiled to Balrog and then moved to retrieve the cage from the table in the corner. The room was beginning to gain a subtle chill, as the scrawl that occupied the center of the room had kept anyone from refueling the fire. It had kept the room’s temperature up for quite a while, but the embers were finally dying. It would be bearable for quite a while, thankfully, and if all went well they would be finished long before they became desperate for a coat.
Lucy took the cage and stepped lightly towards the center of the room, avoiding even the tightest of weaves with precise steps and a masterful eye for detail. As she reached the center she opened the cage and released the ermine into the innermost circle. After being trapped for so long, the creature quickly jumped at the opportunity to leave the wooden bars, only to find himself restrained within the bounds of the chalk circle. He made his displeasure extraordinarily clear to the mages who had fashioned this new prison, but any attempts to resist were turned away until the weasel stopped his escape attempts and stood watching the larger creatures at work.
Balrog had finished his inspection well before Lucy returned to the border of the enchantment. The lutin stood with his arms crossed, watching as the young mage carefully placed the cage against a wall. She looked at the weaves that they had built, and at the ermine they would be working to restore. She knew what had to be done; it was the task of doing it that intimidated her.
“Shall we begin?” Balrog asked.
Lucy nodded. “Follow my lead,” she said.
She stepped into another circle of chalk that had been sketched on the floor’s surface. She was not trapped as the ermine was in his own circle, but the two arcs had similar properties to protect against unwanted magic. Balrog walked calmly to the opposite side, stepping into a third shape that was identical in form and function to Lucy’s own.
Once the lutin had set his feet and taken a deep breath, the girl mage raised her hands before her and began to slowly feed magic into the spell. The lines of chalk began to glow with their own light from her side, and the same light crept towards the center from where Balrog was standing. The feral animal in the center watched this in confusion, making quiet sounds as it watched the enchantment begin its work. Only when he began to rise up into the air at the command of an unseen force did he react, and that was only a brief panic. The magic soon pacified him, and he hung unmoving before the mages on either side.
“All right, let’s take a look at that Curse.”
Lucy allowed her vision to turn to things unseen, and she began to see the strands of magic that surrounded Lois before her. Unlike her inspections over the previous day, however, she now saw the lines in much greater detail, enlarged and projected before her as a function of the enchantment that Balrog had helped her draw.
“We must be careful,” she cautioned. “Make no attempt to change the Curse. I will show you where we need to work.”
Indeed, rather than attempting to untangle the hopeless knot that was the spell known as Metamor’s Curse, the two mages needed to move the threads of magic in ways that were already possible within the parameters of that Curse. Lucy carefully waved her fingers in the air before her, slowly finding the avenue they would be using. Once she found it, she used the enchantment to make the location clear to Balrog.
“There.” A clear blue aura shone between several threads of magic, centered around one particular cord that was only barely distinct from its many nearby brothers. After a few moments of hesitation, another glow appeared near her point of focus, its green color distinguishing it as the lutin’s work.
Lucy waited, making absolutely certain that the lutin was in the right place. She needn’t have doubted his precision, as he had flawlessly picked out the strand despite the sea of others in its area. With a small effort of magic, Lucy willed the enchantment to magnify the area a little more.
“Very good. All right, here is what we have to do.” She slowly and carefully described the process they were about to attempt. While, as she had said before, she did not think that the spell had been attempted before, she was nearly certain that it came down to little more than moving a door on its hinges. The interplay between the Curse and the countercurse was such that this was already possible within the bounds of their magic.
The only problem was that, with Lois’ will set against their progress, she anticipated that it would be more like forcing a locked and barred door whose hinges had been fused by a blast of heat, and less like turning a knob and pushing a door open.
Balrog listened to her description of the attempt silently, neither seeming neither confused nor indicating understanding until she had concluded her explanation. As she finished however, she heard him take a deep breath.
“I understand. I am ready to begin when you are,” he said.
“Very well. Do what I do, and be careful not to touch anything apart from the strands I mentioned.” Lucy took a deep breath. She did not worry about her own safety; both of them were putting enough power into the enchantment that the safeties would have no trouble turning back almost any backlash. She worried most about would happen to Lois if their efforts failed. She steeled herself; she was not about to let that happen.
With a rapid burst of motion, Lucy focused all of the power at her command into shifting Lois’ form. Less than a second after she had started, Balrog drove his own will into the same effort as both mages braced for the resistance that they would meet.
The analogy of the door seemed even more apt than she had expected in the next moment. That is, if that door had been made of tissue that had been soaked for hours in alcohol and then set aflame before two bulls charged through it. The startling lack of resistance that met their efforts sent Lucy physically stumbling from the exaggerated gesture she had used to direct the magic. Her foot scuffed through one of the chalk lines, thoroughly breaking it, and the enchantment collapsed.
In the center of the circle, a humanoid ermine also collapsed where an animal had been hovering a moment before. The reaction to the magic was so instantaneous that even Balrog, who managed to keep his focus on the ermine throughout, failed to notice any transition. One moment Lois was an animal, the next he had returned to his most humanoid form.
“Lois!” the lutin yelled, suddenly feeling very relieved.
The ermine, clad only in his fur, jerked as soon as he struck the floor. He had thankfully been only a few inches from the ground, but the fall was jarring nonetheless. The white-furred man looked around in a hasty circle, giving Balrog only a glimpse of his panicked eyes before he jumped up to four paws.
“No!” The ermine slammed into the off-balance girl that separated him from the door, thankfully on pushing her aside as he passed. He slammed bodily into the portal, seeming to completely forget how doors were operated in the heat of the moment. The wood of the door stood solid against his lunge, however, and he turned, wild-eyed, to stare at the lutin who rapidly closed on him.
“Let me go! Monsters!” He dove straight at Balrog’s gut. The lutin absorbed the ermine’s momentum, using his position to lock his friend’s head in a secure, but harmless lock. He dropped to one knee, intent on letting the confused man tire himself out before he finally released him.
Lucy groggily rolled up onto her side and shook her head to clear it, looking up to see Balrog holding Lois in a headlock. She climbed back to her feet and scrambled over to kneel beside Lois.
“It’s all right, calm down!” she shouted.
“You can’t make me one of you!” he replied deliriously. He drove a stinging jab into Balrog’s shoulder, but the stout man took it in stride and simply trapped his arm before a second strike could follow. Lucy grimaced, but she allowed a spell to take form in her right hand and touched Lois with it gently. He quickly stopped struggling and relaxed, the spell literally taking all the fight out of him.
A moment later, the door burst open. Julian took the lead, and he took only a moment to survey the scene before acting. He threw his open palm towards Balrog, knocking the lutin sprawling onto his back and forcing him to release his grip on Lois. Before he could continue, Lucy met him halfway.
“Don’t hurt him!” she demanded. When he attempted to elbow past her and continue his onslaught, the girl caught his arm and kicked his knee out from under him in a surprising display of speed and dexterity. Julian even lost his grip on his freshly-drawn blade in shock from her attack, and the fallen moondog prevented the two men following him from entering and acting too hastily themselves.
A few moments later, Lois’ unconscious form had been set back on the table, a loose robe appropriated from the barracks for his use. Julian stood rubbing his shoulder in discomfort, while the rest of the group discussed what had happened.
“It seems that our theory was perhaps even truer than we had originally anticipated,” Lucy explained. “There was nothing holding him in feral form, not a single thing. I thought he would at least be willing himself to remain an ermine, but I doubt even that was true. There was no resistance to the shift, not even from the Curse itself.”
“What happened afterwards?” Julian asked.
“I am not certain,” Lucy admitted. “Lois was agitated for some reason. He seemed to think that we were attempting to hold him prisoner.” She ran a hand through her hair as she tried to decipher the events. “He was yelling at us, saying that we wouldn’t ‘turn him into one of us.’”
“Maybe he doesn’t even remember that he is Cursed,” Alex suggested.
“I do not know how that is possible, but then again I am also still trying to figure out exactly why he was still an animal for nearly two days,” Lucy admitted ruefully.
“One thing seems certain at least; he no longer thinks that he is an ermine,” Balrog noted. Although the moondog Keeper’s spell had knocked him flat on his back, he remained unharmed. Julian had thankfully been attempting to protect Lois while knocking back his perceived attacker. The lutin had recreated his illusion from before, and now stood seeming more human than any of them but Lucy. “While confusing, his actions after our spell succeeded were clearly taken by a man, not an animal.”
Alex smiled. “At least that is good news. Perhaps he was merely confused by the sudden change.”
“That is a certain possibility,” Lucy confirmed.
“So, what do we do with him now?” Julian asked.
“First, I’d say he deserves a more comfortable place to rest,” Lucy suggested. “It would also be wise to keep him under guard in case he becomes violent again. Balrog seems more than capable in that regard.”
“While I certainly appreciate his help, I think I would be more comfortable leaving him under the charge of one of our patrolmen,” Alex said. “As much as anything, I simply feel that seeing a familiar face when he awakes may do him some good.”
Balrog started to protest that Lois would know his face, but he was forced to admit even to himself that they had met perhaps twice in the last ten years. While Lois was new to Metamor, his patrol would still be more familiar to him now than the lutin would.
“Lucy would be the most logical candidate, in that case,” Balrog conceded. “She can use magic to restrain him if he attacks.”
Alex nodded. “Unless you have any objection to the idea?” Lucy shook her head to his question, and her commander continued. “Very well, then. Nathan, could you go see if the barracks has any private rooms available? If not, see if there is a cushion that can lend us at least. I don’t want Lois to wake up still thinking he’s a prisoner somewhere.”
While their ranks were effectively identical, the black wolf had no argument against the lynx’s suggestion. He nodded and pushed through the door with no hesitation. The others set to cleaning the remnants of the mages’ efforts. There was some comfort knowing that they had solved their most immediate problem, but concern remained. Lois was no longer trapped, but no one could tell if his recovery was complete. They all worried what else they might have to unravel before their task was truly accomplished.
Link 3: Ignorance
A man opened his eyes to the familiar sight of a grey stone ceiling, dimly lit by a faint, flickering glow. Panic gripped him for a moment, causing him to bolt upright in the bed. As quickly as it had taken him, however, the panic faded. He remained cautious, but he could not divine the cause of his initial terror.
Now that he was sitting up in the bed, he could see that he was in a small, simply furnished room. He was sitting on a bed against the wall furthest from the chamber’s only door. The cushion he was resting on was kept off the floor on a stout wooden frame, not particularly tall but high enough for the bed’s occupant to reach anything atop the adjacent table.
On the table itself was a single guttering candle that provided the room’s only illumination. There was a small pack sitting behind the candlestick, likely belonging to the girl in the chair at the foot of his bed. She seemed to have been asleep until recently, and she looked at him only a moment before he first noticed her.
His ear twitched at her voice. It took him a moment before he realized that she was talking to him.
“Lois…” The sound of his voice seemed odd, like his tongue and teeth would not cooperate the way he was used to. In fact, as he felt about the inside of his mouth, he realized that everything felt wrong. First, there was far more space in his mouth than should have been possible, second, and more alarming to him, his teeth were all sharp and predatory.
The panic returned in a moment as he raised his hands before his face, finding that they were now covered by white fur on the backs and strange black pads on his palms and fingers. Those fingers were shorter than he remembered, certainly capable of grasping and manipulating objects but still significantly reduced in their flexibility. His left palm featured a tangle of ugly scars whose source he could not recall.
In blind terror, the man threw himself off the bed, unable to view the extent of the unexpected changes due to the robe that hung to the floor as he stood. He looked about the room, hoping in vain to find a mirror.
“What’s wrong?” the girl asked. She stood quickly and walked beside him, trying to make eye contact even as he glanced around erratically.
“What happened to me?” he asked. His voice still seemed odd, but at least the foreign feelings did not keep him from being able to speak intelligibly.
“A lutin shaman cast a spell on you to increase the effects of the Curse. It took us two days to discover how to change you back. Are you all right?”
The ermine turned to face her finally, gasping for breath in his desperation. Seeing her face, however, he came up short. There was a moment of confusion, and then a flash of recognition lit the man’s face.
“Lucy,” he said simply. “Lucy, you’re a mage! Tell me, why am I some sort of animal?”
This plea brought the girl up short. She looked at him incredulously for a moment, but a realization slowly dawned in her eyes.
“You don’t remember?”
The ermine shook his head, his eyes pleading with her to explain his unexpected change of form. He continued to watch her, even as she stepped back and walked a small semicircle back around the room, silently trying to explain the happening to herself.
“What is the last thing you recall?” she asked slowly. It was beginning to dawn on her that the man they had rescued was an assassin. If he had forgotten enough to be terrified to find himself turned into an ermine, could that mean that he had likewise forgotten his decision to give up his former employment?
The ermine tried to recall, looking about as if the walls could present the answer he sought. His eyes darted about for a few moments, until he finally shook his head in frustration.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, returning his gaze to the mage standing before him. “I remember, people, places… I remember events, but I cannot remember if I was ever there or if I simply heard of them from someone else. I remember you; I remember I met you after I came to Metamor to live…” He stopped, his eyes again darting for the ceiling. “Metamor,” he mumbled.
“Why is Metamor Keep important?” Lucy prompted.
“I came to Metamor because… Because it was home? No, I had only visited it once before. How could it be my home?” He grunted, clasping a fist to either side of his head. “Why can’t I remember?” His voice carried a very genuine degree of desperation.
Lucy rubbed her chin as she considered the same question. “It must have been the spell somehow.” She winced. “Did we take too long?”
“There has to be something you can do to help me,” Lois demanded. As Lucy’s expression turned sour, he groaned again and paced around her. He drove a fist into the nearby tabletop, making the candlestick jump and wobble briefly, which earned a cautious glance from Lucy. As it settled, she returned to her considerations.
“Do you recall who you are?” she asked after some time.
Lois hesitated for a moment, but he nodded slowly. “I do not recall everything, but I think I know enough. I am Vincent Lois. I am a patrolman for Metamor Keep. I have not been here long – but everything before coming here is a blur.” He winced. “No, not a blur, I can’t seem to pick out any details at all.”
Lucy was cautious about taking him at his word without question, but he seemed sincere enough. He seemed lost, his eyes glancing about at nothing as he tried to find hint of the memories that continued to elude him. His breathing was erratic, and he occasionally hissed something incomprehensible under his breath. The clear stress in his face and his voice made it hard to even consider duplicity on his part.
The youthful mage made her way over to the bedside table, taking the pack and browsing briefly through it until she found a small book with soft leather binding. The first few dozen pages were occupied by a rather eclectic combination of nature sketches, annotated magical diagrams, and indecipherable lists that seemed to combine necessities that she intended to buy at market and snide notes to self. The mage flipped past those pages silently until she reached a blank sheet.
“Do you think you can still write?” she asked.
She gave Lois a small charcoal pencil, and watched as he looked at the blank page. It took him a few moments, but he slowly began to sketch a few letters, and before long the letters had formed an intelligible, if uninteresting, sentence.
“I have not forgotten my letters,” he confirmed, looking at his work.
Lucy smiled. “Good. Based on what I have observed, you seem to have quite a few memories,” she noted. “I would suppose that the best thing for you would be to write down what you can remember, and try to remember details about each particular thing. Memories exist as a chain, with each one connected to the last. If you can find those connections, you should be able to reconstruct much of what you have forgotten.”
Lois looked skeptical, but he nodded. “What will you be doing?” he asked.
“I need to tell the others that you have regained consciousness. When we first broke the spell, you acted strangely. They will be happy to hear that you recovered somewhat.” She started towards the door, but hesitated. “Do you remember anything about what you said then?” she asked.
The ermine shut his eyes and grimaced. “I don’t recall anything beyond my first few days within the walls.” He glanced at one of his hands. “Until I noticed that something felt odd, I did not even recall being Cursed. I remembered you, though, and we did not meet until after the Keep’s curse changed my form. Are you sure that memories are like a chain? How would I remember the one and not the other?”
Lucy gave a smirk. “I said it was a chain; I did not say that the chain was linked in a logical order. A memory from your earliest years may connect to something very recent. The links are caused by emotions and senses, not necessarily in succession of time.”
Lois nodded quietly. “I still cannot recall any details of regaining consciousness earlier,” he admitted. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lucy replied. “Once you have recovered your memories, I am certain that this mystery will be revealed as well.”
She opened the door and stepped out slowly, even as Lois sat on the edge of the bed and began to look at the paper before him. He tried to think of someplace to start, even as the door closed and left him in the dark chamber alone. After a few moments of thought, he put the pencil to the sheet of paper and wrote a question.
“Who is Vincent Lois?”
Lucy was not, of course, so convinced of Lois’ harmlessness that she left him without summoning someone else to guard the room. Thankfully, the combination of her bond to Julian and her magical talent made that simple. The moondog had soon arrived, his face curious as he approached.
“Has he moved?” he asked before she could greet him.
She nodded. “He awoke not five minutes ago. He has shown no violence towards me, but his confusion is certainly still present. He claims to have lost his memory, and I cannot dispute that claim from what he has said. It seems that only fractured remnants of his memories remain, and he has shown some confusion about what is reality and what is fiction.
“I wish to tell the others of this development. Would you be able to guard him in the interim?”
The moondog glanced at the door before looking back at her. “Is it safe?”
“He does not seem to recall enough of his past to be a threat, and even if he secretly does remember some things, he is nonetheless unarmed. Based on the abilities that you have shown on the battlefield since our acquaintance, I have no doubt that you will have little trouble with him.”
He nodded, stepping up to place his back against the door as she stepped away. After a few steps, however, she turned back.
His ears perked and he looked at her inquisitively.
“Do not be too quick to trust.”
He nodded resolutely. “Do not worry. I will make certain that he does not escape.”
Lucy considered reminding him that Lois was their fellow patrolman, not a prisoner, but she quickly realized that the truth was otherwise. The events of the past few days cast serious doubt on everything they had learned about the man. He could very well have returned to being the assassin that Andwyn had feared he was when he arrived.
Dismissing both the thought and the reprimand she had been considering, Lucy struck out into the halls to find her companions. The search was mercifully short; without the present need to find a solution to an unknown spell cast on a friend, the members of both patrols had returned to their sleeping quarters in the common bedding area. While she briefly considered informing only Alex of the development, she realized without much additional consideration that Balrog had been far more involved in their success that the lynx had been. The lutin and his commanding officer deserved to be informed as much as anyone.
While the sleeping area was very nearly empty with the departure of so many patrols in the wake of the plague, Lucy still led them all back to the room where they had cast the spell to rescue Lois. The fire was long since extinguished, but she did not intend to spend much time within. The youthful mage magically lit the sconces that were present to illuminate the room before turning to face her fellows.
“Lois has regained consciousness,” she announced simply.
“You brought us all the way here just to tell us that?” Alex asked. His tone was easy to identify; he did not actually think that she had taken such unnecessary measures for such a simple announcement. He was simply driving her more rapidly towards the real news.
The effect was immediate. “Lois claims that he has lost his memory.” She forestalled questions with a raised hand. “I spoke to him about it, and he clearly can remember some things, but even those are confused.” She briefly recounted her conversation with the Cursed ermine, noting at the end that she had taken the precaution of leaving Julian with Lois. The others in the room remained in contemplative silence for a few moments, until Balrog finally spoke.
“I understand your concern. While I call myself his friend, Lois himself has frequently admitted that his past was hardly admirable. Still, isn’t it his past that was forgotten? Wouldn’t that make him less dangerous?”
Lucy shook her head. “Perhaps, but we cannot assume either that he truly has lost his memory, or that he has lost only the dangerous portions thereof,” she explained. “He clearly remembers some things, but others are muddled. I have asked him to try to sort it out as much as he can, but we need to find a way to help him.”
“I may be alone in this sentiment, but why are we even talking about helping him?” The man speaking was Nathan, who had taken up the position nearest the door. His tail bobbed back and forth in agitation as he looked for reactions on the faces of the others. “I think that everyone here is aware of his past sins; what is wrong with him simply forgetting them? It may take some time to adjust, and there is always the threat of his memory returning, but it may very well make him worthier of confidence than he has ever been before.”
Lucy scowled at him. “I cannot justify that,” she declared angrily. “Memories define us. If we leave him as he is, we are as good as accomplices to the person who destroyed the man he was.”
“And that is a bad thing?”
“Yes!” Lucy, despite her stature, always projected very well, and she took full advantage of this ability as she strode confidently towards the wolf. “It is not for us to dispense justice at all, let alone by killing a man by our inaction.”
“It is not that severe!” Nathan insisted.
“If you forgot who you were and we made no effort to recover that memory, would you say the same? If the Keep had the same morals that you do, the mages could simply collect fetish stones and use them on anyone they disliked for any reason. I would not wish that on the worst murderer. Punishment is worth nothing if it revokes all memory of the crime.”
Nathan glowered at her coldly, but he resigned his argument with a wordless huff and a wave of his paw. Balrog looked none too pleased with his commander’s suggestion, but he was not about to challenge him. Alex’s gaze, as severe as always, darted between the two debating Keepers once more, but any thoughts that he might have held privately remained private as he returned the discussion to its original focus.
“Is there any way you propose that we might be able to help him remember?” he asked.
Lucy shrugged. “The difficulty with a man losing his memory is always the lack of a consistent method that might lead to its recovery.” She paused a moment; it seemed that she was still regaining her composure from her heated spat with Nathan. “One possible saving grace is the fact that he does remember some small things. Memories are connected, and only rarely are those connections completely dissolved, even in the most severe circumstances. If he can discover those connections, he might very well be able to reconstruct all of his most vital memories through little more than concentrated consideration.”
“What is our task, then?” Alex asked.
Lucy looked at Balrog. “Few of us have known him for very long, but you say that you have known him for years?”
The lutin nodded. “Should I help him recall memories from when he knew me?” he asked.
“Yes, but be careful,” the diminutive mage responded. “If you simply tell him of things that happened, the memory will have no connections. It would be like setting a board on the waters of a river, hoping to build a bridge around it. It will be quickly washed away and leave you exactly where you started.”
Balrog frowned. “So I must try to help him discover the connections?”
Lucy nodded. “It may be time-consuming and frustrating, but I see no other way. If there were some way to restore memories with magic I would gladly make the attempt, but I have heard of no such thing. We must take the long, hard road to success here.”
“What if he remembers his years as an assassin?” Nathan asked coldly.
Lucy’s glare was enough to show her displeasure in his question, but even she realized that it was something that they needed to discuss before it became a problem.
“We are all warriors of one stripe or another, and he is unarmed. If he becomes violent and suspicious we should protect ourselves, but we should try to take care that we do not harm him regardless.” She thought for a few moments before adding one more thing. “To that end, it is probably a good idea to have a mage on hand at all times, to make subduing him easier.”
“Since it seems that my task is the most vital to begin with, I will take that responsibility first,” Balrog replied.
Lucy held up a hand. “I have no problem with you being the first to speak with him, but I believe that it will be best if we all have a few moments to speak with him. He has known most of us for at least a brief period, and I hope that seeing us together will help him to make some immediate progress.”
There was no argument from the others in the room, even though Nathan clearly wanted to say something. Lucy stared him down for a few brief moments to make certain that he never did. Once she was certain that he would not dare her anger again, she turned back to the others.
“Does anyone have any other questions?” she asked. The only response was a few shrugs and shakes of the head. “Very well; we should probably go see him then. The sooner we start, the sooner we can make some progress.”
When no one presented any argument, Lucy led the way as they went through the halls towards the room where Lois now rested. Nathan hung back, his thoughts weighing on him heavily. He had never been an acquaintance of Lois, but the thought of helping an assassin when they could as easily do away with the danger irked him. Still, he could not fight the arguments that had been brought against him, even if he was certain that they were wrong. Shaking his head, he quietly told Balrog that he had somewhere else to be, and stepped out of the procession to attend to other things.
When the party arrived at the door, Julian was still standing before it dutifully, and he nodded when he saw Lucy approaching. He seemed surprised that she had brought both Balrog and Alex with her, but he nodded at her brief explanation. He offered to remain outside while they spoke with the amnesiac ermine, since the two of them had only met at the very beginning of the patrol. Lucy agreed, and then slipped into the room before the others. She returned shortly thereafter and beckoned to them before disappearing inside the small chamber once again.
The two others stepped in behind her. While the room was small, it was large enough to fit a bed in the far corner, and that gave them just enough room to fit four people in the floor space without being too cramped. The ermine stood to meet them as they entered, the spare robe he wore making him look more like a scholar than a warrior. He looked at everyone present with a touch of cautious hope, but there was no immediate recognition on his face.
A few moments passed in uncomfortable silence before Lucy spoke up.
“You do not recognize them?” she asked, looking to Lois.
He frowned severely, scratching nervously at his ear as he tried to remember. “I can put names to faces,” he offered. “Alex and… Balrog, I believe? I recall snippets of memory since I arrived in Metamor, but nothing from before my arrival.”
Alex stepped forward slowly, a look of confusion on his face. “Weren’t you… taller before?” he asked in utter confusion.
Lucy found the question odd, but she discovered as she looked at Lois that the lynx was absolutely correct. She had not thought to even check for something as odd as what he now suggested, but she remembered that Lois had stood a full head taller than her commander. Now, although the weasel clearly stood as straight as he could, he was still a half head shorter than his commander.
After that unexpected revelation, however, Lucy noticed other things as well.
“Your muzzle is also more pronounced, and your neck is longer…” She squinted, surprised as she noticed more and more that seemed off about his bearing. “It’s almost as though your human proportions have been completely replaced by those of an ermine!”
“What are you saying?” Lois asked, his voice lacking any of the confidence that he had ever shown since their first meeting. He seemed genuinely frightened.
“Is it possible that we might have failed to completely revert him?” Balrog asked Lucy.
Lucy shook her head resolutely. “No! I am certain that we turned the Curse back as much as possible!”
“I am standing right here,” Lois snapped. “Speak to me; what are you talking about?”
“Whatever spell was on you before seems to have had some lingering effects,” Lucy replied, leveling a cool stare on him for his outburst. He barely noticed.
“No! I am a man! I am no animal, no creature to be bantered about with no regard to its own feelings!” He took deep, heaving breaths. “I am not a beast; I am a man!”
The outburst caught the others off guard. Balrog stepped forward resolutely.
“Calm yourself, Lois,” he spoke softly. “We are friends; no one means you any harm.”
“Then speak to me as a friend, not about me as of some animal in a cage!” The former assassin leveled a poisonous glare at the disguised lutin, but it was the shaking ermine who took a faltering step back towards the bed. He hissed quietly and bowed his head a moment later, his eyes darting away from those that stood in the center of the small space. “I am sorry, this is too soon,” he muttered. “I do not think I am ready for visitors.”
The few assembled glanced among themselves, but Balrog took a single step forward. “Is it all right if I speak with you for a little while at least? Privately?”
Lois looked at him warily. The man’s intimidating size made him seem threatening, but the kind demeanor and careful, measured tones with which he spoke made the ermine feel that he could trust him. He looked to the others briefly, but quickly returned his eyes to the large man.
“Privately,” he confirmed. “I don’t want anyone listening in.”
The others nodded, and began to file out slowly, leaving the two friends – now almost strangers – to speak by themselves.
Alex caught Lucy’s arm as they exited the room, ignoring the evident confusion on Julian’s face as he saw them leave so soon after their entrance.
“Is it wise to trust the two of them alone?” he asked once they were a few steps away from the moondog. “We don’t know Lois’ allegiances or if they remain unaltered, and we have barely known Balrog more than a day.”
Lucy nodded to his words. “It is a bit of a risk, I agree, but I am inclined to believe that Balrog’s intentions are good. I never thought I would say as much about a lutin myself, but he has already risen above any preconception I held against his people. Nothing that he has done seems suspicious at all to me so far. It is his commander that worries me, honestly.”
The lynx winced. “He has been acting strange since before you even broke the spell. Do you have any idea what he might be after?”
Lucy shrugged. She glanced at Julian, but he was dutifully guarding the door and did not seem at all interested in the subject of their conversation. “I am suspicious of him, but what I have heard from him could simply be well-founded concerns based on Lois’ past.”
Her commander looked uncertain. “He gave no indication of knowing who Lois was on the first day. His arguments did not even begin until our second day working together.”
“You are right, of course,” Lucy admitted. “The question is, what happened between the two days to so thoroughly alter his opinion?”
“Perhaps nothing.” Alex’s voice carried a clear note of frustration to it as he made the suggestion. “For all of the arguments that he has made, he has also been quite helpful at times, even since our second day of efforts. It is possible that there had simply been no specific opportunity presented for him to express his concerns before the second day.”
Lucy shook her head and paced a few steps to one side. “That doesn’t seem right,” she muttered. “If he knew about Lois’ past before it seems to me that he would have objected to the idea of helping him at all from the beginning. Perhaps Balrog only told him about Lois’ past recently.”
“That seems rather an odd time to choose to reveal something that could change a man’s opinion so thoroughly counter to your interests,” the patrol commander commented.
“I did have one other theory,” Lucy confided, lowering her voice even further. The lynx prompted her with little more than a raise eyebrow. “That power he claims, the one that led his company to Outpost at the start. Perhaps he received some revelation from it instead?”
Scratching his chin, the lynx nodded slowly. “It is possible. Why would it bring him here to help us, and then place such a thing in his mind, though?”
Lucy shrugged broadly and shook her head. “I do not claim to know anything about the workings of the supernatural,” she admitted. “I may serve the pantheon, but even their ways elude me more often than I would care to admit.”
“Well, we can at least take precautions even if we are not certain of the cause,” he concluded. “As far as I am concerned, there is no reason for him to need to speak with Lois at all.”
Lucy agreed wordlessly. “Unfortunately, I doubt that he will ask our permission before trying anything.”
“Then there is nothing to do but keep Lois under watch.” He rubbed his muzzle a moment before changing the subject. “Do you have any idea what might have caused Lois’ form to be altered?”
“No more idea than I have of why Lois was trapped as an animal at all,” Lucy explained ruefully. “Nothing has made sense magically since our investigation began, so it surprises me only slightly that we have found yet another oddity.” She shook her head slowly. “I can always examine him again later if it makes any difference.”
“I just don’t want to be surprised when something else happens. I’ve had enough surprises already on this patrol.”
The mage nodded. “I will examine him after Balrog has finished speaking with him, then,” she decided.
The lynx nodded, but then his gaze was drawn to where the moondog was standing. Beside him was a short man, his Cursed form that of a large chipmunk. Both of them were looking towards Lucy and Alex, and the lynx’s heart sank.
“Perhaps we will not have the time for that,” he whispered.
Lois looked around the room uncertainly once he had been left alone with Balrog. He seemed to immediately regret his decision to speak privately with the large man, and was looking around the room as though to find some sort of escape. Unfortunately, with just the bed and the side table in the room apart from the walls, there was no escape to be found. Not even a wardrobe stood in the room to give him a potential place to escape.
Fortunately, the man revealed no ill intentions in the absence of the others. He looked concerned, perhaps, but it seemed to genuinely be concern for the ermine and not that he might be found out for some duplicity.
“Do you really not know me, Lois?” he asked.
The ermine shook his head, keeping his eyes on the man to both be certain that he did not have any ill intentions and to see if any small nuance of Balrog’s actions triggered some hidden memory. Unfortunately, there was no such development.
“I’m sorry, but I can only recall ever having met you in passing.” He winced. “To be honest, the same is true of almost everyone I have seen to this point, if I recall them at all.”
“So you recall names and nothing more.” Lois sighed, nodding although continuing to avoid eye contact. “Have there been any exceptions? Anyone you recognized since you regained consciousness?”
“I remembered Lucy,” Lois admitted. “I’m not certain why her in particular. Perhaps it was because I was looking for a mage, and some part of me recalled that she was one.” The ermine sighed. “A theory and nothing more… I know of no reliable way that might allow me to make progress regaining my memory.”
“Start with what you do remember,” Balrog suggested.
The other man snorted derisively. “That’s much the same as what Lucy suggested. Would you like to see how much progress that helped me make?”
He took a small notebook from the bed where he had left it, leafing through its pages until he reached one that was not filled by Lucy’s indecipherable script. This one instead had only a few words scrawled at the top, and nothing underneath.
“’Who is Vincent Lois?’” Balrog read from the page. He turned a few pages back and forth. “Nothing else?”
Lois shook his head bitterly. “Since she left me here alone with that book I’ve been trying to think of anything I might possibly be able to write. That I am a man, who for some reason is as much animal as he is human? Perhaps more if you talk to some…” He trailed of and made various frustrated, wordless gestures in the direction of the connecting hallway.
“Those are all things that anyone can see,” Balrog noted, ignoring the anger in the ermine’s bearing.
“Exactly why I did not write them down.” The ermine paced a few more steps across the front of the bed. “Beyond what everyone can see, I know nothing about myself! At least nothing worth the writing.”
Balrog nodded slowly, thinking to himself. “Why did you write ‘who is Vincent Lois?’ Why not ‘who am I?’ or something to that effect?”
Lois took a breath. “I know it may sound odd, but I did not even realize that Lucy was talking to me when she first called me by that name,” he answered. “Even now, even though I know that it is my name, and that I should answer to it, I continue to have a nagging feeling that it belongs to someone else.”
Balrog took only a few moments to consider before he shook his head in disagreement. “I first met you several years ago; it couldn’t be less than five, I don’t think. You called yourself Vincent Lois then and you still call yourself by that name here at the Keep. Either that is your name, or you have been using the same alias for a truly unfathomable length of time.”
Lois shrugged. “With what I know of myself, that might very well be the case,” he said bitterly.
Balrog shook his head. “I know that you must be frustrated, but you need to focus on what you know for certain, not wild theories that have no root in reality.” He watched as Lois sat on the edge of the bed, nodding in a detached fashion. He realized with some chagrin that Alex and Lucy had not been wrong about their assessment of Lois’ state. While he was human in size and speech, many subtle mannerisms combined with sharper facial features and a longer neck made the former assassin seem much closer to an animal than he had been prior to the events of the previous days. He wondered if perhaps the loss of memory was related to this fact, but he quickly realized that it mattered little regardless. He had no idea why either of the two issues was present.
“Do you mind if I take a look at your Curse?” he asked.
The ermine shook his head. “If you believe that it may be of some use, I see no reason why not. As I recall, however, no mage has been able to overturn the Curse despite nearly ten years’ worth of attempts by every mage the Keep can offer.”
“At least you remember that,” Balrog said with a friendly smile.
“I believe I am owed a few such strokes of good fortune,” Lois replied drily.
Balrog gave a soft chuckle in support of his friend, letting his gaze shift once again to look at the intertwining lines of magic that determined his friend’s form. The ermine stood still to permit the inspection, but it mattered little. Although he had not lived in Metamor for long himself, the lutin had spent some time curiously dwelling on the intricacies of the Keep’s infamous enchantment since that time. Despite this, his opinion remained unchanged between this and his previous inspection of Lois’ form. There was nothing in the magic that seemed to differ in any significant way from the norm. Even the minute adjustment that they had made to restore him from his feral shape remained unaltered since that time.
“If it is any comfort, there is nothing wrong with your Curse,” he said, returning his vision to the material world.
“Unfortunately, that also means that you have no idea why I should be without my memory, or why I should be more animal than man.” Balrog conceded his point with a grimace, and Lois nodded with resignation. “I suppose a magic cure for either affliction would be too convenient to expect.”
“Sometimes we just have to do things the hard way,” Balrog confirmed.
Lois scoffed and shook his head. “You sound so certain that there is a way,” he groused.
Balrog smiled. “Someone once told me, ‘you might have to clear some underbrush before you find it, but there is always a way.’”
“I said that, didn’t I?” the ermine asked quietly. His forehead wrinkled in consternation, and he paced around in a circle for a few steps. Balrog left him to consider the question for a few moments, heeding Lucy’s counsel to try to let Lois make his own connections as he regained his memory.
“I recall… a patrol? We were sitting outside of a tent discussing… some business or other, the details I cannot recall. I do remember saying that, however. You still weren’t convinced.”
Balrog chuckled. “See, you can remember! Now, it wasn’t exactly on patrol, but the confusion is understandable.” The ermine raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest, awaiting an explanation. “This happened several years before either of us came to Metamor permanently. We were in the field, yes, but not on a patrol as such.”
Lois squinted as he thought, as though doing so would help him think. “I remember having been human, though I suppose the fact remains that I could not remember being an ermine when I first regained consciousness. Still, what little memory I have seems to focus on this Keep.” He shrugged. “There are bits and pieces of other memories, but everything else is indistinct, at best.”
Balrog nodded sympathetically. “It may take some time before you are able to recover your memory to anyone’s satisfaction, but the rest of us are frankly quite relieved that you will have the opportunity to do so. These fetish stones that our enemies are using are devious creations. There was no certainty that you would ever recover your humanoid form. That you did in so brief a period is a wonder.”
Lois nodded slowly, but he looked distracted. Finally, turning towards Balrog, he arched an eyebrow. “Why haven’t you changed?”
Balrog blinked in surprise. “What?”
“If that night occurred before either of us came to Metamor, then neither of us should have been Cursed. I recall being human, although only just. You, however, I never recall being anything but a man. Why haven’t you been changed by the Curse?”
Balrog gave a small smirk. “Ah, that is a secret that we agreed we would never reveal. Perhaps you will recall, however, if I give you a small hint.” With a small force of will, Balrog altered the illusion around his body so that just his ear reverted slightly to its true, pointed form. Lois did not notice for a few moments, until Balrog subtly gestured towards his ear. It still took a moment, but a look of dawning revelation appeared on Lois’ face.
“Ah!” Balrog wagged a finger reprovingly as he allowed the illusion to return to full force. “Remember, it’s a secret.”
Lois stopped when asked, clearly needing some time to come to terms with the realization. Finally, he spoke, though slowly. “I remember discovering that,” he said quietly. A little hope could be heard in his voice, though it remained uncertain. “I didn’t tell anyone else; you were one of the best mages I had ever worked with, and I considered you a friend.” He looked up at the stocky man. “Do the others know?”
“If by the others you mean the Keep at large, no. Your patrol does, as does mine, but besides that I suspect only the Keep’s intelligence community is privy to my secret.” He shrugged. “It’s just as well for me. Some might understand, but Keepers have ever had a hostile relationship with lutins, and not without reason. I could not blame those who found it difficult to forgive and forget if I told them what I was.”
Lois nodded. “The ones who do know haven’t given you any trouble yet?”
Balrog shook his head. “So far they have been tremendously calm about it. I suspect that part of that was simply due to the fact that I am a mage with some knowledge of the Curse, but I doubt that this fact accounts for their lack of hostility entirely. I am grateful that Alex at least seems to be fully willing to respect the Keep’s recent diplomacy attempts with my people.”
“Alex…” The ermine turned his eyes again towards a nearby wall before returning them to Balrog’s face. “My commander; he’s the lynx, isn’t that right?”
Balrog nodded, smiling broadly. “See? You are remembering things very quickly!”
Lois scoffed quietly. “I am remembering fragments, names and the people to whom they belong are nothing. I remember only a few specific events, your revelation being the most familiar. Beyond that, there is a decades-long gap where my memories should be.” He sighed. “I hate to sound so desperate, but my mind just feels like a yawning void. If my memories do not return, and soon, I feel like I will go mad!”
“I understand, Lois.” Balrog carefully stepped forward, making certain that Lois did not feel threatened by his approach. The ermine did not react, and so the larger man gently laid a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. He could feel the man’s muscles tense erratically when he felt the contact of the disguised lutin’s hand, but Lois made no attempt to dislodge it, and a few moments sufficed for him to calm enough to relax again.
“Thank you,” the ermine said, sounding clearly shaken even as he tried to get ahold of himself. He shook his head. “I suppose you would like to know why I was so angered by Lucy and Alex mentioning how much I looked like an animal?” he asked.
The lutin removed his hand from his friend’s shoulder and shrugged broadly. “I thought the reaction was reasonable given the circumstances.”
Lois nodded. “None of you were aware of the full extent of the circumstances, however,” he noted. Taking Balrog’s silence as a cue to continue, Lois said, “After Lucy left me here to look for you, I sat down and tried to write what I could remember in the notebook. As I tried to collect my memories, however, the only ones that were clear enough to give me a trail to follow were my memories of the moments after this… fetish spell, I think you called it?” Balrog nodded and Lois continued. “I could only recall the moments after the fetish spell had affected me. It was something at least; I remembered a few moments of humanity, perhaps I could trace it back to discover more about my past.
“As it turned out, however, the only clear memories of those moments were the ones during and immediately following the spell’s effects. As I recalled the moments when I was forced from man to animal, I found myself shrinking here, in this room, my form changing much as it had then.”
Balrog winced. “That is a function of the Curse, I am afraid,” the lutin said, his voice consoling. “An animal-Cursed Keeper is able to assume the form of that animal completely. I have not had that experience myself, but I hear that visualizing the change is the easiest way to trigger it.”
The ermine nodded. He sat back down on the edge of the bed as he continued his story. “I thought that whatever spell you had devised to rescue me had failed, and I soon found myself standing on four paws, trembling as I stepped out from under this robe. I was an animal, truly and thoroughly, and every moment I was terrified that the magic would exert its full force once more and rob me of my mind. I braced my will against that thought, and after a few moments of retaining my mind, I grew bold enough to try to will myself back to human form.”
“It is good to see you succeeded.”
“I had only just regained my current form a few moments before you arrived. The thought of it made their inspection sting, even if their words were true.” He looked up at the lutin. He barely remembered the man, yet for some reason he felt safe confiding in him with his most troubling secrets. “It is a comfort to know that such a change is normal in the Keep, at least.”
Balrog nodded, running fingers through his beard as he considered. “Have you tried willing yourself to be more human than you currently are?” he asked after a moment’s pause.
Lois nodded. “I did everything I could to change myself back. To be honest, however…” He stopped, and then shook his head with a forlorn sigh. “To be honest, I cannot even remember what I should look like as a human.” He looked up at the lutin, the deep blue of his eyes almost mesmerizing. “When I first awoke in this room I was surprised and mortified to find myself turned into an ermine, but now it is the only form I can recall even in part!”
Balrog frowned. “Are you certain?” When the ermine nodded, the lutin arched an eyebrow and twirled one of the forks of his braided beard around his finger. “How could a man so thoroughly forget his life, even so far as forgetting what he looked like?” he mused to himself.
“I wish I could tell,” the mustelid replied. “I fought the Curse for whatever headway it would give, and the only reason I stopped was because I could think of no further ground I could possibly gain.”
Balrog nodded slowly. He hesitated for a moment, but finally he did sit down beside the troubled ermine. He turned and looked at his friend, even though Lois would barely lift his eyes to match his gaze.
“The Curse has troubled Keepers for nearly ten years now, and there’s not a man or woman among the defenders that doesn’t wish that things could be different somehow,” he spoke softly. “At the same time, it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It does not change who you are, no matter how much it changes your appearance. Understand, when Lucy and Alex were speaking of you having the proportions of an animal, they were doing it out of concern for you. They both have to deal with their own Curse as well, and it was due to their efforts that you have recovered your mind at all. They understand how it feels to question yourself because of how you’ve changed.”
Lois nodded. “I know. I do not believe that they meant any harm, but I barely even recall who I was, and I fear that the void will be filled with the animal.”
Balrog nodded his understanding. “If it is any comfort, there has never been a Keeper who has suffered such a fate, and I doubt that it will start with you.”
Lois finally did turn and look at him in the eyes. “Are you sure about that? If it had happened to them, how would they have communicated it to anyone else?”
A chill ran up the lutin’s spine as he realized that he could not be entirely certain of his own words. Fortunately, this realization brought with it a renewed resolve.
“Lois, I will not let it happen to you,” he promised.
For a moment, Balrog thought that his friend would press him further on the matter. After a brief silence, however, Lois nodded and gave a small smile.
“I believe you,” he said. “Perhaps that makes me a fool, but I need something to hold onto if I want to keep my sanity. I trust you.”
Balrog smiled. “I will not let you down.”
In the back of his mind, the lutin wondered how he could possibly hope to keep those promises beyond the possibility of failure. It did not take him long to resolve that failure was not an option he would permit.
The keep at Hareford was not the imposing structure that Kyia’s home was in Metamor, but it seemed just as daunting to Alex as he approached its halls. Doubtless, it was not the structure itself that intimidated him, but the prospect of what awaited him within its halls. Could he even hope to convince Sir Dupré to rescind his earlier orders? He was nothing but a simple patrol commander and that only as an inheritance from the company’s former commander. Sir Dupré, though his own accomplishments had mostly been written in the Midlands, was still a respected commander with a strong military heritage, not to mention a commander to whom the lynx had never reported.
Of course, Alex’s concerns only mattered if he was even offered an audience.
He had briefly considered simply ignoring orders, but that consideration only lasted a few moments. While he was concerned by Lois’ situation, he was not about to risk his command by doing something rash. He also knew that his patrol’s absence could cause weakness in the patrol structure of the Keep, and that was even more of a concern with the quarantine in effect.
Alex knew that it couldn’t be true, but he could almost swear that the guards at the entrance to the keep were the same ones that had met him on his previous visit. Whether they were or not, they were certainly showing the wear of the hours. One of them was stretching and jogging in place to stay awake, and the other was buffing his hooflike nails on a small file he carried in his other hand, his partially-lidded eyes betraying the weariness with which he undertook his simple efforts. The two acknowledged him as he arrived, each returning to some semblance of attention.
“Halt! No one is allowed beyond without the express permission of Sir William Dupré,” one of them said, clearly reciting the very orders he had been given. At points, his voice dipped into a nearly indecipherable drawl, but he managed to spit the message out around his tired tongue.
Alex nodded his understanding. The increased security about the keep was expected given the added pressure that Hareford was feeling at present. With Metamor unable to deploy their own troops in their current situation, it now fell to the Outpost, Lake Barnhardt, and the Glen Avery to manage the troop deployments. This included the added difficulty of finding out where the active patrols were, since even Metamor had little idea now that their companies were forced to seek other quarters due to the plague.
“I understand that the commander is busy, but I would like to speak with him if it is at all possible.”
One of the guards grimaced. “I have to be honest, that is highly unlikely. Sir Dupré is presently seeing only those to whom he has sent his personal summons.”
Alex nodded. “Could you at least take him my name?” When the guards hesitated, the lynx pressed forward. “I am Alex hin’Valius, my patrol was just ordered out into the field.”
The ungulate guard perked at the name. “Wait a moment, that’s the name they told us to be listening for,” he insisted. “Sir Dupré wanted to see him right away!”
The other nodded. “I do recall that as well.” To Alex he continued, “You’re in luck. It seems your coming was anticipated.”
The two of them opened the doors quickly, and Alex stepped through, his soft pads making him almost completely silent as he marched along the solid stone of the hallway. He was pointed towards Sir Dupré’s chambers directly, and found the way easy to follow despite the sparse, martial decoration of the keep’s hallways. He did his best to quash any fear he felt due to being expected without warning. Someone had certainly mentioned their predicament and piqued the interest of Hareford’s new military commander.
The guards at the private chamber’s door bid him wait while they carried his request to Sir Dupré. The ram’s gruff voice was audible through the thick door as he told them to allow Alex entrance.
The lynx stepped through the door when the guard returned to find that the chambers he had been led to were, indeed, the ram’s private bedchambers. The man himself was standing in the one open area of the room, facing the door while a boar worked calmly behind him, taking one piece of armor at a time and fastening them securely to his commander’s form. He worked with a practiced diligence that spoke of years of experience.
“I thought you might wish to see me,” the older commander said. His lieutenant fixed a bracer to Dupré’s arm, carefully and deliberately securing each strap to be certain that none of them could possibly come loose during combat.
“Yes, sir,” Alex gave a brief bow. He was uncertain of the proper degree of deference to show to the man. Although Nestorius was both the commander of Hareford and a powerful mage, the black lion preferred some degree of familiarity, so only the most basic formalities were observed. William Dupré, however, had been a lord in his own land, and though his banishment had taken that title from him his post as the military commander at the Outpost was worthy of some respect at least.
Sir Dupré gave a nod as he was armored. “I originally heard that one of your party had been attacked by a mage, and was unable to join any patrol. More recently I heard that the situation had been resolved. I did not understand the particulars of the situation well then, and I do not believe I can claim to understand it now. If you could perhaps explain it better, I might be able to better explain my own decision to deploy your patrol.”
Alex took a deep breath. Of course Dupré would not understand what had happened. He had been at the Keep for barely a few months, and in that time he had been more than a little preoccupied. Perhaps if he made a good case, the lynx could manage to convince him to give them more time.
He explained the situation as briefly as possible. The ram listened carefully, an ear flicking now and then at some phrase or word that Alex misspoke, but he nodded with a neutral expression for the duration of the explanation. Dupré’s lieutenant, although clearly well versed in the art of politely ignoring conversations that were not his own, was not quite so well versed in controlling his new body. His ears often twitched or swiveled towards the lynx whenever he mentioned something interesting. The lynx chose to ignore this. There was nothing to be gained by raising a fuss over something so minor.
While he continued his persuasive attempts, Alex hoped that he was not being too technical with his explanation. Although he had no trouble removing any difficult magical terms from his discussion, as he did not know many himself, he wondered if discussing the Curse in even some detail might cause some confusion.
As he finished, however, Dupré seemed unfazed. He waited thoughtfully, eyes turned towards the floor, for a few moments as his captain adjusted the last few straps of the commander’s armor. Finally, he turned back to Alex.
“I understand your concern and your desire to help your compatriot. I consider loyalty to be an incredibly important trait in any warrior, so I cannot fault you for yours. Knowing the extent to which the Curse can affect a man’s mind is also quite frightening.” He shook his head slowly. His captain seemed to share his opinion based on his dour expression, but he continued to act as ignorant of the conversation as he possibly could. “Still, my one remaining question is whether your friend is in any immediate danger?”
Alex wanted to claim that he was, but as much as he wished he could, he could think of no reason to believe it was so. Lois’ memory might have been shattered by the fetish spell, but his ignorance of his past was perhaps even safer than the alternative. According to everything he had heard from the mages, he also suspected that any harmful magic had already run its course. Lois was handicapped, to be certain, and he could only wonder at the trials that the ermine’s recovery would entail, but there was no clear, immediate danger.
“No, sir, I do not believe that I can claim he is in danger,” the lynx admitted with a sigh.
The ram gave a sympathetic smile. “While I would like to be able to offer you more time, the fact is that I am short on men as it is. I need everyone available to man the patrols during the quarantine.” He waved an arm, demonstrating his own armament. “Even I am no exception. We cannot reinforce from within the Keep, so we are left to our own devices. I know your men are capable, and I need you on the field.”
Alex’s heart sank, but he nodded his understanding. “Thank you for considering my request, at least,” he offered.
“Perhaps there is still a partial solution,” the ram replied. The boar behind him turned to the side, taking another armored plate from where they all sat, organized upon the bed.
Alex’s ears perked at the renewed offer. “Sir?”
“I cannot afford to lose your entire patrol, but perhaps one of your company could remain behind to be certain of his safety.”
The lynx felt a swell of relief for a moment, before he realized the unfortunate truth. “I’m sorry, sir, but if one of my fellows remained behind, the other would have to do so as well,” he explained.
The ram’s face showed clear confusion. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“They share a bond with one another for several reasons,” Alex explained. “Without going into much detail regarding the exact cause, the result is that they must remain close to one another at all times, or risk death.”
Sir Dupré shook his head. “You surround yourself with quite a variety of magical oddities,” he commented. His lieutenant barely suppressed a chuckle. “Whatever the case, I am sorry to say that this severely limits my ability to help you in any meaningful way. I am certain that the healers will gladly look after him in your absence, but beyond this I do not see any way I can be of help.”
“Perhaps there is one thing you might be able to do if you cannot allow us to remain here,” Alex proposed. “I told you of the mage that assisted us in our efforts, Balrog. Would it be possible to see that his patrol is able to remain here in our absence? He is a personal friend of Lois, and he might be able to provide the necessary aid if we cannot.”
Dupré considered the proposal in silence for a few moments before nodding slowly. “I think I may be able to allow that request,” he agreed. “If I understand correctly, his patrol company only returned from a mission themselves recently. Giving them a few additional days to rest would be profitable for them.”
Alex smiled. “Thank you, sir. Unless you require me for any other purpose, I believe I should part to prepare my men for the upcoming patrol.”
The ram nodded. “Indeed. Fare well on your journey. I hope our next meeting will be under more fortunate circumstances. Perhaps we could find time to share a drink together. I do want to know the men under my command, brief though our interaction may be.”
Alex hesitated. It always concerned him when anyone of rank showed interest in him, but he could see no ill intention of any kind behind the offer. “Thank you,” he said, giving a shallow bow. “I would be honored to join you if you would have me.”
“Of course.” Dupré smiled, and even the boar spared the lynx a glance and a smile. “Farewell! May each of us find good success on our journeys.”
As Alex left, he wondered if he had done the right thing. He barely knew Balrog, and the only word that had assured him of the man’s friendship to Lois had been the lutin’s own. If there was any deception in the man’s words, the lynx would not learn of it until the results had already been wrought. Still, as he returned to the barracks, Alex could not find it in himself to regret the decision. Lois needed someone to help him through this difficulty. Despite the risks, he truly believed that Balrog was worthy of his trust. He just wished he could still his lingering doubts.
The news that Alex brought upon his return did not surprise Lucy, but she gave a sigh and a shake of the head regardless. She was worried for several reasons; Lois was certainly not himself, and she was worried about what might happen to him or what he might do. The effects of the magic also concerned her. It should have been impossible for a spell, regardless of the power behind it, to have lingering effects such as this once it had run its course. She wanted to investigate further, but her opportunity would have to wait.
A part of her could only hope that she would have that opportunity.
She passed the patrol notice on to Julian, who also seemed unsurprised by the development. Although neither of them felt comfortable doing so, they left Lois where he was, giving him only a brief word to explain where they were going.
Balrog had left his conversation with his confused friend a few minutes before, and the ermine now rested alone in his chambers. Based on the state of the bedsheets when she spoke with him, Lucy suspected that his efforts had been in vain thus far. He met the announcement with little verbal reaction, but his body language spoke volumes. He seemed to deflate, whatever little energy he had shown before fading in an instant. She wanted to say something to comfort him, but every thought that entered her mind just seemed empty, or even harmful. He did offer to see them off at least, and none of them could find a reason to disallow the request.
A few hours later, the ermine stood by the gate as his companions gathered to leave. With only three of them present it looked to be a very small patrol, but each was confident that they would be safe in the company of the others. They were more worried about the ermine that they would be leaving behind.
Alex clapped a paw on Lois’ shoulder in encouragement while the other two took a less familiar approach to saying their farewells. He stood by the gate and watched them leave, looking nothing like the confident man who had accompanied them only days before. The ermine almost seemed to disappear into the clothing he wore, his defeated posture making it seem even more ill-fitting than the borrowed robe truly was.
Thankfully, Balrog arrived well before they all set off, and he stood by Lois and watched the patrol depart without comment for some time. They were in no rush, and so the two watched the lynx and his companions until they disappeared out of sight into the trees.
“I can see this is hitting you hard,” Balrog said quietly. He softly placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. The ermine tensed for a moment, but he allowed the intrusion without comment.
Lois nodded once he had taken a few moments to relax. “Of the three of them, only Lucy is truly familiar to me. Still, they were the closest people to me here within the keep. I feel lost already, and with their departure I feel only more helpless.”
The disguised lutin nodded compassionately. “Unfortunately, I cannot do much in their absence. I do not trust myself to tamper with such difficult magic, at least not where failure could bring harm to a friend. I will still study it and try to understand it as much as I can, but I will wait until help arrives before attempting any sort of restoration on my own.”
“I appreciate your concern for my safety, but if you have any possibility of undoing what has been done, please attempt it immediately.” Lois’ voice was subdued, but it was clearly kept low out of concerted effort and not of apathy. “I cannot bear this ignorance for much longer; if there is any way I can be rid of it, I would hazard the risks most willingly.”
“As the one mage between us, I will evaluate the risks. If I determine that the chances of success outweigh the risks, I will attempt it.” He held up one of his large hands to forestall further protests. “I know that you want to recover your memory as quickly as possible, but foolhardiness is only inviting worse complications.”
Lois sighed heavily, his eyes still following the course that the trio of Keepers was taking away from Outpost. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I need someone to make certain that I do not do anything foolish while they are gone. I am nervous, I am tense… I just want to take some action instead of waiting here passively for my memories to return.”
Balrog nodded his understanding slowly. “Perhaps it would be a profitable venture to see if you recall any of your combat training?” To Lois’ questioning glance he continued, “If you expect the worst to happen, you should prepare for it as well. Vincent Lois is a formidable fighter, but we have established that you have trouble recalling who you were. It would be profitable to verify if you can at least emulate some degree of his skill in combat.”
His friend considered for a few moments, turning back to watch his retreating fellows. His right hand scratched at his left absently, and he lowered his gaze to glance at those vicious scars. How had he first acquired them, he wondered? Were there more to come if he continued to fight?
And if he refused to continue, what would happen to him?
His mind swayed back and forth several times before he finally settled himself on his decision. When he did, he turned back to Balrog. “I believe that some training would be time well spent,” he determined. “You will have to lead the way.”
Balrog managed a laugh. “Of course! This way.”
After a last glance back towards Alex, Lucy, and Julian, Lois followed Balrog through the streets of Hareford. The larger man seemed to know his way through their tangled maze well enough, and it took them very little time to arrive back in the barracks. Once there, the two of them took a brief stop by the armory to see if they could find something that Lois would be able to use.
The utter lack of anything that would fit the changed ermine was a harsh reminder that they were not in Metamor, where Kyia’s assistance could aid such a search. It also reminded the ermine of the extent of his most recent change. While a serviceable tunic could be found to adequately fit his upper body, there was none long enough to cover his lengthened body the entire way to the waist. This would have been a permissible inconvenience as they meant only to drill forms and fisticuffs and did not require much protection; it was the search for fitting trousers that hampered their efforts. Lois’ legs were likely the part of his body most altered by the fetish stone and its lingering effects. They seemed almost entirely feral in all but length and a few barely-noticeable changes in the structure of the joints that permitted comfortable bipedal motion. While Keepers had been afflicted by the Curse in many different ways, their search suggested that others afflicted as severely as himself were few and far between.
After some search, they were finally saved by others who had sought to fight in the varied forms the Curse had given them. Upon asking for some help from one of the few guards who remained amidst the full-scale deployment, they were directed to another section of the armory that had been set aside for animal-Cursed Keepers who wished to test their feral forms in combat. It seemed that a few of those so inclined, while willing to battle in the shape of animals, were less willing to do so while completely nude, despite how odd a clothed animal might look. Here they met with some more success, although they were still unable to find something completely suited for Lois’ shape. Still, they did find something that fit the changed hip structure and knee shape that he now bore, even though it was a little loose-fitting. At the very least, it fit to an acceptable degree.
As the two of them stood opposite each other within the ring, Balrog winced with an unpleasant moue. The clothing the ermine wore was meant to be worn under armor, not alone. On the shirt he wore, several oddly-patterned stains showed where a soldier had once used it with an improperly-cleaned coat of links. The article of clothing also ended several inches too high, showing nearly a handbreadth of Lois’ snowy white fur. The breeches they had chosen were clean enough to suggest that they might have never seen serious use, but the way they billowed out around the ermine’s legs suggested that they had been made for a predator with a powerful build, not an ermine with the lean build that his companion bore. Tied at the hocks to prevent interference with his paws, they nonetheless assisted the shirt in making him look like some sort of clown as he struggled with the poor fit.
“Are you certain that you can fight in that?” Balrog asked.
Lois sighed. “I cannot say whether I can fight at all, and as much as I would prefer not to fight like this, experience suggests that I will not find anything better fitted to my form. There is no better option.”
His friend nodded slowly, but his expression made it clear that the proposition made him unhappy. “You need to see a tailor at earliest opportunity,” he concluded. “You need to get your armor refitted.”
“I am not going to be like this forever!” Lois snapped. He gave a quiet chirr, which he cut off with a conscious effort before stalking a few steps in a small arc across from the larger man. When he continued, his voice was once again subdued. “I will find a way to become human again; I have no need to have my clothing tailored.”
“No man who has suffered the Curse as you have has ever successfully returned to human form,” Balrog cautioned.
“Then I will be the first,” Lois declared. His glare gave no place for argument.
Balrog sighed and shook his head. “The armor you brought here is not the only armor you own. You could safely have it tailored to serve you while you are temporarily afflicted with this form, and then continue using your other armor when you have escaped the Curse’s grasp.”
“We are here to test if any of my combat prowess remains, not critique how I look in practice garb. Let us begin that task and cease these useless discussions.” He retraced his earlier arc, returning to a position directly in front of his friend and taking on a loose combat stance.
Balrog frowned at his friend’s attempt at evasion, but he was pleased to note the competence that his friend’s stance showed. “It seems that you do remember something about combat, at least,” he concluded. Lois ignored him, adjusting his stance slightly. He seemed somewhat uncomfortable, although it was not clear whether it was because he did not recall how to fight from the stance, or whether the changes to his physique made it difficult. Whatever the case might have been Balrog moved forward and began to test his friend with a series of soft strikes.
While more suited to wrestling an opponent, the lutin was no stranger to fisticuffs. His strikes were confident and precise, but easily slow enough that a trained fighter should have had little trouble facing them. The ermine, however, did little to truly defend against them and instead absorbed them, taking the full force of the blows on his forearms and wrists. Before long he stepped away, shaking out his arms with a pained growl.
“You need to deflect the blows away from yourself,” Balrog suggested. Lois nodded slowly, but said nothing to the lutin. Instead he grumbled to himself, shaking his head again and again as he thought through what had happened.
“I know what I should be doing! I can remember it; I have been remembering it since I stepped into this ring!” He stretched his right arm, massaging the muscles of his forearm gently as he tried to relieve the pain that permeated them. “I can remember how to fight, but I can’t seem to actually do it.”
Balrog scratched his chin, playing with the twin forks of his braided beard. “So, your mind remembers what you should do, but your body does not?” Lois nodded his agreement to the assessment. “Perhaps the way that the magic shifted your body has made your movements imprecise,” he offered.
Lois snarled. “I should be able to adjust,” he spat.
“It will take time. I am certain mastery will come with time,” Balrog stated. He smiled, taking a ready stance. “Are you ready to go again?”
Lois gave a pained sigh, but nodded. “I am ready whenever you are.”
Balrog did his best not to hold back. He hoped that his friend’s combat skill would begin to click again, but the situation only got worse. Lois continued to absorb the blows’ full force, and left himself wide open for a counterattack every time he emerged from his defensive ball. It was less than an hour before Lois was sitting on a bench to one side, groaning as he tried to recover from the blows he had taken already.
The large man sat beside him, brushing his hands clean of the dust from the fighting ring. He wondered briefly if he should have held back a bit more. Those thoughts were brief however; he needed to know what Lois remembered about fighting. Even by finding out that he remembered very little, they at least knew what their starting point was.
Seeing him try to fight also made Balrog notice a few things.
“Your stance is too high,” he noted after a few moments of sitting in silence.
Lois sat up a little straighter, raising his head to glance across at his friend. “Why do you say that?”
“It isn’t that your stance is not accurate to what you remember; your body is simply longer,” the lutin clarified. “It is far easier to throw a blow to your body than it would be if you were entirely human. Throwing a blow below your waist would be the harder task.”
Lois gave an annoyed growl as his friend again mentioned the change in his body, but at least the ermine nodded in agreement. “I suppose as long as I am forced to live like this I should have the honesty to admit that fighting is useless.”
“I did not say that, nor did I wish to imply that it was the case,” Balrog responded, a bit sternly. “If you ask me, it would be worthwhile to fight from a more feral posture. Start from all fours, keep your body behind your claws and teeth…”
“No!” Lois suddenly stood up despite his aches, stalking away angrily. He hissed and fumed to himself, making a full orbit of the fighting ring before returning to face Balrog. “I am NOT an animal, and I will not reduce myself to the level of acting like one! That would be precisely what my enemy wanted!”
“Your enemy is dead and his spell a failure! His aim was to turn you into an animal, not to have you act like one when it serves your own purposes! He wanted you to lose everything, not to adjust to its effects and become stronger for it!” The lutin paused for a few moments to let his words sink in. “He would love for you to refuse to accept the advantages of your new situation, to focus solely on the disadvantages. I am not suggesting we do what your enemy wanted, I suggest we fight it!”
Lois shook his head. “No, I cannot. Not like that.” He glanced to one side, taking a deep breath, before turning back to say more. “I am sorry, my friend, but it is not as easy as you say. I almost lost myself to this spell once; I fear that if I give it a second opportunity I will not be so fortunate.”
Balrog sighed, electing to admit defeat rather than continue their futile argument. He could not convince the ermine to change his opinion, at least not now. Lois had always been firm – a word the lutin often used to describe his stubborn friends. To convince him to make any significant change in opinion was a task best left to the most cunning of diplomats. The lutin did not consider himself to be among their number.
“I am done with this for now,” Lois declared. “Let us get something to eat, and then I wish to return to my quarters.”
His friend made no argument, and the two of them returned to the armory in silence. They took brief advantage of the small baths that the barracks offered, but the size and quality of the baths starkly reminded Balrog that they were not within the walls of Metamor. Lois had nothing to compare them with, but he was not inclined to linger for very long either. He seemed especially annoyed at how much water his fur managed to hold, but was thankfully able to get it dry enough to hide beneath his robe before the lutin started to complain.
They ate their evening meal together just as the last few rays of sun were disappearing behind the western horizon. Balrog once or twice tried to pry a word from the ermine, but Lois only ever responded in one or two words, and his gaze traced the rest of the room’s few occupants repeatedly as they sat. Balrog was uncertain as to the reason for it, but he supposed that he was either being wary of threats, or looking for a familiar face. Whichever he was seeking, Lois reached the end of the meal having spotted neither.
Balrog again tried to start a conversation on their way through the hall. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”
Lois shook his head. “Balrog, I need time to think. Please just take me to my quarters and we can continue this later.”
The lutin sighed, but nodded. Balrog took the lead, following the hallways to the private cell that had been provided for the ermine during his recovery. Balrog said a few words of farewell, but Lois merely grunted his own before closing the door and disappearing inside.
The mage waited outside of the door for a few moments, trying to convince himself to speak to Lois again, but he could not justify the intrusion. His friend needed rest, and any conversation the two could hope to share would only be made the clearer if they were both rested.
With a final shake of his head and a sigh, he left the door behind and went to rejoin the rest of his patrol.
Lois drooped once the door was closed and Balrog was no longer nearby. His shoulders sagged so much that the robe he wore very nearly slipped from its position and fell to the floor. The fighting ring had been draining, and he had seen very little progress. He was certain that if he were forced to defend himself with his current level of skill, he would be killed before he had any chance to even launch a counterattack. That wasn’t even considering the dull ache that completely pervaded his body. He rubbed his shoulder, but it only made it worse.
His aches reminded him of the afternoon in the ring, and Lois’ mind drifted to Balrog’s suggestion. Fight from all fours, like an animal… it was so easy for that insufferable lutin to suggest! He had never had his mind wrested from him by a magic beyond his control, beyond his comprehension! He had never seen his memories shattered, fragments melting away the more he pressed. He had never felt the gnawing desire to go back…
Lois snarled and gouged a set of claw marks in the provided side table. The candlestick wobbled a bit, but unlit as it was he was in no hurry to right it. Why should he desire the mind, the life, of an ermine? It offered nothing to him but a meaningless existence! Yet the thought was there, the incessant nagging that suggested to him that being an ermine would be better than what he was now, a man thoroughly robbed of memory, of purpose! He could convince himself that he had no true desire to be an animal, but the moment acting like one was remotely suggested he panicked, denied the thought, fought it with every fiber of his being! Why was it such an abhorrent idea if the desire was not real?
The ermine sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed, head low. There was nothing for it. He could only do his best to resist whatever magic now afflicted him. For now, the best he could do was to get some sleep so that he would be clearheaded in the morning. He adjusted the bed for a few moments, and then lay down to take his rest.
His attempts to sleep met with utter failure. It was not even so simple as just tossing and turning. Every time he closed his eyes for a few moments, an indescribable feeling of anxiety overtook him until he opened his eyes again. No amount of bedding, no amount of self-encouragement, and not even leaving the candle lit for some illumination could lift that disquiet. Only a few minutes after he had begun his attempts, Lois sat up on the edge of the bed once more, shuddering as he tried to settle his nerves.
Despite how little he recalled about whom he was, Lois knew that this was not the sort of person he was supposed to be. He was convinced that no man could live with this sort of anxiety. He put his head in his hands, growling his frustration to himself. There was a clawing emptiness inside, and the lonely silence only piled more misery upon that. He wanted to find Balrog to break the silence while he calmed down, but he did not want to disturb his friend after leaving him on such unfortunate terms.
Sitting there on the edge of the bed, he finally began to feel some semblance of calm. At the same time, quiet questions began to prod at his mind, unheard but utterly real. The more he relaxed, the more he wondered, until he finally lifted his head slowly, and beside it, his left hand.
While the memories of what he had looked like before the recent change were unclear at best, the knowledge of what a human hand should look like was hardly lost. His hand was a mix of that and an ermine’s paw, the proportions of the mix uncertain but clearly favoring the ermine. His fingers were significantly shortened and the padding on them was thick enough to dull the feeling in his digits. The thickness of those digits also hindered their independent movement. He could grasp things well enough, but precise movement, or artistic pursuit of any kind, would be nearly impossible with a hand like this.
Was letting it go truly so much of a change?
With that thought, Lois watched as his fingers dwindled until they were nothing more but the toes of an ermine’s paw, albeit larger. It was barely an effort at all, he mused. The change in shape was so minimal, though, so why should it have been difficult?
By the time he glanced at it, his other forepaw had already taken its most feral form, and was retreating slowly into the sleeves of the robe. This development was unsurprising; his arms were still too long to be forelegs, after all, and making that simple adjustment was a logical next step.
He stood before proceeding with the next step. In a few short moments, his body had gained several inches, stretching him out into proportions ideally suited to the animal whose semblance he bore. Sighing, Lois willed his legs to change. The alteration of his joints was perhaps the most dramatic of all the changes, and yet it passed in a moment, his knees and hips adjusted to prefer quadrupedal to bipedal movement. He still stood on his hind paws comfortably, but walking in this stance would be difficult.
He dropped to his four paws, feeling the grain of the rough-hewn wooden floor beneath his pads and claws. It was a welcome, familiar feeling, one that relaxed him further as he willed his size to match his shape. When he had accidentally accomplished a similar shift earlier in the day, his two-legged stance had caused considerable disorientation during this adjustment. Now, though the rapid loss of size still made his head swim, his quadrupedal stance made keeping his composure a simple task.
His robe enveloped him now, thick and warm. Rather than panicking at its sudden cavernous size, Lois slipped easily from among its folds and stepped atop it. The ermine tested several spots amid the haphazard folds until at last curling up amongst them. He wound the material close about his body, a ward both against the cold and potential intruders.
Only once he had again settled into his bed and closed his eyes did he truly realize what he had just done. The anxiety returned in force, and he sat up, fully intending to shift back. Something stopped him, however.
He realized, lying there in a discarded robe as though it were the pinnacle of luxurious bedding, that he felt more at ease in this state than he had felt since regaining his senses. He feared briefly that the mind of an ermine had taken control, but brief consideration convinced him that was nonsense. He could still think, reason. No wave of instinct threatened to send him fleeing the scents of men and animals around him, nor did a hidden mind attempt to usurp his human thoughts. He was himself despite his abandoned humanity.
Why was he not panicking? It was an easy question to ask, but the answer proved as elusive as a gem in a pauper's pocket. His reaction to Balrog's combat advice had been immediate and reflexive, requiring no level of thought deeper than that which motivates the blink of an eye. Now, however, rather than resistance being so natural, the opposite was true. Shifting into the form of a feral ermine had been easier than any discernibly human thing he had attempted since waking in the morning, and it had come almost unbidden. After demonstrating his repulsion at the idea of emulating an animal in combat, he could only wonder why fully adopting the form of that animal failed to produce a comparable reaction.
This question and several others hounded his mind as he once more prepared to sleep, wrapping himself in the fallen robe. As he began to approach unconsciousness, however, only one of them stood out in his mind.
"Will I still remember being human in the morning?"
As troubling as the question was, it was not enough to dissuade him from drifting further towards sleep. It did delay his slumber, but it could not fully stop it. Finally, just as he fell asleep, one satisfactory answer settled into his mind.
"I would rather be an animal than live in fear of becoming one."
It was still early evening when Balrog returned to the bunks where his companions had been quartered. That Lois had wished to rest so soon after a day such as this did not surprise him very much at all. He would have been far more shocked had the ermine insisted on extending the day. As it was, he had little reason to worry about disturbing those who were resting, since their number was so few.
He found his commander crouched by their bunks, rummaging through the pack of supplies that he had carried during their previous patrol. Little remained of the consumables, and many of the other contents would need to be thoroughly cleansed before they could be used. Whatever the wolf was searching for seemed to be eluding him, but he still managed a genuine smile when he saw the lutin's approach.
"Balrog, good evening! How fares the patient?"
"He fares well enough. His memory remains badly damaged, but his mind is clear and I have seen some progress. I have no doubt that he will recover fully given sufficient time."
"What sort of progress have you seen?" Nathan asked.
As his commander closed the pack and returned it to its place under the bunk, Balrog replied, "He is beginning to recall small pieces of his past. They are fragments at best, but they are still something – a bit of encouragement amidst a difficult struggle."
The black wolf nodded, sitting on the edge of his bed as he listened. He cocked his head curiously at Balrog's explanation of the ermine's progress. "How large are these fragments that he is recovering?" he asked.
Balrog gave him an odd look. "They are very small, perhaps a few moments of time. He recalls them well, however. I asked him about one of the events that be recalled, and he was able to easily recount even his own thoughts during that time.” He shifted and eyed his commander warily. “Why are you suddenly so interested? I thought you were opposed to the idea of him recovering his memory."
The wolf gave a conceding nod before explaining. "I worry about what he might remember, and how he might react to the memories when they return to him. That does not mean that I do not wish him well during his recovery; quite the contrary, I expect I have more reason to be curious about his progress than do any of you." He shifted his seat, allowing his tail a little more room to move. "Now, you say he is recalling brief periods in good detail? That strikes me as odd. Memories rarely return in detail unless they are part of a larger epiphany. Memories are so interconnected that one rarely returns without bringing others with it."
Balrog shrugged. "I know too little about memories to truly say. What I will say is that I trust Lois, and I trust that if he says that he does not remember, he truly does not remember."
Nathan waved a paw and rocked back on the bed a little bit, removing himself from anything that could be misinterpreted as a confrontational posture. "I do not mean to question your friend's truthfulness by my observation. I was merely making note of an anomaly I perceived in your retelling. As we both know, this entire situation has been a maze of such mysteries, and we should consider any further oddity as a potential key to unraveling all those mysteries. If he has deep memories, but only of very specific events, we should consider the possibility that someone is very specifically choosing what they will allow him to recall."
"The only one I would suspect of having any motivation for such a thing is you," Balrog noted.
"And yet, if it would serve my purposes, you cannot discount the possibility of another party being similarly interested," Nathan countered. He gave a smile, the same predatory one he loved to use as he whittled through an opponent's defenses in combat. "The concerning issue is that they may have other directions for their efforts. I do not wish him to recall his past because I am afraid that he will recall being an assassin and seek to return to that occupation. Another interested party may instead direct their efforts at accomplishing exactly what I fear, stripping away any part of Lois that would resist such a task until he is just a pawn in their hands."
Balrog scowled at his friend's presentation of the disturbing possibility. Nathan was frustratingly good at playing Devil's advocate. "The one who cast the original spell on Lois is dead," the lutin finally responded.
"Perhaps, but the loss of his memories could make him a tempting target to a sufficiently skilled opportunist. Provided only that they could come by the information that Lois had been crippled in this way, it is not unreasonable to propose such a person could execute their designs on the man despite not having caused the affliction themselves."
"I saw no signs of such interference when I examined him earlier today," Balrog offered
"And likewise, nothing when you examined him while he was trapped as an animal," Nathan pointed out. "We are dealing with something we do not understand, Balrog. Vigilance is of the utmost importance. Just because you do not see any sort of conventional magic affecting him does not necessarily mean that he is free from any sort of taint. Until Lois is completely returned to his former shape and completely recovers his memory, or until we discover some satisfactory answer to our questions, we must assume the worst though we hope for the best."
Balrog heaved a frustrated sigh, but he was forced to nod his agreement. "I don't suppose you have any suggestions for how we might exercise appropriate caution?"
Nathan shrugged, his expression and bearing suggesting that he was enjoying the discussion, if only because it frustrated his friend. "You are the mage, my friend. If anyone is equipped to answer that question, I am certain it is you."
The lutin mage scoffed. "I have no more idea than you," he complained.
Chuckling, the black wolf stood from his bunk and stretched. "I will leave you to think on it, then."
The lutin raised an eyebrow. "Are you going somewhere?" he asked.
The tall, lupine man nodded. "I wish to take a run around the grounds to keep up conditioning," he answered. He turned to the stout man and gave a chuckle. "I don't suppose you would be interested in joining? After our last patrol, I worry I might outpace you by so large a margin that I will lose you completely next time!"
Balrog gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes before shaking his head vehemently. "I have had my exercise for the day. I am well satisfied with leaving you to your own."
"Suit yourself." The wolf grunted as he stretched out his muscles carefully. "By the way," he continued, "I think Victor was looking for you. It did not seem urgent, but you may wish to see what he needs. I would have tried to help him myself, but we both know that he is more comfortable in your company."
Balrog gave a nod, looking at his friend with some concern. “Is he all right?”
The wolf shrugged as he grabbed a few things from where he had arranged them on his bed for his run. “I cannot say for certain. He has been a bit detached since we came here.”
“He is very concerned for his family. They are all still within the walls of Metamor, and he worries that something will happen while they lie beyond his reach.” The large man sighed, rubbing his jaw with one of his large hands. “I cannot imagine what it is like to have someone you care for that much separated from you. He may relate to me better than to you, but the only family I had is now dead, and it is hard for me to mourn his passing.”
Nathan nodded. He fidgeted uncomfortably, like he wanted to leave as soon as possible. “My family is all in the south.”
“You said that you were trapped here during the Three Gates?” Balrog asked.
The black wolf waved a hand in the air. “It wasn’t exactly an accident,” he clarified. “The Curse was, but I came to Metamor to aid in the defense against Nasoj. When the Curse was cast, that mission became slightly more of a permanent relocation. I have had some contact with my family since then, but they’re not keen on the idea of a ‘werewolf’ coming down from the north, claiming he is their son.”
Balrog gave a sharp shake of his head and a chuckle. Looking back at the wolf, he asked, “Wouldn’t you have been rather young at the time of the Battle?”
“My family asked similar questions at the time,” Nathan noted with a mirthless chuckle. “It was something I felt needed to be done, however, and I do not regret having done it.” He sighed and shook his head. “Few people came to the Keep’s aid during those dark days. Whether they failed to take Nasoj seriously or thought that allowing him to weaken the Keep was politically expedient at the time, the Midlands was happy to let things play out without intervening. I take no small amount of pride in having been one of the few to go against that decision.”
“I am glad that you did. Now, we both have tasks to tend to. You need to take your run, and I should go see if Victor is all right.” He kicked at the floorboard with one of his thick boots. “And then, perhaps, I will take a look to make sure Lois is all right.”
“Not a bad idea,” Nathan confirmed with a smile and a nod. “I will see you later. And don’t give Victor TOO much to drink, all right?”
Balrog smirked and waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll make sure he behaves himself. I’m more worried about you.”
“I never drink and run,” Nathan said matter-of-factly, and then he was gone before Balrog could say another word. The large man shook his head and grinned for a few moments as he watched the wolf retreat. Once he was out of sight, the lutin left to find Victor. While he would not have the assistance of Kyia in this effort, he doubted that his young friend had wandered far from the barracks.
Link 4: Influence
Lois started awake in a moment of panic. Even with his memory in shambles as it was, he was unable to shake an unmistakable sense of familiarity with the sensation. He rubbed the remaining sleep from his eyes with one of his paws, thankfully wakeful enough to turn his claws away to avoid harming himself. Turning to dangle his legs off the bed, he tried to determine what had woken him, but nothing stood out.
It was only after a few moments of sitting in silence that he was finally able to pick out something apart from his own breathing and the beating of his heart. It was faint, even to the ears of an animal, but it did become clearer as he picked out the direction it was coming from and turned his ears to hear it better. It was a sort of humming… no, singing, though he could only hear the cadence of words rather than what was being sung.
Lois stood, adjusting the loose robe around his shoulders. He stepped lightly to the door, feeling the cold chill of stone beneath his pawpads, and did his best to open it without causing any noticeable sound with the latch. With the door now opened into the dark hallway, Lois could make out the sounds of singing a little more distinctly. He took care to determine the direction that the sounds were coming from, but it did not take him very long to decide that the voice was coming from the right branch of the hallway.
He hesitated for a few brief moments, trying to decide whether following the mysterious voice was really in his best interests, but curiosity overruled any concerns that he had.
He padded quietly down the hallway after the unseen voice. As he reached a corner, his ears twitched to follow the sound in the new direction at the fork. Uneasiness crept into the back of his mind; it seemed almost as if the sound had entirely changed directions as he reached this branch in the hallway. He took a breath to steady his nerves; he would not be defeated by feral instinct, not again. Something assured him that this was a song that he had to pursue, a song meant for him in particular. He glanced around the corner to see if he could see the source of the singing yet, but the hall ended at another branch.
He moved as quietly as padded paws allowed, carefully muffling the sounds of his claws as much as he was capable. The words of the mysterious song were becoming more distinct as the voice itself grew clearer, but he could not recognize anything that was being said. It was a woman’s voice, of that he was nearly certain, but he was almost as certain that the words of the song were in a foreign tongue. That itself was no great mystery; many people from around the Midlands came to Metamor for just as many reasons. Lois was drawn on not by the foreign words, but by how they teased at something in the back of his mind. He knew this language – had known it prior to losing memory of so much of his past. He still understood and spoke the Common tongue; why would this other language so insistently evade his grasp?
He rounded another corner at a steady pace, and was greeted by the sight of starlight in an open sky. He was leaving the barracks. Here a few plants were grown in a small garden, a strangely peaceful location to be built directly adjacent to where the Outpost’s soldiers were gathered. Perhaps it was meant to distract war-weary men from the pain of times past, or perhaps the pet project of some of the local citizens. Whatever the case, Lois determined that the voice he heard was coming from under the centerpiece of the small garden plot, a tree that grew solitary among the many climbing vines and low shrubs around it. While the garden itself seemed to have been raised up in recent days, the breadth of the tree spoke of long years remaining rooted as it was. It had doubtless been here since before most Keepers had been born.
The ermine stepped silently between the rows of flowers, many freshly sprouting with the recent arrival of spring. The voice was very strong now, tantalizingly nearby. The words continued to tumble through his mind, each one seeming so achingly familiar yet remaining meaningless to his consideration. He had to find the one who was singing, to see who was singing. Perhaps it would be the spark to restore these fleeting memories…
Lois stopped as he rounded the base of the tree. He had found the singer. She sat on a stone bench that seemed itself to grow from the earth by the base of the tree. Her tail, black-tipped like his own, swayed in time to the words as she sang, her white fur blown gently by an evening breeze. His eyes widened as he spied her form, so similar to his own. His breath caught in his throat as she turned slowly and glanced towards him, her eyes a pair of glowing blue orbs that shone even now, though lit by little more than starlight. She moved slowly, deliberately, song never wavering, and offered him her paw.
Lois hesitated. Something seemed strange; he had not known that there were other ermines in the Keep. Or perhaps he had simply forgotten? Something about this woman, much like her song, ached of familiarity. Was she an enemy? A friend? A lost love?
Her offered paw remained steady, waiting for him to decide, and her muzzle turned in an earnest smile. He took a step forward, trying to unwrap his confused thoughts. He was struck by her beauty; the way her form, though Cursed, fit the dress that she wore made his heart flutter. She seemed almost too regal for reality, and suspicion made him pause. Still, Lois found himself drawn in by a strange allure. He crossed on silent paws and took her hand, and she gently guided him around from behind the bench to stand before her.
Lois tried to speak, but his voice caught and little emerged beyond a confused squeak. Her eyes laughed at him, even as the words of her song continued, their rhythm never wavering despite her clear amusement. Her paw pulled him gently down, and he knelt before her, eyes still locked questioningly on her face. She gently guided him to sit on the bench beside her, and then to rest his head cradled in her lap. Although he continued to resist briefly, the nervous tension drained from his body until he was comfortably lounged across the bench. Even his eyes fluttered shut, and the quiet tones of her song erased concern from his mind.
He rested there several golden moments, the jumble of his thoughts quieted in his waking mind for the first time in many an hour. There must have been a touch of the Divine in her song; no lesser power could have so easily stilled his mental anguish. With no desperation, his thoughts turned to his missing memories. In the clarity of his calm repose, he wondered if perhaps they would return. He could almost visualize the jagged edges left between the things he recalled and those that had been lost. It seemed so simple. If he could only find those missing pieces…
A sudden, sharp, stabbing pain interrupted the ermine’s silent contemplation. Opening his eyes, he glared in horror at the hilt of a stiletto, buried in his chest and held in the grasp of the mysterious ermine lady whose song still rang in his ears. He reached up and grasped it, reaching after the lady’s hand as she released her grip but she easily slipped from his suddenly weak fingers. Lois rolled from the bench and landed on the ground, tried to scramble away from his assailant, gasped in astonishment even though the pain of his injury was still unfelt. Even as the song continued, he heard laughter from behind him.
“Vincent Lois.” He rolled onto his back, gripping the hilt with both hands and crying out. Somehow he could hear the lady speak as she continued to sing. “Too valuable to die, too dangerous to leave alive. You should feel privileged; that dagger is worth more coin than most men will see in their entire lives.”
Lois coughed and gasped, looking at the dagger. He only now noticed that no blood was pooling from the wound. It had been long enough; he should have been seeing the results of the injury, but there was nothing. Still, the edges of his vision were beginning to fade, and he could feel his grip on consciousness slipping. Grunting, he tried to pull the blade from his wound; perhaps he could stop the blade from accomplishing its purpose if he could remove it. Unfortunately, removing it from his chest was like trying to lift a horse barehanded. His vision faded entirely for a moment, and he was forced to halt his attempts. What was the dagger doing? His heart sank as he considered the words his assailant had spoken. If he was too dangerous to live and too valuable to die, that didn’t leave any pleasant options.
His vision began to fade again, and he turned his head to glance towards his attacker. She stood by the bench still, taking short, easy steps towards him, the dress about her paws still fluttering like something out of a dream even as she stalked him like a nightmare. “Relax, assassin. It will be over soon.”
Unable to remove the dagger, Lois struggled up to a kneeling position, then tried to stand long enough to scramble away. He only managed to take one drunken step before collapsing again and rolling painfully onto his side. The ermine lady was almost to him, and he could barely move. An icy cold gripped his body, and he found it difficult to even think.
As his grip on consciousness faded, Lois was dimly aware that another person had arrived. He tried to concentrate enough to see who it was or even track what was happening, but only vague impressions came to him. A few heated words, a shout, a scuffle… then Lois couldn’t tell what was happening. Everything went black.
Lois was not sure how long he remained unconscious. There was no pain, nor feeling of any kind. There was, however, an uncomfortable consciousness of a passage of time. This blackness was not the pleasant refuge of sleep. It was a terrifying, empty feeling that nagged at him, continually reminding him that the world continued on in his absence.
Finally, something changed, and the ermine slowly began to regain awareness. His eyes felt dry, and the images he saw blurred into an unfocused, uncertain miasma. His ears were a little clearer, and he could hear a quiet, masculine voice speaking to him.
“Stay calm; you will be all right in a few moments.”
Slowly, Lois’ vision cleared, and he could see a wolf crouching over him, one paw grasping the hilt of the dagger which still protruded from the ermine’s chest. He waved his other paw over the end of the hilt, whispering quiet words. Runes along the hilt were glowing, pulsing in a silent rhythm as the wolf worked. Feeling was beginning to return to Lois’ extremities, and he realized slowly that the paralysis in his limbs was relenting. He twitched his fingers and began to raise his head, before a pointed glare from the wolf convinced him to stay still.
A few more moments passed before the wolf ceased his murmuring, and with a rapid motion withdrew the blade from where it had been buried in Lois’ chest. The ermine gasped and reached hastily for the area. As he clasped the area, however, he became quickly aware of the fact that there was no sign of where he had been stabbed at all. Not only did he have no visible injury, but even his clothing was unharmed.
“Can you stand?” The wolf offered Lois one of his large paws. The ermine accepted the offer, and was pulled up to his feet quickly. He took a few moments to be sure that his balance was sure, but whatever ill effects had been caused by the mysterious dagger seemed to have been fully removed by the wolf’s work.
“It seems so,” Lois replied, feigning a bit more confidence than he felt after being attacked. He glanced at the dagger, which the wolf still held in one of his paws. It seemed to be radiating heat, though the wolf gave no indication that it was painful to him. Images beyond the weapon seemed to warp and bend as though it projected invisible flame. “What sort of magic is in that weapon?”
The wolf glanced at the dagger with a scowl. “Soul trapping magic. It is strictly forbidden by any of the major magic schools in the Midlands, but I imagine that the people who are trying to capture you are not particularly concerned with anyone else’s rules.” He looked around for a few moments before turning to look Lois in the eyes. “We should get to shelter quickly. She may be back soon, and if there are any others in her group then we may have more to deal with than one hypnotist with a few nasty toys.”
Lois nodded, but the wolf turned and stalked away without acknowledging his response. The ermine followed him, still shivering quietly to himself as his mind replayed recent events, giving a few glances over his shoulder to make sure that they were not being followed. The dark furred wolf quickly worked his way through a few halls in the barracks before reaching a room and entering hurriedly. He held the door for the ermine, and threw the latch behind them. Lois felt nervous to be locked in the room with the mysterious wolf, but silently reassured himself with the knowledge that he would not even be alive without the help of this mysterious figure. For now, he was just trying to focus on settling his rattled nerves.
The room that they had entered was already lit by an oil lamp set on a table in the center of the room and several candles lighting the deeper shadows of the corners from sconces on the wall. The room struck Lois as some sort of meeting room, likely for use by patrol commanders to plan their missions. By the way the wax had pooled around the base of the candles, the wolf had been in this chamber for some time previous. Lois tried not to think too much about why he had been expected.
With the initial need to escape from immediate danger gone, Lois was able to see his rescuer a little more clearly. The wolf wore a light tunic that contrasted with his black fur, but over top of that he wore a dark coat that obscured most of what he carried on his belt. Lois could see the haft of a weapon sitting readily available at either side of the wolf’s person, but the rounded design of those grips was unfamiliar to Lois, though that could as easily have been due to his loss of memory as to a lack of experience with this particular weapon. Regardless of what they were, he meant to keep an eye on them.
Laying the stiletto upon the table at the center of the room, the wolf wasted little time walking to a cupboard to one side and pulling out a pair of glasses and a bottle. He poured a glass and offered it to the ermine, who looked at it suspiciously.
“I’m sorry, someone has already tried to kill me once today. I’d rather not accept a drink from you at this point.”
The wolf shrugged and set the bottle down while he took advantage of the drink himself. “I do understand why you are hesitant to accept a drink at my hand. Still, I think both of us could use one after what just occurred.” He took another sip and walked to where he had left the enchanted blade. “You would be hard pressed to find a weapon of this sort, even among the servants of Nasoj.”
Lois turned his head suddenly as the sound of singing resumed in the distance. Even knowing what the lady intended for him, Lois found himself rising to his feet, meaning fully to again search out the source of the song. He had already nearly reached the door when the tones of the song suddenly stopped, and he staggered to a stop, just a few steps short of a wolf who glared at him sharply.
“Get control of yourself,” he ordered sharply. Lois saw now that the wolf had placed some sort of glyph on the door, which pulsed erratically with some unknown power. “The woman who sought to trap your soul is a Siren, a very sinister sort of hypnotic mage. Sirens can exert simple influence over the minds of men with their song, but I imagine by the strength of her power over you that she was given a vial of your blood.”
Lois blinked, backing away from the door warily. “Why would she need that?”
The wolf made a few gestures about the door, and whatever he was doing seemed to calm the eddies of power that were causing the glyph to pulse. “It is a primitive form of sanguimancy. After drinking a small amount of a victim’s blood, a Siren can impose their will on a subject with very little resistance.”
The ermine stumbled to a chair and sat, feeling weak. “I think I would like that drink now.”
The wolf nodded. “Of course. That ward should prevent her song from reaching you until her influence has passed. Meanwhile, we have nothing to do but bide our time.”
He poured two more glasses of the drink and set the bottle between them before handing one glass to Lois and sitting across the table with the second. He took a quick sip of the drink, and the ermine did the same. The sharp sting of alcohol on his tongue assured him that whatever sort of drink it might have been, it would quickly leave him in a drunken stupor if he did not exercise restraint. As tense as he felt knowing the control that the strange enchantress held over him, he did not need that sort of relaxation.
“I suppose an introduction would be welcome,” his host said after he had already downed another half tumbler full. “My name is Nathan. As to how I know you and why I came to your aid, that may be slightly more difficult to explain. Truly the answer to the first question should have prevented me from ever helping you, but I am only here because I have been sent to someone’s aid, and as loathe as I have been to accept it, you are the one to whom I must now give my help.” Lois was confused as he listened, and from the way the wolf’s voice changed tone and inflection throughout his speech the ermine could sense a clear conflict. Again, he doubted his choice to drink, even as his savior leveled another sharp glare on him across the table. “I ask you, Vincent Lois, what is the worth of a life?”
With adrenaline now fading and the touch of alcohol settling his nerves, Lois was better prepared for the sudden, unexpected shift in the wolf’s demeanor. The question hung in the air, and Lois left it so unanswered as he slowly drank from his glass again. Setting it down, he met the wolf’s gaze as directly as he could. “I sense in your question a test for me. If there is a countersign you expect me to deliver, I do not remember what it might be. If it is a catechism I should recite, I have no knowledge of it. I can only offer my own answer to the question.”
Nathan shifted in his seat, something changing in his expression, but that searching gaze remained. “And? What is your answer?”
Lois paused, trying to determine what the wolf expected. Then, he realized, it made no difference. “A life... is a man’s first and most valuable possession. No other riches have value unless life itself remains.”
The wolf snorted a short laugh and stood, taking the bottle from the center of the table and filling his glass again. “An amusing answer,” he said, drinking a quarter of his drink before immediately replacing it from the bottle. He stared at the full glass again for a moment before setting it down and pushing it towards the center of the table, beyond an easy arm’s reach. “I have heard you in your sincerity, now hear me in mine. The answer you gave me is not the one I expected – and yes there was a specific phrase I expected to hear repeated – but it tells me what I needed to know. You have lost your memory, as I had been told.”
Lois nodded, trying to determine exactly what the wolf was doing. “I remember bits and snatches, people and events, but not much more than that. There are only very few things I even recall from before coming here.”
The wolf nodded. “So I have heard from at least one person I consider trustworthy, but I had to be sure. Though they may think they know you, they do not know about you nearly as much as I do.” He paced a few steps towards the door and turned back to look at the ermine contemplatively. “Ignorant as you are of your own past, I suppose some degree of explanation would be helpful for us both.”
The ermine nodded his agreement. “If you know anything of my past I would be glad to hear it.”
Nathan shook his head sharply with a bitter chuckle. “I doubt that. Nevertheless, I am not here to judge whether you will enjoy learning of your past. For me to be of any true help to you, it is necessary for me to explain those things now past.” He clearly wished to take more of his drink to still his nerves before starting his explanations, but some more rational part of him realized he needed clarity more than calm at this moment.
“Before you came to Metamor, Lois, long before you lost your memory, you were an assassin. Not some hired blade who hid behind the influence of nobility or royalty to work tasks without hope of reprisal, no. You worked for whatever sort might have the coin to pay: nobles, yes, but also merchants, moneychangers, even members of the clergy. If a man wanted blood spilled and could afford your fee, you would see the task done.”
Instinctively, Lois wished to deny it, but something in the back of his mind kept him silent. Whether it was simply the desire to remain impartial, or some part of him that wished to accept the story as truth he could not tell from his own part, but at least he meant to hear what the wolf would say.
“That is why I know you in a way that many others here do not,” the wolf said quietly. “A merchant’s family should never have to hear that he was murdered at the behest of a rival, yet one day I returned home from learning my trade and found the town guard explaining to my mother that my father’s throat had been slit and his body left in a gutter with the sewage. None knew it was your work then; no man in such profession wishing to live past the next week would perform such an act where he could be identified. Only later were you captured after another attempted assassination, and you coldly and calmly admitted to killing a merchant in addition to several other murders. I couldn’t bear to watch you sit there and smugly admit what you had done. The guards had to escort me from the room screaming, but as they did I knew that you would escape. How could you not? The court had denied me justice, of course fate would do the same. Before the gallows had even been prepared, your cell was found empty, and nobles are only too quick to forgive a killer when his services may be useful to them later. I swore, with or without the aid of the law, to bring you to justice myself.”
The story made Lois increasingly uncomfortable. He finished his glass in an attempt to settle his nerves, but he could barely even taste the alcohol anymore and certainly could not feel its effects. Only the fact that the wolf had not yet killed him kept him from trying to make a quick escape. “So… you have rescued me from the Siren in order to kill me yourself?”
The wolf sighed and paced back towards the table, leaning across to take his tumbler and drink again. Between the two men trying to calm themselves, the bottle was already very nearly empty. “I would sorely like to. To be honest, had the Curse not changed your face, I do not believe I would have been able to stop myself.” He glanced over at Lois, his expression impossible to read. “In my obsession with revenge, however, I began to learn more about you.
“As soon as my time as an apprentice was over, I spurned the life of a craftsman to search you out, using what coin my father’s business had provided us after his death to fund my ventures. I expected to follow a trail after you traced in blood and death, but as I slowly picked up your trail it was from men and women who considered you a friend, not from widows and orphans of your victims desiring to help my righteous crusade. As furious as I was about my father’s death at your hands, I could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. I began to ask different questions, inquiring after your past instead of only asking where you had gone. As I gathered new information, a strange picture emerged that I had not expected.
“You were, as I said before, an assassin under no banner. I assumed that this meant that you worked alone, but I learned that this wasn’t the case as time passed. You bore a brand on your left hand, inscribed with a simple message sketched in fine scars: ‘No life has value except for my own.’” He let the phrase hang in the air as he watched the ermine for any reaction. Lois was too frozen by anticipation to even react, though he did realize that this was the source of the wolf’s earlier question. “Such a brand was entirely consistent with what I knew of you already, but it was something more. I discovered in time that you were not the only one to bear such a mark. I spent far too many crowns to purchase the cooperation of those who had seen the mark in other places, and what I learned in those interviews made me reconsider my quest, and drove me to turn my life to another purpose.”
Lois stirred. He looked at the palm of his left paw, but found no message – there was only a clutter of scars with no pattern or meaning. He sighed. With what remained of his memory, the message might have been there once, now erased by the Curse. As it stood, if this was the conclusion to the wolf’s tale, he was not sure he found it satisfactory. “You came here, a place where the Curse would hold you and prevent you from completing your mission of revenge?”
Nathan chuckled with a shake of his head. “I came to fight during the Battle of the Three Gates, responding to a summons from the Duke to fortify against the coming siege. That the Curse kept me here was coincidence, though it did certainly make returning to my hunt much more difficult. Then, after almost ten years of building myself a life here away from dreams of vengeance, you came to me.”
“And rather than kill me, you saved my life.”
The wolf shook his head and tried to drink again, only to find he had emptied his cup already. Heaving a sigh, he set it on the table and placed his paws on the wood beside it. “Vincent Lois, I cannot forgive you for what you did, but there is more at work here than one more death could possibly make right,” he said, speaking slowly. “I do not know how to best explain what is going on, but my understanding of the evidence leads me to believe that every assassin with that mark upon their hands is a thrall, with no control of their own actions.”
Lois began to protest, but he held his peace. Even if he did deny the claim, he knew he would not be trusted. The very nature of the suggestion meant that denial would only serve to make him seem even more suspicious. In fact, as he thought about it more, he began to see a strange sense to the idea. “If that is true… that could explain why I remember so little.”
“Yes.” The wolf finally sat again, clasping his hands before him. He was clearly still struggling with his own emotions, but he also seemed to have reached the point where he was ready to try to help Lois. “Some of the assassins that I discovered bearing that brand had disappeared without a trace, but others had been captured. Disturbingly, of those that were captured, most died in their cells with no visible wounds, faces twisted in agony. Of the few that survived, most were reduced to mindless babbling before any trial could occur. Only a few had survived with some degree of sanity, but each maintained that they could remember none of their alleged crimes. More strikingly, the mark had disappeared from their hands.”
“What convinced you that they were under someone’s control?” Lois asked.
The wolf turned to meet his eyes. “Though many times I received my information long after any trail had occurred, once I was able to observe one of the trials myself, and had the opportunity to speak to the man in question. Like you, he claimed that he had some fragments of memory remaining, but that included some dim recollection of assassinations he had committed, and of a voice directing his every action.”
“You trust his testimony?”
“Not without some cause,” the wolf replied. He sat back, running claws through his fur as he organized his thoughts. “Though that was the only one of the assassins to whom I spoke personally, his story matched too closely with the others for me to simply ignore it. He gained nothing from convincing me of his innocence; I had no power to free him, and his appointment with the hangman’s noose was mere hours away. There was no desperation to his speech, only an earnest desire to be believed. Added to the weight of evidence I had already collected, it was enough to confirm what I had already suspected.”
Lois glanced at the door, where the glyph still pulsed with energy, though visibly weaker now than when it had first been drawn. “So the Siren…”
“Likely sent to eliminate you after your masters’ control had been thwarted,” the wolf finished, nodding. “To the best of my knowledge, you would be the first of their assassins to have broken free of their control without them intentionally abandoning you. It seems that their magic was unable to withstand the Curse’s power to alter your mind, and with their control broken before they could dispose of you on their terms it seems they had to send an agent to do so personally.”
The ermine looked back at where the stiletto sat. It still pulsed with a strange energy that warped the light around it, causing images of impossible shadows to flicker around its silhouette. “They were not trying to kill me, though,” he mused.
“Lois, I was not able to determine exactly how long you acted as an assassin, but I know it was longer than ten years. Thrall or no, I expect some measure of personal skill was involved in your success over that length of time, and that would make you an extremely valuable asset to them,” Nathan explained. “If they could trap your soul magically within this blade, it would allow them to move you to whatever location they wished. Your body would appear as a corpse, and few people would stop a hearse on its way to return a fallen soldier to his homeland, regardless of whether the body was Curse-touched or not.”
“And then they could have simply taken control again,” Lois muttered. He shuddered a bit. Although he had no recollection of being enthralled, the idea itself sent an unearthly chill through him and made the fur stand straight along the back of his neck.
Nathan sighed and nodded. “Unfortunately, the threat has not passed. We have thwarted their first attempt, nothing more. I have no question that they will try again soon.”
The ermine looked across the table seriously. His claws were beginning to dig into the tabletop. “I have to escape before they can strike again,” he hissed.
The wolf nodded his agreement. “As much as I have wished to kill you, Lois, I realized in time that it was not Vincent Lois that I wished dead, it was the puppet master pulling the strings. As soon as the Siren ceases her song, we must leave this place.”
Nathan looked at Lois soberly. “I cannot leave you to fend for yourself, as much as I might desire to do so for my father’s sake. Throughout my quest for revenge, I have soothed my conscience by telling myself that killing you would not make me the same sort of assassin you were. I have lived a life enviable by some priests, convinced that my good deeds would undo the necessary evil I sought to commit.” He slowly shook his head, running a paw through the fur along the back of his neck. “Jaded as I have become, I still could not consider myself honest in my intentions if I was not willing to extend a helping hand to you now that I am convinced of your innocence.” The words he spoke came out from a tight jaw, and he refused to make eye contact as he spoke. His continuing anger was clear, but he still made no move to harm the man he had rescued perhaps an hour before.
Lois watched the black wolf, trying to collect his thoughts. On the one hand, he feared what would happen if Nathan’s anger were to boil over against him. His duels against Balrog the day before had been ample proof that he would be defenseless if he was ever attacked. By the same token, however, attempting to flee on his own would leave him exposed, forced to fight any pursuer with what little skill he still possessed. The wolf was dangerous, but Lois judged that fleeing on his own would be even more so.
“When can we leave, then?”
The wolf looked at him briefly, then turned to look at the rune that had been traced on the door. The pulses in the energy seemed to have calmed and lost their regular rhythm, even as the glyph itself had visibly lost much of its power. The wolf crossed to the door and ran his claws through the air near the door, and slowly dismantled the magic. Lois strained to hear the hypnotic tones of the music, but even once the spell was fully removed he heard nothing from beyond the door besides a light breeze and the very quiet sound of a torch guttering in the sconce beyond the door.
“Better sooner than later I would say,” Nathan replied. “We have several hours until sunup, and that should give us time to disappear into the wild before my patrol realizes that I am gone.”
Lois felt a sudden chill run through his body. Though he felt willing to do almost anything to avoid another encounter with the Siren or anyone allied with her, the thought of leaving immediately made him realize how serious the situation was. He was isolated, cut off from his patrol, with only this stranger between him and the sinister purposes of an unknown pursuit.
“I have one friend here still,” Lois said. “Could we try to bring him with us?”
The wolf shook his head resolutely. “If he is sleeping in the common bunk room it would not be worth the risk, even as empty as it is now. We know for certain that the enemy has agents within the walls, and while it may very well just be the Siren, we should still take precautions and avoid giving her opportunity to find you again. I will escort you to your chamber so that you can collect your things, but that is already a significant risk. We should hurry to it.”
The wolf stepped briskly towards the table as he spoke, and leaned down to take a black travel bag from where it had been set below the tabletop. He slung it over his shoulder and looked to Lois meaningfully. It was clear that he was serious about his suggestion that they leave immediately.
Nervous as he was, Lois still felt that the wolf was right. He stood and joined Nathan by the door. The wolf cracked it open and glanced beyond the threshold, his ears swiveling slowly to check for threats his eyes could not detect. The ermine waited, straining his own ears to try to hear anything, but there was nothing unexpected. After several moments of silence, the wolf turned and nodded towards the door. Lois took the suggestion and passed the wolf into the hall, taking a moment to get his bearings before setting off in the direction of the room where his possessions waited. The wolf followed him, keeping close with eerily silent footfalls devoid even of the clicking of claws the ermine made himself.
Their journey was short. Though many of the Outpost’s halls were uniform and utilitarian with few landmarks, Lois found himself following small signs that he could remember with startling clarity from his few trips through the halls since his transformation. Momentarily, the nagging fear of becoming an animal again returned, but the spike of panic was quickly quashed. There were far more immediate fears on his mind now. Losing his mind to feral instinct now felt like it might be a welcome relief with the fate he had narrowly escaped barely an hour prior.
He realized that the door to his chamber was ajar as he rounded the corner, and Nathan sensed his unease quickly. The wolf stepped forward and moved towards the door cautiously. He reached under his coat and withdrew one of the weapons Lois had noticed earlier, revealing it to be a slender wooden rod of moderate length wrought with intricate designs up the half that the wolf gripped. The manner in which he held it seemed odd as well: he held it almost vertically in his strong hand, with his other forearm braced behind it. He reached the threshold and delivered a sharp kick to the center of the door, spinning to defend against any attack from the corner before entering the room and pinning the portal to the wall to prevent it from causing any more noise.
“I see no one,” he whispered, stepping back. “I expect you left the door open while investigating the Siren song.”
Lois nodded, though his heart remained in his throat even as he followed the wolf into the room. Nathan’s amber eyes glowed in the dark as the ermine stepped past him, but there was no threat in his gaze. He turned and left the room to stand guard in the hall, pulling the door closed as he did.
The ermine wasted no time finding the wardrobe where his things had been placed. Though he knew there was a rush, he could not help himself as he saw the small pile of weapons wrapped in clothing that no longer fit his strangely altered body. He pulled one of the long daggers from their sheaths slowly, eyes falling along the silvery blade that almost glowed despite the darkness of the room. His mind wandered to the claims that Nathan had made, and a chill ran through him. Was he truly an assassin? These daggers… he had no doubt that they were exactly the sort of weapons that such a man would use in his dark work. It only served to convince him even further of the wolf’s sincerity. He wondered how much blood had been spilled at his hands…
No. He drew a sharp breath as he snapped the blade back home. Whatever evil had driven his actions of the past had been washed away by the enigmatic Curse. He would not let it haunt him now, while his life still hung in the balance.
He examined the bundle of clothing that the weapons had been wrapped in, trying as quickly as possible to determine if any of the ill-fitting clothing could be useful. The robe he wore gave him some degree of mobility, but it offered no protection. Perhaps some of the armor could still be of use…
His contemplation was interrupted as something fell out of the bundle, landing on the floor with a clatter and rolling a few inches before coming to rest near the bed. Clothing forgotten, Lois looked at it in confusion. He knelt beside the object and took it in one of his paws. It was a smoking pipe, ornately carved with designs intricate enough to convince him that no rank-and-file soldier would be able to afford such a thing. Any question of its origin was cleared from his mind, however, by a strange ache.
The ermine knew what it was to try to remember something with no success. It had become an infuriatingly common sensation to him over the past few days. Looking at the pipe, on the other hand, produced an entirely different sensation. No, he did not recall the mysterious artifact. It was almost the opposite, as though he specifically recalled that it did not exist. It was an inherently illogical feeling and he knew it, but it was so intense that it made him feel dizzy. What did it mean?
He turned his eyes to glance about the room, suddenly aware of a hundred tiny details that had escaped his notice until now. The stones of the floor in the room, he realized, produced a similar feeling of impossibility. Turning slowly, he set a paw atop the table beside the bed, feeling a phantom sting shoot through his arm. It was wrong. His fingertips passed over the smooth wood. Too smooth; he distinctly recalled having raked his claws across the edge of the table the night before. His robe, the sheets on the bed, the wardrobe… they were all wrong.
Lois coughed, realizing that he had not taken a breath since finding the pipe, the impossible pipe that still rested in the palm of his hand. He braced himself against the wardrobe, his eyes quickly darting to the door, which remained closed before him. The ermine silently approached it, and tried to peek through the crack to see what was beyond.
Nathan maintained his defensive posture outside the door, glancing about for any sign of a threat while staying close enough to the door to hear if Lois called to him. He hoped that the ermine would prepare quickly. They needed to leave as soon as they could, and he hated to consider the possibility that the assassin might reconsider their attempt to escape.
“What are you doing?”
The wolf swore and stumbled back from the source of the voice, resuming his defensive stance as well as he could. He had not expected any interruption, and now he struggled to catch his breath as he searched the shadows for the one which had spoken, finding nothing despite his predator’s vision.
“Who goes there?”
“You were sent to kill the ermine, not challenge him to a game of cat and mouse.”
The wolf swore again, letting his weapon drop to his side.
“I told the grandmaster that I could bring Lois back alive!” he replied, speaking to the air in the absence of a visible presence. “I was given this opportunity; do you seek to undo the work I have already done?”
“Vincent Lois is too dangerous to be left alive! If he remembers anything of who we are – if he remembers anything about what we did to him – he could destroy us!”
“Your argument is with the grandmaster, now leave before you compromise this mission beyond repair!”
“Lois is a shell! Bringing him back will accomplish nothing.”
The wolf paused, blinking. That was wrong, none of them would – and then he growled angrily.
“Well played, Vincent,” he snarled. Behind him, the door opened fully, revealing the form of the ermine standing beyond. Lois held one of his daggers casually in his right hand, walking slowly towards the wolf.
“I believe the grandmaster would have been pleased with your work, at least with how it started,” the ermine said drily. His general bearing and manner had completely changed, and he spoke with confidence and a bite of anger. “Tell me, do Sirens actually exist? I am curious.”
The wolf angrily swiped towards Lois with his strange weapon, but it passed through the ermine as though he did not exist. “You fool! Do you realize what you have done?” Nathan barked.
“Evidently, you have failed your mission to bring me back to your masters,” the ermine replied casually.
“I failed to bring you back alive,” the wolf snarled. “You have left me no choice but to kill you.”
“I assume we will deal with that once this dream has ended,” Lois remarked. He stood muzzle to muzzle with the wolf now, staring him down despite his weaker, more slender build. “When you do, what will your masters think? You failed utterly to kill a vulnerable amnesiac, apparently following a plan of your own conception. I expect you might be stripped of whatever rank you own, or perhaps they will send another agent to punish your incompetence.”
“I know you seek to learn more, Lois, and I will tell you nothing.” The wolf was trying with little success to compose himself. The anger was expected, but there was something else. Frustration, regret…
“You are not fully your own either,” Lois spoke softly. His voice held something new: a touch of pity. “You never wished to kill me; you fought your masters for a chance to save my life.”
“Do not patronize me, you fool.” The wolf angrily circled about the standing form of Lois, who merely turned to watch him. “You are nothing more than a useful tool, a puppet to dance at the end of our strings. After years of useful work, of course we are loathe to lose your services.”
“Yet my services are lost, perhaps irreparably. You know as well as I do that I know too much to risk another attempt at subterfuge,” the ermine replied. “Perhaps, though, you desire another chance, an opportunity freely given.”
Nathan stopped pacing and glared at the ermine. “Whatever you would offer, I suggest you do so quickly.”
Lois gave an enigmatic smile. “When we both awake, I will waste no time in making my way to the common bunks. If you wish to kill me there you will have to contend with my allies there, along with the eyes of every soldier currently housed in the barracks.” The ermine knew that his deliberate speech infuriated the wolf, but he meant to make his case clear. “I will tell them who you are, and while you may succeed in killing me if you remain persistent, you will never be able to work in the North again, and so Cursed as you are you will be worthless to your employers, left with nothing but to live out a short life in the wilderness. However, if you so desire, I will leave Outpost behind and meet you in whichever location you wish, alone.”
The wolf sneered. “Why would you risk such a thing with nothing to gain?”
“As I see it, I am very likely a dead man as it is. I do not underestimate the powerful motivation that revenge can be, whether you would gain anything from my death or not. I wish for a chance to face you, man to man. I have had my fill of running.”
“I do not believe you,” Nathan replied. “You know you will lose a fight against me as you are. I watched you fight Balrog this afternoon, and any farmer’s son could have seen that you lost all of your combat skill along with your memory.”
“What do you have to lose, then?” Lois asked. His smile was infuriating to the already-frustrated wolf. “The worst scenario is that I bring someone with me, and you will have to kill me in a crowd, the same as you would if you tried to assassinate me in Hareford. If, however, I am honest, then you have one more chance to bring me to your masters alive, and save your own life at once.”
The wolf’s amber eyes narrowed. He slowly slipped the strange wooden rod back into its position on his belt as he took a deep breath. “You will take the South Gate and turn to follow the road West,” he explained, speaking slowly and deliberately. “About an hour’s march from here, you will see a partially cleared area to the left of the road, and beyond that a small path leading into the woods. At the end of that path you will find an abandoned lumber camp. I will wait for you there.”
Lois bowed his head in exaggerated gratitude. “I trust that we will have time to get to know one another better. We may be working together again after tonight, after all.”
The wolf turned and stalked away, stopping where the hallway visibly faded to nothing in shadow. He calmed himself, taking a few breaths before he spoke one more time. “Even without your Balance, you remain in some small way the same assassin that once convinced the Questioners that your mark commissioned his own murder,” he said. There was a touch of admiration in his voice, some respect leaking in past the venom he had been spitting since his ruse had been discovered. “I look forward to seeing how you will try to fix this gamble in your favor.”
The ermine had already begun to fade from the dreamscape, but the wolf turned in time to see a glimpse of the mischievous smile on his target’s face.
Link 5: Defiance
Tangled cloth bound Lois all about, and he struggled in confusion for a few moments before his mind finally recalled the events of the previous night. He had fallen asleep in the form of a feral ermine, another detail that the wolf had left out of the dream he had built. It added to the number of small details that had combined to break the illusion.
Much more calmly now, the ermine extracted himself from the cocoon of his discarded robe. Standing on top of the pile, he willed his form to shift back to humanity. Fingers grew longer once again, legs shifted to support the stance of a man, his body grew, proportions shifting subtly until he had regained as much of his stature as he could manage. Eventually, the Curse did reassert itself to prevent him from changing further, leaving him standing on his own two feet despite appearing much like an animal still.
Only once he had shifted back did he begin to shiver, a chill running through him, and not one brought by a sudden breeze. It was so easy to be confident in a dream, knowing that no harm could come to him. Now, however, the time had come to gamble with his life, and the weight of the coming encounter felt like it would crush him. Leaving the robes discarded behind him, Lois found the same bundle of clothing and weaponry that had been so key to the dream. It was stashed beneath the side table where it should have been, since the room was entirely without a wardrobe. Although he felt certain that the pipe would not be wrapped in the cloth, he still paused to check. Nothing. The impossible pipe was absent, as well he knew it should be.
A few minutes later, Lois had dressed himself with the clothing he had worn during his most recent, ill-fated patrol. The proportions were still wrong: his longer body left his tunic too short; the trousers were tight in some places, loose in others, and had to be folded up to keep him from standing on them; and the coat hung loose around his shoulders. Still, as he had hoped, he could still wear the clothing, if not comfortably. He strapped the pair of daggers to his belt, and reached for the bandolier of throwing daggers before pausing. No, he would have no use for them in this task.
An abandoned lumber camp outside of the Outpost… It was a strange place for the wolf to suggest for their coming meeting. Lois was convinced that it had been chosen for a reason, and it made him nervous. As confident as he had played during the confrontation with the wolf he knew that his own plan had only the slimmest possibility of success, and allowing his opponent to decide the terms of engagement had only made it so much more dangerous. It had, however, been no deception when Lois had noted the difficulty of his own position. Careful use of his few bargaining chips would be required if he hoped to succeed.
He had just one more stop to make before he left for his fateful meeting.
Alone, Lois walked on the westward track, the chill of the night air feeling natural on his thick fur. It had been a little longer than an hour since he had left, but he was in no hurry to meet his fate. The guard at the southern gate had thought it odd that he was leaving alone at such a time, but he had caused no trouble. Likely, he expected that Lois was going to reinforce an active patrol. Hopefully he would live long enough for that assumption to prove correct.
Lois almost missed the turn off the main road that the wolf had mentioned. Although it was defined, there were clear signs that it had been in disuse for a significant amount of time. Though there were still portions of the path where the dirt was too thickly packed together for any vegetation to grow, but the forest had started to take back the ground it had lost, roots breaking up the dirt until small plants were able to sprout even where wagon wheels had once packed it down.
The lumber camp was just barely visible from the beginning of the path, but the trees growing nearby made it impossible to see if anyone was there. It was certainly possible to see the state of disrepair the building suffered, however. The roof, already built roughly, had lost boards at several spots, leaving a rough skeleton of a structure standing against the tests of time.
The ermine took his time as he approached, eyes and ears tuned to try to detect the wolf at earliest opportunity. He was not sure if it was possible to accept the improved senses of his animal side without changing the rest of his body, but he was certainly trying his best to do so. Still, he could not hear, see – no, not even smell – anything that suggested that someone had come this way recently. It was possible that the wolf had taken an entirely different route to his destination, but Lois feared that perhaps Nathan simply knew some trick to mask his path. It could make the upcoming confrontation that much more difficult.
The path continued, curving towards the workers’ entrance past a few steps that had been built into the path, reinforced by timbers that had been driven down into the dirt to make climbing the inclines easier. The ermine proceeded slowly, still staying wary of any shadow that looked out of place.
The open-air structure was a haunting sight. Axes, saws, and simple woodworking tools were scattered about the area, most of them looking as though they had just been left there by workers who had expected to return at any moment. If it were not for the clear signs of wear and corrosion on the hafts and blades of those tools, Lois might have wondered if the confrontation would be interrupted. Lois took care to step over the abandoned implements as carefully as possible while still trying to pay attention to everything else. There was still no sign of the black wolf, but the ermine had a distinct impression that he was there somewhere.
“I see you took your time.”
Lois’ impression proved to be correct as a voice sounded from somewhere nearby. The former assassin turned, trying to track the source of the words, but found it impossible to do so in the darkness of his surroundings. It proved even more complicated when the next words spoken seemed to bounce around the area, words sounding hollow like they might when spoken in the loneliness of an empty room.
“You are fortunate that my line of work already demands a great deal of patience.”
“I came as agreed,” Lois replied eyes, ears, even nose searching for his rival. “I made no promise regarding the time of my arrival.”
“As I made no promises regarding the nature of our meeting,” Nathan’s voice replied. Again, he seemed to speak from no less than three locations over the course of his statement, each far removed from the last. Either there was some magic involved, or the wolf was employing some sleight to render himself untraceable despite Lois’ best efforts.
“What is to know about our meeting? We are here to settle a conflict by one means or another; by my death, or by your successfully reclaiming me for your masters.” Lois slowly drew one of his daggers in his right hand, turning casually to search behind him as he took the other in his left. He had hoped that there would be some sort of epiphany as he held the weapons, a memory of the way he had used them in the past. Unfortunately, he felt much the same as he had earlier that day fighting Balrog. He could remember the way combat should flow, but could not imitate it himself. Even the weight of the weapons in his hands felt wrong, no matter how he held them.
“You come prepared to defend yourself, I see.”
Lois thought he saw movement in a nearby shadow, but there was nothing there when he turned. He felt exposed where he stood; no doubt his opponent could see where he was, and he had no such advantage.
“I come prepared to do what I must. What is it that you seek to accomplish? Here I am; I have no shelter. If you wish me dead or captured, your opportunity is here.”
“I would much prefer to hunt you from the shadows, much as you did to those you killed in times not long past.” Suddenly, a rush of movement before him, and Lois had to backpedal suddenly to avoid a blinding flurry of sharp, furious blows. He lacked even the time to focus his eyes on his assailant before the attack was over, leaving him standing in the center of the building, panting as he tried to find the wolf. “Remember? Often you would toy with them, drive them nearly mad from fear before finally landing the fatal blow.”
The voice spoke with no shortness of breath despite the brief, intense skirmish. Lois himself was far more winded than he should have been, but again he lacked any memory of efficient technique and all that remained was blind, desperate panic. “I do not remember,” he admitted. Where was that cursed wolf?
“Of course not.” There was a sinister chuckle, a sound that bounced about the area in chaotic echoes despite how open the building was. “What memory would an animal have of a man’s life?”
Lois held his peace, but in his silence, he tried to determine the aim of the wolf’s comments. It was aimed at somehow unsettling him, but as he stood there he could not determine how. Engaging an elusive opponent in a game of wits that forced him to stay on guard at least made him feel more confident in his humanity.
“You know why you were reduced to an animal, don’t you?”
Another attack; this time Lois caught a glimpse of movement to his left just before it came, and he tried to meet the flurry with an attack of his own, only for his desperate strike to be batted away easily by one of the wolf’s strange sticks. Nathan spun in front of the ermine, responding to another thrust from his right hand by blocking it at the wrist, a sharp strike sending a shock up Lois’ arm and causing him to lose grip on his blade. A swift series of blows to his hip and upper leg sent him sprawling.
And the wolf was gone before Lois could regain his focus.
The ermine half-crawled to where his weapon had fallen, taking it in his right hand as well as he could. The sting that ran up his arm still made gripping it difficult, but he would manage. He dragged himself to a kneeling position as Nathan’s voice spoke again.
“Your patrol was subjected to the exact same magic as you were, but only you were irreversibly reduced to an animal. Strange, is it not?”
Lois groaned. He could feel several areas on his right leg bruising already. The wolf was taunting him, and unless Lois could find a way to prevent the sneak attacks it would only get worse. A brief silence hung over the lumber camp, a protracted pause designed to give him time to think. As much as anything, it just gave him the time to find his feet again. He had no doubt that the wolf would provide his own opinions on why Lois had been so uniquely affected.
“If it were so easy to reduce a Keeper to animal form, any half-competent mage could reduce even the most determined patrol to little more than a collection of beasts, babes, and mindless objects of lust. No, the countercurse is far too strong for that. It holds back the Curse enough so that, even if it should be strengthened for a few moments, a Keeper would still retain their minds and their forms. It takes a truly sinister magic to overcome its strength.”
Lois stood tall, focusing as best he could on the voice that impossibly echoed about him. He listened to the wolf’s words, but tried to concentrate more on anything else that might have been out of place. Still, nothing stood out.
“Does your lecture have a point?” he asked, his frustrated voice shouting out to no one.
The chuckle echoed again. “Perhaps you sense my direction already.”
The next attack came from directly behind Lois, a brutal strike across his back that sent his head snapping back in agony. Both daggers clattered in front of him as he collapsed to all fours, stars dancing across his vision. His mind screamed at him that he had to counter before the wolf broke his neck in the next flurry, but a desperate wheeling punch met only empty air. Lois could not arrest his momentum, and he spun in a flailing circle, dropping awkwardly onto his injured leg with a cry of pain.
“Where are you?!” Lois cursed, spinning his head to try to find his assailant. He gasped and spat between gritted teeth as his leg gave out from underneath him and he fell on his back, panting from exertion despite his failure to accomplish anything productive.
“The assassin Vincent Lois, brought low by little more than a common soldier. Ah, but who am I to laud my own efforts against the empty shell that was once so great an assassin?” That laugh, that cursed, echoing sound bounced around the fallen ermine again. Even with Lois sprawled helplessly, the wolf did not give him any chance to track his movements and continued to mask his true location. “If you were really Vincent Lois, you would have suffered no ill effects from so weak a fetish spell.”
The ermine clambered up with the support of a nearby table, thankful at the very least that decay had not rotted the legs to ruin. Already so beaten, he could not muster the effort to watch for his opponent as he recovered the fallen blades from the ground. No attack came, perhaps the first mercy afforded him during this encounter.
“Your patrol was able to resist because they had the will to do so. When the spell hit you, however, it severed your connection to your masters – to those who have molded you and made you who you were. Vincent Lois was gone, and the only thing left behind was little more than an ermine with a few confusing human memories.”
“I am no animal!” Lois growled.
“Really? I wonder…”
Lois had no time to prepare for the next assault, especially as it came from no discernable physical direction. Instead, the next attempt forced a confusing jumble of thoughts and instincts to the forefront of his mind. His weapons fell again, this time as he clutched at his head with his paws, crying out as his mind was invaded. His clothing sagged around him as he sank down, body changing against his will.
“No!” The ermine realized what was happening and willed his body back to form. But… what form was he trying to realize? He looked at his paws – how strange they looked – and tried to picture them as he wanted them. Small, inflexible digits tipped with dark claws, padded to let him run efficiently on all fours… No! That wasn’t right!
Unable to recall what he wished to accomplish, it was all Lois could do to focus on keeping his body from changing at all. Though it felt like an eternity passed, he managed to hold out only a few moments before the barrage ceased. The confusing thoughts faded into the background again, and finally his mind was clear enough to allow him to reverse the change to his body.
His pain from his physical wounds was the least of his concerns now. He felt confused and mentally exhausted. He could only focus on one thing: that insufferable wolf. What had he done to him?
Finally, it seemed that Nathan had grown tired of hiding. The black wolf emerged from the shadows, laughing and giving Lois a slow, mocking round of applause. “I knew that this would be entertaining, but I honestly did not know just how easy it would be to bring out the ermine. You truly are little more than a shell of a man.”
Lois launched himself at the wolf with nothing but his fists, but the wolf barely seemed to move as he drew his weapons and blocked the attacks away. Rather than disengaging, in fact, the wolf stepped towards Lois, crowding him with precise footwork and preventing him from mounting any serious threat. He seemed to know exactly where Lois’ next attack would come from every time, and he continued to intercept them effortlessly before striking the ermine where he had injured him before. The former assassin stepped back, but still the wolf would not relent, closing the distance still and adding yet more bruises to his staggered opponent. Finally, unable to stand against the attacks any longer, Lois fell backwards, tripping and falling back off of the wooden platform and into the clearing just outside.
The ermine gasped for air, barely able to see the wolf standing over him through the tears in his eyes. His black fur blended perfectly with the shadows, but his amber eyes stared like glowing embers from just beyond arm’s reach. He did not press his attack. Instead he waited, allowing the battered ermine to rise to his feet. Lois made one feeble attempt to do so, but could barely rise above a kneeling position with his right leg so injured. As he raised his eyes to look at the wolf again, one of Nathan’s weapons greeted him, its end pointed at his face.
“I hope you enjoyed your chance at freedom,” the wolf said with a patronizing smile. “I had hoped that some small part of the brilliant assassin would still shine through, but you are truly no more than an animal trying and failing to masquerade as a man.”
As much as Lois hated to admit it, the wolf was right. He knew more about how to be an ermine than he recalled about his lost humanity. Only a desperate fear of fading into the oblivion of an animal’s mind prevented him from willingly surrendering. Yet here, faced with this utter defeat, it was his last hope.
The ermine drove himself forward, ignoring the pain, and attacked. There was no thought behind his actions now; for the first time since he had been restored, he allowed the ermine’s mind to dominate him. He was a wounded animal with his back against a corner, and survival drowned out any other thought. From all fours he launched one last, desperate attack.
The wolf defended admirably, moving quickly and decisively to stop the animal’s surge. He landed a few strikes, but his opponent felt no pain. Claws ripped across one of the larger man’s arms, and bared teeth snapped for his shoulder, tearing out several strands of fur as they just missed flesh. Nathan roughly pushed away from his assailant, but a second attack came as quickly as the first. This time it was the wolf who was unable to generate an effective strike before his opponent had closed the distance. He managed to leave one of his weapons for his enemy’s jaws to save his throat from the same fate, and with the other rod he delivered a glancing strike, again aiming for the right leg.
For a moment, Lois was shocked back to his senses by the dizzying pain of the attack. In that moment Nathan could see the fear return, only to be replaced again by desperate rage. The wolf had been given enough time to regroup, however, and he swept his stick sharply across his body, making full impact with the ermine’s ribs and sending him flying to the side.
Lois coughed and sputtered desperately for breath, spitting a bit of blood from the side of his muzzle. He was sure that the wolf’s strike had broken a rib at least, and no matter how hard he tried to tap back into the rage he had felt before, his body had been punished enough. He screamed his pain and frustration to the air, pain blinding him to anything else. When he did finally open his eyes, the wolf was there again, his paw held out towards him, the claws tracing an incantation. The jumbled thoughts and instincts flooded back to the fore, but they came as a welcome relief from the agony of the ermine’s body. He tried to will his hand to the pouch on his belt, but he could hardly move. His gambit failed, he resigned himself to whatever came next.
Before he could be changed, however, the shaft of an arrow interposed itself between him and the wolf, stuck into a tree just below the wolf’s outstretched paw.
“Step back!” a shout echoed from somewhere nearby.
The wolf turned to find the source of the rude interruption. Lois, still lying there on the ground, realized that some unknown power had granted him a last chance. He pulled a pouch from off his belt, taking it in one paw and thrusting it in the direction of Nathan. He screamed his agony to the sky, even as a spark of memory returned.
He did not know when or where the memory had come from, but he knew for certain that it was one of the few that he knew had come from a time before he had ever known the name Metamor Keep.
“Do you see those strands of magic? They are yours for the taking. They can do almost anything, but only if you learn how to weave them.”
Lois’ scream ended as he put every ounce of his willpower into the fetish stone inside the pouch. What magic he possessed activated the spell on the stone, and he felt a familiar pulse of power surround him. With it, his right mind faded, and the world faded close behind.
When Alex had first heard the voice sounding in his mind as though from somewhere nearby, he thought that stress and lack of rest had finally rendered him mad. Only when the rest of his patrol also reacted to the strange voice did he realize that it was not madness, but a message from an unknown source; a message, it seemed, meant for someone else.
Julian was the first of the two mages to identify the direction from which the voice came, following the strands of magic used to project the words through the area back towards their source. It was a remarkably long journey, and all along the way new messages came. The voice taunted someone, unnamed for some time until at last a familiar name was spoken.
The patrol increased their speed, moving as quickly as they could to try to forestall any disaster. Still they were almost too late. Alex saw the figures first: Lois lay unmoving in the snow, his white fur and camouflaged patrol gear almost invisible in the dusting of snow, while above him stood a black figure, disappearing into the shadows even more effectively than Lois blended in with the snow. Alex planted his paws as quickly as he could, quickly readying an arrow on his bowstring and drawing it in a single motion. He let it fly and watched as the arrow stuck fast in the bark of a tree just beyond the two figures.
“Step back!” he shouted, another arrow ready before he had finished speaking.
As the black figure turned to face Alex, it was Lois that made the unexpected move. In a flurry of motion and a shout of indistinct rage, defiance, and pain he thrust out a paw, and suddenly the area was plunged into an eerie silence. The dark figure collapsed without a sound, and Lois himself disappeared from Alex’s line of sight.
Julian and Lucy were already dashing past as Alex replaced his second arrow in his quiver. He followed close behind, unsure of what awaited them below.
The scene he found as he arrived was unexpected. As Julian wove a quick spell between his paws, a feral black wolf collapsed into an oblivious heap in the snow. Lucy, meanwhile, was gently picking through the pile of clothing that Lois had been wearing moments prior, and it became clear that Lois had again returned to feral form himself. Lying in the snow between the two animals was a square of brown cloth, with the familiar shape of a fetish stone just visible between the folds, smoldering as if freshly picked from among raging flames.
“Can someone explain to me what in the Pantheon’s name just happened here?”
The Missing Link: Resistance
Beneath the halls of the Outpost’s keep, hidden beyond paths seldom visited and behind heavy wooden doors banded with metal against intruders, several small, isolated cells could be found. Since Hareford lacked the large civilian population of Metamor and often the strategic position to host political prisoners of any sort, these isolated rooms often remained empty. Even now many of them still sat abandoned. Only one was occupied, a prison with thick walls and a door that, unlike some others that had only open bars between their occupants and freedom, was wholly solid but for a small slot at the base of the door where food would be provided, and a few small holes just above designed so voices could travel in and out.
The prisoner sat against one of the walls, left in the silence and darkness to dwell on his own thoughts and the events of the past few days. Questions danced through his mind, and only few answers came to him. Still, even here, in so unpleasant a situation as this, he felt a comfort and security that had eluded him for years. Whatever happened next, it would be worth it.
The sharp grating of metal on metal signaled that the gaoler had opened the main door of the cell block, and the sound of several pairs of feet walking towards him made his ears twitch in anticipation. He had expected visitors for some time, so the only surprise was that they had delayed so long in arriving.
A heavy hand pounded on his door, and a gruff voice confirmed his suspicions.
“You’ve a visitor; be a good host now, would you?”
The prisoner shifted, tilting his muzzle towards the door. “I hear you. Who is there, and to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Another voice spoke: “I represent the Keep’s intelligence community; I am certain you can appreciate my reasons for not providing much more personal detail.” The voice was difficult to identify for certain, likely an intentional measure as much as withholding their name was. It was a high voice, but it could have been a young man, a woman, a small animal Keeper, or even simply a practiced impressionist. It mattered little, either way.
“I expected I would receive a visit from you eventually, though I admit I had begun to grow impatient.”
“I offer apologies if that is truly what you wish. It is a matter of some difficulty to debrief so large a number of people in detail while also dealing with the plague within the Keep.”
“I presume that means that you have left me for last?” the prisoner inquired.
“Perhaps. I consider you the key player in the events of the last several days, as well as the least trustworthy among those involved. For now, you may consider this an informal interview until we can manage a more thorough interrogation. Still, you should rest assured that you will be interrogated at our earliest opportunity, and any lie you tell me now will cost you then.”
The prisoner sighed. “Likewise, you can rest assured that I have no intention of deceiving you during our conversation. Ask what you will; I will answer truthfully, and in as much detail as you require.”
The spy paused before continuing, but he spoke decisively when he did. “Very well. I wish to know who you are, whose interests you represent, and what your interest is in the assassin Vincent Lois.”
The wolf in the cell nodded and took a few moments to gather his thoughts. “There is much to say about all of those questions,” he replied. “I can answer in simple terms in a few minutes, or I can provide context if that would better serve your purposes.”
“Some context would be helpful, I imagine. Can you limit your answer to the events since you came to Outpost?”
Nathan considered for a few moments and nodded. “I believe that would provide sufficient background information. If I started from the end of my preceding patrol, when first I was directed to come here, I should be able to include all of the important details.”
“Begin whenever you are ready. If I have a question I will stop you.”
Sighing, Nathan paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. His visitor waited patiently until he was, at last, rewarded as the wolf began his story.
For many years, I have been a thrall of a mysterious group of figures which have controlled me from the shadows. If I could provide more insight into the exact nature of their influences upon me I would, but all I know is that they were able to appear to me from within my mind, and I was powerless to resist whatever orders they give me. While my own will was in control for most of the time, whenever my Masters gave me a mission I was forced to follow through. Sometimes, however, I went for months without any contact with them. This was the case just before the events of the previous days.
I have always been most at home in the forest, even before the Curse gave me the form of a wolf. Now, with the instincts and cunning of the beast combined with my natural ability as a scout, I could not help but enjoy the times I spent running through the snow in the forests around Metamor. In these times, I often run ahead as my patrol falls behind, so lost as I am in the freedom of the moment. That night was just such a time. Almost at Metamor, I dashed at reckless speeds through the trees. I allowed myself to hope, if just for a little while, that my Masters had forgotten about me.
And just then, the world twisted around me and brought me stumbling to my knees. The trees, the snow, the stars above me – all twisted around me until I was left with only a void. I grit my teeth, trying to force out the presence before it appeared to me. I knew I could not hope to succeed, but I also knew I had to try.
“Nathan, your services are required.”
Panting, I raised my eyes to where the dark figure stood before me, his figure shrouded in darkness that seemed thicker than the void around him. Often, I was contacted by this figure. The Grandmaster.
I stumbled to my paws, facing him with grim resignation. “Sir?” My response was automatic.
“You and your patrol will head to the outpost of Hareford. We have lost contact with one of our agents in the region, and you must see to his return.”
Part of me dared to hope, but I knew there was no resisting the will of these Masters. “How urgent is the order?” I asked.
“You must turn your patrol immediately,” was the response. “If they require rest you may give them some time, but be ready to move as soon as I give you the order. We cannot be certain of where your target is currently, but he must be dealt with as soon as we find him again. If you do not receive further information, ask for the man within the Outpost immediately upon your arrival.”
“Who would I need to ask for?”
The Grandmaster sighed, clearly unhappy with something, but he turned to direct his answer to me regardless. Though he turned his face to me, the blank void within the cowl of his cloak would not reveal to me any of his features. “You seek Vincent Lois,” he said quietly. “Neither ask for him by name, nor tell your companions it is him you seek. When you inquire, say merely that you received a call for help and are seeking the source of that call.”
My mouth went dry. Vincent Lois. He was important. Even as secretive as my Masters were, that was a name that was frequently discussed. He was the victim of experimental spells more powerful than even those that held myself. If he had broken free, could that mean that it was possible for me to do the same?
“Do I kill him on sight?” I inquired.
“Exercise caution,” my Master replied. “You are to kill him if possible, but do not do so when killing him would put you at risk of capture. We have reason to believe that whatever event resulted in his escape from our power was catastrophic and has compromised his ability to provide others with information. That should provide you with time to plan your strike.”
“Sir.” I bowed.
Without another word, the man disappeared with another twist of the world. I was on my knees again, but now I was back in the forest, the snow drifting around my paws where I had fallen moments before. My fellows would be catching up to me soon. I so wished to tell them that we would continue to the Keep immediately, but I could not. Despite my desire to escape the grasp of my Masters, I had long been resigned to the fact that, regardless of my own desires, my paws would move in whichever direction I was directed.
Lois… Had he truly escaped their grasp? If so, how? Oh, if only Eli would grant me a taste of that same salvation!
My patrol did ask to rest that night, and I was more than happy to grant that request. While they slept, I pondered. Years ago, I might have worried that my Masters could know what I thought, but I had learned through experience that they could direct me as they wished and see their orders followed without question, but they could not detect the extent of my desire to resist. Lois’ escape dominated my thought, and it renewed in me a hope that had been long since extinguished. If he, the crowning achievement of my Master’s magic, could flee their grasp after so long, why couldn’t I? No doubt I would learn of the events that had caused his escape. Then I had only to repeat it myself to be freed!
The Grandmaster did not contact me again that evening, and so we left for Hareford to seek out my target. Throughout the journey I feared that I would receive another vision with orders to kill immediately at a specific place. I could not do that, not without learning the method of his escape. Mercifully, no such orders arrived, and we entered Outpost with my original mission still intact.
As it so happened, I did not even get the chance to inquire about Lois. His patrol commander was at the central keep in Hareford, attempting to speak to the commander of the city seeking help for one of the members of his patrol. It took only a few words of conversation to confirm that I had found my target, but it also made it clear that he would not be left alone when I arrived. Seeking to appear trustworthy, I brought my patrol’s mage to assist with the assassin’s plight.
It was clear from our arrival that Lois would be under the watch of several very powerful and capable people. It gave me time to think and learn about what had happened, but it also made my Masters impatient. As I left the chamber later that first day, I found myself directed to a room away from prying eyes. The door shut behind me, and the stones of the walls spun in a vortex before me, the void surrounding me once more.
“This mission will be more difficult than expected.” The robed man stepped out of the nothingness of the void, crossing his arms and shaking his head impatiently. “We knew Lois’ companions would be a problem if we ever needed to extract him from the Keep, but we always expected to have his expertise available to deal with them. For now, we must keep up appearances.”
“What do you wish me to do?”
“For now? Use Lois’ past as a weapon to give yourself more time. Express concern that he may return to being an assassin should he be restored. If you manage to spread enough doubt in their minds, they may withdraw to discuss their strategy and give you an opportunity to strike.”
“Will that not also compromise their trust in me?”
The Grandmaster waved his hand dismissively. “They are already cautious. You will say very little they are not thinking themselves. Do your best to make your actions seem reasonable, and even a little suspicion will pass without danger.”
Again, the stones around me spiraled back in from the nothing. I regained my bearings enough to leave the room I had entered, and returned to my mission. Still I hoped that the mages would succeed in discovering what had happened to Lois. Even the idea of being nothing but a wolf seemed preferable to continuing to live as I did then.
The next day was more harrowing than anticipated. Though I successfully convinced Balrog that my misgivings were solely due to my concern for him revealing himself, I could still feel the trust of the others eroding. Even though I hoped to avoid killing Lois by whatever means necessary, I did not wish to do so because his companions turned on me. In the end, Balrog and the mage Lucy joined together to test a hypothesis. It seemed an impossible hope, both to me and to my Masters. We were thoroughly caught off guard when their attempt succeeded, and we did not learn of it until Lois had regained his senses. Thankfully, though the frustration of my Masters bled through the spell by which they tried to control me, I managed to remain somewhat composed and not be spitted on the moondog’s sword before the end of our meeting. At the very least, we learned that Lois had lost his memory, limiting the damage he could do in the meanwhile.
I left as the rest of them went to see Lois in hopes of recovering his memory. Again, my steps were directed to an abandoned chamber, and my return to the void now sent me reeling against the wall, even as the stone fled from my vision. I pushed away from it as my Master again appeared, stepping quickly towards me as though to strangle me.
“How could you have let them restore him without your knowledge?” he asked. I only wished that another could have heard him and realized I was not my own.
“No damage was done,” I replied, still bowing my head in deference as though to a respected teacher. “Vincent Lois has lost his memory. For how long? I know not. Still, it presents an opportunity.”
My heart began to beat. Even as the conversation with the others had set me on edge, the small part of me that still dared to hope was inspired with an idea, and now I could only pray that speaking out of turn would not reveal my attempted subterfuge.
My Master looked at me, cowl still hiding any detail from my eyes. “What are you saying?” His voice revealed both interest and suspicion. I could only continue speaking and hope he would see the sense in it.
“Sir, Lois is ignorant of his past. That means that he will likely be easy to manipulate. If I convince him that he is in danger and that he needs to flee Hareford in my company, we may be able to bring him back into your grasp rather than being forced to kill a valuable agent of our organization.”
My ploy was set, and I could only think to myself of every reason it should not succeed. It was more dangerous than simply killing Lois, it had so many more ways that it could possibly go wrong, and if it did fail it would result in not one, but two agents becoming compromised. Surely it was a suggestion that could not be honored…
“Yes… Lois is a valuable asset.” I had to consciously control myself to avoid visibly expressing my disbelief. “It could be risky, but the reward for success would certainly be worth the trouble. If you use the Dream, perhaps we could avoid most of the added risk.”
I was aware of the tool that had been used by my Masters on occasion. I am uncertain of whether it is truly part of Nocturna’s realm, or whether clever mages discovered a way to convince men that they were dreaming while trapping them in an illusion which they controlled themselves, but the effect was the same. My Masters could craft a dreaming world to accomplish whatever purpose they desired, and in many cases the victim never fully separated reality from fiction.
“With him beyond our grasp, you will have to construct the dream for us,” my Master continued, barely paying me mind. “You have enough magic to perform the task yourself, and our guidance should ensure that your casting is successful.” He turned fully to me, again fixing me in his unseen gaze. “Your task changes,” he announced. “You will return Lois to us. Using the Dream, you will gain his confidence, and then you will bring him to us. We will tell you where to go once you have succeeded.”
While my surprise that my suggestion had succeeded remained, my heart sank as the Grandmaster spoke. I had hoped that attempting to convince Lois that I was trustworthy would give him and his party time to see through my ruse, and being given the order to use the Dream caused me to doubt. The Dream would protect him from me, true, but it also meant that I would also be safe should I fail, and still able to execute my orders as originally delivered. Hope dwindled, but resolve grew where hope was lost. I had to escape their grasp, and this was my chance.
“Sir.” I made the bow robotically, with barely a thought, and the robed figure was once more hidden by the void. Now I had only to wait for the night, and I would find some way to break free. I had to.
Night fell, but not before a more eventful day than anticipated. Before my conversation had even ended, the lynx and his fellows were ordered to perform a patrol on short notice. The quarantine meant that the Keep had to make do with few men on short rest, true, but the order was unchanged even after the situation had been explained. It meant that my chances of success were only increased, and I could feel how pleased my Masters were by this development.
It made me sick.
When I sat down within the abandoned room that night to weave together a Dream, I felt certain that Lois would be fooled and I would leave Hareford in his company before morning. At my Masters’ command, I built a dream that would draw Lois out, convince him that I was trustworthy, and convince him to seek me out when he awoke. All went as expected, and Lois agreed to follow me, convinced that I was sent to save him from assassins who wanted him dead. Then… one of my Masters appeared in the Dream without warning. At least, that is what I supposed. It was not the Grandmaster, but the manner of approaching me was the same. He was furious, demanded to know why I had not killed Lois. And then, my true Masters alerted me to the deception, and I realized Lois had turned the tables, somehow confronting me in a form similar to their own.
I cannot say how I felt then. Some part of me was grateful that I had not been forced to lead Lois back to be dominated once more by our Masters, but my hopes of escape seemed now further away than ever. Hopes dashed, I turned to rage, and I felt my Masters’ anger as well. It boiled within me, filling me with rage.
And then Lois offered to meet somewhere and face me in a battle for his life. It was an offer only a fool would make; Lois could, no doubt, have found a public place within the Outpost where he could reveal my treachery before I could kill him. It would not guarantee his survival, but it would make my mission extremely difficult and at least give him a passing chance to live. Facing me alone meant he would certainly die, or worse.
The Grandmaster did not contact me within the void this time. In the Dream, his voice simply echoed in my mind as clearly as though they stood beside me.
“You must accept.” The voice sounded as though he spoke through gritted teeth. “Though I am certain he lies, whatever small chance remains that he may truly be so foolish as to meet you alone in battle must be accepted.”
I looked at Lois, seeing him as though time was frozen as I spoke to my Masters. “Where should we meet?” I asked them.
“Somewhere beyond Hareford. It matters little. You will defeat him and bring him to us.”
The connection to the Grandmaster ended here, and a final, desperate hope welled within me. They had given me more than enough liberty to venture one last gamble for freedom, even if success depended on a desperate shot in the dark. I told Lois to meet me at a certain lumber camp, a place I myself would not have known but hours before. Alex had confided his patrol schedule with Balrog that afternoon, and I had been near enough to hear his words. The lumber camp was meant to be the site of the party’s daytime campsite. I could not be certain that they would even reach the area before all was lost, but it gave me a reason to fight.
Lois honored his agreement to fight me in the lumber camp despite his certain defeat. Our battle was short and brutal. Without his memory, Lois had lost his combat prowess as well. I taunted him, pummeled him, delayed as long as I felt I could. Desperate, my opponent even resorted to fighting like an animal, coming at me on all fours with claws out and teeth bared. For a few moments, I thought he might actually overcome me, but my training overcame his desperation. Hope faded, and I prepared to bring him back to my Masters as agreed. Then, the impossible happened.
Alex arrived with his patrol, stopping me before I could incapacitate the ermine. The Grandmaster bellowed in my mind, demanded that I kill Lois and escape immediately. Close as they were, I knew that Alex and his patrol would not be able to stop me from following that final order. Still, it was an order I could not refuse, and I prepared to strike the killing blow. Hope faded as I looked down at the helpless man at my feet, but Eli had guided him by means I do not understand. He held in his grip a fetish stone, the very same object that had granted him freedom though intended to cause his downfall. He turned its power towards me. If I had been any other man, the stone would have been ineffectual. Fetish stones have little lasting power on most Keepers unless affixed to the victim. To men like myself and Lois, however, the brief resurgence of the Curse is enough to break the connection that binds us to perform our Masters’ will. For the first time in a dozen years, I felt freedom, and then everything faded.
Nathan slumped in the cell as he finished his retelling of the events of the past several days. To him it was the culmination of years spent under the power of unknown forces, but to his visitor he supposed that it sounded like foolishness. Whether his words had been well received or not, he still felt untold relief at being able to speak openly of what had happened at all.
“Both of you remained as animals for some time after the stone was used,” his visitor asked at length. “Why was that?”
“The connections that had held sway over both of us went deep,” Nathan replied after a few moments’ thought. “To sever that connection was to lose a large part of ourselves in the process.” Nathan paused to consider once more. “I suppose it was not really part of ourselves that was lost, but rather something forced upon us that we could not help but depend upon for how deeply it influenced us. When it was removed, only confusion remained. With time I have remembered much, but at the time when I faced Lois it had been a full day and he still remembered little. It reinforces my belief that he had spent many more years than I under their sway.”
“Lois still recalls little, though if what you say is true I hope he will begin to remember more useful information as time goes on.” The spy waited for a few moments before prompting Nathan once again. “Is there anything else you wish to say?”
“I doubt there is much else that will be of use to you. With my connection to my Masters broken I cannot say much more regarding their nature. Unfortunately, one part of their aim with controlling me was successful; I cannot tell you who they are, nor can I now tell you how they might have reacted to the loss of two of their agents. And, following the encounter with Lois, I have spent the hours since recovering my mind sitting in this cell in self-reflection.”
“I imagine,” the spy replied. He spent a few moments in silence, with a dull scratching sound from beyond the door making it clear that he was taking some sort of note. “I appreciate your willingness to cooperate,” he said at length. “No doubt the Spymaster will have questions for you regardless, but his interview should be much more agreeable to you than it might have been if you were hesitant to speak. I will put in a good word for you, but with the quarantine in effect it will be some time before you can be interrogated more officially, and I see little chance for you to be released until that point. Are there any messages I can take for you in the meanwhile?”
“Tell my patrol not to worry.” He chuckled. “Come to think of it, they likely don’t need the reminder, but they will still enjoy hearing from me I imagine. Beyond them I don’t… well…”
“Take a message to Lois for me, if you can.”
“Of course. What should it say?”
“Tell him, ‘Thank you.’”