The curse had been broken.
Or so everyone had said. An hour ago, as the sun set, a normal man came through the gates of Metamor howling in joy, stumbling in his ill-fitting clothes and proclaiming his cure to the sky and anyone who would listen.
Thirty minutes ago the mage who had performed such a feat had set up on the stage in the centre of the town square and had begun dispensing his cure for the low price of a garrett for freedom.
Ten minutes ago the looting had started.
A riot would be next, Hale observed. The scouts and soldiers were trying to slip into the throng and instil some semblance of order, but were failing. There were hundreds of desperate people at the verge of anarchy waiting to be saved by the mysterious mage, and they looked as if they were going to start fighting each other soon, let alone anyone trying to take their miracle from them.
Hale drained the dregs from the bottom of his flagon and sighed, casting the mug aside and there was a consternated yell. He was gone however, the man disappearing into the crowd. Hale was average height, dark haired and nondescript save for the worn travelling clothes he was still wearing despite having been at the Keep for a few weeks.
There was something setting Hale's teeth on edge about the whole situation, and it wasn’t that he’d already seen three muggings a pick pocket. He touched a hand to the breast of his tunic to check that his coin was still there, two years on the road to get to the keep had taught him more than enough about trusting people.
“Haley!” someone bellowed over the assorted crowd, loud enough to bring a hush, for a short distance at least.
“Sorry,” the huge Fan Shoar tiger morph murmured, trying to look sheepish but still loud enough to be clear to anyone listing.
Hale rolled his eyes but sent off through the crush, using elbows and harsh language to force people out of his way. No one paid him much head, the only people of any importance was the blessed few that had been cured and were crowing their new life at the top of their lungs.
“Isn’t it amazing,” the tiger continued, as Hale got close enough for her not to have to roar.
“I don’t know Krissy,” he sighed. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Oh you’re just feeling left out,” she shot back. “Everyone else wants to change back.”
Hale just shrugged. That was undeniable.
“Do we have enough by the way?” Krissy pressed.
“Our savings total two suns,” Hale admitted. He would have whispered that, but Kristine’s ear was a good two feet above his head so to his chagrin he had to just say it and hope that no one was listening. “But I begged and borrowed another three so we’ve got one treatment if you want.”
“Doesn’t look like we’ll be getting anything soon,” she sighed. “Wait, how did you get money out of someone at a time like this?”
“I have my ways,” Hal said with a smirk. “Though if a dog with an ear horn comes by you never saw me.”
Hale shrugged again. “It’s not my fault if he hadn’t heard the news.”
“Mother would have said otherwise,” Krissy countered.
“Well mother’s not here,” Hale replied, scowling.
“Much the pity.” The big cat hung its head and Hale reached up to put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, I’m glad you’re here with me,” he said, and got a fanged smile for his trouble.
“Thanks. Still, it would be nice to get my curves back,” Krissy sighed. “But I think we’ll be waiting a while.”
“You could just bull your way though,” Hale pointed out. “No offence, he amended as a bovine peasant snorted down the back of his neck.
“That would be rude.”
“Just a suggestion,” Hale said, rolling his eyes. When you weigh twice as much as almost anyone in the crowd niceties just didn’t apply in his opinion.
The crowd stilled for a moment as the mage reached the climax of his chant and with a bellow a child on the stage blossomed into adulthood before everyone’s eyes. People cheered, but they were the minority. Everyone was just fixated on getting to that stage before their salvation evaporated.
“I’m still not happy with this,” Hale said after a long moment’s silence.
Kristine growled, which netted her a few uncomfortable looks from the bystanders. “What’s wrong this time,” she snapped.
“Everyone says that the curse is utterly unbreakable,” Hale began, biting his lip in worry. “Has been for years and I’ve heard of a dozen great mages that tried and failed. Why can this guy do the impossible?”
“Isn’t it enough that someone can?” Krissy sighed.
“Didn’t you hear,” a small boy next to Hale piped up. “It’s all the Duke’s idea. As long as we think the curse is unbreakable he gets an army at his beck and call. No one can ever leave.”
“Funny, I was under the impression most of these people were here by choice,” Hale replied, looking down his nose at the child.
“Choice!” a normal human bellowed, his ill fitting leather armour marking him as a cured, and the small knot of people jumped in surprise. “Choice to arrive maybe. But once we do we’re trapped forever. I’d have been run out of any town in the world for being a freak before that wonderful man.” He gestured at the mage who was accepting payment from another resident. “But now I’m free. Free!”
“You’ve got a bit of fur on your face,” Hale pointed out, and the man rounded on him.
“Stubble,” he snapped, shooting a look of daggers.
“And the black under your nose?”
A torch was brought forwards to shine in the man’s face, but he batted it away, snarling and showing overlong canines.
“You’re one of the Duke’s people aren’t you?” he snapped. “Or are you just some stupid traveller who doesn’t know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see a beast looking out?”
“Trust me, I’ve been there, been cursed and got the dangly bits,” Hale replied, stepping smartly back. The man almost went to follow him but then noticed Krissy looming and froze.
“So you got lucky,” the man growled, ignoring the tiger morph. “Or are you just lying to us. How do we know that the Duke hasn’t been bribing his people with cures and they’ve been lying about it?”
“Hey, we only got here a few months ago,” Krissy cut in. There was a large crowd gathering behind the cured man, but they seemed to be degenerating towards mob with disturbing speed. “Lay off.”
“Oh, so you’re sure you’re friend here is telling the truth, despite the fact he looks perfectly normal,” the man growled. His eyes were the wrong colour, Hale realised, had they always been yellow?
“She, is just as cursed as you were,” Krissy shot back, a growl rising in her throat.
“And we’ve just got your word on that,” he barked.
“For Light’s sake man, you’re changing back,” Hale snapped.
The man hurled himself at Hale, and got halfway through drawing his sword before Krissy caught him by the scruff of the neck and slammed him into the ground.
“Let me go,” he snarled, trying to draw his sword, but Kristine sat on him, took the short bade and snapped it between her paws.
The mob rather took the hint after that, and began to give the pair a little breathing room as Hale bent down to examine the cured closer.
“I’m not afraid of you,” the man snarled, and spat at Hale.
“Human ears aren’t pointed,” Hale said, with brutal honesty and opened up what magic senses he had to the man.
It would be wrong to call Hale a mage. No mage would, though he knew enough that non-mages might mistake him for one. With a poor light. If they’d never met a real mage. Even so the ‘cure’ sprung into sharp relief to Hale’s eyes.
Only, a moment later it shifted, and then boiled. The whole thing was a mind bending mess of misdirection, amplification and what felt almost like a teleport. With a grimace Hale watched part of the spell burn out as the curse attacked it and the man’s very soul was caught in a battle between the two sides. Life was bleeding out of him and into the conflict, but worse some was just vanishing, carried along a tenuous link to somewhere else.
“The curse isn’t broken,” Hale murmured placing two fingers on the man’s forehead as he tried to push though the barriers and find the other end of the link. “It’s being suppressed somehow but...”
There was an audible crack as the spell unravelled and the man features ballooned out into a canine muzzle. The crowd looked on in stunned silence and the man, now dog, put a paw to his face in disbelief.
“I’ll kill you!” he bellowed, tearing himself out from under the tiger and Hale toppled onto his backside as the enraged man leapt at him. A moment later Kristine caught the guy’s head in one paw and slammed him back into the dirt, pulling one arm behind his back, but still he struggled. “I’ll kill you, you bastard. You and your mangy cat.”
Kristine shifted her grip and pinned the guys muzzle against the dirt and still he shot off muffled obscenities.
“Look, I know you don’t like me,” Hale sighed, crouching down to the dog’s new eye level. “And, hell, I don’t like you. But that wasn’t a cure, it was at best a whitewash, and it was already breaking up. It may have even killed you if you’d tried to run it long enou...”
“Ah, damn it,” he declared, rising. “We need to get up there.”
Krissy glanced at the throng between them and the stage. “How bad is it?”
“Not a clue,” Hale replied. “But it’s running of life energy, and if old Higgs taught me anything it was not to accept life draining spells from shady old guys.”
“Higgs was a shady old guy,” Krissy pointed out.
“I didn’t say he told me that, just that he taught me,” Hale replied.
“So are you just going to pop up there?” she queried.
“Err, I think our canine friend might be struggling to breathe,” Hale suggested as the dog stopped struggling and flopped.
“Ah, sorry,” Krissy exclaimed, leaping off him, moving much faster than anyone her size had a right to. “Are you oka—”
The dog leapt to his feet and barrelled his way through the crowd screaming. “Curse keepers! Magic stealers! Body snatchers!”
All eyes turned on Hale and Krissy, who tried and failed to look inconspicuous.
“Okay, we either run to the Keep or the stage,” Hale muttered, as the crowd closed. Some just looked curious, but more had murder in their eyes and the dog was still screaming in rage.
“Keep would be easier to reach,” Krissy replied, ears flattening as the mob edged closer. They were edging faster towards Hale, much to the lad’s annoyance.
“Stage is the right thing to do though,” she continued, ignoring him.
“One of the mages will figure it out sooner or later,” Hale pointed out, glancing around for a way out.
“But it could hurt people.”
Hale muttered to himself for a moment. “Okay, but you’re going to have to push your way through.”
“There are like a thousand people here,” she protested.
“For goodness sake girl, just show them your lungs.”
With sigh, the tiger rounded on the crowd, drew back her lips in her best horrifying beast impression and growled at the assembly. A few flinched as they did a quick comparison to the length of her teeth and size of their weapons, but most stood firm, one growled back. Then Krissy dropped onto her hands, took a deep thundering breath and let loose a roar that made even Hale’s heart skip a beat, and he’d been expecting it. Almost as one the assembled crowd took one look at the enraged beast and decided that whatever was going on it wasn’t worth them getting involved and the belligerent few found their support evaporating around them.
Krissy coughed, wiping her paws on her jerkin. “Right, so if you could just let I through,” she said, in a much calmer tone. No one budged.
“Yell,” Hale suggested, after a moment.
“Oh, okay. Make way!” she bellowed, tapping the first guy on the shoulder to draw his attention, but from then on pushing people out of the way as Hale jabbed her in the back.
“Ah, I see we have a pair who don’t care how long everyone else has been waiting,” the mage observed, as the tiger forged a path through the throng. “Let’s hope their purse is as large as their lungs.”
There were a few laughs at this, and Krissy scowled as Hale leapt onto the stage.
“People you’re being scammed,” he yelled and silence fell like a rock from on high.
“Oh really,” the mage said, after a moment and his fingers danced before a horse morph who, with a soft sucking noise sunk back into human form. “Does this look like a scam to you?”
“It’s temporary,” Hale shot back. “Come on people use your eyes. There are dozens of people who have supposedly been cured. Are they looking as human as they did when they came off stage? Are they looking as human as they did five minutes ago?”
There were angry yells and someone threw a rock, but there were also mutterings.
“These people have been under the thrall of this travesty for many years,” the mage amended. “It is going to take some time for everything to settle down, but rest assured the curse has been lifted.”
“The curse has been hidden,” Hale snorted in distaste. “It’s all smoke and mirrors and fairy gold. Your cure is feeding off that bit of you that wants to be normal again, and when that runs out it’s going to start devouring the rest of you.”
“What do you know of magic?” the mage snapped. “Have you been studying this curse for years in order to pass judgment on my hard work?”
“I know little of magic,” Hale replied, shooting the mage a haughty look. “But I know plenty about conning people out of their money and this is the oldest trick in the book.”
“Oh,” mage drawled, crossing his arms inside his sleeves. “And what trick is this?”
“Mysterious stranger rolls into the village and convinces them that they’re under a curse and only he may remove it,” Hale explained. “Things look better for a little while and the grateful villagers shell over the cash only to have everything they gained vanish the moment the man is out of sight.”
“So you think that I just made up this curse affecting the keep?” the mage exclaimed, throwing his arms towards the sky.
“No, I think there actually being a curse just makes things easier,” Hale replied. The mutterings had grown louder, and there was a sudden cry as someone reverted to their half animal form.
“Do not doubt!” the mage roared, spreading his hands wide. “It weakens the counter spell.”
But at the same time Hale yelled. “See, this curse isn’t broken. You’re just five suns poorer.”
“Think people!” Hale pressed. “If this man really had a cure he could waltz into the keep and the treasury would be thrown open for him. Instead he’s charging those in the worst position to pay for it.” He didn’t add ‘and the most gullible’.
“He’s right,” someone called from the crowd. “The Duke would give him a king’s ransom for this. Why sell to us?”
“The Duke’s in on it,” another voice yelled back. “He doesn’t need a cure.”
“So why’s he still a horse?”
The mage was flapping his arms in agitation, only, Hale realised a moment to late it wasn’t agitation. He was casting something.
“Stop him,” Hale yelled, moments too late and the mage, along with the bag of money, vanished into thin air. “Damn it.”
“Where’d he go?” another voice bellowed.
Counter curses were failing left and right as Hale scanned the crowd. He knew teleports, and that one was just gestures and will, so the mage couldn’t have gone far.
“There,” he yelled, spotting a figure trying to get through the outer gates. “By the gate. Stop that man!”
The crowd turned but the mage took one look over his shoulder and then he was gone in a blur and Hale was stood outside the gates in the hoof prints.
“Damn it,” Hale swore, kicking the ground and a small white stone went flying through the air. Just as the guards realised he was there he picked the rock up and held it between thumb and forefinger, sighing as he recognised it.
A moment later he was back on the stage and sat on the edge next to Kristine who was looking round in confusion as the crowd stalled, now bereft of a target. Few had even noticed Hale had moved.
“Look at this,” Hale said, proffering the stone. It was about the size of a pea, pearly white and etched with a single rune. “Recognise it?”
“Should I?” she asked.
“It’s a way stone,” Hale explained. “Used by people who want to get out of a place in a hurry. Drop these along your trail and the journey back becomes only a dozen steps. They lose charge quickly though so after a day they’re useless.”
“He was always going to run,” Krissy concluded, looking downcast. “Wait, if you know that... you only learnt any magic from one guy.”
“Yep,” Hale said, beaming. “Looks like our friend Garison has moved up in the world.”
“More like slimed along a little,” Krissy spat. “He looks older.”
“It was ten years ago,” Hale pointed out. “And he was quite good at that kind of thing.”
“You going to get everyone’s money back then?” she asked, and Hale paused a moment. Truth be told getting everyone’s money back the last time he’d met Garison had been more a side affect than an aim, though he hadn’t told Krissy that. She still thought he’d been terribly heroic for her.
“I’ll try and find him first,” Hale admitted, falling to meet his sister’s eye. “See you in a few hours.”
Hale vanished and to him reappeared in Midtown an instant later, though in the real world several minutes had passed. Logically Hale knew that whatever time he lost while travelling like that it would always be faster than the alternative, but he did rather want to know what had happened to those few minutes. Just in case he could get them back somehow.
A quick whip round later the gate guards hadn’t seen anyone arrive and no one else had seen anyone on a horse in the last few minutes and would remember a guy carrying a sack of swag thank you very much. With a groan Hale closed his eyes and found himself about to be run over by a horse as he materialised on the road outside Merith right in front of Garison.
Hale tended to react faster to his arrival than the people he dropped in on and this time was no exception and he had a short sword out of its scabbard and hovering in front Garison’s face before the horse had settled back down.
“You again,” the mage growled. “Can’t you just leave me alone; you’ve already cost me a small fortune.”
“Aww, not even a friendly hello,” Hale said, smiling without warmth. “It’s been years since I last saw you Garison.”
“How did you—” he began, but then realisation dawned across his face. “Oh, damn it. Hailey. I thought it was odd they had an uncursed standing up for them.”
“I don’t call it a curse,” Hale replied.
“I’m not surprised,” Garison said, rolling his eyes. A lot of the age had dropped from his face somehow, leaving less the impression of a venerable mage, and more a minor merchant. “And I should have known I’d run into you again. That village would never hold you.”
“Aww, that sounded almost like a complement,” Hale said, sheathing his sword. “I take it you want to make me an offer.”
“Still sharp,” the man sighed. “And you’ve still got an ability that no one else has. I’ve got a lot stronger version of that spell if you want it. Needs recasting every few days but...” He let that hang.
“I came here on purpose,” Hale replied. “And I wouldn’t trust you to enchant me if my life depended on it.”
“Come now, everyone always gets better, whether they’ve paid or not,” Garison pointed out. “I’m not a bad person.”
“You just sold a bucketful of false hope to those that had none,” Hale muttered. “That’s not just bad, that’s evil.”
“They’re fine,” he replied, rolling his eyes.
“Physically, maybe,” Hale admitted. “But that isn’t everything.”
“Yeah, are you going to stop me then?” Garison, snapped, meeting Hale with a cold stare, which Hale failed to hold. “Didn’t think so. Now if you’ve ruined my day enough for now, you’re blocking the road.”
Garison lead the horse round the stationary Hale and got maybe thirty feet before the Hale appeared before him once more.
“What is it now?” he snarled.
“I want the spell,” Hale said, fingers drumming on the hilt of his sword.
“So why should I care what you want?” Garison retorted. “You turned me down. Twice now.”
“It’s useless to you now,” Hale pointed out. “The Keepers aren’t going to fall for the same trick again. It’s worthless.”
“If you want it, it’s worth something,” the charlatan said, with a wicked grin.
“Five suns,” Hale suggested, and got a snort of laughter for his trouble. “Okay.” There was a flicker of movement and he was holding a bag full to the brim with gold. “How about three hundred?”
“You, you,” Garison spluttered as he recognised his purse, and fought to regain composure. “You, bitch.” He wasn’t doing very well. “Fine, take your spell,” he snapped, hurling the parchment at Hale. “Just leave me alone.”
“Never has there been a deal I’ve been more eager to agree to,” Hale said with a smirk as he handed Garison back his ill-gotten gains, and the con-man muttered a few choice swear words.
Hale watched the charlatan go. Some part of him knew that he should be calling the guard. Garison was going to be an infamous man for some time and he’d be hailed as a hero for bringing him in. With a snort Hale turned and began to walk back towards Merith. Hero, right. There were dozens of wannaby con-men out there, and Garison would make no difference to that. The world wasn’t a nice place, and until it was you had to be a bit of a bastard to get ahead.
Hale unrolled the parchment and, faltering, read the first line out loud.
“Good, but not, good, enough,” he enunciated, and then yelped in surprise as the paper burst into flames and was consumed in an instant.
“You—” he began, rounding Garison only to find the road devoid of life, and Hale swore loudly.
“Whatever, I don’t want your stupid half baked spell anyway,” he told the empty air. “I’m still ten sun’s richer”
He held up the handful of gold he’d swiped and there was an angry yell as he vanished.