This was not, perhaps, my brightest idea, Drift thought to himself as he raced across the rooftops. In full animal form, he was both fast enough to catch up to the assassin and light enough that he didn't go crashing through collapsed or half-burned roofs, but it was a little lacking in weaponry. Come back here! I'll bite your ankles off! He snorted, leaping across a narrow alleyway without missing stride. Thank Eli for close-packed houses! If Erin could see me now, she'd call me a harebrained idiot for doing this. Sorry, Sis, but I'm not going to sit and wait for the next arrow to find me, like Dad did. Cresting a rooftop, he spotted the would-be assassin, a tall, dark-haired woman, three houses away and still running. Still, he thought, an unseen smirk crossing his mind as he ran down the slope in pursuit and leaped to the next house, if it wasn't for the chance of getting shot, I think I'd be enjoying this!
The street had all but exploded when Wolfram was shot. The crowd had scattered like a dropped ball of quicksilver, and the acolytes had snatched the older children who'd been helping unload the wagon and pulled them under cover. The wagon's owner was nearly trampled by her own horse when a Keeper ran right under the horse's nose, her speed putting the lie to the turtle shell on her back. Drift and Merai both had pulled Wolfram into the shelter of the wagon. "I take back everything I said about this wagon," Drift said, having earlier griped about the difficulty the high sides had caused while loading. "Is he going to be all right?" Judging by the string of curses Wolfram had gone through while being dragged, the Samoyed figured his friend was not seriously injured.
"He'll be alright once I get that arrow out," Merai replied. "It's not deep."
"Good," Drift had snarled, "because I'm going after the one that shot him." He couldn't turn his body as quickly as usual in taurform, but he'd been able to twist far enough to see her leap from the orphanage roof to the roof of the half-ruined building next to it and start running. Stripping off his vest and unbuckling his dagger from his right bicep, he'd handed the first to Merai over her protests, seized the belt of the second in his mouth, and leaped for the eaves of the building the assassin had first jumped to. Shifting shape as he leaped, he'd grabbed the eaves with the hands of his standard form, pulled himself up, and shifted to full animal form once he'd managed it. The first few rooftops had been nerve-wracking, their supports half burned-out at best, some with gaping holes to jump, but now the chase was over rebuilt homes, and he was gaining. On the other hand, the storm clouds were closer, and if he didn't get into range before they arrived, their rain would wipe out any chance of him tracking her.
He knew he had to get her down on the street somehow, where he could switch back to taurform and where, hopefully, he'd be able to get some help. Anything else would put him at even more of a disadvantage than he already had. Leaping another alleyway, he cursed himself for not thinking of training for fighting in animal form. Heaven knew he'd heard of enough enemies using Keepers' curses against them. He crested another roof… and then dove for cover when he saw the assassin's hand crossbow raised to fire. He was almost fast enough, and the bolt meant for his right eye nicked the tip of his ear instead, making him wince. George's lessons on approaching an archer in clumped cover sprang into his mind, and a sharp dogleg left sent him diving over the edge of the next roof, a crossbow bolt whining past the tip of his tail. Never pop out of the same spot twice, Drift remembered as he raced for the other edge of the roof, and get back under cover fast.
He was jumping the alley to the last rooftop when a bolt sliced past his nose, coming from the left, and reminded him of the rest of the lesson. Don't assume your target will stand still between shots!! He jumped the roof peak, the only cover available from that angle, and yelped in shock when his forepaws landed on grease-covered slate shingles, a quickly laid trap courtesy of the assassin. The main market space of Metamor waited below, and the freshly splattered grease sent him sailing down the slope onto a vendor's stall. The stall collapsed with a crash and a yell, but it wasn't the landing that made Drift howl. The fat merchant he landed on cushioned him nicely. It was, instead, the merchant's wares erupting from their containers: ground spices. Pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and more buried his nose, mouth, and eyes in burning, fiery pain, each breath producing a paroxysm of coughing and gagging as he staggered into clearer air.
He'd finally managed to gasp an unfettered breath when fat fingers closed on the scruff of his neck, lifting his forequarters painfully off the ground. A dark-skinned face roared with apoplectic fury in Drift's ear, a barrage of foreign curses sandwiched between explosive fits of sneezing, and the Samoyed yelped and nearly bit the man when the merchant started shaking him. A well-practiced shapeshift unfolded his body into taurform and Drift's elbow bowled the fat man over, clutching his belly.
Eyes streaming and his temper only barely held in check, Drift reared onto his hindlegs to scan over the heads of the busy marketplace. He quickly spotted what he was looking for, dashed over, and plunged up to his shoulders in the nearest rain barrel, shaking his head back and forth. Even keeping his eyes open underwater, he had to come up for air twice before the burning subsided enough that he didn't quite want to claw his eyes out, and his mouth and throat were little better. "Yes, I know I'm going to have to pay for damages!" he snapped at the merchant, whose yelling had been clearly audible even underwater. "Total it up and bill it to Snow's Tinsmithy!" He sneezed hard enough to stagger himself and his hand came away a disgusting shade of orange-brown when he wiped his nose. He washed it off in the rain barrel with a shudder. "Will someone please tell me when this day is over?" he muttered.
The merchant would have none of it. "I will not bill some…" He sneezed. "…some smithy for this, you… you…" He seemed at a loss as to what to call the taur. "…you creature! My stall is ruined! My wares are-" The man's voice was buried under a rumble of thunder as the first fat raindrops started to fall.
Drift spotted the assassin slipping out of an alley far down the street in spite of his still-watering eyes. "Stop that woman!" he barked, and bolted in chase as she ducked back out of sight with a frustrated scowl. Behind him, the merchant continued to shriek and rage between violent sneezes.
"Guards! Watchman!" He sneezed again. "Somebody stop that… thing!" Few of the other merchants heeded, trying to get the last of their wares under cover from the rain. Most of the other people in the market seemed more interested in getting out of the charging taur's way, but not all. A trio of animal Keepers stepped into the roadway: a cheetah, an elk, and a rat, and they spread out to block Drift's path. The cheetah took the center spot, moving forward and bringing up his hands. His voice was sharply commanding as he took a bracing stance, the elk readying to grapple, while the rat stepped back a pace.
"Hold, sir!" the cheetah yelled, and his eyes widened when Drift reared and leaped clear over him. Drift felt a grab on his left hindleg, still sore from bouncing off the wagon seat earlier, but his momentum tugged it loose and he managed to get it back in line in time for landing. He swerved immediately right as the elk lunged for a tackle, and blocked the elk's velveted antlers wide with a forearm. The elk's shoulder still caught him in the left hindquarters, though, skidding him sideways toward the rat. Drift had counted that one as a lesser threat, but he spotted a smile cross the rat's face just before it passed out of view. With a jerk on the fur of Drift's forequarter and a practiced swing of his legs that staggered Drift more from sheer shock than from the sudden weight on his back, the rat swung himself aboard. The pair of triumphant cheers in his wake confirmed a conclusion that left Drift furiously indignant: the other two had set him up for the rat!
"Get off!" Drift yelled, jabbing back with an elbow that missed the small rat-man completely. The rat clamped onto Drift's taur chest with his knees and twined one set of claws into the long fur low on Drift's left shoulder-blade. The other reached up, closed on the taur's right ear, and hauled back, and the Samoyed howled in pain. "OOOOW!! Let go of my ear!"
"I shall not!" the rat shouted back as the taur's gallop arced sharply to the side of the pulled ear, and then turned into a bucking bounce that utterly failed to either displace the small rider or loosen his grip. Even an abrupt stagger as a wave of dizziness hit Drift didn't shake the rat loose. "Cease thy riot at once, sirrah," he said, starting to twist the ear, "or I shall truly hurt thee!"
"She's getting-" Drift stumbled as a second wave of dizziness hit him, closely followed by a different twisting sensation, this time in his gut. He managed two more steps before a knifing pain jolted through his stomach, buckling his legs and sent the rat rolling in the dust with a surprised shout. The last sound Drift heard before blacking out was a little girl shrieking as his body went completely haywire.
"Will he be all right, Edmund? I knew something wast amiss at his first stagger."
Drift's body ached as badly as if he'd run all day while being battered with clubs and mallets, and his exhausted muscles felt like so much jelly. The sound of raindrops beating on canvas suggested why he was otherwise dry despite the driving rain that could be heard spattering on the street. A pair of hands that had been holding his head let go, and his eyes opened slowly on a wavering blur as his vision swam. The cheetah, the rat, and the elk knelt at the center of a small crowd around him.
"Yes, I think so," the cheetah-man said. He was the one who had been holding Drift's head. "The poison is purged, and I've done what healing I can." He didn't seem pleased with the last two words, his expression suggesting he wished he could do more.
"Poi…son?" Drift snapped alert. "Wolfram!" The Samoyed taur tried to push himself upright, but his aching body refused. "Ow…" He tried again, harder, and the elk and rat held him down, advising him to stay calm. Drift would have none of it. "Let me go! She shot my friend! I have to warn Priestess Merai!"
"Priestess Merai?" the rat echoed.
"Who was shot?" the cheetah asked almost at the same time. "Merai?"
"My friend, Wolfram! If that arrow was poisoned, too…" Drift struggled, trying to get loose of the hands holding him, feeling his strength slowly starting to come back. "Let go! She-" A hacking fit of coughs interrupted him, and the marble-sized, hard brown-black ball it brought up decisively snapped his chain of thought as it plunked into his hand. "What the hell?"
"Arrow? Not quite, Mr. Snow," the cheetah said with a hint of an arched eyebrow. "This is the first time I've ever seen someone poisoned by nutmeg. Apparently, you're canine enough for it to be toxic. When I was younger, I saw it happen to one of my father's hunting dogs. Stay down and rest; you've had a very nasty seizure."
"Calm down, you oversized hound," the elk muttered. "You're going to hurt someone." Saulius didn't bother with words and just put the taur's arm in a joint lock.
How the tiny rat managed that so easily, Drift couldn't quite figure out, but for the moment it balanced out against his rising temper, leaving words as the preferable route. Several questions came to Drift's mind at once, and one finally took precedence. "How did you know my name?"
"You're rather unmistakable, Mr. Snow," rumbled one of two Watchmen who'd pushed their way through the crowd, a massive, shaggy-haired bull creature of a kind Drift hadn't seen before. His brown fur was especially thick around his head and neck. Short, thick horns curved upward to a sharp point from each temple, and his large face seemed naturally set in a stern, intimidating glower. "You're even somewhat notorious. You're also under arrest."
"What??" Indignation buttressed what strength he'd recovered, though it snapped what calm he'd mustered, and Drift threw off the two Keepers restraining him despite Saulius' joint lock. "Get off me!" he snapped as he rolled upright, rising to his feet. His legs tried to wobble, but he locked them in place by sheer force of will. Better to bluff the Watchmen with a show of strength than to advertise how weary he was. "If this is your idea of a sick joke," he growled, not quite able to loom over the massive bison-morph Keeper, "I'm not laughing." Typical Watch, Drift thought, eyes narrowing with disgust. Late as always and chasing the wrong target. "I did not chase an assassin all the way from Recos' Orphanage to be arrested by a couple of idiot Watchmen."
The bison's expression didn't flicker, but the grizzle-bearded man behind him darkened with anger. Not quite what I'd meant to say, Drift thought with a hint of recrimination as several bystanders backed away from the brewing confrontation, but I'll be damned if I'll apologize for it. Thunder rolled in the storm outside the awning to match the storm brewing inside.
The cheetah, the one called Edmund if Drift remembered correctly, gestured for the two Watchmen to stay back. He asked, keeping his voice level and calm, "Assassin? You expect us to believe you were chasing an assassin? That is certainly quite a tale." The other two picked themselves up off the ground where they'd landed, and spread apart to the sides. Drift did not plan on underestimating them again, and put his back to a wall so he could keep both in sight.
"Describe yon assassin, if thou wouldst," the rat said, a hint of a satisfied smile showing as he noted Drift's wary eye staying on him more than any of the others. "Twas it a man, woman, or beast?"
Drift fixed his attention fully on the rat, trying to figure out where he'd seen him before. "A woman," he said, choosing his words with care. He was outnumbered, outclassed, and the trio knew how tired and battered he really was. "Dark hair, shoulder length. Thin build, fair skin, and close-fitting dark clothes, wielding a hand crossbow. I didn't get close enough for a good scent, though-" He paused to rub his still-burning nose. "And landing on a spice merchant's shop didn't exactly help matters." Realizing he had forgotten to give credit where credit was due, he glanced toward the cheetah and thanked him. "Thank you for your help, by the way. Edmund, was it?"
Edmund bowed without taking his eyes off Drift. "Sir Edmund Delacote. A pleasure to be of service. My companions are Sir Saulius," he said and pointed to the rat. "And Sir Egland," he continued, pointing to the elk. "Now, why would someone want to assassinate Priestess Merai?"
Drift swallowed, glad to have the wall to lean back against as the magnitude of his blunder hit home. He'd just assaulted two knights of Metamor, including the two-time winner of the Knights' Tourney, and he had what could only be an honest-to-Eli paladin showing interest in him. Oh, boy. You've really stepped in it this time. Polite, sincere, and try not to let them see how tight your tail just tucked under…
The spy slipped out of Metamor unnoticed, and through Euper as well, out into the countryside. He marked his trail on trees he passed with surreptitious swipes of a black-furred feline hand. Evading pursuit was easy when one could shapeshift beyond what the Metamorans expected. Leaving Euper's gates, he turned off the road and into the woods, homing in on the subtle vibrations in the aether he'd sensed from Metamor's alleyways. They led him to a copse of trees deep in the forest, and he spent thirty minutes seeking among them for the source, a forming rift to the Dreamlands. The Dreamlands were the link between the Material plane of the mortals and the heavens and hells of the aedra and daedra, and he would need to pass through them to reach his master's side. He finally found what he was seeking between a pair of pine trees, the air between them seeming to shimmer and wave as if a heat mirage had been laid over it, without completely obscuring what lay beyond.
To most, a forming rift to the Dreamlands would offer little more than a strange optical shimmer that would fade within a day, but the assassin was long experienced with them and knew what to do when the moment came to act. Reaching out, he seized a ripple in the air between his fingers and pulled it aside with a practiced jerk that tore the air with a flash of light and a sound like ripping canvas. He stepped through into a glade much like the one he'd just left… and yet not. The Dreamlands were much like the Material plane in appearance, but were both more real, and less…The brown trees were now a bright shade of yellow, with amber leaves that glinted in the sunlight. Purple grass rustled under his feet as he turned in place. A troupe of brownies scattered into the brush nearby, chattering in tiny, frightened voices, and he caught a brief glimpse of the fey deer they had been stalking before it, too, vanished, bounding off in a streak of brown and white. He paid none of them any heed, his eyes seeking the glowing white column of the Axis, the link between all the Heavens and all the Hells.
Ah, there it was, and relatively close. He could reach it in a half hour, walking, but he saw no need to take even that long. He leaped forward, his body flowing as white fur wrapped him round, ears sliding up into points as a curled tail swished out behind, and the ground flew past under four broad paws. There was a certain delicious irony to using the mark's own form to travel in, especially since that form was so well-suited for doing so. That hint of mischievous glee was the only break in an otherwise furious mood, however serene an appearance he presented to the outside world. With a single colossal blunder, the rank amateur with whom he'd been paired had nearly undone months of planning. Only the chance appearance of that paladin had prevented months of hard work and cultivation from being completely ruined. There was a certain irony in that, too: a paladin unknowingly preserving a hell-born plot. Even so, as he leapt into the gleaming Axis, the spy swore to never again work with a partner.
The rush of transit through the Axis accompanied the rush of another transformation, and the spy stepped from the light into the darkness of the Eighth Hell tall, dark-haired, and female. She tossed her long hair back over her shoulder with delicate human hands, the same that had held the crossbow when she shot the ram Keeper. Her master would know her no matter what the form, but she knew that even the Lord of Avarice was not entirely immune to the charms of a winsome female. He would likely see through the ploy, but she wanted every possible advantage she could scrape together in order to rid herself of the useless deadweight with which he'd burdened her.
She ignored the damned souls in their tattered finery, working under the lash to mine precious metals and gems for the glittering buildings of the Eighth Hell. All of them, down to the lowest hovel, glittered and gleamed, but therein lay the irony: there was nothing soft to rest on, nothing to eat or drink, no way to recover their strength. That could only be had by paying, and the coin of the realm was labor. Those who would not (or could no longer) work were sent to the factories. She passed those without a glance as well, the massive factories that rendered those souls into the soul tar that was the currency of the Nine Hells. Some of the damned tried to play for time, tried to 'play the game' and get ahead, but none succeeded. All of them eventually went into the factory vats, some too soul-weary to struggle, but some screaming and clawing to the last.
It was to the palace that the spy set her sights, and she distracted the balrog at the gates with the same trick she'd used on the carthorse back in Metamor: a matched pair of tiny illusions just in front of his eyes. While the illusion for the carthorse had been a snarling dog just big enough to force perspective and make it look normal-sized and a few feet away, for the balrog it was a fight among the workers. She knew what balrogs liked, and there was little they liked more than a fight. Especially one they could wade into and know they'd win. While he was watching, she slipped past unnoticed and in through the gates. It wasn't that the balrog wouldn't have let her past, but any chance for mischief was worth grabbing. It would not do to meet her lord still seething. Lord Agemnos considered himself the ultimate businessman, and she would need to be calm, cool, and collected to get him to change his mind.
That plan died the instant she walked into her master's throne room and saw Thestilus already there. Three steps and a slap sent the imp clear over her lord's ruby-studded scrying basin, his face ripped open from cheek to the opposing ear by a hand turned to hooked dragon talons. "You nearly killed my mark, you Light-cursed idiot!!"
"The Metamor Curse is unpredictable," retorted the leathery-skinned imp as he staggered back to his feet, his face regenerating with the lightning speed of his kind. "Most Keepers don't react so closely to their… species." He edged sideways, keeping the basin between himself and her.
"You should have considered the possibility and made allowance for it!"
"What did you want me to do, make the merchant leave a quarter of his wares behind on a possible reaction I didn't even know could occur?"
"You should have known the chance existed, you incompetent buffoon!"
"Enough," said the man on the throne, a lean, fair-skinned man in a long vermillion cloak over rich silken clothing. His voice was as closely clipped as his immaculate golden beard, and icy blue eyes locked the spy in their gaze. "It concerns me," he said as he rose to his feet, "how much of your target's temper seems to be rubbing off on you. Take care, lest you feel my temper." The blazing red-orange glimmer of the fire opals sewn into the fringe of his cloak gave warning of the price of that temper. "You are valuable, my master spy, but only as long as you obey my will."
The spy dropped to one knee, a fist to the ground in a show of obedience. "My apologies, milord." That was the danger of studying mortals as closely as she had, in order to understand them from their own point of view. That and an innate talent for matching her personality to that of her target made her a truly superior infiltrator, but getting too close to a target could bleed over character traits. And she had gotten very close indeed to the fiery Samoyed, with whom it took startlingly little effort and acting to become compatible. If she had not checked- three different times!- she would have sworn he was an aedra counterspy trying to trip her up. And, for a mortal, he had such a cute butt…
Lord Agemnos' gaze turned to Thestilus next, and the imp shrank back slightly before dropping to the floor. "I will forgive your error this once, Thestilus," said Agemnos. "Do not fail me again, or I will plunge you back into the sulfur pools from whence you came and have you remade into a mindless hellhound, fit only for the kennels. Perhaps you would even be a gift to my cousin Revonos, for what short time you survive in his arena." The imp shuddered at the threat. "Alexastra is right: you should have known about the possibility of a reaction. But you are also right: the chances were remote and, aside from the nutmeg, that was an excellent choice of merchant to place where he would fall. He reacted as expected throughout the entire test, and the high value of the destroyed wares will put him in a deep debt from which Alexastra can now rescue him, furthering her hold over him." Agemnos looked sharply over at the spy. "You are certain that he will not go to his friend Brightleaf for help?"
The spy shook her head. "Not in so short a time, my lord," she said. "His pride would not let him. He would do it eventually, perhaps, but not before exhausting all other options for working things out by himself. I will pay his debt before I see him, and then present it as a fait accompli. He won't be happy about it, but I'm certain I can convince him it's the right course." She got to her feet, careful to keep her voice deferential. She knew by now that she would not be getting rid of Thestilus anytime soon. "With your permission, my lord, I would like to get back quickly. Drift Snow may be proud and stubborn, but he is unpredictable when backed into a corner. I would prefer not to give him time to be clever." As appealing as she found Drift when he thought he was being sneaky, now was not the time for it.
Lord Agemnos nodded. "Very well. Set your plans in motion. Thestilus, for the time being, restrict your activities to Linafex and leave Snow to Alexastra."
Thestilus did not look pleased by that directive. "My lord," he wheedled, "I do not mean to question your wisdom, but why are we involving Snow at all? If Linafex is a problem, why not just kill him?" He stayed on his knees, but looked up from the ground. "I'll do it. Quick slip in, stab, stab, no waiting," he said, matching gestures to words. "And then slip back out again with none the wiser."
Agemnos smiled, revealing gleaming white teeth. "My ambitious little imp. It is not, as it were, considered couth to kill someone with whom you have a contract." He sat back down on the throne, and his smile widened in malicious good humor. "Not so directly, anyway. It frightens away future clients if they think I might have them killed. Besides which, I would only profit by one soul if you killed Linafex. Involving Snow raises the possibility of a second. Now be off, both of you," he said, gesturing in dismissal, "and be profitable."