September 707 CR
Those blasted Keepers! Curse them! Curse them all! Curse their haughty rules! Curse their blasting keep!!
Six months! For six months I have traveled! Six months to reach these abysmal Midlands and this infernal castle!
And they wouldn't let me in!
'Welcome to Metamor' my foot! I did not gawk. I smiled. I nodded. I was polite. I paid for a room at their inn. I perused their marketplace. I even sampled from their bakery.
But the Keep Proper? Denied! "Heightened security!" "No appointment?" "Come back later!" Heaven forbid you suffer the heinous wrath of a lone traveler invading your precious keep! How, pray tell, how is your world renown library "public" if it is locked away behind those gates? Certainly I have proven these twisted forms of Metamor human, for they are as inept as the rest of humanity.
That is enough. Calm down...
I removed the small chunk of bread I saved from earlier out of my sack, unwrapping it and inhaling its sweet aroma. At the very least it was good bread. I think I truly would have lost it if were stale. I sat down on the bed, studying myself in the mirror across the room as I ate. Had I done something to arouse suspicion? My beard could have used a trim, but I wasn't that haggard. My black cloak perhaps? They always suspect black. Blast it! No, that was ridiculous. They've probably had similar incidents, not to mention Nasoj to deal with.
They were right of course. I fully intended to steal that book, once I got my hands on it...
That library... it had to be in there. Metamor was the only place left. All would be for naught if I couldn't find it... All those years of work... Time was running out. I had to leave before the curse of this place began to take hold of me, twisting my body into some new, vile shape. I certainly could not wait until I gained some sort of legitimate clearance.
Of course, I had a plan.
Chewing the last bit of bread, I reached down and brought my satchel up on the bed with me, rummaging through its paper contents. I pulled out my personal book of spells, well my book of messily inked notes more like, and spread it out upon the covers. I carefully thumbed through the pages. And there they were... my grandfather's notes. Easily my most prized possessions. Though they were only a few pages of scribblings, half of which I did not fully understand, they were priceless to me. Deep down I knew I would never see the man again. The thought pained me, especially in recent years now that I could actually understand written spells, for his sort of wizardry was certainly not the kind taught in schools.
I was of course extremely thankful for our one and only meeting, though. I was unfortunately too young to take in all he had to offer, yet the man was wise enough to hastily leave me with these spells and guidelines. Just enough to point me in the right direction and so that I might fill in the gaps in the future with my own learning. He was the only man I ever respected, brief as our meeting was. I remember it like yesterday...
I was a child of ten or so, playing in the thick forests surrounding our house. I was alone of course. The nearby village offered other children of similar age, but they were all uninteresting oafish brats. During an exploratory tree climb, I noticed a lone figure far down the road heading in my direction. I watched him for a while from the dark safety of a limb that overhung the dusty road. The first thing that struck me was the color white, which seemed to encompass his entire body from his clothing to his hair, like a thick enveloping mist. White and red... He walked down the path as if on a casual stroll, carrying nothing, no bags, not even a walking stick. To see someone traveling by foot was rare in itself, for the closest decent sized town was quite a distance away and the rare visitor who came by that path always did so on horseback or by wagon.
I watched him from the tree as he slowly came closer and closer. He would surely pass underneath without noticing me, I thought, but this exotic figure was too enchanting not to follow, which I intended to do at some distance. Much to my surprise he stopped some fifteen feet ahead of the overhanging branch and his head angled upwards slightly, his gaze fixed upon me.
"Are you Kendo?"
His voice was a deep bass, with a hint of a northern accent, yet extremely refined. My heart sank. How did he know my name? I was thoroughly impressed. He was obviously a wizard. A powerful one at that. A wizard! I had never seen a wizard before! I hopped down from the branch, deftly landing in the dirt before him. His clothing was fascinating. All of my clothes had always been a single drab color, but his were so exotic. First was the silver fur draped around his left shoulder and down his chest like a sash, ending with the head of the animal, likely some sort of silver fox. His lose hanging robe was a dazzling white, but the very edges were a blazing crimson, strands of vermillion cutting into the whiteness of the fabric and shaped like raging flames. A few strands of white hair hung in his face, the rest lengthily spilling down his back. His beard was thin and well kept. His ears were perhaps more pointed than was common, but it could have been my imagination.
He stepped forward, crouching to my height and placing his right hand on my head. I could feel his long nails touching my skull, almost like a claw. His eyes bore down upon me, their deep gray penetrating into my soul. The same color as mine. He smiled slightly.
"I'm your grandfather, child. Where are your parents? I would like to stay with you for a few days."
My parents were less excited about the visitor, though I was blind to it at the time. I heard muffled raised voices through the walls of my room that night. Apparently my mother did not get along with her father. I had hundreds of questions I wanted to ask the mysterious man, but I was always pushed aside. They were arguing about something, but I didn't know what. Not that I could have understood or cared at the time...
I was sent outside to play the next morning, much to my chagrin. Cast aside while the grown ups talked. It was all they ever did. When would it be my turn to talk to the wizard? Disgruntled, I disappeared into the forest to fight imaginary hordes of imps once again.
And then he was there. Standing amongst two twisting trees as if he were expecting me.
"Come with me, child, I've something to show you."
He turned, robes flowing behind him as he walked. It could have been my imagination glorifying him, embellishing the memory through the years, but it was like the thick green foliage of the forested floor bowed out of his way as he strode forth, so that it was not high enough for the dewy leaves to dampen his lower garments. I could do nothing but dumbly stumble behind him.
We walked and walked, the birds chirping overhead, the wind rustling the leaves. I was too nervous to ask where we were going. Finally we came to a clearing, one that I had frequented often. The trees surrounding the elliptical sanctuary were dense and the grass in the middle relatively low. Near the center was a humungous oak, gnarled with age with its branches leaning over to one side. He stopped in the shade of the tree and turned, waiting for me to catch up as I freed myself from a tangled mess of vines near the edge of the clearing.
He stooped on one knee with a warm smile and an outstretched hand.
"Have a seat, Kendo."
I obeyed, plopping on the ground and crossing my legs. He brought a hand to his chin.
"Hmm, I don't think that will work. It would be better if you sat on you knees, like this."
He brought the other knee down into the dirt, unmindful of staining his garments. I shifted my legs, mimicking his posture.
"There, excellent. Tell me, Kendo, what do you know about magic?"
I knew it! My face lit up. What else were we going to talk about? He was a wizard!
"All sorts of stuff, Granpa!" My arms flailed about. "I can make a witchlight! Wanna see?"
I excitedly clapped my hands together and slowly drew them apart, a tiny speck of light dimly coming into existence between them. Beads of sweat dropped from my face as I intensely concentrated on the spell, my grandfather politely observing with interest.
"Very good. Very good, Kendo. You would do good to learn as much as you can, for magic is the only truth in this world..."
I dispersed the marble-sized dimly glowing orb that now floated above my head, intently hooked on his words.
"Would you like to see one of my spells?" His eyes bore into me.
I quickly nodded, mystified.
He placed his right hand on my head. Again I could feel his long nails through my hair, like a claw.
"This may feel strange. Do not be alarmed. Just relax..."
A few seconds passed. His hand was on my head and obstructing my view of his face, so I could only look at the dirt below. Then very suddenly there was a brilliant flash. The ground erupted in a fury of crimson light, strange symbols appearing in a circle around my body. In my future studies, I would much later recognize this as a runic symphony, though one as complex as this would have taken hours to construct out of chalk lines, where as the mage had called this one forth in mere seconds. I felt an incredible pulling sensation, like one giant hand had grabbed my head and a second my legs and began a tug of war. I would have cried out, but it was all over in a few seconds. Extremely dizzy, I fell forward, throwing my hands out before me to catch myself.
Except they were no longer hands. What I saw planted in the ground before me were two sliver furred paws.
He lifted his hand from my now furred head, slipping it out from between my triangular pointed ears, still wearing that same slight smile. The intense rush of sounds, of smells, the thick pelt of fur coving my four legged body, the tail... it was too much. I panicked, struggling to free myself of the tangled mess of clothing draped around me that no longer fit. He said something that fell into my ears loud and clear, but I was in no condition to think or comprehend as raw feral fear took over. I slipped out of my prison of garments and darted towards the safety of the wall of bushes that ended the clearing.
I don't know how he did it, but thankfully the old man was swift on his feet. A single bound more and I would have disappeared into that thick tuft of foliage, probably forever. But mid leap he caught me by the back of my neck and lifted me up off of the ground with one hand, turning me around to face him. I could do nothing but hang there limply, gazing into his face and gentle smile as his voice melted my fears away. He was clearly amused, and chuckled slightly as he spoke.
"Come now, Kendo, it's merely a bit of shapeshifting. Nothing to fear."
He gently set me down, my form returning to normal by the time he let go. I shivered, dazed in the coldness of the wet grass, but the old man was quick to remove his outermost cloak and toss it over my naked body. I wrapped the white cloak with the flaming red trim tightly around my frame, sticking my head out and looking up at the wizard mesmorized.
The details of the conversation that followed have, alas, faded from memory. But at the end he offered to transform me again, and that he would reverse the spell as soon as I wanted him to. As a child filled to the brim with wonderment, I could not refuse.
I spent the rest of the day as a some sort of silver coated fox, though to this day I am unsure of the exact species. It was a truly magical experience, one that permanently left its mark on my life. My grandfather waited by that twisted tree as I romped through the forest without a care in the world. I tore through the underbrush, smelling whole new scents and hearing whole new sounds. I went to the river, studying my vulpine visage cast in the reflection before lapping the cool water. I sprinted until I could no longer move, once clumsily tailing a rabbit.
When it was time to return home, the wizard made me promise not to tell my parents. Heaven forbid I break my oath to a wizard.
There were more muffled raised voices seeping though the walls that night.
I was excited to do it all again the next day. I dashed to our special clearing, finding the wizard was indeed there waiting for me, leaning against that gnarled tree. Though his smile was the same, his deep voice was more melancholy this time. He bent down as he handed me a leather binding.
"Take these spells, Kendo, and learn from them. All that you need to know is there. I must be off, but I will return for you when you are ready."
I never saw him again.
I separated the notes from their binding, carefully laying each of my grandfather's pages on the bed. The morphing spell he used on me was all there, the complete runic symphony intricately etched on one of the worn pages, taking up the entire sheet. With a chuckle I remembered the first time I was able to cast the spell on my own, trapping myself in that form for three days. There were many other... interesting things as well, such as the notes on the Shadow... I had added much to them over the years myself. Those parts were not particularly safe to carry around. Woe to me if a mage of any decent standing saw them and reported me, as I would likely be arrested and sent to inquisition... However carrying them around was necessary, for there was simply nowhere and no one I could trust them to.
Of course, it wasn't the Shadow I was after. Attacking the Keepers would be plain foolish. No, it was that morphing spell that was my backup plan... I needed to sneak into that keep, get into that library... They knew my face already. It would be much easier if I resembled a Keeper...
Moving some of the old inn's furniture strewn about my room out of the way, I took a piece of chalk and began my scribblings on the ground, mostly copying the runes in my grandfather's notes but making some adjustments of my own. It would be tricky. I would have to cast the spell half way, to mold myself into a half fox, half man of sorts so that I would resemble a Keeper inflicted with the animalistic variant of the curse. I had never done anything like it before. There would be complications, of course. Firstly I was modifying a spell that was supposed to be instantaneous, greatly slowing down the change so that I could guide it along mentally. Also that I was doing it to myself. Bad things could happen if I suddenly lost concentration as my form twisted about. And of course there were the parts of the spell I didn't fully understand...
But I would do anything for that book...
It took some forty five minutes to etch out all the runes, and another thirty to make several adjustments. Finally the symphony was complete. I ensured the door and window were secure and locked, then removed my garments. They probably would be ill fitting when I was finished, though I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to come out...
Many of these circles required blood to activate, but this was a different type of arrangement. I carefully stepped into the center, careful not to smear any of the lines with my feet and placed my palm in the central circle, willing my spirit downward into the floor and into the spell. The change began abruptly. With a white flash the chalk lines sprung to life, dimming to a fierce crimson glow. I was startled at first as the spell seized my body. Muscles twisted and bones popped. It was more painful than I thought it would be, unnaturally slowed down like this. I fought back the urge to yell, for fear of waking up the other inn tenants. It was going too fast... I fell forward as I heaved and spasmed, mentally slowing the change down, which unfortunately prolonged the pain. It wasn't totally unbearable, but it indeed made concentration that much more difficult. I focused on my hands as the fur ripped though my entire body. My thumbs, they were my first priority. Not wanting to lose them I guided their change, making my hands as human like as possible, though my thumbs did shorten a little. Black nails extended from the tips of my fingers, covered with that sliver pelt of fur. My feet would be next, but they too far gone by this point. Still too fast! They had become digitigrade abominations while my attention was diverted elsewhere. I stopped the spell after a few minutes, having thought I'd become animal enough, and crumpled to the floor, totally exhausted.
After several moments I recovered enough to stand up, hobbling over to the mirror so that I might get a look at what I'd done to myself. I was surprised my feet weren't as bad as I thought they would be, though it would certainly take some getting used to the shift in balance. I gazed at that silver furred visage that stared back at me in the mirror against the dim lamplight warming the room. Not bad! It was largely the same face that I saw when I looked into reflective ponds and rivers years back during my initial forays with the spell, except that the forehead was perhaps a bit larger and rounded. The markings were the same, the black fur around the eyes, the white tufts about my chin, muzzle, and neck. My eyes turned to my clawed hands with interest, following the silver fur up my arm and across the rest of my body.
I frowned at the size of my tail. It was huge. A large gray fluffy thing that could scrape the ground if I directed it downward. I watched the black tip as I angled it around my legs. It seemed much larger than the one bestowed upon me when I used the unaltered version of the spell, but I supposed since I was larger in this half man form it was proportionally scaled up.
I replaced my garments. My clothing was loose, as I had lost several inches in stature. I had to ruin my only pair of trousers to accommodate my tail, which was unfortunate because I would be changing back tomorrow. Luckily I wore a long cloak. I didn't bother cleaning the chalk mess off of the floor, only smearing the lines beyond recognition. The reversal was an entirely different spell and could be cast mentally. Sleep came easily that night due to my exhaustion.
I was at it later in the morning than I had wanted. That's what you get when you stay up all night casting spells. I took all of my possessions with me, my pack and my short sword, as there was a good chance I would have to make a hasty retreat once this fiasco was over...
I felt silly walking through the streets of the town of Metamor, like everyone was staring at me. My robes hung too loosely and I stumbled constantly, not quite used to vulpine foot paws. I didn't quite like the idea of having to go barefoot either, as the dirt amongst the street clung to the foreign pads now on the bottom of my feet. My cloak would have dragged on the ground except that I was able to hold it up with my tail, the tip just peering out from underneath the fabric. I guess it's good for something.
Then of course there was that smell... a tangled mess of odiferous odors, each one distinct but collectively vomit inducing. My sense of smell had multiplied tenfold, and the rush of new scents took their toll on my sanity.
I slowed down as I approached the gate, milling around and watching the constant flow of animalistic and human Keepers into and out of the opening. Those entering had to answer to one of the two guards posted at the gateway, one a dashing young woman and the other some sort of large black cat man. They were different than the two from yesterday, when I spent some time studying the flow of Keepers into and out of the edifice. Sometimes people would come too quickly, and a single file line would form as everyone needed to be checked. Of course this is when they were most distracted...
It worked. I slipped through just as an argument broke out, similar to the one I participated in the previous day. I nearly bumped into an exiting hippo man or something as I entered the lavish courtyard, walking as quickly but casually as possible. I almost disappeared around a corner before the expected "Hey!" rang out. I rounded the bend slowly and casually, then bolted in a full sprint when I was out of sight, taking some random turns through a garden, stone walls laced with ivy.
I did it. I was in...
My excitement was nearly uncontainable! But what now? The library... It couldn't be too hard to locate... I wasn't quite keen on the idea of asking directions, especially while trespassing. Still I took the time to revel in the moment, admiring rows upon rows of delicately arranged flowers, weather worn statues, and overhanging terraces as I wandered about. It was much more pleasant past the gate, with far fewer people. It even smelled more agreeable. I nodded a hello to a passing group of academic types, and later a pair of guards, though to them much more nervously. But there was nothing to fear, for I was already past the checkpoint.
Finally I found an archway that lead into the keep itself and began wandering the long gray halls, lined with torches and crimson carpeting. Some hallways were more lavish than others, sporting golden chandeliers and statues. Others were extremely plain. Cold and gray with creaking wooden doors.
I wandered and wandered....
Some hallways were empty, totally devoid of any sign of life, the echo from the clicking of the nails on my feet stabbing through the profound silence... Others were bustling. One in particular sported a heavily guarded door. I diverted my gaze as I walked past and away from them, trying to look like I knew where I was going, though I could feel the guards' eyes bearing heavily down upon me.
And I wandered and wandered...
I had no idea where I was going. Nothing I passed even remotely resembled a library... A single guard was advancing in my direction and I finally gave in. He was taller than me, looking somewhat dog-like with yellowish fur.
"Excuse me, but might you direct me to the library?" I asked, perking my ears.
The guard chuckled, as if in understanding. He pointed back down the corridor he came from.
"Well, it's usually on the east side. I'd go that way."
"Ah, thank you."
I nodded and grinned, and he returned the gesture.
What kind of an answer was that? Usually? I turned and glared at the back of his head as he walked off. Idiot.
I set off in the direction he pointed. Well, I perhaps had it narrowed down to half the blasting keep. Serves me right for stopping to ask directions. I swear, the rudeness of some individuals...
I wandered for what seemed like hours.
Passages that seemed to twist into each other. Vast rooms that had absolutely nothing in them. Long corridors that ended abruptly with nothing more than a plain wall. Perhaps an occasional statue or two. A chandelier, torches or candles... It was maddening. What sort of deranged lunatic designed this place?
I finally gave up. With sore feet, I plopped down with my back against a wall in the middle of a random hallway, draping my tail around to my lap, which I began to stroke absent mindedly as I assessed the situation. I was going about this all wrong. Wandering around aimlessly was not going to work. But I certainly needed to minimize the number of questions I had to ask. I mean, I was probably suspicious enough. And the next person I met might be more inquisitive... I was circling around too much, coming back to places I've already been. What I needed to do was start back in the beginning and pay attention. I had my notebook with me. Perhaps I could make a map. Just mark off the directions I've been already, at least...
Blast. This was going to take all day...
My stomach growled. It was well past noon by then. But finding this cursed library was more important...
I ran my claws over my toes, massaging the pads on the bottom of my feet a bit. If only I had shoes that fit. At this rate I'd be crippled by nightfall. Drudging back up, I set off back the way I came. I'd find that archway where I came in and start all over again.
But when I turned the corner, my mouth hung open in shock... everything was different! Not five minutes ago, I had passed through a drab corridor lined with windows facing south, but upon my return trip there were no windows and the hall was ablaze with torches and ornamental armor. I must have taken a wrong turn. Turning around, I rounded the corner once more, except where I expected the hallway where I sat down, I now found a much wider passage with beautifully painted fresco amongst the walls. Just what is going on here?!
My claws clamped my muzzle shut as a group of five guards walked past. I made my way forward as calmly as possible, trying to look like I knew where I was going. There were more Keepers here, and I needed to look inconspicuous. Was there another curse on the keep, or had I lost it completely? I continued on, turning down a few more passageways, not really paying attention to where I was going because I was too focused on the surrounding Keepers...
And I was there. The sunlight spilled through that sprawling archway from which I had first entered. I chuckled to myself. I must have done a full circle of the keep in the past several hours. Great...
And there he was... That black panther like guard I had snuck past at the gates... He was walking towards me from under the arch. Wonderful. His shift must have finished and he was now returning to his barracks or something. I lowered my gaze as I slowly advanced, forcing my tail out from between my legs as soon as I realized it had involuntarily moved there. I almost made it. Just a little more... I walked right past him. But then I heard him stop.
That was it. Abort mission! I bolted, sprinting back into that garden where I lost him the first time.
"Hey, you! STOP!"
Blast it! I ran through the hedges, leaping over flowers. Weaving around the walls. Luckily the garden didn't seem to be cursed. The gateway that lead out of the Keep Proper was just ahead, two different guards posted there, stopping Keepers before they entered as usual. The exitway was clear. Freedom!
And the two guards turned at the sound of their fellow as I sprinted towards them. Blast it! They advanced, blocking my way, a huge bear and a lizard man. You miserable wretches! Move it! My right claw flung out of my cloak, crimson flame emanating from the palm. Their eyes widened; weapons were raised. I tossed the brightly burning orb straight ahead. Both jumped to their respective sides, avoiding the crimson plume of flame as it burst forth from the point of impact upon the cobblestones. Idiots. It barely would have singed their clothing. I dashed through the dying fire, out from the gates and back into the walled town of Metamor.
Except I now had a small army following me...
"Stop! In the name of the Duke!"
I continued my run, now barreling through town, ducking around Keepers every other step. I needed to lose my disguise, to change back into a human. Then they'd have nothing to follow. The spell was impossible to reverse while running like this, though. Even if it were, it would be a bad thing if they actually saw me change back. I need to find a dark alley or something. I cursed myself for this carelessness, wasting a perfectly good disguise like this...
I chanced a look over my shoulder. EIGHT of them?! Blast it! They were hot on my heels. I couldn't risk ducking into a random alley when they were this close. What if it were a dead end? I continued on. It was a very long and tiring run, and I was forced to supplement my aching muscles with levitation, using the magic to help pick them up off the ground and propel them. Argh, did the pads of my feet sting! I always wished my abilities in levitation would become strong enough so that I might pluck myself completely off the ground and fly, now more than ever. But alas, it was never meant to be. One thing was for certain though, I was going to be dead tired expending all my energies like this...
I was able to widen the gap between my pursuers, but it still wasn't quite enough. I was beginning to run out of town to traverse. I eventually came to that wide open courtyard just before the final gates that would grant me freedom from Metamor altogether. It looked like I would have to loose them in the wilderness and cast the counter spell the first chance I received...
Luckily the outermost gates were wide open as what looked like a small unit of warrior Keepers were returning home. I weaved through them and the guards posted there, making it out before the shouts of my pursuers could be heard. I bolted for the closest grove of trees, eventually disappearing into the surrounding forests.
Were they still following me? Is trespassing THAT serious? I continued on anyway, trudging though dead leaves from winters passed. The foliage was thick, but not unnavigable. They would be able to track my path easily. Of course, they wouldn't find a silver fox at the end of it.
I eventually had to stop, resting my back against a black tree. The growth was thick here and the deciduous leaves above blotted out most of the sun. I fell to my knees, doubling over as fatigue from running caught up to me. My legs were on fire and I felt like I would vomit. It took ten or fifteen minutes for me to regain the strength to move. My ears darted about as I sat there panting, taking in the sharp tones of birds, of wind rustling leaves, all around me. It was an interesting sensation, but it was time to change back...
I shifted my weight and crossed my legs, moving my tail around my right side. I gave it one last curious glance before shutting my eyes and relaxing. Now to dispel the change and become human again... My thoughts turned to my room at the inn. I would return there and take a nice long nap, after a good meal of course. Though this little foray ended in failure, I did learn much about the keep itself.
Right. Become human again. I felt the releasing power wash lightly over me, sort of like taking a dip in a stream of cool, refreshing water. Speaking of which, I was dead thirsty. Maybe I could find a stream around here before turning back. I forced my panting tongue back into my mouth. Though it wouldn't interfere with the spell, it was becoming quite annoying.
Anyway, back to the spell. Become human again... Funny, why hadn't I started changing yet? I focused once more, starting from the beginning. I was too distracted, that's why. Become human again... I felt the magic wash over me, removing the bodily change I had stricken upon myself. Or was it? I opened my eyes, finding the sliver furred black tipped tail still there in my lap. My claws reached to grab the nose and muzzle upon my face. Why wasn't it working? I had done this a half dozen times. Except this time I was still half human. It should be easier and quicker... Did I inadvertently change the trigger? No, that's not how I built it... This doesn't make any sense!
I closed my eyes once more and tried to relax, though my now fiercely pounding heart would not allow it. Then there was that very faint rustling in the bush to my left... I will admit, had my ears not been vulpine, I probably wouldn't have picked it up until it was too late. I opened my left eye just in time to catch the creature jumping out at me with a shrill scream. I threw myself backwards to the ground as his rusty blade cleaved the air where my head formerly was. Lutin.
In a panic I threw both claws forward into the thing's chest, and called forth a quick plume of flame. With a flash of red the lutin was thrown backwards into some shrubbery, though the spell failed to make him loose his balance. It was a hastily cast flame, much more showy than damaging. Basically the same trick I used to move the guards out of the way earlier. He staggered a bit from the unexpected conjuring, but was quick to recover when he realized the weakness of the spell. That was okay, as it gave me enough time to conjure something for real...
By then I was on my feet. Upset at my failed transformation and enraged at both the interruption and unprovoked attempt at my life, I allowed him to nearly strike me before setting him ablaze. Crimson flame burst forth from his body as he wailed, dropping his useless weapon and falling to his knees. I thrust both hands forward from a safe distance, pouring more energy into the spell. His leather hides crackled and burned, his green skin bubbled and melted. More and more! The inferno cast upon his dying body doubled as his last scream echoed through the forest. That is what you get! I snarled, inhuman sounds emerging from deep within my throat... The smell was overwhelming.
I kept torching the body for a while after it stopped moving. Seething at this pitiful creature... but also at my own weakness and carelessness. Why couldn't I change back? I poured all my frustrations into the flame. It blossomed brightly, fueled by my very anger. Eventually there was nothing left but a charred skeleton, and I stopped.
I dizzily took a few steps back, turning my nose away from the scent as the flames died down. Everything had happened so quickly... Then I heard more noises coming from the direction the lutin came. More unintelligible screams, more rustlings from the undergrowth...
Then I realized that probably wasn't a good idea.
Alerted by their comrade's death cries, five more lutins emerged from the trees, all brandishing their mismatched weapons and armor. All ferociously charging straight at me. My eyes widened as I felt the hairs on my back and tail stand on end. As quickly as possible I summoned another crimson orb to my right palm, which wasn't nearly quickly enough, and launched it into the incoming ensemble of goblin creatures. Unfortunately they were spaced too widely apart and the resulting blast overtook only two of them. The vile things screeched as they flew backwards, but by that time the other three were flanking me. Two from the right, one from the left...
Magic is a wonderful thing if applied in the appropriate conditions. Alas, this was not one of them. For me at least. Surrounded in such close proximity, my heart pounding, my mind a whirl, there was simply nothing I could cast quickly enough... I leapt backwards, rearing my head back as a jagged blade nearly cleaved my long nose from my face. I had perhaps a foot height advantage, so they purposely were slashing upwards.
Spreading my cloak, I clumsily drew the short sword at my waist. It was a decent steel blade, a little under two feet long. It felt heavier than normal in my right claw, perhaps because I had shrunk a bit due to my change, or perhaps because I was so tired... I rarely used it to begin with. And the fact showed as I flailed it wildly about in front of me, randomly beating back my opponent's blades with sharp metallic clangs. I had no formal training with a sword. My philosophy had always been never to let them get close enough that I had to rely on it...
I only needed a few more seconds, though. As I frantically beat them back, taking more steps backwards myself, my left claw was already bristling with another crimson plume. Just a few more seconds...
That plan was destroyed when a blinding cerulean orb thundered over and past my left shoulder, droplets of ice congealing upon my whiskers. The startle from the intense cold caused me to drop my conjuring before I could utilize it. Another figure was joining the fray, this one far more menacing. Animal skins draped his body, a necklace comprised of the skulls of small woodland creatures hanging about his neck. The skull of a wolf adorned his head like a morbid hat. A lutin shaman?!
It was at this point I actually began to fear for my life.
More lutins came. Probably only three or four, but it felt like dozens... Surrounding, closing in...
I blocked the rusty sword impending on my right with my own blade, the clang resonating throughout the excited screams and intelligible babble the creatures were making. "Keeper! Keeper!" was the only understandable word amidst the slurry of high pitched voices.
"I'm not a Keeper! Go away!!"
Back! Back! I panicked. Another block. But another blade came for my face at the same moment. I could do naught but throw up my left claw. A white hot flash of pain tore into my forearm, specks of crimson peppering my muzzle. The excited shrieks intensified as I fell backwards onto my tail. NO! Back! BACK!! I thrust my blade up at them trying to swat the swords away like hordes of angry bees. They kept coming. More and more...
All of their stabbing blades came for me, lusting for my flesh. But I'm not a Keeper! They nicked my legs as I kicked and screamed. I crawled upon the ground backwards, trying to get away, still with the sword, swatting it madly around. My pack was lost, trampled under their feet. Back and back I moved. But they were upon me. All upon me... The sword was next to go, smacked from my feeble claw like a toy. Oh gods no! It cannot end like this! To die like a wretched animal!
I lunged forward a bit, barring my teeth and snarling like the beast I had turned myself into. It gave me just the slightest amount of room. Had I been thinking rationally, the spell that I was summoning would not have been my choice, for incantations of The Shadow take much preparation and concentration to cast. Not to mention I had to constantly refer to my notes. But not this time. For that brief second, when death was certain, it was all there. Every last bit, as if I had been chanting for an hour...
I smacked my right palm into the dirt, clenching my nails into it. With my hand as the center, brilliant streaks of glowing vermillion cascaded outwards in all directions, a radiant circle of crimson runes erupting to life upon the forest floor. Blood freely flowed from the gaping wound my left arm bore, dribbling on the magical chevrons etched upon the ground, and The Shadow overtook me...
They were startled for a brief instant, but then the lutins all screamed in agony. A chorus of screeches their voices were, all the same hideous key. They clutched their miserable faces, doubled over as they wailed. First to go was their armor and clothing, torn and blasted away by the tendrils of blackness that engulfed them. Then their flesh, razed straight off their bones in a bloody mist. The inky smoke intensified as it whirled about. Then their muscles and sinews, torn to shreds, until there was nothing left but contorted skeletons, still standing. Then the bones themselves. Their white paste deteriorated into a black coal, and bit by bit they blew away in the winds. Mere ashes, engulfed by a black flame.
And I laughed. Drunk with the black power, I laughed the whole way. I laughed at the miserable creatures as they were torn to shreds. A maddening cackle that resonated through the trees as they silently watched the death. For when the Shadow takes you, horrors become delights... The blackness intensified, swirling and overcoming me. I sank down into that coldness. That comforting coldness... and all went dark.
I did not dream.
Very slowly my senses returned. First was smell, a damp moldy musk filling my nostrils. The crackling of torches was distant, though sharp and clear. I opened my eyes. Blind at first, dim shapes began to appear. First and most prominent was the door on the far side of the room. A thick metal portal, with a small square barred window near the top. Orange light crept in between those heavy bars. It was the only source of light, and it was quite insufficient in lighting the black room I was in.
I was lying on my back on some straw or hay, my tail positioned out to my right. The tail... still there. The tip was dampened from lying on the cold wet ground just off the straw bed, and it was quite uncomfortable. By habit, I began to reach up to touch the muzzle I knew was still on my face, but both my arms felt resistance, a sharp pang of pain from my left. My left arm was in a sling, clean white bandages wrapped firmly around it. My right, by contrast, wore a cold metal shackle about the wrist, attached to a heavy chain. This was startling, and I quickly sat up, the echo of chains resonating about the stone room. Both my legs were shackled in a similar manner, braces firmly fastened just above the ball that used to be my heel on my now digitigrade legs.
They caught me.
I sat up, rustling the chains around as I faced the doorway betraying the darkness with those thin wisps of flickering orange light. I was in the left corner of the room, opposite the door that was in the center of the far wall. The chains that were attached to the wall behind me gave me enough freedom to touch my head and feet with my right arm and perhaps walk forward two or three feet, but that was it. I opened my right palm to create a plume of flame so that I might see better, but instantly felt the spell drained into the shackle. Of course. They knew I channeled spells through my hands and took appropriate measures...
I felt my ears twitch as they responded to some distant noise. Footsteps, coming down the hallway... two sets. There was movement through the door window. The clang off a key, followed by the screech of the opening door... Two figures entered. The first was a tall woman dressed in some sort of long ceremonial gown. The second was what looked like a boy no more than twelve carrying a bright lantern, the cold gray stones of my cell coming to life as the flame danced upon them.
It was the woman who spoke. I felt my ears press back against my skull. I mumbled as I averted my gaze. Blast it, they caught me... I was actually shaking a bit by this point.
"We found you outside in bad shape. We'd like to ask you a few... questions..." Her voice was cold and filled with disinterest, as if this were part of her daily routine. By now she had produced a thin book, a quill, and ink bottle, which she set on the floor as she bent down to my level. My eyes wandered to the boy, who set the lantern down next to her and proceeded to perform some intricate hand motions while chanting under his breath. A mage? What was he doing? Oh no... He's going to read my replies... To see if I lie... Finished. I'm finished...
She didn't bother looking at me. Her eyes and quill were on the paper, ready to write.
"Kendo Virmir." I then proceeded to spell it.
"Uh huh." She paused to wait for the boy to nod at her, and then she began scribbling. "Very well, Kendo--"
She finally looked at me.
"Virmir will do, thank you madam," I said, trying to look as dignified as possible, which was probably less than what I imagined considering the chains and the bed of hay. I shuffled and leaned my right arm on my knee, allowing the chain to dangle across my lap. She gave me a curious look before her eyes fell to the notebook again for the next question.
"Very well, Virmir. What were you doing trespassing in the keep?"
"I merely wished to visit your exalted library, and was in a bit of a hurry." A stretch of the truth, but not a lie... would it work?
"Uh huh..." Her tongue was in her cheek and she nearly rolled her eyes. The boy mage hesitated, but then nodded. She scribbled some more. "And what do you know about that lutin body?"
My ears stood up. I was startled at the sudden change of subject. Body? There should have been a dozen...
"We found the charred remains of a lutin body near the spot we found you in the forest. Do you know anything about it?"
"Oh..." My ears fell again, but not completely so. Of course! There wouldn't have been anything left of the ones I cast to oblivion... "It attacked me, so I defended myself."
"With a flame spell."
"So you are a Field Mage?"
"Of sorts." And a Mage of the Shadow. Please, please don't ask that question...
"Do you acknowledge throwing one of your flame spells at the gate guards?"
So that's what this is about... "It was only to clear them out of the way. It wouldn't have hurt them..." Much.
"Uh huh." She scribbled some more. "That is all. Your case will be brought to the Prime Minister for judgment."
With that, they left, slamming the metal door behind them and leaving me alone in the darkness. The click of the lock stabbed into my heart. I sat there for a while, unsure of whether to be relieved or terrified...
Endless hours of nothing but darkness and silence, save for the monotonous crackling of the hallway torches. I tried in vain to sleep on that rotting bed of hay. It was useless. My eyes studied every inch of the black walls, wandering over them again and again. Perhaps my night vision had improved a bit in this form, for I was able to vaguely make out the edges of the molds and mildews upon the stones that perforated the air so. I had no idea whether it was night or day. I took to trying to remove the mats in my tail with my claw, running it through like a brush, though it was difficult to do with only one arm.
I don't mind solitude. But I cannot stand to be idle for long. I began to lose my mind in that darkness, which I'm sure is what they wanted. If I would have told them about the Shadow or about that forbidden tome I desired, perhaps they would have been more responsive. But as it was it was obvious I was just a petty insignificant delinquent, buried under stacks of paperwork, unimportant enough to worry about at a whim.
I measured time by meals. I think they came twice a day, but I'm not sure. It was always a cold mush, sort of stew-like. The water was clean, though. I made a mess the first few times I tried to eat with my foreign mouth before giving up and lapping it like a dog. The chamber pot was fortunately within reach of my tethers, which also unfortunately meant that it was too close.
I tried to move around as much as possible, pacing around the semi-circle available to me, dragging the noisy chains around. Each time I did so the chains seemed to grow heavier and larger... and that window, that only beacon of light, seemed to move higher and higher, further and further out of reach...
After a while I was given to fits of dizziness. My entire body tingled with odd sensations from head to tail, sort of like pinpricks. I was filled with anticipation and dread. At least my left arm was feeling better.
Then I awoke after a fitful nap feeling... wrong. The tail, ears, muzzle.. it was all still there. I was used to them by now. I turned over on the hay and stood up, wearily pulling my right shackled arm off the ground. The metal brace was extremely heavy, much more so than previously; I was sure of it. It was also larger, and lose fitting... My sling was lose as well. I wiggled my left arm out of the sling and the once tightly wrapped bandages fell clean off. The arm still stung a bit, but I was able to move it decently. My attention turned to the shackle on my right wrist. Why had it grown in size? More importantly, could I now slide it off? I grabbed the metal restraint and made my right hand as narrow as possible. It was close, but the thing slid right off, clanking loudly on the stone floor.
With two free hands I was able to work on the restraints on my legs. These were more difficult, but they slid off as well, not without some pain. I stood there contemplating this odd turn of events when my eyes strayed to that barred window and its orange light. For some reason it seemed nearly twice as high as it was before...
Then I realized I had shrunk.
Why?! My claws probed my body. My clothing was loose as well, my cloak covering me like a large blanket spilling upon the floor. I took a few steps forward, but my balance was awry and I stumbled. My head, hands, feet, and tail seemed disproportionately large. Oh gods, the Curse! Age regression... I had been so taken by the fact that I morphed my body myself and wasn't able to change back, I didn't even consider the original curse of the keep changing me further. And yet here I was, twice removed from my true form...
There was no undoing the Curse of Metamor. Nothing could be done. That was it. Permanent. The end.
I paced around in circles, tripping over my clothing and tail. It was too much. Not only had I lost my body, but my mind was going as well. Perhaps some raw feral instincts I had induced began to surface, but I needed to run. To run away from this horrible place. Far away and as quickly as possible...
I could do it too, now that I was free of my bonds. I would slip out the door next time they opened it to feed me. Yes. They wouldn't expect it. And then run. I ran from them before. I could do it again... To where, I didn't care. Just far away...
In the shadows I waited, my ears twitching at every little noise. It was an eternity of waiting, my heart pounding in my chest the entire time.
And then the footsteps came at last. Two sets this time. This was not good, as there was always one guard who delivered the food. I had no choice. It was now or never. I positioned myself in front of the door, ready to sprint...
The klank of the key, the turning of the lock... The screech of the door...
"Virmir, we have good news..."
The light from the lantern blinded me and I froze.
It was that same woman from the first day, in her monotone disconnected voice.
"I have here your sentence. We will be escorting you to..." She stopped as she looked up. My ears fell. I just stood there like an idiot in the center of the room, my haggard ill fitting clothing draping off my shrunken furry body. Her eyes shifted to the discarded chains in the corner of the room then back to me a few times. She opened her mouth as if to ask a question but then closed it, shaking her head as if she'd seen stranger. She continued.
"You've been assigned a room in the keep. We will escort you to it."
"A room in the keep?" My voice was slightly higher pitched. I rubbed a claw over my throat.
She took a few steps forward and offered a scroll, which I took. The woman seemed a good foot and a half taller than me now.
"You sentence is... most interesting. Come with us."
So I followed them. Or rather the woman, as the feline guard stayed behind me. Out into the sunlight. I reveled in the fresh air. We rounded bends and made our way back inside the Keep Proper, passing though more carpet lined hallways. All the way I clutched that scroll, wondering what could possibly be going on.
We eventually came to a dark quiet hallway, free from wandering Keepers. At the very end was a simple suit of armor hung on the wall. To the right was a wooden door, which the robed woman opened and bade me to enter. I wandered in dumbly. Before I could open my mouth they were gone, the door snapping shut behind me.
It was a small room, with pale light pouring in through the window opposite the door. There was a bed in the left corner, a desk at the left wall, an empty bookshelf and dresser on the right. My room?
My attention snapped to the scroll still in my claws. I climbed onto the bed and wrapped my tail around to my right, frowning at my feet as they were barely able to touch the ground. I broke the seal and read:
You have been charged with trespassing and assaulting the Metamor Guard. Seeing as you have proven yourself a competent Field Mage, it has been decided that your violent tendencies will be put to use for the good of Metamor. Starting tomorrow, September 17th, 707 CR, you are to serve patrol duty for a period of three months. You have been assigned to Unit 41 of the...
... etc. ...
I fell backwards on the bed.
Gods, just what did I get myself into this time...?