Mid to Late September, 706CR
In the Shadows
Tittering like a man half his age, Kan gathered up his scattered brushes while laughter filled the warm taproom of the Thirsty Scholar. The young girl he had collided with trilled laughter as well while she tangled her arms with him in the same attempt to gather his spilled brushes. Neither of them took much concern of his palette, which lay face down upon the floor of the tavern, dark paints seeping into the smooth, age stained wood.
“Kan!” someone nearby called, their jocular voice heavy with suppressed laughter as they watched the tangled scene in the corner of the tavern, “Ye gotten into yer cups! Wot ‘appen t’day, ay? Sell one o’ dem paint splats?” Laughter grew anew as Kan glared up at the heavyset, bearded trader near the bar and the laughter stuttered into quiescence at the elder male’s irate glare.
“I am not drunk, Maester Offal.” He reported sharply, his bushy white eyebrows drawing closer upon his forehead, “And as for my art, I’ve sold more than enough to get this whole tavern ‘into its cups’ as you say.” He straightened his shirt as he cast a gimlet stare at the group of outlanders in the corner, “Present company notwithstanding, of course.” He muttered with a puff at his white moustaches, and turned back to gathering his brushes. He was, indeed, not drunk, by his own estimation. He was merely a little unsteady on his feet. Old age and a few tankards of mead with honey, rosehips, and rum could do that to a person. He stood and turned again as he heard the screech of a stool across the wooden floor, then the heavy tread approaching.
Turning about, he glared up at the trader stalking angrily toward him, growling menacingly as his hands bunched into fists. Kan said nothing, merely putting his smaller fists upon his hips and waited. Sometimes he regretted the fact that the curse had made him a man rather than a child or some different creature, for it had not taken the age away from his bones, nor had it granted him any more strength than he had once had as a woman. Becoming male had also taken away the protection from violence he had enjoyed when he used to be female.
“Fakoffal,” another patron warned as they stood and moved to intercept the burly human, “Remember what that ‘coon did to you the last time we were in town.” The other human said as he laid a tiny seeming hand upon the massive trader’s thick forearm. Fak turned a withering glare on the caravan guard, who was miniscule in comparison to his giant frame, causing the smaller man to shrink back.
<<Damned coon not here.>> he growled in his native Fassitian, though he did cast a quick glance at the patrons of the tavern. They were an eclectic lot, consisting mostly of erudite scholars and artists who came to the Thirsty Scholar to trade notes and converse without the boisterous crowds of other taverns. Fak and his small coterie had found the place some three days past, having been denied entry to their taverns of choice because of the bullying caravan master. <<I’m not going to let some scrawny old scarecrow talk at me like that.>>
<<Fak!>> the smaller guard hissed back as he tried to stand his ground before the towering behemoth that held the power of his very life in his hands. <<That old man was a woman once! You can’t go beating up folks like that.>>
Fak came to a halt, raising one ham-sized fist, <<I beat you up then, little shit.>> He growled, dark eyes narrowing to slits, his attention diverted from the old man several strides away, <<Then I go pulverize that old man or woman or whatever the old shit is now..>> The tall, massively built trader grabbed the neck of the smaller guard’s surcoat, his arm cocking back as the rest of the tavern’s patrons looked on with a mixture of fear and anticipation.
“Master Fakoffal?” piped up the tavern-keep, his nasal voice insinuating itself into the tension smoothly. “If it would please you, I’ve a fine brandy here for your most cultivated palette.” He slid out from behind the bar and wove through the scattered tables, his thick bulk moving with surprising ease. He smiled up at the thick-shouldered foreigner with his most ingratiatingly dopish expression, which made a few of the commoners snicker behind their mugs.
Little did master Fakoffal know the true meaning usually behind that inane grin. Well known to the regular patrons, it was the longing look he cast the young male artists who frequented his establishment. The tavern-keep may have become male, but his tastes had not changed with his gender. As well, those commoners knew that Fakoffal was so far beyond Rymnel’s attentions that to give him that seductively longing look was more an insult than mollification.
“On the house, good sir.” Rymnel continued, one thick arm darting out to place delicate fingertips upon the burly man’s overly hair arm. The tavern-keep managed to suppress the disgusted cringe that threatened to wipe the smile from his face at the coarseness of the man’s body hair, and the overall stench of expensive, clashing perfumes that were used in a vain attempt to mask the fact that the burly caravan master had not bathed in days.
Glaring down at the caravan guard, then back at the old man who had finally gathered his easel and brushes, Fak grunted and turned back toward the bar. Rymnel glanced back over his shoulder and waved his free hand sharply at Kan, hastening his exit with a desperate look.
Not one to pass up the good fortune of his salvation, Kan cast Rymnel a thankful smile and half-bow. Hiking his easel up under one arm, he accepted his bundled brushes and palette from the lass who had been helping him, and swayed toward the door, cursing his balance all the way.
The entry door to the Thirsty Scholar was unadorned and windowless, much like the old converted warehouse itself. It was also annoyingly heavy, but that concern was mitigated by the quick assistance of a patron seated at a table near said door. Outside there was only a single lantern hung by a sign-beam above the stoop, under which hung the pictureboard that Kan himself had painted just three months previous. He did not cast a glance up at the only indication that the building behind him was anything other than a common warehouse. His attention was grabbed both by the sudden bite of the cooling autumn air and the undeniable urge to relieve his bladder.
The fading adrenaline rush of the near confrontation was fading fast, leaving him realizing just how tightly he’d been holding himself. It would not have done him any good to have wet himself in the face of a brawl. Grumbling, he staggered across the avenue, his balance bearing him sharply one way, then the other as he tried to keep his path fixed toward the alley. The last few strides had been along the facing wall of the warehouse across the way, guiding him into the overall gloom of the alleyway.
Muttering old curses at his failing body, he hastily set aside his equipment on a barrel, and then tugged at the belt of his trousers. Leaning by one hand against the stone wall of the warehouse, he closed his eyes and let out a long, moaning shudder at the sudden relief as he darkened a section of stone before him. He cursed the Gods for the day they had allowed that demonic Nasoj to cast the spells that left him a man, and his fellow friends other things entirely, but there were some days that the convenience of being a male mitigated the drawbacks.
Sighing, he finished at long last and stood away from the wall, his attention cast down as he fidgeted with the laces of his trousers, muttering annoyed curses at his shaking fingers. After a moment he paused, narrowing his eyes and blinking as an odd shape resolved itself from the shadows a few paces away. It was a paw, unmistakably so, but not the paw of a stray dog or cat. It was a foot, belonging to an upright animal; a Keeper.
Grunting, he stuffed his shirt back into his trousers and raised his eyes, trying to make out the silhouette standing before him. “Pardon me.” He stammered, embarrassed at what this other person may have just witnessed. “I did not see you.”
The other did not say anything for a moment, merely stared at him. The dim light of the tavern shone faint brown upon the Keeper’s fur, revealing a tall, slender creature with the curves of femininity under that pelt. Kan felt sudden heat rush to his face upon realizing that, and he stammered again, trying to find some explanation for what she had probably just seen, but words failed him.
Then he met the eyes of the silent Keeper, and his voice failed entirely. It was impossible to tell if it was the distant lantern light or something else, but the animal’s eyes held a deep, reddish brown glow about them that pierced Kan to his very core. There was no anger in those glimmering eyes that stared out from the shadows, nor familiarity, or any other emotion that he could sense.
“Forgive me, Father.” She spoke at last. A simple statement, but it seemed wrenched from her as if by protest.
Kan blinked, startled, “I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m not your father.” He coughed, taking a step back, his hand feeling around behind him for something to steady his wavering footsteps. He let out a quiet gasp of startlement when she took a step toward him, light glinting from her side. Polished steel; a sword!
“Forgive me, Father.” She said again, in that same anguished cry, and twitched. That was the best Kan could figure, she just twitched, and pain lanced through his shoulder. He gasped, falling back against the wall as she suddenly darted forward, as if she had taken a brief step out of time then back right in front of him. His gaze dropped as he reached up with his left hand, touching his fingers to the length of blade sticking from his right shoulder. The heated flush of his embarrassment was swiftly fading, melting away as he felt his strength fast draining away. “I have sinned.” She continued, her muzzle close enough to warm his face with her breath, glowing red-brown eyes staring emotionlessly into his own panicked blue eyes.
“You’ve killed me.” was all he could say in response as he began to slide down the wall.
Lieutenant-of-the-Watch commander Randal looked up from his paperwork at the sharp rap on his office door. “Door’s open.” He called, setting aside his quill pen. Bushy black eyebrows lifted as the latch lifted and the door swung open to reveal his sub-commander standing beyond, helmet under one arm. “Report?” the burly human ordered, resting his elbows on his desk. Judging by the concerned look on the pony’s hard, chiseled muzzle something was not right with the town of Metamor.
“Gots us another one.” The pony nickered, his short ears flicking forward, then back with consternation. The pony’s full, neatly trimmed white tail hung utterly still behind him, framed by the dull shine of polished plate greaves. Randal grunted, hissing an angry curse as he stood and reached for his sword belt.
“Where this time?” he rumbled, his voice a high, masculine tenor with just enough power to make him heard over a crowd. The pony, sub-lieutenant Olas, stepped aside as the watch commander stalked past while strapping on his belt. He fell into step behind the taller human, his armour jangling loudly in counterpoint to the sharp clopping of his steel-shod hooves.
“Outside the Scholar.” Olas reported, “Coupla lurkers came on ‘im layin in the alley across the avenue.”
“Aye, sir.” The pony nodded as they left the warmth of the guardhouse for the growing chill of the autumn evening. “Jus like the other two.” He reported, touching his right shoulder just below the line of his clavicle.
“You leave him there?”
“Aye, sir. The lurkers said they didn’t touch him, or his stuff. Knew him, they did. An artist of some note.” The pony’s voice was a singsong brogue of some northern nomadic tribe, his parentage being that of the humans now under Nasoj’s iron fist. Lucky for him, and his parents, they had moved south almost a decade before the Battle of the Gates. Unlucky for Olas, who had remained in Metamor after his parents had passed away. He had lost his humanity along with a good portion of the Keep’s population, and that had nearly cost him his sanity.
A good mare had saved him, and served as his anchor still. Randal knew her rather well himself, she had once been his twin. Up to their twenty-second year they had both been almost perfectly matched in every physical sense, even their voices had been indistinguishable. Sara had been the quiet one, given to enjoying her needlework and housekeeping. Randal, then Rachel, had been far more outgoing. She had enjoyed horses and hunting, staves and strategies over stitches.
Then along came Nasoj with his hordes, which forced Sara into the infirmary and Rachel onto the battle lines. Victory was assured, yet was nearly snatched away in defeat when the mage’s spells had snatched away their identities, rendering them as physically different as they had been in attitudes. There was not a day gone by that Randal did not curse the man, who sheltered away in his distant Keep, for what he had done to the commander’s sister if not himself.
“Anyone thought to ask Fitch?” he grunted, breaking from the downward spiral into anger that such thoughts were sure to bring about in him.
“Yep.” The pony snorted, his voice flat and hard, “He denies it all, of course.”
“Seems logical that he would. He’s put a pretty strong hand down about sticking marks. Most of his people use jacks rather than blades. I ruled him out after the second incident.”
“Either one of ‘em awake yet?” Olas whikkered softly, his ears pricked forward in concern. Randal scowled and shook his head. In the past five days they had found two, now three, bodies stricken down by relatively simple stab wounds. None of the attacks had apparently been meant for lethality, but the victims simply refused to wake at all. Even after their wounds were completely healed.
It smacked strongly of dark magic, and Randal had no love of that.
“No.” he snapped, shaking his head as they trotted around the last corner and came to a halt before the alley. Four others of the watch were there, standing guard over the scene. Three trans-gendered humans and a wild eyed little koala named Few. Before turning to examine the scene, Randal turned to his sub-commander.
“Go up to the Keep and see if you cant fetch one of their own healers, or a mage or something. We need to know what’s going on here.”
Olas snapped a swift salute and trotted away in a clangor of metal and chain, his tail flagged as he broke into a two-legged lope.
“Who was first here?” he asked, turning his attention back to the guards. One of the humans, a rather buxom young woman who went by the name Blade, turned one hand up in a short wave.
Groaning, Rick rolled over onto his stomach and drew a pillow angrily over his head, hoping that the irritating noise would soon cease. His sleep, rare enough, was all the more precious to him when he did get it. After years on the road and sleep snatched in fitful starts the luxury afforded by Metamor was painful to forgo to late night interruptions.
The door rattled again with the force of a mailed fist hammering upon it from the other side, the noise causing Rick’s tail to twitch and bush under the covers, his ears flattening back against his head as he clutched the pillow all the tighter. He’d spent the last several hours trying to ferret out a last little taint of Murikeer’s rather pugnacious scent. He’d managed to rid himself of the irritating skunk’s stink the very evening he’d been blasted, though Pascal was still giving him hell for rousing her for something so simple as a musk-remover.
His clothes and personal items, however, had not been so easy to de-scent, and he found himself still affected by lingering hints of the skunk. Kayla found it utterly amusing, and seemed completely unaffected by the subtle, lingering reek. Others were not nearly so sanguine. Their responses varied anywhere from mildly humorous, or startled, to highly offended that someone would walk around with that much musk about them. Living at Metamor brought a certain degree of tolerance to the many mingled scents of the creatures living there, but some were still considered offensive; a skunk’s spray being chief among them, though the average mustelid’s normal musk was pretty noticeable.
“WHAT?!!” he bellowed without turning or opening his eyes. He threw an arm over his head in a vain effort to shut out the rattling of the door within its frame. Whoever was disturbing his sleep had found out quite swiftly that the wards on his door were there for a reason; to prevent him from being disturbed. Shifting onto one side, he rubbed a slender-fingered, furry paw across his muzzle, trying to wipe the sleep from his eyes as he sat up. He thought for a fleeting moment of setting off all the wards on his door, simply to chase the offending visitors away.
The spells should not harm them, he mused, not much anyway.
That was why they had stopped using their bare knuckles and were now using something more substantial, such as a helm or sword pommel.
“Rickkter, you are needed.” A voice came through the door, muffled by the wood and wards and quieted by the two rooms between them. The raccoon growled angrily, his tail brushing out as he turned one ear back to hear somewhat better.
“For what!?” he barked as he tossed aside the soft cotton blankets he had purchased for his bed. Far more comfortable than wool, they lacked something of the warmth the heavier fabric provided. Thus, he had perhaps twice as many as most would need, plus his fur.
“Open the door, please.” Came the voice again, sounding harried.
“Open the door, please.” Rick echoed angrily in a nasal, sing-song parody of the childish voice calling through his front door. He stood and snatched the black and gold robes he generally wore around his chambers and tossed them around shoulders that had lost some of their breadth in his becoming a raccoon. Cinching the sash around his waist, he pushed through the door of his bedroom and into the deeper gloom of his entry chamber. The two windows high on the west wall of his room had been shuttered against a brief rainstorm earlier in the evening, and afforded little light to the room. Not that he needed a great deal of light to see, at any rate. He knew his rooms well enough to navigate around the lounges and tables he used to entertain invited guests, and his raccoon eyesight was more than adequate for walking about at night.
Grumbling to himself, he idly wondered about decorating the uncluttered north wall of his small front hall with his rather impressive collection of bladed weapons. At least then he could greet unwanted visitors in the middle of the night with something more substantial than an age-worn black and gold robe and irritated raccoon growl. He flicked two fingers in the general direction of the door as he cast a momentary glance at the empty wall, pondering. Blades gleaming in the semi-darkness might look quite intimidating, he admitted, though he figured he’d not need them to impress. He smiled as the latch shuddered and lifted, untouched, sending the door swinging open with the next resounding knock.
Rick winced and turned his head slightly as light spilled across the night dark room, gleaming from polished wood and stone. Glaring balefully with one eye he surveyed the small crowd standing beyond his doorway.
“What by the damned Gods do you want at this time of the night?” he growled, his tail lashing back and forth behind him as he held one hand up toward the light, which was suddenly exterminated. The guard, a stoutly built age-regressed male, let out a grunt at the sudden darkening, though other nearby torches along the passageway continued to shed light. Behind him a young ensign let out a startled gasp and nearly dropped the lantern. A muscular pony stood to one side, quietly peering into the now dark room.
“Sir,” the pony interrupted the guard at the door, “There’s been an incident down in the town that we fear is magical in nature, but we cannot determine what it is.”
That got Rick’s attention. He looked up at the pony, assessing him instinctively and dismissing him as a mere soldier of some regard but no threat. “You do not have mages of your own?” he grumbled.
The pony shook his small equine head, ears backing briefly, “No, sir. Mages being pretty rare, most are here at the Keep proper. You the only one we able to find.”
“Wessex is at Lorland, and no one knows where the Magus is, Rickkter.” The guard at the door reported, “The Lightbringer is in a retreat of some sort and her acolytes refuse to allow us to call upon her.”
“Three mages,” Rick snorted, shaking his head, then yawning as his body protested the hour. Well, four, counting that skunk if he was any good. “That’s all we have around here?”
“Known to have any skill, sire.” The guard supplied. Rick chuffed and shook his head, scratching along the bottom of his jaw with one hand in a habitual gesture. Not so long ago, when he had been human that motion had been to scratch at the neatly trimmed beard that adorned his jaw and chin. The rasp of the whiskers against his fingers as he rubbed his jaw, a habitual behavior, had helped him to think, oddly enough. Now it was not the same, though it did feel a good deal better. The fur was softer, finer and denser though somewhat shorter. Still, the sensation was utterly alien, for his fur did not produce the desired rasp. Neither of which was helping remove the two unwanted soldiers from his stoop.
“What happened?” he said finally, sighing and leaning on the door.
The pony stepped forward, bobbing his head slightly as he bent one knee in a slight bow, “Respectfully, sir mage, but I think we be needing to show you the scene.” He nickered quietly, not meeting Rick’s hard, dark gaze. Tall, scalloped ears backed for a moment as he slid his gaze around the dimly lit room behind the raccoon. He could hear the ensign’s failed attempts to re-light his lantern. “This night be the third incident in a week, and the watch is needing magical help to understand the events.”
Rick grunted again, rolling his eyes at the inadequate magical aid this fool kingdom had. Never in the civilized lands had he come across a kingdom that did not have mages, of some sort, working alongside the town watch. Even in lands intolerant to true ‘magic’ such assistance was considered ‘divine power’, regardless of the practices used.
For all of its deeply magic nature, Metamor Keep was sadly lacking in trained magic users. He raised one hand, leveling a stern finger on the pony, who now stood in front of the other guards. Then ensign had finally thought to walk down the hall and light his lantern using one of the torches. “Stay.” He ordered as he gave the door a shove, letting it slam in the face of the three, latch rattling noisily in the night quiet.
Rick’s breath misted before his eyes as he followed the stocky, white pony down narrow, twisting avenues. Buildings crowded close along either side, leaning drunkenly against one another over alleys left cavern dark beyond the glow of moon and stars. No one else walked the streets, leaving the two animals to their quiet journey away from the neatly manicured safety of the Keep itself.
The town of Metamor proper was less than the Keep, peopled by those who lacked the desire, influence, or skills that elevated the common Metamoran to a home within the ever shifting gray walls of the Keep looming behind them in the moonlight. Ramshackle shops and homes stood shoulder to shoulder with well-tended buildings, interspersed with small parks, plazas, and the occasional estate of an old merchant family now gone bankrupt since the curse.
The pony, who had identified himself as sub-lieutenant Olas, set a brisk pace seeming to ignore the chill of the early morning air. For the most part Rick was able to do the same as he looked upon the town from a different perspective than he ever had before. Previously he’d only seen the main avenues, where the markets and more prosperous shops were located. Ensconced comfortably within the Keep, he was considered, much to his own annoyance, to be of the aristocracy of Metamor. A misconception based on perceived wealth, for he had no more claim to any sort of nobility than Kayla had, and her father had been an aristocrat of sorts. Landed, at the very least, whereas his wealth came solely from his fees as a mercenary, supplemented by whatever he could pillage. Rick had never even had a family name, nor title or rank beyond those granted by the nobles of kingdoms he pulled from the brink of dissolution.
He was really no better than the petty commoners who slept behind the thin walls crowding close along either side of the narrow cobblestone road. At least many of them had those they could call family; mothers, fathers, brothers, daughters; a name, which was something almost as important as any possession or status. Rick had never grown up with a name. He’d had nothing other than his intelligence, voracious appetite for knowledge, and a willingness to learn. He chuffed quietly to himself at that. Not willingness, no, he had been like any other child in at least that respect. He had never really been like other children otherwise. Between his early years of travel with his father, followed by his numerous years of varied training, his whole youth seemed to be fights for survival or advancement. He had been driven to learn, by unbending mentors who doubled as both brothers and fathers to him on occasion, but never family.
He’d had it once, almost, in the palm of his hand. A love he wanted to share everything with, to spend the whole of his life with. Someone he had once promised his name, for what that was worth. It was all he really, well and truly, had that was his and his alone.
But that was then, that was well in his past. He could only look back now, and regret. And, perhaps, grow from it. Mayhap there would be another such, one day, who captured him as much as she did.
He cast a glance over his shoulder at the keep, only one turret of which was visible down the avenue. Somewhere up there was a certain monochromatically furred lady who was doing something to him almost as drastic as the curse itself had. Somewhere up there she slept without concern for the fate the curse had laid upon her for perhaps the first time in years, because of him.
His whiskers folded back along his muzzle as he turned his gaze back to the path before him, the warm, mild scent of the pony before him mingling with the more pungent city odors in his nose. He smiled and picked up his step, pulling the edges of his cloak about his shoulders a little more securely against the chill.
The commander, a stocky, muscular human and equine sub-lieutenant crouched behind Rick as he knelt before the blanket draped artist they had named Kan. He rested one elbow upon his knee as he pulled the blanket back enough to examine the neat puncture left by the attacker’s weapon in the aged human’s shoulder. Rubbing at his jaw, he twitched his whiskers for a moment before pulling the blanket back into place. Other than that one bit of covering, no one had disturbed the unconscious human from where he had fallen.
“Should not have even put him out.” He commented as he stood, casting his eyes at the ground around the body. There was no hope of sorting out the footprints of the attacker among the sullied earth surrounding the body and the alley itself. Too many had wandered around the scene with no regard to any sort of tracking. The overall stench of the place also rendered scent tracking hopeless, a fact that Randal had pointed out almost immediately. “Whoever stuck him was trying not to hit anything vital.” He offered as he stretched against the waning morning chill. “Stabbed him as close to the heart as they could without striking anything more than muscle.”
“Then why’s he not waking?” Randal asked.
Rick grunted. It was a logical question, to be sure, but not one he could answer. Narrowing his eyes, he narrowed his concentration down to the fine weave of magical energies about the recumbent form. He filtered aside the tangled skein that was the curse of Nasoj’s spells and the warping influence of the counter spells hastily leveled against them. There was nothing anyone could do to even make sense of that snarl of magical energies for they all bled into and were a part of one another, like one single spell of great power; of a power more than even any Gods that Rick knew of could level.
Beyond the tangled weft of the curse Rick found… nothing. This artist, Kan, had no other enchantments about him. No spells to make him sleep in the coma like state he had been found in. No spells meant to bind his mind from reacting or operating his body, though there was definitely a mind still there. But it was as if that part of the man’s body had simply been suspended, but not snuffed.
Narrowing his eyes, Rick knelt again, looking deeper, beyond the influence of magic. It was difficult for him, a pure mage, to look deeper into a body than the magic which surrounded it, but it was a skill he had learned to do despite the difficulty. A priest or mage focused on the spirit could do so far easier than Rick, but none were available.
He let out a stuttering chuff as he came to the sudden realization that the man, while alive, had no soul. It had been ripped from his body, leaving the living body little more than a breathing corpse, lacking will or spirit to animate it.
Yet it still lived, which meant that his soul had not been destroyed or allowed passage into the realms of death. Nor had it been bound to the earth in the manner of a ghost or wraith. Rather, his soul had simply been transferred from one vessel, his body, to another, most likely the blade that had left him in his current condition.
Rick knew of such weapons, though he had never happened to see one himself. They were creations of great and dark magic, meant to capture the life of one being and transfer it to another. He’d read about them in a great many magical sources, but had never come across the formulae for creating such a weapon.
“His soul has been stripped from his body.” He reported at length as he stood, the fur of his tail drawn close in disquiet. To have such a weapon around Metamor meant dark things indeed. “It has not been destroyed, or given over to the realms of death.” He turned to the human and the shorter equine standing a pace behind him, “I suggest you place this man with the other two, and let me see them as well. Transport them to the Keep, to the Lightbringer, who might be able to determine the status of their spirits. I cannot.”
The human visibly paled as the pony’s ears laid back in distress, their breaths hanging pale white before them, glowing dimly in the moonlight. “What could do… who could do such a thing?”
“A drinker, a weapon.” Rick muttered, “A weapon that steals the souls of its victims to feed whatever dark powers the mage chooses. Once the soul is consumed, the body will die. As for whom…. A mage, that’s all I can tell you. Some mage of great and very, very evil intent.”
“Here?” the pony snorted, his voice a high whinny of distress, “Can you find a mage with that kind of power?”
Rick grunted and nodded curtly, wondering why he had not seen or sensed anyone with that sort of power around Metamor in the months he had been there. “I can, though it will take time. There’s little here than can lead me to them, so all we can do is wait, and watch. They’ll strike again, no doubts there.”
“We can’t tell anyone about this.” Randal said suddenly, “Except the Lightbringer and Thomas. It would cause a panic.”
Rick nodded as a quartet of guards, standing some distance away, were summoned forward to collect the comatose artist and his belongings. “Yes.” He responded as they withdrew down the street, “A murderer is one thing, but a stealer of souls is something quite altogether more ominous.”
“Llyn.” Muri called as the mink strode past a connecting corridor, passing briefly through is sights. He picked up his pace, weaving between the crowds streaming back and forth down the broad, colonnaded arcade through the heart of the Keep. He had a heavy bundle of books and the ingredients for several new items slung over one shoulder, making him move with an awkward lean.
Luckily his voice was heard, and Llyn returned, pausing at the corner as she looked around for the skunk among the throngs, most of which were animal species. It was something she had never noticed before, how those transformed into animals tended to gravitate toward the Keep. While the curse had only affected a third of the population thusly, fully two thirds or more of the Keep’s residents were those who had been changed into animals.
While there were humans, they tended to gravitate toward the town just outside the inner bailey walls, though still within the outer walls of Metamor itself. Further still was the town beyond the walls, where very few animals found residence. Beyond that town, in the valley proper, the population tended to be more evenly mixed as farmers seemed to care little the species of their neighbor.
Unless, she had to chuckle, their neighbor happened to be a predatory species. There were a few incidents of livestock raiding, but it was thankfully sporadic.
Finally she spotted Muri sidling between two heavyset bovines walking arm in arm down the center of the corridor, his body turned sideways as he let them pass, then swiftly strode down to meet her. He was wearing the same leggings and vest that she had purchased for him back in Glen Avery, though they were beginning to look a little worn. Eventually he would have to increase his wardrobe.
For her part she was wearing a light set of practice leathers, leggings and sleeveless vest laced across her bosom securely. While not overlarge, she still found it better to be firmly contained when rolling around the sparring arena. At her hip she wore the same shortsword she had been wearing since his rescue some two months past.
Though she had been training new recruits with staves for the past few days she still wore the sword, as if it were a part of her. She only removed it to bathe and sleep, and even that was difficult enough.
Muri caught up and smiled as he drew up to her, stepping into the relatively open side corridor to stand with her. “Where you off to in such a rush?” he asked with a warm smile, his dark eyes meeting her gaze. Llyn turned and continued down the corridor, leaving the crowds behind.
“Not much of a rush. Going out to assist Kwaanza working in a new group of kids and farm hands.” She offered as she placed her hand upon the hilt of her shortsword, glancing aside to him. She stood perhaps a hand taller, though was somewhat more slender and he out-massed her by several pounds. She had the better strength despite his bulk, and the coordination of several years spent training at fighting. He, on the other hand, had his magic.
That was something she had once thought to be the purview of the weak, the greedy, and the ambitious who lacked the strength to ascend by the merits of their own prowess. Through watching Muri, though, she had seen that magic, much like her sword, was a weapon easily used by the righteous as well as the heinous. As well, it was also a tool, a very powerful tool, that allowed Muri to do far more than a single man could ever hope to do.
At least in his case it was for the good.
She was not all too sure about the motivations of the raccoon she had nearly slaughtered four days past. Kwaanza had revealed that he, too, was a mage. A battle mage at that, dedicated to the furthering of war through magic. Whether his magic was turned to good or evil, she did not know, though it was said that he nearly killed Muri after their first meeting in the Deaf Mule.
“You smell nice today.” Muri offered at some length as they strode across a neatly tended solarium somewhere near the back of the Keep. She blinked and glanced aside at him curiously, meeting his dark-eyed, alert gaze. She smelled of jasmine and a touch of lavender under the clean scent of her recently bathed fur.
“And you, Muri, smell like a skunk.” She growled across at him, one corner of her muzzle ticking up slightly as her whiskers folded back. At his briefly startled, hurt look she grimaced and came to a halt, turning toward him. “I’m sorry Muri, I did not mean it that way.” She sighed, shoulders slumping as she rubbed a hand across her face.
“I’ve been damned irritable over the last couple of days.” She shrugged one shoulder as she resumed walking, “I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“Still nervous over that close call with Rickkter?”
“The raccoon?” she asked, and he nodded. “Kind of, I don’t know. Hell, I don’t even remember bathing, Muri. I’ve been all out of sort, and I don’t know why.” She stopped again, prompting him to do the same once more. They stood at the far end of the solarium, the quiet green full of the scents of autumn flowers. Sunlight lent the place a bright, amber glow, illuminating the motes of pollen and insects flitting about from plant to plant.
Her eyes narrowed as she looked again at Muri, pupils shrinking to pinpoints in dark eyes as she glanced him up and down, that tick pulling at the corner of her muzzle again, finally resolving itself into a rakish grin. She lifted one hand and trailed it along the lengthy whiskers adorning one side of Muri’s angular muzzle. Her pupils dilated as she leaned close and inhaled slowly, chuckling. “Yes… you do smell like a skunk.” She murred quietly, laughing softly once again at Muri’s startled blink in response to the sudden shift in her mood. “But that’s not all so bad.” Her hands dug into the thicker fur of Muri’s cheek ruff, pulling him forward as she bowed her head and met his lips with her own, whiskers angling forward to mingle with his own as her tongue traced its way across the sharp lines of his teeth.
Glancing up from the crawling scrawl on the pages before him, Rick rubbed the bridge of his muzzle as he waved toward the door with his free hand. Silently the wooden latch lifted, steel bolt shooting open as the heavy portal began to open on its own. Standing in the torchlight gloom of the corridor beyond was a creature Rick had not seen come anywhere near him directly.
Indeed, even when he attended any gathering at the Mule the fox had studiously stood on the opposite side of the table from the raccoon, or hovered at the fringes listening without appearing to. Rick’s eye ridges drew down at the strange sight of the writer standing just beyond his door, one hand held aloft in a second aborted knock.
“Nahum, I assume?” he grunted, closing Anef’s journal with a soft whisper, setting it upon the small table near his chair. The ancient human had been quite a concise writer, for his language. The lettering, though, was painstaking to make sense of, as it seemed to be nothing more than a meandering scrawl that was often horizontal, and sometimes vertical, depending on the tense of the statement being written.
Anef’s entire journal was written in the form of a conversation, one sided, to his female companion. Friend, early on in the book, then fiancée, and finally new wife toward the end shortly after the poem was written. To Rick’s understanding, the female Kayla had been a mage of some note herself, and Anef expected her to look upon his journal at some point in the future.
That her name was Kayla came as something of a surprise, for it was most certainly not a name in convention with those ancient times.
Turning his thoughts away from the book, he also closed the copy he was making, which was proceeding at a tedious pace. He had decided that his study was too stuffy for his liking, and had come out into the main parlor to read the original book, or rather, try to. He had been examining his work on the copy when the fox had knocked.
“Don’t stand there.” He snapped at the fox, who had not budged from before the open door, save to lower his hand, “You’re letting the heat out.” The day had dawned crisp and chill, heralding the first frost of the season within a few days.
With a start Nahum lurched through the door, which swung silently behind him to close with a dull, muffled thud that made the fox’s tail bush in surprise. He held a knit wool book sachet to his chest, a container at his hip sporting a half dozen variously shaped feathers. His pens and inks, Rick had no doubt. The two stared at each other for several breaths, Rick waiting on the fox, and the fox waiting to be given leave to speak, his nervousness writ clearly upon the slender, tapered vulpine muzzle.
“Well?” Rick prompted, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. He was wearing naught but a lose pair of cotton leggings, the heat of the fire burning in the hearth to his right being more than enough to ward off the day’s chill so long as fools did not leave the door standing open.
Nahum started, then cleared his throat, bright teeth gleaming in the back corners of his muzzle as he tried to put on a gamely smile. “Rickkter, I…”
“Sir.” Rick cut him of with a soft word, causing the fox’s statement to die away as confusion crossed that cinnabar hued face.
“Sir?” Nahum repeated, and Rick nodded slowly, is tail whispering back and forth across the floor behind his chair.
“Sir, I, well, I was hoping I could broach perhaps a rather delicate subject with you.” The fox began again after clearing his throat for a second time. His tail was held low, almost tucked, the fur drawn in tight along its length as he fought to keep his tall, triangular ears raised toward the raccoon.
“The Mule?” Rick prompted, one furred eye ridge twitching upward. His ears also threatened to lie back, but he managed to control them to a mere brief rearward flick. Nahum nodded tentatively, taking a breath.
“Yes, well, I was there and did see the entire issue, and was unfortunately downrange of the skunk’s assault much as you were.” His words, slow at first, began to pick up pace as the subject of his visit was aired, “I found it to be most, well, entertaining.”
“Hilarious.” Rick supplied with a sardonic twist to his muzzle, whiskers flattening. Nahum smiled and nodded enthusiastically. “Humiliating.” The raccoon continued, causing the fox to suddenly wilt, “For the human that ended up on the wrong end of the skunk’s fear and my anger.”
Nahum nodded, though only after a short pause to determine if the war-mage was being sarcastic or serious. “He does not feature favorably in what I had planned, no.”
Rick raised one eye-ridge as he listened, “And how do I feature?”
“Wronged.” The fox supplied, his hands flexing against the fabric of his sachet, “Righteously short of temper and justified in your reactions.”
“As you will write it.” Rick chuffed, pulling at one of his whiskers, “I almost killed that skunk.”
“I could not see what you did.” Nahum admitted with a short sigh, “I did not know it was so extreme.”
“It was I….” Rick began, then stopped, his voice trailing away as events transpiring behind the fox caught his attention. He leaned far to his right to see beyond the fox, who began to look a little confused and turned, seeing only the door. Nahum, not being a mage, was unable to see what Rick was staring at with such intense… shock. The raccoon’s ears were erect, whiskers plastered against his muzzle as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
His wards, the multi-layered magical constructs he had placed upon the door, were moving. Twisting like living things in the throws of tortured agony, the magical weave of his wards shifted and writhed in no particular direction. That was not something he had ever seen happen before, in all of his many years.
Eventually the tormented weave formed a simple pattered upon the middle of the door, just above eye level. A gleefully smiling face, one such as would be drawn by a bored child in the dust of a window. He blinked as that inanely cheerful face smiled back at him, caught utterly off guard by the event, and could do little to prevent his door from being pushed open as the latch lifted without Rick’s assistance.
Nahum, exchanging glances from the thunderstruck mage and the door, twitched as he saw the latch lift of its own volition, and took a step back reflexively as the door swung open. Standing beyond, a strangely animalistic facsimile of the cherubic smile on his own monochromatic features, was the self same skunk that the fox had seen in the Mule. He also remembered quite clearly what ensued when the two had first encountered each other, and had no idea that they had since ameliorated their differences.
With a startled yep he turned and darted behind the lounge nearest the door, hunkering down behind it as he waited for all hell to break loose. The raccoon looked fit to be tied as he stared at the skunk in surprise, and the skunk looked positively drunk as he grinned dementedly at the room in general. The skunk sauntered in as the door opened fully, not paying any attention as it thudded closed behind him. Behind the lounge, Nahum watched closely, knowing he was trapped in a very delicate situation.
“Gods grant a bright day!” Muri announced, his lush tail swishing behind him with good cheer. Rick chuffed at that, grunting as he dropped back into his chair and glared at the younger mage.
“What sort of merry hell were you playing with my damned wards?” he snapped, waving a hand at the door and the stupidly grinning face twisted into his intricately woven spells. Muri spun about, tail describing a circle behind him as he stopped and regarded the door for a moment.
“Smiling!” he quipped at length, spinning back around, and smiling as well.
Rick snorted, rolling his eyes at the effusive skunk’s good cheer, “Who poured adnium in your morning ale?” he muttered as he shuffled the two books into the drawer of the end table. “You’re late.” He finished sharply, crossing his arms across his chest and hooking one foot over a knee.
Muri grinned foolishly, then chuckled, his tail wrapping swiftly around him as he leered across at the ‘coon, “I was… otherwise distracted.”
Rick’s nose twitched to one side as he inhaled, catching the skunk’s rather sharp musk, and the others lingering about him as well, the most prominent being the deep, heavy earthen scent of recent sex. Behind the lounge Nahum chuffed and rubbed his muzzle, a rather disquieted look twisting his muzzle.
“Got a rat stuck in your throat there, fox?” Rick inquired, shifting his glare from Muri to the fox.
“Joy Wanderer.” Nahum offered, ears flat as he waved a hand toward Muri, who lost the beatific glee on his face and looked sharply at the fox.
“You are?” the skunk churred, tail stilling behind him.
“Nahum. I was in the tavern when you assailed the raccoon here with your stench.” The fox supplied as he stood from his cover, straightening his vest.
“The look on your face tells me you’ve a dislike toward Joy.” Muri observed, his voice suddenly cool silk.
“Damned right I do.” Nahum growled, for a moment forgetting just whose company he was keeping. He stuck one hand up toward the skunk, index and middle fingers pointing. Both mages leaned away slightly, lips drawn back from sharp, gleaming teeth as their own hands came up, hasty wards half-constructed before they remembered that the fox had no magic to cast. “She broke two of my fingers something over a year and a half ago. On my writing hand!” he ended in a harsh bark, dark amber eyes settling hard upon the skunk.
“Why?” Rick asked when it appeared that Muri was quite beyond speaking. Nahum’s eyes turned toward him.
“She thought I was trying to move on her male of the moment.” He snapped, tail lashing. Rick scowled and Muri growled, but neither moved.
“You prefer males?” Muri finally managed, his voice showing gravel under the dangerous silk. Nahum gaped at him, slender vulpine muzzle dropping open.
“NO!” he barked. A lie, but one he was quite comfortable with, as he’d been using it for over a decade.
“Then why would she think you were after her companion?” Muri continued, his claws shrilling a muted scream of torture as he dug them at the cool, stone floor.
“He was after me!” Nahum growled, quite harried as he looked from raccoon to skunk and back. That much, at least, was true.
“Then why didn’t she break his fingers?” Rick asked easily, watching Muri from the corner of one eye. He knew the skunk was teetering on the edge of doing something quite violent to the fox, and he wanted to see how he handled the situation. Nahum stopped, rocked by that simple statement, his tail dropping behind him as one ear came up.
“Would she break his fingers?” he pointed toward the skunk, “How much fun would he be then, if he could not use his hands or… anything, for the pain?”
“Point.” Rick affirmed as Muri continued to growl. “Who was her companion at the time?”
“Dream Serpent. They’ve been going on-again off-again for the better part of three years.” He returned his attention to Muri, and let out a sigh, “Hey, look, I’ve got no cuff with either of you, but just be careful of her, kid.” He held Muri’s gaze, “She’s one damned jealous mink, and she will go after anyone she sees as trying to get close to her male of the moment.”
“… of the moment.” Rick saw Muri mouth slowly, the hackles under the skunk’s white shirt rising, then falling as he seemed to settle back, somewhat deflated, good cheer dashed like crystal upon stone. He glanced aside at the fox, catching his gaze, and pointedly glanced toward the door while Muri’s gaze settled upon the hearth. Nahum paused for a moment before nodding slowly with a sigh as he quietly padded across the room and slipped through the slowly opening door, which closed behind him with ghostly silence.
“Sorry about that, Kid.” Rick said as he looked across at the skunk standing, his back to the door, and stared into the flickering orange of the fire. Muri shrugged, his tail drooping listlessly.
“Suddenly I don’t much feel like illusions.” The skunk managed after a few long, quiet moments. He waved one arm toward the door, fingers giving a negligent flick, and Rick watched the mangled weave of his wards twitch, then spring back to their original configuration with a tortured moue of the once-gleeful visage formed within them. “Show me how to quicken a spell into an object.” He murred as he gazed into the flames, not looking at the raccoon.
Rick chuffed, settling back into his chair, “That’s no light task, Muri. Quickening is a delicate thing.”
Muri shrugged a shoulder, “I’ve got more than time.” He grunted.
Rickkter nodded slowly, steepling his fingers under his chin as he, too, watched the dancing flames. How often he had seen that sight played out upon a much larger scale, he thought for a moment. Entire cities gleaming like cinders on the horizon like mere logs in a fireplace. Neither moved for several minutes, lost in their mutual contemplations of the flames, then Rick rose quietly and walked from the room, toward his study. Muri turned to follow without a word.
It would not be a day for thaumaturgical conversations; they would both be nose deep in books and their own thoughts.