Rescartes Inu leaned forward in the deep chair, leaning his elbows against the front of his desk as he peered into the featureless, polished black face of the obsidian slate before him. Framed with gold, it was mounted in a small stand that had once been a pair of human hands. They, too, were gold now, having been gilded shortly after he had slain their once owner; his first wife. Like him, she had been a mage of some note in her native lands. Quite comely, she had possessed an innocence that charmed the hearts of thousands, her subjects.
She had been the princess and heiress to one of the greatest kingdoms of the Farthest East, whose names had been forgotten now. Not by antiquity, but by the destruction of their memory by those who now inhabited the black sands that had once been fertile. A great war that had been, he remembered on occasion. A great and powerful war in which he had grown mighty… and learned that battling for the deities of Light would never grant him the true power he hungered for.
Nay, it had been the Daedra that taught him the true depths of power. And to earn it, all he had to do was betray Love. So thoroughly did he embrace their darkness and so great was his betrayal, that no matter what he created, nor where he went, that word was always before him. A parting gift of the gods he had once owed fealty to.
Stamped into the gold frame, cleverly forced into the runes that gave the scrying portal its powers, the word Love stared out at him with ancient anger. It was as if the gods themselves had altered the rules of magic, had forced upon him the need to etch those runes forever into the gold and bones of his scrying portal merely to force the memory of her death upon him.
For life everlasting, he had but to give a life in return.
And continue giving them, through the years and centuries that followed.
It was a small price to pay, in his consideration, to live forever and reap the benefits of his arduous learning. He smiled thinly as he waved his hands across the face of the portal, leaning forward to peer into its polished black depths. “Awaken, my pretty.” He coaxed softly, as one would to a fragile pet, “Awaken for me. I wish to see what you have seen, learn what you have learned.”
At first its loss had come as a powerful blow to the ancient mage, stealing from him a small portion of his magic and a greater portion of his defense. The four others that had accompanied him with their recently captured prize had ridiculed him for his losses. For a time he had considered striking out at the thief, of annihilating them where he found them, but that required that he return to his demesnes. A fortnight it had taken, to return to the small, fortified town of Lik once the purpose of their gathering was completed.
Two weeks during which he expected at any time that his schemes would be discovered by Nasoj or his lackeys. Luck would grant that his absence was not discovered, or at least not commented upon. It was the prerogative of mages to vanish without explanation… their studies often required such travel. Exhausted from his journey, he had been unable to do anything about those things that had been stolen from him.
In the tumult of trying to catch up on two weeks worth of study and purifying, he totally forgot about it until he felt the distant, subtle call of its magic. The thief had carried his missing possessions a great distance from where they had been stolen, finally ending up in, of all places, Metamor Keep.
Some place that Inu and those of his practice had long been denied access. He masked his magic well, for the protective wards and vigilant magical defenders of the living wall had not detected the subtle but powerful magics that had been brought to them. Magics that now allowed him to look unfettered upon the inner workings of the Keep, and through which he was able to act against them.
Subtle, fine shadows chased across the surface of the obsidian slab, offering a sudden depth to the featureless stone that drew his gaze closer. “Awake further, precious, let me see where we are.” He crooned seductively, grasping the wrists of the woman he had once truly loved, drawing the portal closer. Shadows deepened, features slowly swimming out of the darkness. A sliver of light, the frame of a door lit from without by muted torchlight.
His pet was asleep, as always. With one hand he stroked the side of the gold frame, gently coaxing his pet to wakefulness, “Rise, my pretty. Find the young one, the voice of the heavens. I want to see him, precious.” Over the past several days his sight was growing more clear, the connection between his carefully secreted pet and his command becoming something almost tangible. Already a slender thread was beginning to form between the nexus of his scrying stone and the distant keep.
The shadows lurched, slewing across the face of the stone before springing into sharp focus. His pet was in a small room, more a cell than a true chamber. A single bed was pushed up against one wall, with a desk at the far end of the chamber. Above the bed was a shelf, and along the opposite wall a line of pegs to hang personal belongings from. He waited with quiet patience as his pet dressed in the dark before crossing the small chamber in which they slept and opened the door to the momentarily blinding light of a torch.
A swift glance around revealed no others in the narrow passage, though a line of casements was now a prominent feature along the opposite wall. That was something of a surprise to the mage, for the day before, while the room had been identical, the door had opened upon a broad corridor somewhere without any outer view. “Take me to the cleric, pet. Let us see him.”
Obediently the image slewed to one side. His agent covered ground swiftly, weaving through the convoluted, twisting confusion of the keep with the facile grace of one born to its peculiar shiftiness. Inu leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his chin as he watched the rapid passage of surroundings flash through the clear view of the portal. It would only be a few days more before he would have the ability to reach through the portal himself and affect the areas surrounding his pet.
At length a cross appeared within the vision, which slewed down upon a narrow, unlit door set deep within the back wall of a wooden building. Inu narrowed his eyes and waited as the door opened slowly. Light, bright and steady, spilled out across the earthen pavement, a short, slender form backing out with a large platter of some sort in their arms. Turning, the child gave a sudden, startled cry and nearly backed into the building once again, but the closing door caught him. The contents of the tray, unidentifiable, scattered from the leading edge and spilled across the ground as the glow from within etched out the young, slender, chiseled face of the priest.
Hough, he had heard the name. Father Hough, once a midlands priest to the god whose name Inu refused to even contemplate, now by the machinations of some other force had become a child priest to the annoying, freakish denizens of Metamor. The child priest, aghast, tried to reach back with one hand and grasp the closing door, but was too late, and it closed upon the priest’s fingers with an audible crunch. Inu leaned forward sharply, the tips of three fingers resting upon the word ‘Love’ engraved glaringly upon the frame of the portal, “KILL HIM!” he hissed, willing every ounce of his considerable will through the triggering runes, which would spur the actions of his pet through the link they now shared, a link which grew day by day. Very soon Inu would be able to reach through, himself, and kill with his own hand. “KILL HIM, MY PET!”
Crying out, the child priest turned, the tray falling with a clatter to the earth. Lost to his ears but clearly audible to Inu were the tortured, hollow words of his hapless agent. “Forgive me, father.” The mage grimaced, as he did each time those words were uttered, but did not let up the force of his will. Obediently his pet raised a sword, running it through the child’s back with a satisfying crunching sound as bones broke under the force of the blow. The priest was slammed against the door, crying out again as the door was hammered open from within. Bright light framed a stout figure brandishing a heavy cudgel, with which the silhouette lashed out at the priest’s attacker.
It was not even a contest, that. Inu shifted his fingers slightly, triggering another small collection of runes, and time slowed to a crawl to the awareness of his pet. The sword was withdrawn, hauling the priest back forcefully, spilling him to the earth as a gleaming arc crossed before the image within the portal. The cudgel shattered, the silhouette began to lurch back, only to be spitted in the center of its chest with gleaming, magic augmented steel. A very startled, masculine shout of anger escaped the person, man, as he fell.
“Flee, pet. Your job is done. Leave him.” He demanded, pitching his voice to a smooth, even tone despite the jangling rush of adrenaline racing through his veins. Again his pet had failed. Why was he seeing the priest in mere midden boys and decrepit artists lurching drunkenly from dark alleys? Four nights and four times he had watched his minion seek out and find the boy priest… but four times the image had been false.
His power grew with each spirit captured and contained within the vessel of his minion, but his foe remained alive. Teeth clenched, his lips curled as he glared into the portal. Perhaps his pet, this minion, was stronger in spirit than he had once given credit for. Perhaps they were merely deluded to such a degree that they did not know what they were seeing. In any regard, he would soon have the power to force rapport. He would assume control, and wreak bloody havoc for as long as the Keep was blind to his power. Once discovered, he would safely retreat to the shelter of his keep as justice was visited upon his unfortunate minion.
“Return, my pet.” He crooned gently, trying to steady his ragged breath, “Cleanse yourself, and return. Sleep.”
He did not wait, knowing that his requests would be heeded. His minion did not know the source of the words that they heard, only that they must be obeyed. How they were managing to see a boy priest in the unfortunates so far claimed, he could not fathom. He lurched back in his chair and stood, crossing from behind his desk as he gathered up the robe hanging near the door.
Unlike his study, which was kept comfortably warm with two massive hearths at east and west sides of his study, outside was uncomfortably chill. He wrapped the magically warmed silk around himself and cinched it tightly before shoving open one leaf of the massive double doors and stalking out into the frigid breeze of the cold night. Beyond lay a broad balcony looking toward the mountains to the south, the tops of trees brushing its lower railing. There was no other entry to his private chambers, the only access to the balcony being by a flight of stairs to the west.
It was up those stairs that servants would toil with wood for his fires, or water for his cauldron, or any other of a hundred needs he might request. Even through the coldest and most bitter nights of the northland winters.
Though there were no guards and no servants awaiting his call, the balcony was not unoccupied. A slender, winsome woman of indeterminate age stood at the railing, her back to him, the gossamer white of her gown waving in the slow, icy breeze. She needed no warmth, he knew. Nude or garbed, the cold mattered nothing to her, as she was immune to such trivialities.
Though nearly immortal, he was not.
“Nuia.” He called as he neared, his breath fogging in the air momentarily before drifting away. The woman did not turn, nor shift her indolent lean against the railing. In the distance moonlight pricked blue highlights from the snow capped mountains from which Lik received its riches.
“You have failed again, Rescartes.” She replied as he reached the railing to lean against it beside her, looking at him from the corner of one soft yet piercingly green eye, “This slave of yours would appear to be too thick headed to fall for your particularly insidious magic.” Her voice was true silk, where his was only an attempt at such perfection, her body created perfect by the daedra to suit his desires. With daedric power she had wooed and seduced him, showing him things that he could never know with a mortal woman.
“They are blinded by faith… or they so hate this priest that they see him in every face they encounter.” He spat angrily, glaring out at the mute, unresponsive forest. He had governed his small barony for over two centuries, quietly building his power base, until Nasoj somehow managed to lure the affections of his goddess, and she demanded that he accede his ambitions to the newer, younger mage. The trees below had only been saplings when the first towers of Lik had gone up, and he had fostered them carefully to give his home the green his birth land had lost during centuries of mage war.
Yet how they mocked him sometimes, mutely standing sentinel while his machinations failed. Nuia merely smiled at him softly, “I doubt there is hatred in the visions the slave places upon the faces of innocents. Unknowingly they battle you using the only means they have… self delusion.” She finished with a sarcastic, lilting croon as she leaned over and pressed a soft, cool kiss upon his cheek.
“I have learned a good deal from them, regardless. Metamor has somehow gained the support of a transformed Kankoran, which could work in our favor if we are careful. My divinations have also revealed one, perhaps as many as three, Sondeckis residing there, but that changes often and in rather surprising ways.” The ancient, though handsomely youthful looking mage smiled at the kiss grimly, and reached across to pat her hand lightly where it lay upon the banister. “Those four are more a danger to themselves than we could be… with a few careful twists I should be able to turn one against the other.” He turned and leaned his backside against the cool stone of the rail, crossing his arms over his chest as he smiled at his wife of centuries, his voice directly to his goddess. She returned his smile with eerie if genuine warmth, sidling close and resting one cool hand against his thigh.
“The new paltido priest I know is there, if only I can get my pet to find the real child. Very soon I will be able to force the issue and find him myself, and slay him. Likewise with the Lightbringer, though I haven’t found her yet.” He raised his hand, curling his fingers into a fist as he glared at his hand, “I will have the power to crush them, directly, and claim Metamor as my own, for Lilith.”
A soft, seductive chuckle whispered past the lips of his lover as her hand traced lightly up the front of his thigh, raking up the light fabric of his silk robes as her sharpened fingernails caught the fabric, “She has said to leave the animals to their creator, Res.” She admonished softly, shaking her head, “They will be his undoing, and from his failure will be our ascension.”
“To Dark Keep?” Inu scoffed, shaking his head, “My dear Nuia, I desire far more than a heap of rocks in the frozen wastes of the north.” He waved one hand back, toward the south, over the trees and mountains that separated them from the soft kingdoms of the south, “I desire to return to the south. It is there where power lies, not in the ice of a dead land. Metamor is the doorway between the north and the south… anyone who claims it, claims the world.”
“Sulieman had the same idea, but you saw what happened there.” The woman countered quietly, her hand continuing to trace idle patterns upon the silk of his robes along his thigh. Inu chuffed a breath through his nose and shook his head slightly.
“Once I slay the priests and their acolytes, nothing will bar the Keep from us, dearest Nuia.” He promised, leaning over to offer a light kiss upon the woman’s cosmetically darkened lips. She returned his affection just as tenderly, her hand slipping between the folds of his robes, exposing the unclad flesh beneath to a biting moment of arctic chill.
“Have your slave slay the paltido, my dearest.” She crooned as her kiss traced a path along the line of his jaw as the mage leaned his head back, a soft sigh escaping his lips, “Have his head brought to me while his spirit remains trapped within your toy.” Her seductive, silken croon slipped into an alto growl as she bared sharpened teeth and set them to the tender flesh of her lover’s throat.
“Master Rickkter!” the voice outside was insistent and familiar, though the speaker was but newly met. Kayla glanced toward the door at the urgency of the voice, lifting herself slightly to gaze over the back of the lounge as if expecting the speaker to enter uninvited. Not that such was likely, considering the door was latched, the bolt shot, and the crossbar dropped. At her feet Rick growled irritably, his ears flattening back as his tail lashed. He raised his chin from her knee as he shifted and stood, setting the brush he had been grooming her with on the end table. “Master Rickkter, we need your help again! Are you in, Master Rickkter?”
“Who is that?” Kayla asked as she shifted herself upright. She had been settled back against a pair of pillows reading a book to Rick as he groomed her, relaxing in the muted glow of a few candles. She did not close the book, however, as she watched the raccoon mage stalk toward the door. Dark robes flowing about him, Rick muttered and fumed, but none of his irritation was evident in his voice as he replied to her question.
“The town watch, Love. There’s been an unfortunate spate of magical… crimes the past few days that they wanted me to help them with.” He explained as he raised the crossbar and shot the bolt back with a harsh clatter of wood and metal. Lifting the latch, he drew the door open. “Lieutenant Olas, please come in.” he said with strained civility, waving one hand back toward the room. The pony, alone this time and not wearing the chain he had shown up with previously, looked as if he were off duty. His ears twitched, flicking back, then forward as he peered into the room even as his hooves carried him forward. “I was just entertaining a friend when you knocked.” The tone of the raccoon’s voice illustrated quite clearly the degree of imposition the pony had brought with him.
Bowing, his head bobbing, the pony smiled toward Kayla, “My deepest apologies, milady, I did not wish to intrude.” Standing from his bow, he turned his attention back toward Rick, who leaned against the edge of the open door, a sardonic expression drawn rakishly across his muzzle, “The captain summoned me away from me own wife to seek you out, sir, as it were I that knew where you lived.” As he spoke, the pony had one ear cocked toward Rick, the other cocked back toward Kayla, at whom he glanced intermittently while he spoke to include her rather than cause any affront by excluding her presence.
“Same event?” Rick asked as Kayla watched silently, only her head and shoulders visible over the back of the lounge.
“Aye, sir.” The pony said with a quick nod, his tail twitching in agitation, “I not seen where it happened, just came straightaway here. Captain says that there were a witness this time, tho.”
Rickkter matched the nod, standing a little more attentively. Taking a breath, he let out a deep sigh as he shook his head. “Love? Could you find Muri and tell him to meet me at the front gates as swiftly as he can?”
Standing, Kayla set the book aside and crossed around from behind the lounge. She set the book aside on the end table beside Rick’s brushes as she did, unconsciously straightening her dark green gown as she did. The pony stepped aside quickly as she passed, bobbing a quick nodding bow to her as she passed. “Milady.”
Kayla smiled slightly, one hand catching one of Rick’s as she passed, giving and receiving a reassuring clasp before she slipped through the door. Both raccoon and pony watched quietly as she broke into a jog down the passageway, tail darting from side to side as it counterbalanced her movements.
“Wait here.” Rick commanded as he turned and crossed the room, entering his bedchamber to change from the casual robes into his normal daily attire. Though there were needs that the Keep and local town had of him, he still felt no little bit of irritation at the intrusion. With his studies, teaching, and the occasional patrol, it was difficult to get time enough to relax. To have such times synchronize with Kayla’s was harder still. This was their first night together for more than a casual dinner in almost a fortnight.
He mulled that over as he cast off his robes and began drawing on his working attire.
Seated at the table poring over a set of texts concerning magical linking and focus creation, Muri felt that there was something in the words of the seven centuries worth of texts laid out before him. What it was he was not quite sure of yet, but he felt that when he figured out the nagging little puzzle it would be quite profound. Each text spoke of the basic principles of binding magical weaves into objects, there were three entirely different approaches subtly described. Unlike most texts that he had compared, these were not delineated by the eras in which they were written. The three principles, at least within the texts he had available to him, evolved along parallel timelines rather than each being an evolution of the other. All were distinct, but he could see that there were places that they could be linked, crossed, or entirely combined.
What the results would be he did not know, but he felt the secret was right at the tips of his fingers. The prizing out of that enigma was sufficient to take his mind of the nagging questions concerning Llyn’s long term fidelity toward him. Was he a ‘male of the moment’ to her? Was he more?
Even more frightening; was he less?
The knock on his door was quite unexpected considering the hour, and roused him from his repetitive read and compare among the texts. Rising from the stool, he massaged his sore backside as he crossed from the laboratory to the outer balcony. Leaning against the railing, he reached out with a bit of magic and raised the latch on the door across the room below.
Much to his surprise, Kayla stuck her head in the door as it opened. Catching the door, she looked about the room, then behind the door, before she glanced up and noticed him on the far balcony. A smile crossed her face, quickly chased away by a moue of surprise as she quickly glanced away from him. “OH! Muri, hello.” He churred softly, looking at the hearth at one end of his room though he could see that she had him just in the corner of her eye. “Rick wanted me to find you.”
Her embarrassment came as some confusion to Muri for several moments, long enough to get her statement voiced, before it dawned upon him why she had reacted as she had. He had fallen back onto old habits while he was studying, and had set aside his robes. Generally the only person he expected to have in his chambers was Llyn, and after almost two months traveling in the wilderness of the north unclothed there was a comfort in not having to worry about such things. Unfortunately, it was not Llyn standing at his door, a fact which struck him like an almost palpable blow, sending a chill of consternation through his chest as heat rose in his face.
“Kayla!” he called out, quickly wrapping a simple illusion about himself, “Oh, dear, I’m terribly sorry, I was not expecting company.” He explained as he crossed to the stairs and descended to the main floor. Kayla risked a brief glance toward him, then relaxed upon realizing he was dressed, though she did not come any further into the room.
“Obviously not.” She chided with warm humor, shaking her head at the embarrassed skunk. “Shame, shame, Muri. Rick wants you to meet him at the front gate as swiftly as you can get there and arrive dressed.” She smiled, “There’s been some manner of magic used in a crime that the town watch wants investigated.”
Still feeling the hot flush of his embarrassment, Muri could only nod as he listened, smiling stupidly, “Ah, I see. Give me a few moments to get my real clothes.” He paused a few paces away, then laughed, “I’d hug you in greetings, but the illusion does not work when it comes to touch.” Turning away, he glanced back over his shoulder, “I’m working on that part. Give me a few moments.”
Kayla laughed as well as he crossed to his room, shaking her head at the younger skunk’s antics. Though he was nearly ten years her junior, he sometimes seemed incredibly older in his attitudes, yet at times could be as innocently childish as any youngster. It only took a handful of minutes for Murikeer to return, garbed in clothes that looked quite a bit like the illusion he had hastily donned previously. Returning, he stopped before her and sketched a deep bow, his tail flourished in the air behind him.
“Well met, milady Kayla.” He murred gently as he stood, then stepped forward and caught her in a warm, brief embrace, “Sorry about my terrible faux pas.” He apologized as he released her, stepping back. He picked up a large, worn leather satchel from a table near the door. “Could you ever forgive me?”
Laughing, Kayla walked back out into the hall, Muri following behind and closing his door. “No.” she said simply, shaking her head, “I’ll just get even.” She joked as they began walking down the hall, confident that they would arrive at their destination in short order.
“How?” Muri asked, genuinely curious though a little wary.
“By doing the same thing.” She warned, grinning aside at him as they reached a crossing corridor. The illumination of torches continued down one of the connecting passages, whereas the other two were lit only intermittently.
Muri’s brows furrowed for a moment as they turned down the well lit corridor, “Oh, milady, please never do such a thing to me.” He quailed, chuckling, “Rickkter would absolutely slaughter me.”
“Indeed, milady. Should you ever do such a thing I would be in your thrall forever.” He laughed as he winked at her playfully.
“Would you now?”
It took Muri a pace to realize that Kayla had not responded. Indeed, she had stopped dead in her tracks, her gaze fixed on a shadowy figure stepping out from a dimly lit stairwell. Muri identified the voice as Llyn’s even as he turned toward the figure, coming to a halt as well. “Llyn!” he called, smiling brightly as he stopped.
“Kayla.” Llyn replied, her voice icy flat, gaze hard and piercing as she glared at the female skunk at Muri’s side. Her fur was damp, recently washed, and there was a lingering scent of honeysuckle and lavender about her from the soap she had used. Her clothes were dry and not exactly fresh from the wardrobe, showing the smudges of dust and grass that she had picked up during martial practice earlier in the day. Unlike most inside the keep itself besides the watch she was armed, her short sword slung across her back.
“Llyn.” Kayla returned, her posture and voice guarded. Muri scowled at the mink.
“Llyn, loose your draw a bit. Rickkter sent Kayla to summon me. There’s an incident in Euper that needs the aid of mages to understand.”
Gaze still hard, Llyn leveled her glare upon Muri without any lessening of the dark anger behind her stare, “She summoned you then. She going with?” the mink shot, eyes narrowing, “That you could be in her thrall?”
“Artela’s Blood, Llyn. She’s going back to her chambers, I would expect. It’s late, and she is not needed for the investigation.” At least, he hoped she was not as he had no idea where she was actually expecting to go.
“Pretty much, yes.” Kayla offered quietly, her whiskers backed as her tail twitched behind her like a nervous cat. Offering Muri a swift curtsy, she turned and strode back up the hallway, turning at the intersection and disappearing.
“By all the gods, Llyn, what by the hells was that for?” he snapped, voice a low hiss as he threw an arm out in the direction of Kayla’s retreat. Much to his surprise, Llyn seemed to snap out of her sinister reverie. Falling back a step, she shook her head and blinked, then threw one hand over her eyes.
“Oh God, Muri.” She gasped, falling against the wall, sucking air as if she had just run a league. As surprisingly as she had arrived Muri found her weeping, her head in her hands as her entire body quaked against the wall. As he took a concerned step forward she lurched away from the wall and, spinning about abruptly, vanished into the shadows of the stairwell, leaving behind a very stunned and bewildered skunk. He was so flummoxed it took him nearly four full breaths before he thought to pursue her up the stairs.
At the top he opened the door only to find himself looking out at the courtyard before one of the outer gates of the Keep proper. Rick and one other were just walking past as he opened the door and spotted him almost immediately. “Muri, good. You arrived sooner than I expected.” The raccoon spoke up as Muri looked around hastily, hoping to see Llyn.
“Did anyone else come through this door?”
Rick looked around, as did the pony walking with him, then both shrugged, “Not that we saw.”
“Damn. Llyn just… I don’t know. I think she’s suffering some sort of fugue.”
Rickkter merely shrugged, “Don’t know, Muri. Ask her when you catch up with her. Let’s get this little problem looked at while the scene is fresh.” The raccoon said as he continued walking. “Lieutenant Olas, this is Murikeer, my pupil. He’s quite good at what he does, and can see quite deeply into the workings of magic as well.”
Giving the courtyard one last look, Muri sighed and shook his head as he stepped out into the cool of the night air, letting the heavy door close itself behind him. “Lieutenant.” He offered by way of greeting as he fell into step with the pair. “What can you tell me of whatever this problem is?”
“Be calling it murder, I would, sir.” The pony nickered with a shrug, “But them that be struck down not be dead… just empty. They breathing, they warm, but that about it.”
“Ever heard of a Drinker, Muri?” Rick asked from the other side of the pony. The avenue was for the most part empty as they strode down the center of the cartway. A few other small groups moved about on the avenue as well, coming from some place and going to another. The buildings themselves held no particular sinister properties to him without the throngs of humanity that were normally crowded between them during the sunlit hours.
Pondering a moment, Muri nodded, “Soul binder.” He opined after a moment of thought, “You think we have one here in Metamor?” His eyebrows arched, Muri sucked a breath through his teeth, “That would surely be a nasty thing to have about.” He glanced down a dark alley as a lance of ice raced up his spine, expecting for a moment that an enemy mage might jump out at them.
“I don’t think, Muri, I know. I’ve seen the results of their use. Now we have to figure out the intent of the Drinker’s purpose, and if the damnable thing has any sort of sentience.”
Olas whinnied as he listened to the raccoon, his ears going flat, “A demon blade that would be, if did have a will of its own.” He whikkered fearfully, tail lashing.
“If we had a true Demon blade in Metamor, Lieutenant, we would all know it by now, so I do not believe that to be a case. There are differences between a spirit bound weapon, and a spirit binding weapon.” Rick offered reassuringly as the pony led them down another street.
“Yes.” Muri supported, “A Demon blade is soul bound, meaning that some spirit, be it a hell beast, a mortal spirit, or the like, has been captured and forged into the weapon. It is a part of the weapon, and fuels the weapon’s magic. In many cases it has a will and agenda all its own and uses those who wield it to further that agenda. These abominations are almost always destroyed or safely stored away from being able to influence new wielders.”
“A soul binder is different.” Rick picked up as they moved further and further into the depths of the town, where torches and lanterns were few and far between. Only the witchlights drawn up by the two mages lent them any visibility beyond that supplied by the moon and stars. “A soul binder steals souls, just as you’ve been finding, leaving their living bodies behind. The magic of the weapon itself draws its power from those trapped souls, eventually consuming them, at which point the mortal body perishes.
“Now, many of these are simply magical weapons with no intelligence of their own. Their powers can be used by anyone that can pick them up. Others are vessels through which powerful mages can support their combat champions, and as such could be considered to have a sentience beyond that of the soldier holding them, but only while the mage is attentive. A rare and dangerous few are very like Demon blades, as they have a strange sentience all their own, but it is a magically created intelligence.” The raccoon chuffed a rough laugh as they passed a group of the town watch.
“The first drinker I ever had to deal with was of that type, but the magic mind was truly idiotic, almost animalistic. It was as destructive to its users as its victims and they were all too glad to surrender it to me. Destroying it was another matter entirely. These things take a lot to make, and even more to destroy.”
“Here we are, sir.” Olas interjected as they came to stop at the entrance of an alley which led behind a run down looking tavern, the Bottomless Cask. Four members of the town watch stood before them, guarding the alley itself. They stepped aside as the pony approached, allowing the trio to move down the alley. As they passed the guards, Rick grasped the pony’s shoulder and halted him.
“Who has been down this alley besides us?”
“No one, sir.” One of the foursome replied, his bearded face grim. He held a massive cudgel in one hand as if he expected to be attacked at any moment. “The tavernkeep merely withdrew the body of his scullery boy once the attacker retreated, and closed the door. The lad is inside, on one of the tables. He did not come out of this attack as well as the other two I’ve seen, sir. We had to have someone see to his injuries.”
“That is fine. Any magical healing?”
“None, sir. We do not have anyone that can do that in town, sir.”
Rick frowned at the bearded man and shook his head, “Very well. I will speak with the duke on that matter. As for the alley, no one is to go any further than you four besides myself and my associate. If any of you know a master tracker, see that they are brought here.”
“The captain figured we might need one.” The bearded man nodded, rolling his shoulders, “Naggin is one of the best we know of.” He nodded toward one of the other four, a slender young man with an untrusting look to him. He was not dressed as the other three of the watch at the head of the alley.
“A poacher, even better.” Rick chuffed, turning his attention to the surly looking young man, “Wait here for a short time. Once we scry what we can of the scene we’ll need you to try to track the attacker to wherever they came from.”
“Yeasure.” The man grunted with a curt nod.
Satisfied, Rick tapped Muri on the elbow and they proceeded into the alley, the glow of their attendant witchlights brightening to blazing brilliance. Stark, hard edged shadows jumped and scuttled about as the lights moved down the alley above each of the pair. Muri moved with a smooth grace, placing his feet on scraps and solid debris to prevent scuffing of anything that might be seen on the earth of the alley. Rick was much more direct and purposeful, walking down the center of the alley, his boots not leaving a single mark upon the earth.
“Are there any diviners in Metamor?” Muri asked as he examined a smudge in the dirt. After a moment he moved on, following the path of a stray dog that had moved down the alley at some point that evening. Rick, looking at different tracks, shook his head.
“The only one I know of is the AR, Wessex. He’s not at the keep right now, however. He went out to Lorland to oversee its recovery after their baron was executed.”
“Loriod. I don’t know a great deal about it myself. He apparently learned a bit of runecraft and began making things difficult for Metamor. By the time I got here they’d pretty much figured out who was causing their problems and confronted him about it. In the ensuing battle he was killed.”
“Loriod… I’ve heard that name. That fat AR, Aniris, was spouting it when he attacked me.” Muri rubbed his jaw as he came across a much larger print overlaying the path of the dog, the depth of the print revealing that the creature leaving it was rather massive. Kneeling, he looked it over carefully, then sought out and found more of them, leading toward the back door of the tavern. “I’ve got animal prints here from a bipedal source.”
“I’ve got a couple over here as well. Looks like a mustelid of some sort.” Rick said as he pored over a smudge in the dirt near a heap of discarded trash. He gazed up and down the alley for several minutes without moving, then traced a brief motion in the air with one hand as he incanted a minor spell. The alley began to glow a soft, pale rose color as the larger paw prints began to glow. “That fat little snot caused me as much strife as you, skunk.” He muttered as he watched the meandering path of the glowing prints.
“You got a couple of very rare tomes out of the deal, though.” Muri countered as he stepped up onto the top of a barrel just outside the back door of the tavern. “I got nothing, and Donny has that fat beast paying for the repairs.”
“Caused by everyone escaping your panic.” Rick countered. “Naggin, come look at these prints!” he barked up toward the head of the alley. The human sidled down the alley much as Murikeer had, stepping carefully as he shielded his eyes from the blinding glow of the witchlights. Reaching the spot where Rick was knelt over a tangle of overlapping prints, he crouched beside the raccoon.
“Jus’ sa ye kno, sire, it bein’ mighty strange fer me t’ work wit critters I usually be huntin.” The young man muttered as he studied the prints, not looking at the raccoon wizard at his side, “Or be avoidin.” He jerked his head toward Muri who was posted across the alley, “Bein’ a might odd t’ see ‘em throwin’ magic about too.”
“We all learn new things every day, Naggin, as well you should know as you’ve been through it like the rest of us.”
“No me, sire.” The man shook his head, “Father’s da were half elf. Curse no work on dem wit elf blood.” He shrugged his shoulders and tapped one of the clearer prints with one finger, “Be mink ‘r ferret ‘r tha like. Get odd prints when dey start walkin’ on two foots. Size all wrong, lay pat’rn all wrong.”
Rick’s eyebrows arched briefly at the man’s declaration of his lineage, a chuff escaping his nose, “Mink or ferret or… lovely. One of a few hundred mustelids in Metamor. We’re going to speak with the tavernkeep. See how far you can trail these prints.” He instructed as he stood. Muri reached over and drew the door open, stepping off the barrel to follow the raccoon into the tavern. Before passing through the door he bound his witchlight to follow the poacher.
Just within the door was the tavern kitchen, which was little more than a pair of cast iron stoves and some counter space. For the location of the place Muri was surprised at just how clean the kitchen was. All considerations taken, the condition of the kitchen said a lot to the skunk about the cook. Rick paused, glancing around. “What’d you smell out there?” he asked as he gave the kitchen a quick look.
“Trash. As clean as this kitchen is, the alley outside is a pure midden.”
The raccoon nodded, “This place uses those old ale barrels just outside the door. The rest was from the butcher on the opposite street. All the fat and other cast offs made it impossible for me to pick out any identifiable scent from the prints.” Rick continued as he narrowed his eyes at a thick leather vest haphazardly hung from a coat peg behind Muri. “You had similar problems?”
Turning to look at the vest, Murikeer nodded, “Yes. These changes may have given us a much keener sense of smell than we used to have, but living in this amalgam of mixed species dampens our new acuity. When I first came to Metamor the smell pretty well gagged me, even in the more secluded locations of the Keep. I’ve gotten used to the continued smell, so picking out individuals from the stench in that alley is beyond me.”
Rick chuffed a laugh as he reached up and took the vest down, “You’re a skunk, I’d be damned surprised if you could smell anything past that pungent natural odor of yours.” He held the vest up and looked it over. “Laminated and boiled. This is armour.” He commented with a frown, “Not something for a cook.”
Muri eyed the nicks and cuts that traced across the front of the vest, which would easily have covered him from neck to knees, “Well, perhaps not to cook, but to remove rowdy patrons or the like it would be handy.” He shrugged, “Especially when some of them might have claws.” Narrowing his eyes, he looked beyond the mundane appearance of the item, curious to see if there was more to its ageworn appearance than they were seeing. Indeed, there was a minor enchantment laid upon the leather, to strengthen it. Apprentice level work, but sufficient for the purpose of the vest.
Curiously, however, the simple weave of the magic was twisted terribly, drawn into a useless knot of energies just slightly to the left of the vest’s center. “It’s enchanted, too.” He reported as he let his gaze travel about the kitchen, curious to see just what else the cook may have had by way of magic. Nothing stood out among the ambient energies of the place save for a cleaver, which had been enchanted to keep a keen edge, and the cudgel hanging from another hook beside the door.
Rick examined the vest as well, nodding, “The magic probably saved him from getting himself stuck, and his soul taken.” He worried at the recent puncture with one claw, “It almost penetrated all the same.” He hung it back on the hook, “Let’s see what the tavernkeep has to say.”
Following him into the taproom, Muri cast another quick, magically appraising glance around, but there was nothing of any sort in the tavern’s main room of any magical note. The master of the tavern was seated at a table near the hearth, watching their arrival warily. The slender body of a young boy was laid out upon the table before him, one of the lad’s hands heavily bandaged. The tavernkeep was stoutly built but not particularly overweight, the corded muscles of his arms straining at the simple fabric of his shirt.
“Were one like you two.” He grunted, waving one massive hand in their direction, a scowl crossing his face, “Furred bastards.” He struck the table with his fist and stood, turning to face them in a posture that invited a fight. “Stuck my boy here so bad the healers don’t know if he’ll live.” Stalking across the room, his glower hardening into a glare, and thrust a thick finger toward Rick. “Who be you two?”
“I am Rickkter, this is my associate, Murikeer. We are indeed from the Keep, summoned by the town Watch to investigate the assault on your son.”
“This is my husband you jumped up treecat.” The man growled threateningly with a shake of his head, “That’s what the battle did to him, just like this is what the battle did to me.” The man thumped his chest, “Why they call your furry arses from the comfort of your stone house for this? The Captain’ll figure out who did this to my boy.”
“It was the Captain who summoned us, Master….” Rick trailed off as he strode across the room, passing the tavernkeep so closely the mountainous man could have easily reached out and assaulted him. Luckily for the man he did not, giving Rick enough room to look at the injured youth upon the table. “Please, tell us exactly what happened.”
Glaring at Rick’s back, the man’s hands clenched and relaxed as he battled the rage boiling within his veins. He looked back over at Muri, who stood at the foot of the bar near the kitchen door and watched quietly. “We’re here to help, sir.”
Throwing up his hands, the man spun and stalked back to the table, dropping his mass onto the bench across from Rick. “Amadar Semall.” He growled, scratching his cheek, “Tym, there.” He nodded toward the injured, age-regressed individual laid out on the table. “Born and grew up here, both o’ us did. Tym were the artist, the dancer and the singer. Always wanted to be a mighty and great magic user one day, but nae could pay fer being an apprentice, so could only learn the most simple stuff.” Amadar sighed, shaking his head, “I were the mule o’ my family, doin’ all the field work, all the man stuff as ‘cause I nae had no brothers.”
“He was responsible for the spells on your kitchen vest and cleaver?” Muri asked quietly as he moved closer, to the foot of the table, while Rick was examining the body. Amadar looked over at him, frowning as he propped his elbows upon the table, dropping his head into his hands.
“You know ‘bout them?”
“We are both mages, Master Amadar.” Rick interjected without looking up from his examination of the ragged wound in Tym’s chest. “That is why were asked to investigate this assault.”
“Oh, I guess, yes then, they was Tym’s spells.”
“The strengthening on that vest likely saved you from the same fate as your husband.” Muri explained.
“Straight, smooth edge, but it was torn out. You came upon the attacker after he attacked your husband, master Amadar?” Rick asked, again without looking up from his work.
“Aye. Heard Tym cry out, figured one o’ dem thugs were back fer their pay off. I gets the vest and cudgel and open th’ back door, but they’s no thugs. Just that… that beast, standin’ there wit her sword stuck out like some fancy damned tournament thrust, had Tym stuck to the door.”
“Aye, were female. Don’t grow up female and not be able to tell one fer tha other at a glance. Were female, dark brown in the light, but her eyes were… Eli’s grace, her eyes were this crazy orange, like coals stuck in her skull. And she were talking, you know? Kept sayin’ th’ same thing over an’ over. ‘Forgive me, Father.’ Just that, over and over, like someone making a confession, but the way she said it, I think she were saying it to Tym, as if he were the priest.”
“What did you see?”
“Well, I heard Tym drop th’ scraps plate and cry out, ‘caus I were right in th’ kitchen. I get the cudgel and push th’ door open, and there she be standing, right in the light, and it was them eyes that caught me, them glowing bright eyes. ‘Afore I could do aught, she jerks this sword out ‘o Tym and stabs me with it, s’ fast I don’ even see the move.” The man shuddered, rubbing his chest as he gazed down at the young boy that had once been husband to him, before the battle of the gates, before Nasoj’s cruel hand had stolen away her womanhood and her husband’s years. “Hit me s’ hard she knock me off me feet. By th’ time I gets up, she gone, like she were never there.” Getting up abruptly, Amadar stalked back and forth in front of the hearth, fists clenched as the muscles of his jaw twitched with tension. “The Watch were close, came quick when I started hollerin, I tol’ em about th’ bitch and they close off th’ alley. I brought Tym in, laid him out here.” He pointed at the table where Tym lay, “Healer did what she could, but she say he might loose ‘is hand.”
“Muri, what can you see?” Rick asked, glancing up at the skunk, then over at Amadar. “Was there anything strange about the sword? Anything other than her eyes that stands out in your memory?”
Moving around to where Rick was standing, Muri looked down at the boy, looking beyond the physical, focusing his spirit sight beyond the shimmering veil of the local energies. Much to his surprise, he found a gaping emptiness where he would have expected the tight, scintillating bundle of coherent energies would be. The tangled skein of the curse was a shell that encompassed a living body, but the spirit itself was gone entirely.
“Well, I wish I could tell ye more, but it were ‘dem eyes, I could nae see aught but them eyes fer the first second, then th’ sword. It, well, there were these lines and th’ like on it that glowed.” Amadar muttered, his voice trailing off slowly as he tried to recall the scene. “Yes, like Tym’s books! There were these letters, I guess that what they be, o’ magic on the blade, but it were like they were just drawn on, ‘cause there were no breaks in th’ way the torch light were on the steel, no like would be if them were carved in’t the metal.”
“Good observation.” Rick said as he watched Muri, who stood unmoving at the side of the table, staring at the motionless form before him. “We are going to have the Watch take your husband up to the Keep, where the Keep healers can see to his hand, and wait until he recovers from his injuries.”
“Master mage, what did that sword do?” the burly human asked, genuine concern creeping into the pain of his voice as he watched the skunk.
“It made your husband sleep, master Amadar. Until we find the weapon, he will remain asleep.” Rick explained as Muri looked up at him, his gaze switching over to the tavernkeep. Amadar paled under his beard, eyes going wide as he looked from the raccoon down at the body of his husband.
“Eli’s blood.” He groaned, stroking Tym’s brow delicately with the tips of thick fingers, “Mage, that could take forever.”
Rickkter shook his head once, “Not so. These attacks will continue, and eventually the wielder of the sword will be captured. Once we have the sword, we’ll be able to break its curse upon your husband.”
Not looking particularly reassured, the tavernkeep frowned at Rick. “I will take my boy to the Keep. Who should I seek?”
“Speak with the Captain of the Watch. He will tell you whom he has been speaking with at the Keep on that regard, likely Healer Coe. Murikeer and myself will continue with our investigation. There is little else we can do here.”
“Well, thanks bein’ for yer help. Can neither of you help my boy?”
Rick looked at Muri, who gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. Looking back to the tavernkeep, Rick shook his head, “Our magic does not lie along such paths.”
Amadar frowned, “What bloody good be it then.” He grunted, more a statement than a question.
“Tym’s magic saved you from sharing his fate.” Rick pointed out as he started for the door, “The sword wound was well placed, master Amadar, it did not strike anything vital. The injuries to his hand are more severe than the stabbing, but I do not see any reason for him to loose his hand. Some mobility, but it will heal.”
Looking dubious, Amadar nodded slowly as Rick pushed the tavern door open and stepped out ahead of Muri.
“You’ve done this before.” Muri observed as the door thumped shut, stepping from the stoop into the shadows of the street. Rick, a darker shape in the shadows, turned toward him, the moonlight catching his eyes for a moment, twin motes of green flashing in the darkness.
“Of course, skunk. I’ve been a mercenary for the better part of two decades. I’ve been paid handsome rewards to get to the roots of problems very like the one that struck down that person in there.”
Muri glanced up the street as a dim glow began to grow brighter from the direction of the street, “So what does Metamor pay you?” he asked as he held one hand outstretched slightly, palm up. A spark ignited in the air above his palm, growing into a bright sphere of light grasped in his splayed fingers.
“Nothing.” The raccoon replied, narrowing his eyes briefly as the light drifted upwards until it hovered in the air some twenty feet above them. A second glow appeared at the head of the street, the slender form of Naggin illuminated by its light. “But there is something here I’ve not had in some years.”
Muri glanced over at him as Naggin approached, “That being?”
“I agree.” Muri nodded, “Master Naggin, what have you found?” he called out to the human as he approached.”
“Not a lot. Tracks get lost once they reach the cobblestones.” Naggin admitted with a shrug, “A friend of mine brought some dogs up and we followed the scent trail.” He trailed off as he reached the pair in front of the tavern.
“To?” Rick prompted.
A growl escaped the raccoon as Muri’s whiskers folded back in consternation. “To where in the Keep?” Rick asked, his voice quiet.
“The south bailey wall. There’s a door there that opens into a gardener’s shed. We lost the scent there.” The human shook his head slowly, “The courtyard that the shed fronts is ill used, rather less than likely that anyone was there to witness whomever entered via the gardener’s door. We lost the scent inside the keep after she washed in one of the fountains.”
“Show us the courtyard.” Muri said as he turned and began retracing their path back toward the keep, “Which fountain did she wash in?”
Naggin caught up in a few quick strides as Rick brought up the rear, his tail lashing angrily behind him. “Just inside the courtyard near the gardener’s outbuilding. The soap they used is pretty common inside the Keep, as are female mustelids.” The conversation ended there as the three navigated their way through night darkened streets. There had been several attempts over the years to create a cohesive thieves’ guild within Metamor, but as most able bodied citizens of the keep were gainfully employed as craftsman, farmers, and support for the remainder who served as warriors, no true and powerful guild had ever arisen to make traveling Metamor’s streets at night a risky idea. As well, the one small band that had developed was headed by an individual who forbade a great deal of violence with an iron fist and quick retributive judgments against those who chose to ignore his rules. Not that the few brave independents would have been stupid enough to harass the trio as they moved purposefully down streets both wide and narrow. Though two, the human and skunk, were dressed little better than the average peasant, Rickkter in his black garb and plethora of obvious weapons was a definite risk to anyone who might have thought to make marks of them.