Naggin led them through twisting streets that continued to narrow, eventually becoming little more than crowded alleys running like rabbit warrens in the shadows of Metamor’s southern wall. Muri had thought the reek in the alley behind the tavern had been bad, but realized that it was quite tolerable compared to the heavy, unmoving miasma which lingered in the narrow confines of the alleys which their guild jokingly dubbed the Warrens.
Eventually they came to a small, fenced yard against the wall of the Keep. The aged, wrought iron fencing showed its years, but the rusted gate looked solid, as did the small wooden door which it was intended to protect. Unfortunately, however, the lock plate on the gate showed the damage of having recently being broken from within. Not in a manner Muri would have expected, though. Where he would have expected to see the twisting caused by a crowbar he saw none. The plate, which housed the locking mechanism and steel bolt had been sliced open, the bolt shorn in half by a weapon of incredible strength and sharpness.
There were three dogs lying indolently in the yard, only stirring enough to raise their heads as the threesome approached. Their handler, a canine morph, turned from her examination of the door as the three reached the gate and stepped into the yard. Her dogs were bloodhounds where she was of the collie persuasion, her thick fur gold and cinnabar in the glow of the witchlights. Dark brown eyes gleamed in the light as she nodded to Naggin, then looked to the skunk and raccoon.
“The Keep sent these two out to check into the attacks, Ranna.” Naggin said as he clasped her proffered hand, “Masters Murikeer and Rickkter, mages.”
The collie’s ears pricked forward abruptly as her eyes narrowed into a shrewd examination of the two. Other than hearing her name, Muri was little interested in affirming the introduction as he examined the remains of the lock. His mage sight revealed nothing of any magical nature whatsoever, not a single lingering echo of the magic of the weapon that had wrought the damage.
“Mages, hmm, might help.” Ranna’s voice was cultured, despite the simplicity of her peasant garb, “I have no idea what they used on that lock, but it was certainly magicked to slice like that. All the damage is to get out, but there are no marks on the ground of whomever cut the lock. Only the prints of their return.” She gave Naggin a brief nod, “The hunter there agrees with my general impression that it was likely a mustelid. Mink, ferret, skunk or the like, but it’s damned difficult to tell with animorphs. Could even be a civet cat judging by musk alone. Female, about one ten, one twenty, knew where she was going.”
“Print pattern make me think that she were sleepwalking, tho’.”
Looking over Murikeer’s shoulder, Rick turned slightly and looked at the human, “Sleepwalking?”
“Yea. Bumped into stuff rather than ‘round it, like barrels an’ th’ corners o’ buildings. She ‘bout fell over three ‘r four times.”
Standing, Muri finally turned his attention toward the conversation, “Not drunk?”
Naggin and Ranna both shook their heads, “No a whisker in ‘er scent that suggest she been into ‘er cups in days.” The human shrugged, “We can run th’ dogs in th’ mornin’ an see if they pick up ‘er scent again, but no way to know they getting’ the right trail without sommat to get ‘er scent. Th’ ground isn’t good enough.”
Rick chuffed, “If we had a scent rag we wouldn’t need the dogs unless she ran.” He waved his hand toward the door which thudded woodenly then swung outward. The dogs leapt to their feet, hackles raised as they growled at the unexpected noise. “Anything particular that stands out in the courtyard?”
Ranna settled her dogs with a single flick of one hand, “Nothing better in there than out here. Not enough clean scent to fix the dogs on, not even any prints. She walked only on the stone once she got in the door here.”
Stepping up to the door, Rick scrutinized it from lintel to jamb, “What the hell is a door doing here in the first place?”
Ranna laughed, “Refuse removal. Let me show you something.” Despite her canine muzzle, her voice was smooth with a gentle growl to it that made Muri imagine that she was a singer or some other vocal artist. He wondered curiously what aristocratic family was missing their daughter as he followed Rick through the door. Naggin remained outside, leaning against the fence as he scratched one of the dogs between its ears.
The door opened into a short corridor just wide enough for a handcart, which was propped up against the wall to one side. A dozen paces long, the corridor opened into a large shed cluttered with tools, one half of a double leaf door standing open into a darkened courtyard. No torches flickered in the darkness, nor did any casements break the stark, unrelieved lines of the courtyard walls. Though not neglected, judging by the plants, there did not seem to be a great deal of care lavished upon the relatively small space. Two fountains were nestled in opposite corners of the court and three raised beds sported overgrown flowering plants and unkempt topiaries. At the far end of the courtyard a stairway ascended the back wall, following the outside wall up and around, finally ending at the top of the wall above the shed they had just stepped out of.
“No way for anyone to cart their trash up those stairs, or get anything much bigger than seedlings down.” The collie said as she pointed toward the top of the stair.
Rick nodded slowly as he leaned back and looked up at the parapet along the top of the wall, “Well, this being a part of the Keep, gods only know which entrances and exits it’ll have one minute to the next. Maybe one of the guards may have seen someone come out of here.”
“Powerful and dark magic shielded them from sight.” A new voice supplied, quiet and grave, a feminine voice full of frustration that came from the shadows. The speaker revealed herself as she spoke, stepping from a shadowed corner of the courtyard into a hazy pool of moonlight as the trio spun about in surprise. Rick hissed a curse, half drawing his sword as Muri brought up one hand to throw forth a spell. Ranna’s lips drew up in a very canine snarl as two slender blades appeared in her furry hands. Muri was the first to relax as he identified the speaker, Rick almost as swiftly, his sword clicking softly as he let it fall back into its scabbard. Ranna looked from raccoon to skunk, then back at the woman addressing them before relaxing as well.
Murikeer bowed deeply with a solemn sweep of one arm, “Milady Kyia, your news is disheartening. What fearsome thing is this that brings you to us?”
Ranna’s eyebrows shot up and her ears pricked in sudden surprise as she mouthed the name, eyes wide with sudden realization. Rick said nothing as he offered a brief bow of respect as well, surprised as well to come face to face with the spirit of Metamor so unexpectedly.
“My dear child, there is a beast hiding within dark magic that I cannot see. When it wakens I sense that it is hunting something, but I know not what. All I am able to accomplish is to see the hunter beyond my walls.” The slender, ageless woman whispered with grave solemnity, “But I cannot banish it for long, it always returns. Too late I sense its presence, but again it is gone before I can find the hunter. Great magic shields it from me.”
“Lovely.” Rick muttered as Muri frowned, chewing the inside of his lip, whiskers folded back along his muzzle.
“You have not seen this hunter, milady?” Muri hazarded after a moment. Kyia shook her head slowly in regret.
“I sense the great malignancy of it, but the very magic that reveals that evil to me prevents me from more than feeling it.”
“When you first sense this hunter you seek to remove it. How long does that take?” Rick asked quietly, rubbing his jaw as he stared at the floor for a moment, thinking.
“As short a span of time as I can manage.”
“Can you bring it to us?”
“Its presence is too nebulous, I can not pinpoint it closely enough to do more than expunge it when it reveals itself.”
“Warn us if it surfaces again, then. It will remain hidden for the night. I suggest we get some rest and be ready tomorrow evening.” The raccoon growled irritably as he ran both hands over his head, pushing his ears flat for a moment as he looked around the courtyard again. His gaze finally came back to settle upon Kyia as he dropped his hands from his head. Clasping them before his chest, he bowed formally, “Milady, your presence is an honor, your assistance a blessing, you have our thanks.” He intoned gravely as Muri matched his bow. After a moment’s hesitation Ranna curtsied with equal formality, her tail tucked.
The chapel bell had not yet rung the first hour of the day by the time Muri returned to his chambers, but he did not imagine that the hour was not far off. He was half way across the front room before realizing that he was not alone, but that realization did not particularly alarm him. The lingering scent of jasmine and lavender soap was distinct under the normal scents he had long come to associate with ‘home’; the heavy mustiness of books and scrolls, the pungent earthy scents of preserved specimens and old leather, wood oil and stone, overlain with his own lingering musk. While the soap was passingly common in Metamor, the scent of the user was less generic.
Llyn’s scent was quite subtle under the soap, but he felt calmed to be able to at least identify it after the irresolvable mishmash of scents he had been assailed with the previous couple of hours.
He draped his shirt over the back of a chair as he crossed the room, letting the witchlight that had been trailing him for the past hour fade to a soft glow little brighter than a pair of candles. The door to his bedchamber stood open, as he had left it, the room beyond dimly lit by the glow from the small hearth. Llyn, lying upon her stomach, was draped across his bed as if someone had dumped her corpse there, one leg hanging off the side. She had dragged the chair from his desk to the head of his bed and piled her training leathers over it in a reckless heap. Only her sword had been placed with some care, propped up against the side of the bed and headboard where it was within easy reach, the scabbard ties loose.
Tangled in bedcovers wrought into a heap by the tossing of troubled sleep, she was wearing nothing more than the blue silk shirt that Muri himself had been using the day before, the fabric rumpled up about her torso. The sight of her tortured sleep made Muri shake his head in pity as he crossed to the bed. Sitting lightly on the edge, he leaned over and slid his hand softly up to the back of her neck, letting the tips of his claws trace the back of her jaw line gently.
Though he half expected it, the resulting reaction was still disturbing. She reached for her sword, a swift snap of one arm even as he leaned up to block her reach with his hand. “Llyn, it’s me, Murikeer.” He said reassuringly as she rolled up onto her side. Dark eyes blinked in the dim light as she peered at him, the expression of fatigue on her face as alarming to him as the reaction to his touch.
“Mur?” she asked sleepily, the tension of her startled awakening relaxing as she stretched languidly, cat-like, her fur rising in a rich, mahogany brown wave that traveled from her shoulders, down her spine, out toward the tip of her tail. Waking more fully, she propped herself up on one elbow as she stroked his outstretched arm with her free hand, “I came by to… to apologize for how I spoke to you earlier.” She sighed, frowning as she drew his hand up and nuzzled her cheek into his palm. “I’ve been feeling terribly fatigued the past couple of weeks, I did not mean to take my anger out on you.”
“What has been eating at you, darling?” Muri asked softly, stroking the pad of his thumb along one side of her muzzle lightly.
“I don’t know.” She sighed, “I feel as if I haven’t been sleeping, but I do, every night. Eight, ten, twelve hours or more but I always wake up feeling just as tired as if I had not slept at all.”
“What about earlier today?” he asked with a gentle smile, leaning down to replace the touch of his fingers with a brushing caress of his whiskers and the fur of his cheek. Llyn smiled as well, reaching up to work her fingers into the thicker fur of his neck.
“Tired I might be, Mur, but it… it is more a thing of emotions and spirit, not of body.” She said as she struggled into a semi-sitting position and worked at the tangled bedcovers. Looking up at him, she smiled warmly, “I don’t know what came over me this morning, but I do not regret it.”
Muri chuffed a laugh as he helped her untangle herself, “Nor do I, dear, it was not unpleasant. Unexpected, yes, unpleasant, no.” his hands slowed as he frowned slightly, chewing the inside of his lower lip. “It’s not something unfamiliar to you though, is it? Such intimacies.”
She looked up, meeting his eyes as she placed her hands over his own, her gaze earnest, “No, Mur, it is not unfamiliar to me. I’ve bedded many males since my change.” She sat up fully, drawing his hands together between her own.
“So that makes me your latest ‘male of the moment’?” he asked, gently, trying very hard to keep the hurt he felt out of his voice.
“Male of the moment? Who said such a thing, Mur?” she gaped, jaw hanging.
“A fox named Nahum.”
Llyn hissed and closed her eyes, dropping her chin down upon his hands as she sighed, “That fox, a jealous little fop. I broke his fingers.”
“Because he was trying to woo away your male of the moment, that Dream fellow?”
“Because of my own jealously, dear. Dream, he’s a flirt, he does not care much the gender of those whom he beds. It was Dream playing at the fox, but I did not see that until it was too late.” She did not look up at Muri, resting her chin upon his hands which she held between her own. “Dream, Laura and Arla pulled me off before I did any more than break his fingers.”
“Dream is your fallback toy?” Muri asked, feeling coldness touching at the edges of his voice and trying to curtail it, “He’ll be there once I’m gone away?”
“No!” Llyn rasped abruptly, clutching at his hands, drawing him closer perforce as she shook her head vehemently, “No, no, not at all, Mur.” She met his gaze, holding it as she spoke, “You’re different, Mur, I mean that. You saved my life. For two months, months, we were together night and day and there was nothing more between us than a vest and our packs. I thought I would have taken advantage of that situation, because you are a very handsome person, Mur, but I did not. Nor did you. For two months I watched you, I listened to you, I slept in your arms and felt secure without needing the intimacy we could have had.” She kissed the backs of his thumbs, “Have since had, pleasantly.”
“And Dream? You’ve always gone back to him.”
“Dream… he’s… different. I’ve enjoyed his bed, but I don’t love him. Not love in a way like you.” She fell silent for a minute. “He’s a friend, and an intimate, but nothing more than a friend. He also has something special about him, something I can only say is… something of a healing gift.”
“He’s a healer?”
“I guess, I think, I don’t know. Whenever I’ve been with him I feel that he’s taken something from me, something I did not know I had but felt liberated to have lost. Sorrow, for one I know, he can banish so that the pain of it is lessened. There are other things he does, but it’s not something I can put into words.” Releasing one of Muri’s hands, she reached up and stroked the ruff along one side of his jaw. “He heals the spirit.” Shifting up onto her knees on the bed, she leaned close and grasped his shoulders, “He heals the spirit, Mur, but you’re the one I feel makes he whole. That’s nothing anyone before you has ever come close to accomplishing.” She explained, her voice gentle yet firm, holding his gaze with her own as if to read his spirit through his eyes.
He slid his hands down from her shoulders to either side of her chest, feeling the crush of her fur under the sheer fabric of his silk shirt she wore, “You should go to him.”
Llyn blinked, once in confusion, then a second time in surprise as the import of his statement settled, “To Dream?”
Murikeer nodded, “Yes. This listlessness that’s plagued you, he might be able to help you with if any of the other healers here cannot.”
“Coe said there was nothing wrong with me physically. I’m not with child, either, which concerned me for a time when I first began feeling this way.”
“Concerned you?” Muri chuffed, smiling slightly as he ran his hands back up to her shoulders.
“Not badly, Mur. Just how it would change my life, for better and worse.” She settled back onto her heels, dropping her hands to straighten the shirt. “But, Mur, Dream’s healing only comes about intimately.”
“What matters is your healing, dear.” Muri said, cupping her face in his hands as he leaned close, placing a light kiss upon her nose. Smiling, he slipped his hands around her and drew her close into a hug, “I know where your love is, darling. If you think Dream can heal you, please go to him.”
Reaching up, she drew his arms down until his hands settled upon her backside, leaning close and raising her lips to his, “I don’t need to go anywhere right now, Mur. Your touch heals too, you know.” She said with a throaty, soft growl as she slid her hands around to the small of his back, digging her fingers into his fur and drawing herself close against his body. “That’s why I got so angry when I saw you with that mousey little bookworm.”
Slipping his hands under the hem of the shirt she wore, Muri traced the edges of his index fingers along the underside of her tail at the root, “Kayla? She has eyes only for my instructor.”
Cooing pleasantly, Llyn smiled and tweaked his tail, “Don’t fool yourself, Mur, you’re a hell of a good looking man.”
Rescartes glanced up from the tome before him, a frown curling one corner of his mouth at the intrusion. Across the chamber, no further inside the door than it took to get the mage’s attention, stood one of his many apprentices. Though he had yet to see his third decade the young man had a great deal of potential and ambition. Rescartes knew he would have to watch him closely lest he earn a blade between his ribs the moment he ever lowered his guard.
“Sire, I have been told that the Master wishes to speak within the hour.” The man said, his voice devoid of any inflection that would reveal just what he thought about the information he had just conferred. “I have prepared the mirror pool for your use and made the antechamber ready.”
“Very good, Vaeul. Inform the Master’s servant that I will be prepared within another fifteen marks.” Rescartes said as he looked back to his work, waving a dismissive hand toward his student. Vaeul bowed deeply, his blue robes sweeping about his feet as he turned and strode out the door.
The Master. What a travesty that was, Rescartes thought, shaking his head as he closed the tome with a disgusted snarl. He was an upstart lackey for the machinations of the gods with less power at his beck than many of Rescartes’ past students. Not that any of those students still lived, having invariably believed themselves capable of crossing their master once their strength was great enough. Vaeul would one day test him, the mage knew, and might very well perish for his efforts.
Or become a puppet under Rescartes’ power once he learned his place.
At least Vaeul was not the thrall of some petty god as their shared Master was. Even as Rescartes himself was, though Lilith asked very little of him beyond the procurement of the spirits she demanded. What she did demand of him, however, left a cold knot of ire deep within his heart that he could not banish, a hatred that went deeper than his faith to the tenants of her worship. His ambition was forestalled by her demand that he serve a minion of Ba’al, a mage with little more than a century of experience to his name. Rescartes had six centuries and more, and a great deal more ability, power, and strength of allegiances than his Master had gained since his ascendancy.
A negligent flick of one hand made the ancient tome vanish with a quiet hiss of displaced air as he stood. Tying his robes about his stomach, he strode from the study.
The corridors of Lik Keep were lushly appointed, the cold granite floors carpeted with ancient tapestries seized from southern kingdoms long lost to all but tomes of history. Hand poured glass, forged in foundries from rare materials mined from directly below the roots of the keep, filled every casement. The light of the morning sun cast brilliant spears of brightness across the hallway as he walked past statues and other ancient artifacts, prizes from his many centuries of labor. Servants, all human, worked with great care and carefully fostered pride to keep everything looking as new as the day it was created. Few were actually preserved with magic unless their nature was too fragile, such as flower petal or ice sculptures.
In centuries past he had also taken equal pride in the acquisitions of his work, the kingdoms he raised and toppled, and the material wealth that came from meddling with mortal affairs. Yet he now found himself with nearly limitless wealth and no enjoyment from it. The gem mines of Lik, the glass foundries, even a tiny bit of mithril which turned up from time to time. He had the wealth of centuries, in both monetary, material, and magical strength, yet he could not spend, trade, or flex his magical might because he was curtailed with the need to satisfy his Master.
As well the need to lead his Master into believing Rescartes to be a great deal weaker than he truly was, lest the vain popinjay come to see him as a threat to his throne and attempt to eliminate him.
The door to the portal chamber was quite nondescript, no different than the door to the summoning hall, which he had passed a few moments previously, or from the artifact repair room just down the hall. To the servants the doors were no more than access portals to other rooms, many of which they were not allowed to enter. They all knew just which doors those were, as a mistake in entering the wrong room was quite often fatal and always terribly messy.
To the eyes of any mage, however, every door was distinct, the protective wards identifying each as clearly as a sign.
Attuned to Rescartes alone, the door opened as he stepped up to it, entering the room without breaking stride. For his apprentices there was a ritual involved each time they sought to open such doors, a letting of their own blood, and a great deal of risk should they incorrectly perform the ritual. The servants could not open this door at all, lest their very presence soil the carefully prepared perfection of the room.
The door closed as he stepped into the foyer, the bolt sliding home with a quiet, metallic click. Rescartes paused there, with the door at his back, and regarded the foyer for several moments. Vaeul had performed his rites well, the massive rune upon the floor and walls was drawn with precision and proper detail. Much of the rune was a permanent construct; inlaid mosaic tile of precious stones and rare materials, left incomplete in key areas. His apprentice had filled the correct key lines perfectly, and Rescartes was pleased to see that there were no attempts to alter the rune in a manner which would have allowed the maker to listen to what it was intended to mask.
Perhaps Vaeul did know his place after all.
Beyond the foyer was the portal room itself, which was perhaps fifteen paces across, with three antechambers. One contained the materials needed to lay the privacy and shielding rune at the foyer as well as any other runeworks that might be needed. One was storage for small items that would eventually be sent through a portal. The one directly across the pool from the foyer was the speaking antechamber, which was used when there was no need to open a portal.
In the center of the room was a large pool ten paces across, which was filled with water so pure only the reflection it cast revealed that there was anything in the basin at all. A walkway extended from the facing curve into the center of the pool an inch below the undisturbed surface. When the portal was open the walkway served to grant access to and from the portal, as the basin was some four feet deep in the center. It was through this room that the Master most often arrived though there was a much larger portal chamber in a barn in the west bailey to send the items which were mined or produced anywhere in the barony of Lik.
Rescartes circled the pool to the speaking chamber and settled himself into the single heavy wooden chair in the center of the room, making himself comfortable in the deeply padded, velvet seat and crossing his feet upon the matching ottoman. Considering the nature of the chamber, Vaeul would have had to carry the chair himself, alone, which was quite an endeavor considering the chair weighed more than Rescartes did. Fingers steepled under his chin, he stretched his legs and waited.
He did not have to wait long.
A robed shape stepped from the deep shadows at the back of the antechamber, the misshapen, hapless creature’s body bent low as it shambled into view. Eyes, one the color of curdled milk, the other an empty black, regarded Rescartes in his chair for a few moments. The face of the beast may have once been human, but little of that past remained, replaced instead with a shoddy attempt at molding the limited structure of bone and flesh into the approximation of a tundra ox. The expression in that single-eyed black gaze was malevolent but not pained, revealing that this beast was one of the failures in the eyes of the Master. If there was no continual agony imparted with the wreckage his spells wrought upon the body, the Master was not satisfied with his work.
Which was why he held such malevolent anger toward their mutual foes living at Metamor Keep. The greatest spells available to the twenty seven mages capable of casting during the final hours of the Shattered Wall Siege were wildly successful beyond even Rescartes’ expectations, resulting in nearly perfect marriages of spell to counter spell in a terrible flurry of magical exercise. Where the Master’s initial desire was to create creatures as misshapen as the beast which Rescartes now regarded impassively, the result had been much less than his wont. Rescartes vision, when he cast his aspect of the trans species and trans chronos spells, was exactly what he had expected. Not surprising, as more than two thirds of the mages casting were his apprentices and knew the spell quite well. It was unfortunate that eleven of them perished in the casting as they attempted to alter the affect in the middle of casting to counter the hasty protective counter spells cast by the Metamor mages.
The Master had cast a spell, which was tenfold more powerful, and tenfold less refined than the aspect which Rescartes had control of, the sheer strength of which was needed to overcome the natural protections of the Keep. The upstart had a huge degree of potential and realized strength, Rescartes had to admit, which was likely why Ba’al had chosen him to be his servant. Unfortunately, he lacked the refinement that came with centuries of experience.
The misshapen creature turned and stepped back into the shadows and Rescartes steeled himself for the appearance of the Master. He had to be extremely careful in his speech and expression to keep out any degree of the contempt he felt toward the upstart.
The Master was a slender man as humans went, a neatly trimmed black beard accenting the line of his jaw with just enough graying at his temples to be attractive to females looking for a man with a mature appearance. Clean-shaven and looking little older than a man reaching his third decade, Rescartes believed that the older look was not by the Master’s design, rather in his inability to completely stop the touch of time upon his body as Rescartes had long ago mastered. For this meeting the Master was dressed causally, as such would be for a court dandy, in a maroon doublet, cloak, and kilt.
“Master.” Rescartes intoned as the man stepped from the shadows, bowing his head slightly but not rising from his chair.
“Rescartes, greetings.” The man said smoothly, “Your offerings from the mines and your foundries has continued to be impressive.” A lie, Rescartes knew that to be, for ever since the Lutins and trolls he had been using to work the mines had been summoned north early in the spring his mine output had been slowed to a crawl. Enough to support Lik and give enough to Nasojassa to keep them quiet, but little more.
“My humble appreciation for your regard, Master. I will endeavor to keep the miners producing as you desire.” He bowed his head again, hands splayed in a gesture of acceptance.
“Your Lutin tribes will be returning within the month. As will what troll bands as they still control. You will need to shut down the mines for the time being and prepare for the arrival for additional Lutin tribes and Giant clans, but you must keep them hidden from any southland observers.”
Rescartes could not prevent his eyebrows from arching in surprise at that news, his hands going to the arms of his chair as he leaned forward slightly, “I can do that, Master. Why the additional reserves, though? We are going to be hard pressed to prepare for the winter encampments as my support tribes have been in the north through the summer.”
“They will be arriving regardless, Inu. They will remain until The first week of December, so prepare for them.”
“December? Master, if I may inquire, I was informed that the attack was to have taken place during the latter part of the summer, by the harvest at the latest. It was on that knowledge that I laid in my winter stores. I have the resources available to support a prolonged siege, as you ordered in the spring two years ago.”
“Our enemies learned of the summer campaign and their assassins were able to counter the preparations of less capable commanders. I have heard no such reports from you, Rescartes, therefore I must understand that you are still prepared.”
“I am, Master, in supplies, but not housing for more than a handful of tribes and clans.”
“They are lutins, giants, trolls. You do not have to build anything, let them build their own.” The man said with a disgusted wave of one hand, “The details are in your portal chamber.”
“I shall be prepared, Master.” For a moment Rescartes thought he would reveal his inside source, but he said nothing.
“Very well. Your materials quota will not be curtailed, however. Put those extra tribes to work and use the clans to enlarge your holdings.”
The patrol master was not pleased at what he was hearing, nor was the black stallion seated in one of the heavily upholstered antique chairs in front of his desk. The two speakers giving their report were grave, the news they brought unpleasant. Indeed, it put a chill of ice through the heart of Duke Thomas as he contemplated the absolute panic that would race through the Keep, the town of Metamor within the walls, and Euper beyond, if knowledge of the foe was to leak out.
“You are certain, mage?” George growled dangerously, not at the raccoon seated in another chair with a cup of wine in one gray paw. Muri was seated on an ottoman nearby, elbows resting upon his knees, his hands draped loosely between his knees as his attention switched from speaker to speaker. Muri had a mug of wine as well, but had not paid much heed to it as the cool liquid caused the pewter mug to sweat onto the glass table upon which he’d set it. “This person, this animal-cursed female, was able to steal three souls with some gods cursed sword and just up and vanish without a trace?”
“That is what I said.” Rick grunted with a frown, his whiskers laying back against his muzzle as his ears laid back. Muri held up one hand, four fingers extended.
“Four then. How long have you known about this?” Thomas asked quietly, his fingers steepled under his chin as his ears twitched.
“Three days. The town watch sent for a mage, and I was the first one they found. I was unable to learn anything whatsoever the first night they brought the victims to my attention. Last evening we were able to learn what we faced, what they were using, and a general idea of where they came from. I am confident that we should be able to learn the identity of our soul thief within the next victim or two.”
“Soul thief?” George growled, his teeth gleaming as his muzzle drew into a disquieted snarl.
“Victim or two? You speak as if these people who have had their souls ripped from their bodies as if they were ewers that had lost their wine, Master Rickkter.” Thomas nickered disapprovingly, his muzzle drawn into a frown.
Rick merely shrugged, the length of his full tail twitching behind his chair, “You neglect to remember my past, Sire. I am indeed concerned for the lives of innocents, but I am not going to pull my fur out worrying about collateral targets. They will help us find our enemy.” Muri looked at him and frowned, but said nothing.
“For having known of this for only two days, two days longer than anyone else within Kyia’s walls, I have to say that you’ve accomplished enough to reassure me that you’ll wrap this up swiftly. I hope that we will be able to save the souls of those already lost?” Thomas said as he shifted in his seat, the stallion’s robes of state bunching under his knees.
“That I cannot say, sire.” Rick said slowly, shaking his head, “I will try everything within my power, but without knowing the weapon we face I cannot make any guarantees.”
“Of course. We need to keep this entire situation as quiet as possible, mages, George. I am sure you understand the gravity of this situation and the panic that will spread if it becomes common knowledge that this foe is loose unchecked within Metamor.” The Duke stood slowly, setting his empty glass on the table between his chair and Rick’s. “I will have the commander of Euper’s Night Watch summoned, and Metamor’s, and instruct them to keep this quiet as well, and give you, Master Rick, and your pupil whatever aid you require in capturing them.” He did not mention the scolding he was going to lay upon the Euper commander for not bringing it to his attention at the first occurrence. On that thought, he considered that healer Coe and possibly even Raven herself might know of the victims brought to the Keep, and had not yet informed him. As he strode from patrol master George’s chambers he made a mental note to have a page summon them as well.
As the chamber door slowly closed, Rick turned his attention back to the jackal behind the desk. He finished his wine, glancing at the glass in his hand as if curious at its emptiness, “Refill, Muri. George, I need to know of any magical weapons currently in use within Metamor. Specifically swords, that you have any knowledge of whatsoever.”
The jackal’s whiskers twitched as he rubbed his jaw, Rick’s student rising quietly to refill the raccoon’s glass from the bottle nestled in a cold sand pot near the end of the patrol master’s desk. “Well, I cannot say that I know of terribly many. Raven’s god-touched blade, whatever it’s name is. Misha, but that’s an axe. Your own, whatever you call it. Charles Matthias’ battle staff. I believe that the quartermaster has a few minor weapons with enchantments in his armoury, but they are not currently assigned or released to patrols.”
“My pickaxe.” Muri offered quietly as he worked the wine bottle back into the cold sand, then sat back in the chair recently vacated by the Duke, “Though its enchantments are primarily to keep the stone from shattering.”
Rick nodded as his lips twitched in thought, scratching at the fur just above the neckline of his shirt, “I believe that female of yours has a blade with some magic associated with it, right Muri?”
“Llyn? Not that I know of, why?”
“Unless she’s demon touched or a sorceress I would say that weapon she uses has some magic to it. She moved faster than mortally possible when we sparred the other day, and nearly skewered me.” He growled, his expression darkening as he lifted the end of his tail, “She took a bit of fur off when she missed, but I’m not sure if she was trying to miss or not.”
Muri’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, “She outmaneuvered you?”
“She disarmed me.” The raccoon hissed with some venom, frowning, “Some of the best warriors on any of a dozen battlefields never accomplished that.”
Muri chuffed, impressed, but shrugged, “I’ve never noticed a great deal of magic about the sword she has. I’ll look into it, though.”
“Kwaanza has one that she won during the summer festival. I don’t have a clue what it does, but she has it. I’ll ask her when she reports for duty this evening.” George commented, then took a bite from a piece of jerky. Chewing slowly, he regarded the two mages, “What do you two plan on doing once you find our thief of souls, as you called her?”
“Putting a stop to her.” Rick growled, “By any means necessary, and destroying whatever she’s using to commit her crimes.”
“Won’t that destroy the trapped souls?”
“Likely not.” Rick said as he shook his head, then sipped his wine. Muri leaned back in his seat, his tail draped around and over his lap, his own drink held in one hand. “If it is a soul drinker there will be some manner of binding enchantments that I will be able to penetrate. Once the bindings are broken, the souls will return to their mortal bodies immediately, if they still live, none the worse for wear.” He drained his class and set it on the table with a soft click, “If the weapon consumes a soul, however, the body will perish immediately, weather or not I release those bindings. It takes a remarkable amount of power to consume the raw energies of a soul, however, so we have some time.”
“Time before what?” the jackal asked with a soft growl, frowning.
“Before she finishes whatever task she has for herself, or her master’s.” Rick replied, his expression stony and hard.
“Meezil! You stinking little worm, get your arse over here!” Monnin barked across the courtyard, his expression urgent as he chanced a look down the broadway. A distant patrol had just turned a corner from the southern gate road. They would turn down an alley road, he knew, toward the warrens, in only a few more steps, but there was no sense in risking a deviation in their normal routine.
“Meezil Neeks, at your flavor!” came the soft, piping voice at Monnin’s elbow, startling him into looking back, to find the slim human standing beside him, an impish expression on his face. The wolf grunted and scowled at the age-regressed human, his muzzle lifting in a displeased sneer.
“Flavor my arse, Meezil, don’ be wasting yer magic!” the broad-shouldered timber-wolf growled as he poked the smaller human in the shoulder with one thick finger. Far from upset at the larger animal’s ire, the smaller human merely rocked on his heels and giggled softly, though quietly enough not to be heard beyond their shadowed alley.
“Not the flavor I was thinking about, mutt.” Meezil chuckled as he glanced out down the broadway, “Or should I talk to Larin about that?”
“She’d gut you, little man.” The wolf grunted as he leaned out and looked down the broadway above his smaller partner’s head. As the patrol turned down Strends Avenue the two scuttled from their shadowed shelter and trotted down the sidewalk.
“She’ll gut both of us if we don’t get the Cat’s Eye.” Meezil commented as they slipped from shadow to shadow, “And I didn’t use magic, fur butt, I just walked. Those ears of yours don’t pick much up if their aimed at the patrol.”
Monnin grunted and gave his partner a shove, “Let’s just get that damned bauble, little man. We can see what Larin has to say about it when we have her in private.” He laughed as they stepped down another alley, waiting for another patrol to pass. The increase in patrol activity had them concerned that their plot had been discovered, but it did not make sense to them. The owner of the Cat’s Eye would not be the kind to tell anyone if she thought that her possessions were in danger of being liberated. After all, she had stolen them first. The two ceased their playful bickering as they got closer to the halfway point in their journey, the outer bailey wall of the vaunted Metamor Keep itself.
It was not the Warrens, but it was good enough. The alley ended in a small plaza against the outer wall, the nearest buildings still empty after seven years. The war of the gates had been traumatic for all, leaving the weight of the Monster’s curse upon everyone and every thing that came into the kingdom. But it had been the most traumatic on the Kingdom, for the wages of war had been the lives of half her population. The two, alone and unnoticed, crossed the plaza to one of the buildings. By decree of a Duke who had passed on decades before either of the two thieves were born no building constructed within a hundred paces of the wall could be taller than half the height of the wall, which was sixty feet along this side. Even at thirty feet on the roof, that meant they had another thirty feet to climb just to reach the crenulations of the outer wall. Just beyond that was a watch tower, which connected to the keep proper by another wall.
Climbing from a second storey window, the two thieves silently stole their way onto the roof of the abandoned building and crept as close to the wall as they could. The parapet wall jutted out about eight feet from the top of the wall, creating a lip that was nigh impossible to ascend without climbing equipment, which Meezil carried draped over his shoulder. Looking up at that imposing obstacle, Monnin grunted, his tail swaying irritably behind him.
“I still think we shoulda went in the front gate afore she closed fer the night.” He growled in a gravelly whisper as he surveyed their path.
“With all this stepped up activity? Don’t be insane. The gate warders know who we are, and that we don’t live inside.” Meezil hissed as he squatted down on the roof and rummaged through a small leather bag he had brought with him. Fishing out several small items, he spread them on the roof at his feet.
“But we can visit the library, they can’t stop us from doing that… all we’d have to do is hide in the labyrinth.” The wolf muttered, his ears backing as he peered past Meezil at the yawning gulf between the building they perched upon and the neighboring structure, thinking of the rather painful fall which would result if he slipped or fell off the rope during his climb.
“Well, smart thinking, fur butt. Shall we go tell Larin about your stunning cognitive inspiration, or shall we finish this and get the Cat’s Eye before the old hag hides it?” the young looking human muttered as he drew the coil of rope from his shoulder, laying the heavy iron grapnel on the wood quietly. Sprinkling the dust of owl feathers he had purchased earlier in the day over the weighty iron, he whispered phases in the elder language of prophets and sages, his free hand describing intricate patters in the air over the grapnel.
Monnin said nothing in reply as he watched his partner’s labor pensively. Having been graced from birth with the advantage of prodigious strength, he had never been forced to hide in collegia to keep himself out of the hands of bullies. It was also to his advantage that he had been one of those bullies, though he liked to focus his feats of combat prowess and strength on other bullies. After some minutes Meezil sat back on his heels and brushed his hands off on the knees of his blackened breeches, “There, the won’t hear a thing now.” He said as he stood, picking up the grapnel and handing it to his much larger associate.
Stepping back carefully, Monnin alternated looking at the edges of the roof and the crenels above their heads. Though the guards did not carry torches to reveal their positions on the wall, they did not have any torches light along the inner wall either, so they would have to be very close to see the silent grapnel come up. At least, that was the idea. How it worked in actual practice they had yet to see. The wolf flicked the rope to bring up some slack, and gave the heavy weight of the iron grapnel a couple of slow spins before heaving it up toward the shadowed lip of the wall over their heads.
True to his skill, the grapnel disappeared between two crenels, the rope climbing through the sky in the wake of the heavy metal. Lurching, the rope swayed and danced, finally stilling with a good ten feet of slack remaining, which Meezil had his foot upon just in case the wolf had thrown the grapnel over the wall entirely. Drawing the rope back slowly, Monnin waited until he found some resistance, then tugged the rope firmly twice. Satisfied it was secure, he hefted his weight upon it and swung back to where Meezil waited.
The rope held nicely.
“Right. Wait’ll I get over the wall. You’ll know when it’s clear.” Meezil said as he grabbed the rope and began climbing. Monnin nodded soberly, all business once the risk of their job was at hand. As the age-regressed human climbed higher he grabbed the rope to hold it steady, leaning his weight on the free end, and watched his partner.
The climb was an easy one for Meezil, because he was light, and was not carrying much. He was well practiced at it as well, having lived for years in a nicely protected third floor loft through which the only access was by rope. His slight frame, even as a full adult, had left him painfully inept at defending himself from the predations of those less inclined to enlighten their minds than he. He ascended swiftly and stealthily, the items in his small pack carefully packaged for silence. He had to make the climb in as short a time as he could because the rope was not silenced as the grapnel was. The sound of its creaking was quite audible in the general silence of the night.
Sometimes he wishes he had become something more capable than a mere human at climbing… or anything for that matter. He envied Monnin his strength, fur, and inflaggable endurance. He envied Larin her beauty, flexibility, fur and even strength. Though she had always been beautiful, and seductive, she had gained a great deal to add that when she became a vixen. Not that she had been willing to admit that for nearly three years, however, feeling that she had indeed lost her humanity with the curse. It had taken the combined efforts of her childhood friends and a lot of love to pull her from the edge of complete and absolute despair.
He reached the top of the wall within minutes, slipping between the two massive stone crenels silently and resettling his items. Slipping forward, he popped his head out briefly to look both ways along the top of the wall. There were no guards within sight, which was a blessing. He could not even see any moving silhouettes along the connecting walls. Satisfied that all was clear, he slipped out and dropped to the walkway.
Unfortunately, he did not risk a torch or witchlight, not wanting to reveal himself, so he was suffering the same limitations that anyone patrolling the wall might. Due to that simple shortcoming he was unable to see the shadow slipping from the deeper shadows of the watchtower. Not sneaking, that silhouette, but unnoticed nonetheless, the shadow moved toward the young human. Polished steel gleamed in the moonlight as Meezil turned to grasp the rope, which brought him around enough to see the movement and glimmer.
With a startled yelp he jerked the rope as he moved back a step, but he was too close, his reaction too late. Metal flashed, hissing through the night air and cutting into his side even as he brought up his hand to hurl a defensive spell. Agony flared through him as the blade plunged through the light fabric of his clothing and into his flesh, stealing away his breath, his thought, his grasp of the magic, sending him spiraling into a void of frigid, absolute emptiness with a silent, wordless scream of horror.
Down below, Monnin watched as Meezil made it safely to the top of the wall. He waited quietly in the darkness for the telltale jerk of the rope, which came a few moments later. The rope groaned and creaked as he put his considerable weight upon it, but he was confident that it would hold. Hand over hand he carried himself up, the digitigrade configuration of his paws making it difficult for him to use his feet to aid his climb.
Half way to the top of the wall he heart a brief, startled cry, then a sharp yelp of pain, both uttered in Meezil’s unmistakable voice. The shriek that followed sent his hackles up as a sharp lance of ice raced up his spine, lending speed to his climb. He heard someone else on the top of the wall, but he could not hear the words that were said, but whomever it was he would soon make them regret whatever pain they had inflicted upon his partner.
Yet when he reached the top of the wall he found only Meezil’s limp form laying on the cold stone, blood welling through his shirt. His eyes, much keener in the night than the human’s, saw no one close, but he could smell another presence. Another animal morphed presence, but not any species he knew. He looked wildly up and down the walls, his gaze probing into the shadows of the tower doorway, but he saw nothing.
“Meezil?” he growled as he knelt over his fallen friend, brushing one massive paw lightly against the human’s cheek. The human did not stir, the cool touch of his flesh clammy to the wolf’s gentle touch. Hands quickly beginning to shake, his heart feeling suddenly five times smaller than it had been moments before, Monnin quickly examined his smaller companion, but he could only find the one wound in his side. “Oh, Eli, no. Meezil, wake up.” The wolf whined, his voice quavering at the thought of loosing his closest friend. Scooping up the limp form, he dropped all pretenses of secrecy and opened his muzzle to the night sky, “Help!” he howled, a shrill sound that echoed from the unyielding stone walls on all sides, “Someone, help us!”