Warding the Watchwoods

by Ryx

Gul was a hunter, and a mighty good hunter was he, uh huh.

In his own opinion, at any rate. Not that he had much of an opinion. Among his tribe he was considered stone-thick and slow. Yet he brought as much food to the tribe as any of the other hunters. He was even bigger than most, which for a giant meant he was amazingly large. These two traits kept him from becoming the butt of tribal abuse, though he was still not accepted to any of the tents put up by unclaimed females.

Gul did not have enough thought to care about the slights of his fellow tribesmen. He was seldom in any of the camps long enough, more a being of the forest than one of those who flees to the fire-circles of the camps each night, hoping to ward away the fearful creatures in the forest darkness.

In truth, he was a truly pitiful hunter, unable to bring down moving game with sling, spear, or bow. Instead he did a thing that, had they known, his fellow 'hunters' would have chastised him for. He was a trapper. Trapping was anathema to the tribes, for it reflected poorly on the skill and prowess of the hunter. Lutins trapped, Giants hunted, running prey into exhaustion before slaying it.

Lutins were small, sneaky, murderous creatures, and they knew traps well. A point which Gul learned early on in life after springing more than a few. Once he had extricated himself, he figured out how they were made, and began making them himself. It was a knack he had, despite his low intelligence, which soon allowed him to bring down anything from a lowly rabbit to the greatest of northland bears. He might not have the kind of intelligence commonly associated with 'smarts', but that did not mean he was stupid. Cunning, perhaps, was a more apt term for how his mind worked.

This day had been a poor one for him, all of his traps empty, save the one he was presently examining. Dangling some ten feet from the ground was his prey, a heavy, muscular forest buck, its head hanging to one side as it panted in exhaustion. Blood stained its forelegs, which were broken either from the triggering of the trap, or from the buck's attempts to escape. Gul grinned lopsidedly to himself as he moved closer, hefting his short spear, and poked the buck with the butt end of it.

Another of his enjoyments, besides making the best hunters of his tribe jealous at his ability to hunt by himself, was to torture the creatures he managed to capture in his slings, pits, and box traps. If they were still alive, as many of his traps tended to be lethal. The buck let out a bleat and struggled, setting the sling to swinging, as Gul grinned at it.

The buck was large, stretched out its rear hooves were only a mere couple of feet from the forest floor. Gul was reaching to grab one of those hind legs when the buck suddenly twisted most oddly, and pain seared the giant's face. Howling and rubbing at his eyes, Gul staggered back, dropping his spear. A mighty stench clouded his nose, the ghastly flavor made him nearly retch immediately, but the burning sting in his eyes pushed the first two sensations into the back of his mind. Then the buck was on his back, an impossibility, Gul would have thought, if he had the presence of mind to stop his screams and think.

A sudden, stabbing pain at his right temple and a flash of light were the last things that touched Gul's consciousness before the cold blackness of oblivion swam up and swallowed him whole.

Murikeer Khannas rode the toppling giant down, leaping lightly aside just before the hulk toppled heavily to the forest floor. He landed deftly to one side and looked at his handiwork grimly, shaking his head. The brute was frighteningly huge, nearly twelve feet tall, a fact which Muri had dreaded as it approached his position in the tree, hanging from the empty loop of the giant's sling. The illusion that he had used to mask his true appearance, and overly powerful odor, had worked well enough, and lucky aim had covered the giant's entire face with his acrid spray.

This was his... he had to pause, and ponder. Twentieth, or thereabouts? He had lost count. Their numbers were increasing in his wood, and he did not like that sign. Their hunters were reducing the wildlife with the hunger of their tribes. Foragers wreaked havoc through the forest with their need for resources; wood, stone, and flesh. What brought them down from their northern ranges Muri did not know. Nor did he know if this was a part of a pattern spanning years, for he was only a relative newcomer to the forest himself, having arrived two years past after a harrowing journey through the hostile lands to the south.

Murikeer searched the giant for items he could use, anything from bone buttons to speartips. Of buttons there was no sign, the giant had clad himself only in roughly cured furs. The giant had four spears, including the one he had dropped when Muri sprayed him, and two unattached heads. All were of pale chert, knapped to a fine edge by a skilled hand. Wrapping them carefully in a piece of tanned leather, Muri set them in a slowly growing pile of odds and ends. Sinew lacing, braided fur rope, some carved pieces of wood and antler that looked to be parts of triggering mechanisms. A polished, southland steel cooking pan, which was quite large for Muri's hand. Apparently the giant thought it made a better club than pan, for the bottom was bulged inward slightly.

Picking it up, Muri saw a face in the pan, not human. An animal's face, though a familiar one. Covered with a fine, black fur, bisected at the nose and chin by white stripes. Rounded black ears turned and twitched as he unconsciously maintained his guard. It was his face, twisted and contorted by the dents in the bottom of the pan, though still familiar to his eyes. Black eyes, now, rather than the blue he was born with.

The face of a skunk. Standing a mere five feet and a few inches, more humanoid than truly animal despite the thick monochromatic pelt that covered him densely. He had been told, when the change had first begun, that it was the result of powerful magics leveled against a huge castle to the south, where he had been as a child of ten years. His father, as much a woodsman as Muri was now, had not been near when the spells struck, and thus did not know the curse that had been afflicted upon his son. Like the Sathmore legend concerning the Spear of Damerkan, it hung over the young lad's head until he began to reach puberty, then struck.

By that time, though, Muri's father was dead, a victim of a lucky bandit's arrow.

Muri tossed the pan over to the heap of oddments with a sigh. He had grown used to his changed appearance, but not after some very difficult initial days. His mind tumbled over them, as it always did when he stopped to think on his life.

He had been the journeyman to a powerful, if secluded, Sathmoran mage by the name of Heiorn. A kindly spindle of a man with more energy than a host of seven-year old children, which allowed him to keep up with his various apprentices and the few who had progressed beyond their apprenticeships. He had been a friend to Muri's father, and took him in.

Muri had not precisely loved the old man, though saw him as a mentor and close friend, but never replacement to his father. He dutifully set himself to the tasks he was given, and learned the magics shown to him with easy speed, much to the delight of Heiorn, and envy of his other fellow apprentices.

Yet, soon after his ascension to the rank of journeyman, something odd had begun to claim him. His hair changed color, seemingly overnight, from pale brown to black, split by a stripe of white. This Muri was distressed about, but managed to hide with simple illusions. He told Heiorn, who had at first been mystified, but found out soon enough after speaking with one of his associates to the north that the young journeyman was going through the effects of a powerful spell used at the end of the last northern war.

The transformations leveled against Metamor at the closing days of the war some years in the past had touched Muri in his time there. It would progress, unstoppable as far as Heiorn was ever told, until Muri became an animal. In his case, it was immediately apparent, a skunk. No illusions could cover him for long, nor hide the growing, powerful musk that filled the air around him.

It took two months for the change to reach a point that was noticed by the wandering farmers and hunters that often came to Heiorn for magical aid. The words of Heiorn's odd, black and white furred 'pet' began to spread. It was soon taken up by superstitious locals, turning the benignly strange appearance of the skunk into something sinister.

Muri stood by the deceased giant's head, meeting the brown eyes which stared sighlessly up at him, the color gone cloudy in death. The giant would never know such fear and pain Muri had experienced in those days, knowing he was losing his humanity, and being utterly unable to prevent it. Not even the powerful wards that protected Heiorn's estates could halt it's course, merely slowing it a bit. No giant had ever faced the fear of losing their very identity in an undesired transformation. Sometimes Muri could envy them that, though each time it was less as he became more 'skunk' than 'human', though the core of what he had always been remained, deep within his heart. Only that prevented him from going over to his animal side utterly.

He grasped the handle of the pick buried deep in the giant's right temple and gave a harsh yank. Bone shifted and ground around the carved stone tip. With a brittle snap, the pick head broke in half. Muri cursed, his voice a harsh, animalistic burr much changed from the smooth tenor he had been graced with as a youth. He had never been a singer, but had been told he had the voice of one.

That had been lost as well. He cast the pick handle onto the heap with a disgusted snarl. It was going to take him an entire week to craft another, then bespell it with the minor magics that allowed him to split a giant's skull with a single blow.

Minor magics were all he escaped with, as a mob of townsfolk marched from nearby villages to demand that Muri be given over to a handful of Lightbringer clerics for 'cleansing'. Heiorn had called them 'Shadowbringers', decrying their sins against the many gods of their faith, and bade them to leave his estates before the powers of those very gods were brought to bear against their dark practices. For Muri, and the other apprentices, watching it had been a horrifying sight as Heiorn's wards repelled all attacks leveled against them by those said dark clerics. They spoke the names of no dark god, nor the gods of the light as they hurled their spells against Heiorn's wardings.

Only the whiplash of the old mage's own tongue named the gods of light as he raised his defenses, and never attacked in return.

On that next day, Heiorn gave Muri three tomes of knowledge and magic, a pouch heavy with gold and platinum royals, and enough food to see him through a week. Then bade him flee with all haste to Metamor Keep, where others affected by the transformation were gathered. Muri, his furred muzzle streaked with tears, fled as fast as his new legs would carry him. Within days he was set upon by hunters out for the bounty his pelt was promised to bring. Like an animal, not a man.

He had, at that time, still considered himself a true man, despite his outward appearance.

Now, standing over the stinking hulk of a giant lost somewhere in a great northern forest, he found that he still did, but he accepted his animal side. He ineededn his animal side, to survive the harshness of his forest home. It took him months to come to grips with the bestial nature he was forced to assume, fleeing by night, his newly sharpened vision enabling him to move through the darkness with confidence, leaving his persuers to stumble blindly in his wake.

He lived from bush to bush, tree to tree. Often escaping an arrow through the back by mere inches. His magic proved limited in altering his appearance to let him slip through the talon's of a hunters grasp. His powerful musk proved to be affective in thwarting the will of canines to track him, but they were not often needed. A human nose could track him easily enough when the wind was right, and no magic could hide that for long.

For nearly a year he fled, towns no longer offered succor, but fear. His instincts began to turn him away from any place touched by human hands, turning him away from the very keep his old mentor had bade him to seek.

He often wondered what would have happened had he actually made it to Metamor Keep. Probably nothing more than a breast full of arrows from the battlements, he imagined, if anything his experiences told him held true. Humans had no tolerance for those who no longer appeared human, no matter if their heart was still that of a man.

Muri had found a way over the mountains, a way that skirted the lands warded by the keep, though the path was a perilous one. His pursuers had finally fallen by the wayside, either turning back or perishing from various threats in the heights. Only his fur and what paltry magics he commanded kept Muri alive through the highest, coldest passes. In the end he had found this forest, nestled close to the flanks of the mountains like a kitten at its mother's side. And here he remained, leagues from any hint of man, even the darkly clad warriors of the northlands who were agents of the mage Nasoj. The mage that created the multitude of spells that were leveled against Metamor in the final days of his last bid to break into the southern lands. One of which caused the transformation which had ended Muri's life as a man.

For that Nasoj could never be forgiven, and Muri worked what little he could to thwart those endeavors he was able to witness. He caused forays into the peaks to loose their way, never finding any of the treacherous higher passes that might offer passage. He slew giants where he found them, though he did not know which served Nasoj and which did not.

Of the Lutins who were also said to serve Nasoj, Muri saw little. No more than one apprentice shaman who wandered by on occasion to trade magics with him. The fellow's name was Keletikt, and did not seem inclined to reveal to his clan where the skunk-mage was holed up.

Gathering up his new possessions, Muri struck out for that 'hole', covering his tracks unconsciously with short flicks of his lush, black and white tail. The dim gloom of the forest swiftly swallowed him as he strode through a thick stand of forest azalea with barely a rustle. Moments later the giant's corpse was found by a shrew, the first of the forest's cleaning crew.

Gul was a giant, and a mighty dead giant was he, uh huh.