Never Again a Man - Part VII

Dusk came whispering into Metamor. The long shadows stretched across the cobblestone avenues, the pinnacles of the Keep itself casting their own across the eastern edge of the valley. With each passing moment as those spectral hands stretched, fewer and fewer walked the streets. The lamplighters went about their duties of course, bringing some light back to the town, but it was only a ward against the coming darkness, the barest of defences against dusk itself.

One building, a large stables set on the western edge of town nearest to the Keep, was being watched from the many shadows about it. Misha and Jessica stood behind the next building over, accompanied by four men that George had selected. Madog was with them as well, sitting on his haunches, blue eyes intently curious. Across the street at one of the smaller taverns, George, Malisa and Thalberg shared a drink with four more guards. Rickkter leaned in the doorway, casually watching the stables, dressed in an ostlers brown tunic and breeches. Within the stable itself, the stamping and grunting of horses could be heard, and far above in the hayloft clung the bat Andwyn, listening to all that transpired below.

Across the empty courtyard between the Keep and the stables travelled a single woman and a horse. The woman was also dressed in stable clothes, though they had been kept clean. The horse bore only a halter upon its face, and was unshod. Jessica was the only one who could see minute details so far away, and she saw that the look in that horse’s eyes as it followed after the knight’s lead was total devotion. To think that the stallion was actually Duke Thomas made her wings flutter in agitation.

Peering at the threads of magic, Jessica could see strange bands of dark silver that laced around not only Thomas’s head, where the concentration was the strongest, but also all over his body. Those strange lines that she had never seen before upon any Keeper fed along the reins and around Dame Bryonoth’s arms, before they sunk into her chest, simply vanishing within. The hawk knew that those silver lines had to be the spell that the halter used, but she did not recognize the way that the magic moved. The bands seemed to stroke at Thomas’s aura, as if massaging his soul.

To Misha’s eyes, the scene was rather quaint. Merely a knight leading a horse through the Spring grasses. But he knew that it was far more insidious. He knew that the horse was the Duke, and it made his claws press against his paw pads in anger. To be an animal and to be treated as such was a horrific thought. He even considered Varnal, the mage who’d been trapped in a full fox form. At least he had the ability to speak, even if he had been kept cooped up in a cage at first. And Varnal had not voluntarily given up his humanity. Thomas seemed to be doing just that.

Rickkter couldn’t see Bryonoth as she led the horse that was the Duke across the yards until she was very near to the stable itself. When she came into view, he turned his head and nodded to the rest in his party. They all stood up, Thalberg paying the barkeep a bag of gold to make sure he never spoke of this, before pulling is cloak back up. It was considered extremely unusual for the Steward to leave the castle, so he had devised a cloak that would obscure all of his features, even that long crocodilian snout he bore. Of course, it meant that he would not be able to cross to the stable until after dark to avoid being seen, but he had insisted on being there.

Rickkter let out a heavy sigh as he watched Bryonoth lead the horse inside the stables. They would have to wait until after the twilight completely faded, but it would only be another ten minutes at most. If they needed any further haste, Andwyn would warn them with a shrill squeal.

“Be ready to move into position once I go inside,” Rickkter said in a low voice. George merely nodded his head and smiled, yellowed fangs glimmering behind his lips.

Toumoth was led into his stall by Bryonoth. It was the same stall that she had always put him in, so he now thought of it as his own. And shortly, it would be in fact.

Bryonoth gently undid the halter, slipping it free of his face. Toumoth blinked, his eyes alarmed. “Thou must be shod first,” Bryonoth cooed then, running her hand across his nostrils. He breathed in deeply of her scent, and felt calmed. Her eyes though did not greet him, but cast towards one side of the stables where the shadows collected. Toumoth looked as well, but saw nothing but darkness.

Bryonoth hung the halter upon a hook on the opposite side of the torch, letting it rest in quiet darkness. He remembered his dream, remembered the feel of those leather straps sinking into his flesh. He turned his head and tried to grab at the halter with his lips, but she quickly tapped his neck with her fingers. “Nay, my Toumoth. Thou must wait.”

Regretfully, Toumoth let his head hang over the door of his stall. A feed bag had been hung over it as always, and he began to eat, the first meal of the rest of his life. And as Bryonoth lifted up his hind hoof to smooth it out once again, all he could think was how delicious it truly was.

“What do you see?” Misha asked the hawk in a quiet voice. Behind him, Madog was nibbling at his flanks, as if he had an itch there. Misha could not imagine how a mechanical fox could suffer from an itch.

Jessica peered along the lines of magic as best she could. The fox’s voice was a distant echoing in her ears, but she understood it well enough. The stables themselves were unremarkable, though after so many visits, a bit of residual dark silver essence had been left behind. It was draped along one of the stalls like moss upon a mountainside. And even though the halter itself appeared to have bee removed, there was still some strange link between it and Thomas. Though the silver lines no longer coiled about him, they still touched his head, curling about his mind.

Of the halter itself, it seemed to be feeling at the air about it, touching the general murk that was the curse itself. The murk was the best she could describe it, and it discoloured everything in Metamor. At the three gates themselves, it was the strongest, a hard solid black like ink that had dried. But the further away you looked, it became indistinct, hazy, and then simply nonexistent. But the dark silver threads about the halter seemed to be toying in the murk, sliding it and moving through it.

Pulling back, she took a long slow breath. It was hard for her to keep her voice quiet, but she did her best. “Bryonoth took the halter off Duke Thomas. It is strange though. The halter seems to be able to magically move the curse.”

Misha blinked, as did several of the guards. “Move the curse?”

“I don’t know how better to describe it. But it’s attuned to it somehow,” Jessica looked back at the stables, and saw that the raccoon had left the tavern doorway and was now shambling his way across the street. Dusk had settled at last, the sky a deep blue, a few stars already twinkling above. The raccoon was lit only by the streetlamps, casting him in strange shadows. “Rickkter’s moving.”

Misha shifted the axe about on his back. He had no intent on actually using it, he hoped the mere sight of it would forestall any resistance. The sword buckled at his side would do well enough. “Once he’s in, we move,” Misha whispered over his shoulder to the four guards.

“We’re going in?” Madog asked suddenly.

Glancing back at the automaton, Misha nodded. A quick flash of memory, the sight of the statue of Duke Brian reduced to rubble, and the fox had to frown. “Don’t hurt either Bryonoth or Duke Thomas, understand?”

The automaton nodded, tail wagging as he rose to all fours. “Yes, Poppa!”

“Good. Get ready to move.” Misha cast his grey eyes across the alley and saw Rickkter reach the stable doors. Despite himself, he felt his heart pounding anxiously in his chest. Damn, why did it seem his tasks were never-ending?

Once Rickkter had slipped inside, George led his men out of the tavern. They moved quickly and quietly across the cobblestone street. The jackal put one ear to the stable door, listening to the soft voices within, while his four guards quickly took up their posts on either side of the door. Thalberg and Malisa crossed and stood a short distance behind him, both of them keeping their faces covered. The nearest lamp had fallen dark in Rickkter’s passage, a quiet little spell that Malisa had not even noticed.

George’s eyes narrowed as he heard the sound of hooves moving up the road. In the light he could see that it was an elk bearing a knightly surcoat. He recognised him as Sir Egland only a moment later. What was he doing here? The knight appeared perplexed at seeing so many guards about the stables as well in the dim shadows. He approached, and opened his mouth to speak, but George held up a claw before his muzzle, indicating silence.

Malisa eyed the elk curiously from beneath her cowl, but did not say anything. Thalberg was wrapped too tightly in his own robes to act, and so it was up to George. Crossing the few steps between them, George drew a conspiring arm about the knight and pulled him close. “Why are you here?” he asked in a soft whisper.

“I was going to speak with Dame Bryonoth,” Egland replied, his voice timorous. “What’s going on?”

George paused, and then nodded. “We may need your help to subdue Bryonoth. You will understand why shortly. Will you help?”

Egland’s face was shocked, his ears turning upwards, hazel eyes filling with sudden fear and determination. “What is she doing?” But George only tugged at him to near the doors once more. With a soft grunt, Egland nodded, his hooves stepping upon a bit of hay that had been strewn from the doorway. “I will help.”

The jackal placed his ear against the door once more, listening for Rickkter’s signal. “Be ready,” he whispered, voice tense. Egland dumbly nodded, looking to the two cloaked figures suspiciously.

The inside of the stables were dark, but Rickkter was accustomed to seeing in the dark. A single lamp had been lit and was hanging from one of the posts. Apart from a large number of horses the only occupant of the stables that he could see was Bryonoth. She stood up the moment he entered the stables, long dark hair flowing behind her back, hard eyes narrowing as she studied him. She was standing right behind another horse, whose face bore a striking similarity to Duke Thomas. Of course, it was Thomas, merely in a horse form. The Duke glanced up briefly at his entrance, and then returned to eating out of a feed bag.

It was all Rickkter could do to maintain his self-composure. A quick scan of the area with magic sight revealed that the halter hung from the post opposite the lamp, next to Thomas. Its veins of silver magic were weaving into the ambient nature of the curse itself. There was no doubt in his mind that it would always be a danger as long as it existed.

“Who art thee?” Bryonoth asked in a friendly manner, though her words were guarded.

“I’m just coming to look after my master’s horse,” Rickkter replied obsequiously, bowing his head low. His tail and muzzle had been covered in soot so that he was not so obviously a raccoon. And in the dark shadows of those stables, only a keen eye would know it was him.

Bryonoth’s gaze softened, and she patted one hand upon Thomas’s flanks. “I hath not seen thee before. Which horse is thy master’s?”

Rickkter made a show of glancing at the other horses in the stables as he stepped to very near the centre of the room. The musty scent of hay and horse manure filled the air. He’d smelled far worse though in his life, and had no trouble keeping his nose from wrinkling in distaste. “The Appaloosa,” he said, gesturing to a rather fine but old stallion at the far end of the stables. The horse belonged to Thalberg, though he’d ridden it but once since the curse made him an alligator, and that adventure had ended barely fifteen seconds later when the horse had thrown him into a puddle of mud.

There was a strange nervous tension to Bryonoth even so, as she briefly glanced down towards the speckled equine. “A lovely beast. Thy master dost care for it, though neglects it. I hath ne’er seen it ridden.”

“Aye,” Rickkter admitted, allowing regret to slip into his voice. He kept his gaze low, though his eyes were always looking about. And his steps took him closer and closer to the knight. “My master cannot ride anymore, but he still asks me to tend to the animal.”

And then, Rickkter felt a strange semblance take shape, though he could not define it. There was a sudden breeze that raised his hackles, his ears turning upwards in alarm, but he could not define it. The shadows that filled the room suddenly seemed very unwelcoming.

Bryonoth nodded, and stepped around the horse, gently hooking one arm underneath his head. “‘Tis Toumoth here.” Thomas’s head lifted from the feed bag, chocolate eyes looking to the knight curiously. “I wast about to shoe him.” She unlatched the gate to the stall, and a bit of her hair fell before her face, obscuring the sudden smile that lit there. “He dost greatly enjoy it.”

Rickkter frowned, but moved closer. “Might I see?”

Bryonoth’s smile widened, and she stepped aside, standing between Rickkter and the lantern, casting her face into even fuller gloom. “Of course thou mayest, Rickkter. Toumoth wilt not like that thee hast come to take him away.”

Rickkter felt a sudden jolt and clapped his paws tightly together. Thomas, his eyes filling with sudden alarm, reared and let out a loud whinny, forehooves waving dangerously close to the raccoon’s head. Rolling to one side, Rickkter tumbled through the hay, even as both sets of doors burst open and several other figures strode inwards, brandishing what weapons they had. Misha and Jessica came in through the back, the mechanical fox Madog at their heels. George jumped through the front, followed by an uncertain Sir Egland. Both Malisa and Thalberg came after, the great Steward tossing back his red hood to reveal himself, long snout surveying the scene in painful dismay.

“Your grace,” Thalberg called in a firm voice, staring straight at the horse. “It is time that you came back to us.”

The horse shook its head and reared again, whinnying in freakish despair. Misha, George, and Rickkter all advanced then upon Bryonoth who stood still before the post, the lamp at her back. In Rickkter’s paws he held his Sondeshike, a flick of the wrist extending it out to its full length. Sir Egland looked at the horse, and then back to his fellow knight, his muzzle agape. “Thomas?” he asked softly, looking at the horse, but the horse continued to rear and stamp outside of his stall, looking wild and frightened.

Toumoth truly hated them all just then. He hated Thalberg for always trying to interfere in his needs. He hated Rickkter for his subterfuge and simple indomitability. He hated Misha for helping them in their attempt to deny him what he wanted. He hated Jessica, George, Malisa and all the rest for going along with it too. He wanted nothing so much as to feel them fall beneath his hooves. He reared at them, neighing loudly and forcefully, wishing that they’d just stand still.

But they kept backing up from him, none of them looked eager to hurt him. In fact, neither Misha, Rickkter, nor George seemed to be paying much attention to him. Their gazes were focussed upon Bryonoth. Ah, just the thought of her made him long for her touch against his mane. But she stood before the lamp, her face obscured in its halo. If she would leap upon his back, they could ride away far from this place, to a land where none would ever know that he was anything but a horse, and she his rider. But she stood there, staring and muttering under her breath.

Toumoth felt an even greater urgency, knowing that each moment they delayed, his dreams were that much closer to being destroyed. What could she possibly be doing?

Misha held out one paw as his other held the sword tight. He advanced step by step towards Bryonoth, trying not to look at the brilliant nimbus that surrounded her. “Let him go, Bryonoth,” Misha said, his voice steady though tight. “We don’t want to harm you.”

“Ah, but I do,” Bryonoth said, but it was not her voice which reached their ears. Rather, her lips formed the words, the breath escaped her throat, but the sound came from a completely different direction and with a decidedly masculine tenor and inflection. Lowering her head slightly, gazing balefully at them through her brows, Bryonoth continued to speak in that strange, disembodied male voice as a brief thrum of wind echoed from a shadow shrouded corner of the stable, “I wish to harm you a great deal.” They were each struck by the utter malevolence in those words, and in the air about them. Befuddled, ears turned at her first displaced words, then heads turned toward the shadowed corner from whence the voice issued.

As Misha turned his gaze to see who was speaking, his ear flattened against his skull as Jessica let out a shriek of utter terror, her wings fluttering at her sides frantically. Standing just inside the shadows was a robed figure of medium build with dark black hair and rounded face. Upon his lips was a smile that sent a shivering jolt through Misha’s spine, and a lance of sudden memory that stabbed in his mind like a javelin. He was dressed in robes, black, with a single symbol upon the breast. It was of a red shield with an inscribed hand, palm facing outward in a staying gesture. And in that palm was a white sword.

All heads turned then to greet the stranger, who took a slow step out of the shadows, hands clasped before him, his grin a ruthless mocking jeer that betrayed no hint of fear at being outnumbered.

“It was you,” Misha said at last, dropping his sword to fetch Whisper. His whole body began to tremble, flesh twitching, bones aching. “You killed the Patriarch.”

Rickkter let loose a growl from beneath his throat, as Thalberg fell back behind them, tossing aside more of his confining robes, his yellow eyes narrowing. “So you are Zagrosek?” Rickkter asked only a moment after Misha had spoke. The raccoon’s grip upon the staff tightened.

The man nodded very slowly. “I am he who stands before you.”

George took a step forward, fanning out to the side, to give Misha and Rickkter room as well to face this foe. “You are going to die today.”

“I think not. You’ve forgotten something.” Zagrosek smiled very widely then. For a moment, Misha found that he could suddenly remember the drawing of this man that had been used at the trial of his fellow Long Charles. It was that same face, the very identity and soul of the Patriarch’s murderer there before him. He wanted nothing more than to rend that face with Whisper. Misha took a sure step forward then. He was not going to let this man escape yet again. At his side both Rickkter and George did as well, the jackal clutching a wicked long sword, the raccoon twirling the Sondeshike slowly in his paws.

“They art lovely beasts,” Bryonoth’s voice echoed from behind him then, and he felt a strange agony, a fire within his bones. Misha cried out then, as his fingers shrank before him, unable to hold Whisper any longer. The world began to swirl around him, the stable growing larger and larger. His grey eyes caught sight of Rickkter and George at his sides, and saw that they were shifting in agony as well, muzzles becoming more pronounced, fingers disappearing into paws, legs shrinking, torso’s reducing and filling out.

Behind him, he could hear that agonized squawking of a surprised hawk, the bellowing of an alligator, the bleating of a stag, the shrill cry of a bat, the moaning of a woman, and the triumphant neighing of a horse. Before him, Zagrosek towered overhead, smiling that malevolent grin.

Toumoth stopped rearing when the black clad stranger appeared in the room. His flesh trembled as if dislodging flies when he saw him, but the moment was fleeting. After all, he seemed to be helping, distracting the other Keepers from his Bryonoth. And then the knight’s face turned up, and she spoke, and the room was filled with the caterwauling of frightened animals.

The very air crackled with that strange power, and Toumoth watched as the Keeper’s all began as one to shift into their animal forms. Misha and the rest dropped their weapons, falling forward as their hands become proper paws, their girth decreasing dramatically. Jessica, who’d been standing at the back let out another squawk as she shrank down to the ground, wings beating at the air to hover for a moment. The knight Egland also pitched forward, though his mass increased, clothes tearing about his expanding form, until he was nearly as large as the horses in the stalls. Thalberg tried to support himself against one of the stalls, but his arms and legs shrank too quickly for him, and he landed with a whump on his belly, the folds of his red robe tearing in patches.

Only Malisa did not become a beast, but then she was the only one the curse had not graced with a half animal form. Instead, her very body became dramatically more feminine, and her eyes stole across to that triumphant stranger, clearly wanting him. Her knees buckled and she sank to them, pulling at her confining robes, trying to escape them. Toumoth snorted at seeing all of that, and looked to Bryonoth curiously. She smiled back to him, though her face was filled with concentration.

Staring past her, Toumoth saw that the black clad man had bent down and picked up the fallen Sondeshike in his left hand. He turned it over curiously, even as he gazed down at the raccoon that was struggling frantically and hissing unpleasantly. As Toumoth continued to stare, he could see that Rickkter was not yet a full raccoon. In fact, he was fighting whatever was changing him into that, as bits of him would suddenly shrink and then grow out again. Looking at the rest of the Keepers, he saw much the same thing. They were fighting Bryonoth.

And then, a horrid snarling bark came from the other end of the stables. Toumoth turned his head quickly to see the mechanical fox Madog bounding around the new animals towards the man in black. There was an unearthly ferocity in its eyes that made the horse whinny in fright, as did many of the other horses, all unnerved by the strange commotion in their stables. Toumoth danced upon his hooves a moment, moving near to Bryonoth for comfort.

Madog leapt past them though, and went straight for the stranger. Flicking his right wrist, a second Sondeshike sprouted into place, and the jeering smile was replaced by a concerted moue. Twirling both Sondeshikes in his hands, he created two spinning circles at the end of each of his arms. His body twisted around, those circles moving to protect every part of him as Madog snarled and moved lightning fast about him. Soon, both bodies were a blur of motion, the only sound the snapping of metallic jaws, the clanking of metal on metal, and the soft humming whirl of air.

Rickkter had never felt a pain quite like this. He had known many fires within his body during his days, the final illness that had forced him to choose between Metamor and death being just the most grievous. But the flame that scorched his bones now was still painful, as fighting against it caused the pain. As his body lost its human definition and became more truly the animal form, he did all he could to reclaim his human nature, but at every attempt, the flame would pierce through every bit of flesh he attempted to shift himself. And it availed him nothing each time.

When Zagrosek leaned down and plucked his Sondeshike up, an image of him leaping forward and sinking teeth into that hand flashed into his mind. It was so unbidden, so bestial, that it took him a moment to decide on doing just that. But by then it was too late, and the Sondeckis had the weapon at last in hand. In his distracted state, Rickkter knew a blow from that weapon would likely kill him now.

No, it was clear to him now that he could not resort to physical means to defend himself anymore. Instead, he was going to need magic to end this threat, a good fireball would be an excellent start. But as he gave up trying to fight to reclaim his form so that he could concentrate, shrinking until he was only a foot and a half long, he felt that fire shift from his bones into his mind, filling him with strange thoughts. There, beneath the hay, where that large woman stood, there was something rather shiny. He wanted to grab it.

Appalled at the very notion of it, Rickkter fought against that flame again in his own mind. If he took his will from it even for a moment, he might not have a will left. Gritting his teeth, he withdrew a few paces as Madog leapt at the Sondeckis, and the two began to whirl about one another.

The mechanical fox was an unexpected twist, Zagrosek had to admit. It had occurred to him that others would eventually discover the nature of the tryst that Duke Thomas had become involved in, even that they might realize it was the magic of the halter that was responsible. Perhaps they would have uncovered that he himself had some part to play in Bryonoth’s continued duplicity. And he had been ready to face them in battle should the halter’s other purpose not succeed as he’d hoped. But the automaton was not something he’d expected.

Spinning about, each Sondeshike moving quickly in each hand, he parried each sudden attack from the metal fox. It moved with a speed not found in normal animals – its savagery and unrelenting attacks beyond the endurance of most men as well. With each move it made, his staves swung to intercept, deflecting the blows that would surely tear him to pieces.

Zagrosek grunted as he began to spin about on his feet. His eyes began to no longer simply see what was before him, but take in all around him in one continuous moment. Madog was always between him and the Keepers though, jumping this way and that, snapping with jaws and trying to rake him with silvery claws. He could only barely feel the Sondeshikes as they moved through his fingers, spinning so fast that air gusts shot from each, disturbing the hay and spinning it up in the air around him like a small tornado.

But the fox simply kept coming, and Zagrosek kept those staves between himself and the metal beast.

Being a hawk gave Jessica phenomenally good eyesight. And even though waves of magic poured at her trying to flood her human senses with those of an animal, it was fortunate that one of a hawk’s few predilections is to stare. And so that she did, pouring all of her mind that she could, staring to follow the flow of magic that was assaulting her and her fellow Keepers. There was no point in trying to stare at Madog and Zagrosek, for they were a blur of silver and black with some hay mixed in.

Settling onto one of the unoccupied stall doors, Jessica stared. The fire from the spells agonized her, but she kept her eyes fixed upon the magic. And it was quite obvious as soon as she managed to pierce through reality’s veil what had caused them all to shift and was even then keeping them locked in an animal form. Those silver and black threads she had seen radiating form the halter earlier had expanded, latching onto each of them and enveloping them fully. All across her wings, chest, tail feathers, beak, and even over her head the tentacles grasped, pushing at her mind even to fill it with avian thoughts. Several times she had to resist the urge to rake her talons across the backs of the smaller Keepers.

Jessica pushed those thoughts from her mind. They invaded it forcefully, but she had to keep them at bay a little while longer. Her heart trembled as she could not help but wonder whether she’d ever be able to think rationally again if she let those animal thoughts gain any hold on her. Would any of her fellow Keeper’s be able to be men again after this, or was the villain that had slain her master Wessex too powerful? They were doing this to save Duke Thomas, but was there anything left to him to save – had he just become a simple horse as he even now appeared?

She wanted to cry at those terrible notions, but hawks don’t cry. It had been seven years since she had truly cried. What Nasoj had started seven years ago this black clad man was trying to finish. This man, who’d led Wessex to his death, was not going to win against her. No, Jessica was not going to let that happen. Anger stirred in her chest, and she let out a shrill cry. She was a predator after all. Perhaps she could rake his face with her talons, peck out his eyes. Yes, they would be a satisfying morsel.

And then she blinked, as the magical threads had begun to fade, her vision blurring. Jessica fought against it, her mind startled by the sudden ferocity of her thoughts. Chagrined, she realized that the halter’s threads were even more insidious than she had imagined. Would every train of thought turn back to the bestial? If she did not focus, she knew they would. Turning her eyes once more on the halter, she tried to follow the silver and black lines to the source of their power. Amidst all of the chaos though, it was difficult to discern what threads could be charging that device.

And then it struck her. Just before they’d all been struck by that terrible compulsion, before Zagrosek the slayer had stepped forth from Cimmerian shadow, Bryonoth had stepped in front of the only light that existed in the stables. And now, amidst only the dim illumination that the obscured lantern could provide they toiled as beasts, their voices a discord of yips, bleats, and bellows. The halter itself was in the shadow, a mere outline of power without her magic sight. What would happen if she were to cast a spell for light?

Jessica gripped the stall door harder with her talons, the wood splintering beneath them. She could no longer speak, so focussed instead on the strands of magic. Wessex had taught her how to tie them together to create simple effects, and this would be no different. The room was laden with many such strands, not all of which were covered in black and silver. She selected two blue strands, mere ambient magic that brought forth life. They were weak, but any illumination could only help. Jessica reached out for them, and then felt a sudden horror clutch at her. Eyes trailing back up, she saw that Bryonoth’s face had turned to her.

And then any thought of bringing light to the room came to a agonized halt as she felt her mind bombarded with image after image of the sun’s brilliance. When that finally passed, her whole body spasming slowly and weak, she yearned to chase down a mouse or squirrel. She was hungry.

It was cold. That was the premier thought upon Steward Thalberg’s mind. When in morphic form, he was only partially cold-blooded, but now that he’d had even that protection stripped away from him, the night air began to leech at his very body. He huddled under what was left of his thick robes, and they helped some, but it would not be enough. He needed a fire to lay by, or food in his belly.

And food was looking far more plentiful. His yellow eyes stared hungrily at the Keeper’s about him. Misha, George, and Rickkter were busy trying to stay out of the whirling paths of Madog and the Patriarch’s murderer. Egland was still standing before the doors, and was clearly the closest to the alligator, but those heavy elk hooves were enough to dissuade his appetite for the moment. Malisa was somewhere behind him as was Jessica, but he did not dare turn around to see where.

His eyes began to narrow as he lost body heat. So tired, so cold. He needed to eat, to get in the sun, to find warmth. Maybe something would crawl near his jaws. Maybe. He let them hang open just in case.

The first thing that Misha attempted after realizing that his morphic form was cut off to him was to attempt to become a foxtaur instead. Even that only elicited virulent flames coursing throughout his bones. It was an experience he could not describe, as if every bit of him were being squeezed until they burst. Somehow, he knew that there could only be two possible outcomes of forcing his change out of his animal form: he could either simply pass out from the pain, or his very body would dissolve as all the matter in him exploded in that fire.

Unhappily, he could only take solace in that Madog had asked to come. If not for the automaton, Zagrosek could have easily dispatched them in their current state. As it was, the black clad murderer was spinning so rapidly, the whine of it made his ears hurt. The brass ferrules on the ends of the Sondeshikes were a circle of fire that surrounded his hands as he spun those staves more quickly than any eye could follow. There was nothing more that Misha could hope to do against him that Madog was not already attempting.

Dancing back on his paws, he glanced about the rest of the stables. Malisa had propped herself against one of the stable doors, her entire body so strikingly feminine even a devout priest would have felt lust for her. Thomas himself was prancing and snorting next to Bryonoth, his eyes locked upon her expectantly. George and Rickkter were still at his sides, both trying to come to grips with their forced changes. Misha could not help but feel a sense of competition with them. He could smell the scent of mice amongst the overall pall of horseflesh. They would taste good, but he’d have to get them first.

No! Misha gritted his fangs and growled. Somehow, they were attempting to force animal thoughts onto his mind. They must have done the same to Thomas, albeit more slowly he realised, to make the Duke act this way. But how? Zagrosek had said that they’d forgotten something. Looking about the room, Misha asked himself what had been the one thing they’d forgotten? And then his grey eyes settled upon the mumbling form of Bryonoth, who had alone amongst the Keepers not been changed. His tail wagged.

With a yip, he bounded towards her, fangs ready to bite, to do anything that might distract her from her spell. It might be the only way they could be saved after all. But just as he was nearing her leg, for it was the only thing he could reach, there was a stomping of hooves, and a horrid snorting, and suddenly he had to duck to the side. Thomas had lunged forward, and was even now stamping after him with his massive hooves. Misha gave out a yip of surprise, and tried to dart back in again, but the Duke was fast too, stomping and champing, unwilling to let him get any closer.

Both Rickkter and George seemed to understand what he was doing, and were soon at his sides, trying to get past the stomping of hooves to distract Bryonoth as well. But Thomas was always there, eyes wild, and not afraid to hurt them. Misha had been prepared that he might have to strike his Duke, but how was he supposed to hurt a three hundred pound horse when he was not thirty pounds himself? <

Toumoth was furious. How dare they try to attack his Bryonoth! He stomped his hooves at the hateful little animals, trying to smash their heads in. He almost managed to knick the jackal’s tail there, and he clipped the raccoon’s side at one point, but otherwise, they always managed to dart out from beneath him. He snorted and stomped relentlessly though. Bryonoth’s presence at his side was a comfort, as were the softly murmured words she spoke. Ah, the scent of warm hay, thick aroma of other horses, and her sweet fragrance all filled his mind. As long as that was his future, he’d be content.

But the scents of other animals were there too, and he hated them. He stomped again, and his hoof brushed past the fox’s shoulder, resulting in a pained yip. That pleased Toumoth. Let them fall under his hooves. With a wrathful snort, he kept stomping at the ground and at them.

Malisa had never truly accepted the fact that she had become a woman. Most days it was just simply what she was, and nothing more. It no longer upset her to the extent that it once had, but she still had never considered finding a man to wed. The very thought of it disgusted her. So with the power of the curse itself pounding into her, making her crave nothing but sex with any man available, even the fire that boiled her blood could not compare to the agony of lusting after Zagrosek.

At first, when he’d simply been standing there, arms crossed before his chest, she could only think about how powerful and domineering he was, so unabashedly masculine. Her hands yearned to run across his chest, certain to find well-toned corded muscled beneath, skin thick with dark shocks of hair. Her mouth had watered, whole body tingling with sexual thrill as he bent over to retrieve the Sondeshike, watching as the robes curled around his legs and back. If only she’d been closer she could have thrown herself at the feet of that male deity.

And then Madog had come and the two of them had begun to spin about each other in a violent whirl. Malisa had at first found her eyes helplessly following around that paragon of masculinity, but she quickly lost sight of him. And it was losing sight of him that allowed the Prime Minister to regain some semblance of control over her thoughts.

Pulling herself back against the stall, her body still entirely too feminine for her taste, Malisa tried to turn her head to where Bryonoth stood chanting under her breath. But she still yearned to see Zagrosek, the only man left in the stables. Perhaps he would defeat Madog and stride to her, curl his arm about her waist and hoist her into the air. Perhaps he would simply press her down into the hay, his rough hands touching her smooth skin.

No! Malisa finally managed to close her eyes, tears streaming from them. She found that she could turn her head now that her eyes were closed. The clang of metal on metal and the whine of the Sondeshikes filled her ears. There was also the agitated sounds of frightened horses coming from the rest of the stables, but so far, none of the beasts had tried to break free of their stalls.

Opening her eyes at last, Malisa saw that she’d turned to watched the three warriors trying to snipe at Thomas’s legs. The fox, raccoon, and jackal were all dancing in and out from around Thomas’s long legs, while the Duke was stomping fiendishly at them. “Father, stop!” she cried, but the horse did not pay her any mind.

She tried to take a step forward then, but the moving of fabric against her body made her gasp in sudden excitement. Leaning back against the stall once more, Malisa did her best to fight the urge to touch herself or look at Zagrosek again. Damn the curses, was all that she could think.

Darting to one side, one of his legs stepping fully into the dark shadows that coagulated at one end of the stables, Zagrosek gritted his teeth tight. That latest snipe from Madog had nearly severed his fingers. Without both Sondeshikes he’d almost certainly be defeated by this automaton. The silver fox was quite erratic in his attacks, eschewing any patterns that the Sondecki could see. He’d attack from whatever angle seemed best at the time, and Zagrosek was forced to do nothing but defend and keep those staves spinning between him and the creature.

His knowledge of the automaton was slight. It had never been part of their plans, nor had they thought it might intervene. There were few things he ever reprimanded himself for, and not knowing more about Madog was now one of them. Simply striking him with the ends of his Sondeshike did not even seem to dent his armoured hide. There was no doubt in Zagrosek’s mind that he was going to need to try something else.

And so he stepped into the shadow, feeling the power within it, a strange nebulous penumbra for something much deeper. There amidst the shadow, he found his flame. It began to spread across the spinning Sondeshikes. No longer were they brilliant discs scintillating the meagre light. Now they appeared much like a solar eclipse, the corona a sullen, smoldering red. Zagrosek pressed them against Madog’s next attack, but the automaton skipped aside, as if assessing the new danger uncertainly.

Zagrosek grinned then, and swung out with his left arm towards the creature, his right coming up to protect the exposed middle. And then his ears tugged at his head, eyes following after, as the voice of Bryonoth shouted in utter terror, “No!” The knight’s concentration somehow broken, the animals harassing the Duke’s legs began to become manlike once more.

But that was all the Sondecki had time to note before an agonizing pain sheared in his left arm.

Sir Egland was still stunned to find that he could not resume his normal morphic form, but was trapped in the massive shape of an elk. His antlers had even seemed to grow some, for they weighed more heavily upon his brow than before. But after a few agonizing attempts to reclaim his humanity, and fighting off the urge to flick up his tail and flee the shrieking chaos of the terribly confining building, he began to note what the others in the room were doing.

Rickkter, Misha, and George were all trying to snap and claw at Bryonoth, but the horse that must have been Duke Thomas continued to stomp at them and keep them at bay. Malisa bore the countenance of a whore who has not had any business in months and was willing to take any customer now. Thalberg lay still in the ruined pile of his robes, unable even to move but for the blinking of tired yellow eyes. Jessica was perched upon one of the stall doors, golden eyes watching the three warriors hungrily.

And Madog and the black clad man continued to spin. Just that one sight of him had made his whole body tremble in a way he could not comprehend. Sir Egland’s mind went back to a time when he’d been human, his steed Galadan had been knocked to one side, rolling over and crushing his legs. And that same man had been busy slaughtering all of his old friends with unaccountable ease.

Egland had wanted nothing more than to charge and sink his sword in that man’s gullet, but judging by the way he managed to keep Madog at bay, the knight knew he would have been felled easily. But surely, all of them together could defeat this foe. Here assembled were the greatest warriors that Metamor had to offer, as well as several very talented mages. Together, this Zagrosek would not stand a chance. But they had to be able to take their morphic forms first, and that meant that Bryonoth had to be stopped.

However, no matter how much those three continued to snap at Thomas’s flanks, or even try to get around to Bryonoth, the Steppe born knight continued her low chanting. She was not worried about what those three could do to her in their present state. But there had to be something that would worry her.

Fighting down the urge to chew upon the hay, Sir Egland cast a glance about the stables curiously, noting his own steed towards the far end prancing in agitation. Galadan was a wonderful horse, a stallion with firm heart and undying loyalty. He felt the same way about his steed in fact.

Egland’s heart skipped a beat then, and his eyes continued to turn, and there before him was the answer. Quickly trotting through the stable, he reared and waved those cloven hooves at another horse, this one locked within his stall, a fiery roan that accepted no challenge. The roan reared back, and then Egland dropped his hooves down on the stall door, the wooden planks splintering under the force of his weight. He lowered his head so that the antlers would be aimed at the exposed underside of the stallion.

“No!” Bryonoth shouted just then, and Egland felt the fire that had clogged his bones disappeared entirely. Before Povunoth’s massive hooves came crashing down upon his shoulders, or before his own antlers should pierce the stallion’s neck, he shrank back into his morphic form, collapsing upon the ground before the stall. Povunoth, confused by his challenger’s sudden disappearance, began to quiet.

Sir Egland turned his head and jumped back to his hind hooves quickly, watching as Bryonoth shoved past the horse that was Thomas to rescue his steed. The halter, once cast into shadow, was suddenly struck by a few shafts of light. Not many, but enough to dimly illuminate it. Rickkter, Misha and George all rose up next to Thomas, their heads all turning about to follow Bryonoth, wondering what could have happened to distract him.

Sir Egland’s gaze kept turning though, and there was Zagrosek, his own attention drawn away from the automaton for but a moment. And then Madog leapt up between those spinning discs of black, moving so fast that Egland was surprised he could even follow it. Metal teeth sunk deep into the black clad man’s left arm, and the limb spun away, propelled by the momentum of the staff. Zagrosek cried out, the Sondeshike in his other arm moving quickly to intercept Madog.

Madog tried to leap away from him then, but was also too late. The blade, searing with that black fire, caught Madog’s underside, and the automaton let out a surprised yelp, even as his body was sent hurtling through the air, a shrieking squeal erupting as the metal was burned. Egland could not help but follow the automaton’s trajectory, seeing that a huge gash had been rent completely through Madog’s underside. Where the edges of that gap touched the hay they turned to cinders. Madog tried to get up, but the blow must have damaged something on the inside as well, for neither of the hind legs would move.

Turning back to Zagrosek, who was steadying himself, no longer spinning his dark staff but examining his wound with a look of surprise, Sir Egland reached down to where his sword had fallen, and picked it up once more. His muzzle pulled tight, eyes filled with nothing but determination and death. Now, they could finally avenge the Patriarch.

Bryonoth had pushed past the startled Thomas to rush to the roan stallion’s aid. Misha noted that, and then noted Madog attempting to rise to all fours, and failing. His heart was stricken then, anger rising anew within it. Anger tinged with fear. Any blow that could injure the automaton was not one he could suffer himself and live. And then his gaze returned once more to Zagrosek.

“Now you’re going to die,” Misha said coldly, the black haft of Whisper finding itself between his paws. He gripped it tightly, the metal shivering in anticipation. At his side he could dimly see Rickkter and George as well as Sir Egland. Before him Zagrosek moved the stump of his left arm a few times, the jagged edges where Madog had shorn it dripping blood that seemed to sizzle as it struck the shadows he stood in. And then the black clad man gripped the Sondeshike in his right arm tightly, that malevolent smile crossing his features.

“Get used to disappointment.” The mocking words only enraged Misha further. He could hear Rickkter snarl at his side, and George growled under his breath, a very canine sound. But Zagrosek kept that smile upon his face as he surveyed them, the Sondeshike held before him. The black flame that had clung to it was still there, growing in intensity and Misha could feel the tips of his fur crinkle as he took a cautious step forward.

And then Zagrosek’s legs moved, bending down and then springing up just as fast as he’d spun before. Turning over through the air, Zagrosek landed several paces backwards, fully immersed in the shadow. As soon as his feet his the ground, he began to dash around them, spinning his Sondeshike, the black flame searing them as he slipped past. George had to duck aside as the staff nearly went through his head.

Rickkter turned as Zagrosek went past, ducked low, and then spat out a single word, a ball of flame erupting from his paws and singing the hay as it moved low across the ground. And it would have struck Zagrosek too just as he passed in front of the light, except that he never did. Instead, the black clad man seemed to run through the shadows, leaping from one to the next as if the pools of feeble light simply didn’t exist. He blinked in and out of their eyes, the sharp staccato of air rushing in where he once stood with a sound like the popping of baubles at a child’s party.

And then Zagrosek reached the last shadow at the opposite end of the stables and was gone. They each took chase after him, but found nothing but empty air there. “Damn!” Rickkter swore as he cast his eyes furtively about, his hackles fully risen. Misha nodded slowly, his own fangs grit tight, ears erect and eyes alert. The Sondecki had simply vanished back into the shadows.

“How the Hell?” George asked, his voice a sour grumbling. “How can he walk in only shadow?”

Rickkter shook his head, tail lashing wildly behind him. “I don’t know, but at least we wounded him. Maybe we’ll find something in his arm.” The raccoon turned back around, and his eyes went wide. “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me.” And then he set out another run back down the length of the stables. Misha turned about then, and his eyes went wide. The arm that Madog had shorn from Zagrosek’s body was moving, crawling across the floor by its very fingers.

Of the four of them, Rickkter was the first to arrive but by then the fingers had slipped into the shadows themselves. The stump levered up on those digits like an acrobat standing on his hands, and then fell back completely within the shadow. Rickkter swore again as he fumbled through the darkness, but the faint popping they all heard told them that he’d find nothing. “Now I’m pissed,” the raccoon said, followed by a string of unintelligible epithets.

“Madog,” Misha whispered, his attention finally freed to study the injured automaton. Its head turned at the sound of its name being whispered, and the poor creature whined pitifully. The fox morph stood over his charge for a moment, examining the wound. The staff had driven right through Madog’s underbelly, twisting several gears inside, if not completely melting them away. It would take him some time to repair.

“Bryonoth!” Sir Egland’s voice rang out, as the elk knight rushed up to where the fevered woman was crouched just before the smashed door to Povunoth’s stable. Thomas himself had come to her side and was nudging frantically at her shoulder. Bryonoth herself was shivering, her face ashen white like a ghost. “Why?” Egland asked, his own voice strained, hoof-like hands trembling.

Misha’s expression turned dark, and he gripped Whisper more tightly between his fingers. He patted Madog upon the head one last time, and the automaton seemed to understand that his poppa would attend to him shortly. Rickkter was there suddenly at the fox’s side as the two of them advanced upon the knight and the horse that had been Thomas.

Thomas himself suddenly noticed the two and reared frantically, eyes wild, the whites showing as he looked for some place to bolt. Rickkter dived to the side then and smashed his fist squarely in the side of the Duke’s head, his fist outlined in wispy lines of magical force. With a muffled snort, the horse fell on its side, hooves clattering together upon the wooden floor. Bryonoth glanced over, rising slowly to her feet, eyes aghast. The long dark hair seemed to coil about her back like some sepulchral serpent.

“This is over,” Misha said, and smacked the Whisper’s flat side against her head. She crumpled to the side, cheek beginning to well with the bruise almost immediately. In his stall Povunoth reared and snorted, eyes furious at the Long. But Sir Egland came forward then, and set a reassuring hand upon the horse’s neck, whispering words in the Flatlander tongue to the animal, calming it down. Though Misha did not stay to listen, it took the elk some time.

“Is everyone alright?” Misha asked at last, glancing to see where everyone was. It finally occurred to him that neither he nor any of the animal morphs had clothes on. Suddenly self-conscious, he reached for his shirt and trousers and began to slip them back on. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw that Rickkter, George and Sir Egland were doing the same.

Malisa was breathing heavily as she leaned against one of the stall doors, no longer quite so feminine. “I will be fine. But Thalberg? He’s not changed back.” She pointed weakly to the alligator lying amidst the red robes.

“Steward Thalberg?” Misha called out as he slipped Whisper over his back, clothes once more adorned. The axe seemed sated then, though unhappy that it could not have shed blood. Crouching low, the fox morph rested a cautious paw upon the hard scaled back of the Steward, but he did not move. “He’s lost too much warmth. Rickkter, I need you to warm him.”

The raccoon had been angrily brushing his Sondeshike off, as if wiping away the touch of Zagrosek. He nodded and then laced his fingers before him, stepping a few paces closer to the Steward. “Lux ecce surgit aurea!” The room was suddenly filled with a brilliant warmth, banishing all of the shadows that crept in the secret corners. “There,” the racoon said, “that should keep him from coming back too. We shouldn’t dally here though. Who knows what has been alerted to this fracas.”

Misha nodded in agreement, but kept his eyes upon the recumbent alligator. The light that suffused the room brought it a strange warmth, most of which was focussed upon the prone body of the Steward. Misha stepped back then, and waited, glancing once to Thomas and Bryonoth, both of whom were still unconscious. Flitting down from the upper rafters was a bat, who shifted back to morphic form as he landed upon the hay. It was Andwyn, and there was an odd look in his red eyes.

“That was unpleasant,” the bat said in a low voice.

“Where were you?” Misha asked, biting each of his words.

“Eating a few errant insects. Whatever Bryonoth did that forced you all to change hit me harder. I was already in my animal form, so it went straight for my mind. Even after you all changed back it took me several moments to regain my thoughts.”

Misha grunted, and then glanced about, finding that Jessica had also glided to the ground and shifted up, looking about nervously. Her eyes cast to the halter which still hung from the peg next to the stall that Thomas had been in when they’d first come into the stable only a few minutes ago.

“There is so much power in this,” she said, reaching towards it with one wingtip, but not touching it. “It should be safe now, there’s no power flowing in it.”

“Be careful,” Rickkter warned impatiently. “We don’t know what else that thing can do.”

Jessica nodded, and let her wing tip drop. “That was...” she started to say, and then her whole body broke down, shaking, her voice a racking squeal. “That man.”

Misha was at her side then, resting a paw on her back, steadying her. He could feel the quaking in her muscles beneath her feathers. “Yes, that was the man,” he said, his voice quiet. “We’ll get him yet. He won’t escape a second time.”

“Next time I’ll be better armed,” Rickkter growled, even as a low rumbling escaped from the Steward’s long snout.

Misha did not go to the Steward’s side immediately, but stayed with the hawk. Jessica’s eyes were shut tight, and her wings had closed around her front as she crouched. “He won’t be back tonight,” Misha told her, trying to sound reassuring, though he mostly sounded angry. “And now we have even more clues to his abilities. Next time, we’ll be better prepared. You will too, Jessica.”

She nodded slowly, stifling the chocking sobs in her throat. Opening her golden eyes, she cast her gaze back towards where Steward Thalberg was slowly rising up from the tattered remnants of his robes. Misha followed her gaze and watched as Malisa and George helped him get to his feet. “Are you alright, Thalberg?” Malisa asked him.

Thalberg pulled what was left of his robes tight about him. “So cold.” Rickkter grabbed one of the horse blankets from a shelf off the wall and handed it to Malisa who wrapped it about the Steward’s form. His jaws parted in what amounted to a smile from the alligator. “Thank you.” Yellow eyes scanned the room. “Where did he go?”

“We don’t know, but he’s not here anymore,” Misha said, patting Jessica on the back one last time before rising to his paws again. “But why was he here at all?”

“Why has he ever come here?” Rickkter snapped, beginning to pace back and forth. “And we should be leaving here as well,” he added with an impatient churr.

“Chaos,” George replied dourly, even as he helped Sir Egland shift the prone form of Bryonoth onto one of the horse blankets they’d lain out beside her. The jackal’s ears turned slightly as Bryonoth stirred, but the knight did not wake. Taking a cord of rope, he began to bind her hands and feet. “This man has come to Metamor several times, yes? During Loriod’s revolt he was here, manipulating the Lord.”

Jessica gave out a small cry. “That was when Wessex first saw him.”

“Right. And he killed the Patriarch next.”

“And then supposedly arrives during Nasoj’s assault,” Misha added bitterly, eyes narrowing.

“And then just now, assisting Bryonoth in some way. Making the Duke a horse, and nearly doing the same to us,” George finished, tail wagging once. “This man is breeding chaos.”

Rickkter let out a sardonic but utterly humourless laugh. “And he a Sondeckis.”

Thalberg appeared to have finally recovered enough of his warmth to resume his usual demeanor. With a heavy tread to his voice, he growled them to silence. “Good thoughts all, but we must attend to his grace and Bryonoth and then leave ourselves.”

“I have been saying that for some time now,” Rickkter pointed out brusquely.

“I will have the wagon brought to the rear,” George said, after draping a second horse blanket over the recumbent knight. With that the jackal left, opening the door at the back and stepping out.

“Is everyone all right?” Thalberg asked then, his yellow eyes still showing the uncertainty his torpor had brought.

“No,” Misha shook his head, crossing to where Madog lay helpless. The automaton began to whine at the Long’s approach, lifting his head hopefully. Misha stroked him between the ears, looking at the seared underbelly. He could fit his entire paw inside there with ease now. How long would it take before he could repair that wound, he wondered. “Zagrosek struck Madog with, whatever it was. Some black flame.”

“Probably the same thing he wounded the Patriarch’s protector with,” Rickkter surmised morosely.

Misha nodded and then looked up as the jackal returned, his face twisted and confused. “None of the guards heard anything,” George said at last, waiting a moment as all eyes and ears turned to him. “Not a sound.”

“But how can that be?” Sir Egland asked as he cradled over Bryonoth’s body.

“Something magical,” Rickkter spat impatiently. “Steward, would you make sure that nobody enters these stables for the next few days. I want to study them.”

“As do I,” Jessica piped up then, fluttering her wingtips as she asserted herself anxiously.

Thalberg nodded, still holding the horse blanket close around his torso. “I shall. I will think of an excuse. For now, George, simply tell your men to remain at their post, change the guard as you will, but make sure that no one enters without Malisa’s or my permission.”

Bowing slightly, the jackal said, “Understood.” Then, gruffly: “The wagon is ready.”

“I’ll make sure that we are unobserved on our way back to the keep,” Andwyn offered, shifting as soon as he finished speaking into the small fruit bat form, before taking to the air and flying out through the open doorway.

“Misha, Sir Egland” George called, even as the jackal bent next to the supine horse that was Thomas. “We’ll need your help in moving him.”

Petting the whimpering Madog one last time, the fox rose and bent down along the massive equine middle along with Egland. Rickkter stood on the other side of him between the limp legs, while Thalberg stood at the posterior, sliding his reptilian paws underneath Thomas’s flanks. George counted to three, and with a heave, they all lifted, managing to carry him the short distance to the doorway. The wagon beyond was set low to the ground with four large wheels on either side. A tarp was stretched over the top at about eye-level. Bending over, muscles straining from the horse’s weight, they managed to slide the Duke into the hay strewn wagon, pushing and shoving with multiple grunts until the animal was safely ensconced inside.

“Damn, why did he have to be a horse?” Rickkter groused as he stretched his arms. “Why couldn’t he have been a barn cat?” George barked a laugh at that, but that was all.

Retrieving the horse blanket that had tumbled form his shoulders to a heap on the floor, Thalberg drew it once more about his chest. “I’ll ride with Thomas. I’ve already informed Roscoe of the prisoner we’ll be bringing him. The second wagon will move into place once we’re clear. I want you all to make sure that Bryonoth is locked up tight before you do anything else. Malisa will put the halter somewhere safe. Jessica, you will accompany her.”

“Of course,” the hawk replied, looking warily at the halter. Misha followed her gaze for a moment, wishing that he could see whatever it was that her golden eyes could see. That device had nearly forced him to be nothing more than a fox.

Malisa’s lips creased thoughtfully. “I will bring Christopher into this tomorrow. Last year he was struck by a fetish that rendered him merely a bear. Perhaps the halter’s magic works in a similar way. Either way, his personal experience could be invaluable.”

“A good thought,” Thalberg nodded, his jaw breaking in a slight grin. “And one more thing, if you are ever asked by anyone about this night, it never happened. This will never be admitted to, do you all understand.”

“I understood that when you told me of it in your office,” Misha replied, his muzzle locked sternly. “Let us just hope that Duke Thomas can be saved now.”

At that, the brief smile vanished and the alligator nodded slowly. “Aye. Let us hope that.” He then turned about and disappeared into the dark night outside the stables. His voice, low, came back to them as a whisper, “I will summon you tomorrow so we can decide what to do. For now, thank you and good night.” The back of the wagon was put back into place and locked, and soon the crunch of horse’s hooves and the grinding of wheels sounded their leaving.

Turning back to the injured automaton, Misha knelt over him and patted Madog’s side. The metal fox was whining still, bright blue eyes looking to Misha for help. “I hurt Poppa.”

Misha felt a brief surge of anger and melancholy, but did his best to smile. “I know, Madog. Don’t worry. I’ll get you fixed again.”

Madog tried to nod, and then rested his head back against the hay. Looking up at his companions, Misha said, “I will wait here with Madog. I cannot move him myself, so once you all have put Bryonoth in the dungeon, come back here and we can take him to my workshop.”

“I don’t think any of us should stay here,” Rickkter pointed out.

“I cannot leave Madog,” Misha replied sternly, meeting the raccoon’s steely gaze.

Rickkter frowned but nodded. “Very well. But for my sake, let us move him outside of this stable first.” And with that, the raccoon spoke another word in the ancient tongue, and Madog began to levitate. The automaton’s eyes went wide and he looked down to the ground with only the slightest bit of trepidation. “You can push him where you will now, just set him back down once you are outside and in seclusion.”

“Thank you, Rickkter.”

“Will you be all right?” Malisa asked him, even as she deposited the halter in a heavy satchel.

“For now, aye. But I do not think I shall sleep well this night,” Misha replied, even as he ran one paw along Madog’s cheek, those deep blue eyes looking back up expectantly at him.

“I doubt any of us will,” Rickkter said with a grunt.

The rest could only nod solemnly as the second wagon moved into place. With the countenance of pall bearers, George and Sir Egland hoisted Bryonoth upon their shoulders and deposited her within. Upon the elk’s cheeks stood tears.

Back ButtonEnd Part VII of "Never Again a Man"Forward Button

|| Home | Links | Metamor | Contents ||

Talk to me!