Never Again a Man - Part IX

It surprised Misha that Thalberg would be willing to use the council chambers for their deliberations. Given the secrecy with which they had attempted to stop Bryonoth and the Duke, the fox had expected to once more gather for a clandestine rendezvous in some place where few would suspect important discussions would transpire. Yet there they had gathered that next morning shortly after dawn in Thomas’s council chambers.

The chambers themselves featured a long circular table that could seat as many as twenty as its centrepiece. Ceremonial banners adorned each wall, as well as ornamental suits of armour and statues of former sovereigns. High sconces kept the room well lit, and a chandelier hung suspended from the centre of the ceiling, delicately festooned with glass crystals that tinkled merrily at each breeze. A crackling fire burned in the hearth on the western wall, while high arched doors led off in the other three directions.

Thomas’s seat itself was naturally larger than the rest, the back of the chair extending a good three feet above the rest, topped with a placard of the Hassan family seal. That seat sat empty. Beside it sat Thalberg and Malisa, while about them were Rickkter, George, Andwyn, and Misha. Jessica stood on a fire log behind one of the chairs, and a confused Christopher sat upon his haunches behind another chair, leaning his massive ursine arms upon the table. The bear bore the smock of a Lothanasi acolyte, though refitted for his animal form.

{An' how could such a thing happen? T' think that our Duke Thomas was so close, 'tis a'fright!} Christopher’s voice echoed in their minds. Thalberg had recounted the story to the bear once he’d arrived, keeping it as brief as possible without leaving out any details.

“I take some responsibility in this,” Thalberg replied. “I saw that something was happening for quite some time, but I wanted to trust Thomas too much to act. Only when I could no longer deny that something was amiss did I take action. And it was only yesterday that a course of action was finally clear for us to intervene. It was... mostly successful. But now we have a new piece of the puzzle. Zagrosek was involved.”

{He who killed the Patriarch?}

“Aye. But our immediate concern is to find a way to break the enchantments over Duke Thomas. I visited him this morning, and he steadfastly refused to be anything but a horse. Whatever enchantments that Bryonoth, with Zagrosek’s help, has laid over him are still there. And that is why you are here, Christopher. You have had some experience with magic that amplifies the curse. It was our hope that you could use that experience to our advantage here.”

Christopher’s head lowered slightly {Aye, I can see why ye'd want my help. Mind ye, ‘twas nae by choice that I faced aught of this.}

“Nevertheless,” Malisa chimed in, folding her hands before her, “it is experience. And right now, we need every bit of it we can muster.”

“So will you help?” Thalberg asked.

The bear looked faintly insulted at the question. {Aye, an' what sage or priest would I be were I t' decline? Still, I'm nae sure if even I can help, much less how.}

“Fair enough,” Thalberg said with a nod. “Undoing this spell over Thomas must be our first priority. I am no mage, so I ask those of you here what you think the best way to do this will be.”

Rickkter leaned back in his seat. His brows were heavy from lack of sleep. “The halter should be examined. As well as Thomas himself. Bryonoth too, since she cast the spell. And I still want to take a closer look at the stables, to see if there is any residues left from last night.”

“Remember, Duke Thomas must be our first priority,” Thalberg repeated, yellow eyes narrowing.

The raccoon let out a small growl. “And what of Zagrosek? I suppose he is of no consequence then? If we wait too long to examine that place, any residues he may have left behind will have faded.”

“I stand corrected,” Thalberg admitted with a slight nod of his head. “Continue.”

“I want to examine the stables first myself. My light spell should still be active, so Zagrosek won’t be able to use the shadows to come back. Incidentally, I did a little reading on that last night. Although I find it very odd, it seems he’s mastered the art of shadowwalking. It’s very rare, but as you saw, very powerful. I have a few other tomes that discuss the subject that I have yet to peruse, but I will do so later today.”

He leaned forward slightly, looking to Jessica and Christopher. “I think you both should examine the halter together. I know your ability to see magic is remarkable, Jessica, and with Christopher’s insight, you may yet unravel that thing. After I’m finished at the stables, I can examine Thomas. I doubt he’ll be too uncooperative after the punch I gave him.”

“It looked like you used some of your own powers in that punch,” Misha pointed out quietly, his own mind wondering how he could help them magically.

Rickkter gave the fox a dour look. “As I have said before, you don’t want to get me angry.” He then glanced to the Prime Minister. “You should also help them examine the halter. The more mages the better chance we have of uncovering its secrets.”

Malisa nodded. “Again, it seems as if the enemy is ahead of us. If Wessex had not been killed, he would have been able to solve this mystery. Of all of us, he came the closest to truly understanding how Nasoj’s curses worked.” Jessica’s golden eyes cast down respectfully at the mention of her deceased master.

Misha blinked and then raised his right paw to garner their attention. “I believe we do have a mage that understands the curses some.”

The looks of surprise he received at that statement were universal. Several asked him who it could be, but it was Rickkter who finally realized who it was the Long Scout was talking about. “No, Misha. Absolutely not! He used to work for Nasoj before we captured him.”

“Yes, but Varnal has changed a great deal since then. He saw what Nasoj had planned for him in the attack, and is now glad he had been captured. He’s even teaching a girl, ah I cannot remember her name, to be a mage herself. Varnal is not the same person he was six months ago. I think we can trust him.”

“And I think you are wrong,” Rickkter said acidly. “He was one of Nasoj’s mages. So what if he is teaching some girl a few tricks? He still cannot be trusted.”

Misha looked the raccoon full in the face. He was tired too hold his tongue. “The same was said of you a year ago, Rickkter. Now you sit in the most secret of councils. Varnal has changed, he is a better man than he was. I say we can trust him.”

“You may trust him,” the raccoon added, eyes narrowing, “but I certainly do not. And I am not about to let the safety of the keep be jeopardized by trusting him with any of this.”

“Perhaps,” Andwyn interjected, his high pitched voice grating on their ears, “there is a way Varnal can help without telling him anything.”

Both fox and raccoon turned to the bat, as well as the rest of them. “How?” Misha asked. He could not help but feel some sense of kinship with Varnal, especially after he had begun to change. There was a good man buried in there somewhere trying to get out.

“Simple, Varnal may help examine the halter, though he would not be told why. I am also told that he cannot cast spells himself anymore, so he would merely be another source of input for the rest of us, some more bit of insight into the workings of the curse that could prove useful.”

“And when he becomes inquisitive?” Rickkter asked. “He will naturally want to know why he is doing any of it. And why should he do any of it? What makes you think he’ll help anyway?”

The bat smiled, the sort of grin that made Misha’s fur stand on end. “Oh, he was sentenced to three years confinement at Metamor. If he were to assist faithfully in this manner, that sentence could be reduced. And if he asks for monetary compensation, that too could be supplied.”

The raccoon appeared to mull that over for a moment while the rest of them sat uneasily in their chairs. Christopher let out a low growl and nodded his head. {If ‘tis t’ be like that, I'll trust him.}

“I do not like asking for help from one who once served Nasoj,” Thalberg admitted. “But in the end we have to decide who we can trust with this. And if he knows not why he is doing it, and he is given good reason not to inquire or spread it around, then I am more willing to entertain that notion.”

“I trust him,” Misha said firmly, laying both paws on the table before him. “I would trust him even without the offer that Andwyn made. He is greatly changed and no longer a threat.”

“And you said so before,” Rickkter pointed out, though the raccoon still appeared to be considering what was said.

“If Misha trusts him,” Jessica interrupted, her squawking voice rather tentative, “then so too do I.” This made the fox smile a little, and he nodded respectfully towards the hawk.

Thalberg looked to Malisa, but the Prime Minister merely frowned. “Very well, who is willing to trust Varnal to help examine the halter under Andwyn’s conditions? Raise your hands.”

Misha raised his first. Jessica and Andwyn raised their wings slightly, while Christopher raised one forepaw into the air. The fox stared defiantly at the rest, but at last George smiled and leaned forward. “I have seen others who used to work for Nasoj change their ways. I’ll trust this Varnal fellow.” And he raised his paw at that, eliciting a scowl from the raccoon.

“You’ll regret this, Misha,” Rickkter predicted as he frowned.

Misha shook his head, smiling. “I doubt it. It’s five out of eight in favour of trusting Varnal, Prime Minister. What say you?”

Malisa took a long breath and nodded slowly, brushing a strand of hair back over her ear. “We will bring him into this then as you suggest, Misha. For now at least.”

“And what of your sister,” Andwyn asked. “Now that we know what forces are behind this, will you consent to seek her help in this too?”

Misha sat for a moment and the nodded. “Yes. With Zagrosek involved, we will need all the help we can get. As long as there is no objections to this.”

Rickkter snorted, arms crossed before his chest. “If you are going to trust a man who once served Nasoj, then why should we object to bringing your sister and the Guild of Marigund into this as well. Perhaps we should simply send letters to all the lands seeking the help of mages. I’m sure they would all be interested to aid us.”

“Stop it, Rickkter,” Misha barked, grey eyes narrowing. “We can trust my sister. I will personally vouch for her.”

“As you do for Varnal?”

Misha jumped from his seat at that and slammed his paws down on the table. The raccoon was unmoved. “My sister has already been aiding us! She teaches Jessica here, and they have already discussed matters relating to Zagrosek that you don’t even know about! She is my sister, my kin. To insult her is to insult me.”

“Calm down, Misha,” Malisa advised. “Any help your sister could provide would be greatly appreciated. I myself would like the chance to meet a member of the mage guild of Marigund. Their abilities are well known after all. To have their aid is a rare thing, one we should not throw away.”

Rickkter’s eyes narrowed. “Involvement in this is already spreading beyond those it should. This is an internal matter regarding the very foundation of this kingdom. It should thus be dealt with internally. We are opening ourselves up too much by asking for help from so many sources. We all agreed it best the Duke’s condition be kept a secret. Do you honestly think that it can stay that way if we invite everyone we think might have some glimmer of knowledge to assist us? Like Varnal, you sister should be asked only if we have exhausted all other resources.”

“Rickkter is right in that,” Thalberg said at last, looking to them all. “And so I think that we should not open this up anymore unless we have to. If needed, I think we should allow Elizabeth to help us, as she is very skilled, but only if we truly need to involve her. Potentially, how soon could she arrive?”

Misha slowly sat back down in his seat, catching his breath. The raccoon’s words still stung, but Rickkter was in his own way just trying to protect Metamor. He had to remember that. “I do not know, but I will contact her as soon as we are done here, if that is all right.”

“Fine,” Thalberg nodded his long head and took a deep breath. “We will have Varnal assist in examining the halter, but that only. You mages should also meet regularly to discuss what you have found, to find the patterns between the magics. I will leave it to your discretion as to how to do this. But as soon as you are certain you can free Duke Thomas from his enchantments, I want to know about it so that we can do so.”

The alligator took another breath and narrowed his eyes. “And that brings me to the other matter I want to discuss. Rickkter has already spoken of it, but I still don’t know much about it. This shadowwalking. Whatever power it was that Zagrosek used to move in an out of the stables.”

“Shadowwalking, yes, if that is what it was, and I feel confident that it is,” Rickkter replied, some of the edge leaving his voice. “How he learned it is a mystery to me, since I have never heard of it being used in a very long time. It is an ancient and very dark art, one that was thought expunged because people feared it so.”

“So should we fear it?” Thalberg asked, his voice dark.

“Yes and no.” The raccoon narrowed his own gaze, leaning forward in his seat. “Last night he was hurt badly I think. If not, he would not have run from us, and run he did. So I expect we will not see him again for some time. To our knowledge, this is only the second or third time he has used this power to move through Metamor.”

“When were the others?” Malisa asked.

Rickkter glanced to Misha, and the fox nodded slowly, remembering things himself. “If what Rickkter says is true, than that may be how Zagrosek and the woman escaped after killing the Patriarch. To my eyes it looked as if they had simply stepped out of the world. They could have stepped into the shadow.”

“And the other time,” Rickkter continued, “was when Wessex first saw him. Wessex’s account had Zagrosek extinguishing all the brands in the room first. Once he brought light back in, Zagrosek was gone.”

“That’s right,” Jessica piped up, nodding her large head. “Just after Dorson was killed. With that censer.”

“So three times in a year he has used it. Obviously he will only do so when matters are very important to him. Each time, it has been in a situation that could ruin Metamor. First, inciting Loriod to supplant Duke Thomas. Secondly, in murdering the Patriarch, and now in this, to turn the Duke into a common horse it seems.”

“But Bryonoth and Duke Thomas have been meeting for some time now,” Malisa pointed out. “Why would he suddenly appear tonight? Or has he been there all along, and only because we intervened did we notice him?”

“I can answer that,” Thalberg said, his voice strangely withdrawn, almost uncomfortable. “I believe that after last night, Duke Thomas would never have changed back, and nothing anyone had done could have saved him. Zagrosek was there to help because last night was when his plan would come to fruition.”

“How do you know this?” Rickkter asked, his expression sceptical.

“Things that I found in his quarters led me to this.”

“What things?” the raccoon pressed.

The alligator Steward met the raccoon’s gaze impassively. There was a reptilian patience in his yellow eyes, one that the Kankoran at his most severe could never match.

“I see,” Rickkter finally conceded after several long moments of heavy silence. “But back to Shadowwalking, yes, it is powerful. If Zagrosek has mastered the art, then he can move in and out of any shadow at will. But, he is restricted slightly. To travel from one point to another, he has to pass through all the shadows between. So during the night, he cannot move very far. It is likely that when he left the stables, he simply went outside, and then slipped past the guards.” A foul moue spread over his muzzle. “I did not know of that limitation until a few hours ago when I found it within one of my tomes. Had I known last night...”

{We cannae change the past.} Christopher’s voice in their minds was a gentle massage, like a soft touch from a lover’s paw.

“But I also feel that walking the shadows is draining for him. At least over great distances. From what I have read, to stay within the shadows requires a great deal of stamina and energy. That is probably why he has only come here those few times. It is simply too draining for him. But, we should, as a precaution, keep any place where we are using powerful magic completely lit and free of shadows.”

“That spell you cast in the stables,” Thalberg asked, his voice curious. “How long can you sustain that, and could you cast more of them?”

Rickkter frowned slightly. “I can hold them for a time, but I do not know how long. They drain me, but very slowly. But for now I do not feel any ill effects.”

“Good,” Thalberg nodded. “I’d like you to do the same for Duke Thomas’s temporary quarters. I will show you where they are shortly.”

“I’ll examine him while I’m there,” Rickkter put in. “But there is one thing I would like to ask. Who will stand in for the Duke?”

Thalberg cast a glance to Andwyn but the bat shook his head slowly. “I will have chosen somebody by this evening. For today, he will not be missed.”

“That will have to suffice,” Thalberg nodded his assent, looking to the rest for a moment to see if there were any who disagreed. But the raccoon did not speak up, the one that it was clear all were most worried about by then. “Very well then, unless there is anything else that needs to be discussed, I’d say we have quite a bit of work ahead of us.”

Misha nodded at that, as did the rest. Leaning forward, his heart numb, and his mind sore, he rubbed at his forehead, even as the rest slowly began to rise from the table. The meeting was over, but the fox could not help but feel that it was only the first of many more yet to come.

The Marquis du Tournemire was sipping from a cup of tea when the popping sound of a rush of air filled the adjacent room. The sweet chamomile ticked at the back of his throat for a moment, the surface of the tea in his cup rippling as his breath quietly drifted across it. Before him on the table, highly decorative cards were arranged, displaying a variety of figures, some of which were not even human. His eyes scanned them, and then with a brush of one hand he disturbed them slightly.

Lifting the cup of tea, he drank slowly, letting its rich warmth fill him. Then, even as the sultry breath of the midday air streamed through the open windows, he set the cup down and selected the top two cards. The Ace of Hearts atop the King of Swords. Amongst all his deck, only the Aces were not stylized. They bore simply a single symbol, that of their suit in the middle of the face. But they represented a force of great power, a force allied with that suit, as they trumped all other cards.

Upon the King of Swords was the engraving of man in black bearing a long metal staff. The Ace was laying atop the man’s arm though, obscuring it from view. Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, the Marquis turned over one of the other cards from his deck, their finely wrought lines turning the shadows above. Before him was the Three of Hearts, a fairly unimportant card in his plans, but one significant enough to have appeared in his deck.

And the Hearts stood in opposition to him.

This figure was that of a man twisted into a strange fox shape. Though he did not necessarily know who the figure was of, he knew enough to understand its meaning. With his lips turned to a frown, he gently scooped the cards into his hands, carefully ordered them once more, and put them back in their cushioned mahogany case. “I am done with this for now,” he said, and his Steward Vigoureux nodded and retrieved the case.

Looking to the door from whence the popping sound had come, he gestured with one hand. “Open the door and ask Zagrosek to come out.” It was his Castellan Sir Autrefois who obeyed him in that, the massive ox of a man gripping the handle nearly daintily. Beyond was Zagrosek, rubbing at his left arm, which hung limply from his shoulder.

“So you have returned,” the Marquis said, lifting his cup of tea once more to his lips.

Zagrosek had not been looking at him, but had been staring into the shadows occupying one wall, his eyes lost and frustrated. He continued to massage at his left arm, the skin of which appeared quite pale. “Yes,” he said at last, slowly turning his head. His voice, while normally deep and sombre, was grave and rumbling, as if it had come from the soughing of tumbled dirt being shoved into an exhumed tomb. “I am back now.”

“You failed?”

“Aye,” Zagrosek admitted, his face ashen, but not nearly so pale as his left arm. He continued to rub it up near the shoulder. Turning, he stepped out of the room and stood before the Marquis’s table. “By an unhappy turn of chance, the Metamorians learned of Dame Bryonoth’s control over the Duke, and acted to intervene. I had anticipated this, but not the interference of the automaton. It... wounded me.”

“Will you recover?”

“Yes, but...”

“Good. Remove all of your connections to Bryonoth. She is of no importance now.”

“But,” Zagrosek protested suddenly, a bit of life creeping back into his spectral tones.

“Your plan has failed, and I do not need it to succeed in order for my plans to be successful. Therefore, you will not jeopardize them in anyway by leaving yourself open to further scrutiny.” The Marquis then sipped from his cup once more. “How long before you can move your arm again?”

“An hour or two perhaps,” Zagrosek replied, his voice once more gravely. “It was severed last night. I am still trying to properly reattach it.”

“Vigoureux, see that he has something to eat. Sir Autrefois, make sure that he is given the privacy he needs until his arm is once more healed.” The Marquis then gestured with one hand for Zagrosek to return to his chambers. The black clad man nodded slowly, even as the Marquis’s servants went about their appointed tasks with silent solemnity.

“There is one other thing though,” the Marquis said before Zagrosek could close the door. “A message was delivered this morning for you from Duke Verdane.”

Zagrosek blinked once, fresh life once more filling his eyes. “What did it say?”

“The Duke has agreed to your proposal. That was all.” The Marquis leaned forward in his chair then, the tea tilting slightly in the cup. “What proposal is this?”

“Something that should hasten our departure,” Zagrosek replied. At that, the Marquis smiled slightly and returned to his tea. With the Marquis’s eyes no longer upon him, the Sondeckis quietly closed his door, still rubbing at his pale left arm.

“I would still like to know,” Rickkter said as the steward led the raccoon morph down through a wide unused hallway. Rickkter’s spell shad brought the area into brilliant illumination, but even so, there was an antiquity of shadow, from the greying stone, to the fungous, almost gangrenous scent that pervaded the corridor. The red carpet that went down the centre of the hall was threadbare and discoloured, and felt slightly damp to Rickkter’s paws.

Thalberg kept the hem of his scarlet robes off the floor by clutching them about his waist with both paws. He turned his head slightly, yellow eyes meeting him. “Know what, Rickkter?”

The raccoon let a small smile creep across his muzzle. In the bright light that followed them along the hallway, the bands of black fur around his eyes were cast into even greater relief against the brown that surrounded them. And the deep darkness that was held in his orbs glimmered like onyx. “What did you find in Duke Thomas’s quarters?”

But the Steward simply returned his gaze forward. Rickkter felt offended by the alligator’s curt manner, and was about to speak again when the heavy grating of the reptile’s voice cut the air. “What I found I will not say. The very thought of it pains me more deeply than any wound I have ever suffered in my entire life. And know that when I say that, I do not exaggerate. What I found...” Thalberg paused, summoning his breath, his grip upon his robes tightening. “What I found was the end of Metamor and of our way of life.”

Rickkter narrowed his eyes, still upset, but no longer with the Steward. From what he knew of Thalberg, he was not a man who often conveyed his personal feelings. Yet there was a deep devotion within him to Thomas, one that had bent this man to doing things in the last month that he found abominable. And now the Duke was throwing everything away because of a magical geas, and taking Metamor with him. Suddenly, Rickkter felt he had a very good idea of what it was that Thalberg had found, and probably destroyed. It was no wonder he did not even want to say what it was. To even acknowledge that a letter of abdication had existed could ruin Metamor.

The corridor made an abrupt turn to the left and then just as abruptly ended in a heavy door. The door was fashioned from iron, and bore a heavy bolt and latch. One either side of the door stood two guards each. All of them appeared as colourless and drained as the corridor itself. They were George’s men, three animal morphs and one man, dressed in full chain hauberks. The sergeant, a boar morph with a broken tusk, was smoking a pipe, and Rickkter could smell a fait hint of ginger in the air.

“Good morning, Steward,” the boar said, nodding his head slightly.

“How is he, Kalber?”

“Quiet,” Kalber replied, turning one rheumy eye towards the iron door. “Hasn’t made a peep in hours. Do you want to see him?”

“Yes. Rickkter will be accompanying me. You four should wait outside.”

The boar nodded, and gestured to the door. The man lifted the latch, while the other two pulled one the handle. The door was very heavy, Rickkter saw, as it took three seconds before the door itself finally opened past the jamb. When the two guards had it open a crack, the boar placed his hoof-like fingers within and helped heave. It took another ten seconds before the door was completely open. The door itself, once they guards stepped away from it, Rickkter saw was a foot thick. The Kankoran doubted that even a man like Zagrosek would have had an easy time breaking it down. But the Sondeckis had other means of gaining entrance.

Beyond the door, the passage took another immediate turn to the left. Rickkter spoke a quick word, and the hallway beyond filled with the same bright sun that he’d brought into the stables the night before. Thalberg nodded and went through first, turning his head as he went down the curve. Rickkter followed after him, nearly stepping on the wide green tail. Inside though, the scent of corruption that had filled the hallway was gone, replaced by the powerful aroma of a contained horse.

The floor itself had been covered in a light sprinkling of hay, while against one wall a trough was half-filled with water, but it had no other features. Thomas himself was there, idly grazing on some of that hay. He was still a full horse, and his eyes filled with sudden alarm as they entered. He reared then, neighing in panic at the sight of them, hooves flailing into the air.

Rickkter held up one paw before him and chanted, “Il Reqian!” The flaring faded from Thomas’s eyes, and the white’s receded. He settled back down to the ground, head lowering, long neck bending down so tat he might once more graze upon the hay. Rickkter spoke a few more soft words as he stepped past the Steward, who tensely watched them both. Thomas did not seem to notice this new spell, nor seem to visibly react to it, keeping his focus on picking up stray bit of hay laying upon the floor.

Thalberg grimaced then, and turned back to the open door. “Sergeant Kalber, I want a bag of oats sent down immediately.”

“Of course, Steward!” the boar’s voice cast back from the doorway. Rickkter faintly heard him pass the order onto one of the other guards, and then the hurried, heavy clanking of boot steps receding down the hall. But he wasn’t really listening to them. He was listening to the sounds that Thomas was making, watching the stallion with an apprehensive wariness.

Rickkter approached slowly then, holding out his paws, ready to cast another spell should Thomas prove more resilient than he appeared. His first two spells should have rendered Thomas fairly complacent, but with the spells already laid upon him by the halter, there was little telling what the end result may be.

But Thomas did not stir, merely flicking his ears at the raccoon’s steady approach. Soon, Rickkter had placed his paw upon the horse’s flanks, feeling the warmth under the heavy flesh. Just from examining the Duke’s horse form from the physical world, he would never have suspected that he was anything but a horse. Clearly one of fine lineage, but a horse nevertheless. But as soon as he opened his eyes to the realm of magic, there could be no doubt that this was a Keeper. A cleverly masked one, as the strange silver lines that encircled him seemed to obfuscate the human portion of him that remained. In passing perhaps he would have missed them, but not when they were right before him.

Of the silvery lines themselves, they appeared to curl about his form in an almost haphazard fashion. At times, they were difficult to see even, as they would pulsate, fading in and out, and sometimes fading back in someplace else. Rickkter reached out to gingerly touch the strands, being careful as he neared them. To his surprise, one of the strands lashed out at him, wrapping the end about his wrist and sending a fiery surge up his arm. He felt it wrack at his bones, scorching his flesh, reducing him once more to an animal.

With a snarl, Rickkter leapt back, breaking his contact with that magical strand. He shuddered as he cradled his wrist. Physically, his hand appeared more bestial, but with a little concentration, he watched his thumb return to its normal place, fingers reclaiming their human shape. But there were no other marks to show that he’d been attacked by the spell.

“Are you all right?” Thalberg asked, a look of sudden surprise crossing his crocodilian visage.

“Yes. I can touch him physically, but if I try to touch him magically, the spell lashes at me,” Rickkter explained as he stood up again, brushing some hay from his pantaloons.

“But you cast a spell on him just a moment ago,” Thalberg asked, the surprise replaced by confusion.

“That’s different,” Rickkter enunciated. “I think the spell has a defence trigger. It fought me. I’m going to have to be careful not to activate it again.”

Thalberg nodded while Rickkter took another few steps closer to the placid horse. Solemnly, Rickkter set himself to watching those silverly lines. For now that was all he could do. Perhaps he’d find a weakness merely by observing them. And once he did, the raccoon would exploit it. It would just be a matter of time.

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