Never Again a Man - Part XII

Are you both ready?” Misha asked, clutching the blue gem tightly in his paw. Both Jessica and Malisa nodded. Of course the hawk had seen this many times, and in fact had begun to visit his sister in this way herself for some months now. But this was the first time that Malisa would ever meet his sister Elizabeth.

After leaving the dungeons and Rickkter to his study, he’d happened upon the two of them in the halls of the Keep. He’d not been looking for them, but trying to return to his quarters in Long House. Nor had they been looking for him. Although they could not help but wonder and doubt at times whether Kyia herself had not had a hand in guiding them together, they all knew it had to be true.

“Very well then,” Misha said at last, seeing their acquiescence. They had headed directly for his quarters then, once he had explained what he was going to do. Caroline had taken a group of scouts out for training in the river, and so he still had yet to explain what had happened the night before. Strangely, he didn’t want to tell her. He’d rather she never know, as if her very knowing could put her life at risk once more.

He glanced once back to the small pallet beneath his workbench where Madog lay crippled. The automaton watched him curiously, ever patient. He’d apologized to his friend that morning, promising to repair him as soon as he was able. The sooner this mystery was solved though, the sooner he could begin.

Misha closed his eyes and focussed on the image of his sister. Long brown hair trickled down across smooth shoulders held in place at her tresses was a silver brooch, brightly glimmering amidst the blue and green silk sashes that were her gown. There she was framed amidst a study filled with ancient books, their backs not moulding, but carved in gold filigree, painted burgundy and chartreuse. At her side was the short haired greyhound, a wiry dog with a long tail that whipped back and forth.

And then, Misha opened his eyes. Standing behind him were Jessica and Malisa, but all else of his study had drawn back. The gem in his paw was warm, and it glowed faintly, as if a fire flickering out. Before him was that same study, and sitting at her desk was his sister, one hand so delicately clutching the quill that the slightest wind would have snatched it from her grip.

“Brother,” she said, smiling and turning her head. The smile was short lived. “Something’s happened.” She rose then, and crossed the four steps to him, and put her hand upon his shoulder. “Something terribly. I can see it in your eyes.”

“Aye,” Misha nodded, and reached out his open paw and gripped her shoulder gently. The greyhound was laying beneath her desk, and he lifted his head, curious and unafraid. He leapt to his paws and trotted over to them, nuzzling at their sides, and sniffing them each in turn, wagging his tail excitedly.

“You know Jessica of course, and this is Prime Minister Malisa. Malisa, this is my sister Elizabeth.”

The two women nodded to each other, both attempting to smile, but neither truly succeeding. “You honour me with your presence, Prime Minister. But you would not have come this way unless something grave has occurred.”

“You are right about that, Elizabeth. And we are here to ask for your help.” Malisa said softly.

“I will be glad to offer you whatever aid I can,” Elizabeth replied. “But please, tell me what has happened.”

Misha nodded. “Last night, we all met the man that killed the Patriarch.”

Elizabeth stared at him for several seconds in complete silence. And then, in a very quiet voice, she asked, “Did anyone die?”

Misha shook his head, gently petting the greyhound with one paw. “Thankfully no. But in his escape he injured Madog.”

“He... injured Madog?” Elizabeth asked, her voice even more hushed than before.

“Aye. And there is a great deal more.” His voice deliberate and resolute, Misha described the events of the prior night, and all that they thought had led to it. Elizabeth listened, nodding from time to time. Occasionally, she would stop him and ask a pointed question that would elaborate some arcane point. And as they answered her questions, she would nod once again. At last, Misha brought their tale to a close by clasping his paws together and bowing his muzzle slightly.

Seeing that he was finished, Elizabeth took in a deep breath. “If all that you say and think is true, it may not be safe for you to see me like this,” she warned.

“Can you come to Metamor?” Jessica asked. “We need your help there.”

“That is what we came to ask you, sis,” Misha added. His muzzle was set in a grim line. “We need your magic. We cannot touch the spells he left behind.”

“They attack the curse, amplify it,” Malisa said. “Only a mage who has not felt the touch of Metamor’s curse will be able to aide us.”

“And I am one of the very few who is both powerful enough and can be trusted enough to do this?” Elizabeth asked, though it was clear from her tone that she did not expect an answer. “Very well, I shall come to Metamor. I will arrange it discreetly, a chance to meet with my student face to face,” she smiled briefly at Jessica. “That is what I shall say. A few will know better but they will say nothing.”

“How long will it take you to reach Metamor?”

“A day, two at most. Look for me at twilight.” Elizabeth let her gaze fall once more to her brother. She smiled faintly to him and them embraced him in a long hug. “It shall be good to see you in the flesh once again, Misha. I wish it could be for happier times.”

“If you can aide us, sis, it will be. I assure you.” Misha hugged her back tightly, fighting the urge to lick the side of her face.

And then she broke off, and called the greyhound to her. The dog reluctantly came, and she nodded once more to her brother the fox. He pressed the gem tightly to his chest, and willed the scene to go away. With a sudden rush of air, every strand of fur standing on end for a single moment, they were once more back in his chambers.

“Well, now we merely wait,” Jessica said.

“No,” Malisa shook her head. “Now we prepare for our guest’s arrival. I will inform everyone of this decision and find out what Thalberg and Andwyn have been doing. Jessica, you should find Christopher and Varnal and continue to do what studying you can. Misha?”

“I will stay here for now. I have some thinking I need to do.”

“Very well. Thank you, Misha,” Malisa nodded her head and then slipped from the room.

Jessica lingered a moment, extending a wingtip to his shoulder. “I’m sure Elizabeth will be able to help us all.”

“She will. Go do what you can, Jessica.” Misha dislodged her wing with a gently touch of one paw. The hawk nodded slowly then, paused for a moment, and then hopped out the door.

For several moments, Misha remained along in his quarters. Madog’s blue eyes were upon him, but he said nothing. Misha looked down to the automaton and met that gaze for some time. There was simply nothing there to feel at that moment. He knew something should be there, but it wasn’t.

Slipping his paws around the haft of Whisper, encircling the great black axe with deliberate intensity, he stepped from his quarters and walked the short distance to the Long Hall. There, for the remainder of the evening, several wooden practice sets met with a very graceful, though violent demise at the end of that blade.

The two red-haired men supped upon a red wine held in a crystal decanter between them. They each took turned, and each only drank from one side. Between them was a small chess board, the pieces each arranged for attack and defence, reflecting whatever gambit the players had started. Though the reddening sun shone through the single window, no breeze came through. This, Duke Verdane’s private solar, was kept firmly secured against any idle ears.

“So, has he started to try and offer the boys a kindness?” Jaime Verdane asked, moving one of the white knights forward. He took a black pawn between his fingers and lifted it from the board, replacing it with his knight. “Check.” He then reached forward and sipped from the decanter.

Duke Titian Verdane tapped his chin thoughtfully as he considered the move. “Yes, he has. In a most curious way. He’s teaching them in a way that they understand.” He took his king between his fingers and paused. Without showing any hint of his deep concentration, he slid it over one space, and out of danger. “He’s teaching Jory Dupré how to better train his dog.” Lifting the decanter, he took a slow sip of the fruity wine. “And he’s showing Lucat Guilford how to read and write.”

Jaime laughed a crisp short laugh. He crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his elbows through the thick red silk, red that matched his hair. “Isn’t that something that the kennel master should do? Train dogs? And to read and write? A mistress will do well enough for that.” He uncrossed his arms to move a pawn forward one space, blocking the opening on his knight. He took another sip of the decanter. It had long been a tradition of their chess games. They would play until all the wine was gone. If they ran out before their first game had ended, they both considered it a good game.

“Aye, you are right, Jaime,” Titian said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “But that is why this is a kindness. He’s speaking on their level, attempting to make this enjoyable for them. He is making them want to do these things for themselves.” Taking one of his black bishops, he shifted the piece two spaces, lining him up on the white knight’s other side. Titian then drank from the decanter.

“I suppose that is good. Still, I find it hard to see my nephew training dogs,” there was a contemptuousness to his reply. “Nor my sister letting him.” He moved his rook forward a few spaces and took another drink.

“That is not what Zagrosek is attempting to do. Nor is he trying to turn Lucat into a scholar or scribe. No,” Titian mused, letting a wry smile grace his long face, “I think that our guest is trying to make both into better men in some small way. Jory never does anything for himself, another always does it for him. Learning to teach a dog will be good for him. And Lucat will need to be able to read and write if he has any hope of succeeding his father, or for holding onto Masyor at all.

“That is what Zagrosek is giving them, oddly enough. It will be a pity to have to beat him for it.” Suddenly, Titian’s hand swept out, and he brought his queen forward. “Check.” His eye never wavered from his son as he sipped from the chalice.

“A good move, Father,” Jaime admired for a moment. “You sound as if you do not approve of the way Anya is raising Jory.” He knew no answer would come. Another rule they had was that only when it was their turn could they speak. He considered the board for several moments before moving his other knight up to block the queen’s advance. “Or am I wrong?” he asked before sipping the wine.

“It is becoming apparent to me that she and Lord William could do better. But I know what I will do in that regard. After all,” Titian Verdane said, “he is a man. And a man can change. If they really want to.” He then advanced a pawn and took a sip.

“I guess,” Jaime added, swiping that pawn with one of his own.

“But the other matter that does concern me is this. Apparently, this very same man, Zagrosek, did not spend the night here.” Jaime offered him a curious look at that, even as Duke Verdane considered his move still. “His chambers were completely empty all night long, nor was he seen roaming the halls. Nor was he seen leaving the manor.” Moving a bishop he took the pawn and a drink. “Check.”

“Where could he have gone then?” Jaime countered by moving his own queen to interpose.

“I suspect that he was spying, which means that he is exceptionally gifted. Most spies we are able to spot. We know where all the nooks and crannies in this manor are.” Titian said pointedly. Sliding his rook up, he took the white queen and smiled. “Checkmate.”

Jaime narrowed his gaze, and then nodded, setting his king on its side. “A good game then father. We have nearly finished the wine this time too.” He began to reset his pieces carefully. As they were crafted from ivory, they were exceptionally difficult to replace. “So how do you know he isn’t listening in on us right now?”

“He is being watched. As soon as we lose sight of him, word will be sent to me. But what worries me is that he has done this. To what end did he spy, if that is indeed what he has done, and what are his true purposes in coming here? More importantly, what are the Marquis’s true purposes in coming here? Those two are an enigma.”

Jaime nodded. “I’ll be glad when they have left.”

“As will I,” Titian Verdane agreed, nodding his head, a morose frown creasing his face.

Thalberg nodded after listening to Malisa describe what she and the other mages had discovered that day. “Well, you have your wish, Andwyn,” the alligator said morosely. “Elizabeth will be coming here.”

“Good,” the bat said, wrapping his wings before his chest like a cape. The veins protruded through the thick flesh of his skin, seemed to flow a bit brighter. “And I have found a suitable stand-in for the Duke, if the mages can fashion a believable illusion.”

“Who is it?” Thalberg asked.

“One of my spies who had been enjoying some time between assignments.”

“First thing tomorrow morning, we should put him in place,” Malisa said, seeing that Andwyn was not going to say who just then.

“I agree,” Thalberg added, only slightly irritated at their Intelligence chief. “And we’ll conduct business as normal. Did Elizabeth say when she would arrive?”

“At twilight, either tomorrow or the day after,” Malisa replied.

“Twilight?” Andwyn said, confused. “At dawn or dusk?”

“She didn’t say. Nor did she say how she would arrive.”

“However it will be, it will be discreet, and at either dawn or dusk. I suggest the George set out special watches at that time.” Thalberg ran one claw under his chin then, and nodded. “Yes, I’ll send the order to George shortly. Is there anything else we need to discuss?”

“I think that covers it. We will meet again tomorrow morning. You’ll have your man with you?” Malisa asked the bat.

“Of course,” Andwyn said with a nod. “Sunrise then?”

All three of them nodded in acquiescence before departing. Though it had only been one day since they’d apprehended the Duke, to each of them, it felt like several weeks. Perhaps Thalberg would visit Thomas once more. And then again, perhaps he wouldn’t. Sighing, he looked back to the doors where his friends had left. No, tonight he needed to be alone.

Elizabeth did not arrive that next day, though of those who knew of her coming, none anticipated seeing her earlier than dusk. Even so, there was still much for the Metamorians to do to prepare. Their meeting in the morning was perfunctory, merely an opportunity to compare notes, most of which they already knew, and for Andwyn to finally reveal who he had selected to stand in for the Duke until the spells upon him were broken.

The man chosen was human, roughly twenty-five years of age, with an affable smile and easy but firm manner. After becoming a man during the Battle of Three Gates, Leofe had posed as a Midlands merchant that did business with Metamor. In reality of course, Leofe was a spy collecting information which he had brought to Phil, and now to Andwyn whenever he was at the Keep.

Andwyn had selected him for the role because he possessed a measure of experience negotiating with those of upper station. Once the rest were satisfied that Leofe was a good choice, Rickkter and Malisa fashioned an illusion to make him appear as Thomas himself. While Rickkter admitted that the skunk Murikeer could do a better job, this would suffice so long as none came too close or scrutinized him for too long. As far as those assembled could tell, Thomas now stood among them, and when he spoke, it was with Thomas’s voice.

However, both Malisa and Steward Thalberg noted almost immediately that Leofe lacked the particular inflection that Thomas possessed, and took it upon themselves to spend the rest of the day training him so that there would be no doubt that he was in fact Thomas, at least for the short time in which he would have to play the role.

Rickkter went with Jessica and Christopher to examine the halter once again. Varnal joined them for it, and together, they decided that there was little more that could be done with it. After several frustrating hours of approaching and then withdrawing from the prominence laden halter, Rickkter finally withdrew, telling both Jessica and Christopher privately that the type of magic appeared closely similar to what he’d found on Thomas himself, and had found in traces within the stables.

Together, those three also went to spend some time with Thomas. Thomas was still a horse, and after Rickkter cast another calming spell, was docile and rather friendly. At one point, Rickkter picked up a small handful of hay in his paws, and Thomas tried to eat it right out of his palm. Christopher tried to speak directly to Thomas’s mind, but he met with as much success as Rickkter and Jessica met when trying to speak vocally. Much to the bear’s dismay, there seemed to be a vast emptiness, or simply unawareness where Thomas’s mind lurked. In fact, as they left, he remarked that if not for the magic of the curse obviously anchored to him, he would never have suspected that Thomas was anything but a normal horse.

Misha, unable to aid in the magical experiments spent some time that morning with Caroline. The otter could tell that something was troubling him, and had known it for days, but did not ask. Instead, she distracted him by playing a silky sultry tune upon her flute as she danced. Her skill upon the instrument had blossomed under Malger’s teaching, though at times she still sounded blocky and uncoordinated. But watching her own lithe lutrine body move with the music was enough to distract the fox for many hours.

But of course, such a sweet occasion could not last, and the two of them began to straighten up Misha’s quarters. It was Elizabeth his sister who would be arriving, that much he did tell Caroline. And of course, she insisted that he make sure his apartments were as impeccable as her own would be.

And it was while they were cleaning that Sir Egland came around to see him. The knight had spent the previous day intensely training his squire, in part, Misha surmised, to forget what had just happened, and possibly to keep Intoran too busy to wonder what had happened to Bryonoth. But it was about the Flatlander that the elk had come a calling, and after asking Caroline to give them a few minutes, Misha explained what little he knew.

“That means she’s innocent right?” Sir Egland had asked, the hopefulness in his voice betrayed by the fear that layered it.

But Misha had sighed. “I don’t know,” he’d finally replied. “I hope for her sake it does, but...” And it had been on that note that Sir Egland had left, venturing to the Chapel where he offered every prayer he could think of.

But it was not the visit of the elk knight that Misha found the most peculiar. Only an hour later, Kerhsaw came to him informing him that the fox Varnal was outside Long Hall and wished to speak with him. Curious, Misha went and there sat Varnal upon his haunches, looking every bit the animal he’d become. And then, though it appeared difficult for the mage to do, Varnal thanked Misha.

“What for?” Misha had asked, quite surprised.

“It was you, I know it was you, that suggested they ask me to help,” Varnal had explained then, his tail curled up around his haunches, the white tuft poking out brilliantly between his forepaws. “I’m thanking you for trusting me, Misha. It was you who I attacked so long ago now it seems. And now you trust me.”

Misha had been startled by this, for he had not considered it in this light. When the intervention of his brother had rendered Nasoj’s mage a simple animal, one that was locked up in a cage much of the time, he had felt nothing but contempt and satisfaction at his plight. Though it was true that he had suggested Varnal, he had never thought his one time foe might be so grateful as to thank him for it.

“Am I wrong to do so?” Misha had asked, a bit surprised at his own question.

If Varnal had been taken aback at the question, he did not show it. “I do not think so. I think you showed good judgement. But I thank you for it still.”

Misha had only been able to nod then. The rest of his day proceeded as if in a dream, and when dusk finally settled upon Metamor, the fox barely knew it. Only after he prepared himself for bed did he realize that his sister had not arrived that day. Strangely, this discommoded him more than anything else had, and he slept fitfully that night.

So it was that Misha found himself standing atop the parapet to the tower over the Long House just before dawn on the next morning, unable to get more than a few hours sleep that night. His eyes were weary, and he leaned against the crenellation with both arms, paws crossed at the wrists. Staring out over the quiet valley, he could see the townsfolk beginning to rise as well. The stars were winking out one by one as light began to creep into the world, and the bright yellow lights coming for windows began to dim as well.

The scents of the baker’s over warming, produce being shipped to and fro, and the thousands of people living below only barely reached his nose, but his mind was not truly alert enough to recognize them. A gentle wind was blowing across his back, but even his tail could not find enough energy to fight against it, so it brushed haphazardly up against his trouser leg.

But even in his inattentive state, his grey eyes did catch sight of the large bird that was gliding in towards Metamor over the great white peaks of the Barrier Range to the east. In fact, as it neared, dim in the early dawn twilight, he felt certain that he had seen that sort of bird before. It was one that he had known in the days of his youth in fact. A dark gangly bird with huge wingspan, but unknown in most parts of the world. It had made the rocky crags of the Sylvan mountains its home.

And when it began to glide around the large belltower of Metamor, slowly circling in towards the parapet at which Misha stood solemnly, he was certain that it was a condor. He turned as the bird swooped in low, until it landed with a sudden rush of air in the parapet only a few feet from where he stood. Eyes wide, he stared as the creature’s form began to shimmer and dissolve. Standing in its place was his sister Elizabeth, her normal silken robes draped in a rich damask travelling cloak.

“Elizabeth!” Misha shouted, his tail wagging suddenly. He rushed to her side and embraced her firmly. She smiled and returned the gesture, hugging him tightly, her smooth human cheeks rubbing against his own furry vulpine muzzle. It was several long moments while they held each other close, neither wishing to release the other. “It is so good to see you in the flesh! I mean in the fur.”

Elizabeth laughed at her brother’s joke. “And you, Misha. It has been too many years. Far too many. I should have come to see you sooner.”

“Aye, I agree. Be that as it may, you are here now. Do you need anything? You must be tired.”

“Tired, yes, but I will be fine for now. Something to eat will be good. But first, we should meet with the rest of your friends to see what needs to be done, and where I can help.”

Misha nodded emphatically at that, finally stepping back a space to give her room to move. “I’ve an extra bed in Long House waiting for you for when you do rest, Sis. I do still want to show you around some. There is so much here that is amazing that we could spend an entire year studying it and not see everything.”

“I believe it, from what I have read and from what you have already told me.” Elizabeth cast her eyes about the land, what she could see from the vantage of the parapet. “It does look very beautiful. I can see why you decided to settle here, even before you had no choice.”

“And there is more than just the castle too,” Misha pointed out.

“Your soul was always in the woods, Misha,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “We should not waste any time though, for there is much to do and I can not afford to be claimed by the curse.”

“True,” Misha mused, his sudden elation fading only slightly. “But you do look good in feathers.” He pointed towards the stairs that led up to the parapet, and soon the both of them were navigating the narrow circular stairs. Elizabeth had to bend over slightly at first, but soon they both could stand up straight on the way down.

“Caroline is dying to meet you,” Misha said with a smile as they strode side by side.

“I can hardly wait to meet her. That reminds me brother.” Her face filled with sudden interest, though restrained. “Why haven’t you married her yet?”

The fox came to a dead halt and looked down at his footpaws. He twitched several of the claws down there as well. “Ah,” he stuttered, his one ear folding back in chagrin.

“Come now Misha. You can’t tell me you haven’t considered it.”

“I have but so much has happened lately. I was thinking of asking her in the Spring,” he answered in a soft whisper. Elizabeth could see that the white tip of his tail had managed to wedge itself between his legs even as he stood there. Though her brother’s physical form may have been radically altered by the curses, there were some things about him that would never change.

Still, she knew this was a sore spot with her brother so she changed the subject as they resumed walking. Turning her attention to the Keep itself, she ran her fingers along the stone walls as she moved, her face a mixture of wonder and delight. “There is so much magic here, so much, that any wizard could spend a lifetime studying it, and never understand the barest hints of it. So many strange lines, some that I cannot even identify. There was dark magic used here, and there still is.”

The fox nodded at that, moving only a few paces behind her. “Aye, Sis. The curses were laid down with the help of one of the daedra. But it is still part of us now. I would never give up my current form, even if I could. In fact, as I’ve told you before, I can now take on three different forms, and you would not believe how many times I’ve found each useful.”

“I do believe it. Metamor is a living testament to the old adage that every curse is a blessing in disguise.” Elizabeth smiled warmly then, her eyes sparkling as if she’d discovered some pleasant irony. “I will do my part to insure that this land never falls, brother.”

Misha could not help but walk a little taller at that, and he smiled and gave her his thanks. They continued to talk on the way down, pausing only to take a breath. The fox could not help but point out every detail as they passed, and frequently they had to stop at each window so that he could identify the buildings within the city, or name the mountains in the distance. And even when they did not speak of Metamor, there was always family to talk about; cousins, aunts, uncles, mother and father.

For Elizabeth, there was an enchantment in the air greater than that of Metamor itself. Though her magic had allowed them to see each other over the years, it could never be the same as this. Up atop that tower had been the first time she had every truly touched and felt his fur. It was a disconcertingly odd feeling. No matter how many times she had seen and talked to him by magic she was still unprepared for seeing him in person. Still it was her brother and any momentary doubts vanished as they walked and talked. This was truly her brother in spite of all the fur.

When they reached the landing, they found two figures waiting for them. The short bat was Andwyn of course, but the other figure looked like Thomas himself. And if Misha had not known better, he would have thought it Thomas as well.

“Ah, Mistress Elizabeth Brightleaf, allow me to welcome you to Metamor,” Andwyn said with a gracious bow, reaching out with the claw at the end of one wing to clasp her hand gently. He daintily brushed the back of it with his muzzle, smiling oddly as he did so. “It bring me great pleasure to see you here to aid us in our hour of need. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Andwyn, Master of Intelligence here at Metamor.”

“We are well met, Master Andwyn,” Elizabeth said, smiling at the rather lordly way in which he had greeted her. “I see this is your stand in. That is quite a good illusion. My compliments to the caster.”

Andwyn visibly winced at that, and the faux Duke Thomas clopped his hooves warily. “If you would while you are here, maintain the façade that we have created, even if you think us alone.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Of course Duke Thomas. Forgive my error, your grace.” And then her expression became grave. “Shall we begin?”

“No, no, I already tried that,” Rickkter groused laconically as Elizabeth bended at the strands of silver magic that laced across the real Duke Thomas’s torso. Apart from the raccoon mage, Elizabeth was alone with stallion that had been the Duke of Metamor. And as soon as she had looked at him in magic sight, she had known that to be the truth. The number of spells that were lain across him was startling. “And if you touch that strand, it’ll shock you,” the raccoon pointed out, his striped tail lashing back and forth in irritation.

Elizabeth frowned as she worked, heeding his words. “It seems whoever cast these spells was paranoid about shielding them from inspection.”

“It’s worse if you are cursed like me,” Rickkter agreed. “I can see it trying to attack you that way as well.”

“But it has nothing to latch on to,” Elizabeth finished nodding. “These tendrils of silver magic, they hook into the curse’s stream like oars in a river.”

“Oars in a river?” Rickkter asked, his voice betraying a hint of his annoyance. It was clear to Elizabeth that the Southerner was quite unhappy that he had no choice but to accept her assistance.

“Yes. It speeds you on towards the curse’s goal. In your case, making you a raccoon.”

Rickkter’s eyes narrowed. “Well, we still haven’t delved any deeper than I went before with him.”

Elizabeth nodded and returned her focus once more upon the threads of magic. The silver tendrils were completely wrapped around Thomas, and although she had moved a few to the side, other seemed to lay just underneath, squirming like a fisher’s can of worms. “Whatever it is, it seems to wind itself tighter every time I try to move it aside.”

“Yes, I saw that already,” Rickkter said. “Try removing the strands from his head. That’s where it shocked me the most.”

Elizabeth nodded, and let the silver strands slide back into place over Thomas’s chest. Thomas himself seemed to be enjoying the attention, nickering and nudging her to continue what to him felt like a side massage. She had owned horses that were as handsome and graceful as the Duke was, but never had they been actual people. Somewhere buried beneath the equine was a man, a man that seemed to have forgotten that it was more than just a horse.

But Thomas seemed satisfied with the way that Elizabeth’s finger curled about his ears and across his cheek. He did not protest, munching away on a mouthful of oats, curious but placated eyes watching her. Those adroit fingers lifted and pushed aside the silver tentacles of magic, feeling a strange chill running along her arms as she did so. “It looks like it’s trying to touch the curse on you,” Rickkter pointed out with one claw. “But the curse doesn’t have a hold of you yet. Not that it isn’t trying.”

“True,” Elizabeth murmured, watching as the ends of the silver magic seemed to crawl their way up her arms, reaching out for the slight vaporous black cloud that was inspecting her like an inquisitive child might study some new found wonder. “And it is far more insistent near his head.”

“Yes, I discovered that. That’s why I asked you to search there. Can you part the strands so that I might see?”

Elizabeth did not pay the raccoon’s brusqueness any mind. It was hardly an uncommon trait amongst wizards after all. But she did as he asked, even as the strands continued to wind their way around her arms, working up towards her own chest. Where they touched her, her skin felt very cool. They were trying to attack her, but they had nothing to focus their efforts upon.

“The man who cast this spell was very clever,” Elizabeth said as she worked. “No one claimed by the curses of Metamor could have any hope of uncovering the means to undo the spell. And what mage would come to Metamor’s rescue?”

Rickkter nodded, frowning, arms crossed over his chest. “He’s too clever by half. Next time...” the raccoon’s voice trailed off into a guttural growl. But it lasted for only a moment before he added, “Now what is that there, drawn onto his forehead?”

Elizabeth pushed aside the strands just over Thomas’s forehead. It was rather difficult to keep them away, because Thomas had begun to nudge her arms, eager for more attention. Finally, she stepped in closer, letting his head rest upon her shoulder, while she patted his massive cheek with one palm. Her right hand however, kept the strands free from his forehead, allowing Rickkter to see what had caught his eye.

The raccoon frowned then, ears laying flat against his head. “You can see where the halter has scarred into his spirit. His spirit marks him a broken beast.”

Gazing at the burn marks, for they did indeed show up like a dark merlot against his chestnut hide, Elizabeth pondered them. Running her fingers across them, she found that she could actually feel the halter there as she touched his aura. It was there, bound to him, but there was something more. The burn marks were raised over his flesh.

“No,” Elizabeth said at last. “They haven’t been scarred into his spirit. They are slightly raised. You can’t quite see it, but they are. I don’t think that it has become a part of his spirit yet, but it is binding his spirit tightly.”

Rickkter appeared dubious. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Yes. I can almost wedge my finger underneath the spectral harness.” Elizabeth’s face contorted with the effort of burrowing her finger in against the ethereal harness, working to get between it and Thomas’s flesh.

“Look out!” Rickkter shouted a warning just as the halter began to glow a bright blue, and Thomas’s eyes filled with alarm. He reared, knocking Elizabeth from her feet. His hooves waved in the air, before they began to fall right back down upon the mage. But Rickkter was there first, grabbing her about the waist and pulling her roughly to one side. He then pointed a single claw towards the horse and shouted, “Il Reqian!”

The spell had an immediate effect, managing to calm the violent stallion once more. Looking bewildered, Thomas fell back to all four hooves with a clatter. He stared at them for a moment before snorting and lowering his head to the split bag of oats before him and resuming his meal.

Elizabeth was breathing heavily, still rather shaken. “Thank you, Rickkter. I did not see your calming spell dissipate.”

“It didn’t,” Rickkter said with a snarl. “It just simply ceased before my very eyes. I cannot remember the last time I have fought a spell with so many defence mechanisms. I’m going to have to focus on keeping my calming spell intact if you continue to prod at that halter.”

“I will have to,” Elizabeth said. “I think that is the centre of the spell that has brought him to this.”

“The part on him at any rate,” Rickkter said, nodding thoughtfully. “You will want to examine the halter too, as well as the caster of the spell.”

“Before I go any further here in fact. And when I next attempt this, I want to have the other mages who know of this as well. We will need every eye here to uncover this mystery.”

Rickkter did appear to be slightly displeased by the suggestion, but he masked it well. “I shall pass that suggestion along to Steward Thalberg. But for the moment, I shall take you to where we have the halter stored.”

Elizabeth nodded, finally standing up once more. After brushing a bit of hay from her robes, she patted the horse upon the cheek one last time. For just a moment, she had seen that Thomas was truly there somewhere.

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