Never Again a Man - Part XIX

Neither Egland nor Intoran got up to answer the door when Misha knocked, though the knight did invite him to enter. Misha found the oryx on his knees busily polishing his master’s sword, while Egland himself was thrumming a few notes upon his viola. The elk smiled slightly at his entrance. The strain of the past few days was still there, and when he plucked a few more notes, their strident quality made the fox wince.

“Welcome, Misha. What may I do for you?” Egland rose to his hooves, distracting his squire from his task. Turning about, the Oryx also quickly rose, still holding the sword in one hand.

Misha frowned and stepped into the parlour. The walls of the room had been painted a dark green the blended well with the dark wood of the doors, and the sullen grey of the hearth. Perched above the hearth were the elk knight’s first set of antlers. Misha wasn’t sure if the macabre display was meant as a reminded to the knight of the change, or simply because he was proud of them.

“There is a matter that I need to speak to you about,” the fox said, his voice slow and heavy. The excitement of discovering the counter spells had lessened now, and was replaced with the uncertainty of what might still happen. And also, he felt uncomfortable forcing Egland to face Bryonoth again, but there was little choice. “I would prefer if we spoke alone.”

Egland nodded then. His antlers were growing out again fairly quickly, and he was already beginning to develop a third set of points. “Intoran, could you attend to our horses? And you may put that back in my sheath. I’ll clean it up later.” Egland smiled to his squire, who nodded obediently, sliding the elk’s sword back into its home. The oryx then nodded once respectfully to Misha, before stepping out through the front door.

Once the door clicked shut behind the boy, Egland shifted about in his seat to get comfortable, and delicately set the viola aside in its case. “I know you wish to speak to me about Bryonoth. What has been happening. Can she remember herself yet?”

Misha frowned and lowered his head. Taking a in a deep breath, his heart pounding against his lungs and chest with trepidation, he told the elk knight everything he could think of.

Flanked by a pair of guards both in front and behind, Thalberg led Thomas through the halls of Metamor. Strangely, Kyia did not seem to be granting them quick passage from the small stable that they had erected within the lower portions of the Keep to the practice chamber that Malisa had selected for them to use. A further oddity was that she did not provide them the usual thick carpeting to muffle the sound of their passage. But at the very least, there were no others traversing the halls with them, and so apart from the guards, who were all sworn to secrecy to begin with, none would see the Steward leading a bemused horse that bore a striking resemblance to the Duke.

Malisa had cast a calming spell upon the Duke when they had arrived earlier at the small chamber, and the Duke, at first startled by the large alligator, had become quite docile and pliant. He trotted along beside the Steward, responding to the tug of the reins like any other equine.

And that was one thing that pained Thalberg so. When they had brought him into the Keep after their confrontation in the Keep’s stables, Thomas had been unconscious, so they’d had to carry him upon a wagon. Now that Thomas was alert, there was only one way to make him go anywhere, by attaching a halter and lead, and treating him as if he were a regular stallion.

The halter that they had slipped over the Duke’s head was not the one that Bryonoth had used to curse him. They had dared not attempt that after all. Even so, Thalberg would not allow his grace to wear anything he felt beneath his station, and so had selected one of the bejewelled ceremonial halters that were used in earlier days in the ducal procession. Even still, his skin felt as if it were burning where it touched the gold filigreed reins, and it scalded him every time he had to give it a tug to turn the horse that was his Duke this way or that.

The other indignity was that he’d had to place socks over all four of Thomas’s hooves to protect them from walking along the masonry. He’d had no qualms about covering the hind hooves, as Thomas normally did so anyway. But when he’d come to the fore hooves, it had been a far more troubling experience. Four socks were for the mighty equines who would stride in the ducal processions, not for the Duke himself. But, with stolid resignation, he done yet again what was best for his Duke.

Turning his head slightly, Thalberg regarded the massive equine head that bobbed up and down next to his own. Beyond the sparkling rubies and emeralds was the deep dark eyes of Thomas. But to the Steward’s eye, they were merely the eyes of a simple horse. He stared for long moments into those orbs that were larger than some men’s fists. But what did he hope for? A glimmer? Some faint recognition of his own identity? Even of Thalberg’s?

Yet, to his great dismay, none of that came. All that was there was the horse. Feeling despair fill him, Thalberg sighed and opened his jaws to speak in a sotto voice. “Are you even in there at all anymore?”

Though the guards did not hear him, the horse did, and his ears turned to him for a moment, but then returned forward as they continued on their way. The deep chestnut eyes did not see him.

Thalberg fought back the grief that he would never allow himself. No matter what, he must never show grief before his grace. It was his duty to maintain order in the Duke’s household, and he could not do it if he could not maintain order in himself. Though Thomas was but a horse, seemingly in mind as well as body, he was still beholden to his duty. Pressing that thought on all of his emotions, it quenched the agony that burned inside him, and extinguished the grief he felt. Cool resignation and commitment replaced them. No matter what happened, he would always have them.

He gave the reins a slight tug to the right as the passage bent around. The hallways were beginning to appear more ornate at last. Tapestries depicting ancient times, both in peace and in war, ranged along one side of the wall, while light from the sun fell through small window slits. The light struck the walls between the tapestries, and always would. But, it provided a warm illumination that torches alone could no bring.

The hallway was carpeted as well, so he no longer had to listen to the clopping of Thomas’s hooves. The wool carpet was warm and soft between his toes, and it was thick enough to hold his paw print for a few moments as he passed on. This brought a slight warming to his heart, and a strengthening of his conviction, as he knew that the hallways outside the practice room possessed this very same carpeting.

“I apologize to you, for not acting sooner,” Thalberg said suddenly, surprising even himself as the words escaped his muzzle. “I knew something was wrong, yet I did nothing. I apologize your grace. I should have known better. I will not make that mistake again.”

The horse seemed to like the way the Steward spoke to him, but if there were any recognition, even a hint of remembrance, Thalberg could not see it. Holding back the sigh that wished to escape his muzzle, Thalberg gave yet another tug to the reins, turning them left at the intersection. Before them at last stood one of the four doors into the practice room.

As he was no mage, it mattered little how he entered the chamber. The guards at his prompting opened the door, and then Thalberg led Thomas through, keeping his grip on the reins tight the whole time. Still docile from Malisa’s spell, the horse followed through, his cushioned hooves making a soft thumping noise upon the engraved stonework. Thalberg waited for the guards to enter after him and shut the door before he finally let the reins drop fro his paw. He rubbed at the palm with his other fingers, but aside from his imagination, there was no pain.

None of the others had assembled yet, though he expected them all shortly. Turning once more to the guards, he pulled his red robe close about his chest. “Set the bag of oats down for him. And should he relieve himself, attend to the mess immediately.”

As the guards set about their task, some reading the cleaning supplies for what they were sure would happen, while one set the bag of oats down upon the ground before Thomas’s forelegs, Thalberg watched his grace. Thomas appeared a bit edgy as his neck craned down to plant his muzzle in the oats. The rein itself trailed across the floor, dragging the encrusted gold filigree over the engravings. Some of the gold began to fleck away, tiny sparkles in the light of the braziers.

Unable to bear the sight any longer, Thalberg turned his eyes to a concerted study of the markings upon the marble floor. Yet the sound of the horse eating continued to be the only thing he could think upon.

The mages entered last, and when all of them were in the room, the doors were closed and locked. Bryonoth, as she was to be casting the counter spell, also entered with the rest of the mages, though she had to be coaxed forward by Sir Egland, who did his duty with a painful reluctance. But enter she did, and when the knight of the Steppe finally stood in the room, even as the sound of the doors locking behind her had barely reached her ears, her eyes lit upon Thomas idly eating oats on the far side of the room.

There was a strange sort of admiration in her gaze, and after a few weak steps, she began to slowly cross the space of the room, hand outstretched to the horse. Her face was one of wonder and merriment, but there appeared to be little in the way of recognition in it. Her steps were delicate, and a brightness filled her eyes that none could remember seeing for a long time.

Even so, as her spirits bean to lift, the rest of the company grew wary. Thalberg stood a little closer to the Duke, arms crossed before him, long snout lowered in a frown. But Bryonoth paid him no mind, just as she ignored Rickkter twisting his fingers to cast some spell. Egland pursed his lips for a moment as if to speak, but the words died in his throat. And so to the rest, each wanting to do something, but none able to make themselves stop her.

Bryonoth neared Thomas then, her slender but rough hands outstretched. The duke lifted his head from the bag of oats, curious at all the new people who were now watching him. But his eyes found only the Steppe born woman. They regarded her at first with alarm, and then wish a soft curiosity. He leaned his head out, lips extending to rub across her outstretched fingers. Misha sucked in his breath, but nothing happened as the two touched once more.

The knight let him lip at her hand for a few moments before she brushed her other back over his mane, standing beside him now, with a strange confidence that none of them had seen in her since that night. Yet there was a languid quality to her pose that was decidedly uncharacteristic. Still, as they watched her slowly run her fingers through Thomas’s mane, and he press his head against her hand, there seemed to be nothing that jarred.

And then the moment was broken as her fingers lifted up the reins and she rubbed the gold filigree between her fingers. “I dost not think this art his...”

“No,” Thalberg said, his own voice deep but withdrawn. “I mean, yes, it is his. But it is not what you remember.” He uncrossed his arms, only to cross them again a moment later. “Do you know who this is?”

She blinked and stared deep into the chestnut eyes tat stared equally deep back into her own. Bryonoth’s mouth moved for a moment, and a look of intense concentration crossed her brow. “Aye.” She smiled lightly then as one finger ran along behind his ear. Thomas lifted one forehoof and set it down again in pleasure, his long tail flicking back and forth animatedly. “His name art Toumoth.”

“No.” Thalberg’s frown deepened. “That is not his name.” The others standing in the room with him felt as if they were only spectators then, forbidden from interfering. Even Sir Egland took a tentative step back, grimacing in chagrin at the slight noise his cloven hooves made when he set them upon the carved floor.

“His name is Thomas Hassan, and he is the Duke of Metamor.”

Bryonoth took her eyes from the horse and met the Steward’s yellow gaze. “But this art just a horse. It couldst not be the Duke.”

“This is Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor,” Thalberg reiterated, his voice growing in strength. He began to lean forward, his height easily dwarfing the Steppe born knight. “And it was you who has made him this way, Dame Bryonoth.”

Bryonoth blinked, looking back to the horse in sudden apprehension. “I hath done this to his grace?”

“Aye,” Thalberg nodded, leaning still further. “And now you must undo this. Malisa, bring forth the halter.” The Prime Minister did as he bade her, carrying the sealed black box and holding it out before the knight. “Open it.”

Uncertain, Bryonoth ran her fingers through the horse’s flowing mane several more times before she could fully turn and face the Prime Minister. Malisa’s gaze was not warm, but it was comforting in its own way. As her hands reached out to grasp the box’s lid, Thomas’s nose nudged against her arm, and he whickered plaintively to her. Thalberg’s eyes seemed to pale in colour, yellow like jaundice, as he heard that equine sound.

“Open it.” He repeated, his voice nearly a growl. Rickkter spoke a few words under his breath, and Thomas ceased nudging her arms but let his head fall once more to the bag of oats, where he continued to eat.

No longer distracted, Bryonoth pressed her fingers at the side of the lid, and pushed it open. Her eyes beheld the simple leather halter that lay in a tangled pile in the centre of the box with at first trepidation. But that soon melted, being replaced by curiosity, and finally, even as she lifted it out by her fingers like some cobweb, it became recognition.

“Aye, this halter art Toumoth’s.”

“His name is Thomas. Toumoth is something you tried to make him. He is not meant to be a simple horse,” Thalberg growled, though he no longer leaned quite so close. And with the halter now exposed for all to see, even Malisa took several steps back to avoid its touch. Yet Bryonoth continued to hold it with no difficulty, showing not even a hint of increased femininity. Curiously, Rickkter let his eyes show him the threads of magic, and he beheld the halter, still radiating the foul silvery-blue prominences.

And Bryonoth was immune to them. They coalesced and scrapped against her flesh, but seemed to gain no greater foothold than they did with the magic of the curse itself. But those same prominences that were ignoring the knight, were very intent upon the alligator Steward who stood far too close for his own safety.

“Steward Thalberg, it is active,” Rickkter whispered, his voice little more than a growl.

But Thalberg heard and took two steps backwards. “Now, lead Thomas into the middle of the room. You are to take the jewelled halter off, and replace it with the one in your hands.”

Bryonoth nodded slowly then. Her fingers gently stroked the reins as she lifted them higher, pulling taut when they reached her chest. With a single tug, she managed to lift Thomas’s head from the bag of oats. She smiled to him then, and said, “Dost come.” There was a gentleness in her voice that Egland alone recognized, and it made him shiver anew. Only to horses would she speak thus, and when she did, they could never deny her.

And Thomas did follow, his covered hooves making a soft clopping upon the stone. His eyes never left her, the dark chestnut seeing only her as they peered forward over his long muzzle. Nostrils flared as they drank in the air, and his tail swished from side to side, arched regally behind him. And when Bryonoth put her hand up to his lips to stop him, he stopped, clopping his hooves one last time, ears turned forward, waiting almost painfully for the next sounds from her throat.

The Keepers watching sucked in their breath, feeling offended or violated in some way as they watched Bryonoth carefully manage the horse that was their Duke. Every motion of her body seemed almost a dance, a subtle form of art that kept their grace captivated, reducing his mind to the mushy obedience of a simple beast. Yet none of them said anything, reminding themselves that this was necessary to save Thomas and to restore him to his former dignity. For that they were willing to endure the show before them.

Bryonoth let her fingers glide up along the reins until they gently stroked across the horse’s face. They stepped slowly up behind his ears, where for a moment she smiled and ran her nails along the back of those ears. Thomas whickered quietly at that, leaning his head forward, begging for more. But the knight then deftly laced her fingers between the cinch and undid the buckle. Just as effortlessly, she peeled the jewelled halter back from his face, until at last the metal bit slipped free from the horse’s teeth, and Thomas set to stretching his jaw a moment.

Bryonoth gently folded the jewelled leather, making sure that none of the gems scratched the others. Once satisfied, she set it down beside her on the carved floor. She then took the magical leather halter from her other hand, and forced that bit back into the horse’s mouth. Thomas looked surprised by this, but did not object. There seemed to be a crackling in the air as she laid the leather straps over his face once more, and most could feel their hackles rising. Some even felt their fur stand on end as their bodies were charged with some unseen power.

Rickkter could see those silvery lines of power curling around Thomas’s head as the halter slipped around it. They grew in intensity, wrapping about his body more fully and completely. And there was something else as well. Whereas before those tentacles simply emanated from the halter and floated aimlessly in the air, now with Bryonoth touching both halter and horse, their ends were buries in the knight’s form, passing through the halter, before burying their other end into Thomas himself. He felt a perverse sense of admiration for the complexity of the spell, and how utterly unlikely it was that any could ever hope to undo it. But now seeing the connections between the knight and Duke, he knew that it could be done.

Once Bryonoth had cinched the buckle tight behind Thomas’s ears, she smiled again and gave his ears a soft scratch with her fingers. “I hath done as thee asked,” she said at last, looking past the docile horse to the Steward, who still stood with arms crossed firmly over his red robed chest. “Now what wouldst thee hath me do?”

Thalberg took a deep breath and looked to Malisa. “You will undo the curse you have placed upon the Duke. Malisa and the other mages will help you and tell you what to do. “ He gestured once more, and the rest of them felt as if they could move again.

The mages all stepped forward a few paces, looking to each other. Malisa was carrying the pages that they had sketched out earlier, and she handed one each to Elizabeth and Rickkter. She set another page before both Christopher and Jessica who had spaced themselves out equally around the Duke, like the five points on a star. “As we agreed, we all have pieces of the counterspell that we are most suited for. I will direct the spell. Bryonoth, when I give you instructions, you shall do exactly as I say, is tat understood?”

The knight nodded, her long dark hair falling over one shoulder and across her front as she did so. “Aye, I shalt do as thee saith.” She brushed back the hair with one hand, her eyes now once more fixed upon the horse, and the horse upon her.

“Good. Now keep both of your hands places on either side of his grace’s head.” Malisa said, even as she glanced briefly at the parchment she had held back for herself. Bryonoth nodded and did so, looking up into the horse’s eyes as before.

Malisa nodded, and glanced over to the hawk. “Jessica, if you would begin then?”

The hawk let out a small cry as she hopped from one talon to the other, clearly nervous. Her wingtips fluttered, but she managed to keep her focus upon the spells that she would need to cast. Drawing her wings out to full extension, the long feathers spreading wide like a net, Jessica let out a sullen cry. Jessica closed her golden eyes then, even as the magic filled that sound, coalescing around it, turning and twisting with it as it filled the room.

Christopher lifted back his own head, and let loose with a bellow. Quickly, his own ursine voice harmonized with Jessica’s, and the two Keepers were beginning to sing a strange sort of counterpoint. The air began to shimmer around them as they poured their thought into the magic, their voices carrying it all about the room. With both her hands upon Thomas’s cheeks, Bryonoth kept the horse from even thinking about the strange cacophony surrounding him now.

As the rest of them watched, the air about the five mages began to thicken. There was a subtle translucency to it, as if thin walls of glass were beginning to form around them. Their shapes were distorted, and even the song seemed to diverge off key as the shimmering continued. Their voices joined, both hawk and bear continued to sing in their own way, their tones suddenly going in opposite directions. As Christopher began to search for deeper and deeper notes, Jessica’s shriek became piercingly high. And then, as abruptly as they had begun, they stopped.

The silence was quickly filled with chanting from Rickkter, Elizabeth, and Malisa, all three simultaneously. But not a single one of them was saying the same things. Their voices overlapped each other, their voices each intoning rituals so different in character, it was becoming clear that they were not even speaking the same languages. Even so, as the rest listened, peering at the strangely distorted wall of air that surrounded them, they thought that they could almost hear whole words spoken in the miasma of consonants, as if the real spell was something that could only be heard when one put all three voices together.

Jessica still had her wings outstretched, and even though she was no longer singing, her beak was still open, and from it a few other words began to be intoned. She flexed certain of her feathers, pressing in towards where Bryonoth and Thomas stood. The hackles on the back of her neck began to raise then, as her feathers became even more ruffled. Something was stirring inside the circle of air, something that was beginning to make the bit of parchment that Jessica had pinned to the ground with one talon rustle.

Christopher was drawing something in the air with his paws, moving his claws very delicately and gently, even as they traced out some intricate picture. Light seemed to shimmer as he drew upon the sky, but it was only occasional flashes, as if he were drawing lightning into the air. At last, he clapped his paws together on the ground, and the sparklig blue radiance shimmered for a moment as it coursed through the carved lines underneath their feet. But they stopped when they reached Thomas and Bryonoth, dancing up their legs for a moment before disappearing.

The air in the room was beginning to grow increasingly warm as the three continued their chant. Misha felt himself begin to pant in fact, and as he looked, he saw that George was doing the same. Thalberg appeared quite comfortable, but even he was ill at ease, watching the magicians perform their craft. Shifting back and forth on his hooves, Sir Egland looked absolutely terrified as he watched Bryonoth standing ther ein the centre, hands pressed against either side of Thomas’s head. The elk rubbed at his heavy neck fur with one hoof-like hand, mouth opening and closing repeatedly.

And then Misha began to notice a strange sort of cadence to the different chants the three mages intoned. Even he could now hear what he thought might be words that stretched across their voices. And those words formed sentences and incantations of their own. And with each word’s end there was a trembling in the room, very slight, but he could feel it race up along his legs until it nestled in the base of his spine. He waged his tail anxiously as he watched with rapt eyes.

Rickkter, Elizabeth, and Malisa brought their hands to rest against one another then, even as their voices began to rise in a crescendo. Christopher lowered his own head, and began to let out a low rumbling growl, his claws digging against the stone, the strange diagrams he had drawn into the air beginning to shimmer once again with renewed life, glowing a febrile blue at first, but brightening with each new exhortation. Jessica’s wings began to flap, and the small robe that Bryonoth wore began to swirl and lift up, as if the air were rushing up from underneath of her.

Thomas’s hooves began to stomp nervously on the ground, but Bryonoth kept her hands fixed upon his cheeks and the halter that held them bound. The magic in the halter itself was tightening, pulling Bryonoth and Thomas even closer together, it’s silvery lines growing in thirst and vitality. Rickkter narrowed his gaze as he watched them, his voice deep and forceful as he lashed out with those repeated words. The came form his tongue as if they were all he could say, his inevitable response to every single moment. And he could hear the true spell being cast amongst them, filling the air as his voice and that of both Malisa and Elizabeth blended.

And then, the incantation at an end, their voices broke off with a sudden thunderclap, and the wavering light that had begun to fill the air surrounding them abruptly vanished. The air was still, and all held their breaths. The only thing that moved was the flick of Thomas’s ears and tail, his eyes fixed resolutely upon Bryonoth still.

But slowly, something else was perceived. There, about all of them, surrounding them, pale green light began to fill the crevices of the floor, as if it were some liquid bubbling up out of the Earth. The verdant fluid formed a full circle around them before it began to flow through the other crevices inside. It’s coruscating glint dispersed throughout all the crevices, pooling in some places before moving on to fill up the rest. It trailed under their boots and paws, but they could only feel a slight tickling chill. Even Thomas did not seem to notice as it flowed beneath his hooves.

When every crevice had been filled, the green liquid began to glow more brightly. Jessica dipped her wings into te crevices near her, and let the liquid climb up her feathers. The dark banding along the backside of her wings was quickly encased in that bright hue, and she flapped those wings, spreading the substance into the air. It flowed about, like leave son a windy day, moving this way and that, circling them all, never once breaking outside the original circle that they’d formed. Many of the particles began to settle upon Thomas and Bryonoth, and most especially the halter itself.

Rickkter watched as the silvery tentacles that connected Thomas and Bryonoth seemed to calm themselves when touched by that green glow. Having not moved since the chant had ended, Rickkter could feel his muscles tightening stiffly. The parchment was still before him, having not moved either, now bathed in the deep green glow of the liquid. As one, all five of them bent down and considered the last of the spells drawn out before them.

Malisa was the first to cast hers, setting the parchment further along so that the centre drawing matched the carvings in the floor. With the brush of her fingers, she activated it, and the parchment caught flame, leaving the other ink marks glowing a bright red even as the rest of the paper turned to ash. One by one they each had their pages consumed, until the five glowing embers were all that remained. They began to spin, tightening around Thomas and Bryonoth. Their images began to stretch and distort as they moved faster and faster about the pair. Finally, they were but streaks of red light in the midst of the green haze, bands of light that arced around the duo, keeping them encircled.

Each of those arcs began to circle closer and closer, tightening, moving through their bodies even. They all held their breath firmly, waiting. The air began to hum as if they were still chanting under their breaths, but this was a noise unlike any human or bestial throat had ever produced. It was soft at first, but as those arcs of crimson light danced nearer and nearer the halter they grew louder, and louder, thrumming and making their flesh vibrate and shiver. Misha had to cross his arms over his chest and hold them with his paws to keep himself from succumbing to that rhythm. It was as if a million insects were buzzing in his ears.

And then, before the sound threatened to drown out all of their voices, Malisa said, her voice strangely clear despite the racket, “When each marking appears on the halter, trace along it with one finger. Trace it precisely as it appears.” Bryonoth slowly nodded then, and only a moment later, the first of the crimson beams fell into the halter itself, swirling as if sucked down a whirlpool. As it struck that patch of leather that covered the bridge of Thomas’s nose, some fiery symbol showed itself, tracing in subtle but smooth curves.

Lifting her right hand, she began to run that finger along the symbol. But Thomas, head no longer held so firmly, tried to take a step back. Bryonoth tightened her grip with her other hand, reaching back and pulling the reins firmly down. Thomas whickered in surprise, eyes blinking, looking warily about him, but did not disobey the one who held his reins.

As the second of the five red arcs was sucked down into the maelstrom surrounding the Duke’s head, the thrumming grew in intensity. Misha found himself bounding over his middle, his stomach churning and wishing to be on the outside. Nor was he the only one, as George and Sir Egland on either side of him did the same. Even Thalberg looked physically ill, one scaly hand crossed over his yellow belly while his ponderous tail thrashed back and forth.

And when the second band of light disappeared into the halter, there was a soft concussion amidst the buzzing in the air, and an orange light glowed from the halter. Bryonoth traced out the symbol as it appeared, and as she finished, the look of alarm in Thomas’s features increased dramatically. Stomping his hooves, the horse was beginning to pull back on the reins, kicking with one of its hind hooves, and only narrowly missing Rickkter.

Unable to stand the agony of the spell, Misha finally doubled over and pressed one of his hands against the floor to steady him. The constant buzzing in his mind made him feel as if he too were catching fire. The sparking nimbus of light that was surrounding the halter was beginning to stretch out to greet all of them. It did not seem to affect the mages standing in the shroud of green light, But Misha could not help but watch, eyes wishing they could excise themselves form his skull, as his right hand began to shrink, the fingers receding into a simple fox’s paw.

The concussion that ensued when the third beam of red light fell at last into the halter made him yip in agony, as if somebody had driven a needle through his mind. His clothes were becoming stifling and cumbersome, and he wished to be free of them. He howled as his body was racked with the fiery pain, one that was all too familiar. If the mages heard it, they gave no hint, so focussed were they on Thomas and Bryonoth before him. Misha saw them tower overhead, even as his pantaloons slid down his vulpine tail to pool around his hind paws.

With only two beams of light circling the halter now, it seemed to be glowing a bright yellow, it’s light bright like the suns. Bryonoth was but a silhouette now, standing amidst that obdurately painful glow like some fiend of the night. Misha crouched in agony, yipping painfully, before finally abandoning that as his voice was in too much pain to even do that anymore. He curled up, tail crossing over his snout as if to protect himself form the pain. He wished to escape, to flee this room, but the doors were locked against him. He could no more open them than change back just then.

The clanging of the fourth beam of light’s entry into the halter felt like a hammer being driven down upon his body. The crush of it weighed him down, and his paws all splayed out, as he was beaten like a sword upon an anvil. Fleeting thoughts came to him then, images of the life he’d had before entering the room. They came, and with each blow of that hammer, they were banished from his mind like chaff thrown into a fire. Blearily, he turned his gaze to the piercingly bright figures in the centre of the chamber.

And then yowled in pain as the fifth beam of light sunk at last into the halter. Scared and frightened, the fox pressed itself against the wall, feeling the agony of death beginning to take it. All about him, the clutch of its dark grip began to coalesce, and somewhere deep in the poor animal’s mind, it knew that it would never see light again after this. Filled with nothing but pain and fear, the beast gave out one last howl of agony as he soiled the wall where he crouched.

As Bryonoth’s fingers traced the last of the symbols on the halter, the blinding light and deafening sound ceased. So great was the contrast that the mages all thought for a moment that they had gone blind and deaf, blinking until the simple light of the room was once more visible to their burned corneas. Rickkter lifted one paw to rub at his eyes, and then feeling the world return to him, he glanced at the magic about him.

The silvery tentacles that had attached themselves to both Thomas and Bryonoth through the halter, were now gone. The halter itself seemed as innocuous to him as its leather appearance would to any ostler. The strange spells that had wound their way over Thomas were no more, revealing only a cursed Keeper in the shape of a horse. Even Bryonoth appeared completely normal, though there was still a hole in her spirit, one that had slowly begun to grow back already.

Breathing slowly, he stared and said, “It is done.”

The green light that had surrounded them and protected them against the halter faded back into the floor. Even the ashes from the parchment’s they’d burned were no more. But still, Bryonoth stood before Thomas, her hands holding tight the reins of the halter, her eyes staring deeply into his own.

And that is when Rickkter heard the yelping of frightened animals, and looked about the room. He stared with muzzle gaping at the fox and jackal that had pressed themselves against the wall near discarded piles of clothing. An elk was trotting frantically along the walls, eyes white with fright. An alligator lay sprawled in the centre, snapping its jaws at the elk as it trotted past, nothing but bestial hunger in them.

“Sweet Akkala!” Jessica said in surprise as she saw them as well.

Both Elizabeth and Rickkter were quick to cast calming spells on each of the frightened beasts, even as Malisa took a few tentative steps to where Bryonoth and Thomas were still locked in that moment. She nodded to the knight, even as the keening of the beasts abated, and then slipped the reins from her hand. Undoing the buckles behind Thomas’s head, Malisa slipped the halter free from her adoptive father and folded it. Quickly, Malisa placed it within the box that she’d kept it sealed in, and closed the lid once more. She doubted it would ever be opened again.

But when she turned back, she saw that Thomas was still a horse, not to mention the rest of their friends were still beasts too. “It was stronger than we thought,” was all she could say.

Christopher nodded, even as he peered at the Duke. {Your grace, are you there?}

Bryonoth blinked at hearing the voice in her head, and took a step backwards, glancing about the room. Her eyes beheld the elk that was rubbing its antlers against the stone wall. “Ts’amut?” The elk looked to her then, and the first hints of recognition dawned in the cervine eyes.

Appearing embarrassed, the elk began to shift then, huddling down near to his clothes as he took on a more human form, until finally a naked Sir Egland was all that was left. “What happened?” he asked then, even as he pulled the torn remains of his shirt back on. He had to hold his trousers up to keep them from falling down.

“The spell has been broken,” Elizabeth said at last, even as she looked to Misha who was still in a fox form. After a few moments, he took began to rise up, finding his clothes and pulling them on once more. Both he and George looked quite embarrassed, their ears turning a shade of red as they hastily dressed themselves.

“Father,” Malisa said as she approached the horse, her voice full of obeisance.

But Thomas showed no recognition, his chestnut eyes focussed upon the empty air now that Bryonoth had stepped away from him. His nostrils flared with breath, and his tail flicked from side to side as if swatting at insects, but his ears did not turn at the sound of his name.

Thalberg had recovered the slowest of them all, and was now pulling his red robe about his shoulders. He’d born nothing else on underneath that thick robe, and so was quickly dressed once more. “Duke Thomas!” Thalberg called, his voice firm with authority. “Come back to us, your grace.”

Misha had managed to still his shivering flesh, though he smelled of his own urine, a fact that made his ears blush even more. Still, that thought was forgotten as he too raised his voice in the chorus, calling out Thomas’s name to the unresponsive horse.

Sir Egland, once he finished dressing himself, stepped up beside Bryonoth, and placed a hand upon her back, looking at the horse uncertainly. He leaned his snout low next to her ear, and whispered, “Call to him, Ts’amut. Call to him and he will answer you.” Though the words were the elk’s, he was unsure why he felt so certain.

But Bryonoth did step forward then, her face a mask of both fear and strange yearning. She reached out one hand again, brushing the tips of her fingers across his lips. “Duke Thomas. Come back to me, thy grace.”

At her voice, Thomas’s eyes lifted then, and met her gaze. His flesh began to ripple then, and he leaned back on his hind hooves. With a loud neigh, he reared back, forehooves waving through the air, even as his body began to shrink. Those forehooves began to split, fingers suddenly visible. His chest drew inwards even as his hips swelled outwards, the length of his head drawing back. And then that neigh became the exultant cry of a man’s voice, so fresh to their ears that it seemed the wailing of a newborn babe.

Before them, at last, stood Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, the horse once again become a man. They marvelled at the sight of him, his eyes filled with crazed wonder before he looked about them all and said, voice soft, though with a strength that made their knees buckle, “Bring me some clothes, someone.”

“Father!” Malisa cried out, rushing to his side and pressing her face into his shoulder.

“Your grace!” Thalberg boomed, falling to one knee, even as he pulled his robe from his body, and held it up for the Duke to take. Thomas slipped it over his shoulders, even as he put a comforting arm about his adopted daughter.

“Duke Thomas! Hail to thee, Duke Thomas Hassan!” Misha cried out as he too went to one knee. Even Elizabeth bowed then before the restored Duke along with the rest of the overjoyed Keepers.

Thomas surveyed them all with a weak smile, scanning them, before his eyes fell at last on Bryonoth once more. He opened his muzzle to speak, but said nothing. Instead, he smiled widely and began to weep with joy.

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