Again, please read the corrected part 16 before this part.  MS Word made a mess 
of the first posting.

-LurkingWolf


Link 5: Defiance

Tangled cloth bound Lois all about, and he struggled in confusion for a few 
moments before his mind finally recalled the events of the previous night.  He 
had fallen asleep in the form of a feral ermine, another detail that the wolf 
had left out of the dream he had built.  It added to the number of small 
details that had combined to break the illusion.

Much more calmly now, the ermine extracted himself from the cocoon of his 
discarded robe.  Standing on top of the pile, he willed his form to shift back 
to humanity. Fingers grew longer once again, legs shifted to support the stance 
of a man, his body grew, proportions shifting subtly until he had regained as 
much of his stature as he could manage.  Eventually, the Curse did reassert 
itself to prevent him from changing further, leaving him standing on his own 
two feet despite appearing much like an animal still.

Only once he had shifted back did he begin to shiver, a chill running through 
him, and not one brought by a sudden breeze.  It was so easy to be confident in 
a dream, knowing that no harm could come to him.  Now, however, the time had 
come to gamble with his life, and the weight of the coming encounter felt like 
it would crush him.  Leaving the robes discarded behind him, Lois found the 
same bundle of clothing and weaponry that had been so key to the dream.  It was 
stashed beneath the side table where it should have been, since the room was 
entirely without a wardrobe.  Although he felt certain that the pipe would not 
be wrapped in the cloth, he still paused to check.  Nothing.  The impossible 
pipe was absent, as well he knew it should be.

A few minutes later, Lois had dressed himself with the clothing he had worn 
during his most recent, ill-fated patrol.  The proportions were still wrong: 
his longer body left his tunic too short; the trousers were tight in some 
places, loose in others, and had to be folded up to keep him from standing on 
them; and the coat hung loose around his shoulders.  Still, as he had hoped, he 
could still wear the clothing, if not comfortably.  He strapped the pair of 
daggers to his belt, and reached for the bandolier of throwing daggers before 
pausing.  No, he would have no use for them in this task.

An abandoned lumber camp outside of the Outpost…  It was a strange place for 
the wolf to suggest for their coming meeting.  Lois was convinced that it had 
been chosen for a reason, and it made him nervous.  As confident as he had 
played during the confrontation with the wolf he knew that his own plan had 
only the slimmest possibility of success, and allowing his opponent to decide 
the terms of engagement had only made it so much more dangerous.  It had, 
however, been no deception when Lois had noted the difficulty of his own 
position.  Careful use of his few bargaining chips would be required if he 
hoped to succeed.

He had just one more stop to make before he left for his fateful meeting.

*       *       *

Alone, Lois walked on the westward track, the chill of the night air feeling 
natural on his thick fur.  It had been a little longer than an hour since he 
had left, but he was in no hurry to meet his fate.  The guard at the western 
gate had thought it odd that he was leaving alone at such a time, but he had 
caused no trouble.  Likely, he expected that Lois was going to reinforce an 
active patrol.  Hopefully he would live long enough for that assumption to 
prove correct.

Lois almost missed the turn off the main road that the wolf had mentioned.  
Although it was defined, there were clear signs that it had been in disuse for 
a significant amount of time.  Though there were still portions of the path 
where the dirt was too thickly packed together for any vegetation to grow, but 
the forest had started to take back the ground it had lost, roots breaking up 
the dirt until small plants were able to sprout even where wagon wheels had 
once packed it down.

The lumber camp was just barely visible from the beginning of the path, but the 
trees growing nearby made it impossible to see if anyone was there.  It was 
certainly possible to see the state of disrepair the building suffered, 
however.  The roof, already built roughly, had lost boards at several spots, 
leaving a rough skeleton of a structure standing against the tests of time.

The ermine took his time as he approached, eyes and ears tuned to try to detect 
the wolf at earliest opportunity.  He was not sure if it was possible to accept 
the improved senses of his animal side without changing the rest of his body, 
but he was certainly trying his best to do so.  Still, he could not hear, see – 
no, not even smell – anything that suggested that someone had come this way 
recently.  It was possible that the wolf had taken an entirely different route 
to his destination, but Lois feared that perhaps Nathan simply knew some trick 
to mask his path.  It could make the upcoming confrontation that much more 
difficult.

The path continued, curving towards the workers’ entrance past a few steps that 
had been built into the path, reinforced by timbers that had been driven down 
into the dirt to make climbing the inclines easier.  The ermine proceeded 
slowly, still staying wary of any shadow that looked out of place.

The open-air structure was a haunting sight.  Axes, saws, and simple 
woodworking tools were scattered about the area, most of them looking as though 
they had just been left there by workers who had expected to return at any 
moment.  If it were not for the clear signs of wear and corrosion on the hafts 
and blades of those tools, Lois might have wondered if the confrontation would 
be interrupted.  Lois took care to step over the abandoned implements as 
carefully as possible while still trying to pay attention to everything else.  
There was still no sign of the black wolf, but the ermine had a distinct 
impression that he was there somewhere.

“I see you took your time.”

Lois’ impression proved to be correct as a voice sounded from somewhere nearby. 
 The former assassin turned, trying to track the source of the words, but found 
it impossible to do so in the darkness of his surroundings.  It proved even 
more complicated when the next words spoken seemed to bounce around the area, 
words sounding hollow like they might when spoken in the loneliness of an empty 
room.

“You are fortunate that my line of work already demands a great deal of 
patience.”

“I came as agreed,” Lois replied eyes, ears, even nose searching for his rival. 
 “I made no promise regarding the time of my arrival.”

“As I made no promises regarding the nature of our meeting,” Nathan’s voice 
replied.  Again, he seemed to speak from no less than three locations over the 
course of his statement, each far removed from the last.  Either there was some 
magic involved, or the wolf was employing some sleight to render himself 
untraceable despite Lois’ best efforts.

“What is to know about our meeting?  We are here to settle a conflict by one 
means or another; by my death, or by your successfully reclaiming me for your 
masters.”  Lois slowly drew one of his daggers in his right hand, turning 
casually to search behind him as he took the other in his left.  He had hoped 
that there would be some sort of epiphany as he held the weapons, a memory of 
the way he had used them in the past.  Unfortunately, he felt much the same as 
he had earlier that day fighting Balrog.  He could remember the way combat 
should flow, but could not imitate it himself.  Even the weight of the weapons 
in his hands felt wrong, no matter how he held them.

“You come prepared to defend yourself, I see.”

Lois thought he saw movement in a nearby shadow, but there was nothing there 
when he turned.  He felt exposed where he stood; no doubt his opponent could 
see where he was, and he had no such advantage.

“I come prepared to do what I must.  What is it that you seek to accomplish?  
Here I am; I have no shelter.  If you wish me dead or captured, your 
opportunity is here.”

“I would much prefer to hunt you from the shadows, much as you did to those you 
killed in times not long past.”  Suddenly, a rush of movement before him, and 
Lois had to backpedal suddenly to avoid a blinding flurry of sharp, furious 
blows.  He lacked even the time to focus his eyes on his assailant before the 
attack was over, leaving him standing in the center of the building, panting as 
he tried to find the wolf.  “Remember?  Often you would toy with them, drive 
them nearly mad from fear before finally landing the fatal blow.”

The voice spoke with no shortness of breath despite the brief, intense 
skirmish.  Lois himself was far more winded than he should have been, but again 
he lacked any memory of efficient technique and all that remained was blind, 
desperate panic.  “I do not remember,” he admitted.  Where was that cursed wolf?

“Of course not.”  There was a sinister chuckle, a sound that bounced about the 
area in chaotic echoes despite how open the building was.  “What memory would 
an animal have of a man’s life?”

Lois held his peace, but in his silence, he tried to determine the aim of the 
wolf’s comments.  It was aimed at somehow unsettling him, but as he stood there 
he could not determine how.  Engaging an elusive opponent in a game of wits 
that forced him to stay on guard at least made him feel more confident in his 
humanity.

“You know why you were reduced to an animal, don’t you?”

Another attack; this time Lois caught a glimpse of movement to his left just 
before it came, and he tried to meet the flurry with an attack of his own, only 
for his desperate strike to be batted away easily by one of the wolf’s strange 
sticks.  Nathan spun in front of the ermine, responding to another thrust from 
his right hand by blocking it at the wrist, a sharp strike sending a shock up 
Lois’ arm and causing him to lose grip on his blade.  A swift series of blows 
to his hip and upper leg sent him sprawling.

And the wolf was gone before Lois could regained his focus.

The ermine half-crawled to where his weapon had fallen, taking it in his right 
hand as well as he could.  The sting that ran up his arm still made gripping it 
difficult, but he would manage.  He dragged himself to a kneeling position as 
Nathan’s voice spoke again.

“Your patrol was subjected to the exact same magic as you were, but only you 
were irreversibly reduced to an animal.  Strange, is it not?”

Lois groaned.  He could feel several areas on his right leg bruising already.  
The wolf was taunting him, and unless Lois could find a way to prevent the 
sneak attacks it would only get worse.  A brief silence hung over the lumber 
camp, a protracted pause designed to give him time to think.  As much as 
anything, it just gave him the time to find his feet again.  He had no doubt 
that the wolf would provide his own opinions on why Lois had been so uniquely 
affected.

“If it were so easy to reduce a Keeper to animal form, any half-competent mage 
could reduce even the most determined patrol to little more than a collection 
of beasts, babes, and mindless objects of lust.  No, the countercurse is far 
too strong for that.  It holds back the Curse enough so that, even if it should 
be strengthened for a few moments, a Keeper would still retain their minds and 
their forms.  It takes a truly sinister magic to overcome its strength.”

Lois stood tall, focusing as best he could on the voice that impossibly echoed 
about him.  He listened to the wolf’s words, but tried to concentrate more on 
anything else that might have been out of place.  Still, nothing stood out.

“Does your lecture have a point?” he asked, his frustrated voice shouting out 
to no one.

The chuckle echoed again.  “Perhaps you sense my direction already.”

The next attack came from directly behind Lois, a brutal strike across his back 
that sent his head snapping back in agony. Both daggers clattered in front of 
him as he collapsed to all fours, stars dancing across his vision.  His mind 
screamed at him that he had to counter before the wolf broke his neck in the 
next flurry, but a desperate wheeling punch met only empty air.  Lois could not 
arrest his momentum, and he spun in a flailing circle, dropping awkwardly onto 
his injured leg with a cry of pain.

“Where are you?!”  Lois cursed, spinning his head to try to find his assailant. 
 He gasped and spat between gritted teeth as his leg gave out from underneath 
him and he fell on his back, panting from exertion despite his failure to 
accomplish anything productive.

“The assassin Vincent Lois, brought low by little more than a common soldier.  
Ah, but who am I to laud my own efforts against the empty shell that was once 
so great an assassin?”  That laugh, that cursed, echoing sound bounced around 
the fallen ermine again.  Even with Lois sprawled helplessly, the wolf did not 
give him any chance to track his movements and continued to mask his true 
location.  “If you were really Vincent Lois, you would have suffered no ill 
effects from so weak a fetish spell.”

The ermine clambered up with the support of a nearby table, thankful at the 
very least that decay had not rotted the legs to ruin.  Already so beaten, he 
could not muster the effort to watch for his opponent as he recovered the 
fallen blades from the ground.  No attack came, perhaps the first mercy 
afforded him during this encounter.

“Your patrol was able to resist because they had the will to do so.  When the 
spell hit you, however, it severed your connection to your masters – to those 
who have molded you and made you who you were.  Vincent Lois was gone, and the 
only thing left behind was little more than an ermine with a few confusing 
human memories.”

“I am no animal!” Lois growled.

“Really?  I wonder…”

Lois had no time to prepare for the next assault, especially as it came from no 
discernable physical direction.  Instead, the next attempt forced a confusing 
jumble of thoughts and instincts to the forefront of his mind.  His weapons 
fell again, this time as he clutched at his head with his paws, crying out as 
his mind was invaded.  His clothing sagged around him as he sank down, body 
changing against his will.

“No!”  The ermine realized what was happening and willed his body back to form. 
 But… what form was he trying to realize?  He looked at his paws – how strange 
they looked – and tried to picture them as he wanted them.  Small, inflexible 
digits tipped with dark claws, padded to let him run efficiently on all fours… 
No!  That wasn’t right!

Unable to recall what he wished to accomplish, it was all Lois could do to 
focus on keeping his body from changing at all.  Though it felt like an 
eternity passed, he managed to hold out only a few moments before the barrage 
ceased.  The confusing thoughts faded into the background again, and finally 
his mind was clear enough to allow him to reverse the change to his body.

His pain from his physical wounds was the least of his concerns now.  He felt 
confused and mentally exhausted.  He could only focus on one thing: that 
insufferable wolf.  What had he done to him?

Finally, it seemed that Nathan had grown tired of hiding.  The black wolf 
emerged from the shadows, laughing and giving Lois a slow, mocking round of 
applause.  “I knew that this would be entertaining, but I honestly did not know 
just how easy it would be to bring out the ermine.  You truly are little more 
than a shell of a man.”

Lois launched himself at the wolf with nothing but his fists, but the wolf 
barely seemed to move as he drew his weapons and blocked the attacks away.  
Rather than disengaging, in fact, the wolf stepped towards Lois, crowding him 
with precise footwork and preventing him from mounting any serious threat.  He 
seemed to know exactly where Lois’ next attack would come from every time, and 
he continued to intercept them effortlessly before striking the ermine where he 
had injured him before.  The former assassin stepped back, but still the wolf 
would not relent, closing the distance still and adding yet more bruises to his 
staggered opponent.  Finally, unable to stand against the attacks any longer, 
Lois fell backwards, tripping and falling back off of the wooden platform and 
into the clearing just outside.

The ermine gasped for air, barely able to see the wolf standing over him 
through the tears in his eyes.  His black fur blended perfectly with the 
shadows, but his amber eyes stared like glowing embers from just beyond arm’s 
reach.  He did not press his attack.  Instead he waited, allowing the battered 
ermine to rise to his feet.  Lois made one feeble attempt to do so, but could 
barely rise above a kneeling position with his right leg so injured.  As he 
raised his eyes to look at the wolf again, one of Nathan’s weapons greeted him, 
its end pointed at his face.

“I hope you enjoyed your chance at freedom,” the wolf said with a patronizing 
smile.  “I had hoped that some small part of the brilliant assassin would still 
shine through, but you are truly no more than an animal trying and failing to 
masquerade as a man.”

As much as Lois hated to admit it, the wolf was right.  He knew more about how 
to be an ermine than he recalled about his lost humanity.  Only a desperate 
fear of fading into the oblivion of an animal’s mind prevented him from 
willingly surrendering.  Yet here, faced with this utter defeat, it was his 
last hope.

The ermine drove himself forward, ignoring the pain, and attacked.  There was 
no thought behind his actions now; for the first time since he had been 
restored, he allowed the ermine’s mind to dominate him.  He was a wounded 
animal with his back against a corner, and survival drowned out any other 
thought.  From all fours he launched one last, desperate attack.

The wolf defended admirably, moving quickly and decisively to stop the animal’s 
surge.  He landed a few strikes, but his opponent felt no pain.  Claws ripped 
across one of the larger man’s arms, and bared teeth snapped for his shoulder, 
tearing out several strands of fur as they just missed flesh.  Nathan roughly 
pushed away from his assailant, but a second attack came as quickly as the 
first.  This time it was the wolf who was unable to generate an effective 
strike before his opponent had closed the distance.  He managed to leave one of 
his weapons for his enemy’s jaws to save his throat from the same fate, and 
with the other rod he delivered a glancing strike, again aiming for the right 
leg.

For a moment, Lois was shocked back to his senses by the dizzying pain of the 
attack.  In that moment Nathan could see the fear return, only to be replaced 
again by desperate rage.  The wolf had been given enough time to regroup, 
however, and he swept his stick sharply across his body, making full impact 
with the ermine’s ribs and sending him flying to the side.

Lois coughed and sputtered desperately for breath, spitting a bit of blood from 
the side of his muzzle.  He was sure that the wolf’s strike had broken a rib at 
least, and no matter how hard he tried to tap back into the rage he had felt 
before, his body had been punished enough.  He screamed his pain and 
frustration to the air, pain blinding him to anything else.  When he did 
finally open his eyes, the wolf was there again, his paw held out towards him, 
the claws tracing an incantation.  The jumbled thoughts and instincts flooded 
back to the fore, but they came as a welcome relief from the agony of the 
ermine’s body.  He tried to will his hand to the pouch on his belt, but he 
could hardly move.  His gambit failed, he resigned himself to whatever came 
next.

Before he could be changed, however, the shaft of an arrow interposed itself 
between him and the wolf, stuck into a tree just below the wolf’s outstretched 
paw.

“Step back!” a shout echoed from somewhere nearby.

The wolf turned to find the source of the rude interruption.  Lois, still lying 
there on the ground, realized that some unknown power had granted him a last 
chance.  He pulled a pouch from off his belt, taking it in one paw and 
thrusting it in the direction of Nathan.  He screamed his agony to the sky, 
even as a spark of memory returned.

He did not know when or where the memory had come from, but he knew for certain 
that it was one of the few that he knew had come from a time before he had ever 
known the name Metamor Keep.

“Do you see those strands of magic?  They are yours for the taking.  They can 
do almost anything, but only if you learn how to weave them.”

Lois’ scream ended as he put every ounce of his willpower into the fetish stone 
inside the pouch.  What magic he possessed activated the spell on the stone, 
and he felt a familiar pulse of power surround him.  With it, his right mind 
faded, and the world faded close behind.

*       *       *

When Alex had first heard the voice sounding in his mind as though from 
somewhere nearby, he thought that stress and lack of rest had finally rendered 
him mad.  Only when the rest of his patrol also reacted to the strange voice 
did he realize that it was not madness, but a message from an unknown source; a 
message, it seemed, meant for someone else.

Julian was the first of the two mages to identify the direction from which the 
voice came, following the strands of magic used to project the words through 
the area back towards their source.  It was a remarkably long journey, and all 
along the way new messages came.  The voice taunted someone, unnamed for some 
time until at last a familiar name was spoken.

Vincent Lois.

The patrol increased their speed, moving as quickly as they could to try to 
forestall any disaster.  Still they were almost too late.  Alex saw the figures 
first: Lois lay unmoving in the snow, his white fur and camouflaged patrol gear 
almost invisible in the dusting of snow, while above him stood a black figure, 
disappearing into the shadows even more effectively than Lois blended in with 
the snow.  Alex planted his paws as quickly as he could, quickly readying an 
arrow on his bowstring and drawing it in a single motion.  He let it fly and 
watched as the arrow stuck fast in the bark of a tree just beyond the two 
figures.

“Step back!” he shouted, another arrow ready before he had finished speaking.

As the black figure turned to face Alex, it was Lois that made the unexpected 
move.  In a flurry of motion and a shout of indistinct rage, defiance, and pain 
he thrust out a paw, and suddenly the area was plunged into an eerie silence.  
The dark figure collapsed without a sound, and Lois himself disappeared from 
Alex’s line of sight.

Julian and Lucy were already dashing past as Alex replaced his second arrow in 
his quiver.  He followed close behind, unsure of what awaited them below.

The scene he found as he arrived was unexpected.  As Julian wove a quick spell 
between his paws, a feral black wolf collapsed into an oblivious heap in the 
snow.  Lucy, meanwhile, was gently picking through the pile of clothing that 
Lois had been wearing moments prior, and it became clear that Lois had again 
returned to feral form himself.  Lying in the snow between the two animals was 
a square of brown cloth, with the familiar shape of a fetish stone just visible 
between the folds, smoldering as if freshly picked from among raging flames.

“Can someone explain to me what in the Pantheon’s name just happened here?”


---
This email has been checked for viruses by Avast antivirus software.
https://www.avast.com/antivirus
_______________________________________________
MKGuild mailing list
MKGuild@lists.integral.org
http://lists.integral.org/listinfo/mkguild

Reply via email to