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
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