Burning Time

by Lurking Wolf

From the Journal of Vincent Lois

November the 22nd, in the year 707, Cristos Reckoning

Time: A precious commodity, when one is short on it. However, when one has it in overabundance, it becomes a chore just to decide what to do with it all.

This morning I arrived at Metamor Keep, the Jewel of the North, my only true home. I cannot begin to describe how it feels to once more be within these walls. I feel reinvigorated. I want to see everything I saw when I was here the first time. I feel a bubbling excitement, a longing to be everywhere at once, yet at the same time, there is indecision. After so long, after so much has changed, where do I start?

I have already seen strange things in my time here at the Keep. Even before arriving, it fell to me and the members of my caravan to assist a Metamorian lumber crew in removing a tree that had obstructed our path. Among these people was one who truly stood out, a beaver with plaid fur. I had known that the Keep's Curse was known to produce strange changes at times, but I had not known that a change in fur tone was one of these.

As I entered the Keep, there was relatively little activity on the streets, this owed to a storm that blew in a few days back. Still, one does not pass by a bipedal horse leading a quadruped member of his own species without having to look twice. Beyond these instances, however, the Keep seems to have saved it's more surprising aspects for later. The person from whom I received my room was an apparently normal woman. By my knowledge of the Curse, she must have once been a man. Either way, they do business the same, so I noticed little difference.

There was hardly anything remarkable about the boy who took my horse to the stables, either. I could imagine that he is still waiting for the Curse's effect on him, yet he could also be one of those forced to live a second childhood by the Curse.

As for my own part, I now sit in my room, waiting for the weather to clear before doing anything. There are so many places that I could go. Here in the lower keep, there are various establishments I used spend much time in, craftsmen I knew by name from the amount of time I spent examining their wares, memories that I can now revisit now that I have returned. The library, in which I spent so much time my first time here, would still undoubtedly hold secrets I would love to uncover. The Deaf Mule, the one place in the world where I actually allowed myself to become acquainted with people, would also be an interesting target. Perhaps I will once again wander the halls aimlessly, letting the strange features of the Keep take me where they will. Whichever of these options I select, however, I will wait for the weather to clear. While I am not unfamiliar with bad weather, and although I do not hate it as some do, I will not be at all put out when I may once more walk outside without being soaked through.

The inn at which I have taken lodging has been kind enough to give me almost any comfort I desire, as long as my coin is good. So, until such time as I am once again able to wander freely, I will remain here at the inn and do as much as I can to prepare myself for my eventual permanent residence in this Keep.

So much time, yet so little to do. How I wish that the weather would turn! Still, it seems that I must wait until the morning to reacquaint myself with the Keep. Until then I can only sit and wait.

-Vincent Lois

November 23, 707 CR

Lois awoke the next morning to the soft sounds of activity outside his door. Although the activity probably wouldn't have bothered many other people, he had long since trained himself to respond to all sounds in the night as possible threats.

It was almost a minute until Lois had convinced himself that there was no threat to himself. He released the hilt of his dagger slowly, then sat up slowly in his bed. Looking to the side, he could see sunbeams coming through the thin cracks in the wall. It was morning, and by the looks of it, things had cleared up considerably since the day before.

Lois prepared himself for the day quickly. He exchanged his traveling clothes, which he had worn to bed that night, for something slightly less rough looking. Although his wardrobe changed, though, there were certain things common between both sets of clothes. Both were dark in color, dominated by grays along their entire lengths, although the shade varied. Where his traveling attire had been completely undecorated, however, the clothes he wore now were decorated along the edges by intricate workings of black thread.

The thing that was exactly the same between both sets of clothing was that his weapons were still buckled about his waist, one dagger slightly in front of either hip. The handles were angled towards each other, allowing Lois to grasp them both and draw them across his body with relative ease. Apart from this, Lois wore no weapons on his immediate person.

Before leaving to explore the Keep, however, Lois took a cloak and draped it about his shoulders. He could already feel the cold air of winter pressing its way through the cracks, and he didn't want to be unprepared when he finally left the relative shelter of the indoors.

This done, Lois made sure that nothing was left where it could be meddled with, then left his room for the day. He had selected a room on the second floor, hidden from the view of most anyone. There was only one door relatively near it, so Lois could rest much easier about his belongings, not that they were unprotected otherwise.

Turning his thoughts from his belongings and onto the day ahead, Lois moved towards the stairway that would lead him down into the main room. He could already hear the sounds of people beginning their day down below. He could smell what humble food was offered by the inn carried on the morning air. He could tell just by the smell that it was nowhere near the quality that he was now accustomed to eating, but it seemed to call him on this particular day.

The room below was about half full, with most of the men visible being human, likely belonging to some sort of caravan. A larger group was huddled in the corner, one member seeming to be keeping an eye out for any eavesdroppers. Lois chose a table just off to the side of them and sat down. There were only two people working as waiters, a boy, seemingly about twelve years of age, and a girl who looked to be a mix between human and some sort of bird. Still she did her job with remarkable quickness, and seemed to have no trouble carrying things with her strange arms.

Lois wasn't in the least surprised when it took them near fifteen minutes to attend to him. When they finally did, however, he smiled and waved their apologies off. He ordered a plate of whatever was hot, then sat back to wait again.

When the food finally did arrive, Lois was surprised and pleased to find that it was still quite warm. He paid for the food quickly out of his purse, then began to eat in preparation for the day. The breakfast consisted solely of a bowl of warm porridge with a slice of bread on the side. Anything beat the food that he was forced to eat on the road, however, and he ate thankfully without giving it a second thought.

While he ate, he found himself listening in on the goings-on at the neighboring table. He was able to catch something about the purpose of the meeting, or so he assumed. The men were apparently unhappy with the length of time that their employer was intending to stay at Metamor. They grumbled about it among themselves. Apparently, the man who was looking about suspiciously was charged with keeping a lookout for said man.

As he listened, Lois began to think quietly to himself. Wherever there was unrest and tension within a group, there was room for potential employment. If he could put in a few well-placed words without sounding too suspicious, he could generate work for himself.

Lois was already trying to think of what he would say when he caught himself. He shook his head angrily, trying to rid himself of such thoughts. ‘I am not an assassin any more!' He almost said it out loud, but was able to keep himself under control.

The remainder of his breakfast lost what flavor it had had before. He should have been able to control such thoughts, but they constantly came back to haunt him. He had left the life of an assassin years ago, but it still had yet to leave him. Sometimes he wondered if he would always be haunted by such thoughts. He desperately hoped not.

He finished his breakfast, leaving behind the empty bowl that had contained his porridge as well as a coin of rather high value. It had not been an accident or a chance that he had left so much, he had learned that all he really needed was enough to live, and he could give up anything he didn't without much thought now. Sooner or later he'd run out of money if he didn't find work, but it had been a long time since that had happened, and he seriously doubted the chances of it happening in a place like Metamor Keep.

A slight dusting of snow had fallen the night before, hiding some of the patches of ice that had formed after the storm. Lois took care not to step on any of these places, and so had to keep his eyes on the road before him more than on the people he passed on the road. He did notice them, but was unable to make much eye contact. He was even farther from actually knowing any of the faces well enough ton recognize if he saw them again, mostly due to the fact that there were quite a few animalistic faces that he had no idea how to recognize. He supposed that he would get used to this sometime, but he had serious doubts that it would be any time soon.

He was indecisive at first as to where he should go. He had so many places that he could go, so many things that he had to look for, so many memories to be dug up from within the stones of this keep.

He stood in front of the inn, quietly considering for a moment, before he decided on what to do. His decision, however, ended up being more influenced by routine than by a desire to reacquaint himself with the Keep. Dredging through his distant memories, he set off towards his destination in silence, disregarding the other occupants of the roads as he moved. There would be time for socializing after he had a more permanent form.

It wasn't near as cold as it had been the day before, but he still hunched his shoulders against the cold. The fact that he had not been active also contributed to the cold. No problem, really. He would be fixing that in a few moments.

Memory seemed content to serve in this instance, and Lois soon found himself staring over a sparsely inhabited practice field. A few scattered groups had determined to brave the cold, and now huddled in groups or sparred amongst themselves. Some isolated people went through their drills, swinging through slow warm-up strokes or quickly and systematically decimated one of the practice dummies that lined one wall.

Lois spent little time observing, although he did scan the faces for any particularly unusual people. Every time he found one that struck him particularly odd, he committed it to memory. He had no intention of getting caught off guard by any one particular person if they were inclined to introduce themselves to him.

The Keep had decided to be rather merciful on him today, however, and most of the animal keepers were rather ordinary by the Keep's standards. As soon as he had finished his survey of the group, he did something that drew a few curious glances from those who had noticed him. He removed his cloak, leaving himself wearing only a suit of light leather and a plain white shirt, stained in various places from years of use. Though this suit could deflect a blow passably well, it was not designed for weathering the cold.

For a moment, he just stood there, allowing his body to become better adjusted to the weather. It wasn't quite freezing, although there were still some frozen patches on the field, but it was enough to chill him to his bones. He suppressed a slight shiver, unwilling to allow the cold to dominate him. Cold was something to be dominated, not something to give in to.

Once he felt that he had settled enough, he began to warm up. Although it was not in any way fancy, there was a small dirt track to one side of the training field. It was marred by the recent storm, with strangely shaped holed riddling its surface, likely the footprints of some person foolhardy enough to train during the rain or immediately after. Whatever the cause, many of the divots had since been filled by rain, which had, in due time, frozen over. The result was a veritable obstacle course, which suited Lois fine.

At first he kept a slow steady pace, making laps in good time but not excelling by any definition of the word. He simply concentrated on landing firmly with every step, keeping his pace up, and making sure that he didn't injure himself on the damaged track.

Few others saw fit to join him, most preferring to use other places to run. Some even had their own set courses that they would take through the Keep. Whatever their running courses were, however, few wished to risk injury on that track. Lois, however, saw it as a challenge, and he was not one to let a challenge beat him.

It was bout ten minutes after he had started jogging before he increased his stride. One moment he was simply warming up, the next he seemed to be on a mission, almost rushing around the track. Still he avoided the frozen puddles and as many of the divots as he could. He lasted four times around the track, and then stopped walking slowly for another two laps before he walked back towards the main area of the training field.

Now that his running was over, Lois began to stretch. He spared nothing, making sure that every part of his body had been stretched sufficiently before moving on in his exercises. The cold, mostly forgotten during his run, now sought to render his activities moot. Regardless, Lois continued his stretches until he was certain that he was ready.

Once this was finished, he drew his daggers. The weapons had not left his side once during the rest of his warm-ups, as he had kept them strapped to his belt. This was the first time that they had been drawn today, however.

Lois moved through a series of slow movements, moving in both body and mind through each step of each technique, making sure that everything was correctly executed. He had no doubt that it would be, but he had to make sure that everything was fresh in his mind. He did, after all, expect to be using it somewhat more than he had for the last few years. He had no intention of sitting back and letting others defend the Keep while he rested.

Once he was certain that all of the basic techniques were fresh in his memory, he began to pair them, moving from one to another in a flawless rhythm, daggers tracing patterns in the air. The patterns were intricate enough that they could make a casual passerby wonder if Lois was preparing some spell. In reality, though, the moves were nothing more than what they seemed to be at face value; intricate patterns, aye, but little more.

Little more, that is, unless you were fighting against Lois.

The movements of his weapons served several purposes. First, they kept changing the positions of any perceived weaknesses in his defenses. Unless a fighter was very decisive, he could be thrown off by the rapid changes in Lois' position. Second, any decisive fighter could be drawn into a seemingly obvious hole in the defenses, only to have the weakness disappear, leaving Lois to at an advantage. Last, an inexperienced fighter could be lulled off of his guard as he tried to find a hole in the weave of blades. Whatever the type of fighter, the technique had its uses against them.

The blades gradually increased in speed, the patterns repeating themselves, but now moving ever faster, until the blades moved so quickly that it was a wonder that Lois himself could keep the blades controlled enough to continue the weave unbroken.

Finally, Lois slowed, dropping from the fastest point of the weave into a slow, almost lazy pattern. He continued at this for a few moments, until the weave finally ceased altogether, leaving Lois to take a few moments of recovery. This respite was short lived, however. After a bit of water to refresh himself, he moved on to the next part of his personal routine.

He moved over towards the training dummies. He spent little time waiting, instead launching into a series of attacks that had a rapidly devastating effect on the dummy. The attacks themselves seemed of little note, but the condition of his target and the flying material from the straw man attested to the fact that the rapid strokes were for more than just show.

He took frequent breathers, not wanting to wear himself out, but rested only as long as was necessary before once more attacking. He was forced several times to change which practice target he was attacking because it simply did not hold up against his constant rain of blows. He was unaware that, as he practiced, he was watched by a very curious pair of eyes from across the training grounds. The person to whom they belonged, however, made sure to stay out of Lois' view.

After Lois had completed that stage of his personal routine, he slowly wound down, performing some last stretches. As he left the training grounds, he did so at a jog, making sure to give his legs ample opportunity to cool down before settling back to a walk.

The morning was still young when he finished, and he was set on making it as profitable a day as he could. Walking now at a brisk pace, he set off to see what more the Keep held in store for him.

Lois spent a good bit of the rest of the day passing by some of his old haunts. To his dismay, a good many of the ones that had been built outside of the upper keep were either severely damaged or completely destroyed. A few no longer were even open for business. He inquired at one place as to what happened to the establishment that had been there before, only to be informed that the owners had died at the Battle of the Three Gates, almost nine years ago already.

By noon, Lois had pretty well accounted for many of the places he had once frequented. Of them, very few were surviving in any manner that he recognized. Of those that were still recognizable, one was now owned by the eldest son of the former owner, who turned out to now be his eldest daughter. As he had known the owner relatively well in the year he had been there, Lois found this change to be quite interesting. The owner was not present at the time that Lois went to see him, but his daughter assured Lois that he would not recognize him. She referred to him jokingly as ‘the old goat', making Lois wonder exactly how literal she was being.

It didn't seem like very long until both the position of the sun and his hunger told him that it was time to get something to eat. He stopped by the inn where he was staying to get a bite to eat. Their fare, although just a small convenience that they added to make their rooms look more attractive, Lois had to admit that it was rather satisfying. More filling than it was flavorful, it still presented a pleasant contrast to the cold as it was served piping hot. Although the food was paid for with his room, he still left a generous tip for the waiter.

His hunger sated, he now decided to find revisit one of his more frequented spots in the keep. He whistled quietly as he went on his way, giving some cheer to the otherwise dreary walk to his destination. The winter sky frowned down on him from above, as it likely would for the next few months. He had never been partial to winter, but he was a bit more resilient against the cold than were a few others he could think of. Having had to spend the better part of one winter outside without any more shelter than his coat and whatever windbreakers he could find, he had grown somewhat callused against what winter could throw at him. Still, it was due to the many times he had nearly died that winter that he truly hated the season.

When he finally entered the inner keep, he immediately raised his head and lengthened his stride. There was very little ice to be found here, and only in places where there was no ceiling. If all went well, he would not have to deal with such a place until he reached his destination.

He smiled and gave polite greetings now as he passed people in the halls. A few of the people he greeted stopped to give him odd looks before continuing on their way. He paid them no mind, simply going on his way. The Curse had changed things since he had last been in this area of the world, but he wasn't about to let that bother him. The halls still had a familiar feel to them. It was almost as if he had never left.

He turned at random, just choosing a direction that seemed good to him for the time. It didn't take him long to find his way to his destination however. He smiled to himself at the oddity of the keep's halls. This had to be the hundredth different way he had navigated these halls to reach the same place.

He stepped through the doors into the library, looking about himself with a quiet smile. The rows upon rows of books on the shelves still stood, not much changed since the last time he had seen them. The quiet of this part of the keep was almost unnatural. Where other places in the very near area were bustling with noise and conversation, the silence of the library was only broken by quiet whispers and the occasional sound of a turned page. Lois had often wondered if the Keep's mages had warded the room against the louder sounds.

He didn't even wait to see if the librarian was still about from his last time in the Keep. Instead he wandered off searching for a particular one of the books he had studied in his time there before. He walked along, occasionally running a finger along the binding of a book he knew. He smiled; these books had been nearly his only companions during the long hours of silence that he had spent studying here. Although it had been years since the last time he had been among these shelves, he walked through them like it had only been yesterday.

He finally found what he had been looking for. The shelf held a selection of the books that Lois had been especially interested in during his stay. They mostly dealt with different types of weaponry and styles of combat, but there was one other. It was the one that he wished to find in specific, one that dealt more with a general history of the Southlands.

It did not take long to find. It was a rather large book, with the title sewn into the binding in gold letters. He pulled it off of the shelf, smiling quietly to himself as he once more opened it. He chuckled quietly as he recognized a smudge of ink he had accidentally left on page fourteen. He had been taking notes, and had accidentally gotten some ink on his hand. Not realizing this, he had turned the page and forever left his mark on the pages of the book.

He closed the book, but did not place it immediately back on the shelf. Instead he set it on the ground. He reached into the space that the book had left when it had been removed. He reached the back of the shelf, then searched to his left with his hand. He smiled as his fingers grasped a familiar form. He pulled two of the books on the shelf back slightly, then slid the book that he had hidden behind them out into the open.

It was a copy of the original version of the same text in one of the southern dialects. Back when he was young and foolish, he had intended to use the two books to help him learn a bit of the southern language. He had found out quickly that learning a language was unfortunately quite a bit more difficult than he had originally thought. Even with the help of a Southlander he had chanced to meet, he had only learned some very basic words. The bulk of what the man had taught him had to do with how the language was structured, even though Lois had spent nearly a year working on it. His own perfectionism hadn't allowed him to go much farther.

Lois leafed through the pages, shaking his head as he remembered a few of the words. He tried to pronounce a few of them, but what little he had once known about the language had slowly died since he left the Keep, and little was left of it.

He turned another page, but was puzzled for a moment as he discovered a few loose papers shoved in amid the pages of the book. He withdrew them, looking over them for a moment, slowly realizing what they were. He traced a finger over one of the lines. It was clearly his handwriting, although it had been long since he had written in his own hand. He smiled quietly, not believing that the pages had somehow managed to remain untouched since he had left them there.

Also on the page were a few odd figures, scratched in another hand. Lois quickly recognized them as belonging to his tutor. He had written out a few of the words so that he could show something about them. Lois had long since forgotten most of these lessons, but he took some small joy in being able to identify most of the words.

He was absolutely captivated by the book, both by the memories that it brought back and due to its contents. He simply sat on the ground, holding the Common version of the book in his lap while he looked through the two, remembering observations he had made at certain points. Although he had forgotten much of what he had once known, some things were still fresh in his mind.

Although Lois was enjoying himself immensely where he was, it did not take long for his position to cause him to begin to cramp. After about the third time he nearly dislodged a few books from the shelf behind him as he stretched, he decided on an alternate plan.

He gathered the scattered papers that he had found still tucked away in the book, stuffing them back just behind the front cover of the tome. He stood, stretching as best he could with the pair of books under his arm. As soon as he felt that he had worked out enough of the kinks from his back, he began to make his way through the bookshelves towards a familiar spot.

It was a window, a rather large one, set in the wall of the library as a means of providing illumination during the day, as well as simply looking good. While it gave him warmth and light to read by, it also gave him a place to sit. The sill of the window was very large, apparently intended to allow a person a convenient area to lose themselves among the pages of one of the volumes.

In addition to a space to sit, it was also wide enough to allow a decently sized pile of books to be set while a person waited to look through them. If one wished, it would also supply enough room for a source of light, but Lois often had other plans during the dark hours of night and morning. That added to the convenience of the location: He could tell when the sun was getting low in the sky by the amount of light he had to read by.

Lois was moving through the shelves with a mission at first, only pausing slightly if he crossed someone's path. If they looked up at him, he would always give a quiet greeting as he passed, but the largest reaction he managed in this time was perhaps a few smiles, and a few reactions that were hard to read due to the face of the particular Keeper.

As Lois neared his destination, he slowed his pace. The spot, though convenient in almost every way, was located on almost the complete opposite side from where Lois had gotten his books. Now that he was close, however, he saw little need to rush. He slackened off enough that, as he got within the last few rows of shelves before his destination, Lois had already reopened the book to continue his reading.

It was a somewhat common practice of his. During his last stay in Metamor, it was not uncommon for him to pass the entire trek between the shelf of books while still reading. He had long since mastered the art of keeping just enough attention on the path before him while being able to concentrate on what he was reading. Today, however, it seemed that he was not quite as attentive as he may have been in the past.

"Hi," a voice from before him said suddenly, causing Lois to look up quickly. He found himself staring at a fox, a kit if the size was an indication. At least, that's what he thought it was. The fur pattern was odd, though, unlike anything he had ever seen or even heard of. His mind ran in circles for a few moments before the memory of the plaid beaver came to his mind. ‘Ah,' thought Lois, ‘So this is just another way that the Curse manifests itself. Funny, I had never heard of the strange fur patterns produced by it.'

The fox was sitting in Lois' usual spot. Lois almost became angry that someone had taken it, but was able to remind himself that it did not truly belong to him before he did anything rash. Beside the strange fox was a few stacks of books, and an open book was set across the lap of the Keeper.

Although he had been somewhat startled at the sudden greeting, to the point that he had stopped a few feet away from, Lois was almost able to return the greeting in kind before he was interrupted.

The manner of interruption was odd to be sure. The fox suddenly turned slightly to one side, although still fixing Lois with a curious gaze. The strangest thingy, however, was what the Keeper said.


This caught Lois completely off guard. He probably could have shaken off anything else, and definitely would have known better how to react to another thing, but this was odd beyond anything that Lois had ever experienced. Sulky? Lois couldn't tell whether to take it as an insult, a slip of the tongue that referred to something else entirely, or perhaps the mind of a storyteller trying to come up with the word to best describe a scene before him. At any rate, Lois couldn't tell whether he should react in open anger, give the fox a concealed insult of his own, or simply hold his tongue and wait for the fox to explain itself. Perhaps he should request an explanation…

It seemed that Lois' confused pause gave the situation ample time to remedy itself. "Oh sorry, didn't know this was your spot," the Keeper suddenly said, looking rather flustered.

All right, admittedly, it only served to further confuse Lois. First, the stranger had suddenly said something utterly unpredictable, then he had begun apologizing for taking Lois' spot. How in the world did this person know that this was Lois' spot to begin with? How many years had it been now? It had been before the three gates, so it was likely going on ten years now, if it had not already passed that. Lois was half surprised that he still knew how to get to this niche, but to have someone realize that they were in his spot that long after he had left? Lois found it hard to believe.

Finally, he happened upon a possible solution. Perhaps the stranger had simply assumed that the window had been Lois' spot because he had the books with him and didn't seem to be looking for anything more on the shelves. Perhaps there had been a few books left in the niche from its last denizen; Lois had known this to happen on occasion during his last visit, so it might have been just an odd chance occurrence.

While Lois had stood for a moment, considering what to do, the fox had closed his book and set it upon the stack that stood to his side. He seemed to be trying to figure out how to move the whole stack. By the small size of the fox, Lois did imagine that such a task would be quite a stretch. Lois decided that he would try to remedy the situation peacefully.

"You got here first, the spot is yours. I can find somewhere else," Lois said. He did his best to smile, even though he was still quite confused.

"Somehow I don't think I'd get much research done now anyway," the fox said wryly. He seemed somewhat distracted, to be sure, and Lois still hoped that he had not disrupted anything important to the Keeper.

Lois decided to try once more to allow the Keeper to remain in the spot. "Are you sure, or are you just saying that?" he asked.

"No," the other responded, "I'm fairly certain I won't be able to concentrate here at all anymore." Still, the distracted look persisted. Lois was finding this entire encounter to be quite odd, and the Keeper had been acting strange ever since Lois had seen him, almost as if he were possessed. All in all, something just rubbed Lois the wrong way about this guy.

"Are you feeling all right?" he asked, giving the fox kit a curious look.

"No, I'm fine, really." The strangely colored fox said it, but Lois couldn't help feeling that there was still something wrong. He couldn't put a finger on it, but there was something at the back of his mind that nagged for attention, something that insisted to Lois that something odd was going on, and this sort of thing always made him uneasy. Then again, he was always on edge as long as he couldn't accurately read the other person's behavior.

Finally, the kit seemed to come to a decision. He grabbed one of the stacks of books and hefted it as well as he could. It seemed like quite a load, and one of the remaining stacks was even larger. Lois decided to at least spare the person a little effort if he was that set on giving him the spot.

Lois moved over to the niche and set down the pair of books that he had been carrying. As he hefted the larger of the two piles, he said, "Here, let me help you with that."

The fox managed to express his thanks as he relocated the pile to a table that sat before a particular row of shelves. Lois watched as his strange acquaintance collected the last pile of books and set it upon the table, then continued to observe the Keeper as he began to replace books where they had come from on the bookshelves.

It took Lois a few minutes of watching the other before he finally decided on what he would say. Trying to sound somewhat casual, he asked, "So… What were you looking for anyway?" Besides being curious, Lois also wanted to have some small talk with this stranger before he tried to subtly find out more details about him.

"I was trying to find a book but... I sorta got distracted," the strange fox responded as he carried another book back to its proper position amid its kind.

"I'm sorry if I disturbed you," Lois said sincerely. He truly hadn't been expecting anyone to be in that particular spot, but that was probably just because it had only been rarely when another person had taken the spot before. Now that he thought of it, the chances of it still being his to take had been very slight.

"Heh, wasn't you," was the response. "I just started cross referencing an interesting line of research and… well… Can't seem to stay on topic very well, the curse of the scholarly."

Lois chuckled slightly before replying, "I don't know whether to feel privileged or cursed not to have a part of that curse. I have never been scholarly, much less have I had trouble staying on topic."

"To tell the truth, I'm not sure whether to be privileged or cursed myself," the kit responded. "It gets annoying, but I find out the most interesting things. Nifty tricks I never would have thought of on my own."

"Ah." Lois caught himself before he could visibly wince when he realized that he'd run the conversation into a dead end. He could inquire as to what a few of those tricks were, but he doubted he'd ever hear the end of it. So, instead of trying to keep a dead conversation going, he switched topics.

"By the way," he started, "What's it like?" He tried to motion to the fox, but he didn't seem to notice the gesture.

"What's what like?" The fox looked at Lois inquisitively, waiting for an explanation.

Lois was uncertain how to express the question in words. "You know…" he started, once more waving towards kit's form. "It."

The fox took a moment, but his confusion was quickly replaced with an expression of realization. "Ooooohhh," the fox said. "That's right, you haven't been here for more than a week yet." Lois kept his posture solid, making sure not to show his surprise at the statement. Once again, the kit had said something that he had no way of knowing. Lois left this rest until his question was answered, however.

"Well, I'm not entirely sure, really. I've heard it's different for everyone of course, but for me it's just a different shape, I'm still me. Maybe cause I used to experiment with shape shifting in my younger days, maybe I'm just in shock." The fox gave an uncertain shrug, which Lois took to mean that he wouldn't be getting a much more complete answer. Still, something that the kit had mentioned had caught his attention. Shape shifting…

"Ah, a mage then." Lois nodded, pleased that he had learned this fact. That would explain some things about this stranger.

The fox nodded in kind, responding, "An odd one to be sure, but yes. I'm a mage."

Lois was somewhat relieved at this. For a few moments, he had thought that he might have been dealing with someone unnatural. To find that it was just a matter of a mage's tricks gave him a bit more insight into the person with whom he spoke.

Lois considered his next words for a moment. He had found out some information that would be helpful, but he would need more to make a full assessment of whom he was dealing with. He decided to take the next logical step, and use what he knew and what he had seen to venture a guess at the fox's particular skills. "You… Read minds or something?"

The kit seemed indecisive for a moment. He seemed to be divided as to whether he should actually reveal anything about his skills beyond what he had already implied. Finally, seeming to finally make up his mind, he said, "Or something anyway…" So, not exactly a mind reader… "I guess you could call them whispers of the past."

Whispers of the past… That would go pretty far to explaining how the fox had known that he had been in Lois' spot. Still, Lois wanted a bit more information; whispers of the past was still too general for him to know what he could expect in the future. "Whispers of the past?" he said curiously. "I never knew that that was possible."

"Neither do most people," the fox responded. "I wouldn't believe it myself if I weren't always hearing them."

"Which is why you said you couldn't concentrate… So it wasn't me." Things had begun to click now. Piece by piece, Lois was slowly putting together a better picture of what had caused the strange occurrences upon their meeting.

The kit also seemed rather well pleased that they were beginning to understand each other. In response to Lois statement, he said, "Nope, that window niche remembers you and it was quite vocal about it."

"The niche remembers me?" That was rather unexpected. "First off, I have never known window niches to be very vocal about anything. Secondly, it must have a good memory. I haven't been here in a few years, and I can't imagine how it can pick me out of all the people that must have occupied it in that time."

"I'm guessing you used it a lot and other people haven't," the kit said with a shrug. "They seem to find the oddest things worthy of note."

Lois nodded slightly, considering what this could mean. What sort of thing could the window niche remember about him? "Well," he said after a pause, "I suppose it is true that I used it more than most. That's probably how I know how to find it still."

"Plus they remember the ‘different' people, the ones who stand out somehow," the fox explained. "I'm actually not surprised it remembers you."

"Stand out?" Lois considered for a moment. True, he was taller than most, and, even back then he had already developed most of what he considered to be his more recognizable traits. Still, nothing stood out to him as anything that would have stood out about him while he was at the library. He would have been reading more often than not. "I'm not sure…" Lois stopped abruptly, suddenly remembering one particular oddity that had occurred towards the beginning of the conversation. "Sulky. The niche remembers me as Sulky, right?"

The fox seemed somewhat embarrassed. In fact, Lois could swear that the Keeper was blushing. "Umm… yeah…"

Lois had never actually considered that before, but the simple thought of being referred to as Sulky by anyone, seen or unseen, heard or unheard, was absolutely hilarious. He was unable to control his laughter at the thought. Of all descriptions he had ever heard of himself, this one was undoubtedly the bluntest and, in a way, truest.

He continued to laugh almost uncontrollably, loud enough to be heard at a good distance. He finally reminded himself of where he was and tried to calm himself down, explaining himself to the Keeper as he did. "If the librarian hears me, it's curtains."

The fox gave a smile at this, apparently recovering from whatever embarrassment the revelation of the niche's opinion of Lois had caused him. "True," he responded. "Librarians can get VERY anal about noise…"

Lois continued laughing, although it was now quieter and much more controlled. Once he had finished, he commented, "Still, Sulky… You know, I never would have though of it myself, but it is rather accurate once I think about it. And getting tagged as Sulky by a window niche no less." Lois shook his head, smiling again. "Only in Metamor…"

"Only in Metamor…" the fox agreed, chuckling softly. They stood there for a few moments, the fox looking curiously at the human. "So what IS your name anyway?" he asked finally. "I've been calling you Sulky in my head this entire time."

"Lois. Well, Vincent Lois, but most everyone who knows me calls me by my surname," he said, holding out a hand to the fox.

"Well hello Lois, my name is Kit Calico, but I go by just Kit." The fox took the hand, shaking it firmly as they were finally introduced formally. As he shook the hand, though, his eyes suddenly trailed down to the hand, looking at it with a bit more than the usual amount of scrutiny, as though he thought that enough staring would let him see what the glove hid. The handshake ended, but he still held Lois' hand, staring.

Finally the former assassin took it on himself to disengage, at which point the fox jerked out of his reverie rather suddenly.

"Well, I'm sorry to break off our meeting so abruptly, but I still have some reminiscing to do." Lois said to prevent any further awkward silence. He also had no desire to give the fox any more time to spend focused on his hand.

The fox seemed to take the hint quickly, all too eager to continue on his way. "Right," he said. "I've got to get going myself actually, things to do and whatnot. Maybe I'll see you around the keep sometime." He cut the pleasantries short there, walking off quickly out of the library, leaving Lois standing amid the rows of shelves. He looked down to his right hand, rubbing the tips of his fingers together. The entire episode had been disarming. Fortunately, the mage had been focused on the wrong hand.

Lois shrugged it off. There was nothing he could do now, and nothing had been revealed as far as he knew. He finally returned to his reminiscing, although he never again reached the level of concentration he had had before the meeting. He had been set on edge, and it would take him some time to recover. Fortunately, the book helped him to distract himself for a few more hours.

By the time he left, it was already dark outside the window that he had been sitting in. He had to extinguish several candles that he had lit in the niche, then find his way to the shelf to replace the book in partial darkness. The librarian hardly paid him any mind as he slipped out.

It was colder now that night had fallen, and Lois pulled his coat closer to him as he exited the inner keep. The saner portion of the population had already abandoned the streets by now, but Lois was used to walking alone. All that he really cared about was whether or not the inn had dinner cooking this late. He was starving, having eating nothing since lunch almost eight hours ago.

He opened the door to the inn, then took a moment to look back over the lower keep. Lights were now beginning to be put out, streets darkening as fewer and fewer houses left lights burning. Lois watched as a few more flames were extinguished, then silently turned and entered the inn. At another time in his life, now would have been the time he would likely have been leaving his room.

He shook his head. That had been a different time, and he had been a different man. Things had changed, and he meant not to go back.

From the Journal of Vincent Lois

November the 23rd, in the year 707, Cristos Reckoning

Today the weather was finally clear enough for me to get out and about once more. For the first time in what seems like a millennium, I was able to wander the streets of this keep. It is so much different now than it was before, and the Curse is not all that has worked to make it so. The people I once knew in this keep are mostly gone. Some left before the storm hit, escaping the wrath of the Curse altogether by moving to the south. Others died in that same battle, fighting to the last breath to keep this keep in the right hands. One, I am told, went insane after being Cursed, and spent the last four years of his life acting as though he had been born a horse. Others have fallen in subsequent battles, and some few have died peacefully, a rarity among people in such a violently contested area as the keep.

Of the few that survive, many bear little resemblance to the people I once knew, although their personalities are clearly the same. The craftsmen I once knew are almost all gone, either dead, having lost their place of business to the effects of war, or no longer having a form that allows them to ply their craft. Of those, only one seems to have adjusted well. Instead of leaving his craft altogether, he has taken on a student, who seems to have learned very well at the hooves of her master.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the one thing I spent my most time with is still as I left it. The library seems to have changed very little apart from the forms of its inhabitants. The books are still there, black ink scrawled across yellowing paper… Still just as I remember them. Besides that, only the stones of the keep itself seem to have remained unchanged, and even they show signs of wear. Nothing escapes the effects of time…

Tomorrow I will see what might remain of the Deaf Mule. What I have seen of the rest of the keep does not give me much hope that it much resembles what it was those many years ago. Still, perhaps I may yet find that that one thing remains somewhat unchanged. One can only hope…

Vincent Lois

Lois closed his journal and sighed for a moment. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop beside the travel-worn book and glanced over at the single window in his room. He had made sure to get a room with an accessible window in it, even though it cost a little bit more, especially to ensure that it was a private room. Money had long ago ceased to be an object, however.

He stood and walked over to the shuttered window, pulling it open so that he could see clearly beyond. The roofs of the nearby buildings had already shed most of the ice from the earlier freezing rain and only a few small streams of water remained visible, trickling between shingles and off slanted edges, sometimes into drains, sometimes simply landing on the street below.

Lois reached out of his window and grabbed ahold of the exposed beams that held the roof solid. It felt rough, and seemed dry enough to ensure good grip…

He returned inside only long enough to extinguish the flame in the lantern, and then he hefted himself up and out of the window and onto the roof.

Lois didn't sleep that night. He spent several hours sitting out on top of the inn's roof, thinking. He likely got a good bit of rest there, in all honesty, but it was fitful and separated by lines of thought that led off into nothing. The decisions of his past always ran through his mind when he had any time to sit and reflect, although they were not just his own decisions that bothered him.

He second guessed a lot of people he had known. Alternate possibilities had always intrigued him, so sometimes he tried to piece together what might have been if a few select people had chosen differently. Unfortunately, whenever he let his mind wander in that way, it would eventually lead back to the one person he could never reconcile in his ideas of what the world might have been.

He had known his father only in his younger years, but it was not only a result of his life as an assassin that he had the gift to find things meant to be hidden from him. He had always had a knack for being in the right places to overhear things, and he had never passed up an opportunity. Through a long string of conversations he had managed to create a patchwork of evidence that led him to see the truth about his father.

The boys in his home had always teased him about his lazy father, but Vincent Lois was nothing if not stiff-necked and stubborn. He refused to acknowledge any fault on his father's part, even when the law of the land sent him to the manor to serve as incentive for his father to pull his weight.

Through the long years of his stay in the manor, Lois never missed an opportunity to go back and see the man. He was always sitting somewhere with a full view of his ever-empty fields, delighting himself in nothing but sunrises, sunsets, and the maxims and "wise sayings" that he had collected over years of listening to foreign travelers. Lois hadn't much cared for the sayings, although they had a natural effect of rubbing off on him whether he paid much attention or not.

As the years grew on, and the pieces of conversation slowly filled in the empty pieces, Lois had begun to realize that the claims of his childhood tormentors and the gossip about the manor were the only logical explanation for the strange behavior of his father.

Lois had never worked up the courage to confront his father about his idleness. All he had known at that time was that, idle or not, he wanted to be able to live with his father again. His strong work ethic was directly a result of that fact, but even the diligence on his part was not enough to make up the amount of good cropland that had been wasted by his father as each year passed.

And then Lois' father had died.

Lois hadn't accepted it when he first heard it. He had simply run off, disregarding any orders to the contrary, until he stood beside his father's bed. He was the only one there besides his mother to shed a tear for the man, and the same was true of the funeral. Vincent should have been working at the manor during the small affair, but he couldn't find it within himself to not be present. By that time he was old enough to realize what was happening and, idle or not, good father or not, he felt it was his responsibility to be there for his father.

It still brought no satisfaction, no ease for the pain. He had hoped that the dirt would bury his own sorrow as it did his father, but it only deepened his grief.

Lois had still never understood his connection to the man. His father, by all rights, had only ever spoken to him. Whenever he needed anything, he would call Vincent or his mother to provide for that need, yet the young man had always felt a deep, abiding sense of loyalty to his father. It was such a frustratingly illogical thing; no one else in his life had generated that sort of attachment, and, although the man's flaws were obvious, no one he had ever met had defied his second guessing so thoroughly.

What if his father had been a diligent worker? The question had occurred to Lois more than once, but he could never reconcile the rest of reality with that one change. Regardless of the hundreds of possibilities he could think of for what may have happened if any minute detail had been different elsewhere, the fact that his father was an idle man whose life's work was worth less than the cost of the food he ate was a constant, not a variable.

Nothing frustrated Lois more than something outside of nature that remained constant. Change, or at least the possibility of change, was something that simply had to be there. With his father, however, there was no such possibility.

Lois finally caught himself short in his frustrated cycle of thoughts sometime just before dawn. He sighed to release some tension, but that wasn't quite enough. Lois stood up on the inn's roof, stretching as he did. He knew one thing that would release that tension, and so he started off at a jog, lightly letting his feet fall along the shingles of the roof, following the slant of the roof without allowing it to affect his footing or balance. He jogged a lap around the rooftop to make sure his footing before taking off with a rush, changing rooftops smoothly and without breaking stride.

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