Close Study

by Pheonix

Part 1

The guards at the main gate to Metamor eyed the approaching figure with a little intrest, "Hey Francis! Were there any traders or visitors expected today?" yelled a pudgy looking 10-year-old.

"Not that I know of, except one from Midtown, but that's not supposed to get here until tomorrow. Why do ask, Bert?" asked Francis as the old woman descended the stairs from the upper tower, where all the other guards were playing poker to while away the hours until the next shift. Just then Francis glanced out the windowand saw the traveler walking down the road. "Odd I wonder why he's coming here, doesn't he know that this is Metamor Keep?"

"I have no idea, he must have gotten lost, because the only people who come here are Lutins and the odd trade caravan, and those don't usually stay for long. Yes he must be lost trying to get to. someplace. maybe he got really turned around and ended up in the pass. Still he would have to be extremely lucky not to have seen the people who live here or not have been attacked by Lutins."

"Well the best we can do is tell him he's going the wrong way, and that we might be able to provide a escort until he is out of danger. Yes I think we'll do that, that way we can help our image in the Southlands, maybe convince a few bigots that we are not evil demons." Francis' face hardend at the rumors she'd heard about the Keep coming from the south. 'Possed by demons indeed' "HEY!" she called up to the upper level "Any one of you lazy freaks want to provide an escort for a lost traveler?"

"YO!" immediately several of the more 'normal' keepers jumped to their feet, anything was preferable to sitting in a musty tower for most of the day, and they might even earn a tip or a meal along the way. Francis selected a normal looking woman and a man. "Now, try not to let on that you are actually of the opposite sex, and do your best to stay away from the other inhabitants of the pass. We want to try and make this guy feel like he just took a wrong turn, and then when and if he learns who we actually are he might give a favorable report, okay?" The two guards nodded, and went out to meet the man approaching the gate.

"Hey guy, where are you headed?" The male guard yelled as they walked up to him, "umm, you probably took a wrong turn somewhere, and want to head back the other way. This place is infested with Lutins, you probably don't want to be here, we can escort you to Midtown if you want."

"No thanks, my good people." The man replied, resettling his backpack on his shoulders. "I'm sure I'm going the right way, and as for the Lutins, nasty they may be, but I haven't had any trouble with them yet." His face was pale as if he had sat inside too long without the benefit of fresh air and sun, though his eyes shone out with a quick curiosity. Despite his cloak it was quite obvious that he was very skinny, almost undernourished. Though his step was quick as if he had just started out that very morning, the color his cloak was muted from travel dust.

"I'm sorry, but I'm positive this is not what you think it is." Replied the woman. "You'll really want to go back the other way and try to find your way to where you are going, we'll take you to Midtown if you want. And as for no having trouble with the Lutins you are luckier than most who come here"

"You mean this isn't Metamor Keep? I am positive that it is, true I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary like I was led to believe, but I was told almost without a doubt that this was Metamor." The man's face betrayed his confusion. "Well then I'd would like your assistance, how far from the Keep am I? I wish to get there before sundown, as these robes are none too comfortable to sleep in."

The two keepers exchanged startled glances; "Y-y-yes this is Metamor Keep, and can we ask why you want to go there?" "Yes you can. My name is Pheonix and I wish to stay at the Keep as I have heard many interesting things about it." With that comment he drew his red and blue cloak further up around his shoulders and walked past the two startled keepers and on to the gatehouse. There he asked Francis whom he would talk to about staying at the Keep. Francis started stammering about seeing Thalberg. "Well what has gotten you all so flustered? Haven't you ever seen someone ask to stay at the Keep? You act as if I'm asking you to go out and take out a Lutin camp. Heavens above! They just sit and stammer at me. Okay, who and where is this Thalberg person, so that I can go ask her for some quarters until some permanent rooms have been built, assuming of course that I'm allowed to stay."

"Umm, uhh, this way sir." Francis led Pheonix up to the main keep of Metamor. When they reached the inner keep Francis, still in shock, led him down a seemingly random set of corridors, shortly they arrived at an ornately decorated door. The plaque read "Emeritus Thalberg IV - Head Steward" Francis absently noted how fast they had reached the Steward's office, and rapped on the door.

"Who is there?" sounded a gravelly voice from the other side door.

"Francis, sir, one of the gate guards, and, well, I have a man with me that is wanting to stay here at the Keep."

"Well why don't you show him the inn in the town, they have plenty of rooms I'm sure." Thalberg barked back through the door

"Umm, sir I think you misunderstand, he says he wants to live here."

"Oh, I see, well bring him in, and we'll see what he can offer in services to the Keep." With that Talgberg opened the door to his office andbrought them both inside. As he stepped inside Pheonix removed his hood, revealing a head of neatly combed brown hair. The office was ornately decorated as befit the Head Steward of a castle. Talberg led Pheonix and Francis through his antechamber, passing by the guards, to his office, "Well Pheonix, why should we allow you to stay here inside the Keep? Know this though once the curse has you, you are not likely to be able to leave Metamor except on patrols and to towns in the area. Also know that you are allowed to stay in the town, as we need more residents there, but why should you stay here inside the Keep?"

"Well the reason I came here was to study the curse in particular, you see I am a fairly competent mage, and while I do not fight well I have specialized in researching curses and permanent spells. As Metamor Keep has the most interesting spell or curse cast on it, I would like to stay here to study it and its affects on everybody, including myself."

"Well, Pheonix I'll need some information on you and your back ground then I'll have to check it, also I'll need you to undergo a magical scan from Wassex"

"I have no problems with a magical scan, but as for where I come from or the order I have worked with, I'm sorry but that must remain a secret, for the safety of all concerned."

"You mentioned that you were a mage, what type, and what sect? Also I would like to know what rank so we know what to expect."

"I am not able to tell you what sect, as for the type of magic, it is almost purely researching magic. As for rank, my ranking system is quite different from what you are familiar with, but I think the closest aproximation would be a purple of this area's mage. Unfortunately there is no equivalent order of mages in this area."

"Very well then, I'll give you my decision in about three days, that will allow you to leave in time if you do not agree with my decision. You may leave for now. Francis, find Pheonix some temporary quarters until I have had a chance to decide."

Part 2

Pheonix walked through the town below the main Keep, with his now ubiquitus notepad, taking notes on all the inhabitants, never once seeing the watchers put over him, or if he did he gave no idication of it. Passers by still glanced at him as he walked, three day not having been enough time for them to get used to the strange man always taking notes and watching every thing they did.

Pheonix noticed Francis walking up to him and said "Hello Francis, I've been wondering, why are you an old woman? I'm sure the battle wasn't that far in the past for you to age to an old woman, and all the TGs I've met are all young or at least young looking."

"Well I was an old man when the battle started, but I was good tactician, so I was the head of the gate guards at the battle, and I am still there. But, that is not why I came here, Thalberg has made his decision, and requests that you go with me to his office."

"Well I can hardly call that encouraging but I'll go, I've certainly enjoyed what work I've done so far." With that he set off after Francis to the main Keep. When they reached the keep, Francis started off the direction they had gone 3 days ago, after about about half an hour twisting and turning down various corridors, they just ended up back at the entrance.

"Hmm this is interesting, lets try this again." With that she took off in the same direction as before, twice more they circled the Keep, but they always they ended up at the entrance. Finally on the fourth circuit, they found Thalberg's office, nestled away in a side hall. "Finnally! There is something odd going on here let me go in first, I'll come out to get you." As she disappeared into Thalberg's office Phoenix wondered.

"Why did it take us so long to get to his office? Last time we got here in a minute or two." He sat down on a bench just outside of the office pondering the situation, though after about half an hour, when Francis came back out, the only conclusion that he could was that the Keep was magical and for some reason did no want him to reach the office.

"You may go in now," and she showed Phoenix into Thalberg's antechamber.

"Well Pheonix, this is certainly interesting, I was about to tell you that you could not stay because we have enough researchers and people with mysterious backgrounds but, certain events have changed my mind."

"You mean wandering around the Keep for hours?"

"Yes that was a part of it."

"So is this Keep magical or something? Because last time we came here it took us only a minute to arrive here."

"Yes, in a way, you'll have the time to find out the whole story, I am granting you the permission to stay here in the Keep to study the Keep and the curse. With the caveat that you report your findings to Wassex, and any major findings to the Duke as well. You may go now"

"Thank you very much sir, I shall be sure to follow those orders" responded Pheonix, turning around and walking out the door, barely containing his elation. He started heading towards his temporary quarters, but for some reason ended up at a door at the end of a hallway. The door was non-descript except for the red and blue trimmings on it. "Must be my new room," he thought. Opening the door, he noticed that the room was much larger than the temporary one was.

One window looked out over the town, while the other side of the room had a large fireplace; a bed took up the last side of the room. Sunlight was streaming in through the window, "Ahh perfect." With that he took out his large quartz crystal, it was flawless and almost a foot long. He put it on the windowsill after giving it a quick flick of his finger, the high PING still reverberating. He finished unpacking, the room lit by the light reflecting off of the crystal, "Ahh beautiful." He went over to the crystal and looked at it, the two runes engraved on it glowing faintly red and blue. He stood there staring into the ever-brightening runes until he noticed the sun setting. "Hmm, I hate it when that happens, I need to find something to eat." He took off towards the communal dining area. It was almost deserted by the time he got there, but it still had some food out to eat. Grabbing a bowl of soup he sat down at a table and ate heartily, at last his greatest project was to start!

As he made his way back to his room later on he reflected on the good fortune shown to him in getting him to stay at Metamor Keep. First finding it so easily, then with the help of the Keep itself being allowed to stay on permanently, certainly a set of good fortune. As he made it back to his room, he hoped that fortunes would smile upon him again and not have the curse change him into something disgusting or something that would prevent him from properly studying the curse. With those thoughts circling in his mind he drifted off to sleep.

Next morning he awoke bight and early, which was quite odd since he usually slept late. He idly scratched his chin, and felt thick hair there. "Maybe the transformation has already started!" excitedly he rushed over to the mirror, but found to his dissappointment that he had forgotten to shave in the past week. "Oops" he thought chagrined, and proceeded to do a thorough shave. He then went to the crystal and sat in front of it preparing to do a long delayed meditation, staring directly into the crystal he opened his mind to the world and magic around him. He felt the tendrils of magic in the world around him, comforted he opened his mind further when he was knocked back by the amount of magic in area. He could pick out the reds and blues of himself, other colors of the other mages and a bright silver in the walls of the Keep, also there was a faint tendril of gold floating around in the area. Curious he tried to bring the gold tendril closer, but it would not move. He moved himself closer to the tendril, and to his surprise it stayed stationary. He moved all around it studying it, as it was a very unfamiliar spell. Suddenly it twiched in his direction, surprised he jerked back and for a brief second it formed into an almost recognizable shape, but was gone before he could identify it. "Interesting" he reached out with a magical stick to try to get it to move again, this time though it moved away from the stick. He reached out to try to touch it, this time the golden tendril jumped into his hand, "Aaugh!" he exclaimed in his mind, and astrally ran out into the hall for help. He saw a bear person come rumbling towards him, but as he got closer he could see a golden net defining the bear's form, looking back he saw that another such net surrounded his real body. "Could this be the curse?" he pondered, curious he went out in search of another person, this time a TG, he came upon one eventually, and saw the golden net surrounding her as well, in fact it looked as if every changed person had the net around them. Retreating back to his room, he noticed that the net was not nearly as bright on himslef as it was on other people.

He woke out of his meditation, "Wow, does this mean that the curse can't affect me yet or that it just got a hold of me?" Scratching his neck he was surprised to feel more hair on his neck than usual, "I guess that answers my question, the curse has me, and it looks like it's the animal version." He walked down to the infirmary, having located it on his first day on the off chance that he could stay. He walked up to Coe, saying "I think I've gotten hit by the curse, anything I need to know?"

"Really? Hmm that was fast, but still in enough time, you'll probably need to stay here today as the change can be painful and we don't want to take a risk with using magic to dull the pain if it is that bad. So you are to stay here for today, if you feel up to it you can help out around here, cleaning up and the like, but if it starts to be too painful I want you to sit down or lie down."

"Hmm, that certainly puts a damper on today's activities, oh well best I can do is hope that it's not too bad eh?" Smiling he located the broom and started sweeping the front room down, the sick rooms were immaculate of course, but with people tromping in and out of the infirmary the front room got quite dirty, even with daily sweeping which was all there was really time for.

Half way through the day the pain hit Pheonix, it started out as a dull ach in his back but by nightfall it was almost unbearable. Walking up to Coe, he said, "I think I need to lay down now, it's gotten too painful for me."

"Well you did stay on your feet longer than the average person, but you didn't need to impress me if you were trying to. Take these and go take an empty bed, you'll be here for the next few days." He handed Pheonix a couple of pills and a glass of water, and sent him off to the ward. Pheonix took the pills two at a time, with gulps of water in between them. "Hey! Coe what do the..." and promptly passed out in the bed.

"That" chuckled Coe as he arranged the changing man in the bed, looking at the silvery fur that now covered Pheonix's neck.

Pheonix blinked his eyes, " pills do? Oh I see." He looked down at his arm, and saw the silver fur there, though besides the fur and pawpads his hands looked unchanged. "Well that's helpful." His eyes wandered farther down, down to his legs, now digitigrade, "That should make learning to walk interesting." He rolled over, and got a sharp pain in his backside. "Ouch, that must be a tail there." With that he called out, "Coe, how long was I out?" Coe walked in, "Oh, only about a three days, I must say I dosed that perfectly, you just finished changing about 6 hours ago." You are now a rather nice Arctic Fox. A first, though we do have many foxes around here."

Later that day he was able to go back to my room, learning to walk wasn't nearly as hard as he'd suspected it to be, though it did take some getting used to, and the tail! He must have slammed every door on the way on that thing, so by the time he'd gotten to his room it was quite sore. As he walked in he noticed a new bed, but everything else was the same, tired, even after his three-day nap, he only had enough energy to fall into bed, his tail fitting into the new groove provided for such things, and promptly fell asleep.