Encounters of Ill Chance

by Michael Olson

The first week of March, 707

The early-morning spring air carried the rejuvenating smells of a world unthawing. Beneath the clean white sunlight that lay two off duty members of members of the Watch, drinking in a few precious hours of day before partaking of well-earned sleep.

Benlin was seated on the remnant of the wall from a building that was no more, one of his thick tomes beside him but unopened. Jacob leaned against the same wall of to his left. Their imbibing of the day’s beauty had been interrupted by activity from across the street.

The building around which the proceeding was centered was a two-story shop, painted a humble tan, with dark brown trim. A sign declared the structure to be “Marley’s Pawn Shop” both with words and a picture of assorted knickknacks. The owner of the shop, presumably Marely, was currently being carried out of the shop by a pair of black-robed figures. A building on higher ground cast a shadow on the street where they were, preventing the white shroud over the small body from flaring bright beneath the sun.

“It’s always a sad sight when one of us dies like that; of old age, without family or true friends.” Benlin commented, speaking of those, like himself, trapped in the bodies of children.

“Especially now. To have survived such a cold winter, never to see the spring,” Jacob added, banishing the ghosts of the siege from his mind before they could drag the radiance of the day into the grave with them.

Benlin sat silent for a moment apparently still lost in thought. He then said, “Taking the next dawn for granted. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, especially for those of us to whom Age does not send her warnings. No arthritic cramps to make us slow and smell the proverbial roses. No gray hairs and wrinkles to make us toss away our vanity. No rheumatism to give us pause to ruminate.” The boy’s voice was only vaguely melancholy as he pulled and pronounced the truths from the fabric of life like berries from a bush.

Ben’s philosophical wanderings were something Jacob appreciated and had become accustomed to over the months while being assigned to the same squad as the tiny mage. Still, he was glad when the inspiration for such somber thoughts had passed and his companion returned to his subdued but otherwise normal expressions.

The pair let another half hour pass them by before exchanging brief farewells and parting ways until the evening when they were do to make rounds. Jacob made his way to the Keep proper, and then through the magical edifice toward his destination.

Sunlight cascaded into one hall through high-set windows, spilling across all the contents, imbuing them with a white glow and a warmth that the air alone could not provide. Jacob stepped from this into the cool touch of shadow around the corner. His skin prickled slightly at the chill of the dew covered stone.

The rasp of smoke replaced the the earthen odor of spring. Not the smell of burning wood, cooking food, or, thankfully, ruined towns. Rather it was the smell of Pascal smoke. Today that meant an acrid scent that caused the nose to itch. Jacob ignored the sensation and knocked on the solid door.

The muted voice of the hedgehog alchemist piped past the wooden barrier and said, “Come in!” The music of bubbling substances and popping fires filled the room and the clouds that came along with them redoubled their assault on the reptile’s olfactory senses. He found himself involuntarily wrinkling his face, and wondered how more sensitive animal morphs were able to tolerate it when they visited.

The mistress of the domain was busy attending to her cacophony of turbulent liquids, so Jacob waited just inside the door, taking in the surroundings and trying to ignore the vapors. Several minutes passed, and she showed no signs of preparing to address him, so he cleared his throat. It seemed to startle the porcupine, as she almost dropped the beaker she was holding. “Oh! That’s right, someone knocked,” she said, seemingly to herself.

She caught a glimpse of Jacob’s gray uniform and the glint of his shoulder badge, “Ah, you’re probably here to pick up that water repellent.” The lizard smiled and stood there, relieved that the alchemist was starting to gather her wits. He’d been by once before on a Watch errand and escaped unscathed, but rumors of the dangers of this place still hummed at the edge of his thoughts.

“The six containers under that shelf are what you are looking for,” Pascal said, pointing. Jacob nodded, gave a quick ‘thanks’ and walked over to the large, sealed containers. He’d have to make a few trips. He hefted one under each arm and started out the door. As he was leaving, the porcupine warned, “Keep it sealed when not applying it. And make sure not to touch any of it until it’s dried!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jacob answered. As an afterthought, and with some hassle, he managed to get his spear wedged under his arm with one of the vessels. The weapon would be safer laid aside somewhere, beyond the domain of quilled chaos.

The sunlight outside belied the volumes of rain that the weather mages had predicted for the coming week. Due to that forecast, various members of the Watch had cordoned off a cobblestone-framed area of the town commons for official use. Throughout the course of the sun’s trek, members would come, coat their cloaks with the new waterproof substance, and then leave them to dry in the sun. It was going to be a new spring ritual, now that the method of making the waxy goo had been captured from one of the lutin tribes.

Sitting in a chair at one corner of the roped-off square was a middle-aged, bored looking lynx morph who had been assigned to keep trouble-makers from messing with the garments as they dried. He tossed a greeting and a smile to Jacob as the lizard arrived, “G’morning, Jake.”

“Morning, Hal,” the young man said, setting the jars at the guard’s feet. “I’ll be right back with the rest of it. Can you keep an eye on this for a while?” Jacob asked, while setting his weapon against the area’s inside corner. After receiving a nod, the reptile departed for the lab again, while the other Watch members already present began to collect around the deliveries. In his flight, Jacob called back, “Remember not to let anyone touch that stuff until it’s dried. And keep the lids on those when people aren’t using them!”

A desire to get some well-earned sleep spurred the gecko’s step. In his absence, others crowded around the newly cracked open containers, took up brushes, and began to paint the goo up and down the length of the clothes they hoped would shield them during foul weather. After turning the clothing into a sloppy mess they carefully spread it on the grass for the sun to work on.

Inevitably, amidst the group of people, many with long tails, someone was jostled against the nearby post and caused the spear standing there to teeter past the point of no return and thud into a cloak arrayed on the ground. The perpetrator quickly levered it back up into position by the tip, barely paying attention to the event as he returned to jockeying for position around the jug he’d been at.

By the time Jacob had returned from the second trip, a large number of cloaks were spread out across the courtyard. A steady trickle of Watch members continued to go up to jars and apply the odd smelling paste. Jacob dropped off the second set of containers near the first. “One pair left,” he announced. Just then, the inevitable happened again, and the darting tail of a squirrel sent the spear caroming towards the earth once more.

Jacob’s heart leapt, prompting his body to do the same. Triumph and relief surged as he managed to wrap his hands around the haft of the weapon scant inches from the glue-stained earth. Wait, he thought, why is this already sticky? He tried to uncurl his fingers in vain; they were firmly adhered to the wooden surface.

“What did you guys do?!” he asked, scanning the crowd for guilty faces. None were forthcoming. Not that it mattered; the answer was fairly obvious, as was the obvious source of remedy.

His step was this time sped by the desire to be able to unclench his hands. He soon found himself in the lab for the third time that day. Pascal was much as he had left her both times before. “I need help,” he announced.

The bizarrely patterned porcupine turned with raised eyebrow, “Am I supposed to guess what with?”

Jacob extended the weapon before him, and elaborated, “My hands are stuck.”

“I told you not to touch the stuff before it was dry,” the porcupine admonished before returning to her work.

“Someone got it on my spear while I was busy making the deliveries. Can I please have something to undo this?”

“Come over here,” she said with a sigh. When Jacob complied, she pulled the spear to eye level and inspected it thoroughly. She began muttering to herself, “Oak… hmm…Yes, I should have some acid that will eat through that.”

The gecko started, and said, “Acid? I was hoping for something less destructive.”

Pascal was already busy rummaging along the shelf for the correct bottle, “Don’t worry, it shouldn’t hurt you any.”

“Still, I’d rather not have to get a new spear.”

“Well, I don’t have anything that simply makes the stuff unstick, so it’s that or wait for that layer of your skin to wear off.”

Jacob let a large sigh come out, “You’re sure there isn’t another way?”

“Sorry, kid.”

“I’ll take option two then. Thanks anyway,” he said. He stopped at the door and after a degree of difficulty managed to get both of the remaining jugs to hang from his spear in a way that he could carry them. The alchemist shrugged and returned to her glass beakers, free from the interruptions of the Watchman, for the rest of the day at least.

The remaining sliver of the moon could be seen high in the sky through the window when Jacob stepped into the room to begin duty. It was slightly cold despite the small fire burning in one wall. The other three members of his patrol squad were already there.

Benlin sat with his back to the fire, reading by its fitful orange light. Martin moved all over the place and seemed to be trying to find something, anything, to do. To avoid being a part of whatever Martie decided to do, Sam sat in a chair pretending to scrutinize some fletching on a few arrows she had pulled from her quiver.

“You’re a little late,” the woman commented.

It was the truth. Jacob said apologetically, “Sorry, had a little trouble getting to sleep. Been playing catch up ever since I got out of bed.” He unconsciously rolled his shoulders, working against the sore muscles caused by the position the spear had forced him to sleep in.

Martin caught the motion and it seemed to spark something in his mind, because his expression lit up like an oil-soaked torch touched to a candle. “By the way, I heard you got stuck going to Pascal’s yesterday” he said innocently.

The muscles in Jacob’s body tensed. He’d been hoping to avoid this for at least a bit, but apparently the inevitable had happened and word of yesterday’s catastrophe had gotten around to Martie. A small part of his brain futilely tried to attribute the wording to coincidence.

“Yep,” the ex-thief continued after no reply was forthcoming, “if you aren’t careful there, you can easily end up with a handful of problems.” So much for that hope, Jacob thought to himself.

“Can’t just drop it, can you?” Sam said not looking up from her arrow. Jacob felt a brief flash of hope at the intervention, until he caught the hidden barb, prompting a grimace to spread across his face. Martie had similarly been caught unawares. The protest he had been preparing died on his lips, and he cracked a grin instead.

“No, you know these things just can’t be let go,” he said as evenly as possible.

Sam smiled a bit and shot back, “Well you haft to learn how to handle that.” Both of them laughed openly.

“We’ve got work to do, so get a grip on yourselves, you two,” Jacob said hoping to end this routine. As soon as the sentence was out of his mouth, his mind kicked him.

The two jesters looked at him while it was delivered and then cracked up and spent the next minute or two laughing at both the comment and the expression on the gecko’s face. Even Ben couldn’t completely suppress his grin.

Jacob gave an exasperated sigh and stepped outside to wait for them to recover.

Several moments later, the other three joined him and the squad began to make its rounds.

Though the day courted summer and gave promise of the warmth of the coming months, the night pledged its fealty to winter and offered only its master’s chill. The four moved in a tight group down the darkened cobblestone streets, huddled within their clothes for warmth.

The first few hours passed uneventfully. Nothing more sinister than shadows, or more criminal than a few rats were seen, heard, or otherwise noted. It was a pattern they were all accustomed to, as it was how the majority of their nights were spent. A few grey clouds drifted in from wherever grey clouds come from, occasionally obscuring the luminous sickle in the sky.

Then, Martin pointed and whispered, “There.” This was also a pattern the group was well accustomed to. The boy lacked the sharper hearing, night vision, and keen sense of smell of the animal-morphs who usually served as a squad’s tracker, but he more than made up for it with experience. Having been on the other end of this mirthless game, he knew where to look, and what to look for.

What he had seen this time was readily apparent after attention had been drawn to it. Perched on the windowsill of a two-story building, with a hand on the roof for balance, someone was fiddling with a window. Jacob couldn’t quite make out all details in shadow caused by the building’s eave, but it looked as if the man’s right leg was missing. The corresponding shoulder didn’t look right either, leaving the Watchman to wonder how he was trying to undo whatever latch or lock held him out.

Sam brought her crossbow into line with the would-be burglar and projected her voice authoritatively down the street. “Halt or I’ll shoot!” she barked. The shadow was suddenly in motion. It pushed off from the window and used the momentum to swing itself up onto the roof by the arm already clinging there. The sound of shattering glass rent the night, as the crossbow bolt passed through the window less than a second after its target had moved. Ever since what had happened to Jacob’s predecessor, Sam had never been reluctant to follow through on her threats.

Benlin’s low murmuring reached an apex and his finger curled as if clutching something. “Got him,” the small mage said, his face consumed by concentration. Giving veracity to the claim, the figure stood immobile in the middle of his flight. Jacob let out a low approximation of a whistle. Their criminal must be pretty strong to pull off that near-escape so cleanly.

Sam, nodded and said, “Ok Jacob, fetch.” Her difficult to reload crossbow had been replaced by her short bow, which remained tightly drawn and aimed.

“Actually, climbing isn’t my specialty at the moment,” he said, futilely trying to tug his hands free of his spear for emphasis.

“I’ll go,” Martie volunteered. He had hardly taken a step when Ben suddenly staggered back, bending over his hand. In the same instant the figure stumbled free of the forces that had previously held him. He seemed almost as surprised by the event as the Watchmage, but recovered in an instant and was off like the arrow that passed over his shoulder. Jacob was surprised at how fast their opponent managed to move despite being constrained to a half crawl, half leap form of locomotion by his one leg.

“There’s another mage out here!” the sorcerous boy said through clenched teeth.

“Talk on the run.” Sam ordered. Martin was already in pursuit, and if the rest didn’t start moving they’d lose their tracker as well as their target. Benlin denied his pain further attention and joined Sam and Jacob in the hunt.

“Our burgling friend is not the one that interrupted my spell,” Ben said, obviously shaken by the magical intervention.

“Ok, you know more about what should be done about an unknown magic attack than me, so do it,” Sam ordered from ahead.

Martin darted into an alley to the right, and the others pushed themselves harder to catch up. They needn’t have bothered; they found their thief guarding the mouth of the dead-end crevice. “It… he tried to jump to the other roof, didn’t make it. Didn’t land well either,” Martin reported, still in a bit of shock at the sight of their quarry. Then he began with uncharacteristic hesitation, “Jacob, when the Curse comes for you, that’s not how-“

“No,” Jacob replied flatly, and then a moment later, “At least not for me.”

The squad’s prey was at the far end, bones obviously broken in several parts of what passed for his body. The man looked like he had been cut in half lengthwise and had his left side sewn together with half of a pig. The flesh pulled and twisted horribly along the line where the form of beast and man did not match. He seemed understandably dazed from his injuries, just staring up from where he lay.

From the street, the slow and intermittent clop of hooves alerted them to the sound of a horse walking. Sam snapping everyone back to action by ordering, “Jacob, go see if that is coming from an animal or a person and see if you can draft it either way. We need to get this guy to a healer.” Glad for an excuse to stop staring, the lizard nodded and left.

He found the street to contain only two occupants. A Labrador was leading a horse down the road. The first was walking on two legs, possessed human characteristics, and was dressed in clothes, identifying him as a Metamorian. The second wore a harness, bit, saddle, and saddlebags, giving the impression that it was just a horse.

Jacob addressed the canine and was in the middle of explaining the situation when an inhuman sound tore the air. He grabbed the reins of the animal from the startled paws of its owner and ran the obedient beast back to the alley, to find that the sound was coming from the prisoner.

The creature seemed to be focused on something above, both his mismatched eyes wide with terror. Heedless of shattered limbs, he clawed his way along the ground toward where the Watch group stood. It suddenly became obvious to Jacob that the earlier display of strength and speed was born of terror and not muscle. Something was spooking this guy badly. Benlin said something urgent, but Jacob lost it amidst the unholy, high-pitched, hybrid of squeal and scream.

The air hazed and buzzed around the crawling form, and then the half-man was simply gone, the only proof he had been there was a trail of blood and the ringing echo of his porcine shriek in their ears. Benlin finished his current string of murmurings, the whispers coming so rapid that he was left catching his breath, the inhale and exhale the most notable thing in sudden silence of the night.

Jacob looked over at the young wizard to make sure he was ok, but saw the tiny mage staring at something. It didn’t take long for the lizard to locate it. Descending with the speed of an autumn leaf, from twenty feet up, was a human being. He was attired in thick grey robes, with dark blue along the shoulders and in a thick vertical stripe down the middle. Creased, well-worn skin and a head of wispy silver hair suggested age, but aside from a certain thinness he looked to be in remarkably good health.

The figure touched down gently on the ground, his gnarled staff tapping lightly as it connected with the stone. “Well, I suppose this was inevitable. Perhaps I might say, even fated, given your presence, Benlin Faraday,” the mage said in a voice that was wistful, but strong.

“Who are you?” the magically young boy asked, an audible tremble in his voice. Jacob’s stomach tightened. Ben only reverted to such direct and concise wording when something distressed him greatly.

The old man frowned and said, “I taught you better than this. Check the auras, boy!”

“I did,” Ben said, still not fully in control, “But the person it belongs to is dead.”

“Ah, yes. I must apologize for that ruse, dear Benlin. I fear a full explanation will have to wait; we would only end up boring your friends,” the man said. “Allow me to introduce myself. These days, I go by the name of Expedite.” When no one felt inclined to return the introduction, he continued, “I’ll explain the situation and perhaps then you will understand the action that must be taken. We now stand at the metaphorical edge of true civilization, the only shield between the barbarism of the North and the ungrateful Midlands. Twice now we have come under assault from the forces of Nasoj, each time paying a fell price. And what is the reward that most Metamorians reap? At best derision, and at worst death, should we venture outside this fortress-become-prison.”

The old wizard’s voice had risen in passion as he spoke, his eyes glowing with an increasing fervor. His audience was left to both listen and wonder that he hadn’t disturbed the entire town yet. The speech continued slightly more subdued, as if the orator had realized his slipping control, “It is neither just, nor plausible that things should continue this way. What you have witnessed tonight was one of the steps toward changing all that.”

Sam sputtered, “You mean that man was someone you partially cured?”

Expedite looked at her as if she were the villiage idiot, “No, of course not. Not that I didn’t try with others at first, but it soon became apparent that a cure is beyond the reach of today’s magic, or at least today’s mages. The other path, however,” he chuckled in self-pleasure, “Ah, now that’s different, quite plausible, and I am certain it is almost within my grasp.”

“What other path?” Sam demanded.

“To Curse the rest of the world of course!”

The group of four companions gaped at him, just now starting to realize the depths of his madness. The wizard went on talking, seemingly ignorant of their reactions, “I am working on replicating the Curse, with one small change. I am going to make it contagious. With a few carriers, it will spread throughout the south with the speed of plague. Which is why I need to talk to each of you. I do not feel I am risking much in saying that the Curse is the most complex merger of magics that man has ever seen. It will take me some time yet to finish deciphering all its intricacies. That is why it is imperative that my activities not be brought to light until ready. I trust that I can count on your secrecy?”

Expedite’s eyes then narrowed as he noticed that all the members of the Watch had brought their weapons to the ready at some point. “No? Mores the pity, I had hoped you would be the first to join. I’ve walked this path alone for so long. I don’t suppose you’ll be undoing that teleportation block, voluntarily, will you, Benlin?”

A hard stare glazed transparently over a sea of conflicting emotions within the boy. He gave his head the slightest of shakes from side to side.

The old man let his shoulders fall a little bit in resignation, “Then let it begin.”

Before the last word had fully fallen from his lips, chaos was already breaking loose at the command of his nimble fingers. Sam’s bow burst into flame causing her to yelp and drop the weapon. The knocked arrow flew wobbly and wide to rattle uselessly off the alley wall. Martin’s knife flew more truly, only to give a similar clank as it rebounded off an unseen barrier in front of the mage, eliciting a colorful remark from the young thief. Benlin stood, feet set, murmuring and waving. Sweat dotted his brow as he worked at maintaining the block on Expedite’s exit against invisible assaults.

As Jacob started forward to close with the mystical aggressor, a rope coiled on the side of the horse he had brought came to life. It weaved serpentine, like a snake ready to strike, and leapt out in a blur of uncoiling hemp. It wrapped three times around the haft of the gecko’s weapon between his hands and tied itself off faster than the most experienced of seamen could have.

It arrested the lizard’s forward momentum completely as the rope was pulled taught against the increasingly agitated steed at the entrance to the battleground. Martin had drawn another knife from his seemingly endless supply and rushed to cut Jacob free. Before the thief could arrive however, an audible smacking sound echoed throughout the area. The horse whinnied in terror and a bit of pain and then took off at a run, the animal’s powerful muscles yanking Jacob off his feet and dragging him out of sight.

The battle’s intensity diminished for a moment as all its participants, including Expedite, came to grips with the sudden disappearance of the gecko. A small smile curled up on the old man’s mouth. He said bemusedly, “I must confess, I’d merely planned on disarming him. I had no idea he was so attached to that spear.” To their credit, not a single one of the remaining members of the Watch found the comment even the slightest bit funny.

The cobblestones raced by; a silvery river of bone breaking pain reflected in the light of moon; a frozen brook of agony. The world became illusion as buildings sailed past. It became almost as if the rest of the street was running past Jacob and the horse merely galloped in place. It would have been beautiful in a sublime way, if not for the grating pain and the urgency of the situation.

The layers of clothing he had worn to ward off the chill air of a March night provided orders of protection less than he wished. Every passing moment was another bruise. Nothing quite carried the agony-surpassing shock of snapping bone yet, but that was only a matter of luck.

Thunderous, metal-shod hooves striking sparks off the street promised a swift end by caved skull if he tried to climb his way up the rope. Instead, he rolled for leverage and twisted to allow the spear to parallel the rope. Maneuvering the cord so that it wrapped around the bladed point of the weapon, he pushed and sawed against it. The whisper of sharpened metal against the fiber went unheard amongst the clatter, but its effects were far from unnoticeable when the final strand was cut.

Invisible hooks grabbed him from out of the speeding landscape and ripped him from the stasis of abuse he had been trapped in. The horse sped on, heedless of the gecko’s absence. As soon as he was able to register that the torment was over, Jacob picked himself up, ignoring the tingling numbness and various pains as he ran back toward the site of battle.

After Jacob’s abduction, the conflict had resumed. Martin noticed his magical night vision dimming. That’s not good, he thought. It meant Ben was having all he could do to keep Expedite from vanishing, and was starting to lose control of the augmentative magics on the squad. The young mage was close to breaking.

The thief chucked another dagger at the criminal wizard, hoping to distract him from Sam’s charge. The dagger again bounced off an invisible wall without seeming to phase the mage, who, with a wave of his hand, swept the charging Watchwoman off her feet and into the wall. Martin winced as he saw her head snap back into the brick on impact. He felt marginally less worried when Sam was still able to pick herself up, though there was a decided wobble to her stance. She swayed uneasily in place, not yet able to press the attack again.

Expedite, for his part, seemed content to leave them be as long as they didn’t take the offensive, probably because it allowed him to direct more of his magic toward battering down Benlin’s own spell. Martin tossed daggers, loose rocks, and whatever else was handy, hoping to buy Faraday some breathing room by forcing their opponent to concentrate on him. It didn’t seem to work until one stone skipped high over the shield and then rebounded off the wall to strike the target in the shoulder. The wizard grunted slightly and turned his gaze upon his assailant reproachfully.

Martin, on the other hand, smiled and tossed another rock with the intent of ricocheting it off the wall to where the shield didn’t cover. The stone sailed on course, bouncing with a loud clack and flying straight at Expedite’s head. Within the space of a few centimeters from impact the stone slowed and stopped, hovering in mid-air for a moment before being allowed to fall inert to the street. The wizard’s ice-colored eyes twinkled and he said, “The most important part of surviving any mistake, boy, is to learn from it.”

The mage gestured with his free hand more complexly this time, and also resorted to a form of chanting similar to Benlin’s. Martin and Sam watched warily, unsure of what to expect. Then Expedite scythed his staff sharply in front of him. At some point during the arc of the swing two dark green blobs detached themselves from the top and slammed into the pair of non-magical members of the Watch. Martin found himself hurled off his feet and onto the ground. The goo spread itself out and solidified, pinning him to the street. Sam was similarly affixed to the wall.

Expedite wiped his brow, allowed himself a smile, and then turned to his last opponent. “Ah, dear Benlin. You’ve done admirably for a novice. But now the game is over, and I must insist that you all be my guests for a few months while I finish my work.”

Benlin glared back with a mix of panic and determination, and then, briefly, something else as he maintained his fervent chant and arcane finger wiggling. It all collapsed at some unseen attack, and Ben slumped against the wall, panting from the magical exertion. Expedite’s own voice then rose in a rhythmic cant and the air began to haze and fizzle around four of the people in the narrow corridor between buildings. The fifth went unmolested by the magic and hurled himself into a flying tackle that caught the aging magician in the stomach, driving the wind from him.

Jacob was surprised when he landed on ground instead of his victim. Bruised flesh tensed with pain as it impacted on a harder surface than expected. He berated himself for not being a step faster and regained his feet as quickly as he could, half-expecting the aged wizard to appear behind him at any moment.

“Our nemesis should not be reappearing in a near span of time. Teleportation is a spell of some draining,” Ben said, wearily but with a certain sense of triumph in his voice. The other three exhaled a small measure of breath they hadn’t remembered holding.

“What happened?” Sam demanded, while Jacob worked on trying to pry the cocooning substance from the wall.

“I concealed Jacob’s approach with an enchantment of invisibility when I heard him coming. I suspect our foe felt I was at the end of my reserves or didn’t realize I was capable of casting that spell without the verbal and semantic components” the nine-year-old mage said. “He was caught unawares and instinctively completed the teleport on himself to avoid an unknown danger. Its something most mages with an eye toward self-preservation pick up.”

The invisibility was news to Jacob, though it made sense when he thought about it. The wizard hadn’t had much trouble deflecting his attack before, and from the looks of Martin and Sam, wouldn’t have had trouble doing so again. It must have presented an odd image to the two spectators; Expedite suddenly doubling over and falling, only to vanish and have Jacob appear in his place.

Several minutes later, the entrapped members of the squad were been freed, and they wordlessly agreed on a need to return to the Keep and make a report on their encounter. Their journey to the Chief’s office was uneventful, though none felt fully at ease for the rest of the night, and knew they probably wouldn’t for several nights to come.

Chief Andrea Sumerin looked back at the patrol group with a grim expression on his face as they finished the tale. “Well, no one was killed. That counts for something. Benlin, can you give me any clue of how powerful this Expedite is?”

Faraday replied, “Nothing that would be valued for its accuracy. Any direct knowledge I have is eight years old. The spells cast tonight were not of sufficient complexity to indicate an unusually powerful mage, and the fact that he had tired so much by the end of the battle speaks against much power at all. Then again, I have no idea how much magic he might have been using prior to running into us. To summarize, I do not think he can do anything the Keep’s own masters of the arcane cannot but I am making at best an uneducated guess.”

The Chief leaned forward on his desk and stared the tiny sorcerer in the eye, “So, in your estimation, is it possible for him to recreate the Curse as he claimed to be trying to do?”

Benlin stood silent for a moment, turning the question on every corner before answering, “In my inadequate estimation, no. But Bel-, ahem, Expedite has always been an unusually resourceful and inventive user of magic.”

Andrea sighed and fell back in his chair, in a rare show of having anything but complete control of a situation. “Very well. I’ll check with the Keep mages and inform some people with more authority and experience in dealing with this than us. All dismissed,” he said, rising at his own command and leaving the room along with the others.

Once in the hall, he left, presumably to pas the information along to various superiors. Sam and Martin departed for a change of clothes, their current uniforms being coated in the slime, which had clung to them with the consistency of moist mud.

Benlin strode slowly to a conspicuously nearby balcony that opened off the corridor. He stood on a bench near the stone railing and leaned on it, perhaps looking out over Metamor, perhaps at the sky that hung above, but most likely at something no one but him could see. Jacob followed a moment later and took up a similar position slightly down-rail.

“Copper for your thoughts?” Jacob offered. He thought a smile briefly traced Ben’s expression, but it faded as the boy spoke.

“Navigating a thorn’s hedge of memory,” he said, “One that is apparently only a part of a greater maze. Have I ever told you how I came to be a child of Metamor?”

Jacob shook his head. The gecko had already shared his own story to the group one eventless night that had possessed time in need of filling. Sam’s had been nothing special, she had been here as a raw recruit during the Battle of the Three Gates. Martin had candidly related his own still short saga one morning when asked. This was the first time Benlin’s life had come up.

“There is nothing shocking or sordid about it,” the lad said, “I suppose it was just not relevant before now. At the age of seven, I was apprenticed to Belladona Windfall. We traveled the world, searching for obscure bits of magic to study. She became like a second mother to me. Eight years ago, when I was thirteen, the Keep was paying well for combat worthy mages in preparation for Nasoj’s attack. Not that money alone drew us. Metamor’s resources are some of the best in the world, and its own intrinsic magics made it a researcher’s treasure chest, even before the Curses mingled with it.”

“The Battle came, and we fought. I lacked enough training at that point to be of true value in actual combat, so I did what I could with the wounded. I never saw my instructor again after the battle was joined; never saw which Curse claimed her. The chaos settled and she never came back. It is a grim thing for a boy to have to scour a battlefield of unrecognizable bodies, searching for the slightest clue that one of the magically twisted corpses was once a loved one. I didn’t find anything, and held out hope at first, but as days passed to weeks, months, years, I gradually came to accept that she had merely been one of the far too many unidentifiable dead.”

“It was apparently an assumption of dubious quality, for she is back from the grave, as Expedite. He was right in the alley. Curse blended as it is, there is no way I could mistake that aura, not after spending so many years of apprenticeship learning my art from its owner.”

“Was she always…” Jacob began to ask, letting the question trail off.

“Crazy?” Benlin finished after enough silence. “There was always a degree of eccentricity, but not the genuine madness lurking in the soul we saw in the alley.”

“What do you think Expedite will do now that he’s been discovered?” Jacob inquired.

“Chances are he’ll be caught. Metamor has the most competent people in the lands working for her, many with no small amount of power at their disposal. However, ignoring that likelihood, it was always far more Belladonna’s style to hide rather than run, when forced to those choices. She’ll try to stick close to her object of focus. Your hypothesis is as good as mine, though, really. Nothing I know applies any more. Expedite isn’t the person I knew…”

From somewhere, crickets played a chorus of sound to court the air while the two Watchmen stood lost in thought. “What do you think he’ll do?” Benlin asked Jacob. When no response was supplied, the magic-user prompted, “Jacob?”

“I think he’ll escape. Then I think he’ll try for revenge,” the lizard said at last.

Benlin turned from the rail to face his comrade, a little surprised. “What leads to those conjectures?” he asked.

Drazil made that staring eye contact that those who spent time with him had gotten used to, mostly. “Just a gut feeling on the first, little blocks of ice that tell me it won’t end that simply. As for the second, it’s just something you learn to sense about people. I don’t think he likes to lose.”

“Belladonna was never a vengeful person, or a sore loser,” Benlin said in refutation of the gecko’s intuitions.

“Expedite is” Jacob observed plainly. Briefly the reptile-morph considered whether or not his conclusions were based on pure paranoia, but he dismissed the idea. The feeling carried the smooth, subdued force of a simple fact that need not be supported by anything other than its own existence.