by Christopher Hughes

chapter 1


I knew the voice; it belonged to young Alec, one of the pages. Fifteen seasons or so I believe he is. A bright lad, not so skilled with the arcane arts, but certainly no slouch with the bow, or the healer's touch. I idly wondered how long before the ensorcellments that surrounded the keep started to work on its newest target. Without looking up from my tome I raised a paw to show him I had heard.

I finished my paragraph and marked the location in the book with a cloth bookmark. I then removed the monocle from my eye and rubbed at it; while it corrects my vision enough to allow me to continue to read, doing so for long periods makes the eye burn. It still doesn't allow me the colours I remember from my youth. Now I only get the barest hints of such splendour, and what little I can glean from shades of grey, and memory. While I tried to ease the ache in my eye, I lifted my head from my journal and set down my quill. "Yes, Alec?"

Alec looked at me and spoke in a stage-whisper, not wanting to disturb the stillness of the library. "There is someone in the courtyard here to see you."

I blinked. "Me? From this I gather that this is not of us?" Few outside the keep knew of my whereabouts, and most of them would not be people I'd want to see.

He nodded. "He said to tell you that the jester had come. You would know what that meant." His expression was clearly puzzled.

A light dawned inside of me, and then a smith's hammer struck me in the back of the head. I rubbed my skull, trying to remove the sudden ache that had lodged there. "Thank you, Alec. Let the man know that I'll be out shortly."

Alec bit his lip. "Sir, he did say that it was of some urgency."

I sighed. "Very well, I'll ask Fox to watch this for me." I rose and set down my quill, shutting the ancient vellum tome so as to not wear on the binding. I indicated with a paw. "Lead the way."

When we got to the courtyard, Alec said that the man awaiting me should be in the stable attending to his ride and took his leave. I nodded, quite absentmindedly, genuinely lost in thought as I walked. Jester! Nigh on a decade had passed since I'd heard that name. What on earth could he be doing here at the Keep?

Such thoughts kept me distracted until the scent of the stable broke my reverie. My sense of smell has improved a thousandfold since before Nasoj's magic, as has my hearing. I can't call it a curse because of what I've gained. Yet, there are a few things that I do miss, such as quality colour vision. Still in all, I fit in here, in a way I hadn't anywhere else. Now, six years after having come to the keep, a part of my past has come to haunt me.

While I'd gained many things in my transformation, stealth was not one of them. A head popped up from one of the stalls and a voice called out, "Chris, is that you?" A mixture of curiousity and amusement. Jester's voice.

I fumbled for my monocle and raised it to my left eye, squinting slightly and holding my right shut. He stood roughly five-foot-nine, very slim of build, almost gaunt. He possessed a high forehead and blond hair tied back in the back with a leather thong. He wore a black silk shirt and well- tailored pants, with riding boots. Around the fourth finger of one hand he wore a silver ring set with a smooth onyx. From his left shoulder draped a black cape with a dark lining, red or dark green perhaps. His features were very angular, much as a bird's might've been in human shape. I smiled when I saw him, thankful after having done so that he didn't back up as many have.

"Jester." The name alone spoke volumes. It was not his name by birth, but it was the name by which he was known. His birthright, and his true name, were both known to me, but here was not the place for either. "You could have let our stablehands tend to your mount."

He stepped from the stable and looked me over, cocking his head to one side. After a moment, he smiled in return. "It is you. I know, but I wished to see to him myself. Plus, it is more secluded than either the courtyard proper or the pub."

I chuckled despite myself. "Still the misanthrope, then? We should retire to my quarters, then. Or have you yet asked for any?"

He shook his head. "I shan't be here long enough to need them. A pallet in the floor of yours will suffice. I plan on staying only till the morrow. Then we leave."

I turned and waved for him to follow, but something he said struck me and I turned back. "We leave? What do you mean?"

He looked at me unfazed. "Just that. Tomorrow we leave. There isn't much time to waste."

I looked at him querilously, but decided here was not the time to argue. "We'll discuss it in my quarters." With that, I turned again and left the stable.

As we walked, he looked about the keep with an expression of amusement and interest. I tried to point out all the people I knew. Halfway to my room, I caught myself and cursed inwardly. Fool, I thought. Trying to impress him as always. He hasn't been here a scant hour and already you fall into old habits. When I caught myself and stopped, he laughed.

"I am sorry, Chris," he said with a smirk. "I didn't mean to have this effect on you."

I waved a paw dismissively. "Fret not. I'll get over it. I'm just still in shock at seeing you again. What brings you to Metamor?"

His mouth set into a line. "You, actually. But I shan't say more until we're safely in private."

I shrugged and continued onto my room, this time with silence between us. I unlocked my door and opened it, walking to the bed and lying back. Only after I did so did I realise how long I had been sitting in the library. My room is an L-shape, with my bed taking up one end and my desk and bookshelves the other. I keep a table with two chairs against the outer wall at the bend, and a full length mirror against the inner. I rose from the bed against the complaints of my back and shrugged off my robe, scratching my back against the corner of the wall. Slowly but surely I managed to work the stiffness out of my muscles. When I was done, I sighed in relief.

Only then did I realise that Jester had taken a position on my desk and had been watching the entire time. Though modesty was not something with which I had much concern, the animalistic behaviour in front of him did embarrass me a bit, though why I didn't know. Before I could apologise, though, he raised a hand.

"Worry not, my friend. I'm more amused at how readily you seem to have adapted to your life here than I am upset at how much the bear you really have become. If anything, it suits you. You were never happy in the streets of men, were you?"

I shrugged and put my robe back on, pulling out a chair and sitting. "No, to tell the truth. Though before I came here and was affected by Nasoj's enchantments during the siege, I had not the words to express it. I've actually been studying those rituals. I think that somehow Nasoj's magic has infected the spell of protection that guards this place. Anyone who comes here for too long under its aegis becomes one of us. Only recently have I been helping a young man named Michael through his changes... watching the change take place is fascinating! I can actually see from day to day the growth of new fur, the alterations in his shape and posture.. it's incredible! I..." I caught myself there, realising that again I had gone into lecture mode, something I try to reserve to my students.

Jester smiled broadly. "You haven't changed, Chris. Despite your appearance."

His humour was infectious, and I found myself grinning along with him. "So, Jester, what brings you here in search of me?"

His smile faded. "It's your father, Chris. He's dying."

"You want to what?"

I sighed and started over, again explaining what I wished to Lord Thomas. "I want.. no, I need to leave for roughly a tenday. On personal matters, sir. Nothing that involves the Keep itself."

Lord Thomas fixed me in place with a stare, flaring his nostrils slightly in irritation. "If it involves one of my subjects, it involves the keep. I'm not saying no, Chris. But I do want to know what business you have that could be so urgent as to make you want to risk your own safety going back to the Midlands unescorted and in full daylight."

I swallowed hard. Now was the time of reckoning. "It's my father. He's not expected to live much longer."

He nodded slowly, then started. "Your father? I thought your family was gone from the plague ere you came here."

I winced at his memory. "Not precisely. When I left for Metamor, I had been out of contact with them for nearly three years. My last contact was before I entered the University. They lived in an area that had been heavily hit. My mother is a healer, but I'd presumed that they hadn't survived."

The duke's eyes narrowed slightly. "And you never bothered to determine if they still lived?"

"No, sir. My father and I... parted on less than the best of terms."

"Then why do you wish to go back now?"

"If my father is dying, and he asked for me, it could be that.. that we might part on better ground this last time."

"Does he know what you've become? Does he understand what he is about to do?"

I couldn't bring myself to say no. I just stood there.

Lord Thomas sat back on his chair, nodding to himself. "I see." After a moment, he spoke again, in a quieter voice. "What of this 'Jester'? Who is he, precisely? And how did he know that you were here?"

I sighed again. As if everything else had not been enough... "He's my brother, sir."

I thought for a moment that Duke Thomas Hassan V was going to fall from his chair. He stared, open-muzzled, for a moment. Before he could say anything, I continued. "Not by birth, though. By spirit. We pledged an oath of fraternity while I attended University."

His expression resolved only slighlty. Seeing as this hadn't really helped, I decided to try a new tactic. "Sir, may I explain from the beginning?"

He nodded, looking for all the world like nothing I could say would make sense of this matter.

I took a deep breath and held it, trying to still my nerves. Then I began. "Jester and I were born in the same town. His father worked with mine. Neither of us had siblings, and so we grew thinking of each other as our only family. Though Jester was five years older than I, we called each other 'brother' and many of the townsfolk regarded us as such. Aside from him, I had no real friends.

"My father and I... we were never close. He was not a cruel man, but his love had a price. I was to obey him regardless of my own wishes, and my friendship with Jester gave me an alternate role model. The more time I spent with Jester, the less my father spoke to me. When I announced my desire to follow Jester to the University, it was the final straw for my father. He gave me a large sum, enough to pay for my schooling, and said that he wished me to never darken his doorstep again.

"When I arrived at the University, Jester immediately took me in as his assistant. I moved in with him and aided him in his projects as well as my own studies. I thought it an idyllic time. At first.

"After a year, my own immaturity began to catch up with me. The monies my father had given me to pay for my schooling started to run to other things, such as ale and good food every night. I refused to take work while I studied, claiming a lack of time when in truth I simply did not want the bother. After two years, I had no more coin to squander, and with heavy heart the school bade me good day. My studies had not gone poorly; I simply had no more money to cover my education, and too much arrogance to apprentice to anyone in exchange for further training." I smiled ruefully at the memory. "I grew a great deal, emotionally, from that proclamation, but it was too little too late.

"It was at that point that Jester and I parted company. I could no longer stay at the school, and he was unready to leave. I have not seen him in close to eight years. I attended a school of alchemy for a year, doing drudgework in exchange for my skills, but I found that boring. I spent only the absolute minimum necessary to survive and saved the rest. With what coin I had, I came here to study. Metamor borders a land of strong magic, and has two of the most potent workers of sorcery and one of the most accomplished alchemists in the land. I'd come hoping to learn from them, improve my own skills. In the meantime, I've found that I have some talent and gain enjoyment in passing my knowledge on to others, plus I have a love of learning for learning's sake.

"But back to Jester. He's come with news of my father's imminent demise, and I would like to try to be there. I know and understand the risk I take, but Jester is an accomplished wizard and I'm not without my own skills. If my father sent him, then I can only assume that he is willing to put behind him all of our past disagreements and accept me for who I am. But if Jester is correct and his death is nigh, I must ride with all speed if I am to be there to make amends before he passes on."

I didn't hear the pleading tone in my voice, but Lord Thomas must have. After a short pause, he nodded. "If you're not back in a tenday, I'll have Mark come look for you. Ride with all speed." He rose. "Try to avoid becoming someone's hunting trophy, Chris." I nodded, bowed, turned, and walked from the audience chamber, back to my room to prepare for the trip.

chapter 2

I could hardly concentrate as I packed, trying to prepare for every contingency. The idea of leaving Metamor Keep for more than a day or two honestly scared me. It had been so long since I had been beyond its influence that for a brief moment I wondered if I even wanted to go. Then I steeled myself and finished loading my pack. I had to do this, whether I wanted to do so or not. There might not be another chance at reconciliation.

Jester stood waiting for me next to his mount at the gate. As I walked up, he looked at me with a raised brow. "You aren't riding?"

I smirked. "And just what would you suggest I ride, my friend? No horse in its right mind would try to carry my weight. Not even Jack." Having said this, I quickly looked about for the castellan, but he was thankfully nowhere in sight. I smiled; had he heard me I'd surely be on patrol for a week afterwards.

Jester grimaced, but mounted. "That will slow our trip considerably. We'd best plan on an extra two days, then."

I shook my head, my smirk growing deeper. "As I told Lord Thomas, I'm not without my own talents. We will not be delayed."

Jester raised an eyebrow, then chuckled and nodded. "'Twill be good to see if aught of your lessons have lasted, then."

We turned to leave, when Wanderer approached. He raised his head to the two of us. "I'd heard that you were taking your leave of us, but I'd not believed it until now. What takes you from us, and when will you return?"

I frowned slightly. "I can't say. Only that I hope to return within a tenday."

Wanderer nodded, raised a paw to his chin and then smiled and spoke.

"Then haste! And spirits speed you on your path. May night air soothe your travel-weary paws. Luck and wit to save your hide from wrath, But, should you need it, strength to back your claws. Return to us, oh ursine intellect. Without your words on reading, prose and math, Your students' educations go unchecked. So haste, and spirits speed you on your path."

In spite of myself, I found my mood improving, and I laughed. "You must have eaten a library before we met, my wordy wolf. I shall be back as soon as possible." I waved, and Jester and I left Metamor Keep.

Once outside the gates, Jester looked at me with a bemused smile. "Does he ofttimes do that?"

I chuckled. "Of course! Else what's a court poet for?" I looked at Jester, then stopped and removed my pack. I reached for the clasp to remove my robe, but Jester interrupted me. "Might I ask just what you plan to do?"

I continued to remove my robe and placed it in my pack. Now with just my monocle hanging from the chain around my neck, I placed the robe in my pack, then fixed it around my shoulders and waist. I turned and faced down the trail that led towards the Southern Kingdoms. "Run."

I closed my eyes and focused my will, letting the magic that infused my being run rampant again. After so long, it was painful, but oh the release I felt at its touch. My spine curved, hips twisting around to settle at a new angle to my body. My neck bent backwards, allowing me to see ahead again. My senses and such, already so ursine, remained as they were, thankfully. My only regret was the loss of speech and opposable thumbs, but they would return when I stood on but two legs again.

I continued to concentrate, homing in my senses on my own body. Light, I thought. Light, easy, lift. Like a cloud, like winds. I felt the pull of the earth beneath me lessen, and slowly I opened my eyes. I lifted my gaze to meet Jester's, and grinned like a schoolboy at his first perfect mark. Which, in a way, wasn't too far from the truth. With a roar, albeit a muted one from the enchantment, I began to RUN.

I could dimly hear Jester's steed's hooves pounding the ground behind me, galloping to keep pace, but my attention was focused on the landscape ahead of me. After six years, I've learned to accomodate my eyes with my ears and nose, but at this speed every sense would be important to keep me from barrelling into something. Even my sense of time becomes distorted; I swore not more than an hour passed, yet when I ran out of breath and slowed, it was nightfall.

Jester arrived some fifteen minutes later, while I sill lay on my back attempting to regain some strength and wind. He dismounted and tethered his horse, laughing uproariously. "Fabulous, Chris. I'd not suspected you could keep that up for so long! Another half-hour and you might have begun to tax Methuselah."

I groaned. Had he covered his mount in similar enchantments? I wouldn't put it past him. After another five or so minutes, I had recovered enough to sit up, pushing back the enchantments, one completely, the other as far as it would go, allowing me to return to my normal two-legged stance. Jester and I quickly set up camp.

Jester set wards at the edge of the camp and sat. "No need for a watch; we'll be woken if aught approaches."

I nodded, and for some time we both sat and stared into the flame. It felt strange to me, that after eight years this man, who had been my brother in all but birth and my father figure in many senses, should suddenly reappear into my life when I could no longer be a part of his. Finally, I gathered my courage to speak, now that we were alone. "Jester, why did you come?"

He looked at me with a start. "What do you mean? Your father is dying; isn't that reason enough?"

I shook my head. "You know that he and I vowed never to speak again. There is more here than just my father's death. What is it?"

He sighed and looked at me tiredly. "Chris, your mother took your and your father's parting harshly. She was always a strong woman, able to keep you and your father apart. When you left and vowed to ne'er return, it killed something within her. Her healing arts had ne'er faltered until the summer you left. The plague took her, and half of Ellcaran, inside of three months. Your father survived it by virtue of having essentially locked himself in his laboratory. But even he didn't survive intact. His health has been failing for the last two years. His heart gave out this past tenday. He'd been unable to do aught but lie in bed and cough for three days when I left to find you, and then I only paused to divine your location. I only learned of his condition from my father, who has been trying to restore some of your father's old humours." He stopped and looked back into the fire. "I think his heart has gone. Both the one in his chest and the one in his soul."

I looked into the fire, trying to lose myself in the flames. I never thought of the effect that my parting with my father would have on my mother. Or on their relationship. My mother had dreams of a household of children, I believe. She became barren after me, unable to conceive, though the cause neither my father nor Jester's could ever determine. I was her pride and joy, but my quarrels with my father put her in the precarious position of guarding each against the other, oft-times to the detriment of both. When I had had my fill of the man, I pronounced my independence and he gladly granted it, giving me enough coin to pay my way through the University at Elvquellin. I never knew how badly I had hurt my mother, until Jester spoke. Unbidden, tears welled up inside of me and ran forth, wetting my fur and muzzle and falling softly to the ground. Jester rose from his spot across the fire from me and, quite unexpectedly, embraced me. So shocked I was by his action that I jerked back, but quickly fell into his arms again.

He held me there until I had cried myself out, and then he stepped back and looked at me cautiously. "Will you be ok, brother?"

I nodded, looking up through even-more-blurry eyes. "I will, brother mine. In the morning." With that, I lay down on the grass beside me and was soon asleep.

chapter 3

The next three days were much as the last. For Methuselah's comfort and my own well-being, we stayed on the main roads, but little traffic interfered with us. If any of those we passed saw us or wondered, they did nothing to communicate with us. I suspected that Jester had used his talents to hide us from prying eyes, but that was just as well. While I mislike magic being used upon me without my consent, I also mislike a sword through the ribs from some panicking traveller.

We camped away from the towns, staying far from the eyes of others. I had no desire to rush to my first encounter with a Midlander before reaching home, and so this suited me as well. We spent our times in camp catching up on the eight years that separated us. Ofttimes, my students have accused me, jokingly, of speaking solely to hear the sound of my own voice. Though I laugh, in part it's true. I spent hours telling Jester of my time at the keep. Of being an animal, working alongside striplings older than myself, and consorting with men who used to be women and the reverse. He seemed amazed at how quickly we had all adapted to our new situation. When I pointed out that some of us, such as Pascal and myself, had appreciated the change, he merely smiled.

Finally, we approached Ellcaran. The city had grown in the decade since I'd left it, but not so much that it was wholly unfamiliar. I recognised parts of its skyline from the distance, though there were a few buildings I could tell were new. I stopped running and ambled into the trees near the edge of the forest, off of the path, collapsing and releasing the ensorcellments upon me again.

Jester dismounted and walked to the edge of the trail, looking at me with curiosity. "Might I inquire why you've stopped?"

I waved a paw at him to tell him I could not yet speak, and he stood tapping his foot while I recovered. When again I could breathe easy, I rose on two legs and pulled my robe from my pack, pulling it on. "I'd prefer not to run through the town knocking down the villagers, if you must know."

He sighed. "Haste is critical, Chris."

I looked into his eyes and growled. Unconsciously, he stepped back but then held his ground. I spoke in a low voice. "Jester, this is my home. I'm walking from the gate, through the streets, to my home. In full view of everyone. Which means you need to drop whatever enchantment you've placed upon me to keep others from seeing me as I am. Do you think I failed to notice nigh on a dozen people in a caravan that paid a bear running with the speed of a cheetah absolutely no mind?"

His gaze remained level, but I saw within him the twitch that showed I had caught him at something he thought I hadn't seen. Only rarely did I see that, but I knew its meaning. He shrugged. "If that is how you wish to proceed, then..."

He waved a hand, and I felt a slight tingle. He turned and mounted Methuselah again. His voice had a touch of ice in it, quite unexpectedly. "If you're quite ready, shall we continue?"

I nodded, rolling my eyes as we walked to the gates of Ellcaran. The guards at the gate noticed us as we approached, for I heard the sudden rattling of chain and the soft swish of a sword being half-drawn from a scabbard and then resettled. As we neard the gate, I could make out snippets of conversation from the guards on duty. "... freaking Metamoran, what's it doing here?" "... with the mage, can't be that bad..." "... still don't like it..." I sighed, though somewhat relieved. It could have been much worse.

When we were roughly twenty feet from the gate, the guards stopped muttering and one called out, "Hold!"

Jester and I stopped, and he dismounted. We waited as the guard that shouted advanced to look us over. "Jester, good to have you back home." His voice then dropped to what he must've thought was out of my hearing. "I trust that, ah..." He thumbed at me. "It's with you?"

I couldn't resist. "No," I said in a gentle voice. "I am not. My father is Eduard the alchemist, son of Aubran. My name is Christopher, and I was born here."

The guard started, unaware that I could hear him. He looked at me with a cold eye and snorted. "And I'm Ovid's bastard son."

Jester smirked. "No, Corin, you aren't. But he is who he claims to be. I vouch for him."

The guard looked molified by this, though still watching me with a distrustful eye. He grunted once and waved us through. As we entered, I could hear his muttering pick back up. "... freaks, the lot of them."

I sighed again. "Must all Midlanders be so mistrustful?"

Jester looked at me with a chill gaze. "No, just the ones you insist on provoking. Had you let me handle the situation, that would not have happened."

I rounded on my "brother." "Oh? By making it so all he saw were two approaching travellers? You kept those on the road from seeing us, and worked your art so subtly that I knew not you had done it until after the fact. I was grateful for the protection, yes, but now is no longer the time for that. Tell me, brother." I spat the word at him. "Have you yet told my father of my return? Did you inform him that I would be coming back? You said they knew not of my whereabouts. Did they know of yours?"

Jester's gaze grew colder. "I came because I thought you would want the chance to make peace with your father ere he died. You already failed to say good-bye to your mother."

I glared at him, my anger rising. "No, Jester, you came because you saw an opportunity to once again play the hero in my life. You know damn well that had my father died alone having never seen me again, I would not have cared a whit. You haven't stopped treating me as you did when I was but a youth! You came to the keep and I dropped everything to come to your side, just as you expected I would." I fought for control at this point. "I'm no longer your servant, Jester. Your friend, always. Your brother by oath if not by blood. But not your apprentice or your marionette." With that, I turned and stormed down the street, ignoring the shocked looks of the passers-by of this beast that just confronted Ellcaran's protector-mage in broad daylight.

Behind me, I heard Jester's voice, though I knew he couldn't be following me. "So where do you go now?"

I focused for a moment and sent back to him on the wind, "I go to my father's house. Having come this far, I wish to see this through to the end."

My father's house stood like an old man. Bent, faded, worn. One story, obviously in disrepair. I approached almost hesitantly. My memories of this house consisted mostly of arguments, feuds, fights, and sullen silences. What few pleasant rememberances I had involved my mother, and she was now gone, her ghost casting a pall on those.

I walked to the door and knocked. After a short time, the door opened and a young woman looked out, dressed in a white robe with a high collar. When she saw me, she started, stepping backwards involuntarily. "W--What business have you here?"

I raised my paws in a gesture of peace. "Milady.. We've ne'er met before now, but my name is Christopher." I paused, and the edge of my mouth turned up of its own accord. "Eduard's prodigal son returns."

She cocked her head at me, her eyes widening in surprise. She must have seen something in me as Jester had, for she raised a hand to her mouth. "Then you're... by the gods. Come in, come in!" She stepped out of the doorway and motioned me inside.

I nodded gratefully and entered the house. The inside was clean, though as in need of maintenance as the outside. I looked at whom I presumed was my father's attendant, taking my monocle from its pocket and fitting it to my eye. Blond she was, with ice-blue eyes. High cheekbones, well-cut features. Around her neck she wore a silver necklace with a single spherical diamond as a pendant. Quite attractive, much as a sculpture of ice would be.

She noticed me studying her and smiled. "Do you always stare so?"

I placed my monocle back in its pocket. "Stare? Not hardly, milady. But I do study all that's around me. And I ne'er did catch your name."

She nodded and extended a hand. "Nyssa. I studied under your mother, ere she passed on. Since then I've been caring for your father. Jester's father comes by about twice a tenday with poultices and herbs."

I nodded and took her hand in my paw, raising it to my muzzle and touching it to my lips. "Well met, then, Nyssa." I released her hand. "How is he?"

She frowned. "Not good. In truth, I can make him comfortable, but I can not make him well. He could go at any point. Right now he's resting, but for evens he'll wake, in about two hours. You can see him then."

I nodded and slipped my pack from my shoulder. About then, a thought struck me and I looked at her. "By the way, Nyssa, how is it that you react so calmly to me? I'd not expected such treatment."

She looked at me quizzically. "What had you expected? Slings and arrows?"

I winced. "Well, my reception at the gate was less than welcoming."

Nyssa sighed. "Fools. Those who know not of the workings of magic fear aught that doesn't fit their tiny minds. Many see the 'tainting' of Metamor as a sign of the Giantdown's eminent invasion. Others think that the Keep changed willingly. The wilder the rumour, the more ignorant sots believe it."

I smiled in spite of myself. "I do believe, milady, that we will get on well together. Is my room still as it was?"

Nyssa looked at me for a moment, then nodded. "Your father left it as it was after you left."

I turned and walked to my room. Aside from the thin layer of dust that coated every surface, it was indeed much as I had left it. A bed, now made and with fresh linens instead of the rumpled pile of which I had been more fond. A wardrobe, now empty. A nightstand with a half-melted candle upon it, a few books scattered about. I sat down on the bed, forgetting about my change in size until I heard the wood start to creak under me. Quickly, I rose back up but the bed remained slighly warped on that side. Grimacing, I sat down on the floor. With aught else to entertain myself, I pulled a journal from my pack and read.

I must have been there an hour when I heard a knock on the door. Without looking up, I called out, "Come in!" The door opened and I heard light footsteps on the wooden floor. I finished my paragraph and closed the book, looking up to see Nyssa. "How may I help you?"

She sat down on the bed next to me, looking at me intently. After a moment, she spoke. "Why did you return?"

I frowned. "I have been asking myself that question. In truth, I came back because Jester said my father was dying. At the time, I thought that my father had asked for me. Only an hour ago did I learn that my father knew not of my return."

Nyssa nodded. "Jester is known for tricks of that nature. Misguided though they may sometimes be. You knew him well, then?"

I nodded, smiling at some of the memories. "We grew up together. Our parents worked together, though my father misliked Jester's ways. He felt I should follow his example. When I instead became more like Jester, he grew irate. The more like Jester I was, the worse he treated me. When I thought I was old enough, I said that I'd had enough and I left. He gave me money to spare and told me to never return. I came because I thought he had relented."

Nyssa smiled gently. "Your father relented the day you left. But he had no way to find you. Your father still will not speak to Jester, despite working with his father. While I don't doubt that your father still finds our protector-mage objectionable in the extreme, no doubt he will be glad to see you." She noticed the book in my lap. "Should I come back when your father stirs?"

I put the journal back in my pack. "No.. I would prefer the company, I think. Tell me.. how well do you know Jester?"

She leaned back on her hands on the bed. "Oh... he came back to Ellcaran four years ago, after his time in Elvquellin. I've spoken to him time and again since then, but I can't say that we're close. Why?"

I sighed. "Jester is as a brother to me. Yet whene'er I get near to him, he seems to just.. he acts as though I were his plaything, to bend around his fingers as he sees fit. He came and found me, told me enough to get me to come yet did not tell me the truth."

Nyssa chuckled, and I found it irritating. "Something strikes you as funny?"

She laughed at that. "Jester is a mage; he can bend the world to his whim. I find it not surprising in the least that in a person such as he, everything falls under the heading of an amusement, including his friends. The closer to him you are, the more likely he probably is to use his arts to help, never to harm. I would wager that he probably thought only of the good in bringing you back. Tell me, has he harmed you in bringing you here?"

I glared, but shook my head.

"Has he possibly helped you by his actions?"

Some of my anger left me and I nodded.

"Then wherein is the harm? Had he actually caused you pain, I would agree that his meddling was unwarranted, but here it sounds as if you were staying away solely to spite your father."

Her statement stunned me for a moment, if only because of its devastating accuracy. Before I could reply though, I heard the sound of laboured breathing coming from my father's room. I leapt to my feet. "It's Father..." Nyssa jumped from the bed and beat me out the hallway and into my father's room.

When I entered my father's room, I was overwhelmed by the antiseptic smell for a short time. When my head ceased spinning, I looked at my father laying on the bed. I was not ready for the sight. I remembered my father as a large man, strong and healthy. Overweight, but tall, with a full beard and salt-and-pepper hair. What I saw was a shrunken man with a few wisps of hair and beard, totally grey. His skin was ashen and looked loose over his shriveled form. Only his eyes were the same. Like rough pieces of amber, piercing and sharp. They looked wild as he coughed and struggled to breathe.

Nyssa looked up at me with a pained expression and shook her head. I ran next to her. "What, what is it?"

She looked back down at my father and put her hands on his chest, focusing. Through clenched teeth, she spoke. "His heart, it's fair ready to burst, I fear. I can hold off the pain, but..."

My father lashed out with his hands, his voice a harsh whisper. "Nyssa! What mean you to bring strangers in on me?"

I grabbed his hand in my paw. "I've come home, father."

His head snapped around to me. I could see sweat running down his face, felt his clammy hand in my paw. "Chris? Is it.. is that you?"

I nodded, rubbing the back of his hand, trying to keep him calm while Nyssa stilled his pain and healed his heart. "Yes, father.. it is I. I've come back."

He gasped once and Nyssa looked up at me, her face grim. She shook her head once and then lowered her attention back to her patient. My father's grip tightened; his strength was considerable for an old sick man. "I see Metamor had its way with you. Your mother... she never believed..." He gasped once for breath, then forced himself to continue. "Believed you would return... tell me, son... am I forgiven?"

I smiled gently. "There's nothing to forgive, father. I was a bullheaded child. Well, bearheaded now, but that's beside the point." I heard Nyssa snort but she never faltered in her concentration.

My father's grasp tightened again, clenching down out of pure will; no man could be so strong without aid. "Tell me!"

I drew in breath, held it, let it out again. I lowered my gaze to meet his sharp brown eyes. "I forgive you, father."

His hand relaxed. I could see behind his eyes a light die inside. The rough edges of his gaze softened, puddled like melting wax. He seemed to gain weight then, settling back against the bed with a rustle of cloth. Nyssa slumped on his chest, exhausted and weeping. I reached over and put a paw on his chest. Eduard, son of Aubren, my father, was dead.

chapter 4

I woke the next morning stiff and still tired. Not wishing to destroy my bed any further, I had slept on the floor with but a blanket to cover me. All through the night, I had tossed and turned, emotionally exhausted but unable to sleep. Several times during the course of the night, I woke to unfamiliar surroundings and the stale scent of death in the air. Priests from the local church had come last night, to take and prepare my father's body for his funeral, but the pall of his corpse, perhaps his spirit, still hung in the musty air.

When dawn came, I finally gave up on sleep and rose, attempting to remove the knots from my back and my fur as best as I was able. Ere I was finished, though, Nyssa knocked on my door. I snatched up my robe and pulled it on, then bade her enter. She opened the door, looking as haggard as I imagined I must've looked. She blinked a few times, then in a soft voice asked if I would care to break fast with her.

I nodded and smiled. "Certes, milady. But you are in no condition to see to the needs of others now, and I am not the best of cooks. We shall take our repast at the inn, what say you?"

She looked at me and shook her head slightly. "No, I'm alright. And what of you? Are you sure you wish to go out among the townsfolk?"

I snorted. "Nyssa, unless my memory fails me, you yourself said that the locals of Ellcaran mistrusted what they did not understand. How will they gain understanding without exposure? And neither of us are in any mood to prepare a meal. Please, Nyssa. Let us allow others to aid us for a short while."

At that, she nodded alomst imperceptibly and sighed. Without further word, she and I proceeded to the inn, a well-built two-story affair with a weatherbeaten sign proclaiming it to be the Wayfarer's Rest, an apt if unimaginative name for a port city's inn. From the outside, the shadows of many people could be seen through the windows; a popular place, I imagined.

As we entered, the conversations inside fell to a dim hush, though i could still hear snippets of conversation, ranging from shock to fascination to outright hatred. I tuned them out as best as possible and, with Nyssa at my side, approached the counter that served as both the bar and front desk. Nyssa sat on a chair at the counter while I chose to stand, not wishing to risk damaging the establishment's furniture.

After a few moments, the innkeeper came out from the back and, with only a slight hesitation, walked to where we were. "Might I help you two...?" His voice trailed off, uncertain.

Nyssa spoke, her voice carrying well despite the tremor in it from the last day's events. "Yes, please. Whatever you have prepared for breaking fast. And a mug of your pale beer for my nerves."

The innkeeper nodded, then glanced at me. His voice fell and in a hushed whisper, he asked her, "Will your.. friend.. be eating as well?"

I rolled my eyes and coughed. I grew weary of being treated as a dumb animal. "Yes, please. The same, but a mug of water instead. I've little tolerance for alcohol. Dulls the senses."

The innkeeper jumped back a step involuntarily, but nodded quickly and vanished into the back room, the location of the kitchen I presume. I could hear sounds of pottery and knives from the open doorway.

While we waited, the conversations rose in volume, though nowhere near their normal levels. Some degree of normalcy attempted to assert itself, despite my presence. I turned to Nyssa and attempted to strike up conversation with her. "Have you any idea to where you'll go now? With your talents I'm sure that your services could be used anywhere."

She stared at me with open-mouthed shock. "Your father dies and the day after you wish to discuss my future as though nothing had happened? Have you no space in your heart for that man?" Her voice rapidly rose in pitch, though I'm sure she didn't realise that it had.

I took her hand in my paws. "Nyssa," I said quietly, "though you may have known him well these past years, I hardly knew him even as a cub--child, I mean. I left after fifteen winters, to persue my dreams of being a spellcaster, with my father's coin and his last words ringing in my ears about never returning. As callous as it may sound, I didn't love the man. I simply never knew him well enough. But all in all, I'm glad I returned, if only to put his own soul at ease ere he died."

My words took her by surprise, but she quickly adjusted to them. "I see." Her voice was distant, almost disappointed. But no longer shocked. Before she could say more, however, the innkeeper returned with a barmaid in tow, setting plates and mugs in front of us. Nyssa absent-mindedly pulled two thin silver pieces from a pouch at her belt, and another for the woman helping the innkeeper. The innkeeper bowed and left us in some haste.

For a short time afterwards, the only sound to come from either of us was the appreciative grunt of good food and the clinking of a knife or fork off of the platter. Finally, the meal finished, Nyssa rose from her seat, looking somewhat better. "We should probably make some haste; your father left instructions for a short, quick, funeral and then the dispensing of his estate. The priests should have made all the necessary preparations by now, contacted the appropriate people."

I nodded; that was much like my father. To finish his business quickly and attend to other matters. I rose and followed her out of the inn. As we left, I heard the conversations resume as before.

Corin watched as the bear left with late alchemist's attendant in tow. "I tell you," he started again into his flagon, "something foul is in the air. One of those freaks comes down from Metamor with Jester, shouts at him in the middle of town without so much as a rebuke, and Eduard dies not three hours after that thing's arrival. Yet Nyssa and Jester do nothing!"

Sounds of muttered assent came from most of the others at Corin's table, more guards currently off-watch. One brave soul, though, spoke up. "Shh! Ashes, man, say that too loud and you'll call Jester down on all of us." Nathan quickly glanced round the inn to ensure that Ellcaran's resident mage was nowhere in sight.

Corin glared at the young soldier. "That bear-thing's got Jester under some kind of trance. I was on duty yesterday when they arrived. He walked into town like he lived here, made some claim about being Eduard's son, of all things. And Jester backed him up. In fact, ever since Jester went to that damned keep, he's been acting funny. I'd wager half my wages that they did something to him, up there."

The muttering at the table grew louder. A few voices of agreement. Jared, one of the other older guardsmen, spoke up. "Aye. I've seen the place with my own eyes, I have."

The table grew quiet at that. Nathan looked at Jared in some awe. "You have? What's it like?"

Jared looked at Nathan and scowled. "Like a normal man's nightmare. Children talking in adult voices, being treated as full adults. Men and women of unnatural beauty, like demonic temptors and temptresses. And those halfmen that roam the halls, acting like normal people. Rumor has it they've even a dragon or two bound there. And any who stay there long fall under their curse. Some there even claim to enjoy it."

Corin growled, taking another draught from his mug. "Damn thing's probably got Jester tied up in some kind of charm. They probably did it to him up at the Keep when he went looking for Eduard's son."

Nathan looked back at Corin. "You said something like that yesterday. What if that really is Eduard's son?"

The table's occupants grew quiet again. Finally Corin spoke in a gutteral tone. "If it really is, he'd probably be better off with his father."

Nathan paled slightly but said nothing in return, and Ellcaran's city guards finished their meal in uneasy silence.

Father's funeral was short and simple. Ever the practical man, he saw only for as much pomp and ritual was necessary for the protection of his soul, and no more. Few were present in the town church for the ceremony. Jester's father, a small redhaired man of gentle disposition, presented the eulogy. Nyssa cried, as did he. I sat unmoving, and unmoved.

I felt my cheeks burn as I realised I was the only one who wept not for Eduard's passing. But I also thought that false tears would have been worse. In truth, I never thought of him as a father figure. With his passing, I felt.. numb. Unsure as to what I should feel. I wished that I felt what I thought I should, and yet every attempt at remorse felt hollow. In truth, when Jester's father left the front of the church and the pallbearers came to carry away the shell of my father to the afterlife, all I felt was a sense of relief at the deed being finished.

I gathered Nyssa and we moved to leave the church. As we passed through the front gate, Jester approached us. He offered Nyssa first a hankerchief, and then an embrace. She held him for a moment, then released him and stepped back, dabbing at her eyes. "Yes, Jester?" Her voice was tight, oddly pitched. Whether from the crying or some other cause, I knew not.

He looked at her for a moment, then back to me. "Your father made me the executor of his will. He had no plans to make me a beneficiary, but he needed someone he knew was trustworthy." He held up his hands at my shocked starts. "I was as unprepared as you for that revelation. Please. Let us continue this at my home. Nyssa, your presence is needed as well. My father is already on his way." With that he turned and proceeded towards his home, without looking back.

Nyssa and I looked at each for a moment, shrugged and then followed. Jester's home was near the edge of town, a small one-story building in good repair. It looked new, but that was probably as much Jester's artifice as it was quality stonework. The interior was sparsely furnished but tasteful. Jester's father was already seated in the main living area in front of a softly-crackling fire. He nodded as we entered, but said nothing.

Nyssa seated herself on the other unoccupied chair before the fire, and I contented myself with a seat on one of the rugs. Jester walked to the mantelplace and lifted a metal strongbox. He turned back to us and, reaching up one sleeve, pulled forth an iron key. I smiled, mentally wagering ten crowns that that key had not been there some scant moments before. Jester held the box in one hand and inserted the key into the front, turning it until I heard a soft click. He then withdrew the key and dropped it, whereupon it vanished halfway to the ground. Nyssa's eyes widened at such a blatant display of magic, but I could only smirk. That was Jester, an entertainer and show-off to the end.

Looking solemn, he opened the box and withdrew several sheets of paper. Jester set the strongbox back upon the mantel, then looked at each of us in turn. He smiled and cleared his throat. "Would the three of you prefer the long and involved legal turns of phrase, or shall I merely dispense with Eduard's estate so that you may continue with the day?" Nyssa scowled at his obvious disrespect but I raised a paw to forestall any argument. "Just the arrangements, please, Jester."

He nodded and shuffled through the papers. "Father, Eduard leaves to you his apparatus and the contents of his laboratory, plus his journal and notes." Jester's father nodded, wiping at his eyes with the back of one hand. "Thank you, son."

Jester read further. "Nyssa, to you he leaves his house and the sum of one thousand gold crowns--" Nyssa gasped, and my own muzzle gaped in surprise. Well off I'd always known he was, but I'd no idea that he had so much! Jester smiled. "I take it, then, that you find this acceptable?" Without awaiting a response, he continued. "Crowns payable upon demand by the exchequer in Elvquellin." He extracted one of the sheets and handed it to Nyssa. "A certificate of deposit."

He then scanned further down. "The remainder, he leaves to you, Christopher." I nodded, then winced. This was the first time since my return that he used my full name. Until now he had always called me Chris. To use Christopher, he must have felt he had lost some measure of familiarity. Now, though, was not the time to discuss such matters. I nodded and he handed to me another certificate much as he had Nyssa. Signed by my father and the exchequer, I looked for the monetary value. What I saw shocked me beyond aught before. Here was sum enough to live comfortably for as long as I wished. And yet, I felt wrong in accepting the money. I'd never earned it, nor known my father well enough to feel right in using it. The paper felt oily in my paws.

I folded it up and put it inside my robes. Jester looked at the three of us. "If there is nothing more, that is the extent of Eduard's testament. If you would, then, good morrow to you all." He bowed and Nyssa and Jester's father rose. Jester walked with us to the door. After Nyssa and his father left, though, I stopped and turned to face my old friend. "Jester? Might we speak for a moment?"

He studied me, then turned and walked inside his house without a word. I took this as an invitation and stepped back inside, pulling the door closed as I did. I saw Jester standing before the fire, facing away from me. I approached but stopped some two feet away. "Jester?"

"What is it, Christopher?" His voice was weary. Tired.

"I wish to apologise."

I think that in that statement, I actually caught my blood-brother off-guard. He turned and looked at me in some surprise. "Apologise? Why?"

I smiled. "For suspecting you. For not expecting your growth. For treating you as you were eight years ago, when I was a cub full of anger and impatience. For not listening to you when you offered sound advice, because I wished to prove to myself that I wasn't your servant. For thinking that you still thought of me as such. Most of all, for acting in such a fashion that would make you doubt the value of our relationship." I held out a paw to him at that point.

Jester smiled and, ignoring the paw, embraced me warmly. "I, too, must apologise, Chris. For not telling you the truth. For trying to protect you, when you are your own person now. For still trying to act as your elder. And for making you question my friendship, brother." I smiled and embraced him.

Our reconciliation was interrupted by a knock at the door. Jester stepped back and frowned. "Ashes. Whomever it is, this had best be urgent." He strode to the door and opened it, where one of the town guard stood on the far side, panting heavily. "Nathan?" Jester's tone was instantly concerned. "What brings you here in such haste?"

Nathan gulped for air, then coughed out, "Corin and.. and some of the others. They're.. coming here.. here to kill the bear." He swallowed hard again. "They think.. he killed Eduard, got.. got you under some... kind of spell."

Jester burst into laughter. "Those ignorant sots! And they come to my home to kill my brother?" He rubbed his hands together and I smelled the sharp tang of brimstone as he did so.

I frowned and walked over to Jester, putting a paw on his shoulder. "No, friend. Killing them will only convince more that you are under my control, as ludicrous as it may sound. I have a better solution, one that spares all lives involved." I smiled at that and walked back inside the house.

Jester followed me inside, leading Nathan ahead of him and pulling shut the door. "How plan you to leave this place without encountering Corin and his associates? If Nathan saw fit to warn us, 'twould most likely indicate there are more than you could comfortably fight alone."

I smirked, then swore. "My pack! It still rests at my fa--at Nyssa's house!" I paced a moment, then looked at Nathan. "Think you that you could retrieve it in some haste? How long have we before the rest arrive?"

Nathan took a deep breath. "Roughtly ten minutes. They wished their approach to be subtle. Not enough time to get to Eduard's and back, though."

Jester shook his head. "You forget with whom you speak, boy." He touched Nathan's chest, then knelt and touched his legs, running the tips of his fingers along them as he muttered under his breath the words to a very familiar spell. He then rose and smiled at the boy, whose breathing had become easier. "Now run, make haste!"

Nathan turned and vanished in a blur of motion towards the door. For an eternity, I paced awaiting his return. Some minutes later, he burst back through the door, stopping suddenly with a grin that threatened to split his face. "How in spirits' name did you do that?"

I retrived my pack from his outstretched hand and smiled. "An old apprentice's trick." Jester smirked as I slung my pack over my shoulders, then scowled as he looked out the door. "Nathan's estimate was a tad long. I can see them approaching. Whatever you plan, you must do it now, Chris."

I smiled and then embraced Jester again. "Say goodbye to Nyssa for me." Then, I stepped back, reached to my neck and pulled out my monocle. I grasped the crystal lens in my paw and whispered a short prayer that the ensorcellment worked as I believed it should. Then, with one sharp tug, I snapped the chain holding the monocle around my neck.

I heard a muffled explosion and felt a rush of air around me, as if I stood in the eye of a tornado. Then, all was still. I opened my eyes and saw that I stood in my room back in the keep. I tried to move but fell with a thud to the floor physically exhausted from the teleportation. I did, however, manage a rather loud moan of pain when I landed.

After a short time, I heard a knock at the door. "Chris?" The voice was familiar but unplaceable. I tried to speak, again getting little more than a grunt. The door opened and a young woman walked into my room wearing page's attire. She turned and saw me, then quickly knelt beside me. "How did you return without being noticed? And what happened to you? You look as if you'd just run all the way from Ellcaran!"

Something in her manner caught my attention and I succeededn rolling onto my back. "Alec?" This time, at least, my voice functioned, albeit slurred.

The girl smiled. "Alexys. But other than that, yes. Metamor found me the day after you left. Most disconcerting for the few days. I am not used to having to sit for so many things." I managed to smile before passing out.

When I woke, Brian was standing over me, Alexys at the foot of my bed. He cocked his head when I stirred. "Ah. You're finally awake. In the future, if you plan to do something so phenomenally crazy, at least let someone know in advance so we can prepare for it." The raccoon smiled and looked at Alexys. "I think that you can handle this from here. I've got other matters to attend." With that, he left my room.

Alexys took his place at the head of the bed. "Chris, just how did you arrive so suddenly? Everyone's been informed of your rather... spontaneous return."

I smiled. "A small ritual I worked out as an apprentice, but only recently had the skill to perform. The closed circle of the chain acts as a lock on the art. When it breaks, it releases the ensorcellment. In this case, a spell of recall. Normally I'd planned to use it only in combat, but to avoid combat seemed as good a reason." I sagged back against the bed, still tired from the spell.

She nodded, and I looked at the door, then back to her. "Did you fetch Brian?"

Alexys shook her head. "No.. Copernicus asked him to ensure that I had done everything properly. You've only been asleep for three hours. I took care of the rest myself, though I did have to have help getting you back into your bed." We both smiled at that, and I realised how best I could use my father's parting gift.

I indicated my robes and asked her to hand them to me. She looked at me quizzically but complied. When I had them, I reached inside and pulled out a piece of paper. "Alexys... would you like to continue your studies in the healing arts? It would seem that your skills have surpassed what I could show you."

She smiled at that, and I chuckled. "I thought as much. Tell me, Alexys..." I unfolded the certificate of deposit. "Would you care to study at the University of Elvquellin?"