Justice in Vengeance Refrain

by Ryx

"Are you quite finished, dreamwalker?" the Lothonasa asked flatly as Malger knelt over the body of the once proud showman. The man's body slowly slumped in death, a bloody froth burbling from his mouth as the last rattling breath of life escaped his ravaged lungs. The vixen slowly emerged from behind the wagon wheel where she had sheltered. Her alert gaze shifted from Malger to corpse and then the Lothanasa.

"Yes, mistress, it is done." Malger's voice was heavy; wearied. He removed his sword from the man's chest and held it up briefly before his face, eyes closed as he offered some silent prayer. Shifting his grip from the hilt to the blade before its crosspiece he turned and walked slowly toward the woman seated upon her divan. Vinsa cum Elvmere wrung his hands agitatedly upon his breast, clutching the Tree secreted under the thin fabric and watched the denouement with horror. At his side Murikeer stood motionless, his jaw clenched, but said nothing. When Elvmere made a step toward Malger the illusion guised skunk grasped his arm gently to stay him and shook his head at the priest's plaintive glance.

"Very well. Seize him." The four guards surrounding the divan moved forward as one, their naked blades held before them. Malger held up his arms placatingly and extended his sword, hilt first, toward the nearest of them. The man lightly accepted the blade while another captured Malger's upper arm in a strong hand. He did not bodily pull Malger away, merely guided him toward the divan. "Who is master of this bestiary, now?" she asked.

The vixen, having briefly stopped to kneel over the corpse of her former master, jerked something savagely from around his neck and stood. "Myself, your grace." She said softly, but easily heard in the heavy silence that hung in the wake of Malger's unexpected savagery.

The woman shifted her gaze from the prisoner to the vixen. "I will require a wagon to transport this penitent."

Sheyiin bobbed her head and bowed crisply, "I will see what can be found among our train, your grace."

To one side the master of the remaining caravan guards, Grimmam, turned and strode back toward the sprawling camp among the trees beyond the wagons. Harsh but quiet orders were hissed to the guards he passed and after brief moments to collect their wits the men nodded and trotted away into the crowed toward whatever tasks their commander had given them. The other members of the caravan, handlers and drovers, looked on in horrified confusion. Some began to disperse on further orders from Grimmam. "Attend to the survivors." The Lothanasa ordered her men. The one holding Malger looked to her in askance but at a small motion of her large hand he released his charge to join his fellows. Two went to the man whose leg Malger had severed while two others attended to the man missing his lower arm.

While they busied themselves with the moaning men, who had long ago lost their voices for screaming as well as much of their color due to blood loss, Murikeer strode forward. "Cuialye lothan, mistress." He bobbed his head in a desultory bow, "What is to become of him?"

"You are?"

"Murikeer, your grace. His apprentice, as is Elvmere." He waved one arm back to take in the raccoon concealed in his humanesque illusion. The woman's eyes narrowed as she gazed upon the young mage, the priest, and then back toward Malger standing silently beside her divan.

"He will die!" a voice shouted from among the crowd pulling all heads around with swift motions. The aristocrat who had been among the gawkers strode imperiously forward from among his retinue ignoring their hasty attempts to stay him. Polished steel gleamed at his side; a naked sword in one hand. "The minstrel slew three and crippled two. Justice demands his death." He raised his sword slightly as he approached the divan. The Lothanasa raised an eyebrow curiously and raised a hand to stay her guards where they were, still attending to the fallen. Murikeer's fingers flexed as he prepared a swift spell but did not unleash it.

"Stay yourself, apprentice." The woman commanded. "That is yet to be determined, Earl."

"Here, and now, priestess!" the man snarled furiously, "I will attend to it myself if you will not."

Murikeer looked from woman to man, his invisible tail bushing as the fur along his spine lifted in fearful expectation. No one knew of Malger's noble status; to them he was nothing more than a commoner and sufferable to the swift justice of the Earl. Even at the bottom tier of nobility he was well within his rights to end the performer's life on the spot for the crimes he had just committed.

"On your land, perhaps, Earl. This is the demesne of Earl Asthill. He shall make the decision concerning the minstrel's fate." Her gaze came back to Murikeer and hardened with a subtle glance at his hand. The young mage blinked in surprise; she could see the spell he had prepared though it was invisible to any lacking the sight of mages. A moment later he realized that she could see far, far more than his readied spell and his jaw dropped in horror.

"I bear direct witness to murder, woman!" the man bellowed, "Asthill has not! Duke Thargood will hear of this abrogation of the Temple's reach!"

The Lothanasa nodded slowly and shrugged, "Then see about taking the news to him, Earl Motense. Until he sends word that you may gut the man offhand I will follow the laws of Sathmore. I, too, bear direct witness to his actions. He has enacted the Geas of Witness and by such I cannot, I will not, allow that Law to be broached." Her glare was hard and steady. After a moment the Earl muttered a curse and slammed his sword back into its scabbard.

"You tread too heavily on Secular Law, woman." He snarled as he turned and stalked back to his retinue. With a violent jerk of one arm he bade them to follow. Snatching the reins of his mount from an attendant he swung into the saddle. "I will inform his grace of your intransigence."

"Mistress?" Murikeer allowed his spell to dissipate as the man spurred his horse angrily in a tight circle, scattering his followers.

"Your master will be taken to the house of Earl Tathim Asthill, young mage, as will those who survived his vengeance." She said after a few moments watching the Earl gallop away. "There he will suffer the Earl's justice, however that plays out. You and your companion may attend, of course, at your leisure. You are not party to this bloodshed, but may bear some witness as to the justice to come."

Murikeer stepped up beside Malger, astonished at the injuries the minstrel had taken during the brief fight. His garish raiment was tattered and stained with blood; no little of it his own. Malger's eyes were distant and glassy, offering only a brief empty stare at the mage as he neared. "Mistress, he spoke truly. The slain were party to the rape of his love, and mine own in his wake. Had I grasped the realization…"

"You did not, lad. I know nothing of their crimes, save the entrapment of these creatures in such squalor." The Lothanasa cut him off gently with a raised hand. "If you wish to accompany us you should make ready."

Murikeer nodded his head and turned toward the priest standing silently a short distance away, "See to Malger, Elvmere. I will ready our horses." Elvmere started with a surprised blink before hastily moving forward. He stopped short, however, as he reached the bloodied minstrel, still horrified at the unspeakable violence he was capable of. Murikeer left him to his work and trotted toward the camp in the forest to pack their supplies.

In due time a hastily readied wagon was brought around by a pair of horses. On the buckboard sat a driver and a couple of Grimmam's men, one of which was the guard master's son. The other was the man whose nose Malger had bitten. While the Lothanasa looked on the wounded were loaded and Malger was helped up by Elvmere who climbed in after him. The Lothana's burly guards lifted the divan onto their shoulders and, with the wagon following behind, made their way down the rutted road toward the Earl's house where Malger's fate would be decided.

Grimmam watched the strange train fade into the forest shadows with a shake of his head. "Now wot?" he snorted at the vixen who stood nearby watching as well. She looked across and up at him, as she stood not much taller than four feet, and shook her head.

"I know not, master Grim." She sighed softly, "I know not where to go."

"You let us out of these damnable prisons, little bitch!" bellowed the bear from her wagon, which was the nearest to them. That demand was echoed by a chorus of cries from the other wagons. "You know where the blasted man's key is hidden!"

Sheyiin looked back toward the bear and then surveyed the others before nodding. "Aye, mistress Sho, I had no thought of leaving you in such an unpleasant state. What of yourselves, what shall you do?"

"Return to Metamor." Murikeer offered as he led a trio of horses from the forest. His inefficiency at packing, heretofore attended to mostly by Elvmere, showed in the sagging packs slung from the mare's back. The other two horses were more properly saddled. Pausing to pick up Malger's remaining sword from the grass he crossed toward Grimmam and the vixen. "All here, and you, have been touched by the curse of that place. Only there can you find some sort of life, now. Cursed as you are, a curse for which there has been no remedy discovered as yet, that is the only place safe."

"A long journey." Sheyiin commented.

Grimmam nodded sourly, "An' o' us, boy?"

The vixen reached out a petite hand and touched the guard's forearm. "Attend us as you have thus far, master of arms. I have Max's strongbox, you shall be paid in the same for your efforts." She smiled softly, "Your men have not shown any degree of wanton cruelty to us." With a slow sweep of her eyes she took in the milling caravan workers who remained but had no immediate task. "Those who work the wagons without cruelty are welcome as well. Any who did show cruelty are best wise to flee."

"I don't have any wish to make that journey in this cage, fox." The saber-toothed feline growled from her wagon.

"Hush, Lilith!" snapped the bear. "I am familiar with Metamor, it was not far from my former home. He speaks the truth! Once the little bitch lets us out of these infernal cages any of you who want to go can go. I daresay the locals will be more than happy to hang your pelts from their walls as trophies."

"I'll eat her." Hissed another voice, that of the hyena, from her wagon. She had not moved, but watched the proceedings alertly with hungry eyes. Sheyiin's ears backed at that pronouncement and her tail drooped.

"Then you can stay in your Eli be damned cage, you insufferable devil!" Sho bellowed loudly, causing Murikeer's horses to start and snort.

"Who's calling who insufferable, you canticle thumping troll?" the hyena snarled back, "It's not like we can haul this gaggle of misfits through the land unseen!" She rattled her chains and turned her back on the rest of the conversation. Murikeer looked on with a slow shake of his head while he tried to still the restive horses.

"Then shall we not be seen, make of it our same show?" offered the striped equine from her own wagon, "We a show master need only, replace to that monster now so greatly dead." Her ears pricked forward as she looked toward Murikeer.

"I've my own master to attend to." The skunk replied hastily with a shake of his head, "And our own quests. You have freedom, once the vixen has released those who will refrain from eating her." The hyena held up one hand over her shoulder in an offensive gesture, proving that despite having turned her back she was still listening. "Even moving slowly you may make Metamor before the first snows. Master Grimmam, Sheyiin, I wish you Gods' speed on your journey."

"Misanthe." The vixen interjected while Murikeer turned to mount his horse. Murikeer glanced down at her curiously as he settled into his saddle. "My given name; Misanthe. The monster wished to scourge our past lives when he remade us, giving us names of his own."

"A curse far worse than the one that changed our bodies." Sho grumbled irritably, "The key, little bitch!!"

Misanthe, once Sheyiin under the iron fist of the deceased showman, bobbed a brief bow to Murikeer before turning toward the wagons. She fished a golden key from the bosom of her fine gown and approached the bear's wagon. With a final glance at the former Menagerie of the Marvelous, now dead, Maxamillian Malger reined his horse around toward the trail down which the Lothanasa had disappeared with Malger. With the pack mare and Malger's stallion trailing behind he touched his mount's flanks with his illusion concealed paws, tickling lightly with his claws, and goaded it into an easy trot.

Mounting the steps at the rear of Sho's wagon the vixen reached up to the heavily ensorcelled lock to insert the key. With that proper counter the spells did not trigger. The lock clicked and the door swung inward. Before she could retreat, however, a huge hand shot out through the gap and seized the front of her gown in a powerful grasp. As she shrieked in terror the bear hauled her up into the air until she was at eye level, nose to nose with a maw that could take most of her head with a single effortless bite. Baleful brown eyes glowered into the vixen's terrified golden-green eyes for several long seconds.

Only after she had carefully descended the stairs to put her paws upon the cool grass did Sho give a huge, toothy grin. Convinced that her act of kindness was a deadly folly the vixen prepared for the end of her life only to be surprised as the air was crushed from her lungs in a bruin-strong embrace. "Much as a little bitch you've ever been, girl, you've never shown cruelty. I thank you." The bear intoned into her ear with a hot, emotion laden growl before carefully setting her back down on her own paws. "See about the others, dear." Her gaze shifted to the hyena's wagon, "All of them. If any wish you harm, they will have to go through me."

"He refuses." Elvmere grumbled as he paced alongside Murikeer behind the wagon in which Malger sat, head bowed, and stared at the two bodies stretched out in front of him. Neither of Max's surviving cronies moved having passed into the exhausted slumber of adrenal crash and blood loss.

"What?" Murikeer chuffed irritably. He, too, was on foot leading his horse and Malger's. Elvmere had resumed leading the pack mare; a task that was hardly onerous. She followed him of her own accord, plodding along sedately even while the raccoon had walked beside her correcting Murikeer's hasty packing.

The sun had set by the time Murikeer caught up with them half a league into their journey. The Lothanasa did not seem inclined to speak and Malger was too exhausted to offer any more than desultory mutterings in response to their agitated questions. He had no need to offer any explanation for what he had done; Murikeer was fully aware of the why of it, if not the frighteningly bloodthirsty avenue partaken. But his erstwhile apprentices were very confused by his sudden capitulation to the Lothanasa, and the possibly fatal exercise of justice that could very well follow.

"He will not let me pray for him; he refuses my touch." Elvmere complained quietly. "He let me tend to his injuries within my abilities, but flatly refuses Eli's blessing." The raccoon priest looked over to Murikeer, his illusory human face drawn with concern. "Muri, his injuries are bad, I fear they may fester if I am not able to do more than poultice them." His gaze returned to the wagon, "He did ask one thing of me, though."

Murikeer raised one eyebrow curiously and waited to hear what request Malger may have had.

"He told me— he did not ask me, he told me— not to touch those two men or tend them any aid." The priest said slowly with a frown, shuddering at the smoldering anger he saw behind the minstrel's eyes when that order was given. Murikeer grunted softly and nodded.

"I would gladly carve their hearts out with my own claws given the opportunity." The skunk growled as he nodded. "Slowly, through their backs." He turned his level stare toward the priest, "You saw what I did with that stone I presented to your Patriarch." One hand he held up, fingers splayed as if holding something about the size of an apple. "Imagine how easy bone would be."

Elvmere's eyes widened and under his concealing illusion both tail and ears drooped. "Muri!" he admonished in shock. The skunk merely shrugged and turned his attention back toward the road ahead. One of his hands strayed to the pouch he wore upon his belt in which he kept a small journal and that very stone the mage spoke of.

"Once we reach this Earl's house I will help you tend to his injuries. We've herbs and dressings in my supplies." Murikeer replied as he touched Elvmere's shoulder with a placating hand. "The herbs should stave off infection."

"But what of your eye?"

"It will be fine, Elvmere, worry not."

Coming around a long curve in the trail they spied their destination at last. The shadow of a tall spire rose out of the surrounding forest some hundred feet or so by first glance, flaring out at the top to a crenellated turret. A half dozen slender spires stood at its flanks connected by flying buttresses to the main spire. The tower and its buttressing towers all showed elvish grace in their graceful, sweeping curves. Sprawling around its base like mongrel pups was a cluster of clearly human constructed buildings with shale rooftops.

It was all quite dark, without a torch to be seen along the walls. A few shuttered windows showed light through their cracks but only near the ground floors where the forest would hide them from view. It looked as if the entire manor were trying to hide itself in the darkness. Murikeer quirked an eyebrow at the strangeness of the darkened edifice and Elvmere uttered an awed gasp at the delicate silhouette of the tower rising against the night time sky.

Handing his reins over to Elvmere Murikeer trotted to the front of their little caravan, "What is this place, Lothanasa, that is so dark for an Earl's home?"

The large woman glanced down to him with a slight look of concern upon her broad face, "I know not, young mage. I have been away this past fortnight and only now return." She turned her curious gaze on the manor house ahead. "The bestiary was merely on the road I traveled, the luck of the Aedra upon your Master."

"The luck of light indeed. I am concerned, mistress. May the Earl have succumbed to bandits in your absence?"

"I know not, but suspect that they have other reasons to conceal themselves in the night." Raising one hand she created a wan glow in the air a few feet above her mobile chair. The bearers seemed unfatigued despite carrying the burdensome looking thing for leagues. Their skin glimmered in the steady glow of the light as they slowed to a stop and waited. A few minutes later a flickering light appeared atop the curtain wall surrounding the manor and slowly swayed from side to side. A distant voice echoed over the distance. Holding a hand before her mouth the Lothanasa whispered something and then swept her hand toward the distant torch.

Moments later the torch disappeared, quenched back to darkness. A rectangle of light appeared low on the wall and from it the shadow of a person briefly appeared as someone came out to greet them. That brief light, as well, was subsumed back into darkness as the distant door closed. The group waited a few long minutes before the sound of feet reached Murikeer's sensitive ears; someone approached at a swift trot. Moments later a shadow separated itself from the overall darkness and approached. "Cuialye lothan, and well returned, your grace! We are glad you have arrived safely!" the person said as they slowed to a walk.

"Amsobere, what is this darkness that greets us?" the woman asked gently.

"Bandits, your grace, or raiders, we have not learned which threatens." The man offered without sparing Murikeer more than a passing glance. He was fully decked in leather armor with a sword at his hip and a bow in his hand. An arrow was knocked upon the bow's string but not drawn. "Woodton was sacked yester'eve, we saw the smoke of its burning this morn. Riders returned shortly before nightfall with a horrific tale of carnage and destruction. The Lothanasi Harkhem was quartered, by their report!"

"Wise, then, to conceal the manor. Escort us forth, Amsobere. I would learn more, but not here."

The man bowed and knuckled his brow before turning on his heel and leading them toward the manor. Five hundred paces from the manor wall the forest simply stopped; cleared for fields and dairy herds as well an unobstructed view of the surrounding land should bandits attempt any sort of approach. Murikeer strode forward a few paces until he walked alongside the night guard. The man cast him a sidelong glance.

"Can you tell us aught of the destruction, goodman Amsobere?" Murikeer asked gently. "A couple of weeks past we witnessed the sacking of a border village. Their Lothanas was similarly quartered and their Temple razed."

The man looked across to him again, the whites of his eyes lambent in the wan moonlight. "Aye, stranger, that be th' short of it. The Temple was pulled down, I am told. The villagers slain to a child, as well. No quarter was given."

"Dark times." Murikeer sighed with a frown, "Dark times for us all, indeed." With a brief nod of courtesy he fell back, returning to walk alongside Elvmere and their horses.

"What news, Muri?" Elvmere asked diffidently when he spied the young man's pensive expression.

"Another village was sacked nearby." Murikeer replied softly, "Their Temple was pulled down and the Lothanas slain. Deep Springs all over again."

"Oh dear!" the priest gasped into his hand, "Any survivors?"

"I don't know enough to say, Elvmere, but I am thinking not."

Murikeer grasped his arm gently and walked at his side more closely, "We can do nothing for that village, Elvmere." He said urgently, "Our concern is Malger. If the inquisitors are behind this attack as well it may be the leading front of a war to come. A war we do not want to be caught in the middle of."

Elvmere shook his head sadly, "But if the Church is behind this, it will be a war the likes of which have not been seen in centuries!"

"Aye." Murikeer nodded, "And in such a war we are but chaff in the wind, Elvmere. We matter not a whit between a clash of Holy Seats and kingdoms, bear that in mind."

Elvmere gave him a brief scowl, "I have seen my fair share of war, Muri, bear that in mind. I was adjutant to a general for many years."

"A what?"

"Akabieth, my boy. Before he learned tolerance and humility curbed his pride he was the point of the spear that cut deeply into the pagan faiths of a dozen lands." Elvmere sighed softly and shook his head, "I came into his service long after the vehement fire of his youth had been banked by the growing wisdom of age, but I was told much; stories which would horrify even the most battle hardened."

"Ah, I am sorry Elvmere, I knew little of your Master's youthful fire. I saw only his gentle wisdom of later years." He shifted his grip to the priest's shoulders, feeling the fur under his shirt through the illusion. Giving a reassuring squeeze he dropped his hand and said nothing further.

Upon reaching the dark Manor house they were met by a dozen wary night guards and the Earl himself, a strikingly handsome youth somewhere into his third decade. After the Lothanasa explained the addition to her retinue the Earl looked to Malger, who now stood silently between two of the priestess' burly guards. To Murikeer's sight he looked about ready to fall where he stood but he gamely remained on his feet. If the guards had noticed the feel of fur under his tattered clothing they said nothing of it.

After a few more quiet words with the priestess he instructed his personal guards to conduct Malger to the manor's dungeon and the two injured men to the healer's house. As the minstrel was escorted away the Earl approached Elvmere and Murikeer where they stood at the periphery of the crowd. The wagon was mounted by one of the Earl's men and steered toward a different area of the manor grounds. Grimmam's two men remained with the wagon.

"You are the apprentices of the accused?" the man asked in a gentle but strong voice as he faced them, his arms behind his back. They nodded affirmatively in unison. "I am sorry for the necessity of separating you, but it would be uncouth for me to imprison you with him; you do not stand accused of any wrongdoing. I am Tathim of this House. You are?"

"Murikeer, your grace, and my companion is Elvmere."

"He has the look of a southerner about him; Pyralian?"

"Of that lineage, sire." Elvmere offered quietly.

"Be that as it may, Elvmere and Murikeer. I will have a room prepared for your comfort. I do apologize for the darkness that greets you, but ill events have forced me to be overly cautious." Looking down briefly the Earl frowned and sighed, "One of my vassalages has been sacked and I fear to say that will have some delay on seeing to your master's fate. Rest assured I am a just, but I am fair. What will be, will be, may such be to the grace of all."

"Sire, our friend is sorely injured. May we see to his wounds before he is cast into a cell?" Elvmere hazarded with all the deference he could muster into his shaking voice.

"I have healers who are quite capable, lad, I— "

"Sire, he has special needs that cannot be— " Elvmere interrupted but petered to a halt at the man's sudden hard stare. Towering over all of them the Lothanasa approached the Earl's side. Murikeer was amazed at her towering height; a good seven feet to the top of her large head but not, as the divan gave the impression of, obese in the least. She leaned down and said a few quiet words into the Earl's ear that even the skunk's pricked ears could not discern. The man listened quietly for several moments, the expression on his face going from hard to curious to surprised.

"I— see," Putting one hand to his brow he shook his head slowly, "Yes, see to your master, young pupils. Haeferth, see that they take the accused to one of the servants' halls so that his pupils may tend him. Once they are finished tell Morgan so that they may be housed." With a last nod to the pair he turned, "Oh, and have their steeds stabled. Secure what weapons they may have."

One of the night guards escorted them to the stables along the inside of the manor's curtain wall; more a wooden palisade than a true wall but certainly serviceable enough. Hastily unlimbering their steeds in the dim light of a lone lantern they relinquished the animals to awaiting stable hands and hastened to follow the guard. They were conducted to a servants' hostel and once within taken to a large communal room where Malger awaited them under the watchful gaze of two guards.

Murikeer glanced at the two guards hanging by the door where their escort joined them and moved to Malger's side. The minstrel was a sorry sight; bedraggled and tattered, beaten and bloodied by his brief but bloodthirsty rampage through the showman's personal guards. His breathing was slow but labored and he offered but a wan grimace at their appearance. "I would put you two on the road now, but you would not go." He grunted but winced at the discomfort speaking caused him.

"You're an aedra bedamned fool." Murikeer chuffed as he set his bag on a nearby table. An assortment of bandages and herbs had already been laid out for them by some forward thinking house servant. "You can walk away from this, right now. Why have you not?" Taking a small knife up from the items left for them he tested the edge and, finding it satisfactorily sharp, deftly cut away the minstrel's destroyed shirt. Malger winced, but whether it was in pain or the final end of his finery Murikeer did not know. Carefully peeling the blood matted material away he looked at the injuries it concealed.

The skunk's illusion was all-encompassing; it revealed the savage slices left by the swords of his adversaries on the apparently naked flesh of the minstrel's chest and flank. Murikeer's lips peeled back in a grimace as he gazed upon a deep gash scored across the man's ribcage. It still seeped blood but there were no telltale foamy bubbles that indicated a deeper wound than Murikeer's mediocre healing skills could cope with. "Elvmere, you're better at this than I." He moved aside to open his satchel.

"Even vengeance requires justice, Muri." Malger hissed, forcing down cries of pain when Elvmere probed delicately at the worst of his injuries with a blade heated over the single candle flame they were permitted. Murikeer gave that wavering flicker a brief sidelong glance and, slowly, the illumination it provided grew brighter. It was a subtle change that went unnoticed by the watching guards. "I could not stand aside." He rolled his head back and grasped savagely at the lip of the table against which he leaned. "The memories, Muri, the memories were too sudden, too vivid." His eyes shifted to the rafters above and unfocused as the visions those memories brought forth played about in his mind's eye. "Too real."

"What memories?" Murikeer returned with a handful of herbs and a pestle and sat upon a bench opposite Malger to grind them to the required consistency. Without uttering any words or making any gestures that could be mistaken as arcane he added a careful trickle of magic into them, enhancing their potency. The careful effort gave his empty eye socket a twinge but he suffered it wordlessly.

"Later, lad, later."

"This needs to be stitched." Elvmere reported at some length, "Many of the cuts require stitching, Malger." He slid a brief glance toward the guards, "If you will allow me to do nothing else, allow me to do what I can."

"Nothing more than, Elvmere, please… I— " the minstrel winced and sighed, "I cannot ask you to do more."

"It is given, not asked." Elvmere hissed irritably, "It is offered."

"And refused." Malger returned with equal venom, glaring at his would-be apprentice. Elvmere capitulated with a sigh and nodded.

"I can do nothing for the pain." He admonished. From the supplies on the table he found a needle and fine sinew. Nearby was a ceramic pitcher of what his nose told him was a powerful liquor the likes of which he could not name offhand as he had never been given to any sort of drink beyond sacramental wine. It would suffice to sterilize the tools and injury. While Murikeer continued on his own work the priest put the needle and sinew into a small bowl and poured the clear liquor over it. Malger took the pitcher and, after a brief sniff, raised it for a long swallow.

A hiss of breath escaped his throat at the fiery potency of the alcohol followed a moment later by a cry of pain as that explosion of breath wrenched at his injuries. When Elvmere dabbed his injuries with a cloth soaked with the alcohol he cried out even more loudly and grasped at the table while his body writhed. Murikeer set aside his work to help the priest hold their charge still and even one of the guards stepped forward to lend his considerable muscle to the task. While the two were distracted with the cleaning of Malger's wounds Murikeer rubbed the side of one finger across a few lesser cuts that still leaked the minstrel's blood and added that to the poultice he was preparing.

For his part Malger struggled only against the pain of the alcohol on his injuries. In moments of respite while the guard and Elvmere sank back to catch their breaths he worked to empty the pitcher. Before long he was swaying where he sat. The guard looked strangely discomfited but said nothing; he could feel fur under his grasp but his eyes told him he was grasping nothing more than a man's arm.

By the time that Elvmere was satisfied that the wounds were cleaned as well as he could manage Malger was barely able to keep his head up. The pitcher was emptier by half than it was when he began and the room stank of sweat, musk, herbs, and alcohol. "We must have privacy now, sirs." Murikeer proclaimed at last as Malger's body began to slump bonelessly in his seat.

"The Earl bade us— "

"We shant be going anywhere, as you can see." Elvmere grunted breathlessly as he wiped his hands clean with a fresh cloth.

"The healers' art is not one given to unknowing eyes, sirs. As he says, we shant attempt to flee with that dead weight between us." Murikeer acceded as he stood from his seat. Moving to the door he ushered the dumbfounded guards out and secured it behind them by shooting the bolt. Once he returned he helped Elvmere move the drunkenly compliant minstrel up onto the table. Once there they removed his leggings to examine him for other wounds only to find that those suffered to his appendages were little more than scratches. Elvmere whispered a quiet prayer over the barely conscious minstrel but let that trail away at Murikeer's touch upon his hand where it rested on Malger's breast.

"He refused, Elvmere. I doubt your Eli will countenance your attempt to heal one who has refused of their own free will." The skunk admonished gently. The illusion making the minstrel appear human melted away when Murikeer drew the amulet from around his neck to reveal that his fur looked no better than had his flesh. Blood matted it down around his alcohol wet injuries and the lather of his exertions had dried to an unpleasant looking crust on his pelt.

"He is merely being stubborn." Elvmere groused but desisted.

"We're not of your following, Elvmere. What would Nocturna think if she felt Eli's touch upon him?" To that Elvmere could only shake his head and shrug. He took up the small bowl in which the needle and sinew rested in the alcohol bath. Murikeer took up the pestle in which he had prepared his unguent. Carefully he dabbed the dark, almost black, unguent upon the savage wounds. He worked it gently into them as deeply as he may while Malger writhed weakly, too drunk to offer any sort of coordinated protest at the treatment. Murikeer worked the unguent into the wounds and then helped hold the short, dense fur out of the way while Elvmere delicately stitched them closed.

For what seemed like hours they worked quietly from wound to wound it careful diligence. Malger passed out within the first few minutes from a combination of alcohol and pain. Once the last of them were closed and dressed the two strange companions, lightbringer and follower, slumped together on a bench to ease the aches in their bodies from leaning over the limp musteline body between them for so long. After putting Malger's amulet back on and dressing him in a fresh pair of leggings and shirt from the minstrel's pack Elvmere unsecured the door and drew it open.

"We are finished."

"He will survive?" one of the guards asked as he looked past the priest's shoulder to the slumbering form on the table.

"We trust that he shall." Elvmere said after a moment of biting his tongue; he had almost said 'Eli willing,' but forestalled himself before it escaped.

"I'll conduct you to seneschal Morgan." The guard said with a nod, stepping back to let them from the room. "The others will take him."

"May we?" Murikeer asked while he packed his satchel.

"No." the guard said flatly, "He will be conducted to the dungeons."

"But— "

"He feels bloody damn odd." The guard grunted with a sigh, nodding, "I was told. Whatever dark blight he's got, can we catch it?"

"No." Murikeer admitted after a moment while the other two guards filed in. He snorted softly in humor when he saw them wearing heavy blacksmithing gauntlets. "Just please have care, he truly does mean no evil toward you."

"Tell that to the Earl on the morrow. If you would follow me, please."

The bells were ringing, a clangorous din that throbbed in his skull and breast as he looked around in momentary confusion. Still forms stretched away into the distant shadows; all of them garbed in armor from countless eras. Hard stone faces looked sightlessly into the distance while the bells tolled their doomful song.

"No, you will not be going to her." The proclamation detonated in his skull with a sound of a doom greater than the alarm bells clangoring in the clerestory high above. He turned about slowly to face the speaker, his heart dropping into his paws; No, not again!

"You make it so very, very difficult to love you." The voice issued from his own throat despite his horrified realization of their import before they escaped. No!

White light flared and the form before him began to change; flame licked at the fur that rose from her body and her eyes began to glow with a blinding fiery light.

Murikeer lurched awake with such violence that he fell from the chair in which he had fallen asleep. He struggled with the throw rug in which he became entangled as he scrambled to rise. Around him the opulent rooms supplied by the Earl was silent but for a desperate, gasping cry that came from another throat than his own. Gasping for breath Murikeer managed to rise to his knees and cast off the rug as he looked around the room in a panic, still seeing in his memories the vivid image of Llyn's torturous death.

Elvmere thrashed about upon the bed nearby, caught up in some unknowable horror of his own, as tangled in the linens as Murikeer had been in the rug. Crabbing on his knees over to the bed Murikeer reached out to give the priest a firm shake. "Elvmere!" he cried out, his voice breaking in his hasty wakening. The priest jerked away from his touch but did not seem able to escape the clutch of his nightmares.

"She will come to you." Seemed to whisper in his ears in Llyn's own voice. Not the voice of her anger or the sepulchral scream of her death but more the quiet voice she favored him in the private moments after their coupling. With a violent shake of his head Murikeer cast away the dregs of his nightmare and pulled himself up using the headboard of the bed. Raising one hand he begged Eli's forgiveness and sent a short jolt of magic toward the writhing priest. With a crackle the combination of static and ice forced a startled yelp from the sleeping raccoon and he jerked awake instantly. Thrashing against the bedcovers Elvmere's wild eyes cast about the room trying to regain his sense of presence and, after a few long moments, he began to still against the constraining wrap of fabric.

"Murikeer!" he gasped and gulped, scrubbing at his face with both hands. "Oh, Eli's mercy! I had the most horrible dream!" his voice trembled and he shook himself. "Truly horrible!"

Murikeer slumped down against the side of the bed to sit on the floor and ran his hands through the fur on his head. He found that his eye patch had become dislodged at some point and pulled it back into place. His empty socket ached terribly. "A nightmare, or a memory?" he grunted.

"I saw the darkness again. A man entered and slew my companions… I— " he broke off with a gasp, covering his face with both hands. "I saw again that horrible night when Akabieth was murdered."

"A memory." Murikeer sighed with a nod, "Myself as well; Llyn's death."

"Eli's mercy, that was terrible." Elvmere sighed after several long breaths. He finally succeeded in untangling himself from the bedcovers and slid from the bed. He shook himself vigorously and looked about. "For a moment I thought I was back in the infirmary of Metamor when I first awoke."

"Ugh, I— " a knock at the door interrupted Murikeer and he pushed himself back to his feet. Tugging his disarrayed leggings back into place he crossed to the door and drew back the bolt. A young page in the colors of House Asthill stood without.

"Sirs, her most holiness, Lothanasa Rachael hin Caris begs your indulgence." The boy piped quickly when the half clothed minstrel's apprentice opened the door. "At your leisure she wishes an audience in her chambers within the Temple."

"We have only just awakened, lad. Convey to her grace that we will attend her summons as soon as we have refreshed ourselves and broken our fast." Murikeer offered diplomatically after rubbing his face once with one hand.

"If sirs wish I can show you to the bath house and have the kitchens bring you succor while you bathe." Offered the youth warmly.

"Very well." Murikeer acceded with a nod, "Give us a moment."

"A bath." Elvmere breathed happily as he dug out the shirt he had worn the night before and shrugged it on. "Eli blesses us." He grinned across at Murikeer, offering that last sotto voce.

The world was a gray emptiness all about through which a black mist swirled formlessly. He cast about sightlessly in the murk looking for any feature to give him any hit that he was any place at all, but none appeared from the mist. "Mosha!" he cried out but his voice emerged a plaintive whisper, swallowed up by the featureless gray void.

He could not tell which direction was up save for his paws being down and his head up. What alignment his body assumed, however, was as mysterious as the misty nothingness in which he found himself adrift.

"The age of your minority approaches, my son. As I have done for your elder brother, and will for your sisters, I have deemed the course of your life to serve our House." The voice came from nowhere; be that within his own mind or somewhere unseen from the surrounding pall he could not tell. "When you achieve your minority, in one month's time, you will travel to Yesulam and join the ranks of the Holy Church." Within his breast the weight of those words clutched at his heart with a merciless fist and he fell to his knees, feeling the full weight of the emotions attached to that pronouncement fully even after so many years.

And yet they were not his own; they were emotions shared. "Father!" he heard someone else's voice issue from his own throat and he grasped at his head. No, not me, not mine! He quailed in horror. What followed faded away into the gray distance while he reeled under the chaotic emotions lent by another from whom he had accepted them.

"What is your name?" Maxamillian cum Sideshow asked with condescending arrogance and the gray emptiness vanished abruptly. He was still upon his knees, but in mud that stank of his own offal. Not his offal, but another's. The stench was overwhelming, intensified by the sharp clarity of recent memory. One eye was almost entirely blind and he found he could barely lift his weary head. No! Inwardly he recoiled from the intensity of the vision but there was no escape from the trap. "Mosha!" he cried out again but the name that escaped his throat was not that of his dreamland mate; it was another's name.

The reply, gasped and agonized as it was, did not satisfy the master of the show. With a frown he slowly sipped from the filigreed silver cup held delicately in one hand. With the other he waved at one of the burly companions at his side and the man smiled gleefully as he approached. "All I ask is a name, child, you have but to speak what I desire and I he will leave you be." Sideshow droned pedantically as a parent might a particularly dim witted child.



No! Mosha, I beg you!

Malger awoke with a startled cry and surged from the stretched canvas cot he found himself on, falling unceremoniously to the floor spluttering for breath. He shook his head to get the water out of his fur and regretted the motion acutely as a blinding spike of pain stabbed behind his eyes. He groaned and fell face forward to the floor clutching his throbbing head. Cold water spread across the floor as it poured from his illusion concealed fur and his shirt clung wetly to him.

Writhing in the ache of his hangover and the beating he had suffered the day before Malger wiped his face with both hands to squeeze the water from his fur. "You scream most pleasantly." A voice offered with sardonic humor somewhere above him. Turning his head slowly to mitigate another resurgence of his headache he gazed about for the speaker of that voice. The small stone room swam and his eyes refused to focus clearly but he was well able to identify where he found himself.

A dungeon cell; an uncommonly well lit cell, to be sure, but a cell all the same. Sunlight streamed through an open grill of bars some distance above and glimmered with painful intensity from the walls that surrounded him. In one wall at floor level was a heavy door of some dark wood banded with iron. The door was securely closed and no one else shared the cell with him so, after some fruitless moments casting about he turned to look up at the barred opening above.

He saw sunlight streaming from under some sort of awning his drunken eyes could not fully focus upon but there was no evident person up there. "If I had not wished to speak with you I could have sat here for hours listening to you scream. T'is such sweet music." The unseen speaker continued from somewhere above. Malger could not prize out the gender of the voice for it was a mellow tenor.

"Begone, ill wraith, leave me to my misery." He grunted as he slumped upon his back onto the wet floor. A drop of water plunked onto his nose from the grate above revealing that the cause of his startled awakening had been water dashed from above. That unceremonious bath had also been bitterly cold and left him with an aching chill to accompany his hang-over and injuries.

"It is your misery that I wish to enjoy, master Sutt." Intoned the speaker merrily. "But in all due course of time, for it will be a protracted misery the likes of which I have not enjoyed in many a year."

Malger's eyes narrowed at the usage of his given name but despite all efforts he could not force his eyes to cooperate enough to spy anyone above. "Then at least let me know whom my torturer is to be." He snarled.

"Tut tut, Malger." The voice admonished, "I would have expected that you would never forget me."

Malger pushed himself up and crawled to the cot of stretched canvas. The woolen blanket was soaked through as was the canvas. "As many that I have deflowered over the years how would you ever expect that I might remember one spurned conquest?"

The voice trilled a merry laugh that descended into a smooth baritone that still defied gender. "Would that you deflowered me, the first or even second time, as it was by your wiliness that I was ever granted a second opportunity to be— ahem— deflowered." Malger's keen ears heard the scrape of soft soled shoes upon the stone above as the speaker moved. "It somewhat surprises me, but then again it does not, that you managed to escape the touch of that place."

"Quit bedeviling me with riddles, wraith." Malger growled upward, "I have been beaten, hacked, stitched, and have a marvelously unpleasant hangover. Unless you have something of worth to offer, begone."

"Witnessing the cause of your hacking would have been pleasant. I understand you conducted yourself admirably against five seasoned warriors." The speaker sighed softly. "Two still yet live, for the nonce, at the Earl's sufferance pending the outcome of your rather bleak fate." Another sigh of shoes upon stone and something thunked against the metal grill above. The spinning shadow of a smallish object dropping into his cell caught Malger's attention and he watched it fall. Once it came to rest he was more fully able to make it out with his bleary hangover vision. "I've been saving something for you."

The object was perhaps a foot long or so and wrapped in age faded black silk. Casting a furtive glance toward the opening above Malger leaned forward carefully and picked it up. It did not weigh much but was rigid along its un-uniform length, thicker at one end than the other. Finding the tucked end of the silk he unwrapped it. Immediately he recoiled and cast it down to skitter across the floor with a sound like a dried ear of corn still within its husk; an eerie sibilant rattling hiss.

It was a hand, roughly hacked from some poor soul's arm somewhere between elbow and wrist. The desiccated flesh was sheathed in a rust stained white ladies' glove and three rings adorned the curled, shrunken fingers. Two were simple costume pieces without any particular worth or significance but the one which adorned the ring finger bore a ruby surrounded by the crest of a house he was familiar with. It identified the owner of the severed, mummified hand as clearly as if that name had been graven in stone.

As it was, in a cemetery of Silvassa.

With one hand over his mouth in horror Malger stroked his muzzle and drew back on the cot to look up at the speaker above. "Gods curse you!" he snarled furiously toward the opening. A chuckle of dark humor was returned from above. "Gods curse you and drag you to the blackest pit of the deepest Hell!"

A decade past Malger's sire, the Duke of all western Pyralia by conquest, ruled his land with a harsh, iron fist. His vassals had gathered together enough gold to hire the best assassins the world had to offer and unleashed them upon the entirety of the Sutt line. One by one Malger's brothers and sisters were cut down; some subtly, some in methods so violent that bards still sang of their deaths. His own father's head had adorned a spike on the seaward wall of his namesake city, Suttaivasse, for a year. When the assassins first began their bloody purge Malger had been in Silvassa living the life of a monied noble sybarite far from the reach of his unpleasant family.

When news of their decimation reached his ears Malger was concerned but, in no small way, pleased that the tyranny of his father's expansion had finally come to a conclusion. But all too soon the reality of his family's purging came to Silvassa seeking the scapegrace scion. A well capable fighter with many loyal contacts within the city Malger was able to avoid, or vanquish, many lesser skilled hunters. With the minstrel's talent of walking the dream realms he could find them long before they found him.

But one, who called himself nothing more than 'the Hand' proved to be far more subtle, yet at the same time far more sinister than Malger had ever imagined. Instead of striking directly the assassin struck at those close to the minstrel, leaving their severed hands where Malger would find them. The assassin sought to bait the minstrel out into the open by withering down his friends and lovers. Malger fled the day he learned at a promising young aristocrat, Lisanna sef Imalshan, was found in the River Isen with her hands hacked off. He had danced with her, and bedded her, only hours before she was found.

And he had only known her in passing for a couple of days.

Afraid to see any more of his friends and lovers perish simply as some assassin's nasty mind games Malger fled the city. Over the next four years the Hand pursued him across half of the continent, from city to city and then town to town and by the time Malger was desperate enough to flee to the one place he felt the assassin would fear to follow he was down to hiding in hamlets.

Metamor had granted him his final escape, by changing him from the man he had been to the pine marten he now was, albeit concealed by Murikeer's illusion amulet. He had believed that the assassin had either chosen to flee the curse, granting him his last five years of blessed safety.

All that, now gone. The Hand stood above; his scourge.

His death.

Pushing himself up from the cot he crossed to the hand and picked it up, remembering the night he had shared with its long dead owner. Slipping the ring easily from the desiccated finger he hurled the hand toward the door where it slid under the gap at its base. He slid the ring onto one of his own fingers and sank back down onto the cot.

"Okay then." He sighed, defeated. "Here I am."

"Oh, indeed. There you are, lovely thing." At that the unseen speaker turned and strode away leaving the wet, injured, bedraggled minstrel alone in his prison.

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