chapter 1: summons
"Councilor Dreom! Wait up, will you. I have a few questions I would like you to answer."
Dreom paused, turning to see a slightly overweight man, dressed in a collection of bright robes, approaching him from across the hall. Sighing, he turned to meet the merchant. "Better to satisfy his concerns now then to let his curiosity grow," thought the Minister, "That would probably lead to an unfortunate incident. The Duke would not be happy if that happened."
"Tiel. What would a successful trader such of yourself have to ask of a simple old man such as myself?" spoke Dreom.
"Simple old man, my ass, councilor. If that is you, then I am the son of a draft horse. You are the closest person to the Duke in Carreas. I figure that if anyone knows what is going on around here, it would be you."
"I would not say that I am the closest to the Duke, but, yes, I am aware of most of the Duke's plans. What is it you wish to know about?"
"I simply wish to know why I was summoned to appear before the Lord of Carreas. I have done nothing, right or wrong, to deserve it."
"My Lord is aware of that. He merely wishes to consult with you on matters of the economy."
"Surely he has a Minister of Trade to do that, Deorn?"
"Of course. Of course. But Councilor Kilan does not have the real world experience that you have. He is a book-keeper, not a trader. The Duke wishes to speak with someone who has been trying to make his living on trade goods."
"But why is the audience scheduled for an hour after sunset?"
"It is a quirk of the Duke. He prefers to conduct most of his business after the sun goes down. There are reasons, but I am afraid that I do not have the Duke's leave to discuss them."
"What? Is the Duke a vampire?" responded Tiel, trying to make a joke.
"That is bordering on insolence, Tiel." commented Dreom, "Now, good day, merchant. I have many duties to attend to."
After Dreom had left him, Tiel wandered the maze of halls and corridors that made up the palace of the Duke of Carreas. The merchant was trying to find out as much as he could about the current politics of the land. In his business, he had found that good information was often just as important as a good product. Unfortunately, everyone he had encountered was as close-lipped as Councilor Dreom had been. His whole purpose at arriving so early in the day was to scope out the castle and get to know the current situation. Besides what the Councilor had told him in their little conversation, he had so far managed to learned nothing new.
Settling into one of the comfortable benches that lined the hall he found himself in, Tiel began to massage his sore feet and began to wonder about the Duke's motives. Tiel was fairly certain that he had not been summoned to be placed under arrest. If the Duke had been planning to do that, then he would have been greeted by a constable with a warrant, not a royal messenger bearing a summons.
Feeling restless, Tiel continued his explorations of the corridors, wandering aimlessly among the halls looking for something to do or someone else to talk to. While studying portraits chronicling the heritage of the Carras family that lined one hallway, the merchant noticed the entrance to the palace's small chapel. Having been awhile since Tiel had been to such a place, he decided to enter.
The room was dark and silent. The sun had just set, leaving the room shrouded in the flickering shadows of the many candles that surrounded the room. The chapel appeared to be empty, which was fine by Tiel, as he preferred to commune with Eli in solitude. As he was making his way up the aisle towards the altar, a black robed figure entered the room through a small door beside the altar. Tiel settled into a pew while the priest kneeled in prayer in front of the cross.
In the silence of the chapel, the trader allowed his mind to wander. Instead of the prayers he had hoped to say, the summons to appear before the new Duke floated to the surface of his thoughts and refused to leave. The trader was unsure of the new ruler of Carreas, the young Duke still unproven in Tiel's mind.
With the death of Duke Mechello, a power struggle arose in the land. It seemed that the sudden and unexpected death of Mechello left a vacuum in the land's power structure. The court, a group of nobles that were almost a tyrannical and corrupt as Mechello had been, began to fight among themselves for scraps of power. Almost at once, the Lords of Carreas realized that no-one would come out on top in a conflict for the throne. Instead, they formed an agreement to put a figurehead on the throne, and be the ones to pull the strings of the new puppet Duke. A young man by the name of Anteno, a nephew of Mechello, was selected by the royal court to sit on his uncle's throne. Not a lot was known about the new Duke as he had spent most of his youth travelling in foreign lands. He was a blood relative of Mechello's line, which was all the court needed to install him on the throne.
Teil had to admit that Anteno had defied expectations. Most thought that the young man would be little more than the puppet the court thought he would be. The young Duke had other plans. Within a month of his coronation, most of his uncle's court found themselves stripped of their rank, and placed on trial for charges of corruption, embezzlement, and a myriad of other crimes. The Duke quickly surrounded himself with strong leaders and people he could trust.
Those that had placed Anteno Carras on his uncle's throne now tried to take it back. Many small battles were fought between the forces loyal to the court and those loyal to the Duke. Though the court's soldiers were better trained, the people of the duchy flooded to Anteno's side, tired of the years of hard living under the present regime. The turning point came an attempted coupe by the garrison stationed in the capital city of Pessca. The soldiers, who were used to doing little more than harassing the peasantry, found themselves facing a mob of angry and determined citizens. The battle that occurred between the two forces was short, bloody and decisive. Though the mob took heavy casualties, they forced the guardsmen back into their barracks. The garrison quickly surrendered to a small regiment of soldiers loyal to the Duke, fearing what would happen to them if the peasants breached the walls.
After that encounter, the transition of power began to move smoother. Courtiers who had backed Mechellos' regime found that it was often best to either vanish or turn themselves in before roaming vigilantes exacted justice.
Duke Anteno had held onto his throne and ousted his uncle's influence from the court. Then came the process of dolling out justice. Since the judiciary was in as much disarray as the rest of the government, Duke Anteno dismissed it, instead hearing the trials himself, with only the help of a few hand-picked Magistrates. The trials lasted several months and were well publicized as many prominent Lords, as well as some of the more prominent citizens found themselves having to explain their actions during the previous reign.
The priest rose from his prayers and turned towards the pews, breaking Tiel from his train of thought. Seeing the merchant, the priest made his way towards the seated man.
"Hello, Tiel." said the priest, "It is a surprise to see you here."
Staring through the room's dim light, Tiel recognized the familiar features of the priest. Standing in the aisle stood a tall, thin, middle-aged man with a sharp face and greying hair.
"Good evening Father Malion. It has been awhile, has it not?" replied Tiel with a touch of surprise at meeting an old acquaintance, "I must confess that I am just as somewhat amazed to see you here. Are you not still running your school?"
"Ah, the school. It is still my pride and joy, but it can run itself these days. Instead I find myself called here to take over the duties of the Duke's house priest. I now insure that the land's rulers keep their faith, and prevent evil from getting its foot through the door."
"Scoring any victories for the good guys, Father?"
"An ongoing struggle, my son. An ongoing struggle. Especially among so many politicians. We all must do our part, though. I help where I can, trying to lead people to Eli, teaching the ways of good, and coming here to see that the council and the Duke keep to the narrow path." replied the priest with a small grin.
"Noble goals, Father. But what of your school? How do they manage without you?"
"They manage. I leave the actual teaching to the younger priests these days. I just stop in a couple times a week to see that everything is running smoothly."
"Speaking of your teaching, Father, did you receive those texts I sent to you for the school?"
"I did. I did. They were quite... hmm... interesting to say the least. Especially those works of fiction. May I ask where you came across them?"
"Of course, they came from a book dealer that I often trade with. He told me that they were some of the latest from the renowned authors at Metamor Keep."
"Metamor? You mean they are the work of those accursed demons?" spit out Malion, his mood darkening immediately, "How could you, Tiel? I was using them in the instruction of impressionable young minds. I shall have to burn them immediately."
"Now Father, you should know better than to rant in polite company, especially about things you do not comprehend," came a soft, high-pitched voice, from the row behind them.
Turning to look behind him, Tiel noticed a figure that had escaped his attention before. Wrapped in heavy grey robes with a large cowl, the strange speaker was obscured so much that the merchant could not tell anything of its appearance, or even make a guess at its gender.
"You should not be the one to talk of such things!" spat the priest to the stranger as he got up and walked off in a huff. Before passing through the door, he turned back to face the robed figure, "And how dare you come onto this sanctified ground."
"Some people cannot accept what they do not understand, or that does not fit their particular view of the world," continued the robed stranger, speaking now to Tiel instead of the departed priest.
"I have known Father Malion for years, and he has always seemed to be a level headed man. Now I mention the Cursed Keep and he suddenly grows angry with me."
"Well, merchant, perhaps he does not have the ability to see through the illusions he has created in the name of his faith."
"Just who are you, stranger?" asked Tiel.
"An advisor to the Duke. Nothing more, nothing less," came the reply from within the folds of heavy cloth. "We shall probably speak again later, but I must leave now to handle some business. Good evening, Tiel."
As the heavily robed figure shuffled out of the room, another person entered. The young page, wearing the livery of the house of Carras, immediately approached Tiel.
"What is it, Boy?" asked the merchant.
"I am here to escort you to the Duke, Mister Tiel."
"Ach, where does the time go?" said Tiel, pulling his overweight frame from the bench.
chapter 2: explanations
Duke Anteno sat alone in his office, studying various reports from around the duchy. In the last few months things had settled down and once again began to approach normal. Only a few of his uncle's supporters remained in positions from which they could attack him. Now was the time to begin the long struggle to rebuild from four decades of tyranny. The young Duke had traveled extensively during his youth, and he had plans to take the best of what he had seen in foreign lands and try and make it work in Carreas.
Unfortunately, these reforms were expensive to implement. Already, the treasury was running low. Carreas had to rebuild trading relations with its neighbours or else sink into bankruptcy. This was not news to the Duke or the council. They had spent their last few meetings discussing various solutions. Carreas' economy was primarily agrarian and resource based. There was very little manufacturing aside from local craftsmen and artisans. The raw materials that was Carreas' wealth provided a good start in negotiations. The problem was that many of the surrounding rulers were hesitating to talk with him. Under Michello's rule, foreign relations were always just short of hostile, and those feelings still sat in the minds of those in power. Several ambassadors had already been sent out, but most of those that made it to their destination were turned back without an audience.
A stream of light cut across the dim room as a short grey-robed figure entered the room. Seeing that the Duke was deep in thought, the figure moved across the room to stand near the fire. Seeing that his visitor was about to remove the large robe that concealed his appearance, Anteno indicated that he should leave it on. With a sigh, the figure stopped fiddling with his cloak and settled into one of the chairs set near the fire. A few minutes later, the Duke put down the papers he had been reviewing, rose from his desk and settled into a chair beside the robed figure.
"Why must I continue to wear this silly thing?" came a voice from beside the Duke, the figure's hands indicating the heavy robes.
"Because I am expecting a visitor soon, Topo."
"Really Anteno, who would be visiting you at this hour who doesn't already know me?" retorted Topo.
"The merchant, Tiel."
"So, you have decided on him?"
"He seems to be the one we are looking for, my friend."
"And one of the few merchants to still have some contacts outside of Carreas," added Topo, "I'm sure that had nothing to do with your choice, eh?"
"Everything to do with it. It is those connections that we will have to build on."
A knock sounded at the door, followed by the entrance of one of the palace's pages. The page announced the arrival of Tiel, escorting the merchant into the room. Rising from his chair, the Duke made his way over to greet his guest.
"Welcome, Tiel. I apologize for the hour of this meeting, but there are reasons. I just wished to have a talk with you in a more private manner than calling you to an open council meeting." said Anteno, indicating that the trader should sit down in the chair he had just vacated. Getting a chair from elsewhere in the room, the Duke sat facing the two other occupants of the room.
"Thank you, My Lord. Though I am still unsure as to why I was called here."
"Of course, before I explain myself, I think some introductions are in order. Tiel, this is Topo, one of my most trusted advisors and one of my closest friend."
At the mention of his name, Topo gave a little wave with a gloved hand.
"We have already met, M'lord." answered Tiel, "Though it is good to learn your name."
"You have already met?" replied Anteno, a little surprised.
"Yes, we met earlier, in the chapel. I saved him from a rather unfortunate encounter with our own Father Malion," explained Topo.
"Malion? Has he been causing problems again?"
"He was frothing at the lips about 'evil' to your guest."
"Pardon me if I am speaking out of turn, Sire, but I have known the priest for many years," interrupted Tiel. "This is the first time I have seen him get upset like that. He was usually a fairly understanding fellow."
"When was the last time you had spoken with him?" asked the Duke.
"Hmm, it would have been almost ten years since we last spoke face to face, though we have been sending the occasional letter to each other. I was providing his school with many materials that are hard to get within Carreas."
"That makes sense. You see, in the last few years, Father Malion has been on a one man quest for the purity of the human soul. It began, what... about seven years ago, with the incident at Metamor Keep. He seems to believe that the whole thing was the work of the devil, gaining a foothold in the mortal realm. Ever since, he has been campaigning to insure that the human 'integrity' and 'soul' is never violated again," explained Anteno. "I appointed him as the house priest in an attempt to control his preaching, but he has been using the influence of his new position to help spread his message."
"And the victims of the Keep gave him a perfect target for his zeal," added Topo with a snort. "Though what he actually knows of the purity of human souls, I have no idea."
"I had heard nothing of this, Sire. What has he done?"
"Mostly push his views to the council and those who will listen. Recently he has grown more adamant, and has gone so far as to call for a holy war against the 'Accursed Keep' and the 'demons' that reside there."
"In other word, he would like to see the destruction of the only thing that stands between us and an invasion from the monsters of the Giantdowns," added Topo.
"And you let him voice these opinions?" asked Tiel.
"He has the right to speak freely. I cannot interfere as long as he keeps it a matter of faith. The Arch-bishop of Carreas has also refused to act to censure him. I think our good Bishop is afraid to set precedence concerning Metamorians without hearing from the Patriarch first, especially since Carreas is so far removed from the Keep itself."
"We seem to have gotten a little off track, gentlemen," interrupted Topo. "The night is growing late, Anteno, and I am sure that our guest has had a long day. He may not be a night-owl, such as we."
"Of course, my friend here is right. Let me apologize. I should get down to business: I wish to ask a question of you. I wish you to be perfectly honest and candid in your answer, Tiel. As a merchant, you must be aware of the state of our economy. What is your assessment of the situation?" queried the Duke.
"If I am to be honest, then the answer is one that you will not like."
"I have many things to deal with that I do not like. It comes with the job. Speak freely." replied the Duke.
"Well, Sire. My own business, as well as that of many of my associates, has seen an increase since the passing of your uncle. Your reforms to the trade laws, and the reductions in our taxation has been a great help to promoting trade within Carreas. Unfortunately this small economic boom cannot last. I can see two immediate problems. The first is government money. You have cut taxes, yet you have increased your spending on these so-called 'public projects'. Not that I don't approve of this spending, Carreas' schools, parks, roads and hospitals have never been in better shape. It is just that the money for these projects must come from somewhere. The Crown must find new sources of revenue to continue with them.
"The second problem is related to the first. The greatest source of revenue, outside of taxes, would be from tariffs on foreign trade. Carreas hasn't had much of that with the late Duke alienating the surrounding kingdoms. These are the two biggest problems, financially speaking, that are facing our little duchy."
"For a simple trader, your observations of our situation is quite accurate," commented Topo.
"I have always said that a simple trader goes broke. It is in my best interest to know what is happening in the realm, so I make it my business to be aware," replied Tiel.
"Thank you, Tiel. Now, Let me be straightforward with you. I have an offer for you. I want you to strengthen your connections outside of Carreas. To build trade routes, to encourage other traders to do the same, Carreas needs an influx of worked metal goods, textiles, and the like," explained Anteno.
"Sire, it is all well and good that you ask this of me, but to trade for those types of goods will require a supply of goods that I just don't have access to. To set up such a trade route would require me to possess an inventory far in excess of what I could afford to purchase."
"I am sure that you could come up with some thing," said the Duke. "Topo, could you get the piece of paper on the middle of my desk?"
The short robed figure rose from his seat and with a shuffling gait crossed the room towards the large desk. Tiel watched as a gloved hand emerged from within the folds of the robe. Not a single piece of skin showed on his entire body. Even his face was concealed entirely within the deep cowl. The merchant began to wonder if the strange man was some how deformed, maybe even a leper. That would certainly account for his concealment and his odd step. Topo, having retrieved the document returned to his chair, handing the paper to the duke as he passed.
"Thank you. Now, Tiel, would a supply contract with Lapira, the Timber Baron, help?"
"M'Lord, I cannot afford to enter into a deal like that," stated the surprised trader.
"You don't have to. I've already secured the rights. You will simply act as a sales agent for the crown. For your efforts, you get forty percent of the profits plus expenses, while the crown keeps the rest," explained Anteno, handing the contract over to Tiel.
Quickly reading over the contract, Tiel studied the wording searching for a catch. The deal was tightly worded, calling for the timber baron to sell the wood to the crown, and then the crown would release the wood to him to sell as he saw fit. The more he could sell the wood for, the more profit he could make.
"Is the state going to be sponsoring many trade missions of this type?" he asked.
"In the beginning, but it is hoped that once established, the trade routes will become self-sufficient."
"And how do you plan to make any money from this, M'Lord?"
"The plan is to stimulate the economy, so I plan on indirectly profit from an increase to the amount of trading going on within the realm. My primary goal in this isn't to increase the wealth of the crown, but to increase the wealth of the population. A light import duty will be set up, and the crown will get its percentage in any sponsored missions."
Tiel considered the Duke's words for a few minutes. Mulling over the details and quickly making some estimates on possible profits the trader came to the conclusion that this was too good an opportunity to pass up on.
"You have yourself a deal, M'Lord," he announced.
"Very good. Do you have a client in mind?"
"Yes, Sire, I believe I do. The Kingdom of Felisea recently lost a large amount of timber to fire. I would guess that they are looking to make up the loss somehow."
"Good. Now before I let the two of you go for the night, there is one more piece of business. Tiel, I shall be sending Topo with you as my representative."
"Anteno?!" came a startled, questioning response from the hooded figure.
"Sire, I thought I was being given free reign to trade as I see fit?" asked Tiel.
"You have. Topo merely is going along as an advisor and to observe. He will not interfere in your business."
"But...?" stuttered Topo.
"What is it, Topo? Do you object to my choice?" asked the Duke.
"Well... yes, I do. First off, I have only just returned recently from a long trip, and here you are sending me off again. My presence isn't going to make Tiel's job any easier. In fact, it could lead to a whole new set of complications. Travelling with me brings trouble whether you ask for it or not."
"We seemed to do fairly well in our travelling days, my friend," replied the Duke.
"Anteno, I must object. This isn't--"
"Your objection is noted. You are still going. I need someone I can trust completely, no offence meant, Tiel, and besides, your 'special abilities' could come in handy," interrupted Anteno. "Now, Tiel, it looks like you have something to say. What is it?"
"I beg your pardon, Sire, but I have no objection to Topo's presence. For whatever reason he chooses to hide himself away in those heavy robes, I cannot think of a single reason why his presence should hinder me, unless he chooses to interfere with my dealings."
"Oh, really?" replied Topo, followed by a quick chuckle. "Anteno, I think it is time to let our guest in on a little secret."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course. If I am to travel with him, he is going to find out sooner or later."
With that, Topo began to pull off the gloves that covered his hands. As the soft leather slid off, Tiel tried to see what they looked like. It was difficult as the fire has died down and the room was fairly dim. Finally both gloves were off and placed on an endtable. Now that his hands were free, Topo flexed his fingers. What Tiel saw stunned him. The revealed hands could never be considered human. Bony fingers tipped with small claws drew in the attention of the merchant. They appeared to be covered in black fur, though the texture was not quite right. The hands reached up and slowly began to draw back the cowl around Topo's head. What was revealed to the trader now was almost more then his mind could accept. He was looking into the jet black eyes of a mouse. A mouse that was larger then any mouse had the right to be. Through the shocked haze that was Tiel's perception, he began to note the strange colouration of the creature's face, the crown being a blue-grey with black banded white under its eyes and on its cheeks. The creature rose from its seat and began to work its way out of the heavy robes. After a bit of shuffling, the cloth fell to the floor, revealing something beyond Tiel's imagination. Before him was a four-foot tall mouse standing on its hind legs as it untied a long tail that had been strapped to it chest, letting it slide to a more natural position.
"Much better. Just have to work the kinks out," murmured the giant rodent as it began to massage its long tail.
The bizarre colouring continued down Topo's body. The same grey-blue that graced his head continued down his arms, ending at the elbow to be replaced by black. From what Tiel could see around the vest and pants the creature was wearing, its body was white with black marks, leading down into a black-tipped red-brown tail. Finally, it clicked with Tiel what was wrong with the creature's fur. It wasn't fur at all, but feathers. Its entire body was covered in a coat of feathers.
"Hey, stop gaping, or something is going to nest in your mouth," said Topo, with a grin on his buck-toothed jaw, "Uh, Anteno, you think he's going to have a breakdown?"
"Give him a few minutes to get over the shock, my friend. Your appearance can be quite startling to one who is unused to it," suggested the Duke.
"Of course, of course. I still remember the look on your face the first time you came across me."
"Ah, but you were more scared of me than I of you."
"Well, of course I was. I had just gone through a traumatic--"
During the banter between the Duke and the mouse, Tiel had been able to pull himself enough to finally speak; "You... You're a Metamorian!"
"No, I most certainly am not...." shot back Topo. "Oh, wait... yes, I guess I could be considered one now. The feathers are a gift from that particular curse."
"Topo, I think our guest needs a little break. Why don't you leave us alone for a while, and give me a chance to explain things to Tiel?"
With a nod, the mouse walked across the office and opened a window. Slowly his form began to shrink and bend, losing itself a pile of clothing on the floor. The pile began to move, until finally a small, brightly coloured falcon, only about ten inches from head to tail, emerged and hopped up on top the sill. With a screech and a flutter of wings, the bird disappeared into the night.
"I really, must apologize for Topo. He has to remain hidden for so much of the time, that when given the chance, he enjoys the chance to show off...." commented Anteno as he turned back to his guest. His voice trailed off as he noticed that Tiel had passed out.
"...So, you're saying that Topo is a weremouse? During the day he is a mouse and becomes a... whatever he is, at night." questioned Tiel.
After a few minutes, the trader had revived. Now he had been listening intently to the Duke talking. Anteno had just finished telling Tiel of his first encounter with the weremouse and explaining Topo's curse.
"What about the bird trick? You didn't say anything about falcons."
"He acquired that little trick while visiting Metamor. While doing a task for me, he stayed a bit longer than he planned and fell under the Wizard's spell."
"Just how does he conceal this from others? Surely people will see through that robe in time."
"That isn't as large of a problem as it might seem at first. All of the Ministers already know about him, as do most of the council. And since he is only around at night, he can stay pretty well-concealed. There are rumours flying around the palace, but none of them are close to the truth. I've heard whispers of leper, wizard, witch, and demon, but no one has yet thought of a feathered mouse."
"That is fine in the royal palace, but what about when I am on the road? It will not be easy to hide his appearance then."
"Oh, really? I spent nearly three years on the road with Topo. We did have some close calls, but it is easier than you would think. People either refuse to see what they do not believe, or they turn out to be a lot more accepting than society presents.
"Topo knows what he is doing on the road. He will be able to stay out of sight, and out of trouble."
chapter 3: journey
The tavern was dark, as most such places are. Except for the bright glow of the large fire burning at the front of the room, shadows and a thick layer of smoke dominated the common room. Drunken voices singing bawdy ballads echoed throughout the halls as quieter patrons tried to have their conversations through the din. Sitting alone at a table in the back corner of the tavern, away from the lights and the more active customers, was Topo. Once again, the mouse-morph found himself confined within the heavy grey robes that served to hide his form from the intolerant world around him.
The inn saw many travellers, existing as it did in the no-man's land that existed in the hilly country to the east of Carreas. Strangers were not uncommon here and his robed form was mostly ignored by the other patrons. After a quick scan of the crowd for his companion, Topo lifted his mug into the concealment of his cowl, and took a sip of his ale. As he set the mug back down of the table, he caught sight of the large trader pushing his way through the crowd.
"So, what did you find out?" he asked, as Tiel settled into a chair across the table from him.
"That this tavern serves an excellent ale... and that I have had perhaps a little too much of it tonight," replied the trader, his voice a little slurred.
"Your drinking is not my concern at the moment, Tiel. The reason we came in here was to gather some intelligence of the roads ahead of us. Now, what did you learn?"
"People aren't always willin' to talk, mousey. Sometimes it takes a few drinks ta loosen their tongues."
"I'm smarter then that. I know when ta shut my mouth."
"I hope so. One slip could get us both killed."
"Sheesh, you're paranoid."
Glaring at the intoxicated man, Topo rose to his feet. "Come on. Let us retire to our room and there you can tell me what you have learned."
"I'm tired. Can't I just tell you tomorrow?"
"I will be not be able to talk in the morning."
"I don't see a problem there." replied Tiel with a drunken grin.
"Well, I do. We are no longer within the boundaries of Carreas. That means we are alone, and until we leave this accursed no-man's land and reach the borders of Felisea we are open to attack by the Duke's enemies." Topo grasped Tiel's arm tightly, digging his claws into flesh to get the trader's attention. With a sharp tug, the robed mouse began to lead Tiel out of the common room and towards the room they had rented. "If one of Anteno's enemies gets word that we are here, we become an instant target."
Once alone in their room, Topo forced the drunken merchant into a chair. After taking the time to remove his heavy robes, the mouse sat on the bed, facing a now dozing Tiel. Reaching across the small room to the table, Topo picked up a clay pot full of water and proceeded to pour the entire jug over Tiel's head.
Sputtering from the sudden onslaught of lukewarm water, Tiel jolted up right, glaring at the rodent.
"Talk, merchant. The quicker you tell me what you know, the quicker I let you lay down and sleep off your drink," said Topo sharply.
"Okay, okay. Just the usual stuff. A few places to watch for brigands, some inns to avoid unless you like lice. Oh, and the bridge at Mille Creek is washed out. We'll have to take the North Road. Like I said, nothing out of the usual."
"Details. Give me details."
Tiel began to tell the mouse the snippets of gossip and rumour he had collected earlier in the evening. The trader's drunken state made his words hard to follow and Topo spent much of the time asking the man to repeat things and clarify stuff Tiel glossed over. After an hour, Topo was satisfied that Tiel had told him everything he could and let the merchant finally settle into his bed. Within minutes, the feathered mouse could hear snoring coming from the bed. Leaving the man to his slumber, Topo began to remove the rest of the clothing he had been wearing. After taking the time to stretch, the mouse began to shift, his already unusual shape becoming even less human as he transformed into falcon form. Settling onto a makeshift perch on the back of a chair, he drifted off to sleep to the sound of the merchant's snores.
The morning of the third day brought the pair to the borders of Felisea. During the day, Topo found himself travelling in a cage. The door was always left unlocked for him, but he still found his confinement uncomfortable. Usually when trapped in his rodent form, he still had the freedom to explore the palace. Now, playing the part of the trader's pet mouse during the day, he tried to spend the day sleeping. Tiel, for his part, had been a decent travelling companion on the trip, keeping his supply of food and water fresh and talking to him as their wagon travelled slowly along the road.
The mouse looked up from his nap when the trader looked into the interior of the wagon.
"There is a group of soldiers up ahead. It is probably the Felisean border guard. Nothing to worry about, just letting you know," said Tiel.
Rising from his bed of wood shavings, Topo strained to see through a gap in the curtain that separated the driver's bench from the back of the wagon. Through the hole, the mouse could see Tiel talking with a man wearing a set of light leather armour. Topo tried to see more, but Tiel's body blocked his field of view. The two men were talking quietly, so the caged mouse could not hear what they were discussing.
It seemed a pretty routine border check from Topo's perspective. Both Tiel and the solider were calm and almost friendly towards each other. That was until the solider calmly brought his spear up and crashed the shaft of it across the trader's skull. The stunned trader fell back through the curtain, tearing the cloth from its pins. With the curtain and the trader no longer blocking his view, Topo got his first good look at the solider. The image catching his eye, the mouse fixated on the heraldry that adorned the solider's leather coat. Topo recognized it, and it belonged to someone he definitely did not want to encounter. As the solider began to climb the side of the wagon, Topo bolted for the door of his cage. Managing to get through the door before the solider saw him, Topo scrambled towards the back of the wagon. Seeing the rodent streak across the floor, the solider dived at Topo.
"There you are, you little rat," shouted the solider as he crashed to the floor, just short of Topo. Taking advantage of the warrior's miss, Topo dove behind a barrel of water sitting against the back wall of the wagon.
Rising to his knees, the guard began to scan the interior of the wagon. Not seeing his quarry, he reached over to the unconscious form of Tiel, and dragged the trader next to him.
"If you think I am chasing your furry little ass all over this wagon, then you've been chewing on some rotten cheese." said the solider, drawing his dagger from its sheath and pressing it to the trader's throat. "Come on out or I'll slit your friend ear to ear."
The solider watched as a small brown mouse emerged from behind a barrel, slowly walking to stand in the middle of the wagon's floor.
"Into the cage, rodent."
After giving the solider a defiant look, the mouse climbed back into the cage he had fled from only moments before. Once Topo was back inside his prison, the solider produced a piece of heavy wire from a pocket and fed it through the cage door, sealing it closed.
"Good, you shouldn't be able to bend or chew through that," he said to his prisoner before turning to address someone outside the wagon. "Well, I've got them, but I'm sure as hell not carrying them all the way back to the manor by myself."
The last thing that Topo saw before a piece of the torn curtain was draped over his cage was more soldiers, similarly dressed as the first. Alone in the darkness, the mouse strained his ears to try and discern what was going on outside of his cage. He could hear the soldiers dragging a heavy object, most likely the unconscious form of Tiel, from the wagon. Soon after he heard the sound of Tiel being dropped roughly to the ground, his cage was lifted from the floor, the dim interior becoming slightly brighter as the sunlight filtered through the cloth cover.
"We've got to be back at the manor before sunset. You stay here and take care of the evidence," came the voice of the solider that had captured him. As the cage began to sway with the gait of the person carrying it, Topo could hear the ring of a flint on steel and the 'fwoosh' of a torch catching flame behind them.
Soon the smell of burning wood fell behind them. The gentle sway of his cage was mesmerizing, making it hard for Topo to think straight. He knew who had captured them. The markings on their uniforms left no question of that. The crest was that of Baron Cenese, once right-hand man to Mechello Carras. Since the fall of the old regime, the Baron had disappeared, and it had been assumed he had fled to the north. There had been rumours of Cenese trying to raise an army to move against Anteno, but there had been no proof. In the old government, the Baron had been Mechello's Prime Minister, and a powerful and influential man. He would be the kind of person who would not take kindly to having that power taken away. As the journey continued, Topo tried to work open the latch on the cage. After struggling with it, he came to the conclusion that the soldier had been right, he did not have the strength to bend the heavy wire holding the door closed. With a sigh, he settled in to see what the future held for him.
chapter 4: imprisonment
The journey had ended with Topo being unceremoniously dumped into a pit-like cell. A quick search revealed that he could not escape. The walls offered no hand holds, even for his tiny claws, and even if he could have made it to the top, the grating that covered the opening was a fine mesh that even his diminutive rodent body could not have squeezed through.
Evening came, though it was only by the shift to his morphic form that Topo could judge the passing of time in the darkness of his prison. Even with his larger size, he could find no means to escape from his secure cell. It seemed that his captors had known enough about him to make his cell escape-proof. In a final act of frustration, Topo shifted to his falcon form and began to flutter around the cell.
Having spent his energy and anger in the futile struggle, Topo shifted back and settled down on the floor to wait. It seemed that his little ruckus had attracted some attention. A few minutes after Topo had given up, a guard peered over the edge of the pit, a halo of torch light surrounding his form. The guard stared through the grating at the prisoner, a mixture of curiosity and fear expressed on his face as he looked upon the strange being in the cell below.
"What's the matter, boy? Never seen a were-mouse before?" taunted Topo, staring back at the guard.
As the mouse spoke, the guard started, quickly retreating from Topo's field of view. A few minutes later, foot steps could be heard on the stone floor above. From the sounds of it, Topo guessed that his watcher had gone to get someone else. Rising to his feet, Topo waited to see who the guard had summoned. The footsteps stopped near the entrance of his cell, the flickering glow of a torch casting a dim yellow light into the cell. His visitors remained outside of Topo's view, and he could hear them whispering to each other. The voices were low and the mouse could not make out what was being said. After a few minutes, the conversation ended and a robed figure stepped forward.
"Hello, Demon," spat a familiar voice, its angry tone sharp and clipped. "I finally have you in a position where your evil influence can be dealt with."
"Malion? What are you doing here?" gasped the imprisoned mouse. His mind raced with thoughts of what the priest was doing there. Was Malion involved in his kidnapping? So it seemed, from the priest's words.
"Removing a Demon from its position of power in Carreas," sneered the priest, his voice brimming over with hatred. "You have held sway over the Duke for too long, foul creature. I am doing my duty to Eli, and to the realm by removing you."
Topo stood gaping at Malion. The priest was not among the few people in Anteno's court that knew of the weremouse's true form. Of course, Topo thought to himself, the priest, with his overdeveloped sense of religious zeal, would have likely believed the more outrageous of the rumours that circulated around the palace. Still, Topo did not think that Malion would have acted without actual proof.
"So, Father, to try and remove an evil that you perceive as a threat to Carreas, you purposely ally yourself with Baron Cenese, a proven threat." said the mouse, trying to keep his growing anger at the priest under control. "How can you justify that to yourself and your god?"
"Eli will see to the Baron's fate."
"Could not the same thing be said for me?"
"Eli has set your fate, Demon. He has revealed your true form to me so that I may deal with you."
Topo jumped to his feet, his anger finally boiling over. "You are a fool, Priest. Your faith has done nothing but blind you!" he yelled as he leaped towards Malion.
Topo did not come close to getting close to Malion, and even if he could have reached the top of the pit, the cell's bars would have prevented him from reaching the priest. Settling back down onto the cold stone floor, Topo smirked as he noticed the priest had been startled by his actions. Malion had taken several steps back from the edge of the pit and was holding his crucifix out before him as if it were a shield.
"You cannot escape from here. I have set wards around your cell. It is Eli's will that you shall be punished." said Malion, his voice still a little shaky.
"Priest, your ecclesiastic symbols do not bother me. I am not a creature of your Satan. Though I may respect what they stand for, the powers of Eli and Yahshua have no effect on me. The only thing keeping me in this cell is the skill and craftsmanship of the mason that built it."
"We shall see, Demon. We shall see," said the priest, motioning to the guard. With that, both of the humans walked off leaving Topo once again alone in the dark.
After waking, Tiel found himself on a bed in a small chamber. Rubbing his face, he tried to clear the ringing and dull ache coming from his head. Once he had collected his wits, memories of the attack had begun to flood back into his mind. Quickly scanning the small room, he noticed the very spartan decor and the guard stationed just inside the door, dressed in the same armour as the soldiers he had met on the road.
Seeing that Tiel was awake, the guard spoke, his voice completely neutral and emotionless. "The Lord will wish to see you now. Please follow me."
Waiting only long enough to see that Tiel was following him, the guard began to lead the trader through a series of hallways, finally finding himself escorted into a very expensively decorated room. The decor seemed to be sitting on the line between tacky opulence and tastefully wealthy. Looking around at the lacquered wooden panels on the walls, the silk curtains, and the variety of artwork that was on display, the merchant's eyes finally came to rest on the man seated on a velvet couch in the middle of the room.
The man that Tiel found himself facing had a noble air about him. Even seated, the merchant could tell that he was a tall man, though he did carry a slight paunch on his frame. In his career, Tiel had dealt with nobles on a regular basis, learning to read them quite well. Most seemed to think that they had to boast of their wealth with garish styles and tacky decoration. Other, the more exacting and difficult clientele, knew the value of what they were spending their money on, and used it to subtly display their wealth. Dressed in fine green silks adorned with a few pieces of jewelry, Tiel felt about the man as he did about the room, sitting on the borderline of tasteful.
"Hello Trader, and welcome to my home," spoke the man on the couch.
"I beg your pardon, Sir, but just whose house I am in?" asked Tiel.
"I am sorry, I should have introduced myself right away, but I figured that you probably knew who I was. I am Baron Santo Cenese, former Prime Minister of Carreas, ex-Lord of the Green Fields, previous Warden of the Trane river, and a lot of other titles that were stolen from me when that insolent whelp, Anteno Carras, took them from me," explained the man, a slight smile forming on his lips. "Ah, I see by your reaction that you know my name if not my face. Now merchant Tiel, if you would please, be seated and join me in the afternoon meal."
"You speak as though I am a guest, Sir," responded Tiel, "Though your treatment of my person shows otherwise."
"I must apologize for that, of course." said Cenese, indicating a seat for the trader. "My men were perhaps a little rabid in the carrying out of their orders. You are a guest in my house, and from now on, shall be treated as such. Other than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you are of no concern to me.
"Now your companion, on the other hand, he certainly is of interest to me."
"My Companion, Sir? I was travelling alone," replied Tiel.
"Do not try to play stupid, merchant. You were travelling with the Duke's pet monster, and there was no way of doing that without knowing it was present. Besides, it is enjoying the comforts of my dungeon at this very moment."
Tiel was disturbed by the news. He had hoped that Topo had escaped from the ambush in his mouse form. Seemingly sensing the trader's train of though, the Baron continued: "You see, the monster was the whole reason you were ambushed. I need him in order to strike back at Anteno."
"Of course. I was the second most powerful man in Carreas under Duke Mechello's reign. Then he had to go and die before I could secure my power. Then, the court, in their infinite wisdom, decided to place a puppet on the throne. They chose the Duke's closest blood relative. It was the biggest mistake they ever made.
"Within months I found myself under suspicion for supposed 'crimes' against the peasantry. Me, the Prime Minister, accused of wronging common rabble. Luckily I foresaw what would happen to my colleagues and made plans to leave. I found myself, a man of noble birth, forced to flee my lands and leave my property behind. Now I live in the no-man's land outside of Carreas' borders, forced into the life-style of a common brigand. From the reports I have received from home, my estate is being used as a school... a school for the common rabble from the village.
"You see, merchant, while striking down Anteno's attempts to trade with his neighbours is quiet satisfying, and I am sure causes him no amount of frustration, I truly wish to cause him the same suffering he caused me. I will see him driven from his position of power, the same as I was, by the very rabble that forced me out. And that furry little monster I have trapped in my cellars is the key."
Tiel regarded the Baron. The man's expression had not changed through out his speech. In fact, Cenese's expression seemed almost seemed jovial, as if he was enjoying playing a dangerous games of politics.
"Even if you succeed in your plan, the people of Carreas will not accept you back as their leader, Baron," pointed out Tiel.
"Of course not. I would not expect them to. The commoners never understand what is best for them. It will be enough to see the young Duke disgraced and forced to leave his home. To see him go through the same thing that I did. Any power that I receive because of this will be an enjoyable bonus," explained the Baron, a smile breaking out on his face.
"Now for your part in all this," continued Cenese. "It is you who shall deliver a message to the Duke for me."
"Nothing much. Just what I have told you here, and that I will be revealing the monster to the people of Carreas in the village of Roccome in a week."
"Why? He will try and stop you."
"Of course he will. I would expect nothing else. He will arrive too late. He will arrive just in time to face the wrath of the very people he loves so much. He must come, for he loves the monster as a brother. To the Duke you will have to go, since none other in the land would even believe your tale."
"But the villagers will not listen to you. They remember you as a tyrant, and as bad as Duke Mechello," commented Tiel.
"Of course they will listen. The commoner is easily attracted to any source of excitement in their otherwise dreary lives."
"Besides," came a new voice behind Tiel, "they will listen to me."
Tiel turned to see who the new speaker was, and was startled to see the robed form of Father Malion stride across the room and settle into a chair next to the Baron.
"I have some influence over the common folk of the realm, and I shall use it to remove a Demon from a position in which its evil influences influences the land."
"Father, what evil has Topo done to the people of Carreas? If anything, it could be nothing compared to the harm the man you are working with has wrought," stated Tiel to the priest, receiving a glare from Baron Cenese in response.
"My son, I cannot expect you to understand. It seems that you too have fallen under the demon's influence, and shall not be reasoned with. Evil works in subtle ways, slowly corrupting from within. The corruption must be removed before it festers to the surface."
"And you would see the Duke lose his throne for this?" asked Tiel.
"I feel regret for the young Lord, but it looks to be necessary. The strength of the beast might be too strong in him to allow him to safely remain in a position of power. It is rumoured that he has been under the demon's influence for many years, you know?"
"You see, Tiel. As well as feeding my own desire for revenge (for which, I'm sure the Father will grant me absolution), I am acting in the best interests of the people," remarked the Baron, a smile once again appearing on his face. "Now, it is time for you to go. I have a horse and travel gear awaiting you at the stable. You will have to hurry if you wish to reach the palace at Pessca and inform the Duke in time to make it to Roccome in time to see his mousey friend revealed to the people."
chapter 5: exorcism
Time had ceased to have meaning to Topo as he sat alone in the dark. The only way he could gauge the time that passed in the darkness was the constant shifting of his body between mouse and half-man. In the boredom, he had lost count of the time that had happened. The bordom was only broken by the infrequent visits he got in his cell. The most common were the guards who brought his food. They would always come during the day when he was trapped as a rodent and could not use the opportunity to escape. Other times, the guards would come to openly gawk at him. These visits were usually short as Topo managed to scare the guards fairly easily.
The Baron had even been down to visit him once, gloating how he would see Anteno destroyed before the week was out. The most annoying visitor he had was, by far, the recurring appearances of Malion. The priest would show up at any time, sometimes several times a day, and preach to him, say prayers, and basically tell Topo how evil he was. At first Topo found the Father's blind zeal to be slightly amusing, but the rhetoric quickly grew tiresome to the mouse.
On the dawn of yet another day of his imprisonment, the routine changed. A large crowd had gathered outside his cell soon after the rising sun had returned him to his mouse form. Topo recognized the Baron and the priest, as well as half-a-dozen guards. The guards were not the young men who had been his turnkeys either. These were older men who had the look of veterans about them. He recognized one of the soldiers as the man who had caught him in the wagon. Topo felt that a threat as simple as a walking mouse would not be enough to scare these men.
Before the cell was opened, the mouse watched as Malion said a short prayer over each of the guardsmen, sprinkling a little holy water over their hearts. Then he watched as a ladder was lowered into the cell and his captor climbed down to join him.
"We've been through this before, mousey. You know the routine," spoke the guard, placing an open cage on the floor. "And be quick. We have a long way to go before tonight."
Once again Topo climbed into the cage. The trip out of the pit was rough as the cage was bounced around as the guard made his way back up the ladder. Shaking off the rough ride, Topo looked up to see the form of Malion standing over the cage. The priest finished the prayer he had been saying, something that sounded like a ward against evil to the mouse, and poured a few drops of holy water into the cage. Topo, by now rather annoyed by his treatment by the priest, collected the drops from the floor of the cage in his paws, and much to the surprise of Malion, drank it. Malion's eyes went wide as he watched the mouse quaff the blessed water, but he said nothing, dropping a cloth over the cage. leaving Topo in the dark once again.
The guard had been right. It felt as if they had been travelling all day. Though the cloth covering the cage prevented Topo from seeing the road as they passed, he could tell that the day was growing old as the light that filtered through the fabric began to grow dimmer. The travel had been fairly quiet, the sound of the horses' hooves on the dirt, the inane banter between Father Malion and Baron Censes, the other two occupants of the carriage that he was travelling in. The two men's chatter quickly became tiresome, speaking mostly of gossip, so Topo tuned them out.
The boring drawl of the road slowly gave way to the sounds of civilization. Animal noises, the bustle of people moving around, people hawking wares at the top of their voices, the clang of a smith's hammer on the anvil and a myriad of other sounds that told the mouse they were now in a human settlement.
Topo heard the sound of a horse coming alongside the carriage, and then a whispered conversation between the rider and Baron Cenese. Once they had finished speaking, the mouse heard the horse ride off into the sounds of the crowd.
"Have your men finished their preparations?" came the voice of Father Malion from the other side of the curtain.
"They should be done by now. Today is market day, and they have been spreading rumours about an event that is happening at sundown today. They have not given out any specifics, but they have been rousing the rabble's curiosity. A Platform has been erected for your show in the center of the market square. You will have a half-dozen of my best soldiers on the platform with you. They will be without their livery, so no-one will realize that I am involved until after the deed is done. The mouse will transform back into a monster at dusk, so that is when you are to act, revealing him to be a compatriot of the Duke as he shifts form," replied the lord, as the carriage came to a halt.
"I know what I am here to do, Baron. I will reveal the evil presence that afflicts the crown, and exorcize the demon from this mortal plane, back to the darkness where he can do no more harm," spat back the priest. "And where will you be while I am facing the crowd?"
"I shall be waiting here with my men in case the Duke somehow manages to arrive before the monster is revealed."
"You should never have waited this long to destroy the demon. It should have been done as soon as we caught it."
"But it is more effective this way, Father." explained Cenese. "With the Duke arriving in town soon after the spectacle, the people will be ready to move against him."
"Well, it is too late to argue about this now. Pass me the cage. I only have an hour before sunset. Dispelling a demon is a powerful spell and will require some time to meditate and prepare."
"Of course, Father. Just let me do one thing first," said the Baron.
The cloth lifted away from the cage, letting Topo get his first look at the inside of the Carriage. His view was quickly blocked as Cenese opened the door of the cage and reached in, grabbing the mouse. Topo struggled, but found himself trapped in the man's hand. A quick, and none too gentle, squeeze by Cenese convinced Topo to give up his struggles. As he fought to draw air into his compressed lungs, he watched the Baron draw out a small piece of wire from a pocket.
"What is that for?" asked Malion.
"It is our insurance policy," replied Cenese, "in case your spell fails."
"It is a prayer, not a spell and, by Eli's will, it shall succeed."
"Well, this will make me feel better if it was used," said the Baron, as he began to bend the wire around the trapped mouse's throat. "I purchased this from an alchemist. It is an interesting substance, to say the least. At the beginning it is quite elastic, and should stretch with the monster's transformation. But at the point that it cannot stretch any more, it will become hard, as hard as the best steel, choking the monster, and eventually cutting its throat. I figure that will happen when his change is almost finished."
"And you know this works?"
"I've experimented with it," replied the Baron with a smile.
"It is unnecessary. Eli will destroy it," responded the priest.
"I just like to cover all of the angles, Father," said Cenese, dropping Topo back into the cage, and handing it over to Malion. "Besides, once it has finished its shift, it can become a bird, and will be even harder for you to control otherwise."
Without saying anything more, the priest grabbed the cage from Cenese, and began to make his way through the market crowd, flanked on all sides by an escort of the Baron's soldiers. Approaching the center of the square, Malion climbed onto a raised wooden dais setup before the plaza's fountain.
While the six guards took up positions around the edge of the platform, Malion deposited Topo's cage on a short wooden table. The priest busied himself in pulling various objects from his pack, giving Topo the time to struggle with the wire that now encircled his neck. The improvised collar was tight, bordering on uncomfortable, tight enough that he could not slip it over his head. Further examination revealed that he lacked the strength to undo the knot that held the wire.
Giving up on escaping his bonds, the mouse started to truly fear for his life for the first time since he had been captured. Fighting down a growing sense of panic, Topo leaned against the wall of the cage to watch Malion's activities. The priest was pre-occupied in preparing for the night's ceremony. Topo could hear the priest chanting preparatory spells as he arranged the paraphernalia on the platform. A large leather-bound copy of the Canticle of Eli was open on the table next to the cage as were several other tomes that Topo assumed were religious texts of one kind or another. Though he was close enough to see the books, they were written in the ancient language of the church and the words were unreadable to the mouse. Malion had just finished laying out his Crucifix, and a bowl of holy water. If Topo had not known better, he would have assumed that the priest was simply preparing for a service.
After pausing to read a passage from one of the books, Malion said another short prayer and began to dress in his vestments. Around the square, the shadows had grown long and the sun was almost ready to sink below the horizon. The propaganda of the Baron's men and the priest's activities had caused a large crowd of the citizens of Roccome to gather around the platform. They looked at the scene with curiosity, whispering rumours about what was going to happen among themselves. As the soldiers surrounding the platform lit torches to push back the growing darkness, Malion said one last prayer and turned to face the crowd.
"People of Roccome, citizens of Carreas, heed my words for they reveal an evil taint upon the throne itself," began Father Malion, his normally soft voice growing in stature to reach all corners of the plaza. "I come before you as the personal priest of the Duke himself. While seeing to the needs of our Lord's faith, I could not help but notice a blight upon the young Duke's soul. An investigation on my part discovered that our Lord Anteno had fallen to take the council of a demon from the very pits of hell."
At this statement the crowd's reaction varied. Some looked on in horror at the priest's words, while others looked on curiously. The largest reaction though, was amusement. A lot of the villagers had slight smiles on their faces, while a few were outright laughing at the robed figure standing before them. Looking down upon the crowd, the priest seemed to be enraged at the crowd's apparent disregard for the seriousness of the situation.
"Can you not see a threat to the good and pure people of this land? The very throne influenced by a servant of Satan himself. I can see that many of you still do not believe my words. I would not come before you without proof," continued Malion, lifting Topo's cage into the air above his head. "I could not let the demon continue in its work, so, with the help of others who were interested in the affairs of the realm, I captured the demon. This creature that you see before you is the Demon itself."
Seeing the small rodent in the cage, the crowd broke out into laughter once again, with many calls of "It's only a mouse!" ringing out. Malion once again glared out at the crowd, causing them to be silent.
"The Devil is a subtle creature, working to corrupt us in ways that we cannot at first see. This innocent looking creature is a tool of this subtle evil. Wait until Eli's sun disappears from the sky and the creature is forced to reveal its true nature in the darkness of its master!" shouted Malion.
Opening the cage, the priest upended it, dumping Topo into a crude pen that had been erected on the floor of the platform.
"And as it reveals itself, I shall, in the glory of Eli, send it back to hell where it cannot harm the realm again."
As soon as Topo had landed on the wooden floor of the platform, he scrambled over the walls, thinking of climbing from the pen. Before he could get a grip into the slats, he felt the familiar twinge that indicated the sun had finally settled in to rest for the night. As his body began to reform around him, he fell back to the floor of the improvised prison.
While Topo had made his aborted attempt at escape, Malion began chanting over the rodent, his crucifix held over his heart. Unlike the other prayers the priest had been saying, these words had the feel of deep power, with a feeling of travelling well beyond the mortal plane.
Topo felt his frame grow larger, and heard the gasps as the crowd first noticed his change. Soon, though, any notice of the crowd was torn from his mind as the Baron's collar began to grow uncomfortably tight around his neck. As Cenese had said, the piece of wire stretched as he grew, but it was still cutting into his throat, making it hard to breath. He began to pull on the collar, trying to free his airway as Malion continued his prayer.
By now, he had progressed almost halfway through his transformation, where he was at a size and shape that no-one in the gathered crowd could ever mistake as a simple man or beast. Seeing little other choice, Topo looked for a path to bolt into the night, but as he prepared to sprint from the stage, a strange compulsion to stay where he was came over him. Realizing that the priest's prayer must have placed a powerful ward on him, the shifting rodent continued to try and free some space between the continuingly more constricting collar and his throat.
The wire seemed to be impossibly tight now, beginning to cut into Topo's flesh. He had almost tuned out the world around him in a desperate attempt to remove the bond from his throat before it killed him. Hearing a shift in the priest's chanting, the mouse looked up to see unbridled fever in the man's face as he approached Topo carrying only the bowl of holy water. His voice was reaching a climatic pitch, and as soon as Malion was within a yard of Topo, his prayer ended in a crescendo of unrecognizable words. As the priest finished, Topo could feel a buzz of pure power in the air. Forgetting about the wire cutting into his skin, he watched the priest, trying to judge his next move. The priest raised the bowl above his head, as Topo felt a trickle of blood move down his chest. Malion shouted something un-intelligible into the mouse's face, and as pandemonium broke out in the crowd around them, the priest cast the contents of the bowl down upon Topo.
As the water touched his skin, Topo was surrounded by an explosion of the brightest white light he had ever seen. Even through shut eyelids, all that he could perceive was the purest of whites. An infinite moment later, the mouse groaned as the real world once again settled in around him.
Malion looked up from his task. The prayer was finished and he could now look up to see what the reaction of the crowd had been. Some stood, staring upon the spectacle they had just witnessed with unbelieving eyes. Near the edge of the square, he could see a fight underway. Even in the darkness, he could make out the green dragon livery of the Duke's personal guard and red griffon of Cenese's men. It seemed that the Duke had finally arrived, and the Baron's soldiers were losing in the encounter. The crowd's attention was drawn from the priest to the warriors battling in their town.
A groan from beside him drew the priest's attention from the fight. Looking down, he saw the last thing he had expected to see. Kneeling stunned on the platform, struggling with the collar around its neck, was the very creature that he had just cast as a demon back into hell. In an instant realization flooded through the priest's mind.
"You're not a demon!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"I... I've been... trying to tell... tell you that," gasped out Topo from around his collar.
Staring at the creature seated before him, Malion noticed that the blood was now flowing freely from the wounds in Topo's neck. Looking around, he noticed that the Duke's soldiers had almost reached the platform, but that the guards the Baron had assigned to escort him moved out to meet them. Quickly making a decision, the priest kneeled down beside the feathered, mouse-like creature.
"Forgive me," Malion whispered, as his shaky hands began to loosen the wire that was garroting Topo.
Just as he almost had the knot undone, a voice spoke up behind him, "Just what do you think you're doing!?"
Looking behind him, Malion saw Baron Cenese standing over him, a sword held in his hands.
"This poor creature is not a demon. Otherwise the prayer would have dispelled it. I cannot kill such a creature," answered the priest, his fingers still fumbling with the wire.
"Then I shall!" said the Baron raising his sword.
"No!" spoke Malion, as he finally got the last loop of wire free and the collar fell from Topo's neck. "It is no demon, and until I can determine if it is a creature of Eli, I cannot let you destroy it."
"Out of my way, fool," shouted Cenese, as he brought his sabre down across the priest's chest. With a gasp and a gurgle, Malion collapsed to the wooden planks.
Free from the bonds, Topo stood to face the Baron. Paws rubbing the raw wounds on his throat, he looked down on the bleeding form of the priest, then back up to the Baron.
"I don't think your god looks favorably upon the slaying of one of his servants," commented Topo.
"The man was a fool, and deserved what he got," sneered the Baron.
"A fool? No. He was blinded by his faith. That is all."
"It does not matter, creature, because you will soon be joining him."
Once again Cenese raised his weapon, poised to strike down Topo, when a group of men mounted the platform. Both Cenese and Topo looked to see who the newcomers were. The Baron let out a groan when he saw only the coat of arms of the house of Cerras mounting the stage. Standing at their head was the Duke himself, brandishing a short sword at the Baron.
"Let him go, Cenese. Your men have all been dealt with. Surrender peacefully and I'll see that you get a fair trial," spoke the Duke. "I'll even overlook the extra charges of treason and murder that stem from this little incident."
"Never!" shouted Cenese as he began to bring his sword down on Topo. Before his blade could find its mark though, he found himself run through by several spears from the Duke's soldiers. Without a sound, the Baron's sword slipped from nerveless fingers, and with a hiccup of blood, he slowly settled to the ground and ceased to move.
Once the Baron was down, Anteno rushed over to his friend, followed by Tiel, who was carrying a bloodied rapier.
"My friend, are you all right?" asked Anteno, his voice full of concern.
"Yes, I'll be fine." replied Topo, his vice still a little rough. "I heal quick. The wounds should be gone by tomorrow."
Looking around the plaza, the mouse noticed the carnage that occupied the once peaceful market square. Bodies could be seen laying on the pavement, both royal troops and the Baron's guard. Topo frowned as he noted a few civilian casualties among the dead.
"Malion!" said Topo suddenly, startling the others. Getting down on his knees beside the priest, Topo gently rolled him onto his back, and began to examine his wounds. The Baron's sword had slashed across the priest's chest, leaving a huge gash across the man's ribs. As Anteno and Tiel joined Topo on the other side of the priest, the mouse began to check for signs of life.
"He still breaths, Anteno!" said Topo, hope coming into his voice. "But it is weak and shallow."
"Not for much longer, my friend. It is a deep cut, and I can see his ribs in the wound. I doubt even the best physician or healer could repair this damage."
"I cannot let him just die. For all he plotted against me, and you, in the end he stood up beside me. I can do no less for him now."
"I understand your feelings, but there is nothing you can do."
"Yes. Yes there is. Tiel, pass me your dagger please!" stated the mouse.
"What?" stated the trader, surprised by Topo's request.
"What are you planning to do?" asked Anteno.
"My kind heals quickly," explained the anxious mouse, lifting his chin to show that scabs had already began to form on his throat. "Even a mortal wound such as the Father's will heal completely in a manner of days. All that I have to do is mix our blood and he shall be able to heal himself."
"What do you mean by 'my kind' and 'healing himself'?" asked Tiel.
"He is referring to the curse of the were-creatures. It is passed on to others through the mixing of bloods between a mundane creature and a were." explained the Duke. "Have you thought this through, Topo? You do realize that the Father would probably rather die than become one of his so-called 'demons'."
"Well, he isn't awake, so we cannot ask him, can we?" said Topo sharply. "Merchant, give me your knife, quickly, before Malion dies."
Reluctantly Tiel unsheathed his dagger and passed it over to Topo. The mouse gripped the weapon tightly by the hilt, steeled himself, and then slowly drew the blade across the back of his hand. Blood began to seep from around the knife, flowing freely once the blade was lifted away from his flesh. Taking his bloodied paw, Topo drew it over the priest's wound.
"There. I have mixed my blood with his. The curse has been passed on and he should live," said Topo solemnly.
Slowly rising from beside Malion, the Duke turned to direct his men to begin the clean-up of the town square. A cloak was draped around Topo. Malion was placed onto a stretcher, and he and Topo were escorted to a waiting carriage for the trip back to Pessca. While the soldiers and the towns towns folk were working around them, Anteno and Tiel stood on the platform watching.
"So, what happens now?" asked Tiel.
"Now the rumours will begin to fly like the wind," replied the Duke. "By next week there will a hundred different tales of what occurred here. Most will probably see it as just another fanciful story, and the rest should not cause too much trouble."
"And Father Malion?"
"He was looking better, even in the short time it took to carry him to the carriage. If, and when, he wakes, that will be entirely his choice. He is a free man and can make his own decisions."
The conversation paused as the two men watched the funeral detail collect the bodies of those that were slain in the fighting. The Duke frowned as he looked over the growing rows of dead.
"No matter what people think happened here, this incident is not going to be forgotten soon," said Anteno after a pause, "Steps shall have to be taken to protect both Topo and myself.
"Before we join Topo and the priest for the journey to Pessca, I have a favour to ask of you on his behalf."
"Of course, m'lord."
I was sitting in Laracin's yard, trading gossip with the tree-morph, when a man entered through the gate leading to the Keep's main yard. The man was dressed brightly, in styles that were foreign to the Keep, indicating that he was either a visitor or a new resident. Since he was being escorted by a couple of Keep guards, and not Copernicus on the famous whirlwind tour, I decided he was a visitor. The stranger entered the courtyard and looked around, taking in the ivy-covered walls and the various beds of plants that gave the space an almost wild appearance. His gaze settled on Laracin, the tall tamarack hard to overlook as he towered over everything. Finally, he saw me sitting on one of the short walls that ran along the yards paths.
I had grown used to the reactions of strangers where they first saw me. While working with the caravans that arrived at the keep, more then once I had seen a man back away from me as if I was something from his deepest nightmares. These were people who had thought themselves brave enough to face the 'terrors' of the Cursed Keep, but a few could not face a walking, talking insect. The stranger was startled at first, but unlike many others, did not look away. Instead, he approached me, slowly if calmly.
"You are Dan D'Alimonte?" he spoke as he neared me. His voice carried a strong accent that I immediately identified.
"Yes, I am," I responded. "What business does a person of Carreas have at Metamor, and why does it involve me?"
"Ah, allow me to introduce myself," said the stranger with a smile. "I am Tiel, a master trader of Carreas, and leader of the first Carrean trade caravan between Metamor Keep and our fair land."
"Carreas is a little far for a trade route," I commented. "You must have been on the road for several months at least."
"Yes, but to be able to gaze upon the wonders of this place, and to have a chance to sample the wares of your most excellent artisans, it was worth it. Besides, it was on the request of the Duke himself that I make this journey. I could not refuse."
"But what does that have to do with me?"
"Two things, my dear grasshopper. First, I will be spending several days here, and would like to spend at least part of the time with a fellow Carrean. Secondly, and the more important reason, is that I bear a message and a parcel for you from Duke Anteno for you."
"You can tell the Duke that I am still not ready to take up his offer to return," I responded curtly.
"I do not know of what offer you are speaking, Sir," replied the trader, reaching into his robe and producing a folded piece of parchment similar to the one that had been presented to me during Topo's visit to the Keep last year.
Taking the paper from his hands, I broke the waxen seal. While I unfolded the paper, I watched Tiel wander away, looking over the various plants in their beds. Bringing up the letter, I began to read.
"Once again I send you greetings and salutations, Dan D'Almonte, Formely of Carreas, now of Metamor Keep;
"I have intrusted this letter to a trader by the name of Tiel, whom I have taken into my trust. I have sent him all the way to the northern lands of Metamor Keep both to try and establish trade between our two lands, and to ask a personal favour of you.
"This is not another attempt to seek your return to your homeland, for I will not press you on that matter until you feel that you are ready to come of your own free will. In fact, the present time would not be a good time for you to come to Carreas. There has been some trouble and unrest in the realm as of late (You may ask Tiel, for he is familiar with the details), and this has lead to a most unfortunate event.
"In order to help maintain the strength crown, and to prevent rumours from causing civil strife in the land, I have had to send someone that is close to me away from my house, both for his safety and Carreas'. This exile was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, even though it was, in part, voluntary. Of all the places on this good Earth, the only place I could think of sending him was to the Keep at Metamor.
"If you have not already guessed, the person I speak of is my very dear friend, and long time companion, Topo. He is in the company of Tiel, who has been instructed to turn him over to your care.
"While speaking to Duke Thomas on matters of trade, Tiel shall make a pledge for Topo to remain at the Keep for the duration of his exile. I see no reason why my northern counterpart should refuse this request, but if he does, I beseech to speak to the Duke on Topo's behalf.
"Yours in trust,
"Duke Anteno Carras, High Lord and Protector of Carreas."
Putting down, the letter, I spotted the trader standing near Laracin, apparently having a conversation with the tree. Seeing that I was finished reading, he excused himself and came back over to stand near me. Reaching into a pocket, he gently drew something out, placing it into my claws.
"You take good care of him, you hear." said Tiel as he deposited the small mouse into my palm. "He's a good friend of mine.
"Now I have a meeting with your Duke in a few minutes, so I'll have to leave you for now. How about the two of you meeting me in the pub after dark for a late dinner? I would invite your interesting friend over there as well, but he says he doesn't get around much anymore," continued the trader, pointing out Laracin over his shoulder.
After arranging a time and place to meet Tiel for dinner, I looked down to the small rodent sitting in my hand, "So, what do we do until then?"
Looking up at me, Topo just shrugged.
"Brother Jhala, where are you going with that tray?"
"I am simply bringing our guest some food, Brother Francois. He missed both the mid-day and evening meal, and I figured he would be hungry."
"You know that we have instructions not to disturb him between vespers and morning bell. Now come along before we are caught and have to explain ourselves to the Father Superior."
"Brother, who is this man anyways? I have not seen him twice since his arrival, and then only for a moment. Always in the middle of the day."
"I do not know his name, but he was brought to the monastery by the Duke himself, and placed into our care. The Father Superior has said that he is undergoing a major trial of his faith at the moment, and needs time to rest and meditate. Few have seen him. He spends most of his time locked in his cell, pouring over the words of the Canticle and any other book he can find in our hummble library.
"Come now. Let him rest. From the rumours I have heard, but shall not repeat, he deserves it."
As Brother Francois led his fellow monk past the closed cell door, both swore they heard the sound of sobbing that slowly grew fainter with the slowly setting sun.