A Return from the Shadows

by Carpenter Ant

Part 1

Once more David slowly came awake to the now familiar scene of his room in the infirmary. He swung his legs over the edge of the comfortable bed he had been spending so much time in lately. Pulling himself to a sitting position he found his body already bathed in sweat from what used to be a trivial matter. He gritted his teeth as he continued toward his objective, pushing himself to an upright position, or at least that was his plan before he suddenly found himself back on the bed. He was cursing under his breath when there was a soft scratching at the door, followed quickly by it being opened by the now familiar form of Arla.

He let out a slow breath as he came slowly to his feet. "Arla, so good to see you. Especially under different circumstances than our last meeting." Arla stood there, her muzzle open in an expression of shock.

"Are you crazy? Did anything that Coe say make any impression on how serious your injuries were?" She was positively livid. David smiled slightly hoping to ease her anger.

"The injuries don't seem...... that serious. And besides I can't waste time stuck here in a bed."

He walked gingerly over to a cabinet that contained various supplies. After rummaging around for a moment he produced a large roll of thick gauze. Grimacing as he stripped the sweat soaked shirt off he proceded to wind the cloth around his abdomen, covering the ugly purple and blue splotches that were weak testament to the damage he had sustained not a week ago. He recalled vague images of being in tremendous pain, then a dark figure had leaned over him and the pain, indeed all feeling had fled from him. He was certain he was dead until he had once more awoken in this small room.

As he reached the end of the roll, he gave it one good tug before tying it off. He then found the drawer that his clothes had been stored in. He drew on a simple pair of leggings and a clean tunic. He was already sweating from the increased demands on his injured body. He grabbed a crutch that had been placed in the corner and slowly put his weight on it. Wiping the sweat from his forehead he took an awkward step towards the door. "I don't know about you, but I haven't eaten anything solid in who knows how long. Would you mind showing me the dining hall?" Arla sighed, she wasn't happy about this. But something in his voice pleaded with her not to argue.

As they entered the almost empty commissary she cast a sideways glance at him. "After you have eaten you should begin packing your belongings... You haven't yet stayed long enough for the curse to start to affect you. But you should get clear of this valley quickly." David smiled.

"I think I may stay around for a while." Arla stared at him, her face passive. David retrieved a plate of the thick stew that was steaming over the fire and a small loaf of fresh baked bread, before he found an unoccupied table to sit at.

"You know what that means don't you? You would accept whatever the curse does to you?" David nodded slowly. They both fell silent as he ate. Arla refused food, saying she had only eaten an hour ago.

After he finished his meal, Arla bade him goodbye, as she had to return to duty.

David decided to take a walk into the nearby Keep gardens. He was about halfway there before the crutch became too annoying for him to keep. Leaning it up against a wall he began walking without its aid. The bandage's comforting tightness took quite a bit of the strain away. As his muscles warmed up to the exercise he found the going easier.

He approached the entrance to the gardens and stopped to admire its simple elegance. Row after row of fruit trees swayed in a gentle breeze, their leaves a dazzling array of color. He was sorry he had missed the springtime bloom. It must have been beautiful beyond compare. He walked into the midst of the gracefully swaying boughs. He felt himself relax as time seemed to lose its hold, if just for a moment. He tried to remember the last time he'd been at peace.... it had been a very long time. Too long.

He spent the better part of an hour wending his way through the garden. He was about to turn back towards the entrance when he happened to catch a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye. He turned towards the dark figure and was rooted to the ground in shock. Before him stood a vaguely human shape. But its body was covered in what at first he thought was armor that had been painted red and black. Then he studied the overall appearance more closely and recognized the form from his childhood.

The Grasshopper-morph was busy pruning a few dead limbs off of a nearby tree. Then he became aware of David's scrutiny and turned towards him. "Good afternoon. Pleasant day isn't it?" David realized his mouth was working but no sound was emerging.

"Yes, quite a lovely day. I do apologize, I meant no interruption." The insect nodded and returned to his work. David found his courage and taking a deep breath, introduced himself.

"My name is David, I am a new resident of the keep......or at least I hope to be."

"A pleasure. My name is Dan, I'm the closest thing they have around here to a resident Botanist." The insect offered an appendage and David set his jaw as he took it. The hard skin was cool, and not the least bit slimy as he had feared. Dan nodded. "I take it you never took into account the possibility of becoming an Insect?" David flushed.

"I knew it was possible, but until now I had not seen an example of it." The grasshopper chuckled at this. "There are many possibilities to the curse, many things that even we have not yet seen. There are only two insect morphs at this moment. Whatever you become it will be unique."

David smiled at this. "Oh, unique is very accurate." He said somewhat ruefully. Dan tilted his head slightly at this odd comment, but said nothing.

"If I might ask, how did you change?" Dan sighed. "I was present for the Battle of the Gates. The change was instantaneous."

David shifted uncomfortably. "You mentioned there were two insects here at the keep. Who is the other one?"

Dan nodded, "He's a Cave-Scorpion morph named Roscoe. He detests light and so remains down in the catacombs. He's the warden for the Keep dungeons." Dan said with slight distaste.

David nodded. "Well, I won't keep you from your work any longer. Thank you for the talk." He was off before the insect could respond.

David made his way back up the path towards the Gate. As he stepped onto a foot bridge over the small natural brook that fed the garden he caught a faint whispering note, normally he would have dismissed it as the wind... except this had been a chord that was perfectly pitched. A statistical impossibility.

It was repeated and followed this time by a gentle lilting tune and he was able to determined the direction it was coming from. He began following the small watercourse down towards a small copse of willows that formed a circle that crossed to both sides of the brook. As he passed under the trailing branches he caught sight of the cause for the music.

Sitting by the water's edge was a young female ottermorph, her dark fur's chocolate brown was accentuated by the soft brown dress she wore. Though her hands were sheathed in a pair of soft cotton gloves, she clutched a small but beautifully made wooden flute.

She was intent on her song and hadn't noticed his arrival. He stood there for a moment listening to the sighing notes of her playing, until one of her fingers moved wrong and the flute gave a discordant hiss in protest. She stopped sighing and then became aware that someone was watching her.

David took an involuntary step backwards as she came quickly to her feet in a defensive posture. The hard light of battle in her eyes for a moment rendered him to utter silence for the second time today. "I ..... I do apologize, I meant no intrusion." Her eyes softened as she slowly relaxed a little. "I was viewing the gardens when I heard your song. Have you always been gifted with musicality?"

That comment brought a slight blush to her delicate features. "No, I only recently took up playing."

"I can't help asking, would it not be easier to play without wearing gloves?" He saw the ripple of muscles along her trim jaw as she gritted her teeth.

Silently she removed one of the gloves and held her uncovered hand up. David felt guilt stab through his guts as he saw the mottled scarring and partially healed wounds that covered her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry." he said in a hushed whisper.

She quickly pulled the glove back on. "No offense, you didn't do it, Nasoj did." She said in a cold voice.

David winced graphically. "I do apologize...My Lady.. Here I am intruding on you and I haven't even identified myself. My name is David.... David Restamar. I am a new arrival here at the keep...and a new resident, I hope." He started to give a graceful bow, he was halfway into it before a certain set of abused ribs decided to reinstate their priority.

He stopped abruptly and straightened back up slowly. A wan smile on his face as he sucked in a shallow breath and let it out. He then extended his hand towards her. The hardness in her eyes slowly dissolved to be replaced by suppressed laughter as she accepted his handshake.

He made certain not to squeeze too tightly for fear of damaging her fragile seeming hand. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Caroline Hardy. You're the mysterious stranger Arla picked up on her last patrol if I'm not mistaken." David grimaced.

"Not the way I was planning to come to the keep. I had hoped to walk in." Caroline nodded.

"So even before you met up with the patrol you were intending to come here?"

"Yup, was on my way here when I ran into that camp." Caroline looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Sooo you were coming here from the north?" David shook his head quickly.

"No, no, I was coming here from the south, was already past Midtown, only a day's walk from the keep when I received a message that I had to turn to the north. Something was waiting for me, that had to be taken care of."

"So where exactly are you from? I must admit you don't seem to have an accent... at least not one I can recognize." David walked over to the tree where Caroline had earlier been sitting and slowly lower himself to the ground, his back resting against the trunk. He hated long explanations, but he could see where this would go and refused to lie about it.

"I must tell you... My homeland is to the north... Or at least the north-east. Oultera rests on the west slopes of the Thiyonian Mountains. Or as you probably would know it, the northern most tip of the Great Barrier Range." Caroline maintained a carefully neutral expression and David inwardly sighed. "Here it comes." He thought to himself.

"That would put your homeland at the eastern edge of the Giantdowns wouldn't it?" David only nodded, awaiting her next comment. "You understand I will report all this?" David sighed, nodded again.

"Either I get the suspicion out of the way now or conceive a lie that I then have to maintain for the rest of my life. I have enough to worry about without trying to hide my origins."

Caroline relaxed a little. "So you have nothing to hide?" David leaned forward.

"About where I'm from? Nothing. We're fighting the servants of Nasoj same as you. If I can bring you people to see that you're not alone in your battle, then I hope it helps you to see that you have allies, even if you didn't know about them a few minutes ago."

"You say your homeland is to the north and yet you came from the south?" David smiled.

"Yup, been exploring the world for the past, what is it now?..... Ten years. Wow, I hadn't realized it had been so long." Caroline nodded.

"I'm sorry if this feels like an inquisition." David shook his head.

"I couldn't ask for a more direct.... or beautiful inquisitioner." Caroline blushed again. David was starting to enjoy finding ways to make her do that.

"Caroline?... Caroline are you around here?" Caroline's eyes lit up.

"Misha... Misha, here in the thicket." A moment later a well built foxmorph stepped through the hanging branches and into the clearing. On hearing the name of the man David scrambled awkwardly to his feet.

Caroline glided over to him and took his arm. "Misha, allow me to introduce you to David Restamar. The man Arla brought back with her from her patrol." David stepped forward and offered his hand.

"A pleasure, sir. I must say Arla has mentioned many things about you after my incapacitation." The vulpine smiled. "Only good I hope."

"Well, that depends on your perspective Sir. She said that you were the best commander in Metamor, that you were head of the most dangerous and respected group of scouts the keep has to offer. And that some consider you to be... An axe wielding maniac?"

Misha threw back his head and roared with laughter. "My reputation has preceded me again. I'll have to have a nice little chat with that mutt! And please, lay off the Sir. Makes me feel like a drill sergeant." David nodded.

"Yes S....... Misha." Misha nodded encouragingly before turning his gaze to Caroline.

"Kimberly was looking for you, luv. And I told her I would see if I could locate you for her." The mustalid smiled and walked over to pick up her forgotten flute and its leather case.

"Why don't you join us David? Your things were being kept at Long House during your stay at the hospital." David quickly nodded in agreement.

"I do miss a few of my things and would be very grateful for their return."

Misha gestured for him to precede them out of the copse and then he took the lead showing their visitor the way to what they had termed Long House. The walk was not a very long one as the gardens were almost directly adjacent to the keep. David found it a very interesting walk none the less. It was his first close up glimpse of the keep itself.

From where he stood he couldn't help but notice that the keep was indeed an imposing structure with its dark stone and toothy battlements, the Main gates where strong looking structures that seemed to radiate defiance of anything to oppose them. But on the closer wall was a smaller, less threatening, but if it were possible more secure entrance, which appeared to be their intended destination, a place known as Long House.

Part 2

Despite its name it was not a freestanding structure, it was in fact a series of rooms in the keep proper. They passed a pair of watchful sentries at the door, but besides a quick appraising glance and a look at Misha they made no comment or demand to David. They proceeded through the main door and into a small curiously unadorned room. David didn't think to look up. If he had, the dozens of holes in the ceiling might have given him a clue to this room's use.

They moved through another door into a large foyer. "I must go and see what Kimberly wants, I do hope to see you later Misha." She said with a smile, and David found a nice convenient tapestry to admire as he noticed the same slow smile on the Fox's face.

After a moment he turned to see the two break away from each other reluctantly. "It was an interesting talk David, I hope to finish it sometime." David smiled.

"It would be my pleasure, My lady." He dipped his head to her as she glided out of the room. Misha motioned towards a side door. David preceded him into what looked to be a massive armory. Row after row of weaponry stood against the wall and on tables that filled the huge room. A few tables down, one had been cleared of its usual objects. Layed out across its surface in neat rows were David's belongings.

David walked over to the table and slowly ran his fingers over his staff sheath feeling as if he had once again found long lost friends. "These are special to you, aren't they?" David looked over at the vulpine a slight smile on his face.

"Many of these things I made myself. The gauntlets for instance, they've taken me over eight years to bring along this far."

Misha looked down at the supple leather gloves and nodded. "I assume you're not referring to their creation itself?" David shrugged.

"Actually, I made the gloves in the first week or two. It has taken me this long to bring the magic to this level."

"What do they do?" David picked one up and pointed to the first two lines of runes running at the base of the knuckles.

"These two tracts were the first to be inscribed. They provide enhanced durability and protection from the elements." He took in the rest of the many lines with a wave of his hand. "The rest are all channeled into the creation and refinement of a magical energy shield."

Misha's eyebrows shot up. "That's a complex spell." David nodded wistfully, again noticing the rough bar that cut the flowing script in two.

"I've made mistakes before. And will again no doubt." The fox cocked his head to the side.

"I've encountered many forms of magic, but never one quite like yours before. What is it called?"

"I would like to know that myself." David turned towards the small smooth voice to see a child with a rather overbearing air pad into the room. Misha tried hard to suppress a smile.

"May I introduce Wessex, Court wizard. He's the one who was given the task of analyzing your equipment. We all have been anxiously awaiting your coming. We can't seem to figure out how they work."

"I can understand that. Let me guess, you pick up a faint background shadow of magic, that seems to evaporate if you attempt to study it." Wessex nodded silently. David set the glove down on the table and began to mumble a string of strange words over it. As he did the individual runes on the glove began to shine faintly. When a dozen were glowing with a faint light he stepped back. "Be my guest."

Wessex stepped up to the softly shimmering glove and passed his hands over it, a look of rapt attention on his face. David saw the fire in his eyes and smiled. Here was a seeker of knowledge with an unquenchable desire to know. Misha watched in anticipation as the Mage stepped back, a look of puzzlement on his face. "I feel the magic in them, a powerful force is there. But the form, I can't grasp it or understand what it's supposed to do."

David nodded and picking up the glove and its mate he looked at Misha. "You wouldn't happen to have an empty room around this place would you?" Misha nodded and before they left David attached a dagger sheath onto his belt, and shoveled the rest of his things into his canvas bag and brought it along. Last he swung his familiar deep blue cloak over his shoulders, fastening its gold clasp one-handed. They walked down a short hallway and into a large undecorated room. "Now Misha, if you would be kind enough to stay back a little. Wessex, do exactly as I ask and you can study it in its fully activated state."

David slid his hands into the soft gauntlets and knelt down on one knee. "Stand directly in front of me. Okay now don't move a muscle." He began to move his gloved hands against each other, drawing the magic back to life. Raising his clasped hands he muttered the command. "Vertoa Nagosh." The gloves flared to life and the bubble of energy began to form, but this time its sphere encompassed the child-like mage as well.

Wessex let out a gasp as the shield came to being in front of and all around him. But he quickly rallied himself, and began the study in earnest. He raised his hands, almost touching the field of contained magic. David watched as he probed it, studied its form. He was almost ready to end it when he jerked in suprise as Wessex raised his hand and cast a bolt of lightning into the shield. "NO!"

The shield shrieked as the lightning flashed against it. Then it abruptly contracted, putting Wessex outside its sphere. David quickly broke the connection between the two gloves and watched as the shield died, but it died a slow death, clinging to life long enough for its revenge. It flared outwards again and as it faded it knocked the mage that had injured it off his feet and sent him skittering backwards on the ground.

Misha ran over to the downed child-mage and helped him to his feet. "Why did you do that?" They were both shocked and angry at what had occurred. David stared at them coolly.

"I had no control over the shield's natural response to a threat within its radius. If I hadn't broken the connection when I did, it would have hit you with its full force. It might have be enough to splatter you against the wall. This magic has a degree of what I would call reflex. An involuntary response to stimuli. Never attack it without consulting me to determine its response."

"You speak as if this Magic were actually alive." Wessex was slowly getting over his shock at what had happened, but the anger was not leaving as well.

"In a way it is very much alive, I won't bother trying to explain that to you. The Kamas can be two things... a companion that you depend on for help, as it depends on you for life, or a slave that is forced to do as you wish. We must each choose which we prefer."

Wessex was not appeased by this answer, but David wasn't in a mood to try and appease a half pint mage. He had been frightened, by his own Magic and the fury it had shown. He must ponder this occurrence. "I have shown you all I can for the moment. I'm afraid that little show drained much of my power." Misha stepped forward, regarding him anxiously.

"Will you be alright? So soon after your injuries? Perhaps we should have waited until you had rested more."

Wessex in the meantime stalked out of the room, when David heard his footsteps fade he waved Misha's entreaties aside. "I'm fine, I experienced no Mana drain. But he was in no mood to be objective, he is too angry and embarrassed at the moment." Misha stopped short and seemed to rethink his view of this young man.

"Very clever, and also quite prudent. Few cultivate his ire, although I have myself on occasion. You spoke of something called the Cemas earlier?"

David smiled. "It's pronounced Kamas. And yes that is the name for my magic. It is the Kamas and I am a Kamasi. A wielder and sculptor of its power." Misha seemed slightly crestfallen.

"Is it then something only you can use?" David didn't miss the note of longing in the fox's voice.

"I can shape its force into a variety of effects, but others can wield it in its channeled form." Misha seemed to like that part by the sly smile that crossed his muzzle.

"You said that this magic...this Kamas that you use doesn't use mana?" David raised one of his gauntlets and pointed at the most prominent design on the back of the hand, all the other runes seemed to flow out from it.

"This is the House rune for my family. All higher Kamasi magic draws its energy off of a house rune."

"What exactly do you mean by higher magic?" David pulled out his lightwriter and stepped over to the wall. Activating it he drew a crude design on the wall.

"This is a simple rune, each rune can draw a certain amount of magical energy out of the object it is inscribed on." David whispered a simple word and the rune began to glow. "Now if I attempt to increase the power drain." He spoke another command and the runes glow intensified for a moment before the stone around it cracked and it went dark, its structure destroyed. "The use of the house rune gives it an alternative source of energy and for the most part eliminates this problem."

David rummaged around in his bag. "Here's another example of higher magic." he said before pulling out a small steel ball covered in the flowing Kamasi rune structures. "Let's step out of this room for a minute." After moving into the hall David set down his pack and gave the ball an almost casual toss inside. It bounced along the stone floor, coming to rest near the center of the room.

"Now listen to the words I use. 'Hyuria.... Kormun.' These are the set phrases to activate its power. Anyone can use this spell to generate the effect, but a Kamasi can get a more flexible effect due to a certain mental connection with the runes." Misha nodded.

"So what's it do?"

David took up a position against the wall next to the door into the room. After a moment Misha emulated his action, leaning against the cold stone on the opposite side. David grinned across the open door before yelling out, "Hyuria Kormun!" Misha gave a startled yelp as the walls shook from the force of a detonation inside the room, a wave of heat erupted from the door, followed by the stink of scorched stone.

Peering around the door frame David could see the blackened mark on the floor and ceiling from the fire field created by the small unassuming ball that lay untouched at the center. He glanced over at the Fox to see Misha's jaw dropped in shock. "Wow," was all the vulpine could come up with. David stepped into the room and without hesitation scooped up the ball and tossed it at Misha. Misha flinched as the small object landed in his hand. But the ball remained cool to the touch, not even warm.

"Now you try it." Misha looked at him in surprise.

"You mean I can do that?" David grinned.

"Yup, anyone who is given that willingly can use its magic." David returned to his position outside as Misha gingerly tossed the small sphere back into the room and returned to his as well.

"Hyuria...." He looked at David, who gave him an encouraging smile and a nod to proceed. "Kormun." Again there was a deafening bang and a shockwave rippled through the corridor.

David was trying to suppress a bark of laughter at the look of satisfaction on the fox's face when he heard heavy feet pounding down the corridor behind him. Turning he saw a absolutely huge bear-morph barreling towards him. In his surprise he took a step back and meant to brace himself against the wall, instead he found himself leaning into thin air and with a muttered curse he fell back through the door, sprawling ungainly on the floor.

He looked up to see a pair of furry heads peering in at him. "You're both finding this funny aren't you?" Misha began laughing as he hauled David to his feet. "Do you two know what was causing those tremors?" David saw that there were now quite a few keepers crowding into the small room. He recognized the vaguely familiar face of Meredith staring down at him rather apprehensively.

"Nothing, just a weapons demonstration." Misha said with a grin, pointing towards the scorch marks still visible on the floor.

"And exactly what did that little trick?" Misha chuckled as he held up the small steel sphere. "That? Did this?" several voices said in chorus. The fox nodded slyly before tossing it back to David who slipped it back into his pack before picking it up and stepping to the door.

"'Fraid that's all I have to show you for the moment. Though I find I'm missing an item or two from my things. My leather armor is not here."

Misha nodded and gestured towards the hall. As they proceeded to head towards another set of rooms one of the Longs plucked excitedly at Misha's elbow. As the vulpine turned to deal with the distraught Long David felt a slight movement of air to his right. Looking over he caught sight of a blur of grey heading straight at him. He instinctively cringed as it went whizzing past.

Misha hurried off down the corridor, for the moment oblivious to the fact that his guest was being left behind. David shrugged and turned in the direction the streak had taken. He came around a corner and heard noises inside a dark workroom. Walking to the door he peered into the inky blackness. The noises had ceased and he was half convinced he had imagined them when something leaped at him out of the darkness. In one swift movement he stepped back and flung Koru at his assailant.

He heard a muffled bang and the ringing sound of his dagger bouncing off this unknown thing and clattering to the floor. From inside the room he heard a snarl, reminding him too closely of the Shadow Mage's Huj'orin. He bolted down the corridor, hoping to out-distance whatever it was. It was well protected; his dagger should have cut through ordinary armor without a problem.

He heard a weird clattering behind him, as if of metal-shod feet in pursuit. He sensed the blow a second before it landed. He didn't have time to respond as a blow from behind dropped him to the ground, a great weight on his back. He instinctively rolled to the side, throwing his attacker off balance. He gained his footing as quickly as possible. Before him was a large armored canine. He seemed to be made completely of steel. His metal lips writhed back in a growl.

David took all this in a second before the metal beast again leaped at him. Smiling to himself he clasped his gloved hands together and summoned their shield. And he had all of a second to gasp in shock as the metal hound leaped through the shield to tackle him. His head swimming from the impact, his vision slowly cleared to show him a close-up view of a mouthful of glistening golden teeth.

"Madog! What in blazes is going on here?" The canine looked up and with a baleful glare at David stepped back. "Stop playing with him!" Misha said in a firm voice.

Part 3

"But he mean! He try to hurt me."

"I'm not talking to you Madog." David slowly stood and said through pain-clenched teeth.

"I wasn't playing with it. I thought it had attacked me." Misha shook his head.

"Madog wouldn't hurt anyone, unless they hurt him first." David leaned against the wall.

"Exactly what is it?" He said eyeing the metal contraption warily.

"HE is an automaton," Misha said rather forcefully.

"Are there others that I should be aware of?" David asked. Misha pursed his lips. "One, a human called Omega. He used his magic to heal you."

"Is he more friendly than Madog?" David asked in a tight voice.

"Madog is a friendly and kind soul," Misha countered.

"How did you come across such a being anyway?" David asked.

"Madog was created centuries ago by an order of automaton mages," the fox explained. "I found and restored him less than a year ago."

"Interesting," David commented. "I've never seen anything like it. Can it actually... think?"

"Yes, HE can," Misha answered. "Unfortunately the magic used has long since been lost." David shook his head.


"I do hope to see automaton magic rediscovered someday," Misha said somewhat wistfully.

"A worthwhile goal. But, does HE always lurk in dark rooms and leap out at passers by?" Misha's eyes softened a little.

"He was just play stalking you. Like a playful kitten. He's done that to almost everyone." David managed a weak smile.

"Doesn't that bother you?" Misha grinned showing a muzzle full of long sharp teeth.

"Nope, it helps keep us on our toes." David chuckled ruefully.

"That's a rather heavy kitten you have there. Still I concede the point. I apologize for my foolishness."

"No need to apologize, you weren't expecting it. Madog sometimes forgets how powerful he really is." David nodded and turned to Madog, kneeling to put himself at eye level with the silent automaton.

"I am sorry about the dagger, you weren't hurt were you?" Madog tilted his head slightly to the side, as if confused by David's being upset. He then looked at the ground and softly said. "Sorry." Just as quickly his head was back up and he gave David a happy look. "You want to play more?"

David threw his head back in laughter. "You are incorrigible, Madog. I'm afraid not my friend. Have too many bruises as it is. Should let a few of them heal before going for another tumble with you." Madog leaned forward, sniffing at the gold brooch that held David's cloak. "What? You want this?" David unclasped his cloak and held the brooch out for Madog's inspection. Misha chuckled.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." David looked up at the Fox.

"Huh?" He felt a gentle tug and all of a sudden his hand was empty. He looked down confusedly at his hand, and then heard the crunch as Madog gleefully devoured his "treat".

"I did try and warn you?" David shook his head ruefully.

"Oh well, it was time I got a new one anyway. What was it that brought you looking for me anyway?" Misha gave David a sharp look.

"Well, the commotion would have brought a bear out of hibernation. But it just so happens something's come up that I think you might want to see."

They proceeded down yet another passage, to where a group of Longs were standing in front of a lone door. The door was covered in a thick layer of dust, a gigantic cobweb stretching across the upper corner. "Why leave a room in this condition? Looks like it hasn't even been opened for centuries."

Misha snorted. "This wasn't here an hour ago."

David grimaced. "And how is that possible?"

"The Keep has the special ability to shift rooms around... variable geometry and all that. Makes it difficult to take anything for granted."

David shrugs. "Can't say I understand, but that's not my concern right now. Why bring me here?"

Misha pointed towards the door. "That's why." David looked closely and through the layers of dust he made out a carving of some type. He raised his hand to clear some of the dust away, and snatched it back as the image began to glimmer and flash.

David now saw the image in its entirety. "I don't believe it! It's impossible!"

"What? What's impossible?" David ignored the question as he again raised his hand to the door. A circle began to glow. He placed his hand in the center of the shining mark and the glow spread, lighting sigils all around the central circle. These then lit runes running around the edge of the door. Before they all flickered and then dimmed. The door opened with a hollow, echoing creak. A blast of foul air erupted from that portal.

The Longs and David staggered down the corridor gagging on the reek. Misha ordered exterior doors opened, in an attempt to drive a draft down the hall. David couldn't figure out whether he was excited or apprehensive, or both. As soon as it was even remotely safe to proceed he strode to the door.

The door yawned like a giant mouth. He was about to step inside when someone laid a furry hand on his shoulder, making him jump. "Need a light?" David had completely forgotten about Misha and the others in his zeal. Misha held out in his hand, in his palm lay a simple unremarkable stone. "Nena Tofshu." Misha spoke the phrase with practiced ease. The stone began to shimmer and give off a steady radiance.

Misha entered the room, David close behind. As the interior of the room was lit by the stone's glow he let out a sigh. Along the walls were row after row of books. David stepped over to one of the shelves. Reaching towards the first dusty tome, he noticed a line of runes skirting the edge of the shelf. Scanning them back to their source, he found a sigil he recognized. "Eru..." He whispered the phrase and the small rune glowed a bright yellow. The rune next to it caught its flame and began to glow as well.

Soon the light was leaping across the room, spreading out through the chamber as the sigils bathed the room with their soft yellow light. "Wow, neat lighting." Misha said as he deactivated the glowstone. David now stared around the room in wonderment, until he saw something he never forgot. At a large table heaped in open manuscripts sat a shrunken form. It sat in one of the chairs, but it was slumped over the table, its wispy grey hair was spread out over the tome beneath it. It might have been someone asleep after a long stint of research. But that image was destroyed by the condition the body was in.

Its clothing was in tatters, a pile of dust on the floor bespoke of where most of the rest of it lay. Its skin hung in tatters, like old shabby curtains covering a mass of grey bones. David set his jaw as he stepped over to the table. Around the silent figure's neck a silver chain rested. A grey metal disc connected to the chain, lay on the table's surface. Gingerly lifting the disc David found what he expected to find.

There written in the language of Oultera was the dead man's name, and his house. His color, a green, was denoted by a circle of the same color stamped into the disc. <Huyon Deretkul. House Kerinam. A Green mage.> The disc informed him. "What were you doing here, Huyon Deretkul? What brought you to this end? How long have you been here, watching over this forgotten place? Why weren't you found?" David whispered the questions to the corpse, more to hear his own voice than to get an answer.

"The dead have nothing to tell the living." The dry voice behind him spoke in a low monotone. David turned quickly to face the speaker. It was a small hooded figure in a voluminous black robe. Around the hem, cuff, and hood were embroidered symbols, the likes of which David had never seen. The small intricately shaped patterns, were vaguely familiar, but very alien at that. They seemed to twist in an endless scroll. Flowing together, yet never quite touching each other.

"Welcome, what brings you here?" Misha said in a grave voice.

"I received word that there was one here that required our services. I have come to prepare him for his long denied passage." When David hesitated he added, "If you wish time alone with the deceased I can wait outside." The cloaked figure maintained his quiet monotone whenever he spoke.

"No need, we will not delay you or him any longer," Misha said hurriedly.

"But... how?" Misha silenced David's questions with a glance as he quickly propelled him through the door. Outside David halted and turned to Misha.

"I think I'm owed an explanation."

Misha looked at him sadly. "He is a Caretaker, they have jurisdiction over the dead, and care for the burial vaults under the keep."

David nodded. "But how did he find out so quickly? We had found the body not a minute before."

"It's their job to know." Misha spoke in a soft voice. "Whenever death is near, so are the Caretakers."

"But..." Misha glared at David.

"What more could you possibly want to know?"

David faced the Fox. "What will become of his body? He is one of my kin, I would like to know he will be treated with respect."

Misha nodded. "He will be treated with all respect and utmost care. The Caretakers treat no man better... or worse than another."

David and Misha waited in an uneasy silence until the door again opened and the shapeless figure of the Caretaker stepped into the corridor. "It is done. My brothers will soon come for the departed. Might I have his name?"

"Huyon Deretkul," David spoke softly. The Caretaker showed all signs of respect to David.

"This pendant was the only personal object on his body. Do you wish to keep it?" He offered it to David.

David eyed the metal disc blankly for a moment before he returned to the present. "No... No, please see that it is kept with the body."

The monk bowed solemnly. "It will be as you command. Where will the ceremony be held?" David glanced at Misha.

"Are you of the Follower faith, or a servant of the Lightbringer gods?"

David shrugged. "I am a servant of Earnus Feni, the Father of life. Do you have a Follower Chapel here? It will suffice."

Misha nodded and the shadowy monk nodded as well. "At the appointed hour we will bring him there for the ceremony, before taking him to his final rest."

The odd man padded softly down the hall and was gone. David looked into the room, the body had been removed from the table, and lay covered with a black cloth near the wall. Over the cloth lay a small bag of what looked to be dried herbs and leaves. Even the pile of dust under the chair had been removed.

After an intense hour of looking around David found that most of the books were regular texts that could have been found in most any ancient library. Only five tomes were unique. Two were in an ancient Oulteran manuscript that he could not read more than a word or two of. One was in a newer, readable script, but seemed to be the compilings of a eloquent lunatic.

The final two were in a common language. One was a book that spoke of the fall of the Kamas. The other was a copy of the Vestorian. The chronicles of the founding of the Kamas. Leafing through its pages he remembered the first time he had opened a copy of it. Setting it to the side he picked up the newer tome.

Inside the front cover was the inscription, "In remembrance of my darling Casi. I will see you again soon. Huyon." David shut the book and set it carefully on the table.

The funeral was held in a small chapel inside the keep. David remembered little of the ceremony, he had much to think on. He had been a little surprised and a bit amused by the priest. Another Age-regression victim, he guessed. But when the Boy-priest began to speak in a solemn if high tenor voice, all amusement vanished.

David next remembered finding himself in a procession moving deeper into the keep passages. They were obviously heading down to the catacombs as they descended another level. They reached a stairwell that was more crudely made than the rest. Here the group halted, and the Caretakers, taking up the coffin, slowly carried it down into the inky blackness.

He then found himself sitting back in the willow-glade in the gardens. The sun was westering and the orange light was slowly fading towards dusk. He had spent at least two hours thinking about his homeland. How he wondered what was happening there. He could all but see the faces of many of his friends. He watched a falling leaf slip into the brook and lose itself in the tiny whirlpools caused by the water's energetic movement over the rocky bottom.

He found it a fitting image of his own life. "And where will I end up? Where will the flood I find myself in lead me?" He said aloud before something rested gently on his knee. He glanced over to see Madog looking into his eyes, one of his forepaws resting on his leg. He smiled as he rested his hand on the metal fox's head.

"We play?" Madog's curiously expressive eyes pleaded with him as he dropped a small metal ball. David winced as the solid steel sphere landed on his foot.

"I'm afraid I couldn't throw that all that far. Sorry." Madog's tail drooped to the ground, his disappointment plain to see.

David wished he knew some way to get rid of the pain in his side so he could throw an object that heavy. Then it hit him, he didn't have to get stronger, just make the ball lighter. "Madog, you mind if I try something with your ball?" Madog looked at him curiously.

"Not lose it?" David shook his head.

"No, but I might be able to make it lighter. Then we could play."

Madog nodded his head so hard that David wondered how it managed to stay attached to his neck. Picking the ball up he took out his lightwriter and with its glowing tip he began etching marks into the metal surface. Madog found this immensely interesting and watched with fascination as a series of flowing patterns came into being on its shiny surface.

The sun was almost down to the horizon when he was nearly finished. And Madog's impatience began to get the better of him as he flopped down on the ground. Finally the glittering pinprick dimmed and David muttered a few phrases over the small toy.

David slowly got to his feet as the sigils he had carved on the ball began to give off their own faint light. He tossed the ball into the air and caught it lightly. "Much better. Hey Madog.... try and catch this!!" He drew back and lobbed the ball with all his might out of the copse of trees. With a joyful yelp Madog was in hot pursuit.

David quickly exited the thicket to see Madog chasing the still glowing ball out into a large open park next to the stone wall that marked the end of the gardens. The ball hadn't yet hit the ground and Madog was closing fast when it finally struck and oddly bounced to the side. David guessed it had hit a stone. Madog skidded to a halt before taking off on the ball's new trajectory.

He finally caught up with it and in a leap over the ball he snagged it out of the air, trotting happily back to drop it at David's feet again and wait for it to be thrown again. That evening many people in the keep took a moment to glance out of a window at the gardens arrayed around the palace. Many caught sight of a tiny light bouncing around through the trees and moving with amazing speed for a moment only to disappear and then reignite a second later heading in a different direction.

This unusual apparition continued into the true dark and eventually vanished altogether.

Part 4

David awoke back in the small unadorned infirmary room. He was surprised at how well he felt. He was sure he would have been sore after all the activity last night. He smiled at the memory. Madog was completely tireless, and seemed to forget at times that most other people had limits to their endurance. He stood and found that though he was stiff he wasn't too sore.

He dressed quickly and decided on a walk down into the town that was adjacent to the keep. He spent an enjoyable hour in the town marketplace, the hustle and bustle was quite different from the long quiet days he had spent stuck in the infirmary.

Finding a small bench near the well he sat down and ate a light breakfast from one of the carts that sold fruits and other foodstuffs. He listened to the busy chatter all around him as he ate. Here two men were discussing the success of the harvest. There a group of women talked of the latest gossip from the keep.

David thought about what he hoped to accomplish today. He saw a young boy winding his way through the crowd. "Hey, you there. Is there a jeweler in town?" The boy stopped for a moment next to the bench.

"Why, yes sir. Will Hardy's shop is down near the gates." David fished out a copper out of his purse and handed it to the lad.

"Will you show me?"

The boy pocketed the coin with practiced ease. "Yes sir. This way." David followed him down the street. The trip was not long. A moment later as the outer gates came closer the boy made a left turn down one of the narrow side streets. They went by several shops crammed into a few buildings before the boy stopped underneath a sign that read <Will Hardy - Jeweler to the Duke.>

Bidding the boy goodbye David opened the door and stepped inside. He found himself in a cozy little shop. On the wall opposite from the door hung the emblem with the label <Metamorian Craftsman Guild>. A round wooden disc emblazoned with the image of a crossed hammer and chisel on the upper left side, and at the bottom right was the depiction of an anvil and lathe. In a smaller circle at the center was the trade icon of a jeweler's hammer and a gem.

Most of the floor space was taken up by a small forge and numerous tables and counter space. The door entered onto an area cordoned off by a high counter. On the counter rested a small silver hand bell. David gave it a short shake. As its pure tones echoed through the room a furry head looked out from the door at the back of the shop. "Be with you in a moment." The jeweler said in a gruff voice as he disappeared back through the doorway.

A moment later he walked into the room and David got his first good look at Will Hardy. He was an animorph, a badger to be exact. He was of medium build, with a slight paunch, but as he set his hands on the table David noticed the slight glint of short claws all but hidden in the fur. David winced as he realized he was staring. "Well now, what can I do for you?" the aging badger said in a slightly raspy voice.

"I'm looking for a brooch. Rugged construction....Gold or silver, simple but not an apprentice work."

The man nodded as he crossed to a large heavy cabinet. After unlocking and opening it he withdrew a wooden tray from a stack of similar pieces and returned to the counter. "This is what I have in travel brooches and cloak pins." He laid the tray on the table and stepped back as David peered through its glass lid. On the red velvet bottom of the case lay an assortment of brooches of all shapes and sizes.

Most were gold, there were also a few silver and some of mixed work. David looked across the assortment until he saw a strange looking brooch down on one end. It was made of silver and was the shape of a snarling felines head with two rubies for eyes. "Could I see that one? The cat's head there."

Will snorted. "That ugly thing? Been hanging around here for months. I rue the day I ever traded for that." He grumbled as he opened the case and removed the brooch in question. David picked it up and looked it over carefully. It looked exactly like a brooch he had seen once.

"What do you want for it?"

Will twitched his whiskers a few times. "For twenty gold it's yours." David dug into his purse and brought out three garrets and his last five gold pieces. After handing over the money he reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a clean white square of cloth. Attaching the brooch's clasp to the cloth he gently pressed on both of the red eyes.

As he took his hand away, he could see that the eyes had changed in color. From ruby red they had darkened to the black of onyx. As he watched he could see a dark smudge appear on the cloth surround the clasp. It spread across the white cloth; before more than a few seconds had passed, the entire cloth had darkened to total black. David let out a whoop, startling the jeweler who returned to the counter to see what had happened.

"What's going on here?" David reached down and pressed the black eyes of the head. They returned to their normal fiery red as the shadowy color drained out of the cloth leaving it purest white again. Indeed David was certain it was even whiter now than it had been before. "You knew! You knew it was Magic from the moment you first saw it!" The old badger growled.

David shrugged. "I suspected it might be." The jeweler ground his teeth for a moment before he glared up at David.

"I made the sale in good faith, take your prize and good day sir." David made a show of bowing to the disgruntled badger.

"And a good day to you as well, my fine fellow." He beat a hasty retreat before the jeweler could find anything to throw at him.

He pocketed the brooch until he had returned to the keep. He then grabbed his cloak and set off on his final errand for the day.

David walked softly down the hall. At the end of the dimly lit corridor was a heavy steel door. He took a deep breath before grasping the handle and pulling the door open. He ignored the twinge of protest from his ribs and walked into what seemed to him to be a wall of total darkness........... Half an hour later he emerged somewhat pale, but very thoughtful.

That was how he looked as he sat at one of the tables at the local tavern sipping a mead, not really thinking about what he was drinking. All around him small groups were carrying on conversation. The atmosphere was filled with the hum of voices and laughter. But David wasn't listening to anything else. A female server, a Squirrel, came up and deftly refilled his mug, favoring him with a slight smile in the process, which he returned. He was becoming more used to animorphs as she left.

He was just about to pay up and leave when he heard a loud exclamation and a crash from behind him. He turned to see the small server dwarfed by a massive lynx-morph. She had apparently tripped and upended her pitcher into his lap. He was livid and it soon became apparent that he was more than a little drunk. She was apologizing profusely and offering to pick up his tab for the accident. "You little bitch. I awta teach you a lesson." He drew back his hand and David flinched as he heard the resounding smack of flesh hitting flesh. He couldn't handle hearing that sound again.

The girl was a huddled heap on the ground as he drew back his hand to strike her again. David acted, grabbing his wrist in a strong grip. "That's enough. Hit her again and you'll answer to me." Growling his anger the Cat lurched around to face the person addressing him and David found himself staring into a pair of dark green eyes. They were slitted like a cat's and at the moment they were glittering with rage.

"Leggo of me. Who do you think you are? I'll answer to ya alright." He lunged forward with a sloppy punch aimed at David's face. David brought his left arm up knocking the arm up and away. He quickly stepped into the cat man and delivered three carefully weighted finger jabs to his ribcage. One at the bottom, the next midway up and the third just under his armpit. The morph let out a surprised wheeze as the air was driven from his lungs.

David stepped to the side as the man doubled over trying to suck air back into his abused ribcage. David brought his elbow down between his shoulder blades, driving him to the ground. David heard the rasp of a blade being drawn and whirled to see a woman start towards him, knife in hand. His hand was halfway to his blade, when he heard a roar from the doorway.

"That's enough!" A large hand sank a throwing axe between the two combatants. "Grif, take Joskin over to the well and drown him until he comes to." A large burly man dressed in rough leather clothes stood at the door.

"But boss!" The woman said in a furious voice. "He.." The man cut her off.

"I saw exactly what he did. And I saw exactly what Joskin did as well. Now get him out of here. NOW!"

The man crossed to where Joskin lay and picked him up by the scruff of the neck and all but tossed him into Grif's arms. The woman made no reply and left without another word. She spared David a scathing glance as she all but dragged the cat out of the tavern. David watched as another serving girl helped the battered wench to stand and quickly bustled her into the back. He then turned to the man and watched him retrieve his axe and examine the blade before hooking it onto his belt.

He glanced at David. "You got a lot of balls taking on a drunk feline. What's your name?" David maintained his wary gaze.

"David." The man waited for a last name, which David made no sign of supplying. Finally he smiled.

"Well... David. I got a position opening up on my supply team. Lookin' for people who can handle themselves like you just did. Pays good, but dangerous work. Whatcha say?"

David shook his head. "I'm not looking for a job right now. And if I was, the band of cutthroats you're leading wouldn't be my first choice." The man laughed out loud at this.

"Boy, you do have balls, little man. I'm gonna hafta buy you a drink for that! The name's Gerin."

They had a couple rounds, and David was careful to not drink more than he could handle. Gerin seemed to be a bottomless pit in contrast. And he showed no signs that the drink was affecting him at all. He also talked almost constantly. Seemed his last supply run had been very profitable, he had made enough to extend his business and hoped to one day have the entire valley monopolized. David was dropping off before the end. And when he started to realized that, despite all he had done, he had still had too much to drink.

He stood up and went to pay his tab, but the bartender waved him off. "You helped my daughter today. That pays for all, and anything else you want is yours." The squirrel said in a hushed voice. David smiled at him kindly.

"My pleasure, and no payment is required. She will be alright?" The rodent shrugged.

"She was a little shaken up, but she will recover. Who knows what that viper might have done if you hadn't been there." His eyes blazed with impotent anger.

"Well, I was there and he went no further. So it bears no use to think of it. Good night and wish your daughter the same for me." With that David walked out as steadily as he could and made his way tiredly back to his simple room.


David tossed and turned, his dreams were disturbed with shapeless, frightening forms. The covers had long since landed on the floor, yet even in the cool night he began to sweat, his skin glistening with perspiration.

Eventually his dreams calmed and his thrashings stilled. He fell into an even deeper sleep. But his sweat didn't cool and eventually evaporate. It slowly congealed into a thick slime that coated his body. And it was slowly growing in thickness.

Arla stopped by the next morning to check on him. She entered his small utilitarian quarters, only to be brought up short by what she saw. "What in the world?" She was out of the room at a run, racing for the infirmary and Coe. Behind her, in the quiet room centered on the bed was a large mass of a dark caramel colored material. It was shiny, yet completely opaque with a rounded form that took up most of the space on the bed.

Soon the halls again echoed with soft footsteps as Arla pushed a slightly miffed Raccoon into the small stuffy room. His protests ended abruptly as he stared in amazement at what was in front of him. "You found him this way?" At Arla's silent nod he stepped forward and tentatively touched the surface of the object. "It's warm, there's life here." He took a small blade and tapped on the surface with its metal handle. "Quite hard. Hmmmm."

Inverting the knife he slipped the sharp blade through the hard exterior. A thin trail of a whitish liquid emerged. Quickly he found a small vial and collected a small sample of the fluid. He then placed a cloth over the injury and waited a moment.

When he removed the bandage the wound had sealed itself. "Very perplexing. Let me see what I can find out. I don't think anyone can really guess what he's becoming, but I'm fairly certain it's an Animorph of some kind. This looks like some type of protective cocoon. Whatever he will be, for the curse to do something this drastic it will be more than a simple addition of fur and fangs as it were."

Arla nodded. "So this is a natural step of his transformation?" Coe shrugged.

"What about the curse is natural? But I know of nothing to do but let it proceed uninhibited." He took hold of Arla's arm, deftly guiding her out of the room. She cast the cocoon and its silent occupant one last glance before preceding the healer out of the door. Coe then softly closed and locked the door. In the semi-dark that remained the cocoon quivered for a moment, before returning to its motionless state.