Spies and Assassins

by Lurking Wolf

Lois fully intended to return to the training chamber so that he could at least dismiss Paula from her training of the day. Every step between the scene of the tinsmith’s sudden and unbelievable downfall added yet more weight to the hefty load on his thoughts, however, and by the time he had entered the halls, they only danced in confusing arcs and circles as his thoughts did, and he could not think clearly enough to return.

Suddenly, another arcing hallway led him into a large, circular room. He came up short, but before he could react, the stones of the adjoining hall moved themselves, trapping Lois in a perfect prison, free of all chance of escape.

“What am I to do with a man like you?” a female voice asked.

Lois’ dagger was in his hand before the first syllable had left the specter’s mouth, but he quickly realized what the signs meant and dropped the blade, abasing himself quickly in the presence of the Keep’s guardian spirit.

She circled around from behind him to stand before him, nowhere near as imposing a figure as such a powerful spirit should be in Lois’ own opinion. She looked to be a young woman, only a few years older than Paula herself. Her eyes reflected the colors of the stones in the room as the few flames about the circumference danced across their surfaces, and they carried another sort of flame, a restrained anger that would consume any who did not tread carefully. She wore a light dress that hung with an impossible weight upon her shoulders, yet breathed and danced with every small breath of air. She gave no order for Lois to rise, instead allowing him to bow there while she continued her original thought.

“Vincent Lois, assassin these twenty years, here again within my walls as you were ten years ago.”

“I am no assassin!” Lois somehow found himself daring to stand and challenge her, but the flame in her eyes turned its full blaze on him for a moment, halting any thought of continuing.

“Of course you are. What man retires from his work before he has fully trained his successor? The girl, Paula. You tread dangerously with her. You know not the depths of the darkness that she has seen. Remember, Lois, it is the nature of men to create monsters, and the nature of monsters to destroy their makers.”

“I train her as a fighter, as all men and women in Metamor are trained!”

“The skills you teach her have little place in the battlefield. Even you proved that during your patrol, striking from the shadows to halt the attack. Your methods are a recourse only for men who dare not fight in the sunlight.”

Lois wished to rebut her accusations, but her eyes were still fixed on him, and her very glare stole any words from his tongue.

“Know this, Lois, I do not presume to decide for the duke whose allegiance he should accept, and I would not interfere so far as to eliminate you of my own accord while Thomas still sees your use, but know this: I do NOT suffer your presence gladly. Your kind has more place with Nasoj than here, protected within my walls.”

Lois managed to find his tongue again as she turned away to circle him around the perimeter of the room. “Tell me this; is it not true that you shelter many here whose pasts are marred with every sort of stain? Why, then, am I different?”

“Many shelter here who are more suited for the dungeons, indeed, but few are as wholly wrapped in their own delusions of redemption as you are. I have watched you since your arrival, watched your actions, your thoughts… You pushed yourself to the limit of your strength to see your patrol companion back to these walls in time for the Yule, you fund out of your own purse the cost of an entirely new mechanism just so that he has a chance of walking again, and you take in young Paula, all the while thinking it for her benefit, and not your own. Now you come here into my halls with your mind a slough of guilty thoughts about how you could have saved the tinsmith, Snow.”

“You speak as though these are bad things,” Lois observed.

“You’re stretching yourself to find more and more ways that you can do good, as though that will save you from what is coming. Tell me Lois why you actually went into a blizzard tonight over a matter that did not concern you?” the Keep’s guardian spirit asked.

Lois began to speak, but realized as he did that he did not know the answer. He looked at her in consternation. “You say that as though you’re suggesting something,” he observed.

“I will tell you why you left the safety of my walls tonight. Revonos has so tight a hold on your soul that you were drawn by his very presence.”

Lois felt a sudden sour taste in his mouth. “That’s not true! I serve no god, be they Daedra, Aedra, or Eli himself!”

Kyia laughed bitterly. “Many who will spend time in the hells would say the same thing, I am sure,” she suggested blandly. “Drift worshiped Eli, I’m sure he would deny any suggestion of allegiance to Revonos.”

Lois glared at her, unable to say anything against her accusations. He stood there, responding to her stony gaze in kind. After several moments of silence, he finally spoke again.

“I still do not see how this makes my concern for the man anything other than good.”

“How long did you know the man? A few weeks? And you may have seen him for a total of five hours during those meetings. Why do you think you could have made a difference, when the combined efforts of all of his friends fell far too short?”

Lois sighed. “I remember little that my mother said, but one thing I do recall is the phrase ‘a stroke of a butterfly’s wings can topple kings.’ It means that even the smallest thing can make a difference in the world. I saw that Drift was troubled the last day I saw him before tonight, and I waved it off. I could have made a difference!”

Kyia laughed sardonically. “How. Would you have assassinated Revonos? Or perhaps more direct, killed Drift himself.”

That was too far, and Lois was too furious to realize how stupid it was before he had already reached for a dagger. As he did, however, his fingers brushed across something else. He hesitated and looked down, even as Kyia continued to watch him, seemingly disappointed that he hadn’t tried to kill her.

Suddenly, Lois heaved a heavy sigh and began to laugh. “Of course,” he said quietly. He looked up at the apparition before him. “I knew that Kyia was far too involved with other things to truly take an interest in me tonight.”

“What are you talking about?” the Keep’s spirit asked.

“You’re getting very clever,” he replied. “Still, you will have to do better. My dreams are my own.”

He turned about before the apparition could say anything further, and simply passed through the immaterial wall, back out into the twisting corridors of his dream’s Keep.

March 1, 708 CR

Lois woke comfortably the next morning. His dreams had been peaceful once he had realized that he was dreaming. Those who sought to control him had apparently decided that trying again was not worth the effort that night. Lois checked to be certain that he was awake, then sat up in his bed.

He did not remember having returned to his room and fallen asleep in his bed, but that was where he found himself now. He stood and walked over to a washbasin that he kept ready, using it to wash the sleep from his eyes.

Last night had been closer than usual to deceiving him. He was concerned by this eventuality, but at the same time he realized that his ignorance had given him more time to coax information from whomever it was that walked his dreams. He considered what had been said for a few moments, trying to piece together the memory of the words. He was not certain if it had not just been part of the act, but he recalled the distaste that Kyia’s specter had expressed regarding his actions at the Keep. He liked to think that it was a real expression of frustration, that his actions within the walls had been thoroughly contrary to his enemy’s wishes, but he could not be certain. She had mentioned his taking Paula as an apprentice with distaste as well, and he found it difficult to expect that his watchers would not have been happy with that course of action.

Lois took some notes down about what had been said in his dreams before closing his journal. He considered the relatively new book quietly, remembering the loss of his original journal. Fortunately, whoever discovered it would find it little more than a curiosity.

For once at least, even with his opponent’s new strategy, the dreams of the night had been less troubling than the events of the evening itself. The dreams had provided no real answers to his questions, and Lois still wanted to know more about what had happened to embroil the unfortunate smith in a daedric plot. The only place he could think of that might afford some information was the tinsmith’s workshop. While the events of the past night made him doubt that he would find the tinsmith there, perhaps someone else would be able to shed some light on the events of the previous night.

The trek through the halls was a little longer than usual, but Lois finally did reach the familiar door. Despite the fact that the sign had been removed between his visits, he had been in the smithy enough to recognize the door now. As he arrived, he found that it was slightly ajar. The ermine rapped on the door a few times, but only barely heard the response from within. Still, he pushed the door open slowly and took a look inside.

The former assassin bit back a curse as he saw the interior of the forge. Despite the short time he had known the man, Lois was familiar with the somewhat haphazard manner in which the samoyed organized his workshop. What he saw before him was not the result of haphazard organization, however, but of a disastrous rampage.

A familiar metal fox was the first other creature to make their presence known in the forge. The fox cocked its head before bounding back into the workshop and exclaiming something about strange visitors to whomever was within. When the automaton reappeared a moment later, he was trailed by another familiar sight, that of Misha Brightleaf. Lois remembered meeting him the night before he met Drift, the metal fox that called him Papa serving as the model for Gerard’s newly minted leg.

The battle-worn fox’s face was set in an unpleasant expression.

“Vincent Lois? What brings you here?”

Lois nodded respectfully to the man. “I heard that something had happened to Master Snow. I thought that this might be the best place to seek more information.”

The fox’s expression did not lighten at this. “What do you know already?” he asked.

“I heard that Drift had somehow become involved with the Daedra,” Lois replied briefly. He intended to continue, but he was interrupted.

“Liar!” the fox snapped. He advanced on the ermine like an oncoming storm, and Lois was forced to dance around the forge to keep away. “You might have heard of Drift’s fall, or of Daedra, but there would have been no connection for you unless you were involved. Tell me, what part do you have in this? Speak!” Before Lois could do so, the Long Scout continued his diatribe, closing to within an arm’s length of the former assassin. “Someone had to set the trap, so tell me, Lois, where were you last night?” He punctuated the question with an incoherent growl.

Lois took a quick step forward and gave Misha a solid two hand push in the chest. Misha resisted most of the impulse, but it put him on his heels and gave the ermine a bit of separation, hopefully enough to allow him to speak before being killed.

“Peace!” he yelled desperately. “I was in the lower Keep last night, and I saw the end of the matter, that is all! Everything I know, I learned from the Lightbringers there!”

“So you were there.” Misha’s voice was barely recognizable as human anymore. He started to advance again, but Madog suddenly interposed himself between the two men.

“Papa! Friend! Ermine is Drift’s friend!”

This brought Misha up short, and after a brief moment he allowed himself to sag back against the low wall of the forge. He didn’t look up at Lois, and the ermine waited a few moments before saying anything else.

“No,” Lois finally said. “I should have been so lucky to call him my friend. I only knew him briefly, but I knew even from that brief interaction that he was a good man. I just want to know what happened.”

Misha nodded. “As I said, someone set a trap for him,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper. “A cursed blade that drove him to madness, and a truth from his past that he should never have learned. Now Revonos claims his soul, and few offer any hope. All that is left is a cold forge and a ruined workshop.”

An otter woman approached Misha from behind and wrapped her arms about him. Lois sighed and stepped out of the corner where he had been trapped by the enraged fox. Madog looked up at him briefly, but had soon turned to comfort the grieving fox as well.

“I want to help,” Lois said once Misha had regained his composure.

“No,” Misha said quietly. “I promised Drift I would do this. Please, leave me to it.”

Lois sighed, but he nodded in understanding. “I am truly sorry for your loss,” he said quietly, and then he stepped towards the door.

Only after he had exited the forge did Lois realize that he was being followed. Madog stood in the doorway, eyeing Lois seriously. “Can I help you?” Lois asked.

“You don’t remember.”

Lois blinked. Madog was playing his games again. “I’m sorry? What do you mean, I don’t remember?”

“You recall. Facts on a test, not points on a timeline. You don’t remember.”

Lois sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, if you expect me to understand you’ll have to be plainer about how you say it.”

The ermine could have sworn that Madog flashed a smile for a moment, and then he returned to the forge, leaving Lois standing outside. The former assassin shook his head and marched off down the hall. It seemed that there was nothing left for him to do about Drift, but there were other things he could still do. Focusing his mind on finding Balrog, Lois set off deeper into Kyia’s halls.

Andwyn looked at Lois impassively as the ermine sat on the opposite side of the desk from him. His informants had brought the news of the assassin’s coming only a few moments before the man himself had arrived, and Andwyn thought their haste to send word ahead indicated that Lois was making for the chamber with sinister purpose. Lois had met Andwyn’s personal defensive precautions with barely a raised eyebrow, and once Andwyn was certain that the man posed no immediate threat, they had settled down on either side of the bat’s desk.

“It is not often that I allow meetings on such short notice, especially with men I consider to be on the wrong side of neutral,” Andwyn stated matter-of-factly. “I do hope you make this exception worth my time.”

Lois nodded. “That depends heavily upon how you feel about my proposal,” Lois replied. He reached into a pouch by his side and pulled a strip of cloth out in full view of Andwyn. He didn’t want the bat to think that he was going for a weapon. He tossed it onto the desk, leaving it for the bat’s gaze. Without even glancing at it, Andwyn identified the scrap.

“A lutin emblem, Wounded Moon tribe to be precise, spattered with lutin blood to make it look as though it had come from a fallen foe.” He sounded bored as he ran through the facts, but flashed the smile of a man who knew more than his counterpart. “I say to make it appear as though it had come from a fallen lutin because the lutin whose blood is stained on the surface of this cloth live comfortably here within the walls of the Keep. You have come to be on his behalf.”

“No, I come to you on mine.” Lois glared at the bat. “How long have you known about Balrog?”

Andwyn shrugged. “Do not feel like a traitor, Lois, even a skilled mage cannot escape our notice after having entered our walls uncursed, and then remained so for nearly seven years. In fact, my intelligence officers informed me of his nature shortly after his arrival.” The bat laughed; it had an unpracticed sound to it that set Lois on edge. “I find it funny,” he said once his laughter had ended, “between you and him, he is considered the more trustworthy. When the Keep trusts a lutin more than a man, the man should begin to question his actions.”

Lois ignored the jab and moved along. “I suppose you know that Balrog is a member of the Wounded Moon, then?”

Andwyn nodded. “The way you speak, I’m not certain that you actually know him better than I. Did you know that he stands to become the tribe’s shaman upon the death of his father?” Andwyn smiled at Lois’ surprised look. “Truly, you must have expected such a truth. A lutin mage powerful enough to sustain the illusion of human form every waking hour of the day must come from a very special bloodline.”

Lois shook his head. The new information was surprising, even though Lois decided that he couldn’t truly blame Balrog for hiding it. It changed little, however. Perhaps it could even aid Lois’ proposition.

“On behalf of my friend, I request permission to lead a strike team to kill the tribe’s chieftain and shaman,” Lois continued.

“Assassinate them, you mean,” Andwyn commented drily.

Lois stared at him long and hard before speaking again. “Call it what you will. Every political power in the world makes use of some sort of silent killer to do its dirty work, and Metamor is no different. This operation would pose no significant change to the norm.”

Andwyn scoffed. “My spies brought word to me that you had stalwartly objected to Balrog’s suggestion when it first was brought to you. They told me that it was proof that you had turned your back on your past life, and I hoped to find their baseless optimism founded in the long run. Tell me, then, why should I believe that you are not the man who I could turn over to any political power between here and Yesulam for a reward?”

Lois sat back in the chair that Andwyn had provided, sighing heavily. “I chose to accept this because I realize that my talents are bent that direction. I have no reason to believe that Metamor will not seek to exploit my talents once they trust me enough to do so, and then I doubt there will be a chance to say no beyond quitting the Keep completely. In this one instance, I at least have the choice of missions, and I have deemed it a worthwhile cause. I wish to accept this mission not out of debt to Balrog or as a mercenary on his payroll, but as a citizen of Metamor. After all, if Balrog becomes the shaman of the tribe upon the death of his predecessor, there is no doubt that he would sue for peace with Metamor.” Lois gave a small smile. “Or were you lying about the level of trust you have in him?”

“Indeed, if I authorized this mission, I would worry more about the assassin than about the tribe’s new shaman,” Andwyn replied without hesitation. “After all, unless you have changed, you are the same man who simply walked through his first assassination attempt by making deals with both sides.”

“Is that a touch of admiration, or perhaps envy, I hear?” Lois asked, leaning forward. He had a confident smile on his muzzle that made his whiskers twitch. “You know as well as I do that we are both alive today for the same reasons. We did what we had to do to survive, and we are dangerously good at it.”

“At the very least, I cannot argue with that,” Andwyn said quietly. He seemed very far away for a few moments, and for the first time ever, Lois could swear he saw a bit of regret in the bat’s eyes. Then it was gone again, replaced once more with the spymaster’s familiar piercing glare. “What do you wish from me? If you simply wished for authorization for a patrol in that direction, you could have manipulated Alex into it next time you’re in the field, I’m certain. You came to me for some reason, and what might that be?”

Lois smiled noncommittally. “You know of Paula, I suppose? With your constant surveillance of my activities, I don’t suppose you could have missed her.”

Andwyn nodded. “I know of her. Formerly Paul, recently Cursed, and a respectably powerful clairvoyant. An interesting prospect to be certain. I am not certain why George has not assigned her a patrol yet.”

“Indeed,” Lois replied. “I would like for her to be assigned to my patrol.”

Andwyn seemed to roll his eyes. “I do not know if you are aware, Lois, but there has been an addition to your patrol already. Your mage, Lucy, somehow bound herself to a moondog Keeper, and the two cannot be separated by a distance of more than a few dozen feet without seriously threatening their lives. Out of necessity, they are to be assigned to the same patrol, giving you a group five strong. You are asking me to add a sixth member to an already bloated unit.”

“Gerard is injured, and likely will not be able to continue combat duties for some time until he has become accustomed to his new limb,” Lois pointed out. “She could fill his position temporarily while we find some other solution.”

“Temporarily.” Andwyn looked at him for a few moments before shaking his head quietly. “I do not know why I am actually considering this,” he said, sounding genuinely annoyed.

“You know that the Keep has something to gain,” Lois replied. “You may not trust me, but you at least trust the other members of my patrol enough to trust them with preventing any sort of duplicity on my part.”

“I cannot guarantee that I can arrange for Paula to be permanently assigned to your unit,” Andwyn cautioned.

“Fair enough. She needs some field work at least, however.”

Andwyn looked at the ermine long and hard. The spymaster had long been a master of reading men’s faces, and he was one of the few in the Keep who felt truly confident when it came to reading animal-form Keepers. The man before him was a problem. Andwyn’s intelligence claimed that Lois had once outmaneuvered three Questioners using little more than words and poise, and the bat doubted that the ermine had lost any of his touch over the years. He sat across from the Keep’s intelligence chief, taunting him with his lack of useful body language and an infuriatingly confident smile on the corners of his muzzle.

There was more to the enigma of the man than what was said about his time as an assassin, however, information that had been trusted to Andwyn, and him alone. It would have been no exaggeration to say that Vincent Lois had been under observation from Metamor spies since the time of his birth. That extra information tore Andwyn between trusting Lois for this one task and maneuvering to have him killed as a threat to the Keep.

“I will have the strike arranged as soon as possible,” Andwyn finally concluded. “Make no mistake; you are not the commander of the unit. That priority belongs to Alex. I trust him enough to keep you in check, even if I do wish that I had Gerard to trust in that regard as well.” He gave a smile that seemed to hide a hint of threat. “I suppose I do have Julian, though, and I assure you that he is more than capable of killing you should the need arise.”

“It will not,” Lois affirmed. “It may take some time, Andwyn, but you will learn to trust me. I hope then that we will be able to meet on more civil terms.”

Andwyn scoffed. “I do not have time for civility. Duty drives me to misanthropy.”

Lois stood, giving a nod to Andwyn before stepped towards the door. Andwyn watched him go until the door had closed. Once he was alone in his office once more, he moved over to one of the many chaotic bundles of flotsam that occupied his quarters. He retrieved a stack of papers with his claws and tossed them onto his desk. He flicked through them until he reached the last of the papers, frowning as he read the words.

"My activities are discovered. I will flee alone into the wild to draw them off. I have no right to ask anything from the Keep, but please, for the sake of Eli, see to me wife and son. They have no part in this, yet I fear that they will bear the cost of my risk."

Andwyn tapped the parchment quietly. "Seven intelligence reports, filed under the name of Vincent hin’Julius. Marked Poison, operative was declared dead between nine and eleven years before their delivery. No action taken."

The bat sighed, staring at the closed door. He knew the words on those pages better than any. He had delivered them at the request of the spy in question, always assuming that the Metamor intelligence community was taking them into account whenever they were delivered. In the end, it wasn't until he had taken the mantle of spymaster that he learned the truth. The pages, though decades old, looked almost new, as none had touched them for ages. Why they had never been burned, as so many others of their same sort had been burned before, was beyond Andwyn's reckoning. All he knew was that reading the last page was like hearing the screams of a dying man, knowing that none would help him.

"Vincent Lois... Do you even know the risks that your father took to protect this Keep? To protect you?" He shook his head. "And he lost you these thirty years.” The bat winced, looking back down at his desk. “What worries me is that I can only account for the last twenty. Where did you go? And what happened in that time to make you who you are now?”

The Keep’s spymaster sighed and gathered the papers to return them to their customary place. Lois was hardly the only mystery that was bothering him, but he was one of the few that was living within the same walls.

* * *
March 3, 708 CR

Gerard walked the short distance that had been marked out for him on the killing fields, clearly in pain but unwilling to stop until he reached the end. The healer’s assistant that stood by winced in sympathy with him several times as the stag walked about, but he didn’t stop him. The deer Keeper needed the practice.

The false leg that Lois had delivered a few days past was proving to be an interesting contraption. It flexed and moved in ways that a wooden peg would not, giving Gerard a much more familiar feeling as he tried to break it in. It also moved relatively quietly. Sometimes, the stag could hear the mechanism bowing to support his weight, but it was only a slight sound, and would not have posed a likely threat, even on a patrol.

As he rounded the corner on another lap on the short track, he saw the ermine who had provided the contraption entering the killing fields. Giving a confident smile, Gerard put some more force behind his steps, making his way to meet the ermine halfway.

“You’re looking good on your hooves, Gerard!” the former assassin called as the two approached.

“I would still take my natural leg over this any day,” the exhausted man said in return. “Still, the last few days have been inspiring. With some help from the healers, I’m certain that I will be battle ready before long at all.”

The expression on the face of the assistant showed that he was far less confident, but he afforded a smile and a nod nonetheless. He clearly did not mean for the attempt to fail due to any lack of effort on his part. Lois turned back and gave Gerard a hearty clap on the back. “Let’s see what you can do,” he said, motioning towards the small rut that the stag had already beaten out with his pacing.

The buck heaved a sigh, but squared his shoulders towards his destination and set off in a march towards the other side. He was at least past any lapse of confidence. All that remained was to retrain his body to walk with this new leg attached.

Lois watched his friend give a few laps before he caught a glimpse of another familiar figure to the side. Dressed in light leather and carrying his bow along with him, the lynx, Alex, came towards him with a purposeful gait. The ermine acted as though he had not seen his patrol commander until he had come closer, and by that point the cat had already greeted him.

“Lois!” he called, coming close. He offered a paw to the ermine, who accepted with a strong shake.

“I had not expected to see you until tomorrow,” Lois admitted, turning to keep an eye on Gerard. The stag had taken a seat near the walls, and was discussing something with Coe’s assistant. Whatever the discussion, he had not yet noticed Alex’s arrival.

“Neither had I, but it’s just as well that I found you before we left. I want to talk with you, Lois.”

“I’m certain you do,” was the deadpan reply.

“I think you misunderstand me.” Alex stepped around Lois to make sure that the man was looking at him. “I do not mean to berate you, or to demand you call the mission off. I just want to know why we are on this mission, that is all.”

“You assume that I know any better than you do,” Lois replied.

Alex snorted quietly. “George may have delivered the patrol assignment, but Andwyn contacted me specifically with further details. According to the official word, this is an intelligence mission to ascertain the current alignment of the Wounded Moon tribe. Less officially, we already know where their allegiance lies, and we’re sending you in to change it.”

“Why? I’m not negotiator.”

“Stop playing dumb, Lois,” the commander said, all trace of friendliness gone from his voice. “You and I both know that your method of changing alliances is to kill the person who decides them and allowing the chain of command to do the rest. You’re not a negotiator, you’re an assassin, and that’s the entire reason for this mission.”

“Very well. I will admit the true purpose of this mission, but I will also contend that I have no pleasure in the methods I must use in its accomplishment.” Lois met Alex’s gaze for the first time in this conversation. The lynx watched him for several moments before letting out a soft sigh.

“You and I are the only two who realize our true purpose in this. It’s dangerous to keep truths from my fellows, but I see few alternatives at this point. I assume you have been informed of our new companion?”

“I think Andwyn called him Julian, but I know little beyond that point,” Lois admitted. “Do you not consider him trustworthy?”

Alex grunted and shrugged uncertainly. “He spent quite some time in the North, allegedly maintaining the façade of alliance with Nasoj since the Three Gates. Andwyn trusts him, but I find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that a man could keep the trust of Nasoj for nearly ten years without giving him some very good reasons. I’m not planning on telling him any more than I have to. Unfortunately, the curse changed him into a moondog, and Lucy was forced to perform a bonding ritual with him just to save his life. I am not certain about the nature of the bond, and that makes it difficult to trust Lucy with sensitive information although it’s no fault of her own.”

“You mean to keep our purpose secret, then?” the assassin asked.

“Until I find it necessary to do otherwise, yes,” Alex said. He looked back across the field towards Gerard, who had noticed them and was making his way to them. “I’m not sure about you, Lois, and this only gives me more reason to question you. Tread carefully.”

As he spoke, Gerard gave a cry, thankfully more of frustration than of pain, and sank to the ground on his one natural knee. The healer was next to him before Lois and Alex could arrive, but he was still looking the stag over with a confused gaze when the two reached him.

“What happened?” Lois asked. “Are you injured?”

“No more so than I was before. No, the metal leg just seized up; it won’t move!”

Lois sighed, sounding relieved. “All right, I should be able to help,” he said. He pulled one of the throwing daggers that he customarily kept in the bandolier that over his shoulder. He gripped the mechanical leg, only to look up when Gerard placed his hand on the assassin’s shoulder.

“I’m just bracing,” the deer said breathlessly. “Remember, this thing is attached to me now, if you’re messing with it you’re going to throw off my balance.”

Lois grunted in affirmation and began to poke around where Drift had omitted the panel for just such an occasion. “We ran into this problem once when we were performing early tests,” he explained. “I’m not certain why, but something within the leg gets caught.”

“Can’t it be repaired?” Gerard asked.

“Perhaps,” Lois replied, nearly whispering. “Unfortunately, the man who built this is incapacitated.” The leg saved him the trouble of explaining why as the catch suddenly released with a strident squeal, snapping down on the blade of the dagger that Lois had been using to seek out the faulty piece. The ermine hissed and took a step back.

“That’s better,” Gerard said. He stood up and rested his weight on the leg, relieved to see it flexing under his weight. He realized after a moment that Lois was not watching him, and took a look at the throwing dagger in his friend’s hand.

It was bent, somehow twisted by the force of the mechanism’s release. Lois gave a quiet chuckle. “If you needed to know why I was not using my bare hands to unjam it, you have your answer.”

Gerard gave an astonished laugh. “I’ll be certain to make note of that should it ever happen again,” he responded.

“That seems quite a dangerous thing to strap to your leg,” Alex commented, giving a smile to Gerard. “How have you been, my friend? I had heard about this strange invention, but I had yet to see it for myself until now.”

Gerard smiled and stepped forward, clasping his patrol commander’s paw in his hoof. “It’s good to see you again. Honestly, I’m not completely certain about this replacement, but it is certainly far better than nothing at all. I suppose that I am likely to miss a few patrols while I adjust; I hope it isn’t too much of an inconvenience.”

Alex smiled comfortingly. “We’ll manage somehow. As a matter of fact, we will be taking a patrol beginning tomorrow. It won’t be the same without you.”

Gerard sighed. “I do hope to be able to return to duty soon, but I have no idea how long it will take to recuperate. I promise, as soon as I am able, I will rejoin you. Stay safe until then.”

Lois chuckled. “I’ll keep an eye on him, don’t worry too much.”

Alex sighed. “Don’t rush, Gerard. You will be missed in the meantime, but I want you to be fully prepared when you do return.”

The stag nodded. “Give my regards to Lucy. Make sure she stays safe.”

“To be fair, the sheer power she wields makes me less worried about her than I am about you,” Alex deadpanned. “Still, I’ll do what I can.” He turned his gaze on Lois. “Don’t tell her that she’s getting special treatment,” he warned. “She’ll think it’s because her age was regressed, and we’ll never hear the end of her lecture over the injustice of the Curse.”

Lois chuckled, but nodded. “I don’t know if I truly have lips anymore, but if I do I assure you, they are sealed.”

The three friends shared a chuckle at that. Finally, Alex nodded to them both as he stepped away. “I need to refine my aim before tomorrow’s departure, but I will see you both as soon as possible. Good day!”

Gerard turned to Lois as the lynx walked away. “You may want to try to replace that dagger before your patrol tomorrow,” he suggested. “You never know when you will need every tool at your disposal.”

Lois nodded in agreement. “I will be certain to do that. Be careful with your practice. Don’t overexert yourself.”

“Of course. Be careful yourself. You’ve had all of one patrol and you’ve already gone through a life-threatening situation. If it were something you could decide, I would suggest a few relaxed patrols before you try any more death-defying again.”

Lois nodded. To be honest, the nature of this coming patrol made him more than a little nervous, but it was nothing he had not done before many times, and often with more dangerous quarry. Perhaps it was the fact that it was not his life alone that could be threatened by his actions, or perhaps it was allowing this one vestige of his former life to carry on that put him on edge. His inaction had led to disaster once before, however, and he didn’t mean to let it happen again while he saw an alternative.

He managed to snap out of his private thoughts before the silence had hung between him and Gerard for too long. Smiling, he sketched a respectful bow to the stag as he stepped away. “I will see you upon our safe return,” he promised. “I expect you will be walking comfortably once more by then.”

Gerard smiled. “I hope so. Perhaps nature will conspire to aid me before long. I should be shedding my antlers before long at all. They are no great weight to be certain, but any small advantage is appreciated. I will see you after the patrol.”

As the two parted ways, Lois silently wondered what would happen to Gerard should his request be granted permanently. With Paula added to their group, he found it unlikely that Gerard would be allowed to continue with him. Had he unwittingly raised the man’s hopes of returning to action, only to crush them by providing his replacement? He certainly hoped not.

March 4, 708 CR

Lois met the patrol in the armory once again, although the meeting on this day was a few hours later than it had been on that day. The timing of the patrol had been carefully arranged to have them arrive at their destination very briefly before evening, hopefully giving them time to find their quarry and settle in to observe them before all light was gone. With a pair of mages along, the deadline was not overly strict. If they had difficulty finding their targets, they would simply make use of magic to find their way.

Lois caught sight of the second mage as soon as he reached the room where he was meeting his companions. He stood near Lucy, speaking to her quietly, but he was the first of the assembled patrol to notice the assassin’s approach. He had the appearance of a bipedal hound dog, his body looking much closer to an animal than to a man. His eyes, however, held an intelligence that no animal could match, and something else as well. There was an icy depth to the way he appraised Lois. He was not attempting to discern whether the ermine was worthy of trust; he was determining exactly how Lois could be used to further his own ends. He had seen conflict, and quite a lot of it.

His armor was of an unknown design, a strange set of leather that suggested plate armor by its shape. Its dominant color was black, contrasting the off-white of his fur, with dark grey cloth of a dense weave visible between the plates that did not fully meet. It seemed both secure and light, the ideal combination for a war mage. How much skill he had with a blade was uncertain, but he carried himself like a warrior, and the sword at his belt certainly had not come from the Keep’s stock.

Lucy and Alex followed his gaze a few moments later, and they each acknowledged the ermine with a curt nod and a few words. The moondog’s greeting was even briefer, consisting of nothing more than his own name before he resumed his silence. Lois supposed that the man did not approve of what he saw from him. There was no surprise there, in all honesty.

With the group assembled in its entirety, Alex wasted little time on introductions before beginning the briefing. He clearly wanted to begin the patrol quickly and without wasting time, and Lois could certainly respect that decision.

“The Wounded Moon lutin tribe has been a thorn in our sides for quite some time,” he explained. “Scouts have confirmed their general location, but Keep intelligence wants more specific details. In order to secure this information, we have been asked to infiltrate their camp and seize whatever might be useful, at our own discretion.”

“That sounds like a very complicated mission, considering that this is my first patrol with the Keep,” Julian commented. The moondog was carefully checking the briefing for lies, trying to do so while still seeming respectful. Lois smiled. A man this careful would be difficult to deceive.

“Andwyn has assured me of your competence. Staying undercover in the service of Nasoj since the Three Gates is no mean feat. I do not expect you to find a covert mission particularly difficult given this consideration.” Alex managed the reply without once sounding untrusting or deceptive, and the moondog accepted it without further comment.

“Whatever the case, we have a reasonably reliable idea of where the lutins should be camped. That makes our task as simple as infiltrating the camp and finding that information.” He gave a feline smile. “At least we’ll make it look simple.”

The cockiness might have been laughable from another source, but Alex clearly had confidence in his companions. It might have helped that he knew that Lois would be the only one in serious danger when the time for action came, but the assassin doubted it. Alex truly seemed to respect the people he worked with. It meant quite a bit, especially since he had only worked with one on anything resembling a regular basis.

The lynx asked his companions for questions, but none were forthcoming. Nothing else remained to be said, and the four left the armory soon afterwards.

Lois prepared himself for another extended journey. Such times presented ample opportunities to think, but they were not particularly interesting otherwise. Unless they met resistance, these journeys also gave him only a limited idea of how Julian would hold up. He truly wanted to see the sort of magic that the moondog would deliver, but he doubted that he would have an opportunity until they reached their destination.

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