The Homeward Journey

by Lurking Wolf

December 2, 707CR

Alex the lynx made his way through the halls at an even pace, neither hurrying nor sightseeing. While he certainly had a destination in mind, he made no apparent effort to get there in a hurry. In reality, despite this lack of extra effort, he was trying to reach his destination with speed. He simply had enough experience to realize that walking was as good at running when traveling the halls of the Keep. It was not long before he found the patrol master's door sitting ajar directly in front of him. He walked in calmly, ready to respond to his summons immediately.

George met him personally just inside the door. It seemed that he was, for the moment, occupied with dispatching a messenger to someone. It was evidently not very sensitive, since any passerby could easily hear George's instructions, but it was important enough for the jackal to motion Alex through to the next room without further explaining the summons.

Alex ducked into the room beyond the second door. It functioned both as an office for George, and as an impromptu meeting chamber in which briefings, reports, and more private subjects could be discussed. At this point, the room had been cleared for the coming meeting, but a few scraps of important paperwork were sitting on George's desk as if he forgot about them. It was more likely that his assistant was simply too busy to help him with them for the moment. Since George had never learned to read, paperwork would be dealt with only in the company of another, more qualified Keeper. The rest of the room was decorated lavishly, with far more taste than a former mercenary captain would usually be expected to employ. Aside from the desk, there were also several chairs for longer meetings, a locked cabinet, likely containing wine, and a few more pieces of furniture with a bit more function. The wall boar a standard that George had built for himself after his tenure as a mercenary, based around the name he had been given by his enemies, the Cutlass. The weapons in the standard were clearly fully functional, and the edges were still sharp enough to cut a hair dropped on their blades.

Already occupying the room was someone that Alex recognized immediately. It was a man, tall by human standards measured only from head to hoof, but also sporting a rack of antlers that further emphasized his height. The stag looked up as Alex entered, and a grin appeared on his muzzle immediately.

Alex managed to speak first. "Gerard! I hadn't expected to see you until our next patrol!"

"I can honestly say I'm as surprised as you," Gerard replied, standing and clasping the lynx's hand in his. His hoof-like hand was as massive as the rest of him, and his hard fingers, even after being shortened by the Curse, very nearly touched on the other side of his friend's hand. "Maybe they've finally gotten my promotion paperwork through the system," he suggested.

"You know how I feel about that," Alex said, shaking his head. "The day you leave is the day they stop thinking I'm a good patrol captain; I'm nothing without the muscle to back up my talk."

Gerard shook his head and laughed. "Well, I'm sure I could find you someone else to do your dirty work when I'm gone. You'll do fine, though, you and Lucy both."

The two friends sat down beside each other and carried on a conversation, talking for a while more about military life. They had been serving in the same patrol for three years. During the assault last winter, their leader had fallen early in the battle, and Alex had distinguished himself by leading a combined group of patrols that had started the assault stranded outside of the walls in the blizzard. Few of the men survived, but they had been instrumental in providing pressure from behind the attacking army, forcing them to move forward with less care than they otherwise might have taken. Alex had been given command of the remaining members of their original patrol, but only he and Gerard had survived of the original four patrol members. They had yet to receive a fourth member, and indeed there was debate as to whether any would ever be assigned, but they had at least been assigned a field mage, Lucy, who had since shown herself very competent in the field.

While their military careers paralleled each other closely, their personal lives were almost opposite. Alex was a loner, who found most of his companionship with the patrolmen and at the Mule. He had honestly never considered seeking a wife, and his current lifestyle suited him fine. Gerard, however, had been married since before the Three Gates, and still lived happily with his wife even after she had been reduced in appearance to twelve years of age. Few people had the courage to ask how, but the two of them had had two children since the Three Gates, despite the dramatic size difference and her young physical age. They now had three children by birth, and one that they took in after he was orphaned during the Winter Assault. On patrol, he was a vicious fighter who made full use of his size and strength to defeat opponents. With his family he was more often seen using those same assets to carry his children about the streets of Metamor, cavorting about like a complete fool.

Despite their vast differences in personality, however, the two had been close since before they had been assigned to the same patrol. Although Gerard was a devout Follower and Alex had no use for any sort of god, the two still remained close, and each respected the other enough to speak their minds about such sensitive subjects without fear of losing the other’s friendship.

George eventually entered the room, closing the door behind him while mumbling something incoherent. He nodded to the two men sitting in front of the desk and moved to the other side to sit down. As he was settling in, his eyes fell on the pages spread out in front of him. For a moment there was something that resembled panic behind his eyes, but he quickly stifled it and returned to the task at hand.

"How are you, gentlemen?" he asked.

"All right, all things considered," Gerard responded.

"The same for me," Alex responded.

"Good, good." George folded his hands in front of him and took a deep breath before continuing. "I called both of you here because I need a good, skilled patrol group for a mission of some importance. I called Lucy here as well, but she is currently in Glen Avery visiting family. I've sent the instructions you are about to receive with a messenger, and she should be arriving tomorrow already briefed. That gives me about twenty-four hours to explain what I need from you."

"A question, sir," Gerard interrupted, raising one of his thick hands.


"Importance notwithstanding, how long of a patrol are we expecting at this point?"

"Several weeks. I will give a more specific answer in time, but that will require explaining the nature of the mission."

Gerard nodded and motioned for George to continue.

George took a deep breath before saying anything else. When he finally did speak, his eyes moved back and forth between the two of them as he gauged their reactions.

"There is someone in the Keep, someone who has recently arrived seeking shelter. This man has done nothing within our domain to merit throwing him out, and we are in no position to force him to leave. This man is, however, considered a significant threat to Duke Thomas. With the wedding of our lord fast approaching, it is likely that any evil intention he might have towards the Duke would be best carried out during the wedding festivities. Because of this, we want you to keep him away from the keep until the wedding is over."

"Babysitting an assassin? That's something I have never tried before," Gerard noted.

"I would point out that there are few with any more experience than you in this regard," George said drily. "It is not exactly common to deal with a potential assassin in this way, but our hand is somewhat forced. We have made it our policy to provide a home to anyone who asks, unless we can find some outstanding crime on their account among our allies. The man we are dealing with now had a history with some of our allies, but has no recorded offense in any of their territories. Those places where his involvement is recognized universally absolve him of any wrongdoing; they call his assassinations acts of war. Just as you cannot be charged with any wrongdoing for killing Nasoj's men during last winter's assault, our man is considered innocent.

There are other places where we suspect he was involved, but many of the local governments refuse to recognize his existence. Sometimes they have declared the murderer dead; even though we are almost certain he committed the crime there, they claimed to have killed him rather than watch their people tear each other apart through fear. Other places, no murder is recognized at all. In those cases the policing force is often suspect; we believe that our man simply did jobs for a party that could cover his tracks once he was done."

"Babysit a very good assassin," Gerard appended to his earlier observation. "Now, let's just assume that somehow I am not in the least bit worried about patrolling with a suspected murderer. Let's just say I want to be friends with him. In that case, I need to know exactly who 'our man' is. A name would be nice, to start."

"The man's name is Vincent Lois."

Gerard looked over at Alex and shrugged. "Never heard of him," Alex confirmed that his friend spoke for them both. Gerard turned back to George and just shook his head.

"We are not familiar with the man."

"You will have a chance to become familiar with him on your patrol," George responded. "You'll be spending a good bit of time out there."

"That's one other thing," Gerard interrupted, raising one of his hands to forestall further conversation. "The Duke's wedding is the Eve of the Yule celebration, correct?" George simply nodded. "I may have some objection to this patrol."

George sighed. "Besides not wishing to patrol with a suspected killer?"

"Yes. As I am sure you understand the Yule of last year was somewhat hectic for me and my family. I was scheduled to patrol just for Yule's Eve that day, I believe, but as we all know, very few plans played out as they were intended in light of a certain attack." Gerard cleared his throat before continuing. "I had promised my wife that I would return to celebrate with our family after completing my duties. Due to complications, however, there was precious little celebration occurring anywhere near the Yule. Eli's grace being what it is, I did manage to toast the New Year in the company of my wife, but even that was a brief respite.

All that to say this: I promised my wife that I would not take any patrols that would keep me away from her for another Yuletide. Now, a week or two starting today I would be more inclined to accept, but even if you told me that we would return on the night of the wedding, as soon as it was over, I would be very nervous about taking the job."

George nodded and tapped his claws on the desk for a few moments, deep in thought. "The decision of who to send was given to me alone," he said. "Since I deal with the patrolmen more often than my colleagues I can hardly say I am surprised. Choosing your patrol was no accident. You've all proven yourselves, both during and in the wake of the Winter Assault. There are others, perhaps, who could take this responsibility, but many of them are already on task to make sure that no attacks work their way through our defenses this year. We will be dealing with many VIP's, and even the smallest complication could harm our reputation among our allies. At present, you are both the best prepared and the most available of all possibilities. Now, it is entirely possible that we could have you back inside the Keep by the Yule."

"That consideration is quite appreciated, but I do not think you understand. Finding a little time during the defense last winter to celebrate for a moment was really all that saved my skin. If I am absent from this year's celebrations, or even got close to missing them, my wife is very likely to give either one or both of us a very large, verbose piece of her mind. As you are my superior officer, I feel compelled to inform you that pieces of her mind are often accompanied by sharp implements prodded at non-vital areas of the body. Painfully"

George could not quite suppress a grin at the delayed qualifier, but he recognized that there was little he could do about the situation. "Gerard, I really don't have time to make any last minute adjustments. I fully understand why it is an inconvenience, but we need to get Lois as far away from the Keep as possible during the wedding. I'm sure that your patrol mates will have no problem returning through the night if that is what you must do to arrive by the Yule, but that is as much consideration as I feel comfortable giving."

Gerard sighed and nodded. "I understand, sir. Eli knows, I desire the Duke's safety as much as anyone else around here. I'll do my part, you can be sure of that." He turned a bit to address his commander. "And we will be returning through the night, by the way."

Alex shook his head, but chuckled quietly. “Of course we will. I wouldn’t want to get on your wife’s bad side if it can be avoided.”

"Very good,” George said with a nod. “I want you to have your things ready to go as soon as possible. I expect an early start in the morning; I want Lois as far away from here as possible by nightfall." George smiled. "I knew you would be willing to do it."

Gerard shook his head and gave his best attempt at a smile. "Long distance running, oh joy."

Lois hugged the wall, each claw finding a crack to grip instinctively as he shot along its base. The speed of his Curse-born form amazed him, especially considering the change in scale. With his own body so much smaller, he had expected that he would feel considerably slower. Instead, his natural speed, combined with a new sense of scale, combined to make him feel faster than ever before.

Of course, this perception was not necessarily passed to any onlookers, so he had to make sure that he didn't run in front of anyone or anything that came too close to him. Thankfully, most of the split second decisions that were needed throughout the run were taken care of by his instincts. Tight turns and quick dodges abounded as he wound his way across one of the Keep's streets, for no better reason than to say he had done it.

He finally left the road and returned to where he had left his clothing after the shift. He kept it in a hidden area, but made sure that he could find his way back before leaving. He shifted back to his humanoid form as soon as he saw the base of the bench where his clothes lay and began to dress quickly. There were other things he wanted to do today, after all.

"Vincent Lois?"

Improved ears received and interpreted the sudden sounds with remarkable efficiency. He began to turn quickly, when he felt something run through the still-exposed fur on his back. Reflexes born of years of fighting kicked in, and he tightened his spin, driving a backhand into the nerves of the person's wrist, thankful for the lack of armor. The strength of the blow was enough to cause the person to release their grip on what they were holding. Lois kept going; exploiting the surprise of his opponent, he caught his opponent's hand and twisted him down until his own arm prevented him from getting loose.

A few moments were spent in silence while Lois looked at the young man he had just taken down, while his opponent tried his best to relieve the pain of the hold. Finally, he managed to break the silence through clenched teeth.

"Message for you, sir!"

Lois finally noticed the object that had fallen to the ground during his impromptu disarm. It was a scroll, rolled up and sealed with an emblem he had not yet seen. He suddenly realized that he had seen the person he was now restraining; he had delivered his summons when he was requested by Lord Thomas.

With this realization, Lois quickly released the hold. "Sorry about that," he said, feeling slightly embarrassed. "I've had too many people try to kill me from behind to let someone come up without announcing themselves."

"I'll be sure to remember that before delivering any further messages to you," the coyote gasped. He panted for a few moments, flexing his arm back and forth to try to relieve the pain.

Lois picked up the message and broke the seal without much thought. He scanned the contents quickly, and then folded the message nonchalantly in his left hand.

"Thank you for delivering this to me," Lois said quietly. He slipped the message into a pocket inside his cloak, and then threw the cloak over his shoulders. "It seems that I have some business to attend to elsewhere. I hope you won't mind if I take my leave of you now."

"No, by all means." The coyote gestured down the corridor with one of his paws. Lois wasted no time in taking his leave, and was soon well on his way to respond to the summons.

The coyote sighed as he left, shaking his head while working the pain from his shoulder. "They don't pay me enough for this," he muttered.

Lois found George's office without too much trouble. Kyia was kind enough to give him a more direct route, and he was ushered straight into the jackal's office with no delay. The scout master was shuffling a pile of papers around on his desk when Lois was shown in, but finally just let them resting in a random spread across his desk. He placed his elbows firmly on top of the pile as his guest took a seat, and looked the unfamiliar person over once before speaking.

"Well, you seem to have gotten on the Curse's good side," he commented. "Looks like you'll do fine in the winter, which is perfect for what I intend for you at the moment."

"Scoutmaster George?" Lois said, holding out a recently changed paw to the man.

"Ah, yes." George took the hand and gave it one shake before setting his arm down. "And you're Vincent Lois, if my secretary is to be believed."

"I am, sir. If I may ask, is it a common practice to send a man a message the morning after he is Cursed, telling him that he has a patrol the next day?"

"Not specifically, but it is mandatory that most residents of the Keep take part in periodic patrols. Since you have already expressed your desire to become a citizen, your name was submitted to me for work several days ago. As you can see, I have plenty of other things to work on." He gestured to the papers. "As a result, I just got to you now. That this is your first day Cursed is fortunate happenstance; it gives you a few hours to become reacquainted with combat before you need to exercise it."

"I had assumed there would be some battery of tests prior to my submission for patrol duty. It seems a bit reckless to send men into the field without full knowledge of their abilities."

George drummed his claws on the desk once, leaving visible marks in the papers that obscured the wood from view. "In the past this practice was more common, but we have had a very hard year. Doubtless you are aware of the attack that was launched during our last winter. We've lost too many men to be picky."

Lois looked sidelong at the patrol master for a moment before speaking. "I was taught that one weak member in an otherwise sound patrol group can mean the deaths of the entire group. How does this fit your philosophy?"

"My philosophy is that we guard against that by sending them with something more than a sound patrol group. Not to mention that, in your case especially, we've told them to leave you if you do anything stupid."

"Oh, that's very encouraging."

"Certainly," George said with a nod. "Hopefully, it will encourage you to avoid that sort of idiocy." He grinned. "This warning does generally have that effect."

"So I'm not the first person to receive it?"

"Hardly." George leaned back in his chair and studied Lois' face for a moment, weighing his words carefully. "We make this sort of provision for just about everyone whose allegiance is in doubt. In your case, we have enough intelligence on your past to know that you may be dangerous regardless of the sincerity of your desire to stay. That said, we have set something of a precedent; if you prove your loyalty to Metamor, we will return the favor."

"How's that?"

"This is a large Keep, Lois. It is not hard for people to disappear within our walls, and anyone who seeks you can be diverted if we cause a few more incriminating pieces of data to be -- missed."

"Courtesy of Master Andwyn." Lois presented the name flippantly to see if he got a reaction. What he received was a shrug from the jackal in front of him. The scoutmaster said nothing for a moment, instead leaning over the arm of his chair and picking up a wineglass that had been carelessly placed near his paws.

"That depends if you believe that any such man exists," George noted taking a sip of his wine. "Like most anything else in the area of intelligence, the identity of the more important people in the upper echelons obscured by rows of safeguards, not least of which is their ability to cease existing if necessary. At any given point, Andwyn may be one man, or he may become a committee. If necessity dictates, Andwyn may even become a person of interest in an intelligence mission."

"And you are at liberty to discuss this?"

George smiles, some of the wine clinging to his whiskers. "Why wouldn't I be? After all, Andwyn does not exist."

Lois raised an eyebrow, but smiled. "Well, I suppose that I will be off. After all, I do need to get some things together before I go patrolling."

George nodded. "You might also want to see the Healer before too long; he'll probably want to make sure that you don't kill yourself by doing something stupid to your new body."

Lois acknowledged the recommendation, but left the room without any further words to the scoutmaster. George took another sip of the wine before setting it back down at its dangerous position near his paws. He shook his head. There had to be some better way to give Andwyn some plausible deniability regarding his work as the spymaster. He was tired of having to make up stories about the Keep's intelligence.

Gerard quietly shut the door to his residence, noting the low lights that had been left in the front rooms by his wife. He ducked under the doorframe, although he still managed to scrape one of his antler spikes on the top as he entered. He had his antlers trimmed and blunted at the tips every winter to avoid problems with doorways, but he kept enough of them that he did still have to be careful. He removed what little winter clothing he had to wear in this weather and left it on the hooks near the door. An arm's reach away, he could see the similar clothing worn by the rest of his family, all neatly organized. Caleb had done a better job than usual with that task tonight. Perhaps he had hoped to see his father before he went to bed.

The stag sighed and looked up the hallway. Straight forward was a small sitting room, with a fireplace used both for warmth and light during the winter. It would have long since been emptied except for the few persistent embers that still glowed orange in the low light. To the left was the kitchen, which he knew without looking would be impeccably clean. To the right and down the leftward branch would take him into his children's room. It was a little crowded now; since they had taken Karl in after the last winter, everything was different. Still, he wouldn't have it any other way. He just wished he could have told them good bye before he had to leave the next morning.

He followed the hallway, but turned right before the branch to his children's doorway. While his feet went right, however, his eyes lifted and went left, until he found himself standing in his own bedroom doorway, but looking back to the left, into the darkness he could not hope to penetrate. He finally turned back and walked into his bedroom, leaving them to sleep through the night quietly.

A light was still burning, a lantern that sat on the small, rough bedside table. In front and to one side of the table was a rocking chair, and there, with some incoherently jumbled knitting sitting half-finished in her lap, was his wife. Her feet were a good foot from the ground, something she would never show willingly to anyone, but something that was also very much emphasized by her slumping all the way to the back of her chair. Her blond hair hung loose behind her, either pressed between her back and the back of her chair, or hanging down between the carefully crafted slats that held the back of her chair together. Her head didn't reach the appointed headrest, and so she usually had a pillow to keep herself comfortable. Sleep had taken away all thought of comfort, and the pillow was now wedged awkwardly between her shoulder and the chair, completely dislodged from its appointed place behind her head.

As much as Gerard would have loved to leave her like that, he knew that she had to know. If not for his own fear of facing her, he probably would have arrived several hours earlier, well early enough to talk to her, and well early enough to see his kids to bed. He didn't know how many time he passed his own stoop before finding something else to do in order to stay away. He didn't know why he insisted on feeling prepared to talk to his wife before showing up. The conversation never worked out the way he planned anyway.

Well, he knew that he had to wake her up now anyway, so he decided to do it in as tactful a manner as possible. He stooped down and balanced himself against her chair until he could finally run his thick fingers down across her cheek. She was a light sleeper; she shifted immediately when she felt his fingers, and her eyes opened a few moments later. She gave a tired smile as her eyes finally focused on him.

"Hello, love," she mumbled quietly.

"Hello." Gerard leaned forward and planted a firm kiss on her lips. She returned the kiss, and gave a quiet laugh as they broke off.

"You're late this evening. I knew you said that you would be having dinner with Alex, but I had hoped you would be back before I had to send the children to bed."

Gerard winced. "I wish I had been." He realized that there was no sense hiding it now, so he took a breath and went right for his explanation. "Listen, Amber, I was summoned to George's office late this afternoon, just before I finished the day's tasks. I waited so long because I didn't feel ready to tell you about it."

She furrowed her brow for a moment; why would he hesitate to tell her about a patrol? She knew of his responsibilities, and had always supported him in his work. Why would he be nervous now? As he remained quiet, however, the realization finally dawned on her. "Oh… You’re not going to miss the Yule again?"

"I explained my desire to be here when George told me. There's nothing that can be done; we leave tomorrow, and no one else can be found. I was able to get him to leave the day of the Yule open, however. I'll be here then."

Amber nodded, although she could not hide the disappointment on her face. She sighed. "Just make sure that you get back here on time, okay? The children are dead set on having you here, and I wouldn't mind it if you were here, either." She wrapped her arms around his neck, which was all she could manage with her reduced age. He returned the hug, lifting her up a bit so to alleviate what otherwise might have been an awkward position.

"All right," Amber said, nodding as they released the hug. "Well, you'll have to promise me you'll be back. No detours, no debriefings, you'll be here as soon as you get back from the baths on your return."

Gerard was relieved that she seemed to be taking it so well, and found it within himself to crack a smile at her comment. "The baths? Don't you mean when I get back from the armory?"

"Don't be ridiculous. You'll be out for weeks, with maybe a stream or two to ford through on your way. Face it; you'll stink when you get back, and even I won't want to see you then." She smiled that impish, dimpled smile that the Curse had returned to her, and Gerard laughed, holding her tightly.

"All right, I'll be back as soon as I get bathed. After that, we celebrate."

As he held her close, she angled her head towards his ear. "You come back safe. We'll be waiting. Don't do anything foolish."

"I'll be back. Have the children ready; I'll have to make up for a week's missed celebration."

The two of them talked a while longer, but not, to Gerard's great relief, about his impending patrol. It was a small blessing that she had been so gracious to this point. He didn't want to push it.

Alex entered the armory a full hour before anyone else arrived. It was always his practice to be early. He spent way too much time considering what would happen on any given patrol, and so always tossed and turned until he couldn't sleep. With little else to do, he would go about the artificially drawn-out process of equipping himself.

With only a day's notice, it was even more evident. He had done most of the preparatory work the night before, but still felt that he had forgotten something. With the sun still hidden to the east, he walked out into the corridor, carrying the few pieces of equipment he owned personally. The rest he would find when he arrived at the armory.

He took his time finding and securing his equipment. Before long, he had fully armed and armored himself, and had most of the food and ancillary supplies prepared for himself and the rest of his team. Gerard's was almost twice the weight of any of the others, owed to the man's strength and stamina, while Lucy's weighed a good bit less than the others, although it was packed with bedding and other bulky items in order to hide this fact. Since Alex did not know what the assassin would be able to handle, so he made his guess based on his profession, and gave him a pack comparable to his own.

Lucy arrived next, already armed and armored from her personal stock. She preferred to travel light, and so she easily had all that she needed on her. Alex made sure that she understood exactly what was going on, and was pleased to hear that she had been briefed completely by the messenger that had been sent to find her.

Gerard arrived shortly after Lucy entered the armory. In stark contrast to Lucy, he seemed to have woken up about five minutes ago, and was still shaking the cobwebs out of his head as he equipped himself. Alex left him to himself, and instead dedicated himself to watching for Lois to show up. Officially, he didn't have to be there for another half hour; unofficially, the entire patrol preferred to leave as early as possible.

"What do you think the chances are that he won't show up?" Lucy asked. She was sitting on a bench a little ways away, checking her equipment.

"If he's not here by the deadline, I'm sending a messenger to George. They warned us about this guy; if they're worried, they'll want to know if he doesn't arrive."

Gerard adjusted a leather vambrace on his left arm, strapping a hidden knife to the back of his arm and making sure that it was securely fastened. "I might prefer it if he doesn't show up; the way I see it, if it isn't for him, there's no reason for this patrol." He looked at Alex and grinned. "That means Yuletide with the family."

Lucy shook her head. "You're one to talk; you aren't the one who spent the last few weeks out of the Keep, trying to give some new 'field mages' a rundown of basic defensive spells. I know we're short on talent after last winter, but some of those recruits were insulting."

Alex chuckled. He had not known Lucy long, but what he knew of her was enough to tell him that she was a perfectionist. The fact that she did not universally condemn them made him certain that there was some exceptional talent among the recruits.

"At any rate, I hope he does show," Lucy commented. "I always wanted to know what an assassin looks like. Would be easier, knowing what to look for him if he ever came after me."

The slow trickle of people had begun to increase, so Alex's focus remained on them while his squad prepared. Lucy was less interested, and alternated between rechecking her equipment, and whetting any blade that seemed even slightly dull. Gerard, still a bit behind his companions, was checking the weapon racks for a blade that fit his style. With a family to care for, he had never had the resources to buy his own, so he often had to choose a different blade for each patrol.

There were still a few minutes remaining when a man entered the armory, looking slightly lost. Alex glanced at Lucy from the corner of his eye. "Bet you a drink he's the mark," he mumbled, nodding at the new arrival

Lucy kept her head down and simply shook her head. "Sorry. I learn quickly; a good rule of thumb is never to bet against you." Finally, she looked up. "Where's the man in question?"

Alex gestured to the man. He had been taken by the animal part of the Curse, taking the form of some sort of mustelid. His fur was mostly white, which caused his dark eyes to stand out in startling contrast. Crossing from the center of his muzzle and diagonally up, a row of three lines of parallel black fur stood out. He turned to talk to someone who was standing by the door, and revealed a long, lush tail that lashed periodically in mild irritation. It was as white as the rest of his fur, with the noteworthy exception of the tip, which was black from about the midpoint of his tail on.

As expected, the man was quickly directed to the waiting group. By this time, even Gerard had found the time to watch him as he approached.

Alex was quick to address him. "Mr. Lois, I presume?"

The man stopped just short of the group and looked at Alex in particular with a bit of confusion. "Ah!" he said finally. "I did not realize that you were the 'Alex' I was to report to."

It was Alex's turn to be confused. He looked at the man as if to recognize him, but the effort was futile; he knew for certain that he had not seen a Keeper like this, at least in his changed form. He ran the name over in his head for a moment, but was still coming up empty when Lois relieved his confusion.

"Well, I'm not surprised you didn't recognize me, but I had hoped that you would remember the name. Last time we saw each other, you opened up my back in a practice duel. I suppose I would have had more reason to remember you than you had to remember me, actually."

Alex mentally kicked himself, but found nothing to say to save his situation from further awkwardness. Gerard saved him the trouble a moment later, although his methods could have used more tact for Alex's taste.

"Laid his back open, eh? Are you sure you want to go on a patrol with someone you can outduel?"

It was Lois' turn to save Alex the trouble of speaking. "To be fair, both of us were operating with a significant handicap. According to the commander, swordsmanship is not his strong suit; in my case, fighting one person in the open is not my specialty."

Alex fortunately maintained his composure through this admission; given that his entire team had been briefed on exactly who they were working with, they knew what his specialty was. "At any rate, it's good to see that you survived the injury in good enough shape to go on patrol so soon."

"I told you already, don't worry about it. Coe took care of the initial damage, and the Curse did the rest."

"Well, I hope it won't affect your performance at all. We're doing the long run this time around. That means we'll be heading up past the northern defenses, and that will take a while. Add to that that we're going on foot, and we've got a long patrol on our hands. We'll be running long and hard for the first while, and then we'll hit the outside of the normal patrol range. From there, we'll need to be alert, and we won't be slowing down for you. Can you handle that?"

Lois grinned. "I'll handle it all right. How about your partners, have they done this before?"

"Several times. It's not routine by any stretch of the imagination, but every patrol worth its salt gets their turn. You should consider it a compliment; few people jump right in like this. They must already like what they've seen."

"Well, I'm ready to go whenever you are," Lois commented. Indeed, he had brought his equipment with him. The two daggers that Lois had brandished during their encounter in the practice ring were both strapped visibly at his hip, and Alex could see a few more weapons hidden on Lois' person. The only other obvious weapons, however, were a few throwing dagger held in a bandolier across his chest.

Alex finished looking Lois over, and nodded his approval. "All right. First things first; introductions. You already know me, but I'm not the only one who will be on this patrol." He gestured to Gerard. "This is Gerard, the muscle of our operation. Don't worry; he's fast, and he pulls more than his own weight."

Lois looked at the hand as he shook it. During his audience with the Duke, he had seen the interesting, thick fingers that hooved Keepers had. Still, as he shook the hand, he found the shape and feel to be much odder than any Keeper's hand that he had seen so far. His examination lasted only a moment, and was brief enough to be confused as a casual glance. "The Curse has been kind to you as far as strength is concerned. I can see why he calls you the muscle of this team."

Gerard chuckled quietly. "I've always been strong; the real kindness of the Curse was in speed; the deer in me keeps me fleet of foot while still having the strength to intimidate my opponents. Looks like you might have some speed in you as well. What are you, some sort of ferret?"

"He's an ermine," Lucy spoke up. She had not moved from her position, but had obviously been looking the newcomer over from where she stood. When the others hesitated to comment, she looked between them all. "Well? Someone has to trap furs for those that don't have their own winter coats. My father is still one of the best in the valley at getting that fur. Ermines have very desirable pelts for luxury and warmth."

After another moment's hesitation, Alex picked up introductions. "This is Lucy. She's our field mage, and apparently has a working knowledge of common animal pelts in the valley. If you see an animal you don't recognize, I suppose she's the one you want to talk to."

She rolled her eyes, but still stepped forward to shake Lois' hand. "Don't ask me too much. Remember, my father's the trapper, I just know the business."

Lois smiled, just barely able to keep from laughing. Once he had finished shaking Lucy's hand, he turned to Alex. "That leaves you. I believe you said that you were an archer, and by your equipment, I'd say that's likely the case."

Alex nodded. "I'm an archer, and the commander of this unit. As for your part in this patrol, we'll have to find what role you're best at in the field. For now, I know you're good enough to trust on the ground, so I'll have you help Gerard until further notice. Now, we all have some equipment to carry along. I already have the packs ready, and know approximately what is where. We all have enough of a variety so we can make it if we lose one or two of the packs.

"We shouldn't see much opposition for the first few miles. We'll start off roughly following the beaten path, and break into the woods only after we've gotten past the common patrol ring. From there it will be slower, but we'll try to keep the pace up a little bit until we get past the northern defenses. Outpost should give us a place to resupply and rest, and then we'll hit the main section of our patrol. Once we get there, lutins will be even more of a problem, and we may have to deal with some things nastier than lutins. The usual operating procedure is to take note of any potentially hostile settlements and avoid contact, but I will be looking for targets of opportunity. If I think we should take care of someone where they are, or if we see any one of a number of lutin tribes, we'll do some work ourselves. At any rate, we will not be engaging without my orders if at all possible."

Gerard and Lucy were already familiar with everything they were being told, so Alex looked to Lois for confirmation of his understanding. Lois simply nodded. Alex was not surprised to see that he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the manner of briefing, but a room with a map was not a viable option. They needed to be moving, and soon. Since Lois was unlikely to know the lay of the land anyway, a spoken explanation, and the unspoken expectation that he should stay with the patrol unless he received conflicting orders should be enough.

"All right. I think we can cover most anything else later. We need to start moving out." As Gerard and Lucy began to get their supplies together, Alex took another look at Lois' equipment. "Actually, I think I'd like you to take a sword with you. I know you prefer your own weapons, but I like to be safe rather than sorry. If you lose a few of your weapons, you might need a fallback."

Lois would have protested, but he wanted to be on his way as much as the rest of them. He turned to the weapon racks and began to search for a sword that would suit him well. Alex watched him for a moment, then turned back to retrieve his own pack.

"Are you sure that's necessary?" Gerard asked quietly. Lois was well enough away that even Lois' changed ears could not hear the question. "He looks armed to the teeth already."

Alex waited for a moment before answering, in a voice quieter than Gerard's had been. "George spoke with me after you left. He wanted me to slow Lois down as much as possible when he returns. Any small thing that he has to do before he can get to anything else gives him more time to get a watch on Lois."

Gerard nodded and looked back at the ermine assassin. Lois was examining a blade with a disinterested gaze, but measured his disinterest with a sincere desire to have a serviceable blade. He finally settled on one, and returned to pick up his own pack. Gerard looked him over one time. He wasn't sure if it was simply because he knew what this man had done in the past, but seeing the man standing across from him was unsettling. The stag could see nothing that should affect him as it did, but the man definitely seemed wrong in some way. Gerard could only hope that it was instinct, and not anything concrete that was bothering him.

The four of them walked towards the main gate at a comfortable speed one everyone had taken up their supplies. Lois took the opportunity to adjust his pack into a comfortable position. He fully expected not to have time to worry about it later, so he made sure that it was ready before they actually started the patrol.

When they finally reached the gate, Lois was ready to go. Alex hailed one of the guards that stood alongside the gate. In no time at all, they were on their way through the gate. Alex made sure the straps on his pack were tight, and then turned for a moment to look at his companions.

"I hope you've been keeping your conditioning up," he cracked. "We'll be keeping the pace up for at least the first day. We'll have breaks at reasonable periods, but don't depend on them to keep you moving; you'll never make it all the way if you do."

With that, he set the pace. Gerard was quick to keep it up with strong strides of his long legs, and Lois matched them both, gaining speed quickly with short steps, then extending his stride until he was keeping up with the leader comfortably. Impressively, Lucy managed to keep up, even though she had to use almost twice the number of steps. She showed no early signs of tiring, however, and seemed as resolute as any of them as they covered the first part of their journey at a brisk pace.

Lois soon stopped concerning himself with his fellows' progress. The time that the run would take would give him time to think, and considering how fast things had moved in the last few days he had a few things to get straight in his mind.

As Alex had explained that morning, they only stopped running to take periodic breaks, and they still covered ground walking during these lulls. They stayed quiet most of the time. Every now and then Gerard would exchange a few words with Alex, but both would quickly lapse into silence, and no one else was in a hurry to pick up a conversation. Particularly Lucy, who made good use of the extra time by catching her breath. She was remarkably fit for her apparent age, but she still had trouble maintaining speed as well as her friends. Lois was almost convinced that Alex gauged their run length by her, but he had yet to see him look at her. Perhaps he was listening for her to start wheezing; that would certainly be a good indicator.

Finally, Alex called a halt for the party. "All right," he said, keeping his voice down. "We'll be heading into the woods at this point and moving on from there. For this evening, we'll be using a campsite that's been cleared for the long patrols. It's nice and open; good places for lookouts. It'll probably be the most comfortable camping spot we will have this patrol, so don't get used to it. All right, keep up with me, and stay quiet."

They moved into the undergrowth and didn't take long to make it into the forest proper. Alex stayed low, moving along the ground in a half-crouch, but still managing to keep his speed up. Gerard had a hard time reducing his profile as effectively as his commander, especially with the added obstacle of his antlers, but he had no trouble keeping up with his commander. Rather, Lois wondered what would happen if Alex suddenly stopped. He didn't know if Gerard would manage to stop before colliding with his back.

Lucy had no problem keeping a low profile, but her short legs made it a trial to keep up with her commander. She made it with only a few visible winces, but still fell behind Lois as he moved along. His own legs weren't as long as they had been before, but he found that he could keep his pace up if he allowed himself to use his hands to aid him every now and again. Even in hybrid form, he found that he could use all four paws with good dexterity. It still felt foreign at times, but he could ignore it, and it just flowed naturally.

They finally reached the clearing. Just as Alex had explained, it was already set up for their use. Alex quickly made sure that no one else had taken their camping area, and then moved the team in. He wasted no time giving out responsibilities. Before too long, they had set up a fire in the center of the clearing, and some light bedding had been set up. Lucy volunteered for the first watch, and they were ready to get some rest, even before the sun had completely set.

"We won't be stopping this early very often. I can only think of one more time that we will be likely to do so, and that will be when we arrive at Outpost. Other nights, we're not going to stop early unless we find a spot we can't pass up."

Lois nodded. A few moments passed without conversation, and then Alex started to pull some things out of his pack for a meal. Since they were in a good defensive position, he pulled some things out that they could cook. Later, they would be too concerned about wild animals or lutins following the scent. At this point, they were pretty sure they could handle it.

Lucy took some food to her watch post, and left the three men to talk a little bit. The awkwardness was somewhat alleviated by their first good meal of the day, and soon they began to talk.

"You did all right, Lois," Alex commented. "I was going to ask Gerard if you were following a few times." Lois shook his head and Gerard chuckled.

"Well, I'm pretty sure I'll take you over a rookie," Gerard added. "Especially where we're going, we need some experience to have success."

Lois nodded. "I have that. Before I came to Metamor, I worked just to the south rounding up the creatures that slipped by your defenses." When his companions looked confused, he continued. "I called myself a bounty hunter. Basically, if someone down south had trouble with lutins, giants, or any one of a number of monsters in their area, I would hire myself out to remove the inconvenience."

"Sound a bit more like an exterminator," Alex noted.

"Bah. If I called myself an exterminator, someone would call before long complaining of rodents in their attic. I will take the first type of misunderstanding over the other."

Alex conceded the point, and the three of them lapsed into silence for a few more moments. Lois was still thinking through some things by this time, but he had come to a decision about the most important issue he faced. He just looked for an appropriate time to address it.

Lois had hoped for someone to lead into his revelation, but the longer no one spoke, the more he tried to think of some other way to breach the subject. Gerard and Alex remained silent, and so Lois finally decided to take the jump himself.

"I cannot stand this silence," he said with a bit of a grin. "I think I know why you're not saying anything, though."

"Well, we don't actually talk much in the field. While we're experienced enough to do so without detection, we usually play it safe. The Mule is plenty enough opportunity to socialize," Gerard pointed out.

Lois shook his head. "I'm new in your patrol. Usually, you would want to know where I come from, what I've done in the past." Lois looked at their faces for a reaction, but he still had trouble reading the faces of changed Keepers. "I have a theory, though. My thought is, not only do you know where I'm from, but that's then entire reason that we're out here together at all."

"Why would that have anything to do with this patrol?" Alex queried.

Lois shrugged. "I personally see no reason, but I know that my former employment is not exactly well-respected. Still, that I was an assassin before has no bearing now. I will tell you here and now, I came to Metamor looking for somewhere to live, because I'm done. I don't want to be an assassin anymore. When I did do it, I did so as much as possible within the protection of war. It's part of the reason I still live. At any rate, I will do my best to assist on this patrol. I have no intention of treachery here, or at the Keep, despite what people think."

Gerard looked at Alex. While they had both already known what Lois did in his past, it seemed very odd to hear it revealed by the man himself. For his part, Gerard wasn't sure whether or not such a blatant acknowledgment helped the situation. Still, since Lois was so quick to admit that he had been an assassin, it meant that he could address the subject without being so awkward.

"So, why did you decide to come here to retire?"

"Few places grant such a complete change of appearance as Metamor," Lois said. "Also, I've also been partial to cool climates."

Gerard managed to chuckle under his breath, but Alex just looked at him humorlessly.

"Regardless of what we know about you, and why you're here, we still have a mission here," Alex said. "While keeping you away from the Keep for a few weeks may have been one of our objectives, the fact remains that we have a more important objective. Northern patrols are vital to our security, and we still need to be sure of our mission's success."

Lois made no response but a nod. Gerard took the cue from his commander, and returned to sitting silently. They took care of some other, small responsibilities before taking any rest, but otherwise stayed silent. Alex and Gerard went to their beds before Lois, although the presence of the assassin in the camp kept them attentive until Lois retired as well. Lois sat quietly beside the fire for a few more moments, considering. He had hoped that addressing the elephant in the room would help disperse the oppressive silence of the camp. Instead, he had plunged it into even deeper silence.

Consideration didn't help him at all, and he soon decided to get some rest while he could. Hopefully, when the next day began, his companions would be a little more open.

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