|Part I||Part II|
The intricately formed crystal glided gracefully across the windy hillside above Caydaran's redoubt, tinkling softly like a giant wind chime. Its fragile beauty was deceiving, as several skeletons lying amidst the bracken could testify. Caydaran took his security seriously and the sentinels continually patrolled his borders, probing the land with other-worldly senses.
It was early evening, and the redoubt was already in night's shadow, but the high hillside still caught the last of the sun's light, and the sentinel refracted it into rainbow glory, multihued flecks of light scattering across the rough terrain before it. A few hundred yards to either side, sibling devices shone with similar splendour. Doubtless those who dwelt in the redoubt appreciated the sight. For those who coveted Caydaran's knowledge and power, the sentinels were a continual thorn in the side. Those silicate eyes had tracked down the best spies and trackers in the land. Though the hillside appeared rich in cover, dotted with gorse and thick with bracken and tall heathers, the crystal sentinels saw all. Even one attempt to tunnel under the hillside had been foiled: it was almost as if the crystals could see through solid matter. They could certainly shoot through it.
Only the wild goats that grazed on the heather went unmolested. Long used to the eerie spectres that drifted around them, they pursued their caprine lives with typical goatish indifference, only occasionally glancing up, jaws grinding purposefully, yellow eyes suspiciously following the crystals' movements.
This sentinel paused briefly over a she-goat now. Her brown coat was touched by rainbow shards for a moment, then the crystal glided on, chiming softly. The goat watched it intently for a while, then resumed her grazing, pausing only now and then to answer a nearby bleat with a reassuring cry of her own.
Step by step, she grazed higher and higher, gradually leaving the other animals behind. Once over the brow of the hill, she abandoned all pretence of feeding and ambled along, not hurrying, but moving with a decidedly un-goatish deliberateness. The square-pupilled eyes kept sharp lookout for any crystals that might be roving further afield than usual but saw none, and when she had reached the lower slopes of the far side, she picked up her pace into a jaunty trot.
She covered several miles in this fashion, until she reached a small wood. It was full dark now, but a half moon and bright star-scape coupled with a goat's adequate night-sight, were sufficient to see her way by. Her nostrils caught a whiff of a familiar scent, and she used this to locate an old log, beneath which, with surprising dexterity, she extended a foreleg and dragged a leather pouch into the open. Opening this with her mouth, she exposed a band of metal: a simple circle of gold, completely unadorned, wide enough to admit a goat's slender hoof. This she did, and nuzzled it until it encircled her fetlock, whereupon the band shrank slightly to become a perfect fit.
The she-goat began to glow. A soft, moon-like radiance emanated from her hide, illuminating the immediate area with an eldritch light. Within this light, the goat began to change. Rearing up upon her hind legs, she began to grow. Her limbs grew longer and thicker, and as they did so, her silky coat began to diminish, until smooth skin was left behind. The proportions of her limbs shifted, and hooves became mere nails, dividing into more digits, becoming fingers and toes. Her udder shrank into firm abdomen, while her chest swelled and produced two human breasts. Face and muzzle became flatter and blunter as ears and horns shrank, and in the space of twenty heartbeats, a young human woman stood in the goat's place.
Young and ruggedly attractive, she stood for a moment while the blue glow still surrounded her, eyes closed and her chest rising and falling as she took deep draughts of air. She opened her eyes suddenly, and for a moment, looking disturbingly alien, a goat's yellow eyes and square pupils looked out of that human face. Then she blinked, and the eyes were human, round-pupilled, and brown. The glow faded.
The young woman took a final deep breath and expelled it noisily: a sigh of relief. It had worked! No one had gotten that close to Caydaran before! The sentinels had shown no interest in her whatsoever!
In the darkness, she located another bag by touch, and dressed clumsily. How blind were a human's senses, she reflected. She could see almost nothing now. She brought out a small round stone and spoke a word to it, and it began to shine, a twin light to the one that had recently surrounded her. It was dim but enough for her to find her way through the dark wood, from the log where she had hidden her marvellous ring to her cottage. It was a journey of another three or four miles and she could not traverse it as fast as she had in goat form. It was well-past midnight by the time she reached home, and she was more than ready for bed. She wanted a bath badly - the scent of goat still clung to her skin - but she lived alone (didn't all mages?) and decided it would wait until morning.
Weariness could not suppress her exultation. No one else could do what she had done. So many years of painstaking (and sometimes painful) research from that first startling spark of inspiration! And now it had paid off. With this she could buy her way into the upper echelons of mage society. She hoped, oh how she hoped, that Caydaran himself might be impressed enough to…
There was a heavy knock on the door. She spun, heart hammering in her chest. Who could it possibly be in these remote woods, at this hour? No one of good intent, for sure. She gestured, and felt power gather around her fist as she cautiously approached the door. Reaching it, she leant against it for a moment, making sure the bolt was firmly drawn, before calling, "Who is it?"
"Lord Kevron," announced a gruff voice from outside. "He seeks audience with you, girl. Open up!"
The nimbus of power around her fist evaporated with her will. Lord Kevron! What could he want with her? How did he even know of her existence? One of the most powerful and certainly the most feared mage in the land.
She drew back the bolt on the door and opened it, shrinking back to find the small clearing before her cottage full of soldiers, all looking far too efficient for her liking. And in their midst, dismounting from a tall, black horse, was a figure who radiated power, both of command and magic. Lord Kevron.
He moved like a figure out of a romantic tale: a predator's grace; a self-assurance that she could only envy. Immaculately dressed, he was clothed in a tight-fitting military-style outfit with a waist-length cape. Buckles, boots and rivets were polished to mirror-finish. She stared, almost mesmerized by their gleam as he strode forth to stand before her.
"Lady Finrael?" he asked politely. His cultured tones were as polished as his boots. He sounded unexpectedly charming.
"I am Finrael," she answered nervously, "Though I cannot yet claim any title."
"If my seers are correct, you are well worthy though. It comes to my attention that you have developed a new magic." He made no question of it. He gestured past her. "May I?"
Stupidly, she let polite habit answer for her and invited him in without thinking. She caught the slight smile he made as he crossed the threshold and cursed herself for a fool. With a single careless pleasantry, he had won his way across most of the wards she had set to protect herself from intrusion. You never invite a potential enemy into your demesne! Ever! It was almost as if her dearly departed mentor, Master Forbison, were emphatically speaking the litany into her ear. She devoutly hoped his spirit wasn't watching.
Then again, her efforts at warding had never been intended to hold against someone as formidably gifted and resourceful as Lord Kevron. She rather doubted it would have taken him many seconds more to gain entry if she'd fled inside and sealed the cottage. But she still felt a fool.
Kevron looked around and nodded, consideringly. "A pleasant abode."
"Thank you." She ran her tongue around dry lips. "Uh, how may I be of service, my Lord?"
"I was thinking we might be of service to each other, my Lady," he answered her, idly lifting a scroll from a small table and briefly glancing at it: an unthinkable breach of etiquette, and equally unthinkable to call fault on him. "If I am correct, you have achieved quite a break-through in transformational magic. Am I right?"
"Well, I don't know about break-through exactly," she murmured.
"Oh, come now! I was watching your most excellent trial tonight," he told her, and though the knowledge that she had been spied upon chilled her, he managed to make it sound as if he were an invited spectator. "You were observed to take on the form of a goat and make close approach to the demesne of my esteemed colleague, Caydaran, a gentleman who is renowned for his extreme love for privacy. Alas I could not see once you crested the hill, but here you are, entirely unscathed, if one ignores that curious perfume that adorns you."
She flushed, well aware of the animal musk that still clung to her. "I did but modify a standard transformation spell, my Lord."
He smiled. "Such modesty! You have succeeded where none have despite decades of research. We have long known how to transform a fellow into a dumb animal. Why I perform such spells on a regular basis." Finrael shuddered: yes, it was Kevron's well-known punishment of choice for those who disappointed him. If you ever chanced to be a guest at Lord Kevron's table, it was prudent to be a vegetarian for the duration of the stay. And you didn't take the vegetables for granted either. It was all right for potatoes to have eyes, but not the sort that looked at you. "And when change is sought for other reasons; covert action for example, I know how to change the semblance of myself or some other agent, but we all know that that is all it is: semblance. I too might have taken the form of a goat tonight, but if I had, those… ingenious sentinels of Caydaran's would have left my smoking corpse on the hillside. Or I might have become a true animal and utterly lost my intellect and will, and sported in care-free caprine debauchery for the rest of my days, unmolested by the sentinels but lost to humankind. And yet here you stand. You transformed yourself and fooled the sentinels, and retained your will. I saw you: you were quite clearly in full possession of your will, though you were wise to behave as a true animal close to his demesne. Tell me, how was it done?"
She had no choice but to tell him. He clearly knew the significance of what she had achieved. It amused him to proffer an illusion of friendship at this time. If she played along, she might live to tell the tale. And still be human at the end of it.
"I found a way to dissociate my mind and soul, preserving them in an interstitial space. I worked a true change on my body, but preserved my mind elsewhere. I fashioned a link of ether to act as a channel between mind and body; a sort of spirit conduit. To everyone's perception, including my own, it would appear I had wrought a true transformation into an animal yet retained my own mind, but anyone probing the goat's body would find only natural animal thought processes."
Kevron sighed and shook his head. She thought it might actually be genuine admiration and despite herself, she preened. "So elegantly simple and yet so effective! But tell me! How do you return to your own form? So much I might achieve through my own efforts, but what binds the interstitial matrix to your natural body and calls it home? Unless I am mistaken, the bond between mind and body would be incredibly fragile at the point of transformation. It would be like trying to waft a puff of perfume across a windy chasm."
Finrael sighed. This was the process she had worked so hard on. She had hoped that by covertly fooling Caydaran's sentinels, she might gain entrance to his hall, impressing him so much that she might gain the privilege of private tutorship beneath him, or at least gaining his protection as a sponsor. Instead, all her secrecy had been for naught, and Kevron would now help himself to her painstakingly acquired learning. "I… I fashioned an anchor; a beacon." She crossed the room to a small wooden casket on a shelf. Opening it, she removed the heavy golden ring. To both of them it sang magic into the air, shining brightly to their mage senses.
"Lady Finrael," Kevron whispered in tones of profound respect. "This is a masterpiece. I see you have tied the entire process into this band. And you do what? Place it over your wrist?"
Finrael nodded, trying not to feel foolishly flattered by what seemed like genuine admiration. "It is a quite specific spell, attuned to my structure and essence, and will only at present change me into one animal: a she-goat."
"An odd choice," Kevron commented.
"No, not really," she responded. "I took note of the goats that roam wild in the hills over Caydaran's demesne. It was a good way to test the thoroughness of my spell." "Brave. Had it not worked, you would be dead."
"The price of failure," she shrugged, feelingly unexpected bold.
He raised an eyebrow at that, clearly surprised. "You impress me, my Lady. And what would it take to re-attune it to a different form, for another person?"
She thought for a moment. "Another form? A week perhaps, with the provision of a suitable example of the new species. I make an exact replica of an existing animal when I transform. For another person? I still need to work on that one. At present, I can only work this magic on myself. I need to work from within the magic, as it were. It is an entirely new process. I hope with more research to make the spell more generally applicable."
"Ah," murmured Kevron. "A pity. Then I am afraid I must impose on your good services, my Lady. I have a favour to ask."
"What favour?" she demanded, feeling an unpleasant knot form in her stomach.
"I have put into motion certain plans," Kevron told her. "Rather critical to those plans is the establishment of an agent within Caydaran's demesne who can then invite me and mine across his formidable wards. I had hoped to send in an agent of my own choosing, but you tell me your process can only be applied to yourself. I cannot wait, therefore you must become my agent, Lady Finrael."
"No!" she blurted. "I can't do that! You want to use me to invade Caydaran!"
"In a word, yes," nodded Kevron. "You would find me most grateful. I would be extremely happy to sponsor you in your promotion to recognised mage."
"And everyone would know then exactly how you got into Caydaran's home!"
"There is that, yes," he admitted mildly. "You'd have my protection against any reprisal though. It might become necessary for you to come and work for me, but I can be extremely generous to those that are useful to me."
"I can't do it!" she said, her heart pounding. She felt sick. Caydaran was a well-respected mage. Participating in what would surely be his destruction would mark her for all to see as a betrayer, or even a murderess.
"Oh?" The questioning syllable hung dangerously in the air between them.
"I have roamed the hillside above his lands," she said, prevaricating. "I can't enter his property. There are high walls and human sentries. Even if I can walk right up to his gate, I cannot enter, unless it be spitted on the end of a crossbow bolt and served at his table."
"Oh, never fear. I have planned for that angle. You will not approach as a goat, my Lady. You shall be an ass."
"An ass?" she demanded. "What in the Seven Hells do you…"
He raised a hand, stilling her exclamation. "Calm yourself. Every so often, Caydaran receives various trusted merchants to supply his hold and his people. In ten days time, he will be purchasing fine horses."
"Then why not a horse?" she asked in spite of herself.
"Horses will go to the barracks stables or work the crop fields. They will not be invited into the hold, which has its own warding system."
"And a donkey will?"
"A donkey will," he agreed. "The well and the kitchen spits are powered by treadmills. These are worked by asses, which he purchases from outside. Apparently Caydaran is averse to punishing those who displease him with transformation."
"But I still can't…" she began to protest.
He raised a gauntleted hand to forestall her. "Lady! Please. You are an obviously intelligent woman. I am sure that if you think it through for a little while, you will see wisdom. It is late. You must be exhausted. I will depart, and return at noon tomorrow, then you may give me your decision. Do you need a study subject to change the focus of your… your Ring of Change?"
Disarmed, she could only stammer an affirmative.
"Then I shall bring a suitable animal with me." He walked to the door, turned and bowed to her. "Good night, my Lady. Until tomorrow." And then he was gone. She staggered to a chair and slumped into it, beginning to shake violently. She heard Kevron and his men depart, and wondered whether he had left a guard. Probably not: why should he? What could she possibly do that his seers could not follow and report? She could not run: could not ask for help. She could see no alternative to submitting to Kevron's "offer". But if I agree, Caydaran will be killed.
She did not get much sleep that night.
Kevron returned as promised, in the same manner as he had the previous night. Finrael thought he probably didn't need an armed guard, but it added to his stature. And she could not help but be intimidated. She answered the strident knock with a numb feeling of inevitability, and the same master at arms stood there. "Lady Finrael," he said. "Lord Kevron has returned to hear your decision." She said nothing, merely stepped aside with bowed head, which the man correctly interpreted as acquiescence.
He was there, mounted on his coal-dark horse. He slid from the saddle with practiced grace and approached the cowed young mage.
"Lady Finrael, I trust you have had time to rest and consider my offer?"
She shrugged. He held all the cards, and well knew it. "I will help you."
"Excellent. I am so glad," and he really sounded it! Gods, he is so much "the Gentleman", she thought. But she could sense the danger in him: the ruthless demon she knew him to be, concealed with in this veneer of cultured charm. Kevron raised his voice and called, "Cedrin? Come here, please."
A slight young man in the habit of a serving man approached hesitantly. "Yes, Lord Kevron," he answered with a respectful bow. Finrael noticed the nervous attentiveness with which he regarded his employer - as if he were terrified the slightest misstep might bring dire retribution
"Lady Finrael, Cedrin is a groom who works in my stables. He will assist us in providing a suitable subject for your work. May we enter?"
She gestured half-heartedly and Kevron and his servant followed her into the cottage.
"Very well," Kevron announced. "Ten days from now, about five leagues from Caydaran's demesne, you will take the form of an ass. We will add you to a consignment of new livestock that Caydaran is expecting. If all goes smoothly, you will be placed into service as one of the animals he utilises to power his domestic treadmills. Wait for night-fall. The domestic stables are part of the residence. Invite me and my men into Caydaran's home - ah, can you speak a human tongue whilst transformed?"
"It isn't a problem," she responded. "My voice sounds odd as an animal, but everything seems to work the same."
"Good. I thought that might be the case, although I was armed with a communication spell that ought to help if you couldn't. but far simpler if you can talk unaided. I will then construct a Gate and we will teleport straight to the stables. From there our conquest of the hold should be a swift affair."
"I suppose you will kill Caydaran," Finrael said.
"My dear, that entirely depends on how reasonable he is," Kevron said. "If he is willing to place himself under my geis, I will spare his life."
Like that is going to happen, she thought.
"Now then. Let us discuss your needs, my Lady," Kevron said. "You need a subject to copy."
"Yes, that's right."
"The animals used for Caydaran's domestic machinery are small," Kevron said, indicating with his hand. "Do you have a preference over gender?"
"I'd prefer to remain female, but there is no particular reason for that. The new form is so different that the sex of the animal leaves little impression when compared to the whole."
"Female is probably a good idea," Kevron mused. "The males are all gelded. I think you would not wish to experience that. It might distract you from the task at hand. Cedrin, do we have such a beast in my stables? A female ass of about waist-height to me?"
Cedrin started as his name was mentioned, and he stammered as he answered.
"Assuredly, my Lord. We have a young jenny just come into her full growth: about four years old. She is healthy and should be ideal for the purpose."
"Excellent. Concentrate on your image of her, will you?"
Finrael assumed Kevron was going to Gate the animal to her cottage, and apparently Cedrin did too, but when Kevron began to radiate magic of an entirely different pattern to the distinctive Gating spells, she looked at him sharply. "What are you doing?"
"Gating is a terrifying experience to an animal," he answered, completing his spell. Finrael's trained sight watched the patterned energies form into an intricately ordered pattern of swirling lights that hung in the air. It began to move toward the oblivious stable-hand. "It might cause you problems."
The pattern moved over Cedrin, shifting its shape until he stood contained within a shell of swarming lights. It made Finrael feel slightly queasy to watch. She wanted desperately to intervene, and knew she dared not. This was how Kevron dealt with people: given any provocation, this was how he would deal with her.
The groom suddenly noticed something was amiss. He frowned and looked down at himself, rubbing his arms, his chest. He looked around, then at Kevron. "What are you doing to me?"
"You are assisting me, as I said," Kevron told him dispassionately. "You are also paying the price for some… disrespectful comments you made about me several days ago."
"But how did..?" Cedrin clapped his hands to his ears as skin on the side of his head started to ripple and darken. It was like looking at the surface of a boiling liquid or a piece of silk spread over a nest of beetles. It did not appear to be causing the hapless groom any actual pain, but it was not pleasant to look upon.
"How did I know? Cedrin, my young fool, I make it my business to know everything that goes on in my demesne. Didn't you wonder about how little sympathy your comments received from the other servants?"
Finrael was horrified by the change assailing the unfortunate young man: wherever she could see his exposed skin, it was boiling like grey tar, swelling and heaving. Cedrin tried to make some further protest but only a gargling cry emerged. Clothing burst open as the boiling figure underwent spasmodic growth. It fell forward to land on all fours and once down, it was hard to tell which end was which, looking like a boiling lump on four thick stilts.
"This," Kevron said conversationally, "Is probably why the accepted method of shape-changing doesn't retain the persona of the victim. I think the constituent components all just run together into a sort of primordial organic reservoir, very much like a lump of clay. I don't think there is much congruency: there is no reason for example, why an eye should end up as an eye, or a finger-nail should end up as a hoof. Actually, in the case of a rival I was forced to make an example of some years ago, I was able to affect the change about the axis of his digestive canal, but I reversed it: turned him arse about face if you'll forgive the crude humour." He chuckled, sounding for all the world like a genial teacher reminiscing about some light-hearted jape he recalled. Finrael wished she had the will to look away.
Invisible hands were now at work with the heaving shape: it began to rearrange into a crude equine form, rapidly gaining definition. The head-end put out an enlarged lump which grew two tentacles which writhed briefly before becoming recognisable ears. Another pseudopod extruded itself from the opposite end of the lumpy torso and became a tail. As definition increased, patches of fur began to appear. The boiling, rippling movement subsided, and there stood a small, brown donkey, wide-eyed and quivering; nostrils flaring.
"Perfect," Kevron approved, moving forward. Stooping, he lifted one of the new-formed donkey's hind feet and took a look at its nether region. "Good: a female, as specified." He looked at Finrael, and she recoiled as she briefly saw in his face a glimpse of an unholy delight; a madness made all the more disturbing by the terrifying sanity of its owner. In an instant, the urbane façade closed over the creature within, like some hideous monster of the depths submerging to lie in wait for the next victim.
And here I am adrift in a fragile row-boat, she thought.
"Will she do?" Kevron was asking.
She struggled to regain control of herself, exerting all of the formidable mental discipline so essential to a mage's craft. Just a donkey, she told herself desperately. Not a transformed person: it's an ordinary donkey. Accept it as such. Don't let yourself think about what it was before. That young man is gone now, as thoroughly as if he'd been disintegrated. This is an ordinary donkey, and that wasn't a demonstration to keep me in line. "That will do fine," she said, voice only a little shaky.
"Excellent. Very well then," said Kevron, clapping his hands together and making her and the donkey jump. "You have ten days, my Lady. I will leave Cedrin here in your care for you to study, and you will prepare a ring to change yourself. On the tenth day I shall return and escort you to where you will change and join the animal train going to Caydaran's demesne. Until then I shall retire and leave you undisturbed. My men shall see to it that no-one disturbs you, and I shall send one of my own servants each day with prepared meals so that nothing may detain you from your work."
And with these instructions, he excused himself and left her. Finrael slumped into a chair and began to shake. The she-ass crossed to her and nuzzled curiously at her clothing. The deep brown eyes held no trace of any former intelligence.
She was no good for any magic for the remainder of that day and knew it. Therefore she didn't try. Instead she made sure she had a plentiful supply of all the reagents she needed and carried out all the non-magical preparations. Then she emptied the lean-to shed beside her house to make a makeshift stable for Cedrin. That completed, she drew enough water to take a good bath, heated it generously over the fire and then kept it hot with a cantrip. Finally she was able to wash away the smell of goat that still clung to her. She supposed the smell of human must cling to her when she first became an animal. That could be a source of potential problems - she'd have to watch that.
Bath done with and feeling much restored, Finrael made herself a good meal, knowing it would be unlikely she'd take much time out for meals over the next few days. She knew some mages insisted on fasting prior to a major magic, but she held to the belief that the distraction of hunger whilst working magic was a sure-fire way of getting into trouble.
She slept surprisingly well. She was keeping her mind focused on the task at hand. Consequences would have to be dealt with later: there was nothing she could do to thwart Kevron at this point. To be a mage meant of necessity that supreme control over one's thoughts was essential. Only this allowed her to banish all thought of the plot she was working to facilitate.
So: she spent the first morning bent over her notes. She had worked the same magic only recently, but rash assumption that she knew the spell inside-out could end up in disaster. She was dealing with dangerous powers here. A misstep could mean death, or insanity, or several worse things which again, she used mind-control to avoid contemplating.
Kevron's servant knocked at the door less than a minute after she rose from her study, which confirmed her suspicion that every move was being watched in a scrying bowl somewhere. Still, in a way this was good; it meant she was unlikely to be interrupted in her work. A knock on the door at the wrong moment, even though she was trained to ignore such distractions, could again spell disaster.
After a surprisingly satisfying lunch from which she regretfully ate only sparingly, she began the magical preparations of her work area, warding the work area against magical intrusion; setting shields to contain any energies that went astray. She drew a wide circle, ten feet across, then a second, just inside the first to make a double-lined border with a six-inch gap. Slowly and painstakingly, murmuring formulae as she went along, she began to inscribe sigils in that border with a birch wand. Each sigil began to glow with a silvery glimmer as it was invoked. There were twenty four such symbols around the edge of the circle, and it was mid-evening by the time the last one was activated. The light spread as the circle was completed, connecting the symbols into a ring of pale light. Finrael stood and looked at the circle intently for several minutes, then gave a nod of satisfaction and a weary sigh.
On the second day, she took four pieces of coal, already specially prepared. She set each one at the compass points of the circle, drawing smaller circles around each. Standing at the circle's centre then, she began a lengthy spell. Power rose and congregated, focussed where she directed, and when darkness fell again, where each lump of coal had sat was now a perfect diamond; unfacetted, the size of a clenched fist, and completely perfect: each one was an unblemished crystal array ready to be infused with the spells she cast the following day.
For the next four days, Cedrin joined her in the circle. Finrael took no chances, and drugged the donkey to prevent her wandering off, or much worse, damaging the circle. Then she began to "read" the animal's physical shape, storing the information in the diamond spheres, gradually building up a complete picture of the jenny-ass in a way the magic could understand. Finrael limited the process to one diamond a day: she knew the act of reading could place a strain on the mind being read, and harming Cedrin further was no part in her plan. She methodically went around the compass points, filling the North crystal first, then working widdershins around the circle: West, South, East.
The seventh day was spent engineering the interstitial space: a pocket between universes where she could safely stow her soul. This was the most demanding stage of the procedure, and what she had worked on and perfected: this was her contribution to the art of shape-shifting. She took pride in the fact that only a strong mage could do it: driving a wedge of pure will power between two parallel frames of existence was Adept-level magic. When this was achieved, the breach had to be braced to prevent the unnatural compartment simply closing again, all whilst holding it open: Finrael likened this stage to holding the roof of a house above your head with one hand while you built the supporting walls with the other. The process was exhausting, and as her lips concluded the final stanza, she collapsed where she stood, waking two hours later on the cold stone floor with a blinding head-ache.
The only hitch she came across was on the eighth day when she went to ward the interstitial space against intrusion by other mages or other… things. Strange and frequently horrible creatures dwelt on the borders between realities. Few were actually evil, but they were so utterly alien that merely encountering one without adequate protections could cause great harm, beginning with babbling insanity and getting rapidly worse from that point.
She anchored herself by building a magical bond between her physical form and the large stones that formed the floor of her working space. Those stones were themselves similarly bonded to the bedrock beneath the cottage. There was no physical attachment: she was not stuck to the floor, but in a magical sense, she and the floor and the rock beneath identified as a single entity. That achieved, she cautiously projected her soul into her little interstitial pocket and began to wall the tiny space with protective wards, multi-layered and strong. She was only just begun when a sense of nameless dread fell over her. She thanked the Powers that her paradimensional training had been so thorough, for the only warning she had that something was approaching her was the sudden recollection of something undefined but very nasty, many years ago. She nagged at the memory, but it wouldn't clarify. It did seem to her though that perhaps it hadn't been so long ago as all that. Last year maybe. Or more recently? Winter solstice? Two or three months ago?
She realised what was happening with sudden alarm, as her mind shied away from recalling whatever it was that had happened just last week… four days ago… yesterday…
SHIELDS!!! She desperately flung up her defences as something like a huge, thirty-dimensional jelly-fish full of eyes intersected with her present as it swam out of her past toward her future. Fortunately it never noticed her, but her bubble was swept aside as the nameless, unthinkably vast titan rumbled by, tossing her about in its colossal wake. She whimpered as the dimensions rolled crazily about her, knowing that a sudden change in direction in this crazy place could permanently dislocate her place in time and space, swapping or confusing the two: she had heard the theory that ghosts were actually people whose physical movements caused them to advance or retreat along the axis of time. She clung to the fragile-looking bond between her and anchored body and knew that if she hadn't been so diligent, she would have been yanked from reality and forever lost. Working deftly though, she realigned her bubble, anchored it anew, and swiftly completed the powerful wards that would protect it against such incursions.
On the ninth day, after two hours of strenuous mind-focussing exercises to rid her of the recurrent nightmares she'd had all night (and thanking the Powers that she had no precognitive ability so she couldn't see the creature moving along her future) she began the ritual that would complete her work. In the centre of her circle, she placed a heavy stone block with a bowl-shaped cavity carved into its upper surface. In the cavity she placed a fist-sized ingot of lead. Summoning power, she began to reel off layered spells. The lead rippled and began to perspire droplets of liquid metal, then all at once, melted to lie in the bowl as a little pool of silver fluid. The surface rippled, and then drips began to fall upwards to hang in the air a foot above the crucible. Soon all the liquid had floated up and accumulated into a rough sphere of liquid, wobbling in the air.
She gestured, and the globule began to spin, flattening and widening as it did. A dimple grew in the centre and became a hole, so that the spinning fluid became a torus. The diameter grew as the spin increased and a thin ring of spinning liquid metal hovered there.
As she worked, the four diamonds began to glow, and streams of light began to extend from them, as if the ring were a unique kind of moon drawing a tide of energy from each crystal. The four streams began to spiral toward the centre of the circle, meeting the ring which drew them in and began to glow itself. Brighter and brighter it grew until the diamonds were seemingly exhausted and fell dim. The last droplets of light were sucked into the brilliant ring, and it began to slow, slowly lowering toward the ground as it did so. The light faded, and Finrael held out a hand beneath it. The ring, now of bright gold and warm to the touch, landed gently in her palm: a band of yellow metal six inches across. To her mage senses, it sang with a bell-like tone, and her carefully wrought magic glimmered about it.
She dismissed the powers and broke the circle, crossing to a chair and slumping into it. Exhausted, she lost an hour or two gazing at the hypnotic pattern of magic twining itself about the ring, before slowly rising and going to find something to eat. She was ravenously hungry.
She ate from Kevron's latest sending, and that reminder brought to the fore once more the reason she had worked so diligently for the last week. Tomorrow, Lord Kevron would return, and she would have to do his bidding: to become an ass, infiltrate Caydaran's demesne and betray him. Ass indeed! she thought. And there's no way out.
She did however, think of one thing to improve matters, very slightly. Walking about unclothed as an animal, particularly one with a coat of long fur, did not perturb her: she felt no self-consciousness as an animal. Standing naked as a woman in front of Kevron and his men was not something she cared for however, and she knew just how to stymie that. If she transformed now, she would not have to suffer that one.
She was tired, but knew Kevron was likely to arrive early the following day. She could sleep as well in the form of an ass as she could as a human. She banked the fire, then stepped outside. A mischievous idea came to her, and she let herself into the make-shift stable she had prepared for Cedrin.
The little she-ass looked up briefly from the bedding straw she was munching, then with more interest as Finrael tossed fresh hay down in front of her, and filled two large bowls with grain. "We might be completely in his power," the mage told her, "But let us see if the two of us can't briefly dent his poise." Preparations made, she latched back the shed door, making sure it couldn't swing back and closed, the removed all of her clothing, shivering slightly as the cool evening air caressed bare skin. She place her clothing in the cottage, closed the door, and taking a deep breath, put the new band on.
It passed over her left hand with ease, then shrank to perfectly fit her wrist. A tingling feeling spread rapidly up her arm, spreading until her whole body buzzed with it. She gasped as the magic took hold of her and began to change her. There was a brief feeling of vertigo as the vital but slightly anticlimactic transfer of her persona to the interstitial pocket took place. She was reassured when, apart from that, there was no sign at all that her mind was not literally inhabiting her body any more: the para-planar bond between body and soul was strong and perfect.
The physical change began then, and she was proud of how gentle and almost graceful her transformation was compared to the horror of Kevron's technique. Everything changed at once, smoothly, with no pain and only a glowing warmth that flowed through her. Her torso began to grow, assuming a barrel shape, while her limbs changed proportion, becoming four sturdy, equine legs. As she descended gracefully to all fours, her fingers were replaced by small hooves. An ass's tail emerged from the base of her spine as her neck swelled and lengthened. Her head grew; ears lengthening immensely; nose and chin swelling out into a broad muzzle, and as all this took place, her skin darkened and thickened to a grey-brown colour, to be covered by a coat of thick fur, rust-brown all over, except for her belly which became a creamy colour, and a cross of darker fur over her withers.
The glowing feeling left her, and she knew the transformation was complete when the ring of gold, which had accommodated the increased width of her new forelegs, grew an extra two inches of diameter and slipped down to the ground. She carefully picked it up with her oddly thick lips and concealed it as best she could in a small bush growing at the side of the house. Not an ideal hiding place, but not a place anyone was likely to look.
Being a donkey was completely different from the goat form she had taken before. A goat was light and springy, whereas the donkey form was much heavier, but it was also much, much stronger. She could feel her strength as she experimentally stretched each limb in turn, feeling out the natural balance of the body. She could feel the weight of those huge ears, much more so than the floppy ears of the goat. The tail too felt completely different. She swished it vigorously, then in a studiedly more natural fashion, as if shooing flies. She lifted her head and tried braying, wincing at first at the huge volume of that coarse sound, so different from the bleating of a goat. She was amused when Cedrin answered from the shed, and modified her cry to mimic the other donkey. A problem with her technique was how little instinct for the new body she had. Ears and tail were very different and only the time she had spent as a goat (several weeks before she had dared to approach Caydaran's demesne) made her so proficient with these now. But in the main, a mammal was a mammal, and things generally worked as they always had done. Her limbs might be different lengths and proportions, but they answered her in the same fashion they always had. In a few short minutes, she was walking and trotting easily. She tried a quick gallop and though she stumbled a little, it wasn't difficult. Her eyesight was very different: colour and perspective were both quite different, but the mind tended to accommodate this fairly quickly: it was the independence of both eyes that took some getting used to. Still, once again, she had become used to this as a goat.
She returned to the stable and spent the rest of the day studying Cedrin and mimicking her as closely as she was able. She had to admit that after the rigours of magic, it was quite refreshing to be just an animal. To be sure, being an animal was dangerous: you gave up that the security and rights of being human. You were no longer an owner: you slipped into the category of property. Even facing someone as ruthless as Kevron, being human forced him to hesitate and think before he had his way with you. But becoming an animal, you gave up the bad with the good. Responsibility was gone: the pressure to always behave according to conduct and protocol. The leeway to behave on pure impulse was a heady freedom.
Of course, it wasn't quite that easy: she wasn't truly an animal. She was masquerading as one for a very specific reason and the "freedom" she felt was a tenuous illusion. But just for tonight…
Kevron returned in the morning as she had anticipated, and also as expected, he knew she had achieved success, for he came straight to the lean-to shed. There however, he halted with a slight frown. "Lady Finrael?" he asked, looking from her to Cedrin. She looked up at him with dull curiosity, as did Cedrin, then returned her muzzle to the manger, as did Cedrin. They swished their tales in unison, mutually protecting each other from a couple of optimistic flies.
Kevron smiled then. "All right then," he said with a nod. He entered the stall and made a thorough examination of each animal. She behaved just as Cedrin did, even when he quite deliberately lifted her tail to provoke a reaction. He tried several spells, and drew a complete blank, for to all appearances she was a normal donkey. The link to her interstitial hidey-hole was very well hidden and completely evaded him. And a subtle probe into her head revealed only what there should be, for in every physical sense she was an ass, right down to the contents of her skull: there was a complete and functional copy of Cedrin's brain that would cheerfully respond to any telepathic enquiry. A master stroke on her part was forcing herself to stale after about ten minutes of this. To her great delight, Cedrin, probably stimulated by the smell, followed suit about thirty seconds later, and Kevron obviously suspected the second animal of deliberately copying the first as a blind.
"Very clever, Lady Finrael," he applauded, addressing Cedrin, "But I believe I have you now."
Forcing her larynx, tongue, and lips to speak in human tongue, she gave a very human laugh. "Then I believe I pass the test, my Lord." Her voice sounded odd: rough and squeaky, but intelligible.
He swung around, startled, and then laughed too. "Indeed! I am extremely impressed, and I don't ever say that lightly. You have bested me at this game, my Lady, and there are few alive who can boast that." A quiver of foreboding ran along her spine. Whoops! This man has a serious problem with losing. He might have outwardly conceded her point gracefully, but the latent threat in that last utterance hinted that she might have made a mistake. "Come! We have a rendezvous to make. The horse trader who supplies Caydaran with his livestock has been prevailed upon to convey an extra animal. He will have no idea as to your true nature, and indeed, once you are smuggled into his caravan, I shall see that his memory is altered slightly to have no knowledge of our meeting. That way I can be sure there will be no danger of his warning Caydaran or Caydaran picking it out of his mind. And very usefully, I see I don't have to worry about him reading your mind. How do you do that?"
"You weren't reading my mind, my Lord," Finrael answered. "You were reading the mind contained within this body, and that isn't mine."
"Excellent!" he said, pleased. "However, just to be very sure we understand each other…" He signalled to his master at arms who approached and handed him something. "I believe you need this in order to change back into a human?"
Finrael stifled a cry as he held up the golden ring. "How did you..?"
"My dear Lady, you must have known you were being scryed the whole time."
She sagged. "Pretty stupid of me."
He shrugged. "I doubt you could have kept it from me had you known. But let us be clear about this: serve me faithfully and I will return this to you when Caydaran is defeated. Betray me and you'll wear an ass's form for the rest of your days. Do we understand each other?"
"I understand, my Lord," she said dully. Subconsciously, her long ears flopped dispiritedly.
"The plan is very simple. You should arrive at Caydaran's demesne tomorrow morning. You will play your part as convincingly as you did for me just now. You will doubtless be stabled for the night within the domestic barn in the main household. When night has fallen and everyone has retired for the night, you will invite me and my men to join you. That is all you have to do."
She nodded. It was exactly like when she had invited him across her own threshold a week ago. Caydaran's people would willingly and deliberately take her in past Caydaran's house-wards. She would then, magically speaking, be a guest of Caydaran and able to invite her own "guests" safely past the wards. It would only be necessary to speak the invitation aloud. Kevron would know when this was achieved, and she guessed he would then Gate his men straight into the house compound. "I want your assurance though," she said.
"Oh?" he sounded amused.
"Whatever you said a week ago, I'm not naïve. I know Caydaran is unlikely to emerge from this with his life and I accept that. Promise me there'll be no unnecessary bloodshed though."
He looked at her. "My Lady, I'm not known for frivolity. There will be no unnecessary bloodshed."
The emphasis was plain and she sighed. "You hold my life," she said. "I have no lever over you."
"That is true," Kevron said. "Remember it."
Fedoran was a heavyset man of brutish features. Nevertheless, he was clearly very wary of Kevron and not happy to be imposed on in this fashion.
"A trader's reputation is built on trust, my Lord," he said. "If I betray Caydaran, who will trust me? I'll be ruined. Please, my Lord!"
"Goodman Fedoran, I understand your concern, but I assure you your part in this will be minimal and nobody will have any knowledge of your involvement, if you can call it that. As for your business, well, I detest being unpleasant, but wouldn't going against my trivial request be equally bad for business?"
Fedoran paled but looked like he was about to argue.
"Such fine horses you have here," observed Kevron. "But so few. Just ten?"
"Ten of the best," asserted Fedoran defensively. "Lord Caydaran cherishes quality over quantity. It takes time to raise such animals as these, and I pick only the best from the Northern herds."
"I'm sure you do, but I could help you out here. Isn't that your daughter over there?" He turned to regard a pretty young girl of about fifteen watering one of the horses. "Think how much money another quality mare might bring." Kevron raised a finger which began to glow and shed a nimbus of dark sparks. Finrael knew it to be theatricality, but had no doubt the threat was a serious one. "In fact, with so many fine stallions in your caravan, she might even be with foal by the time she's delivered. Wouldn't that raise her value?"
"Please, my Lord! No!" begged Fedoran in a strangled tone. "Please, I'll do it! I'll take this animal in! Spare my daughter!"
Kevron lowered his hand. "Very well, though I'm surprised at a trader turning down an honest opportunity for profit."
Finrael was already wearing a rope head-collar. Fedoran hobbled her forelegs too which she had half expected, but then surprised her by strapping something like a stiff leather apron over her hind quarters. It had an overpowering scent of something like peppermint that made her wish she could pinch her nostrils shut.
"Sorry for the chastity belt, girl, but there's no profit in you being with foal when I sell you. This'll keep the boys off your back."
The small caravan, consisting of three wagons and about twenty assorted animals including ten fine horses and five small donkeys, continued on along the road. Kevron wiped Fedoran's memory of the encounter as soon as he was out of sight, and that of his family: Finrael felt the telltale magic and saw the humans' expressions turn slightly confused for a moment.
They walked all day at a slow pace so as not to tire the animals. Finrael concentrated on being a donkey until it became second nature. She plodded along, head nodding, ears flopping; tail swishing against the flies that began to gather. It didn't take long before perspiration had pushed aside the last lingering scent of humanity from her side and replaced it with unadulterated donkey. The other animals didn't bother her, beyond one curious stallion who took an injudicious sniff in the direction of her rump and then fled with his nostrils flaring and his ears back. She almost felt sorry for him.
She almost didn't recognise Caydaran's demesne when she saw it. Always before she had seen it from above and not from the road level. About a mile from Caydaran's front gate, a pair of tall columns with warning glyphs inscribed upon them marked the boundaries of his lands. Before the columns was an open patch of ground and a well. The caravan circled off the road and into this open area with long-accustomed casualness. The wagons formed a circle while Fedoran's sons erected a picket line almost before the last wheels had stopped turning. Horses and donkeys were rounded up and secured to the picket line, Finrael among them. Collapsible leather bowls were brought out and a little feed spilled into all of them.
Finrael aped the other animals and tried to push her muzzle into the bucket before it reached the ground, greedily eating up the contents. It was grain with a few bits of chopped vegetable and she was surprised to find she liked it.
After the meal, the animals were led in twos and threes to the well, and water was hauled up for them. Finrael was mildly amused to be led there by Fedoran's daughter. If only you knew, girl, she thought. You came within a hair's breadth of being tied to that picket line yourself.
As she quenched her thirst from another bucket, her long ears caught a faint tinkling and chiming, and she raised her dripping muzzle hurriedly. A hundred yards away, one of Caydaran's crystal sentinels was drifting along, lazily. It looked like an escaped wind-chime, or a chandelier: a small cluster of diamond pendants forming a "head", with several longer "chimes" suspended beneath. It caught the light as it moved; its constituent parts slowly swirling and flashing rainbows. It was a sinister creation, but a beautiful one. Finrael wondered how they attacked: she had never seen it happen.
Fedoran's daughter watched the sentinel nervously and patted Finrael's neck. "Easy, girl," she said. "Nothing to worry about." Finrael wondered who she was trying to calm.
Night fell: evidently any trading was planned for the morning. The humans retired to their caravans, two of Fedoran's sons standing guard. They stood on the side of the encampment furthest from Caydaran's sentinels. While it made sense and they were on the side most likely to be threatened by bandits or wild animals, Finrael didn't think that was the reason. The sentinels could hardly be seen in the dark, but every so often, they would catch a glimmer of light from the campfire and a rainbow glint would reveal their presence.
Finrael didn't feel like trying to doze on her feet as some of the other animals were. She lay down on the hard earth and tried to make her donkey body as comfortable as she could. If only there had been a way to hide her ring! She hoped Kevron wouldn't be foolish enough to put it on: keyed precisely to her morphic pattern, there was no telling what might happen if someone else tried to wear it.
Would he give it back to her after this ordeal was over? She thought he would: he wanted the secrets of her magic from her: it would make sense to humour her and keep her happy until that was accomplished at least. And after tomorrow night, she rather thought her prospects of employment or apprenticeship would be zero. Kevron would be the only one she could turn to, and though he was a sadistic man, he also had a strong pragmatic streak: hopefully the prospect of another mage bound to his service was not to be wasted.
But if he decided not to give it back? What then? It seemed he took pleasure in acts of wanton transformation. What if his pleasure at seeing her trapped, still intelligent, in an ass's body outweighed her use to him?
It was late indeed before she slept, and her dreams were troubled.
The next day dawned fine and warm, and Fedoran and his family were up early. Every animal was groomed to look its best: even Finrael. After the uneasy night, she had to admit it felt good to be brushed all over. When that was done, everyone stood waiting. There was such an air of expectation that the animals picked it up too, and when a distant chime came from Caydaran's demesne, all eyes turned instantly.
A large group of people left the gates of the holding. Leading them was a man and a woman. The man was tall and carried such an air of authority about him that Finrael knew even before she sensed his aura that this was Caydaren.
He was white-haired, but not old. His face was serious but a comment from the beautiful woman at his side made him smile and his features transformed so that he appeared to shed twenty years in an instant.
He and the woman (Finrael assumed, correctly, that this was his wife) were accompanied by a retinue that seemed to be composed of men-at-arms and grooms. Caydaran greeted Fedoran as an equal which startled Finrael slightly. She felt her heart sink as she realised the mage was making a favourable impression on her.
No! she thought. Be evil! Show yourself to be another sadistic monstrosity like Kevron so I can betray you without a qualm! She knew it wasn't going to happen. Caydaran had a reputation for kindness and wisdom. She just hadn't witnessed it first hand before.
Caydaran obviously had an eye for horseflesh, as he personally deliberated over each animal. Not that he was disappointed: Fedoran appeared to be an honest trader, or didn't fancy his chances of fooling a master mage. The quality of his animals was excellent and Caydaran bought them all one by one. Then it was her turn. She found herself holding her breath. Supposing he didn't buy her? Supposing the donkey that Cedrin had become had some flaw she'd missed? After all, what did Finrael know about donkeys, when it came right down to it? They eat thistles and go Hee-Haw.
It was far too late to worry about it now, but worry she did. What would happen if Caydaran passed her over? Kevron's ploy would fail because of her, and she had little doubt she would carry the blame in some fashion. Her chances of being given her ring back in that case was slim, unless Kevron could be bargained with: he was very interested in her magic.
"Oh, yes," Caydaran chuckled. "We'll have this one." He had a very soft voice, but somehow it carried.
"She's adorable," his wife agreed. "I might even steal this one for the children to ride. Look at that intelligent expression, and those adorable eyes! Let's call her Brighteye!"
But Caydaran gave Finrael a most peculiar expression and said in a musing tone, "No, no. Don't name her yet. Let's see how she does for a day or two."
His wife glanced at him with a single eyebrow raised, but she seemed to accept this.
What's going on? Finrael thought worriedly. Did he just penetrate my disguise?But if so, why isn't he calling me out, or destroying me?
She hated this subterfuge. She had hated it before, from the moment Kevron had outlined his plan, but now it was even worse. Finrael, girl, what are you doing?
Fedoran was paid, quite generously from what Finrael could see, and then the newly purchased animals were each led away by a stable man (a well-dressed stable man, she noticed).
Kevron had been right. The demesne was split into sections. A stone wall about ten feet high surrounded the whole, suffused by warding spells, and within, a residential area and a much larger, open area which apparently contained barracks and a small farm. Finrael guessed that with a little magical encouragement, the farm could probably supply the whole community's food needs.
Most of the horses, donkeys and five quality cattle were led toward this larger section. The remaining animals (and Finrael let out a silent prayer of thanks to the Powers that this included her) were led inside another wall and into the residential area. She wasn't quite sure how else to describe it. It was a single building, and home to many, but it wasn't really a house, or a castle. More like a very condensed town, with separate houses having their own doors into a single "street" that spiralled in toward a large central courtyard, but all the structures were really part of one. The overall apparance was much softened by the generous use of ornamental plants in tubs and window-boxes everywhere.
Finrael had chosen an isolated cottage to live in partly for privacy and secrecy, but also because she couldn't stand the noise and the filth of towns, but this place, she mused, might just change her mind.
And it was so friendly! An atmosphere of cheerful bustle filled the place. There was much activity, and chatter and laughter filled the street. Children played. Caydaran was hailed several times in an astonishingly familiar way by people Finrael assumed were mere servants. And Caydaran responded in kind, even stopping to swap pleasantries and a joke with a large man who appeared to be a baker or a cook. The man gave the mage a huge slap on the back as they parted, laughing loudly. Finrael imagined someone doing that to Kevron. The unfortunate wretch would have been a fatted pig or worse before the minute was out.
The central courtyard was a huge open area with doors and stairs in all directions. An ornamental water feature in the middle created a pleasant splashing which cleverly damped the sound of a hundred people going about their work in an enclosed space. Finrael looked at it and admired the simple spell woven around it.
She and the other animals were led toward a wide double door. Her nostrils flared as the detected the scent of other animals and the smell of food, straw, and sawdust. It was unmistakably a stable and a large one, but very clean.
"Let them rest today," Caydaran instructed. "They've been on the road a long time. Start the asses in the mills tomorrow, and tell Tamara and Jessarn I'd like their opinions on the two palfreys. I think it's time little Catheira had a proper horse, and that beloved pony of hers has earned an honourable retirement." With this, he departed with his wife and some of the other men into the main building on the opposite side of the courtyard. Finrael noted which door as she was led into the stables.
Again, she was favourably impressed. Caydaran obviously thought the world of the animals that worked for him. Each and every animal had its own stall, clean and bedded in deep straw. The aisle-ways were carpeted in sawdust. There were horses here: fine saddle horses and a variety of small but expensive-looking ponies. Finrael speculated that perhaps Kevron couldn't scry here, since he hadn't thought there were horses in the main compound. Donkeys did form the majority here though, and she wondered what they were all used for. They all appeared healthy, and so far as she could tell, content.
Somewhat to her surprise, she and the other newcomers were led straight past all the stalls to a double door at the rear of the stables, which gave out onto a short alleyway and a set of small paddocks. There, she and the others were stripped of hobble and head-collar and turned loose.
She mimicked the others carefully as they kicked their heels up, or rolled in the grass, or headed straight for the water trough which was the first thing she did. The stone trough was fed by a little spigot that emerged from the rear wall of the stables. Finrael wondered where the water came from: it was cold and fresh.
Then followed a long day for the pretend donkey. She was patient; this was little different from the days she had spent as a goat, carefully grazing a little closer and a little closer to Caydaran's demesne all day. What made it torturously difficult was the heavy knowledge of the act of betrayal she was to perform that night.
Her heart really wasn't in it. She had thought herself fairly ruthless as she had diligently studied magic all her life, and as she had developed her transformation spell. She had driven herself and spared little thought for anyone else as she did so. But now she came to think about it, she realised that while she might have seemed dedicated and perhaps a little selfish to those who knew her as she grew up, she had never done anything evil. She had never harmed anyone: not even the animals she had needed to study for her spell. The sacrifice had all been her own. She had never spared much thought for others, but then there hadn't been many people in her life. She had spent most of the last two years living alone.
Now, through her direct actions, harm would come. Worse: though she had tried to remain dispassionate and aloof, Caydaran and his people had impressed her. There was an atmosphere of constructive industry and content here. It was overwhelmingly a good place, and it was her mission to bring an end to that.
She tried to fool herself: it was only Caydaran that Kevron wanted. Perhaps having secured that goal, Kevron would depart and these people could go on living as they were. Yes, and my manure turns to gold, she told herself scornfully. Kevron would dominate this place, and she had no illusions about what sort of leader he was.
But I want my ring back! Kevron would have found another way into this place eventually. What was to follow was inevitable. It was the way of the world. The strong and the ruthless dominated the weak and the meek. Right?
She spent an entire day failing to convince herself. The closer nightfall came, the worse she felt about her coming role, until she gave herself a headache and colic. Her distress was noticed when she was brought back into the stables with the other newcomers, and the head groom was sent for. He probed her flanks with firm fingers, examining her all over with embarrassing thoroughness.
"A bit of impacted," he opined to one of the other grooms. "Probably isn't used to good grass in such quantities. I can't see anything else wrong with her: she's a good healthy animal. We'll try a paraffin drench and I guess Caydaran had better be told: you know how he likes to be kept appraised of stuff like this."
A couple of hours later, Finrael stood in her stall, and thanked the powers that self-consciousness wasn't one of her failings. The paraffin drench had definitely not been an experience she would treasure, although she was quite sure she wouldn't forget it in a hurry. The administration had been unpleasant: she had been held firmly whilst a hose was forced down her throat, into which a quantity of paraffin had been poured through a funnel. This had not been much fun, but what followed was an exercise in humiliation as the oil had made a rapid transit through her digestive tract and given her half an hour of runaway diarrhoea, and if that hadn't been bad enough, the whole performance had been diligently watched the whole time.
Now she stood in freshly replaced bedding, head hanging, and her arse smarting from its unaccustomed exercise. This is as bad as it gets, she told herself miserably.
A shadow fell across her. The stable was efficiently lit with mage-glows: an easy cantrip that most people could cast without much effort. A tall figure stood at the gate to her stall, and it took her a moment to focus her donkey vision on it. Caydaran!
"And how is it with you, little sister?" he asked gently.
She carefully responded as she thought a real donkey would: idle curiosity, lifted head, pointed ears. Inwardly, she was close to panic. What is he doing here?
"I know just how you feel," he told her in a sympathetic tone. "I've been in your situation a time or two."
It was, barely, plausible that Caydaran cared so much for his animals that he had come down to personally ascertain for himself that his new acquisitions were settling down comfortably. Or he might know exactly who and what she was, which she would have said was far more likely, but if that was the case, why wasn't he acting against her? Surely he knew what a dire threat she was?
"Just relax a little," he said, still in a tone which left her guessing. "Have a carrot or two. Do no more than you have to, and everything will be fine by the morning. Just act as comes naturally." He smiled then; a boyish grin, nodded to her, and left.
What in the name of the Abyss was that about? she thought. She could not believe that had been a simple visit to look in on a sick animal, and yet, if it wasn't, why had he not done anything? There had been no attempt to even verify whether she was sentient, let alone arrest her, kill her, or otherwise render her powerless. And if he knew, had that been tacit encouragement to go ahead? She winced as her bowels heaved afresh and she was just able to shift her hindquarters into one corner of the stall before the last of the paraffin made its exit.
It was deep night now. Finrael had been worried she wouldn't be able to stay awake but such as things were, sleep was a ludicrous proposition. The stables had quietened down, and the only noise outside for some time had been the gentle splashing of the fountain.
Now or never, Finrael thought, deeply unhappy. She did not want to do this, but she also did not want to spend her life as a beast of burden. The idea of letting Kevron lose in this demesne made her feel ill, but she couldn't stay like this, living in a stable as a work animal, working some treadmill for hour after exhausting, monotonous hour (not that any animal here looked exhausted, but still…). And Caydaran had practically encouraged her to go ahead, hadn't he? Just act as comes naturally.
She drew a deep breath, opened her mouth… and couldn't do it. She tossed her head, frustrated and again drew breath. And again she let it go, unable to make herself voice the invitation.
And then she felt a brief moment of curious dizziness, and completely against her own will, felt her lungs draw breath and her donkey voice clearly state, "I invite Lord Kevron and those who serve him to cross the wards of this demesne and be welcome here." The dizziness departed, and shock took its place. The bastard! Kevron placed a geiss on me! Of all the stupid risks! No wonder Caydaran knew what I was. I must have practically glowed! But why didn't he do anything?
Too late now. The air in the stall began to throb and a disturbance began to form in the air before her. A Gate was opening, and she felt a wave of nausea as the unnatural linkage between here and there was forced open. She tried to back away in sudden fear: she was too close! The confines of the stall prevented her though: the confined magical shockwave caught her full on as the Gate solidified all at once.
Men began to spill from the dark opening: men wearing padded armour and helmets, and all armed with repeater cross-bows. Quickly they fanned out, silently opening the stall door and spreading out down the aisle. Animals stirred curiously as first ten, then twenty, and finally forty men emerged from the Gate and took up positions around the stables. Finally, Kevron himself stepped through the Gate, dispelling it behind him.
Looking around him, he spied the dazed ass and smiled. "Excellent work, my Lady." At that moment, there was a disturbance at the door. A groom entered the stables, and had time for little more than a confused and fearful, "Hey, who..?" before he was cut down by a hail of deadly bolts. He fell without a cry.
Finrael saw this in horror, and tried to protest through the fog that filled her brain. "No! You said… you said..?"
Kevron turned and looked at her. "No unnecessary bloodshed? Absolutely, my Lady. I'm afraid though that the death of every man, woman, and child in this demesne is absolutely necessary though. An example must be made."
Sickened and horrified, she could only watch as Kevron's men silently began to move out of the stable, spreading out into the courtyard beyond. Sick and dizzy from Gate-shock, she staggered after them, desperately trying to think of any piece of magic that might help, and that she could cast in this form. Nothing came to mind - befuddled as she was, she doubted she could have worked a simple mage-glow. Witless, sick and dizzy, she could only watch in horror as Kevron's men spread out, silently, efficiently, taking their time. Some entered doors. More of them filed down the alleys and the main street toward other areas of the compound.
I've got to raise the alarm! she thought, but how?
The solution was obvious: so obvious that even her shock-dazed mind could cope with it. Staggering into the relative safety of a neatly stacked pile of straw bales, she drew a deep breath, and without stopping to think about the consequences, she let out an ear-splitting bray.
She was startled by her own volume, and was aided by the shape of the courtyard and the surrounding buildings: the sound echoed and bounced off walls, sounding like a whole herd of asses. Apparently no one had seen her hide, and the confusing echoes hid her location as she brayed peel after peel.
Kevron spun, cursing, trying to find her and not immediately succeeding, while lights flickered into being all over the demesne, and voices rose in query and complaint. Some unfortunate ran into Kevron's men and there was a scream of agony: short-lived but enough to betray the attackers. Instantly there were shouts of alarm, and as Kevron's men nervously backed up, weapons seeking targets, there came from the building in front of them a sonorous chime, like a huge gong. The sound repeated, and it seemed to Finrael, who had now fallen silent and was praying she wouldn't be found, that there was something extra to the sound: a residual chime, much higher. It was a sound she knew, and as her sluggish thoughts struggled to identify it, it was answered in kind from a dozen directions. Then the sentinels arrived.
They descended lazily from the sky, evidently having simply lifted over the walls. Reaching the courtyard, they began to buzz and chime, their crystal components lighting with rainbow glows. A ray of light stabbed out and caught one invader, and he instantly fell to the ground, as if someone had cut the strings of a puppet. More rays stabbed out. Finrael watched amazed as one actinic beam passed through a stone buttress without harming it and felled the soldier cowering behind it. Other beams stabbed at the walls, presumably seeking, and finding, targets within the building itself.
Kevron, snarling, fell back. He hastily erected a shield which did actually ward off the deadly beams, but Finrael could see the shield wouldn't last long; certainly not long enough to summon another Gate, assuming he could do that while maintaining the beleaguered shield. And then Finrael saw him delve into a pocket and produce something that shone gold in the light of the courtyard glows.
"NO!!!" she screamed as Kevron hastily shoved the gold ring over his own wrist. The effect was immediate and catastrophic. As his remaining men were efficiently eliminated, Kevron clutched his wrist and gave an agonised cry. Tendrils of green lightning wreathed his arm as the complex spell in the ring struggled to address a foreign entity.
Didn't I tell him I could only transform myself? She stared, aghast, as the tentacles of green light surrounded Kevron's whole body. He began to change, but the spell had been bound to Finrael's intrinsic self, and could not key properly to the man who had sought a last desperate avenue of escape. His body hunched over, swelling as his arms became forelegs, and his face swelled into a donkey's muzzle. He screamed, obviously in extreme pain, and the sound was half-bray. For an instant, outlined in the livid green light, there staggered a female donkey, twin to Finrael. Eyes wide with terror, the animal reared and froze. There was a brilliant flash of emerald and then a stunning silence.
Finrael blinked desperately against burning after-image, braying in terror as someone placed a hand against her neck.
"Easy! Easy," reassured a soft voice. She recognised Caydaran. "The threat is over. You did more than I could ever have asked."
"What..?" she stammered, too stunned to think about concealing her identity.
"That is one impressive spell you have upon you," he continued. "It certainly fooled my sentinels, and would have fooled me too but for the fact that I'm a suspicious type and Fedoran brought me one more animal than I ordered and couldn't account for it. I owe you a bit of an apology. I wasn't sure whether you were friend or foe, but I knew you had to be some sort of ploy from Kevron, and this seemed to be the best way to raw him out into the open. I'm afraid I laid a geiss upon you. Had you been Kevron's willing agent, you'd have invited him in regardless, but I couldn't take the chance you might be being coerced into coming here and suffering second thoughts."
Her vision was slowly clearing, as was her head. She stared at the spot where Kevron had been standing, seeming to see a shadowy form there. "You laid the geiss upon me?"
The white-haired mage smiled and shrugged disarmingly. "It got the job done." "But that groom… and there must have been others killed or wounded…"
"I lost three very good men," he agreed soberly. "How many do you think would have perished if I'd met Kevron on equal terms on neutral ground? Here, on my ground, I had a massive advantage. Kevron gambled that I would be complacent. He lost."
Her sight finally yielded. She stared. "That's Kevron?"
Apparently rooted to the spot was what appeared to be a crude statue of a donkey, caught in the act of rearing. The figure was formed from some dull, black material that looked like basalt. Wisps of grey smoke rose from cracks here and there. The expression on the animal's face was one of enduring horror. And about its left foreleg, a ring of the same, smoking black material.
"My ring," she choked in dismay.
"Ah," Caydaran said, sadly. "I did wonder. You developed the spell? And let me guess; it was keyed to your morphic signature and yours alone?"
She nodded mutely and approached the grotesque statue. There was an acrid burning smell and she could feel the heat radiating from it. Cautiously, she blew on the remnants of the ring, and it crumbled into smoking ash.
"Did you need the ring to change back?" Caydaran guessed.
Numbly, she told him of her work: her crowning achievement: the pinnacle of her life. "I guess I deserve to be an ass," she concluded, bitterly.
Caydaran considered. "No, I don't think so," he told her. "And there are few spells in this world that are irrevocable unless intended to be so. Did you take deliberate steps to make this spell permanent?"
"It won't wear off, if that's what you mean."
"No, I mean does your spell actively resist attempts to revoke or counteract it?"
"No," she admitted, feeling a ray of cautious hope.
"Then would you permit me to work toward returning you to your human form, in exchange for learning your amazing new magic?" he asked.
"It will take months. Maybe even years," she protested, dismayed at the task.
"True, but your human intellect is in tact and from what you say, unlikely to deteriorate. There is no need to live as a beast or in the stable. I can have a room adapted for you. I'm talking here about offering you an apprenticeship."
"You'd take a donkey as an apprentice?"
He laughed openly. "My lady: I have had apprentices before. Most of them believe themselves to be the hottest item since Myrlin. Sometimes it takes months before they realise what an ass they are. You have a considerable head start. What do you say?"
Finrael was surprised to feel her mood lifting into newfound optimism and she accepted the unexpected offer with enthusiasm.
Kevron howled in frustration from the prison of his mind. What had happened to him? He could see and hear, but his body was numb and frozen; locked into the form of this hideous statue.
Seeking some escape, he turned his mind within, trying to determine how it was that his mind still survived. Ah! A link; a strand of will, linking his petrified body to his floating mind, located… where?
Ah, again! This was what that cursed girl had spoken of: a shadowy half-way dimension between realities. And beside him..! A sphere: a crystal bubble in which he could clearly sense Finrael's soul, completely oblivious to him. He floated insubstantially beside it.
Gathering his will, he attacked it, focussing all his malice and desire for revenge on the subject of his hate. But the bubble resisted him, adamantine, reflecting his attacks indifferently, leaving the inhabitant completely unaware of him.
But there were other things here, he suddenly realised: things attracted to the noise of his attack: curious things. Things best left undescribed: things that undermined his sanity just to perceive them. The things began to close, hungrily. He fled back to his own reality, locked anew in the unyielding statue his body had become. There was nowhere else, and he was aware that he had little time to make a desperate choice: to cast his mind into interstitial space to exist as a tiny morsel drifting among the hungry horrors there, or to bond his mind to this petrified body, to forever haunt the body of a petrified ass.
NO! he screamed silently. I am Lord Kevron! I am the strongest mage in the land! There has to be some other option! There has to be!
But there wasn't, and the phantom touch of a para-planar tentacle drove him to desperately take the only option really open to him.
Sooner or later, everyone makes an ass of themselves.