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by Devon Erthshade

Just under the wire... and yes, it's lame. It's also an attempt at a double-play for categories 2 and 4... *sigh* would that I had more time to edit it, but I have to get to work...

(Note from Phaedrus:  Devon later did a newer version of this story for Category 4, Backlash.)

A stiff wind blew across the plains of Deamos, carrying the first seeds of what promised to be a harsh winter. It wound around trees, ripping away leaves which had not fallen sensibly to the ground. It picked its way through Saladore village, whistling through open passages and screaming when shutters blocked its path. Nearing the end of its run, the wind passed through the window of a tower a distance from the town, into the scowling face of the wizard Athair.

Even in the best light and under happier circumstances, Athair could hardly be described as handsome. Wiry black hair heavily streaked with silver hung over a craggy face, deep-set faded blue eyes peered wearily beyond a hawklike nose. A lean build -- almost skeletal -- was hidden somewhat by his baggy clothing and the midnight-blue cloak he wore.

Athair fingered the clasp on the cloak as he turned from the window to look at the body which lay on the bed convulsing. The look of disgust and annoyance renewed itself upon the mage's features at the sight. He raised a finger at the shivering mass, whispered a spell, and quickly stepped to the door. A cloud of noxious vapors tried to follow him, but after being denied by the closed door, drifted to the open window where it was carried away by the air current.

The ground was firm, another herald of the season to come, and Athair hurried over it as if winter were at his very heels. He wrapped his cloak tighter about him as his eyes darted to and fro, seeking something on the landscape. Saladore was far enough away to make walking a not insignificant problem. But perhaps Athair wouldn't need to go that far...

A figure was dashing through the barren trees off the road to his right. Athair watched the brown shape carefully, then raised his hand in its direction. The body jerked in midstride and fell to the ground. Walking over to it, Athair saw it to be a young man clad in layers of rags, brown-haired like most of the residents of Saladore. The mage squinted at the youth, then nodding his satisfaction gestured at the inert form and began trudging home. Slowly, the body rose into the air and followed the tracks back to the tower.

Once there, the wizard opened the door and impatiently waited for the body to float inside. Muttering to himself he waved it over to rest upon the bed as he wandered about the room closing windows. At the last one he paused; it was not to admire the view, because that was obstructed by a parchment which had flown into his face. Peeling it off, he finished closing the window and looked at it with disdain. His changed to one of shock and perhaps even fear as he read the letters upon it.

Wizard Athair:

The council has recently been informed that you use human beings as channeling vessels. As our relations with the mortal realm are unstable and the age of magick upon this world is ending, you are advised to find vessels other than humans to help preserve our good standing. Should you choose not to do this, the council shall have little choice but to remove you from this Realm.

Good day.

Galfin, Archmage of the Wizard's Council

Athair crumpled the parchment and looked nervously at the body on the bed, asleep. Long moments passed in contemplation, the wizard alternately rubbing his chin and pacing about the room. Sometimes when he strode by the bookshelf he would scan the titles. At one such pass he stopped in his tracks and went wide-eyed, whipping his head back and forth between the shelf and the unconscious figure on the bed. An insane grin spread like wildfire across his features, and he pulled down the tome marked 'Morphological Incantations'.

The wizard flipped rapidly past the magickal creatures, the insects, the reptiles and avians, slowing at the mammals. Rodents were hardly given a second glance, mustelids and ursines as well. Aquatics were completely skipped. Athair stared long at the ungulates, finally dismissing them with a turn of the page. Felines were given similar treatment. Finally, a shaking finger traced down a list of canids, and stopped at one peculiar entry.

Athair grinned to himself like a child who had found his Christmas presents a month early. Quickly he read the spell requirements, and his left eyebrow raised. The requirements were few, and no preparation was needed. Snapping the book closed and tossing it on his desk with a smirk, he snuffed the lamps with a gesture and strode confidently over to the sleeping form. The aged wizard raised his arms, spread wide in a gesture of summoning. The chant began slowly, the pulses of magick weak while Athair found the pace. Once his rhythm established itself, he bowed his head and closed his eyes.

This turned out to be a mistake, for at that moment the young man known as Meren awoke. Looking about himself, he eyed the darkened room warily, the wizard to his back. Turning over, he saw the cloaked figure looming over him, glowing with an unearthly light. It didn't take a genius to figure out what to do then; he screamed.

The chanting broke off abruptly. Athair's eyes flew open wide in surprise as he raised his head to see the moving figure. A moment later the look went from surprise to panic as he saw his fingertips pulsing erraticly with uncontrolled magick. Athair resumed chanting, but was tripping over the syllables in his hast to reweave the spell. The magelight from his fingers flickered and faded, leaving the room in darkness once again.

A loud impact was heard. The lamps on the cluttered desk flared to life, illuminating the wizard sprawled over it. Regaining his composure, Athair turned to the lad who was then rising to his feet in bewilderment... and saw the black nose and whiskers. The mage stared; his spell had worked after all!

Meren stared back at his captor, his expression of confusion giving way to one of fear and awe, then puzzlement; while he had heard stories of the great wizard Athair who lived in his tower, no description of the magick-worker had made mention of his pointed ears, nor the oddly slitted eyes which shifted color from blue to green...

The meaning of this confused look became apparent to Athair when a sharp pain hit him in the face. His hands reflexively came up to cover his mouth, which was now an inch away from where it should have been. With a speed that belied his age he spun to dig for the book he had carelessly thrown. Once he found it, he almost literally began ripping through the pages, his growing claws gouging into the margins.

Meren left the mad mage to his work, instead opening the curtains about a window and peering outside, back at his home in Saladore. Pained longing crossed his face as he tried to pick out one particular home from the distance; irritation at his inability to do so became evident soon after, and he reached up to scratch his nose. Shock registered; for one thing, there was fur on his nose, and secondly, he had a lot more nose.

Papers flew from the direction of Athair as he searched for anything which would tell him how to reverse his change. He rose from the chair in some pain, stooped over from the alterations already made to his body. To relieve some pressure, he reached behind and ripped a hole in his trousers. A black-furred tail spilled from the tear to poke out from under his cloak. With that taken care of he stumbled to his bookshelves, seeking a cure there.

Several crashes of books hitting the floor and screams of anguish later, Meren's ears unflattened and he peered hesitantly at the source of the sounds. Ancient tomes were splayed about, fragile scrolls left trails of crumbled parchment as they bounced upon the floor, and amidst the rising dust huddled a sobbing cloaked figure. Shedding his battered and now too-warm coat, he made a stuttering walk to the weeping mage. Unsure of what to do, Meren placed a furry arm around Athair.

The shock of human -- or as close to human as Meren was -- contact brought Athair back to his senses somewhat. He looked at the youth in puzzlement, eyes wet, then rested his muzzle against the furred shoulder of his would-be familiar. The two shapes simply stood there, shrinking and shifting gradually, until a silver fox lay snuggling against a brown-furred fox with black gloves.

The two finally rose and stared at each other a moment. The silver one yipped and darted for the door, the brown close on his heels as they raced out the door. Winter was coming and they needed to fatten themselves, but right then, play was the order of the night.

Copyright 1997: "Devon Erthshade" <coyote@uss.net> . If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first.       Thank you.

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