by Bill Kieffer
©2002 Bill Kieffer -- all rights reserved
The older boys hadn't seen him and Juan was grateful for that.
The one boy he had run into before was skipping stones across the lake. He wasn't doing so badly, sometimes skipping a stone three or four times before it plunked forever beneath the lily pad spotted surface, but the older boy was sour. His name was Roger and he was always sour. Juan suspected the teenager was sour because all the things he and his friends liked would leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth. Of course, Juan had only run into him before in school in front of witnesses, and even then the boy had been mean and aggressive.
Now, Roger was here with his four bully friends and there were no adults around.
A part of Juan was scandalized, Roger and his friends were playing hooky! His new school started earlier and let out earlier than the local high school, so Juan usually took this scenic route home from the bus stop without fear of the bullies that had once been the bane of his existence. But now that the weather was turning nicer, he was going to have to rethink his methods it seemed.
"We've gotta get out of Viet Nam," one of the boys in a tied-dye shirt complained. "It's the False Spirit War all over again." This caused some head nodding, although Juan thought the boy was wrong. Korea was about the evils of Pol Pot, an evil wizard who ate babies. Viet Nam was about keeping Brain-Washing Communists out of Asia, or so his father said.
Juan watched from the bushes as Roger turned to the boy, shaking his dirty hair out of his eyes with a twitch. Roger twitched a lot when he wasn't yelling and Juan was sure that was because the teenager was a hell spawned demon shoved into tight human skin, skin that twitched as it came close to bursting open. Mrs. Mallory said Juan's imagination was overactive, but then she had never met Roger. "Your Dad still threatening to enlist you in the Army when you turn 18, Pete?" Roger smirked as he saw his friend squirm.
"C'mon, he can't MAKE you do that."
"Man, you don't know my dad!" Pete threw his hands up in the air. "He gets invited to Elder Commissions. He could cast a spell on me and make me sign up!"
"Bullshit," a third boy called out, "Mind control's a myth, Petey."
"Yeah," Roger snapped and then he smirked again, "Besides if he could make you do something he'd get you to cut your hair."
"Yeah," the fourth friend agreed, laughing, "Or make you get a job."
"Or make you vote Republican."
"Or get you to stop fucking your dog!" Roger roared with mirth, happy to see his friend's shocked expression. Happily, he flung the flat stone he'd been holding straight out into the woods instead of the lake, as the other boys snickered.
The missile missed Juan by several feet, but he still started and stood up with a gasp from his hiding spot. Immediately he realized his mistake and he froze as Roger's eyes met his from 30 feet away. He wanted to run, he'd outrun them before, but this time was different. This time his legs were lead and his whole body seemed to tighten.
"Hey!," Roger crowed, "It's the wetback!" Roger's posse of boys chuckled obediently and began to take their positions instinctively, like wolves. "You spying on us, Chico? We don't like dirty little 'Spic spies."
Fear surged through the 13 year old boy and he tried to run away, but something gripped his body. Something held him in place. It had the taste of magic, but he knew the bullies did not have the skill or the power to penetrate his wards. The more he panicked, the more Juan's body seemed to fight him.
Just before the boys surrounded him completely, Juan found the source of this predicament within his own mind. A single, pleasant musk-scented glow of thought and caring stared out of his human eyes and spoke to him.
*If we run, they will pursue.*
I can't fight them, Juan told the mind in his mind.
He felt phantom ears flop back, resolute. He felt legs shift, planting themselves, and he counted four limbs that were not his own. Woody's broad face flickered like a strobe across his mind. That wasn't right. He'd been unable to touch Woody's mind, the attempts at the school's barn had all failed.
*I can fight them, if I need to.*
The boys said things then but Juan could not understand them. It wasn't as if he'd forgotten his English, the way he would forget the tongue his Grandparents spoke until his mother would remind him of a Spanish word or two. No, these bullies were speaking gibberish as far as he could tell, and it made him angry to be teased so when something was very, very wrong.
They barked and babbled as Juan tried to figure out what was going on in his head. Then they started pushing at him and Juan found the image of Woody standing in his place, on his hind legs. Suddenly, Juan no longer feared for himself, but he feared for the simple beast taking his place.
The whole world changed when Roger pushed at them and they nearly fell over.
"Ai-yah!" Martial arts came to Juan, then, and he spun, letting his right foot land in Roger's chest. The older boy stumbled back a few feet and Juan moved in again. "Ai-yah!" And Roger's knee cap moved faster than his leg did, forcing the older boy to crumple like a house of cards.
One of the other boys tried to grab at him, but Juan bit his hand painfully.
The tallest boy drew a glyph in the air and without any thought at all Juan threw an old world glamour on the spell. It was something he'd seen his grandfather do once. No one used glamour in America and, therefore, the tall boy did not know what to do when the glyph appeared to rebel in front of him. The boy fought the glyph and it mutated under the illusion.
As the tall boy fought himself, Juan turned on the boys still standing. "EEE-YAW!" he screamed and kicked. "Eee-Yaw!"
"HEEE-YAW!" Juan dodged their punches but tripped when one of the boys caught his foot for a moment in mid-air. He fell face first into the bushes as the boys cursed nonsense syllables. Roger had just gotten up and was striding towards Juan when the abused glyph suddenly burst and the tall boy was consumed in mystic flame.
Juan kicked out with his hind legs and he felt ribs collapse beneath his hooves on impact. The world blurred. Juan became a whirlwind, then, kicking, kicking, kicking until his enemies fell.
"Hee-Haw!" the boy screamed at the still predators. "Hee-Haw! Hee-Haw! Hee-Haw!"
Woody stood behind him, kicking up his feet every now and then excitedly. "Something happened here," the Donkey said, "But I don't care! No more running, ever!" He turned to Roger and all the boys who had tormented him since his family moved here three years back. He pulled his ears back and brayed defiantly at them. "No more!"
"Hee-Haw! Hee-Haw! Hee-Haw!"
Backwoods Explorer poked his head out into their condo's common area where his herd-mates sat on the couch waiting patiently. They were just humans, so they weren't exactly herd-mates; they were his housemates, but they were also his best friends, and that was as close to herd-mates as Backwoods expected to get. "You all ready?"
"On with the fashion show," Eric encouraged. Cody and Flint nodded and smiled at Eric. If the donkey had any great respect for any of them, it was Eric. As nice as he was, he was the most vocal of the four and certainly a very powerful mage. Backwoods liked having him as a boss on the weekends, too, when they moved furniture. As a jack ass morph, Backwoods had always found it hard to find humans he could work with but Eric was an exception. He liked being around Eric. He doubted he could do college without Eric.
Without Eric, he doubted he'd even want to be in college. He'd probably be heading out to New Mexico to freeload at the Two-by-Four Ranch. They knew ani-mages there, and offered humanity's rejects, miscast herbivores like himself, a place to gather without worries.
Eric thought mages owed the world something. Maybe they did. Backwoods didn't really think so, but he liked the idea of having a mission and a goal in life, and Eric had given him that. He wasn't dependent on Eric of course. If he had to he could make decisions, but Backwoods really only made decisions when he felt strongly about something. When that happened, Eric was always quick to recognize the moment and he either bent to the ass' will or they argued.
Eric was good at arguing and his arguments were logical and to the point. If he couldn't convince Backwoods of his wisdom in a few moments, he gave up and moved unto something else. Backwoods liked that in a person and sometimes Backwoods would dig his hooves in and provoke an argument just for the challenge of it. Not too often though, just once in awhile to keep Eric sharp.
He smiled with his muzzle for the Mundanes, and his ears went up in a sincere equine response. Stepping back he looked into the mirror. He'd only been an ass-morph for two years now, having always been something of a late bloomer. And, in all honesty, he'd resisted the notion that there was a jack ass under his human skin where his soul should have been for several years.
What a stubborn fool he'd been!
Looking into the mirror, Backwoods saw himself. He was five and half foot tall and covered with dark gray fur, with a streak of white running down from his chest to his crotch. His ears were long and sexy, his favorite part of his own body. Even his brown sheath and ebony balls didn't seem as seductive as his ears. Ears were the first things he noticed about a jenny, too.
Blinking, he tried to recall what he looked like as a human. He couldn't, although he knew it was the oldest entry in his catalogue... if he really wanted to remind himself, he could call up the entry. He wouldn't even have to take the form, his inner eye would show him who he used to be.
Backwoods shuddered at the thought. The human had been a lie; a terrible lie he'd been told from the day he was conceived; a seductive and addictive lie. If he went back to living the lie... no, best not to think of that. There was no denying that the lie was a part of him and his life, however. The new catalogue entry was proof of that.
He thumbed the new entry with his mind and triggered the High Soul magic that made him an Ani-Mage. The image in the mirror flickered first and reality followed a split second later. Backwoods felt his own body being pulled gently as he became taller and his shoulders became broader. His muzzle shortened even as the fur fell away from his face, with only a slight sensation of pins and needles; his penis flopped forward as his sheath reformed into foreskin; his scrotum lightened as his genitals shrank a bit, but the strangest sensation for Backwoods was feeling his heels touch the ground again after two years of standing on a single hoof wrapped toe. His feet still had hooves, but they were more decorative than protective.
When the mirror and reality were in sync and in agreement, Backwoods touched his long, lovely ears to make sure they were still there, still the way they were meant to be. His ropy tail was also unchanged in the two second transformation.
He smiled in the mirror, a human smile, which his donkey ears answered with a smile of their own. This wasn't his human face, but a broad friendly one with light brown skin and a thick set of cheekbones. It was a Hispanic face, but it felt incredibly comfortable and homey in the mirror. Probably some stereotypical response leftover from his time as a white human male, but Backwoods felt the face belonged on this asinine form. Maybe he'd even grow this form a moustache... it seemed to cry out for one. It would make up for the loss of his sensitive hairs.
He stepped out so his herdmates could see him.
The stunned silence that filled the room wasn't what he was expecting. Cody's jaw hung loosely, Flint was frozen in mid polite gold clap, and Eric's face sorta frowned and twitched a bit. Backwoods put his hands on his furry hips and let his ears drop. "What?"
"You're... naked," Eric said, coming out of whatever had overcome him.
"Of course I'm naked. I'm always naked here."
"Yeah," Cody said, blushing. "But you look... more human now. Your face, your chest, your stomach... all much more human... plus your genitals..."
"They're fucking huge!" Flint burst out. "You trying to give us a complex or something?"
Backwoods looked thoughtfully down at the organs in question. "No... no, they're actually a bit smaller now."
"But it's human meat that's hanging between your legs now," Flint complained. "Before, your sheathe mostly... you know... hid your cock."
"Backwoods... man..." Eric said, a little nervously, "It's odd seeing expressions on your face... damn..."
"Donkeys have expressive faces." Backwoods was confused. "I don't understand."
Eric smiled at that. "I mean..." Eric glanced over at the other room-mates and then at the zoo-morph's form. "Tell you what, why don't you put on pants and see if they're comfortable with your... things like that."
That was a good idea, so Backwoods went into the converted garage that served as his room and found a pair of boxers and jeans, and then returned, frowning. "You're right... they feel a little constrained. I'll have to edit that. So what do you think otherwise?"
"It's handsome, Backwoods; don't get me wrong," Eric said carefully, "but are you sure you want people to treat you like a man?" Eric looked to the others for support and they, Cody and Flint, nodded sagely.
Backwoods' ears lifted in surprise and his new human face looked a little taken aback. "I am a man," he said a bit gruffly, stomping a hoof in mild irritation. "I've all my rights, you know."
"Yes," Eric said smoothly, "But you're still an ass."
Backwoods lifted one human eyebrow and watched as his herd-mates sat quietly waiting for the mage to respond. He knew they wanted him to joke with them and disperse the tension, but not only did he not really like puns, he was unhappy about the idea of insulting Eric. "Yes, Eric... I am also a jack ass. I don't understand, I thought it would be easier for people to deal with me this way."
Eric sighed, although he smiled warmly. "You like being scritched. People will stop scritching you."
"I like it when my friends scritch me," Backwoods grumbled. "I don't like strange people touching me without permission." He folded his arms across his chest. "People have to touch everything."
Eric chuckled, "Ok, but don't say I didn't warn you." He looked at the other two. Cody was still blushing red and trying not to look at Backwoods' pants and Flint was glaring at Cody. Then their eyes met and all three nodded that whatever the jack wanted the jack would get.
"That's not a bad looking face, Backwoods," Cody said. "I didn't know you were Hispanic."
"I'm not," the ass said as he turned to the mirror in the living room. He'd been a skinny white boy before his species dysphoria allowed him access to the Higher Soul magic. Growing up in the back woods of Kentucky he'd never really got much of a chance to meet any one but white folk. At some point, he got this idea in his head that the slightly darker skinned Mexicans were somehow more exotic, more appealing than the pasty white folk he had to call kin. He knew it was silly, but if he was going to be even a little bit human again he didn't want to be as white as a maggot. "I just like the face."
"I like it, too," Cody said and blushed ever so slightly. "It makes you look a bit more... approachable. But, you know, not too open."
Backwoods looked at Cody who seemed to be having a little trouble standing still as he smiled beneath his wavy brown bangs. He looked at Flint, who appeared to be glaring at Cody's back, but he looked away when his eyes met the jack's. Looking back down at Cody, he frowned with his now human eyes. Cody seemed to be waiting for something, but Backwoods was at a loss for what it was.
Looking about for Eric, he found his best friend standing near his bedroom door, smiling and holding up a foil wrapped square. Backwoods knew that meant something, but he it wasn't feeling particularly bright at the moment. Turning back, he looked down helplessly on Cody and found the young man glancing at Flint, who was ignoring them with great effort. Then Cody stepped forward ever so slightly and touched the donkey-boy's nearly hairless chest.
For a moment Backwoods' mind went blank. Then suddenly his ears shot up and his eyes went wide, as he realized what came in little foil squares. "Oh," he said, "I'm not going to have a problem finding someone to scritch me, am I?"
Cody smiled almost shyly but gave the mage's muscular chest a few short and quick scratches with his fingernails. "No," his small human friend said, "I think I can help you out there."
Backwoods was in heaven. His back was still covered in his grey donkey fur; most of his arms were still covered; his legs were covered even more so, right down to his plantigrade hooves. Cody raked his nails across every square inch of the short coat Backwoods had and Backwoods moved happily under those nails, helping Cody find the perfect spot, which always seemed to move.
Eric had scritched him all over before, but this was different. This wasn't grooming. Cody wasn't a girl, but then he wasn't an ass either; Backwoods wasn't sure if this was sex, so maybe it didn't matter. If there was a heaven, he was sure it would be like this.
Except for the breathing heavy part.
Cody was lithe and small for someone his age and it made him look almost like a child to the donkey-boy. He'd always thought Cody was sensitive about his size, but his friend proved him wrong as he encouraged Backwoods to grow larger several times while they played in the donkey's bed.
When Backwoods was about nine feet tall, Cody seemed like a doll and Backwoods was concerned that he'd hurt the now much smaller Mundane, but after a few moments of trying to resist, he realized that it was now Cody using the scritching to direct the big ass. His hide was too hot and he was almost dizzy with pleasure, so he yielded easily to his friend.
Cody sat on Backwoods' stomach and was raking his nails through legs which were now each almost as wide as the human. Wave of fire pulsed all over his body overwhelming all other sensations and Backwoods wondered how someone as frail looking as Cody could handle such heat. Even the places Cody had not scritched were now hot and dripping with sweat.
"My arms are getting tired," Cody admitted.
Backwoods nodded and reached a huge hand to gently stroke Cody, to thank him. Then Cody leaned forward as Backwoods tried to say thank you. But the words weren't coming to him, just a dizziness. Suddenly Cody was touching him where no one had touched him before outside a doctor's office. He gasped, and his fingers flexed on reflex, accidentally pushing the little man down a bit.
Cody took this as encouragement and applied his mouth. For a moment, Backwoods was shocked and outraged, but the boy's lips were cool and his own flesh so consumed with heat that the moment took on a dream like quality. He resisted for a moment, but only a moment. Backwoods squirmed under the boy before realizing Cody was trying to get the ass' big hands on his little hips.
For a moment, Backwoods fumbled with Cody's pants, but he gave up, and instead moved Cody about with his giant hands to Cody's apparent delight. He grew larger still and then something burst within the donkey. His whole body arched and he brayed repeatedly. All the while he held Cody down, in some sort of reflex, to keep him from being thrown across the room.
When he could think straight again, he found Cody laying naked on his chest. His whole body was sore; he couldn't imagine how Cody had survived. The man-boy seemed barely five now, he was so small -- or Backwoods was so large, Cody seemed a third his height. What was he, fifteen feet tall? He'd been foolish to stretch this new form so quickly, but he found that he didn't really care. He just wanted to close his eyes and sleep. Not that he could stand up at the moment even if he had the energy, the ceiling was much too low.
"Thank you, Cody," he said when he found his breath again.
"Thank you, Woody."
The world dropped out from beneath him and he was flung out of himself. Suddenly, he did not know where he was or how he'd got there. He was still falling, that strange word ringing in his ears; he was drowning in its echoes, entangled in a net that existed only in his mind. His wards, his catalogue, and even his own voice were gone from him. He was alone, so terribly alone... he reached out for Eric... for Cody... for anyone... but there was no one out there...
No, wait, something was out there, something that suddenly noticed him. It had been looking for him for a very long time... it moved towards him like a terrible storm appearing over the horizon, something hungry and mad, and, for the first time in his life, he felt the urge to flee for his life.
Backwoods sat bolt upright, his heart pounding. All around him his eyes took in the converted garage, but it was all distorted and smaller than it should be. His sweat-soaked body was cold and he shivered uncontrollably. He was alone, but that wasn't such a bad thing. Often he was alone.
It took a moment for him to realize he was much too large to manage his vital functions properly. He'd strained himself, apparently, although it had been worth it. The resizing spell should have dissipated while he slept, but he suspected he hadn't really slept, but had only dozed a bit. He could never really sleep on his back and preferred to sleep with his limbs folded under him.
Backwoods poked at the spell with his mind and he condensed back to his proper size of five foot-six, not counting his wonderfully long ears. Maybe Cody would let him give... No. Sighing, he rolled over onto his belly and decided his human-like arms and chest weren't very comfortable in that position so he went mentally to the catalogue he kept under his wards and thumbed to his default.
Yawning with his asinine muzzle, he then allowed himself to nap, free of needless worry of monsters calling his name.
Shearn stood outside his Master's door.
It hurt to stand for so long, with no respite, no food, and no water. It was preferable to lying in a cold crypt staring up into unrelenting darkness hoping that he would not be forgotten. Not that he'd been given the choice.
Zombies did not get many choices.
Brother Nathan came down the hall, his simple sandals barely making any noise. Monks were quiet, oh so quiet, so Shearn was glad to hear any sound at all. Without looking at the monk directly, Shearn could tell the man was excited by something but trying to maintain his composure. Brother Nathan thought of himself as a holy man, the poor fool.
When he was close enough that Shearn was allowed to acknowledge his presence, the zombie looked up and held a hand out, blocking the monk's path. He inhaled, the taste of sweet, precious air filling his lungs for the first time in days. "No. Entry," he muttered as clearly as his rotting teeth allowed.
The monk's face twisted at the sour smell of Shearn's words, but there was nothing the zombie could do about that. If his Master allowed him to rot, then that was what the Master wished, no matter how much agony it caused him.
"I have news for him," Brother Nathan said with only the slightest hesitation.
"Meditating," he said and exhaled that sweet volume of air. The arm did not lower, which was all right with Shearn. It was nice to have moved, even a little.
"I found what he searches for."
Shearn blinked and then lowered his arm. The Master would want to know about this he was sure, not that he had a choice in the matter. His Master had commanded he let in any monk who claimed to have found his Master's Lost Soul. Woe be to the monk who lied about such things.
Lowering his arm he unlatched the door. "Wait. Here," Shearn said, dizzy almost with all the words he had spoken in so short a time. He stepped into His Master's chamber and found the Theomancer sitting in the middle of the floor, glowing with both shadows and light. Then the shadows broke off and the lights faded and flared. For a moment, Shearn felt the material world strobe about him. Heaven, Hell, and several other planes of existence he would likely never know flickered in dancing spitfires about the room for all of two seconds.
Then it was just Shearn and his Master, alone in the room.
"Yes, Roger?" his Master asked, almost as if he'd forgotten the only reason the zombie was allowed to bother him.
"Brother Nathan." Shearn said carefully, and he drew another sweet, sweet breath. Even in this dark, dank room, each breath tasted fresher than the last. "Your Soul. He says. He found your. Soul."
His Master's broad Hispanic face broke into a grin and he pulled his hood back, revealing his thick black hair with only the slightest hinting of gray in the temples. "Well, let him in, Roger, let him in."
Shearn turned and opened the door, beckoning in the youngish monk. He closed the door without leaving, for that was how his Master had instructed him just in case his Master might decide Brother Nathan might need a fatal lesson. He would hate to have to hurt the young monk, but it wouldn't be a matter of his choice. It would, at least be something to do, though.
The door slammed shut, causing his ears to jump forward before settling back half attentively.
"What's wrong with him?"
Eric looked thoughtful as he poured himself a cup of coffee, almost as if he were scrying the answer from the black liquid. As he looked up he seemed to choose each word carefully. "Frank doesn't... share... with others well."
Backwoods cocked his head sideways, "But... we're herdmates."
Eric seemed to swallow a bit of his coffee the wrong way and his eyes twinkled happily at some joke only he understood. Slowly he put his coffee down as if it was going to be too big a burden. Backwoods was fascinated by his adopted family's suddenly strange behavior, and all the little quirks he hadn't noticed before. "Me and you are herdmates, but Cody and Flint are just roommates." Eric put his hand on his coffee and suddenly he moved his hands away from it, as if touching the mug had given him some sudden insight. "Or did Cody popping your cherry change something?"
"It changed something," Backwoods said, his voice admitting to some unseen weight upon him. "Ever since she and I had sex, everyone's been acting oddly around me."
Eric blinked and then held up one finger and it took Backwoods a second to remember that that meant 'wait a bit before proceeding.' In the moment he waited, Eric had gone into a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Kahlua. Backwards watched as he then poured a hearty helping of the liquor into the mug, taking a sip from the bottle just to make sure it was the right stuff.
"She and you had sex?" he finally asked after having a sip of coffee.
"You didn't know?" Backwoods blinked, before recalling that humans could be dense about certain things. "Cody and I had sex Friday night."
"I know you and Cody had sex; they could hear you braying all the way back at the Physics Lab." Eric smiled and took another swig of coffee. "I don't know how to tell you this... but Cody's a boy."
Backwoods had to smile at that. "I don't hold that against her."
Eric came out of the kitchen, obviously uncertain if he understood the donkey mage correctly. Waiting, Backwoods was content to let him work this out in his head, he stood in the living room with asinine patience. He could wait forever if he had to, it was one of the nice things about being a donkey morph.
Eventually, Eric sat down on the couch and put his coffee aside. "If you were a familiar, I'd think your balance just slipped."
Backwoods snorted in disgust. "Don't be disgusting."
Eric shook his head. "No, I mean... did you get more... donkeyish?"
Backwoods went to answer that with a negative, but then stopped. He was surprised to discover that he had to think about that. When the panel of Elders granted him the Higher Soul magic, he was donkey in form only. Little by little, his human habits fell away until one day, three months later, he felt finally free and sure that the face in the mirror was his own. And with some surprise, he realized that Joshua Browning had never been his name. His long buried donkey soul had another name; a name he could not give human voice to; a name he could not speak but that evoked an image in his head of a thick forest and the act of taking a step forward, prepared to fight. Backwoods Explorer seemed as close as he could get.
"Maybe," Eric suggested, "Maybe, having sex triggered something..."
Yes, that was it! Not the sex part, exactly though. Afterwards, when he was relaxed and at peace with the world, she whispered his name, the name he could not give voice to. But now he remembered falling and drowning... and hearing his true name, which shattered the dream but not the dreamer.
He could not even recall the sounds she had used, but from that moment on the world had seemed deeper and wider, and so much more vibrant than ever before.
Backwoods nodded and then smiled. "I felt the earth move," he said, stifling a bray of laughter. "Maybe you're right. I think I shed the last of my human mores... I feel free, Eric. Cody... completed me."
Eric frowned even as Backwoods leapt about the apartment. "Backwoods... c'mon you're gonna knock the shelves off the wall. Besides, I think you're giving Cody too much credit."
Backwoods' human face smiled a mile wide and closed its eyes in near ecstasy, while his long donkey ears stood drunkenly on his head. "No, no... you don't get it... I know who I am. I'm a beta! I'm a beta! I mean, I knew you were an alpha, but I used to think I had to go against you sometimes. Now I know I don't have to. You're the alpha, Flint and me are the beta males, and Cody's the jenny!"
Eric's smile went limp a bit, but managed to stay on the human's face. "I'm the alpha? When did that happen?"
Backwoods just shrugged. "I have no idea. You were probably born that way."
Shaking his head, Eric could only chuckle. "If you say so. Does that mean you have to do what I say?"
"Heck no," Backwoods said with his ears back but not pinned back in the slightest. "I am still a jack ass, after all."
For some reason Eric had to laugh at that. "If you say so, Backwoods, if you say so."
The young donkey mage folded his nearly human arms across his broad and muscular chest and managed to look quite pleased with himself. "Eric, do you realize... I feel good about myself? I mean, when I was human, I just hated myself. I never felt good about myself... but that was because I wasn't me. I was living a lie. Now... gosh, I like myself. No, I love myself! Is this how people feel all the time, happy to be who they are?"
"If they're lucky, my friend, if they are very lucky."
There was something about Eric's tone that made the donkey look more closely at his face. If Backwoods had ever known what that human expression meant, he seemed to have forgotten. "Isn't that how you feel, Eric? Deliriously happy to be who you are supposed to be? Aren't you glad you're human?"
Eric wiped something away from his eyes and smiled at his best friend. "Whenever I'm with you, Backwoods Explorer. Whenever I am with you."
The donkey mage brayed with laughter, his mostly human throat doing a wonderful thing with the sound of it. Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Hee-haw! He seemed to call out to the universe that nothing could spoil his mood. Hee-haw! Hee-haw!
The universe, apparently, decided to put that sentiment to a test.
Brother Nathan was not surprised that the trail of the Abbot's treasure led to the Appalachian Mountains in upstate New York. Mountains had been a central theme in all his scrying for the reincarnated beast and there was plenty of farmland in the range where one could keep a donkey. Casting about the astral planes even as he toured the countryside, he felt for the creature that was his Abbot's familiar reborn.
The problem was, the treasure might no longer be the soul of a donkey. Since Friday, when he had caught the creature's sated animal desires, he'd gotten glimpses of the world through the animal's eyes. Over the weekend, he could feel the creature grunting and straining before losing that intimate contact and while the so-called Celestial Mechanism could have given the soul a new form, it was obvious to Brother Nathan that the treasure was still a beast of burden. Perhaps even a draft horse.
He hoped that was not the case. A draft horse would be much too expensive to buy outright and the Abbot would then feel compelled to act in this matter on his own and Brother Nathan did not wish that on anyone, not even a secular man who was all so jealous of the power the Monastery represented. He prayed the creature was still a donkey, or a mule at least, for he had enough coin for that.
Monday and Tuesday, Brother Nathan felt nothing but broad waves of dreary boredom from the beast, if he felt anything at all. Once, he got the impression of lots of people, some of whom the creature seemed to adore or at least tolerate. Still, the treasure was horribly bored, even for a donkey, so the monk began drowsing his way the Appalachian Mountains, continuing north until he came to the college town of Utica.
At that moment, Brother Nathan had an odd thought. If the treasure turned out to be some sort of mascot for the school, would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
Then a frightening realization set in. If they had a magic program at the school, and the beast belonged to the school, how long before some student unknowing unleashed the treasure's presumably awesome power while trying to create a familiar bond. Assuming they survived that, they would likely face the wrath of the Abbot in quick order.
Brother Nathan began to walk a little faster, his divining rod twisting and twitching before him. Dropping the charms that kept him invisible from the secular masses, he concentrated on finding the treasure before there could be... complications.
Eric handed Backwoods another carrot and the jack thanked him as he crunched into it eagerly with his nearly human teeth and decided that he needed to do a little more editing on his jaws. His jaws were tired from the first two carrots and he tended to eat a dozen or so for one meal. As he chewed thoughtfully, he began thinking up the algorithms he'd need to correct this little problem and still maintain this new human face he'd become comfortable with. Eventually, he made out the changes and then edited the catalogue entry. His shadow flickered and his reflection in the microwave seemed to blur even though Backwoods' actual body did not blur at all.
That was a little better.
"You should really try it, you know," Backwoods said, realizing he'd lost tracked of what he and his human friend had been saying.
Eric seemed to sigh very quietly and then he put a carrot tip in his mouth and bit the first inch or so off of it and chewed without quite smiling. "I've had better."
"No, no... I mean the scritching-mouth thing Cody does."
Eric propped his head on his elbow and tapped the carrot on Backwoods' human nose. "So did I."
Backwoods frowned with confusion and opened his mouth several times to speak. Then, finally, he had to admit, "I don't get it."
Eric was just starting to roll his eyes when the front door opened and Cody came in, all smiles. "Next year, remind me to limit my course load to under 20 credits, would ya?," he said by way of greeting.
"Cody!" Eric yelled out gratefully, although the reason for Eric's gratitude was lost on the donkey-boy.
"Hi Cody," Backwoods said warmly, taking the smaller human into his arms and feeling a little electric thrill where she kissed him on the cheek, another reason for keeping a mostly human form. He could kiss back and this he did quickly but with a warm sincerity that seemed to make Cody beam with joy. Backwoods caught the sound of Flint's door opening, but he didn't think anything of it as he had nothing to fear from another beta. "We were just talking about you," he said happily because he'd heard his human parents say such things to each other playfully.
One would say, "We were just talking about you," and the other would say, "Nothing good, I hope." And everybody would laugh.
Apparently, Cody had never met Backwoods' parents, for she said something else entirely. "I hope you weren't bragging about how much action you've been getting lately, Woody."
There was that name again -- the world seemed to drop out from under him for a moment and fear clutched at his heart -- then the moment passed and he was back in their home. He saw Cody glance to her right, towards Flint's room, where Flint was apparently standing in the doorway, but it was Eric's startled face that grabbed his attention. A startled face from which the blood was rapidly draining.
So, Backwoods thought, I'm not the only one who felt that.
Then Cody was staring up into his dark eyes with a pleading but wicked look and instantly, he understood she wanted him to give Flint a gentle lesson in how to share. "Don't lie to me now, you know we've no secrets here."
"Actually," Backwoods said cheerfully, "I was just telling Eric how great you were... how hot you made me feel... how you quenched that heat with your lips and tongue..."
"You're sweet --"
"I think you should do him now."
Eric put his palm to his forehead even as Cody's jaw hit the ground. "What?" she stammered.
"I think you should sex him up, whatever that thing you do is called," Backwoods said enthusiastically. "We could go to my room if you want, I just laid out fresh straw. Me, you and Eric, I'd like that."
Backwoods turned to Flint, happily extending a hand. "You can join us, if you want, Flint. You've been so tense lately."
Smiling, he turned back to Cody only to be startled by the look on her face. Eric had a bit of horror frozen on his face while Flint looked shocked and disgusted, but a smile seemed to be fighting to take it's place on the man's face. This was all very confusing because it seemed very natural that they should all share in the bounty Cody had to offer. They were Herdmates after all.
Everyone seemed frozen in place for a time that seemed eternal. The moment reminded Backwoods of that quiet moment before a horrendous storm struck where the air was quiet and still, filled with nothing but the unlimited potential for violence.
Then the storm struck.
Brother Nathan was met with angry stares whenever he encountered college students. The general unease towards Theomancers since the Korean False Spirits War had sharpened recently into outright belligerence among the college crowd and the Therianthropic Monastery had had no fewer than 15 demonstrations in the last six years hosted by young, well-meaning activists (and surely supplemented by a large number of young men there to impress young women).
If only they understood, Brother Nathan thought sadly. Mind and soul were intertwined in the hands of God. The accusations that White mages created "demons" as easily as Black mages were ludicrous, and even if that were true to some extent, the neutral spirituality of Therianthropism, which urged man to discover their true natures and to work with nature, was concerned with neither Black nor White magics, nor were they even concerned with Good or Evil.
It was their loss, of course, but it still saddened him and he expected no violence from them, for which he was grateful. Brother Nathan's guardian spirit was The Wolf, and if it chose to defend him the resulting carnage would be... untidy. He concentrated on his drowsing rod rather than meeting any of their young, angry eyes.
His mission was more important than any of that.
Brother Nathan followed the tugging and the twitching as best he could until the ash tree limb snapped apart in his hands. There was no surge of magic or any other sign of outside influence. Simply, the 45 year old drowsing rod simply ceased to be anything but the branch it appeared to be. As his hands went numb, he allowed the pieces to fall from his hands.
Slowly, with some small dread, Brother Nathan looked up from the fallen sticks at his feet to the unassuming brown ranch-style home he had come to. It looked like a completely mundane home, from the garage door with cardboard and plastic replacing one of the panes, to the cement jockey holding a bulb-less lantern.
How powerful did a ward have to be, how intricately woven would it have to be, to appear invisible to one such as he? Even now, aware that it existed, he could not pinpoint the ward itself, much less its nature, until it suddenly revealed itself to him. He would not have minded to admit that he was startled to see it wasn't a ward at all, but a charm. A charm!
Charms were the weakest magic there was. The most commonly perfected charm was the privacy charm, but it was notoriously fragile, for which countless generations of parents were especially grateful. Any spell cast within a charmed area tended to shatter the charm and even mundane items made of certain types of wood or cold forged iron could shatter most charms easily.
Ash was one type of wood used as a charm ripper and the rod had been made from an ash tree. The charm had, frighteningly enough, defended itself with a purpose and strength it should not have possessed.
Then it was gone.
Or, at least, it was gone form his perception.
Fear tickled his stomach, for the mage who had cast that mysterious charm was quite likely more powerful than even the Abbot and that did not bode well for his mission. As Brother Nathan called upon his totem and began to gather his courage to go up to the door and knock, he suddenly heard raised voices from within the deceptively mundane house.
Holding his ground he counted four distinct voices. After several minutes the voices went suddenly silent, and Brother Nathan began to wonder if something horrid had happened within the house. Would calling the police be appropriate, he asked himself. Would the police even be able to help in a situation involving so powerful a wizard that Brother Nathan suspected to reside within?
Before he decided on a course of action, the front door swung open and a short skinny teen with brown hair stormed out of the house with a gym bag and a pile of books in his hands. The boy appeared to be crying as he threw his bundles into the back seat of a beaten-up Ford Escort on the curb. After him a hefty young man with black hair came running out the front door, leaving it wide open in his hurry, he was wide-eyed and panicked and barely made it in front of the Escort before it could pull out.
Feeling something like a voyeur, Brother Nathan watched as the hefty boy begged the skinny boy to come back inside. The Escort jerked forward several times until finally the hefty boy climbed into the passenger seat and then clunker peeled out before the passenger door could slam shut.
Curious, Brother Nathan looked back at the house. The front door stood open invitingly.
The monk was about to take a step towards the door when he saw a hefty arm reach out and slam the door shut. He hesitated, but now he felt he was committed, so he walked up the short, closely clipped grass and steeled his nerves. After a moment of hesitation, he rang the doorbell, only to realize with chagrin that he still didn't know for sure if the treasure was here or not. For all he knew, the beast could be in the yard of the home directly behind this wizard's house. He heard a heavy thread of footfalls approach the door from inside and Brother Nathan made sure his smile was in place before the door opened.
The Abbot opened the door.
Brother Nathan felt a sudden detachment, as if he himself wasn't on the door step, but was watching, instead, another monk staring in confusion at the broad face that appeared when the door was pulled back several inches. He tried to speak, but he could not recall how to make the proper sounds. It wasn't that he was afraid of the Abbot, oh no. He held Abbot Juan in the utmost respect, but for the Abbot to be here, already... How could he have failed the Abbot? It was just... wrong. Wrong.
But it was the Abbot; there was no doubt in the monk's mind. The same dark hair. Those dark eyes set above broad cheeks. No one else had a nose like that! The face was open and thoughtful, just as the Abbot's face often was, just before it would darken like a sudden thunderstorm approaching. It was a fatherly face, stern, but capable of smiling.
And you would do anything to make a face like that smile, because... because...
Brother Nathan had to force himself to swallow, taking a step back as the Abbot frowned at him from the doorway. No, he wasn't afraid of the Abbot, but failing the Abbot... failing the Abbot was another story entirely. The zombie the Abbot controlled, Roger Shearn, was just one example of how well the Abbot dealt with failure and disappointment.
The door opened wider and, to his horror, saw that the Abbot was naked. He was impossibly muscled in a way the Abbot's robe had never hinted at in the slightest. Seeing the Abbot's manhood was almost sacrilegious in and of itself and he didn't even realize that he took another step back until Brother Nathan suddenly felt something hot running down his right leg.
Abbot Juan frowned and stepped through the door.
He walked on two equine legs, bending over ever so slightly to look at the puddle forming at Brother Nathan's feet. Slowly His black eyes slid up the monk while the human tried desperately to form words. He wanted to say, "Father, please forgive me..."; he wanted to plead mercy while he still had a will of his own to plead with.
Instead, when their eyes finally met, the one word he was able to spit out was a stammered, "Ma-ma-master?"
To which, the Abbot answered with a sweet, gentle smile and the sudden appearance of two foot-long donkey ears atop his head.
Backwoods had never seen a Therianthropic Monk before and he had, frankly, never heard of them going door-to-door. Did they give out little animal spirit tracts? The monk didn't seem to be carrying any thing like The Watch Tower, either, besides the monk was alone. People selling religion door-to-door tended to go in pairs. He supposed it was some sort of law or something.
The monk actually seemed to grow more frightened the longer Backwoods stood there and this surprised him: a large number of Therianthropics were either "werewolves" or "Furries." Sometimes they were even both. Surely a monk like this one would have seen a Zoomorph or two in his lifetime, or maybe Eric was right and he did look too much like a human to be treated properly. It was an odd thought, but people were funny.
The monk was trying to speak, but all the human had managed to do was take a couple of steps back. Backwoods stepped forward, curious, and then he noticed the monk was peeing on himself.
Backwoods bent forward a bit and sniffed, smelling a bit of dog in the monk's urine. Curious, he found himself undressing the monk with his eyes. How much of the monk was still human beneath those robes?
Their eyes met and the poor, nervous man actually called him, "Master," and Backwoods was momentarily startled: he'd never met an Omega before. The poor thing was probably lost without his Pack and very frightened. Most wolf-morphs Backwoods had met were not very powerful mages at all, so he knew he had nothing to fear from this one wolf-man, especially when he was in his human phase.
Backwoods smiled with his human lips and his asinine ears.
The monk screamed, a piercingly-high falsetto screech that hurt his sensitive donkey ears. Suddenly, a wolf-thing leapt from the monk's robe, his tail between his legs, and ran smack into the lawn jockey and the ward protecting the yard shattered, causing the associated Glamour to flicker about aimlessly for a moment. The monk became even more wolf-like and sprinted helter-skelter about the yard, confused by the strobing illusions. Images of heaven and hell danced about the front yard as Backwoods reached out and began extinguishing the shrapnel.
"That wasn't Cody, was it?" Eric scrambled out of the house. "What did you do to him?"
"Werewolf," Backwoods grunted, "I think I scared it."
Eric looked to the donkey popping his antique spells, and to the poor frightened animal zipping about madly. "You scared a werewolf?"
"I think it was an Omega."
"Ah. Well, we'd better calm it down before it runs out into traffic."
Backwoods nodded. "Something about the Glamour scared the shit out of it."
Eric nodded and drew a calming glyph with the salt he kept in his pocket for emergencies. While Eric was a pretty powerful mage, drawing glyphs in the air was a trick he'd never been able to master as far as Backwoods knew. Then Eric stepped down onto the glyph forcibly and poured a handful of sand into his left hand and finally he triggered the glyph as the mad wolf dashed towards him and threw the now sparkling sand into the poor thing's path.
The wolf raced past him, unaffected.
Backwoods cast a quick Glamour on the anti-vermin charm he'd place on the lawn earlier that week. Seven ghostly images of towering wolves appeared about the panicked werewolf and Backwoods knew suddenly being surrounded by his herd would calm him almost instantly, today's events notwithstanding. Herd, Pack... it was all the same thing, he figured.
The wolf-monk crashed through the illusion blindly before suddenly blinking out of existence.
Eric and Backwoods stared at the spot the wolf had been. "Freaky," Eric muttered. "It didn't just teleport, did it?"
Backwoods thought about that for a moment. "No, he was a monk. Invisible. Obscured, perhaps."
"Oh," Eric snorted and then spit casually. "Theomancers. So, for all we know, he wasn't even here to begin with."
Backwoods looked down at the pile of urine soaked burlap cassock the monk had been wearing. "No, I'm pretty sure he was here."
Shearn stood outside his Master's door.
It hurt, to stand for so long, with no respite, no food, and no water. How he wished the Master had ordered him to accompany Brother Nathan across the country, wholly rather than in part. It was preferable to standing here half aware of those wise enough to not approach him too closely, waiting for young monk's report. Not that he'd been given the choice. His Master had simply yanked a tooth from the zombie's mouth and then pressed the yellow-brown pebble into Brother Nathan's hand with instructions on how to use the rotted gem. The pain had only been shallow and fleeting, barely the distraction Shearn so desperately craved.
"Telephone calls can be traced, Brother Nathan," their Master had told the earnest young monk. "Not that we have enemies. Not that I have asked you to do anything illegal." Of course, the Master had meant the very opposite of what he said, otherwise why say it at all? Shearn suspected that Brother Nathan, for all his agility within the Astral Plane, had taken the Master at his word. Not that any one had ever asked his opinion, of course.
The poor young fool admired the Master, which was really what the Master wanted more than anything, save the lost soul. But the Master was all too willing and all too ready to accept fear, if respect did not come easily enough. Shearn had taught him that lesson too well, he was afraid.
Shearn continued to silently bemoan his fate for the fifth day in a row, when he felt a tugging sensation where the missing tooth had been. He became aware of Brother Nathan's approach, although he did not see the young monk. The throbbing grew in urgency and the zombie realized the nature of the approach.
With one part dread and one part relief from his dutiful boredom, Shearn entered the Master's chamber and he saw that the Master was not meditating as was his usual habit at this time of day. The Master did not acknowledge his presence, but the urgency of the throbbing could not be put aside. What was the throbbing, after all, but another his Master's commands, even if triggered by a young monk hundreds of miles away?
He inhaled. "Brother Nathan. Calls." Would that he was allowed to fill his lungs with the sweet air other than to talk, Shearn could almost be content to live eternally with no true will of his own.
His Master looked up from the book he was reading and Shearn was less than thrilled to see it was his old high school year book. "Thank you, Roger. I bet you never thought you'd survive long enough to see Woody again, did you?"
"Not. Survival." The words came out of his mouth but they were not his words. They were the words his Master wanted to hear, for Shearn was his puppet in all ways.
"True enough I suppose." The Master put the book aside. "These last twenty years have been hard on you, haven't they?"
Shearn nodded without thought or effort. Soon after his familiar's death, Juan had gone completely and totally mad. His efforts to raise his donkey from the dead with his under-developed necromancy skills were met with failure after failure, so he turned his prayers towards the Celestial Mechanism, waiting for the animal to be reborn. And while he waited for that blessed day, Juan had perfected his necromancy skills by practicing on Roger Shearn's corpse. His Master was a horribly cruel man, which his Master said was Shearn's fault.
If it hadn't been for a young Roger Shearn attacking him, Woody would never have instinctively and protectively activated the Familiar Bond that an even younger Juan Martinez had miscast only hours before. The bad casting would have faded and they'd all be happier for it.
Woody had overwhelmed the young mage, imprinting its own personality and needs so deeply into the boy that the bond could not be broken by any who cared to try. For almost an entire decade, the two functioned as one. Juan was a loner and a virgin, having driven away anyone who cared for him, when an embolism took out Woody swiftly and silently.
That left people who had never cared for Juan. That left Shearn and his friends, all of whom now sat frozen in a meat locker somewhere in Virginia, awaiting a summons from their Master.
His Master smiled. "If the day goes well Roger, I'll show you," his Master said warmly, but Shearn could hear a distant rumble of thunder in his voice, too. "I'll show you I'm not weak. I beat you, not Woody. I did that. Now, I'll show Woody that I'm the Master; that I am not its puppet to feed and stroke it. It took ten years out of my life and stole a piece of my soul!" His Master stopped and checked himself. "I'll do it and you'll watch me. And if the day goes well, perhaps I'll even let you die."
Shearn felt himself nod although he knew his Master would do no such thing. He might allow the zombie to be buried, but death? That was a blessing he knew his Master would never cast upon him. Not ever.
Then his Master reached forward with his index finger and touched it to the moldy flesh of Shearn's forehead. Instantly, the missing tooth seemed to explode and for one surprising, blissful moment, Roger Shearn suddenly felt himself fade away.
A desert wasteland sprung into existence around Brother Nathan, replacing the cramped motel room where he truly stood.
Looking upon himself, he found his point-of-view was not quite limited to what his eyes should be able to see as his forays into the Astral Plane had never been so realistic or so frightening. The smell of death and destruction hung in the air and he could see the distant mountain ranges were partially destroyed sky scrapers. It wasn't hellish, but it was incredibly sad and desolate.
He saw himself -- half wolf, half man -- with a thick tail between his legs. There was no hiding his fear here, even from himself.
As the monk tried to center himself, the Abbot suddenly appeared over a distant horizon, the next second, he was next to Brother Nathan. "Welcome to what is left of Roger's soul," he said, spreading his arms to indicate the landscape around them. "Have you discovered my Treasure?"
The werewolf swallowed. "I believe so."
The Abbot raised an eyebrow, slowly, at that. "You believe so?"
"Yes," Brother Nathan nodded quickly. "I am certain... but..."
The Abbot, delighted but cautious for the monk sounded anything but certain, folded his arms across his chest and asked, "Have you made inquiries about purchasing my missing half?"
Brother Nathan nervously shook his head. "He can not be purchased, I'm afraid."
The Abbot blinked. "And why would that be?"
Brother Nathan took a step back, although it had no effect in this plane of existence. He covered his head and whimpered, his wolf guardian trying to protect him uselessly.
"Out with it!"
"It's a man," Brother Nathan said, cringing into a tighter ball.
The Abbot stood mutely on top of a dune many miles away, he seemed to flicker in the distance, and then suddenly he was next to Brother Nathan, bending down on one knee. "What do you mean, it's a man?"
He started with the dowsing rod's sudden and inexplicable breakage. Then he described the teen and the young man escaping the house and Brother Nathan then explained how he'd come face to face with a visage of the Abbot himself. The monk recounted the whole terrible event in as much detail as the Abbot allowed, repeating the terrible fear he had felt at having failed his superior.
"Show me this creature, this thing that wears my face," the Abbot commanded. The sky seemed to darken as if responding to the very tone of his voice.
"Show you?" Brother Nathan blinked. His training had not covered projecting images into the Astral Plane. "I... I don't know how to do that."
A distant rumbling sounded, causing the sand they stood upon tremble as if in empathy to the distant storm's terrible fury. When the Abbot spoke again, each word was like a dagger and Brother Nathan heard the man despite the terrible winds that had suddenly sprung up. "I was not speaking to you."
Suddenly, in a shower of sand and rock fragments, several oily tentacles shot up out of the sand beneath Brother Nathan's furry feet. He tried to run, but the rancid smelling tentacles were on top of him in a moment. Distance meant nothing here in any case, as this shadow realm was nothing but a flicker within what passed for the zombie's mind.
He tried to force his hand back, in reality to release the totem the Abbot had made from the zombie's tooth, but it was no use. He had no control over his body in real life until the Abbot released him from this plane, so he struggled as best he could on the Astral Plane.
In only a few short moments however, the fight left Brother Nathan. He'd been penetrated in too many places to name, and the feel and taste of the dead thing within his body was simply too much. He could see himself change, outside his own body, into the zombie that hardly ever left the Abbot's door.
Brother Nathan tried to scream but it was too late: his mind was no longer his own. He was now the puppet of a puppet and his mind recoiled at the idea.
Then suddenly, he pictured the thing in his head; that odd treasure he had driven a day and a night to find. Half man and half donkey, its face didn't just resemble the Abbot, it was a young and healthy Abbot with donkey ears and a donkey's tail. In the darkening sky, the image appeared 30 feet high and then suddenly it was between them, as tall as the real Abbot and no taller.
The Abbot inspected the image whose backside was fuzzy and indistinct. "Damnation," he said, at length. "You did steal a part of my soul, you bastard. You bastard! I knew it! I fucking knew it! You just liked being human so much that you had to be reborn as one. No wonder it took nearly twenty years to find you. Well, you're not getting away from me, do you hear me? There will be an accounting. For stealing ten years of my life, for leaving me helpless after you left me, and for defying me by hiding within a dirty human hide. There will be an accounting!"
The air grew cold and still as Brother Nathan felt the obscene dead things wiggling deeper within him. Finally the Abbot turned away from his asinine doppelganger and looked into the younger monk's eyes, beneath the illusion of the zombie superimposed over him. "Keep an eye on the demon until I get there, Roger."
And then he was dismissed.
The cheap motel room reappeared around Brother Nathan, who stood fully human with not so much as a canine hair upon his body. His body was racked with shakes suddenly as the rotted tooth fetish fell from his palm and he lost control of his bowels as he gulped compulsively at the sweet, sweet air. It felt as if he'd been holding his breath for years.
He staggered into the bathroom, flipping on the shower without any concern about the water temperature. He could still feel the tentacles moving inside of him; he felt unclean on so many levels. As the water flowed over him he thought that he could run away now. He wouldn't need to go far, if the Abbot had been any good with his location skills, he would not have needed the help of the young monk.
The water heated to an almost unbearable level, but he made no move to reduce the heat. Instead, he worried that he might never feel clean again and he wondered fleetingly if his guardian spirit would ever reveal itself again, he felt so unclean.
At that moment, Brother Nathan realized the water was indeed just a bit too hot, but he made no move to adjust the mix. His hands soaped him up while he screamed silently for them to obey his will and turn off the much-too-hot water. As his skin turned red beneath this onslaught and when he felt himself smile, he realized that something was horribly, horribly wrong.
"You have no idea how good it feels to be alive, Brother," his own voice said happily, almost purring as the monk began to wonder how much more pain he could take before he passed out. Already, he felt as if his skin was being scrubbed down with a rasp. "If only we had more time, I could work on getting you laid."
That was it then. There was no where to run to, now, and his legs would no longer carry him there even if there was a place to run to. The God of his family and ancestors no longer seemed so silly now that his life was no longer his own, his body the puppet of a puppet. Prayers long thought forgotten came to him and he grabbed at them with all his might.
Insanely, he began to masturbate as his hijacked body turned its unscorched back to the showerhead. The scalding continued without respite, uncaring of his silent prayers. As the fresh pain turned his vision red, Brother Nathan would have prayed to the devil if only he'd been allowed to scream.
Backwoods watched respectfully as Eric redrew the wards across the yard, marking their territory. The human paused in his casting as he was about to focus the wards into the statuary the wayward werewolf had knocked over the day before and his eyes met the donkey's where he seemed to see something he hadn't seen before.
"Now I know why you let me cast the wards around our house," Eric said, brushing the grass off his knees.
"Because you're the herd stallion," Backwoods said reasonably with a nod.
Eric nodded too, seemingly amused with the idea. "I'm the Alpha male, you said. This is how I protect and control the herd, or how you see me doing it, at least. I mean, you're a more powerful mage than I am, your wards wouldn't have come undone like that. You probably should be doing this."
Backwoods scratched his head a bit. "No... it's your job. It's what you want, isn't it?"
Eric shrugged, but he didn't seem about to deny it. He grew thoughtful, and Backwoods waited patiently to hear what he had to say. After a bit, Eric smirked and asked, "You don't find me... intimidating, do you?"
Backwoods smirked and folded his burly arms across his chest. The human face was good at smirking; it seemed a perfectly asinine expression. His ears folded back a quarter of the way, playfully, "Are you trying to be intimidating?"
Eric chuckled and punched Backwoods in the arm playfully. "OK, but how am I the Alpha, then?"
"Well, you want to be Alpha," Backwoods said, wondering if any human language was capable of explaining something so simple properly. "And I don't."
Eric tried to understand, and that was the problem Backwoods knew. This wasn't something to be understood, this was something to be merely accepted. The ass watched the gears turning in the human's head and he felt a sudden affection for his furless herdmate, even if the man thought a bit too much.
"OK..." Eric said, "Then what if Flint or even Cody wanted to be Herd Stallion?"
Backwoods brayed so hard, his stomach hurt. The very idea of Cody as a herd stallion was the funniest thing he'd ever heard and he laughed, hee-hawing until his throat hurt and even then he didn't stop. The donkey zoomorph simply collapsed on the front lawn until the fit passed, and even then he wiggled on the ground a huge smile on his face.
"We need a mud puddle," he told Eric.
"I'll get right on it," Eric answered with a big smile on his face.
Backwoods didn't care if Eric was laughing at him or at his own silly ideas about Cody and Flint. He was happy, the odd events from yesterday already in the distant past but he wished his friends would come back, he was worried about them, as much as he could worry about anything, without it being a threat of some sort. Once their territory was safe again, he was sure they'd come back.
"Or a dusty square of dirt to scratch myself in," Backwoods said, as an afterthought.
Eric looked down on his friend. "Are we going to have to get you a flea collar?"
The donkey-boy sat up and ran a hand through the scruffy black mane on the back of his neck. "No, but... I want something. Not sure what is."
"You miss Cody?"
Backwoods nodded. "And Flint."
Eric completed the ward and anchored it in silence and Backwoods watched patiently as Eric did his best to fortify the new ward against stuff he hadn't before. Werewolves, possibly, Backwoods realized after a moment. The monk had been harmless, so the ani-mage hadn't thought it was important -- another reason why Eric was in charge of the herd.
Eric collapsed down next to him and grew serious. "He's just using you, you know."
Backwoods thought back to their conversation from a few minutes earlier without any effort. "Flint is? How?"
"Not Flint. Cody." Eric scratched Backwoods between his fuzzy, but still oddly human back and Backwoods sighed and closed his eyes and for a long moment he did not say anything. After a minute, Eric stopped scratching and sat patiently until Backwoods' dark human eyes opened. "You knew that, didn't you?"
Backwoods nodded. "After Cody let Flint get into the car, yeah. The gears started turning."
"I'm not mad at her, if that's what you mean," Backwoods smiled playfully. "She's a people, that's what people do. No offense. Besides, there are worse ways of being used. I really liked what she did, you know. You would have liked it, too."
Eric chuckled. "I thought that's how you'd feel. But, one thing, ok? Cody's a boy."
Backwoods got up and smiled, brushing the loose grass from the seat of his pants. "I could fix that."
Eric shook his head. "No, you wouldn't be fixing anything. Cody's very proud of being a male, a gay male. He's not a woman trying to get out. Me and him had long talks about that over the summer. Understand?"
Backwoods shrugged. "Not really, but I don't have to understand. We accept things." Backwoods started casting the glamour over the ward as his inner eye studied the new additions. It was an old fashioned illusion magic, once popular in Europe, and he spoke the power words in forgotten Nissart in his silent breath, crafting the warp and folds in the magic already present that would deceive all but the most detailed inner eyes. Any European mage old enough to recall the time before wards were perfected would see right through, but they were in short supply these days.
"Good," Eric said, obviously trying to track the construction with his inner eye but he was failing miserably. Glamour was even weaker than charms, but it was a narrow, knotty thing. One had to really know what they were looking for to see them, or something would have to be wrong.
Backwoods smiled with just his mouth, knowing Eric couldn't see it from where he was standing. "And I accept that you are wrong."
Brother Nathan fought the unholy possession from the moment he realized his body was no longer his own. Only once --once!-- did he feel himself gaining any ground. His body walked effortlessly, invisibly, amongst the unwashed people of Utica, seemingly unaware of the struggle for control within its scalded and abused flesh, perhaps, unaware even that a naked man with badly scalded and peeling skin strode through their little college town. When they came to a relatively busy highway and the zombie within him needed to concentrate to both cross the road and remain invisible safely, it was then that the monk launched his desperate defense.
Nathan had gathered a prayer, and blessed himself with what little power he could transmute without allowing Shearn to become aware of the spell and as they crossed the tar and asphalt, the monk meditated on his guardian wolf, pleading for help. His silent howls went unanswered, but Brother Nathan was able to focus the unspent energy into a mental dagger and he could almost feel the blade growling in his imaginary hand; the edge eager to bite into the flesh of his enemy.
Brother Nathan made his move just as Shearn turned mentally back to him. He thrust --
And then he stood outside his Master's door, years of lethargy dragging him down, the grave sweet talking him to rest and slumber, all the time knowing it would never put out. The monk was confused, but not uncertain. There must have been an accident, there must have been some huge mistake. He did not belong here, this was not his body; this could not be his destiny. He opened his mouth to complain and he felt several pebbles tumble out of his mouth.
He moved his heavy, heavy head to look down at the floor where his rotting feet were encased in rotting shoes and at his feet were several rotten teeth scattered over a fine carpet of dry brittle hair that had once been his.
He'd never noticed that before.
And now, having noticed it, Brother Nathan felt suddenly cold, colder than he thought possible.
Nathan screamed in silent torment as the scene shifted and the truth came rushing back at him. The zombie Roger had complete and total control of his still living body and the only place the monk could escape to was the zombie's own vacant body, hundreds of miles away. That was a terrible option, for it wasn't just unpleasant as Roger or Abbot Juan could sever the connection between the two bodies leaving Nathan trapped in a body that would not and could not die, but would continue to rot as much as the Abbot desired.
"Do not fight me, Brother Nathan," his body said, having come to the house where the treasure lived. "I am more powerful than you'll ever know. Not only do I have access to my old spells, I've your Grimoire now." Then, as if to demonstrate, he felt something twitch deep within him as his wolven spirit guide appeared before him, wraith-like, as silent and still as the grave.
The cruel puppeteer pulled more strings and Brother Nathan stood watching helplessly as the image twitched and the guide became a murder of raven and then a parliament of crows, all frozen in place, quiet as vultures. Another flicker and then the image of the birds merged into that of a huge shark, frozen in midstroke in the air above Brother Nathan.
That wasn't possible! A pathetic zombie could not be as powerful as the least of his spirit guides, much less powerful enough to paralyze all the spirits who had ever helped him in the past. It was a trick, it was an illusion. None of this could possibly be real.
The zombie did not care about what Brother Nathan had to say, nor was it possible for Shearn to hear his thoughts even if the zombie controls his every muscle and fiber. So they stood silently, within sight of the house where the donkey mage and his friends resided. Day became night. Night lingered near freezing, chewing goosebumps out of his abused skin, until the sun rose again.
And for the first time in his life, hope had refused to rise with that golden ball.
Brother Nathan did not have control of his eyes or his lips, nor was he able to stop his own red and burned right hand from pulling on the sensitive flesh hanging between his legs obscenely. He did manage, however, to shed several tears wholly of his own making as his shadow grew shorter.
"Now, now, Brother," his body chided, "There will be plenty of times for tears later, when the wetback gets here." The zombie shaped his face into a smile, pleased to be free to mock their Master for once. For an instant his body shivered with fear as a car pulled up to the house, but it was the two males that had left the house yesterday.
Not the Master.
Brother Nathan sighed with his body, or so it seemed. "Pray, Brother, that he kills us," his own voice said, "Pray that he kills us all."
Backwoods liked television.
It was possibly mankind's greatest achievement next to guacamole dip, and television never went bad, either, which was more than he could say about guacamole. Between college, working and practicing the higher magery, Backwoods did not have much time to watch television any more.
That night however, Backwoods had found himself unable to concentrate for it was as if there was some terrible weight upon his back, digging uncomfortably into his ribs and shoulder blades. If he turned his attention to it, the weight seemed to shift and then dematerialize into the ether. At first he had thought it the particularly knotty biology assignment that called for dissection of a frog (which he had been excused from, although the assignment itself was still due), so he moved onto Comparative Magic Studies and this was a subject that Backwoods excelled in.
But that night he just couldn't comprehend the divisions of power and formulation, expression and function, or cause and effect; things he was supposedly intimate with each casting of glamour or charm. It just wasn't a good night for thinking, he supposed.
As he left his room, he looked towards Flint room, and then towards the door that led to Cory's room and he felt that heaviness double just then and with a smirk Backwoods realized something.
He felt like an ass.
A boob. An idiot. A jerk. Nothing like the noble creature he imagined himself to be.
He had hurt Cody's feelings, and had unwittingly rubbed Flint's nose into something before that. He didn't quite understand how he had done so, but he knew that he had done just that. Suddenly he understood that they might not come back except to get their stuff, and that made him unreasonably sad. He was so slow sometimes... and now his herd was going to suffer for it.
Eric had wisely gone to sleep and Backwoods did have the whole weekend to do his homework, but the house felt too big and empty for the donkey mage to settle down and sleep. He imagined briefly letting himself into Eric's room so that he might feel safe enough to revert to full equine mode and sleep on all fours but that image bothered him, for reasons he could not place.
So, Backwoods settled down in front of the television and discovered, to his pleasant surprise, that the TVLand channel was in the middle of a "Magic Ed" marathon. The series was an earlier '60's sitcom about Wilbur Post, a writer, and his brother Ed, a zoomorphic mage who preferred to be a horse as much as possible and although most of the barn scenes were shot with a normal horse with peanut butter painted inside his lips to emulate "talking," the series did use several real horse mages whenever "Ed" needed to go mingle with the "two-footers."
Backwoods had seen episodes as a human child, but he never truly understood why Ed was such a big secret around Wilbur's wife and his neighbors. He'd seen Ed go surfing. He'd seen Ed accidentally turn his neighbor into a jack ass. He'd even see Ed flying, twice, but both were camera tricks of course. How do you hide something like that and why would you want to?
Over the course of hours of watching, Backwoods began to put the back story together. Wilbur had no magic of his own, while Ed had more than he knew what to do with. Ed didn't want to marry this princess he was somehow, impossibly obligated to marry, and Wilbur wanted to marry a girl whose family insisted she marry a mage. Killing two birds with one stone, Ed faked his human death and pretended to be Wilbur's familiar so that his magicless brother could at least have a fighting chance with this girl. Amazingly, the higher soul magic and the panel of Elders that tested a mage for dysphoria were somehow never mentioned but as circumstances would have it, one neighbor turned out to be Wilbur's father's-in-law best friend, and another neighbor just happened to be the nosy adviser of whatever country the princess was supposedly from. In a lot of ways, knowing the back story just made the series even more stupid seeming and it was no wonder they dropped all pretenses on why Ed had to remain a secret.
It was still funny, although Backwoods was careful not too bray loudly.
He was still watching Magic Ed reruns when the front door opened and his eyes had trouble focusing on something besides the black and white program and he had to blink several times. Flint and Cody stood in the doorway, startled and blinking at Backwoods. The donkey mage was surprised it was dawn, but he didn't give it another thought as his sense of time was a little off, he knew.
For example, it seemed to Backwoods that Cody and Flint had been gone forever! Backwoods was overjoyed that they were back and he rushed over to greet them with a very human hug. "You're back!" he brayed, knowing he was only saying the obvious. "Oh, Cody... Flint. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel bad. Either of you."
Cody looked incredibly relieved, but Flint seemed not to hear. Instead the heftier human gave Cody a shove and glared at him, as if to keep Cody from accepting the donkey's apology which is exactly what happened. "Actually, Backwoods," the smaller, girlish human said with thick reluctance, "I'm the one that should be apologizing to you."
Backwoods stopped hugging and scratched his neck where the gray fur stopped and he looked to Flint in hopes of gaining an exploration; Cody also looked at Flint, searching for something in her... his mate's eyes. Flint made a "go ahead" motion with his hands and Cody sighed. "I used you," the smaller man said, "I'm sorry."
"That's ok," Backwoods said simply. "I liked it."
Flint started and Cody's eyes seemed to twinkle as Flint's eyes took on a dark cast to them as he stared at the donkey. Backwoods vaguely realized he should have said something else but he was at a loss, however, as that was the truth of the matter. If Cody wanted to scritch him like that and do the other things again, he would enjoy it. He had to reach back to his human childhood to realize Flint was giving him the same look his mother used to give his father when she thought their son needed to be scolded and that Dad was the one who was supposed to do it for whatever odd reason Mom had.
So he said the words his father would say at times like that: "Just don't do it again, ok?" That seemed to satisfy both his friends, but more importantly, their return seemed to lift the weight from his back ever so slightly. There were more hugs and small talk, but they eventually all returned to their rooms. Their own rooms.
Still, sleep did not come easily to Backwoods. He was going to have to decide soon, sleep or classes and he was going to be terrible at either task, he realized. That weight, lessened by his friend's return, still remained as an uncomfortable distraction. "If I'm not worried about Cody and Flint," he asked the dimly lit room, "Then what is worrying me?"
When the long white limousine pulled up, Brother Nathan was not surprised to see its driver help the Abbot step out of it. Once the zombie had gotten bored of the burning pain of healing skin, bored of bringing his captive flesh to orgasm, and bored of just breathing, he began to talk.
At first, his rambling dialogue was of sadistic bent on what Brother Nathan might expect from the Abbot once that villain showed up, but as the zombie continued using his voice to taunt him, the young monk began to hear the fear hiding within those words. The bravado became more and more pronounced until the zombie swallowed.
Whatever life Shearn had led before falling under Juan's sway, he had probably been Catholic, Brother Nathan realized, as the zombie began to confess. It was, perhaps, the oddest confessional there ever was, and while he was not qualified to receive the confession, he was forced to listen. The petty bullying, his reluctant time in the military, the discovery of his own true magical potential, and the disappointment at discovering his talent was with Theomancy, which was horrible for the young man for reasons Brother Nathan did not fathom. Roger Shearn simply let his magic flounder and went back to his first love, booze.
One night he partied a bit too hard and when he woke up, Juan Martinez was standing over his body.
His dead body.
Martinez was mad with grief -- his familiar's death had destroyed his sanity. He'd become obsessed with necromancy and that, of course, did not help heal his mind at all. Woody's soul escaped him, placed by whatever it was that moved souls from death to rebirth.
Roger Shearn was not as lucky.
While living, Shearn had a mean streak, but he was not an evil man, but Martinez, because of some childhood trauma, saw him as the devil, the source of all his pain. For almost two decades, Roger Shearn slowly rotted as his master used him in ways he never imagined and once he was able to command Shearn's unrealized talents, his joy doubled and then turned sour. Using the zombie's talent second hand, Martinez was able to bend the monastery to his will, until he became the Abbot.
It seemed that he'd always been the Abbot.
So, Roger Shearn begged forgiveness, crying until the limousine pulled up and Brother Nathan felt goose bumps as his body became rigid and cold. Whatever freedom distance had granted the poor zombie, it had fled with the arrival of that long white salute to excess that Brother Nathan's order denounced.
The driver opened the door and the mad man stepped out of the vehicle. Dressed in a black business suit, Martinez no longer looked like the stern Abbot, instead, he looked like funeral directed. His eyes found Brother Nathan easily enough and he beckoned the monk's stolen body towards the trunk of the limo, which obediently popped open.
Despite himself, Brother Nathan walked forward and he met the Abbot's eyes as the man looked over his abused body, peering past the ghosting spell as if the complex spell was a mere privacy charm. A grandfatherly smile spread across his master's face, "Such debasement, Roger," the older man said, "I would have thought you above that by now. I hope you enjoyed your vacation away from me."
Brother Nathan felt his face frowning and shifting into a glare at the Abbot but the zombie held its tongue, it had no choice. The young monk realized with abject misery that he was now the puppet of a puppet. He might have felt some pity for Shearn if he wasn't so close to becoming mad with fear.
The Abbot pulled out a cloth wrapped bundle, the size of a small watermelon and the stench of it was staggering, although Brother Nathan did not stagger. He simply could not, no more than he could look away when the package was revealed to be the zombie's rotting head.
"Without your energy, I'm afraid your body... failed, for lack of a better word," the Abbot said cheerfully, "But don't worry, your head can still house your soul, or Brother Nathan's, for that matter. I don't think I have to tell you how important the next hour is going to be for me, do I?" Martinez wrapped up the head carefully and took on a more serious cast. "Fail me in this, Roger, and you will sit on a shelf in my study; mute and immobile, watching the wolves gnaw on your bones. Please me and I will let you drive that body into the ground, or perhaps, I will let you go... where ever a soul like your goes when it's day is done."
After placing the head back, the Abbot stepped back and nodded towards the trunk where a strange leathery bundle sat. It was nearly as long as the trunk and as thick as Brother Nathan's hips. Three straps spaced evenly apart held it together tightly, although when Brother Nathan found himself lifting the package, the uneven rods within the leathery cocoon shifted.
The package was heavy, but the zombie forced his already tired back and arms to bear the weight without complaint. Then Martinez slammed the trunk closed and indicated that Brother Nathan should follow him which is what the monk did as his soul screamed silently to God for a quick and merciful release.
"Assemble that on the lawn," the mad abbot commanded and Brother Nathan's body rushed to obey.
Backwoods woke up with a start, suddenly aware and alert. He had fallen asleep finally by assuming the form of a true donkey and letting his mind melt into its simple needs and free of sentience, he had slept deeply and soundly until that very moment when he felt the wards ripple across their lawn.
Flight or fight, his instincts told him. And his body chose to fight, calling up the magic and the mind that could wield the magic best. Mass vanished from the ass until he was the bipedal equine creature with near human face and torso. Then Backwoods grabbed his black magi robe, and cast his inner eye about the garage.
Invisible to all but the trained eyes of the donkey mage, the wards Eric had cast earlier that day... no, yesterday... the wards Eric had cast yesterday were beginning to spider into the house like some time-lapse kudzu vines. Backwoods' almost human jaw dropped as he made out the little tendrils of glamour magic infecting the wards.
Silently, Backwoods backed out of his room and found Eric watching television in the common room. "Hey, did you know they were having a Magical Ed marathon on TVLand?" Eric asked cheerfully and then suddenly became serious when he saw the whites around his friend's eyes. "What's wrong?"
Backwoods' tail whipped nervously as the donkey mage flexed his very human looking fingers. "Don't cast your inner eye, Eric... just get your casting tools."
Eric frowned and was about to ask what was happening, when Backwoods' look of fear convinced him to just move instead and then Backwoods, keeping a weary eye on the invisible and mutating wards, pounded on Flint's door. Even as Flint opened it, Eric was cinching the belt around his black robes as he ran to Cody's door and pounded on that.
Flint rubbed his eyes. "You know... this is why I didn't want to live in a frat house. I was sleeping Backwoods."
"Don't use your inner eyes," Backwoods said, looking at Cody who had opened his door right after Flint had opened his, and then back to the heavier boy. "We're about to be attacked."
"Attacked?" Cody sputtered. "By who?"
"An illusionist," Eric snapped, "so don't use your inner eye." Eric took command and that was just fine with Backwoods who was thankful the human had figured it out as quickly as Backwoods had. "You do that and he'll use us against each other."
"Not just an illusionist," Backwoods rumbled, watching the corrupted wards snake into the common room. "He's using my own glamour against us... bending Eric's wards inward... I've never seen anything like that before."
"What are we going to do?" Cody squeezed Backwoods' upper arm painfully. "You're the only one who can fight a Fey! We've got to get out of here!"
Backwoods shook his head, sending the donkey ears a flutter with a gentle clapping. "If we run, they will pursue." His ears flopped back, resolute as his legs shifted, planting themselves, and he wished he had four stout limbs to call upon. Something flickered like a strobe across his mind, but it was gone before he could see it clearly. "Call the cops, if you want to, Cody. Maybe they'll have a glamour-user."
Cody nodded and then ducked back into his bedroom while Flint swallowed and licked lips so dry they looked painful to the donkey mage. "I thought you were the only glamour-user in the state."
Backwoods nodded as Eric begin casting sand and salt into the intricate glyphs on the floor. "I'm the only glamour-user on the whole fucking Eastern Seaboard. Americans with my talents usually fall into charms or technomancy."
"On the bright side," Eric said, breaking open a vial of red and orange salts, "Glamour is the weakest magic out there, even weaker than charms."
"On the other hand," Backwoods said, as his stomach twisting nervously, "A man can drown in a inch of water if he's not careful." All three nodded sagely as Cody rejoined them.
His face was ash white but his jaw was set. "Phone's dead."
Backwoods watched as the wards seemed to merge with their house. "I wish I had a gun right now."
Eric tapped the six glyphs in front of him. "That's what these babies are for. Charm-rippers. Pyrotechnics. And an exploder for the jockey out front. He won't be able to use my wards against us."
The donkey mage looked down at the glyphs, all ready to be activated the moment they were needed. By then the creeping and corrupted ward had stopped just short of the four of them, and then the stolen ward began to recede as the glamour tightened on it as he watched. The new glyphs were glamour free and that was a blessing. "Good," Backwoods said, "because he's almost done."
Brother Nathan watched as his hands had unrolled the leather and bones but he did not understand what he'd been building until the task was almost done and even as his hijacked body told the Abbot that he was finished, the mad man had begun manipulating the wards the tenants had reconstructed less than a day ago. Nathan prayed for the boys within the house.
Brother Nathan's inner-eye sprung to life as the ward impossibly bent under the Abbot's will, leveraging the Old World magic layered onto the wards as if he'd been the one to cast it. The face of the donkey zoomorph appeared again to the monk's mind, a human face that didn't just bare a striking resemblance to the mad Abbot. In fact the so-called treasure the Abbot had sought for years, might as well have been the man's twin if they had been of the same species.
The arrangement of bones began to glow, powered by magic coming from within his own body, but not from his own well. It was the zombie within him performing some sort of prearranged spell at the order of its master... their master now, he realized bleakly. Like a puppet, the bones rose until they took on the shape of the animal the leather had been made from.
The leathery skeleton brayed silently as some sort of non-life began animating it and Nathan was horror struck by what the madman apparently intended. If the donkey-mage within was the Abbot's treasure, then this desiccated ass golem, most likely created from the remains of his beloved familiar, Woody, was meant to be the treasure chest. A cage for the reincarnated soul so that it might never escape Juan again.
With a gesture, the Abbot of the Enlightened Therianthropic Monastery blew the door of the ranch-style home apart.
Backwards threw a ward up the instant the door fragmented inwardly, but his friends still flinched, unable to open their inner eyes and the protective shower of sparks eased them and gave them the courage to face the intruder. He stood in the light of doorway: a solid, muscular form dressed in a dark business suit that seemed to absorb all the light from the room and he held a half-rotted human skull out towards them, which burst into some ethereal light, casting the man's light brown face in green witch fire.
"I am Juan Martinez," the man with Backwoods' face said calmly. "You have something that belongs to me, I believe."
The face staggered the donkey mage, for he knew there was no illusion to it. Except for the ears and some extra years, the stranger's face was an exact match to Backwoods' new near human face. Backwoods was frightened. To put it simply, and he almost succumbed right there and then. It would have been easy to run, hiding deep into his brain, and allow his body to have its mindless way.
The only thing that stopped him was Eric's answer. It was the first pyrotechnic bolt, shot forward by the slamming of the human's palm into the salt cast glyph. It took Martinez by surprise, full in the chest and he staggered back off the porch as Cody cheered.
The corrupted wards twisted in sympathy to their new master's pain and a moment later, the wards curdled and screamed at the house mates. Cody screamed and Flint grabbed him as the house seemed to burst into flames about them. Finally Backwoods swept back the glamour as much as he could, having let it get by him that first second while the shock of being attacked by this almost twin of his. It was the visual alarms of the wards, corrupted by the glamour of their attackers, that were hardest on Eric, whose hands actually seemed to be on fire themselves.
"The jockey! Eric, now!" Backwoods screamed and Eric, at the mention of his name, slammed his palm into three interlocking circles formed of multicolored salt.
The spray of sparks pushed the Abbot back as if the hand of God had decided to sweep the man off the doorstep and Brother Nathan smiled without using his face, the hope that the Abbot might not be all powerful finally occurring to him for the first time during this ordeal. But he did not drop the skull as he fell upon the lawn and that seemed very important to Nathan. Let go, he silently urged. What that would accomplish, the monk did not know. The idea merely had the sweet taste of hope to it.
As the Abbot regained his feet, he plucked at the wards in the air about the front yard and the glamour clinging to the wards seemed to burst as the wards tried to do the job the young human had set for them as Brother Nathan had watched. Only the sounds and images were no longer of simple alarms. Instead the wards seemed to burn and scream with hellish force, and Nathan knew those within the house would burn themselves fatally the moment they tried to cast a single spell. Brother Nathan had seen the Abbot use it before.
And then the stone jockey, holding its stone lantern aloft, exploded as if it had been kicked by an invisible horse, and Brother Nathan felt the debris bounce harmlessly off his paralyzed body. But it was nothing compared to the effect it had on the golem or the wards themselves.
The golem collapsed, the bones tumbling casually out of its leather shell of a body as the wards exploded into flares of glamour straight up into the air, lighting the sky with multiple pleas of help. A small thrill of triumph went up Nathan's hijacked spine, as his coerced handiwork came undone. Now, if only the devil would let go of the skull, Nathan was certain he could make his escape.
The wards fragmented and the visual display overwhelmed Nathan for a moment as the faux flames the abbot had attached to the alarms was turned back upon them. The flames spiraled out and away moments later, leaving no evidence, save the skull, which now seemed to burn from within with yellow physical flame and not the green witch fire it had contained a moment before. From it empty sockets cried twin tapers of flame and the thick black smoke of burning meat, but Juan Martinez had held onto it regardless.
Nathan prayed that the soul trapped within that skull was now at peace.
As Martinez seemed to realize what had happened, Nathan heard a silent mental whisper, a deathbed confession, a dying wish... "Let go," Shearn's voice pleaded in his head. "Let go."
The hold on Nathan seemed to lessen, and his lips began to move with the silent chant within his own skull.
"Let go. Let go. Let go..."
But he could not otherwise move as his evil master took the skull in both his thick hands and forced what remained of his slave to cast a ward about them. Once satisfied with that, Martinez turned back to Nathan and ordered him to reassemble the donkey thing and as soon as he began to move towards the pile of bones, his master moved forward towards the ranch house.
"Harbingers," his master called and Nathan's mind eye promptly was overwhelmed with a singular vision of a black shroud of his own Murder.
The flames vanished almost to the second that the intricate salt glyph was consumed and the four friends felt the sudden silence like a physical thing. Eric seemed disoriented by his sudden non-burning state, and Backwards found himself waiting to see what his friend would do next.
"Can we defend ourselves, now?" Flint spoke up.
"Not with spells," Backwoods said quickly and then continued, "Just these," motioning to the salt glyphs Eric had cast before the attacker had violated there home. "The trigger's too fast for the other Fey to attach anything to."
"I was thinking of taking a tire iron upside his head," Flint said gruffly as Cody pressed in closer to the hefty male. Backwoods gave him a thumbs-up, as he turned his attention back to the attacker in the front yard.
"Just stay behind me until I'm out of ammo," Eric snapped as he shook the shock of good health off him. "Christ, you said glamour was the weakest magic out there! I thought I was a goner there for a second."
"Weak is a relative term," Backwoods said, taken aback by their assailant's strength himself. "Here he comes, again. Charm-ripper, OK?"
The stranger, a few pieces of grass on his black suit, appeared in the doorway with the skull in his outstretched arms, but now a greasy fire had replaced its unearthly nimbus of green energy, but the Backwoods' twisted twin seemed not to care. "Harbingers," the man called forth and Backwoods barely had time to curse as a rush of black shadows shot out of the skull's limp mouth.
Suddenly, their living room was filled with hundreds of screaming crows. Sharp beaks and talons swept about them, scraping and ripping them like flying razor blades and Eric threw his hand down on the charm-ripper by sheer reflex, but the results were less than satisfying. "This is no illusion," he screamed, covering his face.
"The werewolf!" Backwoods cried, feeling a phantom crow cut into his tender nose.
"The what!?" Cody yelled out, wisely using a chair's throw cover to swat at the swarming murder about them. "There's a werewolf, too?"
Backwoods' mind raced. Summoning a murder of crows was an involved Therianthropic magic, but the glamour on the wards were too refined and complex to have been created by someone who spent a life time melding the physical and astral planes into theological flavored spells. The burning skull also suggested something else entirely, but he was too busy swatting at the solid but unreal crows to think clearly. Slowly, the sharp metallic taste of panic began to burn on his tongue.
Eric slammed his palm into the second and last pyrotechnic glyph. It was seven times as powerful as the first bolt, that being as much a warning as anything else and by all rights, it should have been a fatal attack, but the murder of crows took the bulk of the blast and the skull seemed to absorb the rest, screaming with the agonized misery of its cursed existence.
The birds fell and faded away, but they had done their job as the blood covering the friends' tattered clothes attested. Disoriented and frightened, they looked down and saw their only trustworthy lines of defense, Eric's glyphs of colored salt, scattered and broken on the floor.
"Necromancer," Eric said and spat.
That made sense, Backwoods realized, if nothing else did. Each of the necromancer's victims would act as a battery of spells as long as he had some sort of control over them and some small spark of life remained within the sad, twisted pieces of meat. Though modern necromancers were no longer the lazy and sociopathic stereotypes of yore, but this one was some sort of throwback.
It wasn't the fact that they had no chance in hell of surviving this encounter that made Backwoods' bladder empty, but that he suddenly realized surviving might be the worst thing to ever happen to them.
Brother Nathan felt the Crow Spirits retreat back whence they came, burned by the directed energy burst. How any one was able to cast a glyph in front of the Abbot without the madman using his glamour to subvert the building of the spell to his advantage, Nathan did not know, but still, it pleased him to no end, to know the power behind the blast was stronger than the Abbot's. Had that blast connected, not even the wards of the Abbot and his zombie would have saved the monster from taking a fatal blow.
If only they could cast another spell like that before the Abbot recovered from the Spirit's forced retreat, then he might just walk away from this with his life and his freedom, but as he began to connect the bones again, no such spell was cast, and his heart sank.
"Ass!" Abbot Juan called out in ringing tones, "Submit thyself to my will and I shall let your friends go free." A small portion of Brother Nathan's mind flinched at his master's corruption of the Old English form, but he did not stray from his task no matter how hard he tried. Only his lips retained just enough freedom to continue the chant he had taken up moments ago. "Let go. Let go. Let go..."
The Abbot suddenly danced aside as a couch was flung through the door at him and nearly lost his balance, but his grip on the skull seemed unshaken. Nathan cried then, for if the young men inside the house were resorting to throwing furniture, all was lost. As his tears dropped uselessly onto the pile of bones he rebuilt, and from the depths of his misery, he realized two things.
The first thing was that his right hand seemed somewhat paralyzed, unable to grip any of the bones he was moving and that seemed odd. He wondered how long that had been the case. Nathan flexed his hand, but there was no grip and no strength within his fingers, only a heavy numbness that seemed wrong.
The second thing was that the skull should never have caught fire. Never.
The flames had been completely imaginary, after all.
But that knowledge did him no good as he didn't know what to make of it and, in any case, Nathan's body was still compelled to obey the Abbot's wishes, through his connection with the zombie Shearn.
Then, with a shudder, Nathan's body froze in place and he found himself looking at his right hand, balled into a fist. Inhuman screams were now coming from the house as the Abbot's chauffeur boldly marched past the kneeling monk towards the ranch.
"Ass!" The invader yelled at them clearly and distinctly, "Submit thyself to my will and I shall let your friends go free."
Wiping the blood from his brow, Eric stepped protectively in front of Backwoods. "Over my dead body, pal."
The part of Backwoods that was once human wanted to tell Eric to back off, but the equine in him knew that this was the Herd Stallion's job.
The man hovered just outside the open maw that used to be their front door, and he smiled. "That can be arranged," he promised softly.
Panic finally seized Backwoods and he grabbed the couch and then his form shifted up, using his innate power base as an equine morph to take on mass and strength instantly. Cody whooped with evil joy as their couch became a projectile aimed at the stranger. It scraped against the remains of the doorframe and almost lodged in place, but it managed to get a few feet further and for a moment, it looked as if the furniture had struck the target squarely, but somehow he seemed to have avoided being crushed.
There was no magic any of them could cast now without giving this villain an opening. His friends were familiar enough with his glamour castings to know to avoid magic, but as Backwoods was a Fey wizard also his own spells should have been immune. Yet, somehow, this evil human had twisted the donkey-mage's glamour on Eric's wards as if they belonged to the man and only Backwoods could have done that by rights, or his twin. Yet, he was an only child.
Still, the man shared the face from his dreams, the human face he wore now.
The stranger stepped around the couch and the cushions it had shed upon landing and the smoldering skull remained in his hands, pointing at the mule-mage and his friends. Backwoods took a quick glance around -- Flint had grabbed a lamp, apparently to smash the stranger with, and Eric had his fists up, but Cody appeared at a loss as at what to do. They seemed so small to him now, but he was as uncertain as they were, and perhaps as powerless. With so little sleep under his belt, his extended bulk was eating into his resources very quickly.
The man smirked. "So, you realize magic is useless against me. Good." The man shifted the skull just under his own jaw. "I've theomancy, therianthromancy, glamour, and magic schools at my disposal you've never even heard of. I can assure you, your salvation does not lie with physical resistance either and, like the beast you protect, I can be quite stubborn."
"Fuck you, Bitch!" Cody spat, his raw nerves exposed fully in his voice. "Knock that skull out of his hands, Woody!"
Backwoods launched himself across the room, compelled by the voice of his alpha mare. Surprised, his evil twin backpedaled, but the ass was faster. His almost human fingers grasped the skull by its eye sockets...
And Backwoods Explorer screamed as his hand was nearly severed and quite thoroughly crushed a split second later.
Shearn had fought the whole time as best he could but his own legs would not obey his commands as he walked up to the ranch house, but he was used to that. He did not try to claim his legs as his own. That was not important. Instead, he concentrated on what was going on with Brother Nathan.
"Let go," he begged on the one way communication the wetback had trapped the young werewolf into. "Let go." The young man could not seem to make sense of the orders now that Juan was watching his every move, giving him orders directly in the flesh.
Shearn carried the trap up to the door and he was gratified to see the four boys putting up a fight. He hoped it would be enough, but Juan was a master of illusions and it was clear that, as his master maneuvered his unresisting flesh around their obstacles, they had been fooled into not retreating. Yet, even while Juan had researched this Backwoods Explorer, he'd failed to fully appreciate the power of the ass' friends, so there was still hope.
However, just as the wetback had said, the equine grew large in his resistance at the taunting words Juan Martinez had carefully chosen while they had driven here from Virginia. Still, Shearn was startled as the large zoo-morph rushed suddenly forward at the command of the slender man in the back and despite his Master's will, Shearn found himself stepping back even as the ani-mage's magically enlarged paw slammed into the steel bear trap that Shearn had been ordered to hold in front of his body the whole time.
Shearn lost most of his fingers as the equine screamed, but that hardly mattered to him any more. Hope had all but died in his heart as the bloodied and flailing limb pushed him into the wall. "Let go," he pleaded one last time, but against the banshee wail of the crippled donkey-mage, the whisper went unheard.
The illusion fell away, revealing the zombie as such as there was no need for the Master to waste any more magic, Shearn knew. A glamour-user, of course, needed an existing spell to cast his glamour upon and Martinez's magical mastery of Shearn's corpse provided just the medium for the decoy the abbot desired.
Then his master was there, in the doorway, dressed as a chauffeur, his favorite disguise when one was needed. He leaned forward and stroked the forehead of the rapidly shrinking donkey-zoomorph and he spoke soft words no one could hear, not even Shearn who stood inches away. Seeing gentleness from the man now, frightened the zombie to no end.
Then he saw a gesture and words popped out of his mouth, "You've still got a chance! Quickly, give your friend your power!"
The two bigger males hesitated, but the smaller one grabbed an arm of each of them and spoke the quick Tantric spell many sexually obsessed college students were quick to learn. Instantly, Backwoods screamed, "No!"
But it was too late and the damage had been done.
Cold forged iron.
The bane of the mythical elves the magical school of glamour was named after.
Fey mages simply could not ward against base metals.
Thus the steel jaws hidden within the skull illusion that had fooled even him, bit directly through his own personal wards like a hot knife through butter. Muscles and bones snapped, sending spikes of molten metal pain up through his magical enhanced limb and his mind burned white, wiping away the world about him in an instant.
Even as he fought the whirling vortex and struggled to regain control, Backwoods felt himself shrinking as his strength left him. The steel trap seemed to chew his useless hand as the cruel thing grew larger and the agony was endless and beyond measure. The donkey-mage fell to his knees, broken and destroyed.
Then his tormentor was standing over him.
He spoke words but they were meaningless. Backwoods refused to give in. He refused to surrender, even if the words were comforting and seemed to promise an end to his own suffering.
He shook his head, trying to clear it. He wanted so badly to dive into his donkey self, to escape the torment by letting go of his humanity fully, but he dared not do so. The steel trap on his arm would merely crush his foreleg once Backwoods was in full donkey form, and then he'd be lame and useless. His friends needed him sentient, too, for he sensed this evil human reflection of himself was almost exactly as powerful as he was.
Backwards' wards began to shut down the nerves in his hand and as the donkey-mage collected his wits, he could feel the human probing against his wards looking for a chink in his armor, but there was none to be had. Despite the invader's ability to usurp his glamour, it seemed as if their wards were repelling each other like two positively charged particles and for that, Backwoods was grateful, for he had enough to handle trying to get the trap off his arm.
Backwoods was about to slam the steel trap in the stranger's face, when suddenly, the human whispered words and the thing behind him gave voice to those words. Though the words made no sense to him, but almost immediately, Backwoods felt a surge of power. It was a Tantric casting and he knew it immediately for Cody's and instinctively, he opened himself up to it.
His mind cleared instantly, and as he felt the chain of love spread across every fiber of his being he knew his entire herd had joined together to save him, to give him strength, and to, unknowingly, destroy any hope they had of escaping with their souls unscathed.
Backwoods had just one enough time to scream, "Noooo!" before he felt the stranger's deathgrip upon his heart.
The Tantric spell was as vulnerable to glamour as any other spell, and once the stranger had his foot in the door it was all over. Backwoods' wards ripped away painfully, repelled by the human's impossible duplicates and the stranger sent a glamour along the feedback loop of Cody's sexual magic, tricking the trio into locking themselves within the gestalt. For perhaps all of ten seconds, Backwoods' human friends thought they were actually helping.
The stranger pulled at the catalogue of forms deep within the essence of Backwoods' being and, with a gesture of disdain, the man destroyed the "book". Then the forms burst forth, causing Backwoods' body to ripple insanely as the High Soul magic sought to give them expression. Backwoods screamed, although there were several fleeting instances when he had no throat from which to scream and at least one three second period when his throat was inside out.
The shattered forms fled down and across the corrupted Tantric chain almost in the same instant and clothing and flesh tore as Cody, Eric, and Flint flailed about on the debris strewn carpet, at the mercy of magic their bodies had never been prepared for.
The stranger laughed, his enemies seemingly smited, and that very sound touched on the stubborn core deep within the donkey-mage. From within the hell of sensations, Backwoods found the strength to focus and he turned his inner eye onto the evil man before. Zombies, werewolves, and even mundane steel: none of that mattered.
"Give yourself to me Ass, while there is something left of your friends to save."
Backwoods simply glared, his full asinine nature aligning perfectly with his human wiles at that moment. He could not ignore his friend's suffering, so instead he chose to let that inspire him.
With a bray of rage, Backwoods grabbed at the astral tether linking the human and his zombie slave and instantly and instinctively, the zombie let him in, desperate for the warmth of a living soul. It ate his pain, even as his master leapt to pull them apart, and in that instant, Backwoods saw the one final hope the dead creature had of freedom. "Let go!" He screamed into the astral plane, before severing the connection explosively.
Brother Nathan fell back on his haunches, staring at his closed fist like he'd never seen it before. Turning, he looked back at the donkey golem pulling itself back together. There'd been no need for him to assemble it, the Abbot had seen to that. Then why..?
The young monk blinked and slowly forced his fist open. His fingers were sweaty and sore from being clenched for two days and what he found embedded in black mass of dried blood the size of a pecan on his palm did not completely surprise him. He turned his hand sideways and then with a gentle poke from his other hand, the zombie's tooth fell to the ground.
The severed connection gave the zombie pause and Backwoods was able twist the trap from its undead grip, if not twist the limb from the trap itself. He kicked at the zombie's master, who seemed equally stunned to have the connection severed, but he did not connect as solidly as he would have liked.
Backwoods flipped over and hoped his friends were not too badly off now that their own gestalt had been broken. If any one could get the steel obscenity from his mangled limb before the stranger got himself back on his feet, they could survive, but the sight that greeted the donkey mage struck him the greatest blow yet. His friends had become locked in their twisted forms!
Strong, proud Eric was trying to force himself to his feet, but his body would not obey the signals from his brain properly, although that was largely due to his human head having been replaced by an oversized donkey head. He brayed in confused pain as he struggled spastically on the floor less than a foot away from.
Flint was awake and aware, hobbled by the horror of finding his lower half replaced by the hind legs and hips of an ass. Always the quiet type, Flint's absolute, terrified silence reached into depths as he examined the equine mass extending from his ruined jeans.
Cody looked to be completely destroyed, if the huge mass of distorted flesh was indeed the friend Backwoods had always thought of as "their mare." Cody had taken on the full mass of a donkey and something of the shape of one, but nothing more than that, if the hairlessness of the body was any indication. The lungs bellowed out once, each oversized rib stretching the pale flesh cruelly as it did so, and Backwoods could look at it no more.
He crawled to Eric, holding out the trap as he did so. White appeared in Eric's eyes as they locked on the red dripping thing but there was no comprehension in his leader's eyes, just a mindless terror that seemed to know that he should be understanding but that he could not. Backwoods pleaded and then ordered Eric to use his still human fingers to pull the trap back, but it was to no avail.
Finally, Backwoods saw Flint dragging himself over, his huge and twisted legs useless. Desperate, Backwoods held his arm out to his friend, dizzy now from the pain and panic that threatened to make him nothing more than a three legged donkey and long seconds later, Flint was pulling at the steel jaws of the trap as they both sobbed with equine-flavored grunts.
Then it was too late, and the human was straddling Backwoods and then he grabbed the donkey mage's still human face and forced Backwoods to look deeply in his eyes. "You'll never control me again! Never! You're not dealing with a child now, beast! I am your master, now!"
Then the man grabbed Backwoods by the upper lip, and with an electric shock Backwoods was frozen. "I loved you," the man accused as the donkey mage suddenly found his mind battered by inhuman fury. "And you used me and then left me on my own! Defenseless!"
Backwoods fought, confused, but the pain was too much. His humanity gave in and he reached for the catalogue tied to his very soul by a group of six elders only a few years ago but there was a nothing there, the catalogue was shattered, torn asunder, only a shadow of it remained, but from that shadow a four legged creature strode forth and stood between the human invasion and Backwoods' beaten mind.
"Stop," the creature said, blocking the human from grabbing at what remained of Backwoods but the human persisted, screaming and searching for a way around the creature but there was none.
"I won't let you deny me!" the human screamed here and perhaps in the real world, but Backwoods was no longer sure which was what any more. He'd heard of the astral plane, but only white or black mages ever went there, so he thought he might be there, but he couldn't be sure.
"Why?" the creature asked and this seemed to diminish the human for a second. But then the human screamed in denial and raged on with obscenities and threats. The creature stood firm and seemed to grow larger, stronger, it shook its massive head and asked again. Again, the human seemed to shrink back, until it was a child crying piteously at the creature's hooved feet.
Suddenly, Backwoods realized that the creature and he were the same being, and his vision blurred. In the next moment, Backwoods blinked, feeling the pain of his chewed hand as a very distant thing as all around him, a lakeside forest sprung into being.
At the donkey's feet, a sobbing Hispanic child kneeled. The lad was beaten and abused, a black welt nearly closed his left eye shut, and huge, rusted chains and leg irons were draped across his young body and he clutched at Backwoods ankle hock. "Why," he asked the boy gently.
"I don't want to be alone," the boy whined, defeated. "You left me alone."
Backwoods looked around and he realized a sense of deja vu. This was a scene from another life, his previous life.
"You loved Woody," Backwoods said quietly. A wind whipped up and disturbed the treetops like a threatening storm.
"I didn't have a choice," the boy complained. "You made me love you."
"I was a different person, then," Backwoods said quietly. "I was just an animal, then."
"You weren't!" the boy wailed. "You were the source of my strength, my magic, my... everything... and you left me..!"
"I had to go," Backwoods said, given the scene playing outside the corpse of trees a quick glance. The child was fixated, watching his Woody drop dead, literally. An aneurysm, Backwoods realized, instant and pain free, with not so much as a blip of feedback to let the boy know his familiar was gone. Nothing, not even a goodbye.
"I can't live like this! Alone!" the boy wailed again, and Backwoods felt his former self's all-accepting love for this boy. He reached out and stroked the boy's hair.
"You don't have to be alone." Backwoods said. "You can come join my herd, if you can repair all the damage that you have done."
"You have some of me inside you," the boy said as Backwoods bent down and tried to undo the chains the boy had forged over the years.
Backwoods stopped to think and he nodded, that was probably why the Celestial Mechanism had delivered him to a human mother.
"You didn't give me anything in return," the boy accused him.
"I'm sorry," Backwoods said and embraced the boy gently.
The boy did not relax at first, but then he inhaled the scent of the donkey mage and for a moment he seemed to know peace, almost melting into the larger creature. Then Backwoods pulled him away to tell him something and the peaceful facade fell from the boy's face. "Well, I want it back!" the boy screamed and huge fangs sprouted from the boys mouth as he lunged for the ass' throat.
Suddenly, the world exploded red and, for an instant, Backwoods Explorer knew Oblivion.
Backwoods Explorer forced his eyes open and discovered the man standing over him. The man's expression of rage softened into confusion in an instant and then his eyes seemed to roll up inside his own head as all the blood drained from his face. Another meaty thump sounded and the human collapsed to his knees to reveal a nude werewolf clutching a huge club-like bone standing over them both. With a savage snarl, the beast slammed the huge thighbone directly against the human's skull. As the human fell forward, the werewolf pressed his attack, slamming the bone down repeatedly with all his bestial rage. Within short moments, blood began to splash up and then the room blurred around Backwoods.
He fell back into his own darkness and then the world was quiet, except for the theme from Magical Ed playing softly in his head.
The abbot looked at the anxious, young neophyte. Not too very long ago, he was certain he'd had the same look about him, in fact, this time last year he had stood where the baby-faced monk now stood, facing a creature many years past its own death and chirping with eagerness to tell his abbot the good news.
He sighed. It was a life time ago, and the weight of the events his announcement had set into motion was a burden that he'd not been able to leave behind, but, he forced himself to wear a gentle, serene smile. "I understand, Brother Scott, but you must tell them we have changed our minds. We, of course, apologize for wasting the worthies' time and will still pay the fee as agreed."
The monk sputtered, but the abbot held a hand out for silence. "But they're Elder Mages!" the young man in the black robe protested once more before obeying the informal gesture.
"I know, Brother, and if they insist on meeting with me, please explain to them that demands of abbacy have made me unavailable. I am sorry to put you in this position, but you do understand that you will not be lying..?"
Brother Scott nodded, looking less energetic and more resigned than ten minutes previously. "What if they wish to speak to the Archimandrite?"
The abbot raised his eyebrows at that. This young man was certainly new to their order if he didn't know the answer to that. "The Father Superior will be communing with his herd today, as he does every Sunday after services."
The clean face of the younger man nodded, but he appeared unhappy. As he went to turn away, the abbot reached out and touched the man's shoulder with a furry paw that quickly became a pale human hand. "Brother, what spirit guides you today?"
Scott looked at the scarred human hand and then glanced at the abbot's scarred but human face, before bowing his head humbly. "A horse spirit, Master."
The abbot smiled as gently as he could. "I can see the colt in you today, Scott. Has the spirit manifested itself to you in any other way?"
"No, Master, not in all the years I've felt his presence."
"Please don't call me that, Brother Scott. Call me Nathan, Brother Nathan if you'd prefer. Call me Abbot Nathan, if you absolutely must. But, please, do not call me Master." The neophyte nodded, embarrassed, and turned as if to walk away. "Scott, after you send the Panel of Elders away, come to the west cloister field and perhaps the Archimandrite will be able to cajole a manifestation out of your horse spirit."
Brother Scott blushed, turning a shade of red. "That would be wonderful... Abbot Nathan. I always felt the herbivore spirits were too often overlooked by our sect because they are 'prey' species."
Nathan chuckled ruefully. "We are all prey to something, Brother Scott. Most often ourselves, but I think you've heard enough sermons for today. And our guests are waiting. Go."
As Brother Scott trotted off in one direction, the good abbot turned to another and headed for the west cloister. Like Brother Scott, Nathan had been concerned about sending the mages away, but he was unwilling to express doubts about the Archimandrite's decision in front of one of their newer members of the Monastery.
Still, as he walked the granite arcades towards the field, he could feel himself relaxing as he caught the scents of the Herd. Under the old order, acceptance and peace had been a sin, and that had seemed true, but their leader had been nothing but a false prophet. Juan Martinez had been a great man once, but his greatness had been shallow and not from within, but rather from without. Without that lone source of support, even love could not survive without twisting.
The Enlightened Therianthropic Church had always spoken of Strength, From Within and Without, but now it also spoke of Love.
The herbivores greeted him as he dropped his robes at the end of the arcade. Eric, with his donkey head and fuzzy shoulders, rolled in the grass and brayed a gentle welcome. Even though his intelligence was stunted, he still remained the herd's alpha male, and Nathan allowed himself to be inspected by the naked man. That only took a moment, for they were old friends now.
Flint continued drawing in his sketchbook, even as Nathan patted his furry rump in a friendly gesture. He was human from the hips up, but below that he had equine legs, and between them equine genitals in the front and in the back the ropy tail of an ass and Nathan understood that Flint had been quiet and a bit insecure before this had happened to him. Juan's attack hadn't affected Flint's intelligence so much as the young man's personality. Oh, Flint was still quiet, but he was no longer above masturbating or peeing in public.
Luckily, Flint had no urge to mingle with the rest of human society. He went where Cody went, and that was all he cared about.
Nathan stole a quick look at Flint's sketch. The donkey-boy was drawing the three herd-mates midway across the field; Backwoods, Cody, and Juan. Backwoods and Cody were drawn in loving detail; the kneeling donkey-mage next to the prone quadruped. Martinez was barely more than a few harsh lines, but he could hardly blame the poor boy for his harsh feeling after all that Juan had done to them.
Speaking a few gentle words, Nathan watched Flint blush gently, but otherwise Flint said nothing.
The abbot walked up to Cody and Backwoods and nodded, touching them gently in greeting. Juan moved off painfully as Nathan glared at him, although he had promised himself to forgive Juan the way the Archimandrite had wanted him to. Sighing, Nathan simply decided to forgive himself for now. "I sent them away, Backwoods, just as you wanted."
"Good," the mage said. His face was still the way Nathan had first seen him: dark Hispanic features under black hair and the humorously long ears of a donkey. He was a dead-ringer for Juan Martinez, except for the ears, of course. One did not have to look too closely to see other differences, for the donkey zoomorph was happy and self-content, and that was written into every line of his face, just as the anger and madness was still written on what was left of Juan's face.
Nathan waited silently, as Backwoods fed Cody some apple slices. Cody watched the human carefully. Not out of fear, no, not if the raised tail meant what the abbot thought it was. Cody was no brighter than Eric, and like Eric, Cody's role in the herd hadn't changed much since the incident. At the risk of offending Backwoods, Nathan would have called Cody a slut.
"Well?" Nathan said after he waited a reasonable length of time. "Aren't you going to explain why I had to cancel the zoomorphic panel at the last minute?"
"Yes," the donkey-mage said.
Silence sat between them for a moment, until a smile formed on Nathan's face. "Please don't tease the human. I want to know why you turned down a chance to undo what Juan did. Don't you want to fix things, Backwoods?"
"Nothing is broken, Nathan." Backwoods, looked up and smiled.
The abbot looked around, his eyes lingering on the former abbot, now broken in spirit and trapped wholly within the carcass of the golem he'd intended to use to ensnare his reborn familiar. With only a little prodding, Nathan had been able to get the creature beneath the personal wards of the unconscious necromancer and as the manna attunement of the crazy man and his reincarnated other half was exactly at the same frequency... It was as if Martinez had designed the trap for himself, and not just Woody.
By his own rules, Juan had been defeated and forced to become a slave to his conqueror, reduced once again to effectively becoming Backwoods' pet. Also, the man's rather militant rules made him Abbot for life, which meant that simple, friendly Backwoods Explorer was now the Father Superior or the Archimandrite, to use an older term.
It hadn't been what any of them had planned, but it worked out. Backwoods and his herd of malformed donkey-men were readily accepted by the majority. Almost all of them understood pack mentality; there was a new Alpha and a new Omega, and after some sorting of roles, harmony stopped by for a visit.
With Backwoods staying on as their spiritual leader, it looked like harmony would be staying for awhile. That was a good thing, but it wouldn't be fair to the others.
"How do they feel about that?" Nathan said, gesturing with his head to Flint and Eric. "And what about all the other things you wanted to explore? Like, how the Higher Soul catalogue could just be shattered like that. Or how to free the zombie's soul from that decrepit body? Those are things you wanted to ask the elder panel, important things."
Backwoods simply smiled and took Nathan's hand, pressing it against Cody's warm flesh and the equine shaped human snorted gently at the touch. There was no fur on her belly, but Backwoods claimed to be working on that. "Do you feel that?"
Nathan moved the flesh in small circles, but he felt no bumps and tight muscles. "What am I supposed to be feeling?"
"Life." Backwoods rubbed the mane on Cody's neck before kissing the muzzle of his herdmate. "Cody's life. Our Life."
Nathan saw Flint look up and blink slyly as he looked about for a clue. "What are you saying, Backwoods? Cody's really a boy. You can't be saying he's pregnant."
"Cody's not broken," Backwoods said simply. "She's our jenny, the way it was supposed to be."
Nathan moved his palm slowly over Cody's flank, opening his Theri-Animus connection to the astral plane. His gentle probing found not one but two life forms beneath his fingers for within Cody's strong and fertile field, a spark full of potential was emitting growth and hope. There was something about the spark that seemed different from all the other unborn children he'd felt in the years since discovering this little trick. Delicately, he brushed against the spark for a better look.
"Roger Shearn!" Nathan pulled his hand away as if it had been burned, but then, a moment later he gently touched Cody's soon to be swollen belly. The spark within smiled back at him. "It is Roger Shearn... How? How did you manage that?"
Backwoods just shrugged. "Cody did it, she just... Inducted him. One moment she was sniffing at the zombie and then... she called us. Eric took her and we shared, of course, and then while Flint was mounting her... the zombie disintegrated and his dust flew into our mouths... and the next thing I knew... Cody was not only a real jenny, but she was gravid."
"It's a miracle," Nathan said, marveling. He could feel the beginnings of fur gently growing beneath his fingers, a coat that not even Backwoods had been able to give him. Her. "It's beyond comprehension."
"It's Life," Backwoods said, agreeing completely.