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|Wisp-touched story universe|
The sky over the rolling desert mountains was filled with wisps. Terry was the only one of her small group of companions who could see them and ironically enough she was the only one to whom they posed no threat. The other three members of the party - Dalton, Kreg and James - saw only a clear, cloudless blue. It gave them no indication of the risk they were taking by traveling there. There were plenty of dangers lurking around them in the Ethiopian wilderness other than wisps; this was prime basilisk country, there was a band of locustmen passing through the area somewhere, and the rumors of a dragon living in these hills were too common to be completely without substance. But those dangers were all tangible things that would either kill or be killed in a mundane and understandable way. Wisps were something else, wild magic beyond control or even comprehension.
Terry was not at the head of their line - James had that position - but she was the one guiding them through the invisible minefield. Every few minutes as their brace of sturdy little desert donkeys plodded along Terry would announce an update on the locations of the magic wisps floating around them. "Turn a few degrees to the left, one's coming down that slope." "Whole swarm of little ones along the bottom of that wadi, stay up here." "Big one overhead, hope it doesn't dip downward." Mages like Terry were almost indispensable for human travel in wildernesses such as this, where there was nothing worth putting up wards to protect, and mages were not common. The world had become a fragmentary and chaotic place since the wisps had shown up, with a full third of humanity already touched and permanently changed by them. The rest were now mostly hiding in cities to avoid joining the wisptouched, insular and introverted. Dirigibles, ocean liners and warded railroads still maintained some global trade but the stretches of wilderness where only nonhuman monsters or magical creatures lived made for psychological as well as physical barriers.
They weren't really in much danger of running into them at any given moment, even here in the middle of this storm the wisps had huge spaces remaining between them and most weren't at ground level. One could wander blindly for miles and still have a good chance of making it through without being touched. But even when the odds were in one's favour walking through the middle of a wisp storm like this was a nerve-wracking experience for the untouched. Terry, on the other hand, was feeling exhilarated; for her the storm was a promising sign. She had never seen a concentration of wisps this dense and it suggested that perhaps they really were on the right track. The source of magic itself - assuming there was one - could be very near.
"Woah, woah, freeze!" Terry pulled hard on her donkey's reins at James' call, the group coming to a sudden stop. James had his rifle raised but his head turned away from whatever he was pointing it at. "Basilisk snake!"
Terry's magesight faded as her concentration turned to more important things. She cut a fresh piece of string from the spool on her belt, deftly looped and knotted it into a petrification counterspell, and peered cautiously through it to survey the threat. A statue of a goat was standing a short distance ahead on the route they were following and it only took a moment for her to distinguish the big gray-scaled serpent coiled in the shade underneath. The basilisk snake that had created it was still with its prey.
Thank God. Terry put some of her focus back into magesight, enough to see the faint magical aura clinging to both the snake and the statue, and confirmed her suspicions. The kill was fresh and the snake's third eye was closed while it fed on the statue's residual vital energy. "It's all right," she announced with relief. "It's not hungry, it caught that goat just recently. You can look at it safely."
James cautiously turned his head back toward the statue, then wasted little time refining his rifle's aim and firing a shot. Terry squinted as a flare of magic came from the snake, but it was just the undirected spasm of a miscast spell as the basilisk died. "Hey, was that necessary?" Dalton asked. James didn't respond and Terry could only shrug helplessly. She didn't really know a lot about basilisks in general and who knew what this one in particular was like? It might have tried petrifying them anyway if they'd gone nearer. But still, she could certainly agree with Dalton's sentiment.
There but for the grace of God go I... Terry tucked the unused counterspell into one of her many shirt pockets and then stroked the pointed tip of her ear, a nervous reflex she had overcome countless times but which always seemed to sneak back up on her when she thought about such things. She'd been changed from a human into an elf fifteen years ago when she'd been touched by a wisp that had somehow made it over the wards around her home town. Her gender had also changed in the process, a not entirely uncommon complication of becoming wisptouched that had made the event quite memorable.
Still, she'd been incredibly lucky to wind up as she was. Most people who caught a wisp became creatures that were quite a bit less human, monsters like this basilisk snake. "It was probably natural-born, not first-generation," Terry mused in an attempt to reassure both herself and Dalton's concern. "There isn't a human settlement within a hundred miles." It was plausible enough to assuage both Dalton and Terry's guilt; while the wisptouched themselves almost always retained their memories and sense of identity when they changed, their offspring were no better than animals in many cases. Terry returned her attention to keeping an eye on the wisps floating across the landscape around them and the small group resumed moving steadily onward.
Terry herself was a magical creature, though without inherent magical abilities like the basilisk's petrification. She was a mage instead - one who could hand-craft almost any sort of magical effect that she had learned how to duplicate. Mage magic generally wasn't as powerful as specialized inherent magic but it was much more versatile. Her particular subtype of elvenkind was the dusky-skinned 'shadow elf', and like the rest of the magi belonging to her particular subspecies she found it easiest to cast spells through the use of woven thread. Other types of mage used small stones of various sorts as their fetish, or alchemical mixtures, or gestures and nonsense chants. Some of the most powerful or subtle mages could cast spells simply by willing it. She didn't study magic in a rigorous or formalized sense like Kreg and Dalton did with their own areas of expertise but her years of practice had given her an intuitive understanding of how magic 'worked.' Her power came from the wisp now bound within her, its unpredictable nature tamed when it had changed into an elf's magical aura.
If Kreg and Dalton's work was correct, twenty four years ago all of the wisps in the world had suddenly come spewing forth from somewhere near here. On that day, late in 1935, people all over the world had suddenly started changing in huge numbers as huge wisp storms swept rapidly across the globe. Kreg's research supervisor's meteorological work combined with the records of how quickly wisps had started changing things at various places around the world had identified the region - quite a challenging piece of work given that wisps were barely affected by passing through solid matter, let alone the pressure of wind. The sparsity of good records from around that date had also been a problem, and in modern times wisps were distributed almost evenly throughout the world so it was hard to work backward. Despite all that he'd managed to narrow it down to this stretch of near-desert foothills.
Dalton's archaeological and geological research had narrowed it down further, working on the assumption that the source of magic had been something that some ancient civilization in the area had known about. He'd tried on numerous occasions to explain the fragmentary legends on which his conclusions were based but Terry couldn't make heads or tails of it. She felt bad about how disappointed he seemed whenever she failed to follow his earnest tale of historical deduction.
Many of his colleagues had also apparently shared her inability to follow Dalton's theories, or had simply rejected them. It had taken them quite a while to gather enough support to fund even this tiny four-person expedition. Kreg had raised nothing at all from the remnants of the Reich, though that wasn't surprising considering Germany's economic situation and dislike of anything related to magic. Dalton had a few friends in the French department of antiquities who had provided funding and Terry had arranged things with the government of British Egypt to get them this far. But unless they managed to find something spectacular out here it was unlikely that there'd be much follow up, placing even more pressure on them to press on through the dangers.
They didn't encounter any more basilisks before nightfall, though there were a few crumbled statues along the way - petrified creatures lost their erosion resistance once all their energy had been drained and the basilisk that had petrified them moved on. Terry started keeping an eye open for a good spot to set down for the evening and eventually suggested that they head for the base of a low knob of dense rock jutting up through the clay hills. Wisps would be slowed when passing through a mass like that, adding a bit of shelter and taking a little pressure off of the wisp wards she placed around the perimeter of their camp.
Wisp wards were the most common magic to be found in civilized areas of the world and they were always one of the first things mages learned how to cast; they were the bread and butter of any professional spellcaster. Their importance was not surprising considering they were the only real defence humanity had against the magic they so deeply feared and mistrusted. Fortunately they'd also been one of the first reliable and easily-copied mage spells to be discovered, about two years after the wisps first appeared. Nobody knew who'd been the first to come up with them but whatever genius it had been had likely saved civilization from complete collapse.
Unfortunately attempting to move wisp wards dispelled their effect instantly and they wore down slowly over time even if they remained motionless, so they weren't a panacea; wilderness travelers still needed someone with magesight if they wanted to be completely safe. But now that they'd halted they could put up wards to prevent any from drifting into camp during the night, making it unnecessary for Terry to remain on watch for stray wisps all night long as well. With the three humans safely shielded, she was finally able to rest.
The scattered desert shrubs and clusters of cactus in the area were not suited to fire building, and James preferred to avoid setting signals for locustman scouts even though they hadn't seen any direct sign of them being present, so dinner was heated over a small paraffin flame. Beans again. Terry wrinkled her nose and decided to settle for a handful of crackers and some water instead, quite sufficient under the circumstances to keep her elven metabolism running fine.
The twilight deepening, she left the three men to their meal inside the wards while she stepped out to tie up the donkeys for the night. Animals too were immune to the touch of wisps, which seemed to have a taste only for humans. Assuming no locustmen attacked during the night, or worse, the donkeys would be fine on their own. They'd organized watches - Terry was taking the first one - but James had said he felt pretty safe out here, the basilisk they'd encountered and his caution against bright fires notwithstanding. The place was so remote that even the monsters rarely seemed to come this far.
Night fell quickly in the desert and as the chill of darkness came upon them the three men quickly retired to their tents. Terry wrapped herself tightly in a blanket and settled next to the face of the rocky knob they were camping next to; it still retained some heat of day and it was a good place to stargaze from. Elven night vision was superb and one of the things Terry had never really got used to after she was wisptouched was how the sky was saturated with tens of thousands of tiny stars the unaided human eye could never see. The Moon hadn't risen yet but the barren landscape shimmered with diffuse silver light all the same. She didn't need magesight for it to feel magical out here.
In all honesty Terry's interest in magic had started out as a way of compensating for becoming a woman, and a short elfin woman at that. Mastering the power of her magic had made her feel strong and manly again. But now after years of getting used to her altered body she felt secure enough that she could just call it her profession rather than hitching her entire self-image to it. Her job here was to see the things that the rest of them couldn't and keep them alive as she went along.
A lot like James, in a way. She grinned wryly at the thought of the rugged gun-toting man who led their little party; he was a classic adventurer, a genuine Lawrence of Arabia type. By this point in their journey they were all pretty rugged in their own ways, of course, but he was the one they'd hired specifically for that reason. He'd done a good job on that account. She didn't like him very much as a person, though, despite being from almost the same area of Britain as she was. They had little in common.
It wasn't until near the end of her shift when even the donkeys had dozed off to sleep and Terry was looking forward to it herself that she spotted something circling overhead. She only saw it because of what she couldn't see; stars briefly winking out as it passed over them, a serpentine line of black swimming through the sky. Terry blinked, quite awake again, and without moving she brought her magesight back into focus.
The stars were joined by a scatter of fuzzy wisps and the dark serpent overhead stood out plainly among them, its magical aura spread to form a pair of huge intangible wings. Its aura was powerful and it was expending magic at a prodigious rate to keep its bulk in the sky, suggesting a very massive monster indeed.
Terry swallowed. This must be the dragon all the rumors had mentioned. 'Dragon' was a very imprecise and generic term, unfortunately. It was used all over the world to refer to almost any large and powerful monster, usually reptilian but not always, that didn't otherwise fall into a well-known classification - or whose classification the speaker himself didn't know. Terry had grown to be sceptical whenever lay people used the term since the dragon in question usually turned out to be something relatively ordinary like a salamander or a giant bat. This particular one seemed worthy of the title, however.
It was keeping its distance, slowly cruising around in the sky with undulating serpentine motion, and she couldn't tell if it was paying any attention to their campsite. The rocky knob they were camped by may have been providing sufficient cover that it couldn't spot them, and even if it had magesight her own much weaker aura wouldn't stand out against the many wisps in the background. She remained very still until it eventually receded into the night.
Lordy, is it ever cold. When the dragon had been gone long enough for her to feel confident it wasn't coming back Terry finally stirred, getting to her feet without unwrapping the blanket and walking silently back into the small warded area of the campsite where the tents were pitched. It was almost Dalton's turn to take watch. She nudged his leg repeatedly through the side of the tent until he woke and cautiously poked his head out, still shoving his spectacles into place.
"Be quiet and careful," Terry whispered softly. "The rumored dragon is real. Flew overhead a few minutes ago but didn't notice us."
Dalton blinked, startled, but did his best to get dressed quickly without excessive noise. He crawled out of the tent and peered up at the sky, blinking some more as he tried to get his eyes fully dark-adapted and his mind fully awake. "What can we do about it?" He asked quietly.
"Hope it doesn't come back. I'm going to check James' big gun, make sure it's loaded and ready but don't know how much it'd hurt something like that." Terry grinned wryly. "At least this reassures me about those locustmen. A small band wouldn't pass through a dragon's turf."
Dalton blew a quiet sigh through pursed lips. "So what are we doing here, again?" He muttered rhetorically. Terry smiled again and gave Dalton a reassuring pat on the arm as she stepped past him to look at the magazine clip of the big Browning Rhino James had left leaning against his pack next to his tent flap. Confirming that it was loaded, Terry finally let herself yawn. It'd been a long day on the move and her watch had definitely put her in the mood for some sleep - dragon or no dragon. She brushed past Dalton again, quarters somewhat tight thanks to the limited area covered by the wisp wards, and climbed into the vacant tent.
Dalton watched the tent for a few minutes until he thought he could hear her breathing slow in sleep, then turned away and sat at the edge of the warded area to take up watch on the sky. He shook his head slightly, wondering for the umpteenth time what it was that made that elf tick; she looked so fragile but was always so strong and professional. It was all Dalton could do to keep up. Must be her magic, he concluded as he always did when he pondered Terry's stamina. After all, despite how human she looked and how civilized her lifestyle, she was a 'monster' too. In a way this wilderness was her element. Dalton sighed, futilely imagining the glowing blobs of magic he knew must be filling the dark sky. Perhaps he'd understand it all a little better when they found the source.
Perhaps tomorrow. It couldn't be far now.
When Terry woke up the next morning she found James annoyed; his watch shift had been last so he's wound up the last to hear about the dragon sighting. Terry quickly became annoyed too as she was dragged into defending her choice not to wake him out of turn.
Fortunately the argument didn't last long, since everyone wanted to break camp and move on but couldn't until Terry had confirmed it was safe to pick up the wisp wards. There weren't a lot around at the moment, though Terry could see a larger mass of them off on the horizon so it was probably just a brief lull. They hurried to take advantage of it, getting everything packed back onto the donkeys and heading out to eat breakfast on the move.
According to Dalton's maps they were already entering the most likely place to find what they were looking for. Dalton had described it as most likely being a small mesa with carvings on the side; something about a natural 'wind cove' or somesuch. James suggested a general direction and Terry took up her usual role of navigating them safely along it. They were headed toward a range of low, eroded mountains that Terry hoped would be a bit cooler than the open semiarid plain they'd been trudging through for days.
The three humans passed the time in a nervous silence, keeping their eyes peeled for the dragon Terry had glimpsed last night. Terry, on the other hand, was feeling more relaxed. Her job was watching the wisps and they were a little sparser here; she barely had to tweak their path at all. Then they stumbled upon something to make her life even easier. It didn't lead in exactly the right direction but there was a completely clear and arrow-straight path through the wisps leading onward as far as she could see. After she described it James agreed that it would be good to follow for a while.
They made good time for several miles, almost into the ridges of rock, when their journey came screeching to a sudden halt with Kreg's surprised yelp. "Shei...! Uh, I seem to be having some difficulty..." He wobbled unsteadily on his donkey's back, looking down at his clenched fists. The dusty, tanned skin on his hands looked a lot rougher and more tanned than it had moments ago. A pattern of brownish-yellow scales were rapidly emerging and his fingernails were turning black.
Terry turned to look behind them and her eyes widened in surprise; their tracks led back through a perilous maze of drifting wisps she hadn't seen when they'd been walking right by them, the clear path completely absent. "Oh, crap. Something's up."
But there was no time to think about how the wisps had done their bizarre sneaking-up-behind-them trick at the moment. However it had happened, Kreg had been touched by one. Dalton was at his side trying to steady him on the donkey without actually touching him and James was pointing his rifle every which way as he scanned for some sign of an attacker. All useless actions at the moment; this was mage business. Terry hopped off of her donkey and hurried over to Kreg, who was breathing heavily and clearly on the verge of panic.
"Take my hand, Kreg," Terry said with a firm voice and forced calm. "I'll help you down."
Kreg stared down at her for a moment, confusion and fear still filling his yellow-tinted eyes, then he nodded wordlessly. He took Terry's hand awkwardly with his own, the small but rapidly-developing claws and unexpectedly strong grip making Terry flinch slightly, and she strained to help him dismount. He was significantly heavier than he had been only moments before and he stumbled as he tried to stand, putting his growing weight against her.
"It'ss a whissp, yah?" Kreg's speech came out slurred, his lower face starting to push outward and his voice sounding rough.
At this range Terry's magesight seemed to be working properly again and she nodded; she could see the wisp still clinging to Kreg's skin and sinking inward as it changed with him. "There's nothing I can do. I'm sorry, I don't know how I missed it." Terry's voice cracked and she bit her lip firmly. The last thing Kreg needed was for her to lose her professionalism.
James let his emotions run a little more freely. "Damnit, Terry, you were supposed to be watching! You said this was clear! Why I trusted you to handle this, I don't-"
"I hired you to!" Kreg snapped harshly at James, who immediately shut up. Kreg's clothing was starting to bulge as he gained bulk and he was wobbling severely on his legs now. "Goin' fasst, damn... Terry, what is it? Am I?"
"I don't know but maybe you should sit down." Terry got the distinct impression that Kreg wasn't going to be bipedal for much longer. "Dalton, take his donkey's reins. Take them a few yards back along our tracks. Don't want them bolting." Her heart was hammering but despite the fact that she'd never actually seen something like this - aside from her own transformation, of course - and there was nothing she could do to help Kreg directly, she felt almost like she was in charge of the situation.
Kreg sat, the seat of his pants splitting to accommodate his expanded haunches as he did so. His shirt was severely strained too but it was too late to get it off so Terry would have to just let that split apart as well. Kreg put his scaly hands down on the sandy ground, staring at them and starting to pant. "Feel... sstrange," he slurred slowly. "Itchy, tingle... Mmy back..." he hunched his shoulders and grunted, his shirt tearing open down his spine as new appendages sprouted in a profusion of spreading brown feathers. Kreg pulled his lips back, a hooked yellow beak sliding inexorably out from his mouth, and a ropy tail emerged from Kreg's yellow-furred hindquarters.
"Griffin," Terry identified, thinking it was foolishly obvious but feeling the need to say it anyway. They were uncommon in these parts but not unknown.
Kreg clenched his fists, now huge raptor talons, digging furrows in the earth and shaking his head vigorously. "Rreah. Tssreah!" Terry couldn't tell if he was denying it, or just trying to clear his throat. She cautiously reached out and put her hand on Kreg's shoulder, barely avoiding the clumsy thrash of one of Kreg's new wings.
Before she could say anything reassuring, however, both she and Kreg had their attention instantly grabbed by the click of James' rifle being cocked. Kreg froze - a reaction that probably saved his life - and Terry spun to face James, partly interposed between him and the griffin.
"It's over already," she stated with firmness that surprised both James and herself. "There's no need for that. Right, Kreg? Can you still hear me? Are you calm?"
Very cautiously, or perhaps uncertainly, Kreg nodded once. Terry felt a definite sense of relief either way; the last thing she wanted was to be caught at point-blank range between James' gun and an out-of-control griffin. James didn't let his guard down, however. "So, what do you propose we do about this, magic girl?"
Terry sighed. She deserved that rebuke; somehow, she didn't know how yet, she had screwed up massively and Kreg had paid the price. But even so this was no time to be distracted by recriminations. "Dalton, could you bring the wards? I think first we should secure a safe spot while I try to figure out what went wrong." Dalton had evidently been thinking along the same lines, having retrieved the ward weavings' pack from the donkeys already. He hurriedly pulled out the folded cloth squares.
"I meant about this," James gestured at Kreg with his rifle. Kreg's triangular feather-tufted ears flattened, a gesture that apparently startled him more than anyone else, and Terry gave Kreg's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"In a moment. The wisps did something strange, I think they're a bigger concern right now." Everyone was on a hair trigger, herself included, and she hoped that setting up the wards would give everyone a chance to wind back down a little.
Dalton helped her lay them out, straightening the fine gold wire symbols woven into the supporting cloth, and she set them all active. "There. About four yards' radius from this spot is safe," she announced, marking the ground in the center of the wards with her foot. James finally seemed to relax a little and Dalton let out a quiet relieved noise.
"Kraw?" Kreg gave an inarticulate squawk then cocked his head and repeated it with a much more plaintive sound. He worked his jaw a few times and stuck out his tongue, obviously displeased with how they were working.
"Okay, I guess let's deal with Kreg's problem now," Dalton suggested. "As long as the rest of us are safe now... sorry." Dalton grimaced as he realized how selfish he sounded. James nodded to Terry in agreement, still holding his rifle at the ready but at least aiming it slightly away.
Everyone was looking to her. Terry sighed again; this was the downside of being in charge of the situation. "Really... there's nothing I can do. You all know that. Kreg is-" she broke off and turned to talk to Kreg directly, not wanting to speak as if he weren't there. "You know that nobody's ever found a way to reverse a wisptouch. You're a griffin now and I know it's unexpected and confusing but you've got to..." Terry trailed off as Kreg's fierce bird-of-prey face managed to convey a clear sense of anguish.
Terry glanced at the two remaining humans. "Guys, I want to take a short walk perpendicular to our course, to get a look at that 'empty path' I see ahead of us from a different direction. I won't go far. Kreg, would you walk with me?"
Kreg hesitated and then rose unsteadily on all fours. He spent a moment just standing there, looking back over his shoulder at himself while he tried folding his wings properly; from the way his forelegs were twitching he was clearly having some difficulty coordinating the extra limbs. But he finally managed it, standing with a little more ease once the wings were stowed away, and turned his attention back to Terry. "Awk. Rrr... Awk."
The elf and griffin headed out a short way, Kreg moving slowly as he got used to the idea of being a quadruped and Terry keeping pace. She picked up the remaining bits of Kreg's torn clothes as they fell off but didn't say a word until she finally looked back at the route the group been following. "Well, God damn it!"
Kreg stopped, cocking his head at her. "Wark?"
Terry would have chuckled at Kreg's expression of puzzlement under other circumstances but she was far too upset with herself this time. "I still see the clear path but now it leads directly from here. The route that looked clear when I was over there now has wisps scattered along it." She shook her head. "Wisps don't move like that and they don't turn invisible. Something's blocking my magesight but only in that one specific direction. That's why I see a clear path ahead but with wisps reappearing behind me. Hm. if I extend both lines-of-sight onward, it looks like they cross each other over there, right in those mountains. That must be where the jamming's coming from, by triangulation." She pointed in each direction as she explained and Kreg followed her finger with his eagle gaze. Then he looked back at her with a confused whimper.
She suspected he was having trouble understanding her. That wasn't good; the wisptouched almost never lost their old sense of identity when they transformed but they did sometimes did lose some intelligence and it was more common in 'animal'-type monsters like griffins. "I'm going to try casting a spell to help us communicate," she told Kreg. "We need to talk, wisptouched to wisptouched. Just stay calm; I'm not very practiced and it may cause unexpected noises in your head if I don't get it right..." She let her magesight fade while weaving a surface-telepathy spell. It was similar to a language interpreter spell, which she had a lot of experience with, so she finished in less than a minute and tied it loosely around Kreg's neck. "Okay, now, I know you can't speak with that beak but try anyway. How do you feel?"
Kreg grunted; scared out of my mind. Also a bit hungry.
Terry allowed herself a small triumphant smile at the success of her spell, which she hoped came across as sympathetic instead. "Good, I understood that. Are you getting a handle on controlling your body?"
Kreg's head drooped. Feels really weird, he muttered. My skin has stuff growing out of it, my bones and muscles are all different, my lips are like, I don't know, and these wings... He twitched his wings, the feathers rustling. You can't imagine. You can't.
Terry's smile turned genuinely sympathetic for a moment. "Maybe a little. You know I wasn't born an elf, of course, but I wasn't born a girl either. It was weird for me too." She couldn't recall if she'd mentioned her change of gender to any of them before but Kreg's reaction suggested that he hadn't known of it. He actually managed a sort of clucking chuckle.
Not the same, he declared, raising a taloned forepaw and then putting it back on the ground when he couldn't think of anything to do with it. Then he sighed. Don't know what's next. What am I going to do?
"Well, you know as well as I do that you're going to be stuck this way for... a very long time, at least. You're going to have to learn how to live with it. But you don't have to deal with it all at once, let's think about just the next hour or two right now. We're in the middle of nowhere and you need to get comfortable moving around. Can you walk with the rest of us, at least as far as a good camp spot?"
Kreg fell silent for a moment, looking down at his talons and flexing them against the ground. You said you know where the thing that blinded you is? It's near?
"I think so, yeah."
The source of magic is there?
"I don't know that."
Then let's go there. I want to see it, it's why I came.
They returned to the wards where Dalton and James were waiting with the donkeys. Kreg 'spoke' briefly with both of them, explaining that he was not a threat, and Terry did what she could to back up Kreg's sentiment. But James still insisted that if Kreg was to accompany them in this state he should keep his distance, and Terry had to grudgingly agree; the donkeys were far too edgy with a griffin walking among them.
Terry brought her magesight back up and confirmed that the 'clear path' had once again shifted to be between her and the theoretical jamming source she'd triangulated. Now she knew the seductive danger of that illusion, however, she guided them onto a path through the wisps at a slight angle to her blind spot. It was enough of a divergence that she could see the wisps ahead of her and if they simply maintained that angle they'd follow a curve right to the source. With Kreg taking up the point position this time, walking on four legs with slowly improving confidence, they forged onward.
Not a single word was spoken for several hours, aside from Terry's occasional wisp-avoidance directions. The grand adventure had suffered its first casualty, at the same time that it had provided the first really solid suggestion of their mysterious goal's existence - whatever it may turn out to be. Each of them was wrestling with their own personal blend of excitement and melancholy. Although she certainly felt bad for Kreg, witnessing a wisp in action like that had given Terry a renewed eagerness to find magic's true source and the blank spot in her magesight gave her a beacon to drive toward. She told herself it was ultimately in the hope of finding a cure for wisptouch and for Kreg's sake she even kind of believed it. She'd think about such details more once she was actually there.
They finally came to a halt again in the shadow of a low rocky bluff, the flat baked clay of the plain having given way to the winding ridges of foothills. The decision to halt was unanimous and unspoken, with Kreg dropping his haunches heavily in the shade and Dalton passing wards to Terry unbidden. Terry set them up while James tied the donkeys to a rock, unloading fodder and water for them. Terry could almost hear the imaginary relieved sigh they all gave in unison.
Speaking of which... Terry headed over to Kreg, who was sitting slightly apart from the others, and checked the telepathic communication spell still hanging around his neck. "You're holding up well," Terry told him quietly as she restored a few frayed knots. "We can stay here for a while now, it's a good time for a midday break. If you need any more help getting your bearings..."
Kreg looked at her, tongue lolling from his beak as he panted from the hot, dry walk. Hungry and thirsty now, he complained. It's hard getting comfortable with this when I can't think past that. Can I get a drink? Please?
They'd brought along ample water for the donkeys and once Kreg had figured out the knack of sticking his beak into the mouth of a waterskin to lap it up he took full advantage of the supply. James looked a little concerned at how much the griffin was drinking but Terry was more worried about the fact that nothing they'd brought was really suitable food for him. She suggested that perhaps they'd have to do a little hunting soon.
James immediately declined. "There's too many wisps. But he's a griffin, can't he forage for himself?"
Kreg answered with an almost human-sounding harrumph. Like I could hold a rifle... oh. He lifted a talon and scratched a furrow in the soil. I don't know if I can do that. And I don't know how.
Terry was pretty sure that Kreg would find the instincts for it when the time came. Indeed, it was her understanding that many wisptouched had to work if they wanted to ignore them and she had always been somewhat relieved that elves didn't carry a lot of baggage in that regard. But Dalton saved her from trying to explain. "Large carnivores usually go for days between large meals, don't they? Here, have a tin of ham to hold you over. We'll reach whatever-it-is Terry sees by tonight, probably, and we can set up a real camp there to work from. Let's just rest right now."
Everyone seemed satisfied with that for the time being, though Terry suspected they'd run out of both tinned and dried meat in pretty short order. However, the provision situation might still turn out to be a net improvement for them; as much as she hated to think of it in those terms, the share of the food they'd brought for Kreg that he could probably no longer eat more than made up for the portion which he could.
They also had more important things to focus on at the moment. Between herself and Dalton they'd had many theories on what exactly the source of magic was and none of those theories had included anything that caused magesight-blindness. It was time to revise some of them.
Kreg sat in the shade with the donkeys just outside of the wisp-wards, looking silently in as the others started into a midday meal and a discussion of their theories about what they might be approaching.
More now than he'd ever expected, he felt like an outsider. He'd already been something of a third wheel from the start of the expedition, his work on meteorology having given all the specifics it could give before he had even left Munich to join the journey. There wasn't much else he could do in the field. But Dalton had been more than pleased to have his main collaborator along for the trip and Kreg had still felt useful. He knew more about Dalton's work than either James or Terry did, despite not being an archaeologist either.
Now, however, he could barely follow what they were talking about. Kreg looked down at his talons, scuffing them dejectedly in the dirt. My hands are filthy. Wish we had enough water to spare that I could wash them... no, that's stupid. Kreg sighed. They weren't hands any more, they were feet; he'd spend the rest of his life walking around on them. He would not have much luck finding shoes for them either, or any other clothing to suit a griffin, and he would never be able to go home to the Reich again. Kreg lifted his head and looked at the donkeys, who had been watching him edgily the whole time. You have it easy, he thought to them. You've been animals your whole lives, you don't know what you've missed.
Kreg shook his head. There was no point thinking about such things, he had more immediate concerns to focus on. The pork Dalton had given him had been barely a mouthful; he'd swallowed it whole and it had barely made a dent in his hunger. He wasn't starving but he could certainly use a full-sized meal to get his mind off of his stomach.
His attention focused back on the donkeys again. There's an extra now that I'm not riding one, he mused. Perhaps... Kreg licked the edge of his hooked predatory beak, salivating at the thought of fresh meat. Then, realizing what he was thinking, he turned his head away sharply with a disgusted "Kraw!"
"You okay, Kreg?" Terry called out from the camp, interrupting their discussion.
Kreg looked back at her, his gaze drooped guiltily. I'm okay, he answered with the voiceless speech she'd given him. I just think... I'm not done walking yet after all. I need to get used to this body on my own for a while. Before anyone might have a chance to ask him anything more Kreg stood and turned to move farther away from camp. He thought he heard a quiet "good luck," but he tried hard not to listen. He wasn't sure if he'd be coming back.
The winding ridges and rocky escarpments allowed him to get out of the line of sight of the others in a matter of minutes. As soon as he was sure he was no longer visible, he headed straight for the shadow of the nearest large outcropping to sit down again with a weary sigh. His departure may have had drama but his feet hurt from all the walking he'd done already. Especially his raptoral forefeet, which were designed primarily for clutching and clawing instead.
What am I going to do? Kreg thought the question plaintively at the empty blue sky. I don't want to be this. I can't be this. I don't know how to survive. He waited silently for an answer to come, exactly how long he couldn't tell without his pocket watch. And then finally it did. High overhead, a tiny speck glided lazily into view on the thermals coming off of the mountains' edge. Kreg peered at it, his eyes startling him once again with their amazing new acuity, and he saw that it was a desert hawk.
Kreg sniffed - he hadn't been aware that he'd been near tears until that point - and realized that if he was to be a griffin, then he should learn how to fly.
It was impossible, of course; griffins were too large, their wings and pectoral muscles too small to generate enough lift. But griffins were also magical. Kreg kept that thought firmly in mind as he climbed towards the top of a nearby low ridge, then peered out warily over the edge of the short drop on the other side. Keeping a firm grip on the ground with his talons, Kreg carefully extended his wings and practiced flapping them.
He was awful at it, having kept them folded away on his back and avoided moving them much at all since they had first appeared. Of all his altered body parts, they had felt the most 'wrong'; they were brand new appendages and he had assumed he had no reflexes for them of any sort. But he was learning quickly now, the hidden reflexes provided by the wisp's touch falling quickly into place as he flexed them. Don't think about it, he told himself. Just feel it. And do it...
Kreg held his wings outstretched to their fullest as he went over the top of the ridge and galloped down the steep slope on the other side. He was getting lift, he could feel the upward pressure, but it wasn't enough; he was stumbling clumsily down the hill, running as fast as he could just to keep from falling. Oh God oh God oh God... Oh!
A headwind from the valley, just a brief and serendipitous gust, puffed under Kreg's wings. He found himself suddenly gliding, skimming low over the rough ground with his legs windmilling helplessly underneath. Don't panic! Hold steady! Stop thrashing! He forced himself to remain focused, looking ahead at where he was going. He was already crossing the dry creek bed at the bottom of the shallow gully and now the other side was coming up fast; there was no way he'd be able to make it over. Ah, sheise! Kreg let loose a shrill eagle's cry and extended his legs to absorb the shock, giving his wings a mighty flap a moment before impact...
Landing, not impact. Kreg was winded more from excitement and fear than from the exertion; he folded his wings again and crouched down on the ground, thrilled to have flown and even more thrilled to have made it safely back down again. Finally getting his breath back, Kreg rose up on all fours and looked back at how far he had traveled. God in heaven, I can't believe I did that.
So he did it several more times, gliding greater distances from higher launching points, and began learning some of the subtleties of how to do it better. Soon he had progressed from simple gliding to making turns and then to actual powered flight. Finally - he didn't know how many hours had passed but it must have been several - he went up into the air and didn't come back down again.
Kreg circled upward, keeping himself over one of the strong updrafts he had discovered, until he was several thousand feet above the dun landscape. Deciding that he was now high enough to recover from any mistakes he might make well before being in danger of crashing he allowed his attention to wander away from his wings and onto the incredible view. The feeling of freedom was wonderful, both in terms of flying through the wide-open sky and also in not having to spare a single thought worrying about wisps any more. The worst had already happened and was now no longer a threat. He peered down at the winding dry gullies and ridges wondering if he'd be able to make out the rest of the group from where he was. His vision was amazing; he could see all sorts of detail even from way up here.
Especially movement. A few small moving dots caught his eye and he banked gently to head in that direction for a closer look. It wasn't them, he realized with disappointment; just a half-dozen goats making their way along a stream bed nibbling on the foliage. But Kreg's attention remained focused on the small flock and he cautiously circled lower. What was a flock this size doing living within a dragon's range?
They looked like just ordinary goats to Kreg. He was close enough now that the goats had noticed him and suddenly the flock was running up the creek bed in search of cover. "Tsreeee!" Kreg gave an eagle cry and dove, striking the hindmost goat a stunning blow with his forepaws and then pumping his wings hard to lift back upward. The goat was bleating and struggling frantically so Kreg clenched his talons deeply into the goat's rib cage to make it stop...
Kreg blinked, snapping out of his focus as the goat gave a few final feeble twitches in his grasp. Not trusting himself to think or do anything until he was securely back on the ground again, Kreg glided down to a barren flat spot at the top of the nearest ridge and landed heavily. He then pulled his bloody talons out of the dying goat and backed off a few steps, leaving moist red bird tracks on the rock. He dropped heavily to his leonine haunches to stare at the mess he'd made.
He was salivating again but he found he couldn't follow through. Yes, he'd eaten plenty of meat before, both wild game and goat meat... but this was meat that he'd killed himself, that was still dying right before his eyes. His civilized human nature was rebelling hard. But he was so hungry and the tangy iron scent was delicious even to his weak avian sense of smell. Kreg thought of the cafe in Munich where he usually took his lunches, the nice little sweet cakes they served with tea. So far away and now irretrievably lost...
Kreg stepped forward, placed a forepaw on the goat's neck, and sank his talons in to sever the goat's arteries and spine. It gave one last shudder and was finally still. Then he leaned down and tore a strip out of the goat's flank with his beak, raising his head to bolt down the meat with a few quick jerks.
The second bite was easier, and the ones after that. Kreg had never slaughtered an animal before but he knew the basics of anatomy and so took care while digging into the viscera not to puncture any intestines. He didn't want to eat what the goat had been eating. The liver was delicious, though, and he managed to thrust his beak far enough into the rib cage to get at the heart. Kreg's beak was very good at tearing meat and just as with his wings the instincts to use it came naturally with a little practice.
When Kreg finished there were already a couple of vultures circling overhead, ready to start picking over what was left. There wasn't a whole lot; Kreg had gorged himself quite thoroughly. No wonder predators can go for days between meals, he reflected back on Dalton's earlier comment - years ago now, it seemed.
Groaning from his new heaviness, Kreg climbed back into the air again. Okay, what am I going to do next? He pondered with a sigh. Go back to the others? The donkeys were safe from him now, at least. He'd lost track of which little ridge the others had camped for midday and he suspected they'd be on the move by now again anyway but he could tell from the shape of the mountains on the horizon which direction they'd been headed in. Try to hook up with them again along the way?
No, that didn't feel right. He didn't feel like he would fit in and he didn't have anything he could do for them. Right now he wanted to find someplace cool and shaded so that he could rest both body and mind; he had a huge meal to digest and many experiences to digest too. But it was still a good direction to try, deeper into the mountains where there was a better chance of shelter, so he moved off of the thermal that he'd been circling to head that way.
Flight was a very rapid means of travel and within only minutes Kreg had reached the first sizeable mountain along their path. It was not very tall, none of them around here were, but it had plenty of shadowy crevices and ledges with potential to serve as temporary roosts. It even looked like there were a few deep caves. Kreg moved slowly, looking for a good one; once he set down he didn't plan to move again for a while.
There was a large opening at the base of a low cliff, lower down than he'd hoped for but very spacious-looking. He circled downward to glance inside before landing... and then, with a terrified yelp, started pumping his wings hard to gain altitude again. His lethargy was instantly dissipated by the surge of griffin adrenaline that the black-scaled dragon emerging from the cave behind him sent coursing through his blood.
There was no way he could outrun the thing. Thinking fast, Kreg zeroed in on one of the smaller cave openings in the mountainside; the dragon just barely fit the big one it was coming out of, surely it wouldn't fit into there. As he dove for cover, Kreg just hoped that it would be a deep enough hole to hide in.
It was. He landed running, pulling his wings down tight against his back to slip through the cave entrance into pitch darkness. Rather than charge onward until he cracked his beak on the far wall, wherever it may be, Kreg skidded to a stop a short distance in and pressed against the wall to one side. For a moment the only sound was his own panting breath. Then the sunlight filtering in through the cave entrance was blotted out by the shadow of something huge, and there was the sound of scales grinding on rock as the dragon settled against the mountain's face. It poked its nose in to sniff for him.
Kreg nearly wet himself. It couldn't fit its head all the way in but it could still quite possibly reach him where he was. The thing was enormous, it could eat him in just a few bites if it got close enough. This is payback for the goat, isn't it? He whimpered. Please, I beg you, don't kill me. I may be an animal now, a monster, but I just want to live! I'll go away and never come back here, I swear!
Incredibly, the dragon hesitated as if considering Kreg's plea. Then it let loose a snort and withdrew, and Kreg heard a rush of wind as it lifted back into the air. He remained motionless for several long minutes while his rapid panting and the beating of his heart slowed back down to reasonably calm levels again, and then he crept forward to peer outside. The dragon was gone; there were no obvious nearby hiding places for something that size where it might be lurking, waiting for him to emerge.
Kreg suddenly glanced down at himself, cocking his head to see past his beak to the dirty and blood-stained loop of string still tied around his feathered neck. Is Terry's spell still on? Perhaps... it may have been a man once too, like me. It understood.
Kreg was not eager to trust his life to that possibility just yet. He was still recovering from both his meal and from the exertion of his brief terrorized flight, so he turned back from the entrance and plodded back into a shadowy corner of the cave. He lay down heavily with a sigh, resting his beak on his crossed forelegs until he could gather enough strength to move on.
His eyes adapted to the dark slowly and then once it was revealed the pattern that was carved into the rough rock wall in front of him only slowly percolated through his awareness. He finally recognized it, though, and when its significance dawned fully his head snapped up in surprise. "Awk?"
It was a wisp ward. A very old wisp ward by the look of it; determining its true age would be more Dalton's area of expertise but even to a meteorologist griffin it was obviously much older than the 24 years since the wisps had showed up. Kreg glanced around the cavern looking for other clues and spotted more of them along the wall, extending as far as he could see into the shadows at the back of the cave. The tunnel seemed to go back very far, there was no way of telling just how deep. A definite breeze was blowing out through it so it must at least have another exit somewhere.
This was it. If not the source of magic, then at least signs of something new to be learned about it. His fatigue rapidly fading under the pressure of excited curiousity, Kreg rose back to his feet and examined every part of the cave that he could see. It didn't take long; his eyes weren't so good in the dark and he was discovering a streak of claustrophobia he hadn't had before either. It was enough to cement the hypothesis in his mind, though.
He had to return to the others now, he couldn't explore any farther on his own. And more importantly, he realized that he had to warn them about the dragon. They were headed toward its lair and they wouldn't be able to flee to safety as quickly as he had. Setting his beak with resolve, Kreg went back over to the cave entrance and peered out for one last check to see if the dragon was planning an ambush.
There was no sign of it. Here we go, he nodded to himself and launched out into the air. The thermals were good there and he rose rapidly to a safe cruising altitude again. The dragon remained absent; he assumed that it had gone back into its own cave.
Kreg turned away from the mountains and started to hunt.
Terry and James spotted the approaching griffin almost simultaneously. James raised his gun but Terry recognized the aura of her telepathy spell still clinging to him. "Wait, it's Kreg!" James held his fire and the trio halted while Kreg circled down to land a short distance away. He walked over from his landing point to rejoin them and Terry could see that his bearing was both more confident and wearier than it had been when he'd left just hours earlier.
Been through a lot, Kreg confirmed without the question needing to be asked. You have no idea. But don't worry, I'm okay now. And I've got important news, too.
Kreg quickly filled in the three of them on his encounter with the dragon, the location of its lair, and the warded cave that he'd discovered in the side of the same mountain. Terry confirmed that the mountain lay in exactly the same direction that her magesight was being blocked in and was about the same distance away that she'd earlier guessed by triangulation. Dalton agreed that it sounded like it could be the place that they were looking for.
James was rather more interested in the details of the dragon, on the other hand. "Its head was bigger than you are?" He demanded incredulously. "And it was how long, a hundred feet? What does such a brute live on out here?"
Terry grudgingly admitted that James' amazement was quite valid. Assuming Kreg's estimates were correct, and at least the head-size must be considering how he'd escaped it, this dragon was among the largest in the world. Some sea monsters were larger but they weren't as strongly magical - this dragon could out-fly a griffin even without wings of its own. "I suppose it may have been drawn here by the source of magic," she speculated uncertainly. "Seems like a not unreasonable place to find something touched by a wisp that powerful."
"Yes, but it's clearly an unreasonable place to go to!" James shook his head vehemently. "I signed on to this willing to face all kinds of the usual fare. Wilderness, monsters... not hundred-foot-long dragons. You need artillery for dealing with that, artillery and the troops to fire it. We should turn around immediately."
Dalton, Terry and Kreg hesitated for a moment at James' outburst. It was tantamount to calling the whole expedition off; there was no way they'd be able to get that kind of backup considering how little government support they'd received so far. And Kreg's eyewitness evidence was not likely to get them much more considering his circumstances.
Dalton spoke up first, though with obvious uncertainty. "You said you asked the dragon to let you go and it did. Maybe it can be reasoned with?"
Kreg lifted his folded wings slightly in the apparent equivalent of a shrug. Maybe. It didn't answer, it just left.
Terry proposed an alternative. "Considering how deep we've already got into its territory, it clearly isn't patrolling very rigorously. Perhaps we can simply sneak the rest of the way there, get into that smaller cave and explore it in secret for a few days? Long enough to get some evidence and maybe even a few answers."
"I don't believe you people," James exploded. "You haven't got any idea what you're talking about. I agreed to take you on an archaeological expedition. I will not be party to going one step more towards that mountain."
The argument went on for several minutes longer, becoming quite heated and ultimately resolving nothing. Terry felt like she was on the verge of a great breakthrough and evidently Dalton felt the same way, so neither of them budged in their resolve. Kreg wisely chose to stay out of the debate but he'd clearly come back to them expecting his information to lead them on rather than scaring them away.
Finally James threw down the gauntlet. "You go ahead, then. I'm going back. We'll split up the supplies right here, right now."
Terry was fine with that but Dalton hesitated. "What about the wisps? Terry, you're the only one who can see them, maybe you should..."
Both Terry and James shook their heads. "Don't need an elf to follow my own damned trail," James spat.
"If he prefers to risk that over this, he's welcome to it," Terry added. Then, reacting to Dalton's expression of dismay, she softened her tone slightly to reassure him. "Even here, the wisps are moving slow and there's plenty of space between them. As long as he's retracing our path here I think his odds aren't all that bad. Kreg... had bad luck."
Kreg gave a wordless squawk, whether in complaint or agreement was unclear. Dalton turned to face him. "What about you, will you come with us back to the mountain?" Dalton was clearly upset and Kreg cocked his head for a moment considering his response.
I'll walk with you to where I can show you the cave, Kreg agreed. But I don't think I can go in with you. I... didn't like how little sky there was in there. Besides, I promised the dragon I would leave if it let me live. If it really did hear me and that's why it let me go, I shouldn't tempt fate.
"Well, don't try following me," James warned. Kreg snorted, turning up his beak at him. He didn't need Terry's enchantment to make his response clear.
They divided up the gear and donkeys. Terry was silently fuming at James but she had to admit that he wasn't really being all that irrational. He'd even been rather generous with splitting their equipment; he'd taken only a single set of wisp-wards and one donkey, leaving Kreg's spare with them along with all they might need at the caves and on the journey back out again.
Just before he headed back along the trail Terry had blazed, he paused for a final word. "Kreg paid me in advance," he muttered. "Sorry how it turned out, Kreg. I'll wait three days in Alzhamaba after I get there, if either of you two gets smart soon enough to turn around and hook back up. But no more. I'm outta here."
The rest of the trip to the base of the mountain was almost an anticlimax. Terry had a couple of spells at the ready to try concealing them from the dragon if it happened by but fortunately it never did. By the time the sun was low in the sky they were within sight of their destination.
It was getting late in the day but with a dragon's lair just around a corner from them setting up camp wasn't even worth considering. Dalton and Terry gathered together all of the equipment and supplies for cave exploration they could carry, cached the rest of their gear, and left the donkeys in the care of Kreg. The griffin seemed hugely amused by that, promising to keep them safe and in the vicinity in exchange for a detailed description of whatever was inside the mountain. Their parting with Kreg was more melancholy than their parting with James had been. Terry and Dalton both silently hoped they'd be able to fulfil their deal with him.
The cave entrance was located a fair distance up a very steep slope, almost a cliff in places, making the last leg of their trip quite rough. The stress of constantly being on guard for the dragon didn't help much either. When they finally made it over the lip of the cave and stumbled inside it took them a few minutes to catch their breath. Once they had, Dalton broke out one of the small lanterns and lit it.
They'd been traveling all day under difficult conditions but neither of them registered fatigue as they began examining the wisp-wards carved into the walls. Dalton started comparing them to diagrams in one of the small archaeological books he'd brought along but Terry didn't need reference manuals to analyze what her magesight revealed. "None of these are active any more," she reported, "they're all broken or worn out, despite how deeply they were carved. They were well crafted, though."
"Any wisps about?"
Terry frowned and focused her magesight past the runes. Solid matter didn't interfere much and she could see dozens of wisps floating slowly through the solid rock around them. None were nearby, however... "Not close. But my sight's still being blocked in that direction," she pointed downward at an angle, into the heart of the mountain. The tunnel headed in the same general direction, though fortunately not exactly along that line; she'd be able to spot and warn of wisps for a while yet if they went deeper.
Dalton nodded. "So, the question is do we pause here to carefully and methodically document this stuff, or do we plunge onward and deal with it on the way out instead?"
"Heh. Tough choice." Terry ran her fingers through her hair considering for a moment. Her curiousity was killing her, and no doubt Dalton too, but considering all the dangers and unknowns... "We need to go at least a little way in," she suggested at last. "Even if the dragon can't fit through that entrance, it could still be very dangerous to stay this close."
Dalton nodded with a grin. "Good. I mean, you're right, of course."
Terry lit a lantern of her own - there was no point in wasting string on a magical light when she didn't have to - and they cautiously walked deeper into the cave. It soon turned sharply downward and they discovered that crude steps had been carved into the stone floor at some of the steeper spots. There were also more wisp wards carved into the walls, disabled with age just like the ones farther above. Terry didn't pay them much attention now, keeping her eyes focused beyond the rock surfaces on the nearby wisps.
Dalton was more attentive, however, and about a hundred feet down the tunnel he abruptly motioned for Terry to stop while he lifted his lantern closer to one of the walls. Terry frowned; there were a couple of crude charcoal lines drawn beside one of the wards, a pattern she didn't recognize and that didn't seem very similar to the wards at all. "No magic in it," she reported quietly.
"Heh. Wouldn't expect there to be. This looks like a spelunker's signpost. Relatively modern - within the past few decades, perhaps."
Terry nodded; an archaeologist would know about such things. "What's it say?"
Dalton grinned sheepishly. "Uh... there's an exit back the way we came from. The one we came in through." Terry chuckled.
They continued onward. Terry found her hand straying more frequently to her belt, where she kept both her spool of spellcasting string and a holstered revolver; the charcoal marks were old but not the same class of ancient as the carvings. Someone had been exploring here before them and who knew what they'd found or left behind?
Tins of beans, as it turned out, and other preserved food. Terry and Dalton passed through a short constriction in the tunnel and came out in a wider passage, almost a chamber, and the first thing they saw in the lantern light was a large pile of rusty tins. Some were empty and heaped haphazardly but others were unopened and still stacked neatly with tatters of old cardboard box shrouding them. Beyond that more metal objects lay scattered on the ground; pots, a few utensils, and what looked like a small portable firebox and grill with scraps of burnt desert scrub still inside. At first neither of them spoke as they crept cautiously through the remains of the old campsite.
"Airflow is good in this cave," Dalton observed at last as he tipped the firebox back upright with a stick. "Good place to cook."
"Everything's scattered about, what do you think happened?"
Dalton frowned, poking one of the pots. "Could have been wild animals foraging after the people abandoned it. These things would have smelled interesting."
"But why did they leave all this stuff behind in the first place?" Something caught Terry's eye, a piece of fabric lying in a shadowy corner, and before Dalton could speculate an answer to her question she knelt to examine it. It was a jacket of some sort, its seams torn apart. There were other articles of clothing on the ground nearby, all of it split apart as if burst from within. Terry picked up a shoe with its toe hanging open. "Remind you of Kreg's?"
Dalton nodded grimly. "No wisps are nearby right now, by the way?" Terry shook her head. Clearly this unknown prior expedition hadn't had adequate wisp-wards of their own with them. There were a few carved into the walls but like the others they were ancient and dead. "I wonder, then. Maybe the jamming did something different that messed up their protection, or maybe... let's look for a solid date on this stuff."
It didn't take long to find one, a manufacturer's label on one of the boxes of food. "1935. Bingo." Dalton's grim tone took on an excited edge. "If this is the source, then they were standing right on it when the wisps emerged. I wonder who they were and why I never read anything about an expedition here in my research?"
"Maybe because for the next few years everyone had bigger things to worry about than keeping track of a few missing explorers, or a handful of wisptouched out of millions who claimed to have been the first?" Terry smiled. "Or maybe they were looters. If so, maybe they tried looting something they couldn't handle."
They found a few more piles of torn clothing as well as a couple of sleeping bags and other gear. It seemed likely they'd numbered around a dozen or so, though it was impossible to tell exactly from this mess. They also found a few traces of cloven hoof prints, paw tracks, and perhaps a serpent's thrashing marks; more variety than one might expect from the occasional visit by a wandering desert monster, especially if that dragon had been on guard outside for much of that time. It seemed like everyone who'd been in the cave had been touched by wisps at almost the same time - inconceivably bad luck, even with the current density of the wisps drifting around that region.
There were no collected artefacts or logs of any excavation. Dalton said he didn't find that to be unusual, if they had been gathering any they wouldn't be kept in the same place everyone did their cooking and eating. However, while rummaging through one of the heaps of shredded cloth, Terry did find a small notebook. It appeared to be a diary belonging to a one Robert R. Leeds and she turned it over to Dalton for analysis; as with the spelunking mark earlier it seemed to be filled with archaeologist's jargon that he stood a better chance of understanding. While he read, she cleared a patch of level ground of debris and set out wisp wards and sleeping bags of their own to rest on.
The original expedition had apparently followed some of the same archaeological clues as Dalton to find this place, though they had interpreted them differently - they'd thought they might be onto a tomb dug by some pre-Phaeronic civilization. They'd been sponsored by the British government but Dalton swore he didn't remember hearing the slightest clue of their existence; the chaos following the emergence of the wisps combined with the 'loss' of all members of the expedition must have resulted in it being lost from the records as well. The last entry in the diary was on August 7th 1935, the day before the wisps first appeared. That appeared to be the clincher.
The diary also contained enough information to work out a rough idea of the layout of the caves. Beyond this chamber, the tunnel plunged farther downward into a much larger cavern. There were several other small tunnels and chambers branching off of it but the one that sounded most interesting was the one referred to as the 'crypt' - sealed behind a disc-shaped stone door carved right out of the rock and with a sarcophagus inside. That was what Robert Leeds' group had been planning to explore right before the entries ended.
It had been a long day, exhausting both mentally and physically, and this cave was obviously a good place for a campsite. But neither of them could seriously consider sleeping so close to their goal. They settled for a dinner break, resting for a few hours and then preparing a really strong pot of coffee to get themselves going again. Caffeine didn't have as much effect on elves as it did on humans but Terry's own fatigue-fighting magic was an adequate supplement to it.
They moved onward leaving much of their own gear behind in the camp. It was starting to get a little trickier watching for wisps in the tunnel this close to the source of whatever enchantment it was that was jamming Terry's magesight; at several points Terry had to go a short distance ahead and look back to see if she'd passed through any before calling for Dalton to follow. If they weren't both so eager to press on, Terry would have preferred the slow but sure method of laying down wisp wards as they went.
Finally they reached a short narrowing of the tunnel beyond which their lanterns revealed only a large empty space. The charcoal markings on the wall suggested that this was it; the main cavern, with the crypt just beyond. The blocked region of Terry's magesight was now as much as thirty degrees across, further confirming their proximity to whatever was causing it. Terry moved ahead to the constriction, just large enough for a person to squeeze through single-file, and looked back to see if she'd passed through any invisible wisps. There were none. "It's safe," she reported.
Dalton nodded and started forward to join her. Then he suddenly froze, his eyes widening in shock, and Terry got only a brief glimpse of his horrified expression as his lantern fell to smash on the floor.
Time slowed to a crawl for Terry as she spun around to face whatever it was Dalton had seen behind her. There was the sound of huge scales grinding on sand, a brilliant glare of spellcasting, and an answering flare of magic from one of the protective charms tucked into her shirt pocket that made Terry clench her eyes tightly shut before she could see more.
She didn't even realize that she was screaming as she yanked yard after yard of string from her belt spool, lashing it back and forth into a magical barrier across the tunnel in front of her. An answering roar from the other side of the net only made her weave faster; she didn't slow down to think until she'd used up nearly the entire spool, the spell cast blindly to seal off whatever it was in the main cavern from them.
Finally she cracked one eye, cautiously. She'd dropped her own lantern, pitching them into near-total darkness, but she could see the wall she'd made out of string in front of her glowing faintly from its intrinsic magic. The string itself formed only a loose webbing but it supported a pearlescent opaque field of force at least as solid as the rock it was anchored to.
Terry let out a huge breath and nearly collapsed. She managed to keep her feet, however, and fumbled for the lantern. "Got it blocked off," she mumbled as she relit it. "Must've been the dragon, the damned monster's lairing right in the main cave... Dalton?" No sound, no reaction at all in response to her words. Gripped with a sudden fear that was somehow more gut-wrenching than facing the actual dragon had been, Terry stumbled back down the tunnel with her lantern raised.
Dalton was still frozen where he stood, horrified expression still on his face, petrified into smooth gray stone. Terry felt herself collapsing again and grabbed onto Dalton's statue for support. "Basilisk," she murmured wearily. "Basilisk-dragon. Dracolisk. I'm so sorry, Dalton..." She pulled out the spell that had flared in her pocket; the bit of string she'd woven into a petrification counterspell the day before when they'd encountered the basilisk snake with its prey, now badly frayed from deflecting the small fraction of the dracolisk's magic that had nearly caught her as well.
She tucked the burnt-out counterspell into Dalton's shirt pocket and felt tears burn her eyes. Once again she had screwed up, failed to protect the untouched accompanying her. Just like Kreg, Dalton wasn't exactly dead - his living energy was still locked up in this statue, waiting for the basilisk to feed on it - but he wouldn't be going on to see the source of magic or go back home afterward, either.
Terry didn't let the tears leak out, forcing herself to stand and recover from her fatigue. She turned back toward the web wall she'd cast and glared. "It's up to me now," she muttered under her breath. "That damned worm isn't going to get in my way. Y'hear me?" She raised her voice and glared at the glowing barrier.
"I didn't want to do that," the dracolisk responded from the other side of the barrier, its rumbling voice somewhat hard to understand. "You made me open my eye at you by coming this deep. I can't let you find the vault."
Terry hadn't been expecting a reply and was momentarily at a loss for words; despite how they used to be portrayed in pre-wisp stories most dragons couldn't speak this well. Then she started getting angry. "Oh yeah? And who are you to say otherwise? What gives you the right, besides being a gigantic monster?" She worked quickly as she spoke, removing the nearly spent spool of string from her belt to replace with a fresh one.
"I warned you away," the dracolisk rumbled. "You could have left. Even after finding the cave entrance, since you couldn't have known what was really inside. But you're too close now, you know too much. I can't let you tell what's here or others will come."
"Oh really," Terry growled back, using what was left on the old spool of string to weave fresh petrification counterspells. "Do you even know what's here? Or are you just hoarding old pieces of junk you think is a valuable hoard?"
"The curse of the world. Pandora's box. Power I can feel but can't understand, vast power... it should have stayed buried. I should never have opened it in the first place. But at least I won't let anyone else mess with it!"
Terry paused in her preparations, startled. "You were a member of the first expedition?"
The dracolisk rumbled wordlessly for a moment. "Yesss," it hissed at last. "I remember... I opened the box and everyone changed. I tried to stop them all from leaving but I couldn't, I was only a small snake and I barely knew how to use my eye. I didn't know what I was doing. I kept them out of the vault, though. And you're not getting in there either. I'm much stronger now."
Terry secured a coil of rope over her shoulder and stepped up to the softly glowing web wall. This is crazy, she berated herself. You can't fight a dracolisk. You couldn't even protect Dalton from it. You're going to die. But another part of her was far more convincing; You made it this far and you're going to make it the rest of the way. You're a skilled and clever mage. No matter how small and girly you are, nothing can stop you. She ran her hand over the woven strings that supported the magical barrier and took a knot firmly in her fingers. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and braced herself to run. "Hey dragon, look at this!"
The barrier could have remained up for days, its power leaking away slowly with its faint glow. Terry yanked on the knot, unraveling the entire web in a fraction of a second and releasing those days' worth of glow in a single tremendous flare of light. It dazzled her even through her closed eyelids. She was also nearly deafened by the dracolisk's agonized howl as it recoiled, far more than merely dazzled.
Terry sprinted past it, her vision recovering quickly. Her gambit had caught the dracolisk completely off guard and she had an enormous head start; it was writhing blindly, eyes shut and apparently unaware she was in the main cavern. With no untouched companions to give need for caution she headed straight for the center of the blind spot in her magesight. The broad cavern lead almost exactly in the right direction and the floor was worn smooth by two decades of the dragon living here, so she made excellent speed.
There it was. A huge crescent-shaped opening in the wall, a short tunnel with a disc-shaped stone door partly blocking it. Terry couldn't make out any details in the dim ambient light but she knew in principle how these things worked. There was a hub that was used for pushing on the door, rolling it sideways to open or close... she skidded to a halt just over the threshold, looping one end of the rope around the hub and tossing the other end at a small rock outcropping on the floor across the opposite side of the opening. She clenched her fist and the end of the rope coiled tightly around the outcropping, then she flexed her arm and the rope grew taut.
The enormous stone wheel began to roll, slowly at first but gathering momentum until it slammed shut with a dull boom. Terry breathed a tremendous sigh of relief; she'd made it well ahead of the dracolisk and now it was locked out. Or I'm locked in, she reminded herself with another sigh. She'd have to come up with something really creative to get out past the dracolisk a second time. But that was a concern for later; for now she turned to check out the interior of the vault, twisting a quick but dim light spell from a short bit of string.
The room was about twenty feet wide by thirty feet long with a high ceiling and smooth walls. In the center of the room was a rectangular object, a box about three feet tall. Terry had let her magesight slip away again while she'd been busy securing the vault door and now she switched it back on again to check for the magical jamming that had led her here.
The jamming was gone and in its place was a hellacious inferno of pure magical energy, filling the room like a tornado trapped in a bottle. The floor, walls and ceiling were all laced with piercingly bright spells the likes of which she'd never seen and magic on the box was so intense that Terry cried out in fear when she glanced at it. Her magesight blinked off as she stumbled back against the wall, trying to get a grip on what she'd just seen.
The source of magic. There was no doubt now, not after that. Terry glanced around at the plain stone walls and shuddered. The room was still filled with that invisible storm even though she couldn't see it with her magesight off. She could feel a faint tingle in her skin, like tiny bugs crawling all over, and she hoped it was just psychosomatic. Fighting a dracolisk was terrifying but at least something she could understand; this was something entirely else.
Terry knotted a brighter light spell. The knot's pure white light revealed more details, starkly highlighting the runes carved everywhere; they were in the same style as the ancient wisp wards elsewhere in the caves but these were inlaid with fine glints of gold wire and were still functioning even after all this time. A few she recognized as actual wisp wards but others were unfamiliar. Terry guessed that they must include whatever spell it was that had jammed her magesight for so long. A quick magesighted peek revealed that she couldn't see any wisps anywhere outside of the vault's walls, confirming the hypothesis.
She let the magesight fade again before she turned back to the box in the middle of the room, not quite ready yet to confront the magic she'd seen there before. She knotted a few more lights and tossed them out into the room instead, illuminating the area evenly.
The box was plain reddish stone, the same material that the rest of the vault was carved out of. It had intricate carvings all over its surface and a massive stone slab covering the top. Lying scattered on the floor beside it were several wooden wedges, a long metal pry bar, and more old discarded clothing. It hardly took an archaeologist to figure out what had happened here; someone from the prior expedition had been working on lifting that lid and had been hit by a wisp just as they'd started. If this wasn't the source itself the coincidence would have been utterly incredible.
Terry stepped cautiously forward, avoiding contact with any of the runes carved into the floor, and brought up her magesight slowly so that she would not be overwhelmed. Her perception of the room was once again filled with dense, swirling magic; the wards in the vault's walls seemed to be containing it in here. Whoever had built this place had gone to great lengths to keep this stuff locked up, sealed away and invisible to the outside world. Dalton might have been able to tell her more about why from the legends he'd claimed had led him to this.
All Terry could think about right now was the sheer power of the magic in the place, both woven purposefully into the spells protecting it and floating unformed in the air. It was a lot like the unformed magic of a wisp, but as if thousands of wisps were packed so tightly together that they blended into an ambient magical atmosphere. Terry was immune to wisps, the wisp that had claimed her fifteen years ago still inside her and firmly rejecting any new interlopers, but such density of wild magic made her uneasy nevertheless. Looking down at herself she could barely make out the swirling disturbance she made as her own body's aura displaced the fog whenever she moved. She could almost feel it, like a tingly breeze.
A muffled thud filtered through the door, just barely loud enough to be picked up by Terry's pointed ears but more than sufficient to make her jump. She quickly regained her composure when she realized it was just the dracolisk trying to force its way in, finally recovered from her blinding trick. The door was quite solid and her rope binding enchantment was strong, but so was the dracolisk and it wouldn't keep it out forever. Terry would have to pick up the pace.
Step one; she had to come up with evidence that would serve as irrefutable proof that this place existed, or at least that something existed here that was worth funding a second expedition to investigate. Terry was under no illusion that she could solve all the mysteries of the source of magic by herself, at least not in the short time she'd have to work on it. But what else was there in here aside from that? Terry looked through some of the bits of debris that had been swept into the corners of the room, the small heaps of sand and dust mixed with a few ancient shards of wood and stone. The previous expedition had probably picked it all over quite thoroughly and perhaps also the dracolisk after them but she had a few advantages in searching that they hadn't.
Her magesight helped her uncover a small stone disk about two inches across, carved with an unfamiliar rune that still held its magic. To a non-mage it looked completely nondescript, resembling a broken sundial, and it was too small for a creature the size of the dracolisk to get a hold of. But whatever spell was on it was unknown to Terry and showed interesting activity; the radial lines of the rune flickered magically as she turned it in her hands, erratically 'lighting up' to point in various directions around it. Some sort of direction indicator or detector, perhaps; it was unclear exactly what it was trying to point to through all the interference. She tucked the disk into one of her pockets without spending further time trying to figure out how the spell worked or how to cast it herself, as tempting as it was to try learning it. There would hopefully be time for that later.
Now for step two, trying to figure out some way to slip past the dracolisk a second time. Terry had tried not to worry too much about that while exploring but now it was time; she'd only managed it the first time through a combination of surprise and sheer audacity, throwing spells with the strength of desperation. She would be much weaker now after everything she'd cast since then.
She should be much weaker now. Terry frowned as it finally dawned on her that she didn't actually feel all that tired. She'd cast a powerful force-barrier, a half-dozen antipetrification counterspells, the binding rope on the door and the five lights... she should have been so worn out by now that she'd be having a hard time even maintaining her magesight. Instead she felt only about half tapped out. Even better, now that she was finished with her most recent spellcasting work she could feel herself regaining strength far more rapidly than normal.
It had to be a result of the raw magical energy filling the chamber, Terry decided. She was a little dubious at first, other mages had tried to 'feed' on the magic of free wisps without any reports of success, but this fog of magic was much larger and denser than any normal wisp. Perhaps dense enough to be slowly leaking into her and replenishing her aura's magical reserves.
That was good news. If nothing else, it would allow her to hold out here for a lot longer than she would have by just drawing on her own strength. But magical energy alone wasn't enough; Terry had a large but finite amount of string available. The dracolisk's scales ground against the door as it tried once again to push it aside with its body and Terry examined the rope binding worriedly; it was starting to fray from the strain of the magic within it. She twined a few reinforcing strands of string around it while she considered what other spells she knew.
She could try another barrier, like the one she'd cast when the dracolisk had first attacked, but she was pretty sure the only reason the dracolisk hadn't simply smashed through it was that the tunnel had been too small for it to fit. This was a very big and very strong monster, and unfortunately the vault door seemed quite wide enough to admit it. Perhaps a paralyzation spell or two could disable it long enough to run past a second time... more likely ten or twenty, Terry sighed. Even with her magical strength fully restored, she simply didn't have the power necessary to cast a spell big enough to affect the entire thing.
One of the reinforcing strings on the rope snapped with an audible twang, spraying its binding magic away in a puff of shredded fiber. Terry quickly replaced it but was acutely aware that this would only serve as a futile drain on her spools in the long run. If only I could get more than fully powered up... She turned back to the box in the center of the room and swallowed hard.
The dracolisk had been living here for two and a half decades, slowly soaking up power, becoming stronger. It had said that it couldn't even stop the other members of its expedition from leaving at first; it must have started out quite weak. Just a small snake, Terry recalled the dracolisk's description. Maybe I've been cornered by an ordinary basilisk that's been powered up on concentrated magic. Maybe I can get powered up too. Once again her own good sense was warning her that she was considering something really stupid but the idea proved impossible to get out of her head.
Terry approached the huge stone box, examining the dense network of runes carved into it and inlaid with gold. There weren't any wisp wards at all here but Terry was pretty confident that they served a similar purpose, blocking the passage of wisp magic just like the vault's walls seemed to. The lid as etched with the same network. There was just a fine seam free of spells around the top where the lid rested and in magesight that seam was the brightest of all; a trickle of raw magic within seemed to be leaking out through it. Terry touched the seam with her finger and felt a tingle as the power seeped visibly into her aura. She was also starting to feel a little giddy and light-headed, her stomach knotted with excitement. Forget learning new spells, this was what she'd been looking for.
She would have to be quick but careful. Rummaging through the scattered equipment beside the box, Terry picked up the pry bar. She left the wedges on the floor; her goal wasn't to keep the box open for long, just take a peek and get a quick dose of the power inside. There was a chipped spot where the bar had evidently been inserted between box and lid earlier, making it easy to slide it in a second time. Terry was light and physically weak, however, so it took a great deal of effort to lift the stone slab even slightly.
It did lift, though. Terry's magesight was still on but the torrent of formless magic that came gushing out through the narrow gap overwhelmed it completely; she couldn't make out any details. It felt like a hot wind, almost tangible enough to stifle her breathing. But the discomfort was masked by the sensation of her own magic charging up from it, the mild tingling magnified into an intense electric jolt through her body. She couldn't say if it felt good or not but it certainly made her feel stronger. Hang on, keep a grip, don't lose it... I wonder what's really in there?
Terry couldn't quite see through the gap she'd opened from where she clung to the end of the pry bar. Curiousity drove her to tug harder on the bar, hoping to either pull herself up where she could peer inside or widen the gap further. But the pry bar twisted suddenly to the side and her grip slipped, letting the lid thud back down heavily. Terry landed heavily too, sprawling on the floor as her legs gave out on her. She lay on the floor, her muscles too trembly to attempt getting back to her feet right away, and surprised herself by laughing out loud.
Inches away from seeing the biggest mystery on Earth and I fumble it! She should have been upset but she found it more amusing than anything else. She was soaking up magical power like crazy now, there would be plenty of time to solve mysteries later once she'd got a handle on it and defeated the dracolisk. What sort of dragon does a powered-up elf become? The thought made her giggle giddily at first.
Then she started coming down from the high as the question sank in deeper. The tingling throughout her body wasn't going away and it finally dawned on her how similar it felt to that fateful moment years ago when she'd become wisptouched. It shouldn't have been possible for it to happen again. But although she hoped it was just her imagination, her clothing did feel kind of tight...
Oh hell, I'm changing again! Terry struggled to get back up but only managed to roll over onto her front; her legs felt weird and didn't seem to be responding quite right. God, I'm not becoming a dracolisk too, am I? No, calm down, think it through! When he was first wisptouched he became a basilisk and then his aura was simply magnified by the magic here. What's a magnified elf? Terry whimpered as seams started popping in her pants. Giantess, titan maybe? Goddamned ironic shit! I don't want to be thirty feet tall and live in a warehouse!
The seat of Terry's pants split wide open, revealing a bulbous protrusion with smooth, shiny black skin. Terry cried out in alarm, then fell into stunned silence as she stared back at the slowly swelling mass. A tail? What? Not a titan, maybe... she groaned at the strange sensation in her gut, as if her organs were being sucked down through her pelvis into it.
Then there were other strange sensations cropping up to join it and Terry found it impossible to pay attention to all of them at once. Her hips were twisting around in their sockets, her legs stretching out longer and thinner. Her boots slipped off, revealing a pair of claws sprouting from where her toes should have been and more glossy black hardness replacing her dark skin. Things sprouting from both sides of her torso spasmed under the constricting fabric of Terry's shirt and she yanked the bottom edge up to see what they were.
There were two pairs of spindly insect-like legs folded against the sides of her chest, still small but growing rapidly. They stretched out reflexively as they were freed from confinement, indisputably a part of her body. Terry fought the urge to smash and rip at them, not so much because she realized how it could hurt her to try but more so that she wouldn't have to touch them. I can't... Oh hell... I...
Terry's huge insectoid abdomen shuddered as she threw up. The heaves lasted longer than the rest of her transformation did, which thankfully wasn't very long - not that Terry was feeling very thankful about anything at the moment. She was left feeling weak and totally disoriented, lying spread-eagle on the floor with her many limbs splayed out around her.
"Deep breath, Terry," she finally announced in a quavering voice that was reassuringly recognizable as her own. She coughed and spat the unpleasant taste from her mouth; her teeth and tongue felt normal, at least. Terry gingerly touched her face, finding that her head and arms were also relatively unchanged aside from the pitch-black pigmentation. The rest of her was another story.
Her torso had a glossy black exoskeleton, with three pairs of long multijointed legs mounted along the sides; the hindmost pair still had her pants on, though they were otherwise not significantly different from the two brand new pairs. Behind that, a big round tail-like abdomen. Terry took another deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment; the sight was making her want to squirm, which made her legs twitch, which only made things worse. Six legs and two arms make eight. I'm a giant spider. Why a spider? She tried to keep her mental tone dispassionate rather than plaintive; something had gone horribly wrong and she wanted to understand why.
Terry opened her eyes again and they immediately fell on one of her light spells lying nearby on the floor. Thread-casting. Spellweaving. Don't tell me shadow elves are somehow related to spiders, damnit! I hate spiders. She clenched her fists and pounded one on the floor, furious at herself for not thinking things through more carefully.
On the positive side, the anger cleared away a lot of the other confusing mix of feelings that were making it hard for Terry to get a handle on the situation. Terry gritted her teeth and looked back at her body again, thrusting aside for the time being any revulsion or self-pity it evoked. "Get up," she murmured firmly and tried pulling her legs in closer to brace her clawed footpads against the floor. They were more legs and more joints than she had any experience with but the appropriate reflexes were now buried somewhere inside her brain and it only took a few minutes before she rose up shakily on all sixes.
She was not a spider-taur, her torso was completely horizontal and suspended only three feet or so above the floor. I can't believe it, I've lost even more height! She'd gained a lot of mass, though, especially in that huge abdomen projecting out behind her. She curled it down partway underneath her to get a better look and was startled by the big hourglass-shaped patch of red on its underside. "Great, I'm a black widow. As if I didn't have enough problems figuring out my sex life already. Uh... What?"
A small bead of milky fluid appeared on the tip of her abdomen, accompanied by a small but very unsettling squeeze of internal muscles. Terry reached down under herself to touch it, her arms just long enough, and pulled her fingers away trailing a sticky strand. She drew out several feet before figuring out the right muscles to clench in her spinnerets to make them stop producing the silk.
Good lord, this is weird. Terry examined the short strand she held. It was fine and somewhat elastic but seemed very strong. And also warm, strangely comfortable in her fingers. Manipulating the silk with an instinctive nimbleness far beyond her practiced skill with ordinary thread, Terry wove the strand into a wisp ward and watched a small empty bubble form in the ambient magical fog around it. Then she waved it slowly back and forth in front of her, watching the bubble shrink as the spell unraveled under the abuse. Even pure gold wire would have lost its magic more quickly in these conditions; her silk seemed to be an absolutely ideal spell-weaving material.
Terry couldn't help but smile a little. "Well, I got the power I was after even if not in quite the right form. God, what a tradeoff, though..." She lifted her abdomen, took a deep breath, and shook her head. "Okay. Enough. I'll be needing it all to get past that damned draco soon and I'll have to learn to use what I've got." She looked back at her arachnoid body and started working out a quick to-do list. First, cut those pants off, and also the lower half of her shirt; it was bunched up awkwardly against her front pair of legs. She turned to retrieve a pair of fabric shears from her pack.
Her legs tangled and she collapsed heavily to the floor again before she'd managed her first step. "Okay, okay... damn. First, learn to walk." Terry smiled grimly as a muffled thud filtered through the vault door and another string twanged away from the rope holding it shut. She'd have to learn quickly.
James had remained awake through the darkest part of the night, keeping watch with one hand resting on his rifle. His solitary journey had been more than a little nerve-wracking even though the trail they'd blazed on the way out was still quite obvious and fresh. Wisps did move slowly about, after all, and there were a lot of them around here.
But despite his exhaustion and the relief that had come with activating the wisp-wards around him when he finally made camp, James couldn't sleep. Partly it was ordinary caution; there could still be menaces of a more tangible nature around, not the least of which might be that dragon the others were hell-bent on pestering. But his conscience also bothered him. He'd been their guide and he'd left them behind.
They're committing suicide, he reassured himself for the umpteenth time. I had no obligation to lead them into that. I warned them, that's all I had to do. He believed it but the thought still nagged him. Perhaps I should have stayed nearby, at least, in case they somehow make it back out again. James shook his head. The dense, drifting wisps would make the trail more hazardous for him with every passing hour; with no guarantee that the magesighted elf would survive to watch for them he needed to travel back to civilization as soon as possible.
The half-moon was peeking out over the horizon, lighting the landscape just enough to reassure his danger sense, and his conscience was finally settling down too. It was time for him to get some sleep. James stood up and stretched, giving the surroundings one last careful scan for movement before turning to open the flap of his pup tent. The donkey, tied to a bit of scrub a short distance away, shuffled uneasily at James' motion and the sound of rustling fabric. One of the wisp wards emitted a small electric snap.
James spun, suddenly nervous again and with his rifle at the ready. One of the five wards seemed to be glowing faintly and as he watched the fabric emitted a few more sharp sparks and crackles. Then it let out a brief, tiny flame with a "pfft" that sounded almost like a sigh. It had burned out.
The two adjacent wisp wards started sparking a moment later. James tripped over the tent backing away from that side of the warded area, making a stumbling retreat to the two wards not yet putting on a light show. But that island of safety didn't last for long; as soon as the second and third wards burned out, the last two began sparking as well. "Shit, shit, shit, what's going on? They can't all be defective at once!" James looked around frantically, searching for any sign of a magical attacker that he could shoot. There was nothing he could see.
Pfft, pfft. James screamed and fired anyway, shooting randomly into the darkness as the last wards failed. The tingling caress of a wisp's touch was upon him in an instant and he staggered as the bones in his legs began warping. He didn't stop shooting until his fingers became too stubby to pull the trigger.
The gun fell from James' clumsy paw-like hands. His clothes were rapidly loosening around his shrinking frame and a second tingling wave swept over his skin as fur sprouted all over it. James screamed again as his face pushed out into a muzzle, the sound blending into a high-pitched howl in the process, and then the changes in his hips and back became too great to fight against any longer. James fell forward on all fours.
He'd shrunk quite a bit and his clothing draped around him like loose, tangled sheets. James struggled in a panic to fight free, thrashing wildly with unfamiliar limbs and tearing at the fabric with unfamiliar jaws. He finally squirmed out of his shirt and for a moment stood trembling and panting while he tried to get a grip on what had happened.
Paws, muzzle, long furry tail tucked down between his hind legs... James yelped, unable to form the word he wanted to say. He'd turned into some sort of dog-like creature. Once it had begun to sink in James howled again, a wail of anger and fear. He couldn't help himself, the need to scream was just too big for his small chest to contain.
And also the need to run. James bolted from the campsite, sufficiently beyond rational thought that his new body's inherent reflexes took over without having to overcome his old body's learned ones. He just wanted to get as much distance as he could between himself and whatever invisible force had done this; he wasn't in any state to consider the situation in more human terms.
James ran, his small canine form quickly lost on the dark plains.
Terry allowed the rope to give way six hours later, frayed down to the diameter of twine before finally snapping. She could have continued to reinforce it, adding to the mesh of webs she'd woven over it as fast as they'd failed, but she felt she'd reached the point of diminishing returns in her preparations. There were only so may tricks to set up and despite the energizing atmosphere inside the vault keeping her aura charged having magical strength wasn't everything; she was running almost entirely on wake-up spells by now. She wasn't sure but she thought whatever glands were involved in producing silk back there were starting to run dry, too. It was time to fight the dragon before she hit her physical limits.
The dracolisk rolled the door aside with ease once the binding magic was gone and cautiously poked its nose through.
Terry had doused all of the light spells a while ago already, plunging the interior of the vault into pitch blackness. She'd hoped the darkness would help neutralize the dracolisk's petrifying gaze but the dracolisk had been soaking in magic long enough to pick up a few tricks of its own; it cast a light spell, filling the chamber with a dim orange glow. Terry closed her eyes as the huge serpent slid forward into the vault, directly underneath her hiding spot.
The ceiling's intricate rune carvings gave Terry's arachnid feet an excellent surface to cling to and the camouflage net she'd woven over her back like a cape was casting what she hoped was a convincing illusion of ordinary stone; she hadn't really expected to be able to rely on the darkness to hide her and had prepared as many backups as she could think of. Nevertheless, this was the most nerve-wracking part of Terry's plan. Don't look up, monster, she prayed silently. You're looking for an elf, not a big bug stuck to the ceiling right over the doorway. The walls all look normal, no illusions there. So think, where in this room is the only place a goddamned elf could be hiding?
After a moment's hesitation the dracolisk came to the conclusion Terry had been hoping it would. It lunged forward with a ferocious hiss, looping its sinuous neck around to strike behind the stone box in the center of the room. It only got halfway before it struck the huge and nearly-invisible web Terry had stretched across the room, jerking back in surprise at the resistance from the elastic but strong-as-steel strands. They stuck to the dracolisk's face like glue and it shook its head trying to get free. A few anchor cables snapped under the strain but that only caused more silk to collapse and cling around its head. The dracolisk roared out a disgusted curse as it fought the web.
The advantage wouldn't last long. Terry took a deep breath, touched the tip of her abdomen to the ceiling to attach a drag line, and released her hold on the ceiling. For a fraction of a second she let herself drop like a rock toward the dracolisk and then she gripped the drag line in her hind feet, braking her fall with all her strength. "Yeeee!" She couldn't contain the terrified squeak as the springy drag line stretched, bringing her down close enough to brush the dracolisk's scaly spine with her fingertips while she swung toward the narrow gap the monster's body left at the top of the vault's doorway. She released the drag line as she shot through, half flying and half running along the dracolisk's back.
The dracolisk reacted immediately, yanking its head free of the web inside the vault with a chorus of twanging silk. Terry fell off of its back down to the sandy stone floor outside, stumbling slightly but managing to keep her footing; she'd practiced running inside the vault so much that handling the extra legs was almost natural now. But she still wasn't as quick as she'd hoped and her web wasn't holding the dracolisk back as long as she'd counted on. She wasn't going to be able to pin it with the rolling door like she'd planned.
Run away? She considered for a brief instant. But where to? There was nobody left and she couldn't go home again like this... No. Stand and fight. She reached down and grabbed a strand of silk from her spinnerets, weaving hurriedly as the dracolisk finished extricating itself from the vault.
It reared up, towering over her in the large cavern, and glared down at her. Terry nearly interrupted her spell to throw up an extra counterspell against the dracolisk's magic but just gave a sharp laugh instead; the dracolisk's face was so thickly plastered with tangled silk that it couldn't open its third eye anyway. It could probably barely see at all. Blinded you again!
But its jaws could open just fine and it lunged at her with its massive fangs bared. Terry yelped and hurled her weaving at the dracolisk as she scampered frantically out of the way. It was a very close thing but her spell struck home and the dracolisk missed. Both Terry and dragon skidded to a halt in the dust and the dragon had a harder time recovering than she did. Terry's paralysis enchantment wasn't enough for a monster that size even with her enhanced magical strength but it was clearly giving it some trouble. Its head flopped back down and it thrashed clumsily, dragging its face in the sand.
Terry scuttled back a short distance, stopping beside the cavern wall as she drew another strand of silk to weave. She stretched the silk out straight, stiff with magic, and started thickening it with additional strands to form a translucent white javelin. Then the dracolisk stopped thrashing, head still down, and murmured in a low rumble; "you opened the box. You looked inside."
"Tried to," Terry answered curtly as she continued weaving. "Didn't catch a glimpse before it fell shut again."
The dragon emitted a wheezing chuckle. "I never saw inside either. Wasn't stupid enough to try a second time." Then it abruptly reared back up, most of the webbing rubbed clear of its face by the sand as it thrashed, and opened its third eye to gaze directly on Terry.
Terry had already stuck so many antipetrification counterspells to the remains of her shirt that the cloth was hardly visible beneath them. Under the withering assault of the dracolisk's magic, however, Terry was instantly wreathed in smoke as they began burning out. She had only a moment to react before the attack broke through. She raised the enchanted silk javelin, thrumming with all the power she could put into it, and stared directly into the dracolisk's infernal eye as she aimed.
The last of her counterspells failed as she hurled her attack.
The thin rays of morning sunlight seeped under the edge of the short wind-carved stone overhang, falling on James' curled form and gently warming his bare skin. He smiled slightly, half-waking at the pleasant sensation and stretching his stiff muscles. He was still aching and sore from all the running he had done...
James woke the rest of the way with a start, eyes snapping open in sudden panic as he remembered what had happened to him. A glance down at himself dispelled much of the panic only to replace it with confusion; he seemed to be fully human again, naked and dusty but otherwise unharmed. James peered around at his surroundings and then seeing nothing that looked dangerous he carefully slid out from the sheltered nook he was in to stand up.
He was on the edge of a small gully where strata of soft sandstone had been carved by the forces of wind and water to produce plenty of long, shallow nooks in the walls. The memory was vague, layered under confusing sensations, but he remembered searching for concealed shelter and finding this place. He'd been on the verge of total exhaustion and had desperately needed a place to hide.
James flexed his fingers; they did feel a bit raw, as did his toes. He distinctly remembered transforming into an animal and running on all fours for what must have been hours. Had it all been a wild hallucination? Maybe the result of some vicious lurking sand nymph casting hallucination glamours, driving him to strip nude and run off into the desert to perish? That possibility gave him a momentary sense of hope in spite of the dire situation it placed him in.
But that didn't explain the wisp wards burning out and James grudgingly considered the other possibility. He had been touched by a wisp and he had turned into some sort of monster - a small doglike monster, at any rate. Which meant that he wasn't really human right now despite how it may seem. James started sweating nervously despite the relatively cool morning air. There were several sorts of monsters he knew of that could appear outwardly human at least some of the time and the one which seemed to fit the circumstances best was a werewolf. But wolves weren't native to Africa. James tried harder to remember what it had felt like, being whatever it was he'd been...
A prickly sensation swept over James' skin, passing off subconsciously at first as evaporating sweat. But a moment later James' muscles started twitching and his full attention was drawn to the fine pelt of yellowish-brown fur sprouting all over his body. "Gyah!" James jumped back against the gully wall, staring down at himself in alarm. "No, no, no. Not again! Damnit!"
His body wasn't listening, flesh bunching up under his skin and bones starting to bend under that. But much more slowly this time... James gritted his teeth and muttered a continuous stream of invective as he struggled against both the shifting of his shape and the rising panic that came with it. He was having no success against the former, however, so as it progressed he quit cursing and focused his efforts on the latter.
James had faced down many monsters in his career and even though the monster this time was actually inside him he was somewhat surprised to discover that the same techniques for keeping his cool seemed to be working. "Okay, easy, there. Can't run away this time, so don't move suddenly, don't show fear, brreathe carrmrree..." He managed to keep a firm grip as his voice failed, his hands degenerated into paws, and he once again sank down to the ground. James almost found himself fascinated by the process. Still, it was several minutes before James felt ready to look himself over. Once he had finally managed to stop panting he rose to stand on all fours and carefully considered what he had become.
He was too small to be a wolf or a hyena. His body looked lean, well adapted for these climes, and he recognized the look quickly once he'd narrowed it down. Aw hell, I'm a jackal? James had prepared himself for a variety of emotions but disappointment caught him somewhat by surprise. Jackals were lowly scavengers, predators of vermin, almost vermin themselves in his estimation. James' ears and tail drooped in shame. Of all the things I could have become... wait a minute. James shook his head. Can the self-pity. I'm not a jackal, I'm a werejackal. What does that entail?
James remembered the term he'd heard some mage use once to describe lycanthropy; an 'intermittent aura.' The aura itself turned on and off; when it was off, a lycanthrope was indistinguishable from a normal human even to magesight. Lycanthropes were rare - or, possibly, they were just very good at hiding. James' depression faded rapidly as he considered that; he may be wisptouched now but perhaps nobody ever had to know. He could change back into a human, pass freely back into any city he wanted. Though perhaps not all of the time. No lycanthrope he'd ever heard of could control his changes entirely voluntarily and it would take time for James to figure out what percentage of his life he'd have to spend in this wretched body.
James shook himself, the canine reflex catching him somewhat off-guard but still having the intended effect of clearing his head. Okay... so I admit, if I had to be touched by a wisp, this may have been a somewhat lucky touch to get. Maybe I can live with this. Where to next, though? He peered around the gully again, trying to remember which direction he'd arrived here from last night. The memory still wasn't very clear. James lowered his nose to the ground and sniffed, taking a few tentative steps while he searched for his old trail. Ah, there I am. He'd come from the north. Then James snorted, realizing what he'd just done, then sniffed experimentally at the air.
There were enough fascinating new scents within just a few paces of him that James wasted fifteen minutes aimlessly exploring them before he finally pulled his attention away. He didn't understand what most of them meant, never having smelled with this incredible acuity before, but resolved to practice and learn. Maybe not so wretched a body after all, James admitted grudgingly, glancing back at his tail and giving it a halfhearted wag. Better than being out here naked, anyway.
That thought reminded him of his goal; he had to get back to his camp, where he'd left all his stuff. The donkey may have wandered off by now but he could probably find it again. Before setting off back down his old trail, though, James climbed to the top of the gully to get a look at the surrounding landscape. The climb would have been easier for a human but James resisted the temptation to try changing back just yet; he suspected he only had a limited amount of energy for such things and didn't want to use it all up while under difficult conditions. It may be easier to survive as a jackal right now.
He had come a long way last night in his panicked, mindless flight. Perhaps as much as ten or twenty miles. James sighed; no wonder he was so tired. It would take all day to get back, assuming he didn't lose the trail entirely along the way and get stuck out here for who knew how long. Then, recognizing another landmark on the horizon, James sighed again. He'd been running almost exactly the way he'd come from, back towards the mountain that dragon lived in. It looked like he was only a few hours' walk away.
There would be plenty of equipment and clothing left there, though. Even if the dragon hadn't killed Dalton and Terry, he could borrow some of Kreg's. I'm not wild about slinking back to those guys with hat in hand... but hell. You're a jackal, right? Swallow your pride and learn to scavenge.
James set off toward the mountain at a cautious trot, looking for a smoother path through the terrain. One upside came to mind quite easily, buoying his spirits somewhat; since he was wisptouched now he no longer had anything to fear from the thousands of invisible wisps remaining around him. It definitely made the going easier and let him focus his attention on the new sights and sounds and scents he had access to.
He was almost to the mountain itself when he found the trail left by the others, distinctive griffin tracks running alongside the donkeys' hoof prints. They ran along a path that discreetly skirted the mountain just out of sight of the face with the large cavern the dragon apparently laired in; James had to admit that if one was going to approach such a place, this was the best route to take. He nevertheless found himself quite happy to be small and well camouflaged in his current shape.
He found the donkeys in a loose group resting in the shade of some shallow cliffs edging a wide gully, their packs piled up a short distance away. He circled the donkeys at a respectful distance. He could accept the other indignities the wisp had burdened him with but he'd never be able to live down getting kicked to death by a donkey. Fortunately the packs were far enough away that the beasts didn't seem particularly concerned about a lone jackal. He was able to let his guard down and focus his attention on sniffing out the one containing rations.
His inattention nearly cost him his life. James caught the sudden motion out of the corner of his eye and dove for cover behind a pack. The swooping griffin screeched in annoyance and banked sharply, flapping hard to keep from running into the clay cliff face the packs were piled against, and circled back up towards the nearby outcropping he'd been hiding on.
James had been expecting to take a while figuring out how to shift back into human form again but under the circumstances he managed it in less than thirty seconds. "Kreg! Hold fire, it's me!" The griffin did a double-take, peering down quizzically from his perch, and James tried to calm his hammering heart. There was a bit of string tied around the griffin's neck, confirming his identity. "I got touched, then got lost," he shouted up to Kreg in explanation. "I'm a werejackal now."
Kreg continued peering at him for a moment longer, then his beak dropped open and he let out a strange choking sound. It took James a moment to recognize it as laughter and flushed in embarrassment. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Look, I need to borrow some clothes. Are Dalton and Terry around?"
Kreg's telepathic speech spell had worn out after Terry left, preventing him from giving James a straight answer. But Kreg came down off the outcropping and played twenty questions with him while he rummaged through the packs for something to wear, letting him know they'd gone into the smaller cave the previous evening and hadn't been seen since. Kreg had stayed outside to keep the donkeys together and to guard their stuff from scavengers such as himself.
Even without the ability to speak, Kreg easily let James know how amused he was by James' condition. James could also tell that he was getting quite concerned about Dalton and Terry, though, frequently glancing off toward the mountain both they and the dragon had disappeared into the day before.
Kreg gave James permission to take what clothing he needed from his own luggage, seemingly resigned to the notion that he wouldn't be needing it again himself. James tried to limit how much food and water he took, split between leaving enough for Dalton and Terry when they returned and considering that it would be wasted if he left it behind and they never returned. He'd feel bad about screwing them over a second time, no matter how sure he was that they must have been suicidal to go this far.
James sighed. Why do I keep feeling guilty about this? I warned them in no uncertain terms... oh, hell. I'm not going to win this argument. "Kreg... how long did it take them to climb from here up to that cave? What sort of cover is there along the way? I think I should at least check on them before I go since I came this far already."
Kreg's inflexible beak somehow managed to produce a recognizable smile. At the slightest sign of trouble I turn into a jackal and hide or run away, James resolved silently. Then he sighed again; that sounded like the stupidest plan he'd ever heard, even though it had a sound basis. Dalton and Terry hadn't left any guns behind, so becoming unnoticeably small and inoffensive was probably the best defence he could come up with.
Traces of Dalton and Terry's trail were visible even to human senses and James followed it at a quick, furtive pace up to the small cave opening. Their path took a couple of odd minor detours along the way, presumably due to Terry leading Dalton around wisps, and James found some relief at least in his immunity. Just a dragon to worry about now. Once he'd entered the narrow cave itself even the dragon became less of a concern.
Other concerns were waiting to take their place at the forefront. James crept cautiously through the rune-bedecked tunnels and the old camp where the fresh traces of Dalton and Terry's stay were mixed with the ruins of a previous expedition that evidently hadn't made it away intact. He tried to ignore the haunted feel of the place. Ghosts weren't real, even though wisps were sometimes called that by the ignorant. He continued on past the camp, following the freshest tracks.
A humanoid figure came into view in the tunnel ahead, standing motionless with its arms raised and draped in some sort of diaphanous white substance. James nearly reverted to animal form out of sheer reflex before realizing it was a statue. A statue dressed in Dalton's clothing...
James crept up to it cautiously, searching intently for a basilisk snake while prepared to avert his gaze instantly if he spotted one. He didn't find one, nor did he see an elf statue nearby, so perhaps Terry had taken care of it.
Poor Dalton. James took the revolver from the holster still hanging on Dalton's belt, glad to have a gun again though saddened by the circumstance in which he'd found it. Dalton could only have been petrified here for a day at most, yet he was already festooned with cobwebs. James tried to brush some away from his face, wondering if he should bring a sheet back from the camp to drape over him out of respect for the dead.
"Don't touch that!" James spun to face the source of the voice, crouching down with revolver raised. A woman's head poked around the edge of the tunnel only ten feet ahead, up a shallow slope where the cave seemed to widen. "James? That you?"
"Terry?" The voice was right, and her features as well, but her skin had changed from its already dark hue to almost pure black. It made her hard to see. Was she covered in soot?
"It's me, James. Why'd you risk coming all the way back here? I mean, never mind the dragon, it's a miracle you haven't blundered into a wisp so far!"
"Already did," James grumbled. "It's a little complicated. Anyway, I'm not staying. I just promised Kreg I'd check up on you while I was here. I see Dalton didn't make it. What's going on? Why are you hiding over there?" James slowly eased out of his tense crouch but kept the revolver at the ready - he could tell something strange was still going on.
Terry sighed. "That's complicated too. The dragon turned out to be a dracolisk, a huge one. It got Dalton and then I killed it... but not without cost."
"You killed it?" James simply could not imagine the slender elf girl taking on such a creature in a straight-out fight, let alone winning. "How?"
"It nearly got me but I shot a spell right through its eye when it opened."
Terry was clearly reluctant to talk about the details and James considered whether to press her for some or just retreat with what information he already had. He had all the information he'd come for but if the dragon was dead and wisps were no longer a threat to him... "Are there any other monsters here?"
Terry chuckled, the laugh sounding somewhat strained. "One, but... Never mind. You can tell Kreg that it's safe now and that I've secured the source of magic. He can come in via the draco's entrance; he dug it nice and wide, it should be fine for a griffin. I'll go down there and hang a bunch of light webs from the ceiling for him."
"You're not coming back out with me?"
Terry shook her head. "It'd probably be better if I didn't. You said you got wisptouched, right? Must be a pretty lucky one, I can't see its aura... even so, I'm sorry, James. I guess nobody managed to make it through this trip unchanged. I did a pretty poor job." And with that, Terry ducked back out of sight around the corner.
It didn't take much thought to decide against trying to follow her. James gave Dalton's statue a last quick nod and then he turned back the way he'd come.
Once he'd relayed Terry's message to Kreg, James again resisted his better judgement and accompanied Kreg down into the main entrance of the dragon's lair. It was a very wide tunnel and its outer section looked relatively recently excavated - though probably by some form of magic, as James didn't see any tool or claw marks on the walls from digging. The cave became much older and more natural looking farther inward. Strung between the edges of several cracks in the ceiling were glowing cobwebs that provided diffuse white light.
The light was bright enough to clearly illuminate the enormous gray corpse of the dracolisk, stretched in a convulsed tangle through the middle of the cavern. It took only a brief examination to determine that it was really quite dead; it was eerily motionless, the sandy floor around its head was stained dark with blood, and there were even a few cobwebs on it as well.
"Over here, guys. Let me explain before you get jumpy." James and Kreg looked away from the dracolisk at Terry's voice and saw her emerge from a small side passage.
"Jesus Christ!" James brought up his revolver and Kreg took a startled step back at the sight of the enormous black widow. For a moment James felt the strange sensation of his inner jackal trying to emerge in reaction to his fear.
Terry froze, sighed, and raised her hands even though she was far enough away to be fairly safe from the gun. "It's all right, it's just me. I just discovered a few new things about wisps and about shadow elves in particular."
James fought down the urge to transform and flee, regaining his composure in the process. Kreg was actually more unnerved than James, with claustrophobia and the memory of his previous encounter with the dragon adding to his anxiety. But as Terry recounted the things she'd seen and done here their interest in the discovery slowly overcame all of that.
The cavern was filled with wisps, almost edge-to-edge and jostling against each other as they leaked out of the vault. Terry had closed the door hours ago, even webbed a few wisp wards over it, but the residual pressure of the magic she'd released inside was still strong enough to squeeze them out through the seams.
The source of magic indeed. Terry felt queasy; she'd screwed up yet again. James's description of how his camp's wisp wards had burned out were consistent with them being overwhelmed by an enormous surge of wisps sweeping past, and the timing matched up pretty closely with the moment she'd opened the box. It had been bad enough when all she'd done was to turn herself into a monster...
How many new wisps are we talking about here? Kreg asked, his telepathic voice restored by a freshly-woven spell webbed to his neck. At first he'd been a little reluctant to let her place it there but his desire for speech had proven greater than any fear of giant spiders he might have had.
"I don't know, but if James was a day's travel away and they were still dense enough to burn through five wards so quickly... a lot. Not as many as the first burst of wisps, but perhaps in the same order of magnitude."
James made a disgusted noise and kicked a pebble. The pebble pinged off of the dracolisk's scales, making him pause anxiously for a moment but not reducing his frustration. "So much for the world's wisps getting used up naturally. You just doubled the supply."
While it was true that the number of wisps permeating the planet had indeed been slowly going down over the years, Terry decided it would have been somewhat insensitive to point out that there had already been many centuries' worth in circulation and that the increase wouldn't mean much in that regard. She didn't want to sound like she was belittling the problem. Kreg had already speculated that the wisp storms she'd unleashed might remain dense enough to overwhelm the wards of a few towns or cities before spreading out to mix evenly with the existing wisps, and considering his expertise in meteorology Terry tended to believe it. At least there were wisp wards in place this time, which should prevent a repeat of the original disasters.
Terry sighed. "Maybe that dragon was right all along. This is too dangerous to mess around with until we understand magic better."
Kreg looked wistfully toward the vault door. I think I agree. Even after all this, turning into a monster, Dalton killed... maybe we should bury this. Telepathic speech made it impossible for Kreg to conceal the sadness and disappointment he felt at the notion, which made his admission of it all the more significant. Terry feared she may be about to find out whether a griffin could cry.
"Dalton's not dead," she offered. Kreg blinked, his descent into despair momentarily halted, and gave an incredulous squawk to prompt further explanation. "He's petrified, an enchantment cast by the dracolisk. Very powerful, powerful enough to exclude wisps even, but in theory it's reversible. The draco never got a chance to siphon off his vitality and I put wards around him to protect it." Terry interlaced her fingers and clicked her tongue thoughtfully. "I doubt I'm strong enough to dispell it myself, even now. But I can work around it, wake him up or reanimate him despite it. I've never made a golem before but he'd be something along those lines. I recall hearing it's been done."
Kreg's mood brightened noticeably at Terry's speculation but James frowned in distaste. "With a human soul, isn't that illegal or something? Besides, how would we haul him back with us until then? Would he even fit through the tunnel?"
Terry shook her head. "I've considered it a lot already and I think I'll be hanging around here for a while." She reached back and patted the side of her bulbous arachnid abdomen. "I get the feeling this isn't going to go away any time soon and I don't see it going over well back home. Besides," she smiled wryly, "there's still plenty still to do around here even without messing with the vault. Dalton needs fixing up, this dragon deserves a decent burial, archaeology to perform, caves to seal off. That's all going to take a lot of time."
I was going to be stuck out in the wilderness anyway, Kreg added. I will stay with you and help, if I can.
James started to object, stopped, then sighed. "Once again I'm being forced to abandon you guys. I'm sorry, but this place... I want out. I finally got wisptouched and now all I want is to get back to civilization again to get used to it."
Terry chuckled. "Actually, James, I'm glad you came back and I'm glad you can go home again. Here's something I found while I was inside the vault." She reached into a pouch hanging from the belt around her thorax - the only bit of her original clothing left - and pulled out the small stone disk that had been lying in the sandy corner. "I didn't know what it was at first, but I've been watching it since I got out of that magic soup in there and I think it's a wisp detector. Still working after all these years."
James took the disk gingerly, peering at it. "It's working? I don't see..."
"I see the spell reacting in magesight. I'm sure that some mage somewhere will figure out how to link it to a mundane display mechanism. Maybe mages won't be spending so much time working as navigators." She chuckled again. "Good thing that's not all we do, what?"
James wrapped the disk in a handkerchief and tucked it into his pocket. "I'll make sure this gets to someone who'll publicize the magic without asking where it's from. Maybe this trip was worth it after all..."
Speak for yourself, Kreg snorted, then relented on his peevish tone. Wonder if the first wisp wards were copied from the walls of these caves, too. Someone in the original expedition could have become a mage and remembered the runes.
Terry shrugged. "Perhaps Dalton will know after I wake him back up. Archaeologists have been through all this stuff once before. Maybe we'll figure it out this time around."
With all three of the researchers now staying behind for the immediate future, there was ample traveling equipment available for James to borrow. It'd be a long trip on his own that had probably been made even longer by the devastation wrought by the new wisp storms. But that was okay, he could use the time to learn how to handle his lycanthropy and keep it well hidden. Bidding the spider and the griffin farewell, James set off for home.