“Hurry up! You’re a lot heavier when you’re human!”
Bryne could feel the young centaur’s arms wavering under his weight, but took another moment to look around. The field stretching out from the old fortress was empty save for a few grazing cows and horses. Though the old wizard who owned the place had live guards, they were all walking the front wall. No one would expect an approach from the back, where the only opening was too high and small for a thief. A human thief, that is.
“Better change as soon as I’m up. There may be patrols. Stick around the wall in case I need a soft landing spot.”
There was a snort from Keric, his living ladder. “Try landing on your head!”
Despite the humor, Bryne could hear tenseness in his friend’s voice. Stealing from a high-level mage was risky business, and the two of them had hit many a wizard in their yearlong partnership. Still, Keric’s nervousness stemmed from the method of break-in, not the target. Although they knew from long experience that the magic involved was safe, neither one of them was truly comfortable with what came now.
He touched a small pendant hanging tightly around his neck and thought the changeword. Green light sparkled around the carving in his hand, and then spread to his fingers. They shriveled suddenly, becoming black and tiny as the transformation raced up his arms. This particular night was rather cool, so he actually welcomed the thick fur. The broadening platform of Keric’s hands lurched as the centaur lowered him, and Bryne fought disorientation from the combination of shrinking and dropping. Although the change wasn’t painful, pulling muscles and rearranging organs weren’t pleasant, either.
By the time he was chest level, Bryne was a raccoon. Only the necklace distinguished him from a common animal, and it was mostly invisible in the thick fur around his neck. He made some short chittering noises in the code they had worked out, telling the centaur he was ready. Keric shifted him to one hand, and then stepped back to gauge the distance to the window. A misjudgment here would be extremely hazardous for Bryne, but he had come to trust the centaur’s aim enough to be only a little apprehensive.
Gravity suddenly pressed him into Keric’s hand, and then he was hurtling towards the stone wall. Dalor’s Breath! There were bars on the window! There was no time to do more than brace himself for impact, and then he slammed into the iron barrier. Tiny fingers clawed frantically for a grip, and his hind legs flailed. Just as he started to fall back, toes found a gap under the window with and he was able to push up onto the narrow sill.
Looking back down, he waved his tail back and forth twice to signal he was OK. As always, Keric stared at the silver bit in his hand for a moment before putting it in his mouth. Centaurs generally took great offense at any comparison to horses, so Bryne could understand his friend’s reluctance to actually be one for any length of time. It didn't help that his transformation tool was somewhat unpredictable. Unlike Bryne's purchased pendant, they had stolen the bit and didn't know the changewords to control it.
There was a flicker of blue light as a halter formed over his head. From there, the change was almost too fast to follow, face pushing out into a snout as arms and shoulders melted away like candle wax. In moments, the centaur had shrunk down into a medium-sized donkey. Considering the fact that Keric could have become anything from a newborn Arabian filly to a thirty year-old mule, they seemed to have been lucky tonight. Bryne chuckled mentally as Keric shook his hind parts. The centaur had gotten surprised once by a randy stallion. Since then, the first thing he did was check the sex of his new form.
On the other hand, Bryne mostly enjoyed being a raccoon. It wasn't all great. The spindly forelegs lacked the strength of his normal arms, and the legendary supersensitive nose of an animal wasn’t a plus when you didn't like your own smell. However, raccoons had hands to grip and carry, and were common enough across the land that no one paid him any attention. They were also small enough to squeeze between obstacles like these bars. Speaking of which… he checked carefully for any sign of trap spells, and finding none, slipped through the window.
The room was dark, but he could make out boxes, odd carvings, and various dishes and cups. An inexperienced intruder might think he’d found the wizard’s treasure trove and grab everything in sight. Not many young thieves had Bryne’s foresight to obtain a Detect Magic spell. Of course, he thought grimly as he thought the chant, he’d only met one –old- thief.
Something was wrong. Everything in the room should have lit up in varying degrees. Powerful items would be brighter than lanterns, the lesser ones sometimes little more than a flickering candle. Even a minor mage’s storeroom always held something worth stealing. This place remained almost totally dark, with the exception of a faint shimmering from his own pendant, and a paper scroll stuck in the far corner.
Bryne’s neck-hair prickled. Up to now, the information he’d gotten from a supposedly disgruntled guard had been absolutely correct. The blind side approach to the fortress, the watch schedule, even the position and size of the window had been checked out ahead of time. This was supposed to be the wizard’s primary item locker. Now, he realized, it was a trap.
He fought back panic. The lack of magic didn’t preclude some nasty mechanical tricks. Remaining still, he scanned the room carefully. There! Fine wires stretched in front of the window. He’d missed them coming in. They’d been spaced to alert someone of a flying intruder – a bird would have snapped the threads. Guess the wizard didn’t expect to have a raccoon tossed in. His relief was short-lived. A broken strand curled away from the windowsill, snapped by his entry.
Dalor’s Breath! There was no time to look any further. Bryne should have bolted for the window instantly, but pride made him grab the scroll first. No thief worth his salt would leave empty handed. He leaped for the opening just as the door burst open. A young guard came in with his sword drawn. If the man had acted instantly, Bryne would have been skewered. However, he was obviously surprised to find a raccoon instead of a human foe. Bryne took advantage of the momentary delay to leap off the ledge.
As he’d feared, the donkey’s back made a small target. He hit to the side and left some bloody scratches in Keric’s neck as he clawed frantically to stay on. To his credit, the transformed centaur didn’t move until he was sure that Bryne had a firm grip on his mane. Then he bolted for the forest, ignoring the shouts rising from the fortress walls. Just as they passed through the first trees, the scroll gave a bright flash that made them both jump. However, there was no obvious injury to either of them, and the pair continued fleeing until they were well away.
As soon as they stopped, the sweaty, wheezing donkey twisted his head around and brayed loudly. Bryne slipped off, wincing from bruises received in the jump. They would go away when he changed back, just as the scratches on Keric’s neck would vanish when the bit was removed. Before doing anything else, Bryne checked his prize again. The scroll was no longer glowing. It had triggered as they entered the forest, and now it was just a useless scrap of parchment. At least the spell didn’t seem to be harmful. The good thing about scrolls was that their effects were immediate and obvious. It had probably been some failsafe protection that destroyed the scroll if it was moved too far from the fortress without authorization.
Keric brayed again, this time kicking up his hind hooves. The centaur was anxious to be restored. Bryne threw the scroll to ground in disgust and touched his pendant. If the guards managed to follow, all they’d find would be a centaur and a human camped out together in the woods. The site was already set up just a little further in. And of course, they would show the proper cooperation, and even remember hearing something crashing through the trees going off to the North. Taking some small satisfaction in escaping, Bryne touched his pendant and thought the changeword.
Nothing happened. He cleared his thoughts and tried again. No sparkle, no familiar swelling and disorientation. Keric snorted and stamped his hooves impatiently. After a third attempt failed, Bryne used his Detect Magic spell again, this time lifting the pendant up to look at it. The carved stone remained dark. His chest tightened and ice shot through his veins. Spinning, he looked up at the donkey’s head and saw only the dark lines of leather straps. No magic glow.
Keric’s ears went back, and his eyes showed white all around. Although he knew it would make no difference, Bryne jumped up on his friend’s back and managed to pull off the halter by sliding down the equine muzzle. When nothing happened, the jackass launched himself into a frenzy of wild kicks and agonized braying. Bryne scrambled back to watch from a safe distance, dazed by despair and confusion. What could possibly have done this? Not even they knew the changeword for the bit, and a Dispel Magic would have restored them back to normal when their magic items were destroyed.
He went back to the scroll. Though most were written in obscure symbols, he might find some clue to what had happened. Then they could try to find a cure. Biting through the ribbon that kept it rolled up, he spread it open on the ground. There was writing here, oddly enough in Common.
He felt another shiver run through him.
WHILE I APPLAUD YOUR INGENUITY, I MUST ALSO POINT OUT THE FOOLISHNESS OF ROBBING MAGIC USERS. WE DO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER, ESPECIALLY WHEN FACING A COMMON THREAT. YOUR MODE OF OPERATION WAS DETERMINED FAIRLY EASILY, AND MOST OF US HAVE NOW SET UP APPROPRIATE SECURITY MEASURES.
Keric had finally run out of energy, and plodded up behind him to look over his shoulder.
IF IT IS ANY CONSOLATION, MOST OF MY FELLOW WIZARDS PLANNED RATHER VIOLENT AND MESSY DEATHS. BESIDES BEING A WASTE OF MAGIC AND MORE WORK FOR THE CLEANING STAFF, I FELT USING YOUR OWN MAGIC AGAINST YOU WOULD BE MORE APPROPRIATE. REMOVING THIS SCROLL FROM MY STOREROOM TRIGGERED A PERMANENCY SPELL.
Gods of Darkness! Bryne shut his eyes and shivered in misery. A Permanency Spell! Instead of dispelling the magic, the thrice-cursed wizard had locked their transformations in place. A long, mournful bray told him that Keric had also read their fate. There was a last paragraph.
THERE WILL BE NO PURSUIT AND NO REPRISAL. IF YOU CHOOSE TO COME BACK, I WILL ENSURE YOUR SAFETY AND COMFORT. I WILL NOT, HOWEVER, REMOVE THE SPELL. DEAD BODIES HAVE SHOCK VALUE FOR OTHER WOULD-BE THIEVES, BUT SEEING YOU AS YOU ARE WILL LEAVE A MUCH MORE LASTING IMPRESSION.