Fabian came to his senses lying on the streets of Lucia. The sun burned his eyes but he could see the towers of the Cloisters from his vantage point and he knew immediately where he was. Whoever he really was, Lovelace had been good as his word in one regard. Fabian had made it home alive.
So why did he feel as though he'd died several times?
The first thing Fabian noticed was that his pristine cream robe was utterly ruined. It had gone gray and then mud brown and looked to have been bleached white again several times and patched with a hodgepodge of different fabrics. His head pounded as he slowly sat up and evaluated the clothing that he wore. It was not his own, and most of it was in a terrible state of disrepair. The palms of his hands and his nails were stained with something greenish, and stuck on his wrist was a emerald spot that looked like the carapace of a beetle. He immediately tore it off, and almost cursed out loud. Underneath the little scale was a raw red patch. Whatever it was that he'd torn off had taken some of his skin with it.
Fabian rolled up his sleeve and blinked in surprise at the freckling of green scales that seemed to work its way all the way up his arm, at least to the elbow. He rubbed his neck, feeling a similar sort of patch of scales at the base of his skull. Obviously he'd been contaminated by something at the Nok Market, but he felt reasonably well so he suspected that it wasn't anything the Archwizard couldn't cure.
Everyone was staring at him sitting in the middle of the road, so he slowly stood. He made a sound like a Trader cart as he rose to his feet. A pewter mug, a dozen reflective glass witch balls and more beads, ribbons and bells than he could count all weighed down heavily on his belt. There were rings on every one of his fingers sporting minor enchantments, a Trader traveler's charm strung on a silk cord around his neck and one of their distinctive long knives in a worn sheath on his hip. Feathers tickled his neck, and as he seized them to see what was stuck in his hair, Fabian snapped the leather tie that had kept his black curls out of his face. His hair was considerably longer than he remembered it being, and like his skin it was tinged with metallic green.
The feathers he clutched in his hand were part of a storm warning charm, of the kind that Northerners sometimes found on the beach after a Mist Pirate attack. A pouch on his hip jingled as Fabian sat down on a crate, attempting to look a bit more civilized as he composed himself and evaluated his predicament. The pouch was embroidered with pink flowers like a lady's purse and filled to the brim with coins.
Lest he betray just how much money he was carrying, Fabian slowly slipped a single piece out of his pouch and evaluated it in the palm of his hand. It was a coin he had never seen before with a stern looking face on one side and a one-eyed sleeping dragon emblazoned on the other. More shockingly still, the coin was clearly made of gold. He bit down on it experimentally to be certain and blinked in surprise as his tooth made a dent in the coin. Still baffled, he ran his finger along the tips of his teeth. Had they always been so sharply pointed?
Fabian took a long drink from his waterskin and immediately gagged. Whatever was in it was not water at all, but some horrifically noxious, highly alcoholic brew. He sputtered for a moment and then caught sight of his own reflection in the window of a nearby store. Like a man possessed, he ran up to the building and stared in disbelief. As he stumbled up to the window, a number of people leapt out of his way, and the uncomfortable murmur of the crowd grew louder.
At first Fabian had thought that what he saw was only a trick of the light, but when he got close enough to touch the mirror propped up in the store display, it became clear that he was not hallucinating. The green scales he had discovered on his arms ran down his neck and up to his temples, his ears were most definitely pointed and his eyes had taken on a catlike appearance. They were also far more blue than they had ever been before, even after he'd spent hours channeling ather for a ritual.
The fae had turned him into a monster!
"Excuse me, sir?" A voice whispered hesitantly. Fabian whirled around to see who had approached him and winced slightly as the young girl cowered.
"You dropped your stick?" She mumbled, holding out an ostentatious staff painted a dozen different colors and strung with feathers. Without thinking, Fabian took it from her grasp. It fit into his hand perfectly and was even gouged from where he'd obviously been digging his nails into it. When he studied it, the flurry of complex enchantments that the object carried nearly took his breath away. Whoever had constructed the thing was a genius! He'd have to spend hours studying the manner in which the spells had been placed. It was a pity, he reasoned, that the staff was also so garish.
Not knowing where else to go, Fabian began across the bridge, making his way back to the Cloisters. Several Novices passed him and then two Journeymen. They all stared in disbelief at his bizarre appearance. He recognized none of their faces. Even as he entered into the reception room of the central tower, no one moved to stop him. More worrisome still, he hadn't seen anyone that he knew. Even the Journeyman who served as the Archwizard's personal assistant was a stranger to him.
The young wizard stared at Fabian in disbelief, his eyes very wide.
"I ran afoul of some fae on my way back to Lucia," Fabian explained slowly. "I'm under some sort of glamorie or curse and I need to see the Archwizard right away."
"I... I see," the Journeyman nodded, seeming unconvinced. "And your name is?"
"Fabian Fi..." He stopped short, wondering what possessed him to stumble over his own surname. "Journeyman Fabian Van Guise," he finished. The words left a strange taste in his mouth, as if they were ones he had not spoken in a very long time.
The Journeyman disappeared down the hall and returned a few minutes later.
"The Archwizard will see you now," he replied.
"Thank you," Fabian nodded. Without a backwards glance, he went to see the Archwizard.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of Archwizard Surin's office.
"Journeyman Van Guise?" The Archwizard whispered, his voice sounding strained and drier than Fabian remembered it. "Is it really you?"
"Archwizard," Fabian bowed his head. When he looked up, he gasped in disbelief. Mercurio Surin had been little more than sixty years old when Fabian had last seen him less than a week ago, still very young to hold his esteemed position. But when Fabian looked up to face the head of his Order, he saw a man that was a hundred years old if he was a day, frail and skeletal with rheumy eyes.
"Sir? How... how long have I been gone?" Fabian whispered uneasily.
"Forty-nine years," the Archwizard replied. "I trust you have some reason for your long absence?"
There was a long moment of silence between them. "I wish I could explain, but it's been only a day by my reckoning. I was riding back to Lucia late last night, when I ran afoul of some fae. I woke up like this in the middle of the street. I was hoping you'd be able to help me figure out what sort of curse I've fallen under," Fabian admitted.
The Archwizard nodded slowly. "Of course. Explain from the beginning everything you remember."
Fabian sighed heavily and related his story as clearly as he could. When he finished, the Archwizard sat in silence for a long moment, considering everything that he had said. After some deliberation, he summoned his assistant.
"Take Journeyman Van Guise upstairs. Get him a bath and something presentable to wear. Call together all of the masters and tell them to meet me in the Temple," the Archwizard ordered.
His assistant bowed. "As you command." Very slowly, the younger wizard turned to Fabian. "Right this way." He gestured to the hall.
Once a bath was drawn for him, Fabian carefully stripped off all of the rags he wore, searching each piece of clothing for any clues as to what had happened to him. He learned nothing more than he had upon first examination, but the sight of his own body without layers of mismatched Trader finery made the seriousness of the curse he was under even more readily apparent.
Had he really been missing for fifty years? He didn't appear to have aged at all, but there were a number of new scars on his arms and chest. It seemed that had been in more fights or accidents than most people were liable to survive, and the comfortable amount of weight that he usually carried was stripped from his bones, leaving him looking lean and somewhat rangy, like a wild animal.
More disturbing were the patches of little green scales all over his skin. He pulled a few more off before he realized that removing them was actually causing him to start bleeding. He considered trimming his hair to look more presentable, but the sight of his pointed ears made him even more nervous. No wonder everyone had stared at him!
After he had bathed, Fabian dressed in a clean cream robe that one of the Novices brought him. He looked more presentable than he had before, but he still did not look like a wizard of the Order of Light. Because of his Journeyman rank, he knew that he would be expected to bring his staff to the Temple. Though magic did not work within the four walls of the Lucius's sanctuary, hierarchy was very important to the god and every wizard was expected to recognize his own place within the Order. Fabian was of middling rank himself, a new Journeyman... but he had been the very top of his class as a Novice and had taken up his staff with no small amount of expectations placed upon him.
Fabian stared at the rainbow-painted stick that the girl in the marketplace had given him. It was the closest thing to a proper staff that he possessed, and when he removed all of the feathers and beads that someone had affixed around the top, the dragon runes of its numerous enchantments were clearly visible. Even if the stick looked a mess, Fabian suspected that any wizard evaluating it as a measure of his skill would be suitably impressed.
To his dismay, he was the last wizard to arrive. Word of his shocking appearance had spread like lightning through the Cloisters. All of the Novices were sitting cross-legged on the floor and behind them the Journeymen waited, looking a little bit like a line of soldiers with pikes.
The Order's twelve masters and the Archwizard himself were seated at the long rectangular table on the opposite side of the room. Fabian tried not to stare at them as he entered, bowed in the direction of the altar and approached the Pool of Cleansing. As he had done regularly since he had first entered the Order, he anointed himself with the water from the pool and waited patiently for the fae magic over him to dissolve.
It did not. If anything, his fingertips looked somewhat more green from dabbling in the blessed water. No one said anything, but the shocked expressions on some of the Novice's faces compelled the Archwizard to call up his assistant and ask that they be removed from the room. The Journeymen followed them out to be sure that there would be no horseplay or snooping... leaving Fabian alone with the Masters.
A very ancient wizard that Fabian recognized as Master Aldus Lucian, the premier enchanter of the Order stepped down to have a closer look at his affliction. He said nothing at all but made a few noncommittal noises that worried Fabian more than any harsh words might have. After ten minutes of silence, Fabian was dismissed and told to return to the room where he'd had his bath earlier. He bowed politely and left. The enormous doors of the temple closed behind him with a whisper.
Fabian hesitated. Despite the fact that he had been dismissed, he decided to linger in the hallway and listen to the Master's conversation. He was certain that they were talking about him and it seemed only fair that he should hear what they had to say on the matter.
"We need to get rid of him," Master Aldus announced coldly.
"Of course," the Archwizard agreed. "But we can't have him killed."
Fabian stifled a gasp.
"And why not?" One of the other Masters snapped. Fabian squinted at him through the crack of the door. He couldn't guess the man's name – but it was distinctly possible that he might have only been a Novice when Fabian had last set foot inside the Cloisters. A few of the older Masters were probably Journeyman who had been roughly his own age, but after so many years they were completely unrecognizable.
"Because of the manner of his arrival, Casius! He walked through our gates of his own volition which can only mean that's he's unthinkably crafty or truly ignorant. In either case, it would be foolish to dispose of him before we learn what he knows. We must send him somewhere that we can keep a close eye on him," the Archwizard explained.
"For how long?" Journeyman... no, MasterDominari protested. Fabian recognized Sigismodo. He had taken up his staff at the same time that Fabian had. And despite being fifty years older, he looked very much the same... still unforgivably arrogant. "Archwizard, it would be one thing if he were just slightly tainted... but haven't you seen him?"
"He's covered in scales! It would take months to remove them all, if his body could even withstand the strain. But that's not what concerns me most. His eyes. The taint is into his soul. He can't be brought back," Master Lucian finished.
"I don't think I've ever seen a wizard so far gone," Master Tamsen added. Like Sigismodo, Tamsen had been a Journeyman near Fabian's own age. He was somewhat surprised to hear the apprehension in his old friend's voice. Did no one believe what had happened to him? "Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if he's more dragon than human by now."
Dragon?Fabian blinked in surprise as he heard that word.
What were the masters talking about? How could he possibly be a dragon?
And yet, as preposterous as the whole business sounded, there was something in the way that all of the Masters had left their seats and stood in a tight little circle that made what they were saying feel very real and serious to Fabian. He'd heard of fae turning men into animals before, but so far as he knew, no fae had ever turned a man into a fae creature. And as for dragons... well, they were far more powerful than most fae and fairly intent on preserving their own reputations. A fae changing a man into a dragon would be treading on very dangerous ground.
"He's been gone fifty years. How old was he when he left? Twenty-two? And he looks only about thirty now? His eyes aside, that does not bode well," Another master added. "Not that I doubt the power of any of you, my esteemed brethren... but if it becomes necessary that he be done away with, we should be very careful in who we choose for the task. He might be more than a match for any of us."
"Which is why we must get rid of him. Immediately!" Sigismodo replied.
"Well we can't simply throw him out!" Master Tamsen protested. "He's liable to throw in with the Graywalkers if he has nowhere else to go and then he'll become a real thorn in our side!"
"We should promote him then. Send him to The Abbey of Saleri?" The Archwizard decided.
"Archwizard, do you really think that's wise?" Master Tamsen asked. "The Mist Pirates sail very close to those shores and that staff of his..."
"What choice have we got?" Master Dominari snorted. "Be sure to give him a nice complicated job. Something that will keep him busy for a good long while!"
"Sigismodo, send a message to Abbot Herot and inform him of our situation. And as for what he can do with Van Guise... I have just the thing." The Archwizard smiled slyly. The Masters nodded quietly and began to disperse.
Not wanting to be caught spying on his superiors, Fabian took off running.