Sam Franklin looked up at the abandonned watchtower from the surrounding trees. Close to his familiar, Pagoda Cat. Pagoda settled down at what she regarded as a safe distance from her human familiar, Sam, and stretched out on the ground, eyes like coin slots. Waiting.
The tower was cylindrical, three stories high, jagged at the top from decay. It seemed to be held up mostly by ivy, and by diffused moonlight through low cloud.
It rested on a circular base around which pulsed a soft glow. As if the structure floated in the darkness, feeding on scattered moonbeams. He could see his breath in front of his face, in the mid-August night. His skin prickled.
There had been reports of strange - powerful - activity at the watchtower for weeks. Did the Magic Circle need to intervene? Movement at the tower answered his question.
Two men appeared from under - through? - the floor surrounding the battered tower. They were hunched, tentative. Both of them screwed their eyes shut, unused to the light.
They wore leather tunics and jeans, short spears on their backs. They carried something between them. Sam knew a body when he saw one. It had been trussed up with tangled vines, no gaps. Alive or dead? They moved with it at a measured pace. Careful not to jar it. Careful not to damage it.
The men approached the wall of the tower with their burden. When they reached it, they stepped through, merging into the stone.
The wall solidified behind them.
Sam Sprang up to the foot of the tower, using his Bond with Pagoda. He felt the power of his enhanced sinews and muscles, his elasticity. And of course he revelled in his excellent grooming. Especially the thick black fur - hair - on his head.
Pagoda looked across at him unimpressed as she effortlessly kept pace to the tower.
Sam reached out to the wall. It stubbornly remained wall-like. Unyielding. No entry, but also no Wards or other traps that he could see. The men were not expecting company. Sam and Pagoda split up and went around the base of the tower. They met on the opposite side at a heavy wooden door. With a lock. Old school.
A further check for Wards, then Sam Focused on the door and it eased open. He and Pagoda crept up decaying stairs. Disconcertingly, the stairwell smelled of roses. Sam cast a Dampen Hex to ensure no noise; Pagoda didn't need the Hex.
One floor up. Two floors up. A heavy door. Sam Listened. Two excited heartbeats and one very slow, all clustered in the centre. Alive, then. Some sort of sacrifice. Chanting in an unknown language made his mind up.
Sam threw himself at the door and it buckled beneath his weight. Whatever depravity was in the offing wouldn't happen on his watch. Pagoda sneaked into the room on Sam's heels and peeled off to the left towards one of the men, claws extended, fangs bared.
The two guards unsheathed their spears. Their excitement at being present at an audience with a Queen switched to their readiness to defend their Mistress - to the death.
The Mistress was vulnerable as she sat upright on plump cushions, restored from her rest. Unfurled vines waved gently in the air around her. She was speaking in a low voice. To an image of a woman's head and shoulders. The image shimmered above an ornate bowl in the centre of the room; it was filled with steaming liquid and freshly cut flowers. There was a scent of roses.
'I'll call you back, Mother,' she said to the image. Her voice was calm and steady. She turned to face the intruders, her reflexes cutting in.
The Hex detonated around Sam, a built-in defence mechanism for the room. It lifted him off his feet and slammed him into the wall. His last memory was a yowl of fear and fury from his left.
Sam 's darkness started to drizzle away. He was on a bed, the sun streaming in through arrow slits.
The woman from the tower room was looking down at him, her expression impassive. 'We were not expecting visitors,' she said. 'No matter. There was no real harm done, Sam Franklin,' she said. 'Just a misunderstanding on your part.'
He said nothing.
'I have been here making preparations to join your "Magic Circle". A goodwill gesture from us.' He remained quiet. 'Mother's idea, not mine. Last night's events have accelerated the contact rather more than we anticipated.' She said, 'My apologies for the hair. '
Sam touched his hair, confused, feeling no pain. It was not burnt. Pagoda was curled up with him. She had a new - pure white -narrow streak of fur that went all the way down her back and into her tail. An after-effect of the blast. Was that what the woman had meant? Was Pagoda hurt?
He tapped into the Bond and channelled his consciousness through Pagoda for a few seconds. It was then that he saw his own - now pure white - hair through her eyes; Pagoda saw her startling white streak through his.
They started to yowl at the same time.
'We shall make fine partners,' said the woman. 'My name is Meyra. How do you do?'
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