A burst of light and warmth, and a momentary sensation of being stretched in all directions. He opened his eyes and noticed the doorway in the greenish grey stone wall opposite. He was definitely taller than he had been before. What was more, he was standing on four legs now. He twitched his whiskers experimentally, swivelled each ear in turn, then examined his dark velvety front paws, from which he unsheathed a full set of sharp retractable claws. He lay down purring with satisfaction. Another flawless transformation! One is a true master of disguise. He would test it on Sidriss later – pose as her own Cheshire cat and see if she could tell the difference. Most unlikely!
Someone came through the door. A young person in a knight's helmet that covered their face – almost certainly a dungeoneer. Sure enough, the voice of a female advisor was faintly audible from within the helm: "There's a big cat in front of you!"
Hordriss miaowed a cheerful greeting.
The child said nothing; there seemed to be some conversation going on in the dungeon antechamber where the team's decisions were made. Hordriss trilled merrily while he waited, trying out his new range of vocalisations. Quite convincing, he thought, if one does say so oneself.
At length one of the advisors piped up again, telling the dungeoneer – Nathan – to offer him some milk. They were totally fooled! "Hello, pussycat," said Nathan.
Hordriss had a peculiar urge to rub himself against the boy's legs, but since that would be unbecoming of a third level archmage, he resisted it and simply uttered a feline reply.
The dungeoneer conferred again with his team, and then asked: "Do you know a person called Sidriss?"
Well, that was an odd thing to say to a cat – but then again, the dungeon was a place where just about anything might be capable of conversation, so one supposed they couldn't be blamed for trying. Why were they looking for his daughter, Hordriss wondered? Reluctant to give away his true identity, he could only let out a thoughtful yowl.
Another long pause; they didn't seem to know what else to say. The curiosity was killing him, so it was time to reveal his brilliant deception. He grandly boomed the incantation and returned to his original form in a flash, flinging his arms aloft with a triumphant laugh. "There, surprised? Of course you are. People seldom ever suspect that one is truly the great Hordriss, and not a variety of lesser being." A shame he couldn't see the dungeoneer's face, or those of his no doubt astonished advisors.
Even at his normal height, Hordriss towered over the boy as he approached and enquired about his objective here. Nathan said he was on a quest for the Cup and had encountered Lord Fear, which piqued the mage's interest – "I'm always grateful for any information about my arch-enemy."
"Well, Lord Fear has created... er... a Bimboid," Nathan explained. "And it's, um... it's a replica of... Sidriss."
"Of Sidriss?!" he repeated, aghast.
"It's out to kill you."
"Is it indeed?" This was a new low for the Opposition: giving one of his foul creations the fair appearance of Sidriss, to lull her father into a false sense of security. Nathan advised him that it was armed with a dagger to dispatch him. "Oh, we'll see about that!" he growled, still mentally flexing those oversized claws. "Well now, young Nathan, I shall escort you on your way, and if we encounter this imposter on the level, you must point it out to me." He guided the adventurer to the correct exit, noting how fortunate it was that they had met when they did.
The portal delivered them to the final chamber of Level 2, where a way out of the grim citadel of Goth could be found. "Ahh, this is better," said Hordriss, steering his young companion around the edge of the trapdoor. "And look, Nathan – here is Sidriss! Lord Fear must be addled-brained to think I would not know my own dear daughter." The trainee sorceress was standing on the far side of the room, seemingly lost in one of her reveries. Leaving Nathan in a safe spot, he went over to check on her. "Sidriss, my dear! Talk to your father."
"Careful, it's the Bimboid, it might be the Bimboid!" Nathan called after him anxiously.
Hordriss paused to take a good look at her before getting any closer. There was no doubt about it – the fixed expression, the vacant stare, the lack of any intelligent response. It was Sidriss, alright. He just wasn't sure if she was daydreaming or spell-trapped. "Sidriss...?"
The dungeoneer was still convinced it wasn't her. "She's got a dagger!" he insisted, though no weapon was visible from where Hordriss stood.
He kept his distance so as not to cause further alarm. "I cannot think but you are grossly mistaken. However, to allay your fears a little, I will use a precautionary charm of true seeing." Hordriss thrust his hand towards her. "Opticam verite!"
Assuming there was no illusion to dispel, he had expected it to have no effect. But something was happening; Sidriss' clothes were fading from sight. For a horrible split second he thought he'd used the wrong spell, exposing his daughter's modesty in front of several onlookers, and was very glad the adolescent boy was blindfolded by his visor. It was almost a relief to see her hair and flesh melt away with her dress, leaving only a decayed skeleton held together by some wicked sorcery. Fear's handiwork.
Hordriss drew back in revulsion. "Ugh, how disgusting! Of all the despicable tricks!" He summoned another spell to his fingertips, wishing it was Fear himself and not merely one of his monsters that would feel the force of it. "DISINTEGRATUM!" The unadorned Bimboid was blasted into pieces and banished to the void between the levels. "That's better."
Indebted to Nathan for his timely warning, the least Hordriss could do was assist him in reaching Level 3. The boy had chosen wisely in the clue room and possessed the magic feather he would need to slow his descent, so all that remained was to position him on the trapdoor and open it for him. As he watched this highly competent and likeable dungeoneer float down out of sight, Hordriss felt hopeful that he would soon receive news of a successful quest and another defeat for his nemesis.
The incident was nonetheless troubling. This abomination had been utterly indistinguishable from the real Sidriss. Now that the enemy had perfected such a Trojan horse, what if he built more of them and kept trying to catch him unawares? He might never be able to feel safe around his own daughter.
Then again, considering the frequency of her magical calamities, perhaps bracing oneself for mortal danger in her presence wasn't such a bad idea.