The woman tried to block out everything and focus on the vial before her. It began to shake but only slightly.
“Don’t break it.”
She took a few deep breaths and concentrated. The vial began to rise though it trembled slightly.
“Don’t break it.” The voice repeated more insistently. “Be patient.”
Alex grit her teeth and continued to focus on the small vial. It floated a foot off the table and did no more. The woman snarled and reached out her hands, as if clawing at the object.
“Remain calm, be patient.”
She glared at the vial and her hands began to tremble.
The vial shattered into a thousand shards. It exploded out in every direction with a spray of water droplets.
A tenth of a second after the vial ruptured each drop and fragment froze in mid air.
Alex blinked and trembled. To her right a large taloned hand reached out at the stationary fragments.
Rugger held his hand firm and grinned at human, “I think that’s much nicer then what you had planned.”
Alex blushed and looked to the gazelle on her left with a shy smile.
“You were supposed to extract the water from the vial, not blow them both up.” He said and sighed.
They watched the orb of remains float two feet to the side. The dragon beckoned it toward him with his large clawed fingers and then relaxed them. The shards and liquid fell into a rubbish bin joining several other shattered vials.
“I did try.” She shrugged. “At least I can blow stuff up.”
“We need more explosions.” The dragon grinned and turned back to his tome.
Fell shook his head and scratched at the fur around his horns. “Al, you have a great deal of potential and an inherent power but its utterly useless, no, worse then useless if you don’t use it.”
“All of my time and effort has been on physical combat since I was young enough to remember.” She pointed out, “It would take years and years to become a half decent mage. Besides, I like being a soldier.”
“You do not have to give that up or spend years buried in a book!” The gazelle countered. “You know what? It’s late; we’ve been here for hours.” He said in a softer tone.
“You kids head off, I’m waiting on Roin.” Rug said without turning from his large book. “You know it’s a nice night...”
The gazelle ear-blushed and glared at him. The human flinched yet she couldn’t hide a look of intrigue. Alex walked out the door and waited in the hall to avoid anymore awkwardness. She heard the slow clopping of hooves follow after.
A tan furried muzzle poked out of the door followed by a large black, shiny orb. The creature grinned as he emerged and closed the door behind him.
“Well met, Felly.” The woman grinned. “I don’t suppose...”
The gazelle scratched his head fur, “Would you like to...”
“Well I...” She blushed.
“Only if...” He mumbled.
The woman laughed, “What are we doing? Everyone already saw us at the Yule party.”
Felltho chuckled to himself, “I didn’t think it would lead to anything.”
“It’s not marriage, it’s a date.” She pointed out.
“True! Let’s go find somewhere to eat... somewhere warm of course.” He said as they clasped hands.
“Oh, yes. I think my skin is thicker then your fur.” She agreed.
They walked quickly down the hall and out of the chambers, running in the snow along the way.
Two keepers draped in heavy fur coats moved quickly underneath the main gate out of the keep proper. They headed into the lower ward looking for the first appealing and warm place they could find. The streets were coated in a thick dusting of snow which, while still present, compacted and indented where carriages had passed. Some areas were shovelled clear, but the snow was so thick it was only cleared away from entry points and from roofs to prevent a collapse.
“How about we head down to Euper, go to A Little Hole in the Wall?” Fell suggested, his muzzle contorted into a smile at the thought of molten cheese and baked bread.
“Are you sure we’ll fit you in there?” The woman joked. “What about the Tipsy Lass?”
“Bad atmosphere, what about the Raven’s Delight?” The gazelle offered. Oh, that was just the place he pictured...
“Too posh; neither of us can afford the entrées there.” The human gagged. “We could try the Dragon’s Cauldron.”
“Much too crowded. Oh! Oh...” Fell faltered.
Alex looked up at him, “What? I’m all open.”
“I was going to say the Jolly Collie but they haven’t rebuilt it yet.” He sighed and kicked the snow. “My hooves are cold... let’s just find somewhere cheap.”
Alex exhaled a large cloud of mist and looked about, “Here, the Happy Vixen... just smell that.”
Felltho closed his eyes and sniffed the air, “Baked potatoes... herbs and spices.” He led her toward the shovelled doorway, a big grin on his face.
As the two entered they were hit with the warmth of several ovens and the strong scent of delicious food. They placed their coats on hooks near the door as a buoyant waitress quickly walked up to them, “Hello! Welcome to the Happy Vixen!”
Fell shook his head and laughed to himself. The woman greeting them was in fact a vixen, a red fox at that. She wore an apron over a thick dress; the dress was of blue and white cotton. It only went up as far as her upper chest and down to her knees, her jet black foot paws stood bare on the polished wooden floor.
“Table or booth?”
“We’ll take a table close to the fire... as close I mean.” Alex answered. Most patrons probably already gathered around the large hearth so finding a close spot wasn’t in the cards.
The vixen led them to a small table with a chair on either side. It was thankfully close to the hearth and near the bar.
“Vegetarian menus?” The vixen asked, eyeing the herbivore.
The two friends shared a smile, “Sure. Actually the potatoes look good, with lots of butter and melted cheese!” The TG answered.
“Okay! We have cheddar cheese and Provelone cheese and some nice old Elvquelin, Ethmarian and Gubbeen.” The waitress counted off on her claws.
“How about all of them? Yes, a nice cheese melt.” The gazelle asked and practically started to salivate.
“And two meads.” The human added, holding out two fingers.
“Coming right up! I am Millis by the way, just call out if you need anything, dears.” The fox said and called out the order to a human behind the bar before heading around to the rest of the tables, checking up on other patrons.
Alex leaned back in her chair and looked about the room. Many humans and reptiles sat close to the fire, any companions with winter coats accompanying them sat on the far side of the tables. Most thick coated morphs sat toward the back of the room, their non-furry friends still donned their detachable coats.
“This is a nice place.” Fell said, trying to make conversation.
“Aye... see that guy up there?” The woman pointed to a far corner of the room.
Felltho turned his gaze and saw a squirrel chittering away to a child drinking a beer. “I do, what about him?”
“Suppose I could smack his tail with a bun from here?” Alex asked as she watched the rodent’s large, fluffy tail bob about.
The gazelle turned to her and raised an eye ridge.
The female human looked deadpan and grabbed one of the appetisers from the basket on the table. “I don’t think anyone would even notice.”
“Please don’t.” Fell said nervously and eased her hand down with his.
Alex barked a laugh, “I’m not crazy; it was just a thought.” She said and took a bite out of the bread.
Fell gasped for breath and took another of the bread buns from the basket. As he began to nibble on it he saw Alex continued to scan the other customers.
“How about that guy there?” She pointed with the bun.
The gazelle spied a fairly large lion. He sighed and continued to nibble on the bread.
They left the Happy Vixen with warm and full stomachs, headed south. The Keep stood to the north. Large towers were illuminated with burning torches and oil lamps; they stood amid a thick haze like a ghostly apparition appearing from the murk.
“Perhaps we should head back the other way.” Alex mentioned.
“It’s alright, its still early.” The gazelle answered.
The human nodded and watched the snow covered ground. She began to lean against him as they walked. Fell smiled and held her shoulder though neither of them said anything. They lost track of time and began to cool off. The two walked faster, eventually Alex batted Fell in between the horns and took off at a run, he grinned and chased after.
They laughed and ran through the snow, gradually warming up and bringing a sort of life to the cold and barren streets.
Eventually they tired. Felltho stopped running first. He rested his hands on his knees and caught his breath. “Okay, now I’m tired and cold... lets find a place to warm up.”
Alex walked up to him, panting much like the gazelle, “Well let’s see...” She looked about, “Right here, this place.”
Fell looked up from his knees and saw the sign of an Inn, ‘The Roaring Hearth’. “Nice. After you, milady.”
“‘Milady’? Me?” The TG asked with a mock scowl.
“Aye, you go first because I think my hooves are stuck...”
The first thing they noticed after entering The Roaring Hearth was that it lived up to its name. A large, open pit hearth lay in the middle of the room and burned bright. Each table in the room had been situated around it.
The bar was situated near the vast hearth. The bartender flicked an ear and looked up at them, “Ho, people. Nice night out?” he asked and poured several drinks.
“It’s very cold but no wind.” The woman answered and removed her coat.
“Sounds toasty for a night in Metamor.” The lynx scoffed and continued to pour more drinks.
“Phil! Hurry up; the mischief is waiting!” a human woman ordered.
“Let them wait; I’m talking to my customers!” The feline mumbled as he poured the drinks into very large mugs. Each mug was arrayed in a circle around several plates of cheese and bread, the plates and mugs were on a large platter. “Give them more complimentary chew sticks.”
“Is there anything you recommend?” Fell asked as he watched the lynx work.
“There is something many people appreciate.” He answered and tapped a spot on the menu.
“Oh... that would be nice at this time of night. We’ll take two large ones... and we’ll be sitting over there,” Alex pointed at a vacant spot close to the crackling fire.
“I will have them sent out in a moment. There! Rufus, Willard, take this to table seven!”
Two young table hands arrived to move the large platter. Both of them were old enough to be taken by the curse, Alex could tell, as one was a young woman and the other had no ears but scales where they should have been.
She watched them for a few moments in trepidation; waiting for the moment when they would spill the contents on the ground but they managed it well and got it to the rat pack’s table in no time at all.
They sat down near the roaring fire. It was pleasant but not boiling, still, there didn’t seem to be any sign of cold climate creatures at all. They bantered about nothing until the drinks arrived, then chatted and sipped, taking their time to enjoy the atmosphere and sharing some stories or little things about their day.
“So I shot it in the eye and the head fell off.” The human said, flailing her arms to demonstrate.
Fell winced, “That sounds gruesome!”
“Oh, that’s nothing. You should have seen the head splatter, and then I landed thee more arrows in its heart.” She grinned and made a motion of loosing arrows.
“After the head came off? Isn’t that a bit much?”
“Well it was only a practice dummy.” Alex reminded and took a sip of the warm milk.
Fell nodded and sipped his milk. He didn’t know there were any bars that served warm milk. “I know but it still sounds nasty. Poor bugger didn’t even stand a chance.”
Alex and Fell left the Roaring Hearth and after a long and cold night out, began heading back north to the Keep. They didn’t feel like running or chatting, just walking arm in arm. However, being in an area with lots of alleys on a dark night, both of them kept their wits about them and heeded lessons learned from people like George and DeMule.
Alex suddenly stiffened, “Do you hear that?”
“I hear a lot of things.” Fell said in a bored tone.
The woman bolted down an alley, “This way! Move!” She ran down a zigzagging path that opened out into another street and found six large men towering over a single keeper almost two hand spans shorter. They were probably guards from a caravan given their appearance.
“You looked at me funny.” One of them said and burped.
Another held the keeper – a female feline of some sort – firmly by the scruff and flayed her about like a rag doll. “Freaks shouldn’t be walking the streets.”
“What do you think you’re doing?!” Alex shouted.
The man who towered over the feline looked up, “Be gone, bitch, or I’ll take ya in the alley.” he said and spat something vile on the pavement.
Alex promptly lifted a discarded bottle from the ground and threw it at the fat caravan guard. The bottle hit him square on the face and shattered, the vulgar guard slumped into the wall mumbling curses and dribbling blood.
The one holding the frightened cat threw her to the ground, “Kill the psycho bitch and the goat-thing too!” He shouted.
Fell gulped and drew up some magical strands. He ran them along the street and tugged them up like a table mat. The compacted snow on the pavement lifted in a wave and flew up in a large dusting towards the advancing thugs. They gasped and faltered at what was essentially a harmless parlour trick.
“COME ON!” The gazelle ordered and clenched the human’s wrist.
Alex broke away from him and ran at the closest guard. She punched the startled man in the nose then kicked one of his companions in the groin. As they toppled their three remaining comrades surrounded the gender morph, one of them grabbed her from behind. She bit down hard into the man’s arm and slid free to the ground as the one in front ran up short.
From the ground, Alex kicked him in the groin. The first two were now staggering to their feet. Alex spun around to the last man as he grabbed her by the neck while his companion clenched at his arm. The guard who took a king hit to the face, landed back in the gutter following a pointed hoof to his face. Fell punched the man who grappled his friend by the neck. The gazelle punched him frantically with his hooved hand until the caravan guard let go and swaggered about on his feet.
With a growl, the burly guard with a bleeding arm grabbed the gazelle by the horns and threw him into the woman. They both landed on the snow in a grunt.
The first one to take a blow to the groin sauntered toward them while gritting his teeth from the pain along with the other who had a liberally bleeding arm.
Fell rolled off the woman and looked at them with the eyes of a prey animal that had spotted a lion in the tall grass. He wanted to leap to deter them. He wanted to dig his hooves into the ground and bolt from the threat. The gazelle cowered and drew his legs close to his body while Alex just looked at them in contempt and defiance as she plotted her next attack.
As the woman rose, a boot pushed her back down.
“We’re gonna spread your little goat-boy all over the gutter, then we’re gonna have fun with you.” The man grinned, exposing dark yellow teeth.
Suddenly a barrel slammed into the obnoxious man’s head from the front. His companion took a couple of fists to his chest and head.
“The beasts have risen to help the whore!” A staggering guard said and grabbed the man with a bleeding face. The six of them staggered away, carrying each other.
Alex groaned and hefted herself up with the intent to follow them for that last remark but she halted upon getting a better look at the feline she’d saved.
“Kaley?” She asked in surprise.
“Alex! What are you doing here?” The ocelot asked excitedly. She turned her gaze to the groan of a gazelle. “Fell!” She said and pounced him back to the ground.
“Oof! Great, just what we need.” He groaned.
“Humph!” The cat pouted and dropped him back into the gutter.
Alex smiled to herself and sat up more when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Ma’am, are you alright?” The woman looked up and saw a canine of some sort staring back.
“I’m fine, thank you...”
“Aneirin.” He answered, “I saw you and your friend taking a stand and I tried to help.” The canine keeper said and offered his gray, furried hand.
She accepted it and allowed herself to be hefted up. Fell and Kaley bantered and squabbled nearby like an old couple. With his wide vision the gazelle peered up easily at Alex and the lupin calling himself Aneirin. Fell glared at him for a moment before looking back at the insistent ocelot.
“You threw the barrel.” Alex said and motioned him into better light. She could now make out more of the Metamorian; he appeared to be a wolf and he had a large set of sharp teeth to show off when she asked about the projectile.
“Aye, it was there so I used it.” He said and tucked in his tail in a blush.
“Thank you.” She said and gave him a small kiss on the cheek.
The lupin’s tail wagged slightly. “Well I... I should get back to work.” He said and turned on his foot paws, “A pleasure to meet you milady.” Aneirin entered a door beyond the lamp that illuminated him. It led to a general store and he’d probably been conducting the day’s stock take.
Alex turned around to her friends. Kaley looked up and spared her a warm and grateful smile. Fell regarded the gender morph with cold eyes. The woman looked down at her feet and sighed.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine! Then just grabbed me and shoved me around...” The feline grumbled as they walked toward the Keep.
Alex pulled Kaley close and rubbed her back. She met the ocelot in Glen Avery almost a year past and was very surprised to find her again then and there.
“What are you doing here at the Keep, Kaley? All of the roads should be snowed in.” Fell said as he looked ahead.
The ocelot looked up at him, “You don’t want me here?”
“No! I mean, why did you travel in this weather from the Glen? And why were you in the Lower Ward in the dark?”
“I was looking for a building, one damaged in the assault.” She sighed, “It’s a long story and I’ll tell you someplace warm. But I travelled here because Misha summoned me.”
Both keepers raised their eyes.
“Oh it’s nothing bad, but I needed to arrive right away.”
The human nodded, “Where are you staying? I hope the crazy fox found a good place for you.”
“He did. He found me a room in the Keep.” The cat explained as they passed under the Third Gate and into Metamor Keep.
Alex grinned to herself; no matter how long and tiering a trip through the streets of Euper and the Lower Ward could be, as soon as they enter the Keep itself the length of any trip is as long or short as it needs to be and utterly irrelevant.
Sure enough they arrived at Kaley’s temporary home in next to no time.
“Here we are!” She said and opened the door. It was an average sized room that probably only spawned for this purpose. Nevertheless the room was comfortably decorated with furniture and a decent sized hearth in one wall.
The gazelle noted that the hearth had recently been used but had since extinguished itself. Being the warm climate creature that he was, Fell hustled to the fire place and quickly worked to restock and rekindle it.
Alex turned to Kaley and smiled, “It’s good to see you again. How long will you be staying?”
“Not sure, several days perhaps.” The ocelot jumped and sprawled on her bed, she then jumped off again, “It’s too cold in here!”
“I’m working on it...” The gazelle mumbled. “There! Aha!” he stood back as the small flames started to take hold.
“It is good to see you guys too...” Kaley began, she suddenly took them both in a hug, “Thank you for saving me!”
Felltho grimaced and frowned to himself.
“It’s getting late but we’ll see you tomorrow.” Alex said after the group hug ended, “I want to hear everything that’s happened at the Glen since I left, okay?”
“Okay! Good night you too.” The feline said as the door closed.
The human sighed and turned to the gazelle.
“You shouldn’t have taken them on. That almost ended poorly for us.” He scolded.
“I know it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but would you have preferred to just leave Kaley there?”
Fell sighed and turned away, “My instincts got the better of me. I’m not proud of it.”
The woman took him into a hug. “We both erred but you have a good excuse for it.”
“What, that I’m a prey animal?” He asked curtly.
“You are not a prey animal, you have the body of one and you just need to control its instincts. And you did, in the end.” She said, looking into his eyes.
“For all the good it did.” He mumbled.
“Oh, don’t be so bleak. Usually you’re more positive then this, Fell, what’s wrong?”
He just looked down and didn’t say anything.
“It’s because of that wolf, isn’t it?” She asked bluntly.
Fell stiffened, “I know I’m just being stupid.”
“No, you’re just being human.”
He grinned softly but it didn’t last long, “I’m sorry I was jealous. It’s just when I saw you with that guy and...” He staggered, “I over reacted.”
The woman stroked his muzzle gently. “We all get jealous. You should know that; just look at me, that’s why we went to the Glen, remember?”
He looked up and ran his thimble-tipped fingers through her hair. Back when he first became a she, Alex had hair like silk. Now it was back to a greasy, spiky tangle. Probably as it had looked just before the curse. How many people who became perfect specimens after the curse actually retained that perfection he wondered.
“I remember. We should go back there one day.”
“We should.” She agreed, “I can just taste Mrs Levin’s pies. Oh, and it’s been too long since I climbed, yes, dangling high up with nothing underneath but the ground far, far below. Picking things off with my arrows...”
The gazelle sighed and pet her on the shoulder.
She kissed him on the nose, “Take care and I’ll see you tomorrow. We should do this again some time!”
Fell’s ears flicked and he grinned, “Aye. But not too soon; this was a night of passion and it will last me for some time yet!”