March, 708 C.R.
Cheep opened his eyes. He saw a wall of stone with an upside-down dresser mounted on it halfway between the floor and ceiling. Under the top of the dresser he could see the head of his monkey statue. He looked down, and saw his hands and feet suspended in the air, but his tail was stretched straight downward in a tight line and then curled around a wooden beam stretching across the room. He felt his tail loosening its grip, and before he could react he flew upwards toward the stones above and fell on his head with a thump.
"Are you trying to hang from your tail again?" Kag's voice was heard from the next room.
"Maybe," Cheep replied, rubbing the new lump on his scalp.
"You're going to hurt yourself if you don't stop."
"No way. I just started trying last week and I'm already up to twenty minutes! I'm completely fine."
"Says the guy who just took a blow to the head. Again."
Cheep grumbled as he got up off the floor of his room and walked out to the table where Kagmer reclined, reading.
"Maybe you should stick with practicing fighting with your new body. Besides, we have scout training in a couple hours. You should go early and figure out how the Curse has affected your abilities," Kag recommended.
"I already tried it and nothing changed. I want to learn to do new stuff."
"You may still be able to move your weapons the same way, but your body has changed. You are more agile than before. You need to learn how to use your new strengths to your advantage and compensate for any new weaknesses."
"I don’t mean for bananas. You’re lighter than before, and longer arms may be great for reach, but you can’t put as much force on them. You don’t have as much muscle, so you will need to adjust your style to allow for more hits and less power. And more dodging; you seem to have a gift for taunting."
"What, you mean like this?" Cheep asked, and immediately began cavorting about in a ridiculous manner, blowing raspberries and clapping his hands as he jumped all over Kag's head and the table and everywhere, shrieking happily in monkeyish laughter and occasionally pulling on Kagmer's ears. The rhino man tried to grab him to keep him off his head and horns, but the effort was futile, as Cheep always managed to leap just out of Kag's reach whenever he grasped at the monkey.
"You're a natural at that, and I'm not sure I mean that as a compliment," Kag said, giving up.
Cheep leapt off the rhino's head, did a backflip, and landed perfectly on the floor, bowing.
"Thank you, thank you very much."
"You're hilarious. Now go practice on someone else. I'm trying to read."
"Maybe you should come too. It's not as if you didn't change."
Kag sighed. "I guess you're right, although the only significant differences for me are increased strength, size, and skin thickness. Oh, and now I have horns on my face."
"Great. Let's go."
As they made their way to the practice rooms, Cheep and Kag passed many animal morphs, children who were probably much older than they looked, and women (and men, too) who dressed androgynously because they weren't comfortable accepting their new gender. This was no longer a surprise or a shock; they had been at Metamor Keep for a little over two weeks at this point. However, they still found it interesting to see all the different iterations of the Curse.
"Oh, great." Cheep muttered under his breath.
"What?" Kag asked, confused.
"Try not to look at the vixen walking toward us. We... um, may have met before."
"She's not bad-looking. Why, are you nervous? Thinking of asking her out?" Kag grinned.
"NO!" Cheep shouted, and then blushed heavily at the ears as he realized he had just drawn attention to himself. "I mean, we sort of met under less than favorable circumstances.
The vixen turned at the shout and examined the speaker.
"You look familiar. Have we met before?" she asked, looking at Cheep ponderously.
"Umm- No. I'm sure we haven't. I mean, um, I think we haven't. I mean, you don't look familiar at all to me! Nope. Haven't met. Sorry," Cheep stammered.
"You're a terrible liar, you know. You're that nice boy who stopped my vegetable cart when those asses pushed it down the hill."
"I, uh, umm... Maybe?" Cheep squirmed.
"Don't be so modest. That was really a heroic thing to do. By the way, I'm Marthe." Smiling fetchingly, she held out her paw.
"I'm Cheep. Uhhhh... actually I just wasn't paying attention. It was an accident that your cart hit me." Cheep dropped his gaze.
"So? You didn't get mad or yell at me or anything, and that's a pretty big improvement over most of the guys I know."
"You must only know jerks."
"Maybe I just live in the wrong part of town; I inherited the shop from my dad, so I never thought to move."
"Oh. So you own a vegetable stand or something?" Cheep was becoming curious.
"Well, fruits and vegetables. And sometimes spices, when I can find traders to sell them to me. There seems to be a shortage of them," Marthe said thoughtfully.
"So, you might not by any chance have bananas, would you?" Cheep queried.
"Yes, actually, I do. Why do you ask?"
Cheep was actually excited now. "Those things are fantastic! ...Any chance you could give me a discount?"
She smirked. "Do all monkeys like bananas?"
Cheep smiled, blushing a bit. "Can't say I know of any other monkeys, but I sure do."
"You know what? You can just have them. I only have a few left, and they will go bad soon if nobody eats them. It's the least I can do," the vixen offered apologetically.
"That would be more than fair for such a small thing," Cheep grinned.
"Okay, where would you like them sent?"
"Sent?" Cheep looked surprised.
"Remember that cart you saved? Delivery cart. I was on my way to deliver those rutabagas to some rabbits when it got jacked and pushed down the hill. I didn't think I had that many enemies..."
"Oh. Well, I have a room in the Keep, but I don't know how to explain how to get there..." Cheep started to explain sheepishly.
"Don't worry about that, I know how it works. You must be new here."
"Why does everybody keep saying that?" Cheep grumbled, getting a bit flustered.
"Don't worry, they'll stop soon enough, once you get used to things. I'll get a box with the bananas to your room later this afternoon, then."
"That would be great," Cheep said, smiling again.
"See you around, cutie," she giggled.
Cheep's ears burned as he blushed heavily.
Kag elbowed Cheep as they walked on toward the practice room again.
"She's pretty sweet on you," he commented teasingly.
"Shut up," Cheep muttered.
They arrived at the practice area and found a few other fighters practicing their art.
Kag had just recently gotten clothes that were big enough to accommodate his humongous frame, and he had gotten a set of light but tough sparring garb, white in color, which he now wore.
"I feel stronger; I think I'll see how much power I've gained," Kag said as he walked over to the side of the training room dedicated to strength training and picked up a large shaped stone two feet wide and one foot across, a weight he had lifted before only with difficulty. He lifted it above his head with surprising ease, flicking his ears, and set it back down. He looked at his huge hands, in wonder at how much stronger he now was. There was only one stone in the area bigger than the one he had just lifted, and it was twice as large. It should have been much too heavy for him (at least for his old body), but he lifted this with almost no difficulty as well. Cheep looked on in awe as the stone that had to be more than a dozen times his own weight was lifted again and again. Kag set it down after a few repetitions.
"I need to find a heavier weight. That one is a lot smaller than I feel like I could lift."
"That's insane. You just put that thing up a dozen times without any more effort than hefting a pack. It probably weighs more than you do, and you're absolutely huge!"
"Yeah, I know. I need to find bigger rocks, or at least something heavier. It's amazing, being this strong. I can't think of anything that even comes close."
"Yeah, great. We'll go out and look for a quarry or something as soon as this quarantine ends. Hopefully it's soon. All those cases that survived the Plague were cured, and no more cases have been seen. You'd think they would just open the gates or something by now; maybe they just think they have to be really sure or something."
Cheep moved over to the wooden dummies intended for practicing weapon technique and pulled his nunchukas out. He held them taut, horizontal and at arm's length. He was surprised for a moment at the realization that they were quite a bit further away from his face than usual. He then went through his normal practice warmup slower than normal, swinging the rods around in tight arcs, switching hands, catching one handle under his arm. He proceeded to strike at the dummy occasionally, adjusting his technique as he grew used to his longer arms, gradually moving faster and faster until his hands and weapon were almost a constant blur. He thought he would miss and hit himself in the face or something, but he didn't; impressed at his own newfound speed and agility, he finished his exercises and slowed to a stop. Kag stood nearby, nodding in approval.
"I may have lost some speed with the change, but the strength I have now more than makes up for it. You seem to have gotten just the opposite; you're a little weaker, but a lot faster. It's like we increased our specialties at the expense of weaker attributes."
The two finished their respective warmups and moved on to the place where they and the other scouts were scheduled to begin training now.
Cheep was bored. He was in his room, hanging upside down from his tail again, trying to think of something better to satisfy his urge to climb. Immediately the forest had come to his mind, but being outside the quarantine made that out of the question.
Or did it?
The gears of Cheep's mind began turning as he considered the possibility of breaking quarantine. Secretly, of course; he would certainly be stopped if he tried leaving openly. The guards patrolled mostly at the gates, as the walls kept most people from passing. All but the most skilled climbers- Cheep let go of the rafter with his tail, this time landing on his hands and flipping end over end to the door. He would probably need to find some rope, and a hook, and he needed to be sure to be back the next day in time for the scouts' scheduled training session. He would likely employ some of the stealth skills he had learned in practice if this plan came to fruition.
Cheep reflected briefly as he hurried through the Keep. All this effort just for some trees to climb. He shook his head and swiftly moved through the Keep to get outside. He would need to scout out the walls for places conducive to being scaled stealthily and procure a rope and hook.
He made his way through Keeptowne as the sun began to set, stopping at a stable and paying the stable hand a few bronze coins for a spare coil of rope he saw in a stack. Rope in hand, Cheep tried to think of how to explain to a blacksmith why exactly it was that he needed a grappling hook. He shook his head, rejecting the idea, and found a pawn shop on the rougher edge of town, which was apparently open later than most businesses. He entered the shady-looking establishment, glancing around for his target, trying to appear nonchalant as he perused the shelves and racks. The owner, a mangy rodent of indistinct variety, watched him with beady eyes that made him uncomfortable. Cheep saw all manner of items in barrels, on shelves, and strewn across the walls in various means. The shop had everything from swords and pikes to rolling pins and jewelry. Finally Cheep found an old but well-made grappling hook made of iron and wrapped in black cloth.
"How much for this?" Cheep asked.
"Six bronze," replied a gravelly voice from behind the counter and cage.
"I'll give you five." Cheep said, trying to sound confident.
"You can give me five if you want, but you ain't taking that out of here," the shop owner snapped. "You want it, you pay my price,"
Cheep looked and felt extremely uncomfortable in spite of his efforts as he passed the coins across the counter.
"Great. Have a nice day," the unsavory pawnbroker sneered sarcastically.
Cheep hurried out as fast as he could.
He then continued on to the edge of the city, starting to use alleys to avoid sight as people were largely inside their houses now that it was dark, until he came to the high curtain wall that surrounded the city. He looked up, searching for a suitable catching point for his hook, and selected a merlon close to one of the turrets on the wall. Cheep tied his rope in the loop in his new hook, remembering how to tie the sturdy knot from his experience with the acrobat troupe. He fought back tears at the memory and returned his mind to the task at hand. After scanning the top of the wall for nearby guards, he gauged the distance to the top of the wall, holding the coils of rope loosely in one hand while swinging the hook from a short length of it in the other. He had gauged correctly; the hook sailed just a foot over the top of the parapet and fell into the crenel next to the tower, falling back and catching fast against the stones. Cheep checked the rope by tugging it firmly a couple times, and then surprised himself with the ease with which he speedily scaled the rope, clearing the top of the wall in seconds. He had timed his journey a bit close to the patrols, though: he saw a torch coming his direction from the next tower over. The watchman would surely see him if he stayed where he was any longer, so he hastily hooked the rope on the other side of the wall and dived over the battlement, softly impacting the wall as the rope went taut.
Cheep nervously remained motionless against the side of the wall, halfway up, as the light from the torch moved closer to where his hook was wedged against the wall, and he hoped furiously that the patrolling watchman would not see the hook. He held his breath as the light stopped right above him. The guard might have heard him! Cheep waited anxiously as the light remained, flickering slightly, and then disappeared into the tower. He released his breath, relieved, and let himself down the rest of the way to the ground. Jerking the rope to get the claw to unhook from the wall, he caught it as it fell and quickly coiled the rope back up and stowed it in his small pack. Moving cautiously down the steep incline from the wall, he glanced back to the city wall. Satisfied that no patrolling guards on the wall top had seen him, he stealthily moved off to the west until he was concealed by the woods.
Kriid remained stoic as he took the first watch of the night. It had been almost three months since he had lived in a civilized place. He had been pursued by mercenaries and assassins since he offended the baron of the city he had been living in. Well, he offended the local government at least. The dead usually find it difficult to be offended.
January, 708 C.R.
The corrupt baron had tried to manipulate Kriid into working for him by threatening his fiancée. Kriid had refused to stoop to the level of a common thug by shaking down citizens and taking their ‘extra' gold for the baron, and the baron followed through on his threats. He underestimated Kriid, however: he woke one night to the sound of ice cracking and found himself pinned to his bed by his hands and feet, frozen to the bedposts. He looked up and saw a man with steely-blue eyes boring into his, an expression of contempt and rage filling his face. He tried to cry out, but when he opened his mouth, it was instantly filled with ice and he couldn't make a sound.
"You fiend," Kriid breathed. "If you had come after me, you might have lived. But SHE DID NOTHING TO YOU!!" His face turned purple as he shook with emotion. "You think everything belongs to you to do with as you please. You have no idea how wrong you are. I will end you. AND your pathetic regime. Do you have any last thoughts?"
The baron's eyes were bulging out of their sockets as cold sweat poured down his face. He struggled back and forth, but to no avail; born into pompous nobility, he had never seen the need for physical prowess (why bother when servants did everything?). Kriid held out an empty hand. A blue nimbus formed there, and as he clenched his hand into a fist, magic ice coalesced in the shape of a wickedly sharp dagger. The baron tried to scream but couldn't as Kriid plunged the hate-formed blade downward into his chest. The dagger glowed for a second, and the man convulsed and then stopped moving as the intense cold of the magic dagger froze his heart solid and his body crystalized. Kriid dissipated the ice and froze at the sound of a knock at the door.
"Sir, are you all right?" came a muffled voice from the other side of the door.
Kriid put out a hand and cast a ball of ice onto the lock. That should slow them down, he thought. He leapt out the window at a loud THUMP as the guards attempted to break down the door.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. THUD-CRACK! The door splintered as it was smashed inward.
Three armed bodyguards burst into the room, ready to fight, but the room was empty of life. They found the cadaver of their employer stretched out on the bed, an expression of sheer terror frozen literally onto his face, with a surprisingly clean and bloodless wound in his chest; his entire body was frozen solid, and vapor still condensed around it and poured off the bed to the floor. The guards gaped in wonder at what had caused this, but raised the alarm, throwing the entire castle into a frenzy trying to discover what had happened. The baron's personal servants wrapped his corpse in the sheets and carried it away.
Kriid had hit the ground running. He was not usually one for physical exercise, being one of slight frame, but he soon found that when one is fleeing for one's life, the motivation to exert oneself is dramatically increased. He mentally noted the tactical error of immediately fleeing when most people had no idea what he'd just done, as they would immediately be suspicious now. He cursed under his breath and continued running. The people in the town heard cries of ‘MURDER!' from the castle and began chasing him. He was glad of his black cloak, as it would greatly aid in his midnight escape. He darted around a corner and leaped straight up, pulling himself with some difficulty onto the roof of the house and rolling away from the edge. He carefully lay flat, motionless and silent, as the crowd of angry guardsmen tore around the corner he had just turned seconds ago. They ran on, not realizing that they had lost their quarry, and Kriid breathed a sigh of relief. He waited a few minutes longer, until he could no longer hear them, and then stealthily made his way to the stable at which he had left his horse, a beautiful black mare. He found the stable quiet, thankfully, and carefully saddled and bridled his horse, grabbing the pack he had concealed in the straw which contained travel provisions. He quietly led the horse to the door of the stables and looked out, checking all directions for guards. He continued to lead his mare apprehensively toward the edge of town, hoping to remain unseen.
He heard a shout behind him and immediately leaped into the saddle and spurred the horse into a gallop. He wasn't sure that the shout was someone coming after him, but he wasn't about to take the chance by looking and wasting precious seconds. As he fled through the gateless opening in the wall, startling the few sleepy watchmen who were guarding the hole while the new section of wall was under construction (luckily), Kriid briefly glanced back to see a dozen or so men on foot and a single rider in hot pursuit.
Seriously? Only one of them thought to get a horse? he thought. NO! Stop. Focus. Getting away. Yes. Focus on that.
He spurred his mare on toward the slightly distant woods that would ensure his escape if he could but reach them and looked behind him again. The footmen had returned to the town, presumably to find horses of their own, but the sole pursuing rider was gaining on him.
I can fix this. Let me see... Kriid went through a few possible spells in his head, finally selecting one designed to disable rather than kill and summoning the necessary magic to his free hand.
He rose up in the saddle, twisted his body around to face his pursuer, and raised his arm, palm outward. A ball of misty blue light coalesced in his hand, swirling faster and faster as he structured the magic into a spell. When it reached six inches across Kriid hurled the spell backwards and quickly resumed his focus on riding furiously for the woods.
"Are you out in these woods by your lonesome? You don't look like you've had a bed or a bite to eat for at least a week."
"What if I am? Why would it matter to you?"
"Dude, I'm just trying to help. All men are brothers, y' dig?"
"Right. Well, I do not want your charity. You might stab me in the back or something later."
"Dudebro, I totally don't roll like that. And even if you don't want my help, anyone could see you totally need it. You don't know a dang thing about livin' in the wild. You leave a trail plain as day to even a crappy tracker, and judging from your looks, I'd say you're running away from somebody. That cut on your arm just isn't going to heal right with a bandage put on like that, and even if you did make it this far without shelter, if you think you can make it through the winter, you're gonna have a bad time."
"You seem to know so much about me, why are you here? You cannot expect me to just trust you."
"No, dude, you don't need to. But you totally want to survive, right? You're gonna need a guide or at least a little ‘woods survival' knowledge. I mean, dude, you probably can't even make a fire right."
"Hey, it's not that hard. Only took me twenty minutes last time."
The man smirked and shook his head. "And you totally didn't put it out and get rid of the ashes, like somebody on the run should do if they wanna stay low-profile. I knew I was following somebody for a few days, but I couldn't figure how you made it this far without weapons of some kind until I saw you're a mage. That can sure make life easier, can't it?"
Kriid gasped. "What makes you think I am a mage?"
"Well, DUH. You don't even have a decent knife, but you got more blood on you than you got in you. You're two days walk from the nearest path, but you got no tools or shelter. Although you leave an obvious trail, it shows you tried to hide it a little. Obviously, you were somebody on the run, and only a dude who knows magic could have made it this far without bringing food. What do you do, catch squirrels? Also, dude. You're wearing a mage robe. That, and you were totally all up in spell-casty mode when you first saw me. Like I said, duh."
Kriid just stared, clearly in awe, and tried to decide whether to be offended or not. Then he looked thoughtful for a second. "If what you say is true, and I can see that it is, you could easily have struck me down before I knew you were there. You've already offered to help me twice, even when I didn't want you to. What do you want from me?"
"I'm on the run too, man, and I think it'd be totally cool for both of us to travel together. I was born into the upper crust, but life there sucks, man. I ran away from being duke of some boring province."
"You gave that up?" Kriid queried, incredulous.
"That kind of life just isn't for me, man. I don't wanna worry about all that political crap, and wearing all that uncomfortable crap, and going to all those stupid social events... I prefer the simpler life, livin' in the wild. I feel kinda bad, running from my dad, but he understands. Besides, you sure aren't going to make it wherever you're going by yourself, especially with people following you."
Kriid thought for a minute. "What's your name?"
"Name's Dosh, man. Dosh Marleigh."
"I go by Kriid. Kriid Hallu*w, if you need a surname."
"Awesome, dude. Kriid; that sounds like a name you made up yourself."
"I did. Anything wrong with not wanting to be associated with the past?"
"Naw, it's cool, man."
Dosh then pulled a small pipe and pouch of plant matter and began to smoke. The smell that filled the air was sharp and sweet, but heady and overpowering. Kriid would eventually notice that he did this fairly often. The two conversed for a while, and eventually Kriid agreed to travel with Dosh, who he discovered was heading for a place called Metamor. There, he had heard, you could start life anew, take on a new identity, live life how you pleased. Kriid decided to go there too, as he had no real destination besides away up to that point and it sounded wonderful. So the two became friends, relying on each other for everything, learning much from each other. Kriid learned about woodsmanry, while Dosh learned a bit of magic theory.
They traveled north for the next month, eventually holing up in a cave to pass the winter. The duo left the cave and continued their journey just as winter was breaking in the early months, taking turns sleeping and watching during the night as they only had one small tent that Dosh had brought. Kriid grew used to the outdoors, and the cold never bothered him as he could manipulate it with a few easy spells. They made their way further and further north as the weather grew warmer, occasionally stopping in tiny hamlets for supplies and direction if they could provide it. They both remained on guard after the first assassins of the year came. Without Dosh to hear them, they might have succeeded in killing their target, but their graves marked a testament to his scouting (and combat) abilities.
Kriid pushed the memories to the back of his mind, sitting back on the branch he was perched on. His minor disregard charm had enabled him and Dosh to go completely unnoticed by three different patrols of beings the likes of which neither Dosh nor Kriid had ever seen or heard. Animals that walked and talked like people accompanied gorgeous women and children that looked no older than ten years old, and they all wore weapons and armor! A few men were in the groups, but most of the odd militia was comprised of beasts, women, and children. Kriid had been shocked at their appearance at first, but quickly realized that this was some abuse of magic. He concentrated for a minute with his eyes closed, and then looked down at them with his magic sight, looking for traces of an illusory charm. He gasped slightly and nearly alerted them to his presence as he saw that every one of them was completely wrapped in a net of sickly purple, through which their auras still glowed. The odd-looking people did not seem to be harmed by the spell, but the sheer strength of the magic evident even from this distance assured Kriid that breaking it would be no easy task. He glanced around, looking for Dosh, and then remembered the disregard charm and dispelled it. He instantly noticed his companion sitting in another tree a few dozen paces away. Dosh gave him a thumbs-up, signaling that the patrol was a safe distance away and had not noticed them. Kriid leapt from his branch and quickly cast a slowfall spell to reach the ground safely. Dosh skillfully dropped from branch to branch, traversing the thirty-foot span in less time than Kriid, who sighed in relief and spoke.
"It is fortunate that most of these... people... are only marching around in the woods and not actively looking for us. I never took the time to learn that scent-changing spell, and Disregard is only useful for avoiding detection if you do not draw attention to yourself."
"Yeah, they're total noobs. If they have the same powers as the animals they look like, they totally could have smelled us or heard us or something. At least if they were trying."
"I still don't quite understand what that magic is. I can see some powerful spell entangling each of them, which I suspect is the reason for their beastly visages, but I don't understand why they would all have a disguise charm; maybe they want to frighten treasure-seekers away. I have never seen anyone take so much trouble for a disguise."
"Maybe somebody in one of these villages would know about it-"
"NO! We can't risk discovery by anyone. The assassins get more deadly as the weaker ones fail, although it has been a couple of weeks since we last saw them. Any foolish actions could—AAAGH!!"
Kriid clutched his body and cried out in pain as he fell to his knees.
"Whoa, dude, what's going on?" Dosh asked, looking worried.
"Ngggh, I don't- AAAAGH!!"
Kriid fell to the ground in tears, unable to move from the blinding pain pulsing throughout his entire body. He summoned all of his willpower to activate his magic sight and strained to see what was happening. His worry increased sevenfold when he saw the same purple webbing tearing at his flesh, warping and molding it into something entirely different. Almost at once the pain became too great to bear, and he lost consciousness.
Dosh stood over his friend, frantically searching for vital signs as he collapsed. He felt a quick and steady pulse, but it felt weird for a reason he couldn't quite put his finger on. He looked down and gaped as Kriid's skin changed color; it darkened to black, but the hair all turned bright white and grew thicker until it was a heavy coat of fur! The now furry man's face began to twist and shift, making hideous grinding noises as the bones changed shape. The muzzle of a wolf emerged from the chaotic mass, and soon the ears moved to match. Before Dosh's eyes, Kriid transformed within a matter of seconds from a man to a bipedal snow wolf. The wolf-man, face still contorted with pain, but now with a feral canine snarl, suddenly started to relax as the intense searing pain seems to fade, but remained unconscious. Dosh shook him firmly after a few seconds of shocked silence, and after a few minutes of effort, roused his friend back to consciousness.
"Uggh..." Kriid moaned, holding his head. He sat on the ground silently for a few minutes, collecting his wits. Suddenly his eyes snapped open and his brows furrowed. He pulled his hand from his head and stared at it, noting the black pad and white fur covering it. His jaw dropped in surprise- and doubly in surprise, as he drew in his breath and was assaulted by the cornucopia of scents the forest offered. He looked distractedly at his nose, wondering what on earth had come over it, and stopped instantly as he saw a long white muzzle in his field of vision. Dosh watched his friend gape in silence for a few minutes. Then he spoke.
"This... body... it's the same as those we saw patrolling. It is no illusion; the spell has taken a deep hold of me. How could anyone have seen me to cast this? It can't be human. We were both charmed against notice, and-" a thought struck him. He quickly tried to use his magic sight. It worked, but felt a bit funny in his altered body. He looked at Dosh and saw that same ominous purple web constricting his friend, getting closer and closer to his aura.
"What do you see?" Dosh looked concerned.
"It's on you too! Quick, let me try to-"
He froze, too late.
"What's wrong?" Dosh's eyes widened in alarm.
Before his eyes, Kriid saw the insidious purple magic finally make contact with Dosh's primal force, and immediately the man's shape began to change. Dosh, apparently ignorant of what was occurring, shortened by a few inches, and a thick triangular tail burst from his backside, ripping a hole in his trousers. His skin thickened and hardened into scales, turning a dark green, and his face lengthened into a snout with eyes and nostrils on top, hair and ears disappearing into scales and membranes. Kriid recognized the creature from the swamps near his childhood home: Dosh was now an alligator.
Dosh had worried about Kriid's shocked stare, and before he could ask him again what he saw, he heard a tearing sound behind him and his face itched. Reflexively scratching it, he was surprised to find that his head had changed shape while he was looking at Kriid. Also, his hands were now clawed and scaly with shorter fingers.
The two stared at each other for a few minutes, unsure of how to react. Then Kriid spoke.
"Did that not hurt like your soul was being torn out?"
"No, man; like, I didn't even notice anything was happening until I heard my pants rip. Whoa, dude, my voice sounds all weird. It's like, gravelly and stuff. Groovy."
Kriid was fuming, completely incredulous. "How in the nine hells can you just ‘be cool' with this? We aren't even human any more. I'm a dog! I have fur! This is NOT ‘cool', ‘groovy', or in any way acceptable."
"Naw, dude, think about it. What are those assassins looking for?"
Kriid stopped, the realization dawning on him.
"New identity, dude. Scales are kinda weird, but this isn't too bad."
"But we will be seen as demon beasts everywhere we go!
"Meh, I don't think so. Those patrolling dudes seemed cool with each other."
Kriid had nothing to say to that, even though he was still mad. However hard he tried to find justification for his rage, his friend's simple, easygoing logic always made him feel ridiculous. He couldn't quite fathom how Dosh could be so laid back in spite of such earthshattering changes that had wracked them both. On top of that, why had his change gone nearly unnoticed while Kriid's had been so painful?
The sun was beginning to quickly set, and in the fading light filtering down through the forest canopy, the two transformed men realized they still needed to set up camp for the night. Dosh had already unrolled his small tent and had begun setting up the frame by the time Kriid shook his head and focused on the task of starting a fire.
"Want me to take first watch?" Dosh asked.
"There is not much chance of sleep tonight for me. I will take the first shift." Kriid replied.
With Dosh's help in arranging the kindling and sticks, Kriid managed to get the fire going in less than five minutes.
As he sat, trying to occupy his mind while keeping watch by mentally rehearsing the spells he knew to keep them fresh in his mind, he heard leaves rustling and branches creaking high up in the trees a few dozen yards away. The sound was getting closer. That sounds much too big to simply be some woodland creature, Kriid though, suddenly on his guard. He stepped back from the fire and concealed himself in the shadows, quickly casting a minor disregard charm on himself to avoid being noticed, and then waited as the sound approached. With Dosh's instruction, he had become quite the competent woodsman and could evade and track in the forest on a journeyman level even without using magic. However, suddenly having your body grabbed by strange magic and stretched and warped into an unfamiliar shape generally holds your attention, drawing your focus away from the task at hand.
He had slipped up. He silently cursed himself for becoming careless, even though he had been distracted by something significant. He had grown complacent from the long reprieve from attacks. He suddenly heard Dosh snoring loudly as he had fallen deeply asleep by this point. Kriid cursed again under his breath. Whatever it was, it was too close to have time to put out the fire; it had clearly heard the snoring and was approaching even faster. He tested his favorite iceblade spell briefly to make sure he would not be too badly disadvantaged in a fight if the noise turned out to be another set of assassins. He silently let out a relieved breath when a jagged spike of glowing ice slid out of the heel of his palm with a subtle ‘shick' sound and a faint blue glow. Then he peered into the darkness and noticed that it was not nearly as dark as it normally would be. There seemed to be almost no colors other than the orange-yellow of the fire, but each tree was distinct from the others, even from a large distance! Kriid again shook his head to refocus his mind. He banished peripheral thoughts and focused on the task at hand: waiting for this potential threat to approach.
Two Hours Earlier
Cheep sighed in relief as he reached the woods and swung himself into the first tree he came to, glad to be able to get off the ground. He continued upward, rising higher into the trees as he swung from branch to branch, letting his monkey instincts run wild and inserting a few acrobatic tricks. He was enjoying himself immensely, feeling the cool night breeze on his face fur as he swung and flipped further into the forest, though giving a little caution to be quiet. The moon had emerged from behind the clouds, allowing him reasonable seeing light even through the forest canopy. After an hour or so, he began thinking of how he would get back inside the walls in such bright moonlight, when all of a sudden he heard a noise far below. It had been very quiet up to this point, with only a few owl hoots and some insect noises breaking the silence. This sounded like snoring. Curiosity got the best of him, and he silently climbed down the tree he was currently in, trying to figure out where the odd sound was coming from. As he approached the forest floor, he saw a small flickering orange light in the same direction as the noise. He got to the ground and approached the curiosity as stealthily as possible. Nearing the source of the light and sound, Cheep saw that it was a small camp. The snoring was coming from a small pup tent near the fire, for that is what the orange light was, but Cheep thought it odd that someone would go to sleep at their campsite without putting out the fire. He turned his head at this oddity, and drew closer to investigate.
All of a sudden Cheep felt a blast of cold and his feet went frigidly numb. He cried out and looked down to see that they were encased in ice! He tried to turn, but as his feet were frozen down, he could only twist and look behind him. He saw in the shadows a black-cloaked figure, holding out one hand in the palm of which was a glowing blue nimbus. The figure spoke.
"Who are you? Why are you here?" it demanded, stepping closer to Cheep.
"I was just out for some night climbing when I saw the firelight and wondered what it was," Cheep explained nervously, looking at the still-glowing hand aimed at him. He noticed that it was not a strictly human hand, as it was covered in white fur except the black pads on the palms that stretched up to fingertips that held claws. The figure pulled back the hood of his cloak to reveal the face of a snow wolf, with an expression that can only be described as being downright cold.
"I don't believe you." He scanned Cheep with his cold blue eyes, looking unsatisfied and a bit confused. "Why do you look like a monkey?"
"The same reason you look like a wolf, I expect. Have you never heard of the Curse of Metamor before?" Cheep asked, incredulous. "You know, Battle of the Three Gates? Nasoj the demon-empowered evil wizard?"
"No. Though I did want to know who cast this," he admitted, gesturing down at himself. "But why are you really here?"
"I told you. I still don't have a clue who you are; I found your camp by accident. Can I go back home now?" he pleaded.
"No!" he barked. "I want answers."
"Dude, let up on him." a new voice broke in, this one sounding sleepy and mellow. "Kriid, chill out. Heh heh. Chill. Seriously, though. Not everybody we meet is trying to kill us. If you're nicer he's more likely to tell us what we want to know."
Cheep looked over at the source of the voice, and saw who he first thought was the Steward, but then realized was a different alligator morph, this one with a slightly more human shape.
"Not in my experience, but I will defer to you on this."
"You guys have assassins after you?" Cheep queried.
"We did, but we haven't seen any in a while. We're trying to lose those foolards and find a new place to crash."
"Any chance you can unfreeze my feet? This is getting really uncomfortable."
Dosh nodded at Kriid, and the wolf mage reluctantly waved his paw at the magic ice encasing his feet, causing it to flow back into the blue nimbus and snuff out. Cheep immediately sat down and rubbed feeling back into his lower legs. The alligator looked at him and began to speak.
"Sorry about my best bud Kriid over there; he's a little uptight. People we meet usually try to kill him and stuff. I'm Dosh."
"Cool, man, cool. So, you were wandering through the woods at night. Where'd you come from? You don't look like you live in the wild. We just want to know if you know a place we can find a mage guild or something to get rid of this curse. We've been avoiding the towns and stuff to keep hiding from the assassins, so we're not sure where we are exactly. Kriid's a mage, but he only knows ice magic. I mean, that's totally cool, but we could use some transforming-type magic right now."
"I know other spells too," Kriid protested.
Cheep shook his head. "Sorry, the Curse is irreversible. I just changed last week, and I was just itching to get some use out of my new body. I'm out here because I needed to climb some trees, but, well... you see, Metamor isn't exactly... well, open... at the moment."
"Metamor? Is that the castle we've seen in the distance? Wait, whaddaya mean, not exactly open?"
"Yep. The Keep is visible for miles. Anyway, it's kinda, umm... under quarantine for the Plague."
Both of the others started at the word.
"It's all over, though. I don't see why they don't just unlock the gates and let people out again. The last case was cured only a couple of weeks after it started mysteriously. Nobody has seen or heard of any cases since."
"Then how'd you get out here? Or does ‘quarantine' mean something different around here?"
Cheep looked at his feet sheepishly. "I sneaked out. I would get in really big trouble if somebody finds me out, so I really need to get back soon. You'll be able to get in once they lift the quarantine. Should be soon, because I can't see any reason they should continue it for two weeks past the last recorded case."
"Ohhhh. Got it, chillyman. But this Curse... this is permanent? We saw some others like you, heh. I guess us, now. But there's gotta be some way to fix it with more magic, right?"
"Nope, you can't. All the wizards at Metamor have tried, and trying to change it only brings disaster. Everybody at Metamor Keep is cursed, so they are either a child, gender-swapped, or animal. Except the ones that are too young to be affected yet. Some of the children are real kids."
"Wow... that's harsh, man. I mean, I can get used to shooting my bow with these claws, and Kriid here looks pretty sick in white fur, but... just wow. We thought somebody cast it on us for some reason. Yeah, but anyway, I guess if everybody else is weird too, that makes it the new normal... I can dig that. That's how it is there?"
"Yep. But really, I do need to go."
"I have work in the morning."
"Ohhhhh. Got it, got it. That whole job thing. I tried that once. Didn't take to it so much. So yeah. Later, Cheep."
"Bye!" Cheep said, and turned and began jogging back toward the city. He traveled faster than was probably safe in the lighting, trying to get back in time to get a little bit of sleep. Eventually, he broke through the trees into a large clearing, but Metamor was still a few hundred yards away. Cheep bolted under the momentary cloud cover across the open plain before scrambling back up the slope to the wall where he had climbed it earlier. He looked up, searching for patrolling guards. The sky suddenly brightened; Cheep saw the moon emerge from behind the clouds and pressed himself up against the wall. The cloud cover returned, and Cheep watched a torchlight disappear behind the tower before stepping back, pulling the rope and hook from his pack. He once again tossed the hook into a crenel and scaled the wall quickly, switched the hook from one side of the wall to the other and rappelled down the other side of the wall. Retrieving the rope from the wall, Cheep re-coiled it and stored it in his pack again and headed back to the Keep stealthily.
He entered without arousing suspicion, walking down the hallway and focusing on his room. Oddly, he walked for several minutes without encountering any doors. He tried focusing harder on his room, furrowing his brow as he stalked onward, growing frustrated with the Keep. Finally, he came to his door and pulled on the handle.
It didn't budge. He pulled harder. Still nothing. He braced both feet on the wall and pulled the handle with all his might. It popped open easily all of a sudden and Cheep flew backward across the hallway and into a previously unnoticed room. The opening he had come through faded into a stone wall just as he passed through before he hit the ground. He cried out in surprise and got up off the floor quickly to run to the wall. He pressed on it frantically and felt all over it for an opening, but there was simply a wall. Then he heard a satin-smooth, somewhat inhuman voice behind him call his name. He turned around apprehensively, not sure of what to expect. What he saw surprised him more than the wall changing before his eyes: a girlish figure, slightly transparent, light blue, and glowing a bit, reclined on a couch wearing a loose flowy garment. Cheep just stood there staring uncertainly until she motioned him to sit on the couch beside her. He hesitated for a moment, but felt he should obey. He meekly walked over and sat down, wondering what and who this strange being was. She seemed to read his mind.
"Hello, child. I am Kyia. You look a bit frightened, and tired as well."
"Uhhh... yeah. I mean, I'm sorry! Lady Kyia. But what do you- I mean-"
"Why did I bring you here like this? Very simply, I wanted to talk to you. You are a very interesting boy, but one who needs to learn many things still."
Cheep shifted uncomfortably.
"You are very bright. I can sense all kinds of ideas swarming about in your mind, but you don't apply common sense to many situations. For example, do you know what quarantines are for?"
Cheep felt his ears burn as he looked at the floor, embarrassed. Then he was confused. "How did you-"
"I see everything that goes on here, child. Also, you smell of the forest. Anyone who paid you attention would discover what you did. In the future, I suggest that you follow the laws, even if you think there is no reason for them; those who rule did not receive their positions lightly. As it happens, you were correct about the quarantine being unusually long. You do not need to know the reason for this, but it will be lifted tomorrow; its purpose has been fulfilled. However, you did not know that, and were wrong to break quarantine. No punishment will come to you this time, but you must learn to live wisely and follow the laws. They are in place for the good of all, not for your inconvenience."
Cheep had grown more and more embarrassed while she spoke, sinking lower and lower in his seat.
"Sit up, child. I tell you this to better you, not to torture you. You may go now. May we meet again under more favorable circumstances. I will be watching you, Cheep." She smiled.
"Uhh...Thank you... I guess...Lady Kyia. Well, Goodbye."
He turned to leave the room, and then remembered the wall. He turned back to Kyia to ask her to open the wall again, but she was gone, as was the couch, and also the room. He stood in the hallway facing the wall opposite his door. He stood there stupefied for a few seconds, and then tried his door again. It opened with the standard ease, creaking only slightly as it swung outward and admitted him inside. He heard Kag snoring loudly in his room, and he closed the door and clambered tiredly into his hammock before dropping almost instantly off to sleep.
The next day, Cheep was only slightly more tired after scout training than usual. More sore, perhaps, but he still felt the energy from the exhilaration of his nightly expedition.
"What's got you in such a good mood?" Kag asked.
Cheep looked up, startled. "Huh? I don't know what you're talking about," he said guiltily.
Kag looked at him hard. "What did you do?"
Cheep was blushing furiously now. "Well, I met some new people last night..."
"Is that why you were out late?
"...I also met Kyia."
Kag's eyes widened. "What? You did? Really? What does she look like? ...Wait, don't try to avoid the question."
Cheep replied, calm this time: "I'm not. Oh, and she looks kind of like a girl, only sort of ethereal, and all blue. But yeah, that's where I was. I, uh, may have... broken quarantine," he said, hanging his head.
"Yeah. I went to the woods to find stuff to climb."
"That's not good. You might have been killed."
"You don't need to tell me. Kyia made me want to melt into the floor from the guilt. Although, as it turns out, I was right about the quarantine being longer than necessary."
"But that doesn't make it okay."
Cheep looked exasperated. "I know! But I met a couple of people who are animal Cursed like us who will probably end up coming here. Maybe be friends."
"What were they like?"
"One was really nice and laid back; he was an alligator. The other was, hmm." Cheep chuckled a bit.
"I just thought of how ironic it is that the best word I can think of to describe him is cold. He is some kind of ice mage; he froze my feet before I even saw him. Oh, and he's a white wolf."
"Ice mage, huh? I wonder..." Kag looked thoughtful.
"What is it?" Cheep, unsurprisingly, was curious.
"Naaah, couldn't be. I have a brother, kind of a black-sheep brother, who showed some promise as a mage, but threw his lot in with the wrong people. My father disowned him for his associations, but he never really cared what my parents thought about anything. They were the super-traditional type, who required him to learn a trade that didn't involve magic; they didn't trust it."
"Who did he hang out with?"
"Nobody really knows where they came from, but there were some rogue mages that lived in our town growing up. They were the type that would frame you for murder and loot your house. The Watch tried to do something about them, but they could never pin anything on them. They never openly caused trouble, just lounged around acting shady. Also, they were the only magic users around, so the Watch were afraid of them. They never found evidence, but they didn't honestly look very hard for it. They tried to avoid confrontation with them at almost any cost. Then one day they all left. Everybody breathed easier, except my mother. She cried for the loss of my brother because he went with them. I never heard anything from him after that."
"Yeah, I get reminded of him sometimes. I miss him. It's been 9, maybe 10 years."
"Wait, what was his name?"
"Mesmer, but he didn't like it. He always tried to get people to call him something else; last name I heard him use was Creed, I think."
Cheep's eyes opened wide. "Did you say Kriid?"
"Yeah, I think that was the name. He seemed to like that one better than most. I don't suppose he uses his given surname, either."
"...Remember I told you there was an alligator? He called the wolf guy Kriid."
After Cheep left, Kriid sighed in relief and exhaustion.
"Now I need to sleep. Is it your shift yet?"
"Close enough. Have a good snooze, dude."
Kriid waved and yawned as he walked to the small tent, tossing a few more sticks on the fire as he passed. He cast a few simple wards on himself and turned around three times as he laid down on the mat.
Then he stopped.
Wait, what in the nine hells did I just do?
He sat in silence for a few seconds, and then decided he didn't care what odd behaviors his new body was inclined to, he was exhausted and wanted to sleep. Kriid yawned wide, again slightly surprised at the drastically different size of the canine mouth, but pulled the thin blanket over himself and fell quickly to sleep.
Dosh and Kriid woke several hours after dawn, packed their small camp quickly, scattering the remains of the hours-cold fire, and headed for the main road. Dosh convinced Kriid fairly quickly to meet any patrols of Metamorians they saw rather than hiding from then on, as they had nothing to fear from them. They reached the wide packed-dirt path, coming up on small group of travelers and wagons who looked as if they had been camping there for several days. They approached the gathering apprehensively, unsure of what their reception would be. To their great surprise and even greater relief, most of the people there gave them little more than a cursory glance. They found an open patch of ground near the edge and dropped their few belongings on the ground, preparing for a long wait. A couple of tired-looking Metamorian guards had noticed them approaching and hailed them, halfheartedly commanding they submit to inspection. They showed what few supplies they had and declared their purpose for visiting Metamor: finding a new place to call home. The guards told them to visit the steward whenever the gates opened and then resumed their earlier post, waiting.
Suddenly, they heard a commotion from further up the road. A rush of excitement swept through the travelers. Kriid and Dosh picked up their packs and confusedly followed the oddly now-moving crowd until they managed to hear the reason for all the noise: the Gates were opening!