The creature skulked through the snow at a quick pace. The Reynard’s plush winter coat brushed against snow leaving portions of it clinking to his fur but for the most part the small animal was dry and warm. His head turned about to sounds. There were other animals about but he tried to pay them no heed as he continued on.
The fox scurried towards a corpse of trees when he suddenly yipped and felt himself rise off the ground. Alex picked up the fox by the scruff. Misha hung there blinking adorably for the moment until he started to flail about and whimper.
“Hey! Put me down. That’s an order!” The small animal said.
“You can talk?!” She asked in surprise... mild surprise rather.
“Of course I can,” The fox pouted, “It’s just a temporary spell from Pascal, now put me down!”
“You can’t go into that paddock like that! The old woman will shoot you with a bow bolt.”
Misha halted in his flailing, “Who? Why?”
“The ‘black field lady’.” The human answered in hushed tones, “She’s old – she sees a fox and she’ll think you’re after her chickens.”
Misha shook his head. “I do not need a crazy old woman to complicate things.”
Alex shrugged and changed her grip to under the vulpine’s forelegs, “And she’ll shoot a naked morph too; think you’re a perv or something.”
“Morph is not an option.” Misha said bluntly, “I must clear this field and it must be done as I am.”
“Why? What are you doing out this way?” She asked. Besides being curious she loved the excuse to hold her boss. He was like a cute and helpless little animal, hell; he WAS a cute and helpless little animal.
“Let’s just say Andwyn had an errand for me. I’m acting on a tip off, it’s a long story and I’ll tell you back at the keep.” He answered in a whisper. “What are you doing out here?”
She sighed long and deep, “it’s Teyrnon.”
“Oh? But I thought...”
“He is, he is.” She said softly, “He has some family, they live up this way. Distant relatives, really, just found out too.”
“I see.” Misha answered with a nod and changed the subject back, “So then you know about the people in these parts? About this crazy old woman?”
“Aye, but if you must, I think I can get you through that field.”
“How? Tell me.” He whimpered impatiently.
The woman bundled the fox into her winter jacket, “Just stick with me.”
“What do you have in mind?” He asked in a muffled voice, his nose poking a breast as he was hastily stuffed into the jacket.
“You’re just extra jacket fluff, I’ll get you through to the other side... actually if she sees me wearing fur she’ll think I’m a lutin.” Alex stuffed Misha more wholly into the winter garb, she crammed in his fluffy tail and shoved down his snout out of view though out of the darkness she could still see his gray, slit eyes gazing up at her. “Now stop moving!”
“Hmmm.” Misha pondered. He could feel the disorientation as they began to move.
Old woman Eargeh rocked back and forth in her chair. The cold didn’t bother her, she had several thick gowns but her muzzle ached. Her keen ears picked up the sound of snow crunching. She notched a bow bolt and waited.
On the side of her chair were scratch marks made with her own claws, the first group of scratches resembled a face with a long nose and pointy ears - a lutin - and there were a good two dozen or so notches underneath. The next image below it was of another creature but this time with a smaller nose and wider, triangular ears. Under this image were some more notches.
Each one she notched up had the same reason for being there, to get a free meal at her expense. Soon she could see a figure in the snow. It was hard to tell with her old eyes but the figure had a very bulbous chest and long black hair. Her crossbow was ready and waiting...
“This is not going to work,” Misha whispered. “She’s going to nail us both.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because she is crazy and carrying a cocked crossbow. That’s why.”
“Just keep your head down; she can’t shoot a ‘pregnant’ woman, right?”
“What makes you think that? She might not think you are pregnant.”
“Then what the hell are you?” She countered, “Body fat?”
The fox chuckled. “Let’s just hope she isn’t that crazy.”
The old woman peered at the approaching figure. It looked sort of like a Keeper. But was it? It might be a lutin in disguise. A disguised assassin trying to get close enough to slit her throat.
“Just play it casual... try not to move.” The gendermorph whispered.
The fox chuckled. “Easy for you to say!”
She poked him, “I’m the one in the firing line!”
“And so am I. If she shoots you in the stomach I get it too.”
Eargeh narrowed her gaze at the figure... why was it talking into its bloated chest? She stroked the crossbow resting on her blankets.
Alex tried to walk faster, “I said stop fidgeting!”
Suddenly Misha’s tail came free and popped out the bottom.
The fox cursed loudly and tucked his tail back inside. “Sorry.”
“N - No!” She squealed, “Your tail is tickling my chest... your foot is in my pants!”
The fox tried to move and tuck in his feet and tail. “Sorry!”
Eargeh continued to watch in confusion as the figure squirmed about and then a small red fox popped out of its chest. Misha sat on his haunches for a moment as he tried to get his bearings. The vulpine looked about in a slight daze.
“Rustlers!!!” The old woman shouted and pointed her crossbow.
“Run!” Alex shouted.
In an instant the fox hit the ground running and sprinted across the field toward cover.
He had to duck and weave to avoid bolt after bolt that hit the snow all around but he was just too little and evasive for the old woman to have a chance of hitting him. Eargeh completely forgot about the human, the distraction gave Alex all the time she needed to get to safety and then they were both across and panting in the snow.
Misha’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as he tried to catch his breath, “I told you it wouldn’t work.”
“Oh shut up.” She panted, leaning against a log, “It would have worked just fine if I didn’t give birth to you.”
“It’s not MY fault you’re ticklish.” The fox retorted.
They both went silent.
*Crrrr aaaaaaaa k!*
“Jump!” The fox yipped and hopped onto the log. Misha let out a curse and looked around the snow beneath them. “We’re on thin ice.”
The human didn’t hear him in her haste to scamper onto the log.
“Don’t rock the log or you’ll dump us both back onto the ice.” He shouted.
Misha perched toward the higher end, Alex toward the lower half and her feet were treading water. The end that she rested on began to sink further, sending the fox up higher.
“Easy woman, go towards the centre of the log.” He ordered, trying to cling to the wildly tilting lumber.
“I can’t, sir.” She mumbled, clawing at the bark.
“All right. Just hang in there, we’ll need to make a break for the shore. This lake can’t be too big. If we move fast we should make the edge.”
The ice crackled further, sending the log downward. Misha leaped and landed on the ice just further off, he was too little to immediately break it and scurried to the bank. Alex remained on the sinking log.
Misha looked back at the woman. “Well? Come on!”
She crawled higher up, “It’s too late. I can’t jump now.”
“You can.” He said in a gentle yet firm tone.
“You have . . .” The fox started to say.
“...I’m still on the ice?” Misha asked and looked down at his paws. “Impossible! This was solid earth a moment ago.”
“Lakes don’t chase people around!” Alex said as she tried to climb higher on the log.
“Hmm” The fox pondered, “This is a trap.” He snarled. Misha gradually moved further back. The ice lake followed at a steady pace until it departed from the log, leaving it partially buried in earth.
Alex hopped off and cast her arm up. “Fire!” She threw a fire ball that quickly expanded and thinned like a pancake. The sheet of flame impacted the snow and melted away a vast quantity of it.
With the natural cover gone Misha could get a look at the ice and it was indeed moving towards him, “Oh this is a very ingenious trap! No need to wait for someone to go to the trap. It goes to the victim!”
“It hides under the snow!” The human snarled, “Fire!” She threw another orb to melt more snow. “That’s it... I’m spent.” She panted.
“So much for your great magic wielding abilities. A spell like that needs a control focus,” the fox said as he paced ahead of the moving ice.
“I never said I was great with it, why don’t you defeat it with your adorable fluffiness?!” She shouted from the other bank.
The lake blobbed about, as if it were trying to split up or just decide which of them to go after.
“Let’s both stop with the insults. Look for magic writing or a jewel of some sort!” The fox ordered. “There must be . . .” he paused a moment. “Found it! Carved into that oak tree.”
Neither of them could really tell where it was under the snow but given the cracks beginning to sound under Alex’s feet, it likely chose the bigger target. She began to retreat further and further back but it just kept following after.
The fox raced over to the tree and gazed at the symbol for a moment. “It’s a control rune carved into the bark.” For lack of options, Misha started to gnaw on the bark chewing off small splinters of wood.
Suddenly electricity jolted thru the fox knocking him to the ground. He lay there for a minute letting the pain and dizziness pass. The lake shivered, as if sensing the threat it turned and headed towards the Long scout.
“Look out behind you!” Alex shouted.
The fox stood up and shook himself. Then he bit deeply into the tree ripping off large sections of bark. Electricity jolted through him again but he didn’t stop. The soil under his paws turned to frost and then to ice. The permafrost liquefied. Just as he tore off the last of the rune, Misha felt a force grapple and tug him free of the ground. Alex hefted him up and threw him clear of the lake, just as the tree succumbed to the ice and began to sink. She climbed the trunk to stay clear of the water.
The fox landed on hard ground and quickly got up. He looked back and saw the tree continuing to sink. Alex hopped gently onto the ground; the ground suddenly grew hard again just as the last branch vanished from sight. The keepers wondered at the sight of the absent and buried tree before remembering the task.
“Are you all right Alex?” Misha asked.
She flopped on the ground to catch her breath, “Yes sir! I mean Misha.” She answered to the little vulpine, “You? How’s your teeth?”
“I hate mages,” the fox commented out loud. “My teeth are fine but I’ll never get all this tree sap out of my fur.”
“A good soak will fix that.” She ruffled his head fur, “You did great, boss.”
“Thank you. I am really getting too old for these adventures.”
“Adventure keeps you young, don’t tell me your old bones are aching from that throw?”
“My whole body is aching,” he mumbled.
She stroked his back, knitting the pelt.
“That feels nice.” The fox murred, turning his head up, “I’d like to just relax here all day.”
“The best way to overcome soreness is to be active.” She commented. “I think we should find who placed that trap and take care of it.”
“I already know who placed it and why. He is the reason I’m here.”
Misha stood up on all fours and silently scampered off further into the field. After some time spent sniffing at the ground he began pawing at the snow.
“What are you doing?” The gendermorph asked.
“I’m digging for clams. What do you think I’m doing?”
She picked up the fox by the scruff and dropped him out of the way before getting to work, digging out larger chunks of snow. The fox sat down and watched her dig. She idly threw a snowball at him but Misha dodged the projectile easily.
“I don’t suppose you can tell me where this leads?” She asked between scoops.
“I could,” the fox said and then fell silent.
“And...?” She asked in irritation.
“We are looking for the secret entrance to a mage’s hideout.”
“I figured that much. Is it a dangerous mage?” She asked though more out of curiosity then genuine concern.
“Of course! All mages are dangerous.”
“And you’re going to... what, what can you do to him in that form?”
“I’m trying to avoid the mage. That’s why I’m sneaking in like this.” The fox explained.
“But why cover the terrain here in that form?”
“Because like this I can travel unseen. The mage will not be able to detect me; he won’t detect the greater fusion of the curse and counter curse in my body.”
“Huh? Wait, what about me? Do I need to be a bimbo then or what?”
“No, he’s fine tuned to the animal spell. That’s where his power lies. Unless you want to...” Misha avoided another snowball meant for his muzzle.
Alex chuckled and kept scooping out chunks. The cold and boredom compounded until she spoke up again, “Say, I’ve been meaning to ask, that game at the Harvest Festival, it’s called Fox and Hounds, but you changed the name right?”
“Yup. I don’t like what the name implies,” He answered casually, “Just like you didn’t want be in that tradition at the Glen...”
“Well yeah but I wanted to be ‘the fox’.”
“Ah... I can make you an honorary vixen?”
She threw another snowball at him which he dodged easily a third time, “How do you keep doing that?”
The vulpine tail wagged, “One day I’ll teach you.”
The woman suddenly stopped digging and clasped her hands.
“What have you found?” the fox asked.
“Stone... carved stone, looks like a seal but my hands are too numb to continue.”
“Here. Let me see!” the fox said and scrambled down into the hole.
Misha could see what looked like a falcon spreading its wings. The avian’s talons gouged at some sort of jewel in the depiction.
“That’s it! That’s the opening. Now take hold of the jewel and turn it to the right.”
“All right, but first...” She answered and picked him up, “I need to warm up.”
“Wow! Watch where you put those hands They’re cold!”
“Oh hush, you had your nose in my breast and your foot in my pants!”
“Hey! Some women would pay good money to have me do that.”
Alex glared at the small animal.
The fox chuckled a little. “You warm enough yet?”
She dropped the mischievous creature in the snow and grappled the jewel, “Let’s do this.”
“Turn it to the right until you hear a click.” he ordered.
The jewel shifted with a little effort and the slab silently descended into a small tunnel. The inside looked to be illuminated with torches as there was a gentle orange flicker.
“Have fun. Should I wait up here or help you confront this mage?”
“Best wait. I am trying to sneak in quietly and avoid a fight.”
Alex crouched low in the snow and unsheathed her blade, “I’ll dig in, call out or yip or bark or whatever if you need help.”
“All right. This shouldn’t take too long. I hope.” the fox slowly stepped into the tunnel and silently disappeared from sight.
Down a spiral the vulpine travelled. Misha moved with the grace and stealth of his long training and his cursed form. He was a shadow, swift, silent and unseen. He reached a carved tunnel at the bottom, whether ancient or recent he could not tell but it was defiantly man made. In the briefing he’d been told the location of the dungeon, the size and layout but nothing of the origin or history. Did they know? Did they keep the truth from him? The time for such thoughts ended when he accepted the mission. And he’d arrived at the described large hollow. His prize was here.
Misha scurried in between benches and chairs. It was either a ritual chamber of some sort converted into a lab, or a lab converted into a ritual chamber. There was just no way to tell the age of the objects or the hollow they occupied. Perhaps they were all placed at the same time for one purpose. Perhaps this was the enemy equivalent to the Lookout Posts that the Longs use in the Giant downs.
None of it boded well and he hopped it wasn’t the case or at the very least, that there weren’t too many others in existence. Of primary concern to the fox, if the dungeon hollow is a ritual chamber, has it ever or will it play host to a sacrifice and is he dooming himself to that fate?
Pushing the thought from his mind, Misha spied the relic. It teased his eyes.
‘Take the relic and the mage will be powerless, then sneak out and he won’t even notice.’ The informant said, ‘too easy, too easy.’ The words echoed in his ears.
Misha licked his jaws. The relic looked like a treasure. It WAS a treasure. Gold and silver interlaced and forming what looked like an intricate candle stick. It gave off no light – even if it did that would make it almost if not impossible to steal.
The cunning vulpine had the mage in his sights too, he had his back turned, scribbling something down on parchment with his head turned right down. Misha silently leaped up onto the workbench. The fox looked at the item carefully. Trying to spot any wires, blades or any other type of trap. ‘Nothing! No traps!’ He tilted his head and opened his mouth wide. A pause and then he took the relic in his maw. The mage still hadn’t noticed. Misha jumped down with the relic and headed toward the door. The mage still hadn’t noticed!
Misha left the hollow, the mage still ha~
“THIEF!!!” An unknown voice screamed.
The vulpine jumped in alarm.
“I AM BEING STOLLEN BY A THIEF!!!”
The relic was shouting at him, the RELIC was shouting! With it still firmly in his muzzle, Misha didn’t even hesitate to bolt. He didn’t look back, he didn’t flinch; he ran. He ran fast.
Alex nocked an arrow when she could hear the vulpine returning. Something had obviously gone very wrong otherwise the fox wouldn’t have made a peep upon his return.
Misha popped out of the hole and scurried into the brush.
No sooner had he cleared the entrance, the gendermorph let loose her arrows, one after the other into the darkness to stay whatever had caused the fox grief. A wave of pure energy knocked her back into the snow. When she got back up the mage was gone, hot on the pursuit of the fox.
Misha darted in a zigzag through the snow. He didn’t know where the mage was. He didn’t know where he was going but he knew his life was at risk and he needed to survive.
The cunning vulpine darted into the tree line, in between the tightest branches, the narrowest gaps. He never lost speed and gained protection. A sly grin came to his muzzle and at that moment the scrub before him blew up...
Misha shook his head and slowly stood up. This time he did drop the prize. The fox gawked at the utter devastation before him. Not a smoking crater per se, but the scrub had been reduced to ashes and small trees to charcoal. If the mage’s aim had been slightly better that would have been him.
His cover had been blown... away, however he could see the mage panting for breath so the attack obviously taxed him. The Long scout took up the treasure again, eliciting another cry of thievery from the relic. This time he ignored it and darted into the smouldering soil. Misha winced as the earth still radiated heat that hurt his paws, even though he was running very fast over it.
He quickly ducked into some still burning evergreens, unlike the scorched earth this fire was only a fresh side effect from the strike so he had to contend with no such intensity but just singed some hairs on his plush winter coat.
To his relief, Misha found what looked like a building, a chicken coop from the potent smell. There was enough room to fit through a gap in the wooden panels.
While the fox could make it through, the relic offered resistance to the tight fit but eventually pried free after some tugging. Misha fell forward with the sudden momentum and landed on his tail. He sneezed on the dust and hay and then sat on his haunches where he looked up to see a Tarrelton devil towering over him.
The woman glowered at the fox.
“Rustlers!” She shouted and punched a panel in the wall, instantly a giant crossbow popped out, six bolts already cocked. The weapon was as large as a standard sword, she hefted it in hands that only recently held a can full of chicken feed.
At that moment Misha felt real fear. He was a scared, little animal in a place he did not belong. The vulpine trembled, the words would not come; the words that would save his life - ‘don’t shoot me.’
He’d fought lutins, bandits, monsters but never a person as crazy as this lady. He could shift and fight but he’d have a bow bolt through the heart in the time that would take. And even if he did change she’d probably shot him anyway as a rustler. Swiftly he bolted for a hole into a chicken’s roost.
Chickens ran about left and right in a desperate panic from the marauding fox. Eargeh opened a latch and a wall of the coop suddenly swung open revealing a petrified vulpine perched on a nest full of eggs.
The farmer pointed her crossbow when suddenly the opposite wall burst open.
The mage! The mage and the crazy old woman in the cramped coop together both hungry for the fox’s blood... but to Misha’s surprise the woman turned and aimed her weapon at the mage, then squeezed the trigger.
The mage took a bolt to the head, right between the eyes. He died instantly and his corpse fell into a basket of eggs.
“Rustlers everywr! Yer not gettn my chooks!”
“Nice shot!” Misha called out.
She turned back about, with a snarl the devil aimed at the fox, ready to loose the second bow bolt.
“Keep the chickens! I just want my life!” the fox shouted. With what presence of mind he could muster, Misha scurried underneath her legs, the old woman was confused for the moment and Misha used all of the precious moment to grab the relic in his maw and bolt out the front door.
‘She’s worse then the lutins! Eight years of killing lutins and I’m going to be killed by a crazy old lady with a cross bow.’
The rest of his flight was a blur to him. Did the crazy woman pursue? He didn’t know or care; the little fox just ran and ran and ran until he found a corpse of trees. Nestled in the corpse, just past the snow was a small hole. The vulpine jumped and scurried inside, his fluffy tail disappearing into the ground.
Misha lied in wait for a good hour. He occasionally peeked his head out to look around and then ducked back in. Why didn’t he just leave and become a taur? Was he loosing his mind to the fox? He was just so tired and confused.
“I’m getting too old for this stuff. I need to rest and clear my head.”
His mind drifted in and out of daydreams and reality. He felt feverish. ...he could hear footsteps! The old woman had found him! The fox could feel something grab his tail and drag him out of the foxhole.
“HEY! I’m not a fox! I’m a human! I’m a keeper!” He said as he was dangled upside down.
“Misha?” She asked in confusion.
The fox blinked. That wasn’t the old woman’s voice. He turned his head and saw a sight for sore eyes. “Alex! ...I mean Ack! Put me down!”
She didn’t let go but held him by the waist instead of the tail... “Are you alright?”
“I am all right... I’m alright now. Just a little tired,” the fox answered in a tired tone.
Alex adjusted her grip again and held him close, almost like cuddling a pet, “Are you sure?”
Misha pondered, was he? Why had he been so helpless and terrified? Did the relic affect his mind? No one said anything about it controlling him. “I’m okay.” He told himself, trying to believe it. The sooner they got that thing back to the keep the better.
“Hey, listen... I’m sorry I wasn’t any help to you.”
“Help me? Why?” He cocked his head and turned his muzzle up quizzically, “This is my mission not yours.”
“Perhaps not but I’m a guard in Long House; I should have provided you proper support... sir.”
“So? This isn’t Long House. It’s the middle of damn winter in the woods.” The vulpine took a deep breath and sighed, “I should never have taken this mission. I should have had the bat send one of his spies.” He growled and stretched his paws as he yawned, “And don’t call me sir.”
“Regardless, I still should have done more...” She paused and shied away from the small animal, “Look, you were almost killed out there today and I thought you promised Caroline that you wouldn’t take stupid risks anymore.”
“Well this was supposed to be an easy task,” the fox answered. “It was supposed to be.” He whispered to himself.
“Then forget duty. You’re also a friend and you’ve done a lot for me, Misha.”
“I... thank you.” He blinked.
She placed him gently down on a snow bank, “Today I had an opportunity... I’ve heard about your adventures, I... look, forget it.”
Misha cocked his head to one side. “Forget what? What’s wrong?”
“Forget it.” She said.
“What? Come on Alex. I’m a friend. Tell me what’s wrong?”
“...I’ve always wanted to fight alongside you but instead I argued and bickered and then when the time came to do something I wasn’t even there to help you.”
Misha gave a bark of laughter. “I’ve been with Rickkter in the heart of Nasojassa and all he did was complain the entire trip. And you have helped me a lot. If not for you that trapped ice would have probably killed me, also you warned me about the old woman.”
She picked him up and hugged him.
The fox leaned into the hug, yes, he was cute. He didn’t deny it. And the ordeal was behind them now, not to mention they were still in the dead of winter. “Just promise me you won’t tell Caroline I did this... or that I had my foot in your pants.” Misha said, “Heh, seriously though, she’ll be mad if she knows I was in this much danger.”
“Alright” Alex said “How tired are you feeling? I was going to ask for a ride home but...”
“I am NEVER too tired to use my taur form!” Misha answered. “Now put me down!”
She mumbled and dropped him in a snow bank.
“AK! Watch it! You can always walk back.”
“Aye, I’ll have quite a story to tell Carol when I arrive.”
“You are meaner then that old lady.” the fox growled.
She gave him a disarming scritchy under the chin. “Not mean, mischievous... I get it from you.”
“More likely from Stealth, but all right.” he said and stepped back a little. Misha concentrated for a moment. The small fox shifted and grew larger and taller. Soon a foxtaur stood next to her.
“There’s a good lad.” She fished out the relic from the fox hole and hopped on the taur, one arm around Misha’s chest the other wrapped tightly around the artefact.
Misha just chuckled quietly. “Hold on. This good lad will get you home fast!” with that the foxtaur took off at a dead run across the snow, Alex clung on for dear life!