by Jack The Lizard

   Nights in March are usually ice cold. This one definitely didn’t feel it. Berlitz sweated through his rabbit skin cap. The quaking light of the torches blocked all figures in half the fire. Berlitz could see the dirt and grime on his own skin, splotches of black against the pale white. He swallowed.

   “Something wrong?” Saphir asked. “You’re shaking Berl.” Berlitz clenched his leather glove covered fists. “You’re scared things are going to go wrong aren’t you?” Couldn’t hide it from his superior. Berl sighed and nodded. The other man smiled. “I was scared myself on my first hunt.”

   Saphir was a few years older than Berlitz and noticeably thinner. He had black hair he kept cropped thin. Saphir’s green eyes always seemed to be laughing.

   “How did you deal with your fear?” Saphir smirked, his half smile lighting up the darkness. The bow on Berlitz back felt heavy as stone. His sweat soaked legs dragged through the mire.

   “I just hunted.” Saphir said. “On a hunt it can overwhelm your fears. In that moment, that rush you don’t know if you’ll live or die.”

   “I don’t see how this helps.” Berlitz said, now with a grin.

   “Let me finish. The thing is, you wouldn’t expect it but it’s amazing the first time on your hunt when you’re in danger. When some great big beastie can actually kill you?” Saphir laughed. “Then you put an arrow through its eye.”

   “And if I can’t?” Berlitz asked. “What if I’m too slow or I can’t level an arrow or if I fire it into the ground.”

   “Then that’s why we hunt in groups.” Saphir said. “Wolves have the right idea here. They hunt in packs, the club does too.” Berlitz nodded.

   Eight figures marched through the woods right now, each one in shades of black. Magic allowed their leader to see clearly in the dark.

   They moved without fear through the woods. Maybe someone would spot them. Tonight was not the night of the hunt, which would be tomorrow. Let people see them now, they’d forget by tomorrow.

   All but one of the group carried bows with special non-lethal arrows. Berlitz also carried a net as the primary net bearer. There was a secondary net bearer but he didn’t know who that was.

   Using a net was generally regarded as dirty; it took the thrill out of hunting a clever prey. There was no glory in stabbing a caged animal. But there is also no glory in being gored.

   They weren’t supposed to carry weapons on this expedition. Berl had a knife with him though. I am not going to die on this hunt.

   The man at the front of the line was the Hunt Leader. He would direct the hunt as it went and would hopefully keep Berlitz alive when this was all said and done. He was an older man with a weary face and gray eyes.

   A look in Berlitz eyes could be seen in all of the other hunters. A kind of iron stiffness, it was a hardness that developed in time. Even in Saphir he could see it developing.

   Do I want to be like them though? Berlitz dropped his head. I don’t even know I want to be out here. He was so tired but he kept marching with the rest of them. This is my purpose this is my destiny. So they all said, over and over.

   This was all crap and Berlitz new it was. His destiny was unknown to everyone but the gods. Yet despite this he marched with the other men in their cloaks and dark leather. Six torches flicked in the dark and created a line of light.

   “It’s cold out here.” Berlitz mumbled. “Why am I sweating so much?”

   “Nothing is going to go wrong.” Saphir promised. “The cold…well can’t do much about that. Still March kid.”

   “Yeah…” I’m sweating because I know this is wrong. The leather around his body felt like lead. Memories shifted through his head, two coalescing streams for and against his course of action.

   Every few feet there would be a snap or a crack caused by Berlitz breaking a twig as he walked. The others were completely, almost inhumanly silent. In time they promised he would be like them but that was impossible.

   No way would he be able to hunt like the others. Berlitz didn’t want to be like that. So why am I still here?

   Their leader held up a gloved first. The other seven came to a stop, crowding behind him. The leader pointed out to a clearing of trees. They continued on until they reached the edge of the thick wood. The hunt leader turned to face them.

   “What do you see?” Over his head was a hood, in the darkness it was a black portal. Berlitz swallowed and glanced over the leader’s shoulder.

   From where they stood on a hill they looked out onto a valley. Little lights dotted the ground, fires and candles in windows. In the distance stood a castle, massive and forbearing. In front of it rose a town, with walls and no doubt thousands of living breathing souls.

   “This will be our most dangerous hunt by far.” The leader said. “What you see before you is Metamor Keep.”

   “We’re all cursed.” Berlitz mumbled.

   “Not yet youth.” The leader said. “But this place will be our greatest challenge. The people of Metamor are cursed. Some of them are no longer human, they will be our targets.”

   “What about the humans sir?” One of the hunters named Rubius asked.

   “They can be disarmed but must not be wounded.” The leader said. “The animals may be wounded but not killed, if you wound them they must be left alive.”

   “That means we’ve only got one chance!” Berlitz stammered.

   “We’re the absolute best or are supposed to be. In a red hunt you should only need one arrow to take a life. Consider this a test run.” The leader said. “And if things become difficult that is why you Hunter Berlitz are our net bearer.”

   “I really wish I wasn’t.” Berlitz mumbled.

   “The net will only be used in the event of an emergency for a quick escape.” The leader said. “Gentlemen, the hunt is happening. We may all be killed but we will die in a moment of greatness. Our names will be recorded in the Golden Hall forever. Are you ready to become eternal?”

   “Yes sir!” They all said. Six of the voices were strong but Berlitz barely managed to get the words out.

   I’d rather die of old age. Berlitz bit his lip.

   “Tomorrow is our hunt.” The leader said. “Our scout’s have reported these woods to us. Do not mistake those reports for actualy knowing these woods. Tomorrow we will gain first hand knowledge of these woods, we will observe these people. The night after that will be our hunt.”

   “Yes sir!” The leader nodded.

   “Prepare to make camp. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

   To My Friend in the North

   After almost a month in Metamor I was ready for one thing: to go back home. In hindsight I wonder why. I must confess to romanticizing Metamor, but I also remember my life in Isenport.

   This story is not easy for me. Actually it is the most difficult of the few letters I have written thus far. Of the letters still to come it will remain one of my worst moments. Yet I must push on.

   To counteract this (or possibly to increase my own misery) I’ve decided to tell a second story with this one. This second story will be just as difficult; it will be called from the foggy mists of the past. I will take us to my childhood..

   Why do people forget how precious life is? I ask this sincerely, why do we treat lives like game pieces to be taken? Life is Eli’s greatest gift, yet so many people waste it in pointless conflicts.

   I wasted my life during those early days in Metamor. Too many days on pointless drivel I can never take back. That’s why I have to tell this story. I learned twice how precious life is. I pray many never need to be reminded.

   Now I ramble. May Eli forgive me and bless this venture.

March 31st, 707

   I woke up lying on my side. I had tried lying on my stomach but it made me sick. Lying on my back was impossible thanks to my new tail. My neck made sleeping on my side uncomfortable but at least bearable. Now I was sleeping three hours a night.

   What fresh hell does Nemo have for me today? Not more fighting with random Followers I hope. My ribs ached from hours against my stone slab bed. We can still afford someone to take me home. Guards, mercenaries, this place must have someone I can buy.

   In truth I didn’t believe it. Not on any level because there was no getting out of here. This place was a trap that had ensnared me. Like a wild animal, my only way out of here was to gnaw my own leg off or be released.

   Except there was no one to release me, and no way to cut off my leg. I had to either adjust or wither away inside of the room.

   I choose to wither. The easiest thing in the world to do is nothing. It’s just letting go of hope.

   A small squeak and the scratch of tiny feet interrupted my moping. I glanced up to see my rat climbing up my body. His whiskers twitched as he sniffed at my oversized shirt.

   “Hey there.” I smiled. “I was thinking of just staying in here all day, maybe for the rest of my life. What do you think?” My rat cocked his head. “I can’t really do that can I?” He rubbed his nose against my shirt. “You would say that.” I sighed.

   “I’d rather just rot in here until I die honestly.” I shifted onto my other side, sending the little rat scurrying. “Or until this whole place burns to the ground. No…I don’t want that.” Even in my dispair I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear my head. The rat returned to his place lying on my hip. “There are good people here, even really good looking ones.” I grinned when I thought of that Aaryn girl.

   “But I don’t want to be one of them.” I could feel the spines in my jaw moving with my words. “I want to go home. Nemo wants to be here! Damn Nemo let himself be cursed! I don’t want this.” Nemo has the money too.

   “Maybe that’s a reason to get a job.” I mumbled. “Money. I can hire my way out of here, that’s something. How hard can it be? Muffin’s father made a fortune in wine, just find something people need and sell it to people.”

   If it was that simple everyone would have done it. Admittedly when you’re young it does seem that simple. Just reach out and pluck success from the trees.

   While I was sitting there wondering about my life, Nemo was lying on his bed, rubbing his stomach. Daylight had called him from his dream, and brought him back to the world of Metamor.

   “Did I have a window here when I first came?” Nemo mumbled. “This place possesses an ineffable transcendental quality. The buildings change as those in it change. It is amazing.” He sat up and rubbed his thickening hair.

   “Okay, if I’m getting younger, would that make my hair thicker? I am getting younger though…I think…” Except Nemo didn’t know what to think. He was chaning, yet it didn’t make sense. The hair on the sides of his head had turned black but had now changed further.

   It was soft, almost silky. It didn’t feel like his hair had when he was younger. Nemo rolled off the bed still rubbing his head. “Gotta worry about this later. Just got to be here for James. Besides, my changes won’t all come at once.”

   Nemo knew this because he had watched James. James alone had shown him how this curse worked. It hit you slowly and steadily, changed you gradually. Nemo had no reason to worry about it hitting him all at once surely.

   You don’t know that. It’s still a curse, so don’t assume anything. Nemo picked up Qual, against the corner of the wall. His glaive had for years felt warm in his hand. It flowed in combat and he flowed with it.

   But of late something was off about Qual. An undefinable change occurred that made it feel…wrong in his hands. Nemo spun the blade around.

   You are my runic glaive, what have I done wrong? Nemo frowned. His fingers traced the wood where it met the blade. There was no real transition, just suddenly it ceased to be wood and became metal.

   “What has changed between us?” Nemo asked. “You’ve begun to live up to your name.” He placed his glaive back against the wall, leaving to get some breakfast.

   I stood up and popped my back. My bed was stiff and more a slab that stuck out of the wall. I grabbed my aba for my neck and a shawl for the top of my head. As I wrapped it up, the only thing left was my face.

   Nemo was sitting at our kitchen table, eating with his back to me. The fire was going. Its warmth cheered my bones. Nemo’s hair looked a deeper black than it had a few weeks ago. Which should have been no surprise, he was growing younger I figured. He didn’t even look up as I sat down across from him.

   “Why aren’t I as hungry?” I asked. “I don’t feel anything, even if I only eat once a day. Why?”

   “You’re becoming a reptile.” Nemo said. “It means you require less sustenance. In time you will adjust.” He smiled at me. “I’m glad to see you are awake James. The two of us have had a difficult few days.”

   “I don’t want to be a reptile. And I still don’t want to be here.” I said. “I want to go home.” Nemo nodded. “Why don’t you want to go home?” He frowned.

   “Excuse me?”

   “You wanted to stay here.” I said. “You got friggin’ cursed and you knew it but you still chose to stay. There are Followers here like Egland and you choose to stay.”

   “Friggin’ is not the appropriate vocabulary of the son of a noble.” Nemo said to infuriate me. “And Sir Egland is not a true Follower. Yet I will concede that my behavior has been problematic. Can you accept that I just wanted to be here for you?”

   “No. I’m an asshole!” Now we both laughed. “Why would you care about being here with me?” Nemo just gave me another smile.

   Our dwelling still had no decoration, just the fire, table and earthenware that Nemo had procured for us. The fire concealed half of Nemo’s face with shadow. I expected to see new youth, but he looked worn as the table.

   Why does he support me? I turned my head to match his. I wouldn’t, I don’t really like me. Nemo’s hurting too. He hates the Ecclesia but I don’t know what they did to him. I don’t know much about him really.

   In the time we had been together I had seen Nemo display a superior vocabulary to mine (despite me being the son of a Lord). I had seen him go out every day on job hunting excursions and tell me of his interactions with the Keep. I had seen his hatred for the Ecclesia and I knew something bad had happened between him and them. But despite him being my man, I didn’t actually know him.

   “Why won’t you tell me more about you?” I asked. “What are you hiding form me?” Now it was Nemo’s turn to look confused.

   “What makes you think I’m hiding anything?” Because a few days ago you got into a screaming match with Sir Egland? “And you want to know more about me? I’ll tell you but I must admit I’m confused. Since when do you care?” I turned my gaze to the well worn table..

   “I don’t care.” I mumbled. My claws dug out lines in the softwood. “Just things have been tense between us and I don’t want more fighting. And if we’re stuck together, maybe we need to talk more.” I looked at the hands of my guardian compared to mine. His were pink, looking worn but odd. They were growing more textured and the nails looked uncut. Mine were spindly and scaled. Each finger was tipped with a little claw that stuck to the wood.

   I don’t want him to grow young…I swallowed. I need Nemo to protect me. I don’t want him hurt either…

   “We’re not stuck together though. James you still view yourself as independent of Metamor.” Nemo said, “Don’t pretend you don’t. All I want to know is why then do you want to stay with me? Why not leave me behind.”

   “I…You have the money.”

   “You can get places without money if you want it hard enough.” Nemo said. “I admit it would be very dangerous but it would not be impossible if you wanted it.” He smiled at me. “The way I figure it, you know the risks and have decided to stay, which means you’re becoming smart. Or you don’t want to leave me behind because you care about me, in which case thank you James.”

   “Oh shut up.” I mumbled. “No one asked you.” Nemo just kept smiling. “Maybe this place…isn’t that bad. Maybe the people are nice. But I still want to leave! I just can’t yet; it’s too dangerous for me to go alone. I gotta have money to hire guards.”

   “Yes the only thing keeping you here is money.” Nemo said with a tone of mockery. I glanced around our abode.

   “Since I’m going to be stuck here until I get some more money, let’s do something to make this place less crap. Decorations, art? A fucking rug maybe? At least I can spend the months I’m stuck here living good.”

   “To have decorations we also will need more money.” Nemo said. “That means you will need a job. How goes your job hunting.” I grumbled out a response. “What was that?”

   “It would go better if you didn’t ask.” I snapped. “I’m only looking for a job because I want out of here, got it?”

   “That’s your deal, not mine.” Nemo said. He bit his bottom lip. “Speaking of lie in Metamor, we need to discuss something.”

   “Its been more than a day since I got into a fight with anyone!” I cried. “What did I do to you this time? What could I have done?”

   “It’s nothing you did James.” Nemo said. “It’s something that has to be done while we are living in Metamor.” I found my attention starting to drift. What do I care about what they do in Metamor? Oh God they’re going to want us to pay taxes!

   I scratched my claws into the table. Back home you’ve got to have your tax money and your bribe for the taxman, I don’t know if we have enough. Oh gods what—

   “So we’re going on a patrol.” My attention snapped back.

   “We’re going on a what now?” I asked.

   “Were you listening to me at all?” Nemo asked. I chose not to answer. “We have to do an amount of mandatory service to Metamor if we’re going to live here. So I volunteered us for a patrol.”

   “And you didn’t ask me?” I snapped.

   “Why would I?” Nemo said. “You’d refuse to do it. I had to decide for you so you couldn’t back out of it.” I snorted.

   “That’s bullshit.” No it isn’t. “Isn’t it a bit early?”

    “That was the objection they gave me, but I felt…” He paused. “I felt compelled.” Nemo chose not to elaborate on that, to my irritation. In time I would learn why he felt compelled, but not now.

    “And they agreed?” I asked.

    “So long as you’re fully changed, which I assume you are.” Nemo said. I dug my claws into the wood.

   “I should have a say so in my own life!” No you shouldn’t. “And why the hell should I give these people anything? They’re holding me prisoner here!”

   “I thought you said Metamor isn’t that bad!” Nemo cried.

   “I don’t want to go on patrol for anyone!” I slammed my fists against the wood. “Especially a bunch of freaks who expect me to be happy about turning into a lizard monster! Why is everyone so fucking happy here?”

   “Because they’ve learned to adjust.” Nemo said. “They’ve learned there is nothing to gain by being relentlessly miserable. Finding something that brings you peace is how you survive the curse.”

   “Not being cursed is how you survive the curse.” I snarled. “Or trying to reverse it. Why the hell aren’t they doing that?”

   “Maybe they’ve already tried James. It’s not that simple no doubt.” I stood up. “James what are you doing?” Nemo asked. I responded by making the figs. “Very mature.”

   “I’m leaving.” I snapped. “Don’t follow me.”

   “I wasn’t planning on it.” Nemo said. “James tomorrow night we will be on patrol with others from Metamor. Be ready, it is happening. You have to do this.” I rested my head against the door.

   “You know, I’ve heard that my entire life.” I opened the door. “No one ever tells me why I have to listen to them.” Before Nemo could respond I slammed it shut.


May 17th, 697

   It wasn’t quite nine years ago, but it almost was. Nine long years and yet I could remember the days perfectly. It’s been even longer but I still remember. As an old man one of the only things I have are my memories, both the good and the bad.

   It was warm that day and the breeze was blowing from the ocean. I could smell it, the wafting sea air and the smells of Isenport up to the manor. Fish, alcohol, sailors and human traffic, all wonderful comforts from home.

   Isenport is a crescent shaped city that narrows the further you get from the docks. Towering above the port and the city, on the only noticable hill is a crumbling castle. This used to be Isenport Keep, now it was the Old Keep.

   In its shadow lay a stately manor house my grandfather built. It was a four-story wood and stone thing with as many windows as you could get away with. It was a rectangle shape with smaller buildings scattered all around, connected by crushed stone paths that spread like spider-webs.

   The manor had white washed walls with big gates to let in wagons. In the center was a stone courtyard where a fountain was and where executions were carried out. The building was a rectangle but it contained alleys and multiple layers.

   The manor house was not built to withstand sieges. It had no portcullises, no towers and no crenellations, just a large rectangular house with a tacky number of windows. It did though have three dining rooms, a ballroom, a grand hall and eleven chimneys. It was proof my grandfather knew how to live.

   It was also proof that my grandfather had no concept of hubris. He figured we were far enough into Imperial territory we wouldn’t have to worry about assault by land and anyone attempting to assault us by sea would have to get up the hill to us.

   Remember this for the future. It will be quite important.

   My room was on the second floor, back left corner of the rectangle. I awoke as I always did, on silk sheets with my head buried in goose down pillows. Light streaming in through two windows revealed a cherry wood desk, velvet coushined couches, a cherry wardrobe, wooden swords hung up and actual weapons laying against the wall.

    Swords are something a child should not have

   I lay in silence in my bed for only a few minutes. I wasn’t waiting long. The door too my room opened and a trio of servants entered. Each one carried a covered dish, the oldest of them also carrying a glass.

   “Good morning master James.” They said in unison.

   “Yeah I guess.” They sat dishes in front of me; the youngest woman (blond hair, large firm breasts, Cressida I think) tucked a napkin into my nightshirt collar. Oh the difficulties of life that a rich child has to suffer.

   In my doorway stood a fourth figure, this one both rougher and more distinguished than the other three. He wore leather armor instead of the black livery of the other three and his side bulged with a sword strapped to it. My face lit up when I saw him.

   “Tallis!” He grinned now.

   “I see I caught you during breakfast young master.” Sir Tallis shifted in the doorway. “I’ll be waiting for you to finish. You’ve got a long day ahead of you.” I grinned and began to scarf down herring and apples. An odd meal, but one I rather enjoyed.

   Sir Tallis was my guardian and my friend. Ever since an assassination attempt when I was four, my father made sure I was guarded at all times. There had since been another six attempts, but I had survived all of them.

   Yes they’d tried to kill me seven times thus far. This is how the noble houses in the Sathmore Empire work; we are either allies, trying to kill each other, or trying to replace the Emperor.

   You get used to it in time.

   “A long day?” I asked. My stomach dropped.

   “You have to meet with your tutors today as you know.” Not the tutors. “And you have a meeting with your dancing instructor.” This time I did wince. The other three servants slipped out of the room but Sir Tallis stayed with me. “James, you have to do this.”

   “I hate dancing.” I said. “I’m horrible at it.”

   “I know James.” Sir Tallis said. “I’ve seen you.” Sir Tallis was with me at every one of my activities in case someone should try to kill me for bad dancing. Or whenever I ate a meal. And he waited outside when I went to the privy.

   My falcons free lofted but I remained tethered to a knight at all times. Such is the life of the son of a lord. You envy it and then you live it. How did my twenty-two-year-old self so forget that?

   “What else do I have to do?” I asked.

   “Your father wants more sword practice today.” I clenched my sheets in my little fist. “You’re getting better James. Now we’re—”

   “I’m terrible.” I interrupted. “I don’t want to sword fight anymore.” Please Wvelkim, give me a storm. Sadly the god of the seas had something more important to do. I did talk to the gods when I was young. They never did respond.

   I still remembered the names of all the gods then. That tells you how long ago this was my friend.

   “You are getting better.” Sir Tallis smiled at me. “Eventually you’ll teach me a thing or two.” I forced a smile. My herring had by now gone cold but I kept eating it anyway. “It’s a sign you’re becoming a real man.”

   “I don’t wanna be a real man.” I mumbled. Breakfast was now finished and Sir Tallis opened the door. Without needing to be called the trio of servants returned and swept away my food. Even as I stood new servants arrived to help me dress.

   No I was not allowed to dress myself. You can’t expect the noble brat to put on his own tights can you? I eventually shook the grabby hands of my servants off and smoothed out my hose.

   “I’m fine I’m fine.” I mumbled. The two behind me slithered off, never saying a word. I sat down in one of my father’s fine oak chairs and readjusted my slashed sleeves. “Why they gotta dress me so fancy?”

   “‘Why do they have to’ James, talk properly.” Sir Tallis said. I rolled my eyes. “Your father doesn’t dress himself except on the road. It’s part of being a noble, you have to set yourself above other people.”

   “Why do I gotta do that?” I asked. “I want friends.”

   “You can’t be friends with your subjects James.” Sir Tallis said. “You are the future Lord.” I groaned.

   “I don’t wanna be Lord, I wanna have fun and I don’t wanna sword fight.” I kicked at my chair. I know Sir Tallis sympathized with me but he didn’t say anything. He put his big rough hand on my shoulder. “I hate my father.”

   “Don’t say that James.”

   “I do! I hate him!” My protector sighed.

   “If my son told me that, I’d slap him.” I looked up at my stern faced protector. His hand never left my shoulder but his grip grew tighter.

   “You got a son?” I asked.

   “Yes and a wife. I love them very dearly. I also have a father, still alive. I consider every day he lives a blessing from the Divines.” A few strands of close cropped hair flopped down over Sir Tallis face. He shook them back up. “You should look upon your father and brother as such as well.”

   “Half-brother.” I said. “And I hate my family.” My protector snorted.

   “Family is a precious gift the gods have given us. Family is our chance to not be alone and to be loved. How many animals get that?”

   “Go ask the gods.” I snapped. “Leave me alone!” Sir Tallis forced a smile on. “What?”

   “Remember how I said you had to have more sword training? Well it’s the first activity for today.” I groaned even louder, as only a child can.

   “It’s first? I don’t wanna do it!”

   “I know James.” Sir Tallis said.

   “But why do I gotta learn this at all?” I whined. “We got a navy, they can protect us.” To his eternal credit, Sir Tallis thought about this.

   “I admit I don’t know when you’ll be in combat.” Sir Tallis said. “I actually asked your father once. The only thing he said was ‘A lord must know combat.’ I thought for personal defense, but your father doesn’t carry a sword.” He shrugged his shoulders. “If it’s any consolation, I’ve thought of an answer.”

   “Which is?” He now smiled for real.

   “We do it to make your father happy.” Sir Tallis said. “Because if he’s happy, you get to spend some time with your falcon. Like say, right after glaive training?” Now it was my turn to grin.

   “I get some falconry time today?” Sir Tallis nodded. I let out a happy laugh. “Then let’s get going!” I took off running as fast as I could.

   “James! Wait for me!” I didn’t hear him. All I could hear was the sound of wings flapping in my ears.

Metamor: March 31st 707

   I’ve always had a fondness for markets. The reason why is simple; Isenport itself is half port and half market. Everything is for sale, from the buildings to the people living in them.

   The point is that Isenport is always humming with life and merchants thronging about, trying desperately to sell overpriced wares to imbecilic customers. My father always loathed the markets, though he loved business (and tax revenue from merchants), so going to the market meant being away from him.

   The market square in Metamor then was where I naturally headed. Already carts and storefronts were buzzing with crowds of multi-formed people. An okapi hocked apples to people while a small child tried to sell leather goods.

   “Already none of this seems odd to me.” I mumbled. “I’ve been here too long.” I did want an apple so I reached for my purse. It took me a second to remember I didn’t have any money on me. “Damn it Nemo.”

   Occasionally people looked at me, usually my garish combination of ugly fabrics, but otherwise I drew no notice. On my feet I had a set of custom made sandals (basically clogs) that kept my feet mud free.

   It’s not quite Isenport but it’s not half bad. I looked at a booth set up selling wooden plates and utensils. I can forget about my tail here. A large and ugly tuco-tuco (big brown hamster with a long tail) woman muscled me aside.

   “Watch it!” I snapped. She didn’t even notice me. I rolled my eyes and moved away, just in time for someone to grab my arm.

   “Excuse me madam, can I have a moment of your time!” Before I could move a brown furred, black hooved hand grabbed me. The hand was attached to a dingy black greatcoat with a narrow, brown furred and gray horned head coming out of it.

   “I am sorry madam but you look like a sensible woman and I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.” I tried to yank my hand free except his hoof was surprisingly strong. His face lit up with a sick smile. “You look like a sensible woman as I was saying and I bet a woman of good taste.

   If you call me a woman one more time I’m going to feed you your own horns. I thought, trying to turn away. The goat slid right in front of me. His other hand slipped into the numerous pockets of his coat.

   “Now I’m sure your personality shines like the sun but your scales do not.” I was about to yell at him but I stopped. Did he just…honestly I don’t like these scales either. “So I want to help you madam, I want to help you shine.”

   Instead of correcting him, I kept my mouth shut. I faked a smile for the goat-man. He really does think I’m a woman…oh I gotta wait for the right moment to tell him. The goat man pulled out a handful of shiny gold trinkets.

   “Admit it; you’re imagining how you would look in all of these beauties.” Like I was wearing a plumage that gaudy. I tapped on a gold bracelet with a piece of glass in the center that was supposed to be a jewel. One benefit of running a merchant city? You can tell a fake jewel from a real one. He grinned at me and licked his black nose. “What do you say? You think you and I can do business?”

   “Well from the looks of this jewelry,” I said, letting him hear my real voice and causing his muzzle to drop, “If these have any gold in them it’s a pitifully small amount. Now this ring,” I tapped an emerald ring he had, “Is actually gold and a real jewel. I’ve worn them before, I know. You most likely stole this, am I right?”

   “I-I uh.” He swallowed and let go of my wrist. “Why are you a man?”

   “Why are you an asshole?” I asked. “Why did you think I wasn’t one?”

   “You’re wearing a skirt! Only ladies wear dresses.” I rolled my eyes. “Well you lizards all look the same anyway! How was I supposed to know!”

   “I dunno! Scent! How do you goats tell each other apart.” His fur noticeably bristled at this.

   “I am not just a goat, I am a tahr.” He said, jabbing me in the chest. “And I’ll have you know—

   “Tobias Shatterbock?” He froze. His eyes glanced over my shoulder. “I need to speak to you about some stolen property.”

   “Oh shit!” The tahr (Tobias?) dropped all of his crap and spun on his hooves. He took off running, ducking between two buildings. A blue blur rushed past me and I recovered in time to see a blue tail with a fin sliding between two buildings.

   “And I’m not a woman!” I yelled out.

   “No you’re not.” A feminine voice said behind me. “You’d make the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen. And I say that with only the kindest intentions.” I turned to the speaker, to be greeted by a blond woman. One I had seen before

   She was in frayed breaches and an oversized dirty shirt. Strapped to her side was a hatchet, in her gloved hands was an apple. She carried a sack of them in her other hand.

   “Hey I remember you,” I said, pointing at her, “Uh Aaryn.” She laughed and nodded. “Were you sitting there watching me?” Aaryn nodded again. “You chose not to help me because?”

   “You’re a grown woman, clearly you can help yourself.” She said. My tail raised in irritation. I was going to have to get used to that. “That and I found it funny. Anyway, I’m here getting apples” She took a bite out of one for emphasis, “So uh that’s what I’m up to. Thought I’d say hey.”

   “Yeah well hey.” I turned to leave but paused. “Uh Aaryn, how long have you lived in Metamor?”

   “Long ass time.” She said, coming over beside me. “I got cursed at the Three Gates, that was fun.” We started walking. I noticed she was starring at me but I ignored it. “I was actually born here.”

   “And you’ve lived here your whole life?” She nodded.

   “First I chopped down trees. Now I climb them and chop branches.” Aaryn sighed, “I dunno, I like it. I do know you’re not here to talk tah me about this are ya?” I nodded. “What do ya want to know?”

   “Well my guardian Nemo signed me up for a patrol thing…” Despite the cold air my blood began to burn with anger. “Nemo signed me up for a patrol, said I have no choice.”

   “Not a bit.” Aaryn said, “Everyone in the Keep has to do an amount of mandatory military service. Going on a patrol is easy and most people are doing it. Didn’t you do it where you came from?”

   “Not really.” We came to the main square. I started in the direction of the Deaf Tent. Already my need for a drink was beginning to grow. I pulled the shawl I had wrapped around my head a little tighter.

   The day was cloudless and misty, with a chill that cut into you. The cold made the dirt ground hard as stone and every glass window fogged from the heat inside. The streets were a lot emptier here but we passed the occasional anthro and normal human.

   Despite my companion with me my loneliness roared up in me. Mandatory, I would be going on a mandatory patrol in service to a different county I didn’t know. I turned away from Aaryn to look at the sun. She walked for a bit before noticing I hadn’t followed.

   “Hey?” She asked, “Something wrong?” I nodded my head. “Wanna tell me about it or what?”

   “I’m the son of a lord.” I said. Before Aaryn could continue I cut her off. “Lord Leontes of Isenport, of the Sathmore Empire. I love my city.”

   My yelling got a few looks. Most people looked away and walked faster. “I loved being part of the Empire, even if I didn’t…I still don’t get what it means to be the Lord of a city. What I know is though, I was a citizen of the Empire.

   “Now I’m doing service for a foreign country. I don’t fucking like it here but Nemo expects me to shut up and deal with it.” Aaryn nodded. “You get my problem?”

   “I think so.” She said. “I think you’re over reacting too. Like, it’s just a patrol; no one is making you swear a vow or anything.” I shrugged.

   “Still wish someone had asked me.” I said. “I got volunteered. Just like at home, no one cares what I want.” I shook my head and rubbed at the scales around my eyes. For some reason that made me feel better. Aaryn said something to me. “Wha? Sorry…”

   “Jamie?” Aaryn asked, her hand reaching out to stroke my arm. “Something else bothering you?”

   “I don’t like it when people don’t care about what I want.” I said. “It’s been that way my whole life.” Aaryn nodded.

   “I can get that. Everyone said when I got gendered, I’d have to quit chopping down trees. I showed them!” She laughed. “Okay, I cut limbs, but still…” Aaryn trailed off for a second. Then her eyes lit up. “I got something for you!”

   Tied to Aaryn’s waist was a small axe. She untied it and handed it to me. “One thing I learned, you can always use an axe. Axes fix everything.” I recoiled from the splintery wooden handle. She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be a pussy, take it!”

   “Sorry, I got a thing about…those. I don’t want an axe.”

   “It’s a hatchet, asshole. Besides, it’ll be helpful, trust me on this.” She’s got a point there. Against my better judgement, I reached over and gingerly took the axe from her. The handle pricked me through my scales.

   “This handle is rough.” I mumbled. Aaryn shrugged. In hindsight I wonder if that was a warning of things to come. Before my patrol was over this hatchet would sting very badly. At the time I just gave Aaryn my fast thanks.

   “When you finish, come find me.” Aaryn said. “I’ll buy you something to eat and we’ll talk about all the crap Misha put you through.” I cocked my head. “Misha is awesome, you’ll love him.” We’ll get to that a little later

   I thanked her again and then said my good-byes. I had to get back home.

   Nemo had for the last few days explored the city, looking for potential sources of income for when he transformed. Today though he had stayed at our home with a feeling of…something off. Just something off the entire time.

   “Am I changing?” He held up his hands. “I…I think I am but…maybe not. I won’t change right away…” I walked in and found Nemo still examining his hands.

   “Yes they’re dirty and need to be washed.” I said. “The problem is we can’t get clean here and this city smells like animal shit.”

   “I can manage to stay clean.” Nemo said. “You’re dirty because you haven’t changed your dress in a week.” His gaze turned to the weapon in my hand. “You have a hatchet?”

   “I ran into…someone I met before.” I said. “She, or is it he? I don’t know, she let me borrow it. She said we could always use a hatchet.” I shuddered at the thought of needing it. “Uh, I gotta return it after we get back…” I sighed. “Am I betraying Isenport?” Nemo raised an eye-brow.

   “Okay of all the things I expected you to ask, that was not on the list. No I don’t think you are.”

   “Am I becoming a part of Metamor Keep by going on patrol?” I asked. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to give in to living here. I really don’t want to accept it.” Nemo rolled his eyes.

   “James, we’re living here now. You don’t have to like it, but they’ve agreed to shelter us. You can afford to repay them for their kindness. They’re not asking for muchm James.” I sighed.

   “Yeah I guess. I don’t want to do this though.” I retreated into my room before Nemo could say anything. “I don’t want to repay them…” I closed my eyes and sank to the floor against my door. “I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to die.”

   With my eyes closed I could still see perfectly. Only now I could see my death in the forest. My burial here, I’d die forgotten in a city of monsters.

   “Maybe if I keep my eyes closed time won’t move on.” I knew that wasn’t going to happen, but I kept hoping anyway.

   I waited with dread for night. That gnawing sensation that makes each minute turn into a stone in your stomach. When night finally came Nemo had to drag me from the confinement of my room. He carried his glaive Qual, I carried Aaryn’s hatchet. The sun hung low and the air felt cool.

   “You could have left me behind.” I grimaced.

   “Everyone in Metamor Keep must do some kind of mandatory service. Besides you’ve been on that bed for so long you’re in danger of merging with it.”

    “Yeah yeah…” I frowned. “Why night?” Nemo shrugged.

    “No idea. This place has survived an assault, they may just need more people trained as quickly as possible.”

    “Yeah I guess.” I said. “But do they need me?” Nemo didn’t respond. I had nothing else to say.

   When you’re in the Long Scouts, you get the Long Hall to stay in. You get a band of people to support you. You take respect and praise away from the harder working and deeply under appreciated Watch (at least according to someone close to me).

   When you go on a mandatory patrol, you get a day notice and a location to meet a group of total strangers you’ll be stuck with for the next day. In my case I was told to meet my party by a gate (damned if I can remember which one) and to bring food and a weapon.

   At least I think that’s what I was told. This is not the part of the story I remember. No what I remember was coming up.

   As we arrived at our destination I was greeted by four figures of varying species standing together. Nemo informed me that six of us would be on this stupid Patrol, four people who had never been before and two Long Scouts. This was before I knew who the Long Scouts were.

   Now of the four people there, one was a meerkat looking completely uncomfortable holding a bow. One was a brown and black canine…thing, female and with breasts desperately trying to escape her top. One was an older human male who didn’t talk at all. Then came the fourth one.

   Misha always seems like a walking armory to me. I still remember what he looked like when he saw me. His face was scarred and his eyes cold as stone. They focused on the two of us as we approached.

   This was the one leading our patrol and the only one with any experience. He was a fox. I’ve hunted enough of them to recognize one from a mile away. He wore black; he carried an impractical looking axe. Or was he carrying a bow? Meh, I’ll say both.

   I should mention before I continue, my friend, that Misha Brightleaf was well known in the Keep, or at least it seemed that way. He was well respected. People liked him. To all those people I warn you to stop reading now.

   Oh Misha Brightleaf. Oh how you annoy me.

   In Isenport there is a red wax stamp merchants use called the Mister Nasty stamp. They put it on jars to let illiterate customers know this jar holds deadly poison that should be stayed away from. Misha if I had my way, you’d wear one on your forehead.

   For now all Misha did was cock his head at my guise. He scratched his muzzle in confusion.

   “Uh you are here for the patrol right?” Why else would we be here twit. Misha’s eyes weren’t on Nemo, just on me. You’d think he’d never seen a man in a dress before.

   “We don’t have to be.” I said. “We could turn around and leave right now.”

   “Yes we are.” Nemo said over my protests. “I am Nemo and this is my charge, James of Isenport.” He said it automatically in his usual professional way. He’d said those words a thousand times but he left a few words out.

   I’m just James of Isenport. My stomach dropped. Not future Lord of Isenport. Already this and the stupid patrol put me in a bad mood.

   “Okay…” Misha said. “I was told to expect two men.”

   “I am a man!” I snarled at them, “I ain’t lost my dick yet!” Nemo actually facepalmed at this. Misha looked bemused. “What!?”

   “Well we’re going to be going into the woods north of the Keep and you’re wearing what looks like a big dress. That’s going to rip, I’d go put on pants.”

   “It’s not a damn dress! It’s a sarong!” I shouted at him. “I am not changing a thing!”

   “Hey!” Misha snapped back. “Don’t you yell at me. You want to wear a dress in the woods? Fine, you’ll pay for it.” I rolled my eyes. Misha I noticed visibly clenched “We’re leaving now. I gave you a chance.”

   I took a chance to examine my two anthro-companions for this forced death march. The one closest to me was a meerkat. He had tan colored fur badly tangled with twigs and dirt streaked throughout. His eyes were orange and playful. His cloak was a tattered forest green, also streaked with dirt. It only went down to his knees, his legs extended past the hem of his pants by a few inches.

   The meerkat had a crossbow in his hands that he rubbed occasionally. Peaking out from over his shoulder was a quiver half empty. I hoped I wouldn’t see him have to use the bow tonight. He seemed ready for anything. His name was Bos.

   The female canine only came up to his chest. Her fur was smooth, freshly combed and a red-honey color. Her eyes were dark blue and her lips held in a small smile. Her hands were clasped behind her back and her shoulders were stiff. She wore dark leather armor with a short sword tied to her waste. Her name was Shema.

   Bos and Shema, like Aaryn, would be in my life for years to come. They would be two of my most stalwart companions. More importantly they would be two of my best friends. And thus they met me saying the only appropriate thing at the time.

   “Are you a dog or some shit?” I asked the female. She laughed.

   “I had to do some research but I am a dhole.” She extended a clawed hand. “My name is Shema.” I raised my hand but dropped it before they could see my new claws. “uh, this is my first patrol. I believe everyone except our vulpine leader is here for the first time.”

   “I guess.” I said. “I don’t want to be here.”

   “Ah yoo’ll geh ussed to eeeh-t!” The meerkat said, slapping me on the back and almost causing me to fall over. I don’t know what surprised me more, the slap or that accent. I did a double take.

   “Excuse me?”

   “Ih’ll be fun tonight.” The meerkat smiled. “Ah’m Bos. Yoo?” What accent is that? This was a man no matter where he was on Earth, he’d always be foreign.

   “My names is James, future Lord of Isenport.” I said. “You may address me as James or better yet, not at all.” Both of my companions frowned. It’s the belief of nobles that people are happy to put up with their crap just for the chance to bask in their presence. This idea is wrong. “You two are armed as well, are we going to be in danger?”

   “I was attacked the day I got here.” Shema said. “I think that’s reason enough to be armed.”

   “Besise scale-tail” Bos said with a grin, “Ihs fun shoo-in arrows!” He made a mock archery stance to emphasize the point. The sound of clapping interrupted us.

   “Hey, we’re leaving.” Misha said.

May 17th, 697

   “He doesn’t like me.” I said. My arm was straight out and utterly rigid.

   “He doesn’t know you well enough yet.” Sir Tallis said. “Would you trust someone you barely know?”

   “I wouldn’t be a wild animal.” I said. The Harris hawk on the end of my arm glared at me. I tried to take a step back, except my arm went with me so the hawk did also. Around his left leg were little bells, they jingled every time I moved.

   “James all you want to do today is get the bird used to being perched on your arm.” Sir Tallis stayed behind me at all times, watching and never touching. Further behind him were five knights who watched us.

   My father had me watched at all times. Despite being only twelve I had nearly been assassinated three times already. When you’re in any position of authority in the Empire (or could be) everyone want to kill you so THEY can be the target of assassins.

   Life is funny like that.

   “He’s a beautiful bird isn’t he?” Sir Tallis asked. I swallowed. “James, he won’t hurt you.”

   “I know.” I said. “It’s just…I was hoping to spend more time with him before doing this.” Sir Tallis laughed.

   “James starring at your bird while he is in his mews is not spending time with him. My arm by now was beginning to throb and sweat was rolling into my breeches. I flexed my fist.

   “It’s almost spending time with him.” I said. The hawk turned his head to match my gaze. His eyes pierced my skull. I closed my eyes but I could still feel him starring at me. My skin began to crawl. “What if he flies away?” Tallis snorted. “What?”

   “I expect him to fly away.” Sir Tallis said. “Every bird will try to fly away no matter how well trained they are. Especially when they aren’t well trained. But that’s why we have the bells.”

   “Right, right the bells.” I stammered. “Well I’ve had him out for a while, why don’t we put him back in his mews?”

   “Because you told me you wanted to be trained in falconry.” Sir Tallis said. “I will train you James, but it will take time.” I glanced back at the other knights. Of the four knights there, at least one was a mage. “James do not take your eyes off your bird.” My head snapped back.

   “Sorry sorry sorry.” Sir Tallis gestured at the bag tied around my waste.

   “Take some food from your bag. We’re going to try feeding your hawk.” Of course we were. I gingerly reached into my bag.

   “Kay, don’t move.” My hawk cocked his head. “Please don’t move!” Now my guardian was laughing at me. “Shut up!”

   “I’m trying.” Sir Tallis said. His face was red with mirth and his body was shaking.

   “I’ll have dad put you in stocks!” I snapped.

   “No doubt. Now please James pull out one scrap of meat.” I swallowed and stuck my hand into the pile of greasy scraps. Cold, squishy and all of it very greasy. Now my hawk turned his gaze to my eyes.

   “Tal, he’s looking at me!” I cried. The knights behind me hid their laughter as best they could.

   “Of course he’s looking at you.” Sir Tallis said.

   “He’s going to claw my face off!” I stammered. “He’s gonna kill me!” Sir Tallis didn’t even bother hiding rolling his eyes. The little hawk had actually turned his gaze to the hand in my bag.

   “James, he’s interested in what you have.” Sir Tallis said. “That’s a good thing; you need to hold your birds interest.” I nodded. Gingerly I removed the chunk of meat.

   “Skreeeee!” My hawk fluttered his wings and my scream matched his.

   “James!” Sir Tallis brought me back to reality. “You said you wanted to learn falconry, you have to learn this way.”

   “What way?” I whined.

   “The same way I learned. I promise you my liege you will be just fine.” Sir Tallis raised a hand as if to clap me on the back. To do such a thing would mean to lose the hand.

   My father made it a rule; you were only to touch his wife, his sons or his whores if protecting their lives. Sir Tallis realized this and lowered his hand but he kept smiling at me. I grimaced.

   “I just…I don’t want to hurt him. But I don’t want him to hurt me!” Sir Tallis shook his head.

   “James he won’t hurt you, he’s scared of you.” I nodded. He’s scared of me. He’s scared of me.

   I raised the chunk of meat again and my hawk cocked his head. I held it forward, just on the tips of my fingers. He reached down and snatched it. “Yowch!”

   “Something wrong?” Sir Tallis asked.

   “He pecked me!” I tried shaking the pain out of my fingers. “I told you he was going to hurt me.” Now my men were laughing at me, even Sir Tallis was failing. “Quiet! I’m gonna have you thrown in jail!”

   “We don’t doubt it sir.” Sir Tallis said, wiping tears from his eyes. “You need to relax James. You’re fine but your bird will hurt you the first time. That’s natural.”

   “It is not!” I said, my arms shaking. “I should never have to be in pain! I’m gonna be your lord!” Now I was whining so hard that I couldn’t pay attention. If I had been I might have noticed Sir Tallis pointing.

   “Uh James? Your arm?”

   “I can have you sent to jail!” I yelled at them. Now I began to gesture, causing my hawk to screech. Sir Tallis began to yell at me.

   “Arm James! Arm!” I paused just in time for my hawk to screech at me and take off like a bolt from a bow. We stood there as my bird flew straight to the roof of the manor and clenched down, glaring at us.

   At this point all of the knights fell to the ground laughing. I glared at them as fiercely as a twelve-year-old can. This naturally made them laugh harder.

   “Stop this!” A voice rang out above the laughter. We all looked up to see a lone figure marching towards us. I sighed.

   “Enfer!” Sir Tallis greeted the approaching knight, “What brings you out to our young lord’s lesson?” The new visitor was perpetual sour puss and lieutenant in the Noble Guard, Sir Enfer.

   Like Sir Tallis, Enfer was tall but much thinner. His red hair was falling out, what wisps and clumps were left stuck straight up. His body swayed as he moved, his arms leapt around whenever he talked. His eyes were a weird shade of brown, almost orange.

   “I’m not coming here to watch this foolishness.” Sir Enfer said. “Our young lord was supposed to be at his next lessons.” My head sunk.

   “My next lesson is dance!” I whined. “Don’t make me go.”

   “Sir Enfer is right.” Tallis said. “You have to attend your lessons, knowing how to dance matters when you are a Lord. You will host balls and other events here one day and attend many more.” My hawk punctuated this with a screech. Sir Enfer glanced up at him.

   “Why is there a hawk up there?”

   “He tried to attack me!” I said. Sir Enfer just rubbed his temples and nodded.

   “You men” He pointed at them, “I expect you to get that bird down. And Sir Tallis, I will be escorting you and our lord to his next lesson.”

   “Yes sir boss!” Tallis said, mock-saluting. He gestured and I followed behind, my head down the entire time. “I’m not trusted to look after my charge?”

   “I don’t trust you to, Lord Leontes should not either.” Sir Enfer kept up pace on my other side. I looked up at them.

   Could one of them be a mage? I thought to myself. Dad has mages hidden in the knights and that would be cool. Wish I had magic… We entered inside the manor and made our way through the winding maze of corridors. I wonder where grandpa hid the secret passage. I know it’s somewhere.

   We came to the ball room doors, two massive oak slabs. Engraved on them were the family crest over and over, even on the door latch. Enfer nodded at Sir Tallis.

   “I will relieve you of our young master.”

   “I stand relieve.” I let out a cry.

   “I hate dance!” I whined. “And I hate you!” I grabbed onto Sir Tallis. “I want you to stay here.”

   “Sorry my friend.” Sir Tallis smiled but didn’t touch me. “I’ve got a wife and boy of my own to return home to.” He disentangled himself from my little arms. I watched him walk away.

   “I wish you wouldn’t dislike me so.” Sir Enfer said. “I have your best interests at heart.”

   “No you don’t.” I snapped.

   I forgot how young I was then; I couldn’t see what was obvious. I’ll get into it soon though.

Woods: March 31st

   How long did it take us to reach the woods from Metamor Keep? I honestly don’t remember. I want to say it took a while, but I remember being in the woods that evening. Maybe we left earlier than I remember, I don’t know.

   What I do remember was trying to talk to my traveling companions. Misha and Nemo had gotten to discussing something early on. That left me with the other three.

   I had first tried talking to the older man. The only thing I got from him was his name had been Marnie, he had hoped to be made young, and he didn’t want to talk to me. Fine enough, I doubt I’d want to talk to me.

   Instead I decided to get to know my two anthro companions. I figured if I was going to be on this cursed journey I might as well try to make some new friends.

   Bos and Shema…I miss both of you so much. Time has left me here while it has swept my friends one by one away from me. Even my beloved has been taken away while I remain an old man.

   It’s only as an old man with your memories as your only comfort that you look towards the past. As I do I can see the mistakes I made and I wonder…why did you two continue to associate with me?

   I must preface this next section by stating none of this is altered. This was one hour into the patrol from hell, exactly as I remembered it to be. All of this was what happened, unaltered.

   Trust me; I couldn’t alter events to make my younger self look worse.

   My dress carried with it every ounce of water in the air and every twig in the damn forest. I couldn’t move without catching on to something, but at least I had a group I was with so I didn’t get stuck. Nemo and Bos helped me and Shema caught me when I almost fell over.

   “Thank you.” I said, brushing mud off my skirt as best I could. Our only light was the dim torch light that somehow covered me more in shadow than anything else.

   “No problem.” She said, giving a small bow. Her big ears framed against the moon gave her an almost sinister look. It didn’t help that the only part of her in light was her smile and little fangs. “Just try to be careful future lord James.” I rolled my eyes.

   “Did his dress get caught again?” Misha asked from the front of the group.

   “It’s not a dress!” I snarled. “It’s a sarong and a top that I sewed myself, I sewed myself!”

   “Keep your voice down, they can hear you in the keep!” Misha snapped at me. “Now let’s get moving.” Even without the light I could imagine his fur bristling and his ears pinned against his head in irritation. I had yet to notice Misha had only one ear, that’s just how observant I was.

   Each tree seemed like a pillar to me, with knives sticking out of it waiting to cut me. As I passed by I could see some monsters waiting just outside the corner of my eye, ready to eat me. My heart began to hammer against my chest as I climbed over a soaked log.

   No fear James. You’ve shown them how scared you are, don’t do it here. I bit my bottom lip. Don’t show them fear? I’ve hid in my room for the past month or cried a lot. I went out and vomited on a knight’s hooves. Everyone who sees me knows I’m a coward.

   Someone tapped on my shoulder, snapping me out of my self pity. I glanced over to Bos, his eyes glinting in the dark. Shema beside him also looked at me with an air of curiosity.

   “Somethin’ wrong? You almost walked into a tree for a sec’ there” I shook my head.

   “I appreciate it but I’m…I don’t want to be here.” I sighed. “In Isenport when we need soldiers, you can pay a fee to avoid being drafted. I want that here in Metamor, it’s so much more civilized.”

   “You guys bribe yur way out of that? Shit thas weird.” Bos said. Shema gave a nod at this. “Thas only nice when you got da gold to do it. Sucks to be a poor guy like me.”

   “It doesn’t seem very fair to poor merchants and the like.” Shema said. “Most unfortunate for them.” Yes if only they could have been born rich and noble like me. Except life is miserably unfair, something my younger self was only learning.

   “They just need to make more money.” I said. This concept of unfairness was one I had yet to internalize. “If they had more money, they’d not have to go die in whatever war the Emperor sent them off to.” My two companions jaws dropped in unison. “What?”

   “You really were a sheltered thing weren’t you?” Shema said. “That’s interesting. Move faster, though, we’re falling behind.” I turned to the other three, now far enough away that their torch was somewhere in the background. We took off, my skirt and masculinity billowing in the night breeze.

   “I hate running.” I panted as we rejoined the others. Misha glanced back at me.

   “Stop complaining. Everyone has to do this once.” I mumbled a few curses under my breath as we rejoined the death march.

   “Les talk about somthin’ else.” Bos said to me. “Since ya don’t know about bein’ poor n stuff.” I shrugged. We moved into a clearing, free of both trees and leaves. And grass, meaning the wet ground was one thing. Mud, mud up to my ankles that pulled my dress down. I struggled with it with every step.

   “Are you distressed?” Shema asked.

   “I’m fine.” I growled, now pulling at least two pounds of mud. Even I couldn’t do that for long so I stumbled to a stop. “Hey, rage fox, give me a hand?” Misha stopped.

   “Excuse me?”

   “You’re the strong one here, you’re much stronger than me and I’m stuck. Pull me out.” Misha ignored me and kept moving. “Hey!”

   “James, you’ve told me twice now you don’t want my help. So you’re not getting it. Either catch up or we’re leaving you behind.” That’s exactly how it went down in case you’re curious dear reader.

   So it wasn’t just me being a petty jackass.

   I mumbled more curses but did manage to pull my skirt from the quagmire. Shema moved to help but I brushed her off. Up ahead I could see Nemo beside Misha, in the torchlight I could see them talking.

   Why are you talking to that annoying fox? Nemo was gesturing to Misha’s oversized ax and pointing to Qual at the same time. Yeah you both got runic weapons; I bet you both feel so special. I fingered the hatchet Aaryn had given me. Mine chops trees though.

   Finally through the mud our walk got a little easier. Now all I had to worry about was the trees, branches, thorns, wild animals, invading armies and possibly the evil spirits in this forest. But at least no mud!

   “Why on Earth are we here?” I asked Bos. He had his bow out and kept pulling its string and releasing it. No arrows but there was no need, thus far no one had attacked us. “This forest is supposed to be haunted, why do you want to go to a haunted forest?”

   “Why’d ya wanna go to a cursed city?” Bos asked.

   “I asked Father that question.” I took my hatchet out and chopped it against a tree trunk. Every few feet I repeated the process, leaving little notches in the firs and birches. “I didn’t want to go to Metamor, I said it was stupid then. Now I say going into a haunted forest is stupid.

   “Thas why they got two Long Scouts leadin’ us, they got experience with this sorta thing.” Bos said. He scratched at his ears in a very meerkat manner. “Sides, I ain’t no slouch with a bow lizard man.” He fell into an archer stance to punctuate this. “I killed a loh as a hunner Jimmy.”

   “James, my name is James.” I said, swinging my hatchet. “I’m not terrible with this thing myself.”

   “Ya ever used ih before?”

   “Of course not.” I said. “It’s a little hand-ax thing, how hard can it be.” I twirled it in my hand and only succeeded in almost dropping it. “Uh, okay maybe I need a little practice…”

   “Ook me yeahs ‘o geh good wih ‘is.” Bos said, twanging his bow. Shema fingered her short sword with her free hand but didn’t say anything. The only weapon I had any experience with was my glaive but that was lying back in my dwelling.

   Behind us an owl hooted and twigs began to break. My stomach began to climb into my throat. Every pinprick among the branches was an eye watching me. Looking up at Misha at the head of our group, I compared his form and mine.

   I was stiff, ready to flare at every noise. He was calm, his body looked almost relaxed. Yet despite that I never doubted for a second he could strike anything down if it attacked him. He was ready for this.

   I’m not ready; I want to get out of here. I want to go home, why can’t I just buy my way out of here? Because things didn’t work that way in Metamor Keep. They actually expected you to honor commitments, not just negotiate your way out of them.

   “Bos, what the hell is your accent?” I asked. He snorted. “You can’t say T to save your life. You sound…well like you’re from everywhere. Foreign no matter where you’re from.” Now he laughed.

   “I cah say T if I ‘ry” Bos said. “And well James, I wass from loss-a places. I wass born to ‘aveling merc-naries so I been everywhere.” He strummed at his bow. “I hadda hun for our food usually, so I goh good fass.”

   “Hunting with a bow?” I shuddered. “Not something I could do.” No I only made hawks hunt for me. “You ever killed someone?” Bos sighed.

   “Once.” He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask. “Mostly deer, nevah wanna eat anotha one. Was you really a lord?”

   “Yes I was a lord, or I would have been.” I said. “Father had to die first. Somehow he just kept on living.”

   “You seem bitter.” Shema said, suddenly speaking up. I had actually forgotten she was there. The air was icy and damp and it felt like walking through a wall of water. I began rubbing the back of my head, trying to generate some heat.

   “Bitter? Why would I be bitter?” I asked. “My father dumped me in a cursed city that he stupidly went to for some reason, he never did tell me.” I rubbed the back of my head probably fast enough to create smoke.

   “But on the plus side, I’ve grown a tail! That’s the gift that fucking pays for itself!” Now I was yelling but I didn’t care. “My dad is going to tell them I’m dead back at home, meaning I can’t fucking return home.”

   “Keep your voice down!” Misha yelled at me. The group ground to a halt. “If I have to stop again, I will force you to march back to Metamor.”

   “Is that a promise?” I snarked.

   “It’s a promise that you’ll be alone in this forest with only your wits to save you,” Brightleaf said, “I can only imagine how long it will be before those run dry.” Jackass. We resumed walking again and I kept steaming.

   “I like hav-en uh tail myself.” Bos said. “I like being a meerkat, they so cute. I can still use uh bow an’ arrow.”

   “How’d you end up here?” I asked. Bos shrugged.

   “Liked Metamor, wannad uh ssay.” There’s a quaint notion, wanting to stay in a city that is cursed. Personally I’ve always found that a foolish desire. “Wanne uh be a fuzzy furry crit. Meerkat is furzzy.”

   “You turned into an animal man.” I said.

   “Yeah, mose people nah so lucky.” Bos said. I started to say something but the words couldn’t escape my throat. “I geh Uh see wha iss like ‘o be par’ animal. Thas so awesome.”

   “You don’t mind?” Patric was happy and living his life. Sir Egland was proud, noble and not at all hindered by his antlers. They were kind to me even when I yelled at them for being cursed…like I am…I want out of here.

   This desire bubbled up again like a miasma from inside me. Even after a month that desire for self pity hadn’t gone away yet. But, Eli help me, this damn patrol was going to help me deal with those feelings.

   “I think you’re crazy.” I mumbled. “I think you’re wrong.”

   “And you ah right?”

   “Obviously.” I said. “Being cursed is always a bad thing. It’s not good and if you do it to yourself willingly you’re a damn idiot.” Willingly being cursed is the action of an idiot, I still believe that.

   But being cursed isn’t always a bad thing. I should have known that, it helped me meet Bos. How odd, such an important event in my life came from me being dragged kicking and screaming into the woods.

   Bos and Shema both would affect me in different ways in the future. But more on that later.

   Berl’s vision had improved enough at night to see in the dull moon light. Saphir was just in front of him, gesturing when they stopped. The leader directed how they moved and even set the tone for their steps. They moved in such a way as to blend in with the background noise.

   “We will never be hidden from the beasties of Metamor.” Saphir had told him. “They can hear better, smell better than we can. Best we can hope for is sound like the woods. Get ‘em thinking we’re just a part of the background.”

   But what happens if they really do hear us? Berl began to hyperventilate. They have real knives and swords and axes and…oh gods please watch over me. He whispered prayers under his breath.

   Time was bending in on itself here in the woods. Berl could see what had brought him here, but he could also see every moment where he could have escaped. He felt the warmth of his cabin with his mother, where she told him of the Golden Circle.

   Then a second time at the grave of his father. Then again and again, constantly reassuring him of the nobility of the hunt. Filling him with stories of the chase, the thrill of smiting evil. Wearing him down day by day until Berl had agreed.

   And now I’m here in the woods. Berl shook his head. Did she ever see me as her son? Really did she? Was I just a tool for her glory? He rubbed his eyes. Don’t think that, you can trust her and the Golden Circle. It’s the monsters of Metamor. You can’t trust them. Berl looked up into the woods. Are those lights? His breath froze in his chest.

   The hunt leader signaled for them to stop. The leader then approached just close enough to see better, stopping against the bow of the hill. He glanced back and nodded. Each man in the party tensed and gripped their weapons of choice.

   They had found Keepers.

   May 18th, 697

   It was cloudless that day, a rarity on the coast. I was sweating and nursing bruises on my arms. Whenever I trained with a weapon the knights were not actually allowed to strike me. But they did all the time.

   If father had known he’d have had them imprisoned, or possibly executed. So I decided just to not let him know anytime someone hit me in training. I mean, I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, even Master Ban who kept the stables and trained me on how to ride a horse.

   I may have hated that animal and hated Master Ban even more but I didn’t want them to get in trouble.

   “You’re dead again sir.” Sir Vent said as he struck my legs. The motion of the blow carried and knocked on my back. Before I could get up a blade was pointed at my chest. “Terribly sorry about that sir.”

   Sir Vent didn’t usually train with me. In fact he wasn’t even the first back up but the second. Unlike Sir Tallis he was a bald, with a thick neck and little beady eyes. The hot sun turned his head cherry red.

   Sir Tallis was being kept late because his son was sick with some illness. Sir Enfer I had no idea about. I missed Sir Tallis, I hoped Enfer would be gone for a long time.

   “But why can’t he just call a healer to look after him?” I whined. “Whenever me or that brat gets sick, father always calls one.” Sir Vent, one of the many legions of knights my father kept on retainer, did his best to hide rolling his eyes. “If they can look after me, they can look after Tallis’ kid too!”

   “That is true young lord.” Sir Vent said. “But your father doesn’t want to call the court physician to the aide of just a knight.” I lowered my training glaive.

   “Okay well then I want to call him. I’m the son of the Lord; go tell him to see Sir Tallis.” Sir Vent exchanged a knowing smile with two of the knights standing guard. They smiled back. “What?”

   “Your father has already said no such things will be done.” Sir Vent said. “Don’t worry; Sir Tallis will be back as soon as he can.” Most of the knights lived in barracks on the manor grounds. Some, though, had risen high enough in my father’s estimate to warrant small cottages.

   These small cottages dotted the grounds and the line of the Brummagem forest. Sir Tallis’s was on the edge of the forest, as far as it could get from the manor. It sat on a hill that overlooked Isenport. I’d never been inside of it but I had ridden by on horse once.

   Father said it’s important to know where servants lived but never to accept an invitation in. You have to remind them of their place.

   My current round of glaive training had come after a morning spent working on penmanship, studying history and learning how to dance. Somehow being beaten upside the head with a hard piece of wood hurt less then having to dance.

   “Vent why do I have to do this?” I whined while returning to my fighting stance. He cocked his head.

   “What do you mean sir?”

   “Why do I have to learn how to fight with a glaive?” I said. “It’s so boring and I mean, when is it going to be helpful?” Sir Vent’s expression didn’t change, he looked completely confused.

   “Why wouldn’t it be helpful sir?”

   “Never mind Vent.” I sighed. “I guess…I just don’t get it.”

   “You will eventually sir.” Vent said in his simple way. I look back at this thick headed man and I don’t feel anger. I feel a kind of pity. Life must be so simple when your outlook is uncomplicated. Things happen because they happen, no need to think beyond that.

   We again went through our routine of glaive fighting. I was faster then Sir Vent and more coordinated, but he had about two hundred pounds on me. The moment his weapon made contact with mine it went sailing out of my hands. Every blow knocked me back on my rear.

   This is so boring. I dodged one of Sir Vent’s swings. Tallis would have been talking to me. He’d make this fun. Why’d his dumb son have to go and get sick now? Did it just to make me have a bad day.

   I hit Sir Vent as hard as I could in the leg with the staff of my glaive. The blow sent shocks up my arm and did nothing to him. He just smiled at me with pity. After this I gotta study tactics and strategy, what’s the difference? Why do I got to do any of this? I never wanted to be son of a lord.

   “Are you getting tired sir? If so we can head early to your grammar lesson.” I groaned.

   “Can’t I get some falconry time?” I asked, wringing my hands on the glaive.

   “Oh I’m sorry young sir, only Sir Tallis is allowed to train you when it comes to falconry. Your father’s orders.” He would do that, that’s what frightens me.

   “Let’s keep training.” I mumbled. “I wouldn’t—

   “Fire!” Our heads jerked around. “The manor is on fire!” The yell came from one of my father’s stewards. He stood beside a hole which pitch black smoke poured out of. A window was broken and papers were flying out as fast as they could.

   Everything that happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. Sir Vent dropped his glaive as I dropped mine, splashing mud all over me. Vent turned and ran, followed by the other knights.

   The serving women were also running now. One I remember was a washing girl, dropping the laundry as she ran. All of the whites blew away and one sheet blew around my legs.

   I kicked it off and walked through the thronging knights, towards the fire. The heat and embers blew my hair back and singed at my eyebrows. For a second I wondered if my father was in the fire. Only for a second.

   The window was now consumed with columns of black smoke, with a dull glow across the bottom. I don’t know what I felt then beyond confusion. Seeing my house on fire felt unreal. I was completely numb.

   “James!” The voice broke through the numbness. “James come here!” I turned away from the fire. The world all around me became a blur of heat, bodies and smoke. All of them seemed to fall away from one figure in the distance.

   “Sir Tallis?” He smiled at me, and beckoned me forward. “What-what are you doing here?”

   I walked past the swarming people. Despite being the second most important person in Isenport, no one paid me any notice. One knight even bumped into me. The chorus of voices called for people to get out and to locate my father.

   “I’m glad you’re okay James” Sir Tallis said, pulling me into an embrace. “When I saw the manor was on fire, I rushed here to get you.” I nodded, not really understanding what he was saying.

   “Why are you here?” I asked. “I thought your son was sick.” Tallis just kept smiling.

   “Don’t worry, I’ll explain later.” He took my hand. “Come on, I need to get you out of here.”

   “Bu-but I” I glanced back at the mansion but stumbled on along behind him.

   Woods: Midnight

   After a certain point the roar of exhaustion blots out your mind. You don’t think about your actions, you just act. What thoughts you do have are fractured and bounce between which of your body parts hurts the most.

   Now it was my knees because I was having to climb over yet another blasted branch. I think Bos, Shema and Marnie were struggling also, not sure. I know Nemo and that damn fox were just fine.

   Wanna go home wanna go home wanna go room. Yes even that bloody room in Metamor with my slab bed. I would have loved it so badly right now. A dry, warm room. Even a dry cold room, I’d take it so long as it was dry. I say this as a reptile who needs the damp to survive.

   We seemed to be slowing to a stop. I let out a deep sigh of relief, only for Misha to point us another direction. Then we were off and walking again.

   “When do we—“ Misha held up a paw, which I barely made out in the dim light. “What? I just—“

   “Be quiet!” He snapped.

   “But I want to go home!” Our party slowed to a stop. Even though I could only see outlines, I could almost see Misha gritting his teeth. “This is so boring, and the woods are too cold. We’ve been out all evening.”

   “We will rest soon but not yet.” Misha said. “Now please keep moving.”

   “You’re not letting us rest because you are mad at me personally aren’t you!?” I can’t prove that was true but there was a good chance of that. Misha just sighed.

   “We can rest now.” Misha said. “But I want you to be quiet. In fact, I need you to not talk from now until…” He trailed off.

   “Until what?” I asked.

   “Until one of us dies.” Asshole. I started to yell more when an arrow whizzed by my head.

   Oh gods please not this again. Everything slowed to a crawl. Our torch bearers swung around, to see seven forms in the tree line. They looked at us, we at them and no one moved.

   We froze for only a second, but that second lasted forever. I can remember what everyone else did. Misha and Nemo both raised their weapons. Bos stepped back and began to raise his. Shema grabbed me and pulled me back. I guess she figured I was the least ready for this.

   And bless her she was right.

   I stumbled back and landed flat on my tail. The shock dulled the pain of my fall. I couldn’t think, or speak or do anything.

   I want to interrupt my narration for a minute to talk about panic and how it affects us. Anyone who has ever read a Romance thinks they know what they can do when under assault. You read about the shining white knight fighting the black, and you know how you’d handle that black knight.

   Let me tell you something. You don’t know anything. When you are really under attack, you are going to do two things: freeze and panic. Sometimes if you’re really lucky, you’ll lose control of your bowls.


   Bos jerked back from being struck in the shoulder. The arrow promptly fell and clattered against the rocks. Bos rubbed his bruised shoulder, then started firing his more lethal arrows.

   I didn’t see this at the time. I saw someone I had been talking to get hit by an arrow. I scooted away from Bos, until I bumped against a tree.

   “James!” Nemo yelled out. “James get behind me!” I shook my head. I don’t think he could see me. In fact I know he couldn’t. He just assumed I was in trouble.

   I don’t want to be here. Nemo yelled out again and this time I screamed. No no no. I blocked my ears and closed my eyes. Only a second later an arrow flew past my head. I have to get out of here.

   If I had been calm, I would have realized Misha was combat hardened and ready for something like this. He remained calm and was already directing those in our group who had bows on where to fire. Nemo meanwhile had managed to engage one of the hunters directly and already had him on his back.

   We were actually winning the day despite being caught off guard. Except for Misha, none of us had been on patrol before, but all of us had been in combat.

   All that is, except me.

   As such my reaction till now had been to panic. But my fear was now welling up in me. So I did the only thing I could do.

    “James!?” Nemo called for me. “James!” I couldn’t hear him.

   I ran. I stumbled to my feet and ran deeper into the forest. Nemo yelled at me but I didn’t care anymore.

   I just had to get out of there. So I did.

   “Berl we need to go.” Saphir was yelling. Berlitz was holding his net. Real arrows flew past his head. The Keepers were using real weapons, and the Hunters were using training arrows.

    “And I’m going to die.” Berl whispered. “I can’t die.”

   They had taken up positions on the edge of the hill. Everyone was armed with arrows that wouldn’t kill and wooden swords. The only lethal weapons they had were knives, which were basically useless right now. It was vital not to kill, that was what Berl had been told. Just engage them.

   Now he wished they could kill.

   “Throw the net!” Saphir’s voice was quaking and Berl knew he had an arrow in him. It was sticking in his arm. Berl’s eyes focused on that, not the people he needed to throw his net on.

   It all happened in slow motion. Saphir yelled and Berl could see him despite the darkness. They needed a distraction, Berl was going to wrap them in a net. That was a distraction, it would give them time to escape…

   I…I don’t…I can’t… He turned his head in time to see a meerkat man aiming his bow at him. Berl jumped back, inadvertently getting his feet tangled in the underbrush. Saphir yelled at him as he slipped and rolled down the edge of the hill.

   “Berlitz!” That was the last he heard. The net tangled Berl up as he rolled, binding his arms together. He smacked his head as he rolled over a rock.

   Somehow Berl made it to his feet and began running. His fingers pulled at the net around him and his eyes looked for any break in the trees. He didn’t know where he was going, just somewhere far from here.

   I’m sorry ma, I’m so sorry. Berl finally managed to rip the net off of him as he stumbled to a stop. I can’t do this, I can’t. He wiped his eyes. Berl wanted to apologize to the Keepers for being part of this Hunting Party, but he knew they’d kill him if he did. He wanted to go home even more.

   But he couldn’t do that. Berl had been a coward, he couldn’t go home. All he could do now was walk.

   “James! James!” The fighting had stopped and the forest was quiet. And now in the calm Nemo could see his charge missing.

   “James!” Nothing but the rustling of leaves. “Goddamn it! He’s gone!” Nemo kicked a tree trunk. “He’s fucking gone.”

   “So are the others.” Misha said, walking up beside Nemo, “Except this one.” They looked down at the man in black leather holding a crossbow. He was trying not to look at the blade of Qual quivering inches away from his face. “Your friends all took off. You’re all alone.”

   “I accept this.” The man said. “If I had to be captured, better to be by prey I so admire.” Misha and Nemo looked at each other.

   “Iss ‘his uh guy who fukin shoh me?” Bos asked, stumbling over. “Mah arm fukin hurss you—

   “Be quiet.” Misha ordered. Bos’ jaw snapped shut. The fox returned his attention to the hunter. “Why were you shooting at us?” The man didn’t respond. Nemo could hear Misha’s teeth grit.

   “I wasn’t giving you an option, I want an answer. Now!” The hunter spit at Misha. Nemo could see the fox forcibly stop himself from raising Whisper.

   I bet he wants to use that right now. Nemo’s eyes slipped to his own runic weapon, Qual. I know I want to.

   “You shot at us.” Misha said. “You could have killed one of them. If you had, I would have killed you right now.”

   “We could have killed you.” The hunter snarled.

   “No. You couldn’t.” The hunter swallowed. He then raised his right hand, holding an arrow in it.

   “Does this look lethal to you?” Misha snatched up the arrow and held it up. The other four crowded around it.

   “It has a rubber head.” Nemo said.

   “I told you!”

   “Be quiet.” Nemo kicked him in the ribs, causing the prisoner to squel. “You still shot arrows ah-at us.” A dizzy spell washed over Nemo. He closed his eyes until the world stopped moving.

   “You okay?”

   “I will be.” Nemo shook his head, trying to shake the dizzy out. “Uh…James. We need to find James.”

   “We need to get this,” Misha gestured at the prisoner, “Back to Metamor Keep. We need to not run off half cocked into the forest dragging a prisoner and people who have been shot by arrows.”

   “Non-lethal!” Nemo knew the fox was right though. He sighed. “First chance we get, we come back for him.”

   “We will.” Misha said.

   Woods: Midnight

   I almost ran right into a tree. It swayed in front of me. I stumbled but then got caught in a root, which sent me tumbling into a briar. I yanked my arm free, drawing blood and ripping my garment.

   Then I was up again and going. An owl hooted over head. My golden eyes met his unblinking gaze. I paused for just a moment, then started running again.

   Where am I going? Did it matter? No, I didn’t care. I just wanted to survive. So I ran through the woods and tried to keep my eyes open. Every instinct told me to close my eyes and hide. Block the world out, then it can’t hurt you.

   “I don’t want to die.” I finally stumbled to a stop, my lungs burning and legs aching. “Please I don’t want to die…” A chirp from bugs answered me. Overhead branches rustled as an something crawled across them. “Wha…what was that?”

   An animal walked through the underbrush, shaking the leaves. I glanced back, trying to see something in the impenetrable darkness. “Who’s there?” Something glinted in the darkness. “He-hello? I’m armed!” Nothing but silence. I lowered my arms…

   And something brushed against my tail. I took off running again.

   This time I ran until I was sure I was alone. Finally I couldn’t run anymore, my body was on fire. I came across a log, buried half in the mud. Perfect place to rest. I sat down, taking a moment to make sure my tail draped over the edge. “I hate having a tail. Only gets in the way.” I sighed. “What do I do now?”

   The others were caught off guard but…if Brightleaf is as good as he seems, they’ll be fine. I wiped some water off of my bald skull. If they’ll be fine it means I was really stupid running away…how did they sneak up on us?

   Okay I might not have been thinking about that right then, but I know you are wondering that my friend. Misha knows these woods; the group who attacked us may as well. But they weren’t also part fox.

   There is an explanation. But one I’m going to keep to myself for the time being. In another letter when I address this group again, then I will explain.

   “I can try to find the group again.” I mumbled. “But I can’t do it. I can’t find my own asshole, how am I supposed to find them in the woods at night?” I looked up at the sky, filled with illuminated clouds. “I want to go home…”

   Yeah but would they want me?

   I closed my eyes and was back in Isenport. But I was still as I was now. Still a lizard man, cursed and doomed. All alone. I opened my eyes and I was still in these woods.

   I loved the woods once. The ones around my manor, planted by my grandfather, shaking his fist at nature. Those were good woods because those were my woods. While I was there I was in control. Nothing could hurt me.

    Except that one time. One time someone had wanted to hurt me. I looked around at the shadows surrounding me.

   These are like my woods that time. These Metamor Keep’s woods wanted to hurt me. Just like Sir Tallis wanted to hurt me! No, everyone wanted to hurt me. That’s why I had been dragged on this stupid patrol in the first place. I can’t…I want…I have to speak to my father. I can talk to him and fix this!

   There was no fixing this. In the pit of my stomach, feelings of resignation welled up and washed over me. I…there is no point in trying. My head dropped as I realized it. I’m stuck here. I’m going to die in this cursed city as an animal.

   If you’ve never gone through an intense tragedy, I am genuinely happy for you. My life had seen several. None, though, hit me like this.

   No other tragedy in my life had resulted in the loss of my identity. The worst event in my life before this was the incident with poor Sir Tallis. As bad as that was, I was still me when it ended. I was still James of House Dorethea.

   What am I now? I pinched the new growth around my neck. I’m a lizard man who is lost in the woods, talking to himself. This place is making me mad.

   “Maybe it is.” I said. “But…what do I do now?” I stood up. “This is the wrong time to be thinking about it. I need to think about surviving here. Maybe I can go home in the future.” Always the optimist I was. “I shouldn’t be negative, maybe I can make a deal to go home eventually…”

   As if in response to my desire to stay positive, it started raining. Sometimes I think Eli watches me and thinks of ways to sabotage my life. Maybe He finds it amusing; I would if I held divine powers.

   But that’s why I’m not a god.

   I stumbled through the rain into the first large tree hollow I could find. The down pour was freezing cold and weighed my dress down terribly. I crawled into the dry hollow and pulled my knees against my chest.

   My chattering teeth sent drops of water flying across the hollow. I tried desperately to warm up again but nothing helped me. I couldn’t maintain any kind of bodily warmth.

   “Do lizards…they don’t make their own heat.” I sighed. “Which means I don’t or not enough.” I took my aba off and wrung it out. “Just gotta survive for now. I can figure this out later.”

   At least I’m a little dry now. The rain poured in a steady beat. Wind blew mist into my face. I pulled the growth around my neck up to block my face.

   “Yowza!” And I dropped it. “Okay, neck decoration is very sensitive. So my new anatomy is not helping me in any way.” I began to cry. “Why won’t it stop raining?”

   I was left sitting inside that hollow tree while freezing rain poured down. I was scared, alone and in desperate need of dry clothes. I was convinced I had hit rock bottom at that moment.

   Yet I still had not hit rock bottom. That would only come tomorrow.

   May 18th, 697

   Sir Tallis gripped my arm so hard I cried out in pain. He wouldn’t let go, though, he just pulled me as fast as he could. Into the woods we went and Tallis almost lifted me off the ground as he ran.

   I didn’t even think about why he was doing this. I just knew if Sir Tallis was doing this, it must be for a good reason. It’s only when Tallis pulled me against a tree branch, scraping my back that I screamed out in pain.

   “Sir Tallis stop!” I cried out. “I’m hurting. I’m hurting real bad!” Sir Tallis didn’t look at me. He didn’t do anything. “Please! I wanna stop!” Tallis’s grip tightened and he started to run. “Tallis please!” He looked visibly pained. That scream finally brought him to a stop.

   “I’m sorry James…I-I wasn’t thinking.” Tallis let go of my hand and turned away. I rubbed the bruise on my wrist. “I’m sorry James…” he repeated. “It’s not right that I have to hurt you.”

   “Yeah, yeah.” I said. “Why’s the manor smoking? Like, father’s study is on fire What happened?” Tallis didn’t say anything. He pulled out his short sword and ran the flat of the blade over his arm.

   “Someone set a fire to cause a distraction. They assumed the knights would rush to that, trying to protect your father. They were correct as it turns out…” Sir Tallis put his sword away, only to hesitate and pull it again.

   “Why do you have that out Tallis?” I asked. He didn’t respond. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you hurt my arm.” Sir Tallis nodded, still not turning back. “I…you okay? You look sad Tal.”

   “No, I’m fine.” He forced a smile. “I just…it’s getting to me today. I need…I’m sorry James, I truly am.” Sir Tallis walked over to a rock and sat down. He kept his eyes on the ground, deliberately avoiding me.

   I walked over to my guardian and hugged him. He smiled but only for a second. He still wouldn’t look up at me.

   “You’re sad. Like really sad. I wanna help.” I said. Sir Tallis nodded.

   “I know you do James. You’re a good kid.” Now he did smile genuinely. “It’s amazing that a good kid came from such a bastard like Leontes.” I gasped at the bad language used about my father. Or at least tried to.

   In truth I’d heard the servants say far worse every day. I didn’t know what a “skull fucking son of a bitch” was but they’d called my father that many times.

   “Tallis?” The real reason it surprised me was Sir Tallis never spoke bad about my father. In truth he never spoke bad period. Not about anyone. Right now Tallis didn’t seem to care.

   “I’ve done a lot of bad things you know James. Way too many bad things.” He let out a weak laugh. “That’s why I was so happy to get the job of protecting you. I’d never have to go into war again. I’d never have to kill a kid who’d never held a sword in his life.”

   I didn’t know what to say. I just waited as my guardian continued.

   “You made my job so much easier James. Did you know that?” I shook my head. “My job suddenly had purpose again. Instead of killing, I was nurturing and protecting. I felt like a knight, not just a sword for hire.”

   Sir Tallis laid his sword across his lap. He occasionally rubbed against the blade. I reached over and touched the cold steel. It almost made me shiver.

   “Before that, there was only one thing that kept me going. My wife, the most amazing woman I’d ever met.” Tallis smiled. “People wonder if the gods truly care about us. I know they do because they brought me to her.”

   Why is he telling me this? Where is my father? Sir Tallis was now looking right at me, only he wasn’t. He was looking through me, looking past me, looking at his little cottage on the manor grounds.

   “Aimé is her name.” Tallis said. “I know you’re still young James, you don’t have the love for women you will one day. But you will understand, eventually you will know just how wonderful it is to have a woman in your life.”

   “I guess.” I said, growing more confused as we kept talking. “Sir Tallis, is something wrong? I wanna go back to the manor.” Sir Tallis nodded.

   “I understand. I just…James do you ever think about what you’ll do when you become Lord?” I was eleven then, of course I didn’t. The only things I thought about were getting through my lessons and getting more time with my hawk.

   “I know being Lord is real important Tallis.” I said. He shook his head.

   “That’s not what I mean. Do you ever think about being Lord? What it means; all the responsibility it entails?” I shook my head. “No, I’m not surprised you wouldn’t. Being an important Lord in Isenport means you get to hold a little power and everyone wants to kill you.

   “In the time I’ve been here, your father has had three assassination attempts on him. They all failed, of course, and they all came from an unknown enemy. Or that’s what Leontes said. The truth is they came from the other high Houses in the empire.”

   “Sir Tallis?” I whined. He held up his hand.

   “Let me finish boy, let me finish. I’m telling you this for your benefit.” I sniffled but sat back down.

   Why won’t he let me go home? What’s going on here? Sir Tallis continued talking. He no longer saw me.

   “Every noble house, every person in power wants to be in power so they can be the target of the assassinations. Amazing isn’t it? Everyone in this empire wants to marry their children to other children in the great houses. Then they want to kill the head, so their bloodline can take over.”

   Sir Tallis looked up at me now with a smile. “Your blood goes to the Imperial family though. You’re too young to be married. Why someone would want to kill you I will never know.”

   “Sir Tallis I want to go home.” I said. My fear was now rising into my mouth. “Take me home right now.”

   “Now the question is, if you want to kill a member of a noble house, how do you do it?” Sir Tallis asked. “You can hire an assassin, but actually getting to your target is not that easy. Your father, for example, has a hundred knights at any time. You have me as your guard.”

   “And I love you guarding me.” I stammered. Sir Tallis nodded.

   “You’re the second most important boy in my life.” He sighed. “Only next to one. My son. My amazing son Randwell.” I noticed his eyes beginning to water. He wiped them, trying to hide it from me. “My wife and my son are everything. I’d protect them from anything, even against you James.” I swallowed.

   “What happened Sir Tallis?” Tallis shook his head.

   “Nothing you can do. No one protects the families of knights James. No one cares about us. Not even when assassins take your family hostage and tell you that if you want to see them again, do something for them.” Sir Tallis looked up. “Kill your charge.”

   I tried to leap away, only for my foot to get caught on a log, leading me to face plant into the mud. Sir Tallis grabbed me by the back of my shirt and lifted me out of the mud.

   “Let me go!” I yelled. “Put me down!”

   “The sooner this is over the better.” Sir Tallis said. His voice was edged with steel. Sir Tallis placed the tip of the blade against my struggling back, letting it poke and scratch me.

   “Sir Tallis!” I cried. “Please!” Tears flowed freely from my eyes, matched by those of my first guardian.

   “It’ll be over quickly James.” Sir Tallis pressed the blade into my skin, cutting me. Now I started to bleed. I struggled but no longer near as hard.

   It’s over. It’s all over. Sir Tallis pulled the blade back and sighed. To my amazement I was lowered to the ground. I turned around to face my former protector, and my best friend. Sir Tallis couldn’t look at me.

   “I have to kill you to save my son James.” He shook his head. “But I can’t do it. I just…” He sighed. “I can’t hurt you either James. I love you as much as Rand; I won’t harm you anymore than him.”

   “They have your family?” I asked. Sir Tallis nodded. “We can save them! I can tell father and he can get them free!” Sir Tallis let out a small laugh.

   “I stabbed my charge. I’m expected to die to protect you, or to let anyone close to me die. The moment I took to serving your father, my life ended. Your father won’t care.” Sir Tallis took my hand. “Come on, let’s—

   A blast of fire blew through the woods and struck Sir Tallis in the chest. It sent him flying, leaving him to crash face first into the ground. I ran over to him.

   “Sir Tallis!” Tallis rolled onto his back, with smoke drifting off his chest. His eyes were closed and breathing labored. I embraced him. “Sir Tallis please be okay.”

   “J-James?” He cracked open his eyes. “Uh I’m alright. I’m just more stunned than anything…” He pushed himself up. “What hit me?”

   “I did.” We both turned, to see a figure walking towards us. A knight like Sir Tallis, but not as tall. His red, wavy hair that stood up on ends identified him for me. Sir Enfer, looking beyond furious. “James stay away from that man.”

   “No!” I yelled. “You hurt him!” Sir Tallis tried to say something but I kept yelling. “You could have killed him!”

   “You’re a mage.” Sir Tallis rasped out. He grinned. “I always knew Leontes had a mage watching me. I’m not surprised it’s you.” Sir Enfer didn’t say anything. His eyes never broke from Sir Tallis. We sat for a moment, none of us moving or knowing what to do.

   “Do you know how magic feels?” He asked, breaking the silence. Sir Tallis glared at him. “It feels amazing. It’s a part of the universe you can shape and cause to flow in any way you choose. It’s something you can touch and mold, but you don’t know quite how you do it, even when you’re doing it.”

   Sir Enfer approached us now, drawing his sword. I clung tighter to Sir Tallis. “It’s a gift that you feel like you can change the world with. I chose to use my gift to protect the noble house of Dorothea, even unto the death of everyone close to me. If you can’t be bothered to do the same then I have every right to use my gift against you.”

   “I didn’t kill the boy.” Sir Tallis rasped. “He’s still alive. I couldn’t—

   “Oh I heard your little speech.” Sir Enfer said. “I was afraid to move out of fear you might kill him. But congratulations, at the end you managed to do your duty. If only all knights could remember to do their duty some of the time.”

   “Go away!” I yelled. Sir Enfer ignored me.

   “Tallis I will march you back to the manor.” He said. “Lord Leontes will hear the whole story right away; you can expect his punishment to be swift.” Sir Tallis swallowed. “Now stand up.” I clung to my friend with all my might.

    “No he is staying!” I yelled. “He didn’t mean to do anything! He didn’t! Tallis is a good guy! He-” Tallis put a finger on my mouth.

   “It’s okay James. You can let go of me.” I just squeezed him tighter.

   “Tallis now!” Sir Enfer snapped. Sir Tallis nodded. I tried to stop him, but he removed my vise grip from his neck.

   “Nothing I can do now James.” Sir Tallis whispered, standing up. “It’s okay. You’re safe now from the man who tried to kill you.” He turned to Enfer. “You need to send knights or anyone to rescue my family.”

   “We will.” Enfer said. “But you know they may already be dead.” Tallis clenched. “Now come on.”

   “I don’t wanna go back!” I yelled. “Tallis didn’t do anything wrong!” Enfer was unmoved. He grabbed my arm. “He didn’t! He didn’t!” I yelled it over and over, each time with more desperation. And Enfer didn’t care. He just dragged both of us back home, to face my father.


   Woods: April 1st

   My neck was frozen in place. There was a dull ache on the side of my head from ice cold water dripping. I cracked my eyes open and was rewarded with a drop in the eye. Back to shut they went.

   How long have I been out here? I’m never getting back home. I gingerly opened my eyes again. Cold pale spring-light had illuminated the forest as best it could. I didn’t move from my hollow, though.

   “I’m so sorry Nemo.” I mumbled. “If you’ll save me I’ll never complain again…” Dripping water responded in its own way. I whimpered and buried my head between my knees. “I’d even take that fox right now.”

   My dress was wet and clinging to my scales. The hatchet Aaryn had given me was pressed against my side. My hip’s burned from a night against the wood.

   In addition there was no one around, or at least no one I could see. I couldn’t hear anything but the forest coming back to life, no doubt coming soon to eat me. I was lost in a forest outside a far away city. No one would care if I died out there. Hell no one wold have noticed.

   And I still hadn’t hit rock bottom.

   I tossed a few dirt pieces around and kept my eyes on the ground. If I didn’t see what was out there, it couldn’t hurt me. I’m safe here, I can just stay here until Nemo finds me and…and how is he going to find me hidden in a hollow?

   “Not easily.” I sighed. “I gotta get out of here.” Gently I emerged from my tree, soaking and blinking into the shadows. “I’m still alive. I got that much for me.” My muscles roared in pain, feet in particular. I pushed the pain away as best I could. “I’d kill for my bed right now. Even the damn slab.”

   Now remember James you can survive for longer without food then water. When you need water there are ways to get it. That’s what Nemo had told me before. No creeks so instead I took advantage of the leaves around me. I slurped up water as best I could; I’d never done this before. Being taught how to get water from leaves and actually having to do it are two very different things.

   I drank until I (sort of) had my fill and tried to get my perspective. “Okay, I’m lost in a forest that might be haunted.” None of this sounded weird to me. “No idea where Nemo or Cuddles are.” I rubbed my forehead. “No idea if they’re even alive.” I looked up at the sky.

   “What is it Nemo told me…the Keep is to the South of the forest. Then I want to go south…the sun is East and how does that help me?”

   Being raised on a diet of ledgers, lessons on tactics, weapons training and dancing as it turns out does not prepare one to survive in the woods.

   “Nemo?” I called. Immediately I regretted it. “What am I doing? If they’re still trying to kill me the last thing I want to do is call out. I gotta get out of here.” I unhooked my hatchet and approached the biggest tree I could see. I chopped twice into the trunk, making an X.

   “X is where I have been.” I mumbled. “If I see X, I’m back where I started.” What was my plan here? Marking where you have been is intelligent but when you just walk off randomly it’s not much of an improvement.

   The pain in my arm was beginning to burn into my brain. It was getting harder to stand upright. But I walked on anyway, with my legs quivering for every step. My thoughts continued to slip back to the past.

   “The last time I was dragged into the woods against my will, Sir Tallis tried to kill me.” I pulled my dress a little tighter, trying to hold inasmuch fleeting warmth as I could. “I think I’d rather be there right now. That is so messed up but I would.”

   Blood running in rivulets, splashing onto my feet…

   “At least then I still had skin, not scales.” I rolled my right sleeve up to my elbow. All up them were green-gray scales, streaked with orange and pebbled with brown. My hand was now five long fingers and each was topped with a sharp claw.

   I approached a new tree and instead of using my hatchet I pressed my hand against it. My claws slid into the wood with ease, like sliding my hand into water. I stuck my left hand a little further up the trunk, into the wood.

   “I wonder…” I unhooked my hands, then undid the wraps over my feet. I winced at the sight. No matter James. I again gripped the trunk with my hands and then wrapped my feet around the bottom.

   Oh gods if you are out there please don’t let me die! I raised my right hand and dug back into the wood. Then my left. I kept my feet wrapped partially around the trunk and scooted myself up the tree.

   “No way no way nowaynoway” I grinned. Slowly I inched my way up the tree. Had to avoid branches while climbing. Trust me, it’s a lot harder than you’d think. Every second I climbed I was shaking with fear.

   And yet I kept climbing. My claws kept me lashed to the wood and never once did I come close to falling. I moved my altered limbs as though I had been born with them. The bark tore at my dress and rubbed badly against my belly. But I didn’t feel it.

   “This is amazing.” I giggled and looked down. Big mistake, the ground was so far away and the world began spinning. I clutched the tree a lot tighter. “Okay, that’s a long drop but…” A rook crowed, which drew my attention. I saw it flying just above the tree tops, so much closer to me.

   “But it’s still amazing. I’m so high up and this is amazing.” Just above my head was a thick tree branch. I pulled myself up onto it, digging both of my hands deep as I could into the bark.

   “This…wow…” Now the forest stretched out for me in every direction. Lines of trees crisscrossing. I could see the forest floor, trembling and shaking as creatures crawled under them. I could see owls perched in shadows on top of trees and sparrows hopping between branches.

   Spider-webs glistened like silver in the damp morning light. Every noise echoed through the forest and the light filtered through the canopy in white beams. For a second I lost myself in this. But only a second.

   “If I climbed to the top I maybe could see Metamor…or maybe Nemo?” I sighed. “Nemo’s okay, he can take an arrow or two. Brightleaf had that double headed substitute for masculinity to protect him. What about Bos and Shema?” I shook my head. “You don’t know them James, don’t worry.”

   But I did worry. I don’t know why but I worried and it spoiled this amazing moment for me. “They have to be okay. They will be okay. I’m sure they will be.”

   The plan had been to go right back into the woods and find James. Only the torrential downpour started. There would be no finding him in that rain Misha had said. Nemo had been forced to concede. The two decided to wait for first light.

   Now that it had come they were back in the woods. Nemo was of two minds right now. One was internally in a panic over James, knowing how much danger he could be in. The other was focused on him and this strange sensation he had had since yesterday. His body felt overly energized, but with no outlet. Misha in contrast to him was calm and single minded. They were going to find James.

   “We will find him.” Misha said. “I promise, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to do this.” Nemo nodded.

   “You’ve never dealt with someone like James before. On our first day in the valley, he nearly got himself killed. James is a babe in the wood. I have to find him or he will die out here.”

   “I know.” Misha said. “Stay calm, we will find him. Now we’re going the same way we were last night.” Misha’s movements in the forest were those of a man made fox. His ear would give small motions; his nose would quiver on occasion. These little actions were foreign to a human but fitting of a fox man. Nemo found himself jealous of the fox’s heightened senses.

   He can find his way through the forest so much easier. People fear these cursed men, but they have been granted an amazing gift. Now his thoughts turned back to him. Will I be changing like that? No I will be growing younger…right?

   “How can you tell we’re going the right way?” Nemo asked. “Heightened sense of smell?” Misha shook his head.

   “The storm is wreaking havoc with the scents. I just remember where we went.” Misha glanced over at Nemo. “Something I’ve been wondering. That young man is the son of one of the Lords in the Sathmore Empire. What on Earth was he doing here in the first place?” The question Nemo had already wondered many times.

   “I don’t really know.” Nemo said. “Lord Leontes just said he had business in or around the Metamor valley. We do not question, we follow him. Mostly because if we did question, we’d be tortured for our mistake.”

   “Lord Leontes sounds like a bastard.”

   “One of the highest order.” Nemo said. “Working for him was the worst thing that ever happened. Only James made it worthwhile.” Anger and anxiety dueled inside of Nemo “I care very deeply for that boy; I will do anything to protect him.”

   “Then let’s quit talking and get moving.” Misha said. The two continued to follow their path from last night. All the while the swallows and larks sung above them.

   Berlitz had landed headfirst on a rock. When he made it to his feet blood was pouring down his face and his friends were nowhere around. Or maybe they were; Berlitz had been quite a bit disoriented.

   Walking through the woods had been difficult even when he had been uninjured. Now though the trees swayed with Berlitz’s shaking steps. Every branch grabbed at him and tried to cut him deeper. And every animal called out to him, or warned him?

   They’re trying to eat me. That was the thought that drove Berlitz to run from the battle, deeper into the woods. And very soon into tree roots and branches. Berlitz was flipped by a root around his ankle and then rolled down a muddy hill.

   After that came the rain. Berlitz cloak soaked through and chilled him to the bone. His muscles burned carrying the extra weight from the water. His legs screamed out for a break but Berlitz kept pushing on.

   Back home. I want to be back home. Back home in the cabin with his mother. Game hung up, stew cooking in a pot by the fire. His bed would be warm and dry. And his mother…his mother…

   My mother would be so disappointed in me. She wants me to be out here. No doubt she’d be happier with him lost in the woods then at home. Berlitz could see her in his mind, long brown hair done up into a braid and tan dress worn thin.

   “I know you’re scared Berlitz.” He could almost feel her hand on his back. “You are doing noble work. The greatest work you can do.”

   “The greatest work I can do.” Berlitz had chanted that throughout the night. Now the sun was up and he was still chanting it. He had walked all night and now his legs just stumbled forward.

   …I’ve been walking in circles? Berlitz sat down on a rock. I’ve been walking in circles. He looked at his cloak and leggings. There were long tears in both, blood flowed fresh from a cut on his leg. Gods what am I doing out here?

   “I don’t have anything with me.” Berlitz mumbled. “Lost my net, didn’t grab a scrap from the Keepers.” He sighed. “Wanna go home.” His throat burned with thirst. In desperation Berlitz wrung his cloak into his mouth.

   The water was horrid, dirty and blood soaked. Right now it tasted like the wine of the gods. Berlitz wiped his mouth and looked up. “Okay, sun hasn’t risen all the way yet. Not noon.” He sighed. “I gotta get out of here and…”

   And do what? Admit my first hunt was a failure? Admit that I lost my net and my—Berlitz patted himself down, And my crossbow. Marvelous work Berl.

   “I got my knife still…” That was strapped around his leg as it had been earlier. Berl pulled it out and fingered the ash handle. “I gotta…if I could get a trophy…I could be the only one…”

   No one would think I was a coward. Berl stood up and started walking again. I can find someone. I can find someone…

   Manor, May 19th

   My father had already decided on Tallis’ punishment, to be carried out tomorrow. And I knew what it was, without him telling me..

   Sir Tallis…I cried a lot after I got home. My father called me “an embarrassment”, and yelled at me for being stupid enough to be captured. That’s my father dear reader, that is him in a nutshell.

   I was healed of my wound and left inside of my room under guard for the rest of the day. My father said he’d be in to speak to me tomorrow morning. None of it mattered to me. I just wanted my friend to be okay. No one told me what his punishment to be. They wouldn’t tell me if his family was alive or not.

   I tried reading but no books held my attention. Instead I sat on my bed and stared out the window.

   I know I fell asleep at some point. I remember waking in my bed. No one waited for me yet. The sun hadn’t even risen. I lay with the covers feeling as if they’re crushing me. Actually I lay hoping they would crush me. One thought was going through my head.

   I got my best friend arrested. No I didn’t. But when you’re young you can’t see it like that. I…what’s going to happen to his family? I closed my eyes but I couldn’t keep them closed. Why can’t I sleep? Sir Tallis I’m so sorry.

   I clenched my eyes shut. In that moment, that moment of absolute desperation, I did something I would never do otherwise.

   I prayed.

   Wvelkim, Yajit, Velena any of you gods…please hear me. I…I’ll do anything you want. I…I know I don’t pray ever…or…please just help me.

   I wept now. My body shook as I sobbed but I kept praying. Save Tallis. Please save him. I don’t know how you do it but please…I’ll dedicate my life to you. Only a promise a child could make. When you’re twelve you will gladly bargain your life to get what you want right then.

   “Please.” I whispered. “Please just do this…”

   I fell back asleep. The next time I looked up the sun had risen and the servants were in my room. I let them dress me, I didn’t move once. I didn’t say anything or even look at them.

   “James we must speak.” I looked up as a serving girl smoothed out my hose. My father had entered the room. He went over to the desk and sat down, eyes focused on me. “Leave us.” He said to the servants.

   I looked at the floor. My father tapped his fist against my desk. His eyes were closed. Why can’t I sit down? I feel like the floor is going to open up. Gods please help me.

   My father opened his eyes. His gaze bored through me. I wanted to cry, just break down right there. He shook his head.

   “You’re shaking James. This is not the behavior of a future Lord. A Lord never shows fear. He is master of his manor. Even when the Emperor is his guest, he is always in control.” I swallowed.

   “Yes sir.”

   “You went with Sir Tallis simply because he claimed he had orders to take you.” My father scowled. “I told you yesterday and I say it again, that was stupid. You didn’t verify with another knight first, you didn’t search for me, you didn’t question him taking you into the woods!”

   “You said he was my-my guard!” I stammered. “I was scared and the house was on fire and I like Sir Tallis and—

   My father backhanded me. The blow sent me reeling. I could feel blood on the edge of my lip. My father didn’t respond to this.

   “You like him. That is a damn stupid reason!” He shouted. “You are going to be a Lord, who you like does not matter!” My father grit his teeth. “I am glad for your brother. If it weren’t for him, my legacy could have died with you.”

   “I’m sorry.” I whispered. “I’m so sorry.” My father just glared at me.

   “You may think your life doesn’t matter. But it does. If you die, my legacy could be risked. This city could lose its future Lord. You risk so much more then your little life.” I sniffed and wiped my nose on the back of my hand. “Now stand up and stop sniveling.”

   “Yes sir.” I straightened out my clothing again. My father stood now.

   “Now, I’ve canceled your morning lessons. You will follow me to the courtyard immediately.”

   “Sir?” I bit my bottom lip. “Sir may I ask-May I-no may I please--”

   “Enough babbling James!” My father yelled. “Out with it!” I nodded.

   “Sir I want to about Sir Tallis.” My father rolled his eyes.

   “The man tries to kill you and you’re concerned about him? Well you’re in luck. We are going to him now. Come, he is in the courtyard.” My heart sank into my stomach. My father grabbed my head and dragged me out.

   No no no this can’t I can’t no please don’t let me please gods. Every window in the manor was open. The light was overwhelming. I kept resisting, so how did I move? Where were all the knights?

   “Now James I need you to do three things for me.” My father said. “First, you must not say anything unless I give you permission. Otherwise do not make a noise, do not sniffle do not even say hello! Do you understand?”

   “Yes sir.” I said. We approached the doors for the courtyard.

   “Second, you stand beside me at all times. You do not move away, you do not leave until I leave. Understood?” I swallowed.

   “Yes sir.”

   “And the third is the most important.” The servants pulled the doors open. Sticky-sweet wet air rolled over us. My father marched me outside.

   The air was warm that day but it was a sickening warm. All of our knights stood in a square formation around the yard. None of them made eye contact with me or my father. They parted for us and gave me a clear view of the center.

   No please not him. Please not him.

   “Do not look away. As a Lord you will need to be strong enough to look a man in the eyes while he dies.”

   The manor house was a three story square with a stone courtyard in the center. In the center of the stone square was a large wooden block. Laying with his head against the block was Sir Tallis. Beside him stood the headsman, waiting for my father’s command.

   “Don’t!” I tried to pull my arm free but my father gripped me tighter. The knights all looked ashamed. Sir Tallis wasn’t looking at me but at the stone. My head turned down to my feet. “Please sir, not—“ My father interrupted me by grabbing my hair and pulling my head up.

   “You will watch and you will not speak. Understood?” I nodded. None of the other knights looked at Sir Tallis. Just me and my father. “Very good James.” My father turned to the knight on his right. “What did happen with his family?”

   “All dead when we arrived at his cottage sir.” Sir Tallis didn’t struggle against the block. He didn’t look up at me or respond to anything. He just stared at the stonework.

   “That’s unfortunate.” My father said. “Still, not unexpected. Those are the risks the knights take.” He gestured to the headsman. “Commence.” I couldn’t let that happen.

   “Sir Tallis!” I yelled “Tallis!” He glanced up briefly at me and…and his eyes. He had empty eyes. But he still managed to smile.

   “I’m going home James.” Sir Tallis yelled out. The axe raised high. “I’m going home to be with my family. I’ll see you one day.”

   “Cease talking.” My father yelled. “Meet death like a man.” Sir Tallis ignored him.

   “Never forget James.” He said. “I love you.” The headsman reared back and swung.


   In the center of the manor is a stone courtyard. It’s where executions can be held. Because no matter how many times blood stains the stones, they can always be washed clean.

   Crimson sprayed across them and washed in little rivers. They splashed against my white stockings. I felt his blood sticking to me. I shuddered.

   “You will have to do better next time.” My father said. He turned to the knights. “Dispose of that refuse. Clean these stones.”

   “Yes sir.” He turned to leave, but I stood and watched. I knew no matter what, I was never going to be clean again.

Woods: March 31st

   I was taking a break from walking on a stump. My legs were throbbing from carrying the extra weight of my soaking wet dress. My tail rubbed against the backside of the stump. I could feel every splinter and crack in the wood dragging against my underside.

   “I’ve never really thought about what the back of a chair feels like.” I mumbled. “You don’t really until you have a tail. Now I’ve got to sit in chairs with holes in them or stick my tail up my ass.” I laughed. “I’m going completely insane.”

   The sun had risen more but it was still the morning. I wanted water in the worst of ways. “Will I enjoy being a lizard?” My claws dug into the fabric of my dress. “I…I assume no but…but I—

   -snap- My head jerked up.

   “He-hello?” I swallowed. “Is-is someone there?” I tapped the hatchet, yep still tied to my side. “Nemo?” Another twig snapped, but this one behind me. I jumped up. “Hello?”


   Berl held his knife in his right hand. His arms shook too hard for him to raise the knife. Before him stood a lizard man, back turned to Berl.

   “I…I could take him home as a trophy…I could…” He swallowed. The Hunt Leader’s words rang out in his head.

   You are only to kill if your life is in danger.

   “Okay I won’t kill him…I can take something from him as a trophy.” Berl swallowed. He tapped the knife against his stomach just to verify he was still holding it. “I can. I can do that. I—“

   Berl stepped on a branch that broke with a loud crack. The lizard spun around.

   The hunter was dressed in leather armor and a cloak. He looked like Brightleaf but more so. He was holding a knife though, that’s what got my attention. I gripped the hatchet against my side.

   Oh my gods I’m going to die. I’m going to die and he’s going to kill me. I’m so scared… I closed my eyes…and I saw someone. I saw Sir Egland from the other night.

   “I was more than scared.” Sir Egland said, “I was petrified. I was cursed, everyone in the outside world thinks I’m dead, and I’m trapped in a strange city. But I’m still here.”

   Sir Egland…he was scared but he didn’t show it. He kept going. I opened my eyes and studied the knife-wielder. He was young, as young as I was. He looked even more scared. I could see his fingers trembling and his bottom lip shaking. Incidentally these were details I’d have missed a month prior.

   Sir Egland survived by being brave…My mind began to whirl through ideas, Maybe I can get through this by being brave. I steadied myself. I couldn’t shake, I couldn’t whimper and I couldn’t let a tear out.

   “Who are you?” My voice was clear and rang out through the forest. The boy recoiled.

   “I-I am” He stood straight. “I am Berlitz of the Golden Circle Hunters. I-I am a-a hunter!” He held up his knife.

   “Yeah well I’m not in the mood for being hunted.” I said, trying to mask my panic. “I-If you want me Berlitz, come get me.” Neither of us took a step.

   “I-I can you know. I’m a mighty hunter.” Berlitz looked like he was about to pee from fear. “I’m a real hunter.”

   “I don’t know what that means.” I said. Pretend you’re a hero from one of those stories you’ve read. What…if you were Sir Egland, what would you say? “I don’t want to hurt you. But I will. Drop the knife!”

   “I…I…I don’t want to die.” Berlitz stammered. “Please. I’m dropping the knife!” He raised his hands. “I’m dropping the knife.” I smiled. Berlitz began to crouch when a voice pierced the silence.

   “James?” I recognized it, Nemo looking for me. “James where are you?” Berlitz jumped back up in fear.

   “Who is that?” Berlitz asked. “Do-do you have-is someone else here?” The question struck me aback.

   “James where are you?” Nemo called out.

   “Stop calling out.” Misha snapped. “Do you want to get us killed? Those hunters could still be out here.”

   “James has been lost all night in the woods.” Nemo said. “And I have to find him. We can take those hunters, he can’t.” Misha rubbed his eyes, but knew Nemo was right.

   “Don’t yell like a fool then.” Misha said. “You know better than that.”

   “I don’t know how else to find him.” Nemo said.

   “Not like this.” Misha said. “Yelling out and panicking isn’t going to fix anything.” The fox frowned. “What’s wrong here?” Nemo laughed.

   “What do you mean?”

   “I mean what is wrong? It’s obviously not just James. You said you were a knight; you’ve fought in battles before. Last night with arrows sailing around us you barely reacted.” Misha gestured at him. “Now you’re shaking. You’re anxious.” Nemo moved on.

   The trees were identical tangles of gray with splashes of color, orange, white, pink and yellow. The ground was littered with dead leaves, shrubs, brambles and the occasional tree root. Nemo focused on these instead of the fox asking questions.

   “I…Yes there is something more at play than just James being lost.” Nemo swallowed. “But it is a personal matter of no concern to you.” Misha shook his head.

   “Don’t let it affect you.” Misha said.

   “I’m not trying to let it affect me.” Nemo said, breaking off a branch from a tree. “But I know that James is lost and scared. If we don’t find him, he’ll end up killing himself. And we—

   “Help!” The two snapped around.

   “That’s James” Nemo said. The two took off running towards the voice.

   “Who is that!?” Berlitz screamed, pointing his knife at me. I gripped the hatchet.

   “Pu-put that down.” I stammered. “I’m warning you.” Berlitz arms were shaking but now his eyes were wide. He was starting to freak out. Sir Egland would be calm, he survived. I want to survive. I tried my best to remain calm. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

   “You’re a monster! You want to kill me!” He spit with fear, “All you Keepers, you’re monsters! You want to kill us all!” I was taken aback. “All monsters!”

   “I’m not a monster.” I yelled back as my anger flared up in me. “I’m just a guy who wants to go home!” Now it was his turn to look surprised. “I just want to go home!”

   Berlitz began panting. I saw him tense up a moment before he leapt at me. That’s probably why I’m still alive. I leapt, or at least fell, to the right as Berl slammed into the mud.

   I flipped onto my back just in time for Berl to jump on me. He slashed with a blind frenzy, quite literally his eyes were closed. A few glancing blows cut me but not deep. I punched Berl in the face, knocking him off.

   “Owe gods my nose.” Berl rubbed at the fresh flowing blood. I leapt up and took off running, only for Berl to jump me again.

   “Gah!” The two of us crashed into the ground. I scratched at him in desperation, but that did nothing. Berl prepared to stab me in the chest. I grabbed at something, anything and threw it in Berl’s face.

   He dropped the knife and yelled as dirt struck him in the eyes. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear them. I yanked my hatchett of the ground. Berl screamed.

   “You won’t get me!” His hands grabbed my throat and squeezed. My lungs burned.

   I can’t-I can’t breathe! Berl giggled.

   “You won’t get me. I’m going to survive this.” He looked so happy strangling me. “And if you gotta die? So be it!”

   The world around us became a blur. Berl himself began to spin round and round. All the while I found it harder and harder to think.

   He’s killing me. I tried kicking my legs, only managing a small spasm. Last chance James. My brain was dying, but I had a little energy left. And I focused, I focused it all into the arm holding Aaryn’s hatchet.

   Berl laughed at me. I gripped the handle. I-I have to— I swung.


   “Oh gods.” The hands around my throat went limp. Air, the sweetest air I have ever breathed. I laughed.

   And then I saw the boy in front of me. “Oh gods no.” I scooted away from Berl, sitting up. “No no no.” Berl sat up on his knees, swaying from side to side. I could only hear him gasping, and the thudding of my heart. “Please, please don’t…” Blood flowed from his head. From the hatchet I had swung in the side of his head.

   “Please don’t be dead.” I whispered. Berl’s eyes teared up. He tried mouthing something. “No, no you’re alright.” Berl started to fall back. “You have to be!” I grabbed for his shirt and he slipped through my fingers.

   No no please no. I pulled Berl up against me. All of my anger was gone. In its place was fear. “Help! Please someone help!”

   “James!” Nemo and Misha came bounding out of the woods. I was still screaming I think and trying to stop the bleeding. And they couldn’t pull me off.

   Yes I held Berlitzn. I held that boy until he died in my arms.

   Manor, May 21st

   I woke up dead that day. I couldn’t remember eating. The servants came in to dress me, but I didn’t register that. In fact I couldn’t feel anything.

   Every second was a blur. Every moment was dullness. I wanted to curl up into a ball and die. But I kept standing and letting them dress me. As my trio of dressers left, a knight entered.

   “Alright Vent,” I said, turning to face him, “What’s the—

   “I’m not Vent.” Sir Enfer said. I swallowed. “I’ve been assigned to be your temporary guardian. Until your father decides on a permanent one.” He gestured at me to follow him, then turned and left. I had to run to keep up.

   “First up is your history lessons young lord.” Sir Enfer said. “Then sword fighting.” I sighed.

   “Whatever.” He turned to me.

   “I was under the impression you hated sword fighting.” Enfer said. “Is something wrong.” I turned, then kicked him in the leg. Enfer didn’t react but he did stop. “You’re angry about something young Lord.”

   “My best friend was just killed!” I yelled. “What do you think I’m mad about?” Enfer shrugged.

   “He was a traitor and an attempted murderer. I’m not sad that he’s dead.” I growled.

   “Sir Tallis was the only person here who cared about me and I…I” I broke down and started to sob. “I miss him.” I wept hard, almost collapsing onto the floor. Sir Enfer grabbed my arm.

   “Now none of that.” Enfer said, his voice firm but not uncaring. “If your father sees you cry, he will make your life miserable.” Enfer reached down and wiped the tears off of my face. “Take a moment, gather yourself.” I nodded.

   You’re just my father’s puppet…you don’t care about me…I looked up at his face. His blue eyes were stern. Yet also...concerned? Do you care?

   “James what I am about to say to you is one of the most crass things you will ever hear. It is also true. Your guardian’s death you are just going to have to get over.”

   “Get over it! I can’t—“ Sir Enfer held up a hand.

   “You are going to be a Lord James, one of the High Lords of the Empire. No matter what, that carries some significance. It also means over the course of your life, you will see many people die.”

   “Many people?” I asked.

   “More than you would want to believe.” Sir Enfer said. “The only way you are going to survive is by becoming hard as the stones of this keep. You have to be unbreakable.” I nodded. “Can you do that?” I shook my head.

   “I can’t.”

   “You can James.” Enfer said. “You just haven’t learned how to. Don’t worry, I will help you.” I growled at him.

   “I don’t want your bloody help!”

   Right then I was so angry. Now I know Sir Enfer’s heart was in the right place. I also know he was wrong. I’ve survived, but never become like a stone. I can remember everyone, every death I caused, every person I’ve seen killed. Names, faces, I know all of it. I can never forget.

   But because I don’t forget, I don’t forget them. Because I remember, they live on in my memories.

   “Now,” Sir Enfer said, “Let’s get on with today’s activities. And if there is enough time, at the end of the day,” He smiled, “I promise you will have time with your bird.” Usually I would have smiled at this, but not today.

   At least it was something.

   Metamor Keep, April 1st 707

   “I killed him.” I repeated as Brightleaf and Nemo lead me away. I repeated this over and over, as Nemo took my bloody skirt off. As I tried to explain to Brightleaf what happened all I could see was his dead eyes. “I killed him. I killed a man!”

   “It was him or you.” Brightleaf said. His voice was calm and his countenance firm. “You did what you had to do. Don’t feel bad about that.” I glared at him. Was he insane? I had just killed someone!

   And he’s telling me not to feel bad!? Bastard.

   For the first time I really saw Brightleaf’s scarred face. His cut ear and fur patched with battle wounds contrasted against my smooth scales. Each knick on his body or scar that emerged from his fur made my heart pound.

   How long before I have my own?

   Brightleaf and I were standing just inside Metamor Keep. The sun had not risen to its full height. Brightleaf himself looked tired but steady. I meanwhile tried to keep from breaking down.

   “I didn’t have to kill him.”

   “Then he would have you. Did you want to die?” I gave him a look of disgust. “It’s not easy killing people James. But you didn’t have a choice. Tell yourself that.”

   Brightleaf’s words were direct. He didn’t worry about the ramifications of killing. He saw things as what needs to be done and did it.

   I did not.

   “I killed someone.” I stammered. I felt Nemo’s hand on my shoulder but I brushed him off. “I killed him he was my age and I killed him and oh gods.” I couldn’t scream or cry or do anything. All I could do was see it.

   His gaping mouth. His glassy eyes.

   The morning sun was cold white and the light seemed over bright. The wind crashed against the gate door and whistled through every crack. Nemo and Brightleaf both stood like trees. I shook like a leaf.

   That wretched morning is a patchwork in my mind. I don’t remember where the others on my patrol went or what happened to the boy I killed. I do remember the frozen wind that bit at me; I remember the smell of warm blood all over me. In the haze of memories I can feel the sticky hatchet handle still in my hand.

   “We can go over this later—“ Brightleaf began.

   “He didn’t know what he was doing.” I stammered. “Oh gods he was my age. He didn’t want to die! I-I didn’t want to kill him!” I think I threw up then, I don’t remember.

   I know I was wailing

   Then I remember Nemo leading me home. I don’t know when we lost Brightleaf. What I did remember was how the sun made the ground shine. How each building gave off stripes of shadow that chilled me to the bone.

   The faces turned into a blur as we passed. Just eyes and bodies. Each eye looked at me and every finger seemed to point. They see what I’ve done. They have to know I’m covered in blood.

   “It’s going to be okay.” Nemo reassured me. “I promise.”

   “You don’t know that.” I snarled. “It’s never going to be okay! Nothing is ever going to be okay again!” I let out another wail. “I need out of here! I need to go right now!” I didn’t make a move away from Nemo.

   “You’ll be okay.” Nemo said. I dropped my head. My tail dragged behind and my arms became two pillars I dragged along. Nemo supported my shaking legs as I entered our dwelling.

   “You’ll be okay.” Nemo said again. I didn’t say a thing. I kept my gaze focused on the ground. My head was spinning so fast if I looked up I was bound to fall over. “I promise you will be okay. The first time you kill someone is always the hardest.” I looked up.

   “The first time? That wasn’t the first time, that was the last time.” I shook my head. “I won’t kill someone again.” Oh how sure I was at that moment.

   Our home was black and ice cold. Nemo sat me at the table and went over to our fire pit. In a few minutes he had a roaring fire going. Its radiant warmth didn’t break through my soaked wet dress.

   “You’ll need to change clothes.” Nemo said. “You have another sarong in your room. That made me pause.

   He didn’t call it a dress. Nemo’s hand rubbed against my shoulder.

   “I’ll go get it. I mean if you want to.” I pushed his hand off. My claws dug into the wooden table and began to shave off parts of the old wood.

   “I was finally starting to enjoy these things.” I pressed my hands flat against the table. My fingers once stubby were now spindly. Nails once cut short were now pointed claws. White skin had given away to green gray scales instead. “This will never be okay. It’s over.” I stood up from the table.

   Nemo followed close behind. “Oh hey I got your—“ I pushed past him and shut the door behind me. Nemo was still talking. I didn’t want to hear it anymore.


   “James…” Nemo laid his head against the door. “You will be okay. I promise…” He rubbed his aching eyes. “I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t…I can though. I will fix this.” Nemo returned to the table and pulled the hatchet free. “I can fix everything.”

   Nemo’s heart still had not calmed down he noted as he retreated to his own room. He sat the hatchet beside his door and grit his teeth. “Ever-everything will be-will be” Suddenly Nemo was aware of nothing but the sound of his heart and sweat pouring down the back of his head. “Wha-what’s happening?”

   Suddenly the area around his temples began to itch like crazy. Nemo scratched at it, only to find hair falling out at his touch. “What? Bu-but I’m becoming younger aren’t I? How can I…” He trailed off. I’m not becoming younger. I’m changing as well.

   It was then that the first wave of change hit Nemo. This inhuman sensation that he could only describe as the feeling of change. It dropped Nemo to his knees in the middle of the room, sending his head spinning.

   “Eli…” Nemo whispered. “Madeline…” Those were the only words he could rasp out as his nails drew into claws.

   James’ transformation had been slow. From this Nemo had learned all transformations were slow and drawn out. Only now did the curse of Metamor Keep show him just how wrong he was.

   Nemo managed to remain conscious as all the changes hit him at once. He finally fell asleep when his new tail dragged against the stone floor.


   While this went on I went through my own drama.

   I peeled my skirt and shirt off. My bed was more beautiful than I had ever seen before. I pulled my blankets onto my bare scaled body. “It’s all over.”

   “Squeak?” I looked down at the foot of my bed. My gray rat friend stood on his hind legs looking up at me. He cocked his head and hopped up my body. I stroked his oddly clean fur.

   “Hey there.” He shivered as I ran my claw down his back. “I really needed you. Just someone who isn’t going to tell me everything will be okay.” I swallowed. “Because it won’t be okay.”

   I began to cry again. “Oh gods it’ll never be okay again. It’s all over. My life really is over.” My rodent friend rubbed himself against me, trying to comfort me. I completely lost it until my body was wracked with sobs.


   I will finish my first cycle with my next letter. For now I will leave you with the image of my younger self, sobbing on his bed and wishing to disappear.

   I have killed since then; I have killed many times. Yet with ease I can draw each name from the confines of my mind. When I close my eyes, I see their accusing faces. I will carry them with me and Saphir’s face will be one of the brightest of them.

   Despite that I no longer accept guilt. Brightleaf was right; Saphir would have killed me had he acted first. That’s not of much comfort when the blood is fresh on you. In time, though, when it has been washed off you can know there was no other choice.

   Humans are entrenched in destruction. A river of blood flows through our lives.

   It would be a year before I learned Saphir’s name or I met those people again. That event I will share in a later cycle. Blood must be repaid with blood. Either all must die or someone must end the killing. This I will learn many times.

   My hand grows tired, allow me to stop here. My next letter will be considerably longer.

   Until then I remain your affectionate friend in the South.