October 707 Cristos Reckoning
The day was quite nice, and the sweltering heat of summer had faded. The signs of fall were beginning to make themselves known. It wasn't cold but neither was it exceptionally warm, and the cheetah had decided to do a little exercising on this fine autumn day.
He knew he really shouldn't overexert himself. That morning he had woken with a wheeze in his lungs and with great concern he had sought the Keep's chief physician Coe, who had told him that it was a common cold, and directed him to take a potion that Pascal had on hand. "But please, take it easy when you take this stuff," she had advised him once he had found her. "It has side effects with animal morphs under stress." He didn't know what side effects she meant, but he felt wonderful, and he doubted a little exercise would hurt.
It was well into morning when the spotted cat came upon the training grounds. The crisp autumn air filled his lungs. The leaves of the trees, having changed color with the season, radiated their colorful palette in the clear morning sunlight. He looked about to see who was on the fields that morning.
The fields were not crowded yet, most people electing to instead share this time with family and friends. The Autumnal equinox had been a few weeks past, so most folks that weren't charged with full time defense of the Keep were out working the crops, harvesting the staples that would sustain Metamor through the winter. There were however, a few folks about, most of whom Stealth did not know well.
One face that caught his attention was that of a rabbit. It would strike most people as odd that a rabbit would be practicing the arts of war, much less be a warrior himself. Stealth knew however that within the area of Metamor, anything was possible.
The rabbit was largely dark brown in color; however, spots of off white were beginning to show. Evidently, he was shedding his summer coat, and his new winter coloration was making itself known. In only a few weeks, the whole of his body would be the same color as his chest-fur, with a few mottled brown patches to break up his profile. He stood only about four feet high, not counting his ears, and weighed probably less than a hundred pounds.
His right ear was adorned with a colorful assortment of rings; the copper, silver, and brass rings glinted in the sunlight. There was a sense of order to them, as though they meant something, but Stealth couldn't place his paw on exactly what. The rabbit's left ear was torn, but not so badly that it was evident at first glance from a distance. The parting gift of a brigand shortly after the curse had made him into the rabbit he now was. It had healed quite well, and one needs to be rather close to even notice it.
He wore a simple tunic, the color of which approximated that of his natural fur. While long enough to satisfy the requirements of modesty, it was not so tight as to interfere with movement of his lower body. He had no weapons or armor with him, so Stealth deduced that he was about to do some running or perhaps calisthenics. Stealth had seen this rabbit around, but had never had a chance to meet him.
The cat was planning to head that way anyway so, that infamous feline curiosity having been piqued, he walked in the direction of the lapin Keeper.
Cathal had noticed the arrival of the spotted cat, but chose, for the most part, to ignore it. That is, until it started walking in his direction. The feline, obviously male, stood a little over five and a half feet tall, on plantigrade legs, tawny yellow fur broken in places with dark brown spots. He wore loose fitting cotton trousers of a dark shade of green, cut just below the knees, and a simple faded brown sleeveless top. Cathal hardly needed to put much effort into keeping an eye on the predator. The Curse of Metamor had blessed him in many ways; his vision now encompassed an area much wider than it once had.
The rabbit was mildly jealous of the cat. His own physique made wearing trousers of almost any type problematic during physical activity. Thus he long ago started wearing only his tunic for such activities. It tended to make him a little self-conscious at times, but it was better than going naked, or living with the discomfort of chafing his fur every other day. It was just another example within his own life, of the many hardships any warrior faces as an animal morph.
"Greetings, oh spotted feline," he said. "How might I assist you?"
"Hey," the cat responded. "I just noticed you look like you were going to do a little running, and was wondering if you would like a running partner."
The rabbit thought it over for a bit as he looked the cat up and down. He had a lithe figure, not an ounce of fat could be found on him. No doubt he was quite fast, but was he nimble? "Actually, I was planning on doing a few laps through the obstacle course today before I have to report for patrols. You're welcome to join me if you wish." His mouth quirked into a lop-sided smile that Stealth had trouble not laughing at. For a warrior, this rabbit was adorably cute.
"Sure, why not? I have today off, and I have nothing better to do." So together they headed to the obstacle course, exchanging introductions and pleasantries along the way.
The obstacle course was a fairly simple affair. It consisted of six events. The start line was also the finish line. First was a mad dash to the bell. Once a contestant hit this bell he would then turn slightly left into a tunnel only about thirty inches wide.
After going through the tunnel the contestant must then turn right and negotiate a maze of tripwires. The wires are stationed every two feet apart in a grid pattern and placed about two feet from the ground. These tripwires are famous of course, for tripping people up.
Once through the tripwires, a contestant faced yet another challenge: the rope bridge. There were five ropes, one for each lane, spanning an area between two crossbars. Touching the ground while negotiating this obstacle disqualifies the contestant.
After completing the rope bridge, the contestant must turn right again and negotiate a set of posts placed in the ground every three feet by weaving through each post in a continuous figure 's' fashion. Should a contestant fail to weave through any of these posts correctly, that contestant is disqualified. Once the final post was successfully negotiated the contestant finds himself back at the bell, which he or she must ring once more before making another mad dash to the finish line.
The mad dashes were fifty feet each and all of the obstacles were twenty-five feet each. There were lanes for up to five contestants, but rarely are they all used. The total effect was the shape of a diamond with a string at the bottom. As such, it had been appropriately named the Kite Course. This course was built well before the Three Gates battle, so had been made for human physique. Updating it was not a priority as there had been other courses built to accommodate the various physiques of the animal morphs.
Cathal had fond memories of that course. He had tested himself against it many times during his year of enlistment, nearly sixteen years prior. That year was the final test of his skills as a swordsman after completing his training with Master Bentley. It was a year that, in retrospect, he wished he had taken the time to enjoy more. But at the time he'd had other, more pressing matters at hand.
Though it was almost obsolete, the Kite was maintained anyway as wholly two-thirds of the Keeps residents were still human, though half of them of a smaller stature. Often, an animal morph tried his mettle against it as well.
A small crowd of spectators had gathered to watch as Cathal explained all this to his spotted companion. He took the cat on a walk through of the course as he explained the rules, such as they were, and how the various obstacles are best approached. He also explained that there had been a few exceptions made for the altered forms of the animal morphs, and Cathal knew them all and used what exceptions he could to full effect. However, Stealth was still human enough in form that those exceptions probably wouldn't help him out any.
"The general rules are pretty simple," he concluded. "No weapons, no magic, no full morph, and no 'taur forms. Anthro-forms only. Get through the course as fast as you can without killing or disqualifying yourself, and first one across the finish line wins."
"I don't think that looks so hard," the cheetah said. "I bet I could probably beat you at this." It was an idle statement, but the cat had no idea what he was getting himself into. Otherwise, he wouldn't be boasting so boldly. He had been training with the scouts, and perhaps thought a little much of himself. After all, He was a cheetah, and therefore built for speed, but he underestimated both the Kite and the rabbit beside him.
"I'll take that bet," the rabbit said without the slightest hesitation. "Say a drink at the Mule?"
The spotted feline thought about it for a few seconds, but no more. "Okay, you're on. But I'll take something non-alcoholic." The cheetah responded with his own grin, which was far more menacing than that of the rabbit.
Having agreed to the terms, they took up positions at the starting line. Cathal chose the number two lane, while Stealth took the fourth. Cathal looked around briefly and reached down to pick something up. "We start as soon as the bell rings," he said.
"Okay, who's going to ring it?" Stealth was about to say, but he was cut short when Cathal threw a small stone at the bell. The rabbit was surprisingly accurate over that distance, and Stealth barely had time to get ready before the peal of the bell could be heard, and they were both off like bolts from a crossbow.
Running like a bat out of one of the greater hells, Stealth left the rabbit in his dust. After hitting the bell, he bolted into the tunnel with barely a pause. Cathal came up a sad twelve seconds behind him, almost seeming not to try. He then went to all fours; as his default form was certainly close enough to full morph for him to be perfectly comfortable doing this. Though rather large for a rabbit, he easily bolted through the tunnel without slowing at all.
Once he arrived at the other end of the tunnel, Cathal was mildly surprised to find the cat about a quarter of the way across the rope bridge already. He had underestimated the feline. Not bothering with hopping through the tripwires at all, as they were just too high for him, he simply scurried beneath the wires. His ears lay flat against his back as he almost flew to the other end of the obstacle. He dodged the occasional support post here and there with uncanny ease. His tunic got snagged on a few lines, but in only a few seconds he was through, or rather, under the wires, and climbing to the rope.
This was where Cathal really shone. Stealth was already nearly two-thirds across when Cathal started to climb to his rope. But he didn't stop at the rope, as Stealth, or any casual spectator for that matter, might have expected. Instead, he climbed up onto the crossbar and, with practiced ease, lifted his hind paws up and dug his claws into the wood. He then thrust those powerful hind legs out with enough force to shake the whole crossbar. This sent the rabbit flying through the air some thirty feet. He made a less than perfect landing a little outside of his lane, but was on his feet again and running like the rabbit he was a full second before the cat could even get off the rope.
"Heh," Stealth was thinking to himself. "Looks like I'm gonna beat that rabbit, easy." He was already two-thirds through the third obstacle and the rabbit was only then making his way through the tripwires. The cat was already salivating at the idea of his free drink. It had been a long time since he'd been able to afford a nice tall glass of grape juice. It was a rarity in the northern kingdoms that was usually reserved for the nobility, and was just then coming into season. In only another month, the season for the juice would pass, and it would be wine or nothing. Thus, the timing could have been no more perfect for this little bet.
As if in reply to his very thoughts, the rope he was shimmying along shook. What little slack there was in the ropes vanished, and then returned as if some unknown stress was applied and then quickly relieved. With a start, he looked down along the now swaying rope to see the rabbit literally flying towards him. Well, not towards him so much as over him, and over the crossbar still some few feet before him. The rabbit landed, and with seemingly unnatural speed was off on the fifth stage.
It only took a moment for the cat to get over his shock, and with a snarl of rage he pushed himself to the crossbar. Sinking his claws into the wood, he pulled himself bodily off of the bridge. Evidently, he had underestimated the rabbit as well.
Cathal was now in his element. After all, rabbits are built for sharp turns, and dodging through obstructions in order to deceive the enemy. The posts between himself and the finish line represented little challenge to him. He made excellent time dodging to and fro, even throwing in a few acrobatics here and there.
He spared a look back to the cat that was now following him. The poor guy was struggling to make his way through the posts. He thought the cat had what it took to be a very good competitor, but he needed a little work. He seemed so agitated that he was bouncing himself off more posts than not. Cathal considered that he should give the cat a few pointers over that drink.
The rabbit rang the bell with his hind paw as he flew by. Cathal didn't need to slow down to do this. In fact, he put on a little more speed. This last mad dash was going to make or break the cat, and Cathal didn't intend to lose if he could help it. He usually tried to take it easy on his opponents, but Stealth was much faster than his usual challengers. And on the mad dash, Cathal knew that he would need every inch of advantage against the cheetah.
Stealth was taken aback slightly when he came to the posts in the ground. He was able to negotiate the things, but with his clumsy plantigrade feet he was unable to keep from scraping them with his sides. Stealth needed more speed than he was comfortable with, and that blasted rabbit had so much lead on him that he was doing back-flips. Stealth was sure the fuzz-ball was just showing off, and that made him even madder. Being beaten in any race is bad enough for the cat, but being beaten so soundly that his opponent had time for acrobatics? That could not be allowed to happen.
"You are NOT faster than me, blast you," he wanted to scream. Then, suddenly, his desire to win overtook his better judgment, and sense of fair play. Without fully realizing it, he had changed into his faster form, that being full cheetah. He weaved his way through the last few posts with typical feline grace, and bolted after the rabbit. His trousers fell to the ground behind him, forgotten. He snarled his rage as the rabbit looked back at him. "I'll catch you yet, blast you," was what he had intended to say.
It was now an all but sure win for the rabbit, as was usual. It would indeed be a rare thing that someone could beat him on the Kite the first time out. He had to admit though; the cat was a better challenger than he had anticipated. He looked back briefly as he approached the finish line to see how far ahead he still was. Much to his surprise, he was not very far ahead at all. And the full morph feline behind him had that hunter's focus that such felines were famous for.
Then the cat let out a predatory cry that nearly froze his heart with fear. "He's gone tharn," the rabbit thought to himself even as he bolted for all he was worth. "If he catches me now, I'm cheetah chow."
Crossing the finish line only a half second before the cat, he quickly bolted left, and quickly followed it up with another left. By doing this he gave himself precious seconds. With the cat, now about ten paces behind him, Cathal ran for all he was worth, which was surprisingly, nearly, but not quite as fast as the cat behind him. His larger form and longer legs, combined with an adrenalin rush, gave him proportionally more speed than his wild brethren could hope for.
With Stealth hot at his heels, Cathal leapt a small stream. He thought the water would deter the cat, but was quite surprised as he bolted left again, and nearly got caught by the cats' claws. Regardless, the rabbit had managed to gain a precious few seconds and noticed a tree up ahead. It appeared to be one of the many great maple's that dotted the Keep, the orange foliage even now fluttering to the ground. Whatever its variety, it would do quite nicely for what he now had in mind.
Thinking fast, he headed straight for the tree, taking from his legs all the speed they would give. Still, the cat behind him continued to close the far too small gap with every second. By the grace of Eli though, his timing was perfect. Just as the cat was about to swipe Cathal's hind paws out from under him, the rabbit jumped into the air. Cathal flipped through the air and landed about five feet up the trunk. His hind paws made contact with the bark of the tree at the equivalent of about a hundred paces a minute.
Damn, but did it hurt. He had to have strained something at the very least, but he paid the pain no heed at all as he felt the tree shudder. Whether from his own impact or that of the cat chasing him, he wasn't about to find out. Kicking out as hard as he could, he hit the ground about twenty paces away and within a scant few seconds, the rabbit was nowhere to be seen.
Stealth's focus had gone from 'catch up to the rabbit,' to 'catch the rabbit.' It was a difference of but two words to the rational mind, but Stealth was under stress, and on Pascal's cold medicine. His mind wasn't completely rational at the time. The look of fear in the eyes of his quarry was all it took to send his barely controlled mind over the edge of oblivion. He was going to show that rabbit who was the fastest cat in the kingdom once and for all.
Already more than a little over-heated from the obstacle course, the cheetah was only a few feet from his target when the fuzz-ball suddenly bolted to the left and followed it up with another quick left. Tearing rents into the lawn beneath his paws, the cat sent dirt and grass flying in all directions, but managed to maintain his pursuit, though he lost a little ground.
Just as he was about to catch the bugger again, the rabbit leapt in the air over a stream. The cat just barreled through it, sending water splashing everywhere. The cold water shocked him, but it also refreshed him as well, cooling his overheated body. The rabbit faltered briefly when he landed and that was almost, but not quite enough for Stealth to catch him. All the cheetah got for his troubles was a tuft of fur, and once again the deadly race was on.
Finally, the little fuzz-ball seemed to be getting tired. No longer was he performing sharp, evasive maneuvers, and doing fancy acrobatics. He was going instead in a relatively dead straight run, and he was losing ground to the cat fast. There was no question that the cheetah had the advantage now. Just a few more seconds and dinner would be served.
Just when victory was almost within his claws, though, that blasted rabbit pulled yet another stunt. This time he jumped up and rebounded off the trunk of a tree. Cheetahs may be fast, but once going full speed, they have a great deal of trouble stopping quickly. His attempt to prove otherwise failed, as he hadn't noticed the tree until it was simply too late. He ran practically headlong into the tree, and blackness took him.
The next thing Stealth knew was having a bucket of water splashed on him. He came to with a start, only to be told to stay still and to not shift.
"You hear me kid?" The voice was familiar, but through the pounding in his head, he couldn't quite make it out. He opened his eyes instead, and that hurt almost as much.
'Oh, great gods, my head hurts.' he thought to himself. It was George, the patrol master. He had a look of both concern and irritation upon his face. 'What happened? Did I get run over by a dragon or something?'
"Don't move; just let us take care of you. You might have really hurt yourself with that little stunt. You're lucky to still be alive." George knew that It was the time of year when some of the Keepers started having problems with colds, and unfortunately, sometimes, other more sinister ailments. George would've bet garrets to round-cakes that the cat had taken some of Pascal's cold potion. His behavior was consistent with the famous side effects. If the stuff weren't so blasted effective, the Duke would have banned it last winter when she first developed it. His suspicions were confirmed with a quick whiff of the cat's breath. The jackal just shook his head.
Last year, there had been six incidents with this potion and its effects. Fortunately, none of them were nearly as serious as this one was. He suspected that the cheetah's naturally higher energy level might have something to do with its severity. Regardless, this incident was very serious. It was already over before anyone could come to the rabbit's aid. From the time Stealth went full morph to the time Cathal had bounced him off the tree, was less than a minute by his best estimations. Had Cathal not used all of his faculties, there would have been a funeral in a few days.
With an efficiency that would have spun the cat's head, had it not already been doing so, he found himself laid out on a stretcher and on his way to the infirmary. "You two take care of him. Tell Coe what happened, and that it's another cold potion incident," the jackal instructed the two aides that were carrying him. "I'll look for Cathal" At the mention of the rabbit's name, Stealth recalled what had happened, and was afraid, because he could not remember the ending.
George was not unaware of Stealth's sudden alarm. "Don't worry too much lad; he was long gone before we got to you." Then he removed from one of his many pockets a tuft of brown fur that had been found by the stream. "But I am sure he wasn't too happy with how close to him you got."
Then Stealth saw that stern look in his eyes, the one that could wilt a rose at peak bloom. George continued, "I've been watching you two since you showed up at the Kite. Let me give you a garret's worth of free advice son: cheaters never win against the likes of Cathal. He's a contender with a big ego, and he's one hell of a warrior. I wouldn't go trying to kill him if I were you. Also, any potion of Pascal's must be used with great care. When she says 'take it easy on this stuff,' she means it. I don't care how good you feel." With that, George left to hunt down Cathal, and find out how the rabbit had fared.