The occupants of the room sat in silence. The only sound, indeed the only movement came from the person applying bandages. Stealth looked up, then back down. Once more the memory came back to him of his friend screaming in pain.
They were playing predator and prey like so many others had done. Then it happened, without thinking the cheetah reached out and tripped the gazelle, just like in a real chase. But it wasn't supposed to be real. He was supposed to be careful, instead the full form gazelle tripped at high speed and broke his foreleg, the bone protruded through the skin and the limb bent the wrong way. They were both very distraught and Stealth didn't know what to do. It's a damn good thing those scouts showed up.
"There, all done, it should be fine in a few weeks but I'll want to check up on you in that time" Fell nodded and Coe put the equipment away.
Stealth looked at his palms; they were the thick padded palms you would be more likely to see on a paw, but... 'No senses, no instincts, what the hell happened?' He asked himself. Stealth tried to build up the courage to say something. "...Fell, I'm really sorry." He managed to say.
"...I know, its okay." Fell said back, neither of them were really looking at each other.
"I really am." The cheetah mumbled.
"I said its okay! Forget it, I'm fine." The gazelle said, trying to sound confident but his voice still held a hint of fear.
Stealth became silent once again, he just didn't know what to say and he doubted the gazelle meant what he said.
Then Fell got up. "Come on." He said and pat the cheetah on the shoulder. "The game was my idea, remember? Why don't you go get some rest or something, just don't worry, okay?"
Stealth looked up, the cheetah felt intimidated by the gazelle. "Okay..." He nodded and both of the savannah creatures made their way out.
Coe sighed, the raccoon healer broke his gaze from where the troubled morphs had left. He put an assistant in charge before leaving for the mess hall to break fast.
"Good morning sir," a voice said suddenly. Stealth looked up, yawned and rubbed his eyes. He could make out a blob made up of smaller yellow and black blobs... Which bowed. "My name is Sir Edmund Delacot. I noticed that you are like me, a cheetah."
Stealth blinked and squinted, he discovered the knight to indeed be a fellow cheetah. He was seated at a table in the Deaf Mule. Until now everyone in the place had left him alone with his troubles.
"May I take a seat?" Edmund asked, Stealth tried to smile and motioned his hand to an empty seat.
Edmund took the offered seat and looked at the more haggard cat who seemed to be looking at something distant. “Are you all right? You seem troubled. I am a protector of the faith and I deal with troubled souls both in this world and the next. Maybe I can help you.”
"Protector of the faith?" He asked with worry creeping into his features.
“The order of protectors is devoted to protecting the innocent and helping those in need,” Edmund intoned solemnly. “We’re a small group but we are devoted to our tasks and doing the Great Ones desires.” He nodded and smiled revealing a muzzle full of sharp teeth. “And besides,” he said in a more friendly tone. “I’m a good listener!”
The other cheetah grimaced, 'Oh boy.' He thought, 'does he know? Will he look down at me? At best feel sorry for me?' Lacking a faith had been one of the reasons Stealth had to leave his home town. He didn't know what to make of the paladin. But he did need to talk to someone and a person taken by the curse probably wouldn't see him as a demon. "...Um, oh, I'm sorry, I didn't introduce myself. I'm Stealth... want some nuts?"
“Thank you. Yes I would like some nuts.” Edmund replied. “It’s good to meet you Stealth. I didn’t mean to intrude but you look like you need some help and we cheetahs have to stick together.”
"Actually, I haven't seen any others around, I haven't thought about it." He finished and wiped his nose free of the powdered salt, stifling a sneeze.
Edmund shrugged. “There are a few here. We so many different species it is hard to keep track. That is why we need to stick together. And everyone needs friends.”
Stealth hadn't been paying attention, instead he turned away slightly and his face scrunched up in an odd way. 'TEW!' His head shook in a feline sneeze, "Ugh, 'sniff' I knew I should have put more on last night, oh uh, you were saying?"
"You're preoccupied with something." Edmund answered. "You are in a place for eating and drinking and yet you aren't drinking or eating. What is wrong?"
A chill, different to sort responsible for his sniffling, hit Stealth and he froze. The cheetah muzzle palmed and gave the Paladin his full attention. "I..." He swallowed a lump in his throat. "There was an accident."
”And you hurt someone?” Edmund asked bluntly. “That much is plain to read.”
"It's not just that. It was a game... How familiar are you with the games folks play around here?" Stealth wanted to tell all but couldn't bring himself to say the words.
Edmund shrugged. "Only that most of the games are universal and are the same as those played anywhere else in the Midlands. But being partly an animal could lead to new and different games."
“Heh, 'partly.'' Stealth thought to himself, not an animal man, or half animal, just partly. The thought gave him comfort. Ho, boy. He's never heard of P&P? Then again had Stealth before last night?
"What game were you playing?" the feline asked.
"Well it's like tag... kinda." Stealthy mumbled.
Edmund nodded. "But things got a little too rough?" he speculated. "That can happen easily enough."
"Yeah, it can. But... 'Sigh'" He hesitated and faltered.
"But?" Edmund asked. "Still doesn't make you feel any better seeing your friend hurt."
He sighed deeply. “Predator and Prey," Stealth mumbled. "That's the game. I was the 'predator.” He pointed out, pained to say it.
"I see. And did your instincts get the better of you?"
"They didn't get the better of me, they took over. For a moment there I..." The memory came back and his hands trembled. "I... was chasing a meal."
The paladin nodded. "I see. The cheetah and its instincts are a part of us now. A part that we need to respect and control."
A waitress appeared in front of the two. "What do you want?" the young woman asked.
Stealth's chin rested on the table, he ran a claw through the small bowl of nuts without saying a word.
"I'll take a bowl of the lamb stew and a mug of cider." Edmund ordered. "My friend it seems it not hungry. Do you at least want a drink?"
The other cheetah looked up at the Gender Morphed waitress, “what other drinks do you have?”
The waitress looked at him. "We have twelve types of wine both red and white, ale, mead and plain beer. We also have cider if you don't want alcohol."
"Bah, fine, I'll take cider." He rose up and stretched. "I guess I need it."
"You should eat," Edmund suggested. "One part of being a carnivore is respecting the hunger instincts. When I am hungry the feline instincts are stronger."
"I never HAD any instincts till now. No instincts, no dietary needs and still no senses," He shook a clump of salt out of his palm. "I'll have some tuna then." He told the waitress. "And some veggies."
Edmund watched the waitress leave. "You DID have the instincts Stealth but until today they just didn't come to the fore. While chasing your friend you let down your guard and the instincts came up. But you regained your senses."
"Ha ha ha.” Stealth laughed, a board, humourless laugh. “Not those senses." He tapped his nose. "I'll bet you can identify people by scent and hear things like a heart beat. Until now this body has been useless."
"Useless?" Edmund asked, puzzled. "How long ago did the curse change you? Recently?"
Stealth scratched the table top as he recalled. "A few weeks or a month ago. Since then I've had to use my full form to get anything out of this curse. That's how I make a living."
"And you've never felt the cheetah’s instincts till today? How have you been using your animal form? As a hunter? Somehow I don't see you out in the woods hunting game."
"Hunting?" The other cheetah asked perplexed. "I'm a courier!"
"Clever! Nothing is faster then a cheetah!" he laughed. "I know the change is different for each person. Some get hit by the instincts harder then others."
"Well it hit me in the end, maybe it's just been building up or my full form has unleashed it..." He looked down at his hand and gave the fingers a flex. "I don't think I can do this anymore."
"Do what?" Edmund asked. "Be a courier?"
"Not in the way I have, no." He looked up at Edmund then turned away but eventually made eye contact again. "Have you ever tried it, Edmund?"
"Tried what?" he answered unsure of what Stealth meant. "Do you mean going full animal? Yes I have."
"Hmm, yes I suppose everyone has at one point or another, it scares me now." He looked to the kitchen door and wondered when their food or at least their drinks would arrive.
"Why should it scare you? Being a cheetah is part of you now whether you like it or not. Denying the feline instincts is not possible, Controlling and channelling them IS! One of the few pleasures I've allowed myself is hunting. Recently I've starting hunting as a cheetah. It is exhilarating but I always need to keep the cheetah in check."
"Oh?" Stealth raised an eye brow, or eye ridge, "What do you hunt?"
"Rabbit, deer and the like. I do have to be sure it's not a keeper. It's not the actual kill that thrills me. The exhilaration of the chase itself!" he says with delight creeping into his voice. "Racing across the grass, feeling the air rush past my face. This body is built for speed. It enjoys running."
"What do you do with the kill? You don't eat it in an open place lest a predator sneaks up on you and steals it I hope!" He asked with a grin.
Edmund shook his head. "No. I take the meat home and dress it and eat it cooked. Usually with some vegetables."
"How do you take it home? Do you use a pack like me or go back to morph form?" An image entered the cheetah's mind, "...you don't drag it through the snow in your mouth do you?"
Edmund shook his head. "Of course not. I carry the food back in my human-like form"
'THUD' the cat woke from his trance when the waitress served their food and drinks, all of which were balanced on one arm.
"How do you balance all that stuff at once?" Edmund asked. He leaned back as the woman deftly placed all the plates and drinks in the right place.
"Second nature, Sir Knight,” she answered and clunked down the two mugs next to the plates.
Edmund laughed. "You belittle yourself. That takes real talent." He sniffs the bowl of stew. "Being a cheetah does have its benefits and this is one of them."
"Apparently." Stealth said with drooped ears. They suddenly perked up, 'sniff sniff' "Wait a minute, I can smell it!" Such a fine sense has never graced him before, not since that time underground where his eyes played tricks on him.
“You've never had the fine senses of a cheetah till now?" Edmund questioned. "Maybe you just never realized it till this moment."
Stealth perked up more, "Maybe cause' of all the time I spend in full form it never had time to develop, or it was just slow." He barked a laugh. "You know, it was two weeks before I changed at all, and then it was finished with me the next day like it was making up for lost time!"
The feline paladin nodded. "Some things take time. I've heard that the curse is different for each person."
"Aye, I've noticed that. I don't want to go through that again, at least this time the change isn't... painful..." He stared off into the distance. "No! That's it! I've spent so much time like a real cheetah that it's affected my mind!" Stealth announced with a hint of panic.
"Calm down my friend,” the paladin said soothingly. “Being a cheetah has affected your thinking to a degree but not too badly."
"NO! I can't do this!" He said through his muzzle palmed face.
"Can't do what?" Edmund asks concerned.
"I can't use that form." He began to steady himself, or tried as best he could.
Edmund reached out and grabbed hold of Stealth. "Calm down. What do you mean?"
"I can't run around like an animal any more! I can't let something like that happen again!" He insisted, griped by anxiety. He wasn't even aware of the Knight's proximity.
Edmund slapped Stealth on the face with the palm of his hand. "Calm down," he ordered in a tone that rang of command. "Explain yourself. Calmly and slowly."
Stealth had jerked his head back, he composed himself and glared at the Knight. "I almost killed my friend! It wasn't a training mishap, it wasn't a combat crossfire or a work-related accident or even the result of an argument. I tried to EAT him!" He whimpered, trembling with each word, Edmund held him firm.
"And it's all because I was playing around with a form I use all the time to make my bread and butter. I never expected anything like this to happen, I underestimated it. How can I use that form again?!" He rubbed his nose, "...that really hurt, Ed."
Edmund was quiet for a moment. "This is something you need to confront. What you need my friend is training. You need to learn how to control the feline cravings and instincts."
Stealth took a deep breath and looked at the tuna. "How?"
That question silenced Edmund. "Well. Avoiding the form will not help. The instincts are there just the same. Just not as obvious. First thing. When you two were playing. Did you do so on an empty stomach? One of the biggest drives of a carnivore is hunger."
"I couldn't eat, I was up last night wandering the halls, I didn't even have breakfast on my mind." His eyes widened in recognition. "Arr!" The cat pinched his nose bridge.
"What's wrong?" Edmund asked concerned. "And just because you weren't thinking of food doesn't mean you weren't hungry."
"I know! I know! I just figured that. But still..." 'TEW!' "Excuse me, but still I remember feeling nauseas"
"From now on my friend you need to be careful of when you eat and never let your inner cheetah go hungry for too long."
Stealth rested his chin on the table top and sighed, "Sound's like a medical condition or something." He could almost see the healer Coe giving him such advice.
"I'm sure Coe and the deep thinkers have some name for it but it escapes me. Doesn’t really matter."
"Sounds about right, people on it often complain of feeling like they're dying, then again everything Coe prescribes has that affect."
Edmund laughed. "Healing the sick is never a pleasant task. Many patients are very hard to get along with."
The paladin no longer grappled his hand or shoulder, the courier reached for one of the vegetables on his plate, a carrot. "Have you ever had a bowl full of tasty organs shoved in your muzzle by that raccoon? Not fun." He said and crunched on the carrot. "Hmm." 'Crunch!' "It doesn't taste all too fresh." The cheetah said and sniffed the vegetable.
"You are a carnivore now. You had best get used to eating lots of meat. Carrots are now no longer a big part of your meals."
He dropped the bland carrot on the table, as it rolled a bit Stealth drew the plate of tuna closer to him. There was a tinge of regret in his eyes.
"I'm sorry about that Stealth but that is a part of the curse. Try the tuna. You'll be surprised how the cheetahs tongue enhances the taste."
It did smell good, more so than usual. He took the wooden spoon and scooped up a large portion of the oily chunks. Upon hitting his taste buds the feline lit up. He practically inhaled the first spoon full and the second, and so on, stuffing his muzzle.
"Amazing isn't it?" Edmund asked Stealth. "I see I am right."
Stealth looked up at Edmund with a full Muzzle and tried to mumble something but gave up and downed the wonderful meat with a cup of cider.
"Don't let me interrupt you. Just eat and be happy."
"Oh, man! Are you eating that lamb? Oh, wait, that’s the carnivore talking!” He looked back down at the plate but found it to be empty. “Hmm, now where did that girl go? Say, she called you a knight didn’t she? No wait, now I remember, you said it when we met, are you on duty right now?”
"I am a knight of the Follower faith but I am not on duty right now."
"Guess I'm not the only one who doesn't feel like drinking then." He pointed a claw to the Paladin’s cup of cider.
Edmund nodded. "This is as strong a drink as I may take."
"Really?" The courier had supposed such a man would be into his cups; it had always seemed as if everyone in the keep, not just the warriors but everyone spent their off time under the table except for him.
"Not everyone here spends all their time drunk,” Edmund said answering his unasked question. “The keep has one of the largest libraries in the Midlands. Lots of people spend time there."
"Hmmm, I guess I was thrown off by all those woman and children I've seen downing drinks bigger than them. Then again this place does teach one not to underestimate people!"
"Just remember that all those 'children' are actually a lot older then you are. Some are probably older then ME!" Edmund explained. "And this is a pub - a drinking place. People come here to drink. What else would you see here?"
"Oh, Aye, my point exactly, it's just I don't come here to drink. But I didn't think it were true for others."
"I cannot drink. I come here because my friends often come here and I enjoy the companionship."
"Cannot?" Stealth asked quizzically.
"I am a paladin. I've taken an oath. Being a defender of the faith grants me many benefits but it requires certain strict behavior."
"Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to press you sir." He said and looked down at the table, a sudden fear creeping up upon the realization that he is indeed talking with a holy warrior! The faith-lacking feline drew back again.
"No need to apologize. You made no insults to me and I am still just a person like you,"
"No, please." He got up and placed some coins on the table. "I shouldn't be a burden, I have things to do now."
"What's wrong?" Edmund asked surprised. "You're not being a burden at all. Was it something I said?"
"No! No, I... I need to..." He didn't stop looking at the ground.
"What is wrong my friend?" Edmund asked. "Tell me." he asked. His voice was filled with concern and just a touch of command. "I’m a friend. You can tell me."
"I can’t! ...somehow I don't think you'll... approve one bit" Stealth's head was firmly fixed on the wood panelling in the floor. He could make out the dents and scratches in its surface.
I won't approve of what?" he asked in a soft tone. "Stealth. Tell me please," he persisted. "How do you know I won't approve if you don't tell me."
He had just discovered a bronze coin on the floor when his ear twitched up then so to his head. There was fear in his eyes but he finally took a deep breath and just said it, "I'm a non-believer."
"You don't believe in the Great one? Are you a Lightbringer?"
He raised an eye-ridge, "I am not a Lightbringer."
"You mean you don’t believe in ANY faith?" Edmund asked unsure of what to say.
"No, I don't," he said and stepped back a bit more.
Edmund looked at his fellow feline confused. "You have no faith at all?" He seemed unable to grasp the idea.
"No, none at all. I look for answers elsewhere." He looked up to see the other cheetah’s reaction. "But I don't disrespect your faith."
“What do you believe in?" Edmund asked. "If you don't believe in any Gods?"
Stealth thought for a moment, "I believe in an alternative to the spiritual realm, I believe in explanations to life’s questions that don't involve the gods."
Edmund shook his head. "No gods at all?" he wasn’t not mad but he was confused.
Stealth shrugged. "I reached a point in my life where I questioned such things and began to look for alternatives."
Edmund ponders his friend for a moment before answering. "Have you come up with anything?"
"Not on my own, no but we’ve been told that rainbows are a gift from the gods however for years now it’s been theorized that they are the result of sun light refracting through water droplets.
“I don’t claim to have the answers for why things are so but that doesn’t necessarily mean Eli is responsible for them." He explained trying to sound neutral.
"If Eli didn't create the world then who did?" Edmund asked. "Did the world just create itself?"
"...Who created Eli?" He asked softly. "Maybe Eli did create the world, personally I don’t think so. I don't know yet."
Edmund’s reaction was unexpected. He laughed. "People have been asking questions like that since long before you and I were born. And yet people always seem to return to the Faith."
Stealth didn't know what to make of the statement. "The Faith has answers, but not the ones I seek." He took a deep breath to steady himself. "But I respect the beliefs of those in the Faith so I ask that you respect mine."
Edmund nodded slowly. "Fair enough. All things come with time. But some questions can never be answered fully and you just have to accept. After all it is called FAITH! Not certainty."
The smaller cat looked up and smiled. "So you don't... condemn me?"
"No I don't condemn you. The great one is patient and so am I. As long as you keep an open mind."
The worry began to melt away. "Really?"
"Really. I am a paladin and a man of honor. I never lie."
"...but you are a paladin."
"And? I'm a paladin not a fanatic or a slayer. The great one speaks of acceptance and forgiveness."
The cheetah sat back down and had a nervous giggle. "You don't think I'm going to burn?"
"That depends on what you choose in the end and the choice is not mine. Only the Great One has the right to judge."
"But not on this?" He asked still unsure off the Follower Knight.
"Why? Because you are asking questions? The Great one will not condemn you for just asking."
Stealth hid a cringe. "I'm not exactly 'just' asking; that would be a sugar coating. As I said, I'm a non believer, an atheist." He explained, worried the knight would judge him for that. Edmund and others. Stealth felt the eyes of everyone in the room were on him.
"All I ask my friend is that you keep an open mind and leave yourself open to new thoughts and ideas. I'm sure someday you'll see the light."
Stealth frowned at that and shook his head, "I am always open to new thoughts and ideas, I just don't necessarily believe them. ...And what do you mean 'see the light'? If I'm not mistaken you didn't even consider the lack of any faith until now." He put a hand to his face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that how it sounded, I consider other ideas but I just don't think they're for me just as being faithless isn't for you."
Edmund nodded slowly. "We all go through stages in our life. As we grow older we accept ideas that we once rejected. Our experiences haunt and change us. With time you will find a faith. A wise man once told me there are no atheists on the battlefield."
Stealth’s ears flattened against his skull. “I HAD a faith; I was raised as a Lightbringer. I could find another faith but I'd much rather find my own answers. I don't expect you to stop believing in the Great One, can't you accept me as I am?"
"All right. I can accept that. So long as you are willing to accept ME as I am."
"Of course! I did say as much, anyway, that's all I ask, my friend... granted you don't think I'm going to burn in hell for it."
"Didn't I answer that before? Only the Great One can decide your ultimate fate."
"Yes... but as I asked, not for this?" He clarified.
"It is the same for all. Only he has the right to decide."
Stealth no longer held his breath, he looked at the other cheetah. "Aye, but I’m more interested in YOU; it'd be nice to know that you don't think of me as a heathen... or that I need to ‘see the light’ as it were” He added looking hurt and continued. “As it would be for those down south not to see us as demons."
"Why would I think of you as a heathen?" Edmund asked, "I dislike the phrase heathen. I prefer to think of you as someone who has yet to see the Great Ones wisdom."
"Ha! So much for acceptance." Stealth commented and slumped.
"What?" Edmund asked. "And what do you think of me for believing in a God?" he asked.
He shrugged, "I think you made a decision that you feel is right just as I did, much like the other decisions we make in life. I have no desire to change that."
Edmund nodded. "So we are at an impasse. We both believe in opposite things. Perhaps we should just leave it at that and just be friends."
"Indeed." He had just about given up on the stubborn cat; was his newly discovered kin just an arrogant zealot? Someone who looks down upon him, take pity on and even loathe him? Perhaps the paladin will pray for his soul so that he can find his way and avoid a fate of eternal damnation? No, of course not. Stealth didn’t have luck with his question because Edmund didn’t know the answer, didn’t claim to know and had no intention of speculating or guessing just as his atheist friend hadn’t speculated on his beliefs.
Stealth moved closer to the table again, he reached out and pat the paladin's shoulder. "Thank you, my friend, I didn't mean to press you, I wasn't sure what you thought of me and I didn't know what to make of you at first. Sorry."
Edmund patted his friend on the shoulder. "No problem. You aren't the first one to be afraid. There are many who claim to do the Great Ones works but who are really doing great evil."
"After all. I am a cheetah and do not really look human anymore. And yet the great one still accepts me and grants me some privileged abilities."
"Well, I don't think those abilities are to do with the Great One, as I said, but, if I'm wrong he probably still grants them because you are in fact still a human; there's no such thing as a two-legged-walking-talking-cheetah," he pointed out with a grin. His expression changed, "But then again humans don't..."
Edmund laughed. "People have been arguing if a Curse struck Keeper is human since the curse first happened. I have the feeling it's an argument that will never truly end."
"No." Stealth answered, flexing his fingers. He seemed fixated by them. Not really animal, not really human. Like an... Impasse. And he should just accept it. "I suppose it won't."
Edmund nodded. "Some questions are never answered. And probably never will be."
"Well if they were where would be the fun in that?" He nudged the knight. "I like looking for answers, I think we all do. That's how I know we're still human. Although, I am a cat..." He laughed, "You know how they say the curse suits you.” He paused and added, “There was this one time I got stuck in the cellars... I'll tell you another time."
"Misha pointed out that the curse seems to have a sense of humor sometimes and picks the species just to fit the person."
"Aye, I suppose it builds on our personality and gives us a new perspective."
"Who can tell? Misha believes that some intelligence is behind the curse but I am hard pressed to disagree,” Edmund explained.
"It could very well be," The courier pondered, "The curses were laid down as spells but they changed and may have evolved into an intelligent being."
Edmund shrugged. "Who can tell? After all the keep itself IS alive. Literally. Kyia is no mere myth but a real, living person."
His friend nodded, "I'm well aware of the lady of the keep, she gave me a nice warm coat last night."
"She gave you a warm coat?" Edmund asked a little confused. "I’ve found that cheetah fur is too thin in these cold winters."
Stealth smiled but that soon vanished, "I forgot where I put it!" He announced and looked around, slightly distraught.
Edmund pointed to the back of Stealth’s chair. "Your coat is behind you."
The frantic feline spun around and snatched it up. He examined the fabric to make sure it's the same coat. And indeed it appeared and smelled the same as before; a thick red noble-looking coat with fluffy edges and a small running-cat-silhouette pattern. And of course its surface had a light coating of his shed fur.
"Where exactly did you get that coat from?" he asks stealth.
"A statue gave it to me," he answered as if it were a matter of fact and gathered it up.
Edmund is silent for a moment. "A statue? Did it talk to you?"
Stealth laughed, "Of course not! It was just draped with this fine gift."
"So it was just laying there? Edmund asked. Confused. "No one around to claim it but you?"
"Not exactly." Stealth explained, "Late last night I entered a dark hall. It would have to have been disused for some time." He continued, "The far end had a statue, not of a noble or a hero. To be blunt it was me."
"You?" Edmund was surprised. "In this strange Keep nothing is impossible. But are you sure it was you?"
The other cheetah nodded, "down to detail, even dressed the same as I." He indicated his clothing, the same clothes he had worn to bed.
Edmund shook his head. "Little in this place truly surprises me anymore. Confuse me YES! But not surprise me."
"Don't worry my friend, I'm sure there's a good explanation, it's just yet to be discovered." Stealth wrapped the coat around his fore arm and into a bundle, "Would you like to see it?"
"Yes, I would like to see this gift from Kyia herself," Edmund answered. "It seems she has taken a personal interest in you!"
"I doubt that, Edmund, she takes interest in everyone, hence the variable geography," He answered and tossed the coat the short distance to the Knight. Edmund easily grasped it but a corner still unfolded and fell into his lamb stew! “Eww.”
"ARGH!" Edmund said and quickly removed the coat from the meal. "I am sorry about that!"
"Hahaha! Entirely my fault, I just did a simple job of bundling it, I should have taken much greater care handing it over," Stealth chuckled, "I'm sorry about your meal!"
Edmund laughed. "Don’t worry about the meal. Is your coat stained?"
"Not at all; it wasn't a blueberry pie or anything.”
"Thankfully no damage done," Edmund said, "This is a really fine coat. Not a flimsy thing but well done."
Stealth scratched his head, "I haven't thought about it, I think I was too numb at the time!"
"You had a right to be numb. It's not everyday that you get a gift from Kyia," Edmund commented.
"Actually I was freezing my tail off at the time; wondering the halls late, dressed as I am you see. But I was indeed spooked." Stealth explained.
Edmund laughed and handed the coat back to Stealth. "Enjoy your gift my friend."
The courier took back the warm coat and smiled, "Thank you, I'll take good care of it." He brushed a hand across the fabric and noticed for the first time that it indeed had been well crafted.
"When I came to Metamor I never expected to stay here. But like your coat she gave me a gift that I can never truly repay. A place to call home."
"And that's how you tolerate the curse?" He asked unsure.
"Yes, the curse doesn't really matter. Under all this fur it is still me. Edmund Delacot."
"But you need to remember, it's not just a matter of having fur." Stealth pointed out. "That's what I thought before." He added.
"There are some changes being a cheetah but when I was human that came with it's own problems and instincts."
"I suppose so." He agreed, "Instincts?" He asked.
"That is what made you think of eating your friend during the chase. They are base reactions that come to the surface when we least expect them."
"I know what instincts are, but I didn't know of any as a human," he pointed out and cringed at the memory.
"All humans have an instinctive fear of the dark. That comes from the days when the great predators came out at night to hunt us."
Stealth scratched his chin, “I didn’t know a knight such as your self feared the dark! Regardless, I have found my sleeping habits to have remained unchanged and I now feel weary of other predators. But that’s okay; those instincts make me feel humbled.
“Besides, I now have more ways of looking at the world, I can only make the most of that, or waste it.” He became silent for a moment as he warmed to idea and reflected on the experience the curse has given him.
Stealth suddenly felt a tinge of guilt; the cheetah actually became concerned that others were missing out! “Edmund, do you suppose our friends have found opportunities from the curse? The Gender Morphs and Age Regressed.”
Edmund shrugged. "Who wouldn't like to relive their childhood?"
Stealth regarded Edmund for a moment, "Yes, but don't forget the others."
"Who can really tell? My second in command Terrant is now Terry a young woman. He had problems adjusting at first and yet she seems happy now."
"I hope so, if I'm going to adjust I don't want others missing out," he said with conviction.
"But I think it helps that... Terrant has good friends." He added with a smile.
"We all need friends. Anything is possible if you have people to help you."
"Yes..." Stealth looked down at the table top then back up at the paladin. "Actually... no, never mind."
"What?" the paladin asked. "Don't be afraid to speak."
"Well... there is something that you could help me with." The courier explains.
"Sure. What can I do?" the cheetah asked a little puzzled.
The other cheetah scratched his head. "My main 'gift' given to me by the curse is my speed, right?"
"Yes. Cheetahs are knows for their speed." the paladin answers.
"I've always wanted to see how I'd go against another like me." The courier explains, twiddling his thumbs.
"Are you challenging me to a race?" Edmund asked. "In animal form or two legged form?"
"I spend plenty of time running around as an animal, let's try just two legged."
"All right Stealth! I accept the challenge. Where do you want to race to my friend?"
Stealth lit up. "We'll find an open grassy area outside the keep, nothing too big; remember it's for speed, not distance. But if you're game we could find an obstacle course among the trees!" The cat's pleasant visage turned serious, "But we can't begin yet... We just can’t!"
"What's wrong?" Edmund asked. "I am willing to race you any time you want."
"There is a problem. You haven’t touched your lamb stew!" Stealth pointed out to Edmund. "My coat had more to eat than you! The carnivore instincts are stronger when you're hungry! Eat something my friend! I'll keep watch for thieving hyenas!" He announced in mock tones.
Edmund shook his head at the bad joke. "Does your jacket want more to eat?"
Stealth turned to the thick red coat resting on the back of his chair. "Hmm, nope it's full."
"Well if it's too full perhaps you could take it for a walk to burn it off." Edmund joked.
"Can I get you anything else?" The Gender Morphed waitress suddenly appeared and asked.
"I am happy," Edmund says. He turned to Stealth. "How about you? You and your coat need any more food?"
"Na, it's resting now, but I could sure go for some more of that tuna!" Stealth answered eagerly.
The waitress gave them an odd look and then turns and leaves.
"She thinks we're both crazy." Edmund joked.
"Who?" Stealth asked, "The coat or the waitress?"
"Both!" he answered. "Be the waitress is harmless. It's the coat that has me worried."
"Oh, it's not that." Stealth assured him, "She just wants your lamb, eat it quickly!"
Edmund laughed some more and started eating his stew.
Stealth settled down, he looked at his feet, then to those of the Paladin. "Hmmm."
Edmund looked down at his own paws and the boots covering them. "What? You like the boots? I had to have them special made after the curse changed me."
"At least that's something I don't need to worry about!" Stealth said as the waitress reappeared with some more tuna, prepared from last time.
Edmund returned to his stew and continued eating it without comment.
The new cheetah coalition eventually finished up their meals, without anything being stolen from other predators although Stealth seemed weary of a hyena at one of the nearby tables.
After downing the non-alcoholic drinks they prepared to set off.
The courier needed to stretch and stifled a yawn, he grabbed the warm red coat and slung it around his shoulder. “I just hope you’re right about being able to control this thing, and I’m still not sure anymore if it’s right to make use of something that’s a curse.”
"I allow myself little pleasure but the feeling of racing as a cheetah is the best. If the curse gives us such pleasure. Is it really a curse?"
"Will it still be a pleasure after I run rings around you?" Stealth asked the Paladin and playfully poked Edmund's nose.
"You run rings around ME?" Edmund said and laughs. "We'll just have to see about that!"
"Oh we will alright!" Stealth retorts and power walks out of the mule keeping an eye on the seemingly lagging Knight.
Edmund follows slowly behind Stealth trying to measure his strength.
Soon after the two big cats depart a bemused gender morph approaches the table to clean up.