Drift Edward Snow wandered in darkened halls. "Who are you?" he yelled into the shadows. Mocking laughter echoed back, distant and from all directions, but only one voice. "I know you're out there!" He turned a corner, but the hall looked the same, lifeless and full of shadows. "Answer me!" Drift demanded. More laughter. "Who are you?"
"You'll never find me," a voice whispered at his shoulder, sneering, just before his world exploded in agony as a lutin swordpoint stabbed through his chest.
Drift bolted awake with a yell, hands clutching his chest as he gasped for air. When his hands found no blood, no sword through his chest, the samoyed sighed with relief. Just a dream.
Clinking sounds like metal on stone stepped up to the bed, and a cold metal nose bumped Drift's arm in the darkness. "You okay, Uncle Drift?"
"Madog? How did— " The samoyed drew a long breath, then let it out in a sigh as he laid a trembling hand over the metal fox's neck. It didn't really matter how Madog got in, just that he was here now. "Yes, Madog, I'm okay. It was just a bad dream. Just... just stay here for a while, would you?" he asked, lying back in bed once more.
Madog edged forward and rested his head on Drift's arm. "I stay here, Uncle. You no worry. I stay here."
Drift lay awake, gently stroking the automaton's neck. He never understood how the metal creature could be warm to the touch, but it was comforting after such a nasty nightmare. If only he could see the voice's face, then things could be different.
He dreamed that dream often, the voice of his father's killer taunting and teasing him. Sometimes, it just slipped away into nothingness, laughing. Sometimes, like tonight, it took a more menacing turn. He laid his hand on his chest again, just to be sure. The nastiest dreams were the ones where he woke up to find a sword actually there, only to wake up again, but those were thankfully rare.
After about an hour, by the sound of the bells of the wall watch, Drift gave Madog a pat of thanks. "There's some new scrap in the bucket if you'd like it, Madog. Thanks for sticking around."
Madog nuzzled Drift's hand. "Uncle Drift safe," he said before trotting out to the forge.
Drift listened to the clinking footfalls, made sure they were well into the forge, and then rolled out of bed and rose to his feet, turning so he could shift to taurform without bumping his bed. Given his preferences in nightclothes, or lack of them, he didn't even need to pause to disrobe.
He stretched, popping his long spine a few times, and fumbled on a vest by touch alone. He'd done this often enough that the darkness wasn't an inconvenience. "Enjoy your scrap snack, Madog?" he asked as he navigated through the doorway by touch, the light of a wall lantern seeping under the bottom of the forge door.
"Yes, Uncle. Yummy."
"Now, I need the rest of the metal in here, so how about you go watch over Papa for a while, okay? I need to go have my morning run."
"Aww," Madog said, and Drift grinned in the darkness because he could hear the pout.
"Okay, you may have one small bar from the stock pile. But only one."
"Okay, Uncle. I no eat your tools today."
"Thank you, Madog. You're a good boy."
Drift groaned, his head aching, and a rock of some sort digging into his side. He opened his eyes and a pair of vulpine faces looked down on him. His vision swam for a moment more before the two faces joined into one, a dusky-furred vixen backlit by the moon.
"Are you all right?" she asked, brow furrowing with concern. "That was one nasty hit you took."
"What happened?" he asked, his voice slurred and groggy.
The vixen laughed. "You ran into my tree, you silly oaf. Here you come galloping along and, whammo, right into the branch I was sleeping on. Quite a way to wake a girl up, I must say."
Her hands came up, gesturing a mighty collision as she spoke, and Drift's blurry vision noticed something odd about them. They were big, and oddly shaped Wings! The samoyed blinked his eyes clear, rubbed them just to be certain, and gaped. This was no vixen! Large, leathery wings stretched from under her arms all the way down to her ankles, the last two fingers of her hands greatly extended as the ribs of those wings. "You're... what are you?" he asked, trying to sit up. The motion didn't work out quite as well as he'd intended, since his taur body didn't quite bend the right way for what he'd originally had in mind, and he instead rolled to bring his feet under him once he remembered what form he was in. "Oww..." His right hand darted to his head, which ached tremendously. Already, he could feel a lump forming just ahead of his right temple.
The strange fox-creature put her hands on his left shoulder, gently helping to prop him up. "Easy, easy now. Take it slowly. You really clobbered yourself... you've been out for nearly five minutes." Her voice was soft, airy, and very feminine. "I was about to call for the healers and to the hells with waking up the neighbors." Her left wing rested against his chest and belly, and she gently stroked her wing-fingers over the gleaming white fur. When she saw him looking down at her wing in confusion, she stopped and ducked her head, her voice embarrassed. "Sorry... you're just so handsome," she said. "All that soft, white fur, all silvery in the moonlight..."
A window slammed open in the house further down the street, and a woman stuck her head out, yelling, "You wanna keep it down? People are trying to sleep here!"
"Oh, shove it up sideways, you battered old hag!" the strange fox yelled back. "I'm tending an injured person here!"
"Is that what you call it now, you freeloading hussy? Keep it down or I'll call the Watch on you!"
"Yeah, yeah, bite me, you frog-faced witch! Not everybody got through the winter with a nice, cozy house intact, alright? Shut up!"
Drift watched the exchange through several rounds of insults, impressed with his companion's creativity. He hadn't heard somebody curse like that since his father died. When the window down the street finally slammed shut, he leaned closer and asked in a conspiratorial whisper. "Should I applaud?"
She gave a sheepish smile and rubbed the back of her neck, the move displaying an impressive wingspread. Her fur was dusky dark, with a russet red around the neck, really kind of pretty in its own way. Her head was delicately vulpine, with pointed ears and a long, narrow muzzle, and eyes as dark as a deep forest pool. Drift found himself gazing into them for several long moments, completely forgetting what he was going to say, before he glanced down and noticed something else. His ears flushed a brilliant red, his face burning with embarrassment as he looked sharply away. "I'm sorry, miss, I didn't realize you were... um... er..."
The winged vixen's laugh was like brook water over rocks, and she draped a wing modestly over herself. "Sorry... I wasn't expecting visitors, so my clothes are still up in the tree. With these wings, it's so hard getting dressed..." She fluttered the other wing in front of him, letting him get a good view of the leathery-winged limb. "And in answer to your earlier question, I'm a bat. A fruit bat. Alexis is my name, but you can call me Jinx if that's too much of a mouthful," she said, folding the wing along her arm until only three fingers showed and offering it for a handshake. "And while we're exchanging questions, who are you and what were you doing out running this late at night? Or should I say this early in the morning? And..." She paused, tilting her head around to give his taur body a long, meaningful glance. "What on earth are you ?"
Still blushing, Drift carefully shook Alexis' hand. "Alexis is fine. Lovely, even. Please, call me Drift. Drift Edward Snow."
"Drift Ed— " she echoed, and then shook her head, smiling. "Puns. Why did it have to be puns?"
Drift laughed, and then continued. "I take a run during the night because there's less traffic for me to dodge, and fewer people watching. The wall sentries think I'm nuts, because I use the streets along the wall as a lap track, but I can live with that."
"You can live with that because you are nuts, you silly dog. Sane people don't go for a run in the middle of the night."
"Of course. Sanity is boring."
Alexis laughed again. Drift liked that laugh. He liked how the moonlight looked on her cheek. He liked how her eyes sparkled with mischief when she talked, which only made it worse when she caught him staring. She didn't seem to mind, though and gave his side a tweak where his rump would have been were he still in morph form. "And this?" she asked, the tips of her teeth just visible in a playful smile.
"A friend of mine discovered this. It's called a taur form. Short for centaur. More height, more strength, more feet."
"Yes, I noticed," she said with a soft giggle. Even with him lying down, she still barely came up to his shoulder. Her wing-fingers stroked his chest a bit more before she pulled them away, ears dipping with embarrassment. "Well, try not to run into any more trees, okay? I need my sleep."
Drift chuckled, equally embarrassed, and scratched behind an ear. "Sure thing. I'll try not to shortcut through any more orchards." After a few moments of awkward silence, he asked, "Are you sleeping out here?"
"Yeah. It's more comfortable than the inside. Too many people, too many closed spaces. With arms like these, I need a lot of elbowroom." She stretched her wings wide... then hastily covered herself again when she saw Drift look away. "Sorry... I have a bad habit of talking with my hands. You take care, okay?"
"You, too," Drift replied, still not quite looking at her. "Um... will you be here again tomorrow night?" he asked.
"Sure, as long as it's not raining. If it is, I sleep up in one of the towers. Not the bell tower, of course." She chuckled, staggering a few steps and shaking as if she'd just had a large bell rung next to her ear. "I like my hearing."
Drift got to his feet, steadying himself against an apple tree until a dizzy spell passed, then nodded. "Okay. Mind if I stop by again, Alexis?"
"Sure thing, cutie," the bat said with an impish smile. "Just try to knock a little more quietly next time, okay? Gotta think about the neighbors, y'know."
"Drift, keep moving! You're too slow! You've got the longer reach, now use it!" From the sidelines, George yelled instructions as Drift sparred with the male human. "Strike out at him! Make Wolfram work to get into range!"
"I'm trying!" Drift yelled back, ears flat. The samoyed's staff just barely turned away his opponent's sword thrusts, and despite his attempts to strike back, he kept getting pushed back on the defensive. It didn't help that the man's taunting sneer brought the hackles up all the way down his back.
"Not hard enough, you mangy mutt!" his opponent said, slapping the flat of his blade across Drift's right-hand knuckles, jarring them loose with the pain. Drift brought his left hand up just in time to catch the next strike, but it was an awkward position that left his entire side open. Only a lucky grab got his right hand back on the staff in time to block the strike whistling in at his ribs, and the young man's sword snapped Drift's staff cleanly in two. "Ha!" Wolfram yelled. "What'cha gonna do now, dogboy?"
Drift's response was a ringing blow to the side of Wolfram's helmet with the half staff clutched in his right hand, hard enough to leave a dent and stagger the man. "Shut up," he growled, and brought his hand back for another swing.
Wolfram ducked it and ducking down to sweep Drift's feet from under him, dropping him on his back with a yelp. "Still too slow, mutt," Wolfram said as he kicked the broken staff from Drift's hand and stepped over him, inverting the sword to hang over Drift's chest. "Any last words?"
George slapped his hand to his forehead in disgust when he saw Wolfram pause. He was just about to start yelling when Drift shifted. With a great, tearing SHRRRRIIIIPPP!! Drift's taur body tore out of his leggings, followed by a THWUMP that made every male and at least half the females in the room flinch. Wolfram landed halfway across the room, curled up in an agonized ball. "Oh, that's gotta hurt," somebody murmured. Somebody else agreed. "Nice kick," George smirked. "All four paws to the same spot."
Drift rolled to his feet and picked up Wolfram's dropped sword, advancing on the fallen foe with a snarl. Wolfram painfully uncurled himself, displaying a surprising resilience, but soon crumpled over again with a groan, holding his groin. The samoyed taur placed Wolfram's sword at the man's throat and replied, "Yes. 'I hope you like singing soprano.'"
"Hold!" George yelled, stepping forward. "That's enough." He took the sword from Drift and shook his head. "Calm down. Now. Drift, you have got to stop forecasting your moves. It's killing you. Except for that one hit to the side of the head, I could see where you were aiming at least a second ahead of every swing you took. That's why you had so much trouble getting past his shield."
"Yessir," Drift said.
"Wolfram, be careful with the taunts. Yes, it can be a good distraction, but not everyone is so easily goaded." He paused to shoot Drift a significant glance. "Don't rely on it."
"And quit it with the gloating before the kill, damn it. You leave yourself open, as Drift so ably demonstrated. Rule number... I don't know what number it is, but 'I will not gloat over my enemies' predicament before killing them' is damn good advice. This isn't the storybooks, you idiot, so knock it off. It'll get your cocky ass killed."
"I don't care where you learned it, unlearn it. The next time I see you do it, I'll kick your nuts in myself. And I'll make sure they stay kicked in. You got that?"
The jackal nodded, and then turned his attention back to Drift. "Drift, I know your right arm is your strong arm, but you need to use your left more, especially if you keep insisting on using a staff."
"I need the reach, sir."
"Then do it, mister. A staff has two ends for a reason. That's why he could move in on you so easily, because you always struck from the right and never from the left. Now, I want you to take him to Coe's to make sure you haven't done anything permanent, and then I want you running laps around the curtain wall."
"Yessir!" Drift's tail started wagging at the prospect of a run.
"Looking forward to it, are you?" George asked with a smile that instantly stilled the samoyed's wagging. "Good. First, I want you to get some pants on, because you'll be running on two feet only. No taur. Then I want you to report to DeMule and tell him you need fitted out with fifty pounds of gear and another fifty in a backpack. I don't care what he fits you out with as long as it adds up to that weight. You got all that? Great. Fifty laps."
Drift's face fell with each sentence, until it was an open gape. "You... you can't be serious!"
"Completely serious. Fifty laps, or twenty without your ring. What's it gonna be?"
"No, it's going to be twenty. Give me that ring. You'll get it back when you're done." He held his hand out expectantly, and did not move until the silver ring was in his hand. "Okay, the rest of you, class dismissed for the day. Drift, I'll meet you out at the gates. You'd better be running by the time I get there. Next time, don't wag when I'm handing out punishment." He paused, still smiling that sadistic smile. "What're you waiting for, Snow? Get your fuzzy ass moving!"
Out in the corridor, cradled in Drift's arms on the way to Coe's, Wolfram groaned. "That was... a nice kick," he said, his voice cracking. "Haven't been... kicked so hard... since I helped Dad break in a new... stallion."
"Don't hold a sword over my chest like that again," Drift growled.
"Why not?" Wolfram asked, brow furrowing in confusion.
"Just don't," the samoyed taur snapped.
"Sure, I guess," Wolfram replied with a hint of a shrug. "Next time I'll just... take your head off at the shoulders or something, okay?"
Drift snorted a laugh. "Supposing I don't get yours first." Despite how hard they'd fought, the two got along well outside the ring. Even though Wolfram had only come to Metamor a week and a half before, Drift respected Wolfram's drive to excel, which had him practicing under George's watchful eye almost daily, and Wolfram respected Drift's tenacity and refusal to quit in the face of all the welts and bruises he got past the samoyed's blocks.
"How's your hand?"
"It hurts like hell, but it doesn't feel like there's any permanent damage. Otherwise, I'd be hauling you by your hair."
"Yeah, yeah, that'll happen." Wolfram kept his dark hair cut extremely short, just so it couldn't be grabbed in a fight.
"Well, you keep saying I have enough for four people, so I figured I'd loan you some."
Wolfram laughed, and then groaned. "Oh, don't do that. It hurts when I laugh."
"As you keep telling me whenever I complain about bruises, 'Your fault for leaving the opening, buddy'."
"Yeah, yeah. Are you going to talk me to death, or you actually going to deliver me to the infirmary sometime this week?"
"Here we are." Drift shifted Wolfram to his shoulder so he'd have a hand free to knock, and smiled when one of Coe's assistant's came to the door. "Delivery for Healer Coe," he said with a wry grin. "One package of mixed nuts."
Wolfram groaned and thumped the snickering samoyed on the top of the head with a closed fist. "Snow, that was worse than the kick."
"Alex, what are you Aaaaaaaggghh-ooof!!!"
Alexis' literally flying tackle took Drift clean off his feet, sending both tumbling down the hillside. George thought Drift's terrified yell counterpointed the bat's gleeful "Wheee!" nicely, watching the two Keepers land with a splash in a deep mud puddle fifteen feet down the hill.
"Are you crazy? Is that your problem? " Drift sputtered as he wiped mud from his eyes, the hodgepodge armor Jack DeMule had kitted him out with clattering and clanking with each motion. "Sweet Yahshua, Alexis, you almost gave me a heart attack, jumping off the battlements like that! What were you thinking?!"
Alexis, between gales of laughter, replied, "You should have seen the look on your face! That was absolutely priceless!" She wiped at her clothes, a brown V of fabric covering what portions of her torso it could manage. Given that her wings prevented any wraparound on the sides, this made for a rather revealing outfit. "I wanna do that again!" she said after a moment more. "That was fun!"
Drift coughed, and spit out more mud. "And you called me crazy!"
"I don't suffer from insanity," the bat replied with a jaunty grin and a devil-may-care toss of her head. "I revel in every moment of it."
"Hey, Snow!" George called down the hill. "You can flirt with your girlfriend when your laps are done! You've still got two left to go! Now get moving!"
"Now, boy! Three laps!"
"If you're not up and running in three seconds, it's going to be another ten. One... two..."
Drift scrambled out of the mud, Alexis still clinging to his chest. To George's surprise and deep amusement, the bat gleefully wrapped her arms and legs around the samoyed's chest and hung on as he started running. "Whee! Doggy ride!"
"Alexis, get off!"
"No way! This is fun!"
George shook his head as the odd pair rounded the bend. "Huh," he said after a few moments. "For a pair of crazy people, they sure make a cute couple."
By the end of the third lap, Drift was barely managing a shambling, staggering walk. His tongue hanging out of his mouth as far as it would go, he collapsed at George's feet. "Ring," he panted, holding his hand toward the jackal.
"Where'd your girlfriend go?" George asked as he handed the magical artifact back, followed by a full canteen of water that Drift greedily sucked down in just a few gulps.
"She dropped off on... on the other side of town," Drift panted, sliding his ring back on. "Said I was... too slow. And she's not— " He coughed, then wiped some more mud from his face. "She's not my girlfriend. I just met her last night, and she's evil ."
George clapped the samoyed on the shoulder as he helped him up. "Go take a bath, kid. You've earned it. And don't forget to wash behind your ears... she drew smiley faces on the back of your head."
Alexis winged by overhead, doing a loop just for the sheer fun of it. "See you at seven, cutie!"
Drift put his head in his hand. "And she made me promise to take her on a date before she let go."
George's loud belly laugh followed Drift all the way through the town gates and well into the marketplace. He was just shucking off his backpack when he noticed how quiet things were. Drift stopped and looked around, and saw anxious, fearful faces everywhere he looked, sending a chill of foreboding up his spine. Pausing at a merchant's booth, he asked, "What's wrong? What's going on?"
The grizzled old man frowned at him and gestured for him to keep his voice down. "Where've you been all morning, boy? Ain't you heard? There's Questioners come to town." He pointed down the street to the stables, where a black carriage with a red cross could be seen.
Under his fur, Drift went pale, and his pack fell from suddenly nerveless, shaking hands as he whispered, "Oh, Eli, no..."