Somewhere between the peaks of great mountains sat a cursed castle. Deep within its dark halls two soldiers battled. The clash raged at a steady pace between the human and animal-man. Swords met blows and eyes glowed with a fire from deep within them. At one point, one of the combatants made a mistake as their opponent had an opening to cut flesh, halt, and then withdraw.
Stealth and Alex spared under the watchful gaze of Alia, the lynx morph. Edmund recommended her to the cheetah as she was versed in combat tactics specifically designed for an animal morphs’ body. However, for every tip she gave Stealth about utilising his own body as a weapon, she would offset each one by telling the female human every one of the cheetah’s specific weaknesses...
As he came to blows, Stealth felt mildly irritated and betrayed by the words of advice his fellow feline was giving his opponent. He even saw Alia instructing Alex one on one in how to kill a cat!
It didn’t help that besides the woman and the cheetah, others were training under the Lynxes eye. Alia instructed the morphs with foot-paws to remove their boots – if they wore any – and expose their clawed toes. Though Stealth didn’t really have foot ‘paws’ or sharp claws as a morph, he still complied and stood on bare feet, perhaps he could still find a way to utilise them or just sharpen his claws.
He found it ironic in a way; people remove their boots to train in martial arts so they don’t injure their opponent with a kick. Yet the animal morphs were instructed to remove their shoes for the opposite reason – to use their own claws as a better weapon than regular feet.
The cheetah didn’t worry about such things currently though; he focused on the fight at hand and tried to pay attention to the trainer’s advice.
“Go for the nose!” Alia instructed the woman.
Stealth quickly backed away from battle and clasped his muzzle. “Are you kidding?”
“War isn’t a game, boy; you do what you must to survive.” The lynx intoned. “Be thankful I didn’t tell her to go for your harbles.”
The cheetah raised an eye ridge to the instructor, “my... what?”
Alex lowered her wooden sword and stepped closer to him. “Cat-balls.”
“WHAT!?” He shouted.
The gender morph stepped away and chuckled while the other feline barked a laugh.
Stealth shook his head, “girls are sick.”
“Continue.” The female lynx ordered, ignoring the cheetah’s remark. “I don’t want to see you flinch away like that again.”
Stealth frowned at her, “I’d rather avoid a blow to my nose.”
“It wouldn’t have been a true strike; we are only going through the motions and if you shy away like that in a real fight you will end up dead instead of pained.” Alia pointed out direly. “Work to counter each others moves and strike back! And you won’t stop till you get it right.”
The spotted cat cringed at everything the short-tailed cat had said, particularly though, at the last part. Combat training was good, but still bloody tedious.
After many hours that he’d lost track of, Stealth slumped and groaned. The bouncy foxtaur made good on his ‘reassurance’ he made all that time ago. In reality however, it had only been two days but it felt like two years. At least he didn’t feel guilty about the debt anymore...
For now, he had some time for lunch. The evil lynx-woman showed enough mercy to her students to allow them a noon time break. Of several, the cheetah and human left with most others though some stayed to continue their training. Those who left the sparing arena went their separate ways.
Stealth turned down Alex’s offer to shout him lunch, much to her surprise, but the cheetah only yearned to crash in his bed for what time he could spare before the next sparring session. With all of his remaining strength, Stealth willed a direct passage to his bedroom where he could partake of blissful slumber for a few minutes.
Coming to a door, the cat took a breath and opened up the portal... to his left was the pool lizard, to his right were two of his sparing partners at a table with their orders being taken. And to think, he’d even made it up some flights of stairs!
“Change your mind?” The woman asked.
“...yeah” He sat down opposite the two took notice of the one of them who was a large, coiled up snake.
“What do you want?” The waitress asked brusquely.
“Chicken.” The cat responded in kind and the waitress left.
“You okay?” Alex asked. She idly wondered if he was going to have a relapse of the agoraphobia that he’d suffered in September, for some reason.
“Yeah... just wake me when the food arrives.” The cheetah said as he rested his head in folded arms, though not a moment later the waitress returned – signalled by a loud thud which spooked the feline. Stealth unfolded his arms and narrowed his eyes at the table top. After the brief distraction his mind soon wandered and drifted from the fore.
Stealth scowled at the memory of the previous day; the day which he spent sparing with his friend and fellow cheetah, Edmund. ‘She helped me a lot, she can help you too.’ He’d said. The lynx-woman was meant to teach the cheetah how to use the enhancements of his own body in conventional combat. That she did, but she taught non-felines how to counter them!
It pained him that another cat would divulge such things; it was like letting a stranger in on a family secret. The thought began to embitter him; Stealth began to feel jealous toward Alex till he pinched his nose bridge and banished the thought. She’s a close friend isn’t she? If he were still human they would tell him would they not? And since when did he like his curse enough to care for such things!?
“Are you sure you’re okay?” The female suddenly asked. “If you’re sick I can take you to the healer.”
“No, I’m just exhausted.” And he was. Stealth reached into his pockets but found that he had none; he was still dressed for a sparring session.
“I told you I was paying...” Alex informed slightly annoyed. “And Alia said we have to be back soon.”
“Right, right, I’m sorry.” Stealth’s ears drooped. He quickly and obediently devoured the small meal. Yeah, Alex is fine. But that’s cause besides being a friend, she’s a human; the cheetah felt much more ill at the thought of what the lynx had taught other animals. He knew it was silly, even inappropriate, but in the corner of his mind, Stealth felt a rivalry with other creatures. The other students for one; probably half were animal morphs, maybe one was a feline, a leopard maybe.
Currently, Stealth sat opposite the snake morph... he didn’t even need to know about the cheetah, all the reptile need do would be to spray him in the eyes with his venom. He felt momentarily unsettled though he didn’t hate the snake keeper for it; Stealth could have become a snake, and then he wouldn’t need to worry about a lynx telling people his secrets! How much did Alia tell the others about his weaknesses? And just how much had she told him about theirs?
Perhaps he felt threatened; there were a great deal of vulpines about the keep, felines tended to be scarcer.
Or perhaps he just needed to grow up... The cheetah was being unfair, he supposed. However, he preferred that he knew the weakness of other animals, at least. Stealth then looked up from his plate to the two others. They were chatting about rumours, about who was seeing who, about news from the south, nothing particularly interesting and the cheetah didn’t join them; he had to make up lost time on the food.
After practically inhaling the meal, Stealth graciously thanked his friend though stopped short of kissing her on the cheek; gender morphs probably don’t like that, he thought. They quickly made their way back to the sparing area.
“You see this?” Alia pointed to a sharp claw. “On a real animal this is the dew claw, cheetahs have blunt claws but the dew claw is above the ground and paw so it remains razor-sharp.” Stealth was holding out his hand in a fist as instructed by the lynx. She was explaining all this to the human.
The cheetah glanced about the room. Most others had been left to practice their own moves and sparring techniques. Since most weren’t feline, the Lynx only instructed them how to counter her or just how to use more conventional means of attack, but one or two students listened in on her talk on the anatomy of a cheetah-morph’s hand.
“Fittingly this claw comes to rest on the thumb of a morph where it is the most exposed on a closed fist.” She opened up the thumb from the cheetah’s fist. “If this reaches your neck, he could sever the jugular so be mindful of this.” Alia gently pulled the fist up to her own neck to demonstrate, though she had fur to protect the crucial veins, a full human doesn’t have the added protection.
“Fortunately, this gives you an opening; when the thumb uncoils from this fist, you can take a chance to grab it and break it the wrong way!” The lynx demonstrated by suddenly grabbing the exposed thumb and making the motion of twisting it the wrong way. Stealth hissed and flinched; it felt like she was really going to do it!
The trainer allowed him to reclaim his hand and practice the motion of rolling it to check for damage.
Alia looked at the glaring cheetah unaffected by his gaze, “I have been in this business for years and I have never caused an injury like that; I’m not THAT bad.” She lectured. “You’re liable to hurt yourself like that but at least your reflexes are working...”
Stealth let his hand rest at his side. “I just don’t see the point of this; aren’t we on the same side anyway?”
“Not every cute and cuddly keeper is friendly; be mindful of thieves, bandits ...and traitors.” She answered direly. “Then there are drunks, the mad and the possessed...”
The cheetah nodded slowly.
“Stealth, remember you can use this knowledge against others like you, and it’s important for any good solder to be aware of their weaknesses.” She said softly then paused, “And I haven’t even gone into claw-twisting.”
Stealth sighed yet chuckled.
Alex took the opportunity to speak up. “Besides learning the benefits of your form you can learn to ward yourself from the weaknesses.” She reasoned.
“...I’ve been hearing quite a bit about my new weaknesses...” The cheetah pointed out, trying not to sound indignant, “I’d like to hear some of my new STRENGTHS.”
The lynx nodded and approached him, “Don’t flinch this time...” She walked behind the cheetah, who turned his upper body to follow her path. Alia seemed to be gazing down to his long tail, which began to sway about faster advertising his unease. “That may suffice, I’d like you to spin about and bring that tail about.”
Stealth narrowed his eyes. “What, like a skunk?”
The woman shook her head, “No, a full circle.”
He stood there for a moment, then shrugged and complied, spinning about once on the spot.
She seemed to approve, “You could use that as a weapon, if you urinate on the tip.” She paused when seeing his eyes narrow in a frown. “Or soak it in water; you could slap someone in the face with it.” The feline explained. “No one would be expecting that attack.”
Stealth rubbed his chin in thought, he seemed amused and at the same time, embarrassed by the thought, though still curious to it.
“A tail slap, I’d need to practice quite a bit for that.” He thought aloud.
“Everything takes practice and every advantage helps.” Alia reminded.
The cheetah nodded knowingly then idly gazed to his training sword.
The lynx nodded, “Begin.” She motioned her arms for the two to spar again.
As the feline and female brought their swords up once more to clash, Stealth reflected on his tutor. Alia was a tough soldier; a specialist in light infantry and a combat leader who had since grown to specialise in exploiting the animal curse to utilise its traits in hand to hand combat and give keepers the edge. But she imparted her wisdom on all keepers under her tutelage, fur or no, for them to get the most benefit out of her knowledge.
The cheetah mellowed to the thought as he blocked a close swing that brought his opponent’s hilt to his muzzle, then twitched his ear up to partake of some more wisdom.
“Pull his whiskers!”