I believe my present situation is only slightly better than the dungeons. Though at least in the dungeons I did not have to deal with other people...
First thing in the morning I was sent to be "evaluated". This consisted of giving me an awkward set of greasy leather armor that did not fit and a dulled sword that was much too long and heavy, then throwing me into a vile pit to battle some oafish pig man brandishing a battle axe while surrounded on all sides by jeering Keepers. And every one of them stunk. And yes, I lost.
They eventually got the armor right. A simple padded tunic, dark brown in color. They were out of black. I'm no longer strong enough to be able to move around in anything heavier. They encouraged me to utilize the "swift form" the Curse has "gifted" me with. I should have thanked them. I feel so much better now. Though I'd hate to do it, I will have to look into getting my black cloak cut down and refitted. I can't stand being without it, especially with this blasted tail swishing around behind me. I just would feel better hiding it while in public.
A decent blade took a while longer to find, but they eventually gave me a long dagger I could actually hold with one hand. I have to return it at the end of each day. I would have preferred my short sword, but I doubt I could have wielded that anymore, not to mention that it was lost out there in the forest somewhere along with my grandfather's notes...
I had a lot of pent up frustration by the time they were ready to test my magical capabilities. We moved to a different arena, this one warded on all sides with dampening spells to negate any stray attacks. My opponent was a young woman cloaked in green, barely 16 or 17, though she of course looked a good deal older than me and was taller. I was merciless. She repeatedly tried to erect some sort of translucent barrier, which I shattered over and over again with my explosive crimson orbs, each time forcing her back. I am master of the flame best when irritated. The match was called before I could do any real damage.
My next opponent was a young boy, obviously a victim of age regression like myself, so he was about my height. I was thankful for this, as my neck was getting sore looking up at everyone. However, I quickly realized that he was the very same boy that was with the inquisitor in the dungeon... His brown hair was tied back in a foppish ponytail, and he had a confident half grin upon his face. He was a Journeyman and would prove to be more of a challenge, I knew. He also liked the color black, as he was draped in it. Blast him. He had a short oaken staff with him as well.
I declined the use of a staff. Though I knew they were excellent at channeling magic, I had no experience with them. I was used to channeling through my hands, anyway. Alas, the match was over quickly. I nearly hit him twice with my fireballs, but he dodged, leaving them to become absorbed in the magic dampening wall on the far side of the arena with muffled explosions. His counter was to freeze the very ground about my legs, causing ice to erupt from the stones and pin my bare feet. He followed with a stream of static electricity that snaked through the air before stinging my entire body. I suppose it could have been a real bolt of lightning if he wanted it to be. The match was called. I don't think I like him.
Next I was sent to meet the unit I was assigned to. I insisted that I was quite capable of working alone, but my pleas were ignored. I was to join them and partake in my first patrol that very day. As I approached the gates of Metamor I considered fleeing once more. But I had nowhere to go. True, there were other settlements in Metamor Valley, but they would easily find me there. And anywhere beyond I would likely be lynched as a demon for my vulpine appearance. Best to play along, for a while...
There were three figures at the gates, leaning against the stone wall and idly chatting. One of them saw me and immediately broke from the conversation.
"Hey, it's the NEW guy!"
Oh, gods. First was the stench of alcohol that struck my nose as he waddled towards me. He was a boar morph, though not quite as rotund as the pig man I had faced earlier, yet still quite wide. He was the shortest of the three, though he had a good half foot height advantage over me. He was covered in a thin blackish-brown fur complete with all the features of a wild boar, including two thick tusks that stuck upwards from his lower jaw. Leather armor draped over his chest, though it seemed a tad too small to cover his plump belly. He stuck out a deformed hand as he approached, which only seemed to have three hoof-like digits.
"Name's Rufus. Welcome!"
He snorted as he spoke. I hesitantly extended my right claw and he wasted no time in seizing it with both his appendages, violently shaking it up and down as my body was thrust about like a rag doll. When he finally let go I stumbled upon my feet dizzily.
"Uh... Virmir." I managed to get out.
"Great! Come 'ere and meet the gang!"
I was still reeling, and he grabbed my tunic before I could fall over, instead jerking me in the other direction.
"This 'ere's Claudia and Vincent. The Lady'll be back in a minute."
Claudia was a black haired human woman dressed in leather armor, leaning back against the stone wall with her arms folded. I could see a longbow slung against her back, along with a full quiver of arrows. She offered a shallow smile and a nod. I could tell that it was forced, as if she really didn't care either way.
To her left, Vincent appeared to be a type of hyena, his muzzle contorted in a wry grin as he looked down his nose upon me. His face was nearly entirely black, a muddy grayish-tan beginning to form at the top of his head and past his pointed ears. He had a thin tall frame, wearing leather armor similar to the others with a sword strapped to his back. He shifted his arms in front of him. They were bare, the fur displaying an alternating black and tan stripped pattern all the way down to his claws, one of which was scratching the underside of his chin as if he were evaluating me.
"So you're Henri's replacement, eh? Welcome to the Short Scouts."
My ears twitched upward a bit. There was some venomous meaning in the words 'Short Scouts' that he used, but I didn't understand it. It certainly wasn't an official name, not one that I'd heard anyway.
The pig man jumped up from behind me, waving his stubby hands in the air. Spittle flew from his mouth and I dodged.
"Pshaw! Vince, Vince! Don't start 'im off with that!"
Vincent's grin disappeared, replaced with a snarl as he took a step towards the boar, his tail going rigid. Fire was in his low growling voice.
"Oh shut up, Rufus, it's the truth. We're the bottom of the barrel and no one cares. The same blasted thing every day. We're not even allowed to join campaigns with the other regulars."
Rufus waved his hands again, as if he were shooing the hyena away.
"Baaahhh don't listen to 'im. It ain't that bad."
Claudia said nothing, but simply rolled her eyes.
The hyena's attention turned back to me as his tail slowly wagged to and fro. "Hey, you look a little young to have gone through the Change."
By habit, I brought my right claw up to run through my hair. Of course I no longer had hair, so I merely scratched the fur behind my right ear instead.
"I... uh... got caught by two of the Curses..."
Of course it was more complex than that. But I certainly wasn't going to tell the story to them. Vincent merely nodded with an "Ahhh..." The porky Rufus seemed captivated by this though and stared at me for a long while before finally speaking.
"So, uh... you were a girl?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose right between my eyes with my nails. Gods, was this going to be a long three months...
Vincent wasn't paying attention, but rather was looking past my shoulder, which wasn't a difficult thing to do given our height difference.
"Ah, here comes the Lady now." His tone held a hint of mockery.
Rufus turned around. "Ah, there she is!" I then felt his thick nails pinch my shoulder as he spun me around as well, pointing with his other hoof-like fingers. His breath was atrocious. I imagined the pig ate some eggs that had lain in the summer sun for a week too long. "This 'ere's Lady Vale, our squad leader."
Lady? She must be of noble birth. Wonderful. As first glance I though her to be a red fox. But her fur seemed just a shade too brownish, her ears slightly smaller, and her muzzle a bit wider. I was somewhat surprised to realize that she was a dhole, a rare sort of wild dog that only existed around my homeland as far as I knew. She was dressed in more expensive chain mail with a sword at her hip and a bow slug across her back, though it seemed much smaller than Claudia's.
"Rufus," she spoke coldly, "you've been drinking again." Her ears were rigid, and her gaze unyielding.
The brown boar's eyes went wide.
"N-no ma'am! T'was yesterday! Honest!"
"If you continue, you're finished. Do you understand?"
He cowered, touching the tips of his stubby fingers together. "Y-yes ma'am..."
The striped hyena was quick to interject. "If you make him quit, he won't be able to get up in the morning anyway, so you might as well kick him out now." Vincent flashed the boar a lopsided grin full of fangs, who retaliated by waving his stubby arms about, and the two began bickering back and forth.
Vale turned her attention to me.
I felt my ears shoot up. "Yes."
"Good. Let's go."
She pushed her way past the others, who began to follow. That's it? Vincent must have seen the confusion on my face, for he shot a crooked grin in my direction as if understanding something I failed to catch. I tailed the group of scouts thorough the gates.
Initial impressions aside, it very quickly became evident that I was stuck with the absolute least competent, least duty bound, and therefore least important patrol squad in service of Metamor Keep. I suppose I should have expected this, given that this is "punishment" after all. But still, somewhere in that blasted castle lurks a quill pushing fiend with a truly sadistic sense of humor.
The path was simple and monotonous. First was two tight circles around Metamor Hill. The march was so close to the keep that the spires were visible at almost all points, even when we were cutting through the thick trees. There was even a spot well in the open where we waded through a sea of high grass and the keep was visible in its entirety atop the plateau. Granted, the third and final circle, which took longer than the first two together, was much wider. But we made so much noise tearing though the forest it seemed our goal was to scare intruders off rather than discover them. The pig man and the hyena refused to shut up, bickering constantly all day long. I couldn't help but imagine we were fodder to distract the Lutins, thieves, and other Metamor hating ne'er-do-wells away from the real scouts.
Vale remained cold and distant, always far ahead, sometimes disappearing altogether. Occasionally she would stop to allow us to catch up, but only to tell Rufus and Vincent to stop their petty arguments.
Eventually the hyena grew bored of badgering the boar and set his sights on me, falling back a few paces to walk by my side as we stomped through a particularly thick patch of undergrowth.
"Don't mind the Lady. She's still upset about a member we lost." 'The Lady' was his way of referring to Lady Vale, a term he consistently used behind her back.
Rufus, who was several feet ahead of us, turned around quickly and tried to say "Shhhhhhh," but all that came out was a spray of spittle from his thick lips. I dodged again. "Now don't go bringing 'im up again!" He said in a hushed tone, "You're just gonna make 'er upset!" He turned to me. "She's got wicked 'earing, ya know." Unfortunately I had 'wicked' hearing as well, as their conversations were nearly impossible to tune out.
"Bah!" Vincent waved a claw at the stout pig man. I will admit I was curious for the details at that point though, but didn't want to press a topic that was obviously taboo. The striped hyena changed the subject after a short silence.
"So you're a mage, huh?"
Vincent pointed a claw-tipped finger down at the tiny star affixed to my sleeve. I nodded.
"Fireballs, explosions, blizzards, and all that rot?" He raised his claws to the sky for emphasis.
"Mostly flame based spells. A bit of levitation and some other things as well..."
"Leva-what-sis?" His lips curled up about his black muzzle to emphasize his lack of understanding. He was walking to my left and I had noticed a dagger affixed to his right boot. Unlike me, his feet were still plantigrade, so he could still wear human footwear. Extending my left hand, I wrapped an invisible tendril of energy around the knife's hilt and yanked it up, so the dagger flew up out of its sheath and into my open palm.
I offered the knife back to him. It was a nice blade, the hilt a gold color with a red gem adorning the handle. He was shocked, his pointed black ears standing straight up. He glanced at the empty sheath upon his leg and then at the knife in my claw before hastily snatching it away from me. The hyena then leaned entirely over my head, his lips curled back in a snarl.
"Don't touch my knife."
The words sounded like a growl. His teeth were a lot bigger than mine, that was for certain... My ears fell tightly against my skull and I simply leaned back. Vincent promptly replaced the dagger and moved on ahead of me, his grayish-tan tail thrashing about. I don't think I like him either...
Claudia came past me on the right, shaking her head with a slight smirk as if she'd seen the whole thing before. I elected to stay back in the human's company from then on. At least she didn't talk.
The rest of the day was more of the same. More trudging through forests. An occasional rest. More bickering between the hyena and pig man. Eventually the sun sank below the tree line, casting us entirely in shadow, and a light cool breeze began to blow, reminding us of harsher weather to come in the months ahead. We were finishing the final circle and I was looking forward to nothing more than my bed.
Suddenly Claudia stopped and whispered the word "Wait" just as I passed her by. I turned around to see her longbow in her hands with an arrow ready to be knocked. She was intently staring into the thick sea of trees to the right of the path we had been trekking through. The other three scouts continued on ahead of us, too noisy and too far ahead to have noticed.
I stared into the undergrowth, trying to discern what might have caught her attention, though I couldn't pick out anything but tree trunks and bushes. "Lutin?" I ventured in a light whisper. She nodded slightly. By now the arrow was ready to go, aimed at some unseen target. I found myself sniffing the air, the result of some instinct embedded within my vulpine form I suppose. Unfortunately the wind was blowing the wrong way. I doubt it would have done any good though, as the forest was a massive confusing mix of scents and I wasn't quite yet used to my nose.
I could hear the tension in the bow as it creaked, the wood bending out of shape as she pulled the string and arrow back. Then the arrow was off with a twang, slicing through the air in an instant. I followed it with my eyes as it tore through the forest, embedding itself deeply into the thick trunk of a tree. I didn't see the figure crouching underneath until he moved.
The short figure who was behind the bush stood up and turned quickly. His skin was sort of greenish brown, a little like a Lutin, but the similarities ended there. His skin was scaly and he had a long tail. His body was wrapped in animal furs, though it was only mildly cool out. Judging by his large eyes and rounded muzzle, I surmised he was a salamander or newt morph or something. Definitely a Keeper.
Claudia's hand covered her gaping mouth as her eyes went wide. "Oh my God, are you all right?"
"Alright?! You just shot at me!!" The lizard was irate, stomping towards us though the foliage, tripping over twigs in the process.
"I'm so sorry!"
By now Vale and the others had heard the commotion and were heading back. "What's going on?" the dhole shouted sternly.
"Your archer almost killed me!" The lizard man pointed at the offending human.
Vincent's muzzle erupted in a grin as he saw the arrow stuck into the tree, well off of its mark. He waved a claw at Claudia as barking laughter erupted from his maw.
"Gah! Ha! Ha! Good thing your aim's so bad!"
Claudia's eyes began to well up with tears, her face panic stricken.
"I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry..."
Two more scouts emerged from the forest. They were obviously much better than us as I had no idea they were there until they started shouting.
"Keep your blasted archers in line!"
Oh gods. I took several steps back as Vale's fur bristled, her black tail standing on end.
"Why didn't you call out?"
"'Cause I was turned the other way, and didn't expect to get shot at by a bunch of noisy hacks!"
The hyena didn't miss his cue, the smile still dominating his face.
"Ha! Maybe if you didn't look so fiendish, archers wouldn't mistake you for an uglier-than-normal Lutin!"
I doubt Vincent was trying to take Claudia's side, but was rather trying to blatantly anger as many people as possible. By this point they were all in each other's faces, screaming irately, clawed appendages flailing in the air. Claudia stood in the center with tears streaming down her face, repeating "I'm so sorry..." over and over again.
The only one who did not get involved was Rufus, who, like me, got the heck out of there at the first sign of things heating up. The two of us just stood there with our mouths open as the language grew to more colorful levels. I swear it was over five minutes of intense screaming. I was sure it was going to get physical, but the verbal melee died down enough for the two parties to separate, although not without some final threats shouted back from both sides.
The march back to the keep was silent. Night fell before we made it to the gates. Under an archway in the Keep Proper, I sighed inwardly as Lady Vale gave us instructions to meet at dawn. We were sent our separate ways, except for Claudia, who Vale wanted to talk to. The human woman was visibly distraught, and followed the noble timidly. I slipped away as Vincent and Rufus started up again with loud voices that echoed through the halls. The blistering pads of my feet ached.
And I get to do it all again tomorrow...