Following

by Virmir

November, 707 CR

"Good, good... Your control is superb, though your reach lacks somewhat..."

I showed no reaction to his critique as he stepped behind me, each footfall a drag of whatever sort of mush the wizard-freak's feet were comprised of. I folded my arms as the three wooden balls rotated my head counter clockwise. Further out, three dim witchlights rotated in the opposite direction. It was about the max I could handle as far as making things float through the air, but I did not show it.

He stopped and I heard him fall into his chair, the repressed groan of old age escaping his lips. "You certainly do favor the flame. Even your witchlights are orange. A proper light is white."

I didn't bother turning my head, instead electing to keep my gaze upon his rows of dusty books. What a pompous jerk! "I see no reason to make the effort."

He chuckled softly. "Perhaps..." I felt his eyes upon my back, studying me for a few intense moments as the objects rotated around my head. I simply stood there with my arms folded, feeling the lower edges of my cloak with the tip of my tail. It was a habit I picked up ever since the appendage became familiar. "So, you come to us from the land of Fan Shoar, eh? All the way across the seas..."

Ugh. So he bothered to read the information I left with the scouts. "Yes."

"Valandair? I take it you studied under the Academy..."

My right ear, the one closer to him, perked slightly. But I assured myself that wasn't much of a deduction. After all, my higher education should be plainly obvious to him with my speaking Suielish. And it was not like I pretended to be entirely self-taught in the ways of magic. "Yes."

He paused. "The city of heathens, eh?"

The wooden balls clattered upon the floor, and my witchlights doubled in intensity, flames leaping from their cores. I turned slowly, ears folded, deliberately glaring into his eyes...

He laughed.

He laughed! Blast him!

"I apologize. I merely wanted to see if you had any emotions at all!" He wiped some slime off his mouth with a tentacle that snaked out his robe's sleeve. With the other "hand" he gestured across the table. "Come, sit. You need not fear my scrutiny."

Valandair was indeed the city of heathens, due to the movements of the Academy no doubt. Intelligence and the sense enough to reject ridiculous myth go hand-in-hand, I suppose. An alarming 5% of its population had openly rejected all forms of religion. At least I was not foolish enough to be vocal about it. Particularly outside that small border of acceptance. Not fitting into society's mold wherever one goes is an offense punishable by death.

He sighed forlornly. "I am also a non-follower, my friend. Please, sit."

My ears perked. Friend? What was this old geezer... tenticle-freak trying to pull? Obviously it was a trick. He was trying to lure me in. Get me to open up. Ugh. I couldn't believe I had to study magic under this moron once a week...

Still, I never really met any one else who didn't believe...

The witchlights dispersed in a puff of crimson stars. The wizard warily watched them as some shot towards his books, but they vanished before striking. I slid into the oversized wooden chair, slipping my tail through the hole at the rear. The tabletop came to my middle chest. Curse this form again...

"Not a non-believer, mind you," he continued. "I acknowledge there are forces out there I do not understand. Many much more capable in the ways of the arcane than me. But I have yet to find one to worship. At my age, I doubt I ever will."

I nodded. Ugh. The very notion of "worship" unsettled me. Like slaves worshiping their masters... I didn't get it at all. Nothing out there was worthy of worship. Merely a mix of psychotic spirits and fantastical myths invented by the human mind to explain away unpleasantries it did not like...

He folded his tentacles under his misshapen mouth, black eyes fixed on me, hoping for a response.

Ha! Blast if I were to say that out loud...

We sat in silence for a moment. Apparently acknowledging the conversation's dead end, he slid his tentacle-hands under his mahogany hood, pulling it back to reveal his head. Argh.. now why did he have to go and do that?

Archmage Morlak was an octopus. Or a squid. Something freaky like that...

Black bulbous eyes stared at me, twinkling in the dim candlelight along with his moist, cream colored skin. His head resembled a sort of blob with, of all things, a white mustache prickling out underneath a nub that used to be his nose. His arms and legs had apparently become tentacles, though I could not tell for certain because they were always hidden beneath his thick robes. (Apparently his legs retained bones, otherwise I didn't see how he could stand.) Two thick tentacle trunks extended from either side of his neck and twisted behind his back, disappearing into his robe. I suppose he did not use these because they were either too short or too oddly placed. Or he wanted to keep the freak factor down. Where tentacles number seven and eight were was anyone's guess.

He leaned forward, a tentacle snaking out from under his robe and pointing at me. "Virmir... you do not cast magic optimally."

My ears perked. "I beg your pardon?"

He waved the snake-like appendage around. "Magic flows through the air, threads waiting to be weaved. Can you see it?"

"See what?"

"The threads... the flow... what color am I?"

"Err..." I rubbed my chin. "You seem rather pale..."

"No, look deeper. Use your sight."

One of my ears fell and my brow raised. What in blazes was this senile mush man talking... "You still look pale."

"Hmmm, it figures. You were never taught the sight. You did study magic at the Academy at Valandair, did you not?"

"Of course I did!" Blast it! What did he expect? The magic schools to teach the exact same thing as him halfway around the world?

Of course, I couldn't stand it there long enough to actually finish... but that was beside the point.

He leaned back, folding his "arms". "Virmir, I will cut to the point. You sacrifice part of your raw essence as fuel every time you cast a spell. Your soul. You should never do this unless there is little ambient power available."

"My power returns whenever I sleep."

"Yes, but you run a great risk if you are careless. If you sacrifice too much in between recoveries, you will reach a point of no return. Your soul can only heal up to a certain point..."

I shook my head. What a moron. Of course I knew that! "I have practiced this all my life. I know what I am doing."

He leaned forward. "You will die. No, worse than that. You will simply cease to exist. Not even the gods or the deadra can claim you. There is no afterlife without a soul."

I rolled my eyes. So much for finding another non-believer... "This is the way I was taught." That part was self-taught, of course.

He sighed. "I am an ex-field mage. There are others more qualified to teach you the basics. I will teach you the spells you need to know for your job. But I strongly urge you to pursue alternate means of casting."

"Right..."


Thump. Thump.

The chest rattled in the night, the top struggling to open.

A lock. Blast...

The jarring stopped. Then the lid slowly lifted, pushing against the restraining latch. The metal creaked and groaned, holding the lid on fast until at last it broke with a loud "ping" and the broken lock flew across the room, clattering upon the stone floor.

The figure in the bed stirred.

Ooops...

Silence enveloped the room for a few moments, the only disturbance the soft rustling of the poorly barred window. A frigid breeze permeated the cracks.

The lid to the chest slowly opened with a creak, a robed arm pushing it upward from within. A tall lanky man rose from the impossibly small space, placing a bare foot upon the ground.

He cracked his neck and stretched, then pulled the robe more tightly around his body as he shivered. The pristine white garment nearly glowed in the darkness, and the flaming red trim seemed to dance with his motions...

He stood there silently as he waited for any sign of movement from the tiny figure curled up in the bed. Nothing.

He sneered.

He extended a finger, and a tiny dim witchlight appeared at the tip of the long, claw-like nail. Turning, he stooped over the chest he emerged from and quietly rummaged through its contents. He opened the tattered water-damaged notebook and flipped through the yellowed paper, smirking at the intricate lines and designs that filled its pages.

He replaced the book and spun around on a bare heel, stealthily tip-toeing to the bed. A small silver furred fox slept peacefully in the center, curled into a ball with his nose buried in his thick, lush tail. He brought his hand to his chin as he contemplated the animal, seemingly perplexed. Then he bent over, his face inches from the creature's back, and took in a series of short sniffs.

The grin returned, though now he wore it with a devilish glint in his eyes. Nearly giggling, he prowled to the desk across the room. The witchlight bobbed after.

He stroked his chin as he pondered the messy stacks of papers and scrolls for a moment. Behind him, the fox stirred once more and the witchlight doused in an instant, leaving him standing in total darkness.

After a few moments of silence, the tiny speck of light reformed, revealing a moue across the man's face as it orbited his head. He slid his eyes from the bed to the ink well upon the desk a number of times, then removed the stopper with utmost care. Taking up the worn quill, he bent over the table and began to scribble upon a blank sheet of paper.

After several long moments of intricate drawing, he replaced everything as it was before he disturbed it, save for the paper, which was left in the center of the desk. He smirked at the dark bed as he tip-toed back to the chest. With slow, careful motions, he climbed back into the box feet first, sinking into the structure with a dim glow after he placed his second foot in. As his head passed the top ridge, he grabbed the lid and shut it over him.


I hate snow.

Blasted white fluff. Ugh.

Swatting the horrible flakes off my nose, I looked up at the dismal gray sky and pulled my cloak more securely around my shoulders. There was a good inch on the ground, blast it. I knew this far north this was nothing but a light autumn dusting. The real trauma was to come. Winter is such a horrible season.

At least I finally got coverings for my feet. But of course, I couldn't enjoy them too much. Foxes breathe through the pads on their paws. The boots become unbearable after a few hours and I need to remove them... Just my luck.

"Uh... sir..."

And then there was him. Every five blasted minutes...

"I'm... I'm getting a little cold, sir."

I sighed, watching my breath swirl around my muzzle before dissipating. I angled an ear towards the bug-man and shot him a glance out of the corner of my eye. His antennae curled and he shrunk back, stumbling in the snow. At least I was taller than him.

Kayser had been twisted into some insectiod hornet-thing by the curse. He had six appendages and stood on four legs, though he often reared back and used the middle set as hands. He shivered with his mandibles clicking, clutching his spear as he looked at me with those huge red compound eyes.

I extended a claw. "Give it to me."

He trotted to me and angled his neck forward, letting the crimson-jeweled pendant dangle in the air. I grabbed it, feeling that the flow in the gem had indeed cooled. I tightened my grip and forced a good deal of heat into the stone. The insect's antennae immediately perked.

"Thanks, sir!"

I grumbled and waved him off, turning my attention to the slowly whitening treetops. I heard the snow crunch under his four tiny feet as he made his way back to the camp. As an insect, any exposure to cold would kill him instantly. The pendant around his neck kept him alive.

Of course, such charms were ungodly expensive, and he couldn't afford a decent one. So I had to recharge this piece of junk every few hours, blast it. What in blazes was a bug-man doing working outside in the winter anyway?

The insect had been specifically assigned to my unit so that I could cast the spell on the stone and he could continue serving throughout the winter. It was a simple cantrip I learned from Morlak.

I tried to focus on the quiet serenity of the landscape, but heavier footsteps soon approached.

"I finished scouting the north and west forks, sir... they definitely did not go either way." I turned to look up at Vale as she joined me by my side. She ran a claw through her ruddy head-fur as she looked up at the trees I had been observing. "Meaning they went south."

I nodded. Vale had changed so much in the past month... everything had since I had taken over the unit. Gone was the confident, commanding squad leader. In her place stood a submissive pack member. Her tail nearly always drooped between her legs and her ears folded whenever I spoke to her.

"Good. Go back to camp and get something to eat. We will leave in a few minutes." Her ears stood up and her tail began to wag at my praise. She seemed to delight in my telling her what to do for some reason.

"Yes, sir... Aren't you going to eat?"

"I'm fine." I waved her off. She hesitated a moment, as if she had something to say, then turned and followed the giant insect's tracks back to camp.

I folded my arms under my cloak and watched the snowflakes fall for a few moments. This was my longest patrol yet since taking over the squad. Despite the miserable weather and my sore feet, it was still better than being hounded by that blasted jackal man. Still, I wished I would had been able to visit Emile that night.

Blast it. There I went again. Okay, I will admit it. I didn't mind visiting her at all. I tried to tell her five times within the past month that I simply did not have the time to entertain her, yet could not. She just sits there and talks. And I listen.

She talks about nothing. The sun, the trees. Her dress, her boots. She was probably ecstatic about white flakes falling from the sky at this very moment.

I let her pet me the other day. Blast it... She stroked the back of my head, ran her nails between my ears... I couldn't say no. And it felt... well, it felt nice.

I shook my head violently to clear away the ridiculous daydream. Blast it. It was impossible to avoid losing one's mind during these cursed patrols. Suddenly self conscious of my action, I folded my ears and brushed the snow off the top of my head, pretending that a clump fell on me from a tree or something.

Speaking of loosing my mind, something odd happened the other morning.

Perhaps it was my memory failing me, but I found a page of my grandfather's notes that I had never seen before...

A partially complete symphony. It was just sitting on my desk as if I had been studying it the previous night. Strangest of all, the paper it was written on was fresh and lacked the worn edges that the others have obtained over the years. I was absolutely certain I've never seen it before, and I know I did not pen it myself. I did not have time to look at it in detail before leaving on this blasted patrol, but I recognized the same runes and line-style displayed in many of my grandfather's works. Although I had adopted that style myself, so I suppose it was possible I had sleep-walked or something... I was horribly over-worked, after all.

I placed it in my chest along with my grandfather's robe and his notes to study later. And blast it, I thought I bought a lock for that thing! I truly am beginning to wonder if I am going insane. Perhaps it is a side effect of the curse. Every one here is a blasted nutcase, after all.


He praised her.

Vale's heart fluttered. He told her she did well. It was enough to put a spring in her step.

But wait. What if that "good" was directed at the situation, and not her? Her ears drooped. Yeah, that's probably all he meant...

She sighed as she made her way down the snow-laced ridge. She was miserable. Without a squad leader's pay, she'd have to move to smaller quarters soon. To think that a noblewoman was broke...

She threw all of that away. There was no going back, not with fur and a tail. And she failed at every single attempt she had made to make a name for herself. Every attempt to stand on her own...

The wind shifted and she caught Virmir's scent as she walked away. It calmed her, and she drank it in before it faded.

Maybe this was her fate. Just to be a follower...

Surprisingly, she didn't mind being told what to do. Not by Virmir at least. George, yes. George scared her, but Virmir... well he could be frightening as well, but in a very different way. His becoming squad leader was as if a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders.

It irked her that she and Virmir hadn't been part of the squad sent to investigate the cave with the glowing crystals. They were the ones that found it! She understood that she just wasn't good enough to be part of such a team, but George really should have given Virmir a chance. The fox knew so much. He was capable of whipping Vincent into line with a single stare, where she had failed with her most irate lectures.

From what she heard, the crystals were completely gone and no trace of the liquid floor that lead to the glowing underground fortress was found.


"Just look at him..."

"Who?"

"The fox-midget! He's just standing there, brooding..."

"Maybe he's just deciding what we need to do next," Kayser said as he sat down on the log opposite Vincent, bunching four legs under his abdomen. The trees protected the two scouts from most of the snow, but a fine powder began to build on their clothing regardless. "Want one?"

They hyena growled and snatched the offered jerky from the four-foot tall insect's hand without taking his gaze off Virmir. The silver furred fox stood alone at the edge of a ravine, occasionally shaking off snow that had begun to cover him. "Nah... he's probably casting some psycho-spell. Talking to his deadra friends from the netherworld or something..."

Kayser shrugged and wrapped his mandibles around his share of the dried meat. "So... have you talked to anyone yet?"

Vincent's gaze snapped to the yellow and black insect and he growled, smacking his tail against the log he was sitting on. He deflated after a moment and his ears fell. "No... not ready yet..."

"Uh huh..." It was more of a clicking sound from the hornet.

"Don't give me that, bug!" Vincent folded his arms, white powder falling from his cloak. "He's in cahoots with something nasty. I know that. Him and them higher-ups. I'm sure of it, but I don't know who... or what," he said, his voice hushing to a whisper as he leaned closer to the giant hornet. "Just be careful what you say..."

"Sure."

Vincent drew back, his ears folding as he growled. "Pelrik believes me."

"Hey, I didn't say I didn't..."

"Do you?"

"Well... I... uh..."

Vincent's ears perked, angling to his right. He nearly leapt off his seat and clamped Kayser's mandibles shut. "Shhhh!! She'll hear you... she's got ears like me."

"I wasn't even the one—"

Vincent tensed, squeezing Kayser's armor-like shoulders, his eyes and ears darting around. Then he pushed away from his friend, smoothing out his headfur and picking up his discarded jerky to hastily assume as unsuspicious a sitting position as possible. Kayser reeled, nearly falling off the log before repositioning four legs underneath him.

Vale appeared from between the dead trees, warily running a claw over her right ear. "I'm back." She plopped down next to the insect and began rummaging through the small pack she was carrying.

"Hello La— ... Vale." Kayser bowed slightly, holding his rations with his top set of hands, and extending one of the middles in a flourish. Vincent merely grunted.


The longer the day drove on, the more I seethed. Bandits we were after. Simple thieves. How far could they possibly have gone in the blasted snow!? All we had was a mere scent rag and the knowledge that a merchant's cart had gone missing in Euper.

Snow meant they couldn't get anywhere fast. But it also covered their tracks and dulled their scent trail, blast it. Ugh. I considered just turning around. I was going to get paid either way. It wasn't like I actually cared about Metamor's image.

"Nothing, sir!" Kayser announced from the top of the highest pine tree. "Not a wagon in sight." I wondered just how well he could see with those freaky eyes of his. He spread his translucent wings and fluttered down. He couldn't quite fly with them, but they sufficed for a gentle landing.

I suppose I could have scaled the tree easily enough to take a look myself. But blast if I was going to get my paws dirty...

He kicked up a cyclone of white powder as he landed next to me. "Uh, sir... I think I'm gonna need..."

I pinched the bridge of my muzzle and clenched my teeth. Before he could finish, I yanked the pendant from his neck and recharged it.

"Thanks, sir!" He saluted, jamming the end of his spear into the ground with one of his middle hands.

I grumbled and waved him away, taking to brushing the blasted snow from my cloak. It was getting deep, blast it. I'd have trouble walking in an hour at this rate. Ugh. I could just imagine having to be carried by the hyena through snow drifts...

"Virmir! I think I found it!"

My ears tugged upward at Vale's voice. Flanked by the hornet and the uncharacteristically quiet hyena, I trotted down the hill to the white-covered road Vale kneeled beside. She was speckled in mud and snow, her nose inches above the ground. Honestly, I didn't understand why she put so much effort into this... "May I see the rag?" She asked at my approach.

I unfastened the pack with the scent cloth found with the dead merchant. The victim of these ruffians... Vale kneeled and stuck her nose in and shut her eyes, taking a moment to breath in the odors. She then removed her snout and took to sniffing the snow again. Ugh. So degrading... I had to look away.

"Yes... it's them." She sat up on her haunches, brushing the snow from her knees. "The scent is very faint, but it's them..."

"Finally..." Vincent said from behind, his arms folded and eyes rolling no doubt.

I pursed my lips and walked to the middle of the road, stumbling over a hidden rock on the way, blast it. Nothing. No wagon ruts, no footprints... I crouched, lifting my tail high to keep it and my cloak from touching the ground, and looked down the path both ways.

"Blast it!" I swore, standing and kicking at the snow.

"What... is it?" Vale asked, her ears folded.

"They are covering their blasted tracks with a spell." I pinched the bridge of my muzzle again, fighting back an impending headache. I didn't feel like explaining it to a bunch of non-magical morons.

"Can't cha see through it?" Vincent asked, unbelief dripping in his voice. I snapped my head in his direction and gave him The Glare. The far larger hyena shrunk back like a stupid sword-wielder should. Ugh. Every blasted moron expects all wizards to know everything. I've never made any claims to specialize in anything but burning things, anyway.

They all stood there watching me as I paced back and forth in the middle of the road. Sure we could follow one direction, but with all the paths and forks... ugh... And if they had any sense at all, they'd leave the path and take advantage of the flatter terrain further south....

"I might..." Vale spoke up and all attention directed towards her. Her tail crept closer between her legs and she touched the tips of her claws together upon noticing this. "I might be able to track them better... if I shifted."

I stopped my pacing, lifting a claw to my chin. I had never seen Vale shift before, though I knew all animal-cursed keepers had the ability. She smiled slightly, but I could smell her nervousness. "Really..."

She nodded.

"Then do it."


Vale couldn't believe she said that... She shut her eyes, remembering how horrible it was the first time. When all of her men died, and she lost her mind...

But no. That was instinct. Panic made her shift. This time, she was in control.

She shook her head, opening her eyes to look around. Virmir had just finished yelling at Vincent, who tried to stay behind, to allow her some privacy, and she found herself alone. Wintry trees surrounded her, and powdered snow fell in cumulative wisps. Her heart pounded in her chest. She really was going to do it. She really was going to turn into an animal. Out here in the wild...

She took a deep breath and looked at her padded hands. The past few weeks she had begun experimenting in the safety of her bedroom at night. The shifting was just the same, she told herself. But this time she would be exposed. This time it was for real.

But she had to do this. There was no other way they could find these men... She unlatched her leather armor. As each piece fell into the snow, the panic in her stomach intensified. Halfway disrobed she crouched and hugged her knees, wrapping her bushy tail around her ankles. She sat there shaking. She couldn't do it. She just couldn't...

She sat there in the cold for a long moment, contemplating what she would say. She could imagine the look of disapproval in Virmir's eyes. Vincent's mocking sneer...

No. She was better than that. Besides, Virmir would be right there with her. Confidence welled in her chest as she imagined the gray fox behind her. She would lead the way. They would find the bandits and return to the keep, a successful mission under their belt. She smiled slightly. Virmir would praise her.

She leaned forward and pressed her hands into the snow, allowing the change to overtake her. Her thumbs melted away as her body shrunk. When it was over, she stepped out of her remaining clothing a wild dog once more.

It was cold. But also exhilarating. Her fur fluffed in the wind, and she felt an excitement tingle throughout her bones. This is where she was meant to be, out here in the wild. She could do this.

She wagged her tail and looked over at her armor and sword that were now impossible to use. She needn't worry about them. Virmir would likely make Vincent pick them up.

She trotted after the rest of the squad, finding her sense of smell was indeed much improved as a full animal. She folded her ears, feeling heat rise to them as the squad came into view between the trees. Vincent was a giant. Even the age regressed Virmir and insect Kayser seemed larger than her now. It was silly for her to be embarrassed about not wearing clothing in front of them like this, but deep down she was still human after all.

She sat on her haunches, curling her tail around her forepaws. She stared Virmir in the eye, waiting for some sign of approval— a smile, a wag of the tail— anything. He nodded once. That was all she needed. Excitement building in her heart, she stuck her muzzle into the snow and began sniffing.

Everything was there. It was like a mental picture, her nose a new set of eyes. She followed the trail slowly at first, her four paws crunching the fluff as she padded on. She looked back every few moments, and found everyone following her each time. Her confidence strengthened with each passing moment, and she began moving faster and faster.

She followed the scent through a few forks in the road. Twisting this way and that. The rest of the group fell farther and farther behind, but she knew she could not wait. She had to hurry.

Then she heard it. The neighing of a horse. The creaking of a cart. The smell was so strong... She took off and ran. But where? The road was clear up ahead. How much farther could they be? Her tongue lolled from her mouth in the excitement of the chase. The road veered to the left far in the distance. But surely the sounds did not come from that far... Before the turnoff, to the right the thick snow-covered forest lay. To the left was a steep drop off. Where were they?

Virmir called after her. Did he want her to stop? But they were right here! She had to find them! Suddenly a shadow appeared in the middle of the road. She squinted, slowing her pace. Like a translucent reflection in a pool, the boxy rear of a carriage materialized not 100 feet from the tip of her muzzle. But how... what sort of magic was this?!

She had no time to contemplate the sudden appearance or the dark figure perched at the wagon's top. The arrow shaft whizzed through the air, striking her with a flash of red.

It hurt. Oh gods, it hurt... Her left foreleg burned like fire! Panic enveloped her. Every fiber of her being screamed for her to flee. She stumbled in the snowy mess, tripping on three legs as she dove for the underbrush. She had to get away!

Something grabbed her. She snapped and snarled, lashing out wildly in desperation. Then Virmir's scent slammed her in the nose and she blinked, longing filling her. She tore away from whoever caught her and slammed into Virmir, knocking him over. He swore as she buried her muzzle in his arms, shuddering in terror. After a moment he tenderly stroked her head and soothingly scratched behind her ears. Her fear melted away and rational thought returned to her.

Virmir stood and calmly walked away, his fists clenched and hackles raised. "Tend to Vale," he said, his voice a growl.

"But sir—" Kayser started after.

"Do it." It was a bone chilling command. She flinched along with the insect and hyena. She watched him trot across the road just as the carriage made the bend further down the line. He glanced at it before turning towards the steep drop-off towards the roadside. Without hesitation he ran down the decline, obviously intending to cut the wagon off at the bottom...

She shut her eyes, fear returning to her heart. Now she was worried.


Fiona scampered back over the wagon's roof and dropped down in the driver's seat, plopping her bow next to her and taking up the reigns. The human woman clenched her teeth as she corrected the horse's path, then snapped the reigns to make the animal hurry up. The wagon began careening down the hillside at breakneck speeds. "Calven," she yelled to the curtain behind, "we're gonna need the cloak back up!"

"Ten minutes!" a childish voice called from inside the wagon. "How many were there?"

"At least three left. I took one out."

Swears emitted form the wagon's interior. Fiona turned her attention back to the road. Snow flew everywhere and the wagon skid around, the bumps nearly dislodging her from her seat. It didn't matter, they had to get away! Curse that dog! And curse this snow! Everything was going to plan until this!

She squinted as she stared at the whiteout ahead. The road was barely visible. At this rate they'd have to ditch the carriage altogether. But it had to last long enough to get away... They could worry about how many suns they could stuff in their pockets after they lost those infernal scouts... what a waste. She doubted the two of them could carry a fifth of it.

She blinked and wiped the snow from her eyes. A tiny dark shape stood in the path ahead. What was that... a scout? What was that red light in his hand... a lantern? She laughed. Must have run down the hill to cut them off. Did the little guy honestly think he could stop a horse-drawn carriage by himself? "Ya! Ya!" She snapped at the reigns, yelling at the horse, "Run him over! Run him over!"

A moment before the horse's hooves trampled the little gray-furred creature, her eyes widened in terror. That burning light in his outstretched hand was no lantern...

The horse screamed as the world exploded in crimson heat. Fiona spiraled backwards, only to slam into to the wooden beams of the wagon, a sickening crack felt across her back. Wooden shards sliced her flesh. She rolled and rolled, and then darkness took her.


Ooops.

Poor horse. Oh, well...

I stepped around the charred lump of a creature towards the mangled, still burning wreck of a carriage. Gold coins littered the crash site, glittering amongst the frozen ground. They barely caught my gaze. The only color I saw was red. I extended my right hand to the side, another orb of flame flickering to life at my clawtips. Whoever shot Vale was going to pay.

The wreckage stirred and I heard a whimper. Ears perked, I moved in to investigate with my fireball at the ready. Then the crying began. What in blazes...? I dispersed the spell and frantically moved a few wooden panels away. There lying in the snow was a human infant, wrapped in clothes too large for his body. An infant! I nearly killed a kid!

Moaning came from the snow to the right. I left the child (who obviously must have been all right if he could cry, blast it) and stepped towards the figure sprawled out. I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her to her knees with my left hand. "You're the one," I growled, extending the claws on my right hand before her face.

"Eli... no!" she whimpered as the flames danced to life upon my fingertips.

"Your gods cannot save you." I shook her once. Her teary eyes pleaded for mercy, but I only saw Vale bleeding in the snow. How dare she...

Before I could melt her face I slammed into the snow, tackled from the left by something much larger than me. How...!? The kid!

He pinned me down, having grown to an age older than I was capable of. A blasted age regressed Keeper! He snarled, despite being human, and drew my very own sword from its scabbard. I tried to roll, but his strength far over powered my own. With a quick jerk, I managed to escape a stab at my heart, suffering a slice across my left forearm it its place.

The tackle had dislodged my foot coverings. Bunching my legs under him, I slashed his belly with a furious kick of my toeclaws. He teetered and I seized the moment to roll on top of him and elicit a much more bestial growl than he. His recovery was quick, however, and he tossed me off like a rag doll, slamming me into the frozen ground once more.

But this time I had his hand.

I clutched the wrist with which he wielded my sword. He shrieked in pain as it blackened to a stump, my weapon harmlessly falling to the ground. I poured my rage into the spell, the heat melting away the flesh until nothing but charred ash remained.

His foot slammed into my stomach as he squealed, and I flew backwards into the carriage wreck, broken planks of wood breaking my fall. He went for my neck with his remaining hand. Gasping, I shoved my claw into his chest, sending forth a bright red plume of flame. It was over in an instant. A quick pillar of fire blasted through his flesh. His eyes fell to the gaping hole in his abdomen, daylight streaming through the bloodless wound cauterized by the heat, before crumpling backwards like a felled tree.

I sat up on my haunches and pulled my cloak tightly around my body, shuddering. Tears streamed down my eyes and I realized for the first time since childhood (my true childhood) I was crying. Perhaps it was the near death experience, or the throbbing pain in my arm. Or some combination. Curse this blasted form... Curse this forced childhood...

Vale appeared first, running ahead of the others. She had managed to re-don her clothing, though she left her armor behind. Her arm was bound in a white cloth. I hid my face in my cloak and wiped away the tears. It took a good moment to regain my composure— my true self, before showing my face to her, despite her demanding screams as she approached. Once my proper hardened exterior had been rebuilt, I stood and assessed the situation, my right hand clutching the bleeding slash-wound in my left upper arm.

"Holy crap, Virmir!" Vincent was next, his eyes going wide at the overturned carriage. Then he looked to the piles of coins scattered everywhere, slowly disappearing under the snow. He jumped back when he saw the kid with the hole in him, tail between his legs.

I sighed as a drop of blood escaped from between my fingers and fell to the snow. "We've stopped our bandits. Let's go home."

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