Happy Yule

by Billy Morph

"I'm bored," Hale announced to the small knot of soldiers huddled around their camp fire.

"Then go back to the keep," Kristin rumbled, cleaning the grit out of her claws. "You're the only one that doesn't have to be here."

Hale rolled his eyes. "Oh you know full well why I'm in the arse end of nowhere," he said, gesturing at the small hamlet they were camped at the edge off. It was so small no one had even gotten around to naming it yet.

"Why are you here?" Raff, house cat morph and proud of it, interjected.

"None of your—"

"He's hiding from the Duke," the tiger growled.

"Krissy!" Hale protested.

"What, half the keep knows?" she said, shrugging.

"Yeah, but you don't have to keep telling people," he protested.

"Why's the Duke after you?" Raff cut in, saving the company from another sibling row.

"He's pissed off because I won't play currier for him," Hale explained, lounging back and almost fell off the log.

"You play currier for anyone who pays," Raff said, raising a quizzical brow. "You delivered a letter for me last week."

"Yeah, well don't tell him that," Hale replied, shrugging. "He'll be annoyed when he figures out he just has to pay me more."

"Shouldn't have taken the salary," Krissy sighed.

"He wanted to pay me the same as everyone else," Hale protested. "Why should I get the same money when I'm a hundred times better than they are?"

"Hey!" one of the horse morphs protested. "I used to be a runner."

"And yet you still had me carry your parcels," Hale said with a dismissive wave. "Face it, I'm better than you."

"Hale," Krissy growled. "You asked me to tell you when you were pissing people off."

"That doesn't sound like something I'd say," he replied, frowning.

Kristin slumped. "It was after that tavern brawl you started. You know, with the guy build like a siege engine."

"Oh yeah," Hale said, snapping his fingers. "Well in my defence, he really did look like a pig."

"Oi!" the boar morph protested.

"Not as much as you of course," Hale amended, aiming for an apology and not even hitting the same fief.

"Hale you're annoying me now," the tiger rumbled. "I know you're bored, but can't you just name stars like the rest of us?"

"It's just so pointless," he exclaimed, standing. "Why are we even bothering to guard this pathetic little hamlet?"

"Orders!" the tiger bellowed, also rising and towering over the irate man. "And some of us actually care enough about rules to follow them."

"They're stupid," Hale shot back poking Krissy in the chest. "There's not a bandit for twenty miles."

"Not with all this yelling," the hare, not bunny, muttered. It was odd, the whole patrol was animal morphs, not an age or gender among them; it wasn't impossible, just unlikely.

"I was attacked six miles from here," Krissy snapped. "This is not a safe country."

Hale shrugged "All the more reason to cut and run then."

"Have you no sense of loyalty?" Kristin muttered.

"Yes," Hale replied with a simple nod. "You're the most important thing in the universe to me."

"Oh just go away," she replied, pushing Hale backwards and he flickered a moment, then was standing at the edge of the firelight.

"I shouldn't have left you alone last time," he said to the trees, not looking at Krissy.

"I have a bloody huge sword," she snapped, hefting the greatsword one handed. "And I was fine last time."

"You don't want my help?" Hale asked in a deadpan tone.

"You brand of help gets us chased out of town by an angry mob," she replied, scowling. "I'll help myself if you don't mind."

"Be that way," he murmured. "I'll stop looking for that cure then." And he disappeared without a whisper.

Kristin's eyes widened, first in shock and then in anger. How dare he suggest he could fix this? He couldn't do anything. It was his blasted fault that she was guarding a twenty building village in the cold side of nowhere. If it wasn't for him she'd be safe and warm by her parent's fire for Yule rather than shivering in the snow in a gods forsaken wasteland! No, worse than that. She'd be lucky to shiver, the fur coat he'd gotten her deadened the cold quite nicely thank you very much.

"Hale! I'm not finished with you. Come back here you bastard!" Her voice degenerated in a roar of rage that shook the snow from the trees and she struck out at the wood pile, which splintered as Bloodfall bit deep.

"Kriss—" Raff began, as the big cat rumbled.

"You can shut up and all," she snarled. "I'm going to sleep. Wake me before my watch and lose an eye."

Kristin stalked away from the fire and found a shrub that offered at least a little protection from the snow and shifted to full form to curl up beneath it. The fact she did this without a second thought no longer bothered her. The fact that she'd just yelled at her squad mates was just a passing concern. She had not a care that any of that would have been unthinkable just a few months before. She just tried to settle down and think non-Hale dissembling thoughts.

"Huh," Raff said, breaking the stunned silence around the fire. "Must be that time of the month."

He had to duck to avoid a tree branch hurled at him.

To say Krissy was annoyed to be roused by someone yanking on her tail and yelling, "found another one," would be an understatement. Despite the old adage pulling a tiger's tail is one of best way's to risk life and limb and even Hale had given up after his fifth trip to the infirmary. Within an instant, and bellowing in consternation, she was on her feet and pulling the culprit close with his lapels.

It came as a bit of a shock to find herself face to face with a masked man and a terrified pair of eyes, Kristin had been expecting Raff, but a quick glance at the leathers and the wicked knife at his belt had her moving in an instant. The open handed blow caught the guy around the side of his head and her claws bit deep, tearing out chunks of flesh, and he went down screaming in pain and clutching a ruined eye.

"It's awake!" another masked man bellowed, and Krissy charged the knot of people dragging the other unconscious keepers away. She didn't draw her sword, for some reason she knew it wasn't in her scabbard, and leapt into the air too late as a ceramic pot shattered on her muzzle.

Kristin barrelled into the crowd as her legs just stopped listening, sending the bandits flying like ninepins as she crashed to the ground. Her arms wouldn't move, her eyes wanted nothing more than to close and be done with it but inside she was roaring in protest, which translated into a low whimper.

"And that's why you should always check to see if the pelts are dead," a man declared, standing right next to her head. Any other time Krissy would have tried to take a chunk out of his leg, but it seemed just too much effort. Instead she gazed up at the petty mage; taking note of the threadbare robe and pots of what she hoped was just knockout gas on his belt.

"The bastard took out my eye!" the rather foolish other man screamed.

"Bitch," the mage corrected, rolling his eyes.

"I don't care, she'll pay for that."

Krissy, if she had been lucid enough to be worried, would have panicked at the sight of a man, clutching at his ruined face, brandishing a knife that could only be called overcompensation. But he was stopped in his tracks as a flash of flame from the mage almost took off his eyebrows.

"She is worth a lot more than your pride," he warned. "There's a lot of mages who'll pay a boat full of gold for a specimen like this. And even more nobles would pay for the hide."

"Oh shit," Krissy thought just before unconsciousness claimed her. "Well, at least Hale will save me."

She woke up caged. It wasn't the first time, and after the first dozen cells, 'private suites' and tallest towers Kristin had begun checking out the escape routes as a matter or course. This situation didn't look so good though, she was in a low metal cage that looked as if it had been designed to hold bears from the size of the bars and there was a pair of guards by the doors.

That was pretty bad even by their standards.

On the plus side it didn't look like she'd been moved any further than the village chapel, which just raised further questions really.

Kristin rumbled as she dragged herself onto all fours and sank into a full animal form as she realised she'd been stripped.

"Eup, big guy's awake," one of the guards said to his partner. Krissy recognised them both as from the hamlet, Johnson and Jameson if she recalled correctly, though which one was which was beyond her drugged mind.

"What the hell?" she muttered, shaking her head to try and clear the cobwebs.

"Hey, no talking!" the larger guard snapped, rapping on one of the cages and Kristin growled as the clang echoed in her ears.

"Can you hear this?" Raff asked from the next cage over, almost inaudible even to the tiger.

"Just," Krissy replied, just moving her lips. One of the guards frowned but didn't stop them.

Raff nodded. "Good. You know what's going on?"

"I think they're selling us to a mushroom kingdom or something," Kristin said, shaking her head. "I'm not quite sure they got me full in the face with that sleep drug so I was pretty out of it."

"Selling us seems to work," he admitted, thinking about it for a moment. "Explains why they were so eager with the sleep gas bombs."

"What happened?" Kristin asked. "I was already asleep."

"They got us as we changed patrols," he explained. "A half dozen pots and we were out of it. Damn, we're never going to live this down once we escape."

"Was it bandits?"

"No, the bloody villagers," he hissed, and one of the guards shot them a suspicious look which the cats met, both trying to appear the picture innocence.

"I think this whole place is a set up," Raff continued, crab walking to the edge of the cage and staring out through the bars. "Think about it. Brand new hamlet, a bowshot from the curse border, just guys and a few wispy girls who if I'm any judge are 'for hire'."

Krissy rolled her eyes; he would be the judge of that.

"It's a set up," Raff repeated. "And we've got to get out of here. What about your brother?"

"I don't know, this church been sanctified?"

"They did some prayers here," Raff admitted, shrugging. "Don't know if that counts, why?"

"Means Hale can't get in," she sighed. "Long story, but we're—"

"How dare you accuse me of going behind Kratans back!" a rather whiney voice protested. "I am under direct orders to check the prisoners, and I'm sure you don't want their escape on your heads."

Kristin couldn't hear the reply, but a moment later the man who thought catching a tiger by its tail was a good idea stormed in. Krissy smirked as she saw the bloodstained bandage wrapped over the side of his ruined face.

"You two might want to step outside," he said to the pair of guard, who just glanced at each other. Not moving.

"Now, or you'll be asleep just like them," he snapped, gesturing at the sleeping keepers.

"We'll be right outside," they warned, and left.

"Yeah, but the lock's on the inside," he murmured, waving his hand over the bar and slid it into place without a sound.

"Shit, mage," Raff murmured.

"Oh awake are you," the one eyed man said, rounding on the cats. "I told Kratans that we should have tested the mix on something other than dogs. Well, all the better."

He strode down the row of cages, unsheathing a dagger, and two pairs of silted eyes followed him.

"Huh, pathetic," he said, squatting in front of Kristin who bared her teeth. "Can you even speak?"

"Can you even see?" she shot back, and the man bristled.

"I'm not the one in a cage," he growled, rattling the blade against the bars.

"Ah, but at least that's not my fault."

"Err, Kriss," Raff murmured. "Might not want to make this guy angry."

"Yeah, listen to the moggy moggy," the man snapped, jabbing the dagger into the cage. Krissy didn't flinch, just focused on the steel point, waiting. "I'm calling the shots here."

"So, eye for an eye is it?" Krissy said.

"What the hell are you doing?" Raff hissed.

That was a good question. Kristin didn't know with all honesty. Antagonising her captors had never been part of the pattern, but for once she was tough enough to stand a chance against them, and this guy had already lost round one.

"I think the eyes are a good place to start," the man said, glowering. "And then maybe a few other things. I hear there's a good market for tiger parts."

"Bring it."

The dagger darted through the bars and a quick as a flash Kristin caught his hand in one paw. There was a moment's pause as the guy realised just how bad a decision he'd made and then the blood began to run in rivulets onto the straw. With a yell he ripped his hand out of Kristin's claws and clutched at the ruined appendage as Krissy dragged the discarded dagger deeper into the cage.

"Wow, you're bad at this," she said, and Raff covered his eyes.

"You'll pay for that bitch," the man bellowed, as fire wreathed his hand.

"Hey, why is this locked?" one of the guards yelled, hamming on the door.

"Oh shit," Kristin exclaimed. "Look, I'm telling you this in all good faith. Don't do it."

"You'd like that wouldn't you?" he rumbled, the wildfire around his hand mirroring that in his eyes, and the bars of the cage began to glow.

Krissy backed away. "It's not me I'm worried about," she admitted.

"You're not going to do anything," he said, manic grin spreading across his face. "Except burn."

The wash of flame leapt through the bars and in an instant Kristin had vanished in a wash of magical heat and smoke. Raff yelled, pressing himself against the far wall of his cell as his fur began to singe, back-pedalling to get as far away as he could from the manic mage.

Then it was over and the tiger was left crouching it her cage.

"That was really, really stupid," Kristin said, shuddering.

"What the—" the man said, eyes widening.

"I'd run," Krissy said, claws scoring deep furrows in the wood as her fur colour rippled through the spectrum. "Really, just go."

There was a boom as the door was blasted off its hinges and the mage, Kratans, rushed in.

"What the hell is going on in..." he petered out as he saw the green tiger in a flowering cage.

Quicker on the uptake than the junior mage who was staring in open mouthed horror, Kratans was back out the door and dragging the guards with him as the magical ground zero began to spread. The flowering boards were giving way to melting iron which became red sand before it hit the ground and Kristin stood, shrugging off the remnants of the cage.

"Please," she gasped, clenching and unclenching her fists as she fought the magic flowing through her. "Run."

"Why wont you just die," the man roared, throwing another fireball that bounced off Kristin's chest, not even ruffling her fur.

The blast knocked away the blocks Kristin had on the torrent of magic as if they were cobwebs and in an instant she went jet black as the power flowed through her.

"Raff, run!" she screamed, as a moment later sound vanished from the word and she saw the cat squeeze through the warping boards of the chapel. The stupid mage was screaming soundless curses at her as he hurled more fire that was absorbed into the maelstrom of magic Kristin was trying to hold back, but they were mere drops in the ocean.

As black tendrils wrapped their way around the building Kristin hoped this would be one of those spells that was all show and didn't do much. Okay, so none of the other magic she'd let lose had been anything but destructive, and she had as much control over what happened as she did with the changing of the tide, but maybe this time, because her squad mates were lying unconscious mere feet away, the magic would be lenient.

The dawn's light vanished as the tendrils thickened and blocked out of sky and Kristin frowned at the wannabe mage.

"I don't know if you can hear me," Kristin said, she couldn't hear herself but there was always an off chance. "But I just want the last thing you hear to be the truth. You're a moron."

The darkness descended like a rock and then Kristin was left alone in a void.

In an instant the black vanished and Kristin was standing at the epicentre of a circular plane of discoloured glass, the only sign there'd even been a building was a single smouldering beam as the very edge of the blast zone.

"Krissy!" Hale roared from the forest's edge, where he was dragging an unconscious Raff between trees stripped bare of leaves. "Run!"

She whirled to see the bandits approaching the disaster zone and took one step before slipping and falling flat on her face.

An arrow skittered off the glass and Kristin dug her claws in, morphing into a full tiger as she bounded away on all fours and was off like a shot into the wood after Hale.

"What the hell happened?" Hale exclaimed, as Krissy flipped back to bipedal, still running, and swept Raff over her shoulder.

"An idiot tried to kill me with a fireball," she explained as they sprinted through the snow. Angry yells were following them and every so often a lucky bowshot would hit the ground a couple dozen paces away. "And you know what that means."

"Anger in, hellfire out," Hale completed. "Shit. Was there anyone else in there?"

"Oh, only everyone in my file," she replied, snarling.

"Ah. Take a left here." They dove through a low thicket and Hale pulled away a curtain of fallen branches to reveal a tiny shelter. "And hide, I'll be back in a moment."

Kristin laid Raff down in the hollow before squeezing herself in after him and pulling the curtain shut. At any other time she observed, this would have been one of Raff's dreams come true, but some how Kristin doubted his fantasies involved massive internal injuries. A troop of angry bandits stormed past and Krissy pressed herself as deep into the hole as possible, ignoring Raff whimpering in pain. She lay there, panting, until the voices fades and the enormity of what had just happened sunk in.

She'd killed them, not the mage he'd brought that on himself, but the rest of her file. Okay, so there was an off chance that they'd just been teleported to another dimension, or changed back to normal and sent home, or ascended into higher beings, but most likely they'd been blasted into their component elements.

At least they hadn't been conscious.

There was a pop as Hale reappeared and hefted the cover off the hide.

"Well that should keep them busy for half an hour," he said, clapping his hands. "Now is someone going to tell me what the hell happened or what?"

"I think they're slavers," Kristin explained, dragging Raff out of the hole and laying him on the snow. Now how did you check to see if a cat was okay, damp nose? "The hamlet, our little protection patrol, all a set up."

"Shit," Hale said after a moment, bending down next to his sister. "I probably shouldn't gone and told them back at the keep then."

"No, I meant they tricked the keep, not that the keep tricked us," Krissy corrected. "Tone down the paranoia a tad."

Hale shrugged. "Eh, paranoia has never killed anyone. Lack of paranoia on the other hand. Though that reminds me, we have reinforcements on the way."

"How long?"

"Ooo, a few hours yet," Hale said, as Raff groaned. "Not sure if he's going to last that long."

"Great," Krissy grumbled. "Don't suppose you can just 'port him back..."

Hale shot her a look that could have frozen the sea.

"Okay. Well I don't see any blood, but that means I have no idea how to help him," Kristin sighed. "Damn, basic said one thing on internal injuries, and that was not to move them.

"We've already carted him half a mile," Hale pointed out.

"Hell," Kristin swore. "And they're going to find this place sooner or later."

"I'm think distraction," Hale said after a moment's thought. "I'll—"

"Slip back to the hamlet and start a fire," Krissy completed, huffing.

Hale stared at her. "How did you know that?"

"Because that's always your plan," she sighed. "You fight, you get me, we set fire to something and escape in a chaos. It's the pattern, but it's not going to work this time, they don't care about the hamlet."

"Yeah, but they're still going to go and find out what happened," Hale countered. "And then we can ambush them for once."

Krissy chewed her lip and below them Raff groaned.

"We've had worse plans. Go for it."

"I'll be back with your sword," Hale said, standing. "Just stay here."

"Some clothes would be nice too," Krissy interjected, as he was about to pop out.

"I thought you had a fur coat?"

He vanished as a clod of snow whistled past his head and Kristin slumped, placing a paw on Raff's forehead. She couldn't tell if he were hot or cold, heck given her new form Krissy would be hard pressed to tell if she had a fever herself.

"Hell Raff," she murmured. "I'm sorry I got you into this mess."

A couple hundred meters away the snow crunched and Kristin's ears zeroed in on the noise. Two humans, fast walk, armed and heading straight towards them. Terrific. A growl rose in her throat as she dropped onto her haunches and the two bandits balked as they broke through the bushes to see an irate tiger glowering at them.

"Just run," Kristin snarled. "It's the best offer I'll give you today."

The pair looked at each other and as one drew their swords and charged. Kristin rolled her eyes, why did no one ever just give up, shifted her hind paws a little and sprung. One of the bandits had his sword in a guard, but the other had his by his side and so got several hundred pounds of irate tiger to the chest as Kristin tackled him.

They fell in a tumble of fur and yells of alarm and Kristin was off and away, skittering away on all fours before rounding of the pair again. She didn't like prowling around like an animal, for one she wasn't that practiced, but shifting took up valuable time.

"Last warning," she said between growls, forcing her voice human enough to be intelligible.

"I have a sword," the man warned, as his friend took one look at Kristin and decide to play dead. "What do you have freak?"

There was a flicker in the bushes and Kristin grinned, showing a distressing number of teeth as she rose onto her hind legs.

"Mine's bigger," she replied, holding out a paw and for a half second Hale was standing next to her, before he passed her greatsword, Bloodfall, into her hand.

The man's eyes widened, then he charged screaming and Kristin dropped onto one knee, holding her huge sword in a close guard. A moment later she moved in a flurry, sweeping the blade round and clasped the crossguard under her shoulder, holding the point out like a spear and the bandit, realising way to late to stop or even put his sword in the way, skidded on the snow before impaling himself, the body only stopping a full half length down.

"Okay, that was disgusting," Hale said, as Kristin stood and kicked the limp body off the sword, before wiping down the blade with the back of her hand.

"No, he was disgusting," Kristin corrected. "They're selling us as slaves. And," she continued in a much louder voice. "When we have to leave in half a minute I sure hope there's no one left that we have to deal with."

The other bandit was gone almost before she'd finished speaking and Krissy slumped, looking down at her hands.

"Okay, wiping blood off with your own fur may look intimidating but this is going to take a fortnight to wash out," she sighed.

Hale shrugged. "Well I think that guy wet himself at least."

"Urgh," Krissy said, wrinkling her nose. "I hate playing the tough guy."

"Kind of stuck with it," Hale said, and Krissy was just about to snap at him when there was a 'whumph!' and a flare of light lit up half the forest.

"And that would be the lamp oil catching," he explained, as Krissy whirled to see an orange pallor lighting up the clouds from the direction of the hamlet.

"You set that up a while ago didn't you?" she sighed.

"Yep," Hale replied, nodding and gazing at the conflagration like a proud father. "Man I wish I could do fire spells."

"And our entire village is glad you can't," Kristin countered. "Now let's get moving before we blow any chance we have of ambushing them."

They set off at a jog, and Hale explained his plan.

"Okay, so the mage jerk has set up at the centre of the blast site. No way of sneaking up and he's got guards so I'm not really going to be able to do much. On the other hand he can't hit you with magic and so if you just wade in there you can hand them their asses no problem."

"I notice your plan has you out of the action," Krissy cut in.

"Hey, I'll be making sure anyone who tries to break off the search and help gets a dagger in the back," Hale protested. "If I see an opportunity I'll take it."

"Okay, fine. But I want my armour back."

"Oh right," Hale said, slapping himself on the forehead before vanishing for a moment and appeared again with the leathers. "I'll give you some privacy then." He shoved the armour into her arms and disappeared.

"He just realised I was naked didn't he?" Krissy asked the empty forest. "Man I miss having curves."

Kristin lay on her belly at the edge of the forest, watching the mage and his guards. There were only three, the rest having left to save their burning homes and the mage was busy concentrating on the glass plain that Krissy has seared into the earth. At a guess he was trying to figure out what had happened to his captives, but given he was just sitting there Kristin had no real idea.

She stalked through the singed scrub grass towards the guards on all fours, slow, deliberate, trying to avoid making any noise and freezing every time she thought someone was looking at her. Wild hunting wasn't Krissy's forte, any animal in a forest full of half human predators kept its wits about it, but in the flickering firelight and her stripes just going orange again, she was almost invisible as she picked her way closer.

"You have one chance to surrender," Krissy said as she hunkered down mere feet away from the knot. "They don't kill people who surrender here."

The guards looked around for the speaker, hands heading for their swords and Kristin waited for a slow count to three.

"Okay. I'm through with you people."

One of them spotted her but was way too late as Kristin sprang, shifting in mid air and she swung her sword in a broad arc that took his head half off. Wrenching the blade out of the ruins of the man she brought it round just fast enough to catch an overhand blow on the crossguard and kicked the offending bandit in the shins, claws extended. He dropped to the ground, swearing as his clutched at his leg and Kristin whirled, batting the final bandit's clumsy swing away and darted forwards, smacking him in the face with the flat of Bloodfall and he crumpled to the ground.

The injured man yelled something incoherent and Krissy turned too slow as his sword tip tore through her cheep armour and cut a swathe through her chest. She didn't even slow though, swinging her sword in a high arc that he managed to intercept and Kristin hooked his blade on Bloodfall's bladelets, letting the momentum carry her forward and driving the crossguard through his neck.

"Ow," Krissy said, yanking her sword out of the dead man and rubbing the crimson line in her leathers, the wound was no where as deep as she feared. "Score one for natural armour I guess."

"Now, where did that mage go?" she asked, glancing around for the vanished man.

"He's making a break for it," Hale exclaimed, flickering into existence behind her. "Come on, he has a horse waiting."

They set off at a sprint towards the burning village. A couple of the bandits were still defending the place with bows but Hale, being somewhat practiced at being shot at, had cut their strings before they'd even notched an arrow.

"You know, I just thought," Hale said, as they paused by a recently deserted hitching post to get their bearings. "Why are we chasing this guy? The bandits are running for the hills, they're not going to be a threat to your friend anymore."

"Because," Kristin growled, setting off at a run along a trail of hoof prints. "If we let him go he'll just come back and try it again."

"But he's not going to fool you again," he pointed out, as they crashed through the snow clad forest. The trail wasn't hard to follow; the horses had been at full gallop as the mage ran like the hounds of hell were after him.

"Can't you think about any but us for a few minutes," Kristin snapped, and there was a yell as two bandits leapt out of the bushes in front of them, brandishing their swords.

Their ambush didn't seem to go as planned. Hale was a hundred yards past them in an eye blink and the smarter bandit leapt out of the way as a several hundred pound tiger roared towards them, tucking her sword under her shoulder like a lance. The braver, or slower, one was tossed away like a rag doll as the blade crashed into his arm and then Hale and Kristin disappeared into the night.

"I'm just saying we're putting ourselves at risk to catch someone who may not be a threat," Hale continued, panting and teleporting on every third step to keep up. "He's certainly not coming near you again."

"Because of him, a lot of my friends just died," Krissy snarled. "We've got to go faster."

"Well we're not going catch him on foot," Hale snapped back.

"Not on two feet. Find me a short cut," she barked, sheathing Bloodfall and dropped onto all fours before shooting off through the undergrowth.

"I've got to get her out of here before she gets herself killed," Hale sighed, as he watched her go, trying to ignore just how freaky it was too see his sister running on her hands. "Right, let's find an ambush."

Within a few minutes Krissy was beginning to tire. Cats were not marathon runners, and judging from the fading scent of horse she was loosing them.

"Come on," Hale snapped, materialising next to her. "They've hit the road but they had to double back round a cliff. You can fall a dozen feet right?"

Kristin huffed, too far gone to speak, but Hale bulled a trail through the forest and a few moments later they burst out into the scrub ground next to the road. The mage and a bodyguard were careening past and Kristin didn't miss a beat, pulling herself up onto her hind legs on the run and leapt, sword screeching through the air as she fell and slammed into the bodyguard.

They fell in a tumble of fur and flesh, and horse as Kristin's momentum demolished the steed, and the mage's mount reared, sending him crashing to the ground before charging off into the distance. Moments later only Krissy and the mage pulled themselves to their feet, the tiger clutching a bruise at her side. The bodyguard wasn't going to be getting back up. Heck, the horse wasn't in that great shape.

"I'm going to give you one last chance," Krissy sighed, hefting her sword. "Please. Give up."

"Oh just die already!" the mage bellowed, and a shard of ice leapt from his outstretched hand and hit Kristin square in the chest.

"Why do you people keep doing that?" she gasped, staggering backwards and felt the power leap into her like a flood. "Seriously, it doesn't work!" Tendrils of white hot energy wreathed her for a moment and then she slammed her sword into the ground, roaring as the magic earthed itself.

With a yell the mage charged, drawing a short sword and Kristin wrenched Bloodfall out of the ground, though now it was completed by a couple of pound of cooling glass on the tip.

"What is it with the glass?" Krissy sighed, then yelped and she got a clumsy block in the way of the mage's sword just in time.

He was good, she realised as they traded blows. Another burst of ice shot over her shoulder as she ducked underneath his guard, but the mage leapt back and even managed to elbow Hale in the ribs as he appeared behind the man. With an incomprehensible yell lightning wreathed his sword, and Hale, gasping, flickered away to a safe distance.

"Magic," Kristin gasped, cracking the mage across the arm as she rolled out of the way of the electrified sword. "May not be the best idea."

"For you," he began, and swung for her head. "Not for—"

The blast catapulted the pair apart and Kristin landed on all fours a dozen yard away, which would have been far more impressive if the mage hadn't managed to levitate himself to the ground about three feet from his slagged sword. With a yell and a roar the pair charged, the mage drawing a knife from his belt and Kristin yanking a glowing Bloodfall from the snow. More sparks shot from them as their weapons met, punctuated by the occasional bolt of pure darkness that cut swathes out of the surrounding forest as the mage tried spell after spell.

As a burst of heat turned snow to steam the combatants leapt back and paused a moment, gasping for breath.

"Come on mage," Kristin snarled. "You're not going to beat me."

A throwing knife leapt out of the mage's belt and Kristin ducked too slow as the dagger thudded into her shoulder. With a bellow of pain Kristin staggered as the mage charged. Kristin hefted the greatsword into position one handed, snarling, and caught the mage's swing on the bladelets. Then, pushing with all her might, she smashed the spiked crossguard through his chest.

"Told you," she said, as the look of shock spread across the mage's face and his warm blood began to soak into her fur. She glanced down, to see a second dagger buried between her ribs.

"Shit," she sighed, as the pair fell away from each other and she crumpled into the snow. "That's not fair."

With a yell she ripped the dagger out and regretted it as bolts of pain spread across her chest. Getting wounded wasn't supposed to hurt that much. And the hero wasn't supposed to be stabbed by the guy she'd just defeated.

"Hell, Krissy, are you okay?" Hale exclaimed, appearing over her and crouching down.

"That was really unfair," Krissy sighed, the world was going bright, everything fading to white. Which either meant she was ascending or going into shock. "Hurts too."

"Ah, not again!" Hale snapped. "Krissy, can you hold out a few minutes while I get help?"

"Sure," she replied, coughing up blood. "Doesn't hurt that much anyway."

"Come on Krissy stay with me!" he barked, shaking her shoulders. The tiger tried to bat him off. It was annoying. "I'm not losing you."

"Well unless you've got some magic up your sleeve, you've not much hope of that," Krissy sighed.

"Argh, why didn't we just let him go?" Hale yelled, standing and stamping in frustration.

"Because." Kristin coughed again. "Sometimes you can't run from your problems."

"Well, I do have a trick up my sleeve still," Hale sighed, crouching and placing his hands across Kristin's wound. "It's for treating paper cuts."

"How many people have I killed with magic today?" the tiger inquired, as Hale began chanting.

He paused. "With luck one less." And let the magic fly.

Kristin kept a tight hold on the power. All day, every day, she kept a dam across the flow, stopping it from randomly turning people into frogs and the like. Hale's spell shattered the fragile barrier as if it were made of no more than cobwebs.

The cavalry riding to their rescue saw the flare from five miles away.

The roof was treacherous, blanketed with snow and Hale crawled his way up the tiles on all fours, scowling at the tiger tracks he was following. Kristin had managed to walk up; Hale had already fallen off once.

"Damn it Krissy," Hale snapped as he grabbed the weathervane and manoeuvred himself next to the big cat, who was basking in the setting sun. "Why did you have to pick the tallest tower in the bloody keep?"

"I didn’t" she replied in a monotone. "The gryphons have that one; this is the second tallest tower."

"You know what I mean," Hale sighed. "Why are you skulking up here?"

"A lot of my squad mates died a few days ago. I almost died a few days ago," she said. "I don’t know if you remember."

Hale gritted his teeth. "Yeah, I remember, but the guy responsible is in chains downstairs begging to be released before he gets a pelt."

"No that’s not what—" Kristin began, but paused as she realised what Hale had said. "Wait. I thought after he got caught up in that healing spell they were going to lock him up outside the valley?"

"That is certainly what they decided," Hale admitted with a shrug. "But the Duke really should pay his guards more."

Kristin stared at him for a moment and Hale met the tiger's gaze.

"Okay, that's evil," she said at last.

"I prefer vindictive," Hale said. "Besides, I hear they like irony in this place."

"I can't believe you sometimes," Krissy said, shaking her head in disgust. "Besides, he wasn't the one who killed all those people."

"Oh for the love of light Kirssy," Hale snapped. "You weren't responsible for that, you don't have any control of what happens when someone zaps you."

"And me not having control is my fault," she bellowed, teeth flashing as she rounded on Hale. "Me putting myself where blowing up like that could hurt people is my fault. Me antagonising that moron into throwing a fireball at me is my fault, and I did that because I'm stuck in this stupid over aggressive body and that's... well that's you fault isn't it? You're why we're here."

She settled back down into the snow, patting, her breath forming a cloud at the end of her muzzle.

"You didn't have to come," Hale muttered.

"Oh grow up," Kristin barked, elbowing Hale in the ribs and the boy stumbled, slipping on the icy roof and tumbled over the parapet.

A moment later he reappeared, covered in snow.

"Okay, I just had to teleport into a drift," he said, scowling.

"Good," she growled back. "Maybe that'll remind you what a bloody stupid thing that was to say. Until we got here I followed you like a lost dog. It was your decision to come here. Your stupid quest. You got those people killed."

"Hey," he protested. "I can't be held responsible for every wackjob mage that throws fireballs at you. This isn't my fault."

"Hale," Kristin said, fixing him with a withering stare. There were tear tracks in her fur. "We cause chaos, misery and death wherever we go. It was fun for a year or so, but I want to go home."

"Great, I'll beat a cure out of Garison and we'll—"

Kristin swept his legs out from under him and Hale disappeared over the edge again.

"That is very annoying," he reporting, popping back onto the roof.

"You just don't get it do you," Kristin sighed. "This isn't something you're going to be able to fix with a half baked plan. Heck, I don't even know if you can fix this."

"I've never failed at anything before and I'm not starting now," Hale declared. "I'll find a way—"

"I don't want you to try and fix it," Kristin snapped, standing and grabbing Hale by the shoulders. "I don't want there to have been anything to be fixed. I want to go home and get away from all this chaos and death."

"Kristin I," he began, then his face light up. "I have an idea." He vanished leaving Krissy grasping at air.

"I don't want an idea," she sobbed, slumping down onto the snow. "I just want an apology."

The next morning was Yule. People were bustling around the keep, preparing feasts, exchanging presents, and more than a few nursing hangovers. Kristin dragged herself out of bed long after the sun had barged its way in through her bedroom window. Rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and plunged her head into a handy bucket kept for just that purpose.

Shaking the water out of her mane Kristin was at last awake enough to look for Hale. His bed was empty and made, atop it sat a plain envelope addressed in flowing script 'Kristin'.

"Well, beats last year," Krissy grumbled, sitting on Hale's bed, tearing open the envelope with a claw, and pulled out a pendent. It was a simple thing, a cat's eye jewel with a pewter clasp and leather strap but it seemed to sparkle in the morning light. Kristin held it in one hand as she pulled a letter out of the envelope.

"He sold himself cheep," she read aloud. "Signed, Nasoj!" She glanced down at the pendent that was now held in a normal, human, hand and dropped it as if it burnt. A moment later the familiar paw returned.

"Oh Hale," Kristin sighed, picking up the pendent again and watching her claws shrink. "What did you do?"

She watched the fur recede up her arms and the magic had reached her shoulders before she made a decision. It was her chance. There wasn't going to be another. This was her once shot to escape.

Krissy slipped the pendent over her head and became human with a bang. Within moments she was off, gathering up anything that she'd need to reach the next town and stuff that looked easily fenced. Swinging a backpack over her shoulders and strapping her sword over that five minutes later she was reaching for the door when someone knocked.

"Yes," Kristin snapped, wrenching the door open and a very surprised messenger leapt backwards.

"Um, I have a message for the tiger, Kristin," the messenger said, adjusting her tunic.

"I can tell her," Kristin replied in a growl. "What is it?"

"Her squad mate, Raff, is not improving," the messenger reported. "Coe says he may not last the day."

Kristin froze. Raff hadn't been close enough to be healed along with the mage. He'd been half dead by the time they'd gotten back to the Keep, and it sounded like life was trying to finish off the other half.

"I'll tell her," she snapped, and slammed the door.

The backpack fell to the floor with a clatter and Kristin slumped against the door. She was running again. It was all she and Hale ever did, and she kept berating him over that. But in the end, given the chance, she was doing the same thing.

"Where exactly am I running to?" she asked the empty room, fingering the pendant. It wasn't home; there had never been anything there. Half the kingdoms in the county had a warrant for her arrest and it wasn't like she had friends anywhere but the Keep. It was the one place where she'd even begun to have a life beyond Hale.

With faltering fingers Kristin pulled off the pendent and threw it across the room. Then she got up, dusted off her fur, and went to visit Raff and get on with her life.