Hoof and Claw

by Jon Sleeper

I had to admit, it was nice to get out of the Keep for a change. After a straight month of Smithson and I doing our best to translate the Keystone, Duke Thomas himself had come into our workspace and told us frankly to "Go out and get some fresh air", in such a tone that brooked no opposition, we decided to get a closer look at that thing called the "outside world".

It was the first time since the Keep's spell had changed my mentor, Smithson, into a mid-degree goat morph. For being in his mid-sixties, he was very fit for his age. There was a spring in his hoofed step as we walked and talked while looking around the small canyon we found ourselves in for any artifacts.

Actually, we were less looking for artifacts than we were just talking about things. What had happened to the both of us in the years since the Battle of Three Gates. Smithson was more than my mentor, really. I was orphaned when I was five years old; my parents were killed when their ship sank on the Sea of Stars. It was probably nothing more than a freak squall that killed them. They just went on a business trip and never came back. Smithson was a family friend who had originally agreed to look after me until they returned from their business trip into the Sathmore Empire to the south.

I was a boy without parents or any relatives that would even consider taking me in. So Smithson adopted me and taught me everything he knew about being an Artificer. I loved him as I did my father. And we had a lot to talk about.

It was cold, but neither of us noticed, having our heavy coat of hair that was thick for the coming winter. A lot of the conversation naturally was about his and my change. I'd gotten used to mine, the antlers, tail and such; but he was new to his. He was continually tugging on his horns, occasionally accidentally bleating a instead of speaking, and was always in full form when I wasn't looking. Probably testing out the old myth that goats could eat anything (he'd been grabbing branches of this and that and take a few bites) which wasn't always working out very well. He knew what was poisonous, at least.

I still wasn't used to my mentor's mostly goat-like face. He had a pair of fairly tall horns that curved slightly backward, and was overall an off-white in hair color. There were only a few cues in his features that were left of his human face. But though I wasn't used to his new face, ironically, I thought he looked in some ways better as a goat. There was a kind of wisdom in his expression that hadn't been there before. I couldn't put my hoof on it, really.

The small canyon was filled with the leaves of mid-Autumn that the wind blew everywhere. Even in this particular part of the mountains where there were hardly any trees, and especially no deciduous ones. The leaves covered the floor of the canyon several layers deep. We were so involved in our conversation that I didn't notice the lump in the leaves until too late. I tripped, banging my sensitive nose on the ground. "Damn that hurts!" I exclaimed, rubbing my muzzle.

"Are you okay, Jon?" Smithson asked.

I got up on my hands and knees. A very uncomfortable position for one with high ankles, so I quickly stood up again. "What did I trip over?" I asked as I turned to face Smithson. He'd already dug through the layer to reveal... my heart was suddenly in my throat. I rushed over and helped him finish.

Sticking out of the floor of the canyon was a skull. It had a beak, just like the Teneds did. At least, I'd assumed they did. I had a collapsible tool that would serve as both pick and shovel on my tool belt (I'd nearly fallen on it), and started to dig frantically but carefully. The dirt was hard, but not as hard as stone. The pick dug easily into the dirt, loosening the skull that looked smashed in the first place. We just didn't want to mess it up any more. But we knew what were seeing.

To anyone else, it would've just been a skull of some gigantic bird, a cross between a bird of prey and a parrot. But no modern bird had a cranium nearly the size of a human's. Though this one had been shattered.

Jackpot.

"Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" my mentor bleated.

"Well, if not, then we're both hallucinating!" I said, grinning hugely and holding the skull in my hoofed hand. "I wonder if there's more..." Just then, my light-sensitive and mostly color-blind eyes caught sight of something glinting in the dirt. I carefully gave the skull to Smithson and started digging some more.

There were some neck vertebrae below the skull, naturally. There was also an awful lot of larger rocks. That I had to pull away. But in the dirt, around the vertebrae, was what was unquestionably a jewel of some sort. I scraped the dirt away, and carefully removed the round object from the place where it had rested for millennia. I carefully but quickly cleaned the dirt off, revealing a green gem set in an ornate gold ring that had engraved hieroglyphs in it. Tened hieroglyphs.

"Homina, homina, homina..." I said, dazed. "We'd better get back to the Keep and bring some others back here to dig this up!" There was little time before snow would choke every single pass. Already there were spots in the shadows where the first snows had found a place where they wouldn't melt. Though this particular canyon apparently got little snow (since the bones hadn't been washed away), the ones below were a different story.

This fact wasn't lost on Smithson, who'd been given a run down on the climate of the area. "From what I've been told, we've got less than two weeks. Not much time..."

"And it'll take at least a week to get a team together to document things properly. I think we're going to have to settle for protecting the site as best we can and coming back in the spring."

Smithson winced. "I guess you're right. We might be able to unearth a few more bones or perhaps find another artifact before we have to pack it in. I'm just worried that when all the snowmelt runs down this canyon it'll wash whatever is there away..."

I kneeled down and took out a sack, sniffing for anything that smelled like bone, and looking for any more skull fragments. My mentor took out a magnifying glass and started looking for other shards. We didn't speak as we found what looked to be likely fragments of bone, as well as a couple of neck vertebrae. I carefully wrapped the skull in several layers of soft cloth to protect it on the way back to the Keep, and we both started in that direction, having marked it on a map we were carrying.

We weren't able to return for nearly a week. By then, there'd been a snowstorm that covered the site in a thin layer of glittering flakes. We weren't able to do more than layer a couple of anti-weathering spells graciously set by Magus.

In the meantime, I'd managed to finish cleaning and glue together the skull. "How old would you say this is?" I asked my mentor once we'd finished.

"I can't say, really. What interests me more are the hieroglyphs on that pendant..."

I'd been so engrossed in piecing together the skull I'd completely forgotten about the pendant. "Have you been able to translate any of the writings?" I asked, hopeful.

"Afraid not," he replied, dashing my hopes. "That porcupine alchemist of yours was able to clean off the dirt. But it seems that a lot of the glyphs weren't engraved in any normal way. They've been rubbed out a bit." He went to a box and took out the red gem that was about a half inch in diameter, with the setting adding another quarter inch. From the gold that surrounded it was a fairly thick chain. The clasp at the back had come undone when Pascal had cleaned it, Simithson told me. "She also said that there's some sort of dormant magic inside it. Just what, she couldn't tell."

"Wasn't that thing green before?" I replied. Though I couldn't actually see that color, over the years I'd learned what shade of gray matched it. Smithson hadn't gotten used to his vision yet, so couldn't tell it had changed color.

Smithson blinked. "It was? Odd. In any case, she left it up to us to decide if it's dangerous."

We decided go forego the pendent for a while and back to our work with the Keystone.

And then I got curious.

During one of my midnight food runs I decided to divert myself from my normal run to the Mess Hall. I walked into the workroom where we kept the skull, the pendant, and the Keystone. I first went over to the padded box where we kept the skull. I carefully picked it up, and looked at it in the dim light of the magelight-lit room. An odd question crossed my mind. "To be, or not to be? That is the question..." I said aloud, quietly, with the vacant eye sockets of the skull facing me.

I shook myself out of the odd mood a bit, I walked over to the table where the Keystone and the Gem were sitting. I picked up a magnifying glass and the Gem to look at the glyphs. "You know, you're the only real non-stone artifact I have of the people you belonged to," I said to it. "And I wonder, what purposed did you serve this person in the box? Were you some kind of ornamentation? A symbol of rank? Or something with some other purpose?" My curiosity was growing by the second, to the point where it suddenly became unbearable.

Smithson always told me that the best way to get to know a culture is to dress like them. To fix in one's mind the way that culture thinks. There is no better way then to wear the clothing, almost like a costume. The only thing I had of the Teneds, however, was the Gem.

So I put it on, the clasp making an interesting "click".

I only felt a small tingle at first, centered where the Gem rested on my chest. Then a blinding flash emanated from the Gem! I only caught a glimpse of it's sudden color change to green before I was aware of the fact that the normal feeling of the weight of antlers on my head wasn't there anymore. I felt my ears start to turn backward in surprise, but that feeling quickly vanished. Because my ears had vanished, leaving only two holes behind my jaw.

But that was just the start.

The ends of my mouth were pulled backward, I felt my jaw joint pop and shift. The fur on my face was suddenly thinning out, vanishing completely in less then a quarter of a minute. The tingle changed to the feeling of crawling flesh. I looked at my hands. My hoof-like fingernails sharpened, my fur vanishing and being replaced with...

...replaced with the dark scales of some kind of lizard.

My now-naked tail suddenly went erect, and started to grow backward and thicken into a long reptilian tail that seemed as straight as an arrow shaft. My chest deepened a little and I started to lean forward to balance out the new mass. Sharp, blade-like carnivore teeth replaced the completely herbivorous ones I'd had for the last six years.

Once it was finished there, the change started to work on my hoofed feet. My toes suddenly were separate again, throwing me off balance. I fell forward and knocked my head on the stone examination table. The world went suddenly black.

I awoke to the feeling of a cold stone floor on a long, naked tail. I tried to move, and discovered myself chained at the wrists, ankles, and the tip of my tail. And when I tried to open my mouth, I found that I'd been muzzled, too.

Considering the sharp teeth I was feeling with my slightly forked tongue, I couldn't blame them. I opened my eyes to see Brian standing at a distance from me. On the other side of the room, in fact. Holding his short sword. He'd obviously seen me open my eyes. "He's awake" he said to someone else.

"Good," Came Jack's rumbling equine voice. "Now he can tell us who and what the hell he is. And then we might be able to have more luck getting that damn necklace off. Where the hell is Pascal, anyway?"

"Off in one of her deep experiments," Jack said from closer to me. I turned my head a bit, realizing I was actually seeing in color again. "I can't bother her when she's that deep into an experiment. I'm afraid if I do I'd blow up half the Keep."

Then I saw Smithson's haggard face looking at Jack out of the corner of my eye. "Any sign of Jon?" he asked.

"None at all..." Jack started.

It was then I decided to speak up. "MMMMMPH!" I said, the muzzle making it impossible to open my mouth. I started to struggle with the chains a bit. Which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. With no hint of fear, Brian walked over and placed the point of his sword at my neck. I stopped struggling. "Mmmph?" I blinked.

Brian paused. "Jack, can we unmuzzle him at least? I think he wants to talk."

"I don't want to do that until I've got some better magical protection in here. I mean, have you seen those claws on his feet?"

I then became acutely aware of what had happened to me, and managed to look down at them. I gasped, or tried to. For what I saw wasn't anything like the feet of even a dragon. I had four toes on each foot. Only the outer two of which would touch the ground, and the innermost one was a tiny claw that was nearly halfway up my ankle. But it was the remaining toe that had startled me.

It was a six-inch recurved claw that looked like some kind of natural slashing dagger. Nature's Breath, I thought to myself.

"I just wonder what happened to him..." Smithson said, referring to me. My hearing felt less sensitive than before. But then, I didn't have any external ears any more. I wanted to say "I'm right here!" to him, but the muzzle prevented it.

Magus arrived a moment later. He wasted no time, and I felt the feeling of a truth spell placed on me. The muzzle was removed. Magus's voice seemed to echo in my head. "Who are you?"

I was compelled to reply, even though I was going to tell the truth anyway, of course. "It's me, guys. Jon." My voice was a high, growling hiss.

Silence.

"He can't tell anything but the truth, Jack. You'd better let him go," Magus said, as surprised as everyone else.

The shackles were immediately undone, and I sat on the ground with my tail straight out behind me. In that moment what had happened to me hit full force, and I sat there staring around a long muzzle at my scaly hands. Then I realized what had done this to me, and tried to undo the clasp of the Gem. But I had inch-long claws on the ends of my long fingers, and I was clumsy. I let out a growl of frustration that startled me.

"That won't work, Jon. The clasp is magically sealed somehow. Maybe Magus can find a way to take it off. I take it this happened when you put this on?" Jack said.

"Yes," I said, wincing at my now-tenor voice. I began to worry if I could talk without biting my tongue. "Now I want it off, please."

"I'll do that, if you'll just keep yourself still," Magus said, smiling. He walked over behind me and held the Gem's clasp in his hands. He then made a frustrated sound. "I'm afraid I can't do anything about this, Jon."

"Why?!" I growled, turning to face him.

Fox backed up a few steps, looking very nervous. "Uh, well, it seems that the necklace was created with alchemical means. Something only Pascal should be messing with. I'm afraid if I did anything I might end up changing you into a toad."

"Great! That really makes my day, Magus!" I was angry all of a sudden. I wanted to use my claws on something... or someone. Magus backed up a few more steps. I only barely got a hold of my irrational anger. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me..."

"That's okay, Jon. You're a predator now, and you've never had those feelings before. Just don't let them get the better of you," Magus said.

Smithson, who'd been staring at me, walked over and held out his hand. "Can I help you off he floor, my son?"

I was a bit cold. I normally wore no clothing, and I no longer had fur. The bare stone floor was very chilly. I carefully reached out and grabbed his hand. He pulled... then he screamed. My claws had dug into his forearm. Brian rushed to help, using a first aid kit to stop the bleeding.

I watched this happen with a sense of detachment. "This must be some sort of nightmare..." I said quietly.

The response was a light step on the tip of my tail. I sprung to my feet immediately. I faced Jack, whose hoof had done the stepping. I found myself in some sort of defense posture, lips curled up to reveal my teeth.

Jack was unfazed. "It's not a nightmare, Jon."

"Then get Pascal over here! NOW!" I nearly yelled.

Jack still looked like he'd had a good night's rest. "You know I can't do that unless it's an emergency."

"You don't call that..." I gestured at Brian, who was bandaging Smithson's injured arm, "...an emergency?"

"You're simply not used to your form yet," the mule morph replied. "Pascal should be done with her experiment in a week or so. And you have patrol in the morning. But first, I want you to go talk with Copernicus and Saroth. I'm sure one of them might know what you are. You don't look like a normal lizard. Go see what they think and report back to me at weapons practice this afternoon. See ya later." With that, he left the room.

Brian finished bandaging Smithson's arm, and helped him up again. Looking resolute, my mentor walked towards me. I backed up. "Stand your ground, boy. I didn't teach you to back away from your problems. I'm sure you won't scratch me now."

I took his hand gingerly, and only for a moment. Then I let go and looked at myself more carefully. "I can't believe this!" I said to no one in particular. My reddish brown fur had been completely replaced by smooth grayish green scales, with a dark tiger-stripe pattern on my back. The scales were a lighter gray on my belly than on my back.

"You make a pretty good looking lizard, though. Very fierce," my mentor reassured. "But you don't seem cold-blooded..."

"Huh?"

Simithson shook his head. "Nothing. I'll let the experts figure you out."

"We might be able to find them in the Mess Hall," I said. I noted that my tail seemed to balance me out. "And I guess I can't spend all my time in here." Besides, I felt really hungry all of a sudden. And I couldn't help thinking just how delicious my mentor looked. "I'd better get something in this stomach. Fast."

The walk over to the Mess Hall was something I'd never forget. My feet made this odd "thump, click" sound when I walked. My tail swung behind me with each step, and I bobbed my head like a bird. People I otherwise knew were staring at me. I stuck out like a sore thumb even in a group like the Keepers.

I wasn't a lizard. I wasn't a dragon. What was I?

We arrived in the Mess Hall to a lot of silence. Lucky for me, Copernicus was in the Hall, sitting at his normal table. We walked over to him. "Who's this?" he asked.

"It's Jon," Smithson replied matter-of-factly. He then grabbed the Gem around my neck. "This thing did this." Smithson filled him in. "Any idea what he is?"

Copernicus got up from his meal and walked over to me. He then looked at me critically. "Well, you're not a lizard. You look like a lizard. But you're not. We'd better go find Saroth... If not him, then Cerulean. Do you breathe fire?"

"I haven't tried." And I really didn't want to. "I just want to be myself again."

"I told you there might be a risk in putting that on, Jon," Smithson said. "But come, let's get something to eat and then go find Saroth."

Food. I shuddered when I thought about it. I'd been an herbivore for six years. The thought of eating meat again made my stomach (or crop and gizzard, as Cope had) turn. But then I smelled the rarely cooked meat coming from the kitchen. My mouth was watering in spite of myself.

I walked over to the carnivore serving line and got a rather more heavily laden plate than I thought I would get. I was wolfing down the meat before I really knew what I was doing! But the scary thing was that I didn't stop myself until the plate was completely empty. I stifled a belch and leaned back in the chair that had a tail support. I felt really good, all of a sudden. And very sleepy. I was slipping away into sleep right there at the table before Cope shook me awake. "What?" I asked sleepily.

Copernicus looked at me critically, still touching my back. "You're definitely not a lizard. The only other one I've seen get sleepy like you have after eating is felines. And you're warmer than I am, too. Let's go and find Saroth."

"Now?" My tail was drooping in fatigue.

The climb up the winding staircase up to Saroth's tower wasn't fun. The stairs were around the outside, and my tail was so long that I couldn't face any direction but forward. Once I turned to say something to Cope and nearly pitched over the edge. I would've fallen, but Cope grabbed me by the tail and hauled me back up. To top it all off he didn't have the slightest idea what in the Seven Hells I was. Going back down the stairs was even more annoying than going up. I nearly fell down the stairs once when I turned too much and whapped my long tail against the wall. That hurt. The sound I made when it happened was some kind of high-pitched growl. When I reached the bottom of the stair, mumbling and growling my frustration, I found Bryan waiting. He smiled with his hood. "I wasss wondering if what I'd heard wass true, Jon. I guess so," he hissed.

I traced the contour of my saurian muzzle. "Ayup. And I have no idea how long I'm going to be stuck like this."

Now it was Bryan's turn to give me the once over. "Come with me. Maybe I can help. But if you'll look at yourself, your hips are nothing like Copernicus's. More like a bird's."

I checked the cast of shadow. "I'd love to, Bryan. But I have weapons practice. Maybe later."

Bryan hood-smirked. "I'll see you at the Mule tonight, then. And you look good in scales. Maybe you'll decide to keep them."

My tail seemed to twitch. "Perhaps. But not right now."

Weapons practice was a fruitless thing. With inch-long claws on my fingers it proved impossible for me to pull my bow without risking cutting the bowstring. I ended up throwing the bow on the ground in disgust. "That's it! I give up!"

"I don't think so, Jon," came Jack's voice from behind. "You may not be able to pull a bow, but I think you'll be good in a fight. I want you on patrol tomorrow in the Giantdowns with me and Team Six. If you're going to be stuck that way the rest of your life you might as well get used to it. And with those claws, I'd be surprised if any Lutin gets away whole."

I expected to feel slightly queasy at the thought of close-combat. The whole reason why I shot arrows in the first place was I had no close-combat skills beyond the Rut. But instead, the thought of battle made my blood boil with sudden excitement. "Do we have to wait until tomorrow?"

Quite clearly this wasn't the answer Jack had been expecting. His eyes widened, ears turned forward. He snorted and shrugged, smirking. "Perhaps we should just spend the time getting you used to that new form. I'll call one of the other lizardmorph weapons instructors and we'll see what you're capable of."

The next few hours were filled with testing out my abilities. I could do most everything they asked of me, surprisingly. So instead of a deer archer, I was now a lizard (or whatever) foot solider.

For dinner I sat with Bryan at his table. There were a few whole rats on the plate in front of him. Bryan hood-grinned. "Just a light snack."

The Gem's effect on my mind must have completely taken hold. Because the momentary queasiness that I'd felt in the morning was certainly not present this time. I had no memory of even taking my first bite. The next thing I knew was very sleepy with an empty plate in front of me. Bryan and some of the other carnivores at the table had a shocked look on their faces. I burped and glanced around the table. "What?"

Wanderer was smirking. "And I thought I wolfed down my food."

I blinked and shook my head. Bryan hadn't touched his plate. "I thought you were hungry."

"I think I can wait another couple days..."

I shrugged, my tail getting into it, too. "Sure. Whatever."

I decided that I wanted to go to bed, not knowing if I had the energy to make it that far. Lucky for me that Smithson showed up. "Can I help you back to your room, my boy?" He said with a smile. I nodded weakly, and held on to his shoulder while he led me back to my room. Once there, he tucked me in like he had when I was a boy.

Sleep was immediate, and deep.

By the next morning I had nearly forgotten that I'd ever been anything else. I awoke, yawned hugely, stretched out, and found myself in a pile of soft, shredded bedding material. I thought nothing of it. This was how my bed was supposed to look, after all. The morning's upcoming patrol held great battle potential. Although Lutins were too easy and stupid to make a real adversary, there was always the possibility of running into something more challenging.

A giant would be very refreshing, I reflected as I went to check on Smithson. "How are things coming?" I asked.

He was looking at the Keystone, making notations on a pad in front. "Just fine, Jon. You're looking better this morning," he said, looking up from his work.

"Why wouldn't I be different? There's a battle on the way! I'll join you just as soon as I can."

I went to the armory to pick up my light reptilian-style armor. It was a easily flexible and light iron-scale armor that didn't cover too much. I needed the lightness to be able to run and flex all my claws with the lightning quick speed that was how I did battle. The top of my tail was covered in standard leather armor that allowed complete freedom of movement. On the end of my tail a pair of blades was affixed in a horizontal position.

Any Lutin that tried to sneak up behind me would get a big surprise.

Jack was fixing me with one of those penetrating looks. "You feeling okay this morning?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

Bryan was slithering up behind me. "If you're ready, Jon. We'll go," he hissed. "We don't want the otherss to get too many Lutinss, do we?" Bryan looked positively vicious.

But then, so did I. "Of course not."

Jack was still looking at me, fingering his lower lip. Deep in thought. "Well, if you think you can handle it. But I still want two in the middle. I'll take point. There's only six of us in pairs, and there's been some increased activity in the area. So we need to be on double alert."

I nodded at the other three in our party. Kwanzaa was a shrew. She used a sabre with ease, and could easily cut out a Lutin's heart and show it to them before they died. Bender was the average wolf morph. His specialty was a bow and arrow. Lastly, there was Moorly. One of the many equines, but a small breed compared to most any of the others. He only came up to about my shoulder height in morphic form. His specialty was also the bow and arrow.

Jack looked at the five of us and shook his head. "We're short one archer this morning. So Jon, Bryan, I want you two to be between my team and Kwanzaa's."

Bryan and I nodded. That was funny. Jack was right in that the patrols were normally half archers and half infantry, but I didn't seem to recall ever having picked up a bow for six years. Ever since Nasoj's spell had changed me into whatever the hell I was (In six years nobody had figured it out), and found out that my claws would just cut the bowstring. I shrugged it aside. Jack must've drank too much at the Mule the night before.

We left the Keep, single file, for the land where Nasoj had come from.

It was a gloomy day in the Giantdowns. But then, it always was. Magic was present here in much greater concentration than most anywhere in the Midlands; the plant life was sometimes twisted into fantastic shapes that defied both description and explanation. No matter how many times I'd been this patrol route, I was once again left dumbfounded and amazed. What was most disturbing, however, was the complete lack of sound. Even the slight breeze moving through the twisted branches seemed reluctant to make even the smallest branch rustle.

Even Jack, one of the most seasoned veterans in the Keep, was wary of this place. It didn't matter how many times he'd been here. His long ears were always moving and alert. Every sense set to pick up anything that said that Lutins were in the area.

We were stretched out in a line: Jack and Bender, me and Bryan, Kwanzaa and Moorly. Bryan had taken one of the heat potions that Pascal prescribed for cold-blooded morphs to keep him active. I didn't need one, because though I looked like a lizard, I was more like a bird in that I generated my own heat.

The odd looks that the others had been giving me vanished as we went deeper into the woods. I was in my element, here. Stalking was a favorite sport of mine, and Lutins were my favorite prey. Not that I ate the beastly things, but they were at least a challenge compared to the deer I normally hunted.

Deer. Hunt. Why did those words disturb me? I stopped in my tracks, for the first time wondering what was going on. Why everybody seemed to be looking at me strangely. Why certain things had just felt wrong. Little things, like my hearing. It was like there was something missing that should be attached to the outside of my skull. Ears, of course. I had a sudden image of looking in a mirror, and seeing two large, floppy, movable ears on the sides of my skull.

But ears on a saurian? Absurd! Unless...

"Jon? Something wrong?" Bryan asked for the third time that hour.

Previously I'd always shook my head and answered "no, why would there be?" But the flash seeming memory made me look a bit deeper than before. What I found made my jaw hit the ground. I'd brought up the memory of first waking up in the library after Nasoj had thrown his spell, expecting to find the three-fingered, clawed hands that I knew should be there.

Instead I found myself looking at a black and white image of a pair of cloven forehooves.

That moment of incredible revelation that indeed something was wrong, when I was completely unprepared and unbalanced, was when the Lutins decided to attack.

I heard Bender's yelp of surprise first, followed by the sound of Kwanzaa and Moorly dashing through the underbrush towards where Jack and Bender were probably fighting for their lives. Bryan shook me out of it. "Com on, Jon! Let's put that new body of yours to good use!" He yelled.

Bryan's words hit me even harder than my own thoughts and memories. I was different! I should have antlers! I should have fur! I should...

"You should get your tail moving!" Bryan yelled from in front of me. "You have claws, get over here and use them!"

I almost shook my head. I didn't want to move. I suddenly didn't feel right! But then the scent of blood found it's way to my nostrils. My blood boiled and I felt a rage rise in me that could only belong to the form I was wearing. I dashed through the underbrush, all thoughts of confusion were put out of my mind. What mattered now was that my friends were in trouble.

Arriving on the scene I found that Jack had already slain at least four Lutins, but there were at least ten more where that came from. Kwanzaa was ripping into the attacking horde with a fury born of having to eat nearly half her weight in food a day just to keep her energy level up. Bender was up to his armpits in Lutins. Lutins with knives. He looked to be bleeding from several places on his arms, which was where the blood I'd smelled had come from. As soon as I saw Bender's predicament, I let out a battle cry such as had not been heard for four thousand years.

That sound made everything stop. Except me. The average Lutin has about as much intelligence as the average potted plant. They might be sentient, but one would be hard-pressed to really prove it. They were also cowards when confronted with something they didn't know.

It seemed they didn't know me.

My battle scream was topped by an incredible leap for the Lutin what was on top of Bender, about to make use of the roughly-made bronze knife that it had. My forward motion was enough that when my feet contacted the Lutin's back, we were swept off of Bender without hurting him very much. I knocked the wind out of him, but Jack was able to extricate himself from his own fight to protect Bender, who was out of breath.

Meanwhile, I learned how well my claws worked. I had a distinct impression that I was using them for the first time.

All the same, I was unstoppable!

I could twist and turn in incredible ways with my foot and hand claws. The sickle-claws on my feet gutted several Lutins with a single swipe! My tailblade worked incredibly well, making sure I was defended from behind. The horde turned to run once they finally realized what was happening to their comrades. But it was too late for them.

We regrouped, and came at the Lutins one last time. Their retreat turned into a rout. Not one Lutin would reach their home base. Not in one piece, at any rate. When it was all over, Jack decided that the day's patrol was successful, and decided that we should all go back to the Keep.

Battle had left me with such a sense of complete euphoria that I nearly forgot the little revelation that had occurred just before the run in with the Lutins. I was panting hard, tongue lolling over my sharp teeth. "I may not have had this form for long," I reflected, "but it's damned useful!"

Bryan was checking his fangs. "Didn't I tell you that you looked good in scales?" He hood-grinned. "You sure you want to change back, now?"

I actually gave it some thought. This body gave me certain advantages in battle. My close-in fighting skills as a deer were limited to pretty much nothing, except during the Rut. I also, as a necessity, turned and ran whenever things got too close. Like any prey animal, really.

So I had a choice. That is, if I ended up being able to remove this thing. Otherwise, though there seemed to be some element of the Gem that made me feel comfortable, there was still an innate sense of wrongness that haunted me. "I think I have to, Bryan."

He smirked in his own way. "I guess I can't fault you for that!"

It was a full week before we saw Pascal out of her lab. The week itself was horrid. Every day I woke up and remembered myself as being whatever the hell I was, and not as a deer. It took a lot of digging to bring up the memories repressed by the Gem.

Smithson and I spent the evenings trying to translate the engravings on the outer rim of the Gem's gold setting. When that proved futile (we'd only managed to translate a few more words from the Keystone), we opted to examine the skull that we'd found.

There were many similarities between us, actually. My skull was constructed to have several spaces in it. I could feel them with my fingers. We found that the beak of the skull had tiny teeth that seemed to be miniature versions of the ones in my jaw. I was also about fifty pounds lighter than in deer form. Brian examined me, and pronounced that my bones were hollow.

One night, after a full day of going through inventory and spending the rest of the night sitting on a barstool in the Mule, Smithson and I were once again talking about the skull, and how it related to myself. I was sitting in a stool with a tail support, sipping some kind of drink that Donnie had recommended. Our chitchat had actually turned to less relevant matters, when my mentor suddenly got a look of what could only be incredible epiphany on his face. "My boy, I think I've just figured out why you look like you do."

I put my drink down. "Oh?"

Smithson nodded, settling into a lecture tone. "Yes. It's very simple, you see. When have we ever found any weaponry associated with the Teneds? Don't answer, because I know what you'll say. We have therefore assumed that they were in intrinsically peaceful race.

"But just look at yourself, Jon. Look at the way your body is constructed. You're literally armed to the teeth! We've compared your skull to the Tened one we unearthed. There are many similarities, as we have found." He pointed at my sickle-claws. "We may perhaps find some sort of vestigial claws on their feet, once we dig up that skeleton."

By now we were surrounded by the others in the Mule. "So where does this line of reasoning take you?" came an ursine voice from the rear. I recognized the speaker as Christopher, the bear-morph teacher.

My goat-like mentor smiled. "Very simple, my friend. Jon here is what I could call a 'battle form'. We have found no weapons associated with the Teneds because they didn't need them! They changed themselves when they needed to fight! Perhaps Jon's current form represents some kind of ancestral form. But the fact remains, Jon here is well suited for battle. And not much else."

I downed the rest of my drink and considered it. "Well, Smithy, I guess that's one Tened mystery down, and who knows how many to go." I once more fingered the Gem.

By the end of that week, I was to the point where I was going to storm up to Pascal's lab and pound on her door. No matter if doing that might result in half the Keep transforming into a pile of rubble. I was about to go do that until I'd smelled the telltale whiff of smoke.

Pascal just stood there, looking at me. Or rather, the Gem hanging around my neck. She said nothing, merely staring at the Gem and it's setting. The Gem was still a bright, clear green. Pascal seemed to nod at this, and pulled me closer to get a better look. "Interesting..." she said.

I was doing my best to keep away from her zebra-striped quills. "Well? Can you do anything?"

She just nodded, and grabbed a hold of the setting the gem was in. She then gave the setting a little twist, and I heard a click.

The stone was red once more.

There was a sudden rushing sound, and I started to glow. I didn't have the presence of mind to really know what was happening to me this time. What I did feel was akin to being hit with a sledgehammer and having several parts knocked off of me.

But when I regained full consciousness, I was me again. Not human, certainly. But I had my deer tail, fur, hooves, and antlers back. I smiled and got back on my feet. "Well. Why didn't I think of that?"

Pascal smirked mysteriously. "You have your specialty, I have mine. If you need me again, just call."

I reached back to take the Gem off, but found that the clasp was still firmly closed. "Uh, Pascal, I seem to..."

"Not be able to take it off?" she finished for me. "That kind of amulet has been used for a long time, at least as long as that thing is. If you can't take it off, I'm sure that you won't be able to until you die. Don't think you'd care at that point, though. You're... um... stuck with it." She left the room.

I still held the Gem in my hoof-like hands. Smithson put his own hand on my shoulder. He smiled. "From what you told me, I can't see how that could be a bad thing."

Experimentally, I gave the setting a twist in the opposite direction. The stone turned green again, and I was once more enveloped in its transforming glow. Smithson let go as I resumed the saurian form I'd held for over a week. I turned it again, and resumed my now natural deer form. "Imagine that..."

"Think of it as a gift, Jon." My mentor said supportingly. "Perhaps we'll find more when we revisit the site in the spring."

"Maybe," I admitted, still fingering the Gem. "All I can do is live with it, I guess." I grinned just a little bit evilly. "And just perhaps I'll give us another weapon against those damned hordes of Lutins and Giants."

I heard Jack's voice from behind. "Damned right, Jon. Hoof or Claw, we need all the help we can get."

"Hoof and Claw", copyright Jon Sleeper