“A bath?” The fox asked.
The cheetah’s ears folded and he nodded, embarrassed.
Misha gently placed a hand on the feline’s shoulder, “Are you having money troubles again?” He asked softly, “How much do you need?”
“What? No!” Stealth exclaimed, red faced, “I just didn’t have any coin on me at the time, it was for Edmund, you see.” He cringed.
“Oh? What happened?” The Long asked, he didn’t know whether to be concerned or amused though he was very much confused.
Stealth looked back to the door then to the fox scout, “Promise you won’t tell?”
“Sure,” Misha shrugged as the cat buried his muzzle in the vulpine’s ear and began whispering. “Feed Herbert? Who’s Herbert?” The confused fox asked.
“Shush, listen,” Stealth said softly.
Misha nodded, “Oh? ...ah... hmmm, oh! Ack! Hehehehehe!”
“So I gave the bath-lady the extra coin.” He sighed and stood back.
“Because you tricked your best friend into being pounced by a putrid monster...” Misha said solemnly.
The feline nodded prompting the vulpine to break his cold countenance and laugh out loud.
“How much do I owe you?” Stealth asked bluntly, “On top of what I already owe...”
Misha waved his hand, “Nothing you can’t work off.” The fox sat down and pulled a bottle of wine from his draw, “I do have some things that need to be moved by someone agile and strong.” He explained and poured some red wine into a glass.
Stealth sat down and looked at the Long in discontent, “Someone who is a cheetah and a taur...”
He downed the glass and shook his head, “No actually, I was thinking of Padraic, but yes, a taur cheetah will do just fine!”
Stealth glared, “...Is this because of the ‘wittle fox’ remark?”
Misha laughed some more, “Relax, I do have things that need to be moved.” ‘And I have more imaginative ideas for revenge.’ He mused...
The feline stood up, “Well it will have to wait. There is something I need to take care of now.”
“Something? You mean a thing?” The fox asked and tail wagged.
Stealth blinked and ear flicked, “Aye, a thing. An adorable... thing. Would you like to meet him?”
“I’ll take a rain check.” His jovial mood faded suddenly, “I am interested in learning more about this creature...”
“You can’t do that from a book or even its owner, I must introduce you. He will like you.”
“You think so?” He chuckled, “Go take care of that. I’ll be waiting.” Misha put his foot paws up on the table and leaned back in his chair.
The cheetah softly snarled and closed the door. He should have tricked Misha into the task too, the cheetah would probably be pink for the rest of his life but it would be worth it.
The two worked with thick cloths over their muzzles. While Edmund was helpful it was Stealth who, equipped with the large shovel, did most of the work which involved shovelling copious amounts of excrement from the floor of the dungeon, most of it in considerable piles as large as him.
“Well that’s done for another week.” Stealth said through the cloth, “let’s get out of here.”
“Agreed.” The paladin said and left ahead of him.
By the time Stealth lumbered back up to the top there was some sort of ruckus at the front door. The solid oak structure rumbled on its hinges, the flower pots nearby trembled and threatened to fall to the floor.
Stealth’s ears folded and he scanned the room to find Edmund. The knight had already unsheathed his sword from its scabbard and pointed it at the troubling portal.
“Get behind me!” The paladin snarled and bared his fangs. His eyes dilated like an ally cat caught rummaging through scraps and his head fur stood taller then his ears.
Stealth quickly scurried behind him, of the two only Edmund was fully armed.
Suddenly the tremor ended and several seconds of silence followed. The door slowly creaked open revealing a stocky middle aged woman with a cane.
“Why didn’t someone open the door for me? Couldn’t you hear me knocking? I thought cats had good hearing!” She scolded and entered the foyer.
“Knock?” Stealth asked, looking over a shoulder.
The woman raised a hand and the trembling recommenced for a moment.
“Halt! Who goes there?” Edmund demanded.
“Who goes where? Who goes there!” She retorted and pointed the cane. “What are you doing in my home?”
“Milord Ithel, this is Sir Edmund Delacot.” Stealth said from over the paladin’s shoulder, easing Edmund’s sword arm down, “He’s been helping me take care of—”
“Herbert! I haven’t seen my dear Herbert in two weeks!” She exclaimed, “Have you been feeding him?”
“He has been well fed, madam.” Edmund said and bowed.
“And cleaned...” Stealth finished, walking out fully from behind his friend.
“I must see him!” She said insistently, “Give me the key! The Key!”
Stealth held it out frightfully as if the mage would maul him.
Ithel instantly ran to the lower door, stopped and turned around, “You sir are filthy! Haven’t you heard of a bath?”
Stealth’s eyes widened, “But—”
“But nothing! Go down to the bath, I don’t want to see you two unless you’re clean!” And with that she entered through the door and was gone.
The cheetah sighed and looked at Edmund, “And that is the mage.”
Edmund nodded, “Nice lady...”
“Well, let’s find this bath, I’ll look upstairs for the key. Let me know when you find anything resembling a bath that we can use.”
“I think this leads to the bath but the door is locked.” Edmund said. He stood before an ordinary looking door of timber built into a sandstone frame.
“I expected as much,” Stealth sighed and held up a chain with a plethora of keys and amulets that presumably had the purpose of unlocking things, “What makes you think this leads to a bath?”
“I can smell it, of course.” Edmund reminded.
The door eventually opened, it took a test of over a dozen different keys before the right one surfaced. The key itself had a fairly large and intricate handle and was made of bronze. Beyond the door the sandstone path continued and turned before descending down a short flight of stairs.
Once at the bottom, the two felines found a small room made from sandstone bricks with a shallow pool in the centre.
Stealth grinned and looked at Edmund, “Well, this is nicer then the last underground stone room.”
“Much nicer,” The paladin agreed, “The water looks warm and refreshing.”
His friend disrobed and stepped into the warm liquid, “It’s very warm!” He crouched down and lay back against the side, “I could fall asleep in here.” He murred.
“I though water didn’t agree with you anymore.” Edmund commented as he removed his tunic and slipped into the water. The bath was large enough for several people but still small enough that they had to be mindful of collision between their limbs.
“It usually doesn’t but when it feels this good the human wins out over the cat, or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time around Oberon.”
Edmund yawned, his digits stretching out. Each time his large lungs filled with air they propelled his lithe body up from the water and back down again, it was partially annoying but amusing too.
Stealth yawned loudly and slid further into the water. “What is it about a hot bath that’s so draining?”
Edmund’s eyes were now closed and he looked about ready to nod off. “It’s our metabolism.” He yawned, “It slows down in the warmth. When we’re cold it’s active and stimulates us to move about and warm up our bodies. People loose weight faster in cold weather.”
Stealth murred in response, “That’s... really... interesting.”
In a matter of minutes the two fell asleep.
Ithel left the dungeon beaming with pride. Her handsome pet was so lovely and she always loved it when she could show him off to visitors.
“Now where are those cats?” She mused, “That’s right,” She said, peering over to an open door in a sand stone archway. ‘They sure have been bathing a long time. Perhaps they need to restore their mana.’
The mage travelled down the length of the hallway and found a room with a pool. No cheetahs in sight.
“Oh no, they didn’t use THIS bath, did they? They must have disturbed my new- OWW!”
She spun about to find a cheetah gnawing on her leg.
“Oh, aye, they disturbed my experiment...” She said and picked up the CUB by the scruff.
The cheetah cub squeaked and flailed about as he was held aloft.
“Now where is the other? Ah!” No sooner had she spotted him, the second cub bolted past and ran up the stairs. A moment later, his friend leapt out of the mage’s arms and followed after.
Ithel gasped, she never closed the front door!!! With all the locked doors in her house she really should look into locking or at the very least keeping that door shut... Making a note of it, the mage ran to catch up, finding the felines in the hall, sniffing things. They began to scurry toward the open portal to the outside world until they were both scooped up in an arm. The mage kicked the door shut and then set the two back down.
“No!” She said, “Do not go out, stay inside!”
The cubs squeaked at her in the approximation of a juvenile pout.
“No! Bad! Stay inside! Now off to the living room with you two.”
One of them blinked and batted the other’s ear before scurrying off in the direction of the living room. His friend squeaked and followed. Were they playing tag?
‘So they retained their human minds... but the minds of children.’
Ithel pondered how to revert the cubs back into men. She’d need ingredients from the keep’s guild tower. She could revert them back into morphs but they’d need to be willing and perhaps even taught how to. The components to any potion would need time to be prepared so it would be best to handle that first, in the mean time full form cubs can’t be that much trouble, right?
Her musings ended with a jolt when a loud crash could be heard from the next room followed by a hiss and spit.
Ithel rushed into the room and found the two cubs attacking each other in the midst of a broken vase. One of them had rolled onto its back and looked up with bared fangs at his attacker who had pounced from far above and was now in the process of biting the sprawled cheetah cub.
“PUSS!” The mage shouted. Both cats immediately jumped to their paws and bolted to hide behind a couch.
Ithel sighed, she really needed to reach the keep and get those components as soon as possible. No doubt she’d have a lot to answer for. And how would she keep them occupied in the mean time? Perhaps...
The mage walked into the kitchen and promptly entered the meat locker. The whole room had spells cast on its walls to draw away warmth leaving a cold cell full of dead meat. She took a smaller chunk of meat from a hook, a chunk of beef, and spun it. Surprisingly the object continued to spin and even levitated, just above her open palm. As the meat rotated and hovered it began to sizzle and crackle.
“I hate having to do this.” She mumbled. Thawing meat fast like this always destroyed its flavour, leaving behind something that was just, more or less, edible. She’d never feed it to dear Herbert – only the best for him.
A sudden chirp brought the mage’s attention back to the cubs and she almost dropped the beef. Satisfied with the thawing, she placed the entire and still raw meat on a large plate on the bench top and returned to the living room.
Inside she found one cub again attacking the other, this time biting and tugging on the other’s tail.
“Stop that now!” She ordered loudly.
The cheetahs became fully attentive and stared at her, still in their stance of conflict.
“...Stealth, come forward.” She said – it was about time that the two be told apart.
Neither cat approached, they just stared.
“Stealth forward now or... or no muffins ever again for you.”
The one who had been tail biting quickly came scurrying up and sat on his haunches before the woman, looking up with wide eyes.
So the naughty one was Stealth. Now she can tell them apart. “Good, now follow me, kitties, lunchies!”
Like cubs to a mother, they both perked up and followed after. In the kitchen, Ithel approached the bench with the raw meat. She took the plate and turned to set it down but both the cheetahs were crowding her, sitting right on her feet and looking up with their cub-eyes.
“Back! Back before I fall over.”
They didn’t listen but just stood there and stared. Ithel sighed and craned her back to set the plate down on the floor. They immediately ran up to the plate and began chewing relentlessly, fighting over the meat in a series of muffled churrs and hisses.
Ithel nodded and left the kitchen, “Now behave until I get back.” Cane in hand, the mage left the house and started for the Keep. Hopefully the meal would keep them occupied for a time and afterward they’ll sleep it off with a nap.
Almost an hour later Ithel returned. The herbs were brewing in a flask carried in a saddle bag and the cheetahs’ friends had been informed. Ugh, her sweet Herbert wasn’t this much trouble. Ithel opened the door and paused for a moment from pain in her ribs. She entered and closed the door again – fortunately the cubs didn’t take the opportunity to escape.
The mage tentatively entered the living room and found it upside down. Curtains were pulled from their windows and books spilled from their shelves. Over in the corner the cubs stood motionless, oblivious to their own carnage and appeared almost catatonic.
“Kitties!” The woman called out.
One of them angled his ear slightly and ear flicked but otherwise remained fixed on whatever had caught their attention.
They both had their backs turned, shoulder to shoulder they stood and gazed at some unknown. The mage approached and tried to make out what they were looking at but she could see nothing. They were just standing there, staring at nothing.
The woman blinked and sniffed at the air. Coming to a corner of the room she could see something slightly concealed, on closer inspection it appeared to be...
“Oh! In the name of the gods!” She turned to the cubs that looked back with wide eyes, ignorant to the commotion.
“Do you realise what you’ve done? You’ve ruined my delicate magical balance!”
One of the cubs tilted his head and then started gnawing on the other’s ear.
As the terrible two pounced and gnawed each other, the mage sighed and looked for a dust pan.
After much careful preparation, the brew was ready. The easy bit was out of the way, now she had to apply it. The mage sighed and stepped down the stairs leading to the infamous bath. Before reaching it, she pressed a large and conspicuous stone in the wall. After a moment, a terrible grinding sounded through the hallway as the path before her began to slide away and into the wall on the left. The sandstone corridor completely parted into two parallel sliding halves with the gap in the middle growing smaller and smaller and then nothing but sliding stone remained.
From the right, a new gap emerged and expanded in size until a new path emerged. When the shift finished it looked as it did before with the path merely leading to a bath. The bath and the room looked identical to the one that disappeared into the walls. She had several bath rooms all built on a single spherical base that rotated clockwise, each accessed by the single corridor in turn. It was a great way to conceal the more... interesting experiments.
But this pool held nothing, not even water. She placed the flask on the stone floor and clapped her hands like a bolt of thunder. A large tap fashioned into the shape of a dragon churned and water gushed forth from it’s open muzzle. The woman clapped again and another dragon opposite release another gush from it’s muzzle, this one producing a large cloud of steam.
The mage uncorked the vile and poured the small, clear liquid into the midst of the two torrents allowing the churning surge of water to mix itself. Ithel left the room, the roaring of the dragons dimming and fading though still very audible.
“Kitties!” She called out, finding the two wrestling on the couch. “Who wants to chase a big, juicy rat?”
The felines ignored her, more interested in biting and gnawing on each other.
The mage sighed and looked about. One of her few undisturbed bookshelves had one particular shelf which contained several plush toys. She grabbed a fox plush by the tail.
“Look!” She shouted and flailed the stuffed toy about.
Stealth and Edmund paused in their fight, drawn to the moving thing. The human threw the object down the corridor. They continued to stare but did not follow.
She sighed and walked over to the couch, evading their sharp teeth as she picked them both up by the scruff. With the cubs in hand, Ithel returned to the bath, now full of hot water.
She set the pair down by the water and closed the door behind. They stood there staring at the liquid as if they’d never seen water before. After a brief glance, Stealth hissed and hid behind Ithel. Edmund continued to stare at the water and began to walk around the edge.
“Well come on you two, hop in. It’s time for a bath.”
Stealth bolted and scratched at the door, Edmund soon joined and they both tried to scratch their way free.
“It will make you grown ups.”
The cubs scratched more frantically.
The human picked them both up by the scruff again and threw them into the water. They instantly paddled back out and to the door, scratching at it again. Ithel more forcefully put them back in and intercepted their escape attempts, continually getting splashed more and more by the pair. Fortunately the potion only reversed the original spell and did not affect the age of those untouched...
They would need a good soak in the water for it to take affect but as soon as she got one in, the other would escape and run toward the door and handling both cubs together resulted in a lot of hand biting and paw kicking.
It took almost twenty minutes, in which time they didn’t tire or relent one whit, to get them sufficiently bathed in the counter potion. She wrapped them in towels and placed the two in the kitchen. The cheetahs shivered slightly and huddled up together for warmth as the mage searched through a draw.
“Who’s ready for a grooming?” She asked and held up a large metal comb.
Stealth looked at the comb with wide eyes before kicking frantically free of the towels and running to the door.
The mage chased him while Edmund just huddled up in the towel and watched in fascination.
By the time Ithel finished readjusting the objects in the room back to their magical relaying formation the cheetahs had curled up together into a ball and had a nap but a knock at the door soon woke them. The woman opened the front door to find another human woman though one younger then her. The woman had a tabard with a large cross emblazoned across the front. Behind her a carriage and two mounted riders waited.
“I am Lady Terrant Gattaway.” The knight bowed, “I am here to tend to my leader.” She said with a hint of anxiety.
A large fox like creature followed close behind the human, looking slightly troubled, “What has happened to Edmund? Please, I must see him!”
“Good! Follow me!” She said enthusiastically.
Terrant turned to the two riders and ordered them to keep watch before heading in with Bridgette in tow. The two women entered an odd looking room with all sorts of objects and furniture arranged in a peculiar way.
“Where are they?” The knight asked.
“Why—” Ithel began and looked to the bare patch which now only held some shed hairs. “Oh, I don’t suppose you closed the front door behind you?”
The maned wolf suddenly let out a loud yelp, looking over her shoulder Terrant could see a cheetah cub biting the woman’s tail! With a surprise she found another rubbing against her leg. The knight picked up the small animal and held it out in her arms.
“...Edmund?” Terrant asked in confusion.
The cub’s eyes narrowed and he began to purr.
“Edmund!” Bridgette said while wrestling with the other cub.
The two women swapped cheetahs just as Stealth bat the canine’s muzzle. When the naughty one found himself in the human’s hands he looked for something to bite, lacking a muzzle the woman’s long hair would have to suffice. The cub climbed over her shoulder and began tugging on the ponytail.
“Edmund...” The wolf whimpered.
“I’ve applied the counter potion to them,” the mage pointed out to quell the morph’s anguish, “the spell will ware off and they’ll be restored to their former selves.”
“When will they be back to normal-Oww.” Terrant asked as she fought with the other feline.
“By tomorrow, in that time you’ll need to look after them as best you can.”
The maned wolf nodded and hugged the little feline tight.
It was a long and tiering trip back to the keep. While Arluth and Roderick listened in and cringed, Terrant tried to focus on guiding the horse drawn carriage. The task of supervising the felines was left to the canine, Bridgette. The maned wolf barred herself in with the cubs and did her best to control them. When she failed utterly to do so she let them be while they tortured each other.
Bridgette sighed as she watched the cub, Edmund. When the keepers found her she was but an animal and a child. She was lead to a place that smelled of what she has come to know as incense. It was there the cheetah found her and took her in as his student, teaching her how to talk, how to read and how to live as a normal person, like she’d surely once been. Would she now need to teach him? Would she be teaching HIM everything he had taught HER?
The thought frightened her more and more as she watched him play like an animal and a child. The behaviour of the cheetahs confused her slightly; one moment they would be biting and pulling each other’s fur, the next they’d be grooming and nuzzling each other. At one point she asked through the window why they continually fought and then made up. Terrant explained it was only play fighting to hone their skills as hunters. Roderick – the only other feline among them at the time pondered to himself what it would mean if he had children, would they be as wild and fight all the time?
Terrant led the carriage into the stables. She had the doors closed and instructed Arluth to be ready at the door to the carriage just in case but Bridgette emerged with two napping felines held in her arms.
Bridgette looked up at the knight, eyes pleading, “What do I do?”
Terrant motioned for Arluth to take the cubs. The morph had no trouble doing so with his spindly and numerous limbs.
Bridgette reached out with a paw, almost like a mother loosing her child. Terrant held her by the shoulders, “He will be good as new, you’ll see.” Honestly, she had no idea but hid her angst well, “We all want them to get better, I’ll pray tonight in the chapel.”
Bridgette nodded and hugged Terrant for much needed comfort, “I just don’t want him to go through what happened to me.”
“He’ll be fine, you’ll see.” The knight said firmly and gave the wolf’s back a reassuring rub.
“But what do we do with them?” Arluth whispered, “We’re no baby sitters and should the men see him like this?!” He asked and motioned to one of the curled up cubs.
Terrant took a deep breath. With a start she realised she was in command and would be so until her leader regained his mature mind. The thought would be impacting enough on its own but under the circumstances...
“Sir?” Roderick asked.
“Cover them with a blanket and take them to Long House; I’ll ask Misha for help.”
Arluth cringed as he juggled the cheetahs, “Is it wise to get him involved in this?”
“Well you said we can’t let the men see him like this, and then there’s the Paladin order he belongs to... it was difficult enough for Edmund to retain his place in the order after the curse, what if they find out Eli’s warrior has been reduced, by more magic, to THAT.” She asked calmly and pointed to Edmund sleeping in two of the morph’s arms.
Arluth cringed again and nodded as he watched his leader fidgeting – the cub seemed to be having some sort of dream.
Terrant nodded meaningfully, “Besides, Misha considers Edmund and Stealth good friends and we do need his help.”
“CAN he help us?” Roderick asked, his tail slightly puffed up and swaying back and forth.
She shrugged, “The old fox is bound to have an idea hidden somewhere in his fluffy tail.”
Hidden within blankets the Paladin Knight, Sir Edmund Delacot was transported to the chambers of Misha Brightleaf. Under Sir Terrant’s orders the contents of the blankets were kept a secret until the fox scout arrived.
“Huh?” Misha asked as the follower knight explained the situation.
Misha looked at the bundle deposited on the table in the centre of his apartment. The fox jerked his head back as it began to move and twitch. After a moment a small and fluffy feline head popped out of the bundle, big round eyes staring at the vulpine.
“Ack!” Misha cried as the cub leaped forth from the confines of the blanket and latched onto his head. “Eee!” The fox flailed about before loosing balance and falling on his tail, the cheetah scurrying away, unharmed.
Caroline sighed and wiggled her webbed fingers at the energetic feline, “So who’s this?”
“I think that one is Stealth.” Terrant answered.
The cub had rolled onto his back, batting and biting at the wiggling things. Slowly another cub emerged from the bundle on the table, curious eyes scanning everything in the room.
“This is Edmund?” Misha asked, confused, as he looked at the quiet cat on the table.
The cheetah squeaked in response and licked the Long’s nose. Edmund jumped down from the table top and looked at Stealth flailing about on the floor. After a moment of contemplation the cub pounced the one rolling on the floor.
“Aren’t they adorable?” The otter asked as she watched them play.
“Hmm...” Misha answered as Caroline picked up Stealth by the scruff and held him in her arms.
The cheetah lay there, looking confused until the otter held him out to the fox. Upon doing so, Stealth began flailing about, swiping at Misha.
“Will our kids be like this, love?” The fox asked ashen as the cub bat at his muzzle and bit his whiskers.
“Were you like this when you were young?” Caroline asked.
“I hope not!” Misha answered. “Are they stuck in this form or what?”
Terrant shrugged, “They’re kids, they’re curious.”
Misha nodded as he restrained Stealth, the cheetah began clawing his way towards the Long’s bushy tail.
“Now boys, that’s enough. I want you two to shift, NOW.” Caroline ordered.
They both looked up at her with cub eyes and the otter responded with a cold and unrelenting glare. Heads down, the two shifted until they resembled humanoid children. She nodded and walked toward the door.
“Wait!” Misha called out, “Where are you going?”
Caroline turned around, “To get Lisa, silly, She HAS kids and can help, also she’ll hopefully have something they can wear.”
Before opening the door Caroline noticed Bridgette stood close by, the maned wolf glanced at the otter and gave a faint smile but otherwise turned back and remained unreadable.
When the otter returned to the room she had a child in tow. Lisa looked at the two anthro cheetah cubs and gasped – she’d been told but she didn’t believe it. Regardless, the AR had a number of hand-me-downs for them to try on – whether they belonged to her or her children Caroline didn’t know but they found a matching pair of clothes that fit. With newly fashioned tail holes, Edmund and Stealth were dressed in adorable overalls that were held together by large buttons.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea to let people know Edmund is a cub.” Terrant said, “Until they revert back I want everyone to stick to a story, let’s say... they’re orphans from a lutin or bandit attack in the outlying areas. We named them after our own, local cheetahs.”
Misha turned his head down and frowned, “I would believe that...”
“What do we do now?” Arluth asked. The two soldiers had been standing guard and had remained silent, along with Bridgette.
“We look after them as we would children, until they grow up.” Caroline pointed out.
A knock at the door startled them. Misha rushed to the door and opened it just enough to stick his muzzle out, “Yes?”
“Sir, you told me to give you a reminder.” A boy answered, looking up at him.
“Ah...” The fox blinked.
The scribe handed the fox scout a letter with his own seal on the envelope. Misha thanked the boy in confusion and closed the door, breaking the seal to read the letter.
“Hmmm, Ack!” The fox exclaimed. “We’re meeting Jenn and Andre for dinner tonight.”
Caroline nodded, “Thank the gods you remembered this time...”
“I have a bad memory but I always write lots of notes.” Misha countered. “But we must get ready.”
Terrant nodded, “I’ve delayed long enough here; I need to get back to the barracks and sort things in Edmund’s stead. You two,” She pointed to the soldiers, “Come with me, we don’t need an armed presence in Long House.”
Caroline grabbed Bridgette by the shoulder, “Why don’t you come with us to dinner? They’ll be fine here with Lisa, just forget your worries and enjoy a night out.”
“H-how can I?” She asked softly as she looked at the cub, Edmund.
“I think you need it.” Misha said.
The maned wolf took one last look at Edmund and sighed, allowing herself to be escorted out of the room by the otter to be dressed in something nice for the evening. The three soldiers followed, until only Misha, the cheetahs and the AR remained.
Misha prepared to get ready for his dinner date when he felt a sharp sting and yelped in pain.
Stealth had the vulpine’s tail in his hands and bit down hard on the middle of it. A second later Caroline returned, swinging the door open. When she found one of the felines happily gnawing on Misha’s tail the otter shook her head and closed it again.
Lisa wrestled Stealth free of her leader and brought him to stand next to Edmund. Without the need to crouch down the woman addressed the both of them, “How would you two like some cookies?”
“Chocolate cookies?” Edmund asked.
When the Long nodded the two of them perked up.
“But you must behave, okay?”
The cubs nodded vigorously.
“Now you two be good.” Misha said as he combed his head fur in the mirror.
“We will papa fox.” Stealth said and excitedly followed after Edmund as Lisa led them to the mess hall.
“Papa fox.” Misha repeated to himself as he stared into the mirror. The fox laughed and shook his head, heading to his wardrobe to retrieve a good tunic.
When the cubs entered Long Hall they stopped to gawk at the mammoth cavity. The kitchen was ahead of them at the short end of the hall, the armoury was on the wall to the left. Cookies forgotten for the time being, Stealth batted Edmund’s ear and ran off into the hall.
Edmund chirped and gave chase.
“Oh dear...” Lisa mumbled. The AR continued to the opposite hallway and called out to the two, “Hey you two! The... The floors are about to give way to a bottomless pit, you have to get to this arch in ten seconds!”
The cubs perked up. By this time they were clear to the other side of the hall but their ears picked up everything.
The cheetahs raced across the green carpet.
Stealth was in the lead!
Edmund overtook him...
At that moment they reached the arch, panting for breath.
“Good now lets—”
“Uh-uh!” Stealth said between breaths, “We’re not on the arch yet!”
The Long rolled her eyes, “Six, five, four, three, two, one... zero!”
The two instantly jumped on ‘one’ and landed in the corridor leading to the kitchen on ‘zero’. After landing on the stone path they giggled and ran back out into Long Hall.
“I’m falling down!!!” Stealth said and spun about, flailing his arms.
“The monster’s got you! Bottomless pit monster!” Edmund exclaimed and swung about an imaginary sword.
“Oh, gods...” Lisa groaned.
The AR eventually used her fine tuned-mother’s wit to coax them into the kitchens where she could keep a close eye on them. Diane was busy preparing trail rations when the cubs invaded her kitchen. The AR’d chef of the Long House kitchen scolded them for running about and told them to be careful or they’d hurt themselves. After a few minutes in which the cheetahs demanded their cookies and fought with ‘muffin monsters’ around the prep area one of the children did sustain an injury.
The chef lay sprawled on her back after slipping in spilled flour left by the cubs.
“Diane! Diane, I’m so sorry!” Lisa said as she rushed to the woman’s side.
Stealth and Edmund crowded the women, trying to help though just getting in the way.
“You two, get Jotham NOW!” Lisa ordered, “This isn’t a game, this is important.”
They both jumped to their feet and ran down the hall in search of the healer.
Jotham was in his room when the pair came running and jumping, crying out about a hurt ‘cookie-lady’. The GM had no idea who these children belonged to but she set the thought aside and retrieved the medical kit.
“Show me where!” The man said and blinked when less then a moment later they bolted down the hall.
The cubs ran left even though Long Hall and the hall leading to the kitchen were to the right but sure enough the left passage lead straight to the kitchens too. The entire hallway connecting Long Hall, the mess hall and the apartments was one infinite loop that lead in a straight line running both directions.
Once in the kitchen the cheetahs watched on in silence while the three humans murmured and grunted.
“I’ll take you to the infirmary, Lisa I need your help. Be gentle with her until we figure out the extent of the injury.”
Lisa nodded and the two of them carefully moved the injured woman to the infirmary. “You two!” She called out to the cubs, “go back to Misha’s room and wait there! Don’t touch anything, just have a nap and wait for me to return.”
“Yes Aunty Lisa.” Edmund said.
“Now don’t get into trouble!” She scolded.
Stealth made cub eyes at the departing Longs, “We won’t...”
After the cubs left Lisa pondered, “I think I’ve made a critical error.”
Several minutes later a small head poked up from behind a table. Stealth motioned to Edmund, “Coast is clear.” He whispered.
The Long Guards had somehow been tipped off to the cubs’ absence from Misha’s apartment and so they travelled Long House ever mindful of detection but they managed to remain one step ahead of the guards.
Edmund appeared from behind his friend and scurried over to a bench. “Yuck!” He said looking over the rations, “It’s full of grass and stuff.”
“Worms and snails?” Stealth asked and shivered.
“Nah, just gross stuff.” The cheetah ran over to a nearby passage.
The passage lead to many store rooms, Edmund entered the closest open room.
“Are there cookies in here?” Stealth asked, following behind.
“Big bags.” Edmund answered.
“I want cookies!”
“Let’s MAKE cookies then!”
“Yeah!” Stealth said in excitement and dragged a large bag of wheat while Edmund dragged a similar sized sack of flour.
Slowly, bit by bit, they brought forth eggs, milk and other things they assumed went in to cookies... all the while the Long Guards gave the room a cursory glance and never saw anything – seeing as the cubs were in the store rooms half the time and their scent was naturally weak; the guards knew they’d been in the kitchen earlier and pinned down the scent they’d detected to that.
After the ingredients were accumulated they set to work to put things together. Stealth beat a bag of sugar with a wooden spoon while Edmund carried over a bowl bigger then his head. The sugar bag suddenly burst open and spilled onto the floor.
“Sugar!” Stealth said and began eating pawfuls of the white crystals.
Edmund responded by placing the bowl on his friend’s head. Stealth walked about for a bit until he fell into the bag of flour. After flailing about he succeeded in removing the bowl and cut a gaping hole in the flour sack before throwing large amounts of it at the child-knight, most of which just fell everywhere else. Edmund opened his bag of wheat and threw grain. As they ran out of ingredients the cubs moved on to more imaginative and messier weapons.
“Now don’t you feel better?” Caroline soothingly asked the troubled canine.
Bridgette nodded though she didn’t do a convincing job of it.
“Don’t worry, Bridgette, Edmund will be back to his old self in no time and I’m sure Lisa is taking good care of him.”
As the well dressed party approached the door to Long House a concerned Long Guard ran up to them instead of waiting at his post, “Sir! You must come quickly!”
Bridgette’s ears folded and she gasped though Caroline tried to give her a comforting pat on the back.
“What’s wrong?!” The fox demanded.
“This way!” The AR answered.
The three morphs were lead quickly to the mess hall and gagged at the sight. The floors, walls and bench tops of Diane’s kitchen were covered in flour, milk, wheat, sugar, eggs, dried fruits, oats and several unidentifiable types of food.
“Where are they?!” Misha snarled, “Why wasn’t anyone watching them!?”
The child like guard cowered, “We... we can’t find them.” He said in a whisper.
“What do you mean you can’t find them?!!! I want a full search of Long House now!” The boy quickly scurried off. After he left Misha closed his eyes and sniffed at the air, “Damn, all I can smell is milk and eggs!”
Caroline grinned, “I think I know where they are.”
The otter turned and walked up to the nearest pantry, minding the mess she opened the doors. Inside were two cheetah cubs, covered in more or less everything just like the kitchen. The cubs looked up with wide frightful eyes and huddled together against the scary grownups.
“We were making cookies.” Edmund said.
Caroline rested her hands on her knees, kneeling down slightly to their level, “I will make you some cookies.”
“Can we help?” Stealth asked.
“No...” The otter began, “I have a much more important job for you.”
“A bath!” Misha said.
At the mention of cleanliness the cheetahs trembled in alarm and burst out of the cabinet, getting Caroline’s lovely dress dirty.
As the cubs disappeared down the hall, Carol turned slowly to face the fox, dress ruined, eyes glowering.
“Ah...” Misha said and scratched his head fur, “Oops!”
Seeing as they left a trail, it didn’t take long to find them... catching however was another story. The guards eventually took the cubs kicking and biting to the Long House Baths. Long House was completely self contained though it’s facilities were much smaller then those in the rest of the Keep. The bath was still larger then the infamous one in Ithel’s home however it meant the cubs had more room to evade the water.
As a river otter, Caroline made it her duty to handle them in the water and scrub them clean. And after what happened to her dress she was in no mood for their antics.
After a thorough grooming during which Stealth attempted to bite Caroline several times they were released though under tight scrutiny. Lisa arrived back, gently leading Diane. The chef had suffered no serious injury though she needed a night’s rest and was fortunately too tired to see the kitchen and the state it was in.
Caroline wished the AR a night of quiet rest before she headed to the mess hall to arrange it’s restoration. With the clean up underway the otter returned to Misha’s apartment. She entered the workshop, being sure not to let the children slip in past her but they were occupied with harassing Misha. Caroline gathered together some of her things that were stored next to the fox’s little figurines and then exited back to the main room.
“What are those, love?” The fox asked with an ear perked.
Caroline placed her bundle on the table, “They’re painting supplies, dear, remember?”
“Ah!” Misha recalled as he fought back the cheetahs who were trying to climb on him.
Stealth and Edmund happily finger painted away. Edmund drew pretty fields and plants, butterflies and woodland creatures. Stealth drew scenes of epic battle, stupendous fictional machines of warfare used with bloody results and a cheetah-monster destroying the keep, eating the people within.
While the table’s surface looked a bit messy from the paint and numerous paw prints, the cubs looked miraculously clean and tidy. Someone thankfully introduced the notion of a non-stick spell... the paint just went everywhere else.
Bridgette sat on the far side of the table, her expression somewhere between grief and trauma.
“Are you okay?” Caroline asked softly as she sat down next to the woman, two cups of tea in her hands.
“I was nothing.” The maned wolf answered, “Nothing but a blank sheet of parchment. Edmund taught me everything I know.” She rubbed her eyes, “Not just how to read, but everything. How to live, how to be happy. How I once would have been before... before.”
Caroline rubbed her back and nuzzled the canine’s ear. “He’s done a lot for you.”
“And now all that he is... all that he was...” Bridgette buried her muzzle in her arms, her ears sagged.
“He will be all better soon, you’ll see. There’s really no need to be so upset.” Caroline said sympathetically but in a firm tone.
“Isn’t there? I still haven’t regained my memories, the things I’ve done, the loved ones left behind, not the slightest image or feeling.” She mumbled into her arms, “So how do you know he isn’t gone forever?”
The otter forcibly pulled the wolf out of her slump, “Because this wasn’t done to him by a depraved, monstrous tyrant. It was just an average spell from a mage in the valley.”
Caroline turned slightly to see what the cubs were doing, Stealth was showing Misha the Keep-destruction scene, the fox was trying to make out the depiction and could see a horse man-thing yelling at the monster eating his Keep. Edmund busily put the finishing touches on his most recent work.
“Bridgette, I need you to trust me. Please promise me you’ll try not to worry. Have hope!”
The canine looked down at her hand and saw it clenched by that of the otter. Bridgette sighed and grasped the webbed digits with her other hand, “I’ll try... I will try my best.”
One of the cheetah cubs suddenly walked around the table, a painting in hand. They knew it to be Edmund, he timidly held out his painting to the wolf. Bridgette took it slowly and looked the image over. Though difficult to tell it looked to be a keeper in front of a castle. The fox person or whatever had a pink dress and a bow in her head fur as well as a flower in her hand.
“You’re a pretty lady.” Edmund said.
The maned wolf looked at the cub with gloomy eyes. She took the feline into a big hug like a mother holding her child.
She shed a tear.
Carol returned to the mess hall to retrieve dinner for the kids and check up on it’s state. When she returned after providing some re heated slices of beef to the cubs the kitchen looked almost spotless again, the Long Guards working tirelessly to restore it to working order.
“You know, it’s not our job to do this.” Alex reminded as she wiped her brow and set the mop aside for a moment.
“I know but we can’t hire a cleaner at this time of the night.” The otter said sympathetically.
The woman nodded, “Or a sitter?”
Caroline cringed and took the guard into a side room, “Keep this to yourself.” She whispered.
The woman nodded and a moment later gasped.
“Don’t worry, it’s only temporary... would you like to see him?” The Long whispered.
Alex shook her head, “It’s probably best not to. Anyway I’m on duty tonight... good luck.”
The otter mumbled and nodded. Now to those cookies.
Misha yelped in pain as he felt a sting running up his tail. He pried the cub free who remained attached to the tail with his hands, attempting to pull tufts of fur free.
“Nooo! I’ve been combing that all morning! Oww!” He cried, the cub getting in another bite of his tail. Misha picked up Stealth and sat him back down at the table. “Eat your dinner, my tail is not dinner!”
“Nya!” Stealth said and stuck his tongue out.
“And don’t use my tail to clean up spilled black current juice either.” The fox grumbled.
Edmund did his best to eat like a grown up and be neat but he had a poor grasp of the concept and got lots of beef and gravy everywhere. Stealth didn’t even try and was obviously having lots of fun, playing with the gravy as he had the paint half an hour ago.
Misha sighed and shook his head as he looked over all the mess on his table, “Why did I have to give them gravy?”
Misha looked around – the voice didn’t belong to either of the cheetahs.
Sitting on his haunches, Madog looked at Misha and the two cubs. The large, silver fox tilted his head and blinked.
“Metal fox!” Stealth exclaimed and ponced.
Misha sighed in relief and rubbed his sore tail.
Stealth and Edmund rolled about and giggled with Madog, the automation yipping in delight and wagging his tail.
“Madog, why don’t you take them for some exercise?” Caroline asked, emerging in the door way. The cookies were in the oven and baking.
“Can we play with the foxy in the halls?” Stealth asked as he rubbed the creature’s belly causing Madog to kick the ground with his hind leg.
“Yes!” The otter said, “Go play and run around.”
Stealth and Edmund laughed and shifted back to full form, kicking off the overalls. The two full form cheetahs ran around the fox, pouncing and batting. Madog crouched on his fore paws in a mischievous stance before leaping and bounding out of Long Hall, the cheetahs in hot pursuit.
“Do you think that will work?” Misha asked, still rubbing his sore tail.
“I hope so!” Caroline said and flopped in the seat next to him.
For over an hour the large fox and two little cheetahs ran up and down the halls of Metamor Keep until Madog promptly came to a complete halt.
“Bed time.” The automation said.
The cubs blinked and stared for a moment before squeaking loudly in protest.
Madog shook his head slowly, “Bed time now.” The fox walked up to Stealth and gently took the cub by the scruff in his maw, slowly walking back to Long Hall. Edmund sat there for a moment and pouted before following.
Misha was surprised and impressed when he saw the cub obediently deposited by the automation. “Good work Madog! How did you get Edmund to follow?”
Momentarily, Edmund approached and rubbed against Stealth and they both looked up at the fox with wide, cub eyes.
“They don’t like being separated.” Caroline said as she closed the door to Misha’s apartment behind her with her tail, a large flagon and a tray held out in her hands, “It’s time for a bedtime story, who wants milk and cookies?”
The cubs squeaked happily though Stealth promptly scurried underneath Misha’s legs and bit the tip of his tail again.
After shifting back, Stealth and Edmund were given woollen shirts made for an adult which covered them almost completely and kept them warm. Misha was wearing breeches but no shirt, Bridgette had long since changed out of the dress she’d borrowed from Caroline and was dressed in simple and light garments while Caroline wore a shirt that went down below her waist.
They sat next to the fire, Edmund in Bridgette’s lap, Stealth in Misha’s. While Edmund petted Madog, Stealth held Misha’s tail like a blankie, making the fox nervous.
The fox and maned wolf’s eyes began to sag, even Madog yawned but the cubs just sat up in rapt fascination, listening to story after story.
“...But the other house was not well kept, the garden was full of weeds, the windows were broken, the roof riddled with holes. Inside lived a mean, lazy fox and his spoilt brat little foxes...”
Misha ear drooped and tail sagged, “I don’t think I like this story.”
As the cheetahs sipped their milk and ate their cookies they occasionally made faces at the adults, “These taste like parchment!” Edmund whined.
“That’s because you’re carnivores.” Caroline said.
The cubs stared at her.
“It means you only eat meat.” The otter explained.
Stealth immediately turned and bit hard into Misha’s tail. Misha yelped and jumped to his foot paws. He let loose an impressive string of curses in several languages until Caroline put her hands around his muzzle and shut him up.
“Misha! Watch your language!”
“He said a naughty word!” Edmund shouted.
“Wow!” Stealth said. “He said a lot of them! Do it again!” Stealth demanded and bit the fox’s tail again.
Misha screamed louder and shouted even more naughty words. “Stop doing that!” Clutching his poor ravaged tail he headed to the door.
“Where’s papa fox going?” Stealth asked.
“To the naughty room!” Edmund answered.
“I’m going to the armoury!” Misha answered in a whimper, “Tail armour! I need tail armour!”
Caroline eventually put the felines to bed. They were placed in Misha’s bed but each time the grownups tried to sneak away one of the children would climb out and grab at their tails. Eventually Misha gave up and just sat down in front of the fire with Caroline and the cubs. Edmund curled up in Bridgette’s lap, Stealth slept in a ball in Misha’s fluffy tail.
“Good night, papa fox.” He said softly.
“Night, spots.” Misha said and pet the cub’s head fur.
Caroline smiled and kissed the vulpine on the cheek, “You’ll make a good father one day, Misha.”
Misha smiled tiredly, “if our children are anything like this I think my life expectancy as a father will only be one day.”
Stealth yawned loudly and stretched. The cheetah scratched his fur and rubbed his eyes. After a moment of musing the feline wondered where he was – this was not his room or his bed. Stepping out from the sheets he discovered he wore only a shirt and no pants. Okay, he had been sleeping anyway, but where are his pants. To add more confusion it looked as though the bed he awoke in had another occupant.
“...Ed?” He asked, confused.
The bed sheets ruffled and a short muzzle emerged, yawning. “Good morning, Stealth.” Edmund blinked and looked around.
“Don’t ask me.” Stealth shrugged to the paladin’s unasked question. He looked around a bit and found what he was looking for, “Hey Ed, catch.” He said and tossed a tunic with a cross emblazoned on it along with a pair of pants onto the cheetah’s form.
Edmund grunted from the sudden weight but quickly emerged from the bed and got properly dressed. Stealth did the same with his garments and noted they seemed to have been recently washed.
“Where are we?” The Paladin asked.
Stealth yawned and stretched again, “Not sure but I feel great! Like I slept for a hundred years.”
Edmund stretched and moved back and forth a bit on his foot paws, “I do feel well rested.”
“You smell that?” His friend asked.
“Anything in particular?” The knight asked and sniffed at the air.
“Smells like fox... and otter.” Stealth blinked, “We’re in Misha’s room.”
“Interesting.” The paladin mused and looked at the two figures on the far side of the room.
Close together, near a smouldering hearth, Misha and Caroline snoozed, their muzzles resting on one another. But on the other side of the table closer to them a maned wolf sat up, sleeping in a wooden chair.
“Bridgette?” Edmund asked softly and approached her, “Bridgette.” He repeated and stroked her muzzle.
“By the gods! Why is everyone exhausted? Was there a battle last night?” Stealth asked and scratched his head fur in confusion.
At the words the three sleeping occupants of the room began to stir. Bridgette blinked awake and looked wide eyed at the cheetah gazing back at her.
Edmund gasped as he was squeezed around the waist by the suddenly awake wolf.
“Don’t ever leave me again!” Bridgette said, arms trembling.
Edmund hugged the woman tightly, “I’ll never leave you.”
Bridgette fought back a sob and clenched him tight.
Later that morning Stealth sat on the floor in the sun beam. He idly stroked Madog’s neck, the automation having curled up next to him for some reason.
“Are you okay?” A voice asked.
The feline turned to his right and looked up to see an otter and a fox standing close by.
“What’s wrong with everyone?” Stealth asked, still feeling confused.
“You mean you don’t remember?” Caroline yawned.
The otter and fox were both dressed in bed linens though that was a step better then the state the cheetahs had found themselves in when they awoke.
Stealth clenched his eyes shut, his muzzle turning away, “No. No, please. Tell me that didn’t happen.”
“Oh, you do remember.” Misha groaned, “You did a good job tenderising my tail and—”
“No!” He yelled, “It happened again.” He whimpered, “It’s just like those times I went feral. No, how can this happen again.” Stealth huddled up more.
“You didn’t go ‘feral’ ...per se.” Caroline mused.
“I lost my mind again.” The feline whimpered, “It just keeps happening to me.”
Misha pulled Stealth to his feet and hugged the cheetah tight, “You got to be a child for a day. For a day you didn’t have a care in the world and you were full of energy to just play and enjoy life. How many people dream of such a thing? How much would they be willing to pay?”
“Is Diane all right?” He whimpered.
The fox nodded, “She’s fine. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for everything.”
“Stop it.” Edmund ordered as he approached. “You didn’t turn evil, no one died.”
“What are you doing here?” Stealth asked in confusion.
“I’ve seen to it my men know I haven’t died or vanished off the face of the earth, now I am seeing to you.” Edmund countered. “I was affected too.” He finished softly.
“It can always be worse.” The maned wolf added, “I had to relearn how to be an adult, a woman and a human!” Bridgette paused for a moment, “I thought my Edmund was gone forever but you both came back.”
“I... I’m sorry.” Stealth said and turned his head down.
The wolf kissed him on the forehead, “Don’t be sorry, be joyful.”
Stealth nodded meekly and remained silent.
Later that day Stealth prepared for his scheduled tasks and errands which for him were a relieving reintroduction to adulthood. Misha had been eager to have the cheetah pay off that bath tab with an odd twist to the errand, unfortunately for the Long it had to wait as Stealth was due in the archery range that afternoon followed by a patrol early the next morning.
Misha pouted of course, the fox having looked forward to taurifying the cheetah.
Stealth only had a scarce few minutes to spare before his practice session with the long bow but he needed to confront a matter of importance from the prior day.
“Misha.” The feline said.
“Forget it.” The fox answered again.
“But, I am. I’m really sorry.”
“Forget it.” The fox repeated.
“I’m sorry I bit your tail... several times.”
“I know! Just forget it.” Misha insisted. The fox turned to leave and then he suddenly stopped. The Long turned to face the cheetah and slowly backed away – keeping his tail hidden.
“I thought you said forget it.” The cat frowned.
“Well . . . ah,” the fox stuttered. “Sorry. Force of habit.”
The cheetah opened his mouth wide, fangs bared and snapped his muzzle shut in Misha’s direction.
Misha’s eyes widened momentarily and he stepped backwards out of the room. The door slammed shut with a solid thump! ...and then creaked open again slightly, the tip of his tail visible in the gap...
At the cry of pain from the vulpine the cheetah promptly hurried away in the opposite direction.