Hale was fuming. He was doing quite well; over the years he’d managed to hone fuming down to a fine art on a broad range of topics and could rant the hind leg of a donkey any day of the week. It was just too bad that constituted a public health hazard at Metamor. This time was different though, for the first time since he was six, and his mother had forced him to share a tart, he was furious at his sister.
“Who does she think she is telling me what to do?” he muttered to the silent forest. The first snows had fallen, and the only people foolish enough to travel so far from the keep were the scouts and those who distance didn’t matter that much. “Who was the one that always pulled her out of the fire? Me!”
In the solace of his own mind Hale liked to forget that most of those metaphorical fires had been started by him.
“And okay, so it was a mistake coming here,” he continued, picking his way through the undergrowth. “But we have options. I mean, what about an illusion amulet? Hmm I’ll have to check those—”
Hale paused and sniffed the air, then gagged. Lutins. Even without an animal half he could smell them, their stink washed through the wood along with. He sniffed again. Excrement? Hale sighed. So much for his relaxing walk, and set off at a run.
The battle sight was a shambles, a judging from the disembowelled lutin trying to crawl away, only a few minutes old. It was hard to tell which side had been the victors, corpses of keepers and monsters lay side by side, discarded weapons sunk into the blooded snow.
Unsheathing his knives Hale glanced around, tensing. He knew he should get out of there. Regardless of who won it meant danger was near and no one had ever reached old age running towards danger, but he hesitated. A keeper groaned and Hale winced. Great, now he’d never be able to live with himself if he left.
“Hey,” he said, kneeling down next to the blood soaked squirrel morph. She was in a bad way, even Hale could see that, a half dozen narrow cuts across her arms and torso looked bad, but a rent in her side was draining her lifeblood.
“Who...?” the squirrel murmured, cracking open blood encrusted eyes.
“Hush,” Hale replied, scanning around the clearing and went to rip a jerkin off one of the other dead keepers. Pressure, that was the key, he had to keep pressure on the wound. There was a load of other things, like getting a bloody healer as quick as you could, but the keep was at least four hours away on foot and help didn’t know they were there.
“Hey, hey,” he said again, as he returned and pushed the rag down on the squirrel’s wound. She whimpered in pain and her eyes began to glaze, not a good sign either.
“Stay with me,” Hale snapped, the ruins of the jerkin were already soaked through. “Come on, tell me your name.”
“Les—” She coughed, great splutters that brought forth another gout of blood from her side. “—ley. Ow.”
“Well Lesley,” Hale pressed. “It’s going to be alright.”
“I...” She glanced down at her ruined stomach and whimpered.
“You are going to be alright,” Hale promised. “I’m going to get help. Hold this tight.” He dragged her paws onto the rag and pressed her down, she winced again. “Do not let go. I’ll just be a minute.”
He rose, and snapped at the empty air. “Okay Keep, I don’t like you, and you don’t like me. But I’m sure you don’t want her to die so the infirmary if you please.”
He closed his eyes, noting just where he was and in an instant he was somewhere else. Teleporting into the keep was of course impossible, and was the third of such impossible locations Hale had been able to access much to the chagrin of whoever had set up the wards. Metamor though posed a particular challenge, as no room had ever been in the same place twice as far as Hale could make out, so he just focused on getting to his room and hoped for the best.
“How did you—” the racoon doctor began as Hale materialised in his infirmary.
“No time,” Hale snapped. “There’s a keeper bleeding to death in the forest, massive side wound and I don’t know how long she’ll last.”
“Right.” The racoon disappeared off for a moment, leaving Hale tapping his foot, and then returned with a large canvas bag. “Lead on.”
“I can’t take us both,” Hale sighed, dragging a map out of his inside pocket. “She’s just north of point four. Tell me what I need to do to stabilise her.”
“If it’s slowing, just hold a cloth on it and wait for the body to close. If not, use the alcohol and try and sew it up but—”
“Bandage if mild, sew if bad,” Hale completed, snatching the bag. “Got it.”
“And keep her conscious!” Coe yelled after him as Hale vanished.
Hale fought his way through the snow back to the squirrel’s side. “Lesley?” he said, kneeling next to her, dropping the bag. “Can you hear me?”
“Hurts,” she murmured, eyes screwed up against the pain. Her hand had dropped away from the wound and Hale pressed the rag back against her. It was so sodden with blood he didn’t know if it would make any difference.
“I know, but you’ve got to hold on,” Hale said, digging through the doctor’s bag one handed.
“I’m tired,” she sighed, looking away.
“Hey! Don’t go on me. Keep talking, tell me about yourself.” He pulled a bottle of rubbing alcohol from the bag and pulled the lid off with his teeth.
“I just want to sleep,” she said, closing her eyes.
“Well, this’ll wake you up,” Hale replied in lieu of a warning, and slopped half the bottle over the wound.
Lesley screamed, but at least she was awake and Hale got his first look at the horrible gash. It wasn’t good; Hale reckoned he could have fit his whole fist inside, and yet more blood was welling up. She couldn’t have had much left.
“Come on Lesley talk,” he barked, trying to find a needle and thread in the bag.
“I was... born in Mallen,” she gasped. “Three years of patrolling... Didn’t like any of the village boys... That’s why I went to the keep. Stupid reason now that I think about it.”
“It’s a very good reason in my book,” Hale replied, pulling out thread but no needle. “Keep going.”
“Never very good at training,” Lesley murmured. “Hated patrolling. Only thing I liked was William. Did he make it?”
Hale glanced round the battlefield. He had no way of knowing.
“Yes,” he said, giving up on the vanishing needle and tried to squeeze the wound close.
Lesley grabbed Hale’s free hand and gripped it with all her might, fixing Hale with a desperate gaze. “Tell him I’m sorry. I should have dodged.” Her grip faded and she lay back in the snow.
“Oh nonononono,” Hale said, snapping his fingers in front of her face. “Don’t go to sleep.” He slapped her, still no response. “Lesley! Come on.” He reached over and shook her by the shoulders. The girl let out a weak groan.
“You don’t have to talk, just listen,” Hale continued, not noticing the squirrel’s blood soaking into his leggings. “I mean, I’m quite an interesting person. I even met a king, several of them in fact. Backhanded one but that was okay because he was a slimy git and he deserved it. Come on!”
Lesley was still.
The solution was so simple Hale wondered why he’d never thought of it before. All he had to do was teleport back to the keep and bring her with him. Never mind that he’d never managed to take anything living with him before. Everything else was irrelevant and this time was different. This time really mattered.
There was a pop as Hale tried a test ‘port and he was on the other side of the clearing alone. Then he was back at Lesley’s side and tried again, and again, and again until he lost track of just how many times he’d faced nothingness.
He almost wept in joy when at long last she came with him and with a flicker they leapt back to the keep.
Hale stood up and looked around. They were in a little courtyard garden. Birds were singing and the snow was but a hint on the grass. Where the infirmary was he had no idea.
“What are you doing you blasted pile of bricks and mortar!” Hale roared at the empty air. “She needs a doctor, not flowers.”
He knelt back down. “Lesley?” he asked, grasping her arm. She was cold, but that didn’t stop him trying to shake her away.
“What the... ” Coe said, arriving in the cloister. “Oh.”
“Come on, wake up,” Hale pressed.
“Young man,” Coe said, and reached out to touch the squirrel’s neck. “She’s dead. I’m sorry.”
Hale swore to himself, stepping back, clenching and unclenching his fists, his breathing fast and ragged. Of course. He couldn't take anything living.
"Damn," Hale muttered.
“How did you know her?” Coe said after a moment, as Hale struggled to calm down.
“I didn’t,” Hale replied. Then vanished.
The room Hale and Krissy shared was a small one, and tended to be further from anywhere else than it had any right to be. Krissy presumed this was just to annoy Hale, though had been surprised that it wasn't the guy assigning the quarters that was to blame but the building itself. It seemed to like her though, or at least took pity on Kristin, as within a few dozen yards of corridor she found herself at her front door.
Good thing too as after the bandit raid, the rush back to town to save Jan, and, of course, another long match through the snow with a caravan, all Krissy wanted to do was curl into a ball and sleep for the next week. She ducked to get through the door and ignored Hale sitting on his bed for a moment, but that was okay because he didn't react to her either, just stayed sitting cross legged, staring into space.
"Look," Krissy began, then stopped and grumbled to herself, slipping off her sword and hanging it on a hook on the back of the door.
"I know you're-" She stopped again. Still not right.
There was blood on her hands, and not the metaphorical kind. Krissy had tried rinsing, scrubbing and even succumbed to using soap but she had a lot of fur. Tiger stripes covered it up pretty well though.
Krissy shrugged off the remnants of her armour and dropped boneless to the ground in front of the fire. Who cared if that's just what the animal half of her would do, it was comfortable, and after so long in the cold a welcome relief.
The fire crackled, ignorant of the stony silence stretching between the room's occupants. Krissy broke first.
"I killed a man two days ago," she said, staring into the flames.
Whatever Hale had been expecting it wasn't that. "What?" he exclaimed, leaping to his feet. "Who, where, when?"
"He's dead Hale, he's not coming after us," Krissy rumbled, rolling onto her stomach and loosing a bit more humanity as she flowed into a more comfortable shape.
"Okay then, why?" Hale snapped. "I mean, who was after you?"
"No one was after me," Krissy sighed. "They were bandits, I was escorting a caravan. Two and two make four."
"But..." Hale protested, his world view spinning. "You won?" That wasn't right. Without him Krissy was supposed to be vulnerable. He was her protector. That was what he promised.
"Yeah," Krissy replied, not noticing the mental turmoil going on beside her. "No need to sound so surprised. It was just a quick whack to the side of the head with Bloodfall and it was over."
"Bloodfall?" Hale inquired. "Your sword."
"Yep, and you can see where I did it, the bastard wont wash clean." She snarled at the sword which, not to anyone's surprise, didn't react. The handle still appeared to be soaked in blood though Krissy knew it was just boasting.
Okay, that was something Hale could deal with, and trying not to look too eager to reach solid ground he grabbed the sword from its scabbard.
"Ow!" he exclaimed as he cut his finger and dropped the weapon.
"Oh just ignore it, he can't do anything serious," Krissy sighed, stretching.
"You know you shouldn't let magic items get away with murder like that," Hale continued, picking up the sword with a bit more caution and a moment later realised what he'd said as the big cat tensed.
"Sorry," he amended, and sat back down on his bed, sword laid across his knees. "Want me to take a look at this?" he inquired. "Make sure it doesn't have any nasty curses on ow!"
Hale sucked at another gash and Krissy huffed, the closest she could get to a laugh in that form.
"Bloodfall, behave," she chided, rolling her eyes.
"I don't think it's that complex," Hale said after a moment, opening his mage sight and staring into space as his hands ran down the length of the blade. "Let's see, it's not the most intricate working ever. Spelled to stay sharp, not to snare in things, there's one here just to make it look creepy... Ah here we go. It's linked to you and that spells got knotted up with all the others, probably why it seems to have a bit of personality."
"A link?" Krissy inquired. "That's not good is it?"
"Depends why it's linked really," Hale admitted, pressing down on the hilt as he tried to unpick the mass of weavings. "Oh cool. That's pretty useful actually."
"What's use-" Hale swung the sword in a short overhand blow and Krissy's eyes widened just as the blade rapped her across the nose.
"Argh, Hale!" she protested, leaping to her feet and clutching at her muzzle. "What the hell are you..." She petered out as she took a paw from her face and found it clean of blood. "Okay," she said, frowning as she realised that she was uninjured. "What the hell?"
"It doesn't cut its owner," Hale explained, handing Bloodfall back to Krissy. "Nice, no?"
Krissy sighed. "Great, that means it's valuable. Now I'm going to have to learn a new sword."
"It's not that special," Hale said, shrugging. "And they did give it to you to use anyway. Besides half the swords in the keep are enchanted and some much better than that hack joargh!"
Hale leapt back as the sword leapt from Krissy's grip and took a thin slice out of his hand.
"Bastard piece of scrap metal!" Hale exclaimed, clutching his hand as Krissy grabbed the sword out of mid air.
"I don't think he likes you," Krissy said, rolling her eyes and went to put Bloodfall back in its scabbard.
"Who, me or the sword?" Hale snapped.
"Works either way," she replied, and sighed again. "So there weren't any mind control spells on him?"
Hale shrugged. "Sorry. It may have been a little eager, but whatever you did was all you. Sorry."
Krissy sank onto her own bed and let out a sad rumble and Hale went to sit next to her.
"Look," he began, after watching Krissy absentmindedly toying with the fur on her arm for too long. "I've been there. The first guy I killed so had it coming, but even so I couldn't look at myself for a week."
Hale reached up and draped an arm round his sister's shoulders; he could only just reach, and for a moment entertained the notion of scratching her between the ears. His survival instincts stopped him. Humanity hadn't survived by cuddling up to predators.
"I just want to say what you feel is normal," he continued as Krissy remained as unresponsive as a rock. "Everyone feels guilty when they kill someone, even if they didn't have a choice. You just have too-"
"I'm not guilty," Krissy interrupted. "Well, I am, but not because I killed him. We both went into that fight knowing one of us would die. We were both good fighters. We both wanted to be the one standing at the end. There was no other way it was going to end."
"Sounds like you're having a better time than my first then," Hale admitted.
"Who was the first person?" Krissy asked, taking Hale by surprise.
"Lordling," Hale muttered after a long moment.
"Ah, well that explains why we left home in such a rush," Krissy sighed. "Remind me of that when we go..." She looked back down at her paws. "Back. Bugger."
"Look," Hale said, trying to distract her. "If you say you don't feel guilty that's great and if you had a nice honourable fight to appease your conscience that's even better. The nobles talk a load of crap about fair fights but I hear they're good for letting you sleep at night."
"I just can't stop feeling that it's not right that I'm fine with this," Krissy sighed. "And on the other hand I keep wondering if I'm fine with it because I'm a predator now."
"You thought humans weren't predators?" Hale inquired, and was the picture of innocence when Krissy shot him a nasty look. "On a more serious note, it sounds like you're feeling guilty about not feeling guilty about killing someone."
"No," she protested, then thought about that for a moment. "Maybe. I don't know. I never expected to grow up to be a half tiger monster."
"If you had, I would be worried," Hale admitted, and Krissy gave him a playful punch that sent him sprawling.
"Anyway," he continued, when he'd dusted himself off. "I've only got the advice that Dad gave to me after my first kill. 'I'm glad that you lived'."
Krissy huffed again. "Yep, that sounds like Dad."
"Well the old guy knows his stuff," Hale said, shrugging and they descended into an uneasy silence.
"I miss them," Krissy said, sighing.
There was a sudden knock on the door and both of them jumped.
"Hale Ridgeway?" a currier enquired, letting herself in. "I have a summons from the Duke."
"What?" the man and tiger exclaimed.
"He requests your presence," she elaborated. "With all speed if you can, he is a busy man." And with that the currier left.
"Oh Haley, what did you do this time?" Krissy sighed, dropping her head into her hands.
"Tried to save someone's life," Hale admitted, not meeting her eye, and Krissy looked up in surprise. That was new. Hale's usual pattern was showing off, or being light fingered, or punching people in the back of the head. It depended on which one he got the opportunity to do first.
"Did you manage-?" she began.
"No," Hale snapped.
"Okay, how bad a reveal was it?" Krissy pressed, gripping the bridge of her nose. A task made much easier these days.
Hale sighed. "I leapt leagues in a single bound. Then I did it a couple more times. Then I transported a dead body back here."
"Why?" Kristin groaned.
"Tied to save someone's life," he echoed. "I'm not very good at it."
"Me neither," Krissy sighed, and stood. "Okay, I'll get packing. Maybe this guy hasn't already alerted the guards.
"No," Hale murmured, and Krissy froze mid step.
"Hale, last time you did something this big we had the King's Own regiment after us," Krissy replied.
"We can't run," Hale said in a deadpan tone. "We gave up that option when we stayed in this bloody valley."
"Look Hale," Krissy said, grabbing her sister, now brother, by the shoulders. "I said that when we could still hide. Let's go, before they close the gates."
"No, I need to do something," he murmured, pushing her away and standing. "Let's see what this guy wants."
The Duke's study was down the hall and on the left and the keep seemed to be in a bit of a hurry as within three turns they came across the Duke's guards. After a brief exchange where Krissy handed over her great sword and Hale handed over the more obvious of his weapons then we let inside.
"Hale Ridgeway isn't it?" the Duke inquired from his seat behind an old oak desk, pilled high with books and scrolls. "And Kristin Ridgeway, I hear you're to be commended on you defence of our caravan. Do take a seat."
Hale rolled his eyes, snorted and slouched into one of the low chairs in front of the desk. Krissy followed, curtsying as she approached, and took a much more reserved posture.
"Thank you sir," she murmured.
"You are most welcome," he continued, smiling. It was quite a large smile, but that was too be expected from a horse morph. "Now, Hale," he began, rounding on the boy who did his best not to scowl. "You didn't tell us you were a mage."
"I am not a mage," Hale snapped. Krissy slapped herself on the forehead as the Duke frowned. That did not bode well.
"Sorry," Hale amended, not looking it. "Touched a nerve."
"Well, did you or did you not teleport the body of scout Lesley back to the keep?"
Hale's eye's flickered for a moment before he locked down on his guarded scowl. "Yes I did," he muttered. "And in answer to the next battery of questions. No, I have no idea how I do it. No, I can not transport people, though blasted corpses seem to be fine. And no, I am not willing to undergo six months of very learned men pouring over my aura for the faintest hit as to why I can ignore wards."
There was a long pause, and Krissy glanced over her shoulder to see the two guards had taken a couple of steps forwards during Hale's tirade. She didn't blame them.
"You've done this before," the Duke observed.
"Enough that we usually just skip this stage and start running," Krissy sighed.
"You have a pattern?" he asked, surprised.
"I think we've pissed off every land owner on the continent," Krissy admitted. "Well, by proxy at least."
"Yeah, and if they couldn't figure me out, what chance does this backwater have?" Hale snapped.
There was a half second's pause while everyone realised what he'd just said and Krissy groaned. Well, it was better than last time Hale had tried to negotiate with a noble. He'd managed to stay respectful for over ten seconds this time.
"I wonder why you haven't left yet," the Duke mused.
"Your curse is quite an effective trap," Hale admitted, leaning back in his chair. Krissy sighed again. Now he was just trying to get a rise.
"Well, if you won't let us examine you, will you at least let us use your power?" the stallion pressed. "I'm sure George could use someone who can travel instantly."
"I already have a job," Hale shot back.
"No, you don't," the Duke corrected. "You in fact don't do anything around here. So I'm ordering you to report to the master of scouts."
"Take the deal, take the deal," Krissy thought to herself, hoping that maybe Hale would read her thoughts or come to his senses. Neither looked likely.
"On whose authority?" Hale said, leaning on the desk and grinning.
A mailed glove landed hard on his shoulder but Hale didn't even flinch.
"These are my lands," the Duke warned. "The authority is mine."
"The stick's only impressive if yours is bigger," Hale explained, and flickered. A moment later he was leaning on the door as casual as man waiting for a stagecoach. "Are you quite sure about that?"
"Hale!" Kristin roared, holding out an arm as the startled boy popped out of existence and she snatched his arm, dragging him close, as he re-materialised right beside her. "We. Have. Nowhere. To. Run."
Hale's jaw worked in silent fury as he faced down his sister.
"You are getting the same treatment any resident of the keep would receive in this situation," the Duke interjected, having calmed down somewhat.
"Then treat me as I deserve," Hale shot back, and left the tiger clasping at nothing but air. Kristin swore.
"The arrogance of that man," the Duke murmured, as Krissy slumped.
"Okay guys, I'll come quietly," she sighed, holding out her wrists for the manacles.
"Part of the pattern again?" the Duke asked, as none of the guards made a move. "What happens next?"
"I get arrested, get held under custody in various conditions," she explained, listing off the steps on her fingers. "Hale figures out a way in, cuts a bloody swathe through the guards and we escape into the moonlight, possibly starting a fire on our way if things go badly."
"Well we don't want that to happen," he said waving the guards away. "Come sit, I'll order us some tea."
Somewhat bemused Krissy sat and waited in silence while a servant brought in a tea set and poured each of them a cup.
"So," the Duke began, sipping at his drink. "Do you think your brother will see reason?"
"He's already reached his version of reason," Krissy sighed. "But he'll make a deal. He won't abandon me."
"Hey," the tiger snapped. "She's been looking out for me since before I was born, from village bullies to emperors."
"No offence implied I'm sure," he said. "But it occurs to me, that if Hale has been protecting you for that long then he had to have been using that power of his for the same length of time."
Krissy frowned at him. "Sharp," she muttered, taking a cup in an oversized paw and sipping.
"You don't last long as a noble without being observant," he replied.
"I've met a few that would argue different," Krissy sighed. "But yeah, Hale's being popping around since he was about four."
"That makes it inherent then," the Duke mused.
"He was born with it," he explained. "He's not just learned a spell. Which really just raises further questions."
"Dad was an adventurer," Kirssy began after a long moment. They needed the trust, and spilling the beans would buy them at least some, she hoped. "A good one too because he actually retired. And he was a real sword and sorcery hero, reckons he got hit by more magic in his career than a high wizard, so it had a bit of a side effect when he finally had kids."
"Which gave rise to Hale, correct?"
"Yep, and then you get a kid who doesn't even realise the world may hurt her," Krissy muttered, chewing her lip. "Of course, the fact that it actually doesn't just adds insult to injury. Sorry, I'm kind of whittering on aren't I?"
"It's no problem," he replied, finishing his tea. "I've just got a few more questions if I might."
"Eh, your interrogation method beats the last Duke I met." She hid a shudder with a hasty shrug. That guy's method of getting people to do what he wanted was beating up defenceless girls. Well, he'd thought they were defenceless. "Ask away."
"What can you do?" he pressed, and let loose a toothy grin as Krissy blanched. "I didn't think Hale would be the only one to get something strange."
"I, make magic break," Krissy admitted, then glanced down at her paws. "Some magic break."
"Not a clue," she sighed. "The local hedgewitch managed to turn every sheep in the village green when she tried to cast a fever cure on me, and I defeated the Mad Mage of Migglesworth by accident. Just, don't try magic on me. I'm a danger to myself and everyone around me."
"Noted," he replied.
Krissy hoped he'd take her seriously. She didn't need another thousand or so people caught in a sorcerous wildfire on her conscience.
"One last question then. Do you want to stay at Metamor?"
"Honest answer?" Krissy inquired.
"I'd prefer it," the Duke admitted, leaning back in his chair.
"No," she replied, crossing her arms. "I'd leave in a minute if it wasn't for the curse. But unless something comes along to change that, I'm stuck." She rumbled in annoyance, ignoring the guards who took a step closer. "Now, do you need anything else?"
"No that should be all," the Duke replied, smiling despite the large predator sitting opposite him. "Now if you don’t mind, I have another engagement."
"No problem," Krissy said, standing and rolling her shoulders. "I'd better find Hale before he does anything rash."
"We wouldn't want that," the Duke agreed. "Thank you for your time."
"Thank you for listening," Krissy said, and left.
"Hmm, I think we may need to keep an eye on them," the Duke murmured, after the door had been shut, then went back to approving requisition forms.