Playing with Fire

by Phil Geusz

I like sitting around the Deaf Mule of an evening sometimes, drinking watered ale and watching Copernicus win at darts. Metamor Keep is rarely a grim place, but my duties tend to focus on the dark and ugly side of things. So I come to share a joke with Donnie, or make puns with Thomas. It keeps me sane. Sort of.

It was inevitable that Michael would eventually wander in, and stare like all newcomers do. He'd seen me before in passing, but had never gotten a chance for a good look. The one Writer's Guild meeting he'd attended was one I'd missed due to pressing business, so my fellow Court Writers had been unable to make introductions. I pretended not to notice him at first, so as to let him take in the spectacle of a hundred-pound blue-eyed white rabbit carefully balancing a mug betwixt his forepaws. Then, after he'd had enough time to get over gaping, I waved him over. The poor kid was Changing, after all, and didn't know what was happening to his own body. For tonight at least, I could give up my relaxation time and show a little compassion...

Moving slowly and carefully, he sat down across the table from me, and inwardly I sighed. Someone had already warned him not to startle the rabbit, to please be kind to the bunny, and Michael was overdoing it. "How's it going, kid?" I asked.

"A-Alright, I guess," He was stammering a bit, not quite knowing what it was and wasn't OK to say to someone with my particular affliction. This was going to take some work.

"Know what kind of fur it is yet?" I asked.

He just shook his head in reply, and looked like he wanted to be elsewhere. I understood.

"Afraid it'll be as bad as mine, huh? Not a lion, or a dog or a tiger or a dragote. Just a dumb bunny?"

The boy blushed, and shuffled in his seat. He was ashamed at what he had been thinking, and even more that I had guessed it.

"Son, Changing has been very hard on just about all of us. That fur growing on the back of your neck is no joke. It's real, and it's your future. You COULD be a bunny you know. Or a mouse. Or a mole. Or even something worse, whatever that might be. You need to think about it."

Michael just sat quietly for a very long time before speaking. "Phil. How did it happen? What's it like?"

I bowed my head for a moment. I had known this was coming, even angled the conversation towards it, feeling that the boy needed to hear it. But it was still not easy to tell.

"Michael, would you believe that I used to burn thinking beings alive for a living?"

His face showed his horror.

"It's true. As a boy I was apprenticed to the keeper of a very arcane art, that of making Greek Fire. You've heard of it?"

He nodded, still dumbstruck. Greek Fire has a NASTY reputation.

"Normally it's used at sea, and whichever side has it pretty much wins. We who control the Fire keep our numbers small, the secret utterly safe, and the price for our services very high. Working with the stuff is dangerous, but in a few years a man like me can become wealthy. Burning people alive."

"Anyway, on my travels I heard the story of Metamor Keep, and how it kept the evil out of our part of the world. I was doing quite well burning fleets, but this place caught my imagination. What a place, I thought, to finish out my career! The only place there was that could afford to use my services on land! I even cut Thomas a deal, taking less than my usual rate for a long term contract. You see, even back then I was fond of the Mule. Wasn't I Donnie?"

He waved a hooflike hand and smiled.

"Anyway, I had only been here a short time when the alarm was sounded, and while the battle was progressing I was among my copper pipes and pumps, trying to build heat and pressure for my weapon. There were hundreds of enemies out in front of the gate I was covering with my Fire. We had high hopes that the sheer surprise factor of such a terror weapon would make it even more effective on land than it was at sea."

"It was a terrible surprise all right. For me. It seems that I failed to detect a weakening in one of the welds in my equipment, probably caused by being transported so far overland. At Thomas's signal I let fly, and instead of the air being filled with sticky liquid flame far more deadly than even dragonfire, if I do say so myself, a pipe blew and the mass of flame backfired at me. I caught only the edge of the blast, but it was enough. Some of Thomas' men tried to smother the flames, but I was dying and I knew it. Large parts of me were roasting. The pain was, well..."

I waited a moment, feeling again the agony. Then, when I could, I went on. "The spell actually saved my life. I got it full-force, as my special weapon required me to be atop the tower beside the gate. And the damage the flames had already done to me complicated things somewhat- as I'm sure you've heard I cannot shift form at all, and parts of my baked brains have gone entirely rabbit. I'm a coward now, and sometimes do things that make perfect sense to me but seem crazy to others."

He nodded, eyes like saucers.

"So I'm no longer fit for combat. In fact, for a very long time I really was just a rabbit in my head, until something brought me round. I'm still not sure what, but my experience at least gives hope for the full-morphs, eh?"

Again, he nodded.

"Being a rabbit gives you perspective, son. It makes you see things differently in more ways than you can imagine, changes you more than you realize. And while I was living in that hutch I suspect on some deep unconscious level I was rethinking my life, reinventing myself, kind of. Even if I were capable of it, I don't think I'd ever use Greek Fire again. Not even on lutins."

"The Fire is terrible" Michael agreed.

"Yes, it is. Lutins scream like everyone else. They think and feel. We have to kill them, I know. But I'm dedicating my time here to trying to find out why they keep coming, what it is they want, whether or not peace might someday be possible. That time which I don't devote to the Guild, that is. Thomas is very supportive, and besides, it doesn't cost much to keep a rabbit." I rocked my ears in a smile, and Michael grinned. That was good- this was getting too serious. But there was one more thing...

"And Michael?"

"Yes?"

"Remember this as you get furry. The wizards tell me that if they ever manage to reverse the spell, I will return to human form on fire. There's worse things than being something dumb like a white bunny, son...."

The kid stared a moment, then showed that he was indeed becoming a man. "Donnie, the rabbit's next beer is on me!"

I rocked my ears again, and eyed the boy appraisingly. Michael was young yet, and much would depend on what kind of fur he sprouted. But what I hadn't told him, or almost anyone else, was that Thomas had drafted me to run his intelligence service as well.

I wondered. Would Michael be suitable for spy-work, traveling as an animal in enemy territory? Somehow, I thought so...

"Playing with Fire", copyright Phil Geusz