The cheetah greedily lapped up his warm broth handed to him by the gender morphed healers’ assistant.
She bore a wry grin. “I’d say you lost your fifth of nine lives out there, laddie.”
The keeper wondered if every feline morph that paid a trip to the infirmary was fed that 9-lives joke. On his last visit, Stealth had almost broken his neck. Before that, the cheetah survived being gored and rammed by a buck. Before that, he almost bled to death, or so everyone insisted would have been the case sooner or later. And before that still, he received a bad blow to the head, the rest of that incident, the cat preferred not to think about.
Still, though he tried not to, Stealth couldn’t help but smile to the evil healer. The same one who butchered him weeks prior after he went feral, baffled carriage drivers and hid in a thorn bush. Following that incident the cheetah returned as a taur for the first time, covered in mud and blood. After the dreaded bath, she had fun applying swabs of ointment-soaked cotton to his cuts, then, as if repairing a real coat, the woman sewed him up in places with a needle.
Fortunately, this time he returned as a regular biped after acquiring some clothing from his rescuers and he sustained no physical injuries. However, the cat did return cold, weak and hungry. The healers couldn’t torture him per say, but they made up for it by grounding the mostly mobile feline.
Stealth finished off his meal with all the haste typical of his species and handed back the bowl just as he spied his squad leader enter the room and approach his bedside. With controlled grace she sat down in the chair vacated by the healer and threaded her tail through the back. Teague’s body spoke of power, her scent smelt of... burnt corn and her eyes held the look of care and concern.
“How are you holding up, Orix?” the bearcat asked.
“I’m fine mamm.” The cheetah answered and stifled a burp.
“Don’t give me that ‘mamm’ shit, son; my name is Teague.” The binturong corrected in a sharp tone.
The cheetah flinched but composed himself, “and my name is Stealth...”
“Kay, Stealthy.” She shrugged. “How are you doing?”
“I’m all right, mam- Teague, kinda faint I suppose but at-least I’ve warmed up some.”
She smiled and brushed a paw along the cats’ thin forearm-fur. Though binturongs thrive in much warmer climes than that of Metamor, Teague had thicker fur and a much stockier build than Stealth. That and she hadn’t as-yet been caught out in the snow clad only in her fur.
“You’ll have to tell us all about your small journey.” She paused, “Speaking of which, George will want to see you.”
“I know.” He sighed.
“Not right this moment of course, the old jackal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
"...Maybe I should stick to deliveries. It's certainly safer then trying to be a scout." Stealth reasoned.
“Oh?” Teague looked slightly disappointed yet understanding. “Okay, have a think about what you will do.”
Stealth travelled quickly to the patrol masters’ office, allowing Kyia to guide his way. The last time he saw the old jackal was after the cat awoke from going feral and head butting a tree. All the cheetah really remembered from that encounter was that his head hurt quite a bit. Ha came to a door with a plaque indicating it as the office in which George would be waiting. Hesitantly Stealth knocked. No sooner that he recalled his paw did the door open.
“Come in please.” The female human motioned for Stealth to enter the Patrol Masters’ office.
The cheetah timidly entered the room and saw George sitting behind his desk. The old jackal was tapping his claws on the table top. He appeared to be somewhere between relaxed and alert in his posture and demeanour. His gaze never left the cheetah.
Georges’ paw ceased in its bombardment of the desk and turned about to indicate the chair, “Take a seat.”
The cat complied though he didn’t make himself too comfortable; instead of lacing his tail through the hole in the base of the chair he coiled it around the side however he still allowed it to wriggle about.
Stealth instinctively tried to cross his arms but became conscious of his posture; he soon fixed his arms on the arm rests instead and gave the jackal his full attention.
George leaned back in his own chair. He didn’t reprimand the cat, aware of the fact he already knew full well the result of the mess, rather he wanted answers about it. “Well, here we are, lad. Let’s hear it.”
After a moment the cheetah opened his muzzle however he was halted by the jackals’ paw, “hold that thought.” George reached down to something behind his desk, when the patrol master sat up again he held out a bottle, “have a drink.”
Stealth turned his gaze down, “No thanks.”
George shrugged and placed the open bottle on the table next to the cheetah. “Then begin.”
“Um... well, I got lost at night.” Stealth began in a mumble.
“I am aware of that.” The jackal pointed out bluntly, “how did you get lost and where have you been in this time?”
Stealth frowned at the canine; he was getting to that... “I don’t know how it happened, I just got lost at night on patrol and I couldn’t find anyone.”
“So you just lost your way?” George cocked his head.
“Well... aye, I don’t know why it happened.” Stealth looked
“What, couldn’t make out anything in the dark?” The jackal narrowed his gaze.
“No, I couldn’t.” The cat began to sound more defensive.
“Didn’t know where you were?” George asked, beginning to sound like a questioner.
“Yes! I just lost my way, I just started my training!” The cheetah snapped.
The jackal took a long drink of his wine, “Ah... that can happen easily enough.” He shrugged. After seeing Stealth’s confusion, George hid a grin; at least he got the kid to open up some. “Go on, what happened?”
Stealth opened out his palms and continued.
The cheetah fumbled past a tree, a moment later he fumbled past another tree. After some more fumbling and shuffling, the non-nocturnal feline brushed past yet another tree. How the hell could this happen? He asked himself. He’s not lost; after some more fumbling about in the nothingness he’ll stumble upon the camp like nothing happened. He will find it.
‘Ugh’, his night-vision did no good; nothing but trees and more trees surrounded him. Maybe if he kept fumbling, at this rate he would find the Glen, Stealth thought. Well, he had warm clothes, at least. Perhaps it’s best to find a place to rest for the night, ether that or continue fumbling till morning and probably wander even further from camp.
Despite how the cheetah blundered about the woods, he at-least had the good sense to be mindful of his footing and took care where he stepped. Despite the old saying about cats and their landings, this one seemed liable to fall flat on his face at any time. The cheetah’s eyes detected the different shades on various tree-trunks – barely – though other than that, he could detect no more than specks on the ground and the clouds in the sky. More than not, Stealth resorted to feeling his way about with his feet and hands for wayward stones and logs.
Stealth avoided the urge to call out for help; it would equate to advertising to any lutins that he is a lost, inexperienced, lone keeper who has some nice gear, a lovely pelt and whose corpse would be good in their cooking pot. Sadistic little monsters...
First they would overwhelm him and yell mindless gibberish, and then they would cut up his... No! Positive thoughts, he insisted to himself. Stealth decided it best to try and use what knowledge he has of tracking and find his way back, failing that he would conserve his warmth and strength till the morning and try again.
“You wandered aimlessly.” It wasn’t a question.
Stealth narrowed his gaze, “there was no place to take refuge; I had to at-least look around for a bit.”
George took another sip of the wine and nodded.
The feline cast his gaze down to his tail and observed its mad thrashing.
The jackal downed the remaining liquid and refilled his glass before speaking, “Continue.”
Well he didn’t find the camp, even trying to sniff his way about, nothing. In fact, the cheetah’s nose told him that wherever he was it smelt even more different to where he started. Stealth had wandered even FURTHER away from camp. He started to fret.
Stealth didn’t need any anxiety right now; he remedied his fear by keeping busy and searching for a place to spend the remainder of the night. Though he had a backpack equipped with a tent, a flint and rations, the feline had no hope of fumbling through the pack and utilising its contents in the dark; he would just have to put them to good use the next day and survive the bitter night till then.
Eventually the cat came across a series of gnarled branches close to the ground. After examining it for unwelcome surprises, Stealth removed his pack and placed it on the snow with his spear. With any obstructions out of the way – save his long tail which he grabbed and pulled up out of harms way – the cheetah squeezed inside the shelter then pulled his spear and bag close and tried to pull as much dead build up as he could over the opening, only then realising how cold he really was as even with his thick gloves the cheetah could barely feel or move his paws.
The feline scrunched himself up tight into a ball and shivered while attempting to warm himself with his breath and thinking hard of a very hot dry place. Stealth slept not a wink and instead kept his eyes closed while attempting to. The night dragged on for an agonisingly cold, fearful and boring eternity. At one time though, Stealth must have succeeded in dropping off as he had some very vague recollection of a dream; he recalled only lines and shapes, some sort of theme perhaps, but nothing more than that.
Indeed more time than the amount of which he had been awake for surely passed by as it was now almost dawn. Still pitch black and cold as ever; the cat had a headache, the ice and frost seemed to claw at him, though Stealth remained as a ball wrapped in the fur of northern creatures and did his best to remain a living fortress to the cold and darkness all about and so he would remain until the foul weather relented. But he had to pee...
Now what? Stealth’s war plan had come crashing down and the enemy’s siege had succeeded. Or so he felt about it. After a moment to prepare and brace himself, the cheetah moved his pack, spear and a pile of dead leaves out of the way, then bolted from his spot and found somewhere nearby to relive himself. It was far enough from his little camp out spot that if unwelcome visitors detect it he will be well enough out of the way but close enough that if a friendly finds it he will still be near by to notice them.
The cheetah soon returned to his small ‘winter fortress’ and tried to rebuild the defences though almost all the warmth he’d accumulated had been sucked out into the void. And besides, he just couldn’t get it back the way he liked it. Nevertheless, the slender creature formed a tight ball and cut himself off from the outside world.
Eventually, light returned to the forest and of-course when the time came to rise, Stealth only then began to tire. The cat yawned and decided to remain in place though after some moments he rethought the decision, feeling it best to be vigilant in the daylight, conscious of an enemy attack.
Stealth emerged from the gnarled branches for the second time that morning, replaced his gear and wondered at what he was meant to do... Retrace his footprints in the snow! Though he tried to avoid walking in the snow due to the audible crunching sound it made, he couldn’t altogether avoid it. The very-novice scout attempted to follow whatever trail he could make out though it was very hard to tell where he left imprints; the snow cover seemed a mere flaking in places and soon after some slow amateur tracking it began to melt anyway.
The snow cover in this neck of the woods seemed much thinner than it had been in that snow tigers’ ‘territory’; Oberon had an ample amount the substance to frolic in. Stealth wished the big cat were here now though he didn’t miss the excess snow, unfortunately it didn’t seem to make much difference to amount of chill in the air.
The cheetah scratched his head-fur. His snow-prints weren’t sufficient, though he should have left some sort of imprint in the grass or mud... but it was hard to tell; some of it may have already been that way or other creatures could have traversed the area during the night.
...Stealth looked about for a moment then crouched low to the ground and sniffed the prints. It didn’t smell like his boots, smelt more like... some sort of predator. Unfortunately, the cheetah doesn’t actually know what the animals native to this place are supposed to smell like, unless he is familiar with the scent already; in other words he’s ‘met’ them as a keeper.
And he isn’t a blood hound, he’s a cheetah. Stealth’s primary sense is his vision and right now the prints look like nothing more than a mushy-indent in the not-so-pure snow, what was left of it. At the very least the mild weather will make things much easier on the thin-coated cat. But he didn’t like the look of those clouds.
Well, he should at-least get a drink from whatever snow remained before it melted into a pile of mud; there didn’t seem to be any stream about. Perhaps try to locate a stream and follow it, yes. As Stealth thought about all of this, a trickle of snow began to fall. By the time he found a good amount left over from the previous dusting, that trickle intensified into a silent, steady flow which impeded any chance the feline had of retracing his foot prints.
While his friend, Edmund struggled with the colder weather of the north since becoming cursed with a feeble form, Stealth had a slightly more humanoid form which would hopefully be enough to keep him from shrivelling up and dying out here. All the same, he finally began to understand how his fellow cheetah felt about the cold.
The cheetah was at a loss as to what to do or how to do it, but his next task may as well be to find a meal and regain some strength and warmth; his rations will be kept as a last resort, anyway, they needed to be thawed. With that thought in mind, Stealth set about looking for crude projectiles. Though training with a bow, the cat thought it would have little purpose for him in the dark and instead opted for his spear while on patrol.
He hoped to run down some small animals and skew them, then... eat them raw. The fresh scout-in-training had a long way to go before becoming versed in the ability to create a fire in the wilderness. Though he could use a flint to create light in his apartment, Stealth was aided in that by lamp-oil. Fortunately his carnivorous tendencies should ease any qualm toward consuming uncooked venison.
Stealth cringed at having anything to do with the snow; he thought it best to avoid the evil white mush. Regardless, he searched for small stones with the hope that he can use them with enough force to knock out or at-least disorientate some cute, little creature. The feline found some suitable-looking objects and pocketed them then set off in search of game.
‘Where are all the animals in this wood?’ the cat thought idly. He had no idea of the time but he must have been wandering aimlessly for quite some hours now. It would be after mid-day perhaps, though the sky continued to darken. They have to be looking for him by now. They know the cat is out here and they are looking for him. The thought kept Stealth going and held at bay the creeping distress of dying out here, alone.
Yet more time passed. Now and then the cat would spot some movement and attempt to kill whatever it was with his spear but his arms were to numb to aim and throw properly. Stealth contemplated becoming a taur to leap about and have an easier time moving through the forest, however, with a larger and thinner form he’d be bound to loose more heat quicker. No, if he’s to survive, Stealth would need to stay in this form to retain the most heat until they find the way-ward keeper.
The cheetah walked without a clue as to where his cold feet would take him. Stealth kept moving to keep warm and did his best to block out pessimistic thoughts about his fate or the fact that he’s very hungry. The thin feline absently strolled through a clearing covered with a good amount of powdery, fresh snow. As his boots trampled the ground underneath, they – without the slightest warning – slipped out from under him. One leg quickly and painfully slid back and to the side while the other slipped straight back and kicked his tail. A moment later the cats’ upper body fell forward.
The cheetah landed in a shallow puddle. It was enough to soak his clothes though not enough to cushion the impact on the permafrost. He squeaked at the chill and jumped back up to remove the wet clothing. Furiously, Stealth pulled off his gloves, backpack, furs, coat, everything. He absently threw the pack to a patch of ground barely a few feet away and stared in sudden dismay as he saw it fall straight through the ice...
Stealth absently removed the rest. Soon the cheetah wore nothing but his own fur as he continued to gawk at the hole his pack punched through the ice, at the very least he didn’t walk in that direction; in contrast the puddle was, well, a puddle compared to falling through the ice.
Hoping to squeeze out some moisture from his chest and legs, the morph shifted to full form then vigorously shook his head and body, while standing on patches of the shed furs that hadn’t yet absorbed the moisture. Feeling his paws tingle, he bolted in a random direction. After a dead run, Stealth figured he will be tired but he will be warm and dry or at-least distracted.
After sprinting, who knows how far, Stealth leaped over a log and collapsed, panting feverishly. While regaining his breath, the animal practically remained motionless on the spot, though he slowly opened his eyes and looked wearily to the sky. Dark, imposing clouds greeted him and it was getting darker. Night would soon fall upon the forest.
Stealth was, cold, wet, hungry, unarmed and naked. ‘I can’t die out here.’ The feline silently worded in his feral form, ‘I’ll probably get very sick though...’ he thought with a mental frown, ‘maybe they’ll need to amputate my limbs.’ He scampered back up before the thought could become a reality, though worried at his paws and their contact with the ground.
Though the cat’s paws had thick pads, they were designed to withstand being impacted on the hard dirt in his flight. They breathed; the paws had sweat glands and the cold pierced them, not as bad as falling through the ice yet it still felt as though they burned with each step on the snow. It wasn’t the first time, but how long will he be out here on bare foot-paws?
After clearing a rise, Stealth panicked and dropped to the ground, all previous thoughts vanished from his mind in that moment. Is it? It has to be...
Wait, they smell... old. Curiously and perhaps recklessly, the cheetah walked into the lutins’ camp. One sat upright in front of a spent fire-pit, one of his comrades stood up keeping watch with his back to a tree. Both had arrows through their chest.
The interesting thing, the cheetah noticed, was that it didn’t appear to be the arrows used by the keeps’ military. They were lutin arrows... perhaps they had an argument or there was a betrayal or something; the little green things did tend to lack in honour or loyalty, so was the word about the keep anyway. But there was no sign of a struggle or a scuffle, just clean kills. Whatever damage there was seemed due to camp fires left unattended or just resulted from exposure to the weather. They had been despatched neatly with the weapons of their own kind and left to the mercy of the elements.
As disgusted and put off Stealth felt about stripping these things of their clothing, he would need to be tough about this; if the little cat is to have a hope of surviving out here.
However, the cheetah was almost happy that they appeared to be frozen and covered in snow anyway so he would have little to gain from their cold rags. Turing away from the two, Stealth shifted so he could see proper colour again and get a better look at the ex-camp. Through the fatigue, his fur still felt damp and cold and his flesh began to feel numb. Stealth cringed and tried to turn his attention to the camp. What few weapons scattered about the place were rusted and broken, the food mouldy and vegetarian. Lastly, their tents were burnt to the ground.
The cheetah left the camp as he found it and hoped the rival tribe did not return. Though he continued his search very close by where he spotted a wagon. Stealth walked quickly toward the wagon and noticed it had mostly survived the attack. More importantly, the attackers were not hiding inside as he smelt not a sole. Instead he only saw a refuge from the weather.
The felines’ legs were numb and he accidentally disturbed some objects a few feet or so near the entry in the snow, though he thought little of it – not to mention feel little of it – and continued to the wagon. In his current state, Stealth couldn’t care less about the threat of a trap and opened the tarp covering. Inside he found nothing and was more then happy to hop inside for the night.
Moments later, as he investigated the wagon, Stealth’s ears twitched to something behind him in the snow. Quickly, the cat cast his gaze toward his foot prints in the snow and the spot where his feet must have bumped something.
‘Crackle, crackle, FOOM!’
A handful of small stones all but hidden in the snow burst into brilliant flame and began to thaw out a pile of lumber. Stealth watched in fascination from inside the wagon. The cheetah hopped back out and embraced the warmth of the flames, finally able to dry off and warm up. The cold cat stayed there for a long while till he was warm and toasty then flopped back in the wagon, which was close enough to the fire that its interior captured some of the heat. The feline soon fell asleep and purred with content.
The cat slept quite well that night and his slumber lasted well into late morning. Stealth shifted once more to his full form and took the time to stretch and yawn away the sleep. The cheetah peeked out of the wagon and noted the fire had long since burnt out. After scratching his ear with a hind paw, the animal jumped out back onto the cold ground.
He almost yipped in surprise at the sight of a new corpse on the ground, a scant few feet from his perch. After melting away a large portion of snow, the bonfire of the previous night revealed more than just a wood pile. The handful of stones Stealth had disturbed were in-fact pyrocks or rather the broken components for a pyrock scattered out from an open sack.
Cautiously, Stealth approached the corpsed splayed out on the ground wearing lots of creepy looking necklaces. ‘A bit like Misha’s necklace, ugh’ he thought with a shiver. Near the corpse, some more small sacks rested on the ground, though a safe distance from the open one which gave the cheetah reprieve from the chill. Needless to say, the cat dared not touch anything. However, another of the sacks had its contents splayed out on the tarp of what may have once been another tent. They looked like small, black orbs with strange patterns.
Though it did seem creepy, and it was, Stealth reminded himself he didn’t believe in superstitious, spooky things. He instead considered such objects to form part of a complex science, one which was STILL as immensely dangerous as their ‘spooky’ reputation implied. Fortunately it’s a science the keep is well-read and renowned in. As such, some of it did brush off on him. More accurately, he had two friends who plied their trade in the work of magic – Stealth did still tend think of it as magic since it did sound more fun than calling it science – and he’s been taught some basic things that could come in handy.
The small orbs, he soon recognised to be the components of basic spells which could be applied as either camping tools or deadly weapons, ether of which can be essential to ones survival. Stealth shifted to morph form while he collected the stones back in their sack and tied it up as a necklace, then shifted once more. The cheetah may be able to create another bonfire or a small earthquake spell to shatter or brake logs and rocks as the magical stones did have other uses.
Stealth trotted nearby to a pile of snow and lapped some up. He had a good nights sleep, though probably due more to the amount of exertion and lack of food from the day prior. In-fact, he hadn’t had anything to eat since the day before yesterday, around the campfire before his fateful patrol and that was hardly a feast. With those thoughts, Stealth walked briskly toward where he presumed he left his clothing, spear and backpack, though only the former could he hope to salvage.
Some time later, his search proved fruitless as there had been a fresh dumping of snow during the night blanketing everything. And during his flight after climbing out of the puddle yesterday, it seems he had lost his bearings. It didn’t help that whenever he had prospect to see the sky that it was always overcast.
The feline cursed himself at losing his gear to the thin ice; he could have built a tent and at the very least attempted to build a fire, then dry off his northern furs. He was saving the rations for when he’d really need them, now they were gone. The contents of that pack may have very well meant the difference between life and death!
‘...food.’ the cheetah picked up no scent, at the very least that meant no predators. Stealth really had no time for wolf packs right now, hell; he might just try to take one or two of them down. They’re edible... then again when faced with the confrontation he might just reconsider that bold idea. But still...
At any rate, Stealth had no intention of eating those lutin corpses, though with a grim thought he realised it may be a last resort – quite a step down from his previous last resort of salted red meat – depending how long the scrawny feline would remain lost out here. If he can survive the cold that is, and really; how can any creature live up here? No food, no warmth, just plenty of ice and dead-looking trees. The southern regions had warmth and lots of migrating herds. ‘Mmm.’ The thought warmed Stealth.
It would do the cheetah no good to sit around and think about what could be; he’s here now. Time to hunt, time to eat! With a predatory cry – though one not sounding very menacing at all – the quadruped leapt into action and began the task of locating a scent. After some time, Stealth stumbled upon an elk as it foraged down wind of him. The cat pounced, chased ...and later terminated his run. Another chase later that day ended with the same disappointing result.
‘Its okay’ Stealth told himself, beginning to feel faint, ‘real big cats go for days without eating a thing, right?’ Then again, when was the last time he sat down to eat an entire animal? Stealth looked about and found some bark to gnaw on for some sort of reprieve from the hunger; it was kinda like eating a tough hide, he tried to imagine. With a sigh the cheetah urged his legs on.
Hours passed and night fell. The weary predator found the scent-trail of a wolverine though it smelt days old, still he followed and wondered at the possibility of suffocating what is probably a small stocky creature. Aye, he’s quick; he’ll take it by surprise. The trail led to a small burrow. Unless the cheetah’s nose deceived him, no one was home.
...Ah, hell; he scent-marked near the opening to ‘claim’ the area, hoping to intimidate any creatures which pay him a visit as well as leave a beacon for the keepers to locate him. Weak as cheetah scenting is, it still seemed like a good idea. Stealth scurried into the burrow and sniffed about for unwanted occupants. When he felt satisfied that there were no other squatters about, the cheetah backed out again, then turned around and backed into the space.
It seemed like a good place to spend the night. The lutin camp – if he could find it again – probably wasn’t the best place to stay to begin with; not the most subtle or secure location. At the time the cheetah was desperate so he didn’t care, and anyway, it no longer had a warm burning fire. The feline already risked messing with that lutin shamans’ ‘bag of tricks’ for the components of more pyrocks, he’ll try his luck with them tomorrow.
Besides, he felt too tired right now. Stealth pawed at dead matter at the base of the entry till he had a sort of mound, then head butted the entrance and batt the walls of the burrow which caused it to cave in to an extent. Now with the entrance closed off to the elements, the cheetah continued crawling back deeper into the small tunnel where hopefully the amount of earth would provide him with enough insulation. Sleep eventually took him.
The cat woke with a yawn in the total darkness of his little home and crawled back up to the entry to shove his way through the ‘door’ which crumbled away. ‘oooh’ the air beyond clawed at him with talons of ice and stung his eyes. Stealth sat down and tried to breathe his visible breath into his quadruped chest. At-least the sudden contrast felt by his body meant that the burrow did its job.
Stealth had no idea as to the time of day, perhaps he slept in again and perhaps he rose early. The cheetah had no way of knowing ether way but set off on his hunt all the same.
“...and that’s when Hristo found you?” The jackal asked before finishing off another glass.
“No.” Stealth answered in embarrassment. “I got lost at night. I was lost for three days...”
“A four night stay...” George stated, indicating that he followed. “So then what happened?”
The cheetah swallowed a lump in his throat and continued, “The same thing as the day before, I went out hunting and turned up nothing, then I returned to the burrow.”
“And then?” The old scout master persisted.
“And then...” Stealth went on.
With his head down, Stealth walked back to the old wolverine-burrow sometime around midday. The cheetah found some comfort in that he finally managed to find his way back somewhere as he kept track of his path. Stealth sat on his haunches just outside the collapsed burrow entry then shifted. With hands and a thinner, humanoid neck, he was able to remove the lutin shamans’ sack from around his neck and carefully removed its contents stone by stone.
The cat felt cold, tired and hungry. While there was little he could do about the latter short of activity which may just prove more counter productive as he had been yet to yield a result, there was something he could do about the former two.
Though his hands were very numb and all but lacking in feeling, Stealth managed to arrange the stones into the shape of a rune, though with no lines connecting yet for safety. The cheetah walked away from the burrow, as the naked humanoid he now appeared. After a few moments, the cat dragged back a large branch then set off again, minutes passed and he built up quite a pile of lumber around the stones.
Timidly, he reached a paw in and turned about some stones. The spell was now set as the other stones had been in that camp, the shaman would have been about to trigger them before a small arrow struck him down on the spot. Reaching back out, the feline grabbed a pebble and dropped it in the pile, over the stones. With the insignificant impact, the stones began to glow and activate the spell which would transform them into pyrocks. Stealth stood back as a flame erupted and began to feed on the wood pile he accumulated.
Throughout the day, the cheetah warmed himself by the fire, though he would occasionally and grudgingly leave to find more fuel to feed its life giving flame. During the rest of the time, Stealth would alternate between taking in the warmth and shifting to full form to retreat back into his burrow to rest with what heat he had acquired. Eventually, the supply of loose wood dwindled and Stealth spent more time in the cold looking for fallen branches then he did absorbing the warmth. He made the most of the flame throughout the evening before retiring into the burrow. Soon, nothing but embers remained. Once more, he ‘closed the door’ to his shelter by way of burying the entrance with dirt and leaves.
The next day, slowly and lethargically a cheetah emerged from the burrow that seemed to have become his home. He might just die in it...
Fumbling about like a zombie-cat and just about in the mind set of one, Stealth hoped one of two things would find him. The first being a keeper and the second a rabbit, however the latter he wanted to hop directly into his mouth. The cheetah blundered towards a pile of snow and practically head butted it, gnawing on a chunk of the soft cold stuff to get a drink while pretending it was in-fact a white, fluffy bunny whose hide he was tearing into.
The animals’ body and particularly his four paws were mind-numbingly cold but fatigue and hunger proved a worthy distraction from the pain. After reaching back up and making a tired attempt to dry his muzzle with a fore paw, Stealth looked up and sniffed about a bit. With a soft step he set off to catch something, anything.
Eventually the cheetah caught a whiff of an animal and like a zombie hoping to feast upon the living, he slowly followed it. After an hour or so which lasted for an eternity, the desperate predator caught first sight of the quarry and stalked toward it with intensely concentrated, wide eyes. When Stealth got to a comfortable striking range, the cheetah pounced with a blinding speed leaving his previous movements a distant memory.
He had the beast within two meters before it fled. Stealth could barely feel his body. The aches and pains, weakness and chill of the past half week became concerns he made a note of to get back to. The only thing that mattered was the meal. The cheetah matched leap for leap, turn for turn and as for speed, Stealth was in a league of his own.
The cheetah eventually pounced; swiping at the deer’s’ hind quarters and biting into its rump. He was rewarded with a taste of wonderful, rich blood, but only a taste before it slipped out of his grasp. Stealth refused to give in to exhaustion and vowed to pursue the animal till his last breath; otherwise he’ll starve to death anyway.
With desperate determination he urged more speed and strength into his failing legs then lunged forward and reached out with his paw, successfully swiping out the bucks’ hind legs out from under it. The deer tripped and slid in the snow. Before it had any chance at all of climbing back up, the cheetah pounced again and bore his fangs into its wind pipe.
Stealth clenched his jaws with all his might, doing his best to sever the flesh. The cat settled for weakening the deer and quickly turned his attention to its abdomen, gnawing and tugging away at the fur till he tore away at the hide and began to eat the animal alive. In the corner of Stealth’s mind, he was vaguely aware of the fact that he had company. However he paid his guest no heed for the moment; preferring to take in the warm wonderful meat.
George blinked, “then you were found.”
“Aye.” Stealth answered simply.
Diane looked from one animal morph to the other. The Patrol Master tapped his claws on the desk. “You sure you don’t want a drink?”
The cheetah shook his head, “No thanks.”
“Then that will be all.” George stated and put the bottle away.
“What happens now?” Stealth asked sounding a bit shaky.
The jackal regarded him for a moment, “We’ll see.”
Stealth rose from the chair. He turned and nodded to the woman who smiled in kind and opened the door for the cheetah.
Outside, a gazelle waited for him with folded arms. “What happened?”
Stealth shook his head, “I get the impression that it didn’t go so well.”
Fell nodded, “I think George gives everyone that impression.”
“Aye, well I think I handled myself as best as I could out there so we’ll just have to wait and see.” The cheetah reasoned.
“Good, good, so what now?” The other morph asked.
“Now, lunch.” Stealth answered without pause, “to the Mule... Food!”
George took a drink of wine. "He got lost in the dark."
The fox shrugged. "So? That’s easy enough to have happen. We've both done that more then once."
The two old scouts were seated in George’s office. Enjoying a small meal together while they talked about the scouts and what needed to be done.
"And lost all our clothes too?” the Jackal countered as he put a fork full of food in his mouth. The venison was dripping with a dark gravy and the jackal enjoyed each delicious bite.
Misha gave a short yip of laughter and waved a fork full of meat at George. "You left me naked for a week once.”
George shook his head as he wiped gravy from his muzzle. "True but that was deliberate. He lost them accidentally."
“All right. You have a point there,” Misha answered and stifles a laugh. "But George he is still young. Every great scout has to start out as a young rookie."
George nodded his head slowly but didn't speak. All he did was chew his food.
Misha understood what that meant and put down his knife and fork. "George," the fox said slowly. "I think he'll make a fine scout. With training. And remember. He survived three days out in the cold, wilderness with no clothing! That shows he has some real talent. Why don’t you ask Edmund what he thinks? He is good friends with Stealth and knows the feline well. And I trust Edmunds judgement.”
The jackal nodded his head in agreement. “A good idea. He’s a paladin and he HAS to tell the truth or God will strike him dead.”
“Terry explained that you wished to speak with me?” The cheetah paladin was dressed in the padded cloth tunic and pants that was commonly worn under armor. The knight had probably been sparring before coming to George’s office as he was usually never without his tabard.
“What do you think of Stealth?” he asked bluntly. “Will he make a good scout? I need your honest opinion Edmund.”
“This is about his last training mission?” the paladin asked unaffected by the jackals’ blunt manner.
George nodded. “I need to know if I should keep training him or save us both a lot of wasted time training him for a job he’ll never do right and drop him from the scouts.”
Edmund didn’t answer immediately which impressed George. The paladin never did anything rash. Not even speaking.
“He is still young but a fast learner. I’ve hunted with him several times and he is capable of taking care of himself. He has the instincts and skills of a natural hunter. What he needs is training. He is fairly good hunting as a natural feline but his weapons skills need work. I see that Oberon is helping him to improving his wilderness survival skills and his sword play.”
“Good. Whatever a person does here at the Keep they do need to be able to defend themselves.”
“My opinion of Stealth is that he needs training but he is already on the way to being a fine scout.”
“Would you serve beside him in combat?” George asked.
“Yes,” the paladin answered without a pause.
“You don’t want to think about that answer?” the old scout asked.
“I already have,” came the answer. “And it is still yes.”
The woman parried George’s blow easily knocking the sword from the Jackal’s hand. It clattered to the floor at their feet.
“George you’re not concentrating,” She said stepping back. The two were in one of the countless small training rooms that were scattered around the Keep. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s the cheetah. I’m trying to decide what to do.”
“Stealth? You are stilling trying to decide that?” she asked surprised. She sheathed her sword and stepped closer to him. “George. He is not some old experienced scout. He is still young and he simply got lost. What he needs is more training in night time navigation.”
George shook his head. “No! Not that. I already decided on giving him and the entire squad a week or 2 of night training. It’s that he went feral at least once. THAT worries me.”
Terrant nodded her head. “Good argument but remember it was due to him misusing one of Pascal’s potions.”
“I know. He still needs to learn discipline and how to follow directions. He also needs to learn to avoid Pascal’s potions. What do we do about it? He needs more help dealing with his animal side,” George asked.
“But that incident was caused by the potion alone. That was the reason he went feral that time. It was almost like he was drunk.”
“He is young Terry and if he is to be a scout he needs to learn when he can drink and when he needs to stay cold sober. He needs to learn common sense so he does not drink strange potions.”
The woman nods. "I understand he does need some guidance. What about Edmund? He can keep a watch over the lad and if he goes feral regardless, Ed can help him with that too; he’s also a cheetah and he has a better grasp of dealing with the wild animal in himself. I know him I trust him with my life. Edmund is a good judge of character and I know he trusts Stealth."
“I like that idea,” was the old jackal’s answer. “And they are already good friends.”
She smiled and patted her companion on the shoulder. “Now, since you lost the fight you owe me lunch!”
Stealth stared at the door to George’s office for a long time. He stood a good distant from it to be sure that George's keen senses wouldn't pick up his scent. Finally he worked up the nerve to open it and step into the jackal’s office.
"Come in and sit down," George ordered. "I'll get to the point right away."
Stealth quickly sat down and ignored his tail though he could feel his hackles clashing with the shirt he wore as he looked up attentively at the old scout.
"After serious thought I've decided to keep you as a scout in training. But you will be spending the next two weeks in night navigation. So you will not get lost again at night."
The nervous cat nodded. "...I understand."
"That's it?" George asks. "Nothing else to say? No questions?"
Stealth looked down. "I...N, no. I don't think so."He looked up again, "...is there anything I should know?" He soon asked.
"Nothing that you can’t learn with time." George said in a soft tone. "Report to your squad leader tomorrow morning.”
"Yes sir." he answered and nodded. "Will that be all?”
"Pull the bowstring further back Stealth. Don't be afraid of the bow. It won't break," Misha ordered. The two were standing on one of the countless archery ranges that were scattered about the Keep.
Stealth flinched from the string as it pulled taught and held it there for a moment.
As a regular morph Stealth was about an inch taller then Misha. But now the
two were in full taur form and oddly enough Misha was at least 6 inches taller.
It didn't bother the foxtaur as he tutored the cheetahtaur. "Don't flinch!"
Misha ordered. "The bow won't bite you. Flinch like that and you will miss
Stealth's long thin tail swayed far behind him as he followed the Long's instructions. While he still felt kinda embarrassed and silly on four of his own legs with a humanoid upper half, the cheetah began to enjoy being a taur more and more. He just loved an excuse and currently it was much easier to get about the large area in this fascinating form.
The bow swayed about in his arms, Stealth took a deep breath and let the arrow fly. It landed on the target but far shy of the centre.
"Not bad!" Misha commented. "You do need to keep your arms still." He was quiet for a moment. "I hear that George gave you his judgement this morning."
The cat’s tail swished about slightly faster. “Yeah... he’s still training me.” The taur-archer turned his gaze down and twiddled the bow-string with his claws. “I hope I don’t disappoint him.”
Misha watched the feline work the bow for a moment. "Nock another arrow." he ordered. "You'll do fine. But all that night training will wear you out. He will run you hard for the next month or so but you will be fine."
The cheetah notched another arrow. "Misha..."
"What?" the foxtaur asked. "You're full of questions today."
"I'm a cat; I'm full of questions everyday." Stealth reminded. "I was just wondering, why did you help pay off my debt? Why did you want to help me?"
"Why?" the scout asks. "Why? Because I believe in giving everyone a fair break and Edmund asked me to help."
"Not that I took to the whole 'axe wielding maniac' thing, but... don't take this the wrong way, but from what I saw of you, you didn't seem like a nice person."
"Oh? No offense taken my friend," the fox answered. "What did you think of me?"
The cheetah cringed, but he didn't want to keep it hidden. "From your reputation, you sounded like a typical noble. ...Someone who's spoilt, arrogant and always got their way."
Misha's reaction was surprising. He laughed. "That's good. People usually think I'm an axe wielding maniac."
Stealth smiled nervously, "Maniacs tend not to be favoured or trusted by dukes or their generals for any real purpose."
"The funny part is I am an axe wielding maniac. At least I was one for a long time. But those wild days of mine are now behind me."
"Edmund's people mentioned returning from the counter attack, you stormed past and...Lashed out at them?"
"I do have a bit of a temper. Especially when one of my friends has been wronged. At least I did not use the axe."
The bow was held low, forgotten. "I'm sorry to bring it up. I was just very surprised is all."
The foxtaur shrugged. "Not your fault. The anger is mine and I have to deal with it."
The cheetah pat him on the back. "That's okay; you are a great guy after getting to know you. I just didn't expect help to come from you. I still don't know how I'll ever pay you back."
The foxtaur nodded. "George and me intend to get payment from you in sweat and hard work."
Stealth's ears folded. "Oh, goody..."
Misha gives a yip of laughter. "Relax. I am pretty easy going and George has mellowed over the last few years."
Stealth lifted up the bow and arrow once more and took another shot at the target. This time the arrow hit much closer to the centre.
"That's better! Your aim is improving! Only 7 more hours of practice for today."
The cat gagged and turned to the fox. "What?!"
"For the next week you will spend your days improving your fighting skills. Today it's archery. Tomorrow sword fighting with Edmund."
Stealth stared at the foxtaur, wondering what he had gotten himself into. "While I train, I am still a courier you know."
“I do. You will have to do your courier duties before or after your training. I never said it would be easy."
"I understand." He intoned. "What about you, Misha? What do you think of the Patrol Master's decision?"
"I think he made the right choice in keeping you."
Stealth notched another arrow. “Then I’d better validate his decision.” The cheetahtaur said and let the projectile fly, it hit the target further off than the previous two. “Crap!”
"Relax Stealth. Do not try too hard in archery. And considering how long it takes to actually master the bow you are doing fine. It took me years to become as skilled as I am."
"My best advice for dealing with George and being a scout is like archery. Relax and be yourself." Misha advised.
"How long have you been at it, Misha?" The cheetah asked as he notched another arrow of a dwindling supply.
"I got my first bow on my 10th birthday and I have been shooting ever since."
Stealth frowned, "I'm practically just starting out." He said and let the arrow fly off, brushing off the edge of the target.
"You're young Stealth and have your whole life ahead of you. Plenty of time to practice at archery and being a scout."
Stealth reached for another arrow and was half aware that there were none left. "Ah, how many did I go through?"
"A full quiver of twenty Stealth. A good first start. Tomorrow you can bring forty arrows with you."
"Till then, its time to put this body to use."
Stealth ran off in the distance, tilting his upper body down and to the side to retrieve each arrow that imbedded itself in the grass. He deftly retrieved one after the other, placing each back in the quiver in turn, gradually re-stocking his ammo.
Misha watches the young feline scoop up the arrows. He had been thru a lot lately but Stealth seemed none the worse for it. The cat was in for a rough few days of night training but he would do fine.
Stealth ran casually back toward the fox taur with a full quiver, save one arrow which he proudly held in one paw. "How long did that take me?" He asked in a huff.
"Not too long but you'd best start to move faster. George intends to keep you hustling for the next month with all sorts of training. You'll get to see just how fast your cheetah body can go."
"Too bad I'm not built for endurance then."
"You're not the first person George has kept busy. He's run me ragged more then once. He still does it!"
"He can't run me ragged. I may be a cheetah but that still means I can run a lot faster then he can!" With all the agility of his species, even as a taur, Stealth came about in an instant and was facing the target again, notching the arrow.
Misha nodded and gave a yip of laughter. "And a taur! I want to see how that turns out for you" The foxtaur looked him over for a moment. "George will run you ragged on navigation but I am going to wear your taur body out too! I am going to see how fast you really can run!" The foxtaur regarded him with an evil grin, "The time for rest and reflection is over."