The door opened and Vale emerged, ears drooping, tail between her legs. She caught a glimpse of me as she left and tried to force a smile, but it was dejected and fake. Whatever in blazes had happened to her in there I had no idea, but my stomach welled in a knot as I got the feeling I was about to find out.
"Kendo Vimir?" a human woman stuck her nose out of the door and asked in an uplifted tone. I stood, feeling much the little child about to be scolded by the school master. She blinked as she looked down at me, but then smiled and opened the door wider. I walked through it, noting the words "Patrol Master" plainly etched upon the wood.
I had never met George in person, who was apparently in charge of all scouting activity at the Keep. Up until then all of my orders had come directly from Vale. All I had heard was that he was old, tough, and a jackal. Wonderful.
"Have a seat, Ken," came a gruff voice from behind a desk. His triangular ears stood taller and thinner than mine, and a tawny fur covered his face, apart from the graying around his muzzle.
"Virmir will do, thank you," I said as I climbed into the chair opposite his oaken desk. Blast it, I felt so small under his gaze...
He pushed aside a few figurines lying upon a map. "Right, right," he waved his hand, "so you're here on punishment. You've got five weeks in and seven more to go, right?" I cringed at the reminder, but nodded. "What do you plan on doing when you're through?"
"Well..." I hadn't given it much though actually...
He didn't give me much time to think. "Here's the deal, Ken."
"Right." He held up some sheets of paper, which I recognized as the report I had written on the plant-and-earth creatures. "We showed our mages this stuff and they're impressed. It's all gibberish to me so I'm gonna take their word for it." He set the pages down in front of him, then leaned back in his seat.
"You put your own life at risk to save your fellow scouts, numerous times your squad leader insists, went above and beyond the call of duty to infiltrate an unknown enemy's base of operations and pulled off a partially successful rescue mission, and picked up a child refugee whose village was destroyed on your way home." He took a moment's pause then slowly leaned forward. "That's pretty impressive for a guy serving a punishment term, Ken."
My mouth hung open. I hadn’t really been doing much more than looking out for myself...
He dropped the papers amongst a pile on his desk. "Truth is, we need field mages. In a bad way. Now we don't care what you were doing breaking into the keep like that or throwing fire-- or whatever magic crap you do-- at our guards," I winced as he rattled off the accusations, "we'll forget that if you join full time."
Full time? As in, become a permanent scout? "Well, I... uh..."
"I'm not done yet." My ears flattened. "We'll give you Journeyman Mage rank. That makes you squad leader."
Now that got my attention.
"This is serious stuff, Ken. I don't throw around promotions lightly. 'Course I'm gonna run you into the ground first. Then maybe I'll let you keep it permanently." He grinned slightly, baring his canines.
Squad leader? Could I really handle that? I didn't even want to be a scout! But what else could I do? I had no money, blast it...
I opened my mouth and he cut me off, wagging a clawtip back in the air. "One catch."
"You study under a higher ranked mage. Journeymen always have a master. House rules." He watched my expression change. My perked ears melted downward and I fought back a whuff of disgust. "Only one day per week, though. Four days scouting work. Weekends off-- except for drills and stuff like that."
Ugh. To suffer the tutelage of some senile old wizard... I did not like that one bit. But it would be better to have one less day of marching around barefoot in abysmal forests, especially with winter fast on its way...
"Double pay. 'Course we'll still have to dock your normal scout's pay for the remainder of your term as per the punishment. But you'll get to keep the difference-- so you'll actually be making money now."
My eyes caught movement at the bookshelf to the left, but when I turned to look I saw nothing. It couldn't have been the woman who had let me in because she had moved behind the jackal's chair, casually thumbing through some papers she had picked up. Blast it! What to do...
"Or you can keep going as you are. And leave when your term is up. You like being a standard scout? Can't say the offer will still be here when your time's up..."
Ugh... I knew I was going to regret this... "I accept."
"Good man." He held out his claw to shake. I leaned forward to offer my own and he took it, his entire hand engulfing my own and part of my wrist, and he shook firmly enough to almost pull me off the chair. "Still got the rest of the week off. Now get out." He grabbed some pins and started pushing them into the map upon his desk.
I hopped down and made for the door, rather glad to escape his presence.
"Monday morning, sunrise, Ken." He said as I put my hand on the latch, not bothering to look up.
Blasted cocky old jackal-man...
Terrant watched the child-like animal morph slip through the door. He looked like a gray fox or something. She'd never seen anyone caught by two of the curses before.
Grafaw-ing laughter interrupted her thoughts, and she glanced at the bookshelf. The wizard's form slowly materialized out of thin air, the outline of his thick mahogany robe appearing at first, then the translucent form of his body that grew more and more opaque.
"Oh, wonderful!" He chuckled, his voice a sloshy slur.
The robes covered his body entirely. Terrant couldn't see what was beyond the cowl, and she wasn't sure she wanted to. Some Keepers became truly hideous things, and even after all these months of living at Metamor, it still unsettled her sometimes. It had taken her a while to accept that simply becoming a woman was one of the easier changes that could have overcome her.
"He knew I was here," the figure bellowed. "He looked right at me! Grafahh ha ha!"
George didn't bother looking up from his map. "Yeah, yeah, you got him. Now get out of my office, will ya? I'm kinda busy."
"You will not be disappointed. I assure you..." The mahogany draped wizard bowed slightly. He then turned to Terrant and repeated the gesture. "Always a pleasure, my lady." She tried to smile, but instead found herself looking at the floor.
The odd figure then made his way to the door, his steps slow and his upper body lurching forward, as if his feet were dragging heavily upon the ground.
She wasn't sure... but she could have sworn it was a tentacle that slipped from under his sleeve and turned the latch...
She breathed a sigh of relief when he was gone, although she was a little embarrassed she had acted so tense around him. No matter what he was, he was still human after all.
"Mind telling me what that was all about?" she asked, finding a seat on the corner of George's desk.
"Made a deal with the mage's guild," he replied gruffly.
"This kid Ken's got some serious firepower. No direction, though. They want him-- bad." He pointed to the reports the fox had written.
Terrant picked up the top sheet and looked at it, knowing full well George couldn't read. It was filled with strange symbols and notes written every-which-way with no apparent organization. In the center was a drawing of some sort of creature that looked like a bipedal gargoyle with vines all over it. Off to the side was a simpler sketch of the creature's head with... a sword spitting it? An arrow pointed to a note that began, "Any moron can kill..."
"But they've got no way of forcing him to join," George continued. "No idea where he came from either. Guy like that's just gonna disappear when his term's up. So I cut them a deal. Made the kid an offer he couldn't refuse. Now I've got a field mage and they've got an apprentice."
She chuckled and George grinned, but it fell quickly as he leaned back in the chair, fingering one of the figurines from his map.
"Don't trust him, though."
"See his eyes? He's defiant and arrogant. I can tell just by looking at him."
"Do you think he'll be okay as a squad leader?"
"If Vale's report is accurate, he already knows a lot more than her. 'Course, you know unit 41..."
She nodded. Number 41 and three or four others George didn't trust more than a few hours away from the Keep, no matter how many times he drilled them.
"What about the mage's guild?"
"Gotta trust the mages, Terry. If it weren't for them, there wouldn't be a Keep right now. So I'm gonna play along for a little while. Who knows? He might turn out all right."
"I'll take another."
"How many have you had now, Vince?"
"Nyaaaahhh..." The hyena growled, waving a claw at his little brother. "None more 'an usual." The slight drunken slur always seemed more noticeable when it came out of a muzzle.
Pelrik sat down across from his older brother. The Deaf Mule had fairly light traffic, although that was the usual case in the middle of the day. Vincent fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat as he waited for his drink, leaning his muzzle against his claw and staring at the empty seat next to him. The one Rufus always sat in.
"They're going to find him, Vince."
"I know that, kid. Stop it."
Pelrik folded his arms and sat back in his seat. His brother had called him "kid" since they were young and he hated it. And his being stuck in the body of a child didn't help. Sometimes he wished he had turned into an animal.
"Vince! You're back!" A familiar raspy voice echoed from behind the child.
"Kayser! Get over here!" Vincent bellowed, a slight smile finally showing through his dour mood.
Pelrik turned as the short fellow dodged a tall moose morph and ducked under the feline waitress' serving plate, his bright yellow and black patterned body standing out amongst the drab browns and grays that most of the tavern-goers wore, either their clothing or fur. Kayser was a three-foot-tall hornet, and though he was short, his bulky abdomen and wings made for tricky navigation between other Keepers.
"Good afternoon, Pelrik." He buzzed, clicking his mandibles as he climbed into the chair next to the human child. He couldn't quite sit, so he forced his rear through the tail-hole and bent his two sets of lower legs to his sides, resembling one of those strange taurs that ran around the Keep every once in a while.
"You seem cheery," Pelrik mused, taking a sip of his ale that the server just set down.
"Major score yesterday," he said as he folded his upper arms and his middle two crept up from under the table. He never seemed able to find a comfortable position, and always shifted the middle pair's roles between hands and feet. "Bunch of lutins made it south and camped at the sides of the roads, picking off merchants. Scored two suns for each one I picked off."
Pelrik rolled his eyes. "Scouts..." He was glad he was a banker and worked inside every day.
The waitress, a black cat, set down the hornet's usual extra-sweetened ale with a straw in it-- he didn't quite have the capacity to sip his drink like most. "So Vince, heard you got yer tail saved by a little kid and a woman."
Vincent's ears folded and a low rumble emitted from his throat. "Not funny, Kay," he glowered at his mug for a moment before taking a sip. "And that kid's in league with the deadra..."
"What?" The hornet tried to ask through a laugh. He clicked his mandibles in amusement. "Why do you think that?" Pelrik watched his antennae curl in the insect's version of a smile.
The hyena leaned back in his seat, his eyes growing distant. After a moment, he held his arms wide and began, "Well, me an' Rufus were taking care of business..."
Oh, great. The story.
This would be Pelrik's third time hearing it. "Another ale, please!"
"There were hundreds of them. These little monsters made up of dirt and plants and all sorts of nasty stuff."
"You sure they weren't dirty lutins?" Kayser asked after taking a sip from the straw, holding his mug with three hands.
"Shut up and let me finish. Anyway, we were doing really well, despite being totally outnumbered. We musta killed at least a couple score each." Pelrik rolled his eyes. "But then the freaks got Claudia." He clenched his fists. "Totally threw us off guard. Then they captured me and Rufus and took us underground."
"Uh huh, uh huh."
"Tried to stick us in a bunch of cages. Little guys in black robes yelling at us to change to animals and stuff. So we started goin' crazy. Wrecked a bunch of stuff and broke free. Me and Rufus got our weapons back and started killing them again. We were gonna make it out too... except for..." His eyes trailed off again.
"Except for what?"
"Well, sitting in the middle of this room was a fox..."
"A fox? A normal fox?"
"Yeah, four legged, little thing... 'Except it was this weird silver and black color. Anyway, we're killing all these little monsters and it's just watching us..." He leaned in closer over the table to his two listeners. "And it's smiling..."
The tips of Vincent's canines poked out of his mouth. Kayser just turned to look at Pelrik.
Vincent let out a sigh, the pace of his story slowing dramatically. "Then it attacked us. Now listen. I'm not making any of this up." Kayser nodded, though likely just to play along. It wasn't so easy to read the body language of an insect, especially with the unchanging eyes. "It shot through the room in one leap-- I'm talking twenty, thirty feet here. And it caught on fire. Not red fire. It was black as night. Pitch black flames. Oh, gods, those eyes..."
He took a long swig of ale. "Not I swear with Lady Akkala and all the gods as my witnesses, it took my left arm clean off."
Kayser pursed his mandibles, the word "but" clearly on them. Vincent held out a finger to stop him.
"The pain was unbearable. It took my arm off, Kay. It tore us to shreds, this little thing. We were like rag dolls. It grabbed us and threw us across the room. We hit the walls. We hit the ceiling. And we couldn't touch it. Gods was it fast... We were left lying on top of each other in a pool of our own blood."
He took another drink. The two were quiet now. "And then I woke up in a cage, as a full hyena, with no injuries or pain at all."
A long moment passed before Kayser spoke. "That is... kinda freaky... But what does this have to do with this guy you mentioned?"
Vincent looked both ways and leaned over the table. "This guy, Virmir-- he looks just like the fox."
"No... now wait. I thought you said he was age regressed."
"He is. Supposed to have two curses. Fishy if you ask me."
"And he looks just like this... daedra fox?"
"Well minus the creepy eyes and the black flames. And he's younger of course. Looks like the same species to me, though."
"That doesn't necessarily mean--" Pelrik tried to chime in.
"Have you told George? The Lothisana, even?" the hornet cut him off.
"Shhh... no, no, no... I'm not tellin' anyone!" He said in hushed tones. "If this guy's on the inside, who else do you think knows? What if they pick me off for knowing too much? Vale already thinks I'm nuts. You guys don't tell anyone either!"
"Seriously, Vince..." Pelrik spoke up.
"Shut it, kid." Pelrik just frowned.
"Fine, fine, we won't tell anyone," Kayser assured, raising all four of his hands. He shifted his weight so the middle set became feet again on his chair, "but you should tell someone."
"I know, I know. Let me work this out a bit. Get more info... You guys mind changin' the subject?"
Why was she so nervous?
Vale smoothed out her dress as she sat on the wooden bench, her tail draped to her side. The autumn air would be cool enough to pierce her ruddy fur soon, but for now, the weather was beautiful. It felt funny being out of armor, but she wanted to look nice... Why? She was just going to see Emile. Her and...
Her and Virmir.
Her heart fluttered-- just a bit. She shouldn't be nervous around him. They worked together, after all! They'd been through a lot in just a short time, actually...
She remembered how scared she was when those monsters were closing in. She couldn't do anything to hurt them, and she knew she was going to die. Then Virmir was there. He touched her back, and she felt his magic flow through her body, like a warm gentle stream. The outside world exploded in flames, and every one of the creatures died. But no matter how terrifying those flames were, they did not hurt her, and she knew they never would.
That had been the most amazing experience in her entire life.
She sighed and smiled. Maybe he could do the trick with the fire in her hand again? It felt different after he let go, but still holding a candle flame in the palm of her hand made her giggle. Maybe she should suggest he make one for Emile, and then he'd make one for her as well? In fact, that sounded like a good idea. She'd do it.
The dhole stretched and scratched the side of her muzzle, looking down at the orphanage at the bottom of the hill. It seemed a very nice place for Emile to live. A group of a dozen children played next to the recently repaired little cottage, screaming and laughing. Two of them were covered in fur, although she couldn't quite make out what they were from this distance.
Signs of the past winter's assault were everywhere. This area of town had been completely razed. To the left and the right of the orphanage stood stone foundations of buildings that had never been repaired. The rubble had been cleared at least, and she could see no reason why the children couldn't play amongst the rocks as they did.
Behind the lone standing building stretched a wide open grassy field all the way to the outer curtain wall that surrounded the city and the keep. The gray stone wall bore deep cracks and had a fairly large chunk missing from the upper portions, but it seemed enough to keep the kids in at least.
The wind shifted and she caught his scent. Virmir was coming... She tensed and ran her claws through her head-fur and adjusted her ponytail-- the only remnant of her human hair, although it had turned the same color as her fur. The fox's scent always comforted her, and she drank it in without turning in the direction he was coming from.
"Hello, Lady Vale." He said from her left, bowing slightly. He was always so stiff and polite, and the only one who never seemed to say "Lady" in a mocking tone.
"Oh, hello Virmir," she turned and said, pretending to not have known he was there. "Have a seat. They're going to bring Emile out in a minute."
The short gray fox nodded, wrapped in his black cloak. He was so dark and mysterious-- a real live mage. His ears idly flicked and his eyes shifted around. He always seemed uncomfortable and unhappy. Turning from a human man to a fox-child must have been difficult. She wondered what could possibly be going through his mind.
He climbed onto the bench next to her, wrapping his tail around the opposite side. His toeclaws dangled, just too short to touch the ground, and he folded his arms under his cloak, a hard frown etched across his muzzle. That's what he was after-- dignity. It was neigh impossible for him to look dignified, fox-child that he was, no matter how hard he furrowed his brow or how properly he spoke. He was just so doggone cute...
"Congratulations on your promotion, Virmir." She motioned to the three golden star badge pinned to the side of his cloak and tried to smile, but was suddenly overcome with a heavy sense of loss.
He angled an ear towards her first, then moved his eyes. "Oh... thank you." He paused, catching her gaze for an instant before looking at the ground. "It seems we are both squad leaders now, and will no longer have the opportunity to work together."
Her heart lashed against her chest as she tried to fight back the rising panic. Just tell him... but what would he think of her? It didn't matter... He'd find out anyway...
"I..." She stammered, now the one trying to look dignified. Luckily her tail was upon the bench; otherwise it'd be between her legs. "I'm not squad leader any more..."
His ears perked and he looked straight at her. "Oh really?" She couldn't meet his gaze, and instead focused on a rock in the road.
"Yeah..." she said through a sigh. She tried to smile. Tried to pretend it didn't bother her. "Just a normal scout now."
"But, you are nobility."
His words were like ice, stabbing into her heart. She felt a flash of rage. "Is that what you think... that I got the job because of my heritage?" He gave her a queer look, cocking one ear up and the other down.
Oh gods... it was true! She tried to fight back the tears, but they flowed anyway. It was all true! She stood, covering her eyes in a fruitless attempt to hide the sobs. She only got in because of her name! She stole the seal; she forged the letter from her father... So many had died because of her...
"I-I... I must go..." she choked. She ran down the street in a full sprint.
What in blazes did I say?!
Blast it! She just took off running in tears like some psycho woman. I swear, all women are insane! Argh!
"Ah, so you must be Mr. Fox." A grandfatherly voice approached, walking up the cobblestone path.
"Mr. Fox! Mr. Fox! Yay!"
Oh, blast! Emile tackled me on the bench, nearly knocking me clear off. She wrapped her arms around and planted a kiss on the side of my muzzle. Blast it! And Vale left me alone with the kid!
An old man approached from the road leading down to the orphanage, leaning heavily on a cane. A peppered beard crossed the human's face. "I must say, I've heard a lot about you..." He held out his hand to shake.
"Virmir," I said, offering my claw after wrestling it free from under Emile's arms.
"Kyle Recos. I was told what you've done to save this girl, Virmir."
I hated hearing that over and over. "... She was merely at the right place, at the right time."
"Well, she is doing wonderful here. She has made many friends, and she is welcome to stay as long as is necessary."
"Look what Uncle Kyle made me!" Emile interrupted, holding a stuffed animal to my face. I pulled my muzzle back enough to stare into some sort of gray visage. Button eyes, a smile made of stitches, and large triangular ears. It was a fox-- a gray one.
"I thought foxes were red," I said, pushing the plush creature away.
"Well this one's gray!" She pulled it close to her chest and hugged it, its yarn tail spilling in her lap. I couldn’t help but smile at that one.
"Well, I will leave you two alone for now. Dinner will be ready in an hour, Emile."
"Okay, Uncle Kyle!"
"And Virmir, should you ever want to join in, you are welcome to do so whenever you wish."
"Join in?" I furrowed my brow.
"Yes," he waved his wrinkled hand at the group of children playing in the background. "Only seven of them are my children. The rest have been age regressed by the magic of the Keep. They come from time to time to forget about their adult troubles and unwind."
I gritted my teeth. There was no way to distinguish the cursed from the real children amongst the group of screaming kids. How degrading... The very thought of actually acting like a child horrified me.
The old man stared at the children dreamy-eyed, his full weight upon his cane. "I cannot think of a greater blessing than to be forever a child..." After a moment's pause, he turned and hobbled down the road, leaving me alone with the girl.
Emile turned to me and thrust the rag-doll in my face. "Guess what his name is!"
"Uh... something involving the word 'fox'?"
She giggled. "No! Felix. You're Mr. Fox!"
"I have a name too, you know..." There were only, like, one thousand other foxes at the Keep.
"Verrmeeer?" She struggled to pronounce the foreign word. "That's a funny name..."
"Oh, and Emile isn't?"
I rolled my eyes and sighed. "Just call me Kendo."
"Kendo! I like that name! Okay, Mr. Kendo!" She stood, grabbing my claw and nearly yanking me off the bench. "C'mon, I wanna show you my secret place!"
"Secret place?" I asked as she dragged me down the hill. My heart sunk as for a moment I thought she was going to introduce me to those other children, but instead she made for the line of trees and underbrush that surrounded the little orphanage.
"Yeah! No one else knows about it."
Blast it, I wanted to just tell her I couldn't afford the time to visit her every day, offer my goodbyes and best wishes, and be done with it. She was in a nice place, and I knew she would be well taken care of. But I supposed one last drawn-out visit wouldn't hurt...
Once amongst the trees, we proceeded further back until we came to the outer curtain wall that surrounded all of Metamor. Monolithic gray stones soared up past the trees and stretched toward the blue sky. The afternoon sun couldn't reach us from behind the wall, so we found ourselves cast in a dark, chilly shadow.
"Over here!" She whispered, as if speaking normally would spoil the secret. She skipped several paces ahead and pointed to a large crack in the moss-covered blocks. It was triangular in shape with jagged edges where the missing rock used to be.
Just big enough for a child to squeeze through.
"C'mon!" She excitedly got down on her hands and knees, her tan dress dirtying, and stuck her head right in the hole.
"Emile... I don't know about--"
"You've got to see this!" She finished crawling through the crack. I kneeled and looked in, and she looked back at me from the other end. "C'mon, Kendo! C'mon!"
I folded my ears and barred my canines, which only made her laugh. Blast it! I begrudgingly bent over and stuck my head in the hole. Blasted cloak was going to take ages to get clean...
The wall must have been 10 feet thick. I was just the right size to skim through the crack. I supposed I could have shifted into a normal fox and had a much easier time, but I had no desire to pop out the other side sans clothing. When I stuck my head out the other end a frigid breeze slapped me in the face.
Wow. The mountains jumped out at me first. Endless blue peaks, stabbing into the sky, stretching as far as the eye can see left and right. Before them lay forests peppered with the fiery reds and oranges of autumn. A sprawling grassy plane before that, dotted with tiny shrubs.
We had come out past the outer edge of Metamor's wall. Not more than a few yards ahead of us a sharp drop-off spilled hundreds off feet straight down. It was one thing to catch the view on a carriage ride up Metamor Hill, and another totally to see it standing upon the very edge.
"Isn't it pretty?"
We sat upon a dead tree that had fallen over, the only sign of plant life on the tiny ridge apart from a few grasses. Just a few short yards to the left or right the ridge became narrow enough that it was practically flush with the wall. The only possible way to get up here was through the crack.
Without the wall as a shield a fierce wind blew upon us, and I found myself shivering despite the afternoon sun. Emile hugged Felix tightly. Without fur, the human child was worse off. So I removed my cloak and draped it around her shoulders. She smiled as she thumbed my three-star Journeyman Mage badge.
And then the question came out of nowhere. "What does Eli look like?"
Huh? Wasn't Eli the Patildor god or something? I vaguely remembered the child priest's inane ramblings. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, you're my guardian right?"
Blast it... why must she come back to this? I gritted my teeth and nodded. "Yes..."
"My guardian angel. So Eli sent you, right?"
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Blast it! I scooted away from her on the log, my ears on end and my tail, fully exposed without my cloak, frazzled. That wasn't what I meant! "I--uh... you misunderstand, Emile..."
She smiled. Nothing, absolutely nothing I did failed to make her smile. "Oh? But you work for him, right?"
I pinched the bridge of my snout. "Emile... listen..." Should I just tell her I flat out lied to shut her up and get her out of harm's way? I certainly wasn't willing to go in any deeper. "I've never even heard of this Eli."
This perplexed her. "You've never talked to Eli?"
Ugh. I shuddered as I recalled the methods required to "talk" to the Teragran god of the hunt. A priest would slaughter a pig, burn the meat, the wrap the entrails around his neck as he chanted. I honestly felt sorrier for the poor animal than the moronic followers. "No, I haven't."
She giggled. She found this funny? "Silly fox! It's easy!" She set her stuffed animal down and kneeled in front of the log, my cloak draping over her body. "Just do this." I sat there blinking for a moment. "Well, come on!"
Blast it... just play along with the kid... I fought back a growl as I kneeled next to her, resting my elbows upon the wood and clasping my hands like her. "Now what?" My tail thrashed impatiently.
"Tell him what you're thankful for." She closed her eyes. "Thank you for sending Kendo to save me and protect me. He's the best friend I ever had." Gah... my ears burned red hot in embarassment. "Your turn!"
Blast it... she thinks I'm her friend...
Thankful for? What was I supposed to be thanking? Random chance? And not a single thing was going for me. I wasn't even human or an adult anymore, for crying out loud. And I was stuck in a foreign land for the rest of my life working with incompetent morons and risking my life for nothing every single day.
She just stared at me, smiling...
I sighed. "Thank you for Emile... I... I like her smile."
She beamed and kissed me on the nose. "See, it wasn't that hard!"
We sat on the log again. Children... She believed. Everyone believed in something. Everyone but me. Children were so easy to fool. And that's what they all were-- children.
I did like her smile, though.
We sat there for a while as the sun began to set, casting the mountain-scape in a crimson glow. The chill in the air became more piercing, and I wrapped my tail into my lap to help fight it off.
I eyed Felix the stuffed fox as it lay lifelessly between us. Like some dead animal with a fake smile plastered across its face. I extended my hand and held it high above the rag doll, feeling it with a few tendrils of magic that I used to levitate objects. I wrapped an invisible noose around its neck, and two more around each of its forearms. By then Emile noticed me wiggling my fingers above the toy. I smiled and winked.
The stuffed gray fox sat up and turned his head back and forth. Looking up at Emile, he held his stubby paws wide and then bowed gracefully. I grabbed his tail with a fourth tendril and made it wag.
Emile went crazy. "You brought him to life!" She was ecstatic, jumping up and down, clapping her hands. I made him walk around a bit, offer his paw to shake with her, dance around. She loved it.
Yeah, I liked it when she smiled.
"Emile!" I angled my ears to hear the distant old man's voice from behind the wall. Her human ears weren't sensitive enough to hear the call. Or she was too enraptured by the toy come to life.
"I believe it's time for you to go, Emile." She looked up just as her name was called again, a bit louder this time.
"Oh..." She took up Felix and removed my cloak, which I set in my lap. "Okay, Kendo, I'll see you tomorrow!" She skipped over to the crack and dove in.
Blast it! I forgot to tell her I didn't have the time to visit her like this every day... I wrapped the cloak around my shoulders as I watched the sun kiss the jagged distant peaks.
Oh well, one more day couldn't hurt, I supposed.
The laughter died when she approached.
"Oh... uh... hello, Lady Vale." Vincent seemed startled and clumsy, clearly not expecting to see the dhole appear in the Deaf Mule.
Vale tried her best to smile. "Don't worry about the 'Lady' thing anymore. Just Vale is okay."
"... Really?" The hyena scratched the underside of his muzzle.
Vale looked at the other two occupants at the table, a child and a hornet morph. "Hello, Pelrik, Kayser."
"Mind if I join you?"
"Oh! ... Uh... sure, no problem." Vincent held his claws out wide.
"Thanks..." Vale walked around and took the seat next to the hyena. "Don't mind me."
Pelrik and Kayser looked at each other. "Actually," the child said, scratching the back of his head, "Kay and I were just headed out."
"Yeah..." the hornet buzzed, lifting four hands into the air, "business stuff... Gotta talk to Pel about depositing my last pay. Nice seeing you again, Vale. Later, Vince."
Vincent made a ferocious snarling face at the two, but then replaced it with a fake smile. "Yeah... see ya." Vale watched the two leave.
Vincent twitched nervously as he sat alone next to her. "So... how are you holding up?" she ventured.
"Uh... good, good... and you?"
Another quiet moment. Vincent then stood, pulling his tail from the hole in the chair. "Well, I've got some, er... stuff to take care of, so I'll see ya later."
"Oh... okay, then. See you later, Vincent."
The hyena hurried through the crowds and out the door, leaving Vale alone at the table. She sighed and ran a nail through the grooves, resting her head against her other hand.
"What can I get you?" The waitress asked.
"Your strongest ale, please."
She hadn't cried like this since she was a little girl.
She was worthless. A failure. A reject. Worse. People died because of her...
Vale began to cover her eyes with her hands, but something felt funny... wrong. Blinking in the dim light, terror griped her heart as she looked at them. Her white furry fingers had become short and stubby, and her thumbs receded up her arms. As soon as realization hit her, they snapped back to their human-like shape, and her nightgown, which had become very loose on her, fit her once more.
She sat up on edge of her bed, staring at her hands... She had almost turned into an animal. Into a dhole... Why? Was it because she had lost control of her emotions?
She hugged her arms, the silk smooth and comforting over her fur. The fabric draped halfway over her tail as it limply lay atop the sheets. She had regressed fully into an animal only once before. She shut her eyes and tried to forget. It was the most terrifying experience of her entire life...
But she could never forget.
She was a lieutenant then-- not a scout. Part of Metamor's proud army. They had been training when the alarm came, when the Winter Assault began... The lutins poured over the walls. But her squad had the better weapons, and they had the high ground. She ordered her men to flank the little green monsters. They all obeyed without question. She had no idea how many there were...
Every single one of her men died.
She ran for her life through the blinding whiteness. The lutins gained on her, laughing as they threw their spears and shot their arrows. It was a hunt. A slaughter. She stumbled and fell into the snow. They almost had her... She surged forward, desperately trying to escape. She knew she was going to die.
And then her armor fell off, piece by piece as her body shrank. On four paws she bounded away, every ounce of human intelligence blotted out by pure animalistic fear.
She had heard stories of the animal-cursed going completely feral and waking up somewhere unfamiliar, their minds a blank as to what had happened.
But she remembered.
She remembered it all. She knew what it was like to not understand the concept of self. To be unable to grasp the idea of language. To know only danger and safety. To know true fear. Nothing made sense at all. Things chased her. She was alone with no pack. Utterly alone.
She didn't remember she was human until the middle of the next day, huddled under the remains of a burned out house.
Vale studied her hands in the waning light of the oil lamp. Her eyes ran over the groves on the black pads that had replaced her palms. Her long black claw-like nails. The thin white fur that covered the backs of her hands, turning russet in color as it moved up her forearms.
What would it like to be an animal?
Not temporarily. But to live as one. To live in the forest, utterly ignorant of all the hardships of human life. To not be responsible for the lives of others... To not worry about what others thought of her... To leave all her hardships behind...
She stood, the bare pads of her feet touching the cold stone floor of her room. Slowly she bent down, resting her haunches on the ground and her hands before her like a dog. It wasn't a difficult position given her digitigrade feet.
She had never shifted voluntarily before, so she didn't really know what to do. She just shut her eyes and let it happen. It was not difficult at all. The warmth spread throughout her body, and her bones melted, shifting, rearranging... It was a surprisingly comforting sensation, when not running for her life...
When it was done, she tentatively stepped out of her oversized nightgown on four paws, feeling the cool night air around her entire body as it slipped off her tail. Blushing and feeling heat rise to her ears, she turned her head to ensure the latch upon her door was drawn.
She took a few easy steps around her room, her nails clicking upon the floor. Could she really do this? She wagged her tail a few times, feeling it brush against her hind legs. Could she really live as an animal?
She let out a dog-style sigh and remembered how Virmir turned into a normal fox every time he fell asleep.
There he was again, in her mind. She kept thinking about him.
Foolish. She'd probably just die out in the wilderness.
She leapt up onto her bed, finding it larger than she remembered. It was late. Virmir was asleep right now. As a fox. She turned around three times, padding her bed down, then curled up into a little ball, burying her nose in the tip of her tail. She chuckled inwardly, amused that this position was just as comfortable as stretching out as a human. She shut her eyes and imagined that the fox was snuggling with her.