A soft groan alerted Coe to the rousing of his latest patent. The raccoon put down his quill and rubbed his eyes before departing his small office for the main room of the infirmary. Many of the seats and even some chairs were occupied by a band of drunks from a bar brawl the night before but past them a patent stood out from the others. Most of them had bandaged wounds but this one hadn’t suffered a bruise or cut from a bar stool or pool cue, his head was notably free of bandages.
The grievance was with his legs. This man’s legs were almost entirely bandaged, even his feet. Thankfully his upper thigh and groin were undamaged so there was no dilemma when it came to the bad pan.
The man looked confused as did many of his patents when waking up; he seemed to struggle with the fact that he lay horizontal and couldn’t move himself as much as he faintly tried. Coe put a glove on, not one fashioned from shed dragon scales that he used for surgery but a common woollen glove.
He restrained the man with the gloved hand and spoke, “Stay calm.” When he saw the man relax in recognition of his voice he continued, “You are in a hospital.”
“Hospital?” He asked anxiously and tried to open his eyes.
“Drink this,” The healer said and held up a cup with water to his mouth. “Your wounds are not mortal but you will have difficulty moving due to the bindings on your legs.”
“My legs? Are they lame?” He asked in a louder voice as he tried to focus his vision.
“No, the bandages will restrict your movement.” The raccoon answered sharply, “Your legs will heal.”
Banc just stared at the healer for a long moment in shock. Whether it was due to his words or if he’d even been paying attention, Coe couldn’t tell, “Y... Y...” He stuttered as he looked at the raccoon’s face, “You’re...”
“Tired.” Coe finished, “I am not a monster, I am a nurse and you have nothing to fear from me, just take deep breaths and allow your mind to settle and focus.”
Banc panted as the shock, progressively, dwindled and the image began to register in his conscious mind – ‘this is an animal man. This is a talking raccoon. This talking raccoon, animal man is talking to ME.’
“Wow.” The merchant whispered.
“What is your name, son? The scouts who found you figure you’re a travelling vendor.”
“I’m Banc, I travelled all day from Midtow... you’re a raccoon.”
“You’re an observant one,” Coe commented, “My name is Brian Coe and you’ve woken up in Metamor Keep.”
“I didn’t offend you did I, Mr. Coe? I just... you know.” He mumbled.
Coe began poking around the man’s bandages for whatever reason. “No, I’m used to it. I’m usually the first person... creature, people see when they wake up. Travellers like you. They usually scream.”
Banc sat back and tried to ignore the odd prodding of his damaged flesh, “A glove? Am I sick... sir, nurse Coe?”
“I was trained as a part time nurse but effectively act as a full time doctor... just call me Coe.” He answered and began scribbling something with a quill, “The glove was a suggestion – people are startled to be probed by a paw.”
“But I’m bandaged and clothed. Also I saw you before you touched me.” The merchant pointed out with an upturned eyebrow.
Coe blinked and rubbed his eyes again before putting down the quill and parchment and removing the glove, “Well it seemed like a good idea, at 4am, after a twelve hour shift.” He mumbled the latter softly.
“When can I walk again?” Banc finally asked.
“Tomorrow.” The raccoon surprised him by answering, “One of the scouts or someone before you got in here did some work on you, something magical most likely... I’d like to walk you on some bars later today and keep you over night as a precaution but you should be fine, you’ll just need to keep the bandages on and walk with a crutch. You are very lucky. Lutins usually smear poison on their traps.”
“Does this mean I’ll escape the curse?”
“Yes, unless you intend on staying you’ll be long gone before the curse claims you.”
Banc became silent and just looked elsewhere for a moment, “Oh...” He said softly.
“I’ll let you rest and have some breakfast brought to you in a bit, if you have any discomfort or require assistance, Inform me or one of my assistants immediately. Don’t try to be tough and ‘take it’ understand?”
“Yes sir.” He answered distractedly. The curse wouldn’t take him. He can walk. That was... good, he supposed.
Banc left the infirmary eventually, on orders to return the next day and exercise his legs in the meantime. For just that reason the merchant travelled on a b-line to where he assumed the exit out to the keep proper was, also, he wanted an excuse to explore the cursed castle.
It sounded odd to him now that he thought about it, the ‘curse’. The cursed castle. Sounded like a haunted house, an eerie building on the horizon with a red sky and black clouds around it or something. And a cursed keeper, what’s that, that’s like a guy who... tried to steal an artefact in a tomb and came away with lots of bad luck. Now that’s a curse! These people are more... inconvenienced then ‘cursed’ but then there is-
The man screamed out when he suddenly fell forward, his train of thought all but drowning out the world around him, more specifically the stairway he fell down.
It would be many moments more before he realised what happened but the merchant’s fall was halted in mid air before he sprung back up slightly then back down again and remain motionless in mid air.
“Now how did this happen?” Banc asked himself.
He could feel cords tied around his arms and legs but he could not see any such restraints. Was he hallucinating? It didn’t help that the blood was rushing to his head.
“Steady up there, I’ll have you down in a moment.” A voice ahead of him said.
The invisible ropes began to wobble and chafe him and bit by bit the stairs below his face slid further and further down out of sight before he was lowered gently to the ground. Before he could grip the floor, Banc felt himself being handled again, taken into someone’s strong grip and then hefted up... for the second time that day.
Banc nodded slowly, gazing into the gazelle morph’s eyes. He brushed his arms looking for the ropes but could find none. “Thank you, sir... What just happened?”
“I’m no expert but I’d say you took a stumble down the stairs.”
“I know that... what happened just then? Did you catch me in a rope or something?”
“Something like that,” Fell explained. “Magic strands. You can only see them with Magic sight.”
“Well, thanks, uh...”
“Yes I did!”
“No! My name is Fell!”
“Oh! I see... You’re an antelope?” Banc blurted out.
“And you’re a human!” Fell joked. “Actually I’m a gazelle.”
“Oh!” The merchant said in instant recognition as he looked over the keeper, “Yes, I see. One of my brothers has some nice... uh... actually, forget it.” He blushed.
Fell laughed. “Gazelle hides?” he asked.
Banc stuttered and cowered, “I’m really sorry! I can’t believe I said that!”
Fell just nodded slowly. “No need to worry. I don’t think they were a relative or a friend. Unless it was an in-law, then I’d buy you a drink!”
The merchant cringed, “Anyway, I was looking for the exit to this place.”
“Come, I’ll help you downstairs then.” Fell offered and motioned down the second staircase from them.
“What, to the dungeons? I need to get back up to the ground.” Banc said and pointed in the direction that he’d stumbled down.
“Unless you intend to jump out a window, you should follow me down. And the dungeons are very far from here.”
The merchant blinked. Gosh, he’d been on the second floor? He must be really disorientated! “Oh, of course! Please lead on.”
The time went by quickly and Banc found himself in need of rest. He’d slowly made his way around the keep and the lower ward, his legs gradually becoming more and more flexible and he found movement much easier.
The first thing he’d done after entering the Lower Ward was to arrange his journey home with a caravan. He was lucky to find one with a suitable itinerary – the rest either departing imminently or heading further north still, to a city in the far north of the valley. He didn’t know what that city was called though, just that it was some sort outpost.
Banc found a caravan that recently arrived that would be leaving after the morrow. He bartered his small quantity of wares with the driver to secure his place in one of their wagons when they’d return south.
Return south... for some reason he wanted to stay. Stay and... and grow fur and a tail! Yes, that’s what he wanted, that would be wild. But he couldn’t! The lad had no real reason to stay there and he could leave anytime he wanted, furthermore he HAD to leave. He had trading partners and family, even several trading partners who were family, literally.
He couldn’t just abandon them to become something cute and cuddly. Ugh. That was the way the real world worked. And it sucked.
With the last of his energy, Banc settled for the nearest inn he could see. He didn’t even notice that the sun had set and it began getting very dark and cold but he made it to an inn and that’s all that mattered. Actually the image on the door was of a mug of ale, he hoped it was an inn and not just a tavern...
Banc pushed the door open with great difficulty. He had to push it open, walk through and maintain his balance all at the same time without loosing his crutch. Instead he ended up getting his feet entangled in the crutch and he quickly lost the balance he’d been trying so hard to maintain.
As he approached the ground a strong pair of arms grabbed him. His nose was mere inches from the stone floor before the stranger pulled him up right. “Be careful!”
The man gasped as he was held in the grip of the animal man. “Thank you!” He stuttered.
“Glad to help. Just be more careful next time,” the wolf answered.
“I’m learning to walk again but I’ll do my best!” He answered. “Sorry to bother you again but I dropped my crutch.”
The wolf leaned over and picked up the crutch that was resting on a crate. “Here you go!” He said, handing it back to the crippled man who he still held aloft with one hand.
“Thank you! ...again. My name is Banc.”
“Aneirin.” The wolf offered.
“Crates?” Banc asked, nodding in the direction that his crutch had fallen.
“I’m on the night run; I’m making a delivery for the kitchens.” The canine answered.
“Oh, well since I’m here I might as well hold the door open,” Banc mused, “Those look heavy.”
“Thank you, and yes, they do LOOK heavy...” The wolf grinned. He wrapped his arm about a rope a few times and held it taught. A brief tug and the crates on the floor began to slide as if on an unseen sled.
Aneirin walked slowly through the door, the crates following him, one behind the other connected by rope yet offering no resistance to the ground, “Nice to meet you.” He called out as he departed, the last crate sliding out the open door.
The merchant blinked and eventually allowed the dor to close on it’s own power before he turned and headed to the counter. He reached it in due time, walking was defiantly much easier now then it had been that morning. He couldn’t see the inn keeper but there was an assistant present.
Standing in front of him was a young boy of about 10 years old. He was wearing the working clothes of an innkeeper. “Can I help you?”
“Hello, son, can you fetch me someone?”
“I’m Mustaf and I OWN this place.” He answered calmly.
“That’s nice, is your dad around?” Banc asked, adjusting his posture.
“You’re new to the valley? Aren’t you?” Mustaf asked. “I am 52 years old and my father has been dead for as long as a decade.”
“You’re a...” He blinked, “Wait, there’s more then one curse?”
“Yup. You didn’t know this? I was hit by the age curse. Now can I help you?”
“Oh! I, uh, I need a room.” He mumbled.
“OK! I have a room with a single bed.” Mustaf answered.
The merchant blushed, “I’m sorry, I’m confused about the curse, I didn’t mean, you know...”
Mustaf waved a hand. “Don’t worry. It happens often with newly arrived guests.”
The innkeeper hopped down from a crate he’d been standing on. To the merchant it looked like he disappeared from the counter until he climbed back up.
“Our rates are four copper a night,” He placed a key on the counter top, “May I have a name?”
“Banc.” He said, reaching into his coin pouch, “Are the commons still open?”
“The bar closes at midnight but the kitchen stays open all night.”
“I suppose there’s lots of nocturnal folk about.” Banc shrugged as he took the key.
“That and people on the graveyard shift. There’s always someone who seems to need coffee like they need air.” He intoned. “I’ll have your bag taken up to your room. it’s on the second floor, half way down the corridor and to your right.”
“Thank you,” The man said and removed the pack from his back while he leaned against the counter for support.
“Take care with your step and have a nice night.” The innkeeper answered.
Banc yawned loudly as he rose. It took him a good ten minutes to climb out of the bed due to the bandages and when he finally stood up he just wanted to go back to bed again. The thought of going through the process again make him feel more exhausted then staying up so he remained consistent and prepared to start the day, although those warm sheets looked so inviting...
As he dressed he gazed out the window. The Rusty Cup was near the city’s curtain wall and despite the pluming smoke from chimney stacks he had quite a clear view of the wall. As nice as the view was, the curtain wall was still just that – a wall, there were more interesting things, and people, to see downstairs.
Despite the belief that he’d been getting better at walking with a crutch and tightly bound legs, he stumbled quite a bit as he headed out the door, and then fell forward, sideways, up ways and back over himself until he came to a rest in a pile of scaly flesh.
Feeling disoriented, Banc didn’t know which direction to look in and it didn’t help that everywhere he looked he found nothing but the same green scales everywhere, entangling him.
As he flailed about a voice suddenly ordered, “Stop, I’m in enough of a knot as it is.”
The voice was feminine, the body was strapping. Banc gasped as he felt the woman slither about and without actually shifting anything around, slid her entire body free until the merchant was left lying on the ground in a daze. The coiling flesh suddenly returned and with a slight alarm the man was wrapped around the chest and hefted back up to his feet.
Banc leaned against the wall near his open door and blinked at the... maid? The woman, a large, LARGE, snake wearing a sort of apron recalled her large, thick tail from the merchant and coiled it around a broom handle. In addition to the mop she held a duster in one humanoid hand and a vase in her other.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” She said and placed the vase back on a side table where it’d almost fallen from, “I’m not very good at coordination.”
“NOT good at coordination?!” The merchant gasped, “Milady, from what I just witnessed you have the finest dexterity I’ve ever seen.”
She blushed and hid her face behind her broom-wielding tail, “Thank you but I can only do that when I’m not busy with other things. I was trying to move quickly and mop the floor at once and, well, you know the rest.”
He nodded, “Interesting experience, being entangled in a snake... a pretty, um, snakette.”
She face palmed, “Naga is the correct term I think but my name is Ethyl. I always seem to be getting my tail entangled in everything. Before the change it was my pony tail that did that... oh, I miss it, but at least I don’t have to shave my legs, I have neither hair nor legs...” The snake blinked, “You think I’m pretty?”
“Aye... your skin is smooth and your upper body is well proportioned.” It was, he suddenly realised. Ethyl even looked to have breasts under her apron though they probably didn’t function or sport nipples but she very much looked like a young woman, despite the massive differences from that of a full human.
Her arms slumped as she looked off into abyss, “The only person who’s ever said I’m pretty is my father.”
“Your father?” Banc asked.
“The innkeeper.” She blinked, “Oh, that’s right, are you staying another night? Sorry I got sidetracked.”
“We both did.” He offered, “Yes I am staying another night and my name is Banc.”
She smiled, “Then I’ll have your room cleaned before you return. Would you like your breakfast brought to you, master Banc?”
“That’s alright, milady, I’ll take it in the commons,” ‘unless you’re bringing it up and sharing.’ He thought with a grin.
“Okay. I’ll tell dad to hold onto the room for you, I do hope you get back safely.” She said, eyeing his legs.
“Hey, I made it here didn’t I? Don’t worry about me, lady Ethyl. I look forward to seeing you again.”
She did a curt bow and entered his room. Like a procession, her torso followed her upper body and her long, thick tail followed after that, the mop held in it became wedged in the door... after a couple jerks it came free and disappeared into the room. As Banc slowly made his way toward the stairs he could hear a faint hum and the sound of bed sheets being ruffled.
Where was he going? Nowhere. Why? No reason. Well, he had time to blow before the caravan departed and his legs felt better with movement. The journey was rough and dimmed into a blur when arrived in the centre of the town just down the hill.
Somehow the merchant made his way out of the Lower Ward, down that ungodly winding path, into Euper, passed through several of it’s inns for idle banter and time wasting before ending up in the town square... And to think, if that was taxing he still has to head back up, all the way back to the keep to have his bandages replaced with clean ones as the raccoon had ordered and then head back to the Rusty Cup.
“What was I thinking?” He groaned to himself, looking back at the path he’d traversed. Turning back around his thoughts were quickly dashed upon the sight of the creature in front of him.
The creature was a morph – a fox, like many others in the valley, but unlike them this one had the upper body of a ‘normal’ morph yet the lower body of a fox – that is a fox-fox. A real fox body sticking out underneath! He sort of looked like Ethyl, what with a humanoid upper half and a larger animal half underneath. Was Ethyl a creature like him? Was he a creature like Ethyl?
The awe struck merchant absently found himself approaching the centaur-fox-like creature.
Misha scowled at the approaching man. “Yes?”
“...Hello.” He said off the top of his head, lucky to get even that out.
“Something wrong?” Misha asked calmly. “Never seen a foxtaur?”
“No.” Banc answered, “I just wanted to say... I think you look awesome.”
The foxtaur nodded and stood up straighter. “Thank you! I’m glad you like my body!”
The merchant chuckled and blushed, “I’m probably not going to be very popular in the south for saying so but I don’t care, I envy you... My name is Banc.”
“Well Banc, Never let little minds get in your way. My name is Misha Brightleaf.” The foxtaur extended a hand.
The young man shook the fox’s paw. “Were you at one of the other gates when the spell hit?”
“No I was at the animal gate when the curse hit. Why do you ask?”
“Well.... I don’t know much of what happened but from what I’ve gleaned in bars around Euper and the upper town the middle gate is the animal gate, there was a woman gate and a child gate and someone said something about a dragon gate. Also a tree gate and a centaur gate,” He counted them off on his fingers, “...and then there was the muffin gate some guy told me about but he was really drunk. Were you at the centaur gate?” The merchant asked.
“The muffin gate?” the fox asked. “He must have been REALLY drunk when he told you that.” Misha shrugged and scratched his head fur, “I was at the animal gate – I am a fox. I just got creative with my new body.”
“Huh? You can change even more?”
“Yes I can.” Misha answered. He concentrated for a moment. His body started to change, folding in on itself till he stood on two legs.
The human gasped, “That’s incredible!” He looked at the fox’s loins... “You realise we’re in a public place?”
“Yes we are! So?” Misha asked.
“...oh, nothing.” He blushed.
“What?” Misha asked. “what’s wrong?”
“Sir,” He said and pointed, “You’re naked.”
“AH! I can handle that fast enough.” With that Misha changed back to his foxtaur form. “Better?”
Banc laughed, “I don’t mind but I don’t want you to embarrass yourself because of me.”
Misha laughed. “I have had a lot worse things happen to me then just being naked.” He suddenly looked troubled, “Just don’t tell my fiancé I did that.”
“That you were naked in a town square? Your secret is safe with me.” The merchant leaned in, “Could I ever become a fox...taur?”
“Perhaps - if the curse makes you a fox. But almost any animal form can become a taur.”
“But I like foxes and you’re impressive, if you don’t mind me saying. Sir.”
“Thank you. I don’t mind you saying it! Unfortunately the curse is a bit random in the form it gives people.”
“Oh...” He said in disappointment, “Well, I don’t think I’ll have the chance to find out anyway. I have responsibilities in the south but I have enjoyed my time here.”
“I am glad you enjoyed your stay.” Misha said. “And feel free to come back anytime!”
“Thank you sir, I hope I didn’t waste too much of your time.”
Misha shook his head. “It was a pleasure speaking with you.”
“Thank you again, sir, I’ll let you go about your business.”
The vulpine shook his head again, “My name is Misha! And wait up a moment; you’re a merchant from the south, yes?”
“From Sathmore, I travel through the year up to the northern midlands and south to Pyralis with connections and family in those places.”
“Well, Banc, I own an Inn just a few yards from where we’re standing, it’s being rebuilt after an attack and I need some supplies to replace things that can only be purchased in Pyralis.”
“Yes, I can help you there. Depending on what you’re after.”
“Once some years ago my father had some beautiful inlay work done by an artist in Pyralis. I was hoping you could locate him.”
“If you can show me an example or describe it I might be able to find
him. Better yet you could tell me his name.”
“His name was ‘Cassius Aurelius’.” The fox answered.
“I know him.” Banc said bluntly. “He’s very old now but still working. One of my brothers trades with him.”
“GOOD!” The fox said excitedly. “I need whatever he is willing to sell.”
The merchant adjusted his posture on the crutch, “No need to settle, if you’re prepared to pay and you have an idea of what you’re after and where you need it to go he should do some good custom work.”
“I need to outfit the common room of my inn. It’s some two hundred by three hundred feet in size. I can draw a diagram.”
“That will be perfect, Mister Brightleaf. Just get it to me by tomorrow – I’ll be leaving with a caravan early in the morning after that.”
“Good! I’ll have it to you before then!” The fox said cheerfully. “Where are you staying?”
“At a place in the Lower Ward called the Rusty cup.” He shrugged.
“Ack! You came all this way from there? What’s wrong with your legs anyway?”
“I fell in a lutin trap...” He said and shivered. “They’ll heal in time, the Healer said I don’t need to lye in bed or anything... can I tell you something daft?”
“Sure I’ll keep the secret.”
“When he told me I don’t need to stay, I was disappointed that the curse wouldn’t be taking me.”
“You want the curse to take you? ...I have an idea. We have some potent mages here. For some coin they could cast a temporary spell to let you try being a morph for a little while.”
“I’d like that!” He laughed, “Maybe I can try it back home and scare my sisters.”
He laughed. “You could have the spell worked into a ring or medallion. It shouldn’t cost too much money.”
“I think I’ll look into that the next time I’m here. I was just looking for a place to eat!”
“I’ll make you a deal. You bring me the work I need from Cassius and I’ll have such a ring made up for you.”
“Hmmm, depends on how much this ring and the gold inlay are worth.” he said, sounding more a merchant then casual traveller now.
The fox nodded. “I would say a ring like that would cost about 4000 gold.”
The merchant nodded. “Okay. Let’s set the deal at 5000 gold – I’ll get you 5000 worth of his work in exchange for the ring.”
“Deal!” Misha answered and extended his hand.
“Deal!” Banc said and the two shook hands.
“Now where’s a good place to eat around here?”
“Hmmmm,” The taur mused. “There’s plenty of nice places in Euper but you need a good pare of legs to travel to them.”
He nodded, “I’ll settle for a local cheese stall.”
“Get on my back.” The fox offered. When the merchant just stared at him Misha continued, “Your legs don’t work and mine do, I’ll give you a lift.”
“I don’t want to burden you, Mister Brightleaf.” He blushed.
“My name is Misha!” he scolded, “Banc, I know it sounds odd, it does, but in the short time we’ve spoken you’ve gone from what I assumed to be another obnoxious stranger to a new partner and friend and you did want the curse to take you. Take a ride on a taur before you leave, not an offer I make lightly, and I promise I won’t throw you off.”
The man nodded slowly and held out his hand again.
Misha took his hand and lifted him up. Due to his tightly bound and bandaged legs, Banc was forced to ride side saddle. He held the crutch in his right hand and wrapped his arm around the fox’s waist with his other.
“Hang on!” Misha said cheerfully, “And I’ll give you a REAL ride!” He took off at a full run with a delighted Banc hanging on!