by Bill Kieffer

Clay stared at the faceless pawn as he sanded down the edges that the mold had left. Each of the 100 pawns he had created had similar defects and it was rather tedious work. Grey seemed to think it would improve his eye-hand coordination, so he was willing to give it a try. Either that or it would make him more careful when he fashioned the next mold.

He looked up from his chore at his little Rider. Grey was struggling just as hard on the table top with his pawn. Harder, more likely, since the pawn piece was half the size of the little gray field mouse morph.

Of course, Clay thought, morph was probably the wrong word for what his love had become. Try as he might, Grey was stuck in the form of a full field mouse... able to only change his face and double his size with some pain. Grey, however, hadn't spent anytime moping about it. He had surrendered happily to his fate, pleased beyond reason to be able to fit in the palm of a young man he'd known less than a week. The moodiness and depression Grey had carried with him to the Keep had simply vanished and never returned. He was happy to be a pet.

No, Clay reminded himself, he was happy to be my pet.

Clay had to protect him. He had to feed him. As ridiculous as it had sounded at first, Clay even had to train his new pet. Grey had insisted on it. Clay smiled, thinking warmly that, for a pet, Grey insisted on a lot of things. But everything that Grey had asked for made his life better, fuller, and he found that there was nothing he could deny the tiny Keeper. It was a dream come true, someone who relied on him but was no true burden.

The pawn Grey was sanding (he used a very small hasp) was almost complete. What was detail work for Clay was hard physical labour for the mouse. Grey seemed to enjoy the labour, and it had been his idea. After the sanding, they would paint half the greenware black and the other half white, then the pieces would go into the kiln. Grey, his eyes changing from black to jade green, caught Clay looking and squeaked a "tah-duh!" He morphed his face near-human, smiled and then bowed.

"Show off," Clay muttered happily as Grey rolled the pawn to edge of the table and then doubled his size to place the pawn on the lip of the tablet the finished pawns were kept. Clay could actually see the blue witchfire light of his bondage glyphs as they fought his change reflected on the dull greenware pieces. Clay could hear his pet grunt against the pain until the mouse got the piece where he wanted it and then he snapped back half in size to the form he was now locked in for the past week.

More than likely, it was a form he was going to keep for the rest of his life.

He placed the half sanded pawn he was working on down and gently picked up his mouse, bringing the poor little man-mouse to his chest. "You work so hard for me." Grey tapped his chest twice and then drew a heart Clay's chest and put his head against it.

NO, that meant. For Love. For Us.

Clay wanted to get him a telepathy spell, but that would require them going to a mage and, whoever they went to, would see instantly Grey for what he was. Grey did not want that. He wanted to be a secret. He wanted to be a pet. He did not want to belong to the Keep, he did not want to become one of them. He wanted only to belong to Clay, which touched his heart and presented a whole new set of problems.

Clay was not sure of the value nor the wiseness of this, but once exposed, there would be no going back. So, he reluctantly consented. He had to admit, however, that having a secret, pocket-sized lover presented a certain thrill, as well as certain... difficulties. Difficulties he refused to think about today.

"Ah," Clay said. In the last week, the horse-morph had said that a lot. Grey was just so damn cute and he knew it. "We're halfway done, do you want to take a break?"

Grey nodded against his chest and poked him once, pulling at a random, dark brown coloured hair from his chest. The mouse's little way of showing he was still far from tired, needing only a second to catch his tiny breath.

Grey, naturally, would be far from tired. The Tantric glyphs that kept the counterspell from its full potential, also pumped his tiny form full of energy. Yet, he realized that Clay wanted the break, so the mouse was quite willing to stop. Especially if they were going to play.

The bell by the front door rang and Clay put his little Rider in his pocket. It wasn't the same as being dressed in bridle and reigns, but it felt good feeling the man against his body. "We'll play later," Clay promised as he walked out from the work room. Customers were important if they wanted to have their own place.

It was Shinto, the Solfire monk. He was looking at the bowls and pots that Clay had been able to reclaim from the mess his father and Wicker had left behind. The coyote morph was dressed oddly, his usual robe having been replaced by a silk robe-like uniform that was a dark grey. When the coyote turned to smile at them, Clay started to see that the top of the monk's head had been shaved almost completely clean of hair. Grey poked his head out of the pocket and then ducked back inside, shivering.

"Shinto," Clay asked, "What happened to you?"

Shinto raised eyebrows that he no longer had and said, "I have come to teach you a lesson."

Clay let the arrow fly. His fingers were sore from all the detail work he'd been doing since before sun-up and his release had been sloppy. The arrow flew drunkenly and then straightening at to last moment only to slide gracefully to a stop on the ground ten feet before the target. He couldn't even hit the ground properly.

"I'm sorry I forgot about the lesson, Shinto. Can we do it another day?" On his shoulder, clinging to his mane, Grey continued to shivered with barely suppressed mirth.

"I would prefer that you not forget about your lessons another day, either. You need some fighting skills in order to survive."

The horse morph could not decide if the monk was thick or if there was some kind of language gap at work here. The monk was obviously sober, which was scary enough.

Clay looked at the bow he had just used. The wood felt hollow and fragile, so whatever bamboo was it was obviously magical because it bent without breaking. The bow was taller than he was, which was saying something. Plus, according to Shinto, the proper stance involved him kneeling on one knee while the cocking the other leg forward. Neither of their legs now bent the right way, but Shinto found a position he seemed comfortable in and had convinced Clay to try it. His hocks were going to break any second, but Shinto would not hear it. Plus, the arrows weren't anywhere near being properly fletched.

Still, the monk had managed to get the bull's-eye from halfway across the killing fields. Clay decided on a different tack. "Shinto, correct me if I am wrong, but aren't you a vegetarian pacifist? Shouldn't you be advocating diplomatic solutions, or something?"

Shinto smiled. "Yes. I should be. I apologize. Put the bow down and sit with me. Very good. Now, before I begin, I need to understand what you already know about the art of diplomacy. For example, the Keep is attacked by giants, ogres, Lutins and darklings. The outer wall is breeched, the giants are advancing into a darkened Keep and Duke Thomas chooses you to begin discussions with the enemy. What do you think your first order of business would be?"

Clay laboriously got back up from the ground and walked back to the bow, he picked it up and slowly, painfully, lowered himself back into position. "Am I holding this the right way, Shinto?"

"Diplomacy stems from strength," Shinto said gravely. "There is more strength in the warrior who chooses not to fight than the monk who simply prefers not to. Also, there is an art to the Solfire archery that extends past its function as a weapon. There is no one right way nor one wrong way to shoot an arrow, you need only--"

The arrow launched unexpectedly from Clay's borrowed bow, landing at the base of the southwest wall of the killing field. Clay's target true south from the kneeling horse-morph. "That wasn't wrong?" Clay asked after a bit.

Shinto smiled and shook his head. "Oh, no. That was just plain wrong in so many ways."

They stopped for lunch, which meant an apple for Clay, a mushroom cap for Grey, and an egg potato sandwich for Shinto. The potato was going to give the coyote morph gas, but fresh vegetables that he could even stomach were becoming sparse as Fall started to seriously getting down to business.

During lunch, Shinto pointed to the many places his arrows had gone astray. One was missing, having been shot into the air. Where it landed, they knew not where. Each wayward arrow highlighted another flaw in his technique. Clay's ears caught the almost silent laughter off his right shoulder.

Clay looked at his laughing Rider askance. The mouse started. Grey bowed seriously before leaping into his pocket, but Clay had the sense he was still laughing inside These lessons had been Grey's idea; Shinto was a teacher as much as he was a monk and he had been very kind to Grey before becoming a little mouse. Shinto needed to teach as much as Grey needed to be taken care of. Clay, however, was very used to picking things up quickly and the fact that he was failing miserably at something new did not sit well with him.

Even dressing a stupid horse with its tack had been easier to pick up. His fingers were just too thick to be of much use. If it hadn't been for Grey's idea of using molds, he'd still be hiding in the stables, doing a serviceable, if not great job as a stable hand. Right now, he was just more than a wee bit annoyed at both Shinto and Grey to pay much attention as to what was being said, so he almost missed the compliment when it came.

"All in all, you've done very well for your first day."


Shinto cocked his head sideways. "You did good. You should be proud of yourself."

Clay couldn't see what the coyote meant and was still annoyed enough to assign the worst to whatever the coyote could have possibly meant. "I tried! Look you, there's almost no way I can handle this big piece of wood properly, the fletching on the arrows are just plain wrong and I can barely see the target. Isn't that enough?"

"Of course it is not enough, but I was sincere. You did very well, today. You kept trying minor variations on the same technique to get a feel for the bow. You also challenged me on an apparent flaw in my rationale and conceded me the victory. That took a certain amount of.... balls, you call it, I believe." Shinto dropped his smile and picked up the huge bow. "You are also correct that this bow is much too large and that the arrows are ill-conceived. Perhaps you have also heard the phrase, it is a poor workman who blames his tools?"

Clay had to shake his head no at that. Of course, considering his father's work ethic, it wasn't too surprising that he hadn't heard the phrase before. Shinto picked up three arrows and placed them in the bow, one atop another.

"There comes a time when you will stop trying and simply DO." The monk said, his eyes looking at Clay and not at the target. The arrows sprung forward and flew across the killing fields to embed themselves in the target. Three bull's-eyes.

Clay blinked and, from his pocket, Grey whistled respectfully, if silently. "Yes, Master," the horse morph said respectfully.

"I am not your master, Clay Potter," the coyote said as he clambered to his feet. "Otherwise, I would not be able to insist you buy me a drink later today." The coyote put the bow aside and began uncinching his belt. "Now, I do have something else to teach you today that may help you with your... other problem."

"What other problem?" He eyed Shinto carefully; not sure if he could believe the Solfire monk could be so forward. The coyote was a cleric after all, didn't they take vows of then Clay remembered Grey's mentioning Chang, who had also been a priest of some sort. He took a step back, half certain he did not want to know what Shinto intended next.

Shinto smiled his coyote smile and folded his furry paws across his chest. "Please, I know I may only be a drunken fool half the time, but I am a also a very good guesser. Even drunk I possess the wisdom of the Solfire pantheon and I am sensitive to the unseen path. Also, real mice don't whistle."

Clay felt his damn ears slam into his head and he felt the blood rush to his lips and nose as he blushed. He felt Grey freeze in his pocket. "What do you mean?" Clay asked lamely.

Shinto just sighed and took off his robe, wearing only the silk pants. "I mean you are hiding yourself once again... both of you. You, Grey Wheeler, I warned you to be careful what you wished for. You, Clay Potter, have spent too many years cutting yourself off from your friends. You do Grey no favour by letting him become the excuse for you to continue to do so.

"Neither of you have gone to visit Giles since K'yphir's change two days ago, have you? You two are the only other... I'm sorry, I do not know the word for it... like him and Samoht... that he knows. He is lost and confused and you should be with him to hold his hand. Hoof. Whatever. He needs to speak to you."

"I... don't know what to say, Shinto. I guess you are right, but..."

"But you have trouble understanding what he says? I'll give you a gold coin from my purse later so you can get a telepathy spell from Poppy. Sam was an ass for not getting him one before." Shinto climbed out of his pants, his tail wagging only in the slightest. He wore a simple sling over his privates and this he also removed now. Clay had no idea the monk was so... skinny, the undraped blonde furry body was almost painful to look at.

Shinto closed his eyes and seemed to relax. After a moment, the air rippled and then the monk rippled and mass just seemed to fold out from his back side. First, transparent and then solid, the mass seemed to grow into being rather than just appear. Shinto's legs melted like icicles in a fire, but puddles of blood did not form beneath him. The growing mass lifted Shinto as his legs, and even genitals, vanished.

The mass surged forward and sexless crotch formed beneath the monk. In less than a second, two new forelimbs appeared, canine and huge. Then, a mere three or four seconds after the transformation had begun, Shinto stood before Clay and Grey, a good two feet higher and with twice as much mass than before.

Clay's jaw hung loosely beneath his mouth as he stared at the coyote morph turned coyote-taur. The lower half looked exactly like a dog's, but the hips of the dog portion was a good four feet off the ground. That was twice as big as the biggest dog he'd ever seen. It was almost as skinny as Shinto had been. Shinto's torso remained mostly unchanged, but the monk may have been broader in his shoulders than before.

"So," Shinto said, "What do you think?"

"I... I wish I had my pad and pencil with me, Shinto. You're... beautiful, in a nightmarish sort of way." Clay stopped for a moment and decided that Shinto would likely be insulted by such an honest answer. "I mean, I've never known anyone who could do that before. It's kind of scary. I think I saw Misha do it once, but I was so very far away, I couldn't be sure."

"I want you to do it, Clay. Then I want you to try to teach it to Grey."

"What? I mean I'll be more than happy to try to become a horsetaur, but I heard most who try, can't do it."

"I have reason to believe you can do it, Clay. First of all, there ARE Centaurs out there, so this shouldn't be too hard for you. As a horse-morph, you are already close to being a centaur, anyway. Also, please recall my demonstration with the three arrows. Skip the TRY phase and go directly to DO stage."

Clay looked doubtful. He had the awful feeling the guards along the walls and rampart would start throwing vegetables soon. "Grey, you'll want to see this... assuming I can do it.," he said as he scooped his Rider from his pocket/saddle.

Shinto leaned forward with a gentle smile. "I'll hold him, Clay, after all I had promised him unlimited pony rides not too long ago." He placed the mouse morph on his head and stepped back. Clay was nervous for Grey, but the tiny man seemed happy to seat himself on Shinto's shaved, flat head. He undressed as quickly as possible, grateful that he hadn't worn Grey's silk shorts. Who knew what Shinto would make of that. He knew Shinto was from the East, just not as far east as Os-Var-Khai.

"First," Shinto said, "Close your eyes and clear your mind. Picture yourself as you are now... and that your body is like a body of water, a river..."

Clay did as he was told. Tried as he might, however, he could not picture himself as he was. Sure, his crippled and destroyed hands were easy to picture: they were things that had changed his identity forever. But otherwise, his self-image was still that of a young boy, covered in clay. Desperate to create. Desperate to escape into his creations. Desperate and alone, despite the screams in the next room.

The river analogy did not do anything for hm, either. His body did not feel anything like liquid. It felt like a tree stump stuck in the mud. Only with Grey did he feel alive. Even when he was in his full horse form, Grey had been there, fueling the engine of desire and speed his body had become.

After the first half hour, Clay became overly aware of his nudity. Images of Grey as a mouse-taur kept sneaking into his head. He tried to keep such thoughts locked away. He already felt vulnerable enough with everything hanging out of him, he didn't need more of the same to make it worse.

He was about to give up when he remembered what Shinto had said about minor variations and trying them over and over again. Shinto was trying to get him to visualize himself as a centaur, or more correctly, as himself with extra set of legs stuck on. He shut himself off from the monk's words. As an artist, his visual skills had been trained not only to picture something but to map out in his head how to get there.

With that in mind, Clay pictured his body as a large lump of clay on his potter's wheel. At first, the clay seemed solid and firm, but he moistened his mental hands and pushed them into the clay. The kneeding made his knuckles pop painfully, but it was necessary to soften the clay. His own body trembled slightly, but he ignored it.

Softened, he started spinning the clay on his wheel and, with mental fingers, he felt to see if the clay wanted to become a pot. It did. It just needed a little finessing. First, Clay worked on creating a base... he stuck mental thumbs within the lump, but it resisted. He pushed harder.

"Clay, you are trying too hard, relax your body."

He shook his head mentally. He refused to allow his self-image to alter more than it already has. He accepted that he could become a horse, but he would never accept that he was as much a horse as a man. It was just a trick he could do. A game he played with Grey.

Then feeling his thumbs sink into the clay of his body, he felt his body slide down until he was a full horse. Of course, that made the most sense. He needed a base from which to work upon.

"Clay, morph back to human and start again. You are becoming too agitated."

Clay blocked out the voice of his friend and now mentor. He could feel his whole body tingling deep within him, especially around his head and neck... and shoulders. There the changes would be most prominent, of course. His mental thumbs and fingers worked at the bowl shape on the wheel as it spun. His mass would not increase, it didn't need to... which was good, because Clay could not imagine how to add more clay to the lump that was his body.


Then he began pulling clay upwards... from deep inside the spinning pot, he eased clay into place for that final moment he would yank the mass up. From without the spinning pot, his long fingers hug the pot, shaping it, feeling for weaknesses... those he finds, Clay reinforces with a quick subtly dab or push.


He let his mental image of himself form over the spinning clay. He is getting ready for the final push, the moment when a single hidden flaw could cause his clay to collapse and his work destroyed. Only this time, it was his body that would be forever lost.

It is not the first time he's put himself into his work.

With a deceptively simple pinching movement, his spinning pot suddenly grows and the wheel slows down quickly. He can feel his body change, his own mental image fading until there is nothing left but a lump of clay shaped like a pot. He tries to open his eyes and sees the naked monk concerned and he wonders why he is own the ground and awkwardly moving.

Then and only then he realizes that the lump of clay is still just a lump of clay, and would be until it went into the kiln.


The flames burst out of every pore of his being. His screams chased the blue from the warm fall sky and before he could even register the pain as his... it was gone.

He opened his eyes to see himself looking down on Shinto's bald head. He felt oddly out of sorts. He could feel all four legs planted in the ground, but he did not have the strange distended vision he associated with his horse form. He heard Shinto speak his name but his ears did not instantly orientate on the coyote... there was something wrong with his ears.

Clay went to tell Shinto as much, but his lips felt numb and lifeless and his teeth... small...

He touched his face... it was hairless and almost flat... human!

He looked down at his hands. His fingers were long and beautiful, again, the hands of an artist. There was no brown blotches on his palm, no more pinto skin. The hands on his arms were long, much too long and thick, remnants of his draft pony form, his socks and fetlocks... but he was human. Human, if only from the waist up, but human.

His tail end dropped heavily and it nearly pulled down the rest of him, and he went back to staring at his fingers... he could sculpt again. He could draw again! It was unbelievable! He inhaled, feeling internal organs in such odd places... his lungs and another set of bellows, also his lungs, worked to pull in my oxygen. His hearts worked in synchronization.

"Clay, are you all right?"

"I'm human."

Shinto shook his head. "You've always been human, Clay."

"I mean, I look normal."

Shinto took his hand. He had to reach up to do it. His paw gripped Clay's obscenely long fingers tightly. "Clay, a minute ago, you were twitching on the ground and then ten seconds ago, you burst into flames. Now, there's a horse sticking out of your ass. You are hardly normal. You gave Grey and myself a big scare. I was almost ready to risk leaving you alone to get help."

"You don't understand! I can kiss like a man now! I can draw again! Sculpt! Who the hell cares about the rest of it?"

"Clay, who will you kiss?"

It took a second to sink in. Grey. He'd scared Grey and he hadn't even stopped to reassure the little guy. His Rider. Now he noticed Shinto clutching a shivering grey ball of fur close to his heart. "Oh, Grey... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."

He reached forward for Grey and Shinto reluctantly turned him over. His face was already humanoid and his green eyes sat atop a pat of tiny tears. He said something Clay couldn't hear, and he placed the mouse close to his ears. "I can't hear you, Grey, speak up."

In a squeaky wail, Grey cried out, "I thought I lost you...!"

Clay held him against his chest and made shushing noises while he stroked the mouse morph. "What's wrong with my ears? I could barely hear him."

"A guess? Centaur ears are not as well developed as horse ears."

Clay nodded. "But I did it. You knew I could do, and I did. Now I can teach Grey to do it, too."

Shinto sighed and looked at the two with kind eyes and he reverted back to what passed for normal these days. "Yes," he said with some little sadness, "you could TRY."

The happy pair did not hear the sadness in his voice, it was not his right to spoil the moment for them. He had tried to direct them down the safer path, but young Clay's need for instant gratification had shifted things further down the unseen path. He also bore some blame for that, he should have waited and watched before leading Clay to uncovering his magical potential.

His patience was in sad shape and he should begin a cleansing ritual. He really should. In fact, he should have done at least one cleansing ritual since becoming a coyote. He hadn't, of course. He's been neglectful in his other duties as well. The only thing he hadn't failed in was his avoidance of meat, and sooner or later he was going to cave into that temptation, too.

Today, he felt more like the drunken fool than he had ever before.

Still, the unseen path did not reveal all its secrets. He felt the Clay now had a stronger chance for survival than before and that the Keep might get a new mage out of the upcoming events; he just hoped he had not traded Clay's future happiness for his survival.

There was still hope, however. And, while life was meant to be a constant struggle, there was still things worth celebrating. "Come back to the Deaf Mule with me. You can buy me a drink."