Edmund put down his copy of the canticles and sniffed his hands for the third time in twenty minutes. The faint smell of ink and old paper came to his nose. Not unexpected since he had been holding a book for the last hour. Holding up the book he sniffed that too. Again there was the smell of old ink, paper and the tanned leather of the cover. Sniffing the cover he picked up a trace of a bovine smell that reminded him of where the leather had come from. He looked at the canticle with confusion. He'd had that particular copy since he was a boy and it had never smelled before. For a moment he wondered if someone had switched it with another copy but it was the same leather bound, hand made, paper book his parents had given him on his tenth birthday. Besides why would someone would do such a thing.
Ignoring the odd smells he tried to return to his prayers but now the soft sounds of footsteps on stone intruded making his mind wander. He tried hard for a long time to ignore the sound and continue his prayers but the noise wouldn’t leave his mind at rest. Finally unable to stand it any longer he got up and made his way to the door. Opening it he expected to find someone there but the corridor beyond was empty. He looked down the hallway in both directions but found nothing there. In spite of meeting no one in the hall he still heard those footsteps but now they seemed to be coming from behind him.
Listening carefully he slowly followed the sound to its source - the rooms only window. Opening the small window he leaned out and looked around. There about ten feet up and forty feet to the left was a small parapet upon which a woman dressed in armor. She was carrying a crossbow pacing back and forth on guard duty. As the woman walked the she looked all around for any sign of an intruder. The woman looked in his direction and their eyes met. She smiled and nodded her head, then turned and continued her rounds.
Edmund pondered that for a moment. He had never heard that guard before. Perhaps they had just recently added the guard post. Somehow he doubted that. But he had never been bothered by that guard before, so why now? He closed the window and locked it with a twist of his hand. It was then that he saw it. On the back of his hand were several irregularly shaped, black spots. He knew in an instant what it was - the curse.
“I'm becoming an animal man,” Edmund thought as relief flooded his mind. “Thank the Creator for small gifts. I wonder what species?”
He touched his ears and was rewarded with feeling fur where there shouldn't be any and a shape that was a lot larger then a human ear. “No wonder I could hear so well,” he said and laughed, sort of. The sound that came from his lips was more like a yowl then a laugh.
As he watched the spots on his hands seemed to multiply, appearing all over his hands. Each one appeared like a fish coming to the surface of a deep pond. First a vague outline was faintly seen. Slowly the image would grow stronger and bolder till it was clear and plain. The finishing touch was a thin down of fur leaving the area covered with a golden fur with black spots on it. As he watched his arms, hands and fingers slimmed to a surprising leanness. His palms were covered with black pads of tough flesh as each finger soon acquired a short hooked claw.
Pulling off his shirt and pants in a rush he watched as the spots and fur on his arms gained countless brethren across his whole body. His heart seemed to race and for a moment he was afraid that it was seizure and stop. Then the faster beat seemed normal to him and it didn’t bother him any more and he was more interested in the changes to his body.
He watched as pounds seemed to just fade away in seconds from his frame. But it didn't leave a body starved of flesh. His muscles lost their great strength and power but gained in compensation flexibility and speed. Soon a two hundred pound man of stock frame and powerful muscles was trimmed down to the tight and slim physique of a gymnast or a runner. His sister Adalia would be envious of a body so thin and fit. He couldn't help but laugh at that thought and again he heard that odd, snarling laugh. Edmund used his hands to explore his face. His new, spotted hands touched a short muzzle full of sharp teeth.
For the first time in many years Edmund wanted a mirror to see himself in. As a paladin and a protector of the faith he was supposed to be above such petty things as personal looks and vanity and he little cared about his looks. The knight had long ago learned that a man’s appearance meant little in this world, what mattered was his heart and soul. Still there were people out there who only saw the shallow looks of a person and never went any deeper. A powerful looking knight in shining armor upon a sleek stallion was a potent image. An image that had scared and overawed many potential enemies and won over possible allies in the paladin’s career. To win meant being not just skilled with sword and horse but also understanding people’s feelings and thoughts. It also meant acting brave when you were terrified to the bone and putting on a brave and bold showing in front of strangers. In front of a paying audience it was called acting. In front of an enemy it was called diplomacy.
He turned towards his large campaign chest which rested in one corner of the room and took a step towards it. Suddenly he found himself lying on the floor and wondering what had happened. Looking down his new body he did not see human legs ending in normal feet. Instead there was the oddly crooked and bent digitigrade legs of an animal ending in padded and clawed paws. A long, slim, spotted tail poked out from between those strange legs. He was amazed by its length. It was so big that it was easily at least as long as his whole body was tall if not longer.
Moving slowly and placing each limb carefully he stood up, holding onto the windowsill for support. It felt very strange to stand on these new legs and he swayed back and forth for a time trying to get the feel for his new body. The placement of bones, flesh and muscles were different and took some getting used to it and regaining his balance. That long tail came in handy for that whipping back and forth shifting his center of balance till he was steady. Something so simple as walking had just become so difficult. He felt like a child again learning to walk for the first time. Suddenly the chest seemed very far away and walking there an impossible task.
It was several minutes before he trusted his balance enough to let go. To Edmund’s surprise he didn’t fall over instantly. He lifted his left leg and flexed it. He could feel the muscles in that limb and he understood the power and speed that was in them.
Calmly and cautiously he took a step towards the chest and didn’t immediately fall over. Emboldened by this success he took another step, then another. Slowly and with great deliberation he walked across the floor gaining strength and confidence with each step. And with each step his strides grew more relaxed and easy, as if he had been walking on these legs his whole life.
He arrived at the end of his journey and tried to kneel next to the chest. What happened was he sort of fell onto the floor in front of it. More amused then upset he concentrated on the chest and it’s contents.
The chest itself was made of dark mahogany with it's hinges of finely forged iron. A small lock of steel and brass kept the lid closed. Although it was locked the key rested in it for convenience, so only a twist of the key was needed to open the lock. Thankfully the curse had left him his fingers and thumbs. He had heard that some keepers had kept the use of their hands but had lost their thumbs. He found it hard to imagine how a person could wield a sword or hold a pen with no thumbs.
Opening the lid he started to look through the contents. On top were two books, one full of prayers, the other containing hymns and songs. Both rested on two of Edmunds spare undershirts made of linen. Beneath those were pants, shirts and other clothes along with an extra pair of boots, an extra sword belt and many smaller items.
He finally found what he was looking for near the bottom, wrapped in several layers of linen he used for dressing wounds. It was a small mirror just large enough to fit in the palm of his hand. Edmund was mildly surprised that it hadn’t been broken in his recent travels but the glass was intact.
With some trepidation he finally worked up the nerve to look into the mirror. A finely chiseled feline face looked back at him. He recognized it instantly.
“I'm a racing cat,” he exclaimed. “A cheetah.” His father was an avid hunter and kept four of the cats to chase game that was too fast for his dogs. He had spent many happy times as a boy hunting with his father and the cats. He always admired the cats for their speed and grace. Edmund looked down at his new body. His body must have shed half its weight in the change to the thin, sleek body built for speed and chasing down swift prey. Had the Curse itself found this memory and used it?
He replaced the mirror and out of habit began to carefully replace all the items it in. He stopped when he came to a pair of pants. Meant for a two hundred pound figure they were far too large for the one hundred pound feline morph.
The paladin realized that none of his clothes would fit him now and neither would his armor. And what would Ayken his war horse think of him now? How would the stallion take its master being a powerful carnivore. He would probably have to spend weeks getting the animal used to his new form. So many small things needed to be corrected and adjusted with this change.
He put on the pants, gathering up the huge, over sized waist with an equally oversized belt. His new, long tail he tucked down into one leg with the tip poking out the bottom. That brought up another problem. Gone were his human feet. In their place were two clawed, padded paws. No amount of belts or straps would make his boots fit onto them. He briefly wondered if he should even bother with any boots at all. After all the pads on his new paws would keep his feet dry. What of the other Keepers, did they bother with foot gear? With all the time he had been around them he had never really looked at their feet. Did Misha bother with shoes or boots? Finally he settled on wrapping his paws with several layers of wool covered by cloth strips. A bit clumsy but it would have to do for now.
Edmund found the door to Sir Terrant's room ajar. Through the opening he could see only darkness. The room’s sole light was a low fire that burned in the fireplace. Its low light illuminated a small section of the floor and nothing else.
“Terrant?” he asked pushing the door open with one hand. He wasn't sure the man was in there at first but he caught the soft shuffle of a person.
“You've changed,” a voice said from the darkness. It was odd sounding in a way the paladin couldn't explain. With his newly enhanced senses all sounds and smells were odd to him but somehow this was different.
“So have you. Has anyone else?” Edmund asked.
“No.” There was a long pause of silence. “What are you?” the voice asked.
He tried to pin down what was so different about the knight but Edmund wasn't sure. Was Terrant an animal like him?”
“A racing cat. A fine example of a male cheetah.”
The was a soft snort. “Male,” was all Terrant answered.
Realization came to Edmund. His aide had not been so lucky as to become an animal like him but had been claimed but a change of sex. He didn't know what to say. “Are you in good health?” he finally managed to ask.
"My health is not the problem," was the curt answer.
“Why are you in the dark?” Edmund asked. He already knew the answer but he was trying to make conversation. Edmund knew the reason - that way Terrant didn't have to look at his new woman's body.
His question earned Edmund no reply so he took matters into his own hands. From his last visit to the room he knew that several lamps rested in various corners of the room. Plucking a small paper taper from the fire he moved about the room lighting the lamps. He was on the third when its new light illuminated a figure.
From the general shape and outline Edmund knew it was Terrant but far different. The Terrant Edmund had known was a tall, brown haired man in his late twenties with short cropped hair, green eyes and a body well muscled from years of training and fighting. The person now in front of him was still tall, green eyed and well muscled but everything else was different. Long brown hair flowed down to the woman's shoulders and surrounded a face whose features had been softened and rounded in womanhood. The lithe and well muscled form of a woman bulged and curved in the tight robe she was wearing. Her breasts Edmund noted were nice, firm and well rounded, not exaggerated all out of proportion. She was beautiful, a fact he had the sense not to mention.
It took several seconds for the paladin to find his next words. “Many in the Keep have changed gender like you,” Edmund commented slowly, judging and placing each word with care. “It has not effected their fighting ability in the least.”
The woman looked at the paladin with a cold, harsh glare but didn't speak.
Edmund paused for a moment trying to come up with a name to back up his argument but nothing would come to him. “Remember the woman with Misha's scouts? She's tall, with bright red hair. She was once a man and she is still a fine scout regardless of what equipment she has on her body now. And there is the brown haired woman. The one with all the daggers. She killed ten men during the fight at the camp. And history is full of tales of warrior women. Did not Queen Coventina fight the Sueliman for a decade before being defeated? She is revered as a great hero. Even the Sueliman honored her courage and skill. ”
Terrant's hard glare softened a bit and her body lost a little of it's stiffness.
“I'm sure they will both help you to adjust and learn the advantages of you new body,” Edmund commented. “There is even a man among Misha's team who was once a woman.”
The only answer from the woman was a stony silence.
“Do you mean to spend the rest of your life sitting in this room like some princess from a fairy tale? ” Edmund asked sarcastically. “What of your duties and responsibilities? You are to meet the Patrol Master this afternoon about having our people assigned to patrols. George is going to be mad at you for missing that meeting. Now come with me. The day is young and there is much to do.”
The woman turned her back to the cheetah morph and answered his words with cold silence.
“I SAID COME WITH ME,” He ordered as he physically grabbed the woman by the shoulders and pulled Terrant to her feet. “Now come. I'm not going to let you wither away and waste your life.”
“Where are we going to go?” she asked confused.
“Shopping of course. We are both going to need new clothes.”
“Yes! Unless you want to go around naked,” Edmund said with a touch of humor in his voice. A smile crossed his face briefly.
“Something funny?” Terrant asked.
“I was thinking of what George would do if you did show up naked.”
Terrant smiled. “He would most likely clap and enjoy the view.”
It was cold. Really, really cold! In spite of being bundled up in three coats, a sweater and four pants Edmund was cold, colder then he had ever felt in his life. He could feel the icy cold wind whistle up his pants legs and send a shiver through his whole body. Edmund noted ruefully that cheetahs were a southern species and had no tolerance for cold. He tried to ignore the cold by concentrating on the job at hard but still found himself wishing he had put on a few more layers of clothing and a bit more fur.
Next to him Terrant was also bundled up in several layers of clothing but the cold didn't seem to effect her as much. The two were standing in the large open square that lay on the main street leading from the Keep towards the outer gate. The cobblestones beneath their feet were still covered in places by snow and ice but mostly it had been shoveled clear. The square should have been lined with the homes of noble families, fine shops and the like. The street itself should have been filled with the countless people who made this castle their home. Each moving about on their errands bringing the street to life with noise. Instead the buildings that stood around them were piles of rubble and debris with a few, short, ragged topped walls of brick scattered about. The remains of a town destroyed by war was a sad sight for Edmund.
The ruins were hardly deserted though. Everywhere the two looked were people swarming over the wreckage or moving about the streets. A dozen carts and wagons were being piled with debris to be hauled out of the Keeps walls. In spite of the devastation of war and the bitter cold life had returned to the castle. Already in one corner he saw one enterprising young girl had a tent set up and was selling hot soup and tea to people. Nearby a carpenter, a burly woman was working in the midst of a ruined building. She was using a slightly blackened axe to cut off the burnt ends of floor beam.
“Being a woman doesn't seem to have bother her,” Edmund said pointing to the carpenter.
Terrant nodded silently, having barely spoken a word since leaving her apartment.
“There is what we're looking for,” Terrant announced point to a store next to the carpenter.
In spite of the missing windows and doors and the fact that there was no longer any second floor or roof the building was in good shape seeing as it's walls were still mostly intact. A barely legible, charred sign announced “Fine clothes,” all other writing had been burned off.
They stared at the ruins around them for a moment. “We'll find nothing of use here. The woman announced. “Unless you want to pick through the wreckage like a scavenger.”
“Perhaps Euper, is a better choice. It might have suffered less then the castle did,” Edmund suggested half heartedly. The idea of trudging all the way through the lower ward and then down to the town didn't appeal to him. It was just too cold. Already he was loosing the feeling in his ears.
"I doubt that," Terrant answered. "It was hit just as hard."
“You want to buy something?” a voice asked behind them.
Turning they found themselves looking at a young boy of around twelve who was pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks that must have weighed more then he did.
“Yes we are. Any chance that some of the shops have survived or reopened?”
“Nope,” the boy replied with a shake of his head. “But those shop keepers that survived have setup in the new market in the Keep itself,” he said and nodded in the direction of the massive keep. “You might find something there but don't keep your hopes up, ain't much survived the Lutins.”
“Thank you my son,” Edmund replied.
It was a long, cold trip back to the Keep and the paladin was grateful when he finally caught sight of a sheep morph standing guard over a door set in a wall of the Lower Keep.
The ewe gave the paladin and the woman a careful look before opening the door she guarded. Stepping hurriedly through the door into the warmth of the ancient, magical edifice the thin furred feline was struck by a welcome wave of warmth. He stood for several moments and let the heat gradually seep into his body and thaw him out. It took a while before he could stop shivering.
“Sir,” Terrant said.
“Yes,” Edmund answered as feeling returned to his ears.
“Now that we are in the Keep how do we find the marketplace?”
As with anything in the keep they didn't find the market, the market found them. Stepping through a doorway they found themselves in a large hall. Scattered throughout the large space were tables and benches filled with items for sale. In many places the sellers didn't even have any furniture and their wares were simply laid out on the floor. Lining the walls were many doorways each with different items piled up around it.
Clothing was carefully laid out in front of one doorway. Still more clothing was hung from hooks and wires driven into the stonework around the door. Terrant ran a finger along the edge of a wool coat that was singed and scorched along one side. Edmund noticed that all of the clothing was damaged, some burnt, some torn and mended and still others that were both burnt and mended.
Looking up he noticed that hastily painted over the door frame in red paint was the words, “Open for business - Fire sale.”
“Someone still has their sense of humor,” Terrant said with a laugh.
A little girl of around fourteen came out of the shop, in one hand was a white shirt with a tear along the front. In her other hand was a needle and thread. “My name is Millicent. Can I help you with something?” She asked. “Don't mind the looks, everything I sell is in fine condition. Just a little weathered.”
“We are in need of some new clothes,” Edmund announced calmly.
“Lost everything to the greenies?” the girl asked.
“No. We . . “ Terrant stuttered. “I . . Sir Edmund . . .”
“What my good friend means,” Edmund explained. “Is that the curse has just changed us.”
The girl brightened up immediately. “So you're new to the Keep.”
“Yes, “ Terrant answered.
“We came with the relief army and have decided to stay.”
“You stayed of your own free will? Why?” Millicent asked as a puzzled looked crossed her face.
“Many reasons,” the paladin answered. “With the defeat of Nasoj there will be room for adventure and growth here. And this is where we are needed most.”
The girl looked at them dubiously and was about to speak but Edmund flashed her a smile and she quickly backed away and ran back into the shop.
“You’re going to have to watch your smile,” Terrant commented sarcastically.
“Why?” the paladin asked in confusion.
Terrant laughed. “Those large, sharp teeth of yours, scare people.”
“Perhaps some clothing for the lady?” the girl asked and pointed to a table that was piled high with woman’s clothing.
Terrant moved to a table covered with all manner of dresses, blouses, skirts and other clothing that she didn’t recognize.
“Confusing isn’t it?” a male voice said from behind her.
Turning to the sound of the voice she found herself looking at a tall, thin, blonde haired man of about her own age.
“I’m Marlin,” he said in a soft, oddly feminine voice. “Before the curse my name was Martine.”
“You were a woman?”
“Once, but I’ve learned how to adapt,” the man replied in that soft voice. “And I can help you to adapt as well. If you want.”
“Why?” Terrant asked suspiciously.
“I am always willing to help people get over the trauma I went through. We woman have to stick together.”
Terrant held a small piece of white clothing made of soft, white lace. The whole thing was very delicate and seemed to consist of a vest with two cups at the front and some straps. He had never seen it’s like before and had no idea what it was for.
“It is called a corset. If you want, I could show you how the put that on,” Marlin said in a soft voice as he softly traced his finger along the curve of Terrant’s right breast.
Confusion, disgust and revile all welled up in Terrant as she realized what Marlin wanted. But all those emotions were swept away by a deep seated anger that filled every fiber of her soul. The woman lashed out with the instinct born from years of training and combat catching him under the chin with both fists. Marlin flew backwards crashing into a table full of clothes.
Edmund grabbed the woman’s arm, stopping him from striking another blow. “TERRANT!” he shouted. “What are you doing?”
He never saw the blow coming. He only caught the briefest glimpse of a fist coming towards his face, a moment of the sensation of flying then all went black.
Edmund shook his head to clear away the confusion and found himself alone. The man was gone but more importantly so was Terrant. His body felt odd and everything seemed taller now that he was on all fours and closer to the ground. He felt odd for a moment as he stood on four wobbly legs before he regained his balance. Then he settled down and standing like this felt normal. Without realizing it Edmund had changed to his full animal form.
He slowly placed each step and began moving across the floor, slowly at first but gaining speed with each step. Then looking around he caught sight of Terrant running down through the doorway leading out of the hall. If he didn't catch the woman soon she would surely do something drastic and melodramatic like jumping out a tower window. He was out of time. He HAD to catch her.
The instincts of the predator took hold of Edmund and in an instant he was racing across the hall. He was amazed at the blinding speed as the people and selling places flashed by in a blur. It was nothing like he had ever imagined it could be. It was exhilarating in way he had never known before. Every part of his body; every nerve, every muscle and instinct was built solely for speed, to catch fleeing prey.
He felt the power and speed in his muscles unleashed but it wasn't raw or blind but was controlled and channeled, his instincts guiding him with lightening speed. The cat raced through the crowded market twisting and turning as he weaved among the throng. His extra long tail flipping left and right, acting like a massive rudder for the speeding cheetah.
Terrant's form which before had been moving so fast now seemed to be almost standing still. In a moment the cat had caught up to the running woman. Instinctively the carnivore lashed out with one paw and tripped the woman who fell to the floor in a heap.
Moving so fast Edmund couldn't stop as his claws skidded on the stone floor with a grating noise. He slammed head first into the fallen woman, the two of them getting tangled up into a heap.
Terrant reacted with surprising speed. The woman flipped around onto her back and lashed out with both feet. She caught the cat on the flank sending him flying into a market stall. Edmund landed in a heap amidst carpets and rugs too stunned to move. Even as a woman Terrant’s kick had a lot of muscle in it.
"First my shop and home burned by Lutins and now this!" he heard someone moan in the background.
“Edmund?” a voice asked. Shaking his head clear of a small hearth rug the feline found Terrant kneeling next to him with a concerned look on her face.
“You all right?” Terrant asked.
He nodded slowly. “A little bruised and battered but I'm fine.” Edmund discovered that he was again in his anthropomorphic form. He also realized that she had thrown him a good fifteen feet. “The curse hasn't effected your fighting skills. You've never been able to throw me this far before.”
“That was fear that let me do that.”
“That was skill and training that let you do that,” Edmund corrected. “The body may be different but the soul inside is the same.”
“Why did it have to be THIS!” Terrant said with pain in his voice.
“It could have been worse.”
“You could been hit by age curse and wound up as a child again.”
“Thank the Great One for that. I'd hate to have to go through puberty again,” she said and they both burst out laughing.
They had to search through half the market before they found a stall with clothes suited to a morph. It was a small stall, basically just a blanket spread over an old door that rested upon three stone blocks and the stump of a granite pillar. Still, the improvised stall held an amazing quantity of clothing all piled together.
The stall was run by a woman who was a small spotted cat-like creature Edmund recognized as a Gennet. She seemed to know exactly where everything was no matter how messy it was. To find what they needed the two had to dig through all the piles. It was more like mining then shopping.
Much of what they found was too damaged or was the wrong size but they finally found what they were looking for. A pair of boots made specifically for digitigrade legs and paws and a thick pair of pants with a well crafted hole sewn in the back for a tail.
“We will need to buy a lot more like this for the troops.”
“How much more?” the Gennet asked.
“Enough for about one hundred forty people,” Terrant commented sarcastically.
“Planning on raising an army?” Rickkter said suddenly appearing next to them.
“As a matter of fact we already have an army,” Terrant countered trying not to act surprised at the raccoon’s sudden appearance.
“I am privileged to have some one hundred thirty people in my service,” Edmund commented.
The raccoon looked at Terrant for a long moment in silence before speaking. “And who exactly are you? You look familiar.”
“Perhaps without these,” the woman commented coldly as she cupped her breasts. “You might know who I am.”
“Terrant?” Rickkter asked. He turned to the cat. “"That would make you Sir Edmund then," It was more a statement then question.
Edmund gave a deep bow. “Sir.”
“How are you adapting to what the curse gave you?” the warrior mage asked.
"We are adjusting. It is quite an enormous change that takes getting used to," Edmund answered.
Rickkter grinned broadly. "And you haven't even begun to see how enormous."
“I am starting to appreciate that. I do like my new form. Even if it is so small and thin.”
“Has anyone else has changed yet?” Rickkter asked.
“Not yet,” the paladin answered. “We are the first but I am sure the rest will be changing soon. Which is why we are here. With new bodies they’ll need new clothing and equipment.”
“Clothing is easy enough,” Terrant said in a cold voice. “What of armor and weapons? We cannot afford to rearm all one hundred thirty of them.”
"Well, you won't need to totally rearm them, at least I'd hope not. For those in your position," Rickkter gestured to Terrant, "there is a good possibility that the smiths in town could reshape your armor to your new body. Once their forges are rebuilt and repaired, of course. The age regressions will be a whole other story, thought."
"As will the ones like me," Edmund said.
"Not necessarily," Rick admitted with a shake of his head. "Your body hasn’t changed greatly. Aside from the tail and losing a few inches in height, my body remained pretty much the same. But you are right, there will be some who've changed too drastically for existing armor to be adapted."
Edmund shook his head. "My change is great. I doubt that I could even CARRY my old armor, much less wear it in combat."
"Yes, I see. You might as well sell your old set, it probably won't do you any good now."
"So what are we going to do about it?" asked Terrant defiantly.
Rickkter thought a few moments, his tail swaying about behind him. "Follow me," he said, turning and heading off down a corridor.
The woman and the cheetah followed afterward silently but a little confused.