To Steal a Fox

by Virmir

December 707CR

"Vale! Yaaaaaay!"

Vale nearly tripped in surprise when she felt something attach to her leg. She looked down and gently patted the child's head, careful not to scratch her with her claws. "Hello, Emile. Do you know where Vir— where Kendo is?"

Emile's eyes shot up, winter wisps clouding around her mouth. She seemed well cared for here at the orphanage, bundled up tightly in her coat, cheeks flecked with snow. "Kendo? You... you didn't bring him with?" The young girl's eyes saddened and she seemed at a loss for words.

"I'm afraid I didn't... I was looking for him and was wondering if he stopped by to see you."

Emile tore away and stomped off in the snow. "I didn't see Kendo inna long time. A long, long time... Uncle Kyle says he can't come back 'till the snow melts..." She kicked through the white powder, sending a spray through the air.

Vale's canine ears perked. "Oh?"

"Hello, there," a grandfatherly voice sounded from behind. Vale turned to see the elderly orphanage caretaker, Kyle Recos, carefully approaching via the snow-laden path. The human leaned heavily on a cane, black coat draped tightly around his frail frame with a peppered beard poking out under his tall hat.

"Hello. I was wondering if Virmir, the... short gray fox stopped by recently?" She held out a hand just under chest-level to indicate his height.

Kyle stopped before her and tapped his cane into the snow once, his expression turning dour. His eyes drifted off to the group of children playing in the snow. "Well... I'm afraid I haven't seen him for a few weeks, actually... We got in a bit of a scuffle last time he was here, him and I, you see..."

Vale gritted her teeth, hand reflexively reaching under her muzzle. "Oh... what happened?"

"Well... a group of children saw him coming down the path and took to their minds to throw a snowball..."

"Ohhh..." Vale tensed at what was possibly the worst idea in the world. "He... didn't...?"

Kyle nodded glumly, mouth set in a firm frown.

"Oh, my..." She bit the ends of her clawtips. "Did he... hit anyone...?"

He shook his head quickly. "Thankfully, no. I doubt he was trying to hit them. Just scare them. Either that, or he was too angry to aim... Regardless, the one child is now deathly afraid of fire and attends therapy thrice a week..."

"Oh dear... I'm terribly sorry..."

Kyle held up a hand. "Think nothing more of it. But by the gods... I've seen mages throw fire at the Three Gates. Even had a spell tossed in my direction. But I've never seen a ball of flame pulled from thin air that quickly..."

Vale gritted her teeth and forced a smile, rubbing the back of her head. "Ha ha... well, thanks anyway..."


She didn't know what she was doing... Well... yes, she did. She was just bored, that was all. Bored with nothing to do on her day off. So why not ask him if he wanted to go to lunch? There was nothing strange about that. Though, maybe it was a little odd she spent a good part of morning marching from the Keep, through Metamor Town, then back. But she was used to walking anyway. Nothing strange about that either.

She found herself in Virmir's hallway again, the suit of armor decorating the end unmistakable. The keep had a way of doing that— probably mistook her thoughts of the fox as a desire to visit his room. She knew he wasn't home, but some time had passed and she was here now, so she might as well check one more time. She shook her head as she approached the door, knowing full well that even if he were home, he'd say 'no' anyway.

Before she could knock, Vale noticed something different. A pale blue luminescence radiated from the crack under the doorway, dancing upon the white fur of her footpaws. A deep humming tickled her canine ears. This was different, indeed... Hesitant to disturb the fox-mage during one of his spells, she gave a light tap at the heavy door and waited. Last time she had barged in upon him and he seemed rather upset. Then again, that time she was the squad leader and he the subordinate. Now of course it was the other way around...

She forced her tail from between her legs and stood straighter. She had to stop doing that... She knocked again, this time a bit more confidently. But still, her heart fluttered with nervousness... Argh... what was she doing? This was so silly...

Silence again, apart form the rhythmic hum from within. Of course he wouldn't answer the door. He was a wizard. He had more important things to do. With folded ears, she turned away from the door, the lonely click of claw-nails upon stone echoing down the hall.

She walked for a long while, her father's— no— her sword a burden that slapped at her side. Perhaps she should just leave it on her days off. But no, it just wouldn't feel right.
She sighed as she passed a window, a chill wind creeping through the frosted panes. It was too late to go back out to town by now. She'd just grab something to eat in the commons.

"Oh! Pardon me, madam."

She ran into a thick mahogany cloth and stumbled backwards, nearly falling over. Something caught her hand and she regained her balance.

"I'm terribly sorry. I'm in a rush, you see..." The robed figure spoke, white mustache visible pointing from under the cowl. He waved one arm. "Conjunction of the planets, and all."

Vale gasped sharply when she realized that the cloaked figure's hand wasn't really a hand, and a pale green tentacle wrapped around her arm. But she regained her composure when she realized that this was the wizard Virmir studied under... an octopus or a squid or something... she'd never met him face-to-face, but she knew Virmir wasn't very fond of him.

"It's no problem, really," she said, wringing her wrist reflexively. "Are you going to visit Virmir?"

His head snapped up, and she could see hints of black, bulbous eyes under the cowl's shadow. "Why yes I— oh, you are a member of his squad, aren't you? Archmage Morlak, my dear." He bowed in a curling way that suggested he didn't have a spine, but he was polite enough.

"Vale Restault," she replied, trying to return a smile.

"I apologize my dear," his head turned down the corridor from which she came, "but I must take my leave. Something... isn't quite right." He looked as if he were going to say something else, but his mouth opened and he froze mid-word.

Vale turned around and gasped—


I suddenly became aware that I was standing in an unfamiliar room.

I blinked a few times, rubbing sleep from my eyes. I held a piece of chalk in my hand, rolling it in my claws a few times. Was I just working on a spell? My mind was a haze... Why couldn't I remember?

Blue ambience surrounded me. The very tone of it sent a chill down my spine as I remembered the ordeal with the plant-things months ago. Something glowed behind me, some swirling mass with resonating runes sprawling about the floor.

"You've made it!" A shrill voice grinded from my right. My ears turned to catch the sound. Before a doorway stood two figures. The first was a tall lanky gray fox dressed in dull robes with a face that looked almost exactly like my own, except his headfur was haggard. But it was the second that made my jaw drop. It was my mother. My human mother. And she wore the white, flame-lined robes of my grandfather. The same type I had brought back with me...

"Hello... Kendo..." She looked at the ground nervously as soon as our eyes met. I sputtered a few times. This was certainly unexpected...

"And it's about time..." The other figure stepped in front of her and rushed towards me, causing me to take a step back. "Careful now! Don't fall back in." I turned to eye the swirling mass of light just inches away from my tail. Some sort of portal? "We've been waiting a long time for you to finish that blasted thing..." He plucked the chalk from my clawtip.

My hackles raised. "Who are you?" I growled, sidestepping away from the mass of light as well as the tall grinning fox. He tried to catch me, but as soon as I pulled out a ball of fire and pointed it at his face his eyes widened and he stopped dead in his tracks. Blast, he was like twice my size...

"Kendo, don't you recognize me? Of course... you aren't used to your nose..." His muzzle melted into his face and his fur receded into fleshy skin. A grinning human bore down upon me, messy hair covering his eyes. "I'm your uncle Melface!" He held out his arms, as if expecting a hug.

I raised a brow, keeping the fireball firmly aimed at his head and pursing my lips. His smile strained and a bead of sweat dropped down his face. My eyes shifted to my mother on the side, then back at him. If even she really was my mother...

I was fed-up to my eartips with all the crap that kept happening to me as soon as I got stuck in this gods-forsaken castle and the freak-show Meta-morons. And now I somehow sleepwalked a portal spell and wound up in some room painted the colors of my nightmares along with my mother who I kissed good-bye on the other side of the blasted world years back and some goofball with a crooked smile who could shapeshift. You bet I was cranky...

"Kendo, put the spell away... Melface, he was too young to remember..." my mother pleaded.

"But I gave him a piggyback ride!" Somehow, during my brief eye-shift he had managed to maneuver himself around my side, and threw his arms up in disgust. "A piggyback ride!"

I loosened my arm and raised it so my palm opened skyward, the swelling orb of light hovering above my head. My eyes followed him as he completed a circuit around me. If he tried anything I'd just throw it at my feet and blow the entire blasted room up. "Why am I here?"

"You're here because you wanted to come. You want to get away from that castle, do you not?" I blinked a few times, unable to counter that... Blast it. He folded his arms behind his back and continued circling. He moved around to my rear again, as I eyed him warily. I didn't like him.... I could smell it.

"Where is he?"

"Your grandfather? Would you like to see him?" He grinned as he walked past and began his third circling. He was stalling... I didn't like that. My mother was nervous, standing on the other side of the room. But I caught her scent and somehow I knew it was her despite never smelling her as a fox. It was oddly comforting, and it distracted me as the tall man rounded around my other side.

"We can take you to him, if you like." His voice snapped my attention back to him as he completed his third circle. A wave of dizziness overcame me and he suddenly became 10 times taller, fox's grin replacing his human guise. Then everything went dark.


"What did you do?! Don't touch him!" Lucile shrieked.

"Whaaaat? I didn't do anything!" Melface took a half leap backwards to get out of Lucile's way as she ran over to the collapsed little fox. "I just put him to sleep. GEEZ!" He looked down and saw that Kendo was shrinking, his body becoming tangled in his clothing. "Huh..."

Lucile scooped up the little body and wrapped him in his cloak. "He's become... feral."

"Didn't do it!" Melface threw up his arms.

Lucile shot him a glare, then stroked the sleeping fox's head. "Father will know... I'm so sorry, Kendo..." Pausing to pick up the rest of her son's clothing, she turned to walk down the corridor, but stopped short when she realized Melface wasn't following. "Hurry and seal the portal. We wouldn't want— Melface! What are you doing?"

Melface stopped with one foot in the glowy mass. "Oh, go on. I just need to retrieve my cloak."

"Melface, father said—"

"Relax! I'll catch up. Go on, go on!" He waved her on.

Lucile sighed, looked at her fox-son once more, then hurried down the blue corridor.

Melface grinned, then stepped into the light.


He stepped out into Kendo's room. It was exactly how it was before, except the bed was turned on it's side to make more room for the chalk lines on the floor. He drew in a deep breath. "Ahhhh, Metamor!" Then proceeded to cough at the chalk dust in the air and sniffle. Blast, it was even colder now that he was here for real!

Holding his arms about his chest, Melface tiptoed over the glowing lines as he regrew his fur. He paused at the table, grinning a wide vulpine grin as he found his spell instructions Kendo had so diligently followed. He took the paper and rolled it up, then padded to the chest on the other side of the room where he found the chest as it always was. Wiggling his fingers, he traced a few lines on the lock and snapped it off, then reclaimed his cloak Kendo had taken months back.

"Lovely!" he giggled, slipping the familiar fabric back on. He posed a moment, then stepped towards the glowing portal. But his eyes drew to the closed doorway leading outside the room and he stopped with a raised footpaw. "Hmmm... well surely a peek at the great Metamor won't hurt!"

He spun and tiptoed towards the doorway (as a natural digitigrade, it came very easily), and unfastened the heavy latch, nearly giggling. "After all, I may not get another chance!" Struggling with it a bit, he realized there was a second and a third bolt, and after much jarring, the door finally creaked open and the blue ambience spilled into the ill-lit hallway beyond.

"He he he... oh my!" He poked his head out the doorway. The air was even cooler out here, and it made him shiver under his fur. But still! This was too good an opportunity to pass up! He snuck out into the hall and looked around, rubbing his paws together. "I'm in your keeeeep~!" he spoke softly in a sing-song voice. "And I'm gonna do something naughty~!"

He wasn't exactly sure what he was going to do yet. Perhaps he could find a tapestry or something and claw it up. Just to say he did it. Yes, that would do nicely...

He made his way to the end of the hallway, turned down the next and—


Vale gasped. It was... Virmir? No. It looked like him, but he was way too tall, his hair different, and... those eyes... Those eyes were so wrong...

"Oh!" The tall gray fox pursed his lips around the vowel and blinked a few times. He then slowly raised his right hand, wiggling clawed fingers in a child-like wave and offered a toothy grin. "Uh, hello!" His eyes shifted from the wizard to Vale a few times as all three stood in silence, and the smile slowly faded. "You're... you're going to try and kill me aren't you?"

More silence.

"Blast."

Then like an avalanche, Vale fell to the floor as the wizard and the fox exploded in a flurry of movement. "Get down!!" Morlak screamed, the words hitting her only after her tail sandwiched between her rear and the floor. The fox was in mid air by now, and kicked off the nearest wall. She covered her head as he flew overhead, twin balls of crackling energy radiating from his hands. A gouge in the bricks ripped through by a blast of lightning shook her very core. The wizard had whipped out a staff from his robes and sprayed the entire room with dancing electricity as the fox zipped about.

"Be gone, underworldling, be gone!!" Bolts and rubble flew about and the wizard screamed. Vale rolled out of the way as an armor ornament gave way and collapsed.

"Owwww!!!" The fox screamed as a bolt electrified him, knocking him out of his trajectory and causing him to bounce off the other wall. Crumbling bricks and block followed in his wake, and he rolled out of the way of a tumbling statue. "Ow ow OWWW~!" A red flash caused her to shield her eyes and suddenly the fox was much smaller, on four paws, and racing down the hallway from whence he came.

"After him!" Morlak screamed. "After~!" The octopus mage held his crackling staff high and charged, moving much slower but still at a considerable pace as he sidestepped the fallen statue and leapt through a plume of smoke.

Vale gritted her teeth. Were they headed toward Virmir's hallway? With the keep, one would never know, but she forced herself to stand and drew her shining blade, lithely charging after the wizard.


"Interesting."

Lucile shivered in anticipation as Father looked over Kendo's tiny fox-kit body. He ran his bony hands above the little fox a few times, curled up upon the table, asleep.

"He's merely a few odd weavings around him, and his body reverts to his true form whenever he stops concentrating. Easily removed." He waved his hands a few more times, then Kendo began to grow, taking back the form of a two legged fox child with workable hands. "It is better if he's larger for the procedure, as well."

Lucile breathed a sigh of relief. And then shivered. The procedure.

Father wrapped Kendo in the little fox's cloak, then fixed him to a board wedged perpendicular to the ground. Lucile turned away, remembering her time on that board. At least Kendo was asleep...

"Father..." She tried gently, surprised that she had the courage to speak at all. She watched him deftly draw the runes around the base of the board, circling it upon the floor, the blue ambience of the cave painting the white lines in a mystical glow. Seeing her son suspended there, sleeping peacefully, unaware... it filled her with dread. "Father, Kendo... he's..."

"He is three-quarters human. Yes." Father turned towards her and flipped his robe with elegance. "When I converted you and Melface, Lucile, you were half human. As such, I only needed to drain one half of your blood..." He turned. Lucile quickly looked away, not wanting to see the things Father attached to Kendo's arms. Oh gods, her baby... Father continued speaking as he worked. "Kendo however, I must drain three-quarters from. There's a fair chance he won't make it, even with the life support spells."

Tears formed in her eyes and she fell to her knees. "But... but..."

"I was right in leading him to Metamor. The ambience brought out enough of his true self to suggest he has enough of us in him to be converted fully and perhaps even ease the process. However, with this child-like curse forced upon him, his body is even frailer than yours. It is a shame. I'm unsure if he will return to normal even if he ceases being human."

He turned back to Lucile and stepped towards her, stroking his beard contemplatively. "But it is worth the risks, my dear. I see myself in him, Lucile. Should he become pure blooded, his power would be fantastic."

He gently stroked her chin with a nearly-clawed hand. "Our family grows, Lucile. Our family grows... He shall be the fourth. And tonight, our fifth shall join us. Does this not make you happy?"

Lucile could not fight back her tears. "But... what if he dies?"

Father stopped and looked into her eyes, long and hard. "Then nothing is lost. He is useless to us otherwise."

Lucile stood and shouted, louder then she intended to. "No! He's not!"

Father glared. Lucile's gut wrenched.

"That is enough!" He placed his hand atop her head. "You still cling to these... human emotions... There is something wrong with you..."

Lucile felt her body lift from the ground and she felt very queasy. "Ah... ah...!" Her body shrunk and shuddered, and fur burst from her skin.

"You spend all your time under that... guise. From now on, you will look as you are meant to. Lucile squirmed and yelped as her hands melted away and father grew much taller, hanging suspended from his hand. "And I shall take your voice until I decide you will no longer talk back to me."

He opened his palm, and the gray vixen fell and crumpled to the ground. She sputtered and whimpered, shakily trying to stand on four paws.

Father turned to and loomed over Kendo. He twisted knobs on the devices on the fox-child's wrists as the runes glowed, and crimson blood began flowing down the tubes, slowly leaking into the drain bucket. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Lucile shuddered.

"Guard your son, Lucile. If the process is interrupted at any time, know that he will die." He walked towards the door, but then paused and looked back. "Your power is stronger like that, Lucile. When you are in your true form. Know this. You are better now." With a flip of his white, crimson-edged robe, he was gone.

Lucile curled up into a ball and watched her son. She wanted to cry, but her body wouldn't let her.


The two stopped in front of an open door. This was Virmir's room. But that light... that light....

"I've seen this before." Vale whispered. "Well, it was different, in the cave... but the light.. it's the same color..."

The octopus wizard to her left stroked the mustache poking from his cowl. "I see... Virmir told me about this. Well your adventure... certainly not this."

"Virmir's in there... they got him... they went in and got him..."

"And that fox too... or at least, I assume. The question of course is, do we follow?"

The two looked at each other and nodded. Vale gripped her sword and stepped into the light.


Vale gasped at what she saw on the other side. It was a room full of... Keepers?

"Huh? Vale? You too?" Vincent said, looking up.

"Vincent?" Vale scratched her headfur.

The striped hyena punched his fist in irritation. "We were just minding our own business, walking down the hall, when— BAM! Giant portal out of nowhere!"

"Yeah... kinda... annoying. At least it's not as cold in here." Kayser, the hornet morph clicked his mandibles a few times.

"Hi, Lady Vale!" Rufus the boar poked his head from behind the bug-man. "It's a good thing we were 'eaded down for a sparing match so we're all 'eavily armed, eh? Eh heh!"

Vale pinched the bridge of her nose while the cloaked wizard Morlak inspected the still glowing blue mass that was the portal. "Hmmm... it seems this portal is unstable, and is picking up random people from the keep..." He reached a tentacle-arm out to touch it, presumably feeling the underling tendrils of magic, but it suddenly flashed then disappeared.

"Whoa, hey!" A younger voice shot out. Vale blinked as what looked like a young fox much like Virmir rushed up to the wizard, waving his arms about. But his fur pattern was random splotches of brown, tan, and gray. "You didn't just walk into a random portal and then CLOSE it behind you, did you?"

"Well, no..."

"Ah, good. "

"It just sort of... closed on its own." The wizard stroked his mustache.

"Oh..."

"But no matter. I'm sure I can reopen it. But first, let's see if we can find Virmir."

"Virmir? Short, gray, and angry right?" the fox inquired, digging out a pendant from his cloak. "I was on my way to drop this off for him, actually..."

"That's him," Vincent replied with a snicker.

Vale shot the two a sideways glance before speaking. "This portal opened in his room and we think an evil gray fox that sort of looks like him, but also might be a deadra abducted him and brought him back here to this glowing blue cave (where we escaped from a few months back), which is inhabited by violent little clay-and-plant creatures."

"I see..."

"Ma'am, if you may." The largest occupant in the room stood and approached the dole. He was a cougar morph, tawny-furred, sporting leather armor and a long pole-arm with a curved blade. "I would be honored to help you in your search for your friend."

He bowed with feline grace, and Vale could not help but blush under her fur at the gentlemanly gesture and his smooth foreign accent. "Why thank you..."

"Ethaniel Dilandau."

"Thank you, Ethan. May I call you that?"

"Of course," He grinned with the awkwardness of the recently-cursed.

"Vale Restault," Vale bowed back. And this is Vincent, Kayser, Rufus, and...."

"Archmage Morlak, at your service," the wizard said as he did the creepy spineless bow again.

"Kit." The young fox waved.

"Uhm..." All eyes turned to an orange-furred feline, pressed against the wall, looking rather sheepish. "Kai Adin Cooper. Hi..." He scratched the back of his head and fussed with his robes a bit. He seemed some diplomat or scribe or something with his fancy tunic and the fur at the top of his head dyed a bright blue. "I'm.... uh. I'm not really from Metamor. I'm just an envoy from Baron Adler in the south. I was on my way to meet with the prime minster when, well..." He waved his paws around. "Does this sort of thing happen... often?"

Everyone in the room shrugged and mumbled. "Uh... kinda." Vincent offered. Some mumbles of agreement followed.

"I see..."


"And where have you been?"

Melface froze mid-step and his tail-frazzled. "Me? Oh! ... I ... just forgot where I put the spellstone that severs the portal from Metamor, that's all... Oh look! Here it is!" He picked up a shiny stone and held it up in the air. "Found it!"

Father did not turn from his crystals. Arranging them around the box. "Because the transfer was one-way, and only once, it should not leave that large a footprint that a stone is required to close it." He remained fixated on the crystals, arranging them intricately before beginning his lines of chalk.

"Right!" Melface pointed, pushing his hand out and then dropping it. "Right you are!" He clenched his teeth, eyes wide, then slowly took a step in reverse. He paused, watching Father and his fixation on the chalk lines, then turned and ran.


"Wait, this too? This also happens often?!"

"He he he he!"

Kai splayed his ears and ducked, the curved blade that looked like it was formed from rock just whooshing over his head. Suddenly a gust of wind blasted the creature off its feet and pinned it to the cavern-tunnel wall.

"Hey, don't look at me!" Kit yelled over the howling winds. He held his paws forward to conduct the spell. "I'm new too!"

"Same," Ethan muttered under his breath as his pole-arm cleaved three of the plant-and-earth creatures at once. The little imps could get nowhere near the cougar. But then again, he couldn't seem to hurt them either. Even those split in half got back up and crawled over to their body parts, giggling.

"Their heads!" Vale yelled as she parried a mace made of rock. Sparks flew from her sword's impact. "Split the seed inside of their heads!"

"Easier said than done!" Kayser, yelled, wings fluttering as he hovered. His normal tactic, jumping high into the air and then spearing his enemy from above just wasn't cutting it here. Though that did not stop him from trying it again on a group rapidly cornering Vincent and Rufus, whose tactics seemed to be confined to slashing madly with wide fearful eyes.

"And they hate fire and cold!" Vale finished the thought that had been earlier interrupted by an impaling attempt. She deftly brought her blade down to split the offender's head in two, and the thing crumbled to dust and dried vine.

"Cold? Can do!" Kit waved his hands triumphantly and his cloak bellowed. A cool breeze wafted through the rock corridor where the battle took place, quickly building in intensity to a cold gale. All the plant-and-earth creatures seemed disturbed by this, their blows sloppying and their movement slowed. "Ha ha!" the fox kit yelled.

Morlak seemed content at blasting the little things with lightning bolts that danced from his staff, each creature making a loud sizzling crack-POP as it flew apart. "Forward!" he bellowed, "they are guarding whatever lies at the end of this tunnel!"

The keepers actually made good time through the swarm of rabid creatures, and after a moment their numbers thinned enough for the group to make a break for it. Rushing water soon met their ears, and they came to a bridge across a small chasm, palely illuminated by the phosphorescent blue cracks in the walls. More of the plant-and-earth creatures stood at the far end of the bridge. Standing guard in front of a wide set of doors inlaid into the rock, the final group rushed to the center of the bridge, baring their weapons at the intruders. But all stopped as the doors behind slowly opened.

Morlak nudged Vale and whispered into her ear. "There he is... the fox we chased. Be on guard." All the warriors fanned out, weapons splayed and ready on their side of the bridge. (Kai chose Ethan to stand behind, since he seemed the safest bet.) All eyes watched the small four legged creature step onto the bridge.


"That's.... not the same one, is it?" Vale asked, unease in her whisper. This one had worry and fear in its eyes. Then suddenly it was gone, and a firm resolve built up in its face like a wall of ice.

"I'm... I'm not sure," the wizard responded. Vale's fur stood on end at the proximity to his staff, and she knew it was charged with some arcane energy, ready to strike.

"T-this is-is it..." Vincent leveled his humongous broadsword. Vale could hear his knees shaking.

"Pah! He's mine!" Rufus kicked dust with his hoof a few times as he readied to charge, hoisting his battle axe.

The small gray fox on the bridge advanced slowly on four paws with dainty grace, the plant-and-earth creatures stepping out of its way. All the while, the rumbling under the bridge increased. The animal stopped at the edge of the bridge, glowering at the keepers as the roaring reached a climax. A gargantuan wave of water splashed upward at either of its sides and thundered down the tunnel with the rage of a tsunami...

"Grab hold of something!" Kit screamed as he splayed his hands forward. A tremendous gust of wind bellowed from the opposite end of the tunnel, slamming into and slowing the monstrous wave just long enough for the Keepers to grasp the jagged cavern walls. Unfortunately Kit remained firm in the center of the path, and he opened his eyes just long enough to mutter an "Oh, crap!" before the wave engulfed him, banishing him down the far end of the tunnel.

"Kiiiit~!" Vale screamed, though it was useless amongst the roaring water. She nearly lost her grip on the slippery stone, but after a few moments of hanging on for dear life, the wave subsided to a trickle and she gasped for air. She had little time to catch her breath as the quadruped fox neared, eyes ice-cold.

Globules of water rose from the dying stream that was the tunnel floor and rotated around the animal, melding together and freezing. A sparkling blade of ice floated above the creature's head, followed shortly by a frozen mirror-shield. She just barely had the time to parry a slash at her head.

"Hragh!" Morlak's staff intercepted the second blow, but Vale yelped as a sudden jolt knocked her off her feet. The wizard staggered backwards as well, a loud popping sound echoing through the carvern as he propped himself up against the wall, water dripping from his mustache. "I cannot throw lightning if we are all wet— OOF!!"

He was cut off as the floating shield thrust into his chest and pushed him against the wall. The blade spun for his head, but a loud CHING forced Vale to splay her ears and look away. Ethan had rushed the blade with his own halberd, slicing it cleanly in two.

"Kill it!!" Vincent screamed, snarling as he hefted his massive sword skyward. With a cleave, he parted the puddle in the floor and gouged solid rock, but the fox nimbly leapt in reverse. Two more ice blades rose from the diminishing water, which Rufus and Kayser engaged in heated battle, swinging their weapons around wildly as if they fought invisible foes. Vincent tried another blow, but was cut off as even more ice weapons formed in front of him.

Vale tried to join the fray, but stumbled and fell as the tingling in her legs from the shock was just too much. With a sudden blue flash, all three of her squad mates were thrown backwards, landing in crumpled heaps in shallow pools.

Ethan leapt from the shadows, crushing an ice weapon with his halberd and then executing a skilled slash at the fox in one smooth motion. The fox back-flipped and the cat spun around madly, deflecting the ice blades that tried to cut his hide from all directions. An opening presented itself, and the cougar brought his blade down hard on the fox's floating shield. But with a graceful twist, the animal grazed the water with its tail, converting the resulting spray to a flurry of icicles which tore at the cat's exposed arm-fur. "Ahhh!" He screamed, shielding his face. He then promptly fell with a flash of blue steel and a spray of crimson...

The fox paused, positioning the razor-edged icicle above his neck. But it yelped in surprise, lifted off its feet as it was speared in the side by Morlak's staff. The wizard continued running, screaming as lightning danced around him and the animal. "Back to whence you caaaaame~!" he bellowed as he spearheaded the creature right off the edge of the chasm next to the bridge, following and disappearing into the deep blackness. A bright flash and a thunderous BOOM echoed down the corridor a dozen times, then all was silent...

Vale watched, mouth gaping.

Kai, who had been pinned behind a stalagmite the whole time, emerged and began dressing Ethan's wounds. "My mother was a part-time healer. I picked up a few things..." The cougar protested at first, but eventually edged his back to the wall and allowed his arm to be tightly wrapped in the smaller cat's torn robe.

"Hate... Mondays..." Kit's croaking voice echoed from beyond the tunnel, and he emerged, leaning heavily on the wall. With a few coughs he spat up more water, then patted his chest. "Argh... my pendent is gone too.." He limped closer to the group, wringing water out of his robe. "Really hate— wait, where did the giant octopus go?" A few solemn stares, and Vale's troubled glanced caused his ears to droop. "Oh..." He stood in silence for a moment.

"Your ears..." Vincent said, sitting on a rock. "Were they always, so... big?"

Kit blinked and reached up to touch them. "Oh, blast. Fennec again." He looked at his paws. "Yeah, I... kinda have this weird thing where I shift though fox species... long story."

"I see..." Vincent stroked his chin, as if evaluating him.

"We should go." Vale said, after taking long look into the darkness under the bridge. Nothing stirred or made any noise. "We just need to find Virmir and get out of here..."

"I'm not sure he should be moving around..." Kai said, tightening Ethan's bandage. The cougar tried to swat him away, but he insisted.

"I'll stay behind with these two," Kayser saluted Vale. "We'll catch up or meet up with you on your way back."


Phew!

It was silly of Melface to get all worked up. The portal closed on its own anyway! He breathed a sigh of relief, chucking to himself as he made his way back. That blasted wizard and his dog friend probably didn't have time to slip through. And even if they did, they were trapped now and he had nothing to worry about. Still, probably best to make sure none of the imps saw anything. Funny, there should had been more stationed around here...

His ears perked when he heard what sounded like the creatures squabbling. He turned the corner to find three of them poking each other with rock spear tips and giggling. "Hey you!" he screamed with authority. "Knock that off!"

The one nearest to him picked up a stone and threw it, which he dodged, while another took off running down the hallway, laughing madly. "Hey!" The third one actually charged him, brandishing its spear. Melface clenched his teeth in a frustrated snarl and delivered a swift kick to the thing's chest, sending it flying into the wall where it promptly crumpled to dust. "What is wrong with you guys?!"

By now the remaining one had run away as well, and Melface clenched his fists in irritation. Just what the heck was wrong with Lucile anyway? She's always kept these things under fine control, even if they were stupid mindless morons that could only follow simple orders. Off in the distance he heard some noises that sounded like thunder. Splaying his ears, he tried to guess which tunnel mouth would take him closer...


"Virmir?"

Vale stepped closer to the slab of wood with the gray form strapped to it, wrapped in black. "Oh, gods... it is you!"

He stood in the center of the room, propped up, asleep, tubes running from his arms, dripping blood... "Oh my..." Vale covered her mouth. Glowing runes circled the vertical table he was affixed to.

"Yikes." Vincent was the first to catch up to Vale, and his reaction was much the same. "Geez... what are they doing to him?"

Vale couldn’t help it. She dove right into the magic circle—


It was very warm, and dizzy... Swirly shapes all around. And then suddenly it was hard to breathe. Light finally reached my eyes, and I choked, gasping for breath with my nose buried in Vale's neck.

"Get off me!!"

I pushed her away and fell onto the floor, tangled in my cloak. The world swam around, and the first object I was able to focus on was the blasted warthog Rufus, his stench falling upon me like a shadow. He held his arms out wide.

"Virmir!"

"Don't you even think about it!!" I hissed, and he jumped back. I was surrounded by a multitude of figures, and they promptly gave me space as soon as I stood, keeping my cloak wrapped tightly around my middle. "And why am I not wearing any pants?!"

"Uh..." Vale stood speechless, eyes wet as if she had been crying. But her ears blushed and she grinned, relief evident in her face.

Vincent popped up behind her, clothing bunched in one hand. "Here, sir! R-right away s-sir!"

I snatched it from him, then turned to slip my pants back on. "What in blazes is going on, anyway?" I was woozy and felt as if I'd tip over at any moment. Yet on the other hand, I was oddly full of energy. When I turned again, the faces were clearer. Vale, Rufus, Vincent, and a big-eared fox I did not recognize.

Vale explained a plot of portals and trapped keepers, and a fox that looked just like me... my blood began to boil, and I cut her off. "That's enough." I flipped my cape and headed for the door. "I thank you all, but there's someone I need to talk to..."

"I'm coming with you," Vincent said, stepping in front of the others, looking much more focused than usual, which surprised me. "This guy... whoever's in charge, screwed us over last time, and screwed you over today." He punched his fists together. "Also..." voice lowered to a whisper, "uh, well I kinda thought that you were one of them... some demon spawn from the netherworld... up until I saw you hanging there a bit ago... sorry."

I rolled my eyes, but the others seemed eager to join, so did not complain when I turned heel and made way for the far door. The mage who I later learned was Kit was the only one to speak up, "Uh... I'm not sure if this is such—"

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"To Steal a Fox", copyright Virmir