To Steal a Fox

by Virmir

The crystals were perfect. The chalk was perfect. The alignment was perfect. He rose, stretching his creaking bones. All that was left was to wait. And waiting was one of the things he did best. He smiled at the box in the center of the symphony. She would come back. Far better than before. Far more perfect than even him... He owed her this much. Finally he would show her the way. Make her understand what she did not have the capacity to understand before.

The ground trembled and flame burst from his left. He scowled and covered his face in the sleeve of his robe. Smoke billowed into the room and dust rained upon his perfect spell. He frowned and peered into the blackness... his anger, his hatred kindled anew. Who dared disturb him?

A burning orange orb lit within the cloud and a small figure made itself clear, the tap-tap of its toe-claws rasping on stone as the booming echo from the explosion faded within the cavern. Its black cloak waved gently and its eyes were filled with rage. More figures stepped from the smoke, weapons unsurely held within their paws. But they were insignificant to the first one.


"Grandfather," I said dryly, pouring more energy into the fireball. It was bigger than my head by now— a bright sun aimed squarely at his chest. "It has... been a while."

"You have... awoken too early." He looked down upon me with a frown, arms slipping behind his back into his robe. "The procedure is not complete." He looked exactly as I remembered him. Human, white hair, beard and robe. The flaming trim upon his garments...

"What 'procedure'?" I stepped forward, teeth bared, eyebrow twitching. "What in blazes did you try to do to me? And for that matter, what is all of this? What is going on here?!"

"Kendo, my child. I'm afraid none of this will make sense until after your change is complete. Once humanity is removed from you, I will kindly explain your role. I must ask you to return to your room. As for your friends..." He raised a spindly hand, and tendrils of blackness formed in the air...

Vale stood firm, sword at the ready. But her mouth dropped in terror when Virmir's grandfather pointed his hand at her and overwhelming blackness formed around it. She nearly blinked and missed what happened next. Virmir caught fire and flew though the air, his much shorter body flying eye-level with his grandfather, and with a burning fiery punch to the jaw, he sent the old man spiraling backwards. The white-robed man tumbled through the air at least 20 feet before slamming into the cavern wall, crumpling onto a table of spell regents, all four legs shattering.

Virmir landed in a crouch, and with one smooth motion thrust his left hand forward and braced his arm with the right. The orb of flame he charged earlier quivered a moment, before surging though the air and slamming into the crumpled mess.

Vale and the others shielded their faces as a wave of heat washed over them, fire-red painting the walls. Virmir walked towards the dying inferno, splaying his hands to the sides as crimson formed around them. "I was never fond of talk."

The old man's shadow appeared in the flame, sitting up, fire avoiding it as if it were afraid. "Kendo, my child, I have trouble... hating you..."

With a red flash, Virmir charged again. This time his grandfather sidestepped, ever so slightly, and with a jerk, raised his knee into Virmir's chest, stopping him cold. The fire went out as the old man grabbed his cloak and with a mighty spin, flung the little fox into the wall.

"Now!" Vale screamed, her silver blade flashing orange. She charged the man's back, but promptly tripped and fell face-first. Something caught her ponytail and with a painful jar, she was lifted back up.

"You miserable cur." Her heart stopped at the words whispered into her ear. "This is all your fault!" A clawed hand grabbed her neck and lifted her off the ground. She gagged and struggled to hold her blade. It was the other fox... the tall one, with the horrible eyes... "If... if you hadn't followed me!"

"Put her down!" Vincent slashed his side, but it did little good.

"Hrmph!" A punch with his free hand sent Vincent flying into the others. He turned and looked into her eyes, and she went numb with fear.

Melface tossed the wretch on top of the one who attacked him. He felt another explosion at his back. There were only four of them... if he killed them quickly while father was fighting Kendo, maybe... just maybe he'd be spared his wrath...

He snarled, his mouth elongating, teeth sharpening unnaturally... it didn't matter either way. He wanted them to die right now, and he would eat their souls. There was a hyena, a boar, a big-eared fox... and he'd save the red dog for last. She would suffer most. They were his.

They stood there like good victims, wide-eyed, petrified in fear. It was easy to amplify their emotions, with the explosions and fire all around. He circled once before they tried to stand, but that ended with a backhand to the hyena's face. They huddled together, like a litter of frightened kits, afraid, confused. No one understood what the circling meant. That was why it was effective. The big-eared fox began to gather wind energy. But it was too little, too late.

After the second circle, enough of their shell was peeled away that he could see the creamy juicy souls underneath. His mouth watered and he grinned. And that held them fast. The mage gathered more wind. But it was still too little, too late.

As soon as he completed the third circle, time froze. He had them! His beautiful, succulent prey laid all their deepest fears out for him to amplify. At this point it was a simple matter of making their hearts fail from sheer panic.

Melface looked at the heyena first. He was deathly afraid of the supernatural, and deeply paranoid of hierarchy. He was terrified of Melface already, so he was a simple matter. Melface chained the heyena to a table, and gave the Duke of Metamor and the Patrol Master his own face, along with wicked scalpels and an army of plant imps to crack him. He'd only take thirty seconds or so.

The boar was a hearty, friendly type, always in a good mood. Those types took a bit longer, but were none-the-less more succulent. He changed him into a feral animal and put him on a spicket to slow-roast.

The female dog was a typical one. Afraid of failure and rejection. Afraid of being anonymous, worthless. She had already lived through a nightmare, and he took great delight in sending her back to her worst moment of failure. (There were many!) He gave her the same men she lost during the winter assault on the keep, but this time made her position more important, her decisions more devastating. He grinned in triumph as he watched the lutins kill her men one by one. He would drag this one out the longest...

He pulled out of her head to get the big-eared fox mage, but blinked when he was not there...

"Ha HA!" A voice shouted from above. He staggered as a blast of wind knocked him off blance. The little mage floated just above his circle's area of effect. "So that's what they meant!"

"What?!" Melface bellowed, regaining his footing as he leaned against the wall.

The mage sprayed him with pointy icicles as he fluttered down. "Take that!"

Melface batted them away, then dove for the pest, grabbing his neck, turning, and pinning him against the wall. The stone cracked, and the smaller fox made a satisfying gurgle as his eyes bulged. "Very well... I'll just kill you naturally..."

A monsoon formed around him, and blades of wind tore at his cloak, all the while the little fox dug his claws into his arms. Pain laced his body, but he sneered at the inferior magic and simply smashed the little mage into the wall a second time, then a third. Deep cracks splintered around his victim's body as his eyes began to glaze over, and the storm died.

But then his prey began to change. His ears shrunk in size, and his muzzle widened. Gray fur covered his body, his ears blackening, and a gray, black-tipped tail poked from under his robes.

Melface stared into his nearly completely glazed-over eyes and dropped him. "No..." He stepped in reverse. "You... you can't be..."

Suddenly, pain engulfed his footpaws. "Owww!!" Melface raised a hand to hit the little mage again, but the spell-caster was too busy cradling the back of his head and groaning. If it wasn't him, then... Melface tried to move his feet, but they were frozen in ice. He turned. "Who?!"

An orange cat with an absurdly blue tuft of fur atop his head was crouched to his side, paws splayed upon the ground with a stream of ice leading from them to Melface's trapped feet. "Ethan, NOW!" the cat screamed.

Eyes-wide, Melface turned just as the tremendous halberd impaled him though the middle. Ethan did not stop. The raging cougar continued his war-charge, pushing Melface all the way across the room and embedding him into the far wall, at which point he twisted the blade through his body into the cracking stone.

Melface gagged, coughing blood at the cat. Then he grinned at him. "Heh... not bad." With a jerk, he slapped away the cougar's hands, grabbed the pole, then snapped it off at the blade. "Might have even hurt if it weren't a mundy weapon..." Tossing the pole to the ground, blade embedded in his belly, he launched from the wall and snatched the stunned cougar's neck in his right hand, lifting him from the ground. "So how about you, kitty? What do you fear?"

"Aaaaahhh~!" A scream, this one from above.

"What the—?!"

Vale only had a few seconds after the horrible illusion broke to gain her bearings. She did not hesitate. Raising her sword above her head, she leapt with all her might. The sword felt warm as she flew though the air, much like when Virmir had enchanted it months ago, but she did not realize it was actually on fire until it made contact with the evil fox's arm.

It cut like butter and Ethan fell to the ground. The demon fox yowled in pain, flailing as the fire engulfed his robes, cursing incomprehensible obscenities. She kicked the severed arm to the other side of the room and helped Ethan up.

Kayser rushed to Kit's aid, helping him stumble to his feet. She noticed the fox's fur patterns had changed to something resembling Virmir's. But as he stood and limped, it changed again, becoming more reddish in nature.

At this point she realized the sounds of battle and fire spells across the room had ceased, and gaped in horror at what she saw next to the chalk lines and crystals in the center of the room. Virmir lay face down, a tattered, smoking mess. A small, quadruped gray fox stood over him, two paws on his back, glaring at them with the most hateful, spiteful gaze she had ever seen in her life.

"You have nearly ruined my night," it said, deep resonating voice dripping acid. "You will interfere no more." Vale dropped her sword as a tightness clutched her chest, and she found herself thrown through the air, forced against the far cavern wall. Tendrils of blackness filled the room, and all the others suffered the same fate, thrown like rag dolls against the hard stone. "You miserable wretches shall cease to exist..." It said, walking off of Virmir and towards them...

I heard them scream, but when I tried to look, I couldn't move a muscle. My body was utterly broken. I was numb and cold. And the screams were getting harder to hear.

I was dying.

That gods-forsaken book... It was all because of that gods-forsaken book. What a moron I was...


Just go away. Let me die.

"Kendo... I'm so sorry..." My mother, a small quadruped fox, stooped over my head and licked my muzzle. I still couldn't move. But somehow I could "see" her. She was translucent, and she shed tears that became droplets of ice and shattered upon the floor. "This is... my fault."

"No it's not..." I somehow replied, though I barely could twitch my mouth.

"Yes it is... I could have stopped all this... but father... your grandfather did some awful things... and will do more. You need to get up."

"It.... hurts..."

"I'm... going to try something, Kendo. But after I do this, we may never be able to speak again..."

"... Mother?"

"I love you."

"I... love you too."

She took a step back, then leapt inside my body. And the raw surge of energy I felt was amazing. I shrunk, my hands melting into paws as my fur caught flame, and I stood, ready to pounce. Grandfather had his tail to me, also a feral fox, horrible tendrils of blackness swirling around his body. Everyone was pinned against the wall, screaming. The blue luminescence in the cavern walls throbbed as the ground shook, great chunks of rock tumbling from above.

I went for his neck.

"He's waking up."

I heard voices, dimly. With great difficulty, I opened my eyes and tried to focus on the blurry faces. I was lying on my back quite comfortably, covered in a sheet, head resting on a fluffy pillow. "Wha..." I managed, "Where is... he?"

"It's over," Vale whispered into my hear. "You beat him. We're safe now."

"Huh? How?" I sat up, fighting back the overwhelming tiredness. Blast... my tail was numb as blazes from lying that way.

"I think you snapped his neck." Vincent folded his hands and leaned over the bed with the biggest, brightest puppy eyes imaginable. "It was... so awesome~!"

"Yeah!" Rufus agreed, followed by a nod from Kayser. I shrunk back, trying to remember which way was up and what in blazes I was doing there.

At that moment the group around my bed parted and Morlak, the mustached squid-mage (or whatever) pushed his way through. "Ah! I knew you'd make it out all right!"

Vale and the others seemed startled by his sudden appearance. "Wait... how did you—?" she stammered.

"Oh, the hole?" He waved a tentacle-arm. "That was nothing. We fight terrifying creatures while falling down bottomless pits all the time. It's a wizard thing."

"I... see..."

He turned to me. "Virmir, I just wanted to check up on you. I've... a lot of questions about what just happened. But later, after you rest. I'm very relieved to see you and your friends are okay!"

I simply nodded, rolling my eyes.

He paused before he left and turned his head back over. "Oh, and the... fox creature you brought back has been contained in the deepest reaches of the dungeons, under a gaggle of runes. There's no way it's going anywhere."

"Fox... creature...?" My ears perked. "You mean, he's still alive? And he's here?"

Vale rubbed the back of her head nervously. "Well, Virmir... you locked your jaw around his neck... After you passed out, there was no way we could separate you. So we just carried you both."

"I thought he was dead, actually." Vincent added.

I leaned back on the pillow. "I see..."

Silence greeted my ears, except for the crackling of distant torches. I leaned back, starting at the blackness above. White wisps fluttered about. It might have been beautiful...

If it weren't snow.

Crunching footsteps approached from behind. I pretended not to notice until they drew near.

"Virmir?" My right ear swiveled to catch Vale's voice, then I looked over my shoulder. "I wasn't expecting to see you— wow!" Her eyes widened as soon as she crossed the boundary of my heat shield and stepped inside my bubble. "It... it's so warm!"

I couldn't help but crack a slight grin. "It's a new trick..." I motioned to the gentle snowflakes that fluttered above. Then melted and died well before coming near me. It was the first time I had anchored a spell to a power source other than my own, fixing it to the steady flow of magic oozing about the keep. I imagined my little resting spot atop the curtain wall would become quite intolerable during warmer months.

"Do you mind if I...?" She motioned to the other half of the stone bench I sat on, removing her scarf and unfastening her woolen coat. Normally I would be annoyed by company, but I was in a particularly good mood that night, so I merely shrugged.

"So, I heard you... erm... quit."

I looked away from her to the dim outlines of rooftops barely visible beyond the wall, before folding my arms under my cloak. "Yes... I'm no scout."

"Did you really tell George to...?"

I grinned again, just slightly. "Shove it? In a matter of words..."

She put her hand to her muzzle, giggling. "Oh dear... do you have any idea how many people have wanted to tell that to him? You're quite the celebrity."

"I can imagine," I said, dryly.

"So if you're through with scouting, what are you doing here?"

"I'm a mage-on-call for the entire night. Something about some nobleman's party or something. The security is over-the-top, and the pay was too good to pass up. Plus being in-between jobs and all, I figured one more night outside wouldn't hurt."

"Virmir... the Duke himself is getting married."

I scratched my head-fur and shrugged. "I never pay attention to such things."

She let out a chuckle, and a long, awkward period of silence followed before she spoke up again. "We got assigned a new squad leader. He seems okay... but... I think we're all going to miss you."

"Ah..." I left it at that, not really sure how I could possibly say anything else without lying or being brutally impolite.

There was another period of silence, and I glanced over to see her hesitating with something, all the while avoiding my gaze. Oh great. I began to curse the smallness of the bench we were sitting on.

"Um... maybe... do you think after we're done here, we could... you know, maybe get a drink, together? I mean, I-I'll pay, of course."

I took a deep sigh. "Vale... I'm not attracted to you." Then I immediately slapped my face. "I mean—ah—!"

"Oh, um, uh..."

"What I meant to say was..." I cleared my throat. Blast it... "I've never been very keen on the whole... " I waved my hands around a bit, "relationship thing. And now I've been transformed to a 10-year-old, so the thought has been pushed even further from my mind."

"Oh... I'm sorry... I—"

"Don't be. I'm flattered, really. I picked up on... your interest... a few weeks ago, and didn't want to lead you on, giving you the wrong idea."

She sighed. "I guess it's better to get this out in the open, heh..." I looked at her eyes, and noticed tears welling up. Blast it! I went and made her cry! ARGH!!

I looked at the ground and flexed my toes, trying to think of a subject change. "Vale..." I finally mustered, "what happened back there? When I attacked... my grandfather." I was hesitant using the word, but I knew she knew because she was right behind me when I first addressed him.

"Oh, well," she wiped her eyes and perked up, "I was pinned to the wall, and you were down. And the fox... your grandfather had his back to you and was walking towards us... Then, well, your body caught on fire."

I nodded, remembering that much well enough.

"And you shifted to a little four legged fox kit, and stood up. You were, well, really beautiful."

I rubbed the back of my head awkwardly. "You didn't notice... another fox by me before that?"

"Huh? No, you just got up on your own."

"I see..."

"Then you leapt through the air and bit the bigger fox in the side of the neck, pinning him down. He thrashed around, and the black tendrils around him lashed and destroyed everything in the room. We were freed, but didn't dare run to the doorway due to the chaos. After a moment though, the fox, er, your grandfather stopped moving. We thought you killed him."

I nodded glumly.

"The cavern seemed really unstable after that, so we tried to pick you up and escape before everything collapsed. You had your jaw locked around him though, so we just grabbed the two of you and ran." I noticed her eyes trailing behind me and looking at the tip of my tail, which peeked out from underneath my cloak, as she spoke. "Kit was able to figure out how to reopen the portal out of there just in time."

She rubbed the back of her head again as she motioned to my backside. "And, well... you had two tails."

"Two tails?"

"Yeah... I thought I saw two tails when you were on fire, but shook it off since you were moving so fast. But when I picked you up, you definitely had two of them."

"Heh..." I grinned. "So I'm not going crazy..." I let my second tail slip out of my cloak and rest atop the bench seat next to me.

Vale's eyes widened. "Oh! So I wasn't going crazy either!"

We both shared a chuckle. "Yeah, two tails.... I had no idea, until I had to use the chamber pot at the healer's. It was, well... an awkward moment..."

She snickered as I brought the new tail in my lap and stroked it. I had a pretty good idea of whose tail it was, and why it was a part of me now. And despite the grin that crept across my face, I choked back a sob.

The dungeon was as dank and dismal as I remembered. And the utter wretchedness of the dark prison only grew worse as I descended lower and lower. At the very bottom of the affair, far below hustle of the keep, below the worst convicts and the worst stuff of nightmares, lay a hole bored deep into solid rock. A blinding gaggle of runes circled the edges, the walls, and the metal lid with its lonely ventilation slits. And somewhere deep down inside the blackness, a monster laid in wait.

"Hello, Grandfather." I let my voice carry through the stale air, having stopped a good distance before the edge of the runes.

"Kendo..." he replied, and an echo followed. "How... thoughtful of you to visit." Though I could not see him, I could just imagine the acid dripping from his muzzle.

Blast... why was I even there? "I just... wanted to say goodbye."

"Hmmm... sentimental. Just like your mother." He clicked his teeth in disgust. He was probably in his fox form, no doubt shackled to death. "These... human emotions are unfitting for our kind, Kendo. If you wish to truly release your potential, you must rid yourself of such weaknesses."

I let silence hang in the air a good while as I chose my words. "Grandfather, hatred is a human emotion as well."

He did not respond.

I flipped my cape as I turned. "Goodbye."

"Ah, Virmir! Glad you could make it."

I rolled my eyes as the squid-mage stepped up from behind me and fell in stride by my side as we made our way down the halls of Metamor. I suspected he knew about my second tail as well, but I kept it hidden in public anyway. (I had no desire to draw any additional attention to myself in any way, shape, or form.) With my long cloak it was not difficult to hide. I just curled it above my other tail, letting that one peek out in its stead. And when it got cramped, I would just switch the two, letting the new one stretch out. It wasn't very difficult to master after a few weeks.

"Likewise..." I replied, letting boredom seep into my voice.

"I'm sure you're quite sick of filing reports and answering questions by now. Don't worry. We are quite done with that."

"That's good."

"Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I will be returning to Lake Barnhardt soon, and would like you to come with me so we can officially begin your apprenticeship. It's a lovely place, really. And it has more... aquatic facilities for my kind. " He motioned to the amulet around his neck that kept his skin moist. "You may like it though. We could find good work for a fire mage, actually."

"About that..."

"And I hope you don't mind, but the mage's guild I told you about... that didn't really work out."

"Wait, what?" I shot him a sideways glance.

"Ah, well..." he rubbed the back of his cowl with a tentacle, his mustache swaying in uncertainty. "I made a bit of a fib when I spoke with your patrol master. The papers weren't all sorted out yet... I was sure my new guild would be established, but things got delayed. And now, it seems they were never meant to be. So I'm headed back home. Shame, really, this place could use a real guild..."

"Wait... you mean to tell me there is no guild?"


"So that whole 'archmage' thing..." I waved my hand around.

"Well... that was going to be my title..."

"You mean, you made up."

"I did not!" he sputtered.

I stopped and looked up at him. "Listen... I don't care about a 'guild' either way. But to be perfectly honest, I only agreed to the whole master/apprentice thing to get a day off from patrol work once per week. Now that I paid my debt, I don't need you any more."

I turned my back to him, giving a casual wave behind. "See ya."

I could hear his mouth drop. "But-but, Virmir! How can you pass up an opportunity like this? Just exactly what do you plan on doing with your life?"

I didn't answer. I heard him curse a few times as he faded down the hallway.

Vale fixed her blouse and tidied her headfur, unsure who could be knocking at her door. It was rare she got visitors, and when she did, it was usually someone from higher command to give her a new assignment, or reprimand her for failing...

When she did open the door, she was surprised to see the heyna Vincent standing there, ears folded with a sheepish grin. "Uh... hi L-Lady Vale."

"Oh... hello, Vincent."

He cleared his throat. "I was... well since we both have the day off and all..." He shifted on his feet nervously. "Kinda wondering if... er... maybe you'd like to run down to the Deaf Mule and, uh, get a drink?"

Vale's ears perked.

"I'll, uh... pay of course." He looked at the ground.

Vale blinked a few times, confused. Then a grin slowly crossed her muzzle. "I'd love to."

"Wow," Edward the age-regressed scholar sat down, mouth agape as he looked back towards the door. "He nearly bowled me right over! What was that all about?"

Sara the librarian's assistant, and quite new at the job, sat next to him, shuffling her books, hands still shaking from the scare. "I-uh... he... uh..."

He put his hands around hers. "It's okay, dear. Start from the beginning."

"Well..." she took a deep breath. "He came in, looking all wide-eyed, like he'd never been here before... nay, like he'd never seen a library in his entire life..."

"Go on."

"He wondered around a bit, and finally I asked him if I could help him. I mean, he looked so lost and all..."

"Of course. That's what you do, darling."

"Y-yeah... So, he asked for a book. He was very specific about it. And I was excited because I actually knew where to find it." She sighed again. "And I didn't think it was strange at all that he asked for a children's book, because he was a child and all. And he was so adorable and fuzzy and harmless looking. Well, except for his cold, hard stare..."

Edward nodded, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze as she started to choke up again.

She continued after regaining her composure. "Well, he took the book and then sat down, looking as if he were going to do some serious research. And I thought it was so cute, since he's a kid and all, with a children's book. And very few kids can actually read. But then, but then..." She closed her eyes and gulped.

"But then he started flipping through the pages madly, becoming more and more upset. And then he started cursing and tearing out the pages, and I approached him and told him to stop... but he wouldn't listen! " Tears streaked down her eyes. "Then the book caught on fire! It caught on fire, Edward! And then the table caught on fire! And the parchment on the table, and I ran around, screaming for help, trying to bat the flames out with more parchment. But that caught on fire too, and the fox kid stood there with murder in his eyes, looking like he was going to torch the whole place! Then more assistants came, and everyone started yelling! And— and—" She collapsed into his arms, weeping uncontrollably.

"Shhhhh..." He rocked her back and forth. "It's okay, it's okay..."

She wiped her tears on her sleeve. "Y-yeah. Sorry. I'm fine..."

"Though, maybe you should look into a less dangerous field of work..."

Somewhere upon the outskirts of the Barrier Range, an animal looked upon the great spires of Metamor Keep with disdain. He frowned and scuffed, turning his tail on the distant walls and limping away. He took great effort keeping his head above the snow with only three legs, glowering as he shivered.


Spring is finally here.

A soft breeze blows though the open window, and bird-song fills my ears. I can actually smell the garden roses from my perch up above. It is such a contrast to the myriad horrors of winter. Especially back at that blasted keep.

Melbron is a tiny hamlet compared to Metamor. I had heard of this place from the emissary who I fought alongside with in the blue cavern months ago (an orange housecat with an absurdly blue tuft of dyed headfur by the name of Kai Adin). He had mentioned that his master would kill to hire a mage, and after hearing his fond recounts of the place, I figured the trek down here was worth a shot.

The barony consists of a manor (fondly called "the keep" by the citizens, and indeed it does look like a tiny castle) surrounded by a walled village and then a bit of farmland beyond. Baron Adler, my employer, is a corsac fox with a regal gaze, always draped in some cape or robe. He's a decent fellow who stays out of my way when I'm working, listens to my opinions, and treats me with respect. When I bow to him, he bows back.

I have been hired to ward the town (and eventually the farmland beyond) from dangers. I knew little about warding when I started, but after some trips to Metamor's library (after I repaid them for that... erm... incident), I was able to acquire a number of volumes on the subject and learn a great deal. The Baron understood that I needed time for research (I was likely the only mage he'd ever find, granted) and I am making progress.

Lutins are not much trouble this far south of the keep, especially after the attack from last winter. The main threat to Melbron are thieves and raiders from the uncursed lands to the south. Such vagabonds can easily ride in, hustle a few livestock or break into a farmstead, then ride out completely under the cover of darkness. The Baron's assets wore thin as he hired numerous soldiers to protect his vassals. The patrols from Metamor can only help so much this far south.

I've been working on a ward to sound whenever an uncursed human approaches it, among a number of other tricks and traps. Obviously the town receives a number of uncursed visitors from the southern lands weekly, but such a ward signaling at midnight over the town wall (as opposed to the gates), or in a farmer's field is a certain red flag.

The citizens are uneasy of me. I can hear them whisper behind my back as I work. And they always stare, but try not to get caught doing so. They call me "sir" when I address them, and never try to strike up more than a few syllables of conversation. Then quickly get out of my way when finished.

I love it.

Recently the Baron has been employing me as a bodyguard when he entertains guests from out of town. I remain hidden in the background— he has burly men to stand on either side of him and look impressive. But it brings me secret delight to be the true force of protection in the room.

I'm certain I'm not getting paid nearly as well as if I worked at Metamor. But to live in a much smaller community, away from the hustle and bustle (and the gods-forsaken smells...) of the Keep, it is worth it. I've a little tower at one corner of the manor, second in height only to the Baron's. It's a two room affair, the upper portion an airy bedroom with steepled windows, a writing desk, and shelves for my growing collection of books and scrolls. The lower level is more a sitting room which I don't use all that much except in colder months due to the hearth. I am not bothered often except for the chambermaid, who I finally had to give in and allow her to clean my room regularly because, blast it, I am shedding winter fur all over the place and there is no way I can handle it all myself...

I save most of my money. For what, I do not know. But I do not have many expenses. Sometimes I allow myself little luxuries— a good set of grooming brushes, for one. (I've begun taking delight in locking the doors, latching the windows, then stripping down and brushing every inch of my body... Blast, the amount of fur I produce boggles the mind.) I have three sets of identical black cloaks, and will probably get a fourth soon. I suppose I will have to let the tailor in on my two-tailed secret, because I should get some nice breeches custom made to my body as well.

It's a slow, tedious life, filled with quiet routine. Some would call it lonely. I call it paradise. I think I'll stay here a while.

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