We wandered around aimlessly in the darkness for about an hour. There was no trace of Rufus anywhere and we were utterly lost. And freezing.
"Can't you cast some kinda heating spell on us or something, Virmir?" the hyena man asked, rubbing his furry shoulders with his hands.
"Yeah, so we're like... not cold?" he said sarcastically.
I folded my arms. "I can light you on fire." I turned to look him in the eye and he flinched.
"Actually," Vale interrupted, "we should probably stop for the night. We're not getting anywhere fast. Virmir, could you build us a fire?"
"Are you sure that's wise? If those things are following us, they'll see it immediately." I was actually more worried about the whatevers in black robes, seeing as the plant creatures were quite immobilized in the cold.
"We're gonna die out here if you don't do somethin', fire mage." Vincent was almost hopping from foot to foot. Who was he to complain? He was the only one wearing boots, blast it! My toes felt like they had fallen off.
"Not to mention Lutins," I retorted, rolling my eyes. And he better not go on that spiel about the Lutins being thin after last winter. If it weren't for that rouge tribe, I would still be human. Or an adult, at least.
"Yes, but..." it was Vale who spoke up, "if we're anywhere near the Keep, a scouting party will see it and rescue us."
My ears perked. Rescue? I liked the sound of that.
"Fair enough. We'll take our chances." I turned to the much larger hyena morph. "I'll need some wood. I'm afraid I don't have much energy left to burn."
Vincent took a few steps back and placed a hand behind his head. "Uh... my arm's really acting up. Wounded, ya know." He turned to the dhole. "Lady Vale, could you take a look at it?"
Vale looked at him for a moment, her muzzle partially opened. "... Yeah, I'll take a look at that. Come over here. Virmir, could you please get the firewood?" The two proceeded to make their way to a fallen tree.
What in blazes? They want me to get the wood? What kind of ungrateful, helpless, rejects are they? Seriously, send the man cursed with child-stick-arms who can barely lift ten pounds to collect logs and then beg him to cast the spell to save our lives while we do nothing! Idiots! I swear I will not work with these buffoons again!
I grumbled and levitated a stick to my waiting hand.
"Now what is it that you want to keep so secret, Vincent?" Vale whispered as she sat on the log. Vincent had been acting so strange since they'd rescued him. Indeed one of his squad mates had been killed and another likely running around lost in a dark forest as a feral animal as they spoke, but there was obviously something else as well.
Vincent turned to look at the cursed child fox mage as he went about his task. Virmir had summoned a witchlight, and the bright orange glow erratically zipped around the trees like an angry wasp, as if the caster were throwing a tantrum. Occasionally a twig would fly from the bushes to the fox's waiting hand. The light cast a sheen on his silver fur, making it seem golden.
"... What kind of a fox is Virmir?"
"I don't know. Never asked... why?" Vale cocked one ear up and one halfway down, half expecting this to be some kind of a joke.
Vincent was dead serious. "When I was in there... with Rufus... I saw... I saw..."
Vale took his hand. "What did you see?" He was shivering.
"There was... Me and Rufus got free at the last minute... Before they put us in the cages." He grinned slightly. Sadly. "We took a few of those monsters out. Put up a good fight. But then..." He looked at the ground.
"Then what? It's okay, Vince, it's okay..."
He let out a long sigh. "There was... there was another monster... No, it was a daedra. I swear it, Vale. By Akkala, I swear it!" His eyes burned with a wild intensity, and Vale found it hard to keep looking into them. "It was a daedra. I could not touch it with my sword. It was so fast..." He clenched his fists in to balls and shuddered, slowly unclasping them.
Vale put her arm around his shoulder. There were some horrible things in that underground tower, she knew that. She didn't quite believe he had actually seen a daedra, but she wasn't about to second guess his story. "It's all right, Vincent. You survived, that's all that matters. And we're going to find Rufus tomorrow." 'Daedra' was a very vague term. She had heard many stories of minor demons walking the realms of man, each with wildly varying shapes and abilities.
He shook his head. "No, no listen... The daedra... it... it..." He leaned in close and whispered, "it looked like Virmir."
Vale's ears stood on end and her tail frazzled.
Vincent leaned back and spoke through clenched teeth. "I think Virmir is a daedra."
"That is absurd!" I heard Vale shout. The two morons were arguing about something. Wonderful. With the pig man out of the picture, the hyena had apparently decided to dig into our exalted squad leader for his kicks. Better than me, I suppose.
They ceased their bickering and jumped as soon as they noticed I had returned. They watched me with wide eyes as I stood there with the witchlight bobbing around my head, weighed down with sticks under my arms and several more floating in the air above my shoulders. What was their problem? I tossed the offending wood down in a messy pile and proceeded to indignantly wipe the wet, cold dirt off my robes. "I'm afraid I'm no woodsman, so you'll have to arrange them." Vincent seemed to shrink back on the log while Vale stood, flashing him a glance with her ears folded. I could tell she was irritated about something.
Not that I cared. I plopped down and sat cross-legged in front of the pile Vale was building, draping my tail into my lap and then wrapping my robe tightly around my body. Once the dhole was finished arranging the wood into a pyramid shape I snapped my fingers and ignited the blaze.
My own flame was certainly capable of keeping me warm, but a natural fire did not draw on my reserves and wear me out. I had to maintain the blaze with a bit of my own energy for a few minutes as the wood was wet, but after that it grew to a healthy fire quite capable of living on its own. I allowed myself to become lost in the dancing flames as I thawed for a half hour or so. Vale even got up and collected more wood. How considerate.
Thankfully both the hyena and dhole were not talkative, and it did not take long for my eyes to grow heavy. Vincent had volunteered to stay up the whole night and keep watch, as he had already been unconscious for large portions of the day. He still held that fearful, rattled look in his eyes as he watched the blaze, and I doubted he would have been able to sleep anyway. It was fine by me. I needed privacy though, so I opted to step away from the circle of warmth and inspect the nearest tree.
"Where are you going?" Vale asked.
It was an old twisted oak, its brown dead leaves swaying gently in the frigid night air. I ran my claws over the bark and found they had good purchase, so I climbed right up, wedging myself at the base of two branches. I loved climbing trees when I was young. It was a different world, with different rules. I could sit up there for hours and look down upon the world. Worries from the surface could not touch me up there. No one could.
I had a good view of Vale and Vincent right below, and they shot the occasional inquisitive glance in my direction. But soon they began murmuring to each other softly, and I had my privacy. I knew I was going to regress into a normal fox when I fell asleep, so I figured I might as well change then and get it over with. I hung my pack on a nearby branch and removed my grandfather's robe. It was so silky and its touch was almost electric. It would make a wonderful blanket during the night, along with my own cloak. I disrobed and hung my clothing on the same branch, then allowed the change to claim me. It was actually the first time I did it willingly, and was surprised at how easy it was to shift. In but a few moments my hands were gone, and I was a four-legged animal once more.
I nosed my way under my two blankets and stuck my head out the other end, curling up into a ball in the process. Burying my nose in my lush tail, I had no trouble falling asleep under those layers of warmth.
I heard a 'plop' as I stretched the next morning and turned to find my clothing had fallen off and landed in the bushes at the base of the tree. Blast it. As I contemplated how to get down and dressed without being seen by Vale or Vincent, I felt my covering slide off my back and tail and then watched my black cloak and my grandfather's white robe fall right next to them. Ugh. Not having hands was such a pain...
A dreary gray morning greeted me and the cold cut through my fur. Shivering, I scampered down the trunk like a squirrel and pulled my pants from the bush with my teeth. The coast was clear, so I shifted back to my bipedal form and slipped them on.
Gah! I nearly fell face first in the mud. I really hate that hyena...
"... I was wondering," Vincent continued, "what kind of a fox are you, anyway?" He was directly behind me.
Tying up my belt, I clenched my teeth and resisted the urge to burn his facial fur off. "... Gray fox?"
"Are you sure?"
I rolled my eyes, removing my tunic from the bush. "I'm gray. And I'm a fox."
"Well, he does have the tree climbing down," Vale joined in. Oh, great. Let's all gather around now. I swear I will invent shifter friendly clothing one day.
"You mean you never went to the library and looked yourself up?" I folded my ears at the word 'library'. Ugh... "It's like tradition. All animal morphs do it. Some of us turn into really wild things." He pointed to the black and tan-gray stripes lacing his arm. "Striped heyna," he said with forced dignity, emphasizing the word 'striped'.
Real genius, that one.
"I've seen gray foxes around, and they're half red and half gray. You're all gray, and you've got some exotic fur patterns there on your back," Vincent pressed.
Huh? What in blazes was he talking about? I tried to crane my neck around to look, but was of course unable to see anything but my tail. "What sort of... patterns?"
Both the hyena and dhole hovered behind me. Blast it... "I dunno... you've got some black splotches here.. and some curvy lines..."
Lines? I turned around and tried to look the other way, without success. I flinched when I felt Vale run her claw through the fur between my shoulder blades. "That is kinda strange..." she said.
That's enough! I pulled away and began putting my tunic on. Blast it! "We do have the issue of wilderness survival to deal with here..." I said as I struggled to put the thing over my head.
"Do you need help with—"
Vale shrunk away and returned to the log, Vincent following a moment later. After fully dressing and replacing my grandfather's robe in my pack, I made my way toward them, trying to repress my growling stomach.
"We're out of food, aren't we?" I said it more as a statement.
Vale smiled and set a bloodied arrow next to her bow resting on the log. Vincent sat next to it and was busy skinning a rabbit with his knife. Huh. Never mind then.
"Could you build us another fire?" she asked.
It was less disgusting than I would have imagined. Perhaps it was because I was starving, or perhaps because I was now half animal. Ripping through the tough meat was considerably easier with my sharp teeth, after all. Split three ways it was not much food, but it was even less to Vale and Vincent. I suppose being stuck in a child-like body had its advantages, few as they were.
"So, where are we?" Vincent asked after downing his share in one bite. I don't even think he bothered chewing it.
"We were north of the keep when we got separated, and we traveled north before finding the portal that lead underground," Vale reasoned. "I didn't have any sense of direction when we were in the tunnels, but I'd be willing to bet that we're still north of the keep. Giantdowns, maybe?"
Vincent shook his head. "Can't be that far north. Too many trees."
"But they're fairly thin, so we must be farther than Glen Avery."
Vincent nodded. I had no idea what they were talking about, so I just kept chewing.
"So we'll head south," Vale continued. "If the forest gets thicker, we know we're going in the right direction. If not..."
"We're screwed," Vincent finished the comment for her. I would have rolled my eyes, but the dhole was making sense. I had never heard of this Glen Avery, but the trees did seem to grow thicker the farther north we went from the keep. The forest must reach a threshold at this point, whatever it was, and then taper off from there.
"But what about Rufus?"
Vale sighed, her ears drooping. "I don't think there's anything more we can do... These are less than ideal tracking conditions. The frost is burning off the ground, and I can't smell a thing... Can you, Virmir?"
Yeah, right. I shook my head.
She replaced the arrow into her quiver. "The faster we get back, the faster a search can be sent out for him... At least we know he's alive."
"I would agree," I quickly interjected, "we are ill equipped and unprepared. Best call for help and leave his fate in more capable hands."
Vincent looked at us both and then slowly nodded, his ears folding back. "Yeah, I guess you're right..."
I nearly didn't believe it. We were headed back at last! By the gods, I was going to stay in bed for a whole week. Confound anyone who tried to make me do otherwise.
In but a few minutes we were off, heading southwards and hopefully back to civilization. We soon came to a wide clearing in which we were able to see over the tree lines that surrounded us. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Metamor's majestic towers on the horizon, but of course we couldn't have been that lucky.
"What's that?" Vincent pointed behind us and to the left. A thick black column of smoke cut into the gray sky...
"Something's on fire..." Vale said ominously.
I took a few steps forward on our course, trying to coax the two to continue on. "We'd best get moving..."
Vale turned and looked at me. Not the Eyes of Urgency again... "We should check this out."
Oh, blast it!
I tagged behind the two as they trudged up an incline towards the smoke. We made it back into the forest again, sloughing through the dead leaves, the smoke just barely visible through the trees ahead. "We should be able to see what it is once we get over this ridge," Vincent guessed.
He had barely finished the sentence before the ground to his right exploded and something jumped out, latching onto his arm.
"He he he he he!"
"GAH!" Vincent kicked the plant creature off and it slammed into a tree. His sword was out in an instant. "You little FREAK!" he screamed as he slashed the blade. The monster tried to dodge, but its right arm was cleaved half way up.
Bounding backwards on three limbs, it hissed, but then stood upright and laughed at the hyena, brown roots wiggling out of the stump of the severed limb like worms. It then turned and charged straight at me. My fireball was not ready, so I leapt sideways and it drove right past.
"Kill it!! It's gonna go get its friends!" Vincent yelled as he ran after. As if his incessant screaming wasn't enough to alert them... I thrust my claws forward and let loose a thundering ball of flame. Miss... It went right over the monster's head, clipping several bushes and tree limbs before exploding several hundred feet in the wrong direction. Blast it!
"Don't burn the forest down!" he said as we ran side-by-side. I really hate him...
The plant-and-earth creature disappeared into a thick grove of bushes. The hyena charged in madly, hacking away at the foliage with his sword. I simply crawled on my hands and knees under the bushes and slipped out the other end. Okay, so there were two advantages to being small...
With Vincent left in the dust, the kill was mine... I spread my arms and summoned crimson energy to my hands, feeling the warmth beneath my skin. Blast it, the thing was gaining ground on me, and I watched its head disappear as it leapt down a small ridge.
Jumping down after it, I landed on two feet and my left hand and froze, allowing my cloak to settle down on my back and raised tail. Blast it, where did it go? I perked my ears and listened, straining to pick up any disturbance in the dead leaves or foliage around me... There! My ears swiveled and my hackles rose at the moving bush behind the elm to my right. I tiptoed to the base of the tree, then jumped out, thrusting my hand forward as a brilliant sphere of orange materialized before my palm, ready to blow the thing's head off.
A... little girl?
She couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old. The wind shifted and the scent of raw fear smacked me in the face. Her deep brown eyes regarded me with terror at first, but then melted away to child-like curiosity.
"He he he he he..." It slowly rose from behind her...
She dropped immediately and I blasted the monster's head clear off. We were both covered with dust from the blast, and the creature's lifeless body fell over backwards.
The girl rose to her knees, smoothing out her tan dress. "You... saved me!" Her eyes lit up in delight and wonderment. "Are you my guardian?"
"Mommy says everyone has a guardian. You saved me, so you're my guardian!"
I took a step back. "I'm no guardian, kid." She ignored that, and jumped up to embrace me in a tight hug, giggling. Oh, blast it... She stood an inch or two shorter than me, but she had a death grip. I could smell some sort of fruit in her hair as I tried to squirm away. She released me suddenly and I fell on my rear. Blast it! My tail escaped my robe and hung to the side, and she kneeled over me.
"Are you a doggie? I love doggies!"
"I'm a fox."
"Nuh-uh. Foxes are red."
"Well, I'm gray."
"You're a silly fox, then." She giggled and gave me another hug. By the gods, she was going to smother me... "Thank you for saving me, Mr. Fox."
"He he he he he...." My ears turned... They were a good distance away, but coming closer.
"What is your name?" I whispered.
"Emile!" She shouted.
I brought a finger to the tip of my muzzle. "Shhhh... Emile, I need you to be very quiet. Can you do this for me?"
She gave an exaggerated nod. I dragged her to the base of the tree and pressed my back against it. She latched onto my left hand and would not let go. I would have preferred having two free hands to ready my spells, but I could not force her to release it.
Two or three creatures passed by a few hundred feet away, luckily not in the direction I left Vincent and Vale. Blast it, what was I to do with the girl? I couldn't just leave her...
"Come with me," I said as I stood, pulling her up.
She tugged back on my arm. "Uh-uh. Mommy says I should stay here."
"Those monsters will find you if you stay here."
She was torn. "But... but Mommy says..."
More shrieking laughter. Blast it, more were on the way... I let out a long sigh. I was going to pay for this... "Listen, Emile... I'm your guardian, and your mother sent me to come get you."
Her eyes lit up. "Really?"
"Uh-huh, and if I'm going to protect you, you need to do everything I say, okay?" I said through clenched teeth.
"Okay, Mr. Fox!" She gave me another hug, and then started pulling on my ears. Blast it!
I pulled her along back the way I came and we met Vale half way.
"Virmir!" She quietly scolded as she trotted over to us. "Don't run off by yourself like that!" She paused as she looked down at the human girl clutching my side. Emile shrunk away at the sight of the larger dhole morph, wrapping my cloak around her body. "Who is she?" a perplexed Vale asked.
I pushed Emile off of me. "I found her hiding back there." I turned back to the frightened girl. "Emile, this is Lady Vale. She's a friend."
Vale wagged her tail and smiled. I groaned inwardly. Teeth baring canine grins don't exactly appear friendly to children, nimrod.
"Hello..." Emile managed, weakly.
Vale kneeled, trying to appear more pleasant. "Hello, Emile. Do you live around here?"
"Uh-huh," she nodded. "Mr. Fox saved me!" She clutched my arm.
"Oh, he did?" She flashed a smile at me this time. I rolled my eyes. "Where do you live?"
The girl pointed. Right at the column of smoke...
Vincent was running at us from that same direction. "Hey, guys!" he bellowed before he caught up, hanging over his knees for a moment to catch his breath. He looked at Emile for a second but then ignored her. "There's a whole mess of them right over there! They just torched an entire freaking vil—"
I clenched my teeth and ran a nail back and forth across my neck in a cutting motion. He got the picture at the last moment. "Oh... uh... hello, there..."
She really shrunk back at his ugly mug. Couldn't say I blamed her.
"There's a couple back there as well," I said, thumbing in the direction Emile and I had come.
"We need to get out of here..." Vale said, her eyes darting around.
"Right..." Vincent agreed. The two began making their way southward at a brisk pace. I pulled Emile along.
"Where are we going, Mr. Fox? I wanna see Mommy and Daddy..."
"Later, Emile... later..."
Trying to move stealthily through the woods, away from armies of evil animated plants and dirt, was made nigh impossible with a little girl in tow...
"Do you have more animal friends?"
Animal "friends"...? Ugh... "I know of other animal people..."
Blast it, I'd take the hyena and the pig man bickering any day... At least I could tune them out.
"What are we going to do with... her?" I motioned to Emile when she became distracted by a flurry of falling leaves.
"You mean you don't have a plan? You're the one that picked her up," Vincent grumbled with his arms folded.
Right. Obviously I decided this morning I desired the company of an overly talkative little brat and went into the forest in search of one.
"We'll have to take her the keep," Vale replied. "What else can we do? There were a lot of..." she glanced back at the girl, carefully choosing her words, "... children affected by the Yule Attack put in a similar situation, so there are plenty of facilities set up to take care of her."
I looked back at Emile, who had finally let go of my hand. She marched at my side swinging her arms in over-exaggerated sweeps like a solider, blissfully ignorant of what horrible things might have happened to her parents... or her entire village for that matter. All she cared about was that she was going on an "adventure" with her new "animal friends".
Partially because I had lied to her.
"Are we sure we want to subject her to the curses?"
"What's wrong with the curses?" Vincent glowered over me. A fair percentage of Keepers, particularly animal morphs, took immense pride in their conditions. Some went so far as to take any mention of their adversity as a personal insult. What a bunch of morons.
"The curse doesn't affect children," Vale interjected, "and we've been on improving terms with the towns to the north. It would probably be a temporary stay. We may be able to find her parents even, if we put the word out."
"Assuming we actually are north of the keep."
I felt a tugging on my tail and I stopped short, hackles standing on end. "Where are we going?" Emile asked as she pulled on it, "Mommy says there's monsters down south..."
"Monsters, huh?" Vincent said distastefully.
Vale smiled. "I think she knows where we are then." Vale kneeled and I clenched my teeth as the girl began hugging my tail. "Do you know where these 'monsters' live?"
Emile nodded and pressed the tip of my tail to her cheek while I desperately fought back a growl. "In a big castle..."
Vale stood and nodded at Vincent, who just rolled his eyes. "That settles it, then," she said.
Vincent unfolded his arms and held them wide. "There's a freaking haunted forest northeast of the Keep, little green men infesting the Giantdowns, and a megalomaniacal wizard trying to take over the world up north. And we're the ones that get labeled as 'monsters'..."
Vale chuckled. "That's humanity for you," she said, wagging her tail.
The girl released me and began giggling for some reason. We continued on, but then the dhole and hyena gave me curious glances, fighting back smiles. Even the hyena's dour mood shifted.
I turned to look at Emile, whose silky brown hair flowed down her shoulders. I could have sworn she had been wearing a ponytail up until then.
"That's not a bad look for you, Virmir." Vincent gibed.
"Huh?" I looked at Vale, but she just covered her mouth.
I flicked my tail indignantly and felt a weight on it. Flipping my robe to one side, I curled it around front and grabbed it, finding a bright green ribbon tied around the tip.
"Your tail's very pretty, Mr. Fox," Emile beamed.
Vincent burst out in obnoxious laughter.
I pinched my sinuses. Blast it! Would this infernal patrol never end?
It was like a nightmare. A horrible, never-ending walk through an abysmal forest. Blast it, how far from the Keep could we possibly have gone? We trudged southward all day, from daybreak to nightfall. Vale managed to kill one more rabbit, and the thing split four ways was all we ate for the day. I was utterly exhausted by the time the sun began to set. By the gods, what I would not give for my bed...
Emile remained enraptured most of the trip, but could take no more by the end of the day and Vincent had to carry her upon his back. She was afraid of the hyena man up until then, but quickly warmed up to him after a few minutes of riding. I took secret delight in watching him scowl as she played with his ears as she rode upon his back.
And then I envied her when she fell asleep. She was a real child, and no one thought anything of carrying her. I, on the other hand, could never allow myself to be carried like that, despite loosing my adulthood to the curse. I remembered my father carrying me. It felt so safe... so comforting... I was so tired. I wished he would pick me up... give me a turn...
What in blazes was I thinking? I was becoming delirious in my exhaustion, blast it...
We decided to continue into the night as long as possible, hoping that that the forests would open and we would see the faint glimmer of Metamor torches in the distance. "Just one more ridge..." Vale said each time. I agreed for a while, but blast it, enough was enough.
"Who goes there?"
We froze. My heart sunk at the gravely voice. I had no energy left to defend myself, let alone the child and two morons with swords.
But then I realized the plant-things or lutins don't ask before attacking.
"Glenners," Vincent whispered, his ears angled at the voice. They were good. Downwind and entirely hidden. I wouldn't have noticed the dark form knocking an arrow had he not announced his presence.
"Vale Restault and her squad," our leader replied. "Unit 41 of Metamor, Regular Patrol."
"Regular? From Metamor?" A lithe figure slinked from behind a bush and stepped into the moonlight. A ferret or something wearing green. "You guys lost?" A chuckle from a number of invisible sources emanated from the darkness.
"Yes. One of our party is dead. Another missing."
That shut them up.
Vale pointed to the sleeping figure on Vincent's back. "And we have a survivor from a razed village up north. We've quite a bit to report..."
The ferret nodded, scratching the fur under his muzzle. "Right. We'll take you to the Glen. I'm sure we can get a transport for you by the morning, or at least a night's rest."
A night's rest... Back amongst civilization... We were saved!
Of course, "civilization" was a stretch of the word...
Glen Avery was nothing more than a collection of tree houses. Tree houses! Blast it!
I enjoy trees dearly, but I needed four walls, a bed, clean linens and a glowing hearth, not some airy shack banged together in between two branches. Colossal trees surrounded us, the tops impossible to see in the darkness even with faint lights above, glowing from scattered windows. A good number of the trunks had doors at ground level, suggesting each had been hollowed out and converted into a sort of natural house. How they could do that without killing the tree was beyond me. The rest of the dwellings seemed to be built into hillsides and dug out of caverns in the rocks, and this included the inn. Blast it. Not a single proper building in sight. What sort of nature-tuned back-water hick town was this?
Our room in the inn was fairly cozy. For a dirty hole in the ground at least. Vale separated from the group to talk with some badger man who seemed quite irritated to be up at this hour, likely the authoritative figure for the local scouts, leaving the three of us to explore our room for the night. Of course the room only had two beds, which went to the ladies by default... Blast it again... I did not look forward to sleeping on the floor like a dog. Just one more night, I told myself.
I took a seat at the creaky wooden table in front of the woefully inadequate hearth, slipping my tail through the hole in the chair. We had decided to wait for Vale to finish her official business before going to bed, and I rested my elbows on the table, massaging my eyes, muzzle, and forehead with my fingertips. I was unbelievably sore. My child-like body simply could not handle the exertion of trudging through forests and caves for two days straight. Forget Vale, I was going to sleep right there. Never mind the embarrassment of regressing into a fox kit before their eyes. I didn't care anymore.
Emile, having had quite the pleasant nap, was quite refreshed and energetic on the other hand. Oh, gods... By some stroke of luck (or misfortune), the previous occupants had left a half-full ink well, a few strips of parchment, and a quill at the table. The girl delightedly took up the writing utensils and began scribbling things on the paper, smearing black ink over her hands and dress. She was occupied, at least.
Vincent sat on one of the beds and watched us. I paid him no mind, and we all sat in silence for several moments. By the time I did glance in his direction, he had removed the heaver components of his armor and sat there picking at his claws with that ornate dagger of his. His face was contorted in that same wry grin he wore earlier when he started prying me with questions about the species of fox I had become.
"So, Virmir... where are you from?"
Blast it... I hated idle banter with a passion. Seriously, why is it impossible for two humans to sit and leave each other in piece?
"West," I waved him off, turning and pretending to be interested in what Emile was scribbling. She had two stick figures drawn. One in a dress and one with triangle ears and a bushy tail. "... across the ocean."
"Across the ocean, huh?" His voice carried a hint of sarcasm. "Where?"
He nodded, pretending to understand. He sat there for a moment before finally asking. "Where's that? Whales?"
I sighed. "Fan Shoar."
His ears stood on end. "THAT far?"
"I did say across the ocean..."
"You speak pretty good Common, for a foreigner."
It never ceased to amuse me how the Suielish speaking nations simply referred to their language as "Common". True, it was a common language, and even a required one at the Academy, but to call it that was blatantly arrogant.
"Or is it your first language?" He continued the thought.
"Tou est vrailen un sanslux-manhui," I rolled off my tongue in Landairish. He gave me a blank stare and I grinned. "My native tongue. Just a wish of good luck." Actually I said, 'You are a complete moron.'
Someone rapped softly at the door at that moment. Vincent went to check and I returned to rubbing my eyes.
"I heard you have injured children... I'm a healer, and I'd like to check up on them." A woman's voice. Definitely not Vale.
Injured children? I looked up as Vincent backed away from the door, allowing her entry. "Uh... I don't think so."
In the doorway stood a rusty and gray furred vixen, who smiled upon turning her dark eyes down upon Emile and me.
"Well, hello there!"
"Hello!" Emile beamed, waving the inky quill through the air. "Are you a fox too?"
"Uh huh!" She responded in a child-alluring voice, kneeling down next to the girl as her tail wagged. "I'm Jo, what's your name?"
"Oh, that's a lovely name. So Emile, how do you feel? Does anything hurt?"
"Nuh-uh. Mr. Fox took real good care of me!"
"Oh, he did?"
I couldn't stop staring at her face, which bore a striking resemblance to the one I saw whenever I gazed into the mirror. Her muzzle and ears were nearly identical to mine. And her tail had a similar black stripe edging from the tip and fading across the top, though mine was more pronounced. Was that what I was? A gray fox? I completely lacked the russet coloration that she wore on her flanks, though.
"And how about you? What's your name?"
I rolled my eyes as she stooped in front of me. "Virmir..." I grumbled.
"Oh, that's a—"
Her ears perked. "Oh... sorry... There are a lot of children here born as animals, so I just assumed..."
"Pay it no mind." I waved my arm.
"But you're still injured. Let me dress that for you."
Huh? Oh blast, my left arm... I had completely forgotten about the plant-thing nicking me the previous day. I winced as she pulled back my sleeve, revealing matted, blood-dried fur.
"No it's not. If that gets infected you'll lose it," she said as if reciting a line from memory. She opened her pack and proceeded to smear some vile stinging paste over it. I clenched my teeth as my entire arm burned.
"You can take it. Or are you not twenty-four right now?"
I folded my ears and shot her the vilest glance possible, which only made her chuckle. Blasted cocky healers...
After wrapping it in a white cloth she stood. "Make sure to have Coe look at it tomorrow when you return to the Keep." Yeah, yeah. I nodded and she turned to Vincent, who was leaning over on the bed looking dreamy-eyed.
"And how about you?"
The hyena shot up straight. "Well, actually..." he began rubbing his shoulder, moving his arm in a circle, "... my arm is kinda sore..."
She didn't bother getting with two feet of him, instead giving him a quick glance. "You're fine." His mouth dropped. She turned and waved to Emile. "Bye, Emile."
"Bye bye, Jo!"
Vincent punched the pillow as she walked out the door.
Emile begged me to sleep in the bed with her, citing a fear of "monsters". It was certainly large enough for two children, or rather a half-grown fox and a child, but I couldn't do it. It just didn't feel right. So I laid out my grandfather's robe and my cloak in the space between her bed and the wall and promised her I wouldn't move from that spot all night. I planned on waiting until the lantern was extinguished before disrobing and turning back into an animal.
Much to my surprise, Vale approached me when Vincent was out of earshot and offered to switch places, noting how awful I looked. Obviously I deserved the bed a lot more than her, but I refused. Blasted morals... She re-wrapped the bandage the healer placed on my arm after I shrunk into a fox, though. Embarrassing... if only I could keep my half-human form when I slept once more. The ground was wretchedly cold and hard, but that didn't keep me from curling into a ball and falling asleep almost instantly.
I awoke before dawn feeling much warmer and more comfortable than when I went to sleep. I was sprawled on my side, paws stretched before me and a human arm wrapped around my side and curling under my chest... Blast it! How did she do that? Emile had somehow scooped me off of the floor while I slept, dragged me into her bed, and clamped me in her death-grip like some stuffed animal. I became dead to the world when I slept as a full fox, and that frightened me. I struggled, but the sleeping girl only whimpered and held tighter.
Well, okay... maybe it wasn't that bad. I supposed playing along for the remainder of the night would not kill me... She wined once more and squeezed. Perhaps she was having a bad dream? I could feel her heart beat against my back and her soft breaths against my ear. Oddly, I felt safe and comforted by this...
The child loved me for no reason other than that I was a fox. Well, destroying that plant monster single handedly with a flash of light from my palm might also had had something to do with it. I wasn't sure what to make of this. Should I tell her I wasn't really her "guardian"? Would she understand that I wasn't really a child like her? How would she react when she found out I simply lied to her to get her out of danger?
I wondered if this was what it was like to have children. Some innocent soul clinging to you, dependant on your every move, worshiping your every word. How awful it would feel to screw something like that up... I couldn't imagine myself a father. I mean, the thought had crossed my mind on occasion, but I always chuckled and brushed it aside.
But then my heart sank as I realized for the first time that I had missed my chance. I would never be one.
The curse turned me physically into a child. I couldn't... well... I was prepubescent, that was for sure... And there was no way for me to ever change back.
Its not like I ever wanted children. It's just... well, not wanting and having the possibility removed forever were two very different things...
I shuddered. Emile held me closer.
Of course, I was nothing like a father to Emile. She saw me as a fantasy playmate come true. A "talking animal" her age who protects her from monsters. I had talking animal friends when I was very young— imaginary ones of course. I never really bothered to play with other kids. Another missed chance, I suppose. Not one that I particularly regretted.
But... I will admit I did wonder... Wonder what it would be like to play with another child as a child... To frolic in tall grass and mud, ignorant of all the troubles of the world. Just to embrace that carefree childish bliss I had left behind long ago... Perhaps Emile and I could, when no one was looking, sneak off by ourselves and play together. Just once. I could show her how to scale trees like I did when I was ten...
Blast it... Delirious... I was delirious. I sighed and looked at the outlines of my forepaws in the darkness. I didn't even know who or what I was anymore...
The sun eventually crept in through the short window placed inches below the ceiling, which was at ground level outside. I slinked out of Emile's arms and sat on my haunches, staring down at her face and tangled hair. Well... no one else was awake to see me... so I leaned over and gave her a little lick on the cheek. The corners of her mouth pulled up into a smile. I leapt off the bed next to my clothing and began growing to my half-human form.
All right... I was probably going to miss her a little after we dropped her off at the orphanage.
I watched the mammoth trees pass overhead as I rested my head against my hand, gazing out the window. Perhaps I was too quick to judge the Glen in my exhausted and irritable state the previous night. It might have been the fox half of me, but the idea living so close to nature did have a certain appeal to it. Especially the tress... I would have liked to see what one of those tree houses looked like from the inside.
There were so many people at Metamor Keep, and I hated crowds with a passion. In fact, I never left my room unless absolutely necessary. Of course, Glen Avery had the opposite problem. It was so small, everyone knew each other and thus every resident was part of an extended family. Ugh... I could not live with random strangers constantly barging in on my life... They were the overly friendly type too, I observed as a group simply stopped what they were doing and waved as we passed. Weirdos, the lot of them...
This is how the village near my childhood home was like. Although we lived far enough away not to be constantly annoyed by their bothersome festivals, traditions and other nonsense. Perhaps this wouldn't be a bad idea. To live somewhere out in the forest, not too far away from civilization that necessities were impossible to acquire, but not too close that I would have to deal with irritating neighbors. Some place where I could perfect my spells in peace. I supposed it wouldn't hurt to think about things like this for the long run... I was now a permanent resident of Metamor Valley whether I liked it or not. I flicked my tail back and forth and sighed, thinking of home. There wasn't much left for me there anymore... but still, home is home. If only I could reverse my self-induced animal-hood, I could return, even as a child...
But of course, that was impossible. I had deduced that the child curse of Metamor was laid on top of my spell, and the only way to reverse it would be to break the curse first. I knew that wasn't going to happen.
The Glenners lent us a covered carriage (or Vale paid for it; I'm not sure) for our trip back. The ride was dreadfully bumpy, and I nearly flew off my seat at several points from all the jarring. Of course, Emile loved it. She crossed back and forth from window to window, sticking her head out and gaping at the multicolored foliage on each side, the wide boughs that formed a tunnel's ceiling over the road, and the steep blue mountains on either side whenever the forest opened up. Ah, to be a child, and to gain such excitement from something as simple and meaningless as a trip from one point to another. But the valley was beautiful, I will give it that.
Vale tried to keep the girl in her seat, but she would not listen until I told her the plant monsters would grab her through the window if she didn't sit down. This worked too well, as it scared her to death and she took to cradling my tail like a stuffed animal. Ugh.
Emile was under the assumption that we were all one "big family" and we were all going to live together. Oh, dear... Using carefully selected words, Vale explained that she was going to go live with "lots of other kids her age" for a while until her parents came by to pick her up... Blast it, this was all going to come back and bite us, I knew it.
The Keep was a sight for sore eyes... despite having only lived there over a month, and hating it... its spires soaring majestically skyward, the rooftops of Euper just barely visible in the shadow of the hill the castle rested upon. Our return from an eight-hour-scout two days late and missing two party members caused quite a stir.
Emile's parting was quick and painless. We explained her situation to two castellan aides who said they knew the perfect home for her and escorted the girl on her way. She clung to me at first and would not let go until I promised to visit her every single day... blast it... One of the aides was a dog, so luckily his appearance was able to enchant her long enough for me to make my escape.
Questions, reports, examinations... Vale, Vincent, and I were hounded to death. Vale's description of the plant creatures threw them in a tizzy. Of course, I had to fill in the technical magical details she left out. The three of us were given a week's break. Weather it was a vacation or suspension, I don't know, but I was grateful for it. We were given the task of separately writing down everything we saw? particularly underground.
As for what happened to Rufus, I have no idea. I can only assume he is still a feral boar, running around somewhere in the northern forest. A search and rescue team was formed immediately. The pig man irritated me to no end. He constantly stunk of alcohol, was fat, slow, and stupid. But what that mage cult? whatever it was? intended to do to him, and what happened to him, no one deserved.
And for that, they will pay.
That is all I can write. I am going to bed.
Grav ran his claws through the table again and again. Blast it! Curse those meddlesome Keepers... He tore the oak to shreds, wishing the flecks of sawdust caught under his nails were flesh from their faces. He hated them so much!
Hopping off the chair, he hobbled to the center of the room and tried to regain his composure. His head still throbbed, and his chest still burned... Blast it! No one but his master ever hit him like that! The impact actually cracked the wall! Curse that short one!
Grav only hesitated because the imposter resembled his master... Blast it! The short one was the same size as him. He should have known Master was not that small. Argh!!
Now what was he going to do? The last two souls had escaped! How in blazes was he supposed to find two more before Master returned?! Blast it! He was in so much trouble... Just before he left, Master had scolded him for having to round those same two up and specifically told him to give them special attention. Oh, gods...
And the Vegicid imps were becoming more useless every day. Soon they would not even be able to move outside at all, and they'd have to wait until spring to grow more.
He was so dead...
But wait! Grav grinned widely, his jagged teeth reflecting yellow in the lamp light. With Master gone, he was in charge... He was the highest rank... He owned everyone else... for now. All he had to do was order a subordinate to take the fall and then leave, claiming that he had to report back at the Keep for an emergency and had nothing to do with it. Yes, that was so perfect!
Extending his claw, he levitated his staff to his hand and hobbled over to the door, the click-click-click of his toes echoing throughout his chamber. Oh, wait— he was getting too hasty. Obviously he could not go back to the Keep like this!
Casting aside his ebony robes, he donned the leather armor of a scout and the thick animal furs required for him to survive in the frigid fall weather. He hated the cold so much. Master said one day all the land would burn. He so looked forward to that.
He took the stool from the corner and placed it before the dresser, standing up upon it so he could get a good look at himself in the mirror. Blast it, Master said he'd make him taller if he did well. He hoped Master would never find out about his blunder...
Looking into the mirror, Grav gave a wide grin and admired his scores of sharp fangs, flicking his scaly brown-green tail behind him. He loved those gifts from Master dearly, as he did his claws, but he had to make them go away in order to fit in at the Keep. Reaching out to the four edges of the rectangular mirror— North, South, East, and West, he scratched out the runes of concealment with the tips of his claw. Any mirror would do, but he used this one so much that those points were marred. Once the runes glowed blue, he whispered the incantation and enjoyed the warmth that took his body.
Of course his reflection did not change. That was his true self, and he loved it. He simply had to avoid mirrors, which was quite easy to do considering how rare and expensive they were. But now he knew that outside of reflections he appeared as a simple salamander morph, his oversized teeth and claws invisible to even the finest of mages.
Chuckling to himself about the nefarious deed he was about to perform— and get away with, he took up his staff and strode out the door into the hallway lined with hazy blue light. One good thing had come out of this whole ordeal...
At least he had killed that idiot human girl that had fired her arrow at him.
Claudia had a family.
Young children clustered around a large bear morph and an old man, all wailing in agony. I could only assume they were her siblings, as she seemed rather young to have had children. So young...
Vale went over to offer her condolences, and they all broke down together.
I simply remained seated on the bench with Vincent like an idiot, my tail and legs dangling over, too short to reach the ground to sit with dignity.
Vale said Claudia was of the Patildor faith, and thus so was her funeral. There was no funeral pyre, but rather her body was placed in a box to be buried underground. I could not possibly imagine why they would do this to her. Was their heaven underground, instead of the sky? And not to mention the slow deterioration. It didn't make sense to me.
A child priest stood before an altar and went on at length about Yashua, who was apparently a half-god of some sort (they only worship one god, though they talk about the half-god a great deal more). I tuned him out a few minutes in. All religions are the same. It is all about the afterlife. About living beyond one's mortal bounds. It is impossible for the human mind to grasp the concept of not existing any more.
It is a horrifying thought, simply ceasing to exist. I am sure that is why there are so few in the world that choose not to believe in something, anything. But it is not for me. I gave up the Teragran faith my first year in the Academy. I was truly alone sitting there amongst the Patildor and the Lothanasi.
But there was one thing that united us. A heavy heart saddened by the loss of a life. We were all cursed, and we all had a home to protect.
I guess I'm a Keeper now.