I picked myself out of bed stretched all of my muscles in my considerable frame. The bed creaked slightly under my weight until I hopped off the bed and landed on my four plate sized feet. Last night I had slept in my full tiger form for the fun of it and I had found that it was very relaxing. As I yawned exposing my large imposing fangs to the morning air I though about maybe going out beyond the keep in this form. Maybe that would be a way for me to spend my vacation, a tiger out in a land where tigers weren’t part of the natural ecosystem. The more I thought about it the more the idea the more I liked it. Finally I switched to my most human form and grabbed a small dagger and strapped very loosely around my upper right arm before I walked out of my front door and locked it before I reverted to my tiger form. Walking through the halls of the Keep dressed in naught but my fur earned me a few stares but most people simply shrugged it off as some eccentric Keeper going out for a little stroll. I made my way through the halls until I almost ran into a certain fox who was also making his way down the hall towards the exterior exit. He was dressed in full patrol gear so I guessed that he was heading out on a scouting mission.
He looked down at me as I padded along before he said, “Oberon? Where are you going in that form? The fox asked me.
I simply waved my long thickly furred tail at him and looked up at him before I fell into step beside him with utter silence. After a few seconds of silence I began a rumbling purr deep in my chest.
“What are you up to Oberon?” Misha asked. “We told you to relax. I thought that you would sleep late and party like other people.”
I stopped and looked up at him for a moment before I changed form and stood up in front of him, not that I was embarrassed by my lack of clothing, my fur covered everything that I had to hide and replied. “Misha for me relaxation is going out somewhere private to hunt and fish like I used to so long ago.”
Misha just shook his head. “All right. Enjoy yourself and try and stay out of trouble.”
“I’ll do the best that I can Misha but I can’t promise you anything.” I told Misha before I slid back into my four-legged form and took up station once more on his heals.
Misha looked down at me as I split from him and waves goodbye. “Even relaxing you can find trouble.”
I mentally grinned at his comment before I finally found myself walking out the main gates to the Keep and into Euper. I quickly made my way out of the gates of Euper and headed out to a small heavily forested valley that led into the Metamor Valley to the southwest of the Keep.
As I slipped under the cover of the trees I grinned at myself as I made my way through the undergrowth. This trail was very narrow and winding. It was the sort of trail that one would expect that wild animals would leave. As I walked down the trail I thought of what I had gone through in the past week and a half.
In a way four days ago Misha had been right, there was now way that I could spend the rest of my life alone. The person who had been most responsible for my change of attitude was the babe, Guy DeHarancourt. While my friends had tried to get me out of my funk he had actually succeeded in it. The most poignant thing that had said to me on that day a week and a half ago had been a simple two-syllable word from him that changed my whole view of what my life should be like. Some would say that I should be spending my vacation with him, but right now I really just needed a chance to get out of the Keep and go and think about what I was becoming now.
Four days later I was padding through the undergrowth when I smelled an odour that I was highly familiar with. I had become familiar with this odour when I had been actively hunting lutins north of the Keep. It was the smell of a group of lutins in the area. As soon as I became aware of the smell I swiftly and ducked into a heavy patch of undergrowth and did my best to hide my form from anyone on the trail that I had been following.
A short time later a small group of lutins came down the path and stopped near where I had left the path.
“I think Keeper be here somewhere.” Said the lutin in the lead.
“You eyes making up things. There no Keeper out here, just wild animals.”
“If there no Keeper I still want animal. They fur make nice trophy to show rest of tribe.”
“So now we stalk animal instead of Keeper, leader not like that. We supposed to track and kill Keepers.”
“We can say that animal was Keeper.”
“So where animal go?”
“I not know. Maybe animal follow path.”
“That good plan. We follow path now.”
With that said the four lutins moved off down path.
As soon as they had moved out of sight I began to trail them quietly with deadly intent. These lutins had made a serious mistake coming here into my territory while I was trying to relax and now they were going to pay a price for that mistake.
After three hours of tracking the lutins they came upon a small creek where they stopped and began looking around before they paused to eat some trail rations. While they were eating the leader of the scouting unit somehow located the remains of one of my earlier kills. He also picked up the scent of my territorial marking near what was left of the carcass. As soon as he saw the carcass he turned to his comrades and said, “This come from predator.”
“This no ordinary predator. This a Keeper.”
“How you know?”
“There no predator out here this big. Biggest predator out here is wolf. This thing is bigger than wolf.”
“You smell that?”
“What that smell?”
“I don’t know. It smell bad.”
The three other lutins in the group began looking around before one finally said, “Maybe it be Black Tiger.”
The lutins all shuddered at the mention of my lutin name and the leader finally said, “If it is Black Tiger we all dead.”
“We have not seen anything.”
“He don’t let people see him before he kill them.”
“I don’t want to be here now.”
“Don’t talk about him he is probably not here.” The leader shouted in an attempt to keep his jittery men from running at the mere mention of my name.
It was then that the full value of my actions over the past month and a half came home. These lutins were absolutely terrified at the mere thought of my being here.
After a few more minutes of standing around talking the four jittery, frightened lutins proceeded back up the path the way that they had come. They were all bunching up together as if the measure would prevent me from taking one of them out. Of course in my present state I couldn’t attack them right now. I simply didn’t have the right kind weapons with me right now. The only weapon that I had brought with me that wasn’t a permanent part of my body was a single dagger and that was currently strapped to my left foreleg. This single knife wouldn’t really help me take out these lutins. I would have to rely on stealth and surprise to get rid of them one by one until they were all dead.
An hour after they left the creek one of them moved away from his comrades to relieve himself. On his part that was a serious and fatal mistake as I took the opportunity that had presented itself and pounced on the unsuspecting lutin and used my powerful jaws to sever his spine at the neck. He only managed a choked gasp before he died and even that wasn’t enough to get the attention of his comrades. The only real problem I found with killing lutins with my mouth was their foul oily taste. ‘why couldn’t these blasted things bathe every once and a while?’ I thought to myself as I form shifted and retrieved a few items from my victim. His right thumb, a piece of clothe to hold it in, his short sword, which was made of bright steel and not rusty iron, and his head. Once all of that stuff had been retrieved I melted back into the undergrowth with the sword strapped on my back in my tiger form.
Now I had a weapon that I could use to get these things out of my territory. For some reason I considered this area to be my own personal territory and I would suffer no one trespassing without my permission. I could tolerate my fellow Keepers here, but I couldn’t begin to tolerate the lutins. Before I left the area where I had left what little remained of the dead lutin I paused to spray a tree with my territorial marker to tell the others that this was MY territory.
Over the next four hours I continued to track the lutins until they reached their camp for the night. In the camp there were approximately a total of nine lutins. I guess that this was a small patrol group of lutins that was scouting out a place where they could establish a permanent base camp for their entire tribe.
The leader of the scouting unit that I had followed met with the leader of the encampment and they both began talking
“We find something bad out there.”
“A predator’s kill.”
“So that not usually a problem.”
“This predator is not from here. This predator is Keeper.”
“Kendrick is also missing.”
The leader of the encampment shuddered a little before he asked, “You think there threat in area?”
“There could be threat. I don’t know yet.”
“I hope this not threat.”
“If this any keeper it might be tiger.”
The leader’s eyebrows went up and a look of fear came across his face. “That not something that I like hear.” I left the area of the camp soon afterwards and made my way to a creek where I rolled in the mud to cover over my white colouration.
When I was satisfied with the mud covering on my fur I went back to the camp in the darkness. I used that darkness to conceal my movements as I moved closer and closer to the camp. In the centre of their camp they had a fire going, but the light didn’t reach the edges of the camp where the sentries were posted. I snuck around the edge of the camp until I camp upon one of their sentries. When I was close to him I jumped up knocked him down and bit his neck. This was almost a natural behaviour for a Snow Tiger when it came to making a kill.
I managed to make three kills that night before I climbed up a tree, cached all of the spoils of my attacks, and curled up for a catnap.
The next morning the lutins were justifiably terrified since my actions had confirmed their worst fears. They were familiar with my operational style because I had allowed more than one lutin to survive my initial campaign of fear to the north of the Keep.
“It be Black Tiger. We all doomed.”
“We leave this place of death to tiger. If we leave maybe leave us alone.”
“We leave.” The leader of the camp said and they all rushed around the camp like ants in a disturbed nest.
After they had packed up I followed the six surviving lutins for several hours. I must have gotten a little careless because the next time that they stopped in a clearing the leader turned and tossed a iron tipped spear right at where I was hiding in a bush on the edge of the clearing. I just barely managed to dodge to flashing weapon, though I felt it run a narrow score along my left shoulder, but in so doing I think the lutins managed to catch a glimpse of me.
“We kill that Keeper and I wear fur like trophy.” The leader shouted before he began to dash towards where I had been hiding myself.
The problem with being as large as my tiger form was is that I sometimes had difficulty concealing my body from sharp-eyed lutins.
I moved through the bushes with as much speed as I could manage with the six lutins hard on my tail. The problem with being a feline was the fact that when I moved as fast as I could I would get tired very quickly. After ten minutes of running I managed to find a good place to hide where I settled down to wait for the lutins to run past me. Their desire to hunt me meant that I had only way to resolve this problem. I would have to kill them to get them off my trail. While I remained hidden the lutins followed looked around in confusion before they found one of my old trails and began to follow it. If I had been in my more human shape I would have started to laugh at their mistake. Now they were hunting me by following one of my old trails while I could follow them and hunt them. As soon as I was sure they were gone down my old path I rested for a while so that I could regain my breath, my muscular endurance, and checked to make sure that the wound on my shoulder to ensure that it was not longer bleeding. Once I was ready I carefully began to follow the path that the lutins had taken.
An hour after the lutins had tried to kill me the small gash on my shoulder stung a little as I carefully moved through the bushes while watching the six lutins.
The two leaders stopped and looked at each other before the senior one looked at his junior and said, “This hard.”
“That true but he around here somewhere.”
“He is a hunter like we are.”
“We hunting a hunter.”
“Who hunting who?” Asked one of the other lutins.
These weren’t stupid animals, for some reason a few of them suspected that they weren’t the hunters but instead they were the hunted.
I confirmed that suspicion a short time later when one of the lutins went into the trees to relieve himself. It only took me a moment to kill him and take my trophies from him. Almost as soon as I had left his body and disappeared into the undergrowth his companions came upon his body. I didn’t continue to track them that afternoon as I made my way back to my cache to hide the spoils of my most recent kill. Now there were only five lutins remaining from the force of ten that I had found out here originally.
The lutins did not have much time remaining because I was going to take care of them before tomorrow dawned. I got a good four hours of sleep before the sun dipped below the horizon and I began to track the trail that the lutins had taken. I carefully followed the path with a clear goal in mind. These lutins hadn’t left well enough alone and had actually tried to hunt me in my own territory. Now they were going to pay the ultimate penalty for this infraction against me.
I moved through the bushes surrounding their new camp and located the one lutin that they had left on watch. This time though when I killed him I didn’t do so without a sound. Now that their numbers were manageable I could kill them all at once. I bit him in the back of the head and wrenched it around until I heard it crunch before I pounced on the nearest tent and let out a roar that shook the trees to the roots. The two lutins in the second tent camp boiling out of the structure the lutins trapped in the tent that I had collapsed with my weight screamed out in fear and surprise as I turned on the two other lutins with my claws extended out of both of my forepaws. I swiped the first lutin across the neck with my left forepaw occasioning a rough spray of bright red blood. I had to duck under a sword thrust by his comrade before I pounced on him and bit the top of his head off. As soon as I did that I turned back on the two remaining lutins and ripped them to shreds with my claws and teeth before they managed to get themselves untangled from the remains of their tent.
Now that they were all dead I cleaned up the remains of their camp and set up my normal mark to tell them to stay away. The only difference in this marker was the top head with the steel lutin sword impaled in the top of it and my territorial scent marker.
Two days after I had eliminated the last of the lutins I was making my way along one of the game trails when I smelled a familiar smell. It was the distinctive odour of a red fox. My sensitive nose and mouth organ told me that this fox was a friend of mine. If I had been in my morphic form I would’ve started laughing, as it was the tip of my tail began to twitch in amusement. For some strange reason he had decided to come out here.
I tracked the smell of the fox carefully until I was able to see a small red form crouching in the bushes beside one of the local game trails. This was almost too good to be true. I gathered my hind legs under myself and prepared to leap.
His sharply pointed ears swivelled around until the zeroed in on the sound of my own breathing.
However, before he could react I sprung on the small red figure in the bushes. I knocked the fox over and gently pinned him to the ground with my left front paw on his shoulder.
He shifted his form and virtually shouted out. “AK! Not so hard Oberon! I give. You’ve caught me!”
I quickly shifted my own form and stood back and held out my hand to Misha. “What possessed you to come out here?”
“I decided to take you up on your offer for a few days of hunting.”
“Well I guess that we had better get moving, the deer on the north side of the valley are going to be heading out of the trees shortly. If we don’t get them now we will have to wait until late afternoon before we have another chance to have a go at them.”
Misha looked at me in a sidelong fashion before he asked, “On my way here I passed a small pile of lutin heads down the path. Did you run into some trouble?”
“Oh it was nothing that I couldn’t handle. They thought that they could come HERE and hunt ME! Well I showed them the error of their ways. I killed four of them and the rest were so terrified of my presence that they lit out of here like an arrow from a bowstring.”
Misha laughed for a moment. “They definitely learned this time.”
“They certainly did. This is MY range and may the gods help any lutins who think otherwise.”
Misha looked at me in surprise at my vehemence. “Could you do me a favour my friend and not put up any more of those nasty smelling scent markings, ok? My poor nose can’t handle them.”
“Sorry about that my friend. I just had to mark this region to tell all and sundry that this is my range.”
“All right I respect your being a tiger, but there is a limit to going wild ok?”
I laughed before I went on. “Well let’s get moving otherwise we won’t get anything to eat.” As soon as I finished saying that I finished to my larger tiger form and began to follow the game trail to a nearby creek and waterhole.
“Move more slowly.” Misha said. “We foxes are pretty small!” Once he said that he shifted to his small red form before he began to follow me.
I moderated my pace to allow him to keep up.
As soon as he began to pace me I used slight motions of my ears and body to point out a few pertinent details that he might not have noticed. We made our way down to the creek where I used a paw to gently tell him with a physically gesture that he should remain behind while I carried on a hunt.
This hunt was fairly typical by my estimation. I used the thick brush around the edge of the creek to provide me with cover while I waited for the deer to get close enough to me for me to be guaranteed of success. Most natural tigers didn’t really have my success rate, but then again they didn’t have to work with my native intelligence. After half an hour of waiting a deer got close enough for me to pounce.
When I did pounce it was a graceful move but its end was brief, brutal, and final. The deer didn’t have a chance as I landed on its back and crushed it to the ground with my weight as I bit into its tender neck. When I finished cleaning the carcass of the main and tertiary digestive organs I turned my head and let out a low rumble to tell Misha that it was now safe to join me. I watched as he smoothly moved from where he had remained hidden out of sight up to my side were he dipped his head into the stomach of the carcass and began to feed. I watched him tolerantly from where I was standing near my kill. I had carefully made sure to save all of the best parts of the kill for his consumption. Normally I ate those parts almost as soon as I had made the kill. While he was still eating I shifted my form and asked “That really isn’t so bad is it Misha?”
He pulled his head out of the cavity and shifted form and shrugged his shoulders. “It is good. Thank you. But I still prefer my meat cooked with some sauce with salt and pepper.”
“I saved all of the best pieces for you.”
“I saw that. Thank you for the consideration!”
“I am glad you enjoyed it Misha. Now if you don’t mind I have to attend to my own stomach.” I told him before I shifted back to my own full form before I dove into the kill with my own hunger driving me forward. Even though I was hungry I left space beside me so that Misha could continue his own meal.
Misha gave me a wide berth as he shifted his form back to that of natural red fox before he began to feed once more.
We continued on this same avenue for the next few days as I showed my friend the fox everything that I could think of.
On the morning of the fifth day I shifted my form and sat down on a log before I said, “Misha I hate to end this but unfortunately we have to head home now. I have things that I have to do in my forge and I suspect that you might have some things to do as well.”
Misha shifted as well before he nodded and said, “Unfortunately all too true. Life keeps intruding on my relaxation.”
“What do you think of hunting out here? Hell you even managed to catch a few rabbits without any assistance from me.”
“It was fun to let my animal side run loose for a while.”
“Who knows there may come a time when we will need this type of training, especially in our line of work.”
“I’ve spent many patrols hunting up food, and in my wild times I spent months alone in the Giantdowns.”
“I see.” I replied stretching the powerful muscles in my chest before I went on. “What have you got to do when you get back? I have to get some work done in my forge. Perhaps I might even be able to spend some time with Guy.”
Misha was silent for a few minutes before he asked, “Can you make me some special weapons? These will not have to be finely made, but they will not be for decoration, they will be for serious use.”
My ears perked forwards in interest before I asked him in reply. “What do you have in mind Misha?”
“Hand axes,” Misha said softly. “I want one for every Long Scout! So I’ll need sixteen of them. But I need them by the Fall Harvest Festival.”
“What kind of hand axes are you talking about Misha throwing axes, or off hand battle axes?”
“Throwing axes.” Misha answered.
“I can make those Misha, though I still have a sword and a full suit of armour on order right now, and they will of course take precedence over your order for axes.”
“All right. I want you to make them into fine weapons, and money is not an object in this case. But I don’t want you to cover them in gold and jewels. These are going to be working weapons.”
“I can promise you that much Misha. All of my weapons are working weapons and not just decorative pieces.”
Misha nodded his head. “I trust your judgment my friend. At the Festival we are finally going to initiate Padriac in a big ceremony. I want to give each Long Scout an axe as a gift and a sign of them being in the Longs.”
“Ok Misha they will be delivered by the time you need them. Now how about we head home now, unless you want to get home in the dark.”
“Sounds like a good idea!”
“Yes it does.” I replied before I stood up and shifted to my full tiger form.”
“Do you mind if I hitch a ride on your back?” Misha asked.
I nodded my large head and then used my right front paw to indicate that he should use his small full fox form.
Misha shifted to his full animal form before he deftly leapt onto my back between my shoulder blades. As soon as he was in position he tapped me on the back of the head with his forepaw.
I shrugged one of my large shoulders and began to follow the trail back to the Keep. I was looking forward to getting some things done in my forge. I might even have a chance to talk to Lady Kristinai Belancourt. But that would have to wait until I get back to the Keep.