A Hunt in the Dark

by Carpenter Ant

Part 1

It was sleep... and yet it wasn't. He couldn't decide whether he was truly awake or just dreaming. He felt odd sensations. A fire that burned cold. A chill so hot it seared. A scream so silent it was beyond the threshold of hearing, and a whisper that deafened him. He could see a light that was neither bright nor dim.

Gradually David came back to himself. He opened his eyes, at least he thought he had opened them, or had he always had them open? He reached his hand up and touched a hard object above him. Running both his hands over its surface he traced it all the way down to his sides.

David panicked for a second and drawing his hand back as far as he could he put as much of his weight as possible behind his punch. The punch echoed dimly in the confined space of his prison. But he could see a spidery trail of cracks letting in dim light where his fist had struck. Hope flaring he struck at the light again and again. Until at last he could see the dimly lit interior of his room at the infirmary.

Digging his hands into the hard shell like material above him, he tore huge pieces of it apart flinging them to the ground. Sitting up he dragged himself out and fell to the floor. His vision swimming he staggered shakily to his feet. He reached his hand out to open the door when a shaft of moonlight played across his skin.

He gasped as he saw that his arm was encased in a shiny black gauntlet and was thinner than it should have been. Holding his other arm up, he found it was the same. Then before he knew what he was doing, two more arms joined the first. He stood there for a long time, transfixed in a mixture of horror and fascination.

Turning he grabbed hold of the full length mirror that stood by the bed and almost threw it across the room in his haste. He set it down before the window and shakily he fumbled with the shutters until he managed to open them enough to let a decent amount of light into the room.

Taking a deep breath he turned and glanced in the mirror. He let that held air out in a mixed sob and cry of horror. Before him stood a monster. Only vaguely human in shape. A four armed freak.

He tried desperately to shut his eyes, but found that he couldn't. No matter how hard he tried. He flung himself back from the mirror, turning towards the wall. He could see the faint outline of his cloak draping over the chair where he had tossed it before going to sleep. Grabbing it in shaking hands he quickly flung it over his shoulders and struggled to fasten the brooch.

His smooth fingers couldn't hold on to it and it kept slipping. After much fumbling he finally managed it. After a moment thought he drew the hood up over his head, hoping that it would at least help to cover his grotesque appearance. He turned towards the mirror, and swore he could still see even in the shadows of the hood.....those two eyes laughing at him. Letting out a scream of anguish he drove his hand through the looking glass.

Its shattering galvanized his anger and he next drove his fists through the heavy shutters that barred his only exit from the room save to door. They shattered almost as easily as the mirror had, and David was forced to admit he was much stronger than he had been. He heard shouts from the hallway. As a last thought he raised his hand to the brooch and a moment later the deep blue of his cloak darkened to total and absolute black.

He leaped through the window and moved into the shadows just as the door was flung open and the room flooded with light. He heard a cry of surprise and looked back to see a furry shape leaning out through the window. It peered into the darkness, searching quickly, almost desperately he thought. Its gaze passed over the place he stood and he flinched before it moved on without a stop. His own coloring and the magic of the brooch had made him appear no more than a shadow, for which he was glad. No one should see him like this. No one would want to.

Slowly he began making his way down the street, not sure of where he was going. Not sure of where to go. Hoping only to get away from that shattered mirror and the eyes that so mocked him. Even though he knew... he was carrying them with him.

Coe had been heading to bed for the night, walking down the corridor towards his apartments, when he had heard a horrible shriek and a moment later the sounds of glass shattering, followed by a low thudding that quickly fell silent. Looking around he tried to pinpoint its location when he noticed something glittering in front of one door. Walking quickly towards the object he picked up a shard of a mirror. It was laced with hairline cracks that cast his reflection back in a myriad jumble of mismatched pieces.

He glanced at the door and froze. He knew this door too well. On it was a sign that the healers used for quarantine and to keep people out of sensitive places. The only door on this corridor that had that sign, led into the room that David's cocoon lay in. Cursing he tried the knob... locked! He fumbled with his keys, trying to find the right one before David could hurt himself. Coe tried to think what he would say, how he could explain what had happened to the poor boy. How to comfort him for becoming a.... a... now that Coe thought about it, he didn't know what David was.

He found the right key and hurriedly unlocked the door. "Not that it matters what he has become. He will still need help to see him through this. Still need to know that we're here to help in any way we can," he thought to himself sternly. He swung the door open and was rooted to the ground in shock. Against the wall by the door the mirror that had been by the bed lay in pieces. Surveying the devastation he took in at a glance the cocoon, lying gaping open on the bed. And then he noticed the shattered shutters. "Oh no!" he whispered as he crossed quickly to the wide open window.

He ignored the sharp pain as he trod on a small shard of glass. He leaned out straining to see into the near darkness, cursing the weakness of his eyes. The nearest light had gone out. And the next one didn't provide much illumination this far. His mind flashed back to the state the room was in, and David's thoughts became all too apparent. "No. Don't do this please. You aren't a monster or a devil, anymore than I am. Please, don't do this... not this," Coe whispered into the darkness. Hoping to somehow conjure the young man up from the shadows.

"And when I went in the room was in shambles and he had disappeared out the window." Misha was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes at being awakened at such an hour.

"And you think he's condemned himself for becoming an animal?" Coe let out a sharp sigh. "He had to become more than a simple animal. The level of metamorphosis involved to become a canine, or feline, or any number of normal animorph does not include a protective cocoon and nearly two weeks of hibernation!" Misha raised an eyebrow as the Raccoon morph glared up at him. "I don't think he is as close to normal looking as you or I are. And I think he's lost, alone and frightened by what he's become."

Misha nodded, all trace of sleep or the need for it banished for the moment. "Can you give me any guess as to what he is?" Coe shook his head sadly.

"In the eight years since the curse I've never encountered a transformation of this scale. He could be anything."

It was Misha's turn to sigh. "What should we do?" Coe looked up at the fox with an earnest expression.

"Find him, find him soon. Don't let him hurt himself in his sorrow." Misha nodded and began to dress before heading his office to assign search patterns.

Misha looked at the gathered scouts. Most had been asleep when the summons came, and a few were decidedly unhappy about it. "We have a situation that requires a comprehensive search of the keep and the surrounding area, including the town and out-lying grounds. A newly transformed morph has come up missing and is believed to be hiding somewhere in that area."

"Excuse me, Misha. When have new morphs been under our jurisdiction? And why bring this up to the Longs?" Misha glanced at the speaker, recognizing Laura, one of the team leaders.

"As for why it's been given to us. This did not come from the Duke's office. I was asked by Brian Coe to do this. This morph of whom I speak left the infirmary violently, and his mental stability is questionable at this time. He is also of an unknown type. This entails special handling to ensure that he is not dangerous and can be approached without incident."

"If we don't know what he is, how do we know what to look for?" Misha smiled slightly. That would be the other team leader Lisa. "We are pretty certain it will be something unusual. This individual has spent the past week and a half in a cocoon created in the course of his transformation." He caught the gasp from near the back of the room, and knew that Arla had realized who was being discussed.

"Look for something creepy. That's our man, er, whatever. Figure he's not the usual animal morph. Maybe a reptile or something else strange. You all have your assigned areas of search, the keep guards are also on the lookout for anything strange. If something comes up, go easy on him, but defend yourself if need be. If at all possible try and get word to me or one of the others he would know from before his change. A friendly face might help a lot."

The Longs began to file from the room, Misha was not surprised to see Arla lag behind. "Why are you getting them ready for a fight? David gave no indications of paranoia." Misha shook his head sadly.

"When I said he left the infirmary violently, it entailed the shattering of the mirror in his room and then he clawed his way through solid wood shutters in less then fifteen seconds. He is very strong and would have to be fairly fast. I don't want anyone getting hurt."

Arla nodded silently, but Misha could see the worry in her eyes. "I'm hoping it won't be necessary, but if he is feral he has to be contained." Arla looked up.

"Do you have any idea about where he's gone?" The Fox thought for a moment.

"If I were disgusted and terrified of my appearance... I'd go somewhere dark... where nobody ever comes. Somewhere I could hide without fear of being discovered."

Arla gathered her gear and proceeded to collect her other team members. First was Meredith. The huge bear morph carried an equally large and heavy cudgel. "You really think that will be necessary?" Meredith shrugged as he peered down at the collie morph.

"One of us has to at least acknowledge the possibility of the alternative." Arla sighed but said nothing else as she looked at the other member of their team.

He was a small, sleek Mongoose, just over five feet tall. He wore a chainmail shirt with the standard of the regular army, the rearing, red stallion of the duke on the front.

At seeing her glance he came to perfect attention. "Private Arister Haverthorne reporting for duty Ma'am." Arla almost laughed out loud. "Boy they are sending green soldiers on this goose chase aren't they," she thought to herself. "Probably happy to have something for them to do."

"I'm Scout Arla, I'll be leading this team. I assume they briefed you on our objective?" The mongoose nodded.

"They told us we were trying to find a morph of unknown type that was in hiding, possibly deranged and dangerous." Arla bit back an angry retort.

"That information is only partially accurate. This person is a friend, I don't want him hurt unless he is trying to hurt one of us."

The young man nodded still at attention. "Relax, Private. You aren't on trial here." He went to parade rest and looked her in the face.

"Arister if you please Ma'am." Arla smiled kindly.

"And call me Arla. That big lug is Meredith. First off, we need to find you something more suitable than that chainmail. I won't have you jingling like a wind chime when we're trying to be quiet."

Arla led them down to the Armory that occupied one of the largest rooms in Long House. Walking down past the racks of weapons she noticed his eyes go wide at the staggering array of objects spread out across the countless tables, racks and shelves.

They picked out a simple studded leather jerkin that fit him well enough and were making their way back out when he brushed against a table, knocking quite a few of them off its smooth surface.

The way his ears laid back against his skull as he muttered profuse apologies told Arla how embarrassed he was as he quickly picked up the toppled items laying them back on their places on the tabletop. As he lifted the last item Arla saw his eyes widen as he gazed at it.

It was a set of fingerless gloves made of leather. The backs were covered with small studs and each had a set of short, razor sharp claws that hooked out from the leather about three inches, ending in needle-like points. He carefully set them back in their place, tracing the edge of one of the claws with his fingertip. "Why don't you take them?"

Arister cast her an incredulous look. "They're for Long Scout use. Not a simple army grunt like me." Arla smiled encouragingly.

"It's strange, but sometimes things happen for a reason, I think you were meant to have them. They're yours." He seemed to think it over and almost reluctantly picked his prize up and slowly slid his furry hands into the gloves. They fit snugly and a small buckle at the wrist held them tightly to the hand. A steel rod had been sewn into the palm of the glove, undoubtedly to give the wearer extra protection from an enemy blade if he had reason to grab it.

A look of satisfaction suffused his face as he brandished his new acquisitions. The highly polished claws flashed in the torchlight as he tried a few simple blocks. "Well, I'm afraid we have work to do. You'll have to learn how to use them later."

Part 2

David continued down the near pitch-black corridor. He had found that even in this low light he could see reasonably well, if only for a short distance. He passed another door as he walked aimlessly through the endless night that surrounded him. He had ceased trying the doors when it became clear they were all locked. He found himself constantly reaching up and feeling his face, unwilling to admit this wasn't a horrible dream.

He came around a corner and saw a stairway leading upwards and the flickering light of torches on the next floor up. He turned back the way he had come.... and stopped. He didn't want to return to that endless dark, and yet he couldn't bear the thought of facing the others who were like him... and yet unlike. Unable to decide what to do he slumped down the wall to a sitting position, his head on his arms as his body was wracked by sobs.

"You play with me?" He leaned back against the wall, looking over towards the doorway, certain to see a group of people gawking at his ugliness. There sat the motionless form of Madog, peering into the darkness as though he could see David clearly. He dipped his head and David heard the clunk as a metal object hit the floor.

Madog pushed the ball with his nose towards the silent form he knew was sitting against the wall. He had heard the sound of David crying and knew that he wasn't well. But Madog also couldn't figure out what to do to help him. All he could think of was take his mind off of whatever it was that was making him sad.

Although he made no sound, Madog knew David was there and when the ball rolled back into the patch of light in front of the door he knew he was helping. And so he sat there silently pushing his ball back into the darkness and having it roll back to him. At one point the ball didn't come immediately back and Madog peered hard into the darkness trying to reassure himself that David was still there.

"David?" Madog waited for a response... and got none. The ball silently rolled into the light, for the moment forgotten. "Why don't come to garden with me? I had fun there. Can we play there again?" He heard a sharp intake of breath.

"Do you understand anything about the curse here?" Madog cocked his head.

"Much powerful magic, Why you call curse?"

Madog wondered if he'd made a mistake when he heard the shuttering breath as David fought back another wave of tears. "I call it a curse because of what it's done to me... how it's changed me. I never wanted this." Madog lay down and put his head on his paws, looking mournfully into the shadows.

"You not changed... You play with Madog, you nice to me. You no different than you were. Why you think you changed?"

"I'm not a man anymore... I'm a thing!" Madog heard the anger and pain in his voice and felt a shadow of it himself.

"What's so great about being man? I no Man, when we meet you call me an it. Talk like I not there. What wrong with being an it?" David remained silent for a moment.

"I'm sorry Madog, I didn't mean it like that."

"It okay....David? Why won't you come and play with Madog? I like it if you would play with me again." He heard the scraping as David got to his feet.

"You still want me around?" Madog nodded. "I would love to go to the gardens... but..."

Madog stood up. "But?" David sighed.

"I'm afraid, I'm afraid of what they will think of me. If I was even a dog, a horse. Even a mangy old Lynx like that ruffian in the tavern...." Madog shook his head.

"What it matter? You still be same inside, no matter what look like." Madog felt hope rising in him when he heard the footsteps coming towards him from the darkness.

And then his hopes were dashed as light flooded the hallway as a group of noisy people rumbled down the stairs. He caught a glimpse of a black shape rounding the corner before it was gone...and nothing remained.

Arla saw Madog start down the corridor "Madog? Wait! Was David down here?" Madog glared at her and nodded silently. "Can you lead us to him?" Madog looked in the direction David had gone.

"Yes, I find him." The metal fox started down the corridor the others right behind. Meredith was carrying the only torch and Arla soon asked him to leave it.

"David will see that and run even farther." She whispered.

The bear nodded and finding an empty socket on the wall he slid the haft into it. Soon the glow disappeared around a corner as they continued walking. Madog led them in a straight line. He passed many intersections without a second glance. Finally he stopped. "David up ahead at next corner." Meredith tapped Arla on the shoulder.

"See if you can get him talking.. keep him occupied. I'll circle around behind him, then if he runs we can have him cornered." Arla winced at the implied deceit but nodded. Meredith melted into the shadows, moving more silently than something of his bulk had any right to.

Arla took a deep breath and tried to decide what to say......

David sat against another wall now. But it was still the same. He had his chance and he blew it. He had been too frightened, and he shook his head at that paltry excuse. "David? David, it's Arla. Are you there?" He looked up.

"Arla? What are you doing here?"

"We've been worried about you. You scared Coe half to death when he found your room empty. He said it looked like a tornado had touched down in there." David flinched.

"Please tell him I'm sorry for the mess. I wasn't thinking straight....I.."

"Why don't you tell him yourself? He wants to see you. He sent us to look for you." David was again torn between to stay or to leave.

" I...I... don't know.. I don't think I want to be around anyone right now. I need to be alone."

"That's not right and you know it. The last thing you need now is to be alone. You've just had your world turned upside down. You need your friends there to help you." David stared as hard as he could into the darkness.


"Yes, you do realize you have friends. Misha, Coe, me.... We worry about you." David pulled himself to a standing position, not knowing if he wanted to run forward or away. He was still struggling with it when he felt something clamp down on his chest, pinning his arms to his sides.

"Now just relax my friend... I don't want to hurt you. Just be calm and everything will be alright."

David was startled and strained against his captor. He found that while his upper arms were pinned, his lower arms were still free. He reached up and gripped the grainy feel of a stout wooden staff. Clutching that pole he braced himself against the floor as best he could and poured all his frustration and anger into forcing it away from his body.

He heard the gasp from whoever was holding him as the thick wooden weapon slowly moved away from him. He brought it up as far as he could without any leverage. And acting more on instinct than rational thought he bit down on it with all his might. It began to pop and he kept up the pressure until it snapped under the strain.

"What?" He didn't wait for his attacker to figure out what had happened. He spun his shoulder into the furry chest of the large morph and pushed as he heard shouts from down the hallway behind him. He all but flung the man out of the way as he made his escape.

Part 3

Arla sprinted forward, the mongoose following close behind. She nearly fell over the prone body of Meredith. Cursing softly she groped for the stone Misha had given her as an afterthought. "Nena Tofshu." The words fell dead in the air as the stone silently came to life. Before her Meredith was slowly sitting up, still grasping the remains of his staff.

He looked at the broken ends in bewilderment. "How did he do that?" Arla sighed.

"What happened? You said you would wait." Meredith shook his head trying to clear the cobwebs.

"I intended to, but then he stood up right in front of me. I didn't want to lose the element of surprise."

"Did you get a look at him?" Meredith shook his head, wincing in pain at the movement.

"It was too dark. He was hard though, and as strong as I was. And look at my staff. He didn't break it with his hands. Look at the marks. He bit it in two. What is he?" Arla cocked her head.

"What do you mean? 'He was hard?'"

"Just what I said. His skin was like stone, no give to it at all. And it was cool to the touch. I've never seen the like." The bear rolled onto all fours and slowly got to his feet. Arla rubbed the back of her neck with a furry paw.

"Well, we can do no more like this. Where's Madog?" They looked around for the automaton, but found no trace of him. Slowly they made their way back to the stairway and back up into the light.

"So at least we can narrow the search area to this underground area." Arla traced the basement with a neatly trimmed claw. Misha nodded as he thought it over.

"Here's what we'll do. I want a two man team at each of the known exits. They are to stay out of sight and watch for signs of movement. I will take a team down into the passages and try and find him. We'll have to root him out the hard way."

"Misha... Is that really necessary anymore? Can't we wait for him to come out on his own?" Misha frowned.

"I've seen this type of thing before. If he's not brought back soon, he could lose touch with his humanity. The longer he stays down there, the more likely it is that he won't be able to return."

"You mean he will become fully an animal?" Misha shook his head quickly.

"No, not an animal, but as a human he had a warm heart. He is losing sight of that fact, and it's slowly freezing over. He won't act as he once would have unless it's stopped. Nothing will matter to him anymore, he'll be cold and heartless. We have to find him while that warm heart still beats."

Misha stepped slowly down the corridor, taking each step with care. In the many years he had been a Long Scout he had been on hundreds of patrols. Patrols that had taken up mountains, down deep tunnels, across grass higher than his head, and onto bare rock flats. But never had he been forced to do it inside the Keep. There had been countless training missions all over the great fortress, but this time the hunt was in earnest. He was tracking down a friend.

The fox paused at an intersection of two corridors. With trained precision Arla and Meredith took up positions along the wall opposite to him. Madog hung back, watching them with cheerful enthusiasm.

So far there had been no trouble following David's tracks. Those tracks confused Misha. They didn't looked anything he'd ever seen before. They certainly didn't look like a human, or any known animal. It made Misha wonder exactly what had David changed into. He hoped to find the mage before he did something stupid.

The trail continued down one of the corridors and the fox followed them slowly, one step at a time. Whatever state David was in he wasn't thinking of covering his tracks, Misha had no problem following. The tracks wound seemingly at random through the dark corridors of the basement.

Misha turned a corner and came face to face with a stone wall. The tracks led straight into the wall without pause. Arla came forward and knelt in front of the wall. "How could he walk right through the stonework?" she asked.

"There wasn't stone there when he came through," Meredith commented. "He might have created the wall to block any pursuit."

"Kyia do that," Madog announced.

"Kyia?" Misha asked. "Why?"

"She help David. Not want us to interfere."

David felt as if he'd been walking for days.... and in this pitch blackness that was entirely possible he had to admit. He hadn't slept since his rude awakening in the infirmary. And yet he didn't feel tired or fatigued. He glanced down at the shadowy forms of his arms, again realizing that he actually did have four of them. He experimentally clawed at one of the stones that made up the wall. He was rewarded by a shower of small stone splinters as he left a set of neat grooves in the rock.

David stepped through a door to find himself outside on a high tower. He gasped and turned to retrace his steps only to find the door had disappeared. He stepped to the edge and peered over, noticing that he was in one of the taller of the parapets. He breathed in the chill night air, finding it refreshing up here.

He heard a gentle fluting sound from the other side of the turret and whirled towards it. It came from the opposite side, out of sight from his position. He crept around to see a figure sitting on the parapet edge. It was a young, sleek otter morph. David thought of that last time he had heard a flute and it dawned on him who it was. He stood in silence listening to her play.

She had improved in a few nights it had seemed, if she made any mistakes he never remembered afterwards. Although David was certain now that he had been asleep far longer than he remembered. As he listened to the simple tune he thought it the most beautiful sound he had ever heard in his life. She conjured up memories of sun lighted fields still wet with the morning dew. Of the earthy smell of fresh tilled ground, the softness of a summer's breeze. The sound of a gentle wave lapping against the shore.

All the loveliest things he remembered came back to him in that instant. Her song was the embodiment of beauty, and he felt subdued in its presence. He could do nothing but stand there. His jaws hanging open as he was caught in its graceful pull.

As the song ended he felt a strange longing ache for it to continue as he returned to himself and was once more standing there... the intruder on a moment that was hers. He shrank back, not wanting to disturb her. Not wanting to intrude his ugliness on the most beautiful thing he had ever experienced.

"Wait, don't go. Please?" He heard her voice from behind him and it froze him in his tracks. It had been uttered in a tone he had never heard her use before. A tone that held an inner peace that she had never before shown. Looking slowly towards her, making sure to keep his face hidden so as not to frighten her, he glanced at the young woman.

She was staring at him kindly, her eyes weren't flashing as they had been in their first meeting. Indeed they were calm pools of deep brown as they reflected the moonlight off their liquid surface. He relaxed slightly. "I didn't meant to intrude... I never even knew I was this far up into the Keep......I.." He stuttered almost incoherently.

"Shhhhhh. It's alright, I was only practicing." David choked and sputtered in his unbelief.

"My Lady! I exaggerate not when I say that your 'practice' was by far the most beautiful melody I have ever heard. Never in my life had I suspected to be witness to such magnificence."

Caroline dipped her head at such praise. "I'm only just learning. I have no great skill."

David was adamant. "Your skill cannot be doubted. The images that I saw while you played were beautiful beyond compare." Caroline glanced over at him.

"Who are you?" David drew his cloak closer around his body.

"No one of consequence my lady. I wandered here by accident."

"Please sit." She beckoned to the stone wall beside her. David walked over and cautiously seated himself next to her. She gazed up at the stars that twinkled in the great expanse of perfectly clear night sky. David joined her silently in her watch, but found that his eyes didn't focus quite well enough to bring the distant pin points into more than a hazy focus.

"They're beautiful aren't they?" She breathed. David sighed.

"Yes.... quite lovely." Caroline glanced over at him.

"So how long are you planning to stay away David?" David swung around to face her.

"How long have you known?" Caroline again gave him that quiet smile she had.

"You're the first and only person to ever call me 'my lady' before. I figured it had to be you."

David shook his head sadly. "Let me guess....You've changed, David, and now you finding out that it's a lot different than you imagined it."

David shuddered. "I don't know how to deal with this. What am I now?" Caroline touched him gently on the shoulder.

"You're David Restamar... you're the same person you always were. You just have a new face."

She reached up to push his hood back and he looked away. "No, please.... don't... I can't, I mean I don't..." The otter morph ignored his pleas as she grasped the thin material and carefully lifted it away from his head and pushed it back. He held his breath as he waited for her to scream, or laugh or do something other than what she did next.

Caroline laid back the fabric of the hood and found herself looking at the smooth dark carapace of an insect. His ears had disappeared, two hooked stalks rose from the top of his oval head. His eyes were only recognizable because they reflected light differently from the surrounding chitin. His mouth had been replaced by a large set of heavy mandibles.

She was looking at him in profile, placing her hand under his jaw, she gently turned his head to make him look at her. "You are a very handsome man, David. You are an insect now. But you don't look horrid to me. And you won't look ugly to any but the biggest fools in the keep. There is a symmetry to your face that seems flawless. I think you make a fine insect." She said at her most serious.

David's antenna quivered at her pronouncement, and she saw a single shining tear roll down his cheek and drop to the stone on which they both still sat. "Thank you... I... I.."

"Shhhh, it's okay." She felt a tear of her own roll down her muzzle. She leaned forward and before he realized her intent she kissed him on the cheek. He let out a startled gasp as he raised his hand to the spot, looking at her in bewilderment.

The tears came hard and fast now, his eyes brimming with moisture as his heart emptied the grief it had been holding for so long, purging itself of its sorrow and needless pain. Caroline found herself cradling the sobbing insect in her arms. Her own tears flowing along with his.....

After a minute or so the sobs quieted and the tears ceased. But David still clung to her as if his life depended on it. She gave him the only thing she could, her presence, and her strength... until he took a single deep breath and moved away, his eyes shining. "Thank... you," he managed in a slightly choked voice.

A sudden breeze blew across the tower and Caroline gritting her teeth from its icy chill. She felt the winds chill ease as a cloth was thrown about her shoulders. She opened her eyes to find David's cloak swathed about her. Looking at the young man she saw him fully for the first time.

His body was thinner than it had been before, as were his arms... all four of them... and his legs. He was covered from head to foot in the black armor of what she now realized from the shape of the head... and the layout of his body he must be an Ant. Then she noticed a faint shimmering behind him and gasped.

"David... You have wings." David twitched.

"I have what?" He glanced around hoping to see what she was talking about. Not being able to, he stood awkwardly and strained to catch sight of them. Finally he stopped and his body went slightly rigid as he concentrated on a set of muscles he had never had before.

Slowly a pair of shimmering wings came into sight to both sides of him. "I never even imagined it possible. But of course I can't fly with them.... they're nowhere near big enoug..... What in the world?"

As he had been talking the glistening membranes had begun to grow, until they were nearly double their previous size. Caroline watched as he gave them a gentle test by moving them back and forth, she found the movement smoother and almost natural now.

His mandible opened in what she could only describe as a grin as his wing motion began to speed up. She felt a keen breeze begin to stir. Suddenly, without warning his wings became a blur of motion. They began to give off a steady hum as they moved faster and faster.

David crouched and without warning leaped skyward. He continued upward, his wings shining in the moonlight. Caroline heard his cry of elation and felt her heart soar with her newly airborne friend.

She watched him recede to a mere speck before disappearing completely. She strained into the darkness, trying to locate his tiny form. The hum was returning and yet she didn't quite realize its import until she felt a pair of strong arms encircle her waist and a jolt as David leaped once more carrying her aloft with him.

"Ooooohhhhh!" She gasped as her feet left the safety of the battlement and she found herself suddenly far above the ground.

For a moment she shut her eyes and waited for them to plummet earthward. But when she felt no dreadful downward plunge she forced herself to take a peek. She was suspended over the keep. The hard stone structure illuminated by the moon's pale light. She looked out across the valley and gasped in awe at the beauty spread out before her.

From the shadowy bulk of the mountains and the dark forests at their feet spread the grey autumn fields. Here and there among them could be seen the various rivers and streams that fed the fertile lands, they ran like glistening silver serpents over the land. A multitude of pinpoint lights could be seen from the towns of Mallen, Meyeransburg and Ellingham.

Caroline lost track of time, gazing at the land from a vista she hadn't even imagined gave her a new perspective. David's course would alter every few moments, bringing a new section of the valley into her view. They continued leisurely flitting across the sky above the keep for what seemed like hours and hours. Finally like a warm dream it ended as they approached the tower once more. The ground rushed towards them at breathtaking speed before David backwinged to a rather hard landing.

He lost his balance and rolled to a stop twisting so that Caroline came to rest on top of him. They lay there silently for a moment as they both tried to catch their breaths. "I hope I didn't scare you too badly. I hadn't even thought about how frightening that would be for you. I wanted you to see what I was seeing." Caroline chuckled.

"I was startled at first, but it was a wonderful experience. I had always wondered about what it must be like to fly. Thank you for showing me."

"The others must be getting worried by now, why don't we go down?" It took Caroline twenty minutes to coax the ant back into the Keep and to Long house. The first time they ran into a group of people the ant almost panicked but Caroline gripped his arm gently and kept him steady.

He watched in surprise as the group just walked past without giving his insect form a second glance though that didn't stop him from pulling the cloak even tighter about him.

Part 4

Long House was busy as they readied search parties. Caroline lead him through a group without any of them giving him a second glance. "All this was for me?" Caroline nodded. "I'm sorry for causing everyone so much trouble," David said in a much subdued voice.

"You were going through a traumatic time. No one can blame you for your actions."

They approached Misha, who even then was talking with Lisa about the latest patrol reports. "Misha!" Caroline caught his attention with a wave of her hand. With a smile Misha strode over to them.

"Welcome back luv. Who's your friend?" Caroline winked at David.

"Oh, just someone I met up on the tower. Seems you were looking in the wrong place all this time."

Misha raised an eyebrow quizzically. "David?"

The ant nodded apologetically. "Sorry for causing so much trouble." Misha was silent for a moment then answered.

"Trouble? What makes you think you caused us any trouble?" David gestured at the late night industry still proceeding around them.

"We always like running around like madmen in the middle of the night," Misha said with barely suppressed laughter in his voice as he gave David a careful look over. "An ant. Interesting." David still found such looks uncomfortable. "How are you feeling?" Misha asked in a concerned voice.

"Confused, a little uneasy... You name it and it's probably in there." David found his voice a little tight.

"First we'll call off the search, then we'll get you some food and rest." Even as he said this a child came up to Misha.

"Marley and Gibbons are heading out to relieve the northern watch, any special instructions?" Misha smiled.

"Call off the searches. David has come back in from the cold."

"That's truly good news. Who found him, where is he?" Misha rested his hands on Caroline's shoulders.

"Our dear Caroline made the capture... as to where he is..... I'd say about a pace and a half behind you." The child whirled to look at David, eyeing him critically before giving him a small smile.

"Welcome back."

David nodded silently. "Everybody! Everybody hold on! There's been a new development....." Misha waited for the commotion to die down. "It seems David has returned."

"Good! He can stay as long as he doesn't BUG me!" someone shouted from the back of the room. This sent a ripple of laughter from the assembled. "You better be careful, people find out Misha's got an AUNT that's almost as tough as he is and we'll lose all our respect," someone else remarked. The laughter escalated.

David had a perplexed look on his face. He at first was going to take offense to this. He composed his face into what he figured was his most dignified expression. Without his knowledge his antenna went rigid and stood almost totally erect. He looked so silly that the Long's roared even louder. This made David try even harder to look dignified, which only made him look even sillier. This couldn't keep going.

Caroline, seeing what was happening, walked over to a desk and from one of the drawers withdrew a small hand mirror. Walking over she held it up and tapped David on the shoulder. Still trying to seem dignified he rounded on her and found himself staring back. He saw the absurd set of his antenna and it was indeed so comical that he couldn't help laughing. His carefully contrived dignity dissolving as he broke into peals of laughter along with everyone else.

"How are you feeling?" Misha asked again. "Feeling better?" David nodded his head, unable to speak through his laughter. Caroline saw a single tear roll down his cheek, but knew it to be one of joy, rather than pain. She couldn't help smiling at his release from at least some of his worries and doubts.

There were many pats on the back and clouts on the shoulders as the Longs wished David the best and a good night. They threatened to tie him up and drag him to the dungeons when he started apologizing once again. Soon the last one had left and only Misha and Caroline remained.

"What will you do now David?" Misha asked in a soft voice. David shook his head.

"I haven't a clue."

"Why not apply for a Keep Mage position? With what I've seen of your talents you could do a lot in that field." Misha sounded very hopeful.

"You think they could find uses for my talents?" Misha gaped.

"Are you kidding? We need all the magic we can get around here! And face it, yours is certainly unique." David smiled.

"I'll do that, I'll do it.... Could be fun." Misha clouted him on the back.

"That it will be my friend, I promise you."

David reached up to adjust his cloak a little and inadvertently deactivated the magic of the clasp. Caroline's gasp told him what he had done. Looking down expecting to see the normal blue of his old cloak he was as stunned as anyone else to see a cloak of purest white. "Well, I'm teaches me not to recolor my only cloak lightly. But I think it's kind of fitting." He said ruefully.

"What do you mean, David?" Caroline asked. He glanced over at her almost timidly.

"Like the old color of my cloak, my old life is no more, for good or ill it's closed to me. But the future holds many possibilities. I can't wait to start exploring some of them." Caroline smiled at him and again kissed him on the cheek.

"That's the first hopeful thing I've heard you say. I'm glad."

Misha laughed. "You'll get used to this new form. It has many surprises in store for you. Why, I've had this one for eight years and it's still surprising me."

David gazed fondly at the two people he most considered his friends in the keep and sighed in relief. He felt the last dregs of his fear and frustration flee before the warmth he had been shown. Not only by them but by the Longs as well.

Smiling broadly he finally did what he had feared. He faced the future upright. Standing to meet it. And found it to be a place bright with promise.

Here could he at last find rest.

Here at last he could find peace....

At last, he... David Restamar..... was home.