Born Once Again

by Pontos

Chapter 1

A feline morph stepped outside on the street. It was late morning on a cold day.

Too cold actually...

The clothes he was wearing were insufficient, even with all the fur covering his body. That got his attention since, for some animalized Keepers, that was almost all they needed to 'wear'. It was their bonds to humanity which made them wear cloth.

After spending a few minutes trying to get used to his new digitigrades footpaws, Ethan walked in a clumsy way through the Keep. The snow was terribly cold, and his feet were suffering at every step he made. What a great way to give them a first use, and to his perception of temperature as well. But at least he was able to feel the snow...

He didn't know where to start... It was obvious that he was in no condition to go to the Scout's headquarters intending to start his training. Until he got the hang of his new body, the spear hanging in the wall of his room would be as useful as his shoes were now.

That made him recall the comment made by Ariadna, about the tailoring of his clothes.

Aside from the hole he had to make for his new and long tail – the only new limb he got, and both being able to move and getting feelings from were something new to him as well-, he was having a few problems with his pants regarding his changed legs.

Ethan went to his room to get some money, and then where the tailor's shop.

"What can I do for you?" the tailor asked.

"I need a new trouser, I just went through the change" He couldn't leave his pants to get refitted without getting a new one. He too was bond to his humanity; he just left behind most of it a few hours ago...

"I can see that. I just happen to have a few premade pants for your kind of lower body"

The tailor then went to the back of his shop leaving the feline morph alone surrounded by all kind of outfits and fabrics. He approached a table stuffed with samples of the different fabrics available. Ethan rested his hand on one of the samples, and sensed its texture and softness clearly on his pads. He did the same with many others and was amazed at the feelings, noticing every one of them to be very different from the others. He retracted it when the tailor was getting back in the store.

"Here, these should do it" The tailor handed him a trouser, which he tried and found that it fitted well. It didn't annoy him while walking, and above all, it was new.

Ethan left his pants to get refitted and headed to his room once again. Now more than ever wanted a mirror to see the body he would have to live with the rest of his life.

Right after opening the door he went in a very cat-like alert state at the visage of another keeper inside his room. Save for the detail that it mimicked every move he made, to him it looked like a complete stranger. The big mirror hanging from the wall right in front of the door greeted the room's owner with an unexpected first sight of his new body.

Ethan closed the door whispering words of thanks to the lady of the Keep. He would have to ask latter if she's got a name.

Standing naked in front of the mirror he could see a body that resembled a wild species of feline. The round head with pointy ears, the muzzle decorated with numerous whiskers on the sides, a wide red nose surrounded by a black stripe of fur reaching near his eyes, which were grayish. The outer side of his ears was black, while on the inside they were filled with a fuzzy white fur. His split upper lip right under the nose was white, as well as his jaw.

Most of his body fur was of a beige color, perhaps turning a bit reddish on his back. His chest was brighter, getting close to a white, just like his 'private' parts and surrounding areas.

His old self was nowhere to be seen in such reflection.

He dressed up again, and walked towards the weapons wall to grab the spear. Luckily – although surely not mere coincidence – the room was wide enough to make a few movements while standing still on the floor. His paw-like hands seemed to be no problem, but his perception of the weapon was.

Until then he never felt the weapon on his fingers. The apparently hard consistency, the weight, the strength used on it, all those were things that he wasn't aware of until now, or simply were measured by pure instinct or reflexes gained with time, one could said. Now he was facing all those feelings brought by the weapon, and it would be difficult to get used to them.

After leaving the spear on the wall he grabbed a slice of bread, but for his surprise he couldn't handle more than three bites before feeling the need to leave it there.

He decided to use the rest of the day to wander through the Keep, to improve his walking and to see if he could find any known person around. He wore the warmer cloth he could find on his belongings, and grabbed the blanket from the bed in order to cover himself with it.

He didn't know where Ariadna could be living, but since she was born in Euper, it was more than likely that she would still live there.

Even being just a few weeks away from the beginning of the winter, the sky was mostly clear, with the sun bathing the roofs and walls of the entire Keep. The sun light made a warm and pleasant sensation on Ethan's face. For the first time in years it was not just an annoyance to his sight.

Countless kids were making good use of the snow that seemed to have fallen last night. Ethan suddenly got hit with a stray snowball, and willing to return the favor he crouched to get a considerable quantity of snow. He was going to return it with interests.

Before even being able to stand up, he had to drop the snow on the ground. He couldn't handle its frostiness. His footpaws were suffering pretty much as well, but at least he was able to walk in the snow. Such thing left him perplexed.

He thought it may be some characteristic from his species, just before realizing he didn't know which one it was!

No doubt about being some kind of feline, and while zoology wasn't his forte, he wasn't aware of noticeable differences of sensitiveness between all the cats out there in the world. He even saw a few feline morphs not showing any sign of trouble with the actual temperature when dressed in a similar way he was now. And they weren't wearing coats - or Ethan's improvised replacement, a blanket -. Some of them also had shoes, even with the same kind of feet Ethan had. He was going to get one of those pretty soon...

Ethan then headed to the library. If there was a place in the Keep with the information he wanted, it had to be in a book from the library.

The smell of papyrus was prominent, and the quantity of books was jaw-dropping.

Being from a noble lineage, Ethan was able to write and read. After the death of his father and the annulment of his right of heritage, great part of their money, privileges and belongings were lost. By then he was already able to read, and with the help of fellow habitants of Dilandau he kept it on practice, and also learned to write. Years later things got better for their economy, and then he proceeded with his studies by himself. Despite the fact that his polearm training was very demanding, he was still able to make a few openings on his schedule. Even so, using the spear was much more interesting and useful than learning history.

How wrong he was...

An owl-like morph woman was busying herself on a book when Ethan called her attention.

"What can I do for you, Mr.?" She asked with a professional tone on his voice, without looking up from her book.

"I'm looking for a book about zoology, though not too in depth. If it's centered on felines, it would be better" Ethan wasn't willing to be an entire afternoon digging a two inches thick book of zoology.

"I suppose then that you are new around here, don't you Mr...?"

"Dilandau. Ethaniel Dilandau, Ms...?" He asked, mocking at her manners. He didn't intend to offend her, just to call her attention.

"Mael-Murie" She said in a harsher tone, narrowing her eyelids. She did get offended...

"I will see what I can get for you. Wait here please, Mr Dilandau" With noticeable emphasis added on the 'Mr'...

He screwed things bad, it seemed. He doesn't tend to act like that, and really was just trying to get rid of the formalities in the conversation. The recovery of his sense of touch has left him in a good mood, and was being maybe too eloquent.

A few moments passed and the librarian reappeared in the main hall. She was holding a somewhat small book in one of her wings.

"Here you have, a feline-only encyclopedia. Not too in depth, just as you required"

Ethan ears folded backwards instinctively in embarrassment, generating an interesting feeling while doing so. He would have to apologize to her.

"Look Ms. Mael-Murie, it wasn't my intention to offend you. I just wanted to make the conversation less formal" He said in a regretful tone. "Perhaps the way I did it wasn't the best, so lets leave it as a minor incident"

The librarian seemed satisfied. "Don't Worry, Mr. Dilandau. I just happen to have a bad day. You were the closest person I had"

The book was interesting, but the texture of its pages was even more. Like the librarian said, it was not too in depth on its subject.

He found out why he couldn't eat that bread before. Cats in general don't tolerate flour, so Gregor just lost another potential client. After a short amount of time searching through the pages of the book, he found what he wanted. A Cougar.

Closer to domestic cats than to other big felines - like the tiger or the leopard - and like almost any feline, it's exclusively carnivore. That would explain why his ears were so more pointed than Oberon's, for example. The part of carnivore exclusivity could end up being a problem. It's so much better to be omnivorous...

So there he was, reading a book in order to find what he was now, and what he would be from now on.

The good mood started to dissolve when Ethan thought deeper on the matter. Condemned to a not-fully human or fully animal life either, and trapped on a valley where no one dares to stay more than a bunch of days. He would have to explain both his brother and his mother of the situation...

How could he explain that he will be unable to left the Keep without risking his neck?. Being hunted and called a demon anywhere but there. He already could see himself writing a letter to his mother saying 'Dear mother, do you remember that tale about Metamor Keep?. Well, we got the short version of it'.

Whatever he ends up writing to them, either they will not believe him, or will just cut any further contact. He wondered how the other Keepers went through this same situation...

There still was the mystery on Rupert's origin. Was he his uncle's pawn, or perhaps something shadier? Depending on that, his brother could be in danger, only if still alive...

After further research he wasn't able to find any kind of information about his over-sensibility for coldness. The cougar was more of an animal from moderate to hot climate, so the northern lands of Metamor were not the best place for it. Even so, the need to use a blanket - or a coat for that matter- to not actually freeze on the exterior was a bit too much. He was going to be one of the few Keepers with the need of a good winter coat.

His tail was shaking behind the chair, reflecting his mood, but Ethan became aware of that when it hit the floor. It was so weird, but then again, everything from this body was since it's the first one from which he got feelings. Even being sit was something new and captivating.

With the book returned to the librarian, Ethan headed to the Mess. He was starving, now more than ever, and his stomach demanded a juicy steak.

After getting some roasted meat and a drink, he went to a table and began to eat.

The cheerful atmosphere was relaxing. Ethan never thought that he could be so calm and cool minded.

Ever since he got to know the truth about the Keep and the fate it imposed on him, he'd been in a deep depressive mood. But the whole experience of being able to feel again was predominant over any sorrow or remorse regarding his situation and future.

With the first bite he became delighted of the warm feeling of the food, getting the attention from the rest of the keepers in the table. How could he have been eating all this time ignoring such thing?.

"Whats the matter?, is it that good?" asked a deer morph sitting nearby.

"Oh, no. Well yes, it's good, but thats not why I looked so delighted. It's the first time I get any kind of warm feeling from a meal" He answered right before chewing another piece of meat. The deer looked at him confused.

Ethan left with a warm and pleasant feeling on his stomach which made him purr while walking through the street, something he didn't noticed.

He found himself wandering around looking for Ariadna, one of the few people who he'd made some kind of relationship with. He wondered what would she say when she finds out that he'd become a feline, just as she foretold before.

Walking outside the Keep and going deep into the streets of Euper, he looked for someone to ask for information. A child was sweeping the front of her house on one side of the street.

"Hey child, do you happen to know where a red-furred girl lives?. Her name is Ariadna" He actually never asked her what she was...

The child gave the cougar a bad tempered look, then answered

"I could be your grandma', boy"

'Damn, the AR curse!'

"I'm sorry, I had no way to tell that you were cursed" She grimaced, then said

"I get that more often that I would like to" She said, resuming her work. "Regarding your question, I know many women with red fur around the valley, so I could use more information" Ethan sighed.

"She is a Scout, has some resemblances with a fox, and is usually accompanied on her missions with a female human and an ermine-morph. She should be living here, so I'm not talking about someone that comes here from time to time"

The age regressed lady raised her sight. "Yes, I guess I've seen her. Don't know where she lives though. Ask Johann Maus on 'A Hole in The Wall'. He knows every person that walks in front of his restaurant"

In effect, Mr. Maus knew her as well as the location of her house. The friendly mouse morph gave Ethan a few indications which led him to a not very distant house. He knocked the door and was greeted by a mature and tall man.

"Hello, my name is Ethan. I was told that Ariadna lives here. Is she in here?"

"No, she is out on a patrol with his squad. What do you need from her?" he asked, staring curiously at the blanket-covered cougar in front of him.

"Nothing special really. I just recently met her and wanted to talk" Ethan sighed.

"She should be back in the night, come back by then if you want"

"Actually, could you ask her to look for me in the Keep?. I would really like to be closer to my room in the night" winter nights were assured to be a problem for Ethan.

"I will wait for her in the Mule around midnight. If I'm not there I'll be in my room most likely" He said goodbye and headed back to the Keep.

It was already the afternoon, and the sun was hiding behind the mountains. It would get colder in no time, so Ethan sped up his pace in order to not catch a cold. It happened before, but without headaches and the like it was very passable. This time would be different though.

Near one of the Keep surrounding walls Ethan noticed a swift thing moving and hiding on some boxes. He stopped, with the hope of seeing it getting out of its hideout. It finally did, and Ethan recognized it as one of the creatures he killed on his arrival.

The lutin looked quite exhausted and even desperate. There was no logical reason to infiltrate by itself on Euper, let alone trying to get through the gates. It was then when the reason made its appearance. The lutin stole some remaining greasy meat from a butcher's table. It had to be starving, probably after getting separated from its companions due a failed ambush, or a successful one from the other side.

A bull-morph appeared from inside the butcher shop, and saw the little critter devouring the meat. The butcher freaked out at the sight, and got attacked by the lutin in a self-defense reflex of sort. Its condition wasn't the best to take out a bull man like that, but the knife on the table presented a problem the butcher had't thought about.

The lutin charged the butcher with his own knife, only hurting his arm when he tried to block the blow. It took him on surprise, and the lutin was ready to give a second hit.

Ethan approached to assist the hurt man, taking advantage of the fact that the lutin was unaware of his presence. He punched it with a closed paw, and the lutin flew a few meters into the street. It would have been better to use his claws, and killing the poor bastard in one strike, but Ethan wasn't accustomed enough to his body to have them considered at that time.

The lutin stood on his feet once again when a sudden blow on its hand sent the knife far away. Ethan was wielding a broom from the butcher shop.

Right when he was about to break the critter's head with the top of the broom, an arrow crossed the street, piercing the lutin's head from one side.

It fell to the ground dead, leaving Ethan confused. He watched in the direction from where the arrow came, and saw a red-haired human male standing on top of the Keep's wall looking down with a bow in hand.

"Hey!, you stole my kill!" Ethan growled showing his sharp set of teeth. It seemed like a childish attitude... or perhaps a manifestation of his hunting instincts.

"I did nothing, it's my duty to take care of these matters" the guard said, then turned around and disappeared behind the tall wall.

The bull-morph was looking astonished, both for the sudden appearance of the cougar and the arrow shot from the walls.

"Thanks lad. I could have taken care of that little bastard by myself, but at least you spared me a few wounds" He had one already, but didn't look too severe.

"If you excuse me, I will go get some assistance on my arm. Thanks again" Then departed in the same direction Ethan came from. He left the broom in the Butcher shop, picked up the blanket he left behind and started walking to the gates.

From inside the Outer Ward he couldn't find the man that stole the kill from his claws. There were just too many soldiers walking on top of the walls, and many of them being male humans. Even though that red hair of his was very rare, he was nowhere to be seen.

Ethan let the 'incident' pass and headed to his room.

The blanket was somewhat wet from the snow, especially from the time he left it on the floor to strike the lutin, and was becoming more of a burden than a temporal solution for the chill.

His fingers were numb, a first as far as he could remember. It's true that, unlike before, he was actually able feel the cold, but his body used to be more tolerant of the harsh winter climate. Even now he was wearing warmer clothes than he used to.

If it wasn't something related to being a cougar, then why was it?

He entered his room, and found a small envelope lying on the floor. It had the Duke's seal on it, so it was most likely something related to the interrupted meeting he had the day before.

'About time I should say, since I'm still a potential menace according to them...'

Ethan left the letter on the table, then went towards the fireplace on one corner of the room, and looked for a way to make a fire. He found a flint next to the fireplace, which he used to start a small but growing fire. It was comfortable, and made him recall the warm he felt for the first time that morning on the infirmary bed.

It was getting darker, but the midnight was still far ahead. He had many hours to waste before the... date? Ethan then realized the hidden meaning his invitation could have suggested. It wasn't that weird anyway, just a friends meeting.

He laid down on the bed, and began to read the letter.

To Ethaniel Dilandau, rightful heir of the County of Dilandau

You are required to attend the court's meeting room the morning of December 11th, 707 CR, in order to attain a resolution regarding your situation.

Erin Fassa, Court Scribe. December 10th, 707 CR

Oddly, they were recognizing him as an heir of his homeland's county, thing he left clear was not the case anymore.

Besides, who assured them he was really what he told? He could just have made up all that heritage talk as a stratagem to avoid problems.

He was hoping to at least have a mostly trouble-less life, and to be of use for the Keep, just like he first intended to begin with.

The cougar-morph walked through the street. No wet blanket was covering him, but a warm winter coat. Ethan had found it folded in the shelter, where there was nothing before.

If he ever gets the chance to meet the 'Lady', he will hand her a flower bouquet. And since he wasn't willing to push his luck too much, the boots were going to be bought.

The door was half-opened, and fortunately the Patrol Master was inside the room. Ethan knocked anyway.

"Come inside, Ethan" said George before heading back to his table. A bottle of wine was opened and laying on it.

Ethan stepped inside, and sat on a chair invited by a hand gesture from George.

"Want a drink?" he asked, to what Ethan nodded. "I suppose you are here to get an answer about your future in the Keep"

"More or less, yeah. I wanted to know if I'm accepted to be part of the scouts"

George then sat on his chair, served himself a cup and one to Ethan.

"First and foremost, your 'situation' is still unclear" he started. "It's obvious you were used as a tool for someone else's intentions, but that still leaves room for the kind of menace the Duke told you about"

"There can be something residing within you. There is a reason for you to be here, and that's what we are trying to find out" Ethan's whiskers twitched at the thought of it, once again making an interesting felling.

"As far as my opinion of the whole deal goes, I would assign you to a squad right away. Your skills merits so"

Ethan took a few sips from his cup, still having some trouble to pass liquid through his muzzle without leaking a few drops. It was a very good wine.

"There is something I would like to tell you. Since I got ordered to keep a close watch of your movements from the moment you left the infirmary, I've got reports of you having a bad time regarding your tolerance to the cold climate"

'Great, now everybody knows about the crazy blanket-cat...'

"You could end up in a real trouble if you ever face a difficult situation outside in the woods with this kind of climate. Things like losing your garment are possible, though not too common. And you pretty much lose the advantage of using your full-form; you wouldn't be able to handle the temperature while naked"

That called Ethan's attention.

"What do you mean with full-form?"

"You can adopt a non-morphic form of your curse induced species. It doesn't matter now, you can get information on that later" Ethan nodded and emptied his glass of wine.

"What I'm trying to tell you now is that you will have to patrol with such risks, and winters here are really cold. Keep in mind we haven't reached the winter solstice yet"

"So, are you willing to take the risk?" Asked George

Ethan stood silent for a few seconds. It was true that the cold climate could be a problem for him, but he didn't want to resign to the actual reason for which he was there in the first place.

"Yes, I will not change my mind. It will serve me as experience since, after all, that's what I lack the most" Ethan answered. "I may be an excellent polearm fighter, but I haven't had as many battles or hard situations as others around here"

"Fine" George emptied his glass of wine. "All this aside, we still have to find out what will happen tomorrow morning"

"Murikeer checked you while you were asleep in the infirmary, and said there were no vestiges of the spell. Not even the burnt scar since you changed after getting it. So it's most assured everything will be fine"

Ethan was relieved by such statement, and hoped for it to be true.

"The duke must be worried for his wedding, which takes place about two weeks from now. That's probably why he reacted like that yesterday. But don't be afraid, he is a just ruler"

"Anyway, I hope for the choice you made to be the better" Ethan nodded again and thanked him. Before stepping out of the door, he turned around to face the jackal once again.

"Thanks about yesterday, for carrying me on where Coe's" George looked at him

"It was nothing" he answered. "How are you feeling now?"

Ethan thought it for a few seconds and before leaving he said with a smile on his muzzle

"I feel alive"

About an hour before midnight Ethan left his room in order to cover the wide time range he made when giving the vague answer of 'around midnight'.

His whiskers were stiff by the cold, but thanks to the coat, and the gloves and boots he bought a few hours earlier, walking through the Keep was much more tolerable now.

It seemed like his feet and especially his handpaws were the most sensible parts of his body, without putting into consideration his face, whose nose becomes almost white when faced with a cold wind.

The Mule was filled with people, and after a brief check around it, it seemed obviously that Ethan exaggerated with his precaution. It didn't really matter, his room wasn't exactly entertaining for the time being.

He asked the waitress for an ale and set out to wait.

His cup was almost empty when the known figure of Ariadna stepped inside the Mule. She saw him and approached apparently convinced of his identity.

"Ethan, Right?" he nodded. "I knew it! I told you it was cat fur!" she said happily.

"Take a sit, lets have some talk" he said.

She did as Ethan said, and looked at him with a curious glare on her peculiar eyes.

"When my mother told me a strange cat morph asked for me in the afternoon I was sure it was you" She said

"There is no one else besides you who wouldn’t know where my house is"

"Your mother? Do you mean that man is your cursed mother?" Ethan asked. "Isn't calling him like that a bit counterproductive?"

"I still call him like that because my father lives with us as well, and he is still male. It would get very complicated to call them both the same way" Ariadna asked a nearby waitress for an ale.

"So, our roles were inverted it seems" She said. "The stalked becomes the stalker"

Ethan looked at her with wide open eyes. "I wanted to talk with you, is that weird?"

"Didn't I want the same thing when I looked for you in the gardens last week?" She was putting Ethan between the sword and the wall.

"Ok, I give you that. Just leave the damn 'stalking' thing aside" She laughed at his reaction

"Tell me, how have you taken the change? Are you still depressed or have you already accepted it? I know of many that with time even started to like their new shape"

Ethan rested his head on one hand before answering.

"Until now I've been more absorbed by the experiences brought by the recovery of my sense of touch"

Ariadna acquired an expression of surprise when she heard that. The waitress then left the ale in front of her.

"You mean it? Are you saying that you can feel now?"

"Well, just look at the clothes I'm wearing now, and compare them with the ones I had the last time we saw ourselves"

Ethan rested his fingers on the table, and softly glided them along it, feeling the rough texture of the worn out wood.

"It's just amazing, like I've been dreaming for the last twenty years. My mind was in this world completely aware, with my body being nothing more than a shell that reacted to its commands"

"I can say I'm really alive now, so with that in mind I guess this body will not be something to be regretted of"

Ariadna smiled during the time the warrior gave such declaration.

"Even so, saving for the fact that I can barely handle the chill outside without wearing thick coats, this body hasn't been bad until now" he said emptying his cup.

"Why is that? This is not the coldest day the Keep will have to deal with during the next months. Do you wear that coat all the time, or just during the night?" She said pointing at the gift the 'Lady' gave him a few hours earlier, which was resting next to him.

"Well, I just got it this afternoon, so tomorrow I will know if I really need it during the day" He answered.

Ariadna stared at him a bit surprised. "If you need to wear it during the day with this climate, you will most assuredly have a long winter..."

Ethan shrugged, and recalled George's advice, along with the next day's summoning...

"I wanted to tell you something" He said, getting her attention "I've been summoned to a meeting with the Duke tomorrow morning" Ariadna was perplexed at such statement.

"It is possible that I was not just fooled by an illusory spell. There has to be a reason for someone to make me come here voluntarily, while being oblivious of the curse"

"The Duke believes there can be something within me. I've been told by someone that there is nothing in me, but with tomorrow's meeting that should be left clear"

"If by any reason they find something they can't take care of, it's most likely they will cast me out of the valley, leaving me out there on my own."

"That's ridiculous! You were used, why are you the one being threatened by the duke?" Ariadna said astonished

"The duke is not threatening me, Ariadna. He is assuring the safety of the Keep" Ethan said a bit nervously. "If someone is a threat, that's potentially me"

"Oh, shut up!" The scream made by Ariadna made Ethan to jump on his chair. Many Keepers around turned their eyes to the table.

"What are you blabbering about? Are you going to accept being called a threat and even getting casted out from the valley just like that?" Ethan's ears were folded backwards while hearing astonished at the sudden reaction of his companion.

"If by chance you end up having something inside you, there is more than one capable wizard in the Keep that will surely took it out from you in a breeze"

"Even outside the valley there are a few friendly places where you may get help. Don't even consider to throw away your life like that"

Ethan was speechless. The shouting had called the attention of lots of people around, and he felt like all the stares were aimed at him.

"I.. I never said I was intending to throw away my life... If any, I would find a place to live outside the valley on my own"

A waitress approached the table with a severe look on her eyes. "Would you please lower your voice a little? There are other people in here, you know?" Ariadna then apologized and the waitress left

"I'm sorry, I overreacted. It just pissed me off seeing you there speaking like someone who had resigned on something important" She said a bit irritated, her tail flicking one leg of the chair "Just a few minutes ago you were telling me that it was the first time in two decades that you felt alive, and then you spit all that nonsense"

Ethan hesitated a bit before resuming the chat. "Anyway, to change the subject, I still don't know what species are you. I hadn't got the chance to ask you before"

Ariadna, who until then was playing with one claw over the table, found the question interesting.

"Why the curiosity, may I know?" She asked

"Well, just that, curiosity" Ethan couldn't understand why she thought there was always a deep meaning on all things...

"As far as I now, I'm supposedly a Yellow Mongoose" Ethan face gave away the fact that he never heard of such animal

"I know, during months I was told by my friends that I was some kind of devaluated fox. That was silly obviously, but I wasn't really interested on finding it out at first" She answered amused

"Were you here in the Battle of the Three Gates 8 years ago?" Ethan asked

"No, I was refugee in the south end of the valley. I was too young to even handle a sword properly. The curse claimed me days after the battle"

"So, now is your turn. It's obvious you are some kind of cat, but there are many out there" She said

"I'm a Cougar it seems. Supposedly some kind of wild and rather big variant of the domestic cat" Ariadna's eyes brighten with that "That's great! I can have you as a kitty in the future then!"

Ethan stared at her after the mocking comment.

"I'd rather be banished from the valley than to be petted by anyone" Ariadna held in a laugh

"You are not used to court a woman, don't you?" She said

'Ok, that was unexpected'

"I expected something in the line of 'For you, I would even wear a bell', but I guess not"

"You are a bit naïve sometimes, and I like it" If Ethan could blush in embarrassment, he would have done it right there. And he thought she was naive...

"You said the other day that you found me interesting. Why was it? What did you saw on me?" Ethan asked, changing the subject.

The question stopped Ariadna's laugh and left her a bit uncomfortable. The last time Ethan had seen her like that was in that same meeting days ago, when she asked him what did he thought of her after getting rid of his fooled eyes.

"I found you interesting for your fighting prowess and you personality" Ethan knew she was lying.

One of the good – and bad, depends of the situation - things of being an animal morph is that it's harder to hide some moods and thoughts, because the body tends to reflect it. The tail and the whiskers are the most treacherous of all.

"Are you sure? Then why until now you haven't mentioned a single thing about my fighting skills, or even about my future as a Scout?"

"And what part exactly of my personality you saw before our meeting on the gardens?"

Ariadna felt pressed, and decided to just tell it. Her voice was more serious than usual

"You want to know it? I got interested in an illusion" Ethan froze

"When you arrived two weeks ago, I saw a traveler willing to stay in the valley, unconcerned by the curse, and unbiased towards the 'demons of Metamor Keep', as we are called on many places"

"You gave me hope that maybe someday we will be able to step outside the valley without the risk of being burned alive or hunted down, when people become more open-minded, as you seemed then"

"When I got told of your situation I didn't know what to do, if talking to you before or after you had changed" Ethan was astonished while listening, and started to feel really bad for having pressed her to tell all that.

"Then I saw you here that day, sunk in depression, and decided to take the chance to see if you were at least near as unbiased as I thought" Ariadna's face softened a bit then

"When you told me that your opinion about me hadn't changed even knowing that I wasn't human, I felt relieved. Then after you changed, you even looked for me"

"I realized then that you weren't what I thought of you before arriving in the Keep, but after being here for days you never had a bad reaction or opinion towards anyone. That's why I decided to leave all that behind and befriend you anyway"

Ethan didn't know what to say. He had in a way dropped salt on an open wound.

"I... am sorry, it was not my intention to press you to tell something you didn't want to. I should have shut up when I noticed you were uncomfortable with the question"

Ariadna didn't looked to his eyes until now

"You don't have to apologize. It was all in my mind after all" She smiled, which relieved Ethan a lot.

The conversation went good from there on. Ethan was still sad for making her tell something she had decided to leave aside.

Perhaps she was afraid of his reaction when hearing that declaration. Had he not been the unbiased man she thought, it's more than likely that she wouldn't have tried to befriend him to begin with.

But even so, if Ethan had known about the curse, he was sure that he would have never been in the Keep in the first place.

He decided to drop the 'what if?' theories, since they were good for nothing. The important thing was that he was there now, and he wanted to enjoy and live his new life the best he could from now on.

"I better go to sleep now. They expect me in meeting room in the morning, or in the dungeons by the afternoon" He said, making Ariadna laugh softly.

"Good night then, and good luck" She approached Ethan and kissed him on one side of his muzzle. He stood surprised at such gesture, and replied by touching hers.

"You know? It’s the first time in the whole day I'd touched someone else. It was one of the first things I was looking for when I'd recovered my sense of touch. Ironically, is the one I forgot the most until now"

He didn't thought of the punched lutin as actually touching someone else, but even so, in a way it invalidated his statement...

"Then I just got not only the privilege of being the first person to kiss you since you changed, but also the first to show you what the mutual contact feels like"

Ethan wasn't sure of the intended meaning of that comment, but it was very insinuating...

He closed the door behind him, and left the coat over the table. The fire was still lit, which had made the room comfortably warm.

Lying on the bed, he recalled all the things that happened since his arrival to the Keep; from the moment he was tricked weeks ago in his hometown, to the conversation with the first person who became close to him.

Depending on the outcome of the meeting he must attend the next morning, his new life could end just as abruptly as it began - at least in the worst case -.

The mere thought of having something residing inside him was scary. What was Rupert's intention making him coming to the Keep? Even if it ends up having nothing weird within him, there was still that unanswered question.

With his mind full of such things, Ethan began to fall asleep. He was facing a future broader than just the next morning, and he was willing to do it with his head held high. It didn't matter what fate may have in store for him.

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