A week had already passed when Ethan couldn't stand it anymore.
During the last days he'd been under the tutelage of George, as long as his schedule allowed it. That morning Ethan showed an example of a 'one-vs-many' style of fight, using several dummies scattered around him. He moved swiftly in a succession of random moves, turning on itself dexterously while waving the spear and slashing the dummies, making clean cuts through them. According to Ethan, this was the least efficient way of handling the polearm, because only one arm is being used. If facing fast-moving opponents it can become risky. When his wound had healed, he would show George the proper ways of handling the weapon - 'one-vs-many' alternating between one and two arms, as was used against the lutins, and 'one-on-one', as he use against Oberon -. George was definitely impressed by the ability shown by Ethan, and told him that if luck was on his side - depending on the way 'the curse' takes on him - he could get rid of the drawback that was the lack of sense of touch and still being able to fight, as long as he has thumbs. But if he ends up becoming a child, not only his situation would remain the same, but also he surely wouldn't be able to use the spear again.
That bizarre statement, added to the endless comments from the Keepers who referred others with names like 'Dogboy', 'Cat', 'Stupid grass-breath' and the like, and the shocking situation where a child not older than thirteen commanded a bunch of adults, who didn't hesitated to comply, left Ethan out of his right mind. He luckily found Oberon having a drink alongside other people in the Deaf Mule soon past the afternoon. His companions introduced themselves as Misha, Finbar, Danielle and Caroline. George was there as well. Ethan introduced himself as well, and asked them if he could talk a few moments alone with Oberon. They both stepped outside the pub.
"Oberon, may I ask you something? Until now you are the sanest man I've meet in here". If somebody was showing madness, it was no other than Ethan. He was very nervous.
"What happens? you don't look good" Asked the golden-eyed man.
"Since the day I arrived I've crossed over into weird commentaries and situations". He started.
"I was told George was a 'Jackal', moments before meeting him. Then, he said that Coppernicus was a 'Lizard', and called you a 'Big Cat'. I've heard similar things everywhere from anyone I've stepped to. There were kids with less than half my age running a business like they were the owners, and others commanding a group of soldiers. Everyone talks about some kind of curse. Something is not right..."
Oberon knew 'what' was wrong.
"Ethan" He said calmly, although worried "Tell me, what I am?"
The question left Ethan dumbstruck for a few seconds.
"Well, up to now, the best warrior I've had the chance to face in a battle, and the only person with such golden-colored eyes I've come across"
That last part was the trigger.
"Try to touch my face. It doesn't matter if you don't feel anything, I just want you to tell me if what you see matches what your fingers can touch". Even though he was confused by such request, he nodded and brought his hand closer to the man's face. Right in front of him, his hand was stopped by what could only be air. No matter how much strength he did, his hand never reached Oberon's face by a few inches. Ethan couldn't understand what in hell was happening, and tried again. Unable to believe in his eyes, he found the same resistance once again.
"You are touching my face, what are you seeing?"
"I... I hadn't touch it. Mi hand didn't reach your face. Something stopped it in mid-air". He wasn't nervous anymore. He was terrified now.
"Ethan, I can't explain how, but it seems your eyes are deceiving you". Oberon tried to talk calmly. He didn't want to make the young warrior lose control. Oberon then noticed something strange on the right palm of Ethan. He asks him to show it, to find an odd mark burnt on it. He could swear it was some kind of rune.
"Who made you this?" For Ethan's surprise - and to make his hysteria grow even more -, his hand looked just right to him.
"I can't see anything". His way of talk was clumsy, unable to hide his fear and discomfort. All this was too much. An apparently mark on his palm he was unable to see, let alone feel, and an invisible obstacle between his own hand and the face of the man standing in front of him.
Oberon went inside the Mule, but Ethan didn't follow him. From the door stepped out both Oberon and George.
"Follow me" was all George said before starting to walk steady towards somewhere Ethan wasn't aware of. George expression was serious.
They stopped in front of a door, evidently someone's room. George knocked the door a few times, announcing that it was him. The door opens and a brown-haired young man appeared in front of them.
"What happens?" he asked, intrigued by the faces of the men, and a bit concerned by Ethan's presence there. Ethan's face stood out from the rest too...
Oberon told Murikeer the whole situation, and showed him the burnt mark on the palm. He was able to see it as well.
After checking the mark for a few moments, he said "It's an illusory spell. It alters the perception of one or more senses from the carrier". "By being burnt in your skin, it has permanent effects, and most likely done by someone else".
"I can undo it, but it depends if you want it or not", He concluded, with an uncomfortable look.
Ethan's answer was obvious. Who would want to be under the effect of such spell?
"Took it out, I want to know what the hell is going on here" he said, stretching his arm leaving the skin behind the wrist revealed. Murikeer stared at his arm, and after a surprised expression said "It's too late for you anyway".
"This will hurt". Said that, He rested his hand on Ethan's, and an uncomfortable sound and a smell of burnt skin covered the corridor.
George and Oberon made an expression of displease. "Well, there you have the advantages you spoke about your situation" said George ironically.
Indeed, Ethan couldn't feel anything, but he was very aware of the fact that whatever the mage was doing on his hand, it seemed like he was making a fried steak out of it.
When he was done, the mage said calmly "The effect will wear off in a moment. Before that I'll ask you to not freak out with what you are about to witness". He hadn't ended his speech when Ethan's vision was already being distorted. The three people around him were being twisted in a bizarre way. However, the whole environment was intact.
What happened after that was too fast for anyone to stop him. Ethan's face acquired a terrified expression the moment he faced three animal-like people where just a moment ago were normal human beings. In front of him he saw a skunk, and on his side a huge white tiger and some kind of canine. He didn't lose a second and swiftly made his way out of that place, ignoring the stop shouts made by the jackal-morph.
It didn't matter where he tried to go, he was just running aimlessly. His desire to get outside of that place was very strong, but it seemed that the Keep had other plans for him. He was finally able to get outside, only to find two of the morphs standing there as well, apparently looking for him. Oberon noticed he'd just got out from the building.
"Ethan, you were deceived ", he said without moving from his spot. Making the young warrior listen to reasons wasn't going to be an easy task.
"If only you would've asked about all those things before, everything would be different". He said in a lugubrious tone.
"You are already affected, and it became clear it wasn't your intention".
Ethan's head was about to explode. In barely 10 minutes the world turned upside down.
"Affected?" He was pale, and both Oberon and George knew this could end up real bad.
A few incomprensible words could be heard behind Ethan, at the same that time he saw the world around him becoming blurrier and darker by every passing second. The last thing he saw was the white tiger approaching him.
Ethan stood unconscious in Oberon's arms. Thanks to his fast reaction, he was able to avoid hitting the ground. Ethan's face had lost the scared and stressful expression, and even seemed like he was in a peaceful dream.
"Was it you, Muri?" asked George to the skunk-morph, standing on the entrance.
"I've putted him to sleep, he didn't offer any resistance" He said. "In fact, I even altered his mood, disposing of the fear and anxiety. Any other way he would have had bad dreams or even a restless sleep".
"His mind was so frail just now..." he said in a low voice
Moments later, they left the unconscious warrior in the care of the raccoon-morph Coe, who was astonished by the recent events.
Coe checked Ethan's wound which was healing properly thanks to his care, and then discovered the severe and recent burn on his right palm. There were also small traces of a yellowish fur growing on both arms. Oberon told him that Ethan was already affected by the curse, and he was right.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. He could remember all the things he witnessed that stressful evening, however now he wasn't scared or stressed out. He was strangely calm and relaxed. He was able to think clearly, and was only interested in founding out everything about the illusory spell, and the animal people. At his side he could catch a figure unknown for him, although he recognized the room as Coe's infirmary. The raccoon-morph noticed his patient was awake, and approached his bed with a smile formed on his muzzle.
"Quite a shock, uh?" he commented.
'You bet it...'
"You surely are wondering what this is all about. I will tell you briefly, and try to not interrupt me while I speak". Coe started relating the accurate version of the Battle of the Three Gates, how it changed the lives of every Keeper from that time, and many which came later. Ethan included, it seems. When pointed to his right arm, he was able to see a short layer of yellowish fur. Ethan was calm and simply stood there listening what the healer had to say.
"You mean all this time I was under the influence of this illusory spell?" Coe nodded.
"This wasn't what I expected when I came to try luck in Metamor Keep". He was laughing softy, but it was one full of anguish.
"How can be possible that you were completely unaware of the curse?" asked Coe. "It's known on many lands. The Flatlands are no exception" "By the way, there is something you should know" he said, ready to give an apparent good news. "Since you were affected by the animal curse, it's most certain that you will recover your sense of touch". That comment alone vanished the calm Ethan was featuring until then.
"Are you sure?" asked astounded.
"I am, and I hope you are fine with that, because you don't have much of a choice in the matter nonetheless". He concluded
Ethan was about to face two big changes on his life. Added to the fact that he recently left his hometown to try luck in foreign lands, he was about to experience a complete change of his anatomical shape, whose outcome wasn't clear yet. Also, he would recover his sense of touch.
By the heavens! How easy it was! Instead of asking for divine intervention, and ending up in a potential life debt, it was just a matter of a becoming a bit fuzzier.
Ethan wasn't sure which of such changes made him more uncomfortable. During the last few days he watched the animal-morphs he crossed paths around the Keep. Among them were some he'd already met before with his fooled eyes. Many were interesting, while others not so much. He saw in some of the training grounds how some had many advantages thanks to their new bodies, be it for strength, swiftness, or improved senses. Others, in contrast, found themselves with many limitations due to the species the curse had made of them. That explains why Oberon showed such an outstanding flexibility among other things in their short fight.
The sense of touch was surely to change his perception of the world. The first thing that crossed his mind was the fact he would feel pain from now on, something he never really experienced. He would suffer the cold and heat of the seasons, but it was nothing to be worried about really. In fact, he would like to get back just that... along with the ability to feel the touch of other people... That was something he was looking forward. Just the thought was satisfying. To one, being unable to feel the hug of a mother or the kiss of your loved one has to be some of the worst things to live through. And better not talk about sex...
The yellowish fur had spread over both his arms, reaching even his hands. His legs where in a state similar to the one he saw on his arms in the infirmary the moment he woke up after the shocking events. The rest of his body was pretty much intact it seemed.
Closing the door behind him, Ethan sits on a table and calls the waitress.
"What would you like to order?" Asked the waitress of the Mule
"Just a beer, thanks". The waitress made his way to the kitchen.
Ethan then laid his head and arms on the table. His arms extended and hitting the table with the nails.
"May I sit beside you?" asked a known voice.
Ethan knew it was Ariadna, and when he turned his head to see the female warrior he saw what at first glance looked like some kind of fox, but with a shorter muzzle and ears. Also, the tip of her tail was grey, and on her reddish eyes the pupils were oval and horizontally oriented.
"Good evening Araidna" he greeted his stalker, somewhat depressed, and pointed a chair for her. She wasn't sure if he had accepted his situation, or was in a deep depressive episode.
"I've been told of what you passed through all this time" she was nervous while speaking, and Ethan didn't remember her being like that before.
"Yeah, I just won the award for the fooled of the decade" He said laughing softly. Despite the fact that he was depressed, the laugh sounded sincere to her.
"Do I disappoint you?" she asked, much to Ethan surprise.
"Why do you ask that?"
"I mean, I know you saw me as a human all this time. That's why I wanted to know what you think about me now" answered the girl. For the nervousness showed with those words, and the twitching on her whiskers, it seemed like a fragile subject.
Ethan incorporated himself in the chair, right on time when the waitress left the beer on the table. He asked her another for his companion.
"There's nothing wrong with you, my opinion didn't change in the least bit", he said, swallowing half the glass in one gulp. "Besides, in a matter of days I will not be much different than you are now".
He looked for the waitress, and then swallowed the rest of his beer. When he turned to watch Ariadna again, she was checking the fur on his arm. That made him uncomfortable.
"It's short and not too fuzzy. With that, and the beige color, I could swear it's from some kind of feline" And that was relieving. A cat was certainly a good option among many others. At least if he intended to use the polearm.
The waitress returned and left the beer on the table. Ethan gave it to Ariadna and paid for the drinks.
"Can you clear something up for me? were you here before me, or were you looking for me around the Keep?" Ariadna apparently hadn't caught the reason behind such question.
"I was here, chatting with my Squad. You know them, Eric and Lina" She pointed another table in the Deaf Mule, where Ethan could see the good-looking woman just like he remembered, sit and stiff-bored, and an ermine-morph spread over the table completely drunk. Eric and Lina, his Welcoming Committee.
"By the way, did you bring money with you from your home? You haven't got a job yet, but here you are paying for my drink". She asked after giving her beer a sip.
"Yeah, I brought enough for like four months of a jobless life without luxuries". He said. "Taking into consideration the room taxes and the food, there should be no problem. Anyway, I'm becoming a scout soon. George wanted me to wait for the change to conclude".
"You are forgetting the tailoring cost of your clothes". She said smiling, with her ears folded backwards.
"Why would I need a tailor? my cloth fits just..." Then he realized. "Oh, you mean when..."
"At least you will have to refit those pants, that's for sure" Ethan shivered at that.
"Ok then, let's say like three months!"
"And take in mind that you will not be able to live just eating bread, fruit and the like. If you become a cat, you will have to add some meat to your diet" Ariadna seemed to enjoy the poor's guy misery, her tail wagging slightly giving away her amusement.
Ethan was staring at her, astonished. What did she want? to cheer him up or to sunk him deeper on his depression?.
"Why are you doing this? I thought...", but was interrupted abruptly by her.
"That's what you get for insinuate that I was stalking you" she gestured a malicious smile right before barking a friendly laugh.
"You interested me, that's why I went to the gardens looking for you" She said. "This time I really was here, and saw you all melancholic and alone. Since Eric was sick-drunk and Lina wasn't very talkative, I took the chance to help you cheer up. The plan changed during the chat though"
Quite eccentric, she was...
Next afternoon, Ethan received a visit which informed him that the Duke of Metamor himself wanted to see him, and that he would be escorted. He was resting on his bed, more tired than usual. Why would the Duke want to see him? If it was for his peculiar situation, it wasn't that important to him. Someone screwed him, and it was a personal matter. He just needed to find who the ill-intentioned person was, and then sharpen the blade of his spear...
On their way to the Duke's throne room, Ethan started to make a mental list of names that could be part of the people-who-wants-me-out-or-their-way category. The first person to reach his mind - even though it didn't fit on that category as far as he knew - was the man who started it all. The well dressed man who paid him a visit back in Dilandau, offering him the possibility to made use of his skills on the famous Metamor Keep. It made sense, given that thanks to him he left Dilandau. The man even assured him the Keep was openly recruiting people all around, when every person he met stared dumbfounded at his voluntarism. He now knew very well why...
The only thing left was to know why he did that. Was he hired by his uncle in order to dispose of a potential heir? Since he was childless, even by annulling his nephew's rights to the position, if he didn't gave the name of someone to inherit him by the time he dies, both Ethan and Jeremiah would recover their birthright. Then why not Jeremiah instead of him? - His older brother and direct heir -, or both of them? The messenger called his attention when they reached the throne room. The door opened to give way to a wide and very well furnished room. Inside he found George and Murikeer standing on a side. In the throne he could see a horse-morph, the Duke as it seemed. There were about ten guards as well. George and Murikeer were most likely to act on his defense - if all this was some kind of trial -. Since they were there when all became clear... The Duke was staring at him with inquisitive eyes.
"I'm Thomas Hassan V, Duke of Metamor. What is your name, boy?" he asked, soon after the door was closed behind Ethan.
"Ethaniel Dilandau, my lord" he answered.
"What is the reason for which you came here to the Keep?" he proceeded
"As I said many times before, my intention was to join your forces and to be of help in the event of facing a new menace from the northern lands".
Thomas looked at the young interested. His words were measured, but his tone of voice denoted some anguish when giving that testimony.
"I've been told you came here completely oblivious of the curse afflicting these lands, is that right?" Ethan nodded.
"Also, you have been during an entire week under the effect of some kind of illusory spell, which didn't let you notice any of the animal-morphs in the Keep, right?"
"No, my lord, they just appeared as humans to my eyes" he corrected him
"Actually, he could see us all as we were before being changed by the curse" added George. "He saw Oberon's golden eyes, just like they used to be".
Thomas stood meditative for a few moments.
"Who or what was the cause of such spell, Ethaniel?" The Duke asked.
"I don't know, my lord. I think I have the answer, but I'm not completely sure, nor the reason behind his intentions."
"Well?" The Duke said, waiting for a name
"He went by the name Rupert" He started. "He came to my house, in the city of Dilandau on the Flatlands. He told me that Metamor was searching for skilled people to help them protect the only known way to cross from the Midlands to the Giantdown, if there is ever a new attack by Nasoj".
"He never told me that name. I've heard it here in the Keep. He never said anything about a curse and, in fact, nobody in my city knew about it, neither".
"I accepted his proposition. Being my dream to be part of the actions that could decide the future of my land, and having years of training in the use of polearms pretty much unused, Metamor Keep was the ideal place to start a new life".
"We traveled together half the distance. He stayed in Kelewair, stating personal matters". Thomas shook his tail in a sign of interest by the information. He now had a place to start the search if ever comes the necessity.
"I traveled the rest of the way alone. That's all I can tell of this man, my lord".
Thomas was about to said something, when Murikeer interrupted.
"Do you remember of any occasion in which he had been in contact with your right hand during several seconds? Take as a reference the moment when I removed the spell from you".
Ethan began to think, and instantly he recalled the odd handshake before they separated ways.
"Yes, in Kelewair. When we were about to separate ways, we shook hands. It called my attention because he wasn't letting out my hand for several seconds. However, I don't remember seeing anything out of the ordinary in my hand after that" He answered.
"You supposedly couldn't see the mark on yourself. You were under the effect of the spell right from the moment you touched his hand" The Skunk-morph stated.
Ethan was noticing something odd. He couldn't recognize what, but it was bothering him. It wasn't the room or the people in it. It was something on him.
"I guess it's pretty clear now the fact that it was this Rupert. After all, he made you come here in the first place" The Duke said. "Unfortunately, the problem doesn't end there. What was his intention by making you coming here to the Keep?" He continued
"I couldn't let slip the detail that your family name is the same of that of your city. I suppose you are a potential heir of the sovereign of the land, don't you?"
"Technically yes" Said Ethan. It was noticeable that he was tired, and that something was bothering. "The Count of Dilandau in my uncle, who has no children, nor he ever will. He hated my father, and under no reason he wanted one of his sons on his position".
"Luckily for my older brother and I, he decided to just revoke our right to heritage. He could have killed us, and I have no doubt he would if that ever becomes the better solution" He said, with a hateful gesture.
"It happens now that, in case he dies without choosing an heir, both my brother and I would regain our deprived birthright"
"Nonetheless, my brother Jeremiah is older than me. If anyone were about to inherit my uncle, it would be him" He concluded. That left him wondering on his brother's safety given his actual predicament...
"That contradicts with this Rupert's actions. Getting rid of you would be meaningless to your uncle as long as your brother lives" The Duke said. Before continuing he let out a sigh.
"This leaves us with the unfortunate deduction that the reason why you are here, is because someone wanted you to be in here".
Ethan was confused before such statement. It was then when he noticed he was having trouble breathing. Not as he usually noticed it, but on a much clearer way that left him perplexed.
"The Keep has its enemies as you know" he continued. "And you were under the effect of a permanent spell. This Rupert's intention very well could have been for you to bring something here while being unaware of it"
"That would be the best thing for you, although not necessarily for the Keep..." Ethan didn't like the sound of that
"If whatever they tried to put in here - in the case it's something - is actually within you, then you should know that you are being a menace for us all"
George interrupted and said.
"With all due respect, if you are intending to cast him out of the Keep you will be condemning him to a most certain dead or to a life of misery" he said.
"He is already affected by the curse. There is no other place for him".
George's words were interrupted by a noise made by Ethan. Thomas didn't take that very well, and send his guards to surround him. He wasn't willing to take the risk that whatever this Rupert intended, could manifest itself right there.
"Ethan, are you alright" asked George. He didn't agree with the Duke's reaction.
"N-No..." he could mumble before falling to the ground making an even louder scream than before. The guards unsheathed their swords, some even willing to use them right away, when Murikeer stopped them.
"He is changing, don't hurt him!" He was right, Ethan's arms were changing its shape noticeably fast.
"I will take him to the infirmary" said George, asking a guard for help and left.
Every person in the room was astonished. The occasions where the change was so drastic and sudden were rare.
Murikeer had a gesture of preoccupation.
"Don't worry. He will suffer, yes. But after that he'll be fine" The Duke said, standing up of his throne.
Murikeer looked at him and said "He will not be fine. He completely lacked his sense of touch, and this transformation is giving it back to him in a way he doesn't deserve".
Ethan was aware of the fact that he was being carried on through a street. It was still day and both his mind and body were immersed in sensations he had never experienced before, or so he thought.
He was remembering what was being able to feel, and in the worst way possible.
He was in a deep pain.
Resembling in a way that long past day where the light found it place again on his eyes, Ethan awaken with the sensation of being born once again. Judging by the strength of the sun light, and the street noises, it was in the morning. The last thing he could remember was being carried through a street. But clearer than that vague picture, was the memory of the pain.
He felt a pain bigger than he could ever conceive. Having witnessed other people's pain, and having past 20 years since the last time his body was sensible to anything, the recent experience had left a scar forever present from then onwards on Ethan's soul: Fear.
He wasn't aware of that yet. All he could think of were the things he was feeling in that moment. They were just the first to be known by him. The softness of the sheet and the mattress and the heat they provided were so pleasant that he wished he could just lay there forever. After some moments of peaceful and simple pleasure, footsteps could be heard getting closer. The door opened to let the raccoon-morph Coe pass through it. He had brought a bag with food, and didn't notice the fact that Ethan was awake. Since he was standing still on the bed, at first glance he looked slept. Ethan noticed the fact that the smell of the room changed slightly with Coe's arrival, and even then, the amount of scents he could perceive were several times larger than on his last visit to the infirmary. The same could be told with his hearing, since he actually heard him walking towards the room.
"Mr. Coe, can you tell me what happened?" His words sounded awkward.
Coe's ears perked when Ethan spoke, with a surprised look on his face.
"I didn't realize you were awake" he said. "And call me just Brian, leave the formalities aside"
Ethan took his left arm off the sheet when he saw a glass of water over a table next to his bed. It was then when he saw it. A beige furred paw-like hand was aiming to the table, doing the exact moves Ethan expected from his former hand. It had five fingers with a black pad on the tip of each of them. Sharp claws were retracted inside them. In the middle of the hand paw there was big black pad as well. The thumb was showing slight signs of dewclaw resemblance due its position in the hand. But it was up to its task luckily. Pulling his sight down to his arm he noticed the wound wasn't there anymore.
"That's basically what happened to you, Ethan" Coe started, referring to Ethan's arm. "Your change process took a big speed boost while you were attending the throne room. According to everyone there, you almost fainted when the pain got you". Ethan shivered at the memory.
"It's really a misfortune that you regained your sense of touch so early in the process. Otherwise you would have had a more tolerable change" "Actually, such painful transformations are rare. And among lots of people, you had to experience it..."
Ethan brought his paw back to his face, in order to see what went of it. In a normal situation - like with practically any other animalized Keeper around - the feeling of the changed features of the face and body could be quite shocking. But Ethan was facing it as the first feeling of his body. The moist nose, the medium-sized muzzle and the whiskers that sprout from it, the pointy ears... There was no point of comparison, it was the first body he could feel - as odd as it sounds -.
"How do you feel? It can take some time to get used of the change. It happened to all of us"
How did he felt? Well, first and foremost, it was the first time he was going to be able to answer that kind of question, were it not mood wise. He wasn't feeling pain, and only the arm he had resting over the sheet was sensing the colder temperature of the room.
"I feel... good" he said with an abstracted look. "I actually can feel how I am"
Ethan couldn't avoid a few tears slip from his eyes, and placed his arm above his face. He never thought the possibility of regaining his sense of touch as something worth the troubles it could bring. Yet there he was, crying in happiness at the experience of having a working body.
"I can feel..."