First Steps

by Lurking Wolf

“All right, take a moment. I have one last thing for you this evening, and then we’ll be finished.” Lois had just finished putting Paula through her paces, and, although he would not admit it to her, he felt almost as tired as she looked. He wasn’t sure if it was just the residual exhaustion from his extended patrol, or if age was finally beginning to catch him, but he didn’t want to admit any weakness to his student.

He breathed as evenly as he could as he recovered, considering how the training had gone so far. Her ability to sense things before they happened had already shown a good deal in her reactions, but she was clearly much more used to heavy-weapons fighting. What hand to hand she knew basically consisted of strength-based attacks, and she reacted to him as though he would bring the same style against her. He quickly defeated her in any sparring session, and she only rarely made contact. Even those times, he was able to shrug off the damage without too much trouble.

Her basics were good, though. Her fighting stance was solid, and she had managed to break several of his joint locks without instruction. She also managed to avoid making the same mistake twice most of the time, but Lois would only be convinced of her ability to adapt if she remembered her mistakes tomorrow night. He would start moving her towards a more flexible style of hand-to-hand combat then, but there was one more thing he wanted to do first.

He turned to see her standing behind him, eyes examining the cracks of the wall, left hand flexing slowly. He had performed a nerve pinch in the area a few sparring sessions before, and her reaction had done more harm than good. Lois had managed to let go before too much damage was done, but she would still be feeling that for a few days. If he didn’t want her to work on flexibility, he would have considered investing in a wrist brace.

“Last thing for tonight,” he announced. He pulled out one of his daggers in his right paw and spun it so the hilt was facing her. “Come, take the weapon.”

She looked at him questioningly for a moment, and then reached out to grasp the handle of weapon. She pulled it off and help it in front of her.

“It’s so light!” she commented.

“That’s partially your experience with heavy weapons talking, but you are correct. These daggers were made to be light, quiet, and compact.” He pulled out the matching pair and assumed a fighting grip. “I used a variety of weapons before I purchased these, but I never found something that really worked. Other daggers were either too heavy or horribly unsuited to combatting heavier weapons. Few were well made, and several times I had a blade give out at a bad time. I purchased these from a smith who owed me a favor. They still cost me more than anything else I’ve ever purchased, but I have never regretted them. There is no enchantment on them, and yet it would puzzle a master mage if they were tasked with destroying them.”

“Couldn’t they just use fire?”

“Perhaps, but it would frustrate them for several minutes before giving way. The man would never tell me what he did to it to give it the strength it has, but he did tell me that there was no magic in it. I was… rather specific on that point. During that time of my life, I was rather hostile towards the idea of letting magic save my life, but I’ve grown out of that.” He shook his head, realizing that he was waxing eloquent about nothing particularly interesting. “Be that as it may, what I really want to know is how you will react to using one of them. So, come at me.” He took up a defensive posture, relaxed and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

She looked at the weapon and then at him. “I have no experience using a dagger as a primary weapon! The only time I was ever advised to use a dagger was when I lost my main sword.”

“Well, I don’t see you sword around anywhere, so as far as I’m concerned, you have lost it. As for your lack of training, that is what I seek to remedy, but I need to know where we stand first.”

She still looked uncertain, but still set up to attack. She waited a few moments, but Lois didn’t even move as she feinted towards him. He finally took a few steps so that his back was not to the edge of the balcony, but he didn’t change his posture aside from moving his feet.

Normally, Paula would assume she had several openings, but she knew it could be as easy as that. He left several holes, but he was the one in charge of training. There was simply no way that he would actually let her win that easily.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she finally decided to exploit one of them. Lois hardly flinched, but what little movement he gave was enough to get him out of her strike zone. He gave a step, but didn’t change his posture. “Again.”

She tried another perceived hole, and he stepped back again, turning slightly and taking a step to the side. She didn’t stop, slicing again, and once more, just trying to catch him off guard. He turned and took a few steps back again. Paula watched him closer, beginning to try several new grips to see if he responded. She finally got a reaction, but it was little more than a change in his blade’s position. Still, it was different, and she stepped forward and tried again, this time faking one way and then going another. She finally had the satisfaction of feeling his blade against hers, but he simply turned her blade and forced it back a little before sidestepping around her a few steps. She reset her posture and waited a few more seconds.

“Is this even getting me anywhere?” she asked.

“That’s something you need to know without consulting me. In battle, no one is going to tell you if you’re doing well.”

As he spoke, she lunged for another opening, but he simply finished his sentence while knocking her blade to the side with his and pushing her hard enough to make her stumble back a few paces. She cleared her throat reflexively, but made no other motion for a few moments.

And then Lois finally moved.

He took a step forward, angling his blade one way and then turning it again, but never striking. She stepped back and matched his positioning, and then gave another step as he stepped up again. She hardly had time to realize what had happened before she slipped, her leg caught something, and she pitched over backwards, crying out in shock.

She looked around wildly, trying to figure out where she was, until finally looking back up and seeing Lois grabbing her arm. She looked back, and realized that he had pushed her back over the railing. She felt absolutely stupid, but said nothing as he pulled her back up.

“You did rather well, actually,” he commented. “I was looking for openings in your defense for most of the fight, and saw none that I was willing to risk. If I had struck out a few times I likely would have found something, but since that was not part of this test, I will simply say that you handled it well.”

She sighed shakily, still getting over the shock of nearly falling over the railing. The praise was appreciated, however, and she nodded slowly. Still, she had her doubt. “I’m nowhere near where I should be, though. I should have been able to make you work at the very least.”

“If you didn’t have some progress to make, we wouldn’t be here, would we?” he asked with a hint of sarcasm. It got her to smile at least.

“I don’t know, I just want to learn fast! So many times I am completely outmaneuvered by my sparring partners before I can even make a decent attempt at defending. I want that to change.”

“Well, you do know a little now that you didn’t before. I have a suggestion; now that you know that you can feel some things before they happen, move your weapon as little as possible. The weight of holding the weapon is enough as it is, and moving your body will be far easier. Don’t let your opponents tax you by testing you. Use your abilities to figure out when they are coming at you in force.”

To punctuate this statement, he dove forward and raised his dagger high and to the side, coming across her body but stopping just short of her shoulder. She first moved to block the attack, but then applied his advice, stepping back so the attack would miss her just wide. She maneuvered her own dagger into the hole he had left, and held it just short of his throat.

“Perfect. If you can do this with your heavy weapon, you should have much better success. Applying it here is not a bad idea either, but since we’re finishing for the night, I’ll leave the application for another time.” He held out his left hand, and she handed him his dagger again, and he slid both into their sheathes. “We will continue tomorrow; since I’m sure you could use as much time as possible to rest between your training sessions, I would suggest you meet me here slightly after sunset. That should give you a few more minutes.”

She nodded and began to collect her things. Once she was ready, she turned and smiled. “Thank you for this,” she said quietly. “I don’t know how long I can keep this secret from my father, but I hope we have the opportunity to learn some other things. Maybe… run the roofs sometime.”

Lois grinned, showing off his impressively sharp teeth. “I’m certain we could work that into our schedule. It will be an interesting diversion between our sessions.”

Paula nodded. She turned as though to say something else, but stopped herself and walked away through the door. Lois remained behind, fingers playing with the hilt of one of his daggers. She was enthusiastic, a fast study, and very flexible. She would certainly make an interesting first student.

December 27, 707CR

The next morning dawned bright and clear, and Lois had to drag himself out of bed in order to greet it. He had determined the night before that he would not allow himself to remain in bed after the previous night’s training, but it was simply far easier to sleep late and wake early on patrol when your only bed was the forest floor. When there was an actual bed in the equation, he had to fight the urge to remain in it.

Still, he managed to get himself up and ready before too very long. His fur was a mess; he realized now that he had not given thought to getting anything that would help him with that new feature. The last time he had gone to the baths in the keep, he had fallen asleep at his desk and his fur had remained pretty much in order. It seemed to react differently to sleeping on a bed.

There was nothing for it now. He could spend an hour trying to pull the knots from his fur with his fingers, but that would still leave him looking like a wreck and it would probably put him in a bad mood. It wasn’t as though every keeper had immaculately arranged fur, after all.

By the time the sun began to burn the early morning fog from the valley, Lois was standing high atop one of the buildings just beyond the upper keep, watching the orb increase in definition as the fog began to fade. Often, he would use this sort of time to simply think, but he had learned his lesson about thinking too hard the day before he was Cursed. He was content to leave his past where it belonged for now.

By the time the sun was readily visible over the walls from street level, Lois had made use of his improvised highway to reach one of the lower Keep’s training grounds. He was disappointed that he was not quite able to reach it completely while treating the shingles like his own personal pathway. Still, dropping a stone’s throw from the fields was acceptable.

He settled in to warm up, and was through several of his early forms when he noticed a familiar lynx practicing to the side. He looked worse than Lois did himself, and by the looks of it had been at his drills for several hours already. He had somehow managed to sweat through his leather armor in a few places, even though the weather was mild and Lois had not been aware that furred Keepers could still sweat. Whatever the case, the training dummy he was working on was lucky to still be able to stand with as many hacks as it had taken.

Lois walked over to him, calling ahead to get his attention. He was glad he did a moment later, as Alex whirled around with his sword at the ready. When he saw Lois, he relaxed a bit, but he still held his sword in a fighting position instead of angling it down.

“Hello, Lois.”

“Hello, Alex. I see you’ve been working hard?” Something was going on, but Lois felt pretty well assured that asking about it was not the best idea at this point.

The lynx nodded, looking at the dummy for a few moments before turning back to look at Lois. “I don’t suppose you were looking for a sparring partner?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t mind a match, no. We might be able to see how I perform against you after the Curse.” Alex nodded absently, but his eyes were distant for a moment. “Very well, let’s do it then.” He stepped over to a sparring ring, and Lois met him in the center, separated just enough so that both of them would have to work to get into striking position. Alex raised his sword in a brief salute, and Lois mimicked the gesture as well as his significantly shorter weapons would allow.

The fight started much faster than usual. Alex didn’t waste time on formalities, and the abruptness of the attack had Lois on his heals for a few moments. He finally did meet him halfway, and pushed a little bit to give himself a bit of breathing room. Alex was on him in a moment, however, and Lois grunted as he alternately turned the blows and danced out of the way. He managed to maneuver Alex until the lynx was a few inches from the line, but his opponent’s aggressive style would not allow Lois to push him over. Before long, the lynx had pushed the fight out again, and the two paused to circle each other.

Lois took the opportunity to change grips. If Alex was going to be aggressive, he was going to invest a little bit more effort in defense, and his grip would reflect that. The next attack was not long in coming, and Lois made use of his revised strategy to easily work around the lynx’s blade. He went on the attack for a moment, but was forced to abandon that idea as Alex adjusted and turned him aside.

The lynx was laboring, but he was not becoming sloppy as most would in that situation. Instead, he was fighting with a fury that was entirely unlike him, and it made him hard to predict. Even when Lois could expect his next move, Alex would counter any counterattack that Lois used.

Lois finally had his opening a few attack later, and after a furious exchange of blows, managed to get his blade inside far enough to place it against the lynx’s throat. The two eyed each other while Lois tried to catch his breath enough to declare his victory, but Alex pushed him off before he could, spinning his sword back into a ready position.

“Come. Again.”

The two engaged in several more sparring sessions, never stopping for rests in between. In the exchange, Lois only lost once, but he still felt that Alex had shown more than he had ever seen from the lynx in the past. It took until Lois literally collapsed in the middle of the ring before Alex stopped demanding another match. He still stood at ready, though, his heavy breathing the only visible sign of fatigue.

“Something’s… on your mind…” Lois managed to gasp out.

Alex looked at his blade for a moment, finally sliding it home in its sheath before sitting beside Lois. “Aye. I suppose that mean that Lucy did not find you last night?”

Lois shrugged. He was unaware that she had been trying to find him.

“Right… Well, healer Coe apparently checked on Gerard’s leg two days ago. He had before seemed optimistic, but he revealed in that meeting that the best options were a costly, taxing blend of medicine and magic, or amputation.” The lynx’s gaze was hard and distant, and he shook his head. “By the time I heard about it, Gerard had already convinced himself that it was the will of his god to let Coe take his leg. I offered him financial help, but he turned me down flat.”

Lois nodded. He had known that the infection was extensive, but he had not anticipated that amputation would have to be discussed, especially in a place like Metamor. “I don’t suppose he might listen to me if I tried to talk him out of it?”

Alex shook his head bitterly. “Coe didn’t want to waste time. He came by yesterday evening to seek out Gerard’s decision, and once the fool made it clear what he wanted to do, the healer insisted on an immediate procedure to guard against any further spread.” Alex sighed. “Despite my best efforts, my closest brother in arms is now a one-legged man.”

Lois grimaced. He had often considered what he would do if an injury cost him an arm or a leg, but life had never given him a cause to do so seriously. He reached for his side, where he had suffered a wound himself during the previous patrol, but it had fortunately healed fully without a major infection. Coe had wanted to make certain regardless, but nothing had shown up. It was a shock to hear about Gerard, though. He had been present for the first time Coe had checked on it, and while the infection had elicited a nasty look or two from the raccoon, he had been convinced that they would find a way to save the leg. Now, it was already too late.

“What are his options for returning to the battlefield?”

“Coe says that he will have to wait a few weeks for the wound to heal before we can even think in that direction. From there, it’s a matter of what he can afford. I would be willing to help, of course, but there’s a limited number of things you can do for less than a fortune,” Alex responded.

“What would you be looking at for a fortune?” Lois asked.

“Essentially? A leg made of something a little more durable than wood, enchanted so that the ghost pains are applied to the artificial limb, and thus disappear when the limb is taken off, protection against wear, and for the fighter, sound muffling so it doesn’t give them away in a tight spot. I did some browsing last night on the subject. Hopefully, if Lucy and I pitch together, we can get him something better than a stick.”

“You can count me in on this project as well,” Lois replied. Before Alex could respond, he continued. “Regardless, I can’t help but think that there has to be some better option out there.”

Alex shrugged, choosing for the moment to ignore Lois’ commitment to help. “Royals who are missing a leg add a few gems here and there, or have it shaped in some facsimile of the missing limb, but it does nothing more than give them the appearance of still having their legs. In the end, it simply does not work as well as the real article.”

“Never mind working as well as the real leg, I doubt that that is possible. Still, an immobile rod is hardly an adequate stand-in for a real leg. Even if you still have the knee, you still have to reflect the flexibility of the ankle, the muscles of the lower leg, the motion of the foot – or I suppose hoof in this instance. A piece of wood is nearly unmoving. A fighter would have to work for years to adjust to that loss.”

“Don’t think I don’t realize that,” Alex sighed. “I just can’t find anything better anywhere. I thought for sure that some mage somewhere would have found a better alternative, but the problem is always sustaining a spell that flexible. The silence and pain-reducing spells are hard enough to sustain, magically creating a working leg, even based on an existing model, simply cannot be done in a self-sustaining fashion.”

“What about mechanical models?” Lois asked.

Alex shrugged. “I could not find any mention of anything beyond what I already mentioned. Mechanical legs have been attempted, but they’re always intended to be attached to a machine, and would be too heavy to realistically mimic a leg. At any rate, information on those concepts is rare.”

Lois sighed. “I still think that there has to be a better way. At any rate, I’m sure both of us could probably stand a meal. I’ll buy if you know a place.”

Alex nodded, but didn’t let a smile break his muzzle. “Aye, I know a place where we can eat. Good food, and fast, both things I am certainly in favor of at present. Just give me a moment to get my things together, and we’ll be off.”

Lois stayed on the ground while Alex gathered his equipment, thinking. He could certainly help Gerard to get whatever he needed to be able to get back into the field, but he didn’t feel satisfied with the thought of a simple peg leg, however enchanted it might be. There had to be a better way.

Lois jolted awake, nearly rolling completely from his bed before he righted himself. He lay back on his bed for a few moments, simply catching his breath for a few moments. This was not the first time that he had woken up this time. It was actually, in all likelihood, the tenth time he had done it the past two weeks, with the four missed days more because he had not had a single period where he had actually slept on those days. As an assassin, he had become quite skilled in resting his body and mind without completely losing track of what was going on. So far, that state of semi-consciousness was the only way he could manage any rest without being plagued by dreams.

Sighing, the ermine dragged himself from his bed. He stretched out to his full length; not very long ago he had been losing a good bit of his characteristic flexibility to age. He hated to admit it, but even his strict routine of exercise couldn’t fix all of his ills. Fortunately, the Curse had helped heal some of that; not only was he able to stretch fully again, but the extra length added to his body helped him extend further.

He bobbed back on the balls of his feet for a few moments, breathing softly to try to calm his still-frayed nerves. The dream had already gone, but the simple fact that there had been a dream at all made him uncomfortable. He had always had occasional, quite strong nightmares, but they had worsened since he had arrived at the Keep. Maybe the wanderlust was getting to him, but going out on patrol had hardly helped. Also, during his waking hours, he had not experienced any doubts about his decision. He wasn’t one to hide something from himself, not after all of his years as an assassin. That was the best way to drive himself to the brink of suicide. His confidence in that ability, however, just made the dreams even more worrisome.

Just as Lois was about to continue his morning routine, whether it was morning or not, he noticed his pack sitting by the writing desk Kyia had provided. He squinted at it, wondering if it had moved since the last time he touched it. He walked over to it and looked through it for a little bit. Finding everything as he expected, he took a wary glance around the room. He pulled out his pipe from within the depths of the bag, quickly lighting it and taking a few puffs to settle his nerves.

He threw a cloak over his shoulders and stepped out from the room, bare claws clicking across the stones of the Keep as he stepped into the hall. Glancing either way, he took a quick puff from his pipe and strolled down the stone hallways. The sound of his claws was his constant companion, and the occasional puffs of smoke tested his more sensitive nose’s endurance. Normally he would not have resorted to smoking away his stress, but some occasions called for more than his quiet introspection could provide.

He soon found himself standing in the familiar chamber he had been training in with Paula for the last few days. A slate grey sky greeted him from the ledge that dominated the far wall. As he had suspected, the sun was nowhere to be seen, and it likely wouldn’t find the horizon for a good hour or so.

Lois stood there for a few moments, running his claws across cracks that he had caused yesterday during one of the more strenuous drills. He hadn’t been hitting hard; the cracks were Paula’s fault as she had foreseen his strike by enough to drive his arm away before he could even get close to her. His hand had smarted for a while, but it had at least proven his thought that she was learning quickly.

It was amazing how real it looked.

“There never was a first nightmare, was there?” he asked, eyes still fixed on the sky.

There was a chuckle from behind him. “Very good, Lois. I was wondering there when you started walking about Metamor half-naked. The cloak is quite fine, but it’s not your usual style.” A dark figure stepped up to the rail and clasped the stone railing in both hands. “I’m impressed; I thought you were losing track of reality there for a while.”

Lois shook his head. “I can hardly be fooled when there are two of me running around, particularly one who is unCursed as of yet.”

The figure drew back his cloak, showing the familiar face that Lois had worn for the last few years before Metamor had changed it all. The hard, steel-blue eyes that had only ever looked at him from within the mirror now gave him the same self-assured, predatory look that he had given to so many assassination marks in the past. More than that, the ma beside him was the assassin he had sought to eliminate for so many years; the signature scar across his face was missing, not yet cut by the lutin blade during his tenure as a bounty hunter.

“Well, I doubt you mind it. Two of you, I mean,” the human said, continuing from the ermines last thought. “With two of us, we could set up some interesting assassination scenarios. Witnesses on both sides of the Keep seeing Vincent Lois, both Cursed and unCursed, killing two different important figures, with two ensuing chases both resulting in the Watch being utterly confused…”


“I haven’t even named the targets yet, and besides, you’ve already determined that this is a dream. What is the harm in some… More violent fantasies for the evening?”

“I swore that life off, and I don’t mean to go back,” the ermine insisted. He showed his impressively sharp teeth to his human self, but got little reaction back.

“Well, I haven’t sworn it off. What if I were to go and find some Duke or other to slaughter? What would you do, as the upstanding citizen that you have become?”

Lois sighed quietly, turning back to the city. “I’ve sworn my allegiance to Duke Thomas. I would have to defend him from you.”

“All right, quickly, and without asking you to elaborate on exactly how you would do that, I can point out two glaring flaws in that plan. First, I am you; killing me would have to cause some sort of conflict in the ebb and flow of the universe—“

“This is also a dream, and regardless, you are a part of me that I could stand losing.”

“Second, you’re not exactly equipped to take down an assassin.”

The ermine gave a thin smile. “By the way, that was another tell that gave away the dream. You have my equipment; there wasn’t any more equipment anywhere in the room when I woke up.” He took a puff on his pipe, nearly forgotten throughout the conversation. “Also, the sun should have risen already.”

His human self seemed to take offense. “That is very definitely a stormy sky. The sun is up; it’s simply behind the clouds.”

Lois shook his head and turned back for the hallway. “Sunlight, or it never happened,” he mumbled. “No day is this grey. At any rate, have fun playing games in this world. I have another world to get back to, where the sun is probably already quite high and waiting for me.”

His human doppelganger watched him go for a few moments. “How long can you go without resting, Lois?” The ermine stopped to let the human continue. “Think about it; with me here, I know you’re going to be trying to avoid sleep at any cost. No matter how well trained you are, you will fall asleep sometime, and when you do, I’ll be here, and you know that our interactions won’t be so friendly in the future. You had best come prepared.”

Lois shook his head and stepped down the curiously-black hallway before him. Within moments, the quiet echo of his claws stopped, and his eyes opened. He felt far calmer now, but his connection to reality was somewhat tenuous at present. He checked the room again just to be certain. It was a relief to find everything as it should be, but it still took Lois a little while to convince himself of reality. The dreams were getting worse, and he had no desire to find out where they were all leading.

Paula returned home late after her training session with Lois. They had just started training a few days ago, but he was already moving quickly, trying to explore what tactics she could best adapt to. Her clairvoyance made defense easier for her than it might have been, but she still could not form a very coherent offense. Since discovering that she could react to blows before they came, she had tried to do the same to predicting her opponent’s patterns, but it was no use. She simply could not foresee what her opponent would do in any given situation, and so her lack of training made it difficult to exploit Lois’ defense.

He had thus far decided that she would most profit from a fast approach, but he seemed to think that she needed something different than his own usual combat style. While he had only shown one style while fighting her to this point, he had made it clear that he knew several other styles, and he was attempting to tailor a basic style to his student as they went along.

New to this as she was, Paula could only wonder if perhaps he wasn’t overtaxing himself in his effort. They had, after all, just started. All she really needed was a reliable combat strategy for now; surely he could wait until he had laid a solid foundation to make a perfect style for her.

As she quietly stowed her things near the door, she hear a loud thump from elsewhere in the house. A growling voice from the other room was recognizable as her father’s, and by the somewhat strange rhythm of his footfalls, she assumed he had been drinking again. Sighing, she finished storing her things beside the door and stepped into the small room that served as common room, kitchen, and dining area all in one.

Her father stumbled out of his room, wearing only a pair of pants that looked as though he had balled them up and stored them in the corner for several days before he grabbed them in a rush to get out of his room moments ago. He looked at her in confusion for a moment, and Paula realized that he was again confused about who she was.

“Father, it’s me, Paula,” she said softly. His eyes lit up in recognition for a moment, but his face was still hard.

“You’re late tonight,” he said gruffly.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been practicing the last few nights, trying to regain the strength I lost so that I can best adjust.” The lie was close enough to the truth that Paula, despite being a bad liar, could make it quite convincing.

Her father grunted in what might have been approval. “Well, at least you have good cause to be out late,” he mumbled, staggering a step just to keep his balance. Paula could not guess how drunk he must have been at this point. His eyes seemed to fade back and forth from recognition to confusion even though they never left her form. Donnie would have never let him get this drunk; he had probably been stashing away bottles of alcohol for weeks for this one night of complete inebriation.

“Come on, father,” Paula said after a few moments. “We need to get you to bed before you topple over.”

He did not resist as she led him back to his room, simply slumping onto the bed with her help when they arrived. As she pulled back from helping him sit, however, she felt his hand clasping her arm. She looked at his face, and was startled to see that his yes were suddenly steely and focused completely on her.

“Stay, girl,” he said in a voice both cold and hollow. Paula suddenly wanted anything but to stay in this room, but her father’s claws pinched her skin as she tried to pull away. With no method of leaving that did not involve immense physical injury, she sat down slowly on the bed.

“Father? What’s wrong?” she asked quietly.

“Everything,” he spat with a sudden intensity. “Not long ago, I had both a beautiful wife, and a strong son. Now I have neither.” He stared at her with a burning gaze, his deep brown eyes seeming to smolder even as the shadows almost made them invisible.

“Father, Eli has a plan for everything. You still have me, I’m still your child.”

“Eli’s plan is flawed!” he spat furiously. Paula felt the spittle as he screamed rabidly in her face, but she was more shocked by the words. He had not been strong in his faith since her mother’s death, that much was obvious, but he had never put his feelings so boldly into words before.


“Quiet, girl! It is not your place to speak to me. Eli STOLE my wife! He took her at the height of her life, took her from me when most I needed her! He ripped out my heart, stabbed it, spat on it, lit it ablaze, and LAUGHED when I tried to discern His will! I’ve fought on ever since; at least he had left my son. But now, after giving me more years with me just so I would always think of you as my son, he took that away too! He took away my hope, my last anchor in this swirling miasma of agony! Not only that, but he gave you your mother’s face just so that every time I look at you I feel the agony fresh in my heart again. He took both of you, and then he gave me you back, only now as a mockery of your mother to deepen my pain!”

Paula was scared out of her mind. Her father’s vehemence never assuaged, his anger never wavered, and all trace of the alcohol’s influence seemed erased in that sudden explosion of rage. His claws were drawing blood from her arm, and she could feel tears falling from her eyes from the torturous pain they caused, slow but constant.

“Father, Eli did not make me look like mother to torture you. He gave me her face as a reminder of her, of the blessed time you had together, no matter how short.”

He slapped her, turning her head roughly to one side and just missing her cheek with his claws. By now, Paula was too terrified to ask him to stop. All she could thing to do was to shrink as far away from him as his grip on her arm allowed. She began to sob, trying to swallow the sounds before they escaped her throat, trying to say something, but nothing would come.

“Eli tortures me by your image, don’t try to tell me otherwise.” He sneered at her. “I will not be tortured anymore by it. You look like your mother? Fine, you will serve me in her stead. Starting now.”

His intentions had become all too clear to Paula by this point, and so she finally began to push against him, trying to stop him however she could, even as he viciously ripped at her clothing with his claws.

“Father, stop! You don’t know what you’re doing!”

He pulled her face close to his muzzle for a moment, and his face terrified her. It was not the expression; no, the thing that terrified her was that she could still see no sign of the drink’s influence in his face. He did know what he was doing, and that terrified her all the more.

“Listen to me, woman!” he spat in her face, pressing her down onto the bed. His breeches were discarded, and Paula could do nothing to stop what was coming. She sobbed uncontrollably, pressing futilely against his chest. “You are MINE!” he shouted, muzzle inches from her face. “Eli gave you to me as a mockery, but you are still mine, and I will do to you what I like! Eli will know to what lengths he has driven me! I will do what I like to you, and He will be POWERLESS to stop me. Expect no help; none is coming.”

Paula prayed until the very last instant that some rescue would come, that some miraculous savior would burst through the window and stop her father from this heinous deed. She prayed that Lois would enter to follow up on the training, or that DeMule would come to make sure she was all right. She prayed that some small miracle would occur to stop what was about to happen.

There was no miracle.

Paula sat in Coe’s office. She could hardly remember how she got there, or for that matter what exactly had happened in the missing time between when she had returned home and where she was right now. She knew the horrors of the night before, but she had fallen back on the one thing that could save her from the horror of that time. She tried to hide it, and that effort left her precious little time to remember anything else.

Coe was saying something, but she didn’t acknowledge him. Again he spoke, but her eyes stared forward in a stunned silence.


He gently lifted her head with a clawed hand, lifting a magic light before her and shining it into her eyes. He set it down, lifting a clawed finger in front of her eyes and moving it back and forth.

“Paula, are you hearing me?”

“Yes, master Coe, I’m sorry. I’m just distracted.” Her own voice sounded hollow, far away as though it came from somewhere else entirely.

“You’re worrying me, Paula. You’ve not said a word to me since you entered, and your eyes are barely tracking. You look like you’re in shock, or perhaps concussed.”

“I’m extremely tired, sir. I had a long night.”

He looked at her for a moment, and then returned to checking her wounds. He frowned as he looked over the bruises and scratches visible on her arms.

“You’re leaving something out, Paula. I’ve seen a lot of injuries in my time; these look like they were caused by a struggle. How did they happen?” The raccoon healer spoke softly, but his concern was evident.

“I fell,” Paula lied.

Coe turned back and grabbed a few things to start treating the injuries, but talked as he turned away. “These injuries make no sense for a fall, unless you somehow fell with your arms in the wrong direction.” He dabbed at one of the scratches with an ointment that stung for a moment before fading to a cool, soothing sensation. Paula flinched and nearly cried out at the touch, but managed to control herself. “Please, Paula, I need you to tell me what happened so that I can help you. Was there foul play?”

“No! I was just sparring.” She looked into his eyes and immediately realized that he sudden burst of passion had given her away. The healer’s gaze remained constant, but it still made her feel horrible to lie to the man. Tears began to run down her face, and she turned away roughly, nearly hurting herself on his claws.

“Paula…” The healer’s voice was soft, reassuring. She wanted to be able to tell him what had happened, but she couldn’t. Her father had hurt her, but he was still her father, and she didn’t want to think of what they might do to him if what he had done came to light. “Paula, did someone hurt you? If someone attacked you, we need to go tell the Watch. I know it’s hard to talk about things like this, but we need to bring the culprit to justice.”

“They raped me.” Paula couldn’t believe she had said it, but she knew what she had to say. “I was out late last night, later than I should have been, and some thugs met me on the street. There was no one there, and they took me down a dark alley. I… I tried to fight, but…”

Her words were lies, but they still brought back the sting of the truth, and she could go no further. She burst into uncontrollable tears, and left the healer sitting motionless beside her. He hardly moved for several minutes, the ointment-soaked rag in his hand held a few inches away from a wound, unmoving. His dark eyes conveyed a depth of sorrow that his stoic face would not. After a few moments of silence, he withdrew. The scratches and bruises could heal safely by themselves, and he knew that touching her now was the worst thing he could possibly do. Instead, he opened a cupboard, drawing out a small vial of liquid and setting it on a counter beside the examination table. Paula continued sobbing on the table, and Co let her finish before saying anything more.

“I’m sorry about this. Things like this should not happen to anyone, but they’re a horrible reality. The Watch will need to know about this as soon as possible, but I think the safest thing for now would be for you to return home and stay there for a while.” He moved the vial closer to her, although he did not attempt to give it to her directly. “This was created by Pascal. It should prevent any further… complications. Drink it whenever you feel able.” Paula said nothing, and Coe felt a little hopeless sitting across from her. How much she even heard of his words was impossible to tell. He just hoped she could recover. He stood and stepped out to find one of his assistants. When he returned, a young woman followed him.

Paula saw the vial that Coe had placed on the table beside her. She was not so naïve that she didn’t know what it was meant to do. For several brief moments, she considered what the Church would say about it. Would Eli approve of taking this measure? The concerns evaporated as she considered what might happen if she didn’t. It was a necessary evil. She might have to beg Eli’s forgiveness every night for the rest of her life, but she could not imagine that the alternative would be any better.

“Paula, I have brought one of my assistants to see you home.” Paula looked up slowly to see the young woman who stood with Coe, and managed to nod and smile weakly. The raccoon handed the vial to his assistant before turning back to Paula. “You should return home to get some rest. You need some time to recover.”

The two women left at a slow pace a few moments later, and Coe watched them go from the door. He frowned, dark thoughts racing through his mind about the cruel men who had done this. How anyone could be so monstrous baffled him. He just hoped that they would be brought to justice before they could cause any further harm.

January 10, 708 CR

It had been nearly two weeks, but Gerard was finally returning home. Coe had been pleased with how the surgery had gone, but he had left it up to Gerard as to how long he would stay in his immediate care. Gerard had to think it through a bit, but he did finally decide to stay with the healer for a while longer. He had already lost about half of his leg; he wanted to make sure that Coe had plenty of time to make sure that he would not lose any more. Now, however, the healer was satisfied that everything had gone well, and there had been no sign of further infection. As soon as Coe had made this opinion clear, Gerard had decided it was time to return home.

Gerard was not entirely alone during his time with the healer, thankfully. His family visited him every day, and especially at the coming of the new year, the family stayed together, despite the close quarters in the room Gerard occupied, awaiting the coming of the new year. It had been a time of reflection for the stag; he thought about all that lay before him. Questions remained of how he would proceed, but he knew now that he would trust Eli no matter what.

Now, he was being helped into a wheeled chair that the healer was providing for the journey home. It belonged to the healer, and it would be returned to Coe’s office after the journey. For the foreseeable future, until they made some other decision, Gerard would make due with a crutch that was provided free of charge by one of the local craftsmen. He would probably look into a wooden leg in the near future, but Coe recommended that he wait a little while longer to be certain that the wound had completely healed.

The return home was quiet for the first little while, but after some time the nurse that was helping Gerard with the chair couldn’t bear the silence any longer.

“So, I hear you’re a warrior?”

“I was,” Gerard replied. He could almost see the awkward grimace on the man’s face when he realized how awkward of a question he had just asked. Rather than have the man rush to apologize, Gerard continued. “I don’t mind you asking; if I could still fight effectively on one leg I would certainly try. Perhaps I will be able to learn how to fight again once I find a decent replacement.”

“I certainly hope so, sir. I’ve been on a few short patrols; just my due for living here, really. Not ever been much of a fighter, but DeMule tells me that if I hadn’t decided to be a healer I could have been good with a sword. I try to be good enough to merit some confidence in my ability. If I’m ever in danger I plan to be ready to fight back, but I certainly appreciate men like you who do the work I can’t.”

“And I appreciate men like you,” Gerard reciprocated. “It seems to work well enough to my eye; I do the fighting, and you stand by to stitch me back together if I get myself torn to pieces.”

The healer gave a slight chuckle. “Well, sir, I honestly prefer it when you keep yourself together.” Gerard nodded silently, but said nothing more. After a few moments, the nurse continued. “On the subject of finding a serviceable leg, sir, what sort of thing are you looking for?”

“Honestly, I’ll be lucky to be able to afford a wooden leg strong enough to support myself on. I’ll figure out exactly what I can expect once I can look over my options. For now, I’ll learn how to use a crutch.” He tapped his fingers along the wooden shaft of the tool.

“Out of curiosity, sir, have you ever met Misha Brightleaf?”

It was a name of enough notoriety that Gerard knew exactly who the man was talking about. Still, he shook his head. “I know of him as the leader of the Long Scouts, and I’ve been around long enough to know that he is somewhat famous for being a rather aggressive fighter. I have not met him in person, however. The way I hear it, he has been occupied trying to rebuild his organization in the wake of the Winter Assault. Honestly, I doubt I would have been on his short list before I lost a leg; I can only assume that meeting him now would require quite a bit of coincidence.”

“He is a busy man, no doubt, but he does take some time off for other things. The reason I ask actually has something to do with the Winter Assault. You may remember the old librarian, Cutter I believe was his name.”

“Honestly, I never spent much time in the library. I can read, but it held no temptation for me outside of its basic utility.”

“Be that as it may, the old librarian was injured during the assault. Some say he held off an entire band of assassins single-handed. Whatever the reason, his leg was injured in the combat, and he was forced to walk slowly, and only with a staff. He was a friend of Misha’s, though, and Master Brightleaf taught him to use an interesting form that he had discovered himself some time earlier. It’s somewhat odd to look at; if you can imagine the old depictions of centaurs, men whose lower halves are replaced by that of a horse, you are about halfway to accurately imagining the figure that this form gives them. They retain their Cursed forms, but rather than being humanoid or feral, they gain a four-legged lower body along with their humanoid torso. I believe they called it a taur form, after those same centaur depictions.”

“What does that have to do with me?” Gerard asked. He was curious; he had seen the form before, but had not heard the specifics. Still, he honestly didn’t know how this knowledge helped him.

“What I hear is that Misha think that everyone affected by the Animal Curse can change their form in this way. When Master Cutter used it, he found that his injury was either eliminated, or compensated for by having two more legs. I honestly do not remember which, but I’ve heard that he can move quite quickly now, despite his leg injury. He rarely ever leaves that form, or so I’ve heard.”

Gerard nodded thoughtfully. “So, you propose that I attempt to use this form myself?”

“It couldn’t hurt. Now, I’m not fool enough to hope that it somehow grown back your leg, but you could hobble about on three legs easier than you could on one, I’d wager.”

Gerard nodded. “Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll look into it.” He was thoughtful for a little while longer, but by then he could see his house. Amber had the children waiting at the door, and they all smiled and waved at him, laughing merrily about how funny it was for Dad to be in a rolling chair like he was. The older children were somewhat more restrained, as they realized more clearly what had happened, but even they seemed to be able to find some humor in his situation. Gerard smiled; he would not begrudge them that. He wanted his family to be able to get through this with as few tears as possible, and they were off to a good start.

The family’s reunion was as happy as Gerard could have hope. He managed to kiss his wife and hug his children each in turn without upsetting the chair, and soon after he managed to hobble into the house on his crutch. Apparently Amber had spent a good bit of time making sure that everyone knew that playing with Daddy’s crutch was forbidden, as all of the children seemed almost frightened of it, keeping several feet away at all times. Thankfully, this only applied to the crutch, and they were more than happy to welcome him back with plentiful hugs all around. The nurse excused himself before very long, and the family was finally able to spend some time together.

Gerard made every moment last as long as he could. He sat for several hours in the small common room, watching his children play with the simply toys that were all he could afford. He tried to learn from the contentment they showed; he would have to be content with what he had, despite how little he had right now. He laughed and played along with his children as well as he could without falling out of his chair, but only too soon evening had come, and his children left for bed, but not before Gerard had kissed all of them goodnight. He had missed his opportunity before leaving for his last patrol, and he meant to be certain that he never did so again.

He hobbled to his room, balancing his crutch in the corner. Amber had gone with them to their rooms to make certain that they all obeyed her and went to bed, and it gave Gerard some time to think. He thought about the conversation with the nurse, about what the man had suggested. Standing there, he began to climb into his bed, but decided against it for a few moments. The nurse was right; it was worth an attempt if nothing more.

The stag closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He concentrated, thinking of how he looked now. It took some concentration to remind himself that he only had the one leg below the knee, but he thought through his form very carefully. He had shifted to his feral form often in the past, just to feel how different the form was. This new form would require some more effort, however. He had never done it before, and was uncertain if it would even be worth his time to try it again after this first attempt. He just had to be certain that he did it right the first time.

With a slow exhalation, he began to imagine his body shifting. He imagined having four – three – hooves on the ground, but he also concentrated on keeping his arms, fingers, and human torso. The image in his mind was somewhat fuzzy, and he continued to try to clarify it, using the few times he had seen the form in others to try to build his own vision of the form for himself. For some time, it seemed that his efforts were vain, but then his mental image of his taur form clarified itself in his mind. The jump in clarity was so shocking that it caused him to stumble back and open his eyes to grip the base of his bed. He breathed slowly, and then realized what he had done; he had stumbled back several paces with only one leg!

He turned swiftly, and was surprised and pleased to see that the body of a feral buck was now extending behind him. It responded oddly to his efforts to move, but he could feel the similarities it had with his feral form, and some concentration let him walk about the room on three hooves, limping but definitely able to do so without falling. It felt so different. In a way, the distance between his head and his good hind leg made it feel detached, but he was able to slowly accommodate the odd gait, even though his left hind leg was missing. He noted with some chagrin that he had utterly destroyed his breeches when he changed. At least he still owned a few more pairs; in the future he would just have to take more care.

He hobbled around the room, quite pleased to find that he could move at a reasonable pace, even though the loss of one of his four legs made it a chore. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to fight like this, at least not without other accommodations, but it would give him some flexibility when it came to his daily life. He might at least be able to walk about the lower Keep in this form if nothing else.

He was still marveling at how new it all was when Amber entered the room. She screamed when she saw him, and it took some time for him to calm her down. Once she understood what had happened, however, she smiled at him, standing on their bed to hold him close. Somehow, in saying just four words, she made him certain that the effort was worth it.

“You look wonderful, handsome.”

Lois walked slowly down the halls of the inner Keep, dragging his steps intentionally and taking his time to get back to his room. It had been nearly two weeks since he had last seen Paula for training, but he kept on going to the training area to be certain she didn’t appear. Honestly, taking some extra time to train himself in his new body was worthwhile. He had been able to transition with relative ease between his forms, but still needed practice to return to the level he had maintained for the better part of his career. It was an unlikely goal in all honesty; the years of abuse he had taken might have been erased by the Curse in some part, but he was getting older. More and more, he was forced to shift his focus to sharpening the mental aspect of his combat style. Physically, it was unlikely that he would be able to keep his current skill level for very long.

He continued his slow march through the hallways without any intention of rushing, when he was suddenly interrupted. It was so sudden, in fact, that he swore it came from nowhere. One moment he was certain that he was alone in the endless, twisting halls. The next, a strange creature stepped out of the shadows in front of him, stopping with one forepaw still raised above the ground to glance back at him uncertainly.

It was metal, or so it appeared at a glance. Closer inspection made him doubt that assessment, however. One thing was certain; whatever it was, it was shaped into the form of a fox, down to the way that it set its paw slowly back onto the stone before sitting on its haunches and cocking its head towards him. He could even swear that the sides rose and fell with the creature’s breath, even though there was no logical reason why a construct of metal would need to breathe.

Slowly, even as the two of them exchanged matching glances, Lois remembered that he had briefly encountered mentions of such things in his studies. He forgot what they were called, but rumor had it that a school of magery had specifically studied the art of building creatures from metal and animating them using a variety of techniques, both mechanical and magical. He had been enthralled by the concept once, but his lack of magical skill left it nothing more than an interesting fantasy. However, despite his fantasies about the creatures he had once read about, he had never expected any of them to be so lifelike.

“Take the red pill.”

Lois blinked; he had also not expected a creature that seemed to be nothing but a metallic fox to speak with him. Even if he had expected it, he probably wouldn’t have envisioned anything quite so vague or hard to understand.

“Excuse me?” he asked slowly. “What red pill?”

“Ask the god of dreams to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes,” the fox replied.

Lois just stared at the fox now. Clearly, talking was getting him nowhere. He had no dealing with the Lothanasi gods, and even if he had he was unlikely to ask Nocturna about some fantastic rabbit hole. As he stared, however, he continued to marvel at the construction. He had never seen anything so realistically fashioned to look like an animal, even in still form. It must have taken a genius to put it all together.

“Wait…” Lois felt an idea beginning to form in his mind, even as he turned his gaze to the animal’s hind leg. It flexed and moved flawlessly even in so simple a pose as a sitting posture. The pieces were joined together with mechanical joints that somehow perfectly simulated the movement that a real fox would have in those same places.

“Who built you?” he asked, his mind already racing with ideas.

“Many hands, many eyes, many years… All gone now in all but memory.”

Lois sighed, shaking his head and running one of his pawlike hands through the longer fur that now served him for hair. He had been hoping that there was some well-hidden automaton mage residing in the Keep that he could ask for suggestions. It seemed that his hoped would not be so easily realized, however.

The fox cocked its head for a moment more, and then jumped back to all four paws in excitement, eerily lifelike eyes glittering as they stared past Lois and on down the hall. “Papa!” In a rush of movement that somehow managed to make no sound at all, the mechanical fox was past the ermine. Lois turned and watched as the mechanical fox jumped gleefully on his hind legs, pawing at the chest of the Keeper that had emerged from another nearby hallway, though where that hallway went, or whether it was the same hallway now as it was a moment before was uncertain.

The Keeper in question was a fox, dressed as casually as any military man in a constantly war torn region ever was. Lois recognized the crossed bow and axe over a green field that was patched to one shoulder of the man’s clothing, but only in so much as it commanded the respect of other Keepers he had observed when another bearing that symbol had passed him previously. Even without the patch, Lois knew that the man before him was a formidable warrior who had seen his share of battles. He was missing the better part of one ear, and as he raised a hand to pet the mechanical fox that was greeting him like an excited puppy, Lois spotted several missing fingers as well.

Once the initial greeting between the metal fox and his papa had ended, the Keeper looked over towards Lois with a smile that showed significantly more pride than embarrassment. He greeted the ermine courteously, even as he kept one hand on the back of the mechanical fox at his side.

“Hello, there. I see you’ve met Madog. Hopefully he didn’t confuse you too much before I showed up.”

Lois chuckled quietly, but Madog spoke before he could say anything for himself.

“Silly ermine is falling down a rabbit hole with only a pipe between him and the bottom,” he chimed cheerfully. Lois raised his eyebrow, but the other Keeper just laughed.

“Don’t mind Madog. He likes playing games with words, especially when they confuse people.” The feral creature waved its tail once and gave what appeared to be a smile, as though to confirm what his papa had said. He rose to four paws and followed as the fox warrior stepped closer to Lois.

“My name is Misha. I don’t believe we have met.” He held out a paw to Lois, who shook it strongly. The fox returned the shake with equal vigor, and Lois smiled. This man was indeed a powerful warrior, and one he would have to remember to respect.

“It’s a pleasure,” Lois responded. “I am called Vincent Lois. I have only recently arrived at the Keep so I assume I still have a few people to meet before I consider myself well acquainted with the city.”

He noted that the fox’s expression changed slightly when he mentioned his name, but it was not altogether negative so much as it was curious. It led Lois to assume that the fox was privy to some of the information that the Keep had regarding his previous activities in the Midlands. At least he was not immediately suspicious of his intentions.

“I am curious, actually,” Lois continued. “Where did Madog come from?”

Misha smiled and ran his hand across the top of the fox’s head. “I found him in a rather dismal state of repair, but I’ve always been interested in how things work. It took me quite a while, but I was able to get him put back together.”

Lois smiled. “Ah, I have a question, then. What do you think the possibility is of creating a similar mechanical limb for someone if they lost their own leg?”

Misha looked thoughtful, but Madog piped up in his place. “That’s too heavy, silly!”

Misha nodded. “I think Madog’s right. It would certainly be a worthwhile idea if it were feasible, but the materials that go into something like this are very heavy. There might be some possibility of enchantments to make it less strenuous, but they would likely require a nearly constant stream of magic to make that possible.”

Lois grimaced. He knew it had been too much to hope that he would be able to do something like that, but he had still hoped to find some way of helping Gerard. Misha didn’t say anything for a few moments, and Madog just sat by his side like a loyal dog. When the conversation stalled for several more moments, however, Misha finally spoke up again.

“I do have one idea, actually. I have a friend, a tinsmith. I call him Drift, but his full name is Edward Snow. He has a penchant for invention; if there’s someone in the Keep that can help you find a way to make something like this, it would be him. His smithy is in the inner Keep, so you should be able to find it without much trouble.” He gave a sidelong glance to no one in particular. “Finding its owner, however, is increasingly difficult.”

Lois smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be certain to look for him.”

Misha nodded and returned the smile. “Good. Having something like that on his mind might do him some good. Unfortunately, I am a busy man, so I must take my leave. I hope you enjoy life at the Keep, Master Lois.”

Lois gave his own farewell to the fox, turning to watch both Misha and Madog walk down the hallway side by side. It was a bit late to go looking for the man that evening, but he knew that he would have to make a stop there the next day.

He returned to his room quickly, and despite his intention to sleep, he simply could not bring himself to stay in bed for more than a few moments without standing up with hundreds of ideas on his mind. Finally, giving up his battle to drag himself to sleep, he sat down at his writing desk and began to sketch out his ideas to the best of his ability. Every spare scrap of parchment save one was used from the near to the far corner and on both sides, and then finally the last page was used to build Lois’ final concept of the device he had envisioned. It was hardly perfect, but he could not remember ever sketching anything that looked as close to the vision in his head as this one did.

With this finally done, Lois slumped back in his chair, looking at the picture in the dim, flickering light of the lantern on the desk’s corner. He smiled. Perhaps he could get Gerard back on his feet after all.

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