by Willi

"I'm sorry, Nero," He heard his teachers say, "You just don't have the hands for this work." He'd heard it so many times, from so many people, that the voices had blurred together into a cold, impersonal drone. A slap on the shoulder brought him back to the present.

"Hey, Nero? You ok? You looked lost." Nero shrugged and Grady went back to his animated conversation with the others. The man who'd slapped him on his shoulder had once been a woman, Nero knew. That thought made him very very uncomfortable.

Nero's arrival at Metamor Keep was just the ultimate in a long series of disasters. First he'd been dismissed from school, then he'd been robbed halfway to his family's holdings. He'd had the misfortune of hiring on with a caravan, exchanging passage for basic services, which apparently implied sexual favors in this part of the world. For his refusal, he'd been beaten, stripped, and thrown from a wagon. Fortunately, he was not without some knowledge of basic woodcraft, and he managed to survive the week or so it took a patrol to find him. There was a sort of grim amusement to be had in the fact that he, through no greater agency than simple aimless wandering, had eluded some of the best trackers in the world for so long.

By the time he'd recovered from exposure, it had been too late to leave. Nero had known of the Keep and its curse from his father, and given his upbringing and moral beliefs, he felt he'd handled the news rather well. Of course, it was a while before he could convince them to let him near sharp objects again.

That had been over a month ago. He was told that he'd almost certainly change soon, but into what was anyone's guess. "But probably," he mused, "Not a surgeon."

Nero couldn't remember a time when he hadn't wanted to be a doctor. Even as a small boy, he'd take injured animals home and nurse them back to health. Though his Father thought it unseemly that his next-to-eldest son should work, his passionate pleas finally won him a trip to the finest medical school in the western world. A school of real medicine, not the backwoods moss-and-spit stuff. But eagerness alone does not a doctor make. You also need deft, nimble fingers and steady hands. Nero was eventually forced to accept that he lacked the physical skills to be a surgeon.

"So why do these people think I might make a good soldier?" He asked himself, not for the first time, as he trudged along with the rest of his patrol. Though he'd protested, he couldn't deny that he'd taken some training with the sword. His Father had insisted. He wasn't a great swordsman, by any stretch of the imagination, but he could hold his own, and that was what counted. He'd gone from being a son of a nobleman, with a future as a surgeon, to being a common soldier, waiting to be transformed into a freak of nature. Sometimes Nero felt like his life was a joke without a punchline.

Tim held up a paw, motioning them to silence. They'd trekked a considerable distance North of the Keep, farther than Tim usually liked to take a regular patrol, especially with recruits as green as he'd been given. The cat morph's ears swiveled forward. He motioned another morph forward, this one a large brown rabbit.

The rabbit moved with a surprising silence, considering the amount of metal he had strapped to his chest and waist. Of the group, Jack was the least armored, but it was often joked that he had so many knives, it was as good as wearing full plate. Jack came to the front, and swung his ears to listen ahead of them. Nero had once seen a listening device that one of his fellow students had constructed to aid the deaf in hearing. He could only imagine that the rabbit's sensitivity to sound must be akin to listening through that great hollow horn. Tim held up a fist, palm outward, and Jack responded by flashing all of his fingers three times in rapid succession. Tim nodded, and motioned for the group to move back, silently.

Unfortunately, Tim's idea of silence was different from everyone else's capabilities. They were as quiet as they could manage, but leaves, twigs, and other debris underfoot rustled and cracked, and though Tim motioned vehemently at them several times, there was nothing to be done for it.

All attempts at silence soon stopped, however. Five leather-clad green forms lept from the bushes in front of them, while many more could be heard behind them. The lutins rushed to battle.

Lutins are often thought of as very stupid, very short humans, and their tactics are thus frequently dismissed as being clumsy, even suicidal. Considered in terms of animal cunning, however, a hoard of lutins can be seen as a serious threat. Lutins are not brave creatures. They can't afford to be. Thus, they never attack groups larger and more powerful themselves, unless driven to by external forces. Lutin strategy is deceptively simple, and if the animal-men of the Keep were to ever give it serious study, they might come to appreciate its similarity to the tactics their own hunting instincts dictate. The problem, of course, is that most of the reports of lutin strategy come from people who are, or at least, consider themselves to be, true masters of the art of war. Likewise, the average lutin's fighting prowess is considered laughable by many Keepers. Many Keepers, however, are endowed with vast magical powers, innate abilities, or rigorous training, which would make them the equal of any five common soldiers. Thus, it is very easy to underestimate lutins, and their tactics. Nero's patrol got a first-hand appreciation of this, as the lutins flanked them, boxed them in, and began to close the circle around their prey.

The Keepers were outnumbered four to one. Nero stood frozen as they rushed toward him. His sword was drawn, but he remained motionless, paralyzed by his fear.

One of the lutins lept at him, and at the last moment, instinct and training took over. He moved his sword to intercept, and the monster impaled itself. He stared up into the creature's baleful eyes and watched as the spark of life ebbed. Blood ran down his sword and over the hilt, washing his hands in a sickly warmth. "The joke's on me," Nero thought, as he dropped his blade and the creature skewered on it, "Looks like I've the hands for this work after all." Nero felt suddenly ill, and for a moment he thought he was going to vomit. Instead of bile, however, his mouth produced a curious sound, a high-pitched, gibbering retch. Nero looked down and took the monster's weapon from its hand. A bone-handled knife. Nero's gibbering became a chuckle, then a laugh. He kept laughing, even when the tide of combat surged back in his direction. He felt a strange tingle as he hurled himself into the fray, but it was of no consequence. Everything was appropriate, now. No scalpal, just a bone-handle knife.

He plunged his knife in and out, in a quick, efficient motion. The little monsters were on eye level, now, and they just seemed to line up for him. In, out. In, out. Stab the eye, stab the lungs. Sever the throat, slice the gut. His blade sliced through living flesh in combat far more precisely than he'd ever cut a practice cadaver. In, out. So simple, so final. The sound of his own laughter hurt his ears.

Then, it wasn't a monster on eye level anymore. Tim's armored gut deflected the blade, and the cat-man grabbed his arm and twisted, forcing him to drop his weapon. He looked around. The woods were littered with little green corpses. "If I ever needed to study Lutin Anatomy," He thought, "I'd never lack for cadavers." He choked on his laugh then, making a strangled, broken sound. Tim drew him in, and supported him while he cried. His throat was already raw from his hysterical laughter. He wept into Tim's chest, feeling the Cat's sure grip on him become a comforting embrace.

Tim held the man-turned-child as he slowly shrank, as though his tears were causing him to melt. A boy of six or seven looked up at him from his arms, and Tim cradled him to his chest as he would any other child. Decorum be damned.

"I only wanted to make people better." The boy whispered, his voice cracked and hoarse, "'First, do no harm,' that's the Healer's Oath. But I wasn't good enough. Just not good enough." He shook his head, twisting his fingers into the tiny rings of metal woven over the Cat's chest. "It's so hard to make things right. It's so easy to hurt people." He looked into the cat's eyes with a sudden, feverish intensity. "That's the punchline."

Tim nodded, but the boy didn't notice. Physically and emotionally depleted, he'd succumbed to his body's demand for rest.

"Aye, that's the punchline," Tim agreed. He looked at his comrades, some of who were openly staring at him, and some of whom were studiously looking anywhere else. "But what's the joke?"