by Tatsushu

Part 1

She awoke to darkness.

Blinking her eyes didn't help, but she could feel the wooden slats around her, pressing against her crouched legs. Slowly, the memories started to come...

"Halt, you!" the authoritative voice bellowed through the busy marketplace. Heads turned and conversations stopped as five burly men in threatening chain pushed through the crowd. People stepped quickly aside as the conical helmed warriors shoved their way through the crowd. Bystanders could see the insignia of Savaille's town guard blazoned upon the upper left-hand corner of the soldiers' crimson tunics.

The object of their pursuance stood, frozen in mid-bite, the red apple sitting like a lighthouse beacon, announcing the guilt of her crime. She looked to her hand, a hand she did not want to loose, and quickly let her well-honed instincts take over. Quickly she turned, giving a tug at one of the over-flowing baskets at a nearby stall. The shouts and curses of the stall owner, fruit and nuts poured out into the street, creating a diversion that allowed the young thief to slip into the crowd. As she ran, her hand unconciously swiped a couple of dried figs.

Behind her, the guards were rushing as fast as they could through the crowd, but the sea of stumbling bodies hindered the armoured warriors much more than one young, lithe thief who was used to ducking through crowds. The crowds were attempting to move out of the way of the guards, but the confusion and tight quarters were not very helpful. The young woman quickly lost sight of them behind her, and ducked suddenly into a small alleyway.

Between the shadows of two stone and mortar edifices, the young thief hid. Other than a slow drip of water onto cobblestones, her breathing was the only sound. She took a moment to look around and saw that the small alley came to a dead end only a few yards away. She shared her hiding place with two wooden barrels and a small, brown rat. She wrinkled her nose; she'd never been fond of rodents of any kind.

Outside of her sanctuary, she heard the guards searching the marketplace. Quietly she muttered words of power under her breath, borrowing the image of the wall behind her and placing it over her own. She felt the drain of the magic as she finished, as well as the familiar dimness at the edges of her vision. She shivered for a moment, but the darkness came no closer. Imaginem was hardly her strongest art, and such a spontaneous cantrip was relatively weak, despite the drain on her resources. If it had been a true formula, the spell would have been much more powerful, but there were other problems with such castings.

Hoping the spell was working properly to hide her from any superficial searching, she did her best to stand perfectly still. Any sudden moves would likely destroy the fragile illusion she had hastily crafted. Controlling the urge to run, she stood plastered against the granite wall as one of the guards poked his head into the alley. His gaze swept over the mage-thief, and then it was past. She repressed a sigh of relief.

Cautiously, the guard continued into the tiny cul-de-sac, looking in and behind the lone barrel for any trace of his quarry, unaware that she was standing within his very grasp. As he examined the empty container, the rat scurried out and away from his investigations, startling the guard ever so briefly. Shaking his head, the man turned back to his investigations, looking up at the wall at the end of the alley and deciding it was too much work to check any further in that direction. Giving one last glance around in case he had missed anything, the guard left the alley.

Hidden by the spell, she waited for over a minute after the guard had left before dropping the disguise and peeking her head carefully around the corner of one building into the busy street. The market was still awash with strange faces, but none of them wore the conical skullcaps of the city guards. Steeling herself, she ducked back into the alley and began to chant once more. This was one of the few cantrips she had actually obtained from a formula, and so the power--and thus the darkness and drain on her system was considerably less.

As the magic took hold, she felt a familiar tugging around her face and a tingle in her hair. Although she couldn't see herself in a mirror, she knew that the magic would subtly change her features so that she would be unrecognized by the city guards. Hopefully that would allow her to get by any more run-ins with them. Careful to be inconspicuously inconspicuous, she strolled out into the street, heading back to her rooms in the Lower Quarter.

The Lower Quarter of Savaille was, as the name implied, the lowest part of the city--both physically and financially. Originally, they said, it had been the dockyards, but over the years the sea had crept up on it, creating the need for a large dike to keep the highest tides from flooding everything. They had continued to build the wall higher, until now it was almost five meters in height.

By the time the dike had been built up that much, however, the dockyards had been moved to an area that was believed to be a more stable area, and the Lower Quarter had become the hangout for the dregs of society. Those who could not afford, for one reason or another, housing in the better parts of town often came here. This included most of the beggars--who couldn't afford the rent--or thieves--who couldn't afford the exposure. For thieves outside of the Lower Quarter, it was always a struggle to keep their lucrative incomes above the tremendous costs in bribes and favors to keep out of trouble with the Law.

Of course, one could swear fealty to one of the two main Families, but that had problems all unto itself.

As the larcenous mage came to her own 'townhouse' she could catch the familiar scent of rotting seaweed. The storm last week had had broke over the wall and left most of the Lower Quarter flooded for several days. Even now, areas of the street were thick with mud and the stench of stagnant saltwater. Every building had white salt caking their lower walls, and few doors were left that had any iron that was not rusted through.

Entering the once opulent abode, the thaumaturgical thief looked around the watermarked walls, glancing briefly at the highest of the marks indicating the deepest floods ever. Here, they only reached a little below two meters or so, a little more than half a meter from the ceiling. She'd seen worse further down near the Wall in the six months she'd been living here.

Carefully climbing the decaying steps--many of which had long ago rotted away, although they did not all show the outward signs--she put a hand out to the rail, without actually touching its green, moldy surface. It would probably have only crumbled at her touch, but it was nice to have some illusion of safety in case the stairs finally gave way. Slowly, she creaked her way up to the second story, avoiding those steps she knew to be all but rotted through.

The second floor of the building seemed much more lived in. A healthy round of cantrips and good old-fashioned elbow grease had made it livable by cleaning out most of the larger messes. It could truly be a wondrous place, no doubt, if one could expend the magical energy necessary. Of course, some people might then find it strange to see so much magic in one place in the Lower Quarter, which would hardly fit in with a thief's idea of 'going unnoticed'.

Reaching the top of the stairs, she paused briefly. Suddenly, as if urged by some sort of dramatic cue, a hand shot down from the ceiling and caught the thief unawares. A knife gleamed at her throat.

"Hiya Shan, welcome home." the voice said from the shadows.

Shandranax--one time waif, part-time mage, and full-time thief--looked up at her partner with a bored expression. She was in no mood for his games right now. Thomas shrugged from his upside down perch which mainly consisted of a hole in the ceiling that opened into the attic. He removed the knife from its place at her throat. Pulling his hands up, he grabbed the beam he was hanging from, swung his legs around, and dropped to the floor. The wood groaned in protest, but held.

"You're going to kill yourself like that one of these days." Shandranax said as she made her way past him to one of the rooms where she kept her personal items.

"Well, at least it won't be in my sleep!" he replied cheerfully. Following her into the room he continued his chattering. "So, how was work today?"

Shandranax sighed. She knew the question was coming but she still wanted to avoid dealing with it. "Not too well." she finally replied. Of course, it would have been better if she were a better mage. Being able to inconspicuously teleport items from someone's pouch into yours would definitely make thieving that much easier.

She wondered why she didn't give up thieving altogether and devote her efforts to magery like she had promised her late master. It was a pointless question however, and one she well knew the answer to. Ever since the Incident her magic felt tainted, with the encroaching darkness of That Place clutching at her every time she cast a spell. Small spells and simple cantrips like she cast today only brought a dim haze to the edge of her ritual, daily shield. More complex spells required an elaborate set of wards--which she was constantly on the look out for; ever since It had happened.

A sharp chill rushed through her mind, encouraging her thoughts back unto the safe, uncomplicated path of the present situation. She thought about packing, deftly picking the lock that held her personal belongings. Even Thomas could tell by this point that something was wrong.

"Hey kitten, what's up?" he asked in a soft voice, draping his arms about her shoulders. Shandranax didn't return his affections, herself in no mood for such pleasantries.

"Not much," she asnwered him, "Only that apple stealing seems to have become a high crime. Everywhere I turned today they were looking for me."

"But you got away again, didn't you?" he offered, nibbling on one of her ears, but she pushed him away.

"Yes, I did." she said, "with magic." Her self-disgust was obvious, "But I've seen this before. I've no desire to lose a hand--or worse." She thought back to the first time she had watched someone get branded. The pain of the hot iron, as well as the lingering burn, seared through her own body at the thought.

"Well, calm down." Thomas said, "If that's the way you feel about it, let's think about this. Give it a few days and let the pressure cool down. They've probably seen you around town, and maybe you're just drawing suspicion. All you really need to do is lay low for a while."

"I don't think so," Shandranax said, shaking her head. It was never something that simple, she knew from previous experience. Not with her, at least. "Look, if you don't want to leave, fine. Just give me my half of whatever we've managed to take in so far and you can come find me later." She stood in front of her male partner, one handed extended with the palm up and waiting expectantly.

"Well, you see..." Thomas said, taking a step back. Shandranax could tell he was stalling--hopefully not for the reason she was thinking.

"Tell have...the money." She said in ver slow, easily understood tones. Every other word was punctuated by a creak in the floorboards as she advanced on him, her hands raising up as she did so. Thomas, for his part, was fingering the collar of his doublet and backing up, his eyes darting instinctively for the exits. The sudden reversal in roles between the two partners might have seemed funny at any other juncture in time.

"It's like this. I took the goods in to Lucenzo's--you wouldn't believe how much he cheated us today! It was like..."

"Get to the point." Shandranax growled.

"Right, well, anyway, there was a friendly game going on down at his place, and after I had finished making the exchange they asked me to sit down. I couldn't exactly refuse, could I? That would have been ungentlemanly."

"But smart." The edge of her voice could have drawn blood.

Thomas pretended as though he hadn't heard, "The first part of the game was going well. I was on a winning streak you wouldn't believe. It was the kind you only hear about on late nights in taverns, where a kid can get set up for life because of a lucky turn of the hand."

Shandranax closed her eyes and her shoulders began to sag as she realized exactly where this was leading. It was a place she had dearly hoped to avoid. "At least tell me you saved some of it."

"But, it was so easy, I mean there was this one guy--he was absolutely loaded, I tell you. The more he lost, the worse is temper grew, which of course meant that he was losing more. And we he finally put up that last, desperate bet, I knew I had him. I mean, I would have never been able to live with myself if I'd walked away. Even if I had, that would have been paramount to calling him some sort of liar and a cheat."

"But he _was_ a liar and a cheat. That's what those men _do_!" Shandranax's anger was replaced by sheer unbelieving shock that Thomas had somehow managed the impossible and lost every last copper of their savings. "Those men, they sit around waiting for some poor, innocent, money-laden fool to fleece them for all they're worth! You were taken in by a con. But not just any con, oh no. You had to go for the two-bit con that has to be the oldest trick in the book! What were you thinking! It was a DEN OF THIEVES, by the Nine Hells! Gods man, how did you survive before Lester anyhow? Do you have anything to say for yourself."

Thomas lifted his gaze slowly. "Umm...sorry?" he pleaded, failing miserably to flash his winning grin her way, seeing that it wasn't working, he turned away. "Look, it was just a stupid mistake. And there was no way I could have turned them down. I'll figure out how to get the money back, I just need a little time."

Shandranax was no longer listening, however. She had let him down and was now walking back to her bags with an eerie calm. The floorboards creaked with each step as she sat down and started to go through her belongings.As she picked through them, she looked at what defined her 'life' here and started tossing most of it in a pile nearby.

_Why am I even here?_ she asked herself, already knowing the answer. She had met Thomas in Lester while she and her sister were on the lam, running from the local authorities. She had been captured by something in his smile, and his suggestion that they could loot the wealth of Savaille's ports was irresistible. Llareth had argued against it, and said that she would only get herself in trouble. For once, however, Shandranax felt confident enough to step out of her sister's shadow, and had stolen herself away while Llareth slept.

Now she was regretting all six months since that time. Her sister had, as always, been right. Thomas was nothing more than a pretty face and fancy dreams, both of which tended to cause more trouble than they were worth. She knew that she needed to get away from him, but how to do it was a bit of a problem.

Without money, she wasn't going to be able to take much with her. She had a few sets of clothes--most of them magically dyed a dark black--and two books. The first was her late master's spell book, which now belonged to her. The second was his unfinished treatise entitled, "The nature of change: How arts are defined by the change of state" that contained her master's thoughts on his lifelong pursuit. She had sworn that some day she would stop running around and devote her life to finishing his work, as soon as she had enough money and power to keep the darkness at bay for good.

However that money, like right now, always seemed to have an uncanny way of disappearing on her.

Shoving the last of her essentials in a large sack, Shandranax donned her long cloak and headed for the door. She ignored Thomas' protests as he tried to convince her to stay. He continued to promise that he would get the money back, holding out what little he still had to prove he was good for it. Shandranax realized that this had to be done, however. It was really the best thing for both of them, she thought.

Shandranax accepted the pittance Thomas held in his hand. She then gave him a quick peck on the cheek and walked out the door and out of his life.

The crate she had found later that afternoon, where it was being kept in a warehouse to be readied for shipping the next day. It was perishables from somewhere far to the East, and included some sort of bottled liquor among other things. That meant that it would be taken care of, and not on the road for too long. Carefully she opened it and removed most of the contents, hiding them behind crates that would not be checked until after the current shipment was well on its way. A few of the food stuffs, as well as several bottles of the clear liquid, she kept in case there was trouble and things went wrong. Once she had cleared enough space, she had begun her spells.

The first spells were the wards. Without those, Shandranax refused to cast any spell more elaborate than a quick cantrip. Once those were in place, she set up the second set of wards. The spell would only last a month, but that should hopefully be more than enough time. As she pulled the lid closed, she could feel the spell pull it down, the natural state of the magic being that of a closed loop. As light was extinguished, Shandranax felt a wave of weariness hit her. She only had a moment to feel the second darkness surrounding her before slipping into unconciousness.

Now, sitting in the natural darkness of the crate, she wondered what had happened. Had it been a month and the magic had faded? If so, she could hopefully live on the contents of the crate for a little while, but now that the spell was finished she would need water soon.

Before her thoughts could turn to far towards the unpleasant consequences of being trapped inside the crate, the entire box shook as if struck. The stowaway braced her hands on either side of the wooden box as she was tossed briefly about. Above her, what started as a mere sliver of light slowly expanded. She threw up a hand to cover her eyes, which had been in darkness for so long.

Someone pried the lid open, and slowly Shandranax's eyes grew accustomed to the light. Through the blurry haze that was slowly clearing like morning fog in the pre-noonday sun, she could make out a vaguely human shape.

With a suspenseful slowness, the largest blur resolved itself into a fair-featured woman wearing contrastingly masculine clothing. Not that Shandranax was often one for dresses in her line of work, but it was strange to see someone else with as care for social rules of dress.

The full red lips were pulled into a silent, "Oh!" while the eyes registered the shock of such a sudden and unexpected find. When the well-built woman finally shook herself free from the grip of surprise she managed to close her mouth and stand up. Looking down, she opened it once more and said to herself, "My, my, my, what have we here?"

Part 2

As soon as the words were out of the strange woman's mouth, Shandranax rushed into her well-rehearsed role. Eyes wide and lips quivering, she shivered as one who was starving--which wasn't really all that far from the truth. "Help me!" she cried in the most pitiful voice she could manage, tears welling in her eyes as she reached out towards the woman.

It worked as she had expected--as it had several times before--and soon the woman was falling over herself to help Shandranax out of the crate. The blonde-haired woman set her down on a stool that was lying around and began searching for some bread and something to drink. While she rummaged through foodstuffs around the room, Shandranax was able to see just what kind of place she had wound up in.

The walls were stone and there were no windows. That combined with the slightly damp cold led Shandranax to believe that she was underground somewhere. Seeing the shelves filled with various foodstuffs, she assumed that it must be a cellar, and not just of a private residence, either. It looked like it was probably some sort of pub, tavern, or restaurant. Two lanterns--one on the wall near a wooden staircase, and the other in the hands of her blond 'rescuer'-- provided light for the whole room.

Shivering, Shandranax wrapped her cloak more tightly around her body. Outside of the crate the temperature was considerably colder than Savaille, even when taking into account the lower temperatures of the cellar. Perhaps it was the encroaching winter season, since she still had very little idea of just how long she had been hibernating inside the crate.

Footsteps tread upon the dirt floor, heralding the blond-haired woman's return with both food and drink. Keeping up the facade of the victim of this situation, Shandranax began to explain how she had been trapped in the crates by a group of thugs. She went into agonizing detail about the horrors they inflicted on her, and the torment of her dark, solitary confinement. This wasn't very hard, as she could draw mostly on her own experiences. There had been more than enough suffering in her lifetime already.

Taking the bread and drink, she could see through her false sobs that the woman appeared to be taking her story hook, line, and sinker. Shandranax hoped she wouldn't take notice of the faded wards, and even if she did, they probably wouldn't have any idea what they meant. She had to actually repress the urge to smile at another job well done.

Pausing for a moment in her narrative, Shandranax brought the cup to her lips. Closing her eyes, she took a long, luscious draught; the touch of drink to her lips reminded Shandranax just how parched she was, and she almost finished the whole thing in one sip. Taking it away from her lips, she opened her eyes and glanced at the clay mug with genuine satisfaction.

There was a crash as the mug hit the floor, scattering its contents everywhere. The clay vessel shattered on impact and bits of brown pottery shot off into the dark corners of the cellar. The cellar's owner jumped and gave a bit of a shriek at the sudden events.

Shandranax simply sat there, staring at her hand. On the back of her palm was a patch of black fur, like some sort of animal, in a roughly circular pattern about twice the size of a Drawnton gold sovereign. Its presence made no sense to her, and with her right hand she tried to brush off the dark hairs, but they wouldn't budge. Determined to get rid of them, she began to scratch with her her sharp nails.

By the time the blond woman stopped her, Shandranax had already begun to draw blood, but the patch of fur remained. It seemed to be laughing sadistically at her efforts to remove it.

"Now, now calm down." the woman said, trying her best to keep the confused Shandranax from panicking. She at least stopped struggling. "Let me explain." she went on. Shandranax did not want an explanation though, she only wanted to hear that there was some kind of mistake. A patch of fur should not be growing out of the back of her hand.

What if it was a kind of mold? Or perhaps a side effect of her spell? Thoughts flew threw her head like fallen leaves before an autumn wind. As her head roiled in waves of confusion, her outer body calmed down, which the woman must have taken as a sign that she was starting to come to grips with the situation.

"Good, good, you're calming down. That's better. Breathe." Shandranax closed her eyes and tried to do as the woman said. "Now, first off I should tell you that my name is Michelle, and I'm the owner of an inn and tavern in a place called Metamor. Do you know where that is?"

Shandranax thought for a moment. She'd heard passing references to it, but nothing concrete. Wasn't it part of the Northlands? she thought, A city of monsters and shadows. There was supposed to be a horde of treasure hidden in a magical tower somewhere, but nobody who'd gone in to get it had ever returned, or so the stories went. Shandranax looked up at the perfectly normal Michelle and shook her head.

Michelle sighed. It was apparent that she was hoping that Shandranax might already have some prior knowledge of what she was going to say. That only made Shandranax that much more nervous. With a furrowed brow, Michelle began her explanation: "Well, you see, Metamor Keep was founded... actually, that's not important. Suffice it to say that it has been here longer than anyone alive today can remember. We're at the northernmost point of the Midlands, smack dab on the border of the Northlands.

Michelle looked to Shandranax, who nodded on cue that she knew what Michelle was talking about. In all truth, however, she had very little real knowledge of where most of the various parts of the world were. Most of the traveling she'd done had been inside or under something or other, and the maps she had seen were rarely any use to a true traveler. Even the more accurate ones varied widely depending on the cartographer.

She had actually seen some detailed maps during her apprenticeship, although she had not paid close attention to them at the time. Inside her master's study had been several sailors' maps, which were much more accurate, on average, than anything a regular thief might see. He also had one that had been scribed onto a globe, apparently claiming that the world was round. That had been a silly idea, if ever there was one, and just went to show that not even mages had all the answers.

That had little to do with her current situation, however, and she turned her thoughts back to Michelle's explanation.

"...which we called the Battle of Three Gates. In an effort to break through the Keep's defenses, Nasoj cast three spells. The first changed the victim's gender, the second turned them into an animal, and the third reduced them to the age of a child. The spells were each directed at one of the three gates of the Keep, but they spread and everyone was caught by one of the spells--a rare few were caught by more than just one--and after the battle--which we won, despite the spells--we found the magicks were still active. And there is no cure. Any adult in the area for between three days to two weeks--for some reason it varies from person to person--are affected."

"Your crate arrived almost exactly two weeks ago."

Shandranax's mind reeled in shock. The world seemed to spin about her as she tried to grasp what was happening, but she couldn't get her mind to think through the panic that was building inside her. This only worried her more, and she said so. "Is that it then?" she asked, no need to fake meek helplessness any longer as it was coming quite naturally, "Am I doomed to become some sort of mindless beast, then?"

"No, no, good Heavens no!" Michelle said, "The mages around the Keep did come up with a counterspell, of sorts."

"But..." Shandranax interuppted, holding up her black and bloodied hand.

"Well, they couldn't stop it completely, but they have been able to lessen the effects. I'm afraid you won't be able to go back out into the world again without some serious trouble. Still, most of those who are hit by the Curse are still able to use their hands, and can walk and talk mostly like they used to." Shandranax could see that Michelle--probably 'Michael' before the Curse--was trying her best to put the situation in a good light, but she was failing miserably.

For the first time in six months, Shandranax's confidence was completely shattered. All of the self-reliance she had built up over her time in Savaille was blown away like so much feather down before a raging storm as she realized that there was nothing she could do. Even worse, she knew that she was responsible for everything that had happened. If she'd only listneed to her sister, none of this would have happened.

She knew that it was silly now, blaming her sister for everything that had been wrong in her life. Yet wasn't it true that she was the one who had always gotten Shandranax out instead? She certainly wished that she was here now, to get her out of this one.

Seeing nothing more that she could do, Shandranax truly broke down, leaning over Michelle's shoulder and soaking it with her tears.

Part 3

After Shandranax had cried herself out, she began to think more clearly once more. She realized that she was stuck here, and getting caught thieving was no longer a simple matter of moving to another town if she was caught--and she would be caught, of that she had no doubt. The more she thought about it, though, the more she realized that she just wasn't a very good thief. It always seemed to be her own mistakes that brought the authorities down on her. The simple fact that all she had in the world were the clothes on her back and two dusty tomes--one of which wasn't even complete--showed just how poor her skills truly were.

So it was that she jumped at Michelle's offer of a job waiting tables in the small tavern that she and her husband ran. With the Curse and the winter weather, it really wasn't possible to leave. Even if she could leave she wouldn't have anywhere to go. Thomas wouldn't know what to do, and she had no idea where her sister had gone; probably to the north, but Shandranax had no way of knowing for sure. As for her parents, assuming they were still alive, she had no great need to return there anytime soon.

Thus she began what was probably the first real job of her entire life. It was hard work at first, but no worse off than thievery. Plus, it came with the added benefits that nobody was after her and she had a roof over her head that didn't leak like a sieve. She only wished she could explain how grateful she was to her benefactors.

She couldn't, of course. It would require too much of an explanation and that was the last thing that she wanted to do, considering the circumstances. Besides, she figured, that was a different person. As she soon figured out, much of what and who people had been before they came to this mysterious Keep was unimportant in light of the common Curse that bound them all to one another, as well as the constant threat of attack.

It was this kind of bond that she saw among the patrons of the tavern, few though they were. It amazed her, at first, to see all of the different races and species that lived in and around this eclectic citadel. The majority were adult humans, which was due partly to the travelers, who didn't like to approach the Keep proper, and partly to the gender morphs who regularly came to the tavern to gather and talk. There were bi-weekly get-togethers for those affected by the gender-crossing Curse. Both Michelle and her husband, Mark, had been hit by the same spell, and so they now offered their own place as a site for group meetings to help others deal with the changes.

The crowds were nothing like the Deaf Mule, or so Shandranax had heard, but they were friendly enough. Many people who enjoyed Eastern rice liquor often frequented the establishment from time to time, as the owners had apparently learned some secret to its serving having to do with the temperature of the liquor when served. They also regularly acquired Eastern 'delicacies', some of which threatened to turn Shandranax's stomach just by looking at them. There were some colours that food was just not meant to be.

It took awhile, but the fur, feathers, and scales of the other animal-morphed Keepers gradually lost their exotic nature. At first, Shandranax attempted to avoid any direct contact if she could help it, but her phobia slowly disappeared as she saw beyond the outer trappings and into the hearts and minds of the people inside. Instead of talking animals, they seemed more like furry humans, although there were still some that she avoided direct physical contact with for one reason or another.

As for her own transformation, Shandranax's change came slow indeed. It wasn't as slow as some she'd heard tell of, but enough to draw a bit of a pot before it was finished. Her own kleptomaniacal nature wept as she restrained herself from attempting to somehow put her own money in the pot. She didn't because she knew it wouldn't be fair to the others. That, and the fact that nobody was willing to take her money. It seemed a standard rule for most such wagers, and it managed to keep her honestly on the sidelines.

Still, despite her outward confidence, every new sign of change was another blow to her own self-esteem. If not for the comfort offered by Mark and MIchelle, as well as the continuous distraction of her job, she didn't know what she would have done. Probably been out freezing in the streets, or going through the change in some southern city where she would really be a freak or a monster.

The change began with the single patch of black fur on the back of her left hand that she had first seen, soon followed by one on the right. Daily it worked its way up her arms and to her shoulders. That process alone took several weeks to complete. From the shoulders it seemed to spread to the rest of her body with greater speed.

The fur was soft, warm, and thick, and Shandranax found herself often rubbing it unconciously. If it weren't rising out of her own skin, she probably would have thought it wonderfully comfortable. As it was, the soft fur only served as a constant reminder of the mistakes that were her life. This is where she had come, so that she was finally outwardly reflecting the beast that was all she was worthy of being.

It also seemed that the fur served as the herald of the other changes throughout her body. The first truly drastic change occurred as the fur spread above her shoulders to her neck and beyond.

It started with a throbbing headache. The fur had spread across her face, excluding only her nose, which took on a soft but leathery appearance. Most of the skin below turned an ebony color as well, giving her a uniformly dark appearance. She felt some comfort that her long, black hair remained; it was one of the few sources of personal pride that she had left.

The headaches increased until it felt like her head was trapped in a vice, and soon after they began she was ordered to rest by Michelle. Pain threatened to knock her unconscious, occasionally even succeeding sometimes. In morbid fascination she watched the proceedings in the mirror at her bedside.

Her eyes were quick to change shape, although they remained green and continued to shine as a window into here soul. Her eyelashes and eyebrows had long since disappeared into the thick, black fur that covered her face. The edges of her eyes felt like they were being drawn back and down, with the space between her eyes slowly growing.

This seemed to be the case, as the bridge of her nose pushed up and flattened out. her upper lip and lower nose seemed to lose any individual distinction between them other than where the fur of the former ended. Slowly, the nose pushed its way further up and out.

The cause of this last seemed to be her expanding jaws, which were growing to accommodate the dagger-like teeth that now filled it. Growing teeth brought stabbing, excruciating pain as they pushed against the other bones that were not growing quite so fast, pinching sensitive nerves between them. Her gums felt raw, but licking them only caused more blood and pain.

Her tongue, which had grown to fill her mouth, was still pink, she saw, but seemed to have taken on a sharp, grainy texture. She was quick to learn how to control herself to keep it from irritating the rest of her mouth with its constant probings of the Change. By now she could clearly see the change was feline in nature, but she had little idea just what species she would be. What ever it was, it wasn't a housecat.

As the pains of the change continued, Shandranax noticed her ears reshaping themselves. Their tips slowly came to rounded points, sticking out noticeably from her head. They migrated up her scalp, through her hair, until they were positioned well above her eyeline. Between them, her forehead seemed to slope forward to a ridge where her eyebrows used to hang.

Her cheeks filled out as well, while her human joints were replaced with the more powerful musculature of her new form. Whiskers also sprouted in lines along her face. Touching them, she discovered they were extremely sensitive, and tickled a bit. Playing with them too much, however, caused her to sneeze, which in turn only brought on pain that reverberated throughout her head. From that point on she was more careful about playing with them during her change.

The rest of her body was more subtly drastic. There was no apparent change to her chest except for the fur. She'd never been stunningly impressive, but neither was she 'average', exactly. Now she was definitely 'exotic'.

When the fur reached her buttocks, she began to feel another strange sensation. It began at the base of her spine, where she noticed an unusual bump. It took her a while to figure out that this must be her new tail, a thought that at first had her frightened. Panic would be no more useful than anything else had been since the transformation began, and after some time in her room and a long talk with Michelle, she was able to face this newest ordeal.

The small lump was, at first, raw and sore like a swollen spider bite or a bee sting. It grew a little at a time, and each morning she woke up with a little more flexibility as it grew longer. Of course, it also started to get into more trouble, as well. While it was still short, Shandranax continued to bump it on various bits and pieces as she flattened herself against a wall to let a customer pass, or attempted to sit down, stubbing the raw new appendage on the wood or plaster. Pain shot through it every time as a reminder to be more careful.

The longer her tail became, the easier it was to control. Although muscle control was difficult and sparse, at first, it later grew quite easy to manage. Eventually it faded into the background of her consciousness, becoming little more than another appendage controlled without any real thought. As she sat down it became natural to flick it to one side or the other, or to move it out of the way of other patrons. She even found it moving with unthinking reaction to her emotions, along with the rest of her body.

It was weird the way her tail, nose, and ears moved and twitched with her mood. As a child she remembered watching people who could wiggle their ears, and she almost laughed. Those poor sods had nothing on this. Not only did she find that she could shift her new ears around to take in faint sounds and emphasize them, but they would often act seemingly on their own, flattening when she was defensive or raising up when she was interested in something. If she could learn to properly control them like an actor controls their own emotional body language, her own con-artistry might improve a great deal. Not that she had a need for it, but you never knew when skills would come in useful someday.

Another wonderful experience for Shandranax was the new world of scents and sounds that she was living in, and it fascinated her. The scents, especially, were clearer--although that wasn't always a blessing in town or after a long, drunken party at the tavern. Fortunately she eventually tuned out any unpleasant scent she was around for too long.

Her hands had, fortunately, remained mostly human in the number of fingers and their placement. The fingers were noticeably shorter, with small, soft, furless pads which were neither as thick nor as rough as she would have imagined, had she been able to foresee such an event as this. She found textures were dulled slightly, as though she wore an extremely light pair of leather gloves. Meanwhile, her nails had curled and receded into her fingertips. These last she found she could extend or retract to a limited degree by properly curling her fingers.

Her legs were the final part of her body to undergo change. Like many of the other changes that had happened to her, it was far from comfortable, the bones expanding and contracting unevenly. Swelling often caused the joints to lock for hours at a time, refusing to budge from their static positions. At one point she could hardly walk, her immobile joints forcing her to spend two days bent over like an aged woman. After that, she found that her heels were thin and weak, and walking on them was quite painful. Instead, she began to walk on the balls of her feet, putting more of her weight on her toes.

As she did this, her feet lengthened while her upper legs shortened. Even though she was now walking on her toes she found her height was hardly changed, but the tip-toe walk brought other problems. Until she learned how to use her tail as a counter-balance Shandranax often toppled from her precarious perch. Once she relearned how to walk, however, she had little trouble maneuvering between tables and customers. She even found herself more nimble than she had been before, when she was walking rather flat-footed.

All told, the change took her a little over two months to complete. In the end, however, it wasn't what had changed that surprised her, but what hadn't. Outwardly, she looked like a beast or some creature described in tavern tales and campfire legends. Inwardly, she felt the same.

Which was both a blessing and a curse. Shandranax was relieved that she was still herself, but that meant that all of her baggage was still there with her. She had hoped she would somehow be able to discard it with her own form, but all of her insecurities and paranoia remained. As long as she had Mark and Michelle, she could handle it, but what would she do if they were gone.

She was thinking about just such a thing up in her room one night when Mark knocked on the door. "Excuse me, mind if I come in?"

"Not at all," Shandranax replied. She found it odd to speak to a man like Mark, with the intimacy that she had not usually found possible with men. Then of course, she had to remind herself, inside Mark was still a woman, for the most part.

"Looks like the change is complete." Marks said, "Wow, I must say you look pretty amazing."

Shandranax would have blushed if she still could. She knew he was just saying that to make her feel better, but it worked. "I think I've resigned myself to it for the time being."

"How about the books? How are they coming along?" She hadn't been able to hide the books, and had come up with a story full of half-truths about what she was doing and studying. Since she actually had the time now, she'd been able to look through the tome on change, which was rather fascinating considering she had first hand experience with it. The spells were still out of the question, however.

"They're coming along all right." she finally answered.

"Great," Mark came and sat on the bed, "I was coming in to talk about getting you rostered up for the town militia. It's required that everyone at least sign up--Michelle and I decided to give you a bit to get used to everything first, however. Anyway, I'll take you down tomorrow to the office and we can get you signed up."

Shandranax tried not to show her fear, but she could feel her ears flatten despite herself, her tail seeking to curl up beneath her. Authority figures were not her friends, and she was sure that there would be trouble, but at the same time, she couldn't come up with a good explanation why not to go. "Sounds good." she said, trying to force her pardic smile."

"Great!" Mark said, "Tomorrow it is then."

Shandranax smiled weakly as he left, and then through herself onto her straw filled mattress. Her heart was racing as she began to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong. Finally, she fell asleep counting the guardsman jumping over fences to catch her.

Part 4

Sunlight snuck into the small room, attempting to coax the sleeping from beneath the heavy blankets under which she lay. The blazing orbs valiant efforts had little effect on the chill winter air, however, and Shandranax was unwilling to leave her comfortable sanctuary. Seeking greater means to route her from her place of slumber, fate resorted to a more direct method.

A knock sounded at the door, "Shan, dear," announced a masculine voice, "Are you ready to go?"

"Just give me another 20 minutes or so!" she called back from the bed, wondering if she couldn't push that to an hour or more.

"Alright, I'll just go get breakfast ready, then." Mark called back.

Reluctantly, Shandranax forced herself to get up and get dressed, her new tail twitching with anxiety as she padded over to the large chest that housed her clothing. Most of the clothes inside were Mark's old garments that no longer fit him or his wife. Mark had even used some of his seamstress skills to modify a few of them to fit Shandranax a little better.

Shandranax stepped out of her nightclothes and put on some comfortable undergarments. She then pulled on a pair of loose hose and an off-white undertunic, which came all the way up to her neck and had a slit in back so her tail would not get tangled to badly. She'd already had one rather embarrassing moment with that, and preferred not to repeat the experience. Although there was no color to it, Shandranax still felt the heat of the blush fill her cheeks at the memory.

Over the tunic, Shandranax wore a light skirt of simple brocade, and a blue gown atop that. Both reached to just below her knees, the gown slightly less so as to show off the brocade pattern below. The skirt had been modified for her new body, and her tail peeked out from between the outer two layers. A slim yet sturdy belt circled her waist, drawing the skirt and gown together above her waist in an hourglass shape.

For her feet, Shandranax wore two large, custom-made boots designed for her new legs. They had been a present from Mark and Michelle when they realized she would need something to wear in the cold snows. Shandranax was shocked at all the trouble and expense they were going through for her sake, but they told her not to worry. In many ways she was, for them, the child that they had never had.

Finishing the ties on the warm, leather boots, Shandranax stood before the small mirror she had in the room. Finally dressed she donned her final parma for the day.

The ritual was one of the first things her master had taught her after he had shown her how to 'see' the magic around her. Technically, she thought, it was probably considered a magical ritual, but it did not seem to work the way her 'spells' did. She didn't really even know how it worked, only that it seemed to dull any outside magical influences, such as the darkness that crept up on her whenever she cast what she considered to be a 'real' spell.

All told, the ritual took her about 15 minutes. She still hadn't told Mark and Michelle about it; one of many things that she was determined to tell them, eventually. Just as soon as she could figure out how.

Shandranax walked over to the door, opened it, and headed downstairs. Mark was waiting for her. "Ready to go?" he asked in a chipper voice. A steaming breakfast sat waiting for her. Together they had a warm breakfast and then made their way out of the tavern and into Euper's cold streets.

Walking through the town, Shandranax could tell that winter was here. Although people still went about their daily lives, and children frolicked in the streets, there was a muffled silence attached to any noise as though the heavy snows were absorbing its sharper qualities. Above the town, the spires of the Keep rose into the winter sky, but it, too, stood a silent watch over the valley.

Emphasizing the wintry calm was the noticeable lack of outsiders. Few of them were willing to risk getting caught at the Keep by a sudden blizzard, and so the caravans had dwindled down until only the most daring or well paid remained along the trade routes. The Keep and the surrounding towns would have to subside on the stores they had gathered throughout the year for the next couple months. Most of the market shops were closed for the winter, the craftsmen resting and preparing their goods for next spring. For many, it would take a real threat to get them to leave their comfortable homes.

Of course, there were still patrols and jobs that needed to be done. The various religious services were still held with unchanging regularity. Still, if one didn't have to be outside, odds were they weren't.

The cobblestone streets were normally kept free of snow along the more well used paths through the town. Freshly fallen snow covered everything, this morning, as it had not yet had a chance to be cleared away. Together, Mark and Shandranax trudged through the newly fallen snow up the hill to the Keep.

It was a bit of a hike from the town of Euper to the Keep itself. Nothing too difficult, but it accentuated the defensive nature of the Keep. The road to the keep was kept free of snow to allow easy access to and from the town. It was also uphill, however, and slippery. More than once Shandranax considered taking off her boots to give her a better grip on the ground they were walking on.

Between Euper and the Keep, the land was starkly bare, especially with the white snows covering everything. Nobody lived between the Keep and Euper so as to provide a good field of fire for the archers on the wall. Shandranax felt more than a little intimidated as she approached the rising edifice.

The first gate was open, and the portcullis raised. Only two guards were visible along the entrance, although numerous murder-holes were apparent. Shandranax felt each one as though it were a dagger piercing through her skin, and her tail twitched in response as they walked into the Keep's killing field. This open area between the gates was as desolate as its name. Shandranax kept close to Mark through the open yard.

Inside the inner gates, two more guards stood. They eyed Shandranax suspiciously, who simply looked down to the ground, but Mark waved a friendly hello and they waved the two through without any real trouble.

Walking through the streets of the walled town that was part of the Keep proper, Shandranax relaxed some. There actually seemed to be more activity here than in the town of Euper below. Of course, most of it was coloured with the Keep's livery, usually over the dull gleam of armour or some other indication of military service.

Eventually, the pair made it to the military offices, where most of the military operations of the Keep were taken care of. Inside, mean and women were going about their business in an orderly fashion. Shandranax stood a step behind Mark and unconsciously attempted to go unnoticed. For no logical reason, Shandranax felt jumpy, her hackles rising on the back of her neck. Her eyes darted for the nearest exits in case someone should attempt to nab her.

"Pardon," called a feminine voice that made Shandranax jump, "Mayhap I can assist you in some way?" Shandranax and Mark turned to see who had addressed them.

She was human, which immediately pegged her as a gender morph. Like many, her curves were deceivingly soft, but in her blue eyes rested an iron edge. She smiled as she saw to whom she was talking.

"Rose!" Marke cried out, throwing up his hands to give her a hug.

"Mark!" Rose replied, accepting a brief hug, but then pushing Mark away, "'Tis good to look upon your face once more. Wherefore come you hither on such a frigid day as this?"

"Actually, I'm here to introduce a new member of our family."

"After so many years of trying? Congratulations! You have both tried for too long, but wherefore did I not hear aught of such news earlier?"

Mark laughed, although there was a hint of strain to it, "No, no, nothing so miraculous as that, though I assure you we pray everyday that Eli will see fit to give us a bundle of joy one day. For now, we are overjoyed at the gift of another family member. Rose, may I present Shandranax."

Rose looked over the timid panther morph. "Have I not seen you before?" Your face does pass familiar."

"She's been living and working for Michelle and I since she arrived. The curse has just finished its way with her--she was in a bad way for most of it--and I thought that we had better be official about this, since she isn't going to be going anywhere soon." Mark paused in his narrative, and his eyes went distant as though trying to recall something. "I thought I had introduced her to everyone at the meetings."

"I fear work has not been kind of late, and I have been slow to come and quick to leave. Verily, I do remember the face, though merrily 'twas before the curse."

"Well, she's been working for us since she arrived--a sad tale I will have to relate to you some time when you are free. The long and short of it is, however, that she has become like the child we've never had. We thought it best to take care of this today. Is the Patrol Master around?"

"Alas, George is not yet come." Rose replied, "And there have, of late, been standing orders that we are not to disturb him but in the most dire of circumstances. Prithee, might I be able to take care of the matter?"

"I think so," Mark said, "We just need to get Shandranax signed up for militia and patrol duty. We've all got to pull our share after all."

"That we must. If you could but let me find a quill and some vellum..." Rose slipped around behind a nearby desk and opened one of the drawers. She pulled out a worn piece of parchment, but unfolding it revealed it had already been used. Below that, there was a worn but clean piece of media.

"Prithee, name...?" Rose prompted, quill held at the ready.

Shandranax just sat there like a deer in the headlights. In her mind she saw the leering, toothless faces of her interrogators once more. The smiled from behind their desk, asking the same questions over and over. The gaol keys jangled at their sides.

Looking up at the unresponsive interviewee, Rose asked one more time. "Name...?"

Shandranax snapped out of her dejavu. "Uh, Shandranax." she said finally.

Rose nodded and put pen to paper. "Shandranacks..." Rose read as she wrote, "Residence...?"

"The Gyrfalcon Tavern..." Shandranax began.

"...owned by Mark and Michelle Fuller." Rose finished, writing as she did so. "Have you any family at the Keep?" she continued in her formal tones.

"Only us." Mark replied in Shandranax's stead.

"And outside?" Rose continued as she wrote.

"A sister-- but I don't know where she is." Shandranax said. She no longer counted her parents as 'family'.

"Personal arms?"

"No weapons or armour that I came with, and I've never had any formal training." Shandranax said. The truth, although she had learned some few things in the streets. She hoped that she could downplay any martial prowess at all so that she wouldn't be posted to patrol duty any more often than might be absolutely necessary.


There was a noticeable pause before she answered, "Nothing of note."

Rose finished writing everything down and smiled. "That is aught." she said cheerily, "Should you wish, we have daily training for citizens here; the danger of the Northlands ever hangs heavy oe'r our heads. We force none to participate, and yet it is encouraged that those in sound mind and body attend at least two sessions a month, an they are able. Shouldst one wish to further their skills, all are welcome to make use of the practice rooms. Moreso, the Regulars are ever open to any who wish to join their ranks. There also live private tutors here that may instruct if such is your desire."

"Ummm... No thanks." Shandranax rejected the offer of enrolling for even more military service than she had to. The woman seemed nice enough, but Shandranax was beginning to feel like it was just stalling. Her ears, nose, and tail involuntarily twitched as the hairs on her neck tingled. Despite reason telling her everything was okay she wanted little more at this point than to get away from the uniforms she saw everywhere.

"Very well. I shall then take care of this forthwith and arrange an introduction to our ways and whiles." Rose said, "You are well come to Metamor, Shandranax."

Walking back down the path from the Keep, Shandranax felt the shivers calm down as she left the Keep behind. Coming up on the gates of Euper, she stopped in the middle of the road.

Mark turned to look at her, "Is everything alright."

Shandranax felt a feeling in her throat and shoulders waiting to be released, but she wasn't sure what it was. It felt like something was scratching the inside of her stomach.

"Shan, dear, are you okay?" Mark asked.

Suddenly, it came in a torrent, and Shandranax threw her arms around Mark. "Don't leave me," she said, "Promise you won't leave me."

"There, there, dear, we're not going to leave you." Mark said, stroking his fingers gently through her hair. "I promise."

Shandranax sighed, "I don't know what I would do without you."