Starting Over

by Stealthcat and Christian O'Kane

“Welcome to Metamor Keep.” The fox said and offered them a plate filled with assorted slices of cheese.

The vulpine’s two guests looked at the plate with suspicion as if they expected the cheese to leap off the plate and attack them. They were young, no older then twenty. The woman was wearing a long woollen dress of blue and yellow that had seen better days and had been patched and repaired many times. The man was wearing a shirt and pants of wool whose colours might once have been brown but had faded to a dark gray. Both had the weather worn faces and tough, scared hands of people who had done lots of hard work in the open.

“You won’t become cursed by eating cheese.” Misha gently pointed out as he waved the plate about.

“Forgive us,” The woman said, “We’re just very... confused by everything.”

Misha nodded his head. “I understand. There are still things about this place that confuses me.” He sipped his wine and noticed their guests didn’t touch theirs. Probably anxious of being inhibited during any negotiation. “Let me just start by saying I am truly sorry for your cousin’s death. We were all hit hard in the assault. We all lost a lot of friends.”

“Thank you but we never knew him. It was a real surprise when that letter came.” The man said and ate some cheese.

Misha nodded and just looked at them for a moment, trying to gauge what they were thinking. “Have you thought about my offer?”

“We have...” He began after finishing the Provolone, “We have decided not to sell.”

“We would like to say.” His sister finished.

“Oh?” Misha asked in surprise, “Okay, I respect that. Do you have any plans for the property?”

“Not yet. We’ll just be living there.” The woman answered and sniffed at the wine.

“It may take some time to repair you realise?” Misha asked as he nibbled some Gubbeen.

“We’ll just move in quickly and make the most of it.” She answered.

The fox shook his head, “Unacceptable. You’ll need a roof over your heads. The weather here can get really nasty at times.”

“We have no money for that sort of thing and we cannot afford to stay at the inn for much longer.”

“Then I’ll find you a place in the keep. Lend you money to rebuild.” Misha countered.

The two siblings stared at him and blinked, “but... why?” The woman asked as she began to finger the cheese.

“Why? Because you need help and I believe a person should help other people. We all need to do good in this world.”

“Thank you Mr Brightleaf.” Her brother said and bowed.

“Misha” The fox corrected quickly.

“...thank you Misha.”

“No problem. Now there is another matter I’d like to discuss...”

Kaley paced back and forth, her tail flitted about behind her. Her paws wore a hole in the rug as she moved about, feeling as though the room had gotten smaller.

“What is the big deal?” The other woman in the room asked, “Practically everyone has relatives outside the Valley.”

The ocelot stopped for a moment and rocked on her foot paws before moving again.

“I’m sure they’re nice people...” Alex glared and grabbed the feline’s tail.

Kaley turned around and hissed as she was dragged toward her friend and forced to sit on the bed beside her.

Alex stroked her cheek as the morph looked at the ground.

“My only real family has been my brother.” She answered, “And the only world I’ve known is the Glen. I never expected I would meet family that I didn’t know existed, and they want to stay and get cursed!”

“What’s wrong with that? I decided to stay.” The TG said.

“Aye, but we hadn’t met yet. These people are my family; should I warn them, tell them to leave before it’s too late? Or will they think I’m trying to get rid of them?”

Alex scratched her hair, it was black, spiky and generally didn’t look to have been washed recently, “Well, they are adults. I’m sure they’re capable of making their own decisions.”

“I know, but what should I tell them?” The cat asked and suddenly glowered, “Khemet should be here.”

Alex held the ocelot close, Kaley leaned her head into the human’s shoulder. While she held the morph, Alex couldn’t help but recall the image of her friend’s brother – the tall leopard with the nice build.

Not that she necessarily felt aroused by the male, she. . Just . . . knows how to appreciate a good physique. Though she couldn’t deny currently sporting a large grin...

“Kaley, you don’t have to warn them or embrace their decision, just talk to them. That’s all, just talk.” She stroked the cat’s cheek and Kaley began to purr. Alex almost forgot she was comforting another person. “And Misha will be there.”

“He will? And you?” The cat whimpered.

“Me? Sure. This won’t be a big reunion, remember they came here about some old fabric place.”

“I know, I just wish Khemet was here. I can’t wait to go back home.” She said and leaned into an emerging hug.

“Your little pallet in the tree?”

The ocelot purred louder, “It’s warm and cosy. Just right at this time of year, in summer it’s icky.”

“But ocelots like warm climates.”

“And women like dresses.” The feline countered.

Alex poked the cat’s nose.

“What do you do for a living?” Misha asked. He travelled to their room at the inn soon after receiving a message from Cherise describing a compromise to invest in a business they could open in the assault-damaged property. The three of them were sitting in the small room the young pair rented. It was scarcely more then two beds and a small chest of drawers.

“Well,” Audric answered and paused for a moment. “Whatever we can find to do.”

The fox nodded slowly. “Can you be more specific? What are you good at doing?” He asked.

“I can read and write very well.” Cherise answered.

Misha shook his head. “Good way to earn extra coin but not enough to live on. The keep has many scribes, unfortunately. Anything else?”

“Well. I worked for a candle maker for several months,” The male said in a soft tone as if embarrassed.

Misha’s ear perked up and his tail wagged. “Candle maker. That has some merit! People always need good candles and I do know of a few people who keep bees. You can use their wax!”

“Candles? But doesn’t a castle of this size have access to many candle makers?” Cherise asked with a frown.

Misha shook his head. “Not really. We only have one. There was another but we lost him during the assault.”

“...Okay. Let’s do it!” Audric said.

The woman pondered for a moment. “Aye, Misha, if you agree to invest in our shop to rebuild and stock it we will give you a percent of the profits... or work to pay off out dept if it goes pair shaped.”

“How about I get 30% of the profits till you have paid off the debt?” The fox asked.

“We’ll split it three ways.” Audric agreed.

Misha pondered that for a moment. “Sounds fair to me.” The fox answered.

Cherise stood up and reached her hand to shake the fox’s paw.

Misha stood up and solemnly took her hand. He shook it slowly. “You have a deal, partner.”

She suddenly flinched and looked herself over, “Oh! ...sorry, I thought for a moment you said panther.” She blushed.

The fox laughed. “No I said partner. There is no telling what the curse will do.”

“We don’t have time to worry about the curse anyway. It’s time to get to work!” She said excitedly and stood up. “Come on, brother, we have plenty of work to get done.”

The fox nodded and wagged his tail. “Good!”

Scarcely a day passed but the valley’s newest residents organised the building’s cleanup and secured their supplies for later shipment while what paltry belongings they had were moved to a larger room in the Keep. Their investor perplexingly ordered their work to stop and summoned them both to one of his properties. It was a task they were already aware of however it had naught to do with business. In another part of that building a small party headed to meet them.

“Would you please relax Kaley?” Misha asked as they walked down the hall. “They are nice people.” The three were in a back hall of the Jolly Collie inn. The inn was still only 3/4ths done and it smelt of freshly cut wood and varnish.

The ocelot looked like an animal being taken by the scruff to be slaughtered in a stew.

“They’re not going to eat you.” Alex added.

Misha nodded to the feline. “They are just as nervous as you are. They might think you’ll eat them!”

“Oh dear!” She exclaimed, “They’re not ‘those’ sort of people, are they?”

“Kaley,” Misha said with a yip of laughter. “That was a joke. I’ve met them several times remember. They are fine people!”

The feline sighed and nodded as they approached the door.

The fox stopped in front of the door and turned to the feline. “Now relax and be yourself and everything will be fine.”

Misha opened the door to what turned out to be a private dining room. The room was well appointed. Fine curtains covered the windows and a dining table and chairs of a rich, dark wood sat in the middle. Standing in front of the table were two people.

Both were starring at them in surprise. “Hello!” The girl said tentatively.

“Hello.” The feline said with wide eyes. “I’m Kaley.”

The man bowed. “I’m Audric,” He said and then pointed to the woman. “And this is my sister Cherise.”

Kaley nodded stiffly as her tail swayed back and forth and the two unchanged siblings seemingly looked at their feet.

“Well don’t stand there gawking at each other.” The fox said, “Shake hands. Hug. Sniff each other’s tails. Do something!”

The human woman stepped forward and hugged Kaley tightly. “Good to meet you cousin.”

The ocelot returned the hug warmly and rubbed her muzzle against the woman’s ear. “You too!” She suddenly reached out an arm and pulled in Audric with her claws.

The man let out a small squawk of protest and then was drawn into the hug. He wrapped his arms around Kaley.

Kaley purred. “I’ll have to show you my tree!” The feline said.

Alex stood next to the fox and patted him on the shoulder.

The fox nodded and put an arm around Alex. “We did that well!”

“And no one was eaten.” She murmured.

The two siblings watched over the repairs to what would be their new business and home with a mix of anxiety and excitement. The carpenters paid them no heed as they worked quickly to finish the roof and damaged walls before night fall.

“I never thought I would live to see this happen.” Audric murmured.

“To actually own something.” His sister agreed.

“No. To be business partners with and have a roof put over our heads by a fox...”

Cherise laughed, “That was very nice of him. Makes me wonder if it’s really the curse that keeps people here.”

“Perhaps it’s the curse that bands them together.” He answered softly as he watched the carpenters work on the roof.

“I can’t wait till the repairs are finished.” She said, hoping to change the subject.

Audric looked at her and raised his eyebrow, “Sis, your posture... no, you’re shrinking!!!” He shouted.

The woman looked at herself and squealed as she shrank down into what became baggy clothing.

“Cherise!” He said and ran to her side. The carpenters stopped work and ran over too.

The changing girl bundled the dress where it sagged around her waist but she didn’t shrink down any further.

“Sis, are you okay?” He asked with real worry.

“I’m fine...” She said in a youthful voice.

“...good, I...” Audric began and gasped. He panted for breath and looked at his hand as his nails began to grow and elongate into a point. He cried out in fear in a voice that quickly distorted into something more beastal.

A burly human worker grappled the transforming young man and held him steady. “Ride it out, lad, ride it out.”

Audric stuttered and whimpered as he felt a tail spring forth from his hind. His feet began to grow in length, his face stretched out into a muzzle and his whole body began to course with fur.

After a few minutes the both of them lay on the hardwood floor in ill fitting clothing, flanked by tradesmen. A child and an animal of some sort.

“Brother.” The girl said.

Audric didn’t answer and just lay with his new muzzle agape.

Cherise took him into a hug and the morph returned the hug with trembling arms, there they stayed in a semi state of panic.

Misha showed no sign of shock or disrespect toward the civet and child who sat on the other side of his desk.

The young man, Audric looked quite anxious but in control of his feelings. The woman, now a girl, Cherise, slumped in her chair with her head down. She was drained of the resolve she had when the fox first met her and Audric lost his casual aura.

“Well I see the curse has taken hold,” Misha said as he calmly looked the two over. “How do you feel?”

Audric looked at his claws... “Lesser.”

“Left behind.” Cherise sighed.

“Lesser? Left behind?” The fox asked, puzzled. He looked back and forth between the two. “You’re a civet – a lithe and nimble predator with an impressive set of claws and fangs. And you Cherise are an old woman’s dream – young forever.”

“Can I run a business like this?” She asked with pleading eyes.

“Why not? One of my best scouts is Lisa. Not only is she an age regressed she lost an arm! Hasn’t slowed her down. Scouting, a husband and two kids! I think she goes out on patrols for the peace and quiet away from the family.”

The girl looked up at him and seemed to smile though she still looked uncertain of herself.

“And exactly how big ARE these candles you mean to make and sell. I mean it doesn’t take strength to hold wax.”

“But how will I make them now?” Audric asked and held up his animalistic hands.

Misha lashed out and took hold of his thumbs. “See those?! Those little digits are what separate you from the real animals. With these you can hold things.”

The civet flinched but slowly nodded.

“And with those razor sharp claws you will NEVER need another knife or scissors. And no one will ever bother you in a dark alley. That reminds you, you’ll also find you can SEE in the dark.”

The human girl sighed.

“What’s wrong?” The vulpine asked, turning away from his confrontation of the civet.

Audric laughed, “She dreamed of being some fluffy thing.”

The girl looked up at him and glared, a blush clear across her face.

Misha nodded. “I know woman and men who would give anything to be young like you. And seeing as we have the finest mages in the midlands you could always get one to change you at least for a little while.”

She looked up at him with a start. After a moment Cherise leaned in and whispered, “Can I be a centaur for a short time?”

“Cherise...” Her brother sighed.

This surprised and delighted Misha and his eyes brightened. “Well I’m sure I can find a mage who can do a taur spell for you.”

The young girl giggled and sat up in the chair. The civet just sighed and chuckled as he shook his head.

The fox gave a yip of laughter. “I always find the time to help a fellow taur fan.”

Cherise blushed, “I didn’t know anyone else liked them, I’ve always felt rather silly.”

Misha laughed again. “I have to admit I was the first taur here at Metamor. I stumbled across the ability a year or two ago. There are a lot of people here in the Keep who like being a taur. Foxtaur, wolftaur, ottertaur, cheetahtaur!”

The two siblings just stared at him.

“Seriously! I can show you a tigertaur if you want? Oberon is around somewhere.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Audric gagged. “We’re here to report that the repairs are finished and the store is being stocked as we speak.”

“Great! We can host a grand opening this week!” The fox exclaimed.

The AR suddenly got up off her chair and ran up to the fox, squeezing him tight in a big hug, “Thank you! Thank you for everything!”

He returned the hug. “Glad to help and may I be the first to say ‘Welcome to Metamor Keep!’”

“You said that a fortnight ago, Misha.” Audic said.

“I did? Ooops! Then I was the first to say it!” He gave a yip of laughter. “Welcome to your new lives!”