„Richard, Kaplan, Wayne, Adam, Dan, Carl, Egon, Peter, Ray, Winston…”
“Enough Hiram, please. My head’s pounding.”
I had to stop the continuous flood of names and names and names, the seemingly inexhaustible fennec feed me since we made stop for rest. I sat slumped down against a tree trunk, eyes closed and panting. It was shortly after noon and the temperatures still rising, high enough to make me very uncomfortable under my thick pelt.
I was hungry for something real.
“No luck so far?” His voice came from somewhere above me. I looked up and spotted him in the crown of an oak, where he retrieved a backpack. “Nothing that sounds familiar?”
I shook my head. “No bell’s ringing. Let’s just settle for Mark.”
My new friend jumped back to the leaf-covered ground and opened the bag. Rummaging through it he asked: “Is there a special reason for your choice?”
A frustrated hiss escaped my muzzle. “No, to me it doesn’t feel more known than Edgar, Hassan, OIaf, Cabracan – seriously Hiram, Cabracan? – Or Xiao. I simply like it.”
Grumbly I added: “Besides, ‘Dreamer’ sounds kinda lofty, now as I think about it.”
The fennec made no attempt to conceal his giggle. Finally finished with his expedition through the depths of his backpack, he tossed me a water skin and something wrapped in wax paper which smells made me swim in drool.
“Your decision. Then it’s Mark Dreamer for the moment. Plus any nicknames me or any of my friends come up with”, he declared.
My reply was something muffled, mouth full with dried meat.
His smile grew sardonic. “And I don’t believe it will take long for you to get the first one, ‘Stripper’.”
His gentle laughter drowned my very eloquent “Hey!” He lifted his paws in defence. “I’m just teasing you, sorry. But the problem’s still present. We need something to cover you. Couldn’t let the ladies see you like this, all in the buff. Lessee…” And again his arms dived into the bag. “Too bad I didn’t bring some spare duds.”
“Lucky me”, I remarked dryly, after a glimpse at his narrow hips. “I would die by suffocation, but modest at least.”
It’s almost a dramatic view, watching the tremendous ears of a fennec fall back. “Touché”, Hiram said. “I think I deserved this one”, with these words he threw me another bundle.
Let’s say I was, uhm, slightly puzzled after I unfolded it.
“Big enough to swathe even your waist in it.”
“You don’t have a spare of clothes but a towel?”
He shrugged. “You never know.”
Eventually the absurdity of this situation brought a smile to me. And as I was busy covering my bareness, my talkative companion did his best to fill the silence. “You know, a skirt…” “Kilt!” I demanded
“You know, a… kilt”, he chuckled “Has its merits, especially for you, in this conditions.”
On my clueless look he added: “Better ventilation.”
My expression must’ve been priceless. First he started to giggle, then me too. That went on for some minutes, every time one of us got his senses back together; the giggles of the other incinerated the fit anew.
Oh man, it did me a great deal to laugh.
To be honest, Hiram had a point. Even my impromptu-kilt was almost too much for me in the heat. A properly pair of trousers would certainly set me ablaze.
Finally our laughter subsided and my mood swung back to the opposing side. I can tell you, my sudden high and lows started to tire me. But now I had more time for questions and Hiram for answering them.
“Hiram, when I tell you I’m sure that I wasn’t always a Leopard, you wouldn’t be surprised, wouldn’t you?”
He gave me a sympathetic and sad look. Maybe my friend feared this question more than me. “I wouldn’t, Mark. You were once human, like me.”
“Metamor Keep happened”, he looked skyward and took a deep breath. “Gods, I don’t know where to start. It’s a long story for long nights and…”
“… And you don’t have hours to waste, not even minutes, fool!”
Like a blade this harsh words cut Hiram’s sentence and the peaceful atmosphere of the place. In a blink the fennec was on his feet, sword in his paw. And a heartbeat later I realised, me too, claws unsheathed. This was the first occasion I’d been glad for the arbitrary acts of my body.
Then the owner of the unfamiliar voice appeared in my view, leaving its hiding place. Immediately Hiram relaxed. And me, well, I stared.
Have you ever seen paintings or statues of goddesses of war? Perfect sculpted bodies, athletic but still very feminine, clad in chain mail and leather, wielding shield and sword. And unbridled wisps of golden hair flowing from under their helmets down to their shoulders.
Uhm, to be honest I’m not sure about the portrayals, but at that moment I’d seen one in flesh and blood! And I almost forgot to mention her steel-blue eyes, currently busy burning holes in both of us, although the fennec got the most of it.
“By the gods, Hiram! You still wonder why you’re no scout? These aren’t the gardens of the Keep. Lutins were seen near here!
My friend literally shrank by almost a foot and not only because his ears laid themselves against his head. The mixtures of emotions on his face were of a kind, no one gladly would let them be seen by anyone else. Most of them were tied with embarrassment and shame. I almost felt pity for him until her gaze of death nailed me to my spot. I readied myself for the inevitable scolding I was about to endure next.
But it didn’t came. The goddess looked at me silent for some moments in which my anxiety grew some magnitudes more. Then she just turned away from me, and I’m almost sure I saw her lips twitch, like she’s been stifling a smile.
“You might cover yourself now.”
This took a moment for me to mentally recite and sort it out, definitely a change of subject I’ve had not expected. A careful look down my front revealed, if you’re forgiving me the figure of speech, the discreditable truth. Intent of not letting myself getting fazed by it I snorted. “Yeah, it slipped. It is no plate armour. It’s a freaking towel!”
Again I wrapped myself in the off-white linen, (Did I mentioned the little foxes printed on it?) this time with a tighter knot. Hiram’s voice seemed lost for now, so it was on me to participate in the talking. “Forgive me for I am curious, but how long have you been here?”
“Long enough. And be thankful it’s only us. Your stupid cackling was loud enough to alarm half of the forest.” Cute. Beyond doubt not a friend of sweet-talk.
The fennec cleared his throat. “I may as well introduce you. Mark Dreamer, meet squad leader Demeter E. Skylark. And the imp behind you is called Dustin.”
I whirled around. Indeed, there stood someone, two steps away from me, bearing a boastful, dirty grin.
It’s hard to remember now what shocked me more: That I never even got the slightest indication or hunch someone sneaked up to me, or that my stalker was a little boy!
I estimated him around 12 years. With little higher heels he would reach four and a half feet, and 80 pounds if soaked wet. Messy black hair that needed a cut, lively brown eyes, freckles, grimy leaf green tunic, brown breaches in the same condition and ditto for the boots; all in all the typical kid you’d expect to frolic around in the fields.
With the exception that on his belt, well, that wasn’t a slingshot. Throwing daggers, half a dozen of them and a pair of long knifes.
Dustin did nothing to interrupt my gawking, clearly enjoying the attention. At the same time a hushed conversation unfolded between the others, mostly unnoticed from my side. Only when Demeter got a little louder my attention snapped back to them.
“Two squads are on the way, we round them up. And you’re going with us, long-ear. We could use another good archer.” Hiram made no attempt to object, I could imagine there was nothing less expected.
And again, her finger pointed at me. “What about him. Can he at least move silent?”
“Sure”, Hiram said, “he passed me only a few steps away and I almost didn’t notice him.”
Demeter looked not very convinced. “Given how easily distracted you are, that means not much. I can’t bother with him now. He will stay back.
“Dustin, the same goes for you. Keep an eye on spotty.” With a raised finger she subdued his upcoming protest. Mumbling some things for which he seemed way too young, the boy submitted. He shot a dour look at her back and a resigned one to me. “Just stay close to me and be quiet. I get you out of here.”
Surprises were a part of my life since I opened up eyes, and if a scrawny child were chosen to look after me… FINE!
The moment Demeter moved, suddenly shades appeared in the thicket, heading the same direction as her. Maybe five, probably more. Dustin commented my startled expression with a crooked smile and a slap on my back. “Bam, you’re dead”, he whispered.
They vanished between the trees, without trace and without sound. Even Skylark in her heavy armour, which must’ve been enchanted in some ways.
We followed them in some distance. To be more precise: Dustin followed and I trailed him as soundless as possible.
Maybe you can imagine the multitude of questions burning on my tongue, for I had absolutely no clue what I had myself gotten into and what kind of weirdos dragged me around.
Yes, I was pretty frustrated. Blame my instable mood!
That went on for some time, sneaking, not saying a word, brooding (that one went for me, I didn’t knew about the boy) and slowly accumulating tension.
The term lutin wasn’t entirely unknown to me. I associated it with “nasty, little, murderous vermin”. Kill them or be killed. To me it’s been very obvious what “We round them up” meant. The Keepers were out to spill blood, a live and death fight ahead. And with a sparse portion of bad luck, me and my little guide would be involved.
I froze in mid-step and perked my ears. Dustin, who noticed that something wasn’t right, got a signal from me to stay quiet. Of course he couldn’t have heard. Human ears were such a dull tool. Closing my eyes I tried to concentrate harder, I was sure there was a scream.
A thunderous roar nearly deafened me and let my tail fluff up like a bottlebrush.
Forrest’s aren’t suited for people who like to have the great overview. I only got glimpses of something that gave me the impression of a quick spreading wildfire, though the flames died as fast as they had appeared in the first place.
Dustin touched my wrist to get my attention. His undying smile had changed into a grim and dark one, badly misplaced on the face of a, uhm, innocent kid. “Heh, firefoxy is doing his mojo!” (Don’t ask me, I’m writing it down exactly as how he said it.)
Now that my ears recovered from the first hit I was able to hear it: Screams of pain and rage, battle cries, the clank of metal against metal, the dreadful melody of combat.
Of course the boy seemed completely unimpressed by the fact that only a short walk away people died. I hoped it would be mostly lutins.
For Dustin obviously no question it would. “Shouldn’t take them long. Come on, let’s look for refugees. “
I don’t know how he did it, but the next moment I remember, he moved toward the carnage. And a moron who currently called himself Mark, well he followed. Again it is necessary to be honest with you. The prospect of hunting and killing touched something in me. I prefer to call it my feral side. I was frightened and cursed myself for approaching the battleground instead of running from it. Though at the same time thrilled and hungry for some serious violence. A streak of mine I’m not proud of.
All thoughts of my conflicting emotions were erased from my mind the heartbeat, something within the bushes in front of us screeched. Then a bunch of ugly, little green-skinned creatures left their cover, charging in our direction. They were four (but I couldn’t tell exactly at that moment) and in retrospect more scared to meet us than vice versa.
The foremost of them had only a short appearance. After two steps he reeled backward, one of Dustin’s daggers had found its mark. Of the remaining lutins two bolted at the boy, believing him the easier target and I got the last one.
Instinctively I knew what to do. Evidently there were some things you couldn’t unlearn, like breathing. Apparently I was that intense trained to execute some fighting moves, I could perform them automatically.
Unfortunately my altered body wasn’t part of the equation. The different stance and balance, caused by my animalistic feet and tail proved to be disastrous.
Whatever I had intended, it run to the place where failed ideas are going. Suddenly one foot got in the way of the other and my brilliant sweep changed into a lurch. Bad turn of events? It could have been worse; I guess it surprised both of us.
The lutin’s Dagger, clearly aimed for something important, hit only my right arm, below the shoulder. I won’t describe the feeling, though was oddly familiar.
The next couple of moments were shrouded by a red veil. I grabbed the weapon hand of my opponent with my left and then… I will spare you the details; I still can not believe I’m capable of doing such things. Some time I think I’ll never get the taste of blood out of my mouth.
I came back to my senses as a body crushed into the undergrowth beside me, missing my head by inches. The corpse of a green-skin, almost as terribly mauled as my victim, a good part of its throat ripped to shreds.
Gods, I totally forgot Dustin! Frantically I struggled to get back on my paws, not that easy ‘cause my right arm refused to work. Where’s the boy?
There stood someone, the carcass of the last lutin at his hind paws. A juvenile wolf of five feet, on two legs like the fennec and me. With hazel fur, wearing Dustin’s clothes sans the boots, which were missing. I would have deemed him rather cute, weren’t it for some distressing details.
Details, what details? I should speak it out for everyone to hear: blood. It covered his clothes, his muzzle and above all his paw hands.
Seemingly for an eternity no one of us spoke. Again, like at my first encounter with Hiram, my mind ceased working, a few times more and it would become a habit.
The other one now looked more mortified than menacing. His ears were folded back and the tip of his tail visible between his knees. “I lost composure.” Even with my keen ears I almost overheard him whisper.
“Aw, don’t worry”, I said, trying to sound nonchalantly. “Me too. Hey, could you teach me that trick?”
“You know, change back into a human.”
He winced at this, hard. I presume I hit a very sore spot. Then he pinched his muzzle bridge, not caring for the red marks his finger pads left behind. “All right, you really don’t know anything. No, you can’t change back.”
“You can’t! Nor can Hiram or Demeter or another Keeper. I’m different.”
I chuckled. “With you there are many stages of ‘different’.”
At last a smile! Now the wolf pup looked a lot more like the old Dustin. “You have no idea.” A deep inhale. “I’m a werewolf.”
“You’re not surprised.”
“I guess not.” With a pleading expression (look at this puppy eyes!) he added: “Please don’t tell anyone. As you can see, I’m not good at keeping secrets, but I’m really trying.”
“Don’t worry, pup. I keep my lips shut.”
I learned a valuable lesson about keepers that day: Expect always more than meets the eye.
“Enough of me”, Dustin called. “What about you spotty, you’re bleeding like a pig!”
“Oh, that”, I mumbled, all of a sudden feeling a little light-headed. I haven’t thought of the wound, which looked darn deep and was heavily bleeding. Nevertheless I felt no pain; on a second thought I felt nothing of my entire right arm. “Looks not so good, but I feel nothing. I, I can’t move my arm.” My utterance turned slurry and I started to stagger. “Feeling funny.”
Dustin jumped to the lutin I had killed. He looked around until he found the creature’s weapon. He sniffed the part of the blade not stained with my blood and wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“Blast, its poisoned!”
My legs gave way eventually. Dustin’s small frame had no chance to support me, so he had to let me fall. It wasn’t that awful, the ground was covered in thick layers of leaves. Actually a good place to take a nap. These and similar thoughts flew through my increasing clouded mind, as I slowly drifted away. Barely could I feel Dustin shaking me, desperately trying to keep me awake.
Stinging pain made me yell and open my eyes wide. A paw with sharp claws seized my ear and forced me to look into the face of my tormentor. It was the boy, still in his wolven shape. And I could see some silvery hair sticking between his canine teeth. He had bitten my tail!
“Fight, spotty! You will not going that easy.”
If I had had enough air to laugh, I’d probably given it a try. So I attempted to smile the human way. Not sure how good was, but the message got through. “I’m here, boy”, I murmured. “And I have no desire to leave. Do that again, if necessary.”
That brought the smile back on his furry cheeks. “I will, spotty. Better believe it.
I remember nothing more until I regained consciousness, wondering why the ground beneath me shook so violently. Opening my eyes was quite a task, for they gathered pounds in weight somehow.
The “shaking ground” turned out to be a litter; made out of two branches and some cloth (thankfully not my towel), carried by two big people I wasn’t acquainted to. I felt like a well used piece of chewing tobacco, the taste in my mouth that horrible, it must have been medicine.
I didn’t recognise the voice or the face appearing in my view, but within a moment two known ones joined her.
“Welcome back to the land of the living”, Hiram shouted.
“We were almost worried, spotty”, Dustin chimed in, now back in his human form and relatively clean. Both seemed noticeable relieved.
I tried to speak, an undertaking crowned by success, to my great pleasure. “Good to see you guys. Don’t worry, I feel fine.”
A shameless lie. And a very obvious one, as the third visitor on my sickbed, a tiger striped grey cat, hurried to attest. “You’re an awful incompetent liar. Weren’t it for my antidote, you would probably be dead now.”
“Meet Siren Andred”, Dustin said. “Our field medic and the woman who saved your furry…”
“Language, boy!” Siren scolded, though she did it with a smirk. “Besides, what are you doing here, back to your position!”
On our way back to the Keep Hiram finally got enough time to fill some of the deepest gaps in my knowledge about him, his fellow keepers and the place we were approaching. He told me about the battle of the Three Gates, the dark wizard Nasoj and the three curses he threw on Metamor Keep. Everyone, who dwelled longer than a few days in the vicinity of the keep, would be afflicted by one of them. The first one changed someone in the opposite gender, the second in something animal-like and the third in a child. Inevitable and irreversible.
Yes, now a few things about squad leader Skylark made sense (by the way, the “E” in her name stood for Edward, her former name as a man). And somewhat more about Dustin. In fact, the little rascal is 35, married and father of two kids.
Whatever Siren made me drink when I was out, it did miracles. I got increasingly better, weren’t it for my thick bandaged arm, it’s possible I would have tried to stand up. And Siren unquestionably would have beaten me down for it.
Maybe you’re waiting for me to tell you about the first time my eyes fell on the majestic edifice named Metamor Keep. I must disappoint you, I slept through it. The first thing I’d seen of the Keep was the infirmary.
The nimble Hands of the healer fastened the bandage with a pin. “There. The dagger had damaged a tendon. I repaired it and now the wound will heal fast and nicely.”
Carefully I tried to move my arm, it worked. Despite the painkiller which made my head swim, it hurt like another stab, but I could use it again. This “lyte”-magic my helper used was really a neat thing.
The small racoon gave me a disapproving look. “You shouldn’t do that too often, or the stitches will not hold. Take this.” With these words he handed me a sling. “But as you can see, it works. No need to look that tense.”
His bright smile was contagious and, I must admit, made it worse for me. It was good that he interpreted my behaviour as tense. In reality I practically sat on my hands to keep them from petting this adorable little coon boy. Not only looked he like a racoon, he also had the body of a cub, eight to ten years, maybe younger. But now I knew a little about the curses of Metamor Keep and also knew that within this cuddly hull a grown man was stuck. And my attempt to pet him would, without doubt, both of us embarrass to death.
Eventually I managed it to stretch my healthy hand out to shake his (left-to-right handshakes are awkward, let me tell you). “Thank you Doc, by the way I’m Mark.”
“Err, no, I'm not the doctor. I'm the doctor's assistant. And my name is Kiba.”
“Lucky me you’re here today. Well, that took care of my body and now I need something for my soul.”
“Oh, if you need a place to pray”, Kiba declared, “we have Temples for both the Lothanasi and…”
“Uhm no, you misunderstood me Kiba.” I had no idea which denomination I had followed before my amnesia. And I wasn’t in a hurry to find me a new one. Not until some of the more mundane tasks were settled.
“I mean, where can I get a good ale here?”
I think I found another new friend that day. He led me to a tavern known as the Deaf Mule and introduced me to a lot of people. I finally got my ale and Kiba told me some stories about the Keep (he actually loves it to get scratched between his ears, who would have thought).
Siren caught me there. I almost gave her a heart attack, seeing me sitting on a table, a tankard on my side, instead of lying in a bed. I will not repeat the fierce wigging she gave me and my companions, my ears still burning.
It seems I need to find an end now. Most of the story is already told and Dustin has arrived. At the moment he’s waiting impatiently for me to set the quill aside (in case you’re wondering, it turned out that I’m left-handed). He’ll give me the grand tour through the Keep, declaring I should not share the same fate as him and fall into Copernicus´ clutches. After that I have an appointment with healer Coe, concerning my lost memories.
There are still empty sheets left. I will fill them with events I’m going to witness in the future, hopefully not too many unpleasant ones.