Chill wind howls through the mountain peaks and tall pines, calling in the cold like a shrill old woman. Darkness fell barely an hour ago but the warmth of the day is now long gone.
You huddle against the rock wall at your back and extend your fingers toward the warm fire before you. Its heat radiates off the stone, helping to stave off the chill.
Your contact is late. You’re expecting a grizzled old man who boasts bright red hair sprinkled with a healthy serving of white. Although you’ve never met the man, Vincent’s descriptions are usually exact, his attention to detail rarely failing.
It’s unusual for a contact to be late. You shift slightly sideways to let the fire warm your leg. If someone hires your services, it means they’re desperate and desperate people don’t tend to want to insult you by making you wait.
You shift to the other side and reach for the clay mug that sits on a stone next to the fire. A groan of appreciation escapes you as you sip the strong coffee. Half an hour longer, you decide, and then you’ll leave, just long enough to finish your coffee.
You’re swallowing the last of the coffee dregs when the snap of someone stepping on a dead branch echoes off the rock wall. Not long after, there’s a sniffle, probably from the person’s nose being cold.
A few seconds more and the expected, grizzled man steps from the dark line of trees.
He pauses, taking in your fire, your pack that sits beside you, and the weapons along with it, and finally yourself. He fidgets with the edge of his coat.
“Join me,” you say with a gesture at the other side of your small fire.
He bobs a nervous bow and sits. Like the warmth overrides all caution, he slides his hands free of his gloves and stretches them toward the flames. An ‘ah’ of relief sighs from between his lips.
“Quite the meeting place you picked,” you comment.
“Had to keep it remote.” He glances over his shoulder as though, even this far out, he’s nervous about being watched.
Not one to waste time, you ask, “What is the item you need retrieved?”
“Not what,” he says and leans closer, “but who.”
You give a questioning look.
“Arion Westfall was kidnapped a week ago by the Eastbrooks.”
You lean back against the stone wall and eye the man. You saw Westfall at the Winter Festival two nights ago. Is he playing you for some reason?
As though he notices your reaction, he continues speaking, “So far we’ve been able to keep the kidnapping quiet. We’ve used his double, the boy we have stand in at large speeches and such, to make general appearances. But Westfall’s supposed to attend the Princess’ birthday in three days and she’ll know it’s not him. If the princess finds out, she’ll name him an incompetent and choose another champion. The Westfall’s will be ruined.”
“The families kidnap each other all the time and, through ransoms, regain their children on a regular basis. What’s different this time?” you ask.
“No ransom’s been asked. In fact, no one’s claimed responsibility.”
“Then how do you know it was the Eastbrooks?”
He looks away and fiddles with the edge of his coat again. You simply wait for an answer. You’re good at waiting.
Finally he admits, “The Eastbrook boy boasted at the Winter Festival that he’d be the new Champion soon.”
“That’s your proof?”
“Three days? That’s my time frame?” you ask.
He nods again.
“Deal,” you say.
Relief washes from his face, into his shoulders as they droop, and then down the rest of his body.
“Payment’s been delivered already?”
“At the Morrowtown Inn,” he confirms, “Vincent was specific on the details.” During the conversation he’d relaxed, leaning closer to the small fire. Now, he backs up a step as though this last comment reminds him of exactly who he’s dealing with.
You grin and shove your mug into your pack. He takes this as the dismissal that it is and starts to back away. At the tree line he pauses.
“You can do it, right?” he asks.
Your grin grows wider, almost feral, “we shall see.”
He gulps and turns away.
You finish snuffing out the fire while you consider the options. The Eastbrook castle is familiar to you as it’s not the first time you’ve retrieved something from it, but the grizzled man didn’t have a lot for you to go on. The Eastbrook’s could be keeping Westfall in their tower because of his status or in their dungeons because they want him to disappear.
Depending on those locations, your infiltration method will be different. Do you decide to check the Tower or the Dungeon first?
Although the Eastbrooks are haughty, they rarely disrespect a person’s station. It would be beneath them to throw the Westbrook boy in a dungeon and forget about him.
Settled on checking the tower first, you shoulder your pack and hug your cloak tight against your sides. This pulls your pack, with all its weapons and tools, snug against the hollow of your spine.
Wind howls, swirling around you, and the night closes in until even the bellow of the wind is only a muffled murmur in your ears.
The change happens in an instant. To an outside person you blur and emit soft light and then, with no clear outline until the change is complete, the shift gives you feathers and talons in place of your human flesh from a moment before.
To you, it’s fire that melts from your head slowly down your body until it reaches your toes. When it’s finished, you give a screech and launch into the air.
The wind catches under your hawk-like wings and lifts you high.
Most shape changers such as yourself work as assassins or spies. You decided long ago you weren’t thrilled with those two options and so you created a third. You retrieve things for people. Usually stolen items but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes people just drop an item in a lake or over a cliff and, although you’ve never killed someone in your work, the stigma of what you are still frightens people. They only come to you when the situation is dire.
Which works in your favor because by then, they’re usually willing to pay well for whatever item they’ve misplaced.
The usual day trek to the Eastbrook castle is quickly done within a few hours. You circle over the tower as the light of dawn starts to turn the shadows into gray sketches. There are no lights burning in the tower but at this time of day, that doesn’t mean anything.
Finally satisfied that everything is quiet, you land on the windowsill of the highest window in the tower. Bars cover the window, spaced too close together for your hawk’s body to slide between. You peek inside. The room is a small circle with a wedge cut out of the floor for the stairs down. Other than dust, there’s nothing else inside.
You fold your wings tight against your sides and fire melts from your head to your tail feathers.
Now a mouse, you slip between the window’s bars and scamper across the empty room to the stairs. Little puffs of dust, kicked up by your tiny feet, tickle your nose and you pause to give a petite sneeze.
From beyond the door at the bottom of the stairs comes a yowl of interest. There’s a scratching as a cat paws at the door.
You squeak and scamper back up the stairs just as the door down below creaks open.
“What do you hear, Longtail?” asks a deep voice.
You’ve only moments before the cat shoots up the stairs. Changing into a dog would not be a good option. Most dogs don’t sneak into strange rooms to be found later. A cat might, however, have wandered up here for a good nap. Or a smaller bird might have flown through the bars into the room by accident.
With seconds remaining before the cat enters the tower’s top room, you hug your tiny paws against your sides and fire washes
from your head down to your tail.
There’s a flash and your paws now have sharp claws and the fur on your back stands on end. Your silver tail poofs out and you arch your back in an aggressive stance.
A massive black tom darts up the stairs and freezes at the sight of you.
After a moment, his head tilts to the side in a questioning gesture. It’s not often you run into a cat larger than your own silver shape but this feline’s got a good ten pounds on you. The scars on his ears and shoulders attest to his experience. He’s not intimidated by your stance and to emphasize his confidence, he thumps his hindquarters down into a relaxed sitting posture.
“You’re not from around here,” he says. To the old man who follows him up the stairs, these words sound like a low growl.
You relax and sit down as well. No reason to antagonize him.
“I usually hang out around the dungeons,” you respond. “Today I wanted a quieter place to rest.”
His ears twitch back and forth in a negative gesture. “I know all the cats of this castle. You’re not one of them.”
“Who’s this, Longtail?” the old man steps toward you like he’s going to pick you up. Being a cat has its advantages, but getting picked up by a strange human isn’t one of them. Your hackles rise.
Longtail responds this time. Apparently hissing at his human isn’t a good idea. His hind legs bunch in preparation to launch at you. Judging by his size and scars, an actual fight might be a toss up on who would win.
Just as he’s about to pounce, you dart directly between the old man’s legs. This prevents Longtail from simply spinning to catch you as he’d end up scratching his human in the process. It gives you a few precious seconds and you use them to vault down the stairs.
The room below is obviously the old man’s living quarters with a single bed, a nightstand and a writing table. In your hurried pass through it, you can tell that only the old man lives there. It smells heavily of him and Longtail and no one else.
You continue on to the next set of stairs. There’s a cracked door at the bottom but you’re moving too fast to navigate the small opening between the door and the frame. Instead, you tuck your head to the side and slam you shoulder against the heavy wood. Pain stabs through your shoulder.
It’s a good thing you’re a decent sized cat or the door wouldn’t have budged. As it is, it creaks open far enough to let you tumble through but the resistance allows Longtail to make ground on you. His claws catch the wood right where your body hit it moments before.
This floor is the main level of the castle. You race down the hall leading out of the tower but cringe as you fly past two cats curled in the sunshine streaming through a window.
They howl at your disturbance.
“Give chase!” Longtail hollers as he too flies past.
You glance back to see the three of them racing after you but the old man is nowhere in sight. Your shoulder’s screaming from where you hit the door. You’re not sure you can shake your pursuers and a fight with the three of them would be a for sure loss on your part.
The Westbrook boy was not in the tower, which means he’s most likely in the dungeons but there’s a lot to the underground cells. You could spend days searching them.
You race around another corner and find yourself in an empty room. If you’re going to change, now would be a good time.
You consider shifting into a large dog to scare the cats away. After they’re gone, you could pick something less conspicuous to search the dungeons.
Or maybe the cats could be of help. If you shift into a human in front of them and then shift back into a cat, you might be able to enlist their help. Might being the key word. They may just decide you’re a danger to all their humans and attack you outright.
In the second you have to decide, do you pick?
You can’t shake the cats and they could be of help to you. You’ll chance them attacking but be prepared to fight if they decide you’re an assassin to eliminate.
Just as the cats come dashing into the room, you focus inward and fire washes through you. When your vision focuses again, all three felines are staring at you like you grew a new head. You kind of did.
Now that you’re sure you have their attention, you shift back into the silver furred cat they were just chasing.
Longtail gives a, “well I’ll be,” and flops to the ground with his mouth hanging open, out of breath from the chase. “Don’t see that every day.”
“What do we do now?” one of the smaller cats, a tortoise shell female, asks.
“Assassin or Spy?” Longtail asks.
“Neither,” you answer as you relax into a sitting position, “I’m looking for the Westbrook boy. From what I know, he’s here somewhere, kidnapped by the Eastbrooks.”
“They always keep the boys in the tower,” the tortoise shell says.
“I checked there first,” you chuckle ruefully and give Longtail a look.
He yawns with a satisfied sound. “They haven’t kidnapped one of the others in awhile. He’s not here.”
There’s a pause before one of the other cats says in a murmur, “Maybe he is.” This cat is a gray puff of fur so fluffy you wonder where his eyes are. He gets three curious looks from you and the others.
“Explain, Furball,” Longtail demands. You get the feeling Furball isn’t the cat’s actual name but more of a teasing nickname.
Furball scrunches in on himself in a nervous fashion. “They opened the North Wing last week. Sylvia’s been taking food up there.”
“Will you show me?” you ask.
Longtail eyes you, perhaps trying to decide if he trusts your story.
“If it’s just the boy you want, we’ll help,” he finally says. “We don’t like the human’s game of stealing each other’s kits. It’s barbaric.”
You thank them and they lead you out of the window. The room you shifted in boasts a large balcony. From there the three felines climb a drainpipe to gain access to the roof, which gives you fair entrance to most of the castle without being seen. You’ll have to remember this tactic.
On the far wing of the castle, Furball leads everyone down to another balcony. “That next balcony is the one leading to the room Sylvia’s been going into, but the doors there will probably be locked,” he mumbles.
“Inside hallway then.” Longtail leads the way.
Your timing is perfect as a young girl is walking down the hall with a tray held on her shoulder. Furball rubs her leg and she smiles.
“Not now, kitten, I don’t have a free hand.”
Furball shadows her down the hall to the next door. She unlocks it by turning the bolt above the handle and slips inside, Furball keeping to her heels.
As the door starts to swing shut, he bats it with a playful paw before scampering after his mistress.
Longtail leads the way into the room before the door fully swings closed again. You follow him under one of the beds, but it’s immediately clear that there’s more than just one occupant to the room.
Three boys, probably about thirteen or fourteen in age, sit at a rough wooden table. Although they’re dressed in plain cotton clothing, you recognize the Westbrook boy from his tousle of dark hair.
Sylvia sets the tray on the table where the boys are sitting.
“That’s it?” one of the boys protests.
Sylvia raises her hands in the air. “I only carry the food. Cook decides what gets brought up.”
“Sheesh,” Arion Westbrook scoffs.
Sylvia backs away from them a step before turning for the door. As she does so, her hand absently goes to the pocket of her dress.
Just before she opens the door, you dart out and launch yourself onto her skirts, being careful to hang on with just your claws in the fabric and not digging them into her skin beneath.
She cries out in surprise. “Bad kitty!” Her hand connects with your head and you’re flung back into the room. The door closes with a thud and the lock gives a clear click as she closes you inside with the boys.
One of the boys laughs. “Feisty cat.”
Furball comes out with his hackles up. You still can’t see his eyes but his next words make his sentiments clear. “You attacked my human!”
Instead of responding, you cough and spit out the key you pilfered from Sylvia’s pocket.
He gives an “ugh” like you hocked up a hairball on his toes.
Longtail sighs. It’s a long-suffering and disapproving sound. “Not the best way to get the key but I guess it worked.”
Arion Westbrook stands up from the table. “Did that cat just spit up a key?”
You wink at Longtail, stand up on your hindquarters and hug your front paws tight to your sides.
Fire washes through you.
Once your vision clears, you find the three boys backed up against the wall, staring at you in fright and the cats sitting on your feet.
“Don’t kill us,” one boy, probably the Southbrook boy judging from his almost white hair, whispers from dry lips.
“Sheesh.” It’s your turn to scoff. “If I was going to kill you, you wouldn’t have seen me coming.” You retrieve the key from the floor. “Time to make an escape. I was hired for Arion here but all three will do. Let’s go.”
They glance at each other but you don’t give them time to debate their choice. Unlocking the door, you step out into the hallway and motion for them to follow.
“You think they’d kidnap all three boys and leave them unguarded?” hollers a voice from behind you.
You spin to see a tall man coming down the hall. It’s not his size that makes you freeze, however, it’s his face. You know this man.
“Run,” you tell the boys, “follow the cats until they get you off the grounds and then head home. I’ll find you later.”
Longtail gives you a single nod. Just enough to let you know he’ll see them safely out.
The boys glance at you and the man and then take off running after the cats.
You meet the man’s dark look for a moment as you turn to race toward him and then you’re hugging your sides at the same moment he folds his arms across his chest. So far you’ve chosen domestic animals but you’re no longer worried about drawing attention.
You shift into a lion just as he changes into a large dog. You’re moving too fast for him to fix his mistake in time. As you clash, you swipe your massive claws across his shoulders. He rolls and tosses you away from him. When you try to spin to bite at his neck, he manages to sink his teeth into the delicate tendons of your hind leg. Pain flashes through you but you pull your paws inward and turn the pain into the fire of another shift.
Your legs expand into the thick limbs of an elephant and the other shape changer whimpers as his canine jaws can’t keep their hold.
The hallway is too narrow for an elephant to move much, but you can sit. You sit down on top of the dog. He wriggles around for a moment and attempts to shift a few times but his inability to pull a full breath of air keeps him from focusing enough to change.
Finally, he passes out.
Because of your injured rear leg, it takes you a while to catch up with the boys. When you do find them, you find they’ve negotiated safe passage home with a caravan transporting potatoes.
You don’t show yourself, but you keep watch as a hawk just to make sure they make it home. When you return to the tavern to retrieve payment from Vincent, he hands you several notes along with the money. They’re messages of thanks from each of the Brook boys. Although the Eastbrooks will never hire you, you’re quite trusted now by the North, South and West.
Well done and thanks for joining in the adventure! I hope to see you next time.