“Are you ready for another round, Triss?”
Gripping my two practice daggers tightly, I bent my knees, matching the stance that Alvin and Karla had drilled into me. I felt like a soft branch pulled taut, ready to snap back at a moment’s notice.
“I’m ready,” I said, lifting my weapons into a guarding position.
Karla nodded, twirling her own practice daggers in her hands as she shifted into her fighting stance. “Here we go.”
Then, she charged.
I lifted up my two daggers, holding them in a cross shape to block her attack as she swiped at my torso. Using the momentum from the impact, I stepped back out of range, readjusting my position until I was upright and ready again.
“Very good,” she muttered.
Her eyes were locked with mine, a slight glint sparkling from within them as they caught the patches of sun shining between the trees. Her mouth was split in a toothy grin, her entire expression not dissimilar from the expression a cat would have as it toyed with the lives of defenseless mice.
Even now, it still seemed like I had no hope of surpassing her in a fight.
I raised my left hand, before bringing it back down in an attempt to bait out some kind of movement from her.
She didn’t even flinch.
She was just waiting for me to make a move… It felt like she knew she had control of the fight, and just wanted to see what I would try to do to shift the momentum back in my favour.
So, I obliged her curiosity.
Swinging my tail to the right, I dashed forward towards her, swiping at her weapons with my own. As they made contact, I used the weight of my tail moving to sidestep around her counterattack, putting myself in a position where I could swipe at her neck.
But… she was too fast.
Her gaze flicked past my hips, at my tail as it swung to the side. She twirled on her feet, pushing against my blades with her own to throw me off balance. And as I stumbled back, she rushed forward, placing her practice weapons up against my throat.
“...It’s my win again.”
I crumpled to the ground, breathing heavily as I lay on my back.
Karla deftly slotted her practice weapons into her belt, sitting down on the grass beside me. “That was fun!” she said, wringing her hands out.
“I…” I took a moment to catch my breath before replying. “I still… I don’t stand a chance against you. It feels like there’s nothing I can do to catch you off guard.”
“You think so?” She stretched her legs out, falling back against the soft grass just next to me. “What you did was amazing for only training for… a week at most. You’re a natural at this stuff.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” Karla replied, and I glanced towards her to find her staring at the canopy of the trees above us. “You’re just comparing yourself to me, that’s all. And… I’ve been training to fight for longer than you’ve been alive.”
“I guess…” I sighed, grabbing a small clump of grass and tossing it into the air.
“No, seriously!” Karla insisted, sitting back upright. “I’m telling you, you could spar with any of those dudes in your village — and half the mercs, even — and you’d annihilate them.”
I rolled onto my side, turning away from her so that she couldn’t see my slightly red face.
Was I… that good?
Seeing Karla fight, it felt like her skill level was completely unreachable. I would have had to train for years to even hold my own against her, and here she was, telling me that I could hold my own — against others, at least.
It felt nice to be acknowledged.
I couldn’t stop a smile from creeping up my face as I thought back to our spar. The ways my father had tried to teach me to fight just felt so uncomfortable — trying to build brute strength and overpower your opponent.
But now, being able to move my body exactly how I wanted felt so freeing. Especially with my tail, since I could use it as a counterbalance and propel myself to the side really easily.
“You know we’re going to do the sparring tournament tomorrow, right?” Karla asked.
I… hadn’t actually heard about that. On my way out to the forest, I had heard mention of some kind of tournament, but the chatter was muffled through the fabric of the cloak I was wearing at the time. Because of that, I couldn’t make out any of the details that the mercenaries were talking about.
“Triss…” she went on, “You really should participate. I know you’ve been hesitant to fight other people, but… I promise, you’d do amazingly well in it.”
Would it… really be okay?
I slowly sat upright, picking up the practice daggers that I had dropped at my side. If I was going to participate, I’d have to wear the cloak, no matter what. There was no way I was letting anyone else find out about… this form, with my tail and ears.
But… if I did wear the cloak, it would restrict the movement of my tail somewhat. I wouldn’t be able to swing it to the side like I did in the spar with Karla, since that would make it visible out the side of the cloak. As a result, I probably wouldn’t be able to move quite as fast as I normally could.
The hood was worrisome too. I had nothing to fasten it to my head, so there was always the risk of some vigorous movement causing it to fall off, or it being thrown off by the movement of my ears. That would result in me getting exposed, too.
Slipping the practice daggers into my belt and the cloak over my shoulder, I followed Karla back to the usual clearing we met in, where Alvin had been training.
Karla had continued chattering about the tournament as we walked. She spoke of her predictions for where I would place, how I’d fare against some of the mercenaries, along with who I’d have an advantage or disadvantage against based on how their fighting style compared to mine.
It was kind of incredible, just how much she could tell about the way someone fought just by watching them.
As her voice went on and on however, my mind started to wander. I still had no explanation about what the strange burst of colour we had seen last night had been. Any attempts to ask her had resulted in a non-answer each and every time.
I hadn’t had any dreams last night, either. At this point, I was almost sure they were a result of me sleeping near that bottle of black liquid I had swiped from the crypt. If I wanted to learn anything, I needed to get it back, ideally along with the journal, too.
But… I hadn’t transformed into my old form for over a day now. The last time it had happened was yesterday morning, and I had transformed into my current form almost immediately after getting up.
As much as I… would honestly have been perfectly happy to stay in this form forever, I needed that flask.
I let out a long sigh, wandering over to where I had left the cloak.
“And I saw that neat move you made, it was good,” Karla was saying. “So you’ve already been taking advantage of having your—oh, your tail’s gone.”
...Huh? My tail?
I twisted around, trying to peer behind myself at the spot where my tail usually was. Instead, the space it usually occupied as it dangled behind me was completely empty. And as I ran my hands across my head, where my ears usually were… they were gone.
This was my chance.
I waved to Karla, peering through the trees in the direction of the village. “Let’s stop for the day, I’ve got something I need to do.”
“Uhhh, sure. What’s up?”
As soon as I heard her response, I ran off through the trees towards home.
“Wait—” she called out behind me. “Triss?!”
* * * * *
The outskirts of the village appeared to be totally empty, save for a few birds nesting on the roof of one of the nearby houses. Everyone seemed to be congregating in the centre of the village, where the mercenaries had set up.
Which meant that no one could witness my mad dash back home.
As I arrived at the front door, I took a moment to adjust my clothes. While they seemed so much more comfortable in… what had become my usual form, with the furry ears and tail, they felt just a little bit constricting with how I was currently.
It felt good to be home. I walked slowly through the corridors, taking in the familiarity of the house. As much as I did like spending time at Colette’s place… I missed being here.
...There were a few things I hadn’t missed, however. One of which was currently staring at me through the kitchen door, his eyes wide.
“...Where’ve you been?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you for days.”
“I’ve… been training,” I replied, nervously glancing aside to the stairs. I wanted to grab the flask and be done, but… he seemed like he’d follow me upstairs if I just left.
“Hmph.” My father simply grunted, before turning back to look out of the kitchen window.
Was that… it? Was he not going to ask further about why he hadn’t seen me for so long?
His shoulders were slumped as he stared outside, and a long sigh escaped from him. Normally at this time of day, he’d be out working. Either checking on the traps he’d set in the forest — though in a different part of the forest than the clearing where we usually were — or some kind of training exercise.
Instead, he was just standing there… staring out of the window.
He lifted his hand up, gesturing for me to come closer. “Have you seen it yet?”
“The fog.” As I nervously approached, he pointed through the window at the nearby mountains. “It’s already startin’ to roll in.”
Up on the peaks of the mountains, a soft white fog had slowly started to roll in. It was still quite a ways out, far enough that it probably wouldn’t get to the village until tomorrow.
“Oh, I… I hadn’t noticed,” I mumbled. While I was running back home, I had been so focused on getting here as soon as possible that I hadn’t ended up looking at my surroundings at all.
The fog had shown up a few times before, back when I was younger. It was a strange, almost... sticky fog, one that seemed to cling to you as you walked through it. The strangest thing about it, though, was that the village had always considered it a cause for celebration.
“Why does everyone celebrate the arrival of the fog?” I asked.
My father paused, glancing towards me for a brief moment. “Because… it’ll drive off the monster. Once the fog has been ‘n’ gone, we won’t have to worry about the monster no more.”
That… explained why everyone was so happy when the fog started rolling in. But on the other hand, how was something like a cloud of fog supposed to drive off the monster? Were they scared of it? I peered out of the window at the approaching fog, trying to figure out why.
It looked… different, compared to how I remembered it.
The past few times I had seen the fog, it had always been completely white. A thick white cloud that almost seemed to cover the village like a blanket, and… that was all.
Now, however, small splotches of pink were dotted around the fog, almost seeming to shimmer and warp throughout it. As I stared at it, it felt like something softly scratched at the back of my neck, sending a chill down my spine.
The fog didn’t always look like that, right?
I turned to my father, about to ask him whether he could see the pink spots too, but… I hesitated. What if it had to do with my transformation? What if that was the reason that the fog looked different to me? If that was the case, then my father wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about.
Either that, or… if he could see it too, he’d know that something happened to me.
As I stood there thinking, my father turned towards me, finding me staring at him. I quickly looked away, feeling awkward at getting caught staring.
“You know…” he began, “you’re… growing up to look a lot like your mother.”
My breath caught in my throat for a moment. Did I transform? I felt my lower back, trying to subtly check if my tail had returned.
Colette had mentioned in the past that I looked somewhat like my mother, but it only seemed like offhand comments, just that I seemed to take after her more than my father. It was only once I had transformed that both Alvin and Colette had said that I looked that much like my mother.
And now here my father was, saying the same thing, but instead while I was transformed back.
Was it the clothes? I was technically wearing her old clothes, but the ones I had picked out seemed neutral enough that it didn’t look out of place on me, even while I wasn’t transformed. Maybe I should’ve worn the cloak, though, rather than just having it slung over my shoulder.
Nervously looking back at my father, I found him staring out of the window again as if he hadn’t even said anything. He seemed almost… listless as he looked at the approaching fog. Would he let me go if I tried to leave?
I wasn’t sure how long my transformation back would last. I had been spending less and less time in… this old form, so a small worry crept into my mind about the possibility of transforming back to my usual form right in front of him. And given that the last time I had transformed was when I was worried about transforming…
I briskly left, making for the stairs up to my room.
* * * * *
All the tension that had built up in my body seemed to vanish as I walked into my room. Closing the door behind me, I let out a very deep breath, before setting the cloak aside and flopping down onto my bed.
I missed my bed.
I honestly missed just… being in my room. So much of my life had been spent in here, relaxing at my desk or in my bed, hiding from people, reading books… This room felt so safe to me. It was… my space, and my space alone.
Rolling onto my side, I stared at the desk I used to always sit at. The journal lay untouched on the top of it, next to the flask of black liquid. The bookshelves that sat next to the desk were completely undisturbed, and the mirror just to the side of those had a very thin layer of dust coating the surface.
I knew I had to leave here eventually, since I wasn’t sure when I would transform back, but… once I left, would I ever be able to come here again?
Especially considering, for me to do that, I’d have to tell my father about what happened to me.
No, there was no way.
I reluctantly rolled off my bed, taking one last moment to wrap my arms around my pillow and squeeze it tightly. Maybe I could come back here one more time, just to take my pillow. And maybe a few of my books, as well.
Wandering over to my desk, I reached for the flask of black liquid. I still wasn’t sure where I was going to put it when I got back to Colette’s house. If she didn’t know what it was, then it would probably be fine if I left it sitting out. On the other hand, if she did know what it was…
The moment my fingers touched the glass, a shudder ran through my body, and I transformed back.
…I should’ve expected this. The monster blood was the whole reason I transformed in the first place, so it made sense that I would transform as soon as I took the flask. What was I going to do now?
I couldn’t leave out of the front door, since my father was in the kitchen. He’d hear me walking, and probably turn to look at me. Even if I wore the cloak, I didn’t think I’d be able to avoid him seeing my other form. That meant that my only other option was…
It would be a bit of a drop, but I felt a lot more nimble in this form than how I used to be. If I took it slowly, I could climb out of my window and drop to the ground. That would put me on the side of the house, away from the kitchen window, and away from the front door.
As long as my father hadn’t moved, I’d be safe. I’d be able to run into the forest, and escape until the sun started to go down.
Unfolding the cloak, I slipped it around my body, fastening it around my neck. I attached the flask to my belt next to my practice dagger, and slipped the hood on. The only other thing I needed was the journal.
Picking it up, I brushed the dust off the cover. As long as I didn’t land on the flask, I’d be fine. I pulled the hood further over my head, and fidgeted with the cloak fastener for a moment, making sure it was secure.
My window was fairly high up. A brief dizzy spell washed over me as I stared down at the ground, but it soon faded. I slipped my legs out, sitting on the windowsill.
It was now or never.
Pushing myself off, I felt the cloak lift up as I fell. It only seemed to last for an instant, however, as my feet made contact with the ground, and I stumbled forward. The journal was safe. I was still holding it against my body. And the flask… As I ran my fingers along my belt, I sighed with relief as I felt the familiar texture of the glass.
I was out.
Though the cloak was still over my head, some of my red hair had fallen in front of my eyes. I brushed it aside… only to see someone peeking around the side of the house, directly at me.
“...Fenne?” he whispered, his eyes wide.
It was all over. My legs felt like ice, and for a brief moment, they refused to move. My father had seen me. I was still wearing the cloak, so I didn’t think he saw my ears and tail, but… he still saw me.
He still saw how similar I looked to my mother in this form.
I bolted, making for the forest as quick as I could, leaping over roots and bushes and then into the trees.
He wasn’t following me, was he? I slowed down and chanced a look back over my shoulder once I was a ways into the forest, and... nothing. I couldn’t hear anything, either — nothing besides my own, laboured breaths.
Alvin and Karla had to know. I had to tell them that my father had seen me. They could keep me safe, right? They’d be able to figure out what to do.
I reached the clearing we usually trained in as the first hints of orange began to tinge the edge of the sky. How was I going to explain it to them? I looked around, slipping the hood off my head to try to hear them.
But… Alvin and Karla were nowhere to be found.
Where were they? I wandered around, trying to listen for the two of them. Had they left the forest? I did run off without explaining why, so maybe Karla had gone looking for me?
My questions were answered as a light breeze blew through the forest, carrying a distant conversation along with it.
“It’ll be here soon — the fog,” Karla was saying. “You know what that means, Al.”
What were they talking about? I walked in the direction of their voices, straining to listen to them.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Alvin replied. “Don’t worry, I’ll beat you by then. Mark my words, I’m not stayin’ in this village for another bunch’a years. No way. I’m goin’ with you all.”
Alvin was… leaving?
“I guess… A deal’s a deal, after all.” Karla seemed somewhat resigned as she spoke. “The mercs will be happy to have you along. It’s just… what about Triss?”
I froze, feeling my heart drop further with every word the two of them said.
“What about her?” Alvin asked. “I mean, I guess I still gotta break it to her, but… she can take care o’ herself now! She knows how to fight! I made sure o’ that!”
I shrunk back, my breath catching in my throat. Alvin was leaving the village. He was going to leave me behind.
But… this had been his dream for so long. Every time the mercenaries were here in the village, Alvin had worked himself to the bone, training to fight. He had always talked about wanting to see what’s outside the village, and… he had always been trying so hard to fulfil that wish.
“Oh… Al… that’s not what I—” Karla paused as the sound of a twig snapping cut through the surrounding silence. “...did you hear that?”
She knew I was here. I had stepped on a twig, and she heard it.
Two sets of footsteps slowly began to approach me. What was I going to do? I couldn’t face the two of them, not after that. The only place that felt safe right now was Colette’s house. That was the only place I could go.
I turned tail and fled, wrapping the cloak tighter around myself and pulling the hood further over my head.