One of the partners at the law firm which I was interning with had gotten himself into a bind, which is how I found myself spending a Friday afternoon making about a two hundred mile round trip to file some papers three counties over. Of course things are never quite as simple to do as they are to say, and after I had finally gotten everything straightened out and squared away it was well in to the evening before I started back home. As the weather grew worse and worse I began to really regret my decision to take a shortcut along the more rural route instead of getting on the interstate and dealing with traffic. “It figures.” I sighed to myself, turning the car’s heater up to full blast “Whenever I plan a quiet evening at home something has to come up.”
Over the next ten or twenty minutes the temperature outside had dropped to the point where what had been a rainstorm was quickly threatening to turn into sleet. Between the ice beginning to build up on the ground and the visibility getting worse by the minute the only prudent thing to do was to get off the road and find somewhere to hole up and wait out the storm. Scanning the sides of the road, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be lucky enough to find a restaurant or convenience store that was open, and that I would have to settle for whatever else was nearby. By now I was getting pretty desperate: the pavement had grown icy enough that I had to slow to a crawl, and I was beginning to worry that it might actually start hailing at some point. “That would be the perfect ending for the day.” I laughed sarcastically “Getting the car all dented up and being stuck out in the middle of nowhere…woah! Here we go…” Off the road a little way a run-down old building had caught my attention. Pulling off into its partially overgrown driveway, I ground to a halt in front of what was at one time a diner and gas station. A while back the state had tightened up the laws on underground storage tanks, and a lot of older stations had chosen to close up instead of going through the expense of upgrading their equipment, so these kinds of places had become relatively common in the area. The building itself was boarded up, and the pumps were gone, but it had a roof, and there was a drive-through carwash next to the building. “Yeah, this will do I guess.” I reassured myself as I parked the old sedan in the middle of the carwash. “At least I’ve got a roof over the car, and they might still have the power hooked up inside…”
Leaving the engine running to try to de-ice the car as much as possible, I tried to think out my situation. The storm didn’t look like it was planning to clear up any time soon, and since I was pretty far out in the boonies the highway department wouldn’t be out to sand the roads any time soon, if at all. So it was beginning to look like I would be staying put for a while. “Probably the best thing to do would be to get inside the building and see if the power is working.” I said to myself. With that decided, I rounded up some of my stuff from the car. Shoving my road map into my backpack with the rest of my odds and ends, I zipped up my coat and slipped on my gloves before cramming my hat down over my ears and venturing outside. As soon as I opened the car door I was hit by a blast of freezing cold wind, which grabbed on to the car door and tried to pull it out of my hands. It was much windier than I had thought it would be, but thanks to the carwash roof I at least didn’t have to deal with the sleet as I popped the trunk and fished a long screwdriver, a flashlight, and some road flares out of my tool box. After tossing the flares into my pack I made a dash across the empty parking lot to the covered island in front of the station that formerly housed the pumps.
Gas stations, as a general rule, have two entrances, the big front customer door, and a small door in the rear for maintenance and stocking purposes. Knowing full well that I wouldn’t be able to pry my way through a steel security door, I had instead opted for the boarded-up front entrance. The cover over the island gave me a little protection while I looked over the plywood covering the windows, but only slightly cut down on the wind-whipped ice blowing across the parking lot. As I had expected, the boards were pretty well secured as I felt around the edges of one after another, until I tried the second from last window…there the plywood had been pried up already at the bottom, and a quick look behind it revealed that the glass had been broken out as well. Looking with suspicion at the shadowy hole, I quickly weighed my options. Someone had been here before, whether transients, or more likely this far off the main roads, curious teenagers, but judging by the fact that there didn’t seem to be any water tracked in past where the wind had blown it, I doubted that there were any human occupants at the moment. The bigger and more likely concern was what else might have moved in since, snakes, maybe coyotes or feral dogs…nothing remotely pleasant anyhow. “Any way you look at it it’s still better than freezing outside.” I sighed to myself.
Putting some weight on the plywood, I confirmed that the hole was big enough for me to crawl through, and that the frame was at least relatively free of glass shards before dropping my screwdriver into my backpack and fishing around for my coat’s inside pocket for a minute before fumbling out the little mouse gun that I habitually kept there. Cupping the front sight against my flashlight, I gave it a couple of seconds to charge up the phosphorescent paint, then, cursing myself for not having brought something more potent, crouched down and cautiously crawled through the hole. Standing back up on the other side, I scanned the room with the flashlight, the glowing end of the little gun pointing along with it. What the little gun lacked in power it’s short barrel made up for in noise and muzzle flash…it really didn’t need to actually kill a coyote, just convince them I wouldn’t be an easy meal.
Having satisfied myself that there wasn’t anything planning to bite me, I took a cursory look around the room. While all the food and drinks and other odds and ends that gas stations sell had been cleaned out, the shelves, boxes, scraps of wood, and other detritus had been left behind when the station was boarded up. “Well, that’s promising!” I said to myself “Probably can keep a fire going for quite a while without having to go back outside…” First though was the hope that I might be able to get the power going, and with that in mind I headed over towards the doors leading to the bathrooms and storage room. Testing the faucet in one of the bathrooms, I was a bit disappointed to discover that the water didn’t work, when a rustling noise from the storage room drew my attention. Jerking around, pistol in one hand, flashlight in the other, I found myself staring across five feet of space at an anthropomorphic wolf pointing a short, oddly glowing, stick in my direction. “You’re not a nightstalker.” She said in a confused tone, the end of her stick dipping slightly. “You’re not a coyote.” I replied, sounding equally confused at not finding what I expected. “A truce for the duration?” “Okay.” I agreed, relaxing a little as I slipped the pistol back in my jacket pocket.
“Umm…if you don’t mind, I was seeing if I could get the lights on.” I asked, gesturing at the fuse box behind her. Nodding, she looked over towards a pile of boxes in one corner and said “Come on Jan.” at which a much younger male wolf crawled out from under the cardboard and followed her in to the main room. “Lights first, confusion later.” I reassured myself as I flipped the cover on the fuse box and systematically tried the various breakers, without any discernable results. “Figures.” I sighed, visions of central heating vanishing as I went back in to the main room. The female wolf had assembled a pile of wood and cardboard and was doing her best to get it lit with a flint and steel striker, while the younger one, Jan I guess, sat next to her, shivering a little bit. “I brought the wood in from outside” she explained, seeing me watching her actions “but it’s too wet to stay lit…” “Let me try.” I shrugged, sitting down across the pile from them and digging a road flare out of my backpack. Popping its cap, I shoved the intensely burning magnesium stick into the bottom of the little pile, which soon began to smolder, and then burn. “Many, many questions, but warm up first.” I yawned, feeding the fire until it burned merrily.
Sitting down cross legged on the floor with the fire between the wolves and I, there were enough questions going through my mind that I hardly knew where to start. “Not to be rude, but what in the world is going on? I mean, you two aren’t exactly from around here are you?” I asked curiously as I fed several pieces of wood from a shipping palate into the fire. “It’s kind of a long story.” The older wolf sighed as she shifted around a little to start drying out her clothes a little better. “Introductions are probably in order first though. My name is Kathlyn, and this is my brother Jan.” “I’m Nick.” I laughed “Confused to make your acquaintance.” Grinning back a little she explained that “The short version is that we’re caught up in a magic storm…sometimes when various forces and influences encounter each other they react violently until eventually they burn each other out. But until they do the elemental planes sort of pass through each other in places and things end up like this.” “I understood maybe one word out of three there, but it sounds like you’re saying we are going to be here a while.” “Basically yes.” Kathlyn agreed.
I settled into a contemplative sort of silence, doing my best to work out exactly what I had found myself in the middle of, but aside from the obvious ‘weirdness is afoot’ I really didn’t know what to make of things. Kathlyn and Jan meanwhile were talking quietly off and on, apparently mostly Kathlyn trying to assure the wolf pup that things were going to be okay. Shaking my head, I found myself wishing that someone would tell me that everything was going to work out…or at least that I wasn’t going crazy. My reverie was unceremoniously interrupted by a loud grumbling coming from Jan…or more specifically his tummy. “When was the last time you ate?” I frowned, feeling oddly protective of the little guy. “Not since the storm.” He answered shyly, looking at me around his sister’s tail. “Well that’s no good.” I sighed, pulling my backpack over from where it had been drying by the fire. I’d been planning on hitting a fast food place for dinner on my way back home, so I didn’t have anything resembling a real meal on hand, but after rooting around for a while I was able to produce half a bag of beef jerky and some chips that I’d saved from lunch. Tossing them over to him with a satisfied grin I watched as he dug in, Kathlyn occasionally snagging a piece as well. “It’s not exactly the most nutritionally balanced dinner, but it will get the job done.” I shrugged.
After they’d finished off the last of the food, Kathlyn scratched Jan behind the ears and decided that “You should probably try to get some sleep.” Getting up, she went back to the other room where she had found a canvas tarp in the rubble before I had shown up. “We were out walking in the woods when the storm came up, so we didn’t have a chance to grab a bedroll or anything.” Kathlyn explained as she tore the plastic wrapper off the tarp and laid part of it on the ground before Jan curled up under it with his head resting on her lap. “Yeah, I’m not exactly brimming with camping equipment myself.” I sighed “I was on my way back home from what was supposed to be a short trip…” Tossing some more of our dwindling supply of wood on to the fire I made an unpleasant discovery. “Is it getting colder in here, or is it just me?” “I think so too…” she grimaced “It’s a good thing we’re inside…” Nodding in agreement, I decided that “I’m going to poke around here a little bit and see if there’s any more wood, or maybe another tarp or something…”
Picking up my flashlight, I looked over the pile of rubble in the other corner of the room, then after determining that it was just scraps of metal from the suspended ceiling I went for a look around the back rooms. Finding nothing of interest in the bathrooms, I looked over the storage room hoping for some better luck. Unfortunately, a thorough search of the room turned up exactly what one would expect to find in an abandoned building: a whole bunch of nothing. “Well at least there’s some more stuff for the fire…” I sighed as I rounded up the last of the cardboard and wood scraps and hauled them into the main room. Jan had apparently fallen asleep, so I did my best to move quietly as I settled down next to Kathlyn. “Find anything useful?” she asked, already knowing the answer from my disappointed expression. “Nope.” I shrugged “And we probably ought to start thinking about what we’re going to do next. The firewood won’t last for more than another couple hours, then it’s going to start getting pretty cold in here.” “We could wait for a lull in the storm, and try to find somewhere more hospitable to stay…” Kathlyn suggested “I can use my magic to keep us all warm for a while, but sooner or later it may attract something unpleasant.” “My car will get us down the road a ways, assuming that its not too iced over.” “Assuming things haven’t shifted around outside.” She cautioned “The road might not even be there any more.” Taking her words at face value I grumbled that “When we find somewhere better to set up shop you’re really going to have to sit down and explain all this to me…I’m kind of getting tired of being confused all the time!” “I could do that.” She nodded with mock seriousness.
I rested for a while, but eventually couldn’t put off going out in to the cold again any longer. Explaining to Kathlyn that I was going to check over the car and get it warmed up, I grabbed my flashlight and the keys before heading for my impromptu car port. As soon as I was on the other side of the plywood it became painfully obvious that the weather had gotten to the point were visibility was only a few feet and without the flashlight it would have been pitch dark outside. Reaching the little cover provided by the carwash, I was just unlocking the car doors when, with a sinking feeling, I noticed the green tint to the ice under the car. “Awww…come on!” I snarled as I popped the hood and confirmed my suspicions. Slamming it down angrily I hurried back inside where it was warm with my bad news. Looking up as I plopped down dejectedly in front of the fire, Kathlyn sighed “It’s bad news, isn’t it?” “The engine froze over, and it popped the freeze plugs in the block.” I explained as I gratefully let her drape the tarp around us. “Can you fix it?” “Even if I could thaw everything out, I would still need a hydraulic lift and replacement parts…no, it’s not going to be moving under its own power any time soon.” “Well then I guess we’re walking.” She shrugged. “I just hope that we find something else nearby.” I explained, waving a little absentmindedly at her clothes “You and Jan really aren’t dressed well for this kind of weather…”
“It’s sweet of you to worry about that.” Kathlyn smiled. “I’m dressed warmer than you are and I’m still cold.” I shrugged “Though I don’t have the benefit of a fur coat.” “We’re just lucky that way.” Reaching over, she patted my hand and leaned against my shoulder a bit. “You’re so soft…and fuzzy…” I mused in almost an amazed tone as I felt the back of her paw. “Thank you.” She giggled, causing me to blush self-consciously. Laughing cheerfully despite our situation, Kathlyn wrapped her arm around my shoulders and cuddled up closer to me. “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed.” She teased “I’ll bet your mate loves that…” “I’m not seeing anyone right now, not ever really.” I corrected absentmindedly as I kind of stared off in to space “No mate. No potential mate. Just me, myself, and I... I’m a bit odd I guess, and the girls don’t exactly flock to that.” Doing my best to hide the forlorn look on my face, I did my best to change the subject. “So I guess we’ll head out when we run out of fuel for the fire?” Noticing my change in tone, but not wanting to push, Kathlyn agreed that “That would probably be best. If we’re lucky we can catch a lull in the storm…”
Despite everything I managed to doze off for a while, until after what seemed like altogether too short a time Kathlyn gently shook me awake. “Come on Nick, time to get going.” Forcing myself to wake up into the cold and the gloom I was disoriented for a minute until my mind caught back up with what was going on around me. The storm, the old gas station, Kathlyn and Jan, and finally the necessity for what would undoubtedly be an unpleasant hike. “Right.” I sighed as I stood up and tried to stretch the cricks out of my back. Sleeping on cold concrete doesn’t make for the best wakeup in the world… Gathering up the bits and pieces of my stuff, I tried to think if there was anything I should get out of the car before we left. Not coming up with anything else that would be useful, I looked over the tarp and debated what to do with it. It would probably be a good idea, I decided after some thought, to see what I could do to keep my companions a bit warmer. Cutting the tarp lengthwise with my pocket knife, I did my best to fashion a pair of ponchos out of the material. The results were pretty ugly, but at least would keep some of the worst of the storm at bay. Kathlyn, I noticed, was busy doing something around what was left of our dying fire, so I went to bother Jan first.
The pup was only just waking up completely, and eyed my improvised garments a bit dubiously, but was just cold enough to give them a try. “There, how’s that?” I asked after getting it situated properly. “It’s better.” He joked “But can I get one in red?” “Nope, sorry.” I grinned back “I’ve only got brown and brown with dirt stains.” Picking up the other poncho, I looked over to where Kathlyn was finishing up whatever it was she had been doing. Joining us, she presented a little jar with some kind of grease in it. “Here we go.” She nodded, putting a little dot of it on herself and Jan before reaching over and poking at my forehead too. “Umm...” I muttered dubiously, backing up a little. “Oh don’t look at me like that.” She sighed, rolling her eyes “It’s for the spell to keep us all a little warmer.” “Right…” I nodded, rolling my eyes right back at her “I think I’ll stick with my jacket, thanks all the same.” “Don’t be such a big baby.” Then while I was staring at her in surprise (and a little concern) she smeared some of her concoction on me before I could back up again. Thinking quickly, I tried to remember if maybe I had left my pack unzipped and she’d seen my ‘supplies’ or if I had somehow given myself away in another manner entirely. “What?” Kathlyn asked, curious about my odd reaction, snapping me back out of my thoughts. “Nothing!” I hastily assured her, though judging from her expression not entirely convincingly. Luckily she decided not to pursue it. (Yet, as I would find out…)
Stepping back slightly, Kathlyn chanted something in a sort of singsong voice. Then, with an odd tingling sort of sensation spreading out from her mark I felt myself getting warmer. Not a whole lot, but enough that it took the edge off the cold a little bit. “Woah.” I said in a hushed voice, shaking my head. “Pretty neat, huh?” Jan laughed. “Very neat.” I agreed enthusiastically as I handed Kathlyn her makeshift poncho. “It’s good to be appreciated.” She nodded seriously as she got it settled around her. While they bustled around gathering up a few last odds and ends, I took the opportunity of their inattention to rearrange my pack a bit. I had what we called a ‘three day-er” which is a pack that fills the space between your standard school backpack and a full fledged external frame hiking pack. Lots more space, and the benefits of a hard back, compression straps, and a waist belt…they’re great for luggage and I’d been enamored with them ever since I discovered them at the local camping store. Mine was OD green, which coincidentally matches most of my clothes. Not knowing how my new friends would react, I had decided that it would be best to move my AB stuff to the most out of the way part of my pack as I could, so after making sure that I wasn’t being observed I quickly moved the couple extra diapers, wipes, bottle and paci to the furthest compartment back, then stuffed my extra t-shirt on top of them all. Then, after adjusting the pack’s compression straps (and wishing it wasn’t so woefully empty) I was ready to go.
Kathlyn and Jan meanwhile had migrated over by the door, where she was helping him tuck in his poncho as much as possible. Joining them I grinned at Kathlyn. “You know, you manage to be pretty even in that tarp…” This time it was her turn to blush as we headed back out in to the storm. Taking one last longing look at my car, I followed them down the driveway, to discover that in the hours I was inside a forest had sprung up where the road should have been. “What in the world…” I gasped in shock. “The terrain shifted.” Kathlyn explained, pulling out an odd little compass, consulting it, and starting us off through the woods. “I told you, the storm brings together bits and pieces of all over and kind of dumps them together…” “Well, as long as you’re the one figuring out where we’re going.” I joked halfheartedly. Patting me on the back sympathetically, Jan took my hand and lead me after her. “You’ll get used to it.” He assured me.
After several of the longest, most disorienting hours of my life, we stopped to rest for a minute in a little clearing. Kathlyn wasn’t looking so good, keeping up the spell she had done for as long as she had was beginning to put a strain on her. “Are you okay?” I asked, growing more concerned the closer I examined her. “I’ll be fine.” She nodded “It’s just that it can be hard work to…” Trailing off, she was interrupted by an eerie sort of howling in the distance. “I’m not sure I want to meet whatever makes that noise.” I said quietly as I slipped my little mouse gun out of my jacket’s inner pocket in favor of the more accessible outer ones. “Those are nightstalkers.” She said with a note of fear in her voice “They can follow magic, I need to drop the spell.” Feeling the cold creep in again as the warmth faded, I felt Jan grip my hand tighter. Looking over I saw that the little guy was obviously feeling more than a little afraid. “What are they?” I questioned Kathlyn. “About your height, but heavier, ugly, carnivorous, and not something we want to run in to.” She explained as we started quickly moving again. “They aren’t all that smart, but they’re really good at tracking magic. If we get some distance between us before they get here we can probably avoid them…” “Sounds like a plan.” I agreed as I helped Jan over a particularly tricky patch of ice.
Because of the wind it was hard to tell how far off the howls were coming from, but after another forty five minutes or so I was pretty sure that we were getting further ahead of them. The forest was starting to thin out noticeably as well until, cresting a hill, we saw a truly beautiful sight below us: one of those big-box stores that wholesale everything you can think of in one place. The parking lot lights were off and so was the sign, but it looked like the night lights were turned on inside. “What’s that?” Jan asked curiously as we looked down at the parking lot. “That” I laughed gleefully “Is the first bit of good news we’ve had in a long time!” Hurrying down the hill and across the parking lot, I dug out my screwdriver and made quick work of the simple lock on the automatic doors, letting us in to the wonderfully dry interior before forcing them shut again. “They’ve only got the minimal amount of power running…” I observed, turning to Kathlyn. To my alarm she looked completely exhausted, leaning heavily on her staff she was shivering uncontrollably and looking really pale, even through her fur. “Sis?” Jan asked, beginning to look a bit panicked. “Calm down, calm down.” I told him “She’s cold and exhausted, we need to get her warmed up and let her rest…” Wrapping her arm around my shoulder, I helped her to the back of the store where the outdoors section was, picking out a spot in the corner and helped her to sit down and lean against the wall. Pushing a couple of displays out of the way, Jan and I soon had a relatively large area cleared for us to settle down in. “Stay here with her, okay?”
Heading down the isles, I found what I was looking for. Grabbing two of the nicest looking sleeping bags they had, I also snagged a handful of towels on the way back to Kathlyn and Jan. “Here we are!” I declared, sitting down next to them and ripping the plastic off one of the sleeping bags. “This is going to sound kind of awkward, but you need to get out of those wet clothes, dry off as much as you can, and curl up in there, okay?” Nodding, she began clumsily stripping down as I quickly turned around to give her some privacy. Sneaking a quick peek, I really had to admit that she was beautiful. The way her fur blended from the creamy white of her chest to the darker colors on her back and legs; her perky, attentive ears; and that really puffy, wonderfully soft tail. Blushing a little bit, I was spaced out enough that she had to repeat that “Okay, you can turn around now.” Curled up in her sleeping bag, Kathlyn was already looking a little better, if not still completely exhausted. “Thank you.” She yawned sleepily, barely able to keep her eyes open as she snuggled into the down filled softness. “Sure.” I nodded quietly, indicating to Jan that he should follow me.
Once we were out of earshot, I plopped down on a convenient patio furniture display and explained to Jan that “She really needs her sleep, so we should leave her alone for a bit. But in the meantime you need to get dried off and we need to find you some warmer clothes.” “That would be good.” He agreed as we got up and wandered across the dimly lit store. Finding the kids section, I watched as Jan found a selection of more seasonable clothes, then gave him some privacy to dry off and get changed. “Ta da!” he joked, walking around the isle and modeling his clothes. “Very nice.” I grinned as we began looking for a decent pair of boots that would fit him. Having gotten Jan taken care of, I set him up with a cart and pointed him in the direction of the food and beverages area, telling him to load up and meet me back in our little base camp. Then I swung through the tools department to get a crowbar.
The store was warmer than outside, but still uncomfortably cold, and since I wasn’t sure I could figure out how to turn up the heat I had to settle for the next best thing. Grabbing a cart, I headed back outside to the white metal locker where the store kept its propane bottles, then after levering the door open I loaded as many as would fit in the cart and quickly made my retreat back inside to the relative comfort of the store. On the way back to base (as I had already started thinking of our little spot) I stopped back at the tools department for a few extra things, then quickly rejoined Jan and Kathlyn.
After stacking the propane tanks up out of harm’s way, I hunted around until I found where they had stuck those little heaters-on-a-pole that I used to use when I went camping in the winter. Kathlyn was sound asleep, and Jan was looking kind of groggy, but not enough that he wasn’t clearly enjoying the assortment of food he had selected. Looking around approvingly I saw that he had also liberated some cushions from somewhere and had a comfortable little den set up and waiting for us. “Are you going to go to bed now too?” he yawned as I set up the heater, then grinned happily and scooted over to sit in front of it when I fired it up. “In a little bit.” I nodded, accepting a couple of cookies and joining Jan in front of the heater “I’ve still got a couple of things I should do first.” “Oh, well don’t take too long, you need sleep too.” He nodded reasonably. “I won’t.” I promised as I laid their wet clothes out to dry in front of another heater, then, having gotten that accomplished, grabbed a box out of the cart and headed over to the other end of the sporting goods section.
Between Kathlyn’s talk about nightstalkers and the howling that seemed suspiciously like it was following us I had been giving serious consideration to my place in the food chain, and the more I thought about it the less I liked the idea of not being at the top of it. As nice as diplomacy may be it’s no substitute for a pointy stick when things fall apart, which found me in front of the store’s gun case unpacking the canister-fed cutting torch I’d sought out in the hardware section earlier. After assuring myself that the oxygen and acetylene cylinders were seated properly, and quickly testing the electric igniter, I turned my attention to the case. As I had expected it was the standard retail setup: a thin steel grille locking across the glass front of the case; and while it may be adequate to stop someone from casually getting in to its contents, the designers had not anticipated someone taking a cutting torch to it.
After making short work of the latch, I began to sort through the store’s offerings. Grumbling a little to myself at there not being anything more militant than the usual collection of sporting arms, I went looking for a compromise between range and portability. Deciding that a shotgun wouldn’t give me the range I wanted, I also passed up the selection of scoped bolt action hunting rifles as too fragile and unwieldy before settling on a lever action rifle in a caliber typically reserved for hunting buffalo and grizzly bear. “I think this will do nicely.” I congratulated myself. After scooping the half dozen boxes of ammunition that were in stock when the store was abandoned into one of the smaller shopping baskets I found behind the counter I snagged a collection of cleaning supplies, a cartridge belt, and a sling, then as an afterthought also grabbed a compact pair of binoculars and a hunting knife from the display in the counter. Then, feeling a lot better about my odds of not becoming something unpleasant’s dinner, I made my way back to where I had left Kathlyn and Jan.
“Are you back Nick?” he whispered before rustling his way out of the sleeping bag to join me over by the heaters. “Uh huh.” I nodded “I thought you’d be asleep by now, I hope I didn’t wake you up…” “I was having trouble going to sleep.” He yawned. “Yeah, it’s a little spooky in here, isn’t it?” I nodded sympathetically. “A little.” Jan agreed, watching me with interest despite obviously being pretty tired. I tucked the odds and ends I had grabbed in to my pack before fiddling around with getting the rifle and cartridge belt all loaded up and packing away the rest of the ammunition. “There we go…” I yawned, unzipping my sleeping bag and wrapping it around myself in preparation for a much needed nap. As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard Jan sigh, followed by a little scuffling around, and a paw shaking my shoulder a little bit. “Nick? Are you awake?” He asked quietly. “Uh huh. What is it kiddo?” I asked groggily. “I didn’t want to wake Kathlyn up since she was so tired, but I kind of…umm…can I sleep over here with you?” “Sure, it’s okay.” I agreed in my half-awake stupor. “Thanks, I really didn’t want to be all by myself…” Hearing him lay his sleeping bag down next to mine, I reached over and put an arm around the pup, then felt him snuggle up next to me. The last thing I heard before drifting off to sleep was Jan beginning to snore quietly.
Neither Jan nor I wanted to get up the next morning when Kathlyn cheerfully tried to drag us out of our sleeping bags. “Honestly, you’re as bad as Jan is.” She complained, nudging me playfully until I finally joined them in the waking world. “Maybe you should take it as a sign.” I grumbled “Mornings are not a fit time of day to do things…” “So you won’t be wanting breakfast then?” “I never said that.” Kathlyn, I noticed as I grabbed some mini-doughnuts out of the pile of food, had not only found herself some warmer clothes, but had also gotten backpacks for herself and Jan. Everyone was in a much better mood after thawing out and getting a good night’s sleep, and breakfast was a lively affair. I listened with interest as Kathlyn took the opportunity to explain some of the simpler things about magic, with Jan chiming in now and then as well. As fascinating as it was, I was still having quite a bit of trouble wrapping my head around it when we had all finished up eating, and started planning out what to do next.
“I was thinking that there might be a car in the automotive repair bays that wasn’t frozen up.” I mused “It would be great to be able to carry some extra stuff with us when we go again, not to mention the joys of a roof and heater…” “These storms can last for weeks” Kathlyn explained “It isn’t safe for us to stay here too long, eventually the lights and the smell of all that food will attract things we don’t want to meet. Probably the best thing to do would be for us to find an inn somewhere until the storm is over.” “No argument here, but how exactly do you plan on finding one?” “Magi can sort of feel it when someone is using magic.” She shrugged “If we pick a direction and go until I feel something we can just follow it to other people…”
Kathlyn and Jan went to round up some food to take with us as well as whatever else she thought might be useful while I took a look at the store’s service shop. Fumbling around in the dark, I eventually found the light switch for the cavernous room. Crossing my fingers that they kept some of the cars they had in for repairs inside, I flipped on the lights. There were several vehicles stored inside as it turned out, the most promising of which was a Jeep that according to the maintenance log was only in for an oil change. Looking it over, I decided that it was the best choice of the lot, especially since four wheel drive might be useful on the icy roads. Pleased with the way my luck had turned out, I went back to meet up with Kathlyn and Jan.
One thing which I was quickly beginning to appreciate about Kathlyn was that once she decided something needed to be done she was quite efficient in getting them that way. In the short time that I had been gone the sleeping bags were rolled up, the backpacks packed, and she had also put together a duffel bag of food and a flat of bottled water. “Well great, it looks like we’re almost ready to go….umm…” I trailed off, noticing the dire expression on her muzzle. “What?” “I went outside to check on the weather, and there are nightstalker tracks all over the place outside.” “Great.” I sighed “There goes the chance of staying another day or two. But on the bright side, we’re not walking!” Helping them carry our stuff, I led everyone into the auto shop and showed them the Jeep. “Its roof is made out of cloth.” Jan observed a bit pointedly before Kathlyn elbowed him with the instruction to “Be nice.” Ignoring him, I told them that “I just need to grab a couple little things and then we’re ready to go.”
After filling a toolbox with some bits and pieces, I also dug up a pair of jerry cans, and swung through the store rounding up a small collection of ‘negotiable currency’ before returning to the car. Jan had begun amusing himself by looking through the Jeep with sort of a suspicious curiosity, while Kathlyn had started trying to find the best way to pack everything away. “She does that kind of stuff when she’s nervous.” Jan informed me, taking some of my pile of last minute stuff. After we had gotten everything put away, I tied a tarp flat across the back to keep stuff from bouncing around, then held the door for Kathlyn as she got in. (Jan, meanwhile, had cheerfully scurried over the center console and immediately sprawled out across the back seat.) Then, after leaning my rifle between the driver’s seat and the door, I pulled the Jeep out of the repair bay, closed the doors behind us, and headed across the parking lot.
“So, which way?” I asked. Closing her eyes for a minute, Kathlyn pointed towards a dirt path which might have grown up to be a road if it would have tried harder and decisively said that “We should go that way.” We ended making pretty good time on our way to ‘that way’. The weather wasn’t as bad as it had been, though it was by no means nice, and we were all glad to have a working heater and not be slogging across ice and half-frozen slush. We ended up stopping for a pretty nice lunch of beef jerky and candy bars out in the middle of a big, grassy field. Shortly after that, Kathlyn made a course correction that had us off the trail and across country for an hour or two before we returned to a path at a crossroads with a pretty modern looking gas station around the time the sun was starting to go down. “We really don’t need fuel.” I mused aloud, examining the gauge critically “But I could fill up those two gas cans, and I guess it really couldn’t hurt to go ahead and top off the tank…”
My optimism deteriorated rapidly as we approached the gas station. Rather than just being abandoned like the place where I had met Kathlyn and Jan, the building before us looked like it had been in a small war. The windows were all broken out, and the door hung lopsidedly from bent hinges while the inside looked like it had been ransacked and set on fire at some point in the not so distant past. Luckily for us, there must not have been much to burn, and the pumps looked functional, if not unscathed. “You two stay inside.” I said quietly as I grabbed my rifle and got out, pointedly leaving the keys in the ignition. Shining a flashlight into the remains of the building, I satisfied myself that there wasn’t anything alive in it before going to the back of the Jeep and starting to fill the gas cans. The pump worked, despite making a noise that convinced me it would not be long for this world, and I stood watch while it gradually filled everything up. After more time than I would have liked we were back on the road and I was doing my best to put as much distance between the station and us as I could.
“We’re going to have to start thinking about where we are going to stop for the night…” I mused. “I have a pretty strong feeling that there is something around here.” Kathlyn decided, after doing her little meditative trick again “But I can’t tell you exactly how far off it is…” “I’m still good for a while.” I nodded “So onwards it is I guess.” Looking in the rear view mirror, I saw that Jan had dug out a sleeping bag and unzipped it like a blanket, and was already curled up on the back seat dozing a bit. “He’s fine.” Kathlyn grinned “That pup can sleep through pretty much anything.” “Lucky him…” I nodded, only to be interrupted suddenly when the road surface transitioned from being a modern blacktop road into a cobblestone path. “Well, that’s…umm…yeah.” I said as I slowed down considerably, more out of surprise than any sort of concern about the vehicle not being up to the rougher surface. As we continued down the road, we left the fields and cedar scrub behind and entered a dense old-growth forest. Taking a deep breath of the newly pine scented air, Kathlyn laughed “Pretty, isn’t it?” “It’s a nice change.” I agreed “Especially since it keeps the storm down to a dull roar.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about something…” Kathlyn began, breaking the comfortable silence in the Jeep “I was putting some extra clothes in your bag before we left the store this morning, and I noticed you have some kind of…odd…stuff buried down in the bottom.” “Oh boy, here we go.” I thought to myself, already beginning to blush bright red. How in the world am I going to explain about that to someone from a different world entirely? Or better yet, how do I lie my way out of having this conversation? “Umm…” I began intelligently, doing my best to wish up a meteor shower or dinosaur or something to quickly change the subject “Those are…uhh…the thing about that is…” Even seeing her playful grin when I glanced over out of the corner of my eye, I still could not for the life of me finish that sentence. “You like to play puppy, don’t you?” Kathlyn prompted, trying to help me out a little. “Uh huh.” I agreed quietly, staring straight ahead at the road. “We have something like that back home.” She explained “It’s okay, really. I don’t think any differently of you because of it, I promise.” “Really?” I asked, starting to feel a little bit less like having a heart attack on the spot. “Really.” Kathlyn agreed.
“It just gives me this feeling of security and comfort.” I tried to explain “Like I can curl up for a while and set aside all the worries and considerations that come up in my life and sort of float back somewhere simpler and relax. I get a chance to not be wound up tight and jittery for a while…” Reaching across the seat, Kathlyn hugged me supportively. “Do you have someone who plays with you?” she asked curiously. “Nope.” I sighed “I’m pretty shy around other people in general, females in specific, and this particularly. I’ve just never been able to work up the nerve to talk to anyone about it, much less risk all the potential rejection it would take to go out and find a mommy…” “Well I think it’s sweet.” She nodded. “Once we get settled down somewhere for more than a little while, I think we need to have some alone time…” Of everything she could have said, that one probably did the best job of putting me in a state of shocked, hopeful, excitement. “You mean…?” I began, turning to hopefully return the playful grin on her muzzle.
Only to narrowly avoid, through sheer good luck, smashing square into the police cruiser partially blocking the road. Slamming on the breaks and fighting the steering wheel, I managed to get the Jeep to stop fishtailing and finally came to a stop about twenty yards in front of the car. “What was that?” Jan yelled, popping up from his nap in the back seat. “There’s a damn car in the road…out here…” I stuttered, killing the Jeep’s engine and waiting a second for my hands to quit trembling on the wheel. “Are you two all right?” I asked finally when I had quit shaking enough to be coherent. “Uh huh.” “Yes, I think so.”
After sorting out that everyone was okay and that I had managed not to wreck the Jeep, I got out and looked back at the other vehicle. It’s headlights were still dimly on, the battery almost totally dead, and the car was resting in the ditch, with the rear end hanging partially back on the road. I couldn’t tell from where I was standing, but it looked like the passenger door was partially open as well. “This can’t be good.” I stated flatly, debating with myself what I should do. On the one hand there might be something I could do to help whoever had wrecked the car, on the other I wanted nothing more than to get back in the Jeep and make tracks. Sighing, I decided that if I didn’t at least take a look it would probably bother me for quite a while. “I guess I’ll go take a look.” I grumbled, not happy about it one bit. Handing Kathlyn my large flashlight I told her to “Keep an eye on things, okay?” Nodding, she stood on the door sill and pointed the light back at the car for me.
Grabbing my rifle out of the Jeep, I cautiously walked back to the other car. Approaching it from the driver’s side, I was alarmed, but not exactly surprised to find that the officer who had driven the car was very, very dead. Shuddering at the grisly sight, I pulled open the dented-in driver’s door, then mustering up my courage unbuckled the officer’s belt and pulled it out of his pants. “I think I’m going to be sick.” I swore to myself queasily, then quickly reached in to the car and grabbed his sidearm and the belt pouch of speed loaders. Then, hitting the power locks button, I slammed the car door shut and practically ran back to the Jeep. Jumping inside and turning the engine over I slammed on the gas and peeled out down the road. “Are you okay?” Kathlyn asked rhetorically, brushing my hair back a little bit. “No.” I sighed “I feel pretty lightheaded, but I’m not stopping until we’re not here.”
We drove on for maybe an hour before Kathlyn told me that “We need to stop so I can feel things out a little bit.” “Are you sure?” I asked before grudgingly pulling off into the middle of the next big clearing we came to. Getting out of the Jeep, she walked a few yards away before starting a small fire and beginning to mix things from her little leather bag together. “May as well get out and stretch.” I shrugged to Jan “I think she’s going to be a little while…” Yawning a bit, he still climbed out of the Jeep, then walked off a little to go pee. Getting the pistol I had retrieved earlier, I hopped up on the hood of the Jeep, the heat from the engine feeling nice below me. The gun turned out to be a six inch stainless steel revolver, whose previous owner had kept in good condition. Swinging out the cylinder, I checked the cartridges then strung the holster and speed loader pouch on to my belt. The leather duty holster didn’t hang the way I liked, but beggars can’t be choosers I decided. Stretching my back as much as I could, I was a little startled when Jan hopped up next to me on the hood. “It’s nice and warm up here.” He observed a little sleepily before leaning back against the windshield. “Uh huh.” I agreed, leaning back next to him “Feels good after bouncing around in there for all that time…”
Producing a box of crackers, Jan dug out a couple to snack on before offering me the box. “I’m fine, thanks though.” I nodded, passing up the box. As things were going it was becoming a very long day, and I was beginning to get more than a little tired, so since we were stopped for a while anyway I decided to try to take a little bit of a nap. I tried to settle down and watch the rapid progress of the clouds across the sky, but kept ending up watching Kathlyn instead. Seeing where my attentions were directed, Jan grinned. “You like her, don’t you.” He stated happily. “Is it that obvious?” I asked “I’ve never met someone like her before…she’s just…really something.” “It’s okay, she likes you too.” Jan informed me “I’m glad she found someone who likes her for who she is, Kathlyn is pretty important back home, and she’s always been worried that her boyfriends liked her job more than they liked her.” “I’m not sure how anyone could not like her for who she is…” I mused before starting to drowse a little again.
“You need a nap…” Jan sighed, sounding a little concerned. Not bothering to open my eyes, I just nodded a bit. “You’re an insightful little guy, aren’t you?” I teased, trying to get a little more comfortable on the hood. “I pride myself on it.” He agreed seriously. We sat for a while in a pleasant silence, broken only by the occasional whistling of a gust of wind passing through the trees. “You really think she likes me?” I mused thoughtfully. “Uh huh.” Jan agreed, rustling around in his box of crackers “I can see her looking at you from the backseat.” “How did that happen?” I said rhetorically. “Some mysteries really don’t need to be solved…” Kathlyn laughed, having snuck up on us. Opening my eyes, I found myself staring at the end of her muzzle, maybe an inch away from my nose. “Hey you.” I smiled, impulsively leaning up and giving her a little kiss on the cheek. “Hey you too.” She laughed, kissing me back. Leaning against the side of the Jeep, she explained that “I’m pretty sure that we’re getting close to something, hopefully with a roof.” “That would be nice.” I agreed “I don’t think I’ve got a whole lot more driving left in me before I’m going to have to call it a day.” “Plus hot food would be good.” Jan interjected, sliding off the hood and climbing into the back seat again.
Once everyone was settled back in I kicked over the engine and Kathlyn directed me onto the right path again through the woods. ‘Close’, it turned out, was a relative term, particularly as the trail we were following quickly degenerated into a boggy sort of path. “And this” I sighed “Is why I took the vehicle with four wheel drive…” Shifting into four-low made the semi-frozen mud passable, but not at a pace that could be considered swift by any stretch of the imagination. “I wonder how much mud is ending up freezing to the sides.” I grumbled, hitting the roof lights in the hopes of combating the thickening fog. “At least we’re not walking.” Jan said optimistically. “Amen to that.” I nodded “I’ll take slow going to a case of trench foot any day.” “What’s trench foot?” He asked curiously, amusing himself by playing with my flashlight. “New and interesting un-fun to avoid.” I shrugged.
Rounding a bend in the road, I quickly braked to a stop. Spread out in a little valley below us was a three story wooden building, with lights shining from the windows and smoke curling cheerfully from several chimneys scattered across the roof. Barely discernable at this distance was a sign proclaiming it to be ‘The Woodline Inn’. “That looks promising…” I laughed, rousing Kathlyn from her light nap. “I think that’s it.” She agreed. Pulling up to the building, I killed the headlights and set the parking brake. Looking things over, I noticed that there was a stables and corral off to the side of the main building, which also seemed to be a lot bigger than I had first estimated. “Well here we are I guess.”
Trailing Kathlyn and Jan out of the Jeep, I slung my rifle in what I hoped would be a non-threatening manner, or at least a close facsimile of such. Immediately inside was a large reception desk, complete with oil lamp, brass bell, and huge leather bound guest register. Sitting behind the desk was a deeply cloaked figure. “I bid you welcome.” A male voice said seriously as Kathlyn approached the counter. “Good evening.” She greeted “We need lodging for a time…” Reaching over her shoulder, I tossed a handful of assorted jewelry I had ‘liberated’ while we had been camping out in the store, then backed up and waited with my hand resting casually on the grip of my sidearm as Kathlyn and the innkeeper negotiated arrangements. Maybe I just wasn’t used to the magical set, but I was finding it hard to be at ease with mysterious cloaked figures. I’m sort of old fashioned like that. After Kathlyn had finished with our arrangements, we moved the Jeep into the stables amongst a odd collection of horses and wagons, then grabbed our stuff and went to see our room. Kathlyn and Jan seemed to be at home with things, so I let them take the lead up the staircase to the top floor. Producing the large brass key the innkeeper had given her, Kathlyn matched up the engraving on it with a door at the end of the hall and let us in to our room.
Our ‘room’ turned out to be a small corner suite with two bedrooms, a sort of sitting room, and a modern (to my great relief) bathroom. “Indoor plumbing is a constant of civilization.” Kathlyn teased, noticing my expression. The whole place was nicely furnished with antique furniture that looked suspiciously new but was quite comfortable regardless. “This one’s my room!” Jan declared, tossing his pack on to the bed in the smaller bedroom. “I thought that you two would share a room…” I explained in embarrassed confusion. Sighing and taking on the tone one reserves for the less than bright Kathlyn explained that “We would if my little brother wasn’t pointedly trying to fix us up.” “Oh.” I blushed stupidly, tossing my pack on the sofa in the living room. “You don’t have much experience with these sort of things, do you?” Trying to decide how best to answer that one, I watched somewhat helplessly as Kathlyn picked up my pack and deposited it with hers in the other bedroom. “I notice you aren’t objecting.” She laughed, giving me a hug. “Other than being kind of obviously embarrassed, I can’t think of a reason to.” I nodded. “And you don’t feel like trying to hard, do you?” Jan teased, passing us to go flop down in front of the big fireplace in the sitting room.
“Come on, you look exhausted.” Kathlyn chided “Let’s settle in a little bit, then order some food, okay?” “Sounds great.” I agreed, leaning my rifle against the nightstand in our bedroom, then draping my cartridge belt across a chair. “That’s better, isn’t it?” Kathlyn asked rhetorically, helping me out of my coat, then taking my hand and leading me over to join Jan at the fireplace. She was absolutely right of course, and it didn’t take long at all before I just quit caring and stretched out on the floor in front of the fire. Kathlyn ended up sitting next to me with my head in her lap, idly playing with my hair. Comfortable and warm I quickly found myself drifting off to sleep. “Don’t you want some dinner?” Kathlyn questioned gently, replacing her lap with a pillow after she and Jan had returned from answering a knock at the door with a heaping cart of all sorts of wonderfully smelling things. “It’s too nice over here, I’m not standing up for mere food.” I yawned, fully intending to go right back to sleep. “Well if you want to eat later we’ll save you something, but otherwise I’ll get you up when it’s time to go to bed.” Kathlyn agreed as she and Jan sat down somewhere I wasn’t inclined to turn around and investigate. “I love the irony of getting woken up to go to sleep.” I yawned before zoning back out completely.
I would have been more than happy to spend the night right there on the floor in front of the fireplace, but Kathlyn decided that what I really needed was a soft bed and warm blanket. Gently prodding me awake, she cajoled, admonished, and finally mostly drug me to our bedroom. “Okay, now lets just get you undressed and you can go back to bed.” She promised. “No. Tired. Change clothes tomorrow.” I grunted semi-coherently, flopping down on the bed and trying my best not to wake up any more than absolutely necessary. “You’ll sleep a lot better without all that stuff on you.” She argued reasonably, tapping me on the nose to emphasize her point. “Don’t care.” I yawned. Ignoring her continued objections, I did my best to crawl under the blankets. Taking an absolutely no-nonsense tone, Kathlyn begged to differ. “Fine, but I want the boots and pants.” She demanded, proceeding to strip off the offending items when my tiredness overcame my stubbornness. “Just don’t come complaining to me in the morning when you’re sore all over!”
Kathlyn was right, I decided the next morning when the growling in my tummy and the smells of breakfast teamed up to drag me out of bed. Though I’d be damned if I was going to give any indication of it. She and Jan were working their way through a cart of various pastries and other breakfast goodies when I put in my appearance in the sitting room. “Something smells good in here.” I grinned, pulling up a chair and helping myself to the food. “I thought that would wake you up, especially since you missed dinner yesterday.” Kathlyn laughed, reaching over and skritching the back of my head affectionately. Breakfast was a pretty cheerful affair, inside and generally safe is a far more pleasant atmosphere than eating cold packaged food while looking over one’s shoulder, and it was a nice change to see my friends relaxed and comfortable.
Finally pushing his chair away from the table, Jan declared that he was going to look around the hotel for a while, to see what there was to see. After assuring me that he would be perfectly safe Kathlyn suggested that I stay to help her sort through our stuff and put out some clothes for the laundry. “Besides, I remember Sis mentioning wanting some ‘alone time’ with you yesterday…” Jan grinned, pulling the door shut behind him. Laughing at my embarrassed recognition, Kathlyn took my hand and led me back to our bedroom.
“I’m not sure this is exactly appropriate…” I began, turning to go back to the sitting room. Hearing Kathlyn say something in the oddly singsong voice I was beginning to associate with magic, I suddenly found myself floating up about two foot off the floor. “No arguing little guy.” She smiled playfully as she began laying out things from my backpack “Not that either of us believes you were going to put too much energy into it…” “No.” I agreed, smiling shyly myself. “Good.” She nodded “Now let’s just get you out of these and…” Unbuckling my belt, she let my pants drop off, catching them before the heavy pistol on my belt hit the floor. Then after setting my pants aside on a chair she pulled my shirt over my head, only leaving my underwear when she set me back down on my own two feet. “You’re going to have to teach me some of that one of these days…” I laughed, jumping up on the bed and twirling the blankets around me like a shawl. “Maybe later if you’re a good little boy.” Kathlyn nodded seriously.
“I’m always good.” I responded, just as seriously “When wasn’t I good?” “Well, to begin with you missed dinner yesterday…” Kathlyn laughed, patting the bed next to her. Extracting myself from the blanket, I laid down where she indicated and passively (and feeling more than a little embarrassed) let her whisk off my underwear, stealing my last vestiges of modesty in the process. “Mmm…” she grinned wickedly, before laughing and tousling my hair. “It’s fun to make you blush.” Kathlyn teased as she took a diaper out of my backpack and slipped it under me. “You’re just trying to get me to die of embarrassment, aren’t you?” I sighed. “You really need to learn to be less self-conscious.” She lectured gently as she sprinkled some powder on my diaper area then folded everything up and fastened the tapes in place “You’re cute and smart and even if you can be a little bit dense at times you’ve got your heart in the right place…” “Only because it really rather hurts to move it.” I shrugged, feigning ignorance. Cuffing me gently with the pads of her paw, Kathlyn rolled her eyes. “Oh come on, I thought it was at least a little funny.” I pouted. “Like I said, a little bit dense…” she grinned back.
“No fair picking on me.” I whined, beginning to feel a bit put upon. “I think low blood sugar is making you cranky.” Kathlyn decided, rummaging through my backpack until she came up with a bottle. “We can fix that…” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared into the other room, returning with the bottle filled with juice. “I wouldn’t mind a snack…” I agreed as she settled down next to me on the bed, propping my back up against her chest and offering me the bottle. “I thought as much.” She nodded. Snuggling up comfortably against her, I let Kathlyn feed me. Relaxing a bit after a while I started to get over my self-consciousness and began to be able to enjoy myself. Finding Kathlyn’s tail, I began to idly play with it, running my fingers through it’s puffy fur and trying to get bits here and there to stand up in spikes.
“Having fun?” Kathlyn laughed. “Uh huh.” I mumbled around my bottle, doing my best to nod without spilling anything “You’s fluffy.” “I’m glad you approve.” She nodded. It didn’t take me very long to finish off my bottle, then after setting it on the nightstand, Kathlyn suggested that we “Go settle down over by the fire where it’s nice and toasty…” Gathering up the blanket off the bed, we were soon settled down comfortably in the sitting room. Cuddling with her, wrapped up in the blanket by the fireplace, I couldn’t help but sigh happily. “This is nice.” I explained “I could really get used to being with you…” “About that…” Kathlyn said, becoming more serious “The storm will have run its course soon, and we need to decide what we’re going to do afterwards.” “Hmm?” I mused, not really wanting to pay attention…her grey and white tail was a wonderfully fluffy diversion. “Can we be serious for a little while?” she sighed “You have to decide where you want to go…” “No I don’t.” I smiled, looking up in to her eyes before leaning up and giving her a kiss on the end of her nose.
“You’re not going to try to get back home, are you?” Kathlyn asked rhetorically. “I want to stay with you.” I agreed, shaking my head in affirmation. “I really don’t have much of a home to get back to, and you…well… You make me feel special. I’ve never felt like that before, like I belonged with someone, someone who wants me to be with them too.” “I was hoping you would say that.” Kathlyn beamed, looking really, truly happy. Laughing a little at the irony, I explained that “I was hoping you would say that too…” Taking on a more serious tone, Kathlyn explained that “It will probably be kind of strange for you at first, there’s a lot of new things for you to get used to.” “As long as you are patient with me…rumor has it that I’m a little dense…” I grinned, shifting around a little to get more comfortable in her lap. “You’re really not worried?” she asked a little incredulously. “Worried? I’m terrified.” I admitted, finally beginning to be a little more serious “I would have to be more than a little dense if I wasn’t. But I’ve got a chance to be happy, and to be able to make someone else happy. And you’ll be there to take care of me. I trust you.”
We settled in to a comfortable silence for a while after that. I guess we both had a lot to think about, but sitting there in her arms I really couldn’t feel anything but optimism about the future. I had somehow found something worth having. It’s funny how that works, you never seem to know you are missing something you’ve never experienced, but then once you find it you can’t begin to fathom how you lived without it for all that time. “What’s it like back where you and Jan came from?” I asked curiously after a while. “Really your home seems to be a lot like ours.” Kathlyn explained “It’s just that things work a little differently there… We have cities and towns and shopping malls just like you would expect, except that we have a lot more green space around us than you do. Other than that I don’t think that you’ll see any really tremendous changes.” “Except that I look quite a bit different than the people in your world…” I sighed, beginning to contemplate the problems that might bring.
“About that…” Kathlyn began a bit nervously “I can…umm…rectify that, if you’re willing…” Shifting around to face her my expression leaned past ‘willing’ and deep into the realm of ‘eager’. “Really?” I laughed “How does that work?” “Well” she explained, growing more confident when it became obvious I wasn’t insulted by the idea “It’s a complicated and very much one way spell, so you would have to be absolutely sure it was what you wanted, I wouldn’t be able to change you back…” “So I’d be fuzzy and have a tail and everything?” “Yep.” Kathlyn laughed “I can guarantee fuzzy and a tail is almost a certainty. But I don’t have control over the exact form you would take, that’s determined by what’s inside you…” “So can we do it now or do we have to wait until after lunch?” I queried eagerly. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, you’ll have to be patient for a little while…” Kathlyn admonished, giving me a hug “Besides, it’s nice here curled up with you in front of the fire...” “Well, we don’t have to get up right now.” I agreed, more than happy to settle back down for a while.
I had always dreamed about having someone to cuddle and laze away time with, and as it turned out it was all that I had hoped it would be. In very little time I found myself drifting off into a comfortable state of semi-wakefulness there in Kathlyn’s lap. I guess I hadn’t gotten enough sleep over the last couple of days, and even though I had just gotten up I found myself more than capable of going right back down again. “Still sleepy little guy?” Kathlyn asked gently. “Uh huh.” I nodded, not bothering to open my eyes again. “As much as I like it here my legs are falling asleep.” She explained gently “Do you think we could take it back to the bedroom? As long as it’s turning in to naptime we may as well be comfy…” Sighing at the prospect, but nodding my agreement, I hauled myself up and shuffled back to our room to collapse on the bed with a contented sigh. Kathlyn remained by the fireplace a bit longer, waiting for her legs to wake up before gracefully rising and joining me.
Noticing something as she sat down next to me on the bed, Kathlyn nudged me gently. “Uh, honey? You wet yourself…” she pointed out, raising an eyebrow. “Yeppers.” I yawned, fully intending to go back to sleep. “I thought it would take you longer than that…” she mused “You’re not going to sleep yet?” “Yeppers.” I confirmed a bit grumpily “Tired.” “But we have to get you changed first or else you’ll end up with a rash.” Kathlyn explained patiently “You don’t want that, do you?” “No…” I sighed, conceding the point as she began fishing things out of my backpack. “Don’t start pouting.” She admonished “We can make this quick and painless, then you can take a nap.”
Getting a towel from the bathroom, she indicated that I should scoot onto it, then unfastened my old diaper and slipped it out from under me. “Now let’s get you cleaned up a little!” she smiled, getting out a new packet of wipes from my collection of supplies and efficiently cleaning my diaper area. Then, after slipping a new diaper under me Kathlyn sprinkled on some baby powder and fastened everything up. “See, that didn’t take long!” She grinned, sitting down next to me on the bed again. “Nope.” I agreed, smiling back at her. “It’s a lot less trouble to change diapers when your charge is cooperative and doesn’t have a tail getting in the way.” Kathlyn decided authoritatively. “But I think I like tails.” I grinned, playfully catching the tip of her tail as she flicked it back and forth in front of me “They’re so soft and long and pretty and stuff.” “Your enthusiasm is really endearing.” Kathlyn said “I’ve noticed that since we’ve gotten here it seems like you’ve gotten a lot more relaxed. You just seem so much more cheerful…” Laughing happily I explained that “Part of it is that I’m not having to worry about getting eaten by some shambling horror, but most of it is because of you!” “How in the world are you not already bonded with some lucky female?” “…you ask the shy, plain looking male wearing only a diaper.” I shrugged, trying not to seem too sarcastic. “I don’t even know where to begin correcting you.” Kathlyn sighed a little sadly before kissing me on the nose.
“Are you going to take a nap with me mommy Kathlyn?” I asked in my little boy voice, deciding that a change of the subject was in order. Thinking for a second, Kathlyn nodded. “It wouldn’t hurt for me to get some more rest, Jan and I had been wandering for a couple of days before we met you, and I was pretty stressed out for most of that time…” “I wonder why?” I teased, taking her paw and pulling her down next to me on the bed. Snuggling up against my back, Kathlyn wrapped her arms around me and pulled the blanket up to our necks. “You’re warm.” I yawned. “So are you.” Kathlyn agreed. “Can I ask you a stupid question?” “If you want.” She nodded patiently. “Can you move your tail on purpose, or is it just sort of a reflexive thing?” “We can move it on purpose.” Kathlyn laughed, truly amused by the question “Though I must admit I’ve never actually given it much thought.” “You take your tail for granted.” I chided “Tails are spiffy, you should appreciate it more…” “We’ll have to see about getting you one of your own.” She replied “Then you can play with it whenever you want!” “Uh huh.” I agreed, yawning a bit “But I thinks I’ll take a nap first so I have the energy for tail-growing later.” True to my intent, I rapidly fell in to a deep and comfortable sleep.
After seeing me off to sleep Kathlyn drowsed for a while herself before reluctantly getting back up. There were things which needed to be attended to, and she had decided that it would be best for me to rest up as much as I could before the coming ordeal. Even though she was extremely skilled at magic there was only so much that could be done to ease the physical stresses that a transformation as complex as the one she was preparing to work cause to its subject. Patting me on the head affectionately, she went into the sitting room. Concentrating on the task at hand, Kathlyn first moved the furniture to the edges of the room then began to draw the necessary runes and symbols with chalk directly on to the wooden floor. Then, after finishing that up, Kathlyn began digging through our backpacks to round up the various other bits and pieces she would need. Magic, like everything else, tended to work better when one planned it out and meticulously prepared things ahead of time, so Kathlyn painstakingly checked and double checked the details of her project as she worked.
Finally finishing her preparations, Kathlyn stood back and smiled in satisfaction at the results. Returning to our bedroom, she looked over to where I was curled up under the covers and couldn’t help but grin to herself. “Everything’s ready but you…” she accused my sleeping form good naturedly before shrugging to herself and joining me under the covers. “A little more rest won’t hurt you I guess.” She mused as she settled in herself. “Mama?” I mumbled, shifting around a little restlessly at the noise. “Shhh… Go back to sleep little one.”
When Kathlyn woke me later in the afternoon I had mostly caught up on my sleep and was feeling pretty good. “I’ve got everything set up in the other room.” She explained “There’s just a few other things left to do and then we will be ready.” Stretching as I got out of bed, I nodded and located my pants where she had neatly folded them up on the chair. “What about Jan?” I wondered aloud, a little bit concerned that he hadn’t put in an appearance in a while. “He came and went while you were asleep.” Kathlyn replied “The inn has a library, and it’s been keeping him happily occupied.” “Ah.” I nodded changing the subject “So will we be getting started now then?”
“You need to get cleaned up now while you’re feeling up to it.” Kathlyn explained, ushering me in to the bathroom where a steaming, bubble filled tub awaited “The transformation will be a little hard on you physically, and you may not want to bother with it for a while afterwards, so it will be good to start out nice and fresh.” “Good point. Well made.” I agreed, waiting for her to leave. “Well go ahead.” She nodded, showing no indication of going anywhere. Blushing a little bit, I just kind of shrugged before stripping off my pants and unfastening my diaper while Kathlyn looked on with a playful grin. As I eased into the wonderfully warm water I was instantly too comfortable to be embarrassed. “Mmm…” I sighed, closing my eyes as I sunk down into the bubbles happily. “Nice, isn’t it?” Kathlyn asked rhetorically.
Letting me enjoy the hot water, Kathlyn got a washcloth and began to give me a bath. It was kind of odd at first to have someone else bathing me, and a little bit embarrassing when she got to some of my more…intimate places, but all in all I decided it was a nice sort of feeling. At least up until the point where Kathlyn began insisting I extract myself from the bubbles I had begun trying to build a castle out of. “Time to get out.” She cajoled gently. “Nuh huh.” I grumbled “It’s nice in here. You should come in too!” “As much as I would like that if you don’t get out soon you’ll get all wrinkly and shrivel up and disappear.” “Don’t believe you.” I grinned back, flicking some bubbles at her. “You’re starting to be naughty…” Kathlyn admonished “Now be a good little guy, okay?” Finally giving in to her guilt trip I allowed her to rinse off the last of the bubbles and hauled myself out of the tub.
The colder air in the room instantly reinforced my hesitance to leave the bathtub as I began to shiver a bit. Quickly coming to my rescue, Kathlyn wrapped me up in a huge towel which she had left warming by the fireplace while I was in the bath. Sighing happily I helped to towel myself off before we returned to the living room, being careful not to mess up Kathlyn’s work as I went to dry in front of the fire. After we had both settled down on the cushions Kathlyn had set out, I tried and failed to come up with a way of asking the question that was on my mind without sounding dumb. Sighing, I just jumped in to it. “So, umm…I’ve never been turned in to anything before, and I was kind of wondering what to expect.” “I really don’t know.” Kathlyn shrugged “I’ve never been turned in to anything either, so anything I could tell you would only be guessing.” “That’s very reassuring.” I grumbled, trying to hide how nervous I was getting now that it was more than just a semi-hypothetical discussion. “Are you having second thoughts?” “Not for a minute.” I said honestly “It’s just the whole fear of the unknown thing.” “Well if it makes you feel any better I promise that I’ll be there with you holding your paw.” She promised gently. “Surprisingly enough it does.” I nodded quietly.
“Are you ready to go ahead and start?” Kathlyn asked. Nodding, I stood up with her and followed her to the middle of the room. “Lie down here.” She instructed, indicating a circle in the center of her drawings. Doing as she asked, I stared up at the ceiling while Kathlyn walked around the room lighting candles. I really wanted to fidget or find something to toy with to help my nerves, but I was afraid of accidentally messing something up, so I eventually settled on closing my eyes and crossing my arms over my chest, hugging myself. “Don’t worry,” Kathlyn’s voice assured me from off to one side “In a second you’ll go to sleep, and the next thing you know it will all be over.” “Okays.” I said, my voice trembling a little bit. Kathlyn began to chant in her singsong magical language, it felt like the world was beginning to spin around me, and then everything went black.
When I came to I felt disoriented and nauseous enough that I quickly started to wish that I hadn’t. Groaning a little bit, I felt Kathlyn squeeze my hand. “It’s okay, it’s all over now.” She assured me quietly “Just lie still for a little bit. There’s no hurry to get up.” “Did it work?” I asked, not really wanting to open my eyes but forcing myself to do it anyway. “Yes it did.” She explained cheerfully, helping me to sit up. Looking down at myself I discovered that I had sprouted a coat of reddish-brown fur which gave way to white across my tummy. “That’s new.” I mumbled. Offering me a mirror, Kathlyn squeezed my paw reassuringly. My paw…I had paws! The same brownish fur with soft black pads on the palms and short, pointy little nails on the ends of my fingers! Taking the mirror, I summoned up my courage (and tried to suppress my unhappy tummy) and looked. To see a strange and yet familiar fox staring back at me.
It was a little startling to see something so completely different and yet so comfortingly familiar looking back from the mirror. “I’m not a wolf.” I stated curiously, slightly confused and yet finding myself comfortable with it. “Nope, you’re a very handsome fox.” Kathlyn nodded, sensing a little of my train of thoughts. “Remember what we talked about? You transformed into what was inside of you.” “You’re not disappointed?” I asked hopefully, looking to her for reassurance and approval. “Of course not!” Kathlyn chided, kissing me gently on my new muzzle. “That’s good, my tummy hurts enough without me having to worry about that.” I nodded. Looking a little concerned, Kathlyn decided that “It would probably be best for you to lay down for a while until everything settles down a bit.” Standing up, she helped me, rather shakily, get to my feet and walked me back to our bed. Lying down gratefully I let her tuck me in a little before she ducked back into the sitting room, to return with a bottle of milk. “This will help to settle your tummy.” She explained as she propped my head up and began feeding me the bottle. Commenting that “The bottles are turning out to be surprisingly convenient.” Kathlyn got as much milk in to me as I felt like my system could tolerate, then sat down with a book while I rested for a bit.
After a time my tummy was feeling better, but I was developing a tremendous need to go to the bathroom. Really wishing that Kathlyn had diapered me after we settled down, I debated whether I should bother her or if I could make it to the bathroom on my own. Finally deciding that asking for help was better than falling on my face, I gave a mental shrug and explained to Kathlyn that “I kind of have to go potty but I’m not sure if I can make it on my own.” Nodding in understanding, she helped me up. Seeing that I was still pretty shaky on my paws, Kathlyn commented that “It’s a good thing you had the sense to ask for help.” Which brought out an embarrassed blush from me and a knowing look from her. Undoing my pants, I discovered that fur and paws weren’t the only changes I had undergone.
I probably should have expected something like this: I had forgotten that males in the animal kingdom had a sheath covering things up down there, Canids being no exception to the rule. Be that as it may though, I defy you to find a guy who wouldn’t find it a bit disconcerting to discover something unexpected down there. “That’s new…” I said, still out of it enough to be a little bewildered by it all “Umm, does it come with an instruction manual?” “No.” Kathlyn answered wickedly “But I’ll be quite happy to provide some hands-on tutoring!” “I don’t feel well enough to blush and stand upright at the same time and you know it…” I grumbled as I did my business “It’s not nice of you to take advantage of an invalid like that.” Growing serious again, Kathlyn looked at me critically. “Does your tummy still hurt?” she asked with concern as we made our way back to the other room where I promptly flopped back down on the bed. “Not as much as it did.” I explained “But I’m deep-down sore all over…”
“Do I really need to explain that one to you?” she sighed theatrically “You see, when someone’s body gets all changed around…” “Wiseass.” I laughed, pushing her gently “I figured out that part on my own.” Nodding seriously in agreement, Kathlyn explained that “Regardless of that, there’s still something important that you have been missing.” “Oh, and what would that be?” I asked, matching her tone of mock seriousness. “Look behind you.” She smiled. Following her gesture, I glanced over my shoulder. “Tail!” I yelled gleefully, my newly acquired fuzzy red butt-necktie immediately gaining my undivided attention. It was long and fluffy-red and gloriously mine. Concentrating intently I quickly found the musculature control required and began to wag it happily. Kathlyn hopped up on the bed and couldn’t help but grin as I slowly got better at controlling its movement, things eventually cumulating with me swinging it in time as I cheerfully hummed a random little tune. (I had originally tried whistling, to Kathlyn’s great amusement, but discovered that making my muzzle work the way I needed it to was still just a bit beyond me.) “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it again after a while.” She had said consolingly, though I really wasn’t paying much attention at the time.
“I told you I’d get you one of those!” Kathlyn teased gently after I had worn myself out enough to calm down a bit. “Shh…” I whispered conspiratorially “It’s trying to escape!” Suddenly trying to pounce my own tail I very nearly ended up falling off the bed, only being saved at the last second when Kathlyn grabbed my arm and hauled me back up. “You’re pretty active for someone who isn’t feeling so well.” She observed, ruffling my headfur “Maybe you should rest a bit to help you recover more quickly.” “Maybe you should find me that instruction manual so I can figure out how to whistle again…” “You need to settle down for a bit.” She said firmly “If you don’t want to take a nap then we can snuggle for a while, but you shouldn’t be up and about yet.”
Regardless of how stubborn I was feeling I wasn’t about to say no to snuggling. Burrowing down under the covers enthusiastically, it didn’t take me long to make myself comfortable. Kathlyn, on the other hand, took a more dignified approach to the problem, shaking her head in tolerant amusement at my antics. Settling in next to me with a contented sigh, she put her arms around me and settled my head against the inside of her shoulder. “Mmm… You’re warm.” I laughed, closing my eyes a little. Not bothering to answer, Kathlyn began stroking my headfur. Despite the fact that I knew she was using a devious and cunning trick to get her way about it being naptime, I decided that I really didn’t care any more. Besides, as cozy as I was resistance was proving to be futile anyway. Giving in, I closed my eyes and let my mind drift.
Sensing that she had won, Kathlyn began to sing to me softly. At first the hauntingly beautiful little tune brought me closer to wakefulness as I focused a little on this change in the atmosphere of the room, but gradually it soothed me back into my happy little reverie until sleep overcame me. Looking down at my sleeping form, Kathlyn smiled tenderly before closing her eyes and drifting off herself.
I was awakened gradually, and somewhat to my annoyance, by a persistent knocking at the door. Doing my best to focus on the source of the noise, I saw Jan in the doorway, rapping his knuckles on the jam. He was smiling indulgently, not showing the least bit of surprise at my change in appearance. Lying next to me, Kathlyn too was blinking herself awake, rubbing the sleep from her eyes before sitting up a little bit. “The storm has passed.” Jan explained gently “It’s time to go home.”
To Be Continued...