This story is set in the late Summer of 1996.
Tina turned slowly as the young cougar circled, its tail switching. Suddenly, it snarled and charged. Tina waited a moment, then jumped straight up, tucking her legs in. The cougar tried to change its charge into a leap but didn't have time. As it staggered past her, barely staying on its feet, Tina kicked downwards with both legs. The cougar slammed into the ground, still going forward, causing it to tumble. Tina managed a half-turn before touching down, leaving her in a back stance, left side to the big cat. It was already on its feet, snarling, ears back. Tina tensed herself for a hard fight; it wouldn't make the same mistake again, and was now angry.
"Mate!*" Bent-Tail called out.
Tina relaxed; the cougar snorted but did the same. As their instructor came towards them the cougar shifted into it's half-human midform, naked except for an irritated expression. The combatants bowed to each other to formally end the sparring session.
"Mihos, you don't get angry in practice," scolded Bent-Tail. "Or if you do you don't show it!"
"Yes, shihan," the cougar boy sighed contritely, hanging his head.
"Tina, that wasn't bad, but keep in mind his reach. He almost clawed your feet."
"Yes, shihan," said Tina, nodding.
"Now, Lisa, you and How."
"Oh, boy..." sighed the kitsune, rolling his eyes.
As the previous contestants left the sparing circle and the new ones entered, Bent-Tail returned to the tree he had been standing under. He growled suddenly.
"How! Get closer! You've got the reach with that sword, but you can't use it from back there!"
The kitsune gulped and obeyed, then stood his ground as Lisa casually moved towards him. She was in human form, he in his trueform, 3 tails swishing nervously. How was much quicker and more agile than any human, and armed with a Fey sword (currently set to stun). Lisa, though, was even faster and more dexterous, more experienced and much more aggressive. She casually swatted at his face, just an open-hand slap. How frantically parried, so hard that he was actually off balance. There was a very brief flurry of activity, which ended with How face down on the ground and Lisa sitting on his back.
"Oh, that was pitiful," groaned Bent-Tail. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
He trudged over to the pair. Lisa looked up at him and smiled; How twisted his neck around towards the huge werewolf and grimaced. At a gesture from their teacher Lisa rose gracefully and sauntered away. How lay where he was for a moment, then heaved a heavy sigh and bounced to his feet. At Bent-Tail's reminder Lisa turned and the pair bowed to each other. Then Lisa walked on out of the ring, leaving the kitsune and the werewolf.
"Look, son, you've got to try harder," said Bent-Tail, exasperated but sympathetic. "I know you can duel well. Why can't you use the same adroitness here?"
"When I duel it's different," said How, plaintively. "I mean, I feel like a combination of Fred Astaire and Errol Flynn. But when I try this stuff..."
"Well, try pretending this is a duel," suggested Bent-Tail. "Just think of it that way, only your opponent is armed with natural weapons instead of a sword."
"I'll try," he sighed.
"Okay, Lisa, how about you and Tina."
This time Lisa was obviously taking the match more seriously. They bowed and took their beginning stances. The sparring went slowly at first, with each combatant moving around the other, watching for an attack or an opening. Tina suddenly lunged in and Lisa dodged, only the attack was a feint and Tina sidekicked Lisa solidly in the stomach. The werecougar snarled and backed away, but remained in human form. In these fights Tina was pretty much free to do anything she wanted, outside of deliberately lethal or crippling techniques; the burden of care was on the shapeshifters. They could survive and completely recover from nearly anything not involving removal of major body parts, but Tina was only human. The pair circled some more. Suddenly, Tina lunged in again, only this time it wasn't a feint; the punch was aimed at Lisa's face. Lisa wasn't fooled; sensing the girl's focus she reacted appropriately, and Tina was slammed hard to the grass.
She countered with a leg sweep; Lisa hopped nimbly over that, but the werecougar's defensive move gave Tina opportunity to get back up. She was barely in time to defend against Lisa, who suddenly took the initiative. Tina blocked and dodged frantically, barely keeping Lisa from connecting. Abruptly she stumbled; they had reached the edge of the sparring circle and Tina had tripped in the taller grass outside.
"Mate!" called Bent-Tail.
Lisa relaxed and stepped back, smiling a bit. Tina clambered to her feet, embarrassed and angry. The bowed to each other and relaxed.
"Damn! Lost track of where we were!"
"Don't feel too bad," said Bent-Tail. "In a real fight such arbitrary boundaries wouldn't be there. Just be careful not to trip over a curb or a stump when you're up against someone for real and you'll be all right."
"That was great!" crowed How, bounding up to hug Tina, then give her a quick, solid kiss. "She never laid a hand on you!"
"Yeah, but I could tell she wasn't going all out," sighed the girl.
"Still, that's a remarkable performance," said Bent-Tail. "I know a lot of werewolves who couldn't do so good. Of course, most of them wouldn't be trying to block and dodge; they'd just 'take it' and swing back."
"And get killed!" panted Tina, emphatically.
"Now for the final event," said Bent-Tail, grinning as he turned towards Lisa.
The werecougar rolled her eyes in an "Oh, please," expression, which made How laugh and Tina grin. The non-combatants cleared out of the ring. The two shapeshifters bowed to each other, then stood quietly for a long moment, Lisa looking very alert, Bent-Tail like he was daydreaming. Then Lisa dove forward, shifting to her midform as she rolled on her back. Her aim was obviously to strike at the big man's crotch. Only he wasn't there. Lisa barely rolled aside as a paw the size of a snowshoe slammed down. She bounded back a bit, staring up at the giant werewolf towering over her. Bent-Tail, smiling, stepped forward. Lisa darted to the side... and got caught by a roundhouse kick that almost knocked her out of the ring.
For the next few seconds the activity in the sparring circle was too fast to follow clearly. The two shapeshifters seemed to leap together and bounce apart, their exchanges were so quick. They repeatedly landed attacks which would have easily killed a human, even without using claws and fangs, which they wouldn't do in sparring. Adding to the confusion, they often shifted forms, sometimes in mid-strike. Finally, the werewolf pinned Lisa to the ground. She snarled and spat and struggled, but he had a good pin, and his size and strength meant he could hold it. After a few seconds of futile activity, she yielded.
"I have got to get stronger," she muttered, as they stood and bowed. "I have the speed and the agility and the flexibility and probably enough skill - though that could always be improved - but I'm just not strong enough!"
"You can't expect to be as strong as him!" blurted Tina.
"I don't have to be as strong as him," said Lisa. "That would be nice, but it isn't necessary. I just need to be stronger than I am."
"Why?" asked How.
Lisa ignored him. Tina noticed that Bent-Tail wasn't talking, either. Bent-Tail assembled them and bowed them off to end the class. The small group began gathering their things.
How chuckled, and Tina turned to see Mihos, back in cougar form, sitting on the ground licking his privates, one hind leg up in the air.
"Mihos!" growled Lisa.
The cub looked at her with a "Now what did I do?" expression.
"Well, you did tell him to do cat things when he's in cat form," chuckled How.
Lisa, muttering vile profanities under her breath, grabbed her son by his collar and started fastening the leash to it. Mihos protested but didn't struggle.
"Come on, it's time to head home," she told him, as she herded him towards the Miata. "Bent-Tail, thank you for the training. I hope we will be able to work out again, someday."
"I don't get it," muttered How, as the two shapeshifters drove away. "What's all that about?"
"That's her business," said Bent-Tail, "but have you noticed the way she's bulked up lately?"
"Yeah," said How. "She looks like one of those female body builders."
"She's getting ready for something," mused Tina. "But what? And what could be so tough that she has to go through all this to get ready for it?"
"Something she thinks might kill her," said How, with a sudden insight. "Though what she could be worried about is beyond me."
"Well, shouldn't we help?" asked Tina, anxiously.
"You have been," said Bent-Tail.
"No, I mean with this mission of hers."
"What if it's not a mission?" asked Bent-Tail. "What if she just wants to be better able to protect herself and her cubs and friends?"
"Oh," said Tina, eyes widening. "The vampires."
"Oh, yeah," said How, reacting similarly. "I bet someone in the vampire community finally pieced together what happened to Janos and his cronies at her place."
"But I thought she was in good with that king of theirs," said Tina.
"Officially, yes," said Bent-Tail, nodding. "But vampires are good at holding grudges. And at both maneuvering to increase their power and reducing the power of others."
"Well, I guess we'll just have to keep an eye out for trouble, then," said How.
*Pronounced "mah-tey," this is Japanese for "stop."
This document is Copyright 2000 Rodford Edmiston Smith. For permission to use or reprint contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org.