Dirt. I know all about dirt. There is the loose dirt you find on farms, fertile and ready to grow. There is the hard packed dirt in back roads. There is the even harder packed dirt of city streets. There is dry dirt that sends up a dust cloud with every step. There is squishy mud that your feet sink straight into. And there is moist dirt that feels like it should cling to you but doesn't. That's what this dirt is: moist from a recent rain. But it's not very hard packed. It's too loose to be city dirt, and too packed to be farm dirt. Forest trail dirt feels so odd under my feet, and the meandering boughs of the surrounding trees are a meager substitute for solid city buildings.
Dirt holds many smells, especially now with my new nose. Farm dirt has the musty smell of aged decay. City dirt smells stale, like it's been out so long it's gone bad and can't grow anything anymore. But all dirt in smells like the collective feet of everyone who has tread on it. Perhaps that's why this dirt feels so foreign to me. I can smell almost no one in this lonely woodland trail, even with my new and expanded senses. There are no lingering fragances of cheap booze. There are no wasted drops of black oil, dimming the metallic sheen of a dagger hidden behind a cloak. There are no almost but not quite mopped up pools of blood, removed evidence of more sordid lines of work.
You know what? I can get used to this. Goodbye Lorland and good riddance! I am leaving you. I am leaving my accursed family. I am of age now and I am going to do things differently. I am going to do things my way.
"Watch me Metamor Keep!" I say out loud.
Okay, perhaps that would be more impressive if I wasn't a four foot tall mouse man.
"Do you have business with Metamor Ke..." The voice was broken up by the immediate sounds of laughter.
I think I just jumped about three feet in surprise. Even the matted down fur on my tail puffed up with the rest of my hackles. I turn to look for a body to match the voice that had startled me so. My eyes meet with a human woman with an amused grin. Outwardly she was wearing a leather suit, but my ears could hear the rattle of chain mail underneath it. In one hand was a bow, at her hip was a sword, and she looked like she knew how to use both.
"Sorry if I startled you."
"No, it's my fault for not paying attention." I reply. "You're a road watch I take it?"
The female warrior nodded. "We're Metamor's regulars. We patrol the roads and keep track of all the caravans travelling to the keep. And speaking of which, you don't look like you're with one. So why are you here?"
"I used to live at Lorland. Now that I'm of age, I'm moving to Metamor and becoming a man-at-arms."
The human just stared blankly down at me. "Umm, aren't you a bit small to be a fighter?"
"Jenna!" another voice called out from behind her in reprimand. "You'll remember that there was a rat knight at the last tourney. He wasn't much bigger than this mouse is."
The road watch turns back to the bushes. "That was a sport, not real combat."
A different voice calls from a different bush. "What about that rat that ran the writer's guild. Rumor has it he's one of the special scouts now. Is that combat real enough for you?"
"Fine whatever." Jenna acknowledges to the unseen speaker. "But I still say he looks more like a squeeze toy than a warrior."
I don't like the way this conversation is headed. Jenna is turning back to face me, so I look up at her and ask, "Any dangers ahead?"
Her face reforms as though all the previous comments were forgotten. "There's always danger on the road. There have been scattered raids by the lutins, mostly attacking small caravans. Our relief should be here shortly if you'd like to walk back with us."
I nod back. "Sounds like a good idea."
I step into the bushes and lean up against a tree near another guard. The group waits in alert silence. That suits me fine. I've got a lot to think about now. And I need some leaf. My paw reflexively curls towards the pouch on my belt. From it I withdraw a slender white wrap and small tin box. One practiced motion and the top flips open with a click. My finger taps the flint striker. A small flame comes to life as I reach my...
With a second click my lighter closes itself and the flame snuffs out. Both fall back to my pouch. Damn it!
One of the soldiers to my side looks over me. I look back. "How old are you?"
He looks genuinely surprised. "Aren't you a little young to be smoking?"
"It's safer than alcohol." I reply with a smirk. "Drunk people tend to disappear in Lorland."
Now he's just shocked. After a few seconds he seems to shrink back into stunned silence. A quick look at the rest of the party shows them shuffling uncomfortably and glancing at me out of the corners of their eyes. With a shrug I return to my thoughts.
Okay, the idea of a small rodent in the regulars didn't go over well with the commander here. The others reminded her about the small guys who were fighting for the keep, but are they rule or are they exception? How exceptional do I have to be? And if the regulars are a bust, what then? What are these special scouts they mentioned? Am I too old to become a squire? If so, what other group of men-at-arms would take me? And everyone here is a human. Are only humans allowed to carry arms?
Footsteps are coming.
They're human. They have to be. They are wearing boots and most animal morphs can't wear those. They have a solid thump with every step. There's no way one of the short, green-skinned lutins could make that sound. Only humans have the body mass to pound the ground that loud. They're probably a patrol too. I can't hear any telltale clacks of wooden wheels or the clopping of horse hooves.
"Humans coming. About a dozen. No carts."
Jenna looks a bit startled but listens intently. In a few seconds she nods. "That would be our relief. Prepare to move out."
"Nice ears." The armored man next to me comments. "I wish they'd let us take some animal morphs like you out with us, but they want all humans to meet with caravans. Non-humans tend to scare away merchants, and a remote fortress like ours can't afford too much of that."
That one comment answers prettymuch all my worries. I'm being too fretful. Things are going to work out just fine. I've been on nerve ever since I started growing fur, and now I don't have the smell of cat to explain it. I wonder what's with that.
The guards arrive shortly. They all wear the same armor as the guards here. They're all human, and all female. Jenna steps out and makes contact. After a few words, the patrol moves towards to the bushes. The displaced old shift congregates on the trail. The head guard does a quick head count.
"Right then. Let's go."
We set out along the trail. The human's lout footfalls and the tingling of their chainmail fills my ears. Maybe it's just me, but everything has been louder ever since I got a better pair of ears. Oh well. I guess it's a welcome change from the previous silence. Well, no. That's not true. Forests aren't silent. They sound strange. There is a constant swish of wind blowing through branches and the occasional creak as trees rub against themselves. And there are sounds of small animals as they go about their daily business. I don't see how people get used to it. Hey, that's funny. The animal sounds got quiet all of a sudden. Why would they do tha...
Swords and shields are out and in every warrior's hands as though they were there all along. The patrol breaks into two lines, each running full tilt towards the tree line before I've even wrapped my head around the shouted warning.
No time to think. Act. Now.
I follow a line of guards as fast as my small legs will let me, desperately drawing my blackjack as I move. They crash through the folage and shrieks of steel mingle with shrieks of living creatures. A lutin jumps from a tree and charges towards me. The small green creature is almost three and a half feet tall. He would look like a green human save for the elongated ears and nose. God, what's that smell? He hasn't taken a bath in a year, and neither have his clothes from their greasy appearance. But that's not what's important. What's important is the knife in his hand.
I lean forward into a crouch with weapon in paw. I watch the lutin and the
blade held at ready. We circle around other, our eyes each riveted to the other.
Then my enemy darts lightly forward, thrusting his dagger at the air.
Aggressive. Intimidating. I can deal with that.
I feint a move to the left but keep as much of my weight to the right as I can. The lutin goes for it and leaps forward to stab. As he makes his attack, my body pulls hard right to dodge. My leather weapon swings through the air in counterattack. The lutin's head rocks forward as the sap slaps him in the back of his skull. He staggers a bit, and I swing a second blow from the other direction. He crumples to the ground after my sand-filled pouch slugs him straight in the forehead. My assailant lays there unconscious, his weapon having fallen to the forest floor beside him.
I catch sight of someone out of the corner of my eye. Turning, a larger lutin fills my vision, along with his spear held back and ready to throw. I leap to the side, over the fallen lutin beside me. The spear flies through the space my chest once occupied. The ground is waiting to greet my back and it screams in pain at the sudden reintroduction. Ignore it. The lutin's knife is beside me. My right hand leans over to grab it, then I hurl it at the lutin spearman. The hilt turns into a wooden bloom in his throat. He falls down amidst wet gagging.
"Jaquelin's been stabbed but can walk. Most of us have nicks and bruises. No one down."
The lead warrior nods as she returns to the rode. Her leather attire is stained red, through I doubt that most of that is her's. Other men-at-arms filter back in similar states. I pick myself up off the ground and brush some loose dirt from my shirt as the leader surveys my two kills.
"You did good mouse." Jenna nods with approval. "What's your name?"
"I'm called Jesreg. And you did better." I reply, stating nothing but the truth. The folk of Metamor Keep were renowned throughout the land for their prowess in combat. This was even before the transformation. These warriors were all exemplars of that reputation.
And then my awe of their fighting sours as I hear a wet crunch to my side. The fighter that had been so shocked at my age had just stabbed the unconscious lutin beside me. I can't keep a grimace from my face.
"What's the point of taking them alive if you're just going to slit his throat while he sleeps?"
It was the warrior's turn to smirk.
"He wouldn't have known anything of value. And you can be sure he would not have shown you the same mercy."
I stare at him a bit before turning my head and glaring at him from the corner of my eyes.
Then I see something else to divert my attention. Nearby is the spear which almost ended my life. It landed in the ground and stuck like a short dead tree. It comes out of the ground easily, the tip no worse for wear. The shaft is solid and the tip looks less like a spear and more like a dagger embedded in wood. Where the blade meets the wood, it broadens into small side blades, almost like a minature axe. A grin spreads across my muzzle.
"Nice trophy. Okay everyone, assemble and move out."
I wipe the dirt from the solid metal blade. There's a little bit of rust and it's in need of oiling. However, it's a rugged weapon made from good quality steel and ash. I heft it to my shoulder and continue the march towards the keep. In a few minutes, I decide to make a holder for it with one of the strings from my belt pouch. With the spear secured to my back, I resume my watch of the road.
We make it without any further incident.
This place is a lot different than Lorland, even if it's not. Sure, it's bigger. I expected that. But the attitude is different. In Lorland people still held the scars of its insane former ruler, Lord Loriod. There was an atmosphere of muted desperation, of quiet pleading cries unwhispered into unhearing ears. Rot in hell you bastard, and all your loyalists too.
But here is different. Everyone is open. Everyone did as they pleased. No one let that fateful curse get them down.
Six years ago, an evil wizard named Nasoj assembled a horde of lutins, ogres, trolls, and other nasty creatures. He tore through the lands of Metamor and assaulted it's gates. Low on food, the wizard attempted for force a quick victory by casting three spells of transformation. One spell turns a third of the defenders to sex slaves of the opposite gender. Another spell turned a third of the defenders into complete animals. The final spell turns the rest of the defenders into babies. But even as their forms melted about them, the keep's wizards worked a desperate counterspell. They forced the spell to halt half-way. Now the keepers simply swapped gender, became half-human, half-animal, or became pre-adolescents. Since that battle, the spell has seeped into and bonded with the castle and land itself. Now anyone staying in the keep for more than a week becomes affected by one of the transformations and people born here turn into something else when they come of age.
Woman walked about in the open and held jobs with men. Animal morphs walked around dressed in human garb. Children held positions of authority and commanded respect.
I like this place already.
Heh, and I've just gotten through the gate. What's next? I had planned to become a man-at-arms and fight for the keep, but I'm no where near as good a fighter as those amazons I witnessed on the way up. Even with training, I'm not sure I would be so good in an open terrain battle. My fighting skills are honed towards a different style of fighting. I know about the quick knife in the dark, I know how to avoid it, and I know how to keep it from finding others.
A kid in a chainmail uniform walks by and waves to another nearby uniformed human in his early teens. They both have tabards with a lit lantern on them. The teenager standing guard looks extremely tired. Hmm... Maybe I should listen in.
"Hey Sander. How are you holding up?"
"Okay I guess, but these longer shifts are starting to get to me."
"Me too, but we just don't have enough guys no more, what with the regulars conscripting the watch to fight the lutins. We've already stopped guarding everything that's unimportant, so it's either longer shifts or leaving something valuable out in the open."
"Yeah. I just liked it better when I had to time to investigate crimes instead of staring at walls and bystanders all day."
"Certain groups like it better the way it is now. Reports of more aggressive criminals are popping up. I'm worried the underground may start organizing. If they do, then what?"
"Agreed. We need to get more recruits and soon, but how do we convince the Duke of the dangers from within when the more visible danger from without is hounding us so badly?"
You know what? Now would be a perfect time to join in this conversation. I step up to the guards and wait for their attention. The tired guard sighs a bit and then turns to me.
"How can I help you, sir?"
"Pardon me for eavesdropping, but I couldn't help but hear how you needed recruits. I just came to Metamor from Lorland. I intended to join the regulars, but I'm not as good of a fighter as I thought and many of my skills are geared towards investigation."
I watched as both teenagers started to grin.
"Go speak with the captain are at the watchhouse. It's inside the keep itself. You can enter through that door over there."
"How do I get to it from that entrance." I ask in reply.
"Directions don't work in Metamor. The internals of the keep rearrange themselves randomly. Just think about your destination and you'll get there."
Really? And dad said Fenton was strange. "Thank you." I comment as I head off.
"No. Thank YOU. Good luck!" the guard calls out. I wave to both of them and step inside.
The inside of the keep is made of large blocks of stone and mortor. It has the dirt and damage of regular use, but the general structure looks far more solid and lasting than anything I saw in Lorland. With the guard's advice in mind, I pick a direction and start walking. The keep's internals were like a maze, and I was the rodent looking for the slice of cheese. In a few minutes I found my delectible morsel. I stand before a heavy wooden door. The sign above it states it's purpose.
The large iron handle is only slightly below my head. I grasp it with both
paws and brace to force the door to give me passage. Fortunately it opens easily
and with only a slight creeking.
I step inside and look at my surroundings. It looks more like a den of scribes then a den of warriors, but what would you expect? For a warrior, the enemy is obvious and he has but to charge. Our foe must be carefully unmasked and direct assault can have far reaching and unfortunate consequences. It is only fitting that the keep's watch would focus on reports as much as weapons. There are a few guards in uniform moving about the paper scattered desks. Light floods in from the large window at the back, and I find I have a good view of the castle's ramparts. To the side is a well dressed man in commoner's clothes, and he's the first to speak up.
"How many I help you sir?"
"I want to join the watch." I reply.
The human looks me over before replying with a nod. "Speak with the captain of the watch then. He's over there."
I look in the pointed direction and see a large rottweiler in uniform. I step over, weaving between haphazardly placed desks as I go. It's a bit hard to make out his features with the sun's fading light in my eyes. I can almost make out the bowman on the ramparts better than the captain. I find myself eyeing the person and his weapon out of habit. The captain is talking with another guard from a few desks over.
"So do we have any leads?"
"No. The poisoned medicine came in from a caravan from the nearest port outside of the curse's range. That's it. We don't have enough guards to keep checking every caravan."
"Ugh. Okay. I'll harass Jack into getting the road patrols into doing searches. In the meantime..." The guarddog looks over at me and sighs. I can hear the tiredness in his voice that I can't make out in his siloetted face. "Yes, what is it mouse?"
That's odd. Did the bowman just nock an arrow?
"Good evening sir. My name is Jesreg. I'm here to join the watch."
The dog looks down at me. I think I can make out a raised eyebrow and a lopsided grin. "Finally some good news! What kind of experience do you have?"
The bowman just turned and aimed her arrow at the captain of the watch.
Don't think. Act. Time slows to a halt as adrenaline dumps into my blood. The world glows with slow motion and a single pulse of my heart threatens to burst my ears.
The arrow is released. It hangs in the air, inching towards its intended target. I force my body into reaction. Paws lift off the ground in a leap. I hover through the air, my hands reaching for the captain's chest. His face slowly forms a look of shock and surprise as I pounce. Contact.
The captain recoils backwards as he is knocked from his feet. Glass cracks and shatters. The fading sun turns the flying shards into hovering disks of luminescent fire. The rottweiler creeps toward the ground and a nearby desk. The slow grinding of wood on stone follows as the desk is pushed back from our flight. The arrow penetrates the thin space between my tail and feet, leaving ripples of air blowing against the thin fur there. A wooden snap fills the muted silence as the arrow impacts the floor and explodes into wooden splinters. My face meets the captain's armor as I come to rest on his chest.
And then time returns to normal.
The shock wears off of the captain almost immediately and he's on his feet.
I hastily pull him down behind the cover of the desk before a second arrow flies through the air to shatter against the wall. His curse barely as time to leave his lips before a third embeds itself in the desktop. A crack spreads across the length of the cheap wood.
"He's got a repeater!" I yell above the ensuing pandamonium.
Glass crackles and shatters to match the damaged desk. It barely shelters us from the incoming fire. Four more arrows sink into the light wood, splintering and shattering it until it's ready to fall apart. Then it quiets. I spare a look up and see the arrow casing drop from the bow. It hits the stone floor with a clang as he brings another set of arrows to feed into the mechanism.
"He's reloading. Move!" I yell.
Both the captain and myself dive for more solid cover. The other guards in
the room grab bows from the wall. The window crashes and shatters once more.
An arrow flies at my feet as they dunk beneigh a solid oak desk. Two more arrows
break through and sink into the strong wood with with barely a dull thump.
A guard stands up to take aim with his bow.
"Get back under cover!" Johnson screams at him in warning.
An arrow punches through the open space that used to be a window and lodges in her side with a sickening crunch. She manages a short cry of pain before falling to the floor. A second guard grabs her hand and pulls her behind a desk before two arrow bounce off the stonework she was laying on.
He's only got one arrow left.
I jump out from cover and yell at the top of my lungs. "Hey bitch! Over here!" I barely manage to dunk the arrow in time. It sails through my head fur.
"He's out! Shoot!"
The other guard stands up. Taking aim with his bow, he looses an arrow. The scream from the balcony resounds with his success. The assassin's bow hits the stone with a clang and he runs off.
"He's not escaping!" The captain calls out as he finally gets from under cover. "Move! Move! Move!"
The captain runs towards the door as he barks out his orders. Two guards follow, and so do I. Halls and archways fly by, and soon we are outside looking at the ramparts.
"We can't cover all the exits."
"Philip. There. Thomas. There. Mouse. There." The rottweiler barks
out, his hand pointing quickly on which paths we should each take. "Move!"
We all bound off in seperate directions. My feet climb the castle wall's stairs as fast as my legs will take them. I try to keep track of the assailent as I move, but the walls and rooms of the keep's defenses break eyesight. I can still hear him though.
He's running towards me.
There's a small aclove here. Perfect! I lean up against a nearby stone wall and I draw my spear. The stone outcrop hides my small body easily. With my back to the wall, I begin to concentrate on the sound of his footsteps. The captain and the other guards are in hot persuit.
I swing my spear like a staff and aim for her shins. It connects with a solid thwack. The bowman drops to the ground as his feet are knocked from under him.
"Where in the he.." is as far as his speech gets before he impacts the stone floor.
I drop the spear and pull my blackjack from my belt. As he tries to get up,
I bring the soft club down on his head. He falls flat, his head smacking the
stone floor hard.
Wait. What the...
"Andy?" I blink out in surprise.
'He's down!" The captain yells as he jumps on his legs. Two more guards follow suit. In seconds his hands have been bound in ropes. One of the guards carries the unconscious criminal towards the dungeon.
"Tell Brian he needs to make a house call to the dungeon and look at his head. We need him alive and healthy if we want answers."
The other guard nods. With a "Yes, sir!" she bounds off.
Finally the captain turns to me. "And you, thank you. I'd be dead now
if it wasn't for you." A grin spreads through his face.
"Welcome to the Watch."
My room is actually pretty nice. It's not very large, and the furnishing are pretty simple. At one side is a bed. Next to it is a dresser small enough to also be a table. At the other side is a simple desk made of light wood with a thin coat of varnish to smooth it out. But it's not what the room has that makes it so comfy. It's what it does not have. It does not have my dad. It does not have the tainted smell of fear and death wafting in through the window. And most of all, it doesn't have any loyalists.
I pop open the window shutter to let in autumn's soft breeze. Time to satify a need I haven't filled all day. With a two quick clicks my lighter is open and burning. I hold the edge of a wrap to glowing fire and suck with my lips. The gray smoke stretches free from my lips and drifts from the open window.
Gods, I've been needing this.
I close the lighter with another click. A second breath of the wonderful drug fills my lungs. It too blows from my nose and out the window. I tap the ashes from the end of my wrap and begin to ponder what people here would think. That one soldier was surprised, so I suppose I seem a bit young for smoking. I was hooked on the leaves before I was ten. But you simply can't risk being drunk, not in Lorland. And there was no way I was not getting intoxicated after that first mission. Ugh, that's a foul memory I wish I could forget.
I finish sucking on the wrap, letting the last of the grey smoke float from my lips. With another practiced motion I send the unburned end out the window to land on the ground. I can not forget the past, neither the bad nor the few bits of good.
I pull the envelope from my pouch and open it with exquisite care. On the paper inside is the last letter from my mentor.
The time I had foreseen but tried to stave off has come. The wolf comes to knock on my door, and I must flee or face the wrath of the cross and the elements. I am sorry I could not be there in person to say goodbye. You were the son I never had. I love you Jesreg. May he watch over and guide you. Failing that, may the shadows protect you. If that's just right out, at least you have your spear that you don't have yet but will soon.
My lips touch the paper with a kiss. Tears well up and threaten to mar its surface. "You were the dad mine refused to be. I miss you already." The paper slides back into the envelope with a crinkle and I shake my head. "And now I have my spear. How do you do it old man?" I shake my head in disbelief.
It'll be safe in my desk drawer. The draw opens easily and the envelope drops in. That's funny. There's another envelope already there. I examine the writing on the front. Wait, it's got my name on the front! Who could know I'm going to live here already? A quick jerk pulls the chair from under the desk, and I sit down to examine the new piece of paper. The envelope is thick, like it's padded and something is inside. Quick paws rip the package open and out pops a ring into my hand.
It's made of silver and it has a diamond in the shape of an eye. Set within it are many small emeralds that form a spiral.
Wow. It's beautiful! I don't want to know how much its worth.
Bah. Screw baubles. There's something far more important in this envelope. I toss the ring aside like so much trash and rip the paper inside from its covering. My paws can't open it fast enough.
It can't be.
How is Metamor Keep? I hope you fit in well. It will be a good home for you for a while.
I know you've suspected it before, but I could never say it without risking their wrath. I have the gift of foresight. People say I'm mad, but I assure you I am one of a handful of sane people on this world. If only they knew, but they will not listen. They never listen. Why can't they listen!
This ring is important. It's one of the four, and you'll need it against the other three. But take care. Around you sits a clockwork. It's all a matter of time. Use the ring at the wrong time and the clockwork will bring the hammer against you. Use the ring at the right time, and the clockwork will take the sword to your enemies.
Take care Jesreg. I'll write as much as I can. You'll be able to write back once you learn more.
I can't believe it! You aren't gone forever! I don't have words to describe the relief!
Hmm. This answers many of my questions though. He really did know things and it wasn't just my imagi...
I stare down at the ring. It's spiraling eye glares back.
A chuckle escapes my lips, then turns into a delighted laugh.
"Gods Fenton! I wish so dearly I could see how mad my dad is that you stole one of his toys!"
Still, that leaves three more in his hands. If I'm going to use this ring, I should figure out how it works. The ring feels a little loose on my finger and...
I see myself using the ring. I see myself shattering a small section of space and time in front of me. I see the people inside fail to move as time stops for them.
I see myself using the ring. I see myself shattering a small section of space and time around me. I see the people outside fail to move as time stops for them.
I see myself hanging on a wooden cross. The symbol of the spiraled eye is nailed above my head. I breathe my last.
I see myself using the ring. A wolf priestess swings a holy sword beside me.
The ring drops from my hand. I can't breathe. It comes out as hard, tortured gasps.
Focus. Calm yourself. Breathe. Focus.
Okay, what the hell just happened? Am I seeing visions now? It was so real... It felt... It felt... good? Yeah, it felt good. It was more intense than I expected, but not in an unpleasant way. My eyes trace towards that silver ring and favorable and tempting thoughts fill my mind.
Still, I'm not sure I want to do that again just yet.
I yawn. It is getting late and my bed is looking very comfortable. In a quick motion, I get up from my chair and shuck my clothes. Soon I'm in bed and resting my head on the soft pillow. I'll deal with the ring tomorrow. Afterall, tomorrow is a whole new day and I have a city to protect.
I intend to do a good job.