I noticed the figure as soon as he entered the greenhouse. The lizard-man began to walk towards me. Who else would anyone be looking for here.
"Good day, Copernicus" I greeted my visitor without turning from my work.
"Hello Dan. I'm here to see if you were finished with the latest shipment?" said the lizard-man.
"I took care of it as soon as it came in. The ledgers and inventories were all filed an hour ago."
Being a quartermaster in a place as large, and strange, as Metamor Keep was a demanding job at the best of times, but just after a caravan arrived things could get really hectic. At least the job kept me busy enough that I could stay out of the court's business for the most part. The only reason it hadn't driven me crazy by now was my other job. When I had first arrived here, I realized that the keep was totally reliant on the periodic supply caravans arriving from the Midlands. Using this argument, I convinced the 'powers that be' to build a greenhouse complex that could provide the Keep with an internal supply of food. As well as managing the crops, I had dedicated some of the space to the cultivation of other plants from around the realm. This provided a relaxing indoor garden, as well as acting as a source of herbal ingredients for those practising the healing or arcane arts. It wasn't easy to get some of the plants to grow here, but with patients, experimentation and some borrowed magic, I managed to accomplish what I had set out to do.
As I waited for Copernicus to reveal the real reason for his visit, I began to transplant some new pine seedlings to their planting bed.
Finally, Copernicus broke the silence, "You know, you haven't been out on patrol for quite some time Dan. Almost four months, in fact."
"Yeah, I know. I just don't have times with my duties as quarter-master, and with running the greenhouses." I said, looking for an excuse.
"You know as well as I do that everyone in the Keep has to help. I know you're busy with your job, but I'm afraid you're going to have to make the time for this. The Prime-Minister has given a strong suggestion that you should go out. You're expected to be in the armoury in an hour to pick up your gear and get briefed."
Sighing, I told him I would be there. After he left, I quickly finished transplanting the young conifers to their beds, cleaned the dirt out of my claws, and began the walk to the Keep's armoury.
As I made my way slowly through the corridors, I greeted some aquaintances, but didn't meet anyone I really knew. I didn't have very many friends here. I tend to keep to myself most of the time, spending a lot of time working with my plants. I had tried to convince myself that the reason I didn't get out much was my appearance. Of course, an excuse like that just doesn't hold water in a place like Metamor Keep. This is probably the only place in the world where a giant morphic grasshopper wouldn't be feared and avoided. I kept telling myself I just had to get out more, but the few times I forced my self to go down to the 'Deaf Mule' for the evening, I just sat in a corner and watched the crowd flow around me.
Sooner then I would have wished, I arrived at the armoury and made my way up to the counter. Looking around, I carefully studied the racks of carefully polished weapons and armour. As I was doing this, the armoury-master came out from the back room.
"'bout time you showed yourself 'round here, bug-man." said Jack as he glared at me.
"I had things to do, and being ordered on patrol doesn't seem to be the best way to make me hurry here." I replied.
"Everyone in the reserve has to do some patrol, no matter how much they hate it, Dan."
"I just heard the same thing from Cope."
"Well, he's right. I had a bet that you wouldn't show up for a patrol unless you were forced to. Looks like I'm a few silvers richer. Dunno why you hate it so much. You spend all your time filling out requisitions or with your trees. Now, what do you want in the way of weapons? I've already pulled your armour out of storage." said Jack, pointing to the pile of leather sitting on the counter.
"The usual, a medium-weight bow, a good dagger, and a halberd."
"Eh, you always want a pole-arm. Why can I never get you to carry a good sword?"
"'cause I would probably end up cutting one of my antenna off." I said, with a smile on my mandibles.
Jack just grunted and went into the back to get the weapons I had requested. A lot of Metamor residents had their own personal weapons, but since I tried to stay out of combat as much as I could, I just borrowed from the armoury. The only exception was body armour. My unique body shape required that I have my own armour, which in my case consisted mostly of leather straps that covered the soft sutures and joints between my exo-skeletal plates. Other then that, I usually relied on my hard, leathery skin to turn any stray blows. A few minutes later, Jack returned with the tools of a warriors trade. The bow was a good one, made of the best ash. The arrows were straight and well fletched. The foot-long dagger was well balanced and had a keen edge. Finally, Jack produced the halberd. It was shorter then usual, having been cut down for use in close quarters. Still, the shaft was about two meters long, with a razor sharp spearhead at the end, which was flanked on either side by an axe-head and pick. A very deadly weapon when in the right hands.
Jack then lead me to the map of the surrounding area on the wall.
"You'll be patrolling in the north-east. Hasn't been too much activity in that area lately, so you should be in for a quiet patrol. Should only take you six or seven hours."
I quickly studied the general terrain, memorizing my route and some major landmarks. I then went over to the counter and began to squirm into the wide straps that made up my body armour. Everytime I put it on, I had to admire the craftmanship of the design. The straps were comfortable, sitting where they were supposed to without restricting my movement very much. A necessity when jumping is your main defence. I then fitted the dagger and the quiver to the straps of my armour, both within easy reach of any of my four arms. With the bow hung over my back and the halberd in my hand, I made my way out of the armoury. I stopped off at my apartment, picking up a few items; some food and water, a compass, and a few other survival items.
With the items carefully stored in a pouch on my hip, I made my way to the north gate. On the way I had to take quite a bit of ribbing from passing people. Most of those who knew me couldn't let me pass without reminding me of my dislike for patrol. Of course, I took it all in stride and even laughed along with a few of the more clever jokes.
As I passed through the north gate, leaving the safety of the Keep, I made the customary sweep of my environment. It was late afternoon, so I wouldn't get back until early morning. This didn't bother me since I had decent night-vision, backed up by an excellent sense of smell. Drawing my antennae though the passing air currents, I smelled the delicate bouquet of odours carried by the wind. The day was moist and cool and it would probably rain a little during the night. I stopped to put on a cloak to keep out the chill as the sun began to fall behind the surrounding hills. I didn't like wearing cloaks. They tended to interfere with my wings, which were very important for my balance and in controlling my jumps. Even with this, the cloak was still necessary to prevent me from losing my precious body heat.
As I followed the mountain trails, I kept all my senses alert for any sign of someone or something that seemed out of place. Even though I didn't like doing patrols, I still saw no reason to slack off. I was helping in the defence of the world after all. It wasn't that I was afraid of fighting. In fact, I was a veteran of several previous campaigns at the Keep. It's just that I would rather spend my time working in the greenhouses, or preforming my duties as quarter-master, when the threats of the Giantdowns are not crawling down our throat.
An hour passed and the sun had long since disappeared behind the mountains. I was about five kilometers out from the keep, and it had already vanished into the gloom of the night. There was no strange scents flowing on the wind, and I couldn't hear anything but the blustery winds.
Around midnight the rain began. It wasn't hard, but it did do two things; It destroyed any chance I had of smelling or hearing any Lutins, and it made the temperature drop another 10 degrees. Being cold-blooded, I was close to the point where the temperature would begin to paralyze me. I reached into my pouch and pulled out a small amulet. I hated to use it since it would make me visable to any heat-sensing creature in the night, but if I didn't, I would slowly become immobilized and then freeze to death. I placed the amulet around my neck and spoke the activation phrase. A few seconds later, I was surrounded with a field of magical energy, warming me up.
It was few hours latter and I was almost to the farthest point out on my patrol. I decided to take a break and have a little bit to eat in a small clearing. It was a quick meal, since I was on patrol and couldn't let down my guard, so I was ready to move on in a few minutes.
Just as I was about to leave the clearing, I noticed some movement behind me. Approaching my back was one of the vile little Lutins, trying to sneak up on me. A stupid thing to do when you're stalking someone with a 300-degree-plus field of vision. Quickly and silently, I slipped my bow off my back, and before he knew it, the ugly little monster had an arrow in his chest.
As soon as he hit the ground, a scream rose from the surrounding trees. Ambush! Quickly I discarded the bow and the quiver, since they would be useless against so many in the dark.
Suddenly about ten or so Lutins descended from the trees and ran at me. The first group fell under a swing of my Halberd, the axe blade nearly cutting several in half. Good, three down. The wounded retreated to join their companions, and I braced my self for the second wave. It was a good thing they liked those short knives in a fight. The reach of my pole-arm was effective at keeping them away.
Another fell after I plunged the tip of the halberd through his black heart, and he was soon joined by his friend as the pick-blade crashed through his skull. And people wonder why I like pole-arms? While I was dispatching these two, another managed to slip through my defences. My halberd was occupied deflecting a blow, so I quickly drew my dagger with one of my mid-arms and left him screaming as he clutched a foot of laminated steel lodged in a vital organ.
I had managed to kill six of them, including the one I downed with the bow. That left four more. I was down to one weapon, and tiring quickly. My defences were beginning to falter, and I received several minor wounds. Luckally, the blows were all turned by my exo-skeleton or my armour, but I knew that one of their knives would eventually break through and catch something vital. It was time for a change in strategy.
Throwing off my cloak, I quickly went into a crouch. The Lutins advanced on me, thinking I was cowering. When they got close, I suddenly jumped straight towards them. As I flew by, I managed to rake one with my claws, and catch another with the halberd. As I landed behind them, I quickly swivelled and lopped the head off the one still recovering from the scratches I had just given him, ending his screams of agony. Good, Just two left now, and one was injured. The injured one charged me, beating through my defence with pure rage. Seeing little other choice, I attempted to jump to safety. I wasn't quite quick enough. I felt a sharp pain in my thorax as I flew away. When I landed, I saw the injured one pick something up from the ground, and begin to gnaw on it. My stomach began to churn as I realized it was one of my mid-arms. A quick look down confirmed my fears, the little bastard had managed to neatly sever my right mid-arm.
I began to feel faint, and I almost loss my balance. The two surviving Lutins saw me stumble, and renewed their attack immediately. I had no choice but to fall back. I jumped away again. Fumbling on the landing, I fell to my knees. As I rolled to my feet, I saw the two charging me once again. I drew back my halberd and cast it at the closest of the two. He went down screaming, which caused his companion's charge to falter. His pause allowed me to get back up on my feet. Now I was faced with the situation of facing an armed opponent when I was injured, weaponless and exhausted. I think he realized his advantage and charged me for the final time. I had only one chance against him, but it would require perfect timing. Too early and I would miss, too late and I would find a piece of iron imbedded in my gut. When he got within five feet, I quickly brought back my hind leg and let go with a huge kick. I got it! The Lutin arced through the air, landing with a sickening thud against a near-by tree. In my experience, one does not get up again after being kicked by a five-and-a-half-foot tall grasshopper-morph.
The adrenaline rush was over, and I was about to crash. I could feel my nerves turning to jelly. It was then that I noticed more movement in the woods. More Lutins! They had been waiting to see how their buddies would fare against me. This was a fight I definitely could not hope to win. My only chance would be to escape. As they quickly moved to surround me, I realized I had only one option left, and it was one I didn't like. Still it would be better then becoming some Lutin's war trophy . Those of us caught in Nasoj's spell have some limited ability to control our shape. I was no exception. For me it was uncomfortable and disconcerting to go from five-and-a-half feet to three inches. It can be quiet disorientating. Still, it was that or to learn if an afterlife really exists. To the Lutins, it would appear as if I had vanished, and I could make my way back to the Keep for some help.
As the dark forms began to emerge from the woods, I concentrated on the mental trigger. In a quick, queasy, very uncomfortable feeling, I found my self clinging to a shrub, now looking exactly like a real grasshopper. As soon as I managed to reorient my self to the now much larger world, I began my trip home. It was a difficult going, and slow. I was exhausted, and I was dizzy from the bloodloss of my severed limb. After about an hour, everything became a haze, and here my memory faltered.
The next thing I remember is being lift off the ground, and placed somewhere soft. And then the peaceful blackness once again took over.
When I awoke, I found my self back in my apartment at the Keep. I was laying comfortably in my bed, my wounds having been bound. I slowly looked around the room, my eyes finally coming to rest on Jack. The armoury-master was sitting comfortably in an arm-chair watching me.
"'bout time you woke up." was all he said.
"Huh?... What happened?" I managed to stumble out, still not sure what was going one.
"Not sure. Pascal went down to the greenhouse to get some goldenrod for one of her experiments this morning, and found you passed out and bleeding on the floor. How you got there is anyone's guess."
"Uh... I was ambushed last night, while on patrol. I managed to just barely fight off a group of Lutins. I escaped by morphing. Don't remember much after that."
"How many and where?" asked Jack.
"About ten in the first group, fifteen or twenty in the second group. Can't be sure since I didn't stick around to find out. About fifteen kilometers north-east of the Keep."
"Hmm. Gonna have to send some more people out to clean up after you."
"Glad to see you care how I am." I said.
"Hey, I'm just here to find out what happened to my weapons."
"I lost everything when I morphed. Sorry Jack, but I would guess they're making their way back to the Giantdowns at the moment."
"Well then, you're going to have to make up for them." said Jack, grinning, "Weapons aren't cheap, you know".
I knew the game; "Tell you what Jack, your bar tab at the 'Mule' is on me until I've covered the cost of those weapons."
"Agreed." came the answer. A smiling Jack held out his hand to me.
As I shock his hand and sealed the deal, I realized that I had probably just promised away any spare cash, at least for the foreseeable future.