Artificer's Gambit

by Jon Sleeper

The dank, musty smell of one of the many storerooms in the Keep stung at my nostrils. I was on a mission today. A mission to find a certain item. The problem with this item was that it wasn't in one of the well-organized food, weapon, or other necessity storerooms. I knew what was in those. After all, in addition to being one of the many court writers in the Keep, I was also one of the Quartermasters. However, this particular storeroom was one I'd taken over personally.

In addition to my writing, I was a sort of amateur Artificer. That is, one who collects the artifacts and treasures of civilizations long past. I had quite an extensive collection, filling up one of the medium-sized storerooms and almost half of another one. Brian, who sometimes helped me when I wanted to look for something specific, waited on the other side of the hall. "You sure it's in here?" he asked as I took out my ring of many keys.

I nodded slowly, thumbing through the hundred or so keys. I turned an ear backward to listen to him better. "Well, it can't be anywhere else, can it?"

Brian rolled his black raccoon eyes. "We've looked everywhere else. How do you find ANYTHING in this junkpile?"

I smiled. "A good memory, I suppose."

"Right," he replied skeptically.

We walked into the storeroom and I reflected on the fact that in the past six years (since Nasoj waltzed in with his blasted polymorph spell) I'd hardly had any opportunities to increase the size of my collection. After all, when one looks like a hunting trophy one can hardly get out during the fall months. And all the rest of the year I'm pretty much venison to most of the locals. So I tended to call the Keep and the forest immediately surrounding it my home.

However, one gets stir crazy after a while. Even when one's place of residence is larger than most small towns. Even the ever-changing corridors were getting dreadfully boring. I only really had my artifacts to occupy my time between writing and weapons practice. I walked down the aisles between the disorganized shelves where I kept some of my more interesting things. "It should be down this way, Brian."

"That's what you said in the last storeroom! Sheesh. What are you looking for, anyway?" Brian said.

I turned to face him, my head tilting just a little bit too far to the right. I felt my antlers catch on something. A small object was scooped off the shelf and arrived on the hard stone floor with a wincing shattering sound. I cringed and crouched down on my cloven hoofed feet. My short tail flicked frustratedly, and I sighed. "There goes a 3000 year old Caladonian vase. And it's going to take me a month to glue it back together."

Brian smirked. "You could always change to a lower morphic form."

I ear-grinned. "I could, but what would be the fun in that? It wouldn't have shrunk my antlers enough anyway.." I walked over to the shelf and picked up on of the oldest artifacts I had, in terms of how long ago I'd collected it as well as actual age. This particular bauble was what got me started in the whole business of collecting in the first place. It was half of what might end up being a very important piece of Antiquity. It was a stone tablet that had two ancient languages that I knew fairly well on the face, and a fragment of a third. It was this third language that was most important. One of my artifacts seemed to be a rather imposing scroll written in the same language. I'd managed to translate a total of three words on the tablet, and found those words in the scroll.

Words that amounted to things like: "the", "it', and "and". No help at all.

Hopefully the letter that was sitting in my quarters would help me find the rest. My mentor, a man named Smithson, had finally written me for the first time in six years. Four years ago I'd sent him a letter to let him know that I was still among the living. Most people knew what had happened at the Keep not so long ago. My letter had a detailed account of waking up with antlers, hooves, and a tail.

Smithson was more than my mentor. He as my oldest friend. He'd encouraged my love of the far past, and I wanted to show him what I'd learned in the past few years. Seeing him again meant a lot to me.

Brian was turning a particularly fragile item that dated from the Tened Culture, five thousand years before, over and over in his hands. "Brian, do you mind?" I said in a pained voice.

"What? Oh. Sorry. Any word from Fox on those references?"

"Nah. He dug through the whole Library and didn't find anything older than five hundred years. I'm sure that the older stuff is all in some of those lower storerooms that I've yet to dig through." As if nearly twenty years at the Keep hadn't given me time enough.

Brian snorted, replacing the item on the shelf carefully. "It'd take a thousand years for all of us to go through everything down there. Hell, some of those storerooms are so jam packed you can't even pry anything out with a crowbar!"

I nodded glumly, remembering my last attempt at trying to get into one of those overfull rooms. When I'd opened the door I was buried in what were apparently ancient brooms. I couldn't help but laugh at least a little at the memory. I did so as I looked at what could very possibly be the literal Keystone to my entire life's work. Now that I know where you are, I can go see what Smithson has to say. I said to the rock. Then, perhaps, I'll see what you have to say.

The rock remained stubbornly silent.

I was a bit hungry, so decided to head for the main Mess Hall for a bit of a snack, stopping by to pick up the letter from Smithson first. I wanted to read it while eating. Being pretty loosely organized meant that there were no set mealtimes, and since many of us weren't even human it also meant that that there were sometimes odd foods on hand (or hoof, as the case may be). Brian grabbed some raw crawdads from a serving table that had foods for omnivores, while I went and found the bowl I normally used and filled it to the brim with honeysuckle branches, maple buds, acorns, and the odd bit of fruit. Too much fruit seemed to ferment in my seemingly multiple stomachs and make me a wee bit drunk.

Correction. Once I ate a barrel full of apples and was inebriated for days. I put those thoughts out of my mind.

I saw a fellow cervid, a moose morph, sitting next to a window. I decided to join him. "Hi Lance. How's it going?"

Lance grinned in the human way. Barely visible under his bulbous nose. "Oh, just fine. Mostly. I'm having problems cultivating the water plants I love the most, though. Fox gave me some water gardening books from the Library. They haven't worked very well. I've been forced to ration myself on my favorite foods." He sighed, fingering the bowl of various kinds of plants in front of him.

I sat down, making sure my tail went through the slot made for it, and tossed a couple acorns into my mouth. "Well, maybe some of those scrolls I've got in that unknown language might have a solution for you, Lance." I said jokingly around the tasty treat.

Brian sat down next to me, cracking open the crawdad. He nodded to Lance. "Are you going to open that letter or what?" he said to me.

I smiled. "Well, here goes." I used a cloven hoof-like hand to open the envelope, and started to read: 'Dear Jonathan,' it began. "Well, at least he remembers my name," I said, smiling. Then I read on.

'I have to admit that I was shocked when you wrote me a few years back. I'd heard what had happened in your Keep and feared you dead, or worse. But then I'd learned more details about what had happened there, and thought that worse had happened. The antler and sketches you enclosed with your letter confirmed this to me, which is why it took me so long to respond to it. And for that, I apologize.' There was a splatter of ink on the page, as if what he'd written had taken a lot out of him.

The next bit of script was written in tight, reserved script. 'Forgive me, old friend. For it has taken me two years to get back to this letter. I have spent much of that time staring at the musky-smelling antler you gave me, and the drawings of yourself. And I can't really explain it, but it does seem to smell like you. And the drawings are just... But I digress. For I have also spent the same time staring at the stone I know would help you make your mark on the world. I do believe I have found the lower part of the Keystone. And I would very much like to see the two pieces joined.

'By the time you see this letter I shall be two weeks behind it. We can perhaps meet at that clearing where we found the Tened artifacts ten years ago. I'm looking forward to seeing you, old friend.

'Regards, Smithson.'

I reread the last part a few times, hand frozen halfway to my food bowl. Then I realized that the last mail delivery had been delayed by almost a week and a half due to nasty weather and the odd band of highwaymen. When I'd finally gotten around to opening the letter (I'd delayed for personal reasons) it was about two weeks since it should've arrived.

Smithson was arriving tomorrow.

The next day I was in the armory. If I was going to go out, I needed to be well armed. I chose my favorite bow, some magically enhanced leather armor that would alter with my form as I changed, and a quiver of "unlimited" arrows.

Any hunter who tried to shoot me was going to get a big surprise.

I decided it was best not to tell anyone other than my closest friends what I was doing. Since I was Quartermaster I could check out what I wanted without telling anyone. It was pretty much crazy to go out at this time of year. My velvet had just come off and trophy hunters abounded. As I turned to leave the Armory I found Brian (all decked out in similar armor, with a short sword he was good with) waiting behind me. He smiled. "It sure took you long enough to get everything."

I wasn't all that startled by seeing him there. He was sort of my "sidekick", after all. If he wasn't around when I was about to go on one of these "Quests", then I knew that death would be a sure thing. I'd never not gotten that hint. I smiled. "Well, I wanted to choose things that wouldn't impede my running. This Expander Bow will compact nicely, and the arrows appear as I need them. You ready?"

Brian smiled and nodded, and we left for a certain "secret" exit. Just outside which, Bryan was waiting. He uncoiled himself from where he was leaning against the wall. Bryan preferred to call himself a "naga". His coloring were a pattern of predominately brown scales patterned with dark green. He had the hood of a cobra on his long neck which wasn't spread at the moment. He had no legs, and only a pair of small arms which he could fold tightly against his body. His forked tongue flicked in and out. He uncoiled his nearly 20 feet of length to get ready to move. His flat, unblinking eyes seemed to have a sly gleam in them. "You guysssss weren't thinking of leaving without me, were you?" His voice was a dry hiss.

I twitched my ears, a bit embarrassed. Brian looked a bit chagrined, too. "Sorry about that," he said, "but I thought you were involved with one of your Big Projects."

Bryan's hood spread halfway in his version of a smile. "Thisss iss my Big Project. I want to sssee what'ss on Jon'ss Keystone." He looked at the saddlebag I was wearing. "Iss that thing as warm as it looks?"

I blinked. Bryan was pretty new to his form, and his story was a bit unique when it came to Keepers. He'd been with Brian and I on one of our "Quests" once before, but not as a snake-man. This would be the first time. I undid the lacing on my saddle bag, which didn't have more than a bit of food anyway. "Sure thing. If you can make yourself comfortable in there, I have no problems. Just let me change so Brian can get on, too."

I changed forms, my armor changing to fit itself to my whitetail body. The problem with changeable armor is that it's always slightly behind one's change of shape. So there was a minor feeling of discomfort as I became a quadruped. Once I was finished, Brian checked to see if my weapons were still secure. Then I laid down and waited. Brian's armor and sword vanished as he shrunk into a normal raccoon and climbed onto my back, and held on to the straps made for him there. Bryan shifted as well, and slithered into the saddlebag. Ready, guys? I mind-sent to them.

Ready, they both returned in unison. A telepathy spell was standard in non-morphic form, though it was very difficult to set initially. I was a bit surprised that Bryan had one at all. I looked back at him, he was sticking his head out of the saddlebag. He looked at me with those unblinking snake's eyes. Are we going to go or aren't we? he asked.

I snorted, stood up, and made my way into the woods.

The Teneds were a mysterious, nonhuman species that seemed to have reached their peak five thousand years ago. They'd worshipped the Keep as a living thing. At least, it seemed so from their artwork. From my own experience of how the Keep could change just when one thinks one had explored it all, I could very much see how they thought that. I'd found no Tened artifacts inside the Keep itself, and reasoned that they thought that to enter it would be some kind of violation of their beliefs.

The Keystone was one of the artifacts I'd found when I'd first come to the Keep, about twelve years before Nasoj's attack when I was only fifteen. I'd bought it at a town fair far to the South. Once I discovered it's origins I made me way to the Keep. At first sight I'd loved the place. So much so that I decided to join the ranks of the Keepers.

I have never regretted my decision. Even after the Battle, I'd only increased my explorations around the Keep. Unfortunately thousands of years of occupation and many battles had mostly erased the signs of most other civilizations. But I'd never given up. Especially when, about four years before the Battle, my old friend Smithson and I found the ruins where we were now going.

I followed one of the many deer trails, having found the recent scents of other deer only an hour past. I smelled raccoons, skunks, turkeys, moose, worms, mushrooms, the waning smell of late summer. Of squirrels quickly stuffing food anywhere they could for the coming winter. Then there were the human scents.

Not singular. Plural. Uh oh... I said.

I smell it too, Bryan said. Can you get anything specific?

I put my nose to the ground and took a breath, curling my upper lip to enhance the smell. There's one that's vaguely familiar, here. That must be Smithson. But there's three more here that I'm not familiar with. I walked back and forth across the trails. It looks like ol' Smithy was followed. His trail goes right towards the ruins. The others are concentrated in certain spots. Like they'd had to hide to keep from being seen...

Do we go in anyway? Brian asked.

I think I have to, I replied. I can't for the life me imagine why someone would be after him, but he's obviously in some danger. I can't just leave him there.

I wouldn't expect you to, Brian said. What's the plan?

I smelled that one of the unfamiliar trails had gone off to the right. Take to the trees and get the drop on that one. I'll get off the trail and see if Bryan and I can find the second. As for the third, we might have to take care of that one together. I walked over to a tree and let Brian climb up to a thick branch, where he changed back to morphic form, making sure not to bump Bryan too much I pushed myself up on my hind legs and shifted as well. I took my bow from my belt and squeezed the handle. It extended to short range mode, and I took an arrow from the quiver.

I then vanished into the undergrowth, moving slow enough to keep from bumping the cobra too much. Bryan was my "ace in the hole".

I sometimes crawled, sometimes walked quietly. I deftly kept my antlers from getting entangled in the branches. Eventually I came in sight of the ruins, where I saw Smithson waiting. He was sitting on a broken off marble column, and in the background was a small waterfall coming straight out of the rock. A natural spring. The forest had totally overgrown what must have been an impressive city. If not for the trees the spires of the Keep would've been plainly visible. The reverence of the bird-like Teneds for the Keep was evident even to a non-Artificer. And what had killed them was one of the mysteries I was determined to solve.

Perhaps the Keystone would provide those answers.

Smithson himself looked impatient. His hair was iron gray, and his face had grown to that "venerable" stage, with wrinkles that were more a reflection of his almost continuous encouraging smile. He was thirty years older than I, after all. His scent exuded the kindness that I knew was a large part of his soul. He was wearing a brown peasant smock, but the carry sack he had looked full and heavy. He had the Stone. Then the wind shifted, and I smelled one of the other humans nearby.

Whoever this man was, he was a professional. I could see him through the underbrush. He had a special kind of arrow already nocked to his bowstring. The tip wasn't a standard one, I saw. The tip was the blunt kind magicked to paralyze the target upon impact. That target, I realized, must be me. I felt rage rise and I took aim with my own bow, targeting a spot in his lower back that wouldn't kill him, just cause a lot of pain. I didn't smell the other human until he had a knife point stuck in the small of my back. The voice was rough and guttural. "That's as far as you get, demon-deer!"

"Demon deer?" I said, perplexed. Then I smiled. "Sir, I've never been so flattered!"

"No talking! Or I'll rip out your antlers by the roots! Take off your backpack and drop your weapons."

"You're not going to kill me?"

"Maybe. But I'd like to see what you've got in that bag, first. You Keeper-demons have all sorts of surplus gold on you." He yanked painfully on my tail. "I've always wanted one of these."

I couldn't resist what I said next. "Well, if you'll stay a while at the Keep you just may get one."

"No talking!" he repeated in a quiet voice. Looking at his competitor to make sure he hadn't heard. Sure enough, we were just out of human earshot. "Now, I'll just see what's in this bag of yours..."

"What if I told you I had a friendly cobra in there just waiting to bite you?" I said matter-of-factly.

He unlaced the fastenings on my saddlebag. "Yeah. Sure." Then he reached inside. And screamed as Bryan locked his jaws on the man's hand, then quickly let go to keep from being hurt by the quick yank out of the bag. Bryan was a very venomous snake. The man suddenly went black in the face and keeled over, never having uttered another noise.

Bryan slithered out of the saddle bag and changed to morphic. "Ack! Remind me not to do that again! He tasted terrible!"

Meanwhile, our second adversary had taken note of the struggle. I nearly lost track of him as I grabbed my bow and another arrow from the quiver, and plugged him through the trees. Things were so tangled that I didn't know if the shot I'd gotten off would even hit him. But then I heard a gasp of pain and a crash in the branches. I ran over to where I heard the sound, and found the man on the ground, in a pool of his own blood. "Heart shot," I said to Bryan behind me. "I forgot that these arrows are charmed."

"I guesss ssso," he replied. "I wonder how Brian made out..."

The answer to that came in the form of a raccoon morph walking through the woods, prodding a human whose hands were bound, and mouth gagged. The man looked rather dazed, and there was a welt on his head. Brian smiled, tail swishing. "You did say 'get the drop on him', didn't you?"

I smiled. "That I did." I looked in the direction of the waterfall, wondering if my old friend was still there. "Do you two mind interrogating him while I see to my friend?"

"Not at all," Bryan hissed. "I'm in the mood for a snack, anyway..." He looked at the man with those flat reptilian eyes of his. He then spread his hood, revealing the dark eyespots on the back to me. I had to admit, he looked quite impressive with that full spread of his. But it didn't look like the human shared my feelings.

The human wet his trousers.

I turned to go to the waterfall, remembering to put away my bow. I then moved to the edge of the woods. "Smithy? Are you still there?" I yelled. "Smithy?!"

"Jon?" came the return yell. "What happened back there? And where are you, anyway?"

"You were followed, old friend! I'll explain later, because you don't seem to know thing one about this whole thing." Walked into the light. "As for where I am, I'm right here."

He spun around to face me, and we made eye contact. He blinked a few times, as if for an instant not believing what he saw. I was about to say something more, but he just looked me up and down for a long time. Then he surprised me. He smiled. "Are you going to stand there, Jon, or are you going to come shake my hand?"

I flicked my ears in surprise, walking up and taking the proffered hand. It took a moment to clasp his right because I had less fingers than he. "You're not going to scream and run away?" I said it in a slightly suspicious tone that may have offended him. But if it did, he didn't mind.

"I might have done that four years ago, Jon. But not today. I've thought long and hard about meeting you ever since I got your letter. The drawn portrait you enclosed helped a lot."

I blushed a bit. "We've got some good artists at the Keep." I looked at the bulging sack that was sitting on the broken column. My tail flicked in anticipation. "I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to put off the chitchat until later?" I pointed at the bag.

"Oh! Of course. How silly of me." He walked over to the bag and undid the pullstring. "I've been very careful with this. I got a hold of it at the same faire you bought the upper half of the Keystone, I believe. It was about a year after your Battle at the Keep. I thought you were dead at the time, but I got it anyway." He took out the stone, and my heart was in my throat.

The upper edge was a bit ragged, many of the words were missing. It was a dark stone with white highlights where the inscriptions had been carved. Even after five thousand years, most of the writing was intact enough so there wouldn't be any problems matching words. Even the spot near the top where the ones I'd already translated were matched the bottom part of the Keystone back at the Keep.

"YAHOO!!!!" I leapt up into the air an incredible distance! This was it! My life's work! Finally I would be able to find what the Teneds had to say. After five thousand years!

Smithson's smile was huge. "Great! Then let's get this back to the Keep so we can start the work of translation. Shall we?"

That stopped me in my tracks. I stopped leaping. "Smithy, maybe I ought to tell you what happens..."

He interrupted. "I know what happens. I've done my research. And I'm prepared to deal with it."

"Oh really, how so?" I raised an eyebrow.

"Simple, I'll just stay in the keep shorter than the week or two it takes for the spell to take hold. Then..."

Bryan's voice came from behind. "I wouldn't count on that succeeding, sssir," he said. "The oddss of sstaying human are in your favor, but be prepared to change your lifestyle."

Smithson turned to face Bryan. His jaw hit the floor and he started to back up. I put my hand on his shoulder. "That's how you might end up looking if you stay too long in the Keep. Are you prepared to deal with that?"

"Uhh... what are my other options?" Smithson said nervously.

Now it was Brian's turn. "You'll either end up fourteen years old or less, or a very buxom woman."

"Woman?" he said, looking back a the giant raccoon. "I guess I wasn't told everything about the place..."

"Nope," I replied. "So, do you still want to help me translate?"

"Give me some time..." he said gravely. Smithson looked at the ground, crossing his arms across his chest. He walked over to the crystal clear waters of the stream that the waterfall created. Deep in thought.

While he was thinking, I turned to face my friends. "Did you get anything useful out of that human?"

Bryan hood-grinned. "Quite a lot after I showed him my fangs," he hissed, "A guy can't even yawn any more without people trying to run away in terror."

"Anyway," Brian said. "We found out that he was hired by a guy who calls himself 'Side Show Moe'. The stooge seems bent on capturing we animal morphs for some kind of circus show back in the local town. We also found out an awful lot about how bad the guy's childhood was... He started confessing all sorts of things." Brian shook his head and rolled his eyes. "He said he would never have taken the job if he hadn't needed the money. Whoever this Side Show Moe guy is, he can't seem to hire good mercenaries."

"What did you do with him after he confessed?"

"I couldn't kill him in cold blood, and he seemed scared enough. So I let him go," Brian said.

Bryan hood-grinned again. "Last I saw he was running in the general direction of the Giantdowns."

I rubbed my lower jaw near my formerly human chin in thought. "We'll have to report this to Bob, at least. He'll send somebody in to town and see what this 'Side Show Moe' guy is all about." I looked back at Smithson. "Until then, all we can do is wait..."

It didn't take long, actually. Smithson was waiting for us to finish talking. He smirked. "What are we waiting for? Let's get to work!"

The next two weeks were a nail biting time for the both of us. In the rare moments when we weren't hard at work doing the translation, we were in the Mess Hall asking the others about their changes. Smithson asked Jennifer Powell about those ubiquitous "differences" that human females have, and asked the others what it was like to have a adult mind in a child's body. Often he'd come in the next morning looking very bleary eyed. When I asked him he said he'd spent the last night talking with Thomas. "I've always loved horses," he said with a smirk.

The reports about Side Show Moe came in about a week after Smithson's arrival. "This guy is so incompetent I'm amazed that he can even tie his own shoelaces!" Bob said disdainfully, leaning back in his big chair. "I don't think he's any serious threat. His two partners--a big bald guy who goes 'nyk nyk nyk' when he laughs, and another man with odd hair--always seem to mess up his plans. We'll keep an eye on him, but it'll be pretty much impossible for him to get the drop on us again."

Then one morning there was a pounding on my door. "Jon! It's happened!" I heard Smithson say. "Open your door!"

I bolted out of bed, thinking that perhaps his voice may have sounded a little more child-like, or a little more feminine. But that wasn't the case. For when I opened that door, my old friend was sporting a pair of goat's horns on the top of his head. His facial features were a bit distorted, ears wider and pointed, with a flattened nose and a short muzzle. He nearly bleated, but got a hold of himself. "I seem to remember you calling me 'old goat' once."

"I don't remember," I lied with a grin.

"You don't? Well, young buck, I am an old goat! And I'm damn well going to enjoy it!" He started to move down the hall towards the room we'd set up for the translation work. "And this old goat is getting back to work. See you there."

I couldn't help but laugh, and went to get dressed.

It was good to be together again.

"Artificer's Gambit", copyright Jon Sleeper