Chip'ang Koniko trudged in silence beside the caravan wagon as it rolled over the rough dirt road. He wondered whether anything interesting would happen anytime soon. Ever since the Reapers attacked his troupe of performing acrobats and mercilessly slaughtered everyone he had ever held dear, he had been forced to find other sources of livelihood. Being out in the wilderness and woods narrowed his choice down to the default occupation and the only one available: mercenary. He was employed by a wealthy merchant to help guard his caravan from bandits and Lutins, so at the moment he couldn't afford to be lost in that dreadful stupor of misery that engulfed him whenever he thought of home.
Heh. Home. His home had been a group of wagons that carried his fellow acrobats and other performers and their equipment, traveling on the open road and performing for every town they came across. Not that it was his real home, for the acrobat had a rough and sad childhood. He had been orphaned at a few years of age by a plague that struck the land of his birth of which he never learned the name, and killed his parents, even when they fled many miles away to a bustling port city. They had barely been able to secure passage across the sea when they succumbed to the disease. The captain of the ship on which they had booked their passage felt sorry for the jet black-haired and slant-eyed boy and promised to take Cheep on the voyage anyway and find him a home with some friends he had on the other side of the Western Sea in Isenport. There the captain brought young Chip'ang. He had almost nothing to carry as his parents had impoverished themselves with their travels and left him with the clothes he wore and nothing else but a small jade monkey statue. The captain's friends showed great delight at adding a fourth child to their household, but Cheep quickly learned that their enthusiasm was a façade; he was treated almost as a slave, and given a workload several times larger than that of his adopted brothers. All in the house treated him with condescension, usually giving him another task every time they happened to see him. He cried himself to sleep at the injustice of it, but he was never granted a reprieve, and the old captain who had been so kind had left soon after seeing him there and could not help him.
He lived this way miserably for several years, all the while gaining skill at avoiding certain people, even to the extent of climbing houses and trees and diving through windows to escape. From a sneak thief, one of the few people who would actually talk to him, he learned to pick locks. This knowledge he traded for allowing him to rob the house he stayed in, since he had no love for its other occupants; the man had come creeping through the cellar where he slept on a rough straw mat, almost tripping over the boy in surprise and giving himself away. The boy just looked at him and wondered how he had gotten in. The man stared back, and eventually he arrived at the aforementioned arrangement after seeing that Cheep was treated terribly and probably didn't deserve to be there.
His life changed drastically one day when he heard news of a group of people who made their living traveling and entertaining people with their skills at acrobatics and music, and that they were in his village! He managed to finish the chores required to keep his adopted father from beating him and sneaked off quickly to see them and what they did. After watching them practice their trade from the shadows of an alley, completely mesmerized by the things they did, he began to wonder if he could do these things too. And so when he returned home just barely in time to avoid a beating for being late, he tried to teach himself to tumble just like those performers did. He had just gotten the hang of cartwheels when his adoptive father saw him cavorting about in the grass and gave him a sound beating and a warning not to do such idiotic things. Even if he was an idiot, he shouldn't act like it. With only a few tears, he waited until he left and then sneaked off again to ask the performers to teach him to tumble. Entertained themselves at the request to teach this scrawny youth, the performers agreed. He was thin and flexible, already having a good amount of agility from the darting into shadows to avoid his cruel family, so the acrobats were impressed at the speed at which he picked up tricks. One of them, a tall young man named Borin, asked him about his family and learned with horror at the conditions he had been staying in. He asked him if he wanted to join them and leave his pitiful excuse for a life behind. Eyes wide and jaw dropped, the boy enthusiastically agreed once he recovered from the shock at his sudden good fortune.
The next day, as the performers left the town, Cheep was with them, along with a small leather pouch full of coins he had found when he picked the lock on his foster-father's strongbox. He had taken a couple handfuls of coin as recompense for six years of labor and felt no guilt for the theft. He had run away before, so he knew his ‘father' would be positively seething with rage when he came to beat him in the morning when his numerous chores were discovered undone. He left a false clue trail that led to the woods so the cruel man would hopefully give up and assume he had been killed by wild animals and eventually forget about him. But none of that mattered much anymore: Cheep was finally free! He wriggled in delight beneath the actual blanket he had been given by the performers, unable to sleep even though exhausted.
Over the next few years, Chip'ang Koniko learned the ways of the performing acrobat: all their flips, tumbles, juggling, and swinging from tall frames they set up wherever they went, and he also mastered certain skills to defend their valuables from bandits. He learned to fight with his bare hands and feet, utilizing force through his limbs to sunder wooden boards as well as strike with dizzying speed. He was trained to attack and defend with a long wooden staff, as well as a curious weapon he was given by his new family: a pair of short wooden staves held together at the ends with an equally short piece of tough leather cord; these were called nunchukas. He excelled in learning anything anybody had to teach him, especially Borin, and quickly became literate and showed prodigious skill at making rhymes and puns. It was the happiest time of his life. Sure, there were the occasional stupid bandits who didn't have a clue who they were dealing with until they woke up a few hours later, caravan gone, almost naked and hogtied, with welts and bruises covering their bodies. But overall, life was good. Performing tricks and saying funny things to entertain people brought him a kind of satisfaction he had never even dreamed of before.
And then one day it all ended. They had just left the last village a couple of days before and were now travelling north on a dirt road that cut through the woods. They had been warned about bandits in the area, but they couldn't have been ready for the attack. The first warning Cheep had was a wicked-looking arrow flying out of the trees and impaling the throat of the man that had acted as both elder brother and father to the young man since he was eight. Borin couldn't even cry out before his eyes widened and he slumped down in his seat on the wagon, breathing his last even as his life drained away before Cheep's eyes. Cheep gaped in horror that quickly turned to fear and then rage at any who could be so sneaky as to remain undetected and so cruel as to strike down his brother in such a cowardly way. The other performers soon shouted in alarm and pulled out their staffs and nunchukas and a few throwing stars. The attackers who soon poured into sight were not average bandits, but some of the most dangerous anywhere: the kind with good armor and weapons and obvious military training.
Cheep had his nunchukas out seconds after all this had happened and joined his fellow acrobats in the fray, whipping the two-piece weapon about in vicious arcs, deflecting swords and arrows and cracking these malicious miscreants on the head and elsewhere, snapping bones under the force of this new emotion of rage. The bandits no longer had the element of surprise, and quickly found that these fierce humans with their odd weapons were a force to be reckoned with; they found themselves almost evenly matched, even with the numbers in their favor. Unused to combat with such weapons, the bandits were disadvantaged for a few minutes, and several fell to the defenders before they regrouped and formed another attack. The acrobats were not unscathed; after the initial arrow killed Borin, they had lost two more to arrows and six to long blades wielded by the bandits. Cheep and four other performers had survived the initial onslaught, but they couldn't hold them off much longer; the bandits were clearly going to win. They had begun shooting flaming arrows at the wagons to demoralize the acrobats further. Another acrobat was felled by the bandits, when suddenly they heard a commotion back in the distance: another caravan, this one a well-guarded trader's, was coming up the path and a dozen of the hired swords ran to help the dwindling troupe of acrobats. Their coming was almost too late, however; Cheep's three living companions had become two, and then one, before the guards arrived to join the fight. Their numbers made the seven or so remaining attackers flee into the woods. Cheep looked at the guards with exhaustion and agony and he collapsed to the ground. All went dark.
Cheep woke up in a small bed of furs on a pallet in a moving wagon. The large man sitting on a bench next to him with a lantern noticed his stirring, and said, "Ah, you're awake. I was afraid you wouldn't make it. I'm sorry your friends didn't. No, the last one didn't survive either; he lost too much blood. We buried them where they were while you were unconscious. Your wagons were all burned and nothing salvageable was found except what you were carrying; they must have set fire to your wagons at some point during the fight. But enough bad news. You need to rest still. We'll reach Ellcaran by tomorrow; I don't know where you were planning on going, but the boss won't feed you for free if you decide to travel with us for a while. I've bandaged your wounds, so you should be fine but for a few scars."
Cheep sat up and winced, noticing all the strips of linen wrapped around injuries on his arms, legs, and chest.
"Who were they?"
"You mean to tell me you came through here and didn't know about the Reapers? I'm surprised you were able to defend yourselves at all. Odd, though, that they should be this far south; they usually only prowl the Southern Midlands. They must have attacked because of your small group. Apparently they mistook you for a merchant caravan; they wouldn't have gotten much even if they had succeeded."
Cheep got up and sat by the fire with the massive guard.
"We were used to fighting off bandits in varying numbers; they aren't usually well trained. Those... Reapers... someone should hunt them down and kill every last one of them."
"Don't think it hasn't been tried, kid. Anyone powerful enough to beat them can't find them."
"Oh." Cheep remained silent for a minute. "Now what?"
"We drop you off in Ellcaran and hopefully you can find your way wherever you're going from there."
"But I don't know anyone or anything in Ellcaran; I've never been there before. Although I guess I don't really have a home or any better place to go. We were just traveling performers. They were all the family I had."
"Well, sorry to hear that, but the only way you're staying with us is if the boss hires you or something. He may be kind, but he doesn't take hitchhikers. Can you fight? Wait, that's a dumb question; I saw you myself, taking on two of those Reapers at a time. I'll put in a good word for you if you like."
"I... I guess I could do that. That would be very kind of you. I... I think I need to be alone for a while. I... miss Borin..." He looked away with a pained expression. "My best friend. He was killed first, too. Got hit with an arrow in the throat. He didn't even get to fight back..."
Cheep continued mumbling to himself as he slumped back down to the pallet.
When dawn came, the man found Cheep curled up in fetal position, looking as if he had been weeping. He shook him to wake him, and told him the caravan would be leaving in a half-hour and he had best be ready to travel soon.
"I will be ready," he said with a look of resolve. "Crying won't do me any good now. Where is my pack?"
"Right here. I kept it for you."
"Thanks... it's all I have left of my family... real and this one."
"Where are you from?"
"I don't even know. My parents died when I was only six, and all I have of them is this little monkey. I was shipped across some sea and was forced to live with cruel people who treated me like a slave until I escaped. Since then I have lived with my friends and brothers, my fellow performers... but now they're gone too."
"Hmm. I used to be performer like you. Then I took an arrow to the knee."
"Really? What did you do?"
"I used to dance, for a local group of entertainers in my village. Then raiders came to our village. We fought back, but the price was high. A quarter of the village was dead. So, I did the only thing I could to support myself after I healed: serve as a guard for a caravan. The boss pays us well, so I have no complaints. My knee still hurts some mornings though."
"You? Dance?! ... I mean, I'm sorry... I guess our stories aren't that different though, are they?"
"I guess not. But you still need to talk to the boss to see if you can do the same."
At that, Cheep decided he would go talk to the merchant. He was the only one in command of his life now. True, there were no cruel masters anymore, but he had no real friends and only one acquaintance here. He decided it was probably better to move on than to brood over what he wished would have happened, because the past was unchangeable. The future, however, was like putty: it had only as much potential as he gave it. So he walked up to the lavishly dressed fat man on the lead wagon and declared his intentions.
"Ho ho ho, so you think you want to help protect my merchandise? What makes me think I can trust you? Can you even fight?"
Cheep huffed. "I thought I'd already been through this. I have nothing left. No home, no family, no friends, and the only possession I have is a little jade monkey statue. I know several styles of fighting and am willing to bet I can best any of your men in single combat. This is my only hope. I have no life."
"Ah, don't be so uptight, lad. I just want to know what use you would be to me. I know very little of you at this point. Hmmm... Interesting thought though... How's about this: you can fight Kag and if you win, you have a job. I pay guards one gold sun a day. Deal?"
"You spent all that time with him and never even learned his name? Hrm, well, I guess it doesn't matter that much. Do we have a deal or not?"
"Fabulous! I'll get things ready."
The fat man drew a big circle in the dirt with sticks and waited as the two combatants prepared.
"So... your name is Kag?"
"Short for Kagmer. Kagmer Quarr. Nice to meet you."
"Uhh... Chip'ang Koniko. Likewise, I guess. You want to use weapons or just hands?"
"Either would be fine. I'm already pretty confident you'd win by maneuverability if I used my sword, but I'll leave it up to you."
"You're just trying to be nice."
The man pulled his claymore from the gigantic sheath on his back. It was taller than Cheep by at least a foot and wider and thicker than his open hand, with a mirror-polished silver blade and black leather handgrips. Cheep blinked in surprise, not having noticed something so huge before only because it was behind an even larger man.
The man resheathed his gargantuan weapon.
Cheep and Kag stood at opposite edges of the circle and faced each other after removing all weapons and armor, each getting into his own unique fighting stance as the other men stood around outside the circle talking and laughing. Most of them had made bets on who would be the winner and they were all in a good mood, both at the prospect of some entertainment and from the libations they were pouring down their throats. The merchant yelled cautions of not drinking in excess at them, but for the most part they just laughed heartily and ignored him once his back was turned, continuing to cheer for their favored contestant. The merchant gave up and stood at the edge of the circle and acted as judge, declaring that the first to admit defeat would lose.
The two challengers shifted to the left and right, trying to determine what the other was capable of and what they would do. Kag was simply a wall of muscle and bone, towering over most other men, especially Cheep, and probably outweighing him by at least double or even triple. Cheep on the other hand was a lithe, agile fighter who bounced back and forth on the balls of his feet to distract his opponent and mask his intentions of motion. The cheers grew in volume and rowdiness as Kag finally made a pass at Cheep. The younger man easily avoided it, turning a cartwheel and ending up behind Kag for a moment before the big man turned to block the attack he expected. An attack came, but not the way he expected: Cheep launched himself into the air and flipped once before landing balanced on his opponent's head. Kag brought his arms up in surprise and tried to knock him down, but Cheep was too fast. He once again leapt, this time from a precarious balance atop the giant's head, and struck him in the back with a fist as he landed back on the ground.
Kag didn't seem to have been fazed at all by the blow, even though it would have easily felled a smaller man in pain, so Cheep froze in shock that anybody could just take that kind of punishment. This gave Kag the advantage, as he was just now getting the hang of Cheep's speed and could follow his movements. He struck out with a quick but weak punch (at least for him), and this time Cheep was unable to recover in time to dodge it; he flew back a couple of feet and landed on his back in the dirt. He quickly shook his head to clear it and got back up; thankfully his opponent was not really trying to win, or he would have taken better advantage of the opening and pummeled him down further. Kag let him get his balance back before closing the distance between them once again. Cheep decided it would be wise to change his strategy at this point; there would be no quick, easy victory against this juggernaut. Instead of going for more powerful attacks and leaving himself open afterward, he threw many little jabs at weaker points, trying to wear him down. Then he remembered vaguely something about a knee injury and decided to save time and energy by attacking his leg joints. Kag had not expected to fight this wiry young man and soon realized his mistake in mentioning his knee when he noticed that Cheep ceased all other attacks and concentrated on hitting his legs to try to drop him. He tried to swing in wide arcs to make him back off, but it was no use. The lithe fighter simply dodged around the massive arms being swung at him and struck again. And again. Finally, he dodged one last time around another of increasingly desperate and ineffective swings and delivered a roundhouse kick to the back of Kag's knee.
Kag grunted in pain as his leg buckled and he toppled to the ground. He was barely able to break his fall before Cheep's hand came down in a swift chop and tapped his throat just hard enough to make him cough hard and show that the blow could easily have crushed his windpipe if Cheep had had that intention.
Kag smiled even while rubbing his throat as he sat up and said, "Not bad, kid. Not bad at all. I submit." The men cheered, and some groaned as they fished out their wallets to pay their comrades and scowled at their bad luck. The remaining wine quickly disappeared as the men reluctantly returned to their duties now that the entertainment was over. The smiling trader made his way over to Cheep, who stood awkwardly, unsure of what to do next.
"It looks like you now have a job, young man," the rotund retailer said, extending his hand.
"Thank you, sir. Are you sure you're alright, Kag?" Cheep said as he shook the man's hand.
"Fine, fine. Just need to get my bearings back." Kag massaged his bum knee as he slowly got to his feet. "You sure know how to pack a wallop. Just how do you do that, anyway?"
"It's all in your head. You just sort of imagine that the obstacle is just thick mush, and you need to continue driving through it... and stuff... Actually it's more complicated than that, but I can't explain it very well. Sorry."
The heavy man interrupted. "Well, that's all fine and good, but you two need to get cleaned up and back to the wagons. You both have duties to attend to now, so I expect your full efforts at everything I tell you to do. Kag, would you find – what was your name, lad? Cheep? – find Cheep some armor and a sword and show him the business? Good to have you, lad. We'll be leaving for Ellcaran bright and early tomorrow morning, and after that we will head toward Metamor."
"Metamor? Where's that?"
"Oh, dear me. This far north and you haven't heard of Metamor? How did you get here without somebody mentioning it? Anyway, Metamor... I should give you a proper warning before we get there, as you may be a bit, well... unsettled at the sight of the Metamorians, or Keepers, as they call themselves. They have... well, some unusual characteristics, shall we say."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, how can I put this?... I guess I could just tell the whole story. A few years back, there was this wizard—"
"A wizard? Like those guys who do weird things with magic?"
"Don't interrupt, lad. Yes, a wizard, named Nasoj. This particular one was, and still is, quite evil. He tried to take the castle at Metamor by storming it with an army of Lutins and other monsters, like trolls and ogres and—"
"Don't interrupt! — and even some evil human mages. He cast three curses on the three gates of the Keep in the hopes of getting rid of all the human defenders by turning them into bimbos, babies, or animals. And it worked too, but only for a short time. You see, Metamor had wizards of its own, who were frantically trying to undo the curses as their soldiers dropped to the ground in piles of clothing and armor, to all fours or paws or just on the ground in a very inappropriate manner indeed. They only half-succeeded, meaning the cursed humans were either very young, or switched genders, or became part-human part-animal things— many of whom found themselves with new built-in weapons like sharp teeth and claws. Nasoj's forces were beaten, driven back into the Giantdowns by a lot of odd-looking soldiers in ill-fitting clothes, and Metamor won the battle! Ha ha. But at a high price: many had died, and those that survived had new bodies they needed to get used to, as well as many dead to bury and many homes to rebuild. Also, it seems that the Curses stuck to the land; now, anyone that stays in the valley too long is struck by the Curse, which will turn them into one of the three forms. They are still human on the inside if not the outside, but most people outside the valley think they are demons or something. They can't seem to accept the idea of a fox-man, or a beauty who used to be male, or a child who will never grow up. So I will warn you, try not to be too freaked out when you see them. They are just normal people that have had something very unusual happen to them. They do not appreciate being treated as freaks."
"Umm... wow. You know, if I hadn't been attacked and nearly killed in the last couple days, I'd probably think you were pulling my leg. But I can see you're completely serious... Just... wow... Now I can't wait to see them."
"I think you'll still gape and gawk and look quite funny when you see them. But now, on to Ellcaran!"
The venture into the large city was relatively uneventful, but the merchant had apparently made a good deal of money, as he paid the guards a bonus and let them go off for the night in shifts. They were quite pleased with this arrangement, but Cheep didn't understand how his employer could keep his hired men in line enough for them to be any use. When he asked the chubby man about it, he chuckled and replied, "Well you see, it's like this: I've been doing this for years. I have had dozens of different men in my employ, and if I've learned anything about people this whole time, it's that men tend to be more loyal to an employer who will treat them well. Let me ask you this: would you be more likely to want to defend a friend, who is your beneficiary, or some stingy old miser who only gives you your insufficient wages unwillingly because he needs you badly?"
"I think I understand. I have never really had wages before; I always sort of lived meal to meal, letting others deal with money. It's kind of troublesome. I assume you mean that one gold a day is more than what most people I could work for would give me?"
"I try not to make assumptions about people I know nothing about; it's bad for business. But I think you are right. Anyway, I really am glad to have you."
"Thank you, sir."
"No need for the sir. You can call me Vardemertigantrufalmorandaman. That's short for—" He glanced at the confused look of incredulity on Cheep's face and then burst out laughing. "Ha ha ha ha! Ho ho! Hee hee hee. I got you there! The look on your face— Aha ha ha!"
Cheep just stared at him until he regained his composure. Still wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, the pudgy purveyor of goods looked back at him and giggled, "You don't seem to think that was all that funny. My name is really Mortimer Stumpleton. You can call me Morty. Or Volde Mort, if for some reason that strikes your fancy. My father's name was Vold."
"Never mind. It's another joke. Just call me Morty."
"Okay then, Morty. Thank you for the generosity."
"You're quite welcome. Let's be off then."
They left Ellcaran after restocking supplies and set out on what ended up being a terribly boring trip. Absolutely nothing happened except travel and the standard eating, drinking, guarding, sleeping, and walking. Cheep had not known it was possible to be so bored, but Kag just took it in stride like he did everything. The others responded to the boredom in a variety of ways ranging from moping to filling the time with coarse jesting and singing rude songs. Morty occupied himself the whole time by counting his gold and making plans for trading at Metamor and beyond. Days and weeks passed in the same fashion, and Cheep reasoned that Kag had been right about the size thing: The Reapers must not have attacked because they had such a large group of obviously armed men. After the two-month long extremely boring trip, they finally passed a sign warning them that the land they were entering was cursed, which had a depiction of a fox, a human infant, and a woman of generous proportions. Soon their caravan was stopped by a small group of soldiers who looked to be scouts; the most noticeable thing about them was that they were all amazon-like women, the most beautiful Cheep had ever seen. Kag noticed his expression and told him, "They used to be men, you know." Cheep's cheeks flushed a bright red as he stopped staring at the female warriors and looked around awkwardly. The amazons asked the men at the head of the caravan where they were headed, and they replied they were going to Metamor to trade. The women tried to convince them that they didn't want to continue down this road, until Morty spoke up.
"Good afternoon, ladies. I appreciate your efforts, but I already know what to expect at Metamor. I know you are trying to dissuade us from being surprised at the animal people and spreading rumors of demons, and that you used to be men. Now, will you permit us to continue on to Metamor? I would like to spend as little time traveling and as much time trading as possible while in range of the curse."
The amazons looked surprised for a second, and then relaxed. "You know you can only stay for a week before risking the curse, right?"
"Yes, we know, actually it's closer to two, but we plan to leave the area as soon as we need to. Being changed isn't so much of a curse in my opinion as it is interesting, but most folks further south would disagree, and that makes business very difficult."
"All right then, you may go. Lorland is a few miles up the road, and the Keep is a few beyond that."
The convoy started moving again, Cheep's interest growing as they drew closer to the cities he was told were filled with animal people. He looked about eagerly, and almost as soon as they finally came in sight of a few towers well behind the high walls, his eyes were not disappointed. He saw an ox man pushing a wheelbarrow full of firewood back from the nearby woods, who was greeted as he passed by an eagle woman who was tending a small garden. As he looked out across the wide fields, Cheep saw many figures in the distance, working their livelihood from the ground. They passed Lorland and continued on to Euper, which they reached in a little more than an hour. As they approached the gates he noticed the smell. He sneezed at the sheer power of it: a strong mixture of various animal musks and excrement. They passed into Euper and he noticed that many of the sidestreets were made of dirt— or worse. A window opened on the second floor of a shop and a llama woman called out "Ware below!" and dumped a bucket of foul-looking and -smelling liquid onto the roadway. Thankfully, his caravan was travelling in the middle of the street and they were not in danger of being splashed by the vile liquid. They moved through Euper, stopping at a couple of shops to supply the shops with raw materials Morty had been contracted to bring them. They eventually left the city, noting that the high stone walls looked much older around Metamor than Euper. Cheep cleared his nose of all the unsavory odors left as they breathed cleaner air. He wondered aloud at the sudden drop in unpleasant odors, and Kag explained that Metamor had an extensive sewer system while Euper had only minimal plumbing. As they moved through the new set of high walls to the old ones, the Keep came into view, and Cheep and a few of the other men gasped in awe at the beauty and magnificence of it. The sun was just beginning to set as they rolled through to the gates, creating a long shadow that stretched miles from the Keep to the east. The guards let them pass after they explained their intentions and showed their goods, and they rolled into Keeptowne just as the marketplace was starting to close up for the day.
They arrived at a sturdy-looking inn and made arrangements for spending the next few days there. The weary travelers, both the men and the horses, were eager to rest. The men all sat at tables in and ordered their favorite meals as Morty saw that the horses were stabled and fed behind the inn. Cheep asked the waitress, a girl who looked about ten years old, what was on the menu. She replied, well, we've got stew that everyone seems to like, and you can get it with or without meat. My daughter is turning out to be quite the cook."
Cheep looked confused. "Your daughter? How-"
The girl laughed. "You're new here, aren't you? I may not look it, but I'm old enough to be your grandma. The whole ‘age-regressed' thing isn't so bad, even when you have to get used to people mistaking you for a real child all the time. Yes, I am the owner here, and I have a daughter who does the cooking. She used to be my son."
Cheep just sat dumbstruck for a while, and then looked up when she cleared her throat and said "Oh yeah, I was ordering stew, right? With meat, please."
"Got it. It will be right out."
Cheep, Kag, and the other hired men enjoyed the hot, savory stew as they talked and laughed, and some quaffed steins of ale.
One of the guards was telling a joke.
"And then he said, ‘That was my sister!'"
Cheep's eyes widened and he blushed amid the raucous laughter emanating from the other guards at the bawdy joke. Kag looked at him sympathetically and said, "Yeah, sorry about them. You get used to it after a while." Cheep nodded and still looked embarrassed. He had never spent much time with anyone inclined to that sort of behavior before, and still couldn't help but be shocked at it. Most of the guards were getting sleepy and a few were slightly inebriated by then, so they started heading off to their assigned quarters to sleep for the night.
While inside the city, Morty didn't need the full complement of guards to watch the wagons the whole time, so he let them go off and enjoy themselves, spending their wages as they saw fit, though occasionally they took a shift or two to help Morty with his goods. Cheep followed Kag around, and as the larger man had been to Metamor once before, he knew his way around to some degree. For the most part, Cheep studied the vast diversity of people's forms, especially the animal morphs. He had never imagined anything like it, and he eventually built up the courage to ask one giraffe man he saw what it was like.
"What's it like? Being a giraffe, you mean? Not as different as you might think. I mean, yes, I have to eat more vegetables than I used to, and food takes longer to get to my stomach, and doorways are sometimes a problem, but it's not bad. Though there's cud. Cud is weird. That took some getting used to. I do kind of like being able to see above the crowd all the time, though."
"What was it like to change? I mean, did it hurt or whatever?"
"No, I just woke up one morning with yellow fur and spots, and the next day I was taller and my neck was longer, and a few days later I was as you see me now. No pain, just, well, weirdness. That my body was changing."
"Cool. I hope I didn't offend you or whatever by asking."
"No problem. I meet people new to Metamor all the time. Don't worry about it. Just so you know, though, I know of other Keepers whose transformations weren't so painless. It's different for everyone, I guess."
Cheep thanked him and continued on his way.
Over the next few days, Cheep saw most of the shops in Keeptowne, including a jeweler's run by a badger, a glassblower's run by an elephant, a bakery run by a capybara (that had bread that smelled more delicious than any food he could remember; he enjoyed it so much that he wound up spending large part of his wages there), and many others that sold everything imaginable. He was enjoying himself immensely, and a grin of delight crossed his face as he saw a group of people dressed in bright multicolored clothing (that seemed to be made of nothing but patches, but whose faces looked cheerful nonetheless) who were entertaining the crowd by juggling small wooden balls and doing all sorts of tricks. Some were flipping and tumbling, some were twisting their bodies into positions he had not previously thought possible, and one was dancing in a way that made him blush when he saw her. A strange but happy melody floated across the entire square from a group of the performers who played flutes and drums and other musical instruments. Kag noticed his interest and offered, "Those are the Magyars. I don't know if they've ever come to Metamor before, but they are a sort of nomadic people who live in wagons and perform for people in the villages they visit to earn their living. Come to think of it, they live quite a bit like you did before signing on with Morty. Only they have the reputation of stealing what they feel they deserve from the towns that don't give them enough. Some say they steal children too, but I think they leave home like you did."
Cheep looked on with interest, and wandered closer. At one point, a ball thrown erratically by mistake flew straight for his head, but he managed to catch it before it gave him a black eye. He was suddenly very glad of his training with the acrobats. The Magyar who had thrown it apologized for the accident and complimented him on his reflexes as Cheep tossed the ball back to him. Cheep's eyes started to tear up at the thought of his old friends who he would never see again. He shook his head and tried to think of something else. Now the Magyars' juggling became more intense, balls flying from one juggler to another and another and then back. The balls flew high into the air at times, almost lost to sight against the blindingly bright background of the spring sky, only to be caught by a skillful hand and sent elsewhere at dizzying speed. The crowd oohed and ahhed at the spectacle, which gradually grew more and more impressive until at some unknown signal, all the jugglers caught all the balls at once, some with two or three balls in one hand, the music drew to the end, and the performance was over.
Cheers rose from the crowd as they applauded, and all the Magyars bowed. Cheep and Kag tossed a few coins at the tip cloth on the ground in the middle of the entertainers and made their way back to peruse a few more shops before returning to the inn they were staying at. When they arrived just before dusk, the merchant met them outside and told them that they should be ready to leave before the end of the next day.
"Before we go, you really should see the Keep proper. It is not something that should be missed."
"That sounds great. It looks magnificent even from a distance. I can't wait to see it up close."
"That's not even the most interesting part. I would tell you, but it's easier to show than explain and I want it to be a surprise anyway."
"It's a surprise. If I told you, it wouldn't be. Now go to sleep. You'll see it soon enough and we have a long trip ahead of us."
The next morning Kag and Cheep walked through Keeptowne, this time ignoring most of the vendors, although stopping to get some breakfast at the bakery run by the capybara whose name they learned was Gregor. They complimented the tabby cat morph at the counter on the delicious pastries and headed off to the castle.
Cheep gazed in wonder at the sheer scale of the structure; he had to look almost straight up to see the top, even before he got near the doors. To his disappointment, Kag led him inside almost immediately.
"What is in here that is more interesting than the outside?" Cheep asked as they walked through the entry chamber and down a long hallway of grey and singularly unimpressive stone.
They walked and walked until eventually, Cheep noticed that they had been going down the same straight hallway for quite some time.
"How long is this hallway? It seems like we should be on the other side of the castle by now, and there haven't been any rooms or connecting hallways. This is a weird building."
"You're right, this is a long and boring hallway. In fact, if it didn't move, we would have been outside the castle walls about ten minutes ago."
"I'm sorry, did you just say move? And connect that word to a hallway in a huge stone castle? Are you okay?"
"I'm completely serious. The passages move. There is no set way to get anywhere except focus on the place and keep moving; the only reason we seem to have been in a long hallway is that you were following me and I focused on long, empty hallways. Now think of the library or something and see what happens as we keep walking."
"You are so joking. I am not falling for this. There is no way."
"Have I ever lied to you or tried to trick you before?"
"I... no, I guess not. But that is just unbelievable!"
"Just try it. Focus on some place or some person and the Keep will take you there. That is, if she likes you."
"Likes me? The castle is alive now? And female?"
"No, but there is a nymph named Kyia who supposedly controls the whole place. There are only a lucky few who have had the privilege of seeing her and talking to her."
"Okay, now I know you've lost it."
"Just focus on something."
"The Duke's chambers."
"All right then. Let's see what happens."
They only had to walk for another minute before they noticed a large elaborate door ahead on the left with a pair of armed guards standing at either side.
Cheep approached one of the guards. "Hey, can I go through this door?"
The guard, who was a wolf morph, gruffly responded, "The Duke is not available for audience at the moment. You can only see him by appointment, though if you have some pressing concern, you can send a message to the Steward."
"No freaking way."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I was just demonstrating the Keep's variable geometry to my friend here. He is new to Metamor," explained Kag with a smirk.
"Ah. Carry on then, but no loitering around here or we'll have to escort you outside."
"That won't be a problem. Thank you for your time."
With that he continued down the hallway, Cheep following with a look of utter disbelief still hanging on his face.
"No freaking way."
"How about you try finding something else? The mess hall, maybe. I'm getting hungry."
They continued walking, though now the passageway had occasional turns and doors. Finally, they stopped in front of a large doorway from which was emanating the smells of cooked meat and other foods. They paid the bored-looking turtle morph standing at the door and entered. They saw a large room with tables all over the floor, set largely into two groups, soon recognizable as being for carnivores and herbivores, designated by the large platters of meat on one group of tables and of fresh fruits and vegetables on the other. They saw animal morphs classifiable as omnivores and normal-looking humans at both sets of tables, displaying that the segregation was out of dietary necessity and not prejudice. Cheep had always enjoyed a good rabbit stew, but he was also partial to oranges. He headed over to the herbivore tables, partially in the hopes of finding some of a singularly odd fruit he had tasted only once but had enjoyed immensely at an exotic fruit vendor's stand a few years back. He never learned the name, but the fruits were bright yellow and curved rather than round, and had a thick peel that you removed before eating the soft, succulent inner flesh. He spied a bunch of the unique fruit on one of the platters and eagerly made his way to the table and snatched one up before even sitting down, excitement radiating from his face.
"Somebody like bananas, it seems," remarked a rabbit morph in leather armor who was nibbling on a carrot.
"You're one to talk, Mr. Carrot Breath!" countered a jovial cow morph, who was chewing a mouthful of grass.
The cow just laughed and continued chewing.
"So these are called ‘bananas'?" asked Cheep, who had already peeled his and was happily chewing his third bite.
"You didn't know? Though I guess these aren't common everywhere. Where are you from, kid?"
"I don't know, somewhere down south. Well, sort of. I grew up there. Orphaned from someplace across a sea, but I don't know where. I don't exactly have a happy past."
"Sorry to hear that. I'm Padraic, by the way. Sorry about earlier, you just had a look on your face that was highly amusing."
Cheep and his massive companion enjoyed various and sundry delectable plants and plant-based foods before washing up at a nearby basin and heading out again. Down the hallway they walked, this time thinking of everything they could imagine and seeing it and more appear as they continued traveling through the Keep. They stopped at several shops built into the Keep, including a smithy operated by a huge white tiger morph. They saw his weapons for sale and Cheep saw a particularly ornate set of five-sided throwing stars. He practically drooled at their beauty, but he held back, knowing they would only be worth his coin if they were of good weapon quality.
"Are these balanced, or just wall decorations? I can feel that they are sharp," he said as he fingered the edge of one.
The tiger looked indignant, almost furious. "Are you questioning my honor? I only make weapons of the highest quality. To question their merit is to insult my honor."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! No, that's not what I meant at all. I mean no dishonor or insult. I just wanted to know if these are as useful as they are pretty."
"I can assure you they are perfectly balanced and they will fly true and retain their sharpness longer than any others you can find in this country."
With that the tiger picked up a star and expertly threw it into the exact middle of a wooden dummy's head about thirty feet away.
"Can I try?" Cheep asked.
"I suppose you can, but be very careful."
Cheep smiled and turned the small bladed weapon over in his hands to get a feel for the weight. He flipped it back and forth between his hands a few times, and threw it in much the same way as the tiger had with similar results, only the star was embedded in the dummy's throat.
"Very nice. I apologize for any offence I may have communicated, intended or otherwise How much are these?"
"I can accept no less than seven gold suns for the set."
Cheep took out his money pouch and counted the remains of his money. He had enough for the set of shuriken and only a few coppers more. He breathed a sigh of relief and passed the coins to the tiger, who had an amused look on his face.
"I think he was expecting you to haggle," Kag said.
Cheep looked up hopefully at the tiger, who simply shrugged and deposited the coins into a strongbox behind a counter.
"Whoops. I guess I know for next time." Cheep said disappointedly as he walked out. Kag smiled sympathetically.