Slowly, with deliberateness and grace, Oren brought his staff through great, flowing arcs. He could twirl his weapon as quickly as a mongoose strike if he wished, but now was not the time for it. The sun was setting. It was time for slowing down. His evening exercises had always been a spiritual time for Oren. It seemed even moreso now that he stood upon the battlements of Metamor, looking down at the drowsy countryside now snuggling in under a blanket of crimson sky.
It was a time that Oren normally found relaxing in a way that brought peace to his spirit. That peace didn't come tonight, though. His staff exercises only served to remind him that he was soon to take his place among the defenders of Metamor. He was hoping to show that he was more than a capable fighter when the time came tomorrow.
He made his way to his little apartment where he found Gornul, the tiny dragon, leaning over the edge of the indoor fish pond, watching the little morsels swim around and around. Oren thrust his hand in and plucked out a tasty-looking trout which he placed on a spit and began roasting.
He sat down to do some writing as the fish cooked. He was still trying to get a feel for the place, so he began a story which thinly disguised Metamor Keep as a bar set in some distant land, with all the characters bearing the names of real people. He concentrated on his own character, for he felt it was important to get to know who he was, now. He was surprised at the ease with which he captured his own strengths and flaws, translating them into this alien version of himself. He was the child-like warrior, and he found that he liked being that.
The fish was turning a golden brown, now, so he took it off the spit and divided it up between himself and his dragon.
Far away, events of import were unfolding. Vitra, the lutin, was having a nightmare. Ana was pondering the fate of her homeland. Mitok was discussing religion with Ye. Shamgar and his new girlfriend were enjoying a night on the town. All of these things would soon have profound effects on the otter- warrior. The greatest effect, though, would come from the fact that someone was looking for him.
Oren slept fitfully that night. His sleep was full of half remembered dreams and feverish vignettes that come to the minds eye on only the most terrible of nights.
In the morning, he opened his eyes slowly and with great effort. He immediately noted the position of the square of light created by the window as it crawled down the wall.
"I'm gonna be late!" he shouted as he sprang out of bed.
Immediately, the otter sensed something wrong. Everything was so... big! He knew what had happened. His body had finally succumb to the curse of Metamor. Oren ran to the mirror, thinking that he would discover he had become a full otter. He was wrong. Oren was small because he was now only two years old. He was also a she.
"Crimony!" she exclaimed, her juvenile mouth slightly slurring the R. She sat down on the floor with her hand on her head. "I'm a little girl! I'm a little girl otter!
"Well," said Pascal. "You seem to be in good health, at any rate. I imagine your double transformation is a result of: number one, that incredible amount of antimagic in your body, and two, your pre-existing transformation spell."
"What do you mean?"
"You want a lollipop?" asked Pascal.
"A lollipop? Well, okay."
The 'pine continued explaining. "Let's say that I'm the curse of Metamor. The first thing I'm going to try to do, just because I'm in the mood, is turn you into an animal. Thing is, I can't. Oh, I could if I wanted to, but your little case of 'Water Mammal Disease' keeps getting in the way." She gave Oren a strawberry lollipop. "So... I decide to change tactics. I decide to take the transgender approach. This doesn't work because your body just counteracts whatever I do with antimagic. I try harder and harder, but you just keep resisting."
Oren listened as she twirled the sucker in her mouth.
"Finally," said Pascal, crossing her arms in pretended frustration. "I try age regressing you, still not having fully given up on making you a girl. Suddenly, BOOM! It works! I overcome your resistance and both effects take hold."
"But can it be undone? I mean... I start training with the Long Scouts today."
"Want some camel cheese? I figured out a way to get camel's milk to curdle."
"Me neither. Reversible? I highly doubt it. After all, this is the same magic that transformed the rest of us. Nobody's figured out a way to reverse the curse yet."
"But maybe with my antimagic... Oh no! Do I even still HAVE my antimagic?"
"I don't know. Let's find out." Pascal sprinkled some powder over Oren's paw.
"What's that do?"
"Turn your fur purple. You're not changing colors, so I guess you still have it."
But purple would look good on you."
Oren rolled her eyes and went to seek saner help.
The tower which Oren had built from unwanted stone was large to begin with. From the viewpoint of a little girl, and illuminated only on one side by the dawn light, it looked like a dark behemoth, menacing and foreboding. The little otter had to force herself to go near it. She knew that Mong Ho and Ye would be out here this morning, and had hopes that perhaps one of them might know what to do.
It was Desuka's voice which Oren heard resonating from the stone room. "And so, with this cup, we honor our Messiah until his return. As he commanded, 'This do in remembrance of Me.'"
Oren shook her head in disbelief. These words were straight out of the rituals he'd observed in worshiping back in his homeland. Was Desuka familiar with them? But then, why not? Surely the God of Hipocc was the God of Var as well. Oren peeked in and was surprised to see an Desuka standing before an altar not unlike the ones the followers used, and behind it, a large wooden cross.
Seated on mismatched chairs before the altar were Mong Ho and Ye, who were certainly not a surprise. With them, however, were his ex-girlfriend, Ana, along with Mitok and Gornul. So that's where he had been.
Oren waited in the doorway until the worship was over. That was when Ana, rising to leave, looked and spotted her. "Hello, little girl." said Ana.
The Hipocci woman looked confused. "Do I know you?" she asked.
"It's me. Oren. The curse finally got to me."
Ana stared at her blank-faced for what seemed an interminable and pregnant silence.
"Omigosh." she moaned, turning around. "I can't handle this. I can NOT handle this!"
The words thrust through Oren's heart like a javelin. To hear the woman who had at one time been the one person he could trust the most so thoroughly reject her now was more than her troubled soul could bear. The otter ran from the tower, bawling and blinded by tears.
Gornul, eyes wide, glanced in confusion from the door to Ana and back. He projected an image of the Oren he knew next to a question mark.
"That him!" said Mong Ho. "Look like he gotted same thing as me." She ran her hands over her feminine curves to emphasize her point.
"No." Ye corrected. "You knew when your changes would begin and that you would only receive one alteration. You were willing to accept it. Our friend the otter has had two transformations suddenly piled on top of his first, none of which were of his own desire."
"He get too much he no can handle, you say."
Gornul perched in front of Ana and glared at her. The little dragon rarely got angry, but in this case, he was livid.
"What?" Demanded Ana. "I had to bury four family members before I came here, and now I find out that the man I was once planning to marry is now not only a beast, but a little girl as well. You think I'm not stressed?" With that, she stormed out, leaving a most awkward wake of silence and stares.
Oren, meanwhile, was curled into a ball on the bank of the Metamor river. She was supposed to begin training with the Long Scouts today, but how could she? Not like this, for certain. What in the world would she do? Uncurling, Oren cleared her mind and tried to figure out a plan of action. "The first thing I have to do," she said. "Is get some clothes."
But while Oren was dealing with her troubles, someone else was dealing with theirs...
The fall of Hipocc had hit everyone harder than they ever could have imagined. Most of the villagers now hid in the surrounding hills, protected only by their concealment and the few remaining thirdaks who kept vigilant for the approach of magic.
Felice, however, could not content herself with hiding and waiting. The warriors of Hipocc had been defeated and killed to the last man, save one: her brother, Oren, who had ventured Northward in self-imposed exile. It had been her hope, when she set off, to locate her lost brother, possibly to return with him as the last hope for restoring their village, as well as their people's spirits.
This task, however, was proving to be more than daunting, bordering on impossible. The world beyond the mountains of her family's homeland was vast beyond understanding, and locating a solitary man would likely take forever. She knew only that Oren had ventured northward and so made her way in that general direction, traveling ultimately to Metamor Valley and toward the pass into the giantdowns. The world of the northern midlands proved to be bizarre indeed. When she first saw women dressed in full battle gear, it was something which her mind could easily accept. The children swilling ale in the local tavern, singing baudy songs and exchanging tales of war glory proved a little more difficult. But when she walked down the street and came face-to-face with a giant grasshopper in a waistcoat, Felice did her best to convince herself that it was all a dream induced by the contents of her latest cooking disaster.
It wasn't for nearly a week that she found out about the curse which hung over these lands. By that time, it was already too late. She knew that it would be impossible to leave before the curse had transformed her as it had so many others. And so she continued her quest as if nothing were amiss.
Northward, Felice continued, until her steps brought her to the threshold of Metamor Keep.
Crystal was humming merrily to herself as she folded cloth to stack it nice and neatly. She was enjoying a very merry morning when a naked little otter girl walked in the door.
"Well, hello, Miss." said the opossum cheerfully. "It looks like you're in need of my services."
"I sure am. I just transformed and I don't have a stitch that will fit me."
"Ah. New to the keep, are you?"
"Actually, I've been here a number of months."
"And you're just now changing? How odd." said Crystal as she fished a tape measure out of her pocket. What's your name?"
Crystal flashed a surprised smile. "I've heard of you. You're the fellow who goes naked from the waist down."
"I do not! I just wear really short shorts."
"Well, you're naked, now. I'll fix you up good. So why have you never come to see me all this time?"
"I don't like to wear a lot of clothes over my fur. Besides, I usually go to Maurice's, down south."
"Why the switch?"
"His clothes are stylish, but SO uncomfortable."
"I see. We can conquor that problem dearie." The possum measured Oren and started to work cutting and sewing.
Misha was not happy. Two hours had already passed since sunup and Oren was nowhere to be found. The otter knew that he was supposed to begin training. So where was he?
"Good Morrow." greeted one of the guards at the gate. Felice hesitated, unsure of how to proceed or even whether she might gain admittance. The safest course, she decided, was to declare her business and proceed based on the guards' reactions.
"Good morning." she said. "I'm looking for someone. A warrior of Hipocc, known as Oren, the son of Nerr."
"And who is asking?" inquired the other of the guards, a man in a heavy kilt.
"I am his sister." Felice replied.
"Are you indeed?" asked the kilted man. "He speaks often of you, and of your pet thirdak, Linden."
Felice knit her brows in confusion. "My thirdak's name was Lucas." she corrected.
The kilted guard nodded to his companion. "Sorry." he said. "I needed to be certain that you were who you say. I am a friend of the otter and have worried for him, as there has been a recent attempt on his life."
The Hipocci woman was stunned by three revelations in quick succession. First, that her brother was here. Second, that someone tried to kill him. Most prominently, however, that he had been referred to as "The Otter".
Regaining her composure, she asked "Where is he? Can I see him? Is he well?"
"He is quite well." replied the man. "However, he is currently training with the Long Patrol and not due back for some time."
Felice nodded in acceptance of this information.
"However, if you would care to wait for his return, I'm sure his dragon would see to your comfort in the meantime."
"How do I find... Did you say 'dragon'?"
"Oh, yes. Gornul. Little blue guy. Just follow that little rivulet running beside the road. It'll take you right to the place."
Felice thanked the man and made her way into the keep.
Crystal smiled in satisfaction as she pulled the pretty but comfortable pink dress over Oren's head and snugged it in place. "There, now! Doesn't that look nice?"
"It does, actually. I'll have Gornul bring your payment over when the other outfits are done."
"That'll be fine, dearie. By the way, have you considered changing your name?"
"Oh, it's just an old woman's opinion, but you're such a pretty girl. You need a pretty name to go with your appearance."
"How about Oreana? I like that name, don't you?"
"Sure." responded the girl with a sigh.
Crystal brushed Oren's cheek fur with her finger. "Cheer up, love. It's not that bad."
"No? I was supposed to join the Long Scouts today."
"And I'm a little girl! I can't join up like this!"
Crystal smiled. "You know they have a little girl in the scouts."
"They do? How do you know that?"
"Someone's got to make those uniforms."
"My advice to you... go home, eat some breakfast, get cleaned up, and go see Misha."
Oren breathed deeply and sighed. "I'll do that. Thanks, Crystal."
Shamgar was having a good day. He'd watched the sun come up with his new girlfriend, and after an outdoor breakfast, the two of them were enjoying a stroll through the keep.
The woman, who had come to refer to herself only as "Shamgar's Girl", was happy. She'd found a joy in loving the rhino that her previous live as an assassin, not to mention a man, could never provide. She wanted nothing but to lose herself here.
Then suddenly, SHE appeared.
Shamgar's Girl knew that the woman was Hipocci just by looking at her clothing. In a heartbeat, she drew her dagger from her boot and leapt. In that same instant, Felice passed behind a cart full of firewood going the opposite direction. Shamgar's Girl found her face smashed into the firewood, picking up several dozen splinters, and her foot smashed by a wagon wheel.
"Why did you do that?" asked the rhino.
Spitting out a twig, the woman replied "Force of habit."
Felice looked back at the wounded woman. "Blake Tizzo, is that you?"
"It is you! You look good as a woman."
"I don't know you, do I?"
"No, but I know you. All of Hipocc knows you. You're the worst assassin ever to come out of Devil's Strand. Your blunders are the stuff of legends."
"Are you the one who tried to kill my brother, Oren?"
"You tried to kill Oren?" asked Shamgar with concern.
"Four times. They sent me up here to kill the childlike warrior."
Felice shook her head. "The childlike warrior? Oren? Well, yeah, I can see the 'childlike'. But Blake, you gotta realize that they probably figured he was never coming back and sent you up here to get you out of the way while the REAL battle was going on."
Shamgar tried to shimmy off the confusion. "So... you two are like mortal enemies?"
"Yes." the women answered in unison.
"So what now?" asked Felice. "Do we try to kill each other?"
Blake looked at the dagger in her hand and weighed the possibility of making a kill. "What say we go for a drink instead?"
Oren did a double take on his way home. She thought she saw someone she knew entering the Deaf Mule. Shrugging it off, she continued homeward.
She'd only gotten a few feet when she spotted Jesse and his mother walking along with two other women... and one of them, a black and white weasel who was scantily clad... had a rather familiar gait...
"Oh no!" Oren ran forward. "Jesse!" she shouted with pretended enthusiasm. "Fancy running into you! I didn't expect you at the keep until your next patrol..."
"Oren?" asked the roo. "Is that you?"
"It's me." replied Oren in a hissed whisper. "Is that who I think it is?"
"It's Vitra." Kim replied in a calmer whisper. "The curse really did get her. Now she's a zorilla."
"I don't care if she's a yellow-bellied sap-sucker! You bring her in here and the first mage who happens along is going to see the lutin in her. They'll kill her on sight!"
"But you plan to bring me here before." said Vitra.
"That was when we thought you were going to stay a lutin. Our story had a chance of working then." She thought for a moment and then said "hurry. Follow me."
Misha was relieving some frustration by swinging his axe around in a wild-seeming manner. Anyone who didn't know of his total control over his weapon would have thought him insane.
He stopped his deadly dance when he saw Gornul perched on a tree limb. The dragonette looked very worried, and carried in one hand a royal blue vest.
"Gornul?" said the fox. "Isn't this Oren's vest?"
Gornul nodded. He would have been crying if it were biologically possible.
"What happened to him?"
Replaying earlier memories, Gornul reported that he learned of Oren's recent re-transformation, but had not been able to locate him since.
"This explains a lot." said Misha. "You go on home and when she returns, which I'm sure she will, tell Oren to come to me as soon as she's ready."
The reptile nodded.
"He'll be all right, I'm sure."
With a pat on the head, Misha sent Gornul home. At the same time, he turned around to see one of the Keep guards walking his way. "Sir, bad news I'm afraid..."
Oren carefully traces some symbols onto a piece of paper and then handed it to Vitra.
"What is this?" asked the weasel-lutin.
"Something we used to do back in Hipocc to keep the Stranders from finding us. Those are antimagic runes. They'll nullify any active magic scan that might be used on you. You should still try to avoid being spotted, though. A magically blank spot will make any mage suspicious."
At that moment, Gornul returned home. He let out a chirp at seeing so many people in the small apartment, but when he saw his otter friend, he flew up and gave her an enormous hug.
A second later, Felice came through the door. All heads turned.
"I'm sorry." said Felice. "I'm looking for my brother, Oren."
"Felice?" said the otter.
"Do I know you?"
"It's me! Oren!"
"Excuse, me, Miss," said Felice coldly. "But I know my brother and you are not him."
Kim laughed aloud, and the others soon followed. Felice stood there in puzzlement. "It's Oren." said Jesse. "The curse got him today."
"And now I'm stuck like this."
"Why stuck?" asked Jesse.
Oren did a double take. "What do you mean?"
"Have you tried shifting to a halfway form?"
"Give it a try."
Oren concentrated. She thought about what it felt like to change into her old half-otter form from being a full otter, and willed herself to go through such a transformation.
Immediately, she began growing. Fearing for her new clothes, she slipped out of her dress and wrapped herself in a blanket. Slowly she became older, eventually reaching the size and age of a thirteen-year old. "Wow." she said, examining her reflection in the fish pond. "I am so cute!"
"I think so before." Vitra commented. "See if you go any further." Oren complied. Slowly, his face shifted, becoming male. He still looked very girly, and much smaller and younger than before, but the proof came when he looked down and announced "It's BACK!"
"Wait a minute..." said Jesse. "I thought trans-gendered people couldn't shift back to their original sex.
"It must be because of his original transformation." said Kim. "And his antimagic. Since he has so little human left in him, there's not much for the curse to latch onto."
Oren turned to his sister. "See? I'm antimagic because I'm Hipoccian. You've gotta believe I'm me."
"I don't know. I mean I want to believe you're my brother, but..."
Oren's eyes went wide as he jumped across the room to the table behind his bed. He snatched up his booklet of the scriptures and showed the inside cover to Felice. "To brother, on the day of his immersion."
"Do you remember that? That was Easter Sunday, the day Alvin was born. Grandpa was there to perform the ceremony, and you gave me these scriptures and wrote this in here. You were confused when you got to the date because you didn't know how to write the numbers in cursive."
Felice flung her arms around her brother in joy. He returned the embrace, caring not that his blanket fell down around his ankles.
The joy of the moment was broken when a fox at the door cleared his throat.
"MISHA!" Misha, I'm so sorry I didn't show up, but I can explain..."
"That's not why I'm here, Oren, and I think you know that."
"Uh... what are you here for?"
Misha stepped to one side and allowed armed men to enter the apartment. "In the name of Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, I am hereby placing the seven of you under arrest."
"Wh... wh-what's the charge?"
"Aiding and abetting the enemy in time of war."
"What? No! Let me explain."
"Take them away." said Misha. With a scowl of disappointment, he watched those he had trusted be shackled and escorted away, his heart breaking.