Forced Beginnings

by Supernova Wizard

April 11th, 707CR

The small caravan was passing trees that were taller than any Zak had seen in his life. The kings of the forest seemed to defy the sky, standing majestically, as they had and will for decades. A gust of wind that nearly blew Zak's leather cap off only caused a slight swaying of their mighty boughs.

His attention wasn't on the towering watchmen of the forest, however, but it wasn't on much of anything at the moment. He was daydreaming of a time years in the past. A happy time, likely exaggerated by the dour circumstances he found himself in. He was drawn out of his reverie when something far different pierced the landscape. The culprit was the tip of a tower. But it wasn't just any tower, it was the signal that the caravan had nearly reached its destination. The reactions of Zak's fellow guards were varied and... well, strange. Normally, Zak's new found friends and compatriots would cheer at the sight of a town, pick up their pace and begin to quickly convey to each other in excited tones what they were going to do when they first entered town. A majority of the guards seemed to get more and more anxious as they neared the keep.

He was a strong young man at the age of eighteen. He stood at a reasonable five feet, ten inches, was a bit wider in the shoulders than most, and his upbringing afforded him a good muscular standing. Zak's hair was an earthy brown, having been very blond in Zak's youth, getting darker and richer as time went by. His eyes were ocean blue with streaks of aquamarine. His clothes were very well worn, having been the only set of clothes Zak owned for most of the journey. He looked rather awkward with a short sword he was half scared to even draw from its sheath and some well worn and ill-fitting leather armor. The one weapon he was comfortable using was the sling he had tucked into his belt; the ammunition for the sling was carried in a pouch, also attached to his belt. The stones clicked together with his every step and were hand picked.

Zak couldn't help but grin in spite of the other guards' gloomy mood, which wasn't something he did often anymore. Grinning that is. The early afternoon sun gleaming white light off Metamor's central tower was indeed a welcome sight in the heart of at least one of the caravan's guards. Now if only Zak could find him before they left...

Zak was openly gawking. It was the first time he'd been anywhere as big as Metamor Keep, and he was trying to take everything in at once. Zak was raised in a simple farming community, which was only concerned with how the crop was doing, how the weather will be, and what prank Sean McFarley would try to pull next. So it is understandable that a young man with his upbringing would gawk at the sights and sounds of busy Metamor.

It didn't help that, every now and then, you could spot large animal-people walking around either. Sure Zak had heard about the curse, who hadn't? He heard how the evil wizard Nasoj had come down on Metamor with his armies of Lutins, Trolls, Ogres, and Giants. Heard how Nasoj cursed the Keepers, transforming them into dumb animals, wee babes, or mindless versions of the opposite sex. Heard how Metamor's wizards were able to dilute the curse so the soldiers could fight again. Heard how, after the Battle of the Three Gates, the curse wasn't lifted and it affected anyone who dared stay too long.

When Zak first heard all the different rumors, he discarded most of them as either silly superstition, or an inflammation of facts. How could anyone deal with the fact that they weren't going to age past fourteen or fifteen years? However, along with all the rumors that were based on fact, there dozens more with no backing whatsoever. One of the more incredible ones being that the transformed populous were naught but demons, or that they were transformed into demons as punishment by the gods because of some immense sin. Now that he had seen some of these things with his own eyes it made him wonder which rumors were true and which were just rumors. Even so, Zak's mind was on that ever pressing thought that if he stayed here long enough he'd end up just like them. No offense to the Keepers, but Zak would prefer to stay the way he was.

"Hey! Farm boy!" Someone to Zak's right yelled right in his ear, making him jump and turn with one hand groping towards his sword before he saw who it was. "You wanna shut that gaping fly trap o' yours?" A bearded man slightly shorter then Zak asked with a grin that revealed gaps in his yellow teeth. Vaton. The rugged man's behavior was mostly harmless banter, but it had a way of prodding and goading others. Plus Vaton had seemed to take a particular pleasure out of torturing Zak.

He had done his best to ignore Vaton's repeated pranks and jokes about his hometown and livelihood. It had nearly come to blows once when the vicious jester filled his boots with dung during the trip. And now Zak had had enough, he was about to tell Vaton exactly what he thought of him and let the chips fall where they may, when the bearded menace was shoved past Zak by Crinith, who was probably the largest member of the entire caravan standing more than a head taller than Zak.

Most of the guards were kinder than Vaton, but the large fellow had helped Zak adjust more then any of the others. It's been said that Crinith had been with the caravan for most of his life, but he refuses to say anything about his past and woe be unto those who won't drop the subject. "Mind your own business Vaton. I happen to remember that you starred wide-eyed at the first keeper you saw."

Stumbling a few steps away, Vaton turned and idly considered the larger guard before cracking a grin, "Yeah, but you gotta admit, she was quite the looker." Vaton said with a wink that seemed to say as much as he had.

Crinith merely shook his head, causing waves of his salt and pepper hair to cascade around his chiseled face while the caravan's prankster made his way through the small crowd that had gathered around the wagons and into Euper. The majority of the guards wouldn't go any further into Metamor then the small town that had been built outside of the Keeps curtain walls.

The elder caravan guard turned to consider Zak who was gazing after the scraggly scoundrel with a slight frown and a puzzled look clearly expressed over his features. Zak could guess where Vaton would be spending his time, if he was lucky he wouldn't have to hear him 'regale' them with tales of his exploits. Zak's expression caused Crinith to chuckle which in turn caused the younger man's confusion to be turned on him. Zak's ocean blue eyes calmly considering his helper.

"Think nothing of it." Crinith said with a dismissive wave of a hand, before he turned and headed towards the outer gates. Which peaked Zak's curiosity further as he quickened his pace a bit so he could walk beside the towering man he considered his friend.

"Thanks. I-"

"It's alright," Crinith said interrupting Zak before he could continue. "I could tell you were about to give Vaton what he's been asking for. And knowing you you'd probably regret it. And the last thing Vaton needs is someone apologizing to him."

Zak hummed in agreement and walked along in silence for a few moments before changing the subject. "Are you going to enter Metamor?" The brown haired youth asked simply without looking up at Crinith.

"Aye. I've a friend who's been a keeper since before the Battle of the Three Gates, I'm going to meet him at a tavern." Crinith stated as they made their way toward the gates, their boots thudding dully against the dirt path and sent small clouds of dust that swirled lightly before settling back down until the next person traveled the path.

The young farmerf nodded, simply accepting his friend's explanation. Crinith gazed at the farmer turned guard out of the corner of his eye. The older traveler found the youth beside him to be quiet, gullible and naive, something that Vaton was quick to pick up on and exploit. The simple farmer found himself the butt of a number of pranks from the crude caravan member. Which, normally wouldn't have been enough for Crinith to take him under his wing... but Zak meant a lot to him in a way that he wasn't sure he would be able to explain to anyone. Not that he would want to anyways.

Zak caught Crinith gazing at him and simply lifted an eyebrow in a manner that seemed to ask 'What?'. A sudden thought crossed the older man's mind, which brought a quick smile to his lips. For while the young man was rather quiet, he didn't hide his emotions well. Crinith idly thought that it was a good thing that Zak didn't have any money, or he would've lost it in the poker games.

The sights and sounds of Metamor's marketplace were both familiar and strange to Zak. Familiar because of the plentiful amount of bartering and shouting that was taking place and strange because of the sight of a 'fair maiden' arguing loudly with a tall and fierce looking cat-man. Personally, Zak would like to keep the owner of such claws and teeth as calm as could possibly be accomplished. And what could be so important as to risk life and limb? Why, candles of course.

Now that he thought about it, he was seeing more and more keepers that had been changed into different animal forms. Down in Euper he only spotted a handful; now there seemed to be more in comparison to those that looked... well, more normal.

Zak and Crinith had parted ways soon after crossing the Killing Fields. The old guardsman had a meeting and the farmer wasn't going to keep him. Zak didn't ask where the tavern that Crinith was going to was, he doubted that the huge traveling man was going to stay there long anyways. Besides, all the guards, including Zak, were going to meet up down in Euper in about four days so they could leave without worrying about the curse effecting any of them.

After wandering around and starring at the different sights for a while, Zak decided that he'd best ask for directions. Otherwise he might never find him. Metamor Keep was simply too big for him to just go searching for someone, it could take days, weeks maybe for him to check more than half of this place. So Zak edged his way out of the main stream of traffic, so he wouldn't be hustled along and he could get a chance to think a bit. Glancing around at the large amount of people, he decided to leave it to chance. Zak closed his eyes and waited a few moments for the crowd to move on, then he decided that he'd ask the first person he saw.

Easing his eyes open, Zak felt a groan escape his throat. His eyes had landed upon a black bear walking towards him along the road. 'Great. Just great.' Out of the many ordinary looking people crowding the cobblestone street he had to pick one that could tear his head off. At first Zak thought he'd simply ask someone, anyone else... but, No. He had made a decision and he was going to follow it through. Besides, he'd have to get used to talking to all the citizens here, not just the non-furry ones if he was going to be comfortable during his stay. Even if it was only for a couple of days, right?

While gathering what courage he could, Zak noticed that his target was nicely dressed. The bear was wearing a pair of very dark, navy blue tunic and trousers with silver lining, cut in a similar fashion to that of a minor noble. Which went nicely with his jet colored fur. The cut of the cloth alone made it more expensive than all the clothes Zak had ever owned.

After harvesting all the courage that he has been able to grow over the course of his life that he could, he stood and walked resolutely toward his 'target' and got the well dressed bear's attention. "Excuse me sir." Zak said as the distance between them closed. The bear had a sheaf of paper clutched in one paw and had apparently been reading them, for he hadn't noticed the youth that had practically stalked him until Zak had called out.

"Hmm? Yes, what is it?" The ursine said while turning ever so slightly to place the young man in the center of his vision and attention. Zak paused to just take in the sight of this beast-man who towered over even Crinith. He suddenly grew self-conscious of his own outfit that did little beside meagerly protect him from the elements. The clothing was, of course, covered with dust and well worn. It didn't help that he had a sword strapped to his waist either.

"I... um... I, well, that is..." And he had started off so well too.

The mountain of black fur in front of Zak let out a deep rolling chuckle. "Don't worry son, I don't bite." The ursine said after guessing what the other cause for Zak's sudden ineptitude might be. "How may I help you?" The black bear asked cordially, while casually putting the sheaf of papers into a pocket.

After taking a moment to gather his wits about him Zak asked, "Would you know where I could find Anthony Hilton?"

The bear let a small smile creep over his features. "No, I'm afraid I don't know an Anthony Hilton. Is he well known or does he just live in this part of Metamor?" The ursine asked with a decent amount of curiosity.

Zak felt the small bit of hope he'd kept up during the entire journey begin to sink down to the pit of his stomach. He was used to everyone in town knowing everybody else. But hey, there were a lot of people at Metamor, surely someone would know what had happened to him? Wouldn't they?

Turning his mind back to the black bear's question, he quickly pondered it. "I don't really know, I haven't seen him since he left our hometown to come live here a little over eight years ago." Zak didn't feel like saying that he wasn't even sure if he was still alive after the Battle of the Three Gates and the recent assault during this past winter.

"Um." The bear said in agreement before scratching his chin with one sharp claw, apparently thinking hard about Zak's predicament. "I'm not sure how one would go about finding a person that one hasn't seen in a while, but have you tried the Watch?"

Zak didn't even try to pretend he knew what that was. "What's a watch?"

The ursine chuckled briefly, gently rubbing his chin now with the pads of his paw before explaining. "Well... They're the people who try to make sure everyone follows the laws. They arrest thieves and lawbreakers to protect the rest of us." Zak paused as he took in this new information. 'I wish we had a Watch in Farlin, then all this probably would've never happened...' He thought to himself, his mind returning to the home he had left behind.

"You going to be okay?" The well dressed black bear asked, a concerned look clearly showing through the strangeness of the animal's face that was expressing it, snapping Zak's mind back to the matter at hand.

"Uh, yeah. Um..."

"Okay then, I need to get back to work. So I'll see you around... Oh. I forgot to introduce myself, I'm Cid. And I own this fine Shoppe here, The Long Yarn." Cid said as he made a slight sweeping motion with his left arm. Apparently the building that the two of them had been standing in front of during the entirety of their conversation was The Long Yarn.

"Zak." The young man said briefly before he looked up at the wooden sign attached to the building in question, the sign had long looping letters and a decent painting of a ball of yarn with one long strand that wound its way neatly to the bottom of the sign.

"Well Zak, You might want to stop by my shop sometime to, ah, improve upon your current wardrobe." Cid said as Zak brought his eyes back down to the large ursine in front of him.

"You have a point there, good Tailor. Unfortunately, I seem to be a bit short of coin at the moment." Zak said laughing lightly.

Cid joined in laughter with his own deep rumble. "Well, when you have a spare coin, stop by. I might just give you a discount." He said with a wink, before he turned to head into the store he owned, managed and worked in.

Zak was smiling broadly and was about to turn and make his way toward the keep, when he remembered something. "Wait!" He called out urgently as he turned suddenly back toward the bear.


"Where IS the Watch?"

"Their head office is up in the Keep someplace."

"Someplace, huh?"

"Hmm." Cid agreed. "As you probably know, Metamor Keep is different from most cities. And, inside the Keep, you have to get around a bit differently." This caught Zak's attention, and he also noticed that the bear's grin seemed to have become a permanent part of his physical features. "See, there's no concrete way of getting from here to there. The keep was built a really long time ago, and there's magic in the stones, see, and the rooms and hallways move about."

"Ohh-kayy..." Zak said, disbelief evident.

Cid waved a warning finger at the unbelieving newcomer. "You may doubt me now, but just you wait, you'll see."

"But... How is anybody supposed to get where they need to be on time when they have to go exploring everyday? Not to mention how hard it has to be to find anything." Zak questioned with as much belief as if he were told that the moon was going to fall into the ocean tomorrow. He was still adjusting to the various looks of Metamor's citizens, and the fact that stone didn't stay put was a pretty big pill to take at the moment.

"Well now, that's the fun part." Cid said calmly as he placed a friendly hand upon Zak's shoulder. "Now, if you think about where you're headed, really concentrate on it, and keep thinking about it, then you'll wind up where you want to be." He said with a last nod of his head.

Zak just kind of stared at him, "You're joking, right?" he asked raising an eyebrow for good measure.

A slight shake of the head was Cid's only reply.

"But…" Zak shook his head, still not believing. "You mean to tell me that you just randomly pick a way and wander around, then just happen to come to where you need to be?"

"Not really, but close enough." He said simply. Zak shook his head again in unbelief. It was just so incredible!

"Still not joking?" he asked hopefully, nearly begging with his eyes for this very odd obstacle to be removed from his path.

"No, I'm afraid that you'll just have to find out for your self. If you really want to find the Watch, you'll need to enter the keep, focus your thoughts on them, and you'll be there in no time... maybe." Cid said, with a kind hearted smile on his muzzle.

"Hmm..." Zak hummed as he considered this new information and tried to wrap his mind around the concept.

It wasn't going very well... Just then a stranger, a bird of some kind shouldered past him, the force of which wasn't enough to do any serious damage, but it did cause Zak to nearly loose his balance and he had to stumble forward a few steps to recover. "Hey! Do you mind?"

The falcon continued on, as if he didn't notice or care what he had done to Zak or what Zak had to say. "Can you believe that?" Zak asked Cid as the disgruntled Avian disappeared in the crowd.

Cid followed the falcon with his eyes for as long as he could, then turned back to Zak. "Aye, but some don't place much value in such things. A shame really." The tailor said, 'But what can you expect from a traitor's son' he thought.

Heaving a weary sigh Zak said, "Well, thanks again for your time, sir."

"The names Cid, remember? Cid Karven." The black bear said with that grin plastered on his muzzle as he stuck out a massive paw.

Zak couldn't help but smile as he took that paw in his own dirty hand, he was surprised at the feel of the furry appendage under his fingers, it was slightly rough, yet soft at the same time. The rough feeling coming from the slightly callused pads and the soft from the almost silky fur. The sensations surprised him for two reasons, one, he had never shaken hands with something that had fur and pads. Two, during their conversation, he had forgotten that Cid was a towering bear instead of a man. Recovering slightly from his shock, he gave the man his entire name. "Zakiah Ozymandias Zuutarian Zurandeer."

Cid quirked an eyebrow at the long name. "Wow. That's a mouthful, I think I'll stick with Zak."

The farmer chuckled, "Most do."

Taking Cid's advice to heart, Zak made his way to the keep in the hopes of finding the Watch. On the way he caught himself once again starring at the sights of Metamor. This time the Keep itself was the center of his attention. With tall spires and towers gleaming in the noonday sun, Metamor Keep was indeed a sight to behold.

Following the general flow of traffic towards the magnificent keep of stone and spires, Zak soon found himself in the middle of a very confusing maze of halls and doorways. Most of them were decorated with carpets, lamps and statues or with tapestries, windows and curtains. All of it was new and different to the farmer. He paused for a moment, wondering how he was ever going to find Anthony inside such a huge structure. There was nothing remotely close to resembling the keep at home.

"There must be a thousand rooms in here!" Zak whispered to himself in amazement at the size of the place. Moving slowly through the hallways, Zak found himself starring at the inhabitants that were traveling the same hallway with him. Forgetting himself for a moment, Zak stopped and watched as a virtual menagerie flowed around him. He spotted a hound, a beetle of some kind, a cat couple, a fox and it just went on and on, every once in a while being interrupted by the appearance of a non-animal keeper. Next a duck, adamantly conversing with a cat, was trying his hardest to convince the feline of the folly of some arcane theory as they both strode past the dumbstruck farmer.

Standing still in the middle of a busy thoroughfare can lead to troubles, and it wasn't long before Zak was jostled by a heavy set man in an obvious hurry. "Watch where you're goin'!" The man grumbled without even glancing at Zak before quickly disappearing in the crowd.

Slightly put off by the man's gruff manner, Zak picked up his feet and followed the flow of people. Turning a few corners on a whim Zak paused to find himself alone. Turning around he experienced a first. The keep had changed. The hallway he had come from was gone. Simply gone. There wasn't any sound, no grating, no nothing. It just wasn't where it was before.

Zak was shocked. Yes Cid had warned him that 'rooms and hallways move about' but nothing can quite prepare someone for that kind of experience. The farmer sat down with a whump, while he tried to soak in what had just happened. Was the keep dangerous? Could he be smashed like a bug by moving walls? Would he wander the keep till hunger and thirst ended his short life?

While considering these important matters, Zak found himself starring at a tapestry that was hanging nearby. It depicted a battle of some kind, two armies clashing together right in front of the keep, for the large castle occupied a good portion of the tapestry. Pausing the youth looked around him and pondered the history of the place in which he was in. Zak idly turned his attention to the ceiling as he wondered if maybe magic was used to keep the walls from tumbling down from there own weight. He figured it probably was. The fact that a building as large as the keep could and was built entirely out of stone baffled the young man.

Gathering himself, the young man stood. Well, there was nothing for it. He'd have to continue down the hallway and hope he found either the Watch or someone willing to guide him. So the youth picked up his feet and started down the hallway to continue what has been the strangest day of his life.

After wandering the halls for who knew how long, Zak had finally found... well, a door. It was a nice door, it looked like it was made out of oak and seemed to be expertly carved with a simple brass handle and knocker. Directly above the knocker, in large letters was the word HILTON, elegantly carved into the wood. Unfortunately Zak could neither read nor write and didn't grasp the meaning of the bold letters, no matter how long he starred at them.

In fact, Zak had passed by this door no less than thirteen times as he traveled the strange hallways alone. Each time he passed it the hallway it was in was different too, pretty weird if you asked him. He supposed that it meant that it was probably the room he was looking for... if Cid's information was correct. And if he wasn't just pulling his leg...

Taking a deep breath the young man reached up, grabbed the knocker and tapped it on the door lightly. Then he took half a step back and wondered who would answer. It didn't seem like the Watch Headquarters, but how would he know what it's supposed to look like?

Unfortunately Zak wasn't prepared for who, or what, answered the door, and he caught himself starring. In the few moments that he was caught totally flabbergasted, he noticed that it was a she. She stood only a few inches under Zak, she didn't have any ears that he could see and her tail was really long and broad. At its thinnest point, near the end, it was still thicker than his arm and it trailed along the ground behind her as she walked. The closest thing he could compare it too would be a beaver's tail, although it wasn't nearly that broad. But the one feature that stood out above all the rest was the large, reddish-brown, triangular scales… She looked like an anteater or badger with the added benefit of having its own built in armor. And he couldn't help but notice that she also had very long, strong claws on each hand. They were so long that if she curled her hand into a fist the claws would reach past her wrist!

"Yes?" the scaled being in front of him asked as her long tail curled up around her hind paws; she was clothed in a brown leather jerkin and a shocking pair of shorts. They only just barely covered her knees! All the women in Farlin almost always wore long skirts. It's an understatement to say that Zak was caught off-guard. He was so stunned that all he did in answer was to move his mouth in a very good impression of a fish out of water.

"Well are you going to stand there catching flies with your mouth all day or are you going to tell me what you want?" The scaly anteater asked obviously getting upset at Zak's reaction to her appearance.

"Err- I was, well... you see..." He was doing it again. Zak closed his eyes and lightly shook his head to clear his thoughts, then he took a deep breath, and started over. "Beg your pardon ma'am, but I'm new to the area. I'm looking for my friend."

The woman's eyebrow rose a bit at the odd response. "And what makes you think you'll find him here?" She asked harshly before folding her arms across her chest. Apparently she wasn't going to forgive him easily.

Great. How was he supposed to explain that he had been wandering the halls for what feels like forever and her door had kept popping up? It was silly! Even though she might have believed it, seeing as how she lived here, it just sounded too ridiculous for him to say out loud. "Well... that's, um, you know..."

"No, I don't know." The strange woman said in that harsh tone as she uncrossed her arms and placed a fist on her hip before asking, " Now, just who is it you're looking for?"

Her gruff and forward manner was distressing Zak in ways he never knew he could be distressed. Like her clothing, her attitude was quite different from what he saw in his hometown. "An-hill-tony, err I mean-Anthony Hilton."

Pause. Quite a long one too. Apparently he had stunned her, she was sort of starring at him with a very odd expression, and he hadn't the slightest clue what it signified. In the moments before her next question, Zak found that he wasn't relaxing at all. He was getting even tenser, as if he was preparing for the next barrage of questions. When she finally asked her next question her voice was starting to soften, but it still carried a sense of command in it.

"What's your name?"

Cautiously, as if it might set her off again, he gave her his name.

"Zak... uh, Zak Zurandeer."

"You can't read, can you?"

"No ma'am."

She paused again and used the time to scrutinized Zak carefully before answering. "Alright," She said in a tone that seemed to suggest that Zak was just barely escaping a most terrible fate, "wait here." she said before relaxing and closing the door.

Anthony was in his favorite chair in the den, reading a book by lamp-light. The flame's golden light clearly illuminating the ink neatly copied who knew how many years ago. Who knew how many copies the same scribe made of this book? It wasn't that large. Dozens? Hundreds? Anthony let out a soft chuckle at his own thought. This book wasn't entertaining or enlightening enough for that many requests for copies.

He paused in his contemplation when someone knocked on the front door. Glad for an excuse to put the book down he stood and was about to go answer the door, but he was beaten to the punch. "Yes?" Jezebel asked as she pulled the door open. Leaving her to take care of their visitor, Anthony stretched then simply sat and watched Jezebel. From where he sat he could hear Jezebel as she asked a few questions although he couldn't hear what the replies were because the door wasn't open enough and he was all the way across the room.

He tried to return his attention to the book, but no matter how hard he tried to focus on it his thoughts would keep drifting back to the person on their front step. Finally giving up on the endeavor he listened to what Jezebel was saying.

She asked their guest his name, if he could read then asked him to wait outside. Odd, to say the least. And no matter how long he pondered, he couldn't figure out why she'd need to ask anyone if they could read, it was actually a little rude. But he knew Jez and she wouldn't ask a question like that unless it had some relevance to what was going on.

When she shut the door Anthony stood and began to walk towards the scaly anteater.

Jezebel turned away from the door and wasn't surprised that Anthony was making his way over to her. She took a couple steps then waited for him. She was standing only a little ways away from the door when he stopped only a step away. Anthony was the first to speak. "Who is it?" he asked, getting straight to the point.

"A young man looking for you." She stated as took a step closer and wrapped Anthony in a hug. Jez was acting a little strange, but Anthony didn't give it too much thought.

"And?" He asked, trying to prod the information out of her as he returned the hug.

"He's that friend you told me about," She whispered, "Zak Zurandeer." Jezebel said, finally revealing the identity of their guest.

Anthony's mind froze. It couldn't get past the fact that his childhood friend was right outside the door. Jezebel had said something, but he didn't catch it. Zakiah Ozymandias Zuutarian Zurandeer was waiting on the other side of his front door. It's been how long? Seven, no eight years? Geeze... Wait, his wife said something again. She had pulled away and looked concerned. "Anthony? Are you alright?" She said after lightly brushing a hand against his cheek, which brought Anthony out of his stupor.

"Yeah." He mumbled softly as he gripped her hand lightly in his own, "I'll be right back." He said slightly louder, but still in a far away kind of voice as he moved toward the door.

Zak had been waiting nervously at the front door while the strange lady went inside. From where Zak stood he could hear the mumble mutter of a conversation in the house. Zak couldn't help but think to himself that everything was going alright. He might even find where Anthony was before the day was over.

Finally, the door was slowly opened and a different, furred being emerged. He stepped into the hallway, forcing Zak to back up, before shutting the door behind him with a soft click. Zak was facing a rather fierce looking animal. He was taller than Zak by at least a full head and looked like he could tear apart a suit of armor with his bare claws. The being's fur was dark brown, except for a patch of cream colored fur across his forehead, and his ears were similar to the bear, Cid, that Zak had met. He was wearing a simple grey tunic and brown trousers. No words had been exchanged yet, and Zak felt an uncomfortable silence descending upon them. Then the creature bared its teeth.

He was obviously unhappy with something.

Zak had done, so he was in the process of mumbling an apology of some kind before beating a hasty retreat when the menacing mammal said his name. "Zak?" It wasn't until right then that Zak realized that the large fur covered man before him was Anthony. Without realizing it, Zak had figured that Anthony would be the same person he had known all those years ago. He had always been firm and steadfast, like the mountains surrounding the Keep, it had never even crossed his mind that Anthony wouldn't have been able to avoid the curse if he had stayed here.

"Anthony... Is that y-oomph!" Was all Zak got out before the wolverine had gathered him in a great big bear hug, lifting Zak off his feet. He would've hugged his friend in return, but Anthony had pinned his arms to his side. Anthony was laughing his head off the entire time.

Unnoticed by either of the two friends, the door to Hilton's home silently slid open to allow Jezebel to witness the reunion. Smiling softly at Anthony's obvious happiness, she leaned quietly against the door frame and waited for the large men to finish saying hello.

When Zak was finally put down Anthony set his large paws on Zak's shoulders and looked into his eyes, his teeth still bore which Zak finally understood to be a smile . Anthony was showing a lot of sharp, pearly white teeth. Anthony chuckled, "You look different, bigger than what I remember."

Zak grinned and shook his head slightly, "You think *I* look different?" That set Anthony laughing and Zak joined in with his own soft chuckle, 'It's been way too long...' he thought to himself. It wasn't long before they stopped laughing and Anthony draped a furry arm around Zak's neck and turned to guide Zak into his home.

"C'mon inside, and we'll catch up on lost time." Anthony said as he turned to open the door, and finally noticed Jezebel . She was still smiling and now that the two of them were ready to come inside she opened the door completely and stood off to one side to allow them to enter.

Stepping inside, Zak unstrapped his sword, sling and pouch of rocks as well as most of his armor before following Anthony into the den, where Anthony's book lay forgotten and where there was enough comfortable furniture for the group to sit and converse. On the way he got a brief look of the place. It wasn't all that big, stepping through the door will place you in their den. On the wall immediatly to the left was a door that more then likely led into their bedroom.

Before they all sat down Anthony, being the one person to know all of those gathered, introduced his wife to his old friend. "Jez, this is Zak." He said waving one arm toward the brown haired youth. Moving to wrap an arm around the armored anteater he said "Zak, this is Jezebel. My wife."

Zak's jaw hit the floor. 'Wife!' He was stunned; he didn't even have a grip on the fact that the man that was once his pal was now a towering, fur covered carnivore. But Zak recovered quickly from his shock, with all of the new and different things he saw and experienced today the fact that his friend got married was the easiest to deal with. In fact Zak probably would've been married as well if it weren't for... well, now's not the time for those thoughts.

"A pleasure to finally meet you Mr. Zurandeer. Anthony has told me a lot about you." Jezebel said easily ignoring the fact that she had shocked the young man out of sorts for the second time in less than ten minutes and extended a scaled hand for him to shake. Zak also noticed that her voice had lost its harsh and commanding tone.

Grinning only slightly Zak took his friend's spouse's hand. "Thank you, I look forward to getting to know you." He said softly before flopping down into the chair that Anthony had vacated a few minutes ago. The wolverine and his wife sat opposite of Zak in a cozy love seat.

Zak starred.

He didn't mean too, it had just been so long that he wasn't sure where to start, he had thought of this moment for so long... and now that he was finally here, he wasn't sure what to ask first. His hosts were very understanding, and Anthony soon filled the gap. "Still as quiet as always, eh Zozz?

Zak blushed at the comment, but Jez got to add her own thoughts before he could make a reply. "Anthony's told me that it's almost impossible to get a straight answer out of you."

Zak's blush deepened and he let his gaze drift to the floor as he softly answered. "I just, yanno, like to be sure of my answer is all." But before he could change the subject Jezebel turned to Anthony and asked a question.


Zak jumped in to explain before Anthony had a chance to embarrass him further, "It's a silly little nickname he gave me when he was first learning how to say my name properly."

Anthony laughed out loud at that. "He got so mad when I gave it too him, he threatened to tell my Mother what really happened that time the turkey dinner she was preparing had suddenly disappeared." Everyone had a good chuckle at the thought of Anthony stealing a meal he was going to have later anyways.

After the laughter died down a bit Jezebel asked again, "But what does it mean, Zozz?"

"Well ma'am," Zak began, "when you're uncouth husband and I first met it was a but a simple task for me to correctly pronounce his name, and after butchering mine in a hundred different ways he finally decided that he would just use my initials. Z-O-Z-Z. My full name, ma'am is Zakiah Ozymandias Zuutarian Zurandeer."

"Hey!" Anthony interjected lackadaisically, "It's not my fault your name is so hard to say!"

"And it's not my fault it took you a whole month to get it right!"

Jezebel started laughing so hard she nearly fell out of her seat, tears were leaking out of her eyes she was crying so hard. "A whole month?"

"Oh, so you think it's easy? You try saying his name, go on, give it a shot."

"Zakiah Ozy-man-day... moss... Zoo-tarni... Sir-ad..."

Zak tried really hard not to laugh at her attempt, he was able to keep from laughing out loud, but he was shaking in his seat, tears coming to his own eyes when Anthony spoke next.

"Not so easy, is it?"


Letting one last chuckle slip past his lips Zak then changed the subject to keep things civil. "So, how long have you two been married?" Anthony and Jezebel exchanged looks , and both decided that they would settle this later. "Well, we just celebrated our anniversary a couple of months ago, so four years." Anthony said turning his attention back to Zak.

"Four... any children yet then? " Zak asked softly.

Jezebel answered this question. "No, not yet." She said patting her husband's knee.

Anthony just smiled coyly before saying, "Trust me Zak, it's not like we haven't been trying."

"Anthony!" Jezebel and Zak yelled at the same time.

"What?" Anthony asked, feigning innocence.

"So, what brings Zozz up to the welcoming arms of Metamor? How's the family?" Anthony asked, thinking that he could duck the wrath of his wife with a simple question that would also help him get up to date on what his friend had been up to.

Zak reacted strangely to the question, his gaze fell to the ground, he refused to look either of his hosts in the eye and he started shifting about in his chair. "Well, it's been a long time, and I wanted to see how- you know- how you're doin' and... I..." Zak knew he couldn't lie to his friend, but as he thought of the real reason for his visit, for the trip up here he could feel his throat tighten and eyes start to water. 'I've shed enough tears.' Zak then straightened up a bit, cleared his throat and continued. "The farm... it's gone. "

It was Anthony and Jezebel's turn to be in shock. "Gone, Zak... How, what happened? What about - what about your folks?" Even through the strange face his friend now bore, Zak could see the worry in Anthony's features.

Zak took a deep breath and let out as a slow, deep sigh. "They're dead Anthony... I found them..." He couldn't go on, he couldn't. Zak brought a hand up to cover his eyes, to hide his tears.

It took him only a moment to get his emotions back under control, this wasn't the place or the time. "I'm sorry, but... I need a little more time."

"That fine, no hurry." Anthony said soothingly.

"It is starting to get late, how about we go get something to eat?" Jezebel asked.

"Sounds great." Zak said as the three of them stood.

"We're going to head down to the Deaf Mule, it's a great place, you'll love it." Anthony said as they shut the door and headed off. None of them noticed the extra door that had appeared during their conversation on the wall opposite the one they left through. It was made of oak, and masterfully carved.