Old man Igor put the tankard to his lips and took a long deep draught of the bubbly black liquid. It slid down his throat like honey, and playfully burned with it's cold and fizz. When at last he put the vessel down again, the ancient boy wiped his lips and said "That is the best drink I have ever tasted. What proof is it?"
"That's the best part." said Oren. "There's no alcohol in it whatever. You can drink my blackest ale till you pass out and you won't get drunk. Of course, you'd be burping like mad if you did."
"In fact, back in Hipocc, they use this as a medicine for upset tummies. Of course, they usually mix it with a good dose of antimagic powder. I omitted that part because I didn't want to kill anyone."
Igor's little eyes went wide. "They put antimagic in a DRINK?"
"They put antimagic in everything."
"It's a wonder they haven't poisoned themselves to death."
Oren nodded. He'd been amazed to find out just how toxic antimagic was to the non-Hipocci. Not too long ago, he and Achin had gotten into a wrestling match in which the dog had become a little too excited and bitten him. From the merest taste of antimagic in the otter's blood, Achin had become violently ill. Rumor had it that he'd also been demanding fish the whole time.
Even as Oren contemplated these things, Charles the rat strode up to his booth.
"Hail, Rat of Might!" called the otter, enthusiastically as he filled a mug of his chilly brew.
"Hail, Childlike Warrior." responded the rat, panting slightly.
"I've been watching you in the tournament. You're doing very well." chimed Oren, handing him the cold drink.
"But if I may make a suggestion, you've gotten used to your opponents being taller than you. You're leaving yourself wide open for leg and groin attacks.
Charles paused in mid drink and regarded Oren as though he'd just suggested cutting off one's own tail. "Thanks." he said, dubiously. "I'll remember that."
Oren turned away from Charles. He knew that he shouldn't be getting close to the rat. His studies of prophecy told him that it was a bad idea. He knew from his interpretation of the Hipoccian rhyme that he and Matthias would be fighting side by side very soon, but he himself was not given any prominent position in the prophecy of Mad Felix. Either he would not become as close to the rat as the duke and Phil would, or he would die before the prophecy of Felix was fulfilled.
Idly, he picked up a short rod and tossed it against the side of his booth, catching it as it bounced back.
"What are you doing there?" asked Charles.
"Hmm? Oh, this is a game they play in Hipocc called 'Ricosticks'. You try to throw the stick so that it bounces back at you." He tossed the stick again and caught it as it returned.
"Let me try that."
Oren handed him the stick and he threw it at the booth. It bounced back, hitting him in the gut. Charles laughed as he rubbed the spot where it hit.
"Not bad." said Oren. "Most folks don't even get a bounce on the first try."
Undaunted, Charles tried again, this time, catching the stick just before it hit his face.
"You ARE good."
At that moment, Gornul came down and perched on the roof of the refreshment stand.
"Gornul!" Oren beamed, reaching up to pat his friend's nose. "Would you be a pal and man the ale tanks so I can go stretch my legs?"
Using his usual pictorial mode of speech, Gornul telepathically transmitted an image of a human silhouette covered by a circle and a slash.
"All right, then. DRAGON the tanks."
Gornul giggled at his own pun and gave Oren the thumbs up.
Taking a break from the crowds and noise of the festival, Oren wandered over to his tower. It was almost nine stories tall now. The construction had been slow at first, but Bradfox had managed to assemble a score of volunteers and speed up the work considerably. S'he'd done Oren this favor to gain hirself one heck of an observation tower for hir stargazing. Oren couldn't blame hir, either. If he stood around on guard duty for eight hours a day, he'd take up a hobby like astronomy, too.
But then, the tower had been his hobby. He'd no idea why he built it, really. He only knew that once he'd come into possession of all that wood and stone, he simply HAD to build. It was the only instance he could ever remember having a creative compulsion which rivaled the ones that powered his story-writing.
He looked up at the top and knew instinctively that the next level would be slightly larger than the ones below, and would need lots of windows. He wondered at that. How did he know these things? He'd never built anything before in his life. Even his attempts at sculpting were miserable failures. He'd tried to make a clay model of Gornul recently and ended up with a cactus.
What unseen hand, then, was guiding him in this endeavor? Was it the will of Yahweh that this tower be constructed? If so, why? Oren ran his hand over the rough stone as he pondered.
"It's a beautiful building." said a female voice beside him.
Oren looked over to see a female otter approaching him. She smelled slightly familiar, but to the best of Oren's knowledge, he'd not seen her before.
"Thank you." he said. "To tell you the truth, I can't believe I did it."
"You're Oren, aren't you?"
"That's me. Hi." said the foreigner, holding out his paw.
"Hi. I'm Caroline."
Caroline... Caroline... where had he heard that name before?
"The whole keep is talking about you, you know." said Caroline.
"I know." replied Oren with a sigh. "They're talking about how I haven't changed yet."
"Well, yes. There is that, though there's a bit of confusion on that front. Some assume that since you're an otter, you've already become subject to Metamor's curse."
"Here, I thought it would help me fit in."
"You do fit in, Oren."
Oren shook his head. "I'm an outsider. I'm so different from everybody else... Heck, my blood is poisonous to you folk."
Caroline put her paw on the Hipoccian's back. "But you seem like such a nice guy, Oren. You know, I've even heard that the duke himself has taken a liking to you."
"So I've heard. She patted his tail with her own and stroked his head.
He looked at her shyly. "Do you like me?" he asked.
She seemed to ponder this a moment and then answered "Well, yes, I do like you." She moved closer and put her arm around him.
Oren's heart felt like it was going to leap from his chest. Here he was with the most beautiful otter he'd ever seen, and she liked him! Closing his eyes, he leaned over and kissed her.
Caroline jumped back, looking startled.
"What?" Oren said in alarm. "Did I do something wrong?"
"Oren I... I do like you, but not that way."
"Oh, you didn't know! I'm so sorry, Oren!"
The warrior simply stared.
"Oren, I'm Misha's girl."
Sudden realization dawned on the Hipoccian. Rising to his feet, he walked slouch-shouldered over to the tower and banged his head against the wall in total humiliation.
When he was done, Caroline was standing there with her arms crossed. "Feel better?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.
Caroline smiled and smoothed out Oren's wrinkled hair. "I'm sorry to disappoint you by being spoken for." she said with a chuckle.
Oren sighed. "I should know better." he said. "That's always the way it worked back home, too."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm pretty much destined to be alone. No one can really love someone like me."
"Now that is not true at all." said Caroline. "Heck, I think you're a very attractive otter. If I didn't have Misha I'd snatch you up in a heartbeat."
"But we can be friends, can't we? I'd very much like to be your friend."
Oren smiled and put his arm around Caroline. "Sure thing... Sister."
With that, the two of them walked back to the festival.
The man in black rose from his hiding place among the rocks and timbers. He was a mess, to say the least. His eye had swollen shut, his teeth were missing, and his arm was in a sling. Bruises covered everything.
But now, finally, he had his chance to fulfil his mission. The childlike warrior was only yards away with his back turned. The man readied a blow gun and chuckled in satisfaction.
As he put the gun to his lips, he felt something happening on his chest. He looked down to see his antimagic charm rusting before his eyes. It had fought off the curse of Metamor as long as it could, and finally lost to the greater power.
As the charm clattered to the ground, the man's skin quickly turned soft and delicate, all the bruises disappearing. His missing teeth grew in, straight and perfect, his eye healed, and a pair of breasts began to balloon underneath his tunic.
When all was finished, the woman in black stared at herself in unbelief, her mission totally forgotten.
"Hey there, sweet thing." said a voice behind her. She turned around and saw Shamgar, the rhino, leering at her amorously.
"Hey yourself." she said as she dropped her dart gun. "How would a big, handsome hunk like yourself like to go and have a little fun?"
"You know it, babe."
And so Shamgar walked off with his newfound girl, unaware that the woman he'd just fallen head over heels for had completely lost her mind.