Growth and Forgiveness

by Oren the Otter

Oren was one who dreamed dreams. When he was awake, he would imagine many bright and wonderful things just outside the realm of probability. When asleep, however, dreams would come unbidden, delivering some obscure message and leaving the otter with a terrible sense of foreboding and a frustration at being unable to interpret the dream. As Oren lay in the cold, dank recesses of Metamor Keep's dungeon, he thought of such a dream he'd had. The barber who was unable to cut his hair and settled for giving him a manicure was obviously the curse of the keep, which, being unable to change him into another animal form had switched tactics and turned him into the little girl he (or was it she) was now.

"It might not have been so bad" Oren chuckled darkly within her mind. "if I had at least become a human girl and not remained an otter."

Oren had every right in the world to be upset at her current situation. She was trapped in a body not her own, thrown in prison for trying to help a stranger, and possibly facing the loss of her life in a few days' time. Yet the otter felt strangely content as her eyes began to drift closed. The darkness was peaceful, and the moisture in the air made the dungeon feel more like a safe, cozy burrow than the place of punishment it was designed to be. Oren found herself slipping away into the realm of sleep.

At once, Oren was elsewhere. He was back in Hipocc, and in his old, adult, male, human body. He was dressed in his finest uniform, with his blue vest pressed, his cuffs polished and gleaming, and his bright red cape playing like a child with the breeze.

Beside him stood a woman. She was the most stunning thing he had ever seen... only... her colors were wrong. Her hair was as white as newly fallen snow, and her skin was black as ebony, tinged with blue. The whites of her eyes were black while the pupils shone white, and her delicate lips were the green of springtime grass.

Oren reached out his hand to the woman. She smiled at wrapped her fingers around his.

It hurt.

His skin, where she touched him, began to burn. She, too, was showing signs of immense pain where she touched him, but she would not let go.

Neither would Oren. He knew that he had to keep holding on, whatever happened.

"It burns." he said.

"It does. We are opposites, you and I. We cancel each other."

"I will not let you go." Oren insisted.

"Nor I. I need you, Oren. I cannot live without you, nor you without me."

For interminable minutes, Oren held on despite the searing pain, and then as suddenly as it had started, the pain stopped. The burning ended. He and his lover touched freely, now. He leaned close and kissed her.

And then he awoke. Oren's eyes snapped open to show him that he was still a small, female otter morph, and that she was still in her cell, alone. And yet there was a feeling... a feeling as if there was someone there, watching her.

"Who's there?" Oren called.

"Oren?" spoke a voice in his head. It was the voice of Christina, the mind mage.

"Oh. It's only you."

"Try not to sound so thrilled."

Oren sighed. "I'm sorry." she said. "It's just that... I was kind of hoping there was someone in here with me. I'm getting so lonely, you know?"

"We all are." said Christina.

"I'm sorry I got you all into this mess." Said the otter. She bowed her head and inwardly kicked herself for each of the people she'd brought with her to this point. For his dragon friend, Gornul, for his buddy Jesse and his mother, for Christina the mind mage, for Felice, his sister who had just come up from the south, and of course, for Vitra, the lutin whom he'd tried to help.

"You didn't bring us into this mess." said Christina. "I for one am here because I chose to have pity on a woman who needed help. Jesse and his mother are here for the same reason. You know why Gornul is here. He'd follow you to the ends of the earth. Vitra would be here with or without you."

"And Felice?"

"An unfortunate coincidence that she happened to be where she was when she was. It's hardly your fault."

Again, there was that strange feeling... the feeling of someone standing beside her, including themselves in her suffering. It was separate and distinct from Christina's strange means of communication. Oren found herself looking around the cell, but could find no one. But he did find something else equally as out of place. In the corner of the dungeon was a pool water where before, there was nothing. Boiling over with curiosity, Oren reached her hand in. It was deep, and cool to the touch.

At the same moment she felt the water, Oren saw a picture in her mind. It was an image of the corner in which Gornul slept. No... It was a different one. It was somewhere else. Oren smiled as she realized that the corner she was seeing was in Gornul's cell, tucked in a corner where no one would see it should they stick their head in the door.

"Christina?" said Oren. "Did anything unusual just pop into your cell?"

"No, I... wait a minute... There's a pillow in the corner."

"I suspect that if you ask the others, each one has something similar in their cell."

"You're right. Fresh straw... clean blankets... Is this the keep's doing?"

Oren looked around the room again, and got the distinct impression that someone was feeling very pleased with themselves.

"It's you, isn't it?" asked the otter. "You're the keep!"

Then, suddenly, the presence he felt was no longer there. Oren was alone once again.

She sat in her pool and cried.

Vitra was very puzzled. She picked up the two clean, white blankets and examined them. They were extraordinary. The weave and stitching were far superior to anything made by lutin hands. Even her father could not sew like this.

The lutin's heart beat a little slower when she thought of her father. She had not seen him in so many years. What was he doing these days? Was he still in retirement, or had he re-upped to serve Nasoj? Perhaps he might have even remarried. Wherever he was, she hoped he was happy. Dad was the only lutin she'd ever felt any love for. No doubt it was the influence of her late mother, who'd taught her green-skinned husband to love like a human.

She wished she'd known her mother. She mourned the fact that such an obviously incredible woman had died at the hands of those who wanted her son.

Her son. Vitra's brother. The one who wanted her dead, seeing her as an obstacle to his own destiny. Did he know where she was? Could he find her? Would he even be able to recognize her through her fur?

Vitra looked down at herself, marveling once again at the half-zorilla body she'd been given by the curse. She was now a sort of skunk-striped weasel. Fitting, she supposed, for a lutin.

She wondered what Her father would say if he saw her. She knew of course.

"You've become such a lovely creature." he would say.

"I'm a weasel, Daddy." she would reply. "A weasel with skunk stripes. I hate my body."

"And what's wrong with being a weasel?" he would say.

"Nothing." she'd respond. "I'm a lutin. It's what I am."

At that point, Dad would put his fists on his hips. "Young lady," he'd say. "You stop talking about yourself that way. You're a beautiful person under all that fur, no matter what you think of yourself. Being a lutin or a weasel or whatever you are doesn't change the fact that you're the only truly beautiful thing I ever created."

She missed him so much.

"So... let me get this straight." said Shamgar as he pondered the last bit of beer in his glass. "You're actually a man from the city of Devil's Strand. You're an assassin who was sent here to kill Oren, but you're so bad at it that you basically have no hope of getting the job done."

"No need to be rude." said the black-clad woman at the rhino's side. "But you're pretty much right. I'm a killer who's never managed a kill."

"So how come you've never told me this?"

"Would you love me if you knew that I was a killer, or that I was a man?"

Shamgar rubbed a nick in his horn. "I had my suspicions about your past when we were making out that one night and you began hurling cutlery at me."

The woman blushed. "Sorry about the horn... and the toe... and the collarbone... the tail... and the ear."

"I hardly felt a thing." said the rhino as he gave the lady a squeeze and finished his beer.

The woman, Blake, became suddenly pensive. "You know what baffles me the most?" she said.

"No, what?"

"That Hipocci woman... she knew what I was. She knew who I was. She found out that I had tried several times to murder her brother and yet... she forgave me."

Shamgar put down his beer and looked at his girlfriend with an expression that contradicted his jolly, take-it-all-in-stride nature. "To tell you the truth, that puzzles me, too. Why would she do that?"

"I just don't know."

"Maybe she's sick in the head or something."

Blake shot Shamgar a cold look.


"Nothing. Drink your beer."

Shamgar, eager to obey, ordered another mug.

Mitok had been flying for far longer than his wings should have been able to endure. He wasn't even sure how long it had been since he'd taken off. His troubled mind hadn't been keeping track of days and nights. He was only aware of two things. The first was that his son, Gornul, was in trouble. The second was that he had to return home and bring help. One dragonette didn't stand any chance at all against the keepers of Metamor, but many might have some hope of rescuing their kinsman.

At last, the sandy shore of the island of the dragonettes came into view. Mitok aimed for that sand. He touched down hard, losing several scales as he scraped and tumbled to a halt, before finally blacking out from exhaustion.

When finally the old dragon came to, he found his eldest son, whose name was a scene of a maritime storm, standing over him.

Using the telepathic imagery which was the language of his people, Squalling sea explained that he had found his father on the beach and brought him home to his cave, placing him in his nest.

Mitok responded with a series of images which translated to "I thought this place looked familiar."

Flashing more pictures, Squalling Sea asked, "Are you all right?"

"I'm well enough to get out of this nest." was the gist of Mitok's response.

"Did you find Gornul?" the son asked at once.

Mitok nodded. He explained that Gornul had been living happily in a land far to the east, but now he was in trouble. He might very well die soon, and Mitok had returned to find help in rescuing his boy.

Squalling sea wrung his hands.

"What is it?"

"There is no one left who can help."

Mitok stopped in his tracks, waiting for an explanation.

"There were visitors to our island not too long ago. A great rodent and a dragon with no wings came and told us of their homeland, where a great evil had taken hold and threatened to spread and overrun the world. All who are brave and able went with these visitors to help them fight this evil. There is no one left but the elderly and mothers with their hatchlings."

"But you are here, my son."

"Our family is still here. We would not leave until your return."

Mitok sighed. He projected no images in response.

Squalling Sea went to find some food for himself and his family. He knew that there was a long flight ahead.

Grunch, or Bluenight, as he preferred to be called these days, whistled happily to himself as he scrubbed the floor of Achin's study. Actually, since his now reptilian lips couldn't quite pucker, it would have been closer to the truth to say that he breathed a merry tune. It was a lutin war song, normally chock full of lyrics describing the beauty and majesty of the enemy's internal organs lying strewn across the battle field. He'd discovered that humans tended not to go for that sort of thing, so he tried to remember not to actually sing the words when he was around people.

Achin ignored the lutin lizard as he scanned his library shelves for a particular title. Unfortunately, ignoring him took a concentrated effort which caused him to inadvertently ignore the knocking at the door the first two times he heard it. On the third series of knocks, the dog opened the door to find Ye, the Komodo dragon standing there, almost ready to give up and leave.

"I'm here." said Achin. "Come on in."

"Ah, very good." said the reptile, his serious expression seeming out of place on his increasingly boyish face. "Do you have the book I ask for?"

"I'm looking for it now." replied the dog, pushing his glasses into place with a hairy paw. "You wouldn't think that a huge tome like this would be hard to find."

"I do not believe that a book on the laws of distant lands is one which one uses much often."

Achin ran a paw across his face, thoughtfully. "I wonder if I might have donated that one to the new library in Lorland. If I might be so inquisitive, what do you need this book for anyway?"

"It is for looking into case involving new friend Oren. I am wishing to find information about customs in the hills of the south."

Achin shrugged. "You're certainly welcome to it, but if you want my opinion, it's an open and shut case. Five'll get you ten that he hangs."

"It is unbecoming one of your social stature to gamble upon the life of a friend."

Achin let out a canine snort. "He's more your friend than he is mine, but as I said before, it's an open and shut case. He brought the enemy into the keep."

"He clearly did not believe that she was the enemy."

"She was a lutin."

"Like me?" uttered Grunch.

Both the dragon and the dog turned to stare incredulously at the lizard. Grunch blanched and went silently back to his work.

"What was that you said?" Achin asked.

"I didn't say nothin'." Grunch asserted.

"Please, Grunch." said Ye, gently. "Share your thoughts with us."

Ye's peacefulness, which usually came across to others as smug superiority, became to Grunch a gentility which emboldened him to speak his mind.

"Actually, it's Bluenight, if you don't mind. I was just thinking. Why are lutins the enemy?"

"Well, let's see." said Achin. "Could it be that it's because they're trying to destroy us?"

"Ah, but why?"

"Because they're evil!" was the answer.

"They look evil to you from where you are. But to a lutin, you'd be the evil one."

"But we're not the bad guys."

"But to them, you are. You see, what seems evil isn't always what IS evil. You can't never know for sure until you ask someone."

At this, the dog began to get mad. "It's a little difficult to open a dialogue with someone while they're trying to sever your arm!"

Grunch cringed, almost frightened into silence, but encouraged by a look from Ye. "Vitra ain't tried to take no one's arm off." he said. "Has anyone tried talkin' to her?"

Achin became speechless.

Ye placed a hand on Grunch's shoulder. "You possess wisdom, fellow reptile." Then he leaned close to his ear-spot and whispered "But I think would be prudent if you accompany me until spectacled dog has chance to calm down."

The lutin-lizard wholeheartedly agreed.

Felice was very grateful to the keep for the clean linen cushion it had provided. She lay half- folded into it as she pondered what she possibly could have done to deserve this: leaving behind the ruins of her beloved homeland only to end up in a prison beneath a cursed fortress, days away from anyone she knew, save her brother, who was locked firmly away several cells down. Her only communication with him was made possible only by the good graces of the telepathic Christina, who for the moment was sound asleep. This meant that Felice was very much alone. What a surprise, therefore, when the door to her cell opened up and Roscoe stuck his head in to announce "Miss Nerr? You have a visitor."

Felice came out where she could be seen, lest Roscoe look for her and discover the cushion on which she had been resting. "A visitor?" she inquired. "But I don't know anyone here."

That was when the woman in black stepped through the door and made her way gingerly down the few stairs to the floor.

"Blake!" Felice exclaimed quietly.

"Hello." said the woman in black.

Roscoe pulled the door closed. "Just knock when you need me to let you out." he said.

"Come in." said Felice. "Welcome to my apartment. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable."

"Thanks." said Blake, sitting on a pile of moldy straw.

A moment of silence passed.

"So..." said Felice.

"So..." answered her guest.

They sat and stared at each other.

Jesse stared at the wall. "I can break out of here." he said.

"You've proven that." said his mother, who regarded him from the next cell from a hole that had been blasted into the wall.

"Why are we sitting here?" Jesse demanded. "We can bust out of here in a heartbeat."

"I know, Jesse. I possess the same magic you do. I've thought about simply blowing the wall over and escaping. But what would that accomplish?"

"We'd be free."

"But what about Vitra?"

"We'd free her, too."

The woman nodded sadly. "She'd be free, all right. But that's not we set out for, is it?"


"We didn't want to get her OUT of the keep. We wanted her to get IN, so that she would be safe. If we escape with her, she'll be exposed and defenseless to her brother. She'll be doomed. If we escape without her, we'll be admitting we were wrong in the eyes of the court, and she'll be doomed. If we wait and make our case to the duke and the court, we can convince them of what is right and persuade them to protect her. It's our duty to stay here, Jesse, for our friend."

The kangaroo hung his head. "You're right, Mom... Dad. There is just one thing, though."


Jesse pointed his paw at the upper wall and uttered his secret incantation mentally, uttering the final syllable aloud, as he had been taught. "CHAH!" A burst of eldritch energy flew from his hand, shattering the wall where it hit, letting through sunshine and fresh air.

"This place NEEDED a window." said the roo.

Guard duty has been described by many as days and days of nonstop boredom followed by seconds of sheer terror. That certainly proved true for Bradfox. S'he'd been assigned to the dungeon as part of an extra security team to assist Roscoe, now that the dungeons had become rather full. S'he had been slowly drifting into a daydream when the ground shook and an enormous explosion could be heard very close by. S'he rushed around to where the noise had come from and saw a huge hole in the ground surrounded by rubble and debris. Inside, s'he could see into one of the dungeon cells.

"Escape!" yelled the guard. "Prisoner escape!"

"Brad! Bradfox!"

Bradfox looked down into the hole to see Jesse staring up at him. "It's okay! We're still here!"

"What in the name of Ramphon and Ultoya did you do here?"

"Just a little redecorating. Don't worry. I'll fill it in when I leave."

Bradfox contemplated the sheer power necessary to make such an explosion and the casual attitude with which Jesse admitted to the destruction. S'he nearly soiled hir kilt at the thought of what he might be capable of had he really wanted to escape. S'he'd have to run and have a word with Misha.

"And of course, he had no idea the coin was magical, so he wasn't even looking. By the time I come into the room, Matilda has got Dirk in the air with her head down his shirt, and her tail just wagging away! That coin never had a chance. A piece worth five thousand gold, and Matilda chews it up and swallows it!"

The woman in black was slapping her knees and roaring with laughter. "Hoo hoo! You must have loved that thirdak not to have strangled it!"

"Oh, yes. Our thirdaks and our rats. We love them both to pieces. How about you?"

The assassin quieted suddenly. "I don't fancy thirdaks much." she said softly. "A thirdak killed my wife."

"Oh, I'm sorry!"

She nodded and sniffled at the memory. "I had just lost my only son." she said. "He was chosen by the harvest priests to be that year's sacrifice. No amount of fighting we did could save him. In grief, we threw ourselves into our work. She went out and was gathering magical herbs... she had been doing it so much that she was soaked in magic... when a thirdak jumped out of the woods and attacked her. I was too far away to do anything. This huge beast with an enormous red stripe down its scaly back... it clamped her head between its teeth and..."

"Oh my!"

"At least it was over quickly. Since that day, I've had a burning hatred of the beasts."

Felice fidgeted. "It was only doing what thirdaks do." she said. "Thirdaks eat magic."

"I can't forgive that creature for what it did." said the woman in black.

"You should." said Felice. "Unforgiveness only hurts you and makes you bitter."

"That brings me to my reason for coming here."

"Which is?"

"Why did you forgive me?"

Felice pondered that for a moment, and finally had to answer "I don't know."

Achin didn't really want anyone to see him coming here. He figured that he'd slip in with a cursory hello to Roscoe, who would let him in to talk to the lutin. He never expected to see this many people. There were several extra guards at the dungeons, arguing among themselves as to what to do about the hole in one of the cells. There were several repairmen waiting around for the okay to fix the thing. Finally, there was Charles the rat standing in the corner, offering calm reassurances to Roscoe, who fretted both about the damage to his dungeons and the prisoners within.

"Um... I came to see the lutin woman, if I may." said Achin, adjusting his spectacles nervously.

"Certainly." said the scorpion. "I was just about to let Charles in to see Gornul. Follow me."

Achin grimaced as he fell into step behind Roscoe. He did not like to look at the man's skin, or rather, through it. It was easy to feel pity for Roscoe, but even easier to feel revulsion.

Achin found Vitra standing in the middle of her cell, facing the door. She wore nothing, save the pelt of black and white fur which the curse had given her. The robe in which she had been arrested lay in the corner, having become unwearable from days of absorbing oils from said fur.

"Hello." said Achin.

"I know you." said Vitra. "You the gambler."

"That's arguable." said the dog. "Shamgar the rhino is as guilty of that sin as I am, and yet no one talks about him that way."

"I know only what I am told."

"Yes. I'll wager that you've been told that I... All right, so you have me pegged."

Vitra sat down on some straw and covered her lap with her ample tail. "Why you come?" she asked.

"To talk." replied Achin. "I want to learn your side of the story."

"To win a bet?"

"A challenge."

Vitra regarded him for a moment. "From whom?"

"A fellow by the name of Grunch."

Vitra shot to her feet, a flurry of mixed emotions. "You came see me because of Grunch the defective?"

"Actually, he prefers to be called 'Bluenight'."

"This is final in... in..."


"Indignity." said Vitra as she turned her back on Achin and began to shrink.

"I take it you don't like Grunch."

Vitra wheeled on the dog, her transforming face awash in musteline rage. "I hate LUTINS! I hate them all! To be receiver of pity of the most despicable lutin of all is fate I cannot bring myself to stomach!"

"But you ARE a lutin."

"That right."

"So you hate yourself?"

"Dead right."

Achin was speechless a second time. Could this be true? Was it possible that a lutin could be more than arrow fodder, to slaughter and be slaughtered? It couldn't be true. She had to be lying. Hadn't she?

Charles found Gornul lying in the center of his cell, curled into a ball and weeping. The little fellow looked most pitiable. He wondered if the news he brought would be too much. Softly, he cleared his throat to announce his presence.

Gornul looked up toward his visitor, and his face immediately transformed into a visage of joy. He shot across the room to cling to Charles' neck and chest in an embrace which seemed unbreakable. For long moments he clung there, smiling and cooing, and alternately weeping. At last, when he thought that the rat might not be able to stand any more, he pried himself loose and stood on the floor.

Charles gently stroked Gornul's scaly cheek and neck. He thought he felt a tear, though he knew that dragons could not produce tears.

The dragon looked into the rat's eyes, and with a projected image of a question mark, asked for news.

"I couldn't find him." said Charles. "I looked all over the keep for him, but your father seems to have just disappeared."

Gornul hung his head, sadly.

"I'm sorry, Gornul. Maybe he'll come back."

Gornul shrugged.

Charles reached into his tunic. "Oh, I've got something for you." he said. "I've been to see healer Coe about the tiny little troll who was inside your stomach. He gave me this medicine to give you just in case there was any residual damage."

Gornul took the medicine and thanked him.

"I still can't imagine a small troll." said the rat. "And you say he was trying to get you to kill Vitra?"

Gornul nodded.


The image Charles received was one of a lutin woman, and superimposed over her was a caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession.

"She's a healer?"

Gornul nodded and replayed for him the scene in which Vitra removed the troll.

"Interesting." said Charles. "I never thought that there might even be such a thing as a lutin healer."

Gornul shrugged and shook his head as if to say "Neither did I."

"You're a healer?" said Achin, incredulous.

"Why is so impossible?' asked Vitra. "You not think lutins have doctors and healers?"

Achin stared.

"All right. We do not. But second husband different. He was not like other lutins. He was kind and good and gentle."

"What happened to him?"

"Nasoj made him part of team that track down escaped monsters. It was monster that killed him."

"I see."

"I know what you thinking. Husband not want to work for Nasoj. He do it because I would suffer if he did not."

"Why did you come to the keep?" Achin asked without gentility.

Vitra clutched her tail with both hands and buried her nose in its fur. "To die." she answered.

"Not to defect?"

"Not think it possible. Knew keepers bring only death for lutins. I hated self and wanted to die. I met Oren and said 'Kill me! Kill me!', but he did not. He showed me only kindness."

Achin looked toward the door, contemplating the cell beyond and the otter locked inside.

Oren was very pleased to see her good friend Charles walk through the door.

"Matty Ratty!" she called, playfully.

"Hello, Oren." replied the rat. Despite having been in Gornul's cell only a moment ago, Charles found the darkness in Oren's cell overwhelming. It was a brief moment before his eyes could make out the furry little girl, still clothesless from having just emerged from the pool. Pool? There was a pool in here?

Oren noticed the rat averting his eyes, and reached for her dress. "Excuse me." she said. "I just got up."

"I was just visiting with Gornul." said Charles, pointedly admiring the stonework while Oren slipped into her dress.

"How is he?"

"Upset. He's feeling very alone and his father is nowhere to be found."

"I wish I could be with him." said the otter.

"How are you doing?"

Oren smiled. "Better than I have any right to."

"Having any trouble with being a girl?"

"Not really. I've found that I can actually become male again if I wish."

Charles raised his eyebrows. "You can? Nobody's ever been able to do that."

"It might have something to do with the fact that I'm antimagic. Not that it makes much difference. I'm the most feminine guy you've ever seen, and... well, nothing works."

Charles blushed a little.

"Any news from the outside?"

"Most of the keep is abuzz about you and the lutin woman."

"Anything besides me?"

Charles drummed his fingers. "Let me see. Phil has a girlfriend."

"No kidding! Is it serious?"

"Serious? You could say that. You can expect to hear wedding bells before too long, I believe."

"How about that. And what about you and Kimberly? When are you going to quit teasing that girl and pop the question?"


"I'm sorry." said the otter. "I've been locked up in here for days. I want to talk about something. ANYTHING!"

There was a knock at the cell door. "Oren?" called Roscoe's voice. "You have another visitor."

"Would you excuse us?" asked Ana.

Charles politely nodded and slipped out the cell door with Roscoe.

"Ana..." said Oren. His voice trailed off, and he didn't finish the statement.

"You're... you're looking well for someone whose just spent a couple of months in jail."

"Yeah, well... it's cool, damp, dark... just like living in a burrow.

Ana bristled. "Oren, you're a man, not an animal. You don't live in a burrow, and you don't belong in here!"

"Come here." said Oren. Ana complied. She found that the floor of the dungeon was unusually clean, and even slightly warm. Fresh, soft hay had been laid down, giving the place the smell of a country day. Light seemed to come from some unknown source to break through the gloom. All in all, it created the impression that Oren was not in here as punishment.

"Sit down." said Oren.

Ana did so.

"First of all, I am an animal." Ana started to protest when Oren held up his paw. "I'm a keeper. That means that I'm part what I was, part something else. Part man, part beast, and now, it seems, part girl. I know you don't like the fact, but it happened. I'm a keeper, and this is what I am. However, there's more to it than that as well. A keeper is someone who lives a life of sacrifice. I don't have to be here, Ana. Any time I wanted to, I could get up and walk out. I've no doubts that the keep would let me. But there's a woman in the next cell who needs me. Her future, maybe even her life, depends on me. It's for her that I'm going through with this."

In that instant, Ana found a new respect for the boy she had always considered so frivolous and self-centered. Was this the same Oren who had deliberately drunken from the forbidden lake?

Is this what it had done to him?

"You've changed." said Ana quietly.

Oren didn't answer for a moment. "Yeah." he said at last. "Metamor Keep tends to do that to people."

She reached out to embrace the otter, who fell into her arms and wept with all of the many pent-up emotions he held inside.

And yet, in this moment of vulnerability, Ana saw for the first time the noble warrior within him. She found herself wishing, just for a moment, that they could truly be united once again, for deep down, she understood, she still loved him. That night, Ana sat on the edge of her borrowed bed and contemplated the jar of magic water in her hands. "Drink it." said a voice inside of her. "Be like him."

Her lips touched the edge of the jar, pondering the possibility of becoming the same thing as the man whom she loved, mirroring him in his courage and bravery.

She put the jar on the floor, lay down, and wept.

The light stung Oren's eyes when it came. Framed by intense white, an armored guard stood in the doorway and announced "It's time. The trial is soon to commence."

Rising to his full, almost-masculine height, Oren squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and stepped forward to what might very well be his death.