The Otter sat at his table, claws nervously drumming. He had rushed through his reading of the scriptures this morning... something he did not normally do... and concentrated on a puzzle. Before his lay a small piece of paper with the words of a song written down.
It was the song of the Childlike Warrior, and it had been getting a lot of attention since Phil had pointed out that the person in the song sounded a great deal like Oren himself.
There was no denying that he had been orphaned, nor that drinking a bit of water had changed his fate. The "Castle on the Hill" must surely refer to Metamor Keep, if there was any parallel to be drawn with real life. He wondered who the "Two who chew" could be. Certainly they were gnawers, but that really didn't tell him anything. They were two people with secrets. That much the rhyme told him. He had no idea what secrets, though. Of course, if he did, they wouldn't be secrets.
Oren was still puzzling when Gornul zoomed in through the door. He growled and gestured, but Oren couldn't tell what the little blue dragon was trying to say until he created a mental image of several dozen quill pens moving in unison.
"The writer's guild meeting!" Oren exclaimed. "Crumbs! Chp! I almost forgot! Thanks, Gornul."
The dragon sighed and fetched the otter's cape.
Due to the ability to move along at a good clip despite enormous flippers for feet, Oren managed to catch the meeting just as it was starting.
"Hey, Oren!" called Achin, a dog with thick glasses. "We were just talking about you, wondering if you had started changing yet."
Oren recalled that Achin was a newcomer, and had arrived shortly after himself. Oren had been told to expect a further change to his body from the curse of Metamor Keep, but while Achin had changed within days, Oren still showed no signs of additional transformation.
"Nothing outward." he told the other authors. "But I've had some interesting dreams."
"Well, in one, I was human again, and I was wearing a blue body stocking with a huge red and yellow rune on the chest. I was in the barber shop, and he was trying to cut my hair, but my hair wouldn't cut. He just kept breaking his scissors. Finally, he decided to give me a manicure, but my nails wouldn't cut either."
"I have no idea what it means, but it gave me an idea for a great character. Super-warrior! An orphaned boy from a far off land who is left at Metamor and raised by one of our own, but he has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men."
At this point, Gornul projected to everyone an image of the man in the blue suit with the standard of Duke Hassan waving majestically in the background.
"Faster than a speeding arrow! More powerful than team on horses! Able to leap tall towers in a single bound! Look, up in the sky! It's a bird... it's a dragon... it's SUPER WARRIOR! Yes, Super-Warrior, strange visitor from another land, who, disguised as Clark of Kent, mild mannered member of the writer's guild, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the Metamorian way!"
"I hate to say this..." said Achin. "But if he lives at Metamor, he's going to fall under the curse and become a boy, woman, or animal.
Oren pictured his hero as a brash, leather clad youth, a self-righteous, snobbish girl, and a little white dog with a big red cape. He decided to trash the idea.
"I like the idea of the super-warrior, though." said Matt. "What if we were to make him say, a dark knight? And maybe a bat-morph?"
"Or a spider." said Tallis. "Sort of an arach- knight."
"I like both those ideas." said Habakkuk.
It was not the most productive meeting the guild had ever had. Gornul had fallen fast asleep halfway through and Oren was tempted to do likewise. When the meeting was concluded, he left Gornul to finish his nap and went for a walk to get his blood circulating.
"I just don't get it." said Jesse to his mother. "Why did you buy this worthless chunk of land? We can't farm it. It's full of boulders!"
His mom chuckled. "First of all, my kangaroo, it's the most that poor people like us can afford. Secondly, it won't be full of boulders for long."
"What do you mean?"
His mother unrolled an ancient piece of paper. "My father taught me the family secret when I was a boy, as grandfather taught him, and his father taught him. Now, I am teaching it to you."
"Secret? What secret?"
The woman smiled. Pointing at a large boulder and twisting her wrist just so, she called in a deep, husky voice: chaaaaAAAA!" A bright missile seemed to fly lazily from her hand to the rock.
The boulder blew apart into a million tiny rocks.
"No way!" Jesse cried in astonishment. "You're going to teach me to do that? How come you never told me about that?"
"It had to remain a secret. If Loriod ever discovered that we were anything more than ignorant, stupid peasants, he'd have us done away with. Today, however, I feel you are old enough to know of your magical heritage. Are you ready?"
Reading to him from the scroll, the woman taught her son the magic of his forefathers. When finished, he chose a boulder, pointed his finger and uttered "Chaaaaaa!"
Again, the lazy missile and a shower of pebbles. Jesse sat down and huffed.
"It will become easier as the magic becomes more natural to you. Rest a moment and try again."
After a few minutes, the kangaroo was eager to blow up another boulder. He got up and pointed at a rather sizeable target, spoke the magic syllable (after other, secret inner incantations) and let another missile fly. At that same instant, an otter-morph came around the side of the rock.
The missile hit Oren. He staggered to the side just a bit, and then let out an enormous... "BUUUURP!"
Jesse ran to his friend. His mother just stood and stared. "Are you okay?" he inquired.
"No." Oren replied. "This morning's catfish doesn't taste so good the second time around."
"Good glory man! There was enough force in that missile to blow a solid boulder to smithereens! And it made you... burp?"
"I guess I never told you. Hipoccians are naturally resistant to magic. Comes from years and years of undoing curses."
"Resistant? That's an understatement. If you were anyone else, you'd be dead!"
"I suppose that's true."
"I'm glad you're here, though. There's something I wanted to tell you."
"There was a guy who came up from the south. He'd obviously been traveling a while. He asked if I had seen an otter-morph in a red cape. I think he might have been looking for you."
"Really?" said Oren, looking excited at the prospect of seeing someone from home. "Tell me, what did he look like?"
"Kind of scruffy. He had curly hair and a goatee. Dressed all in black. And he had a strange necklace. It was a horizontal line crossed by three vertical lines."
Oren looked puzzled for a moment. "That's from Hipocc, all right. It's a powerful ward against really big curses, but only the elders even possess them. What color were the stones?"
"There are always three stones set in the ward. What color were they? It's very important!"
Oren paled visibly beneath his fur.
"Otter? You okay?"
"That someone wasn't from Hipocc. We always use white, red and blue stones. Black stones can only mean he was from Devil's Strand."
"A place you don't want to visit... EVER! The people there are evil, and I mean EVIL! They feed children to starving animals for entertainment."
"That IS evil. That would explain why he acted the way he did."
I had no idea what business he had with you, so I naturally told him I didn't know anyone fitting that description. He offered me thirty gold pieces if I could remember. I told him I just didn't know you. He then left me ten gold coins and said "Maybe this will jog your memory."
"Ten gold? Wow."
"Oren, I have never held that much money in my life! I thought of what I could do with it, and with the other thirty he promised. I was this close to telling him you had been here. In the end, though, I just couldn't. He said he'd be back, and if I knew what was good for me, I'd remember by then."
"What did you do with the money?"
"I gave it to Dad... I mean Mom. She used it to but this field."
Oren smiled. "Thank you for not betraying me. You're a true friend."
"But I almost did!"
"But you didn't. I don't believe you could. Your heart is true."
At that instant, the song came back to him.
Add to three another two
Painting mind and heart-is-true.
"You're 'Heart-Is-True!'" Oren exclaimed.
"You said that."
"No... this is something else. Got a place to sit? This explanation may take awhile."
The man wearing black stood back from the road, hidden by the trees. He had seen the otter-man go by here and realized that he had to come back. He'd follow at a safe distance, and when the time was right, kill him.
His plans were foiled, however, when he chanced to hear a growl behind him. He looked back to see a rather powerful looking wolf. He skittered up the tree faster than any squirrel.
Oren made his way home as the blue of the sky deepened. He caught a glimpse of Carl, the wolf, staring up a tree. He idly wondered what poor animal was cornered up there.
Oren made it to the Deaf Mule without incident, where he rejoined with his dragon and played his first game of pool against Copernicus. He did his best to have a nice, relaxing evening despite what he had just learned; that somewhere near here was a Strander who most likely wanted to kill him.