by Oren the Otter

"I don't care!" said Oren. "I'm thirsty!"

"Please, don't do it!" Ana begged. "You know that the village elders have forbidden us to drink from the lake!"

Oren knelt by the shore and looked down. "What could possibly happen?" he said. "The water is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom. It's perfectly clean. How could it be anything but safe?"

"My Uncle Bera says that the lake is polluted by magic."

Oren raised an eyebrow. Somehow, that didn't surprise him about her uncle Bera. He also believed that the world was round. Ignoring Ana's pleas, he bent down and sipped from the cool, refreshing water.

Ana made noises of worry and fear, but Oren defied her doubts when he rose to his feet, healthy and normal and quite refreshed.

"You shouldn't have done that."

Oren just smiled and struck out for home.

Oren rose the next morning feeling curiously full of energy. He washed himself quickly and searched the cupboards for breakfast. He didn't feel like sitting down and eating anything, so he grabbed a couple of strips of fish jerky that he could chaw while he walked.

He opened the door and met Dove, the wife of the village leader. He tipped his hat and said "Good morning, wut wut wut."

Dove stopped and stared. Oren stood there with his hat in his hand, at a loss to explain what had happened. He tried again. "Good ppprrrrr morning."

"Mr. Oren, are you feeling all right?" asked Dove.

Oren replaced his hat, smiled, and nodded. He then put as much distance as he could between himself and that spot.

He passed the baker's shop and smelled some delicious meat pies cooling. He decided to buy a small one to supplement his fish jerky. "Could I get a hnghng wut?" he asked.

The baker stared in bewilderment.

"I mean a meat pie. One of the little ones. Chp!"

The baker laughed. "Methinks the son of Nerr has chosen wisely to purchase a meat dish, as you seem to have had too much sugar already this morning!"

"Yeah. That must ppprrrrrr be it." Oren replied. He paid for his breakfast and hustled back out into the street. He was getting worried, now. He couldn't stop himself from making these animal noises. He decided to go see Ana. Maybe she'd have an idea what was going on.

"I told you not to drink from the lake." said Ana.

"I know. Wut wut but I did. Now I have to CHP! Figure out how to fix it."

Ana pursed her lips in thought. "All I can suggest is that you get your butt down to Nana the healer and see if she has any idea what to do."

Oren cringed. "Nana's on wut wut wut the council of elders. I REALLY don't want to have to tell the council grrr about drinking from the forbidden lake."

"Unless you want to spend the rest of your life talking like an idiot, I recommend you go."

Oren nodded weakly. He'd go.

Nana was a nice lady, to be sure. She was a busy woman, but polite and hospitable. She gave Oren a cup of warm tea and said "Now take your time and tell me the whole story, toots."

Oren smiled. He liked Nana, but hated it when she called him 'toots'. "Well," he began. "I got up this morning and chrrrr every time I spoke, I made hng hng these weird animal sounds."

Nana nodded. "Have you been exposed to magic recently?"

"No... ppprrrr..."

"Now don't lie to Nana, toots, or I might have to use my wooden spoon on your little backside."

"Oh no!" Oren said with a laugh. "Not the wut dreaded spoon!" He stopped laughing upon seeing that Nana was serious. "Okay. I was wut gng exposed to magic. I was out CHP! By the forbidden lake where Ana and I were taking a hike ppprrrr through the woods."

"Oren, you didn't drink out of the lake, did you?"

"Greeyah! Wut wut wut CHP! Ppprrrrrr... well... yeah."

"Oh Oren!"

"Can you do anything?"

"I can try to give you some antimagic to try to wash it away, but you have bigger concerns. You know I have to report this to the other elders."

Oren crumpled.

It had been a bad day. Nana's cure didn't work, and Oren had repeatedly made a fool of himself whenever he spoke. The grunts and purrs wouldn't have been so bad if he were merely one of the village warriors, but since his second job was that of the storyteller, he was pretty much disabled.

Now, it threatened to get much worse. Seated behind a long, darkwood table sat the village elders: Nana the healer, Timothy the apostle of the Way and his wife, Dove, and Barry the tailor with his gaudy coat and a history of dislike for any type of artist. He'd shown considerable disapproval for Oren's storytelling in the past, and Oren was certain that the man would show disapproval for him, personally, this night.

"Oren?" said Timothy. "Tell us why you drank from the forbidden lake.

"I was thirsty."

There was a quiet conference among the elders. Oren brightened a little. He had just spoken normally! Maybe there was hope.

"You are, of course, aware that the waters of that lake are very much forbidden by the laws of our village."

"Chp! Hng hng wut wut wut ppprrrrr...." shoot!

"Why did you feel it necessary to defy the village's laws?"

"Because I didn't believe huhu that the lake was really polluted."

Barry piped up "And so you took it upon yourself to make a mockery of our laws?"

"No, I greeeyah!"

"Oren," said Timothy. "Would you excuse us please while we discuss this?"

Oren went outside to wait, but he knew what was going to happen. Barry had threatened it on several occasions when he had told stories that the tailor violently opposed, claiming them to be far too wild, corrupting children's minds by plunging them into a fantastical state. Rather than wait around to be exiled, he went home to pack.

No one saw him leave. That was how he wanted it. Taking his trusty staff and a sack with a change of clothes and some food, he set off to find a new home.

Bradfox paused in the street. Off to hir left, s'he saw something s'he hadn't before. There was a little brook running along the edge of the road. It wasn't drainage. It looked like a deliberately created aqueduct. Curiously, s'he followed it. It lifted off the ground as the street sloped downhill and went right into the side of an apartment. Bradfox looked in the window and saw the water cascading down into a little indoor pond before continuing on out the other side of the building.

Very curious.

Oren awoke on a bed of damp grass. His cape and leggings had been soaked with the morning dew. He drew himself up and stood, only to find that his toes ached tremendously. He pulled his boots off to find an enormous pair of flippers.

"Oh, man!" moaned the warrior-storyteller. He quickly examined himself for any other changes and discovered a full set of whiskers. "Oh no." he muttered. "I thought wut wut the voice was it. How much am I going to change?"

He took two pieces of fish jerky out of his pack and set out on his way. There were no signs of civilization around, save the road on which he trod.

This was to be expected, of course. The village of Hipocc, where Oren lived, was so far to the south, most of the world had no idea that they existed. By noon, it was becoming clear that his leggings were not going to dry, so he sat down and took them off, leaving only his blue briefs below the waist.

There was a surprise waiting for him. Under those tights was a thick coat of chocolate brown fur. Oren walked in circles for several minutes going "No! No! GrrrEEE!"

By the time night fell again, Oren had gone through miles and miles of woods, and considerable changes. He now had a long, muscular tail which threw his balance off more than once, not to mention creating a terrible rip in the briefs which now served as his only pants. His entire body was now covered in the thick fur that had overtaken his legs. He'd taken his shirt off for the heat, keeping only his vest and cuffs, along with the red cape that marked him as a warrior of Hipocc. No, a former warrior of Hipocc. Well, maybe some other village would have use of a slightly freakish warrior.

His face had altered completely. Though his unruly locks of raven black hair remained, his ears had become rounded, and his nose and mouth had grown out into the muzzle of a mustelid.

Oren was a humanoid otter.

He'd found another lake that night. The waters looked cool and inviting, so he helped himself to not only a drink, but a nice long swim. He fell asleep on the sandy strand, feeling curiously content.

That didn't last long. He was woken in the middle of the night by a torrential downpour. With nowhere else to go, He sat there in the dark and the rain with his cape over his head.

"It is a strange house." said Healer Brian. "What is this over here, an oven?"

"That's what I thought." said Bradfox. "I mean, it looks like an oven, and it has the firepit and all, but look inside. There's a perch in there."

"A perch in an oven?"

"I have a feeling..." said Bradfox. "That we are going to have a most unusual visitor."

Oren had taken advantage of his otter instincts. He had to. His food supply was gone. It was either fish or starve. He stepped out of the water with a fish in either paw and one in his mouth. He placed them within a pile of rocks to keep them from flopping away as he attempted to build a fire.

There was movement. Oren whirled around to discover one of his fish missing. He sprang to his feet and looked around, but found nothing. After several minutes of finding nothing, he returned to his fire.

More movement. Oren whirled, grabbing his staff and assumed a defensive posture. Before him, with a fish in it's paws, stood a tiny little blue dragon. It looked up at Oren with utter terror in its eyes. It's face was so sad that Oren's heart melted. He put down his staff and knelt down to the little winged lizard.

The little dragon put the fish back. It looked up at Oren, who suddenly got a very strong mental image of an emaciated reptile.

"You're hungry, huh? Ppprrr... Well, I guess I can share. Just leave one for me."

The dragon grabbed the fish and ate hungrily.

"I've never seen a dragon your size. Where wut wut on Earth did you come from?"

Another mental image. This time, he saw a warm, tropical island chain. A sudden storm. Violent winds.

"You were flying and the storm blew you off course." Oren interpreted. "You're speaking to me in thoughts, aren't you? That's amazing!"

The dragon smiled.

"And now you have no idea how to get home."

The dragon nodded sadly.

"Well, you can stay here with me if hng hng you want to."

This time, he nodded more enthusiastically.

"So what is your name?"

The dragon projected an image of a storehouse filled with corn.

"Corn Hall. Okay, Cornhall. What's say we chp! have breakfast so we can get traveling?"

"My word." said Matt as he surveyed the south wall of the mystery apartment. "I have never seen so many bookshelves!"

Phil nodded. "Whoever is moving in, they must be bringing a ton of books with them."


"Or what?"

"Or they're going to be creating this many books."

Phil suppressed a smile. He'd been hoping for something like this, though he dared not say anything yet. He tried not to get his hopes up. He'd have to wait and see.

Oren had abandoned his luggage. His food was gone. His leggings and boots and shirts were useless. Aside from his scant few items of clothing he was wearing, all he carried were his staff, the scriptures he kept in his vest pocket, and his new friend, Cornhall. (Though over the course of the day, the name had been shortened to "Gornul". Oren thought that the shorter name better suited a dragon anyway.)

He came up to a village about noon. The reaction of the people there did not surprise him. The people on the street stared in amazement and horror. Mothers rushed their children inside.

Oren didn't expect to find place here, but he had to try. He went up to the nearest man and said "Excuse me, Sir. Where might a traveler wut wut find work in this town?"

"There is no work here."

"None at all? I'm willing to do anything."

A second man appeared. "There's nothing here for you, beast." he said. "Go back North where you came from."

Oren looked puzzled. "North?"

"Aren't you one of those freaks from Metamor Keep?"

"I've never ppprrrr heard of it."

A third man came right up to Oren, violating his sama space. "We don't want polite conversation." he said. "These men are asking you to leave."

Oren moved like lightning. His staff knocked the man's legs out from under him and a mere fraction of a second later, the end was at the man's throat. "It's obvious I'm not going to make any friends here." said the ottermorph. "I'll give you wut wut what you want and leave, but not before I express my grrEE! feelings on the kind of welcome you've given me."

"I understand." said the man, who dared not move. The other two likewise kept there place.

"Now... tell me about this "Metamor Keep" and I'll be on my way."

"It lies on the border of the Northlands. It's filled with half-animal monsters. They expect us to send our children to the keep to become monsters as well."

Given his own reception, Oren considered the possibility that the term "monsters" might have been a result of colored opinions. He let the man up and continued through town. No one else tried to give him trouble.

Hassan himself was now standing in the mystery apartment, surveying the empty abode. "What do you make of it, Posti?" he asked his mage friend.

"Interesting. The ambient magic in here is the thinnest I have ever seen it."

"It is? Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I've never seen it here at the keep before, but there is almost no magic here that is not actively working."

"Hmm. Theories?"

"Perhaps whoever is on their way here has enough magic to worry about already."

"Darn wut wut curse." Oren muttered to himself as he casually strolled away from the farmers of the last village, who had just ran him out as a "demon". Oren was beginning to think that he and Gornul would never find a home.

It began raining. Oren didn't mind getting wet. It made for slow going, though. He trudged through the mud, hugging his dragon beneath his cape. He traveled that way for hours. He deliberately avoided entering any towns. He didn't want to bother with the kind of reception he'd received before. He just kept walking forward until he could not walk anymore. He wobbled in exhaustion and fell unconscious in the mud.

When Oren came to, Gornul was gone. It was a disappointment, but one he knew he could do nothing about. Obviously, when Oren had failed him, Gornul had flown off to try to find someone else, or perhaps try to find his way home.

"What is it?" asked Pascal as she poked the strange green mass.

"Algae." replied Bryan. "Apparently, it just sprang up overnight."

"Algae? You mean pond scum?"

"That's right."

"What kind of creature needs a six foot tub of pond scum?"

"That's what I'm wondering."

Weary and despairing, Oren sat down on a rock and cried. Though his training told him that Warriors did not cry, he could not help it. The tears flowed down his cheeks unbidden, mixing with the rainwater that drenched his fur and clothes. He was ready to give up hope of ever finding a home, let alone, this "Metamor Keep".

There was a noise. He lifted his gaze.

It was Gornul!

"Gornul! I thought I chp! chp! had lost you, boy!"

Gornul formed a mental picture of a strange looking creature, but he needn't have. Oren saw the creature come running through the mud toward him. He wondered for a moment if he should prepare to defend himself, then decided against it. If the being meant any harm, Gornul would have been on edge. He'd obviously encountered this person before and would know if there was any hostility.

"I thought we'd never find you!" said the creature, who was a mix of boy and kangaroo. "I'm Jesse. This little fellow found me in the field and begged me to come and help you."


"At least that's the impression I got. I got this image of you lying face down in the mud."

"I was. I woke up hng and my companion was gone."

"Why don't you come home with me where we can dry your clothes and give you a good hot meal? Perhaps a good night's sleep?"

"I don't need sleep." said Oren. "I've only been traveling for a few hours."

Gornul shook his head.

"What do you wut mean 'no'?"

An image of three suns rising and setting.

"Three days? We've been going for three days? Perhaps I need sleep ppprrrrrr worse than I thought."

It was good to sleep in a warm bed again. After a few hours, Jesse woke Oren up and gave him a big bowl of hot stew. It felt extremely good to the otter's empty belly.

"You're very kind." said Oren. "Tell me, do you chp! know of a place called 'Metamor Keep'?

"Do I? Everyone around here knows about Metamor. It's the curse of Metamor that made me, not to mention everyone in the surrounding villages, like this."

"A kangaroo."

"Well of course. Isn't that what got you?"

"No. Magic pollution."

Jesse seemed taken aback. "Where are you from?"

"A village far to the south called wut wut Hipocc."

"Excuse you."

"No, that's the name of the village."

"I see." Jesse took the now empty bowl of stew and bade Oren return to sleep.

"I think the apartment is finished forming." said Matt.

"It did take some time." said Phil. "It seems like the Keep was being extra careful to get every detail right."

Matt nodded. "Whoever this is, Metamor must think they're pretty special."

When morning came, Jesse's mother (who was also his father) fixed Oren a heaping helping of scrambled eggs. Oren downed them gratefully, not realizing the effect they would have on an otter.

Jesse gave the traveler his clothes, now clean and dry, along with briefs that had been repaired and modified to accommodate his tail, and thus be more socially acceptable. He thought it extremely fortunate that the garment was made more like a swimsuit than underwear. Oren would look ridiculous if anyone realized it was underwear. He did finally manage to convince Oren to take along a pair of baggy trousers, though try as he might, he could not convince the mustelid (who was becoming ever more silly) to wear them.

Oren gave thanks to Jesse and his family and set off for Metamor. About a half mile down the road, he started to giggle and stumble, and fell on his face. He dozed off there beside the road, a happy expression on his face.

How was he to know that eggs make otters drunk?

Remembering the dismay his earlier departure had caused Oren, Gornul sat and waited for the otter to wake up.

When Oren finally did come to, it was night time. He felt awful. He was completely disoriented, but at least Gornul was by his side. He started walking toward the nearest grouping of lights.

He had been walking for hours when he suddenly heard "Halt! Who goes there?"

Oren could just make out the shape of a humanoid skunk in the dim moonlight. "My name is Oren." he said. "I'm looking for a place called Metamor Keep."

"Are you now?"

"Yes. Can you tell me where it is?"

The skunk pointed to the lights. "That's it."

Oren looked up and laughed. "I wut wut wut wut made it! Ha ha! Gornul, chp! We're here! We made it at last!"

The skunk's eyes slowly went wide. "You must be him!"

"Him who?"

"The one everybody has been waiting for! Come! They'll be anxious to meet you!"

Oren was escorted into the fortress, which, once he was inside, looked more like a city than anything else. The skunk who escorted him in said to several people as he passed "It's him!" and "He's here!"

The people he told told others.

Those people told others.

And those told others.

By the time he had been escorted to the "mystery apartment", there was a huge crowd gathered.

It was Matt who spoke for the group. "Hi. I'm Charles Matthias. Welcome to Metamor keep!"

"Wow." said Oren. "What a welcome!"

"Well, to tell the truth, we've all been going out of our minds wondering who this apartment is for."

"What do you mean?"

"The Keep apparently built it for someone very special."

"The Keep?"

"Right. Metamor Keep is alive. It creates whatever buildings are needed. Sometimes, it creates new residences before the person even shows up. It seems Metamor has been waiting for you for some time."

"The Keep built me a home?" Oren said in amazement. "When I couldn't find a ppprrrrrr welcome anywhere else, it was waiting for me! Wow!"

He entered the apartment, with no objections from those assembled. He beckoned as many as could fit to enter. He took Gornul off of his shoulder and placed him into the oven-like dragon-house. He then sat back on the bed of algae and admired everything. He looked at the empty bookshelves and thought of the happy days he would have before him, filling them with his stories.

He spent the rest of the night shaking hands with newfound friends. He did his best to remember everyone's name. Matt, Posti, Bryan, Pascal, Dana, Eric, Phil, Jon, Misha... before long, they began to run together.

When the last introduction was made and Oren found himself alone, he was left with the distinct feeling that he was NOT alone. He was welcome here, among people like himself; artists, warriors, and animal-people.

Oren was home.