The caravan made it to Metamor Keep with little fuss and a great many tall tales told along the way. They were all true, of course, to some extent. However, as with every trip to the cursed Keep, a conspiracy formed amongst the guards to keep the "new kid" in the dark. Partly because they needed all the hands they could get and the idea of risking being transformed into a child, a woman, or even a freakish animal thing was worse than dying in a Lutin or goblin attack to most adventure-starved teens. Partly because the other caravan guards got a kick out of seeing the face of the new kid the first time the Amazonian long scouts stepped out from the underbrush or the first time a creature out of their worst nightmare would wave happily in their direction and perhaps offer them a tankard of ale.
This was Grey Wheeler's first tour of duty with this caravan, but it had been a number of years since anyone would have been able to think of him as a "new kid." His blonde hair was more white and grey than yellow, His face was lined, scarred, and told of a hard life of travels and adventures. His jade green eyes hid under a heavy brow which made them seem dark and brooding. His shoulders were broad and his body muscular.
He wore his own weapons on his brown leather belt. These included a black leather whip, a sword rarely seen this far west, and a dirk taken from a dead Whales seaman. He wore clothing that was much too light for the fall weather in the mountain pass, but either chose to ignore the weather or it made no difference to him. As they entered Lutin territory, Grey began dressing in light leather armour suitable for the close hand-to-hand combat the little green devils were fond off. He seemed as comfortable in the armor as he was without.
Each morning, he would go off on his own for several minutes to perform certain rituals. The merchants insisted he be followed after the third day of the passage. The informal spy came back laughing that Wheeler stripped, washed himself and then dressed while chanting something that sounded like a song. The spy also spoke of a tattoo on the new guard's chest, a series of three seemingly mystic symbols. The trailboss was satisfied that Wheeler wasn't going to sell them to the Lutins, so left it at that. However, Wheeler's fellow guards were not so generous. When asking after the tattoo's meaning, the questioners often find themselves the object of Wheeler's intense scrutiny as he seemed to measure and weigh the value of that person's existence. More than one person believed they could feel waves of fury peeling of Wheeler when caught in his stony stare
Breaking camp just before dawn, Paul Aldersen, the official "new kid" on this journey stopped him as he made up his bedroll. At first, Wheeler thought he'd ask about the tattoo and was annoyed. It would be nice if he could have made the trip without anyone prying into his personal life. Instead, the kid asked about the Keep.
They had a few minutes before the caravan was ready to move on. He was relatively ready to move out and it was a little cruel to let someone wander into Metamor Keep without warning. The way he had ended up in Os-Var-Khai.
Wheeler sat on his bedroll and told the short version of the Keep. He'd done his research before coming on this trip. In fact, it was the Keep's curse that had dragged him halfway across the world. "The Keep," he began, "is cursed."
The kid nodded.
Wheeler scowled at him, if only to save his reputation. Like many seafarers, Wheeler knew how to tell a tale extremely well. He liked telling them and young Paul seemed to be a good listener, despite being in the latter half of his impatient teen years. However, he had learned in recent years to keep some distance between himself and other men and if he told too many tales, especially if he had a drink in his hand, he would reveal too much of himself.
Nobody wanted that.
"Almost a decade ago," Wheeler picked up again after a beat, "there was a huge battle. Your average forces of light and forces of darkness thing. Now, the villain of the piece, a man known as Nasdaq, I believe, was NOT only evil but had a wicked sense of humour. Using a modified transformation curse, Nasdaq turned one third of the Keepers into children. They will never grow up, never have children of their own, but they will remember what it was like to be grown up, too. And, even a decade later, if you stay in the Keep too long, you could become a child, too."
"That's not so, bad," Paul said.
Wheeler shrugged and looked at the young man pointedly. "When did people start treating you seriously? Few weeks ago? Last month?"
"Last year," the young guard said a little defensively. "Right after I left the farm and headed out on my own."
"Good for you," Wheeler said happily. "Now, imagine somebody took that away from you. Suddenly, people are treating you like they did five or six years ago. Not so good now, is it?"
Paul's face darkened. Obviously five or six years ago had not been a fond time in the boy's mind.
"And, that's just the tip of the ice berg, there's also..."
"What? The tip of what?"
Wheeler smiled and decided not to try to explain the floating magic ice islands of the Northern Seas to a kid fresh off the farm. "It's just a saying, it means, there's worse things yet." Wheeler added glibly. He should have cuffed the kid for interrupting, but he didn't have the heart for it. "One third of the people Nasdaq cursed became woman."
Paul smiled ruefully. "Ok, now I know you're joking. I mean, one third of any village is going to be about 1/3 woman and 1/3 children. It's just simple math, really."
Wheeler smiled, "The men became woman and the woman became men. Or, leastwise, about 1/3 of each sex switched sex. For some, switching sex was worse than being a child forever. And there ain't no such thing as simple math."
"I could see that," Paul said with a voice that implied he was going to play along. "How did that Nasdock decide which men he'd turn into woman and which woman to turn into men?"
Wheeler wished he had a smoking pipe to hit the boy over the head with. First Mate Terrence always seemed to get a measure of satisfaction out of that that Wheeler never quite understood until now.
Instead, he got up off his bedroll and started walking towards the horse he'd been assigned for the last leg of the journey. He wasn't going to ride it; it had sprained a hock and Wheeler's job was to keep it moving, gently, until they reached the Keep where it could be doctored. "He didn't decide, it was random," he called over his shoulder as he strolled off, "I think. In any case, it was pretty traumatic for those involved."
Paul trotted behind him a few steps, "Yeah, I guess so, but it doesn't seem like much of a curse."
Wheeler fixed the horse's rigging, checked the bridle, and adjusted it properly and quickly. One would never know he was a sailor most of his life from the way he handled the tack. He owed that to his time on Os-Var-Khai and his time crossing the flatlands with Dramm. "Oh, it gets worse," he added darkly, "One third got changed into twisted animal forms."
That actually made the boy's eyes light up. "Really? What kind of animals?"
"Dog. Cats. Cows. Dragons. Normal animals mostly, but a few exotic ones like Kangaroos and Griffins."
Paul thought about that and then smiled broadly. "Well, that's not so bad. If I became a dog, I could lick mi-"
Suddenly, Wheeler grabbed the boy and slammed him against a nearby tree. The horse let out a startled whinny and the other guards suddenly were all holding their swords in the direction of Paul's startled cry, but when they saw it was two off their own, they all held off to see what would happen. There had actually been a betting pool over which "new kid" was going to snap first, so a lot was riding on what Wheeler was going to do next.
"That is not funny," Wheeler said tightly. He wasn't the biggest man on the caravan, but he came across as the most dangerous. It was an affectation he had cultivated over the years. "I have family up there, in the Keep."
To the boy's credit, he did not immediately back down. "Let go of me!" he challenged in a brave but not too steady voice. When Wheeler glared at him silently Paul spit at his feet. "You got family up there and you don't want know what kind of perverts they had to become, do you?"
"You think because they're different, that makes them perverts?"
"If they weren't all perverts, they'd have killed themselves long ago."
Wheeler bounced the lad into the tree and then smiled. "The world's a big place, boy," he said in a voice that held equal measures of fact and threat in it, "And, if I were you, I would not say anything against the Keepers until you are far, far away from here."
"Why not? You gonna beat me up, big man? That won't change a thing, they'll all still be animal suckers!"
Wheeler sighed. "The Keepers you call perverts have been following us since this time, yesterday."
With that, Wheeler spun the lad around quickly and held his head so that he could see what he had seen fleetingly a few minutes prior. In the woods, about 20 feet in, behind tress was a four-foot tall otter twisted into the shape of a man. He was naked and his body fur pained in shades of green, but most of the camouflage painted had dried and caked off near the creatures underarms and knees. A small bit of white showed suddenly when the creature's eyes went wide as he realized he'd been spotted. Then it was gone, replaced by a small green otter, which disappeared into the underbrush with liquid ease.
If long scout's eyes hadn't gone wide, Wheeler doubted Paul would have even seen it at all.
Wheeler let Paul go and the boy took two quick steps away the big guard. "You're all crazy," the boy yelled. "Crazy."
"Hey, Paul," Wheeler called out, stopping the boy in his tracks. He got a dirty look from the new kid.
"Watch your step. Some of the Keepers were turned into snakes, and they don't like being called perverts."
To his credit, Paul did not look down as he stormed off. Nor did he look to the left or right as the entire caravan exploded into laughter.
With the cat out of the bag, the last few hours to the Keep were filled with a great deal of mirth at Paul's expense. As the tales and jokes about the Keep flew back and forth, Paul looked ready to bolt at any minute. If there were any Lutins in the woods that day either the Keepers took care of them or the laughter drove them away.
On the return trip, they would be enough Lutins for everyone, but Wheeler would not be there to battle at their side.
For the mysterious and brooding man, this journey was strictly a one way trip. Tales of sex-switching, age reversal, and -- most dehumanizing of all -- becoming an animal, only strengthened the graying man's resolve. The curse of the Keep, he had decided months ago, would be a bitter blessing for him.
Grey Wheeler was distantly related to Duke Thomas. So distantly, in fact, Wheeler had to commission a scrivener to re-create missing documents that would prove such a thing. Grey was prepared to work about the Keep and perform whatever services were needed in order to stay, even if it was scrubbing floors in the dungeons, but he did harbour no small hope that his far-removed cousin would find a more fitting position for him. Advisor, perhaps...
It wasn't that Wheeler was without useful talents, but those talents would be far removed from any use Thomas might have for him. On the sea, he'd been a cabin boy and had become quite skilled in defending himself... and of avenging himself quietly later, if his defense proved wanting. In the Far East, Wheeler picked up several different techniques involving the business of extracting data and the pleasures one might receive during that extraction. By the time he got to Yesulum, he had learned how to turn his looks to his advantage and discovered that some men did not need the excuse of a long ocean voyage to desire him or to be desired by him. But those were talents not in ready demand in Thomas' court by all reports.
It had been a good 29 years the Gods had given him, but his pride ate after him. Early in his life, men had forced themselves on him and he had had no choice. He could forgive himself that. His trip to the Far East, meant to strengthen his mind and body so as never to become a victim again, instead increased his appetite for the erotic extremes of pain. That he could not completely forgive himself. His attempt to convert to the church ended with his sponsor's excommunication for sex crimes. He and Dramm had been lucky to leave with their lives.
As his 30th birthday approached, and his shameful sexual desires as strong as ever, Wheeler had himself with very few options. One involved castration; that held no appeal for him. Another option was a lifetime of exacting self-control and purposeful denial. Experience had shown Wheeler that he lacked the willingness and resolve to do either.
The Curse of Metamor Keep... It was his last chance for freedom, even if it meant never leaving its walls for the rest of his life.
Clay Potter was the younger son of the Metamor tinkers, Henrik and Josie Potter. When the curse hit, Clay had been but 10 years old. His older brother, Tin, had been eleven and his younger brother, Whicker, barely 7. There were spared the curse due to their ages, but the parents were not so lucky. Henrik became a white tiger morph and Josie became a white wolf. Henrik lost much of his dexterity with the change and became bitter. Josie picked up the slack, but not without complaint.
The boys knew and dreaded that they, too, would follow and be changed. For the next year, it hung over them like an unwelcome ghost.
They were, in all other ways, a normal family.
And, as happens in some families, some developed faster than others.
At fifteen, Tin became Tina, becoming neither wolf nor tiger as expected, and Tin/Tina was inconsolable for weeks. The Potter house was in an uproar.
Clay, who had been tortured by his older brother over years, was at first grateful for his brothers downfall and ragged him mercilessly for days. One day, however, something in Clay broke when he saw his brother, now sister, in such a state that he/she was flaying his/her own skin with hir new nails. Something turned in him at the pain he saw and he stepped forward and put a calming hand on his brother's skin and kept gently stroking until his sister fell into a deep and steady slumber.
That night, Clay dreamed of his brother's painful transformation and had his first wet dream.
A little more than a year later, the baby changed. There were rules on when transformations would take place but with each passing year, more and more exceptions seemed to take place. Eleven wasn't the youngest anyone changed, but it was rare. Whicker became a huge orange and black tiger morph and Clay suddenly found himself a stranger in his own family.
Where Clay had been the favourite of both parents since he proved extremely skilled in the medium of his namesake, he now felt completely neglected. Mother's new favourite was Tina, a daughter she never had, but now really did. Father's new favourite was Wicker, who made him forget his dull, clumsy fingers as his son dragged him out of the damn pottery shop and back into the world. After three years of living under Henrik's depression, it was good to see his tiger-father laughing and clapping his paws heartily. For awhile, everyone was happy.
Clay expected to become a wolf, like his mother, or even another tiger like his brother and father had within a year of Tina's "arrival." It didn't happen and the year after that, Clay remained unchanged.
The same could not be said of the Potter family. Wicker became wild and uncontrollable, as his tiger body matured much too quickly to their mother's taste. Henrik seemed to worship the very ground his youngest walked on, as if in awe of the boy. Josie and Tina spent a good deal of time trying to fix messes that Wicker and Henrik created. Worse, because of the tiger morphs' worsening reputations, business began to falter.
Clay picked up the slack and took over the business. His friends continued to change and he did not. In a city of cursed beings, the unchanged boy felt like a complete freak. He happily threw himself into the business of taking care of his family and was hardly seen out of the shop. He was not hiding, but he just wasn't ready to venture forth much, either.
In time, Wicker started calling himself Wicked and things went from bad to worse. As bad and as strong as Wicker thought he was there were still those who could readily hand him his tail in a street fight. There was also the strength of numbers to reckon with. Wicker had to discover these things the hard way. Clay nursed his little brother the three days his wounds from that lesson healed while Henrik prowled the streets in a futile attempt at vengeance. No one thanked him, but Clay had to admit, nursing Wicker back to health made him feel good. Taking care of the family became his job.
Those were dark days, that last year or so before Clay was transformed. Tina started dated and moved out to open her own tinker shop, leaving Josie depressed. Clay tried to comfort her as best he could, but she seemed unreachable.
Spurned yet again, Clay redoubled his efforts to create art. He took up sketching Keepers as they would look if the curse had not touched them. People would tell him how lucky he was that the curse was ignoring him. He shut out everyone except Laracin, who was a great listener and needed to have books read to him, but even his time with the silvimorph became rare.
He begged his parents to take him to Pascal, to give him the elixir that would make the curse take him, but they denied him, pointing to Saroth as an example to what might happen if the curse was toyed with. He suspected they did not want to pay the fee, which irked Clay since he was the breadwinner in the family. A fact that got him slapped when brought up.
Alone, ignored and hiding in his room, Clay would sometimes claw at his own skin, trying to find the form hidden from him. When his own nails failed to do the job, Clay began using broken pottery shards to slice into his skin, until his father discovered him one night.
Wordlessly, Henrik took him in his arms and told him that he understood. That the world was a hard place and that world was full of two kinds of people; the people who hurt and the people who got hurt. Predator and prey. That the time would come when he would have to choose or the decision would be made for him. Clay fell asleep as his father licked his wounds clean, comforted but not understanding what his tiger father meant.
It was the last time Henrik ever held him.
Clay Potter was seventeen when the curse claimed him. Soon afterwards, he found himself homeless.