The Long Road

by Elliott Olson

After a pleasantly toasty night they left Caralore by the south gate just past dawn. As they were passing one of the last manors south of town, Binh whispered, "Master? More lutins watching from the bushes."

Thanh gave a small nod and kept an eye on them. As the five lutins started moving in the same direction, Thanh gave a negligent wave of a hand in their direction whereupon a branch ten feet in front of the lutins very loudly snapped in two with a flash, causing them to stop. Calling out loud enough for the lutins to hear, he said, "We don't want any trouble, and you don't want the kind of trouble that you would find with us. Just go home, or hunting, or whatever other plans you had for the day."

All of them backing into the brush, one stammered, "W-we s-sorry sir mage, we n-not want trouble with more mages." and they promptly turned and ran toward the nearest manor.

Thanh called out loudly to the retreating lutins, "Oh, and if you need me, I'll be in Metamor." Quieter, he chuckled, "That should give them a couple things to think about. Eh, Binh?"

Binh laughed along as they continued south to Politzen. Almost two days out they arrived, noticing it was half the size of Caralore and were nearly surprised it still had a couple inns to choose from, and after an acceptable stay they continued on.

Another day and a half out of Politzen they reached Starven. While Politzen had only ditch and berm fortification, Starven had curtain walls and bulwarks around the main portion of the fishing village. In fact, Thanh found as they progressed through, that portion as well as the fortifications and piers were all built on barges so it could be floated out on the Sea of Souls for an added layer of protection. "See this, Binh? I'd wager you won't see another town with this kind of defense, where they float away from shore to distance themselves from their attackers.

After leaving Starven, they went nearly a day's travel near the Sea of Souls shoreline when they found the road blocked by a whole lutin tribe. They didn't seem to be readying for battle but they were definitely blocking passage. As Thanh turned east to go around them through the brush, part of the mass shifted to block their detour too. One, obviously a leader, came out of the main group toward them, "Hey! You want pass, you pay toll to Bloody Swords tribe. We control this road and surroundings."

Thanh muttered, "Oh for...", then louder, gathering a growing orb of flame in one hand, "Do you really want to insist on such a demand?"

"Ahahah!" the leader laughed as other lutins stepped back, wary of the mage, "A mage traveling south. You go to Metamor? You go to help or hurt them? Where from?"

"Brave and talkative bugger, aren't you?" Thanh let the flame fade out, " Not that it's any of your business where we're going, but yes, we're on our way to Metamor. It's also not something you can prevent. We intend to take up residence there and aid them if they'll have mages from Lom Shi'Un. And if for some reason they won't have us, maybe we can find somewhere beyond the valley that will have us."

"We not stop you, we just collect toll for passage. Tell you what, you help Keepers," gesturing to himself, "Oreq give discount on toll, just one silver each. What I hear, they take anyone not enemy... heheh, sometime even enemy."

"Well Oreq, I guess I can live with that discount, this time. And since you gave me your name, it's only fair I do the same. I'm Thanh and this is my apprentice, Binh. Can you tell me how much farther it is to Metamor?"

"You not far now, camp tonight and tomorrow go past Giant Dike, get to Outpost in north of valley. Next day get to Metamor Keep easy."

Pulling out the two agreed upon coins, Thanh continued as he handed them over, "Thank you for that welcome information, it will be good to be done with all this travel, it's been a very long road for us. I hope you won't be offended if we go a bit past your camp before setting up our own, I have some wards I put up around us for the night."

"No, go where you want. We not feel right staying with humans either, too much bad blood all those years with Nasoj armies." Oreq gestured for the others to open passage and after a moment's thought he added in a totally serious tone, "One more thing... when past dike, near Outpost, never go east. Haunted Woods very very bad place, something hunt there, protect ruins. Stay away!"

"Thanks for the warning. I'm sure someone in Metamor will tell me more about it before I get too close. I don't plan to do any more traveling before spring. We'll be on our way now, and for your scouts' benefit, I'll add a little glimmer to my outer wards tonight so they know where to stop before they happen to get too near our camp and trigger them." With that, Thanh passed through to continue down the road a few more miles, Binh following of course.

After an uneventful night considering the lutins' potential proximity, they followed the road as it turned east. After a few hours they found an intersection with one road continuing east and another splitting off to the south. Taking the South road a few miles, they approached a ridge running east and west with a couple larger mounds either side of where the road passed through. "That must be the Giant's Dike. And what is that sign on this side of the dike?" On the sign hanging from a post a hundred yards north of the dike were three figures; one looked like a woman with outrageously large breasts, the second was a baby holding what looked like a sword and the third was some sort of animal which was walking on its hind legs and holding a spear with its front paws. Below that, written in large, red letters in a few northern languages was "DANGER. CURSED LAND! SHORT VISITS ONLY."

"Well, isn't that nice of them to put up a warning sign? And by the last line it appears that our latest information on it is correct, that the curse takes time to take hold, that's a favorable condition for trade. There's no point in delaying any further, let's go and find where this northern outpost is so we can find a place to stay for the night. We can come back here after the spring thaw if we want to see more of the dike."

Little over a mile past the dike they met a patrol riding out of the woods on a well used path, consisting of a strange, even if expected, assortment of men and women, both human and animal, as well as a couple boys. It was, in fact, one of the boys that rode in the lead and addressed Thanh, who had already stopped. "Halt! Identify yourselves and state your business." A couple of the others were trying to hide their amusement at his obviously rehearsed demand.

"Well met, good people! Though I may have some difficulty in coming to a halt when I'm not moving." A couple snickers were heard from the rest of the squad. "My name is Thanh and this is my apprentice Binh. I have come from Lom Shi'Un to take up residence in the Metamor valley and offer my services as mage."

"From where? Lom She what?" turning back to the others, "Hey guys, any of you hear of that?" None of them seemed to know where that was. Turning back to Thanh, "Is that some new name Nasoj is calling his dominion now?"

"Oh no! Lom Shi'Un is far to the east beyond Nasoj's lands. We... or I should now say 'they', have little to do with his people other than some trade goods back and forth. But before we go any further on this, do you think we could continue on into your town and find someplace warmer to answer your questions? We've had quite a long road to travel, and only a few stops were actually in any kind of inn. We'd like to find a warm place to stay the night before continuing on our last leg to Metamor."

"Fine, we can take you to Hareford, it's just a couple miles. I didn't have any more to ask that wouldn't be re-asked again anyway in town. Let's go! Men... people, spread out around our guests. Bobby, ride ahead and let Marcus know we have new arrivals stopping for the night." The other boy took off at a gallop back to Hareford as the rest escorted Thanh and Binh, still on skis, at a walking pace.

"While I'm sure we don't need your protection along the road," Thanh went on, "I can see where you would want to keep an eye on us as an unknown and unproven factor. After all, how can you know that we are who we say we are, right? I suppose you must have had trouble with spies sent by Nasoj over the years."

A woman riding beside him countered, "I think Nasoj is too busy bullying his way wherever he wants to go to even consider sending spies. It's too subtle for him. Hi, I'm Laura," she gestured to the other side where a chipmunk was riding beside Binh, "that's Daryl, and the boy up there is our squad's leader Darrel. Yeah, it can be a little confusing."

"Until a month ago I hadn't dreamed I'd ever meet such an interestingly diverse group of people. Sure, I've known mages that play around with self-transformations but never more than one or two at a time. What's it like to change, and how long do I have before I either have to leave or let the curse take me?"

"Two weeks," came the answer from Daryl. "But try to keep it under 10 days if you plan to leave. For some the change is painless whether awake or sleeping, others experience pains as their body changes shape. Some change in a matter of minutes, while I heard one guy a couple years ago took a few weeks to finish his change. And... Binh, was it? You look like you might have a year or two before you change. Children are immune to the curse until puberty. If they stay or return after that, they're subject to it as anyone else."

Darrel turned in his saddle and added, "As long as they're telling you about the curse, they might as well include that the effects are random with an equal split between transgender, age regression and animal transformation. And nobody I've ever heard of has had any control over which change they get. I think I heard something about mages trying to control their change when it happened and got mixed up results. So I suggest you just let it happen without trying to mess with it."

For the rest of the trip into town, they continued talking about the curse, whether one was changed in the original battle or another came afterward, whether one was stranded too long in the valley by weather or accident or another came voluntarily for the fresh start the curse offered. Most indicated that they came to enjoy their new form and wouldn't change back if offered the chance.

Finally, with the sun dropped below the Dragon Mountains' peaks, they turned west, passing through snow-covered farm land and removed their skis to cross the bridge over a wide ditch and enter the east gate. Bobby was warming himself there by a fire and told them that Marcus was waiting to conduct Thanh's first official interview in the valley, Thanh noticed that most of the curtain wall was obviously ancient construction while upper portions showed signs of more recent repair. He could also sense various protective and strengthening magic in the walls.

Passing through town, they came to another ditch and wall around the northeast quarter with another bridge and gate in the middle of that wall's south face. After passing into the castle, they left the horses at the stables and were led into the keep where they found the patrol commander's office. Seated at the desk was a very large eagle and standing in a nearby corner were a spear, bow and quiver.

Marcus Caruslo introduced himself and briefly asked their names, place of origin, why they left and the route they took. Then he questioned them more extensively on what they saw from Caralore to the Giants Dike and their experience with the lutins. When he was finally done, they left to find an inn for the night.

As they were finishing supper, a messenger arrived with a message for Thanh. "This is interesting, Binh. It appears our presence is requested at the manor tomorrow morning after breakfast by one Sir Nestorius Sentilus, Praetor of Hareford, knight commander of the order of Ardesh. Hmm, that name and first title, Praetor, looks Suielish."

"Suielish, Master?"

"The Suielman Empire ruled the southwest part of the continent centuries ago, I believe all the way up to here. The oldest stonework here may be their construction." Turning the message toward Binh, "Anyway, look at this, he actually included you by name rather than just as my 'apprentice'." Binh looked and saw it indeed requested "Master Mage Thanh Tan-mos and Apprentice Binh Miwen" to come mid-morning. "I guess we won't be leaving right away in the morning like I was planning. I hope he doesn't intend to keep us too long so we can leave early enough to reach Metamor before dark."

When morning came, Thanh was disappointed that another storm had rolled in overnight which would have delayed their progress yet again even without the requested meeting. At least this time they weren't camping again in it. When he went out to check conditions beyond the walls, between the falling snow and the blowing, visibility was reduced to a point where the gate guards strongly recommended no travel. If the weather let up by noon, they might make Metamor by nightfall but one of the guards doubted it would before evening. Reaching out to read the weather, he verified the guard's estimation to be fairly close. Tomorrow they should be able to finish their journey to Metamor.

Returning to the inn, he collected Binh and they made their way back into the castle and up to the main doors of the manor. Shortly after knocking, the door opened to reveal an older woman saying, "Yes?"

Holding out the letter received last night Thanh said, "Thanh Tan-mos and Bin Miwen, we have been invited for an audience with Sir Sentilus. I hope we haven't arrived too early."

Glancing at the letter and seeing part of the broken seal, she stepped aside and said in a not particularly friendly tone, "Come on in then, I'll show you in." and hastily shut the door behind them before leading them to their meeting.

The room was a very well appointed drawing room with a couple fine tables and several matching chairs. The walls were hung with large expensive paintings and tapestries. Across the room stood a striking figure dressed in fine long robes, his pure black furred feline head framed with an equally black mane. "Good morning," the feline said in a deep and commanding tone. "I want to thank you both for coming."

"Thank you for inviting us, Sir Sentilus. We were hoping to get an early start for Metamor this morning but the weather seems to disagree with our plans. Though I figured that even if the weather did cooperate, we could afford a little delay to meet with you."

"Thank you. But I am afraid you might be here for several days. The winters here can be intense."

"Actually, I took a reading of the weather and this will be just a short storm, over by tomorrow morning. And besides, I doubt the storms here would be any worse here than what we get in Lom Shi'Un."

The lion nodded. "True but its the roads to the south that are the problem, they are blocked with snow. Please sit down. I'll have some tea and treats brought." After sending for the tea he asked as they sat down, "How do you like our fine town?"

"What little we've seen of it so far looks quite impressive. Tell me, are those walls of Suielman build? I've never had opportunity to see any of their construction, though I learned that they controlled a large portion of the continent centuries ago. The stonework looks ancient and solid enough."

"They are indeed!" the lion explained. "This town is built on the ruins of a Suielman legionary fortress. The walls are the original empire construction. I think you'll find bits and pieces of empire stonework reused all over the town."

"I suppose that's a common practice everywhere unless the society is severely superstitious." At that moment the old woman entered and set the tea service and various treats on a nearby small table then left.

"I hope you like the tea. I had it imported from Khumar in the orient," the lion said as he added leaves to three cups and poured the hot water.

"Ah yes, that should do nicely, though I rarely had opportunity to partake of those imports after returning home to Kendalas from my advanced training in Chai Enu. Forgive me, I'm having trouble placing your species. You seem to resemble a lion but neither of the couple references I'd seen them in mentioned any black variety."

"I am a lion, my coloring is the result of a spell battle some years ago with a necromancer." the lion explained.

"So you're a mage as well? And you survived! That had to be some nasty battle to have this result. I've known a few necromancers, and they're nothing to trifle with. Were there any other lingering effects or just the color?"

"Just the coloration. It was an epic fight but I cannot claim the kill. While the vile mage was casting spells at me a good friend snuck up behind him and ran him thru with a spear!"

"That would tend to ruin one's week." Thanh laughed.

"Indeed. So the rumors I've heard about you are true? You come from Lom and are a mage?"

"Yes, I'm from Kendalas in the west but my serious mage training starting ten years ago was at the schools in Chai Enu, in the east of the dynasty's realm. Then I returned home to Kendalas to set up my practice... until a month ago." said Thanh with a frown forming at the end.

"What happened?" Nest asked. "It must have been severe to have you both traveling on the Giantdowns in midwinter."

"Ah, the root of the trouble starts with the main religion there. You're familiar with the Daedra, and Lilith in particular? Lom is securely under her thumb."

"All too familiar, I have fought the servants of both on several occasions." he explained. "So Lillith does truly rule in Lom?"

"Yes, and there has been a long tradition in Lom that those discovered worshiping Aedra become candidates for ritual sacrifice. When Lilith took control, she added The Hunt. Those found worshiping Aedra are set out in the woods with a dagger and basic survival supplies and tasked with evading the hunters for a set amount of time. Those caught in that time are sacrificed. Those that evade for the specified time or kill the hunters are praised as exemplars of Lilith's ethos and given their freedom, but they are exiled forever from Lom, sent out with only what they can carry." Thanh grinned, "I cheated the last a bit."

The lion gave a small roar of amusement. "Cheated? How so?"

"First, I was suspicious of the ease with which the hunters were following me, especially considering the inept fools the priestess had set after me. During one rest, I prepared some spells to throw their way when they got too close. Before they found me though, they were interrupted by an imp that helps the priestess stepping out of nowhere. The leader was startled enough that he dropped a compass he had been holding. Why would they need a compass to chase someone? After an animated argument, the leader looked at the compass and pointed directly at my hiding place! It had to be a tracer. Once the imp left, stepping into shadow and vanishing, I unleashed my spells, shattering a couple large trees between them and me and took off at a highly accelerated and quieted pace. I then found and displaced the tracer they had on my pack."

"And they followed the tracer to the wrong location," the lion answered. "Some mages think too highly of their own skills and do not expect someone to counter it."

"It was a self-masking spell and they had added other decoy spells distributed in the pack's other contents to further hide it but those were child's play to dispel. I could then find the right one to loosen and slide it onto a copper which I tossed. Anyway, I then turned the hunt back on them, picking the idiots off one by one. When I got down to the last one, the imp stepped out of nowhere again. Apparently the priestess was getting impatient. While they were arguing, I poured an insanely overpowered lightning bolt into the imp, toasting it and the backlash stunned the hunter. I then finished him off and headed back to town."

The feline gave a purr of delight. "Nicely done! But why did you head back to town?"

"Binh was still there. Earlier I had reestablished contact with him through a message stone spell and got him starting to pack up the house, at least my library and other projects. I also had him procure horses from a good friend who also offered his boys to help. When I got back, we finished packing and I booby-trapped the house on the way out."

"Always leave a little surprise for unwanted guests," Nest said and sipped some tea. "But its best to use care. A booby-trap can kill anyone who trips it. even the innocent."

"I left a note for the priestess with a proximity delay trigger. After enough time to read it when approached, the note burned up in a harmless flash... which triggered demolition charges in the outer walls. I believe it went off when we were a few hours out of town. With the Hunt notice they placed on the door, nobody else was likely to enter until officials took possession to resell it. And if thieves saw that notice as license to pillage, serves them right."

He nods. "Nicely played," the massive feline says. "What truly makes a great mage is how they use their magic. Not the ability to blow things up."

"Yup, creativity makes blowing things up more fun." Thanh said with a smile.

"It does indeed. But the truly deadly mages are the ones who understand the subtleties of magic. Some truly deadly things can be done with simple spells."

Thanh reached into a pouch, "By the way, this is the compass they were using. Until about a week ago it still had the tracer spells on it, which I had altered to a different resonance. It's quite dead now, though I could respell it if I wanted."

"Let me see it!" the lion ordered in the firm tones of command. "I will make sure they do not ever trace you again."

"Oh, I have confidence that they wouldn't have followed it with what I did to it, but even that was wiped out by some kind of catastrophic magical shockwave last week." as he handed it over. "Do you have any idea what that was all about?"

The lion took the item. In spite of his massive paws he handled it with amazing dexterity using his claws to touch the item. "A fairly well made spell but nothing left but remnants. There is little left now. That magic wave wiped away most of it." the feline explained.

"I know that it wasn't from Metamor, I could feel a sense of great distance as it traveled across the land. So, where was your training in the arcane arts, if I may ask?"

"Me?" the lion asked. "I am from the Southlands. That wave was from the south, farther south than where I came from."

"Does Metamor have a mage guild or school?"

"The Keep does have a Mages Guild of sorts but it's inactive at the moment. Many mages were killed at the battle of three gates and never replaced."

"And I suppose last year's war wasn't any help either. At least this time, it appears the lutins are getting sick of Nasoj wanting to control them."

"Good, It has been an oddly quiet fall and winter. Far fewer attacks then I've seen in a long time."

"The last lutins we met gave a warning after taking their toll for our passage. something about a haunted woods east of here with something hunting there. Have you been doing something there to scare them off?"

"No!" the feline said looking unsettled for the first time. "You must stay clear of those woods. They are truly haunted and any trespassers are brutally killed."

"Well, since there's something to it, I'll take both his and your word for it and stay out. Is there a particular boundary to it in case someone wandering the woods stumbles across it? Like the valley's curse, I see someone put a warning sign up past the dike."

"Indeed, and take it seriously. Be clear of the valley in 10 days or it will change you."

"Well, that's one warning that I intend to accept the consequences of. And according to what your people said on the way in yesterday, it seems I have a year or two to find someplace for Binh to go if he chooses not to accept the curse himself."

"He might have to travel a good distance south of here before finding a good place," Nest said

"Then I'll have to ask around for options. I surely don't intend to find someplace north for him."

"Agreed. We have several fine mages here at Metamor. But if he must travel south I highly recommend Marigund, the mages guild there is both open minded and well skilled."

For the rest of the visit, Nestorius asked about various aspects of Lomish society, the people, foods and the mage schools and guilds. He also answered other similar questions Thanh and Binh had about the Metamor valley and then his earlier years in Sathmore.

Salerna focused on her scrying pool and Thanh's phial, wondering if he had reached his destination yet. For some reason, she was getting nothing. Not even a sense of direction. Trying again, still nothing. Alright Thanh, where did you get to now? You couldn't have gotten that far in a week to be out of range already. Perhaps a scry blocker, but why?

In the morning, the storm had indeed ended as expected and they left for Metamor on skis once again due to the fresh snow cover. About an hour out, a couple miles off to the west they noticed an area of much taller trees than the rest in the area. "That must be the Glen we heard someone talking about. I'll have to come see their underground and tree homes and businesses as well as other places in the valley once winter is done. It'll be good to be somewhat familiar with the various places around the valley." Later, within view of Tarrelton, they came upon an intersection, one road angling back north to the east and another back to the west toward the glen.

Finally, a half hour after passing through Tarrelton they were within sight of Metamor, with the keep's majestic towers rising high over the massive curtain walls. Following the road down the east side, they approached a small grove of trees with a dark gray stone column in the middle over twenty feet tall. Before this obviously ancient "Standing Stone" he turned at the first road, leading to Metamor's attached outer town of Euper. Following the road into Euper, he noticed that the town had newly rebuilt walls compared to the rest of Metamor. Removing their skis, strapping them to the horses and entering the east gate, they passed through the town— marveling at the variety of the residents' different forms, despite spending a day in Hareford— until they reached the town square.

At that moment, Thanh heard a commotion in one corner of the square as a group of laughing and yelling children came running out of one street. They were chasing what appeared to be a large metal fox prancing across to the other side and disappeared down another street. Tossing the horse's lead to Binh, Thanh ran excitedly to the street where the group had vanished. They had already disappeared around another corner and he could no longer determine their location through all the other noise of the town. Turning around, he found Binh approaching with the horses. "What is it, Master?"

"I... I think... I just saw a working automaton! A quite advanced one." Retaking his horse's reins, he scanned his surroundings and noticed the fortress-like new construction of the stone building he was standing by had a green sign with a brown, orange and white dog and words below naming it The Jolly Collie, an inn. "Well, I don't know if that was a sign, but thissign looks as good as any to find ourselves a room." They entered through the large heavy iron-bound doors and found the inn's own stables on one side of the inner courtyard. They stacked their baggage and skis by the stable doors to be taken up to their room while the ostler held the horses steady. The girl then took the horses to stalls as they left.

Exiting the stables, Thanh saw a one-eared fox man exit the main inner door, cross the courtyard with a short glance in their direction and exit the inn complex and thought Ouch, he's seen some action. They crossed the courtyard and entered the inn's common room, which still had a hint of fresh woodwork and varnish smell, to find the innkeeper.

A tall middle-aged woman with hair tied in a pony tail walked over to them. "Welcome to the Jolly Collie. My name's Jimmy, can I help you, sirs?"

"Yes, we would like a room, Madam. I'm not sure yet what duration but possibly a couple weeks anyway, possibly longer. We've already left our horses in the stables and our trunks are stacked there until we're checked in."

"Please, just call me Jimmy. areaware of the curse, aren't you? In two weeks you'd be under the curse effect unless you left the valley first. Assuming you haven't already been touched by it."

"Oh, we were made aware of the curse during our short stay yesterday in your outpost town of Hareford. I'm quite willing to take my chances with whatever the curse does to me, and from what I've been told, Binh here is still safe from it for another year or two. If he decides he doesn't want to risk it himself, I'm sure I can find somewhere for him to go by then. Metamor does trade outside the valley, doesn't it?"

"Yes, we get quite a few traders from south of the valley bringing products in and taking some local products back south with them. Now, let's get you situated with a room." She beckoned a couple porters over to get the luggage hauled in. While they took off, Thanh prepaid for a week and she assigned them a room with two beds.

The porters returned with the first two trunks and Jimmy told them what room Thanh and Binh were assigned.

Following the porters up to the room, Thanh added, "Our skis are standing against the wall by the trunks. Would you bring those up too, please?"

"Sure thing, sir. Though we also have storage closets where we could keep them for you."

"No, I'd like to keep them with the rest of our stuff. Thank you for the offer though." Getting the trunks situated and telling the porters where to put the others as they left on their next trip, Thanh looked around the room and said to Binh "I've never stayed in such a new inn before. And none so strongly built either."

Once the porters finished their task and were tipped a couple coppers each, Thanh and Binh went back down to get some dinner in the commons. Finding a table where they could see most of the room, they promptly had their orders taken by a black bear waitress and watched the room while they waited. The clientele here seemed to be a higher percentage of humans than he noticed in Hareford, some groups more dark-skinned than others and certain members of each group with a definite mercenary look to them, likely caravan guards. Some appeared to treat the obvious cursed employees and patrons pretty much like normal people while others had nothing but scowls and insults for them, especially those with animal aspects, as if they were less than peasants or less than human.

When their food arrived, Thanh thanked the waitress and they dug in, enjoying the good food. When they were done, Thanh decided he'd take a stroll while Binh said he'd rather lay down after their journey. Tomorrow would be soon enough for exploring their new home. Returning to the room with Binh, Thanh re-donned his San Jie Gun in its sheath and went out to see a little of Euper after dusk.

On a whim, he walked back to the street where the metal fox and children had last been seen and followed it to the next intersection. Looking down each direction, he saw nothing to indicate their earlier passage, nor did he particularly expect anything. He did notice however that farther from the town square, there were still some ruins from last winter's war, though apparently all of the loose rubble had been removed. Opening his mage sight, he was momentarily blinded by the dizzying miasma of magic permeating the area and had to steady himself against a nearby wall and thought, Woah, this will take some getting used to!as he dropped the sight. I'll have to make Binh aware of this before we do much more practicing.

Taking a somewhat circular route around Euper about half way between the walls and the square, Thanh made his way back to the inn a half hour later. Crossing the courtyard and approaching the common room entry he was met by a large, very well muscled woman. She was roughly escorting one of the rude mercenaries out by a painful grip to an ear while berating him. "This is a respectable establishment. If you can't keep a civil tongue to our employees and patrons, and your hands to yourself, you'll eat and sleep with the horses." She shoved him toward the stables and stood ready for any retaliation. He instead just stomped off to the stables, grumbling.

Thanh asked, "Aren't you afraid he'll be back for revenge?"

"Benny? Nah, he knows the routine here, even if he sometimes forgets. After the first time, he learned what happens to persistent troublemakers." She smacked a fist into her other palm, "And he knows that if he causes too muchtrouble, he may end up in the dungeons for a week or two. No, he'll sleep it off and probably just be surly for the rest of his caravan's stay."

"It looks like you have things well in hand here but let me know if you need any help with anyone. I can be a little persuasive at times." He whipped out his San Jie Gun, gave a couple quick twirls, the last one smacking loudly on the courtyard floor and re-sheathed it with a grin.

The bouncer's eyes widened at the sudden precise motion and just as sudden stillness before the impact's echoes faded. "Well, I think I'll get to bed so I can get an early start tomorrow seeing the sights of Metamor."

Returning to their room, he found Binh lying down but still awake. "Master, have I displeased you in something?"

"What? No! What ever gave you that idea?"

"Twice now you've talked about sending me out of the valley in the next year or two."

"Binh, you're forgetting one of your lessons. Listen very carefullyto what you hear. Each time I qualified that with 'if you choose to avoid the curse'. If you want to stay and accept whatever the curse does, you can. If not, I'll try to find someplace suitable outside the valley where you can continue your training. As Nestorius suggested, Marigund's guild would be one possible choice."

"I'm sorry Master, it's just so overwhelming."

"That's okay, don't worry about it. Speaking of overwhelming, you should try something before we get back to lessons another day. Open your mage sight but very slowly. You'll be amazed at what you see." Binh sat up and almost immediately put his hands up as if to shield his eyes. Thanh laughed, "I toldyou to go slowly."

"What is it, Master? It's so bright and complex."

"I suspect," Thanh replied, "that it is a number of things. One, wherever people congregate, the magic pools together. Two, Metamor is likely situated on a powerful nexus, and the two would have a multiplying effect together. Then lacing over that there would be the curse and whatever other magics may be present. It will take some study to make enough sense of it to be able to work normally through its miasma. But enough of this, I'm going to bed. Tomorrow I'll see about finding the famous library of Metamor."

After breakfast Thanh set out for the keep, Binh following along with renewed interest. Passing through one gate, they came into a wide open large courtyard containing no buildings. Half way across, they heard a commotion behind them and turned to look. Running from one gate north to the other, was a group of children laughing and yelling again, this time chased bythe prancing metal fox, ridden by a pair of giggling mouse children. Following close behind was an older mouse girl yelling, "Madog, be careful! Wilhelm, Isabela, hold tight!"

The fox, instead of barking at the chased children, was saying, "woof, woof... bark!" and the whole procession quickly flowed through the crowded gate as only playing children can and were lost again to view.

Continuing at the sedate pace of the rest of foot and cart traffic, Thanh and Binh passed through the gate into Metamor town, or Keeptowne as he had heard some call it. They continued north to the keep, stopping along the way at a bakery to purchase a couple delicious pastries from a cat tending the counter as some kind of large rodent came from the kitchen to restock the racks with steaming loaves and pastries.

Reaching the keep's gate, Thanh asked for the library's location. "Newcomer, eh?" asked one of the guards. He pointed across to a door on the keep, "Go in that door (or anydoor for that matter) and just start walking, keeping the library in your mind as your destination. Don't worry about taking or missing turns or stairs, you'll get where you need to be sooner or later."

"Those are odd directions, I've never heard of such nonsensical navigation."

"I guess you've never heard of the keep's variable geometry then. Just think about where you want to be as you walk and Kyia, the keep's spirit, will take you where you need to be. Sometimes she has reason to take you on a round-about way to your destination."

"That must be confusing at times. Thank you for the help." They continued across to the keep entrance where they were observed though not stopped. Thinking of reaching the library, they started wandering the keep. Some halls were fairly plain, others were decorated with standing suits of armor or sculptures, while yet others had paintings or tapestries. Most had doors of varying sizes and types. A couple times when they looked back, they found unfamiliar halls or intersections they hadn't passed through.

In under ten minutes they found their way to the library. Even knowing something of its reputation, Thanh was struck with awe at its size. Passing the currently-empty desk by the door he wandered the shelves for about a half hour, the morning light illuminating the floor to ceiling shelves through large stained glass windows. He made note of various categories and topics available before coming back around to the front desk. Perched at the desk was the largest Great Horned Owl he had ever seen, though not very surprising after meeting the eagle Marcus the other day in Hareford.

"May I help you?" she said, looking up from a book on the desk.

"Ah... yes, perhaps you can. We're new to the valley and I just had to see this wonderful collection myself. Would you by any chance have any books on Automata?"

"Well I can give you Suandrals Migicom— that has a very good section on Automata and then I have Aderslee's Automata— that is a a good tome for a person studying the magic."

"I have some whole and partial copies of some tomes I found years ago in Chai Enu's library. Do you have anything like a copyist guild that I may donate copies to this beautiful collection?"

"Of course! We are grateful for all additions to the library. And yes we can have copies made by one of our scribes." she says happily.

"I'll have a look at Anderslee's for a while before heading back out for lunch." Thanh said in anticipation of the new find.

"All right but remember the books do not leave the library. Only residents can take books out."

"That shouldn't be an issue in a week or two. I'm certainly not going back north."

"Of course not but some visitors have tried to steal some of our rarer books."

While Thanh spent the next couple hours perusing his requested tome, Binh found and looked through some recent books on Metamor and the rest of the valley, the Midlands and some locally written stories.

When they were done and returned the books to the desk, they left the library. The hall looked unfamiliar even though they exited by the same door they entered. Walking a while, they came across the one-eared fox carrying a large black battle axe that exuded power and a presence and a lean, tan dog man of some kind with the dark fur going down the back of his head and neck graying. They entered a room that appeared to be an office as Thanh passed the closing door, hearing a bark-like guffaw. A little farther down the hall was a door exiting the keep.

Passing back through the gate and into the town, they found a cheese shop and bought a wedge then went back to the baker's for a loaf and sat at one of his tables to eat. During their lunch they conversed a little with the proprietor Gregor, a capybara, and his apprentice Brennar. They then wandered about Keeptowne, seeing the various shops and some still un-rebuilt and vacant ruins of shops and homes. Returning to Euper, they did the same.

Approaching The Jolly Collie after a loop through the town, the now-familiar sound of running, laughing and yelling children grew above the general murmur of the square. Coming at Thanh from around a corner, followed by children, was the fox automaton making a sudden attempt to stop short but skidding on the snowy, icy cobblestones. The attempted stop wasn't quite successful as it bumped Thanh, knocking him down, and skidded to a stop straddling him. The metal fox looked down at the man for a moment as the children stopped a short distance away. "Hi! Silly, you'll get dirty there!" Hearing footsteps coming from behind Thanh, it looked up, wagging its tail and said, "Hi papa! Look, I found a new friend!"

Thanh tilted his head back to see who was there and saw the one-eared fox outfitted for a patrol, with a longbow on his back and the great black axe in one hand. The fox responded, "That's nice. It's always nice to run into a new friend."

« Previous Part