In the flatlands to the east, in the shadow of Horns d'Ba'al, a butterfly spreads its wings for the first time. The breeze, gentle and unsuspected, starts a chain of events that invisibly, inevitably reaches across the world with the force of a hurricane and plucks unlucky sailors from their ship before dashing the wooden vessel into the rocky shores along the Sea of Stars.
In Metamor Keep, a bar fight breaks out over how the betting pool over Grey Wheeler's transformation should be distributed. The self-proclaimed cousin of the Duke left Metamor Keep before the curse could take effect, so Jaggs had stepped forward to claim his winnings.
However, a few witnesses claimed to have seen Wheeler looking both younger and shorter as he wandered the halls of the Duke's palace the day he vanished from the Keep. The nastiest version of this rumor had Wheeler rejoining the Black Capricorn as a cabin boy where he could enjoy the company of like minded men. That being as likely as anything, K'yphir stepped forward to claim the pot.
Events didn't have to get out of hand, but colder weather seemed to encourage hotter heads. Jaggs, a weasel in the Civil Guard, demanded that these so-called witnesses be brought forth. K'yphir demanded proof that Wheeler had left before the curse had struck, because he had been friends with Wheeler, and he'd seen Wheeler that morning and even Shinto had commented that Wheeler looked younger.
All heads turned towards the Solfire monk who was a coyote morph, where he sat with Giles Clifface, a mountain goat morph. Very few had ever seen them outside of the pub. They were drinking buddies with K'yphir, who had sat with them until Jaggs had come into the Deaf Mule. Giles looked over at the snoozing monk and then nudged him with a forelimb, bleating gently for his attention. The coyote woke up and lifted his maser. "To the Duke!" he answered grandly and then threw back what little wine his tin cup contained. With a satisfied slam onto the table, Shinto gave the crowd his best coyote smile and they promptly ignored him.
"What?" he asked as Giles rolled his eyes.
"Well, dammit, he DID!" K'yphir growled at the zebra morph that fancied himself the local book-keeper. No one knew yet what K'yphir was turning into, but with the greenish tint that was under his eyes and lips, the odds were that he was turning into a bug or a reptile. He had a problem with the zebra, anyway, because the man wouldn't let him see how the bets were being placed on him, as if he could influence his transformation by knowing. Shinto couldn't read Standard, knowing only the Solfire glyphs, and Giles could easily read the books, but his dear friend could only bleat and baaaa.
In fact, K'yphir was having a problem with everyone lately. It was the change and he would be the first one to admit it... once the fight was over. So, in order to get that out of the way as quickly as possible, K'yphir threw the first punch. The fight spread through the Deaf Mule like a ripple on a pond, just not as gently.
Those watching carefully got to see the Solfire Drunken Fighter technique performed by a master, but only fighters on the caliber of Misha or Rikkter would have been able to appreciate the economy and deceptive nature of the form. To the untrained, however, it just looked like Shinto was trying not to spill his drinks.
All of this was really just harmless fun, a release of the stress that had been building up since the Pontiff's death. Really.
The Duke didn't buy it, either.
So, that was how Jaggs and K'yphir ended up on patrol together, despite the fact that K'yphir's change hadn't yet finished with him, and that Jaggs himself had just come back from patrol. They had explicit orders not to come back without the other. They were going to have to bond and play nice.
"This is all your fault," Jaggs said after an hour of silence.
"I know," the big man said grouchily, making a show of trying to reach an itch under his borrowed armor. "Whatever I'm changing into is making me very aggressive. If I knew what it was, I could probably control it."
Jaggs sighed. Having a conversation with the newcomer wasn't something he'd looked forward to, still, he'd been through what the man was going through and he sounded sorry, if not ready to apologize outright. "Well, I heard you have one of those slow transformations like Michael had, those are darn hard to figure out."
K'yphir grunted and walked for a bit. "Do you really think that looking at the betting pool will influence what I turn into?"
Jaggs rolled his eyes, "No, you idiot. Looking at the betting pool will influence the betting pool. Let's say a lot of people bet you'll turn into a flaming salamander... and you say, funny, I don't feel like a flaming salamander... suddenly, those bets lose value for everyone and the odds suddenly go up... and IF you do turn into a salamander, flaming or otherwise, people think you're in on the fix."
K'yphir grunted and then sighed after a moment. "We should have just asked Clay what happened to Grey."
Jaggs shrugged. "What makes you think he knows?"
K'yphir snorted, "Well, they were lo... they were very close. Clay saved his life, y'know."
Jaggs smiled and decided to change the topic slightly. "Y'know, Freddie says odds are you are going to turn into some sort of reptile, maybe a dragon."
"Or a bug," K'yphir spat. "Either way... I am not looking forward to losing my... humanity like that."
"Your humanity?" Jaggs laughed. "I still have my humanity, thank you very much. I prefer what I am to being sex-changed or turned into a kid."
K'yphir growled. "I'm meant my... plumbing. Giles..." Finally, K'yphir lapsed back into blessed silence and Jaggs was grateful for about an hour. "Giles can't wear pants anymore," the foreigner said, suddenly. "He's... too big, y'know?"
Jaggs, who was a bit of a farmboy, knew enough about goat anatomy to know what K'yphir was referring to. "I know, and I don't really know what to tell you."
K'yphir apparently needed to just voice his concern outloud, because he completely ignored the weasel's words. "If I become a bug or even a lizard, I'll have the opposite problem, won't I?"
Jaggs stopped and spun around and waved his furry brown arms in front of K'yphir. "Look, I'm a weasel. WEASEL. You want to know about bug or lizard plumbing, you're going to have to ask a bug or lizard, ok?"
K'yphir looked shocked. "I was just making conversation."
Jaggs marched down the path. "I do NOT want to talk about your plumbing."
K'yphir marched behind him and after a moment asked, "Does that mean we can talk about your plumbing, then?"
"No, that doesn't mean-" Jaggs held his hand up. "Shhhhh!"
A second later, the faint sound of someone struggling up the path came to K'yphir's ears. It sounded like only one person struggling under a heavy load, so that pretty much ruled out Lutins, who rarely traveled alone. They traveled in packs.
Still not taking any chances, the two slid into either side of the forest and hid as best as they could. Soon, they discovered what appeared to be an older human dressed as a merchant and a seaman practically being carried by the first.
Both were bedraggled and battle-scarred and in need of medical attention, Jaggs motioned for K'yphir to step forward first, since he was still mostly human. The merchant looked incredibly relieved to see the armed man while his burden barely registered that he wasn't walking forward any longer.
"Identify yourself," K'yphir growled at them dramatically. Jaggs used the words to cover the almost silent sound of his stepping out of the woods behind the two travelers.
"I'm Abrahamme Dramm," the merchant said breathlessly. "I was hired to guide these folks to Metamor Keep."
"Folks? There are more of you?"
"Lutins attacked us... the rest of the group stayed behind to so that I could get this one to safety."
Jaggs looked back along the trail. "How many in your party? How many in Lutins? How far back?"
Dramm didn't even look at the weasel. "There are 10 with swords against twice as many Lutins, but one of them was a firecaster. They attacked the camp just before dawn. Spanner here took to a fever last night and then caught a barb from a Lutin arrow. Poisoned, it seems."
Duty pulled Jaggs in two direction, to get the injured to safety and to join in the attack against Lutins. Only for a moment. The ten had stayed behind to make sure this "Spanner" got to the safety of the Keep; if he was worth ten lives, then Jaggs was going to make sure their sacrifice wasn't for naught.
K'yphir seemed to come to the same conclusion. He lifted the limp seamen from Dramm's shoulder and tossed the injured man over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Jaggs was startled for a moment, then he recalled that K'yphir had been a butcher before coming to the Keep and probably could carry a side of beef for miles without tiring. He was literally treating the man like a piece of meat, but the man did not seem to have a complaint.
Dramm looked back at the armor clad weasel and smiled. It was rather disconcerting to see a stranger not react to his furry visage. "My thanks, Keepers."
Jaggs decided they could walk and talk. K'yphir was already lumbering up the path back towards the Keep anyway. The merchant leaned on him without hesitation as Jaggs suddenly found his stubby legs put to the test to keep up with the butcher. "You seem at ease with me. Do you know some Keepers?"
Dramm chuckled, even though' there seemed very little humor to it. Just relief. "Disappointed you didn't scare the Rube? I used to run a caravan across the Flatlands and the Steppes and the Far East. I've traded with Os-Var-Khai and The Dragon City, so I've known my share of people with tails."
Jaggs had heard so little of Os-Var-Khai that he was about to ask for more details when Dramm decided to add more. "In fact, it's been said that I've also sired my share of people with tails." He laughed at his own sense of humour and K'yphir barked with laughter.
Jaggs snapped at them to be silent, lest they let every Lutin in the area know where they were. He'd wait to know more about Os-Var-Khai until he could get a book from the Library. The idea of a Kingdom who voluntarily transformed into animal morphs fascinated him, but he didn't want to hear tales of its gutters and back alleys.
After the first mile, K'yphir began to falter.
K'yphir didn't say anything, but after a few moments Jaggs began to suspect that the big man was going to fall over before he admitted to physical weakness. "Let's rest up, a moment." Jaggs said. "Let's check his wounds."
K'yphir nodded and let the injured man down much more gently than he had picked the man up. Jaggs noted that the green around the butcher's eyes had spread to much of his face. Jaggs met K'yphir's eyes, they were dark. It looked like the mages were wrong about K'yphir's Change being slow; the transformation was starting to accelerate. "I'm fine," the big man said. "The Keep's only another mile away. I can make it."
Jaggs gave him a short nod and then checked the seaman's wound. Or wounds. In addition to the puckered and red arrow wound, his legs were covered with running sores. No wonder Spanner had taken to a fever last night, he'd already been fighting a serious infection. The laceration Jaggs knew how to bandage... the running sores were a complete mystery to him, however.
Dramm gawked at the wounds. "The arrow wasn't poisoned then?"
Jaggs shrugged. "Might have been, but the infection's his real problem. I'm not sure there's enough leeches in Metamor Keep to save him."
K'yphir hacked up some spit as Dramm seemed to be struggle with a decision. Jaggs began to wonder if K'yphir was going to make it back at all.
"I have something that might help. It's drastic, but the lad's headed for the Keep anyway. He's not likely to walk away before the curse takes him, is he?"
Jaggs looked up at the bedraggled merchant. "I'm not sure he'll even live to see the curse take him. What do you have?" Short of pact with the Daedra, he was open to anything Dramm might have to offer.
"I have had this charm for almost a decade. It was a gift from a great Tantric priest, who was also a fellow connoisseur of the arts. He gave me this charm in case I ever wanted 'to be wiser,' as he put it. It turns the wearer into an animal, much like you are now. It also has the added benefit of good health. It takes about a week to wear off, however, so I've been afraid to try it."
Jaggs tried to ignore K'yphir's retching. "Ten years and you never tried it? Are you sure it even works?"
"Oh, yes, Chang's never disappointed me." Dramm smile sadly. "I wish I could have said the same about myself. The charm has two charges in it. One for myself and one for my lover. I never made use of it. Having a lover, my wife might look the other way since I was gone so often., but shape-shifting? She would have had me excommunicated. Or cleansed of sin, which was often accidentally fatal, I understand."
"That's nice, Dramm." Jaggs glanced at K'yphir. He seemed to be over that little fit, but every piece of exposed skin was now a bright green. Jaggs was suddenly worried that turning into a bug was the least of K'yphir's worries. He'd only seen that shade of green on plants, but then he didn't really know a whole lot about plants. There was already one tree morph in Metamor Keep, they could be another by this time tomorrow. That was assuming K'yphir didn't take root out here, a mile away from the Keep. "How much do you want for it?"
Before Dramm could answer, an arrow popped out of the flabby left check of the merchant. Understandably, when the merchant did answer, it was with a high pitched scream that was soon drowned out by the war cries of a half dozen little Lutins rushing at them.
Jaggs threw Dramm down on top of the injured seaman and then waded into the Lutins. K'yphir did the same also, his hammer and shield, keeping the Lutins away from him almost effortlessly. Jaggs was too busy with his own long sword and shield to really step back and admire the butcher's technique. He thought it odd a butcher would refrain from using a blade in a fight, but to each his own.
Arrows flew in every few seconds, badly aimed, but it kept them from fighting effectively. Dramm took another arrow in the leg before Jaggs saw where their loan archer was hiding. Gritting his teeth, he pushed two of the Lutins back and then ran a third through with his long sword and let go of it. As the impaled Lutin danced about with Jaggs preferred weapon in his chest, Jaggs took his throwing ax and flung it out the momentarily exposed goblin archer.
Then the arrows stopped altogether. Jaggs grabbed his long sword and kicked the green beast off his weapon. With no firecaster to back them up and no archer to harass the Keepers, the Lutins crumbled quickly.
When there were six dead Lutins at their feet, and one in the woods someplace, Jaggs went to check on Dramm and Spanner as K'yphir fell to his knees exhausted. To his surprise, Dramm seemed more upset that his face would be scarred, than the fact the his leg had an arrow sticking out of it. "Pain and I are old friends. What about your friend? Better check on him."
"K'yphir?" Jaggs nudged the silent butcher and to his startlement, one of K'yphir's boots fell off. There was something green and pulpy sticking out of the bottom of the man's legging. "Oh," Jaggs said. "This is not good."
K'yphir's green face turned back to face Jaggs. His eyes were solid black now. Most of the bigger man's teeth were gone, but he still managed a weak smile. "I hope you didn't bet on reptiles, Jaggs."
"Actually, I had a few coppers on snapper turtle. How do you feel?"
"Sick. I feel like my bones are melting." Almost as if on cue, K'yphir fell forward, his arms twisting where no joint existed in humans. "There are, aren't they?"
Jaggs didn't say another word, he didn't want to waste his breathe and he didn't want to lie. He turned the big man over and dragged him off the path. The other boot fell off and Jaggs went to work getting K'yphir out of his armor. Plant transformations were so rare, Jaggs had to guess at what he was supposed to do.
"What am I going to be?" K'yphir gasped. "What?"
"I don't know." Jaggs could hear his breathing was labored. How long would he still have lungs to draw in air? How much longer would he need to? Jaggs wasn't sure what K'yphir was to become, but it was obvious his darkest fears about his plumbing was coming true. From the belly button down, Samoht K'yphir was a smooth, translucent green bag of flesh whose shape vaguely resembled the abstract idea of a man. "But, on the bright side, you're not turning into a Lutin."
"The amulet," K'yphir's eyes dissolved into his head as Jaggs watched. "If I turn into Laracin... use the amulet, so I can say good bye to Giles. To tell... everyone... I'm sorry."
Jaggs was startled, he'd forgotten about that amulet of Dramm's. Laracin had lived as a tree for the last seven years, immobile and unable to defend himself. It was Jagg's idea of hell, to be forever an unwilling witness to history. If not forever, it would certainly seem like it. He wouldn't wish that on his worst enemy, and K'yphir wasn't his enemy. Just really annoying.
Jaggs sprinted back to Dramm and Spanner. "How much for the amulet?"
"Free!," Dramm said, "but, I'm going to need it for poor Spanner. He's not doing so well and we can't carry both of them, not with my leg like this."
Jaggs nodded curtly, it had two charges. "The second one's a horse, right? Which one do you think Spanner would want?"
Dramm looked at the ill seaman. The spasms and eye-rolling were not a good sign. "I think he'd want to be a horse, but... I don't know if a healthy, panicky horse would be doing us any favours."
"He'd be a horse MORPH, right?" Jaggs said. That was an important distinction.
"I THINK so," Dramm admitted. "Yes, unless I misunderstood him. Some magical concepts are harder to translate than others. There's a whole ceremony for transformations, but those are permanent. All that I'm sure of is the week or so duration and that the first transformation is NOT equine and the second transformation is equine."
Jaggs sighed and held out his hand. He wasn't allowed back to the Keep unless K'yphir was with him. "How does it work?"
Dramm took a clothe wrapped package out of his belt and began to unwrap it. "This is one of the few things my wife didn't want. She's a devout Follower, y'know. Magic is just so... Anyway, Chang said to put it on and say, "I invoke thee."
Jaggs tossed over his head and ran over to the prone K'yphir. Dramm called after him, "I think HE'S supposed to wear the amulet."
"Ok," Jaggs said and tossed the chain over the K'yphir's head, shapeless blob that it was. The only thing Jaggs could recognize as human was the man's mouth... and the brain that the weasel could see within the translucent green skull. The weight of the amulet made K'yphir flinch but Jaggs touched the green stub that remained of the man's right shoulder, and told him it was just the amulet he'd ask for.
"I invoke thee," Jaggs said and Dramm screamed. Jaggs realized his mistake, of course, before the sound of Dramm's voice even reached him. There was a flash of light and Jaggs staggered back a few feet. His legs felt funny and he knew he'd been transformed in some way. His armor was tight for a moment, and then its magical attributes asserted themselves, adjusting to his new form.
K'yphir hadn't been wearing magical armor, of course. It was expensive and, until today, the butcher hadn't needed it.
Jaggs looked at his hands... his hands and arms were reddish brown with a sock of black fur covering his fingers. His tongue felt different, too, and his teeth felt different, sharper. He looked behind himself and saw that he still had the thick mustelid tail he'd become proud of, but it now had more fur than before the colour scheme was different.
Dramm jogged the 15 feet, a chore with his now injured leg. "You look like a fox... the colouring, the eyes and teeth... but the shape is all wrong."
Jaggs sighed. "Half fox." He flexed his new fingers and made a fist with them and punched a tree. He was full of energy and frustration. "Being half horse won't help, K'yphir. Not if he's half plant."
K'yphir rocked at that violently, his green body screaming silently in rage.
Dramm looked at K'yphir and then at Jaggs, before looking at the twitching Spanner. "It won't do either of them any good if they can't invoke the amulet. How do you feel? Damn good, I'm guessing."
Jaggs blinked. "I'm not sure GOOD is the right word, I feel like I've been sipping some of Pascal's black lemonade. I'm so full of energy, my paws are shaking."
Dramm nodded. "That's Tantric energy flowing in you. You need to use it before it wears off. Take Spanner and run back to the Keep with him. Get him to your healers and then, if you haven't passed out yet, get somebody here to help your friend."
"What about you?" Jaggs asked.
"I ran away from a fight a long time ago," Dramm sighed. "Never mind, I have the amulet. I'll guard your friend until you get back. If any Lutins come back before then, they have to deal with a warhorse swinging a very big hammer."
Jaggs nodded, the buzzing energy in his veins making it hard to think of a better plan. He picked up Spanner, mindful of the seaman's injuries, and then looked at what was left of K'yphir. The green mouth made feeble puckering movements, but there was no indication that he was aware anyone was standing over him. "I'll be back with help," the fox-weasel morph said and he imagined that he might have seen a movement from the translucent green man. More colours were appearing on its skin, now, but Jaggs could no longer waste time with needless speculation.
The more energy he pumped into his legs, the more energy he seemed to have. Jaggs covered the last mile or so in less than five minutes. Guards demanded he identify himself and he lept over them, calling out his name. As luck would have it, he met Coe halfway across the Killing Field. Jaggs didn't waste time with explanations. And one good look at the limp human, was all the healer needed to see. Coe only spared him an odd glance as he demanded he bring Spanner to the sick ward. Jaggs reluctantly complied.
At the sick ward, Jaggs ran into Freddie. The zebra morph had an odd way of showing up in odd moments, Jaggs had noticed. "Whoa! What happened to you? Piss off Pascal?"
"No," Jaggs spat at him, before turning his attention back to Coe. "Listen, Brian, the Change hit Samoht K'yphir while we were fighting Lutins. I need help to get him back to the Keep before the Change finishes with him."
"What's he turning into?" Coe asked as he spread balm on the open sores of the man he'd brought back with him.
"Plant," Jaggs said flatly. "I think."
"Oh gods, I knew that would happen again, sooner or later." Coe thought quickly but Jaggs felt as if standing still was the most exhausting thing he'd ever done. He had to get moving again. "We can't leave him out there to take root."
"You know, that's funny." Freddie said from the doorway. "Only one person bet that Key-fur was going to turn into a plant... Grey Wheeler. Pretty ironic, isn't it?"
Jaggs glared at the bookie and Coe gave an odd little raccoon growl. "I am so sick of irony, it's not funny." The healer began ripping at the clothes of the seaman. "Freddie, make yourself useful and get some clean cotton sheets from the hutch over there for me. Jaggs, gather up some long scouts and a wizard, Wessex if you can find him. I'll be along as soon as I get someone to watch your friend her."
Jaggs nodded and took off.
Within minutes, Jaggs had a handful of long scouts asking him about his new look. Inaction was draining him and he was ready to take off by himself just to stay awake when Coe rode across the Killing Field on the back of Freddie in his full zebra form. "I couldn't find Wessex," Jaggs complained but Coe just waved them forward.
The mile back to K'yphir and Dramm seemed so much longer than it had the last time he made the trip, but the Tantric energy kept him going. His tongue lolled out of his mouth almost the entire time, cooling him. It was an odd sensation, one that he'd been spared as a weasel morph.
When they got to the spot where he'd left Dramm and K'yphir, Jaggs didn't see the merchant at first, but soon spotted him sitting next to a large brown rock that hadn't been there before. He had a sad look on his face and he said something, but his voice sounded like it was very far away. Coe said something and his voice sounded like Coe was at the bottom of a deep, deep well. Where was K'yphir, Jaggs asked but his own voice was gone, too.
Then Jaggs' eye caught the rock twitch and squirm at Coe's touch and he suddenly knew that K'yphir had been turned into a giant seed. He knees gave out, but the fox-weasel wasn't aware of that as he hit the ground.
Later, Freddie got a laugh upon hearing Jagg's version of the story. "You thought his cocoon was a big rock?"
Jaggs just shrugged. "What can I say, I was full of that tangy energy from the amulet. Or whatever Dramm called it. Anyway, K'yphir's in the greenhouse until he gestates or whatever you call it. Coe says he's in good shape... for the shape he's in." Jaggs slurped at his ale and then pointed his fox-weasel fingers at the zebra-morph. "Mmmph! I have to tell you, I was impressed that you volunteered to bring Coe out there."
"Don't be too impressed," the zebra morph said with laugh. "Coe used to be quite the card shark before his time was eaten up with all that healing stuff he does. He's going let me pay him off in ambulance service."
"Hmph," Jaggs slurped down some ale. "Say, who picked the lucky species for K'yphir anyway?"
Freddie snorted. "Who else? Shinto over there. With the exception of Wheeler, that monk's gotten the last six betting pools dead on."
"I was wondering how he supported himself," Jaggs said as he finished his ale. "What did he think Wheeler was going to turn into?"
Jaggs laughed at that. "Well, you can't win them all."
Freddie waved at Danny for another round. "No, no you can't. Which brings up an odd situation about the Wheeler pool, and an odd thing the Duke told me about Wheeler."
Freddie smirked, an interesting effect with the stripes on his face. "He said, 'All bets are off, give the money back.'"
"I guess Wheeler was his cousin, afterall."
Freddie shrugged. "I'm giving two to one odds. How much are you in for?"
Within sight of the Sea of Stars, on the mountain fortress known as Metamor Keep, cradled in the warmth of its greenhouse, a butterfly morph emerges from its cocoon and spreads his wings for the first time. The breeze, gentle and unnoticed, starts a chain of events that invisibly, inevitably reaches across the world with the force of a hurricane...