Michael struggled to keep up with his comrades as they walked down the forest trail. His breath came in short gasps as he quickened his pace, determined to keep up with his more experienced buddies, feeling the weight of his pack. The sword at his belt kept hitting him, and he was unable to figure out how the other warriors kept it from whacking their knees, even when he matched their pace exactly. For that matter, he couldn't figure out how they could go so fast and barely break a sweat.
Behind him the wagons rumbled up the trail, horses nervously keeping away from the sharp dropoff to the side of the trail. The clip clop of the horses was a sharp contrast to the nearly inaudible sounds of the footfalls of the men in front of him. Even worse, the horses seemed to be pulling closer even as the men seemed to be pulling away.
"Rock and a hard place," thought Michael, "Either get trampled or suffer a heart attack." Michael stifled a groan and kept moving.
His eyes were so fixed on the trail, he barely stopped before he hit the brightly grinning warrior who had stopped. Michael looked up, and up, at the 7 foot tall blue eyed warrior. His name, Michael recalled, was Jerek. Jerek started walking again, more slowly, and motioned for Michael to join him. Michael still had to hustle to keep up. It seemed that for every one stride Jerek made he had to make two.
"Your first trip?" Jerek said.
"Aye," Michael would have liked to say more, but he had no breath for it.
"Having a little trouble keeping up with the rest of us?"
"Would you like a tip?"
"Aye," Michael thought. "Help me please," would be more appropriate, but he could hardly breathe, much less speak.
"Do this then," Jerek said. "Don't think about the trail at all. Daydream about something pleasant."
"Right. I may be on this trail, but my mind is still in the brothel." Jerek chuckled and moved ahead again.
"Daydream," Michael thought. "Certainly can't do that brothel idea." The only experiences he had were his past in the village he grew up in.
Michael was born in a small village inside of Bernicia. He had been one of three children, the youngest. They lived far off on a farm, so visitors other than the tax collector were few. He had few memories of his father, who had been drafted and never came back. His mother, an extremely strong woman, had taken over from him. She ruled over the land and her children with an iron hand, and she was disobeyed only at great personal peril.
For years and years Michael had toiled at the farm, getting to know every square inch of ground personnally. It wasn't a great life, but he was currently experiencing the alternative for a farm boy like him. He wouldn't know what a girl was if he hadn't made a single trip to the local village several years ago. At least he knew how to read and write. His Mom had taught him that.
He was 17 when a drifter came by, looking for a handout. Michael's Mom had made him work for it, and the poor man had chopped wood until he dropped. But after the drifter had gone, he left something behind. Plague. Michael's siblings had gone first, than his Mother had gradually drifted away. Somehow he was immune. Of course, he sometimes envied them while he was lowering their bodies into the ground.
The next day Michael had packed up his belongings and left forever. At the next town he had mailed the deed to the farm to his uncle, with a full explanation. He had conserved his money carefully, but was stuck in an unfamiliar place without any clue of what to do. The military frightened him, and he had no desire to go back on a farm. It was in an inn, watching a group of burly caravan guards tossing back beer and laughing, that he got his idea.
The next day Michael spent the rest of his money on a sword and leather armor, then went to apply to be a guard. It seemed like a carefree and exciting job, and the guards he had seen only seemed to reinforce the postive parts of it. Besides, it seemed the only job that wasn't a complete dead end.
"What an idiot I was," Michael reflected sourly, shoulders screaming as he trudged," I'm going to be hiking for years along this god-forsaken road without an end in si-"
"We're here lad!"
Michael blinked and took his eyes off the trail. He had emerged from the forest trail and stood blinking in the sunlight. Nestled up against the trees was a town, huddling where the grass met the trees. The other guards hadn't yet stopped moving. They lost any semblance of discipline as they all crowded into the local tavern, laughing and shouting. Michael understood why now. He was so happy to get off the trail he could have cried. He hurried after the other guards.
The local surly waiter plunked down a tankard without ceremony. Michael gingerly took a sip, worrying that the others would have overheard his request. But they were already far gone in drink and weren't likely to pay attention to the novice in the corner anyway. Michael just sipped and listened to their stories, frequently shocked by what he heard, but listening for lack of anything else to do.
A new arrival commanded everyone's attention. A hawk-nosed, battle scarred woman with a grim expression entered and grabbed a waiter. She was the merchant Captain of Michael's crew. She was no soft counter of coins. She was a feared and respected captain, and the guards frequently talked in whispered tones of her exploits when she was younger. Talk died as she sat down at the table and ordered an ale.
She looked up from her ale, and Michael was surprised at how grim her expression was.
"Hope you've had your fun so far, boys, you know where we're going." Her eyes could have cut steel.
The guards muttered and cursed quietly, and one said, "Freakland."
Michael's mind spun as he wondered what could possibly be up the trail. Mountains? Monsters? Magic, maybe?
The captain turned to the one who had spoken and nailed him to the table with her eyes.
"Yes, the people of Metamor Keep are damn odd, and I know none of you like dealing with them. I don't particularly care what you think. They pay damn well for supplies, never cheat, and their gold is of good quality. As long as they pay, they could all be big piles of shit for all I care. Your problem is to watch out for Lutins and keep us from getting raided by 'em.
"You all know what Lutins look like, you all know what Keepers look like. Don't confuse the two. When we're negotiating with 'em, don't get close to 'em. Don't wander off. OK? Good."
The captain abruptly got up and left. The guards started drinking and talking again, but they were much more subdued. A few left to go look for prostitutes, but most hit bed soon after darkness fell. Michael found himself next to Jerek again. He couldn't contain his wonders of the future.
"Jerek," he said, "What was the Captain talking about?"
Jerek raised his head, "You don't know, kid? What, were you raised on a farm?"
"Oh. Well, here's the story. Metamor Keep is in the pass between the Giantdowns and the Midlands. The Midlands is where we are. The Giantdowns is a breeding ground for evil magic, bad monsters, and assorted other nasties. Metamor Keep was built thousands of years ago to keep the two lands apart. It's never fallen for those thousands of years, and the people who live there are the toughest in the land. Metamor Keep is their rallying point to stop whatever comes down the pass."
"Anyway, they used to be normal people like you and me. But some years back some sorceror raised an army and came down the pass, more powerful than anything in years past. The Keepers threw him back, but at great personal cost, both in lives and... other ways."
Mike shivered, "They're still human, right?"
"About 2/3 are. I don't really want to talk about it, OK? They're good enough folk, no matter what some people say. What you have to watch out for are the Lutins. They're nasty little shits that look like a tiny, deformed people. The Keepers try to wipe them out, but they're persistant bastards. Keep your sword arm loose."
Jerek rolled over and started to snore. Despite his worries, Michael wasn't long in following.
The following morning dawned bright and clear. Michael was already on the trail to greet it. Having woken up so early, he was practically sleeping on his feet as the rythmic sounds of the wagon wheels lulled him away. Despite Michael's stumbling pace, he had no trouble keeping up with the experienced guards. Instead of a relaxed, free pace, the guards walked slowly, keeping their eyes on the terrain around them.
Michael woke up slowly as he moved up the trail. He was walking point with Jerek and some other guards. The terrain slowly began to change back to forestland, as some distant mountains grew closer. The trail was long, but Michael's rising adrenaline kept him moving swiftly. When the wagons stopped for a break, the captain made a review of the guards as they checked their weapons. Michael checked his out, though he wasn't sure what to do with it. It seemed like nothing more than a piece of sharp steel; what could be done? He went through the motions anyway.
Soon they were walking through scrub forest, and that became more and more dense as the mountains grew closer. Around mid-afternoon they came up to the base of the mountains, and followed a twisting trail to a small pass. There was a small sign at the pass reading "Welcome to Metamor Keep". The guards grew noticably tenser as they passed it. They weren't two minutes in when a rustling in the bushes drew shouts and swords. Jerek and some of the oldest guards remained unmoving. Trusting them, Michael didn't either.
"It'll be a Keeper asking for passes," Jerek said. "If it was a Lutin there wouldn't be any warning. If the Keepers cared, there wouldn't be a warning either."
Michael just stared, as out of the bushes stepped two of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. The were totally armored in practical leather and chain, but that didn't detract from their beauty. The numerous weapons strapped on their bodies did. Michael found his jaw hanging open, and snapped it shut.
"Is that what the Keepers are like, Amazons?" he whispered to Jerek.
"Some," Jerek whispered back, "but that's about the most normal Keeper you're gonna get."
Despite the stares they were attracting, the Keepers were all business. They asked for the Captain and examined her papers, questioning her frequently. Eventually they were satisfied and walked back into the underbrush, quickly disappearing. With a shout the wagons started moving again, leaving Michael looking longingly back towards where they disappeared.
"Now we really have to move," Jerek said, "if we hope to get to Metamor Keep before dark. We do not want to get stuck after dark."
They were 2 miles away when the attack came.
The guards had kept an unwavering viligance for most of the day, but their nerves were raw after so much time one second from swords out. The knowledge of how close they were to relative civilization relaxed them all, and jokes began flying again. As it was, they still had a moment's warning, coming from one of the guards trailing the wagons.
The warning was his death scream.
"Lutins!" yelled the captain as the sound of shrieking steel filled the air. Michael drew his sword and held it in front of him, almost as afraid of it as he was of the Lutins. The element of surprise lost, a horde of shrieking little creatures hurled themselves out of trees and onto the guards and horses, attacking eyes with little knives. The wagoneers urged their horses onward, as the guards fought against 2 or 3 of the creatures to a man. Jerek had 4 around him, but he was grinning as his sword danced death with them.
Michael turned around nervously, unsure of what to do. Somehow he had been ignored in the first attack, and he didn't know whether to attack or not. His quandary was solved when a screaming little Lutin ran towards him, screaming harshly. Michael took an involuntary step back and swung his sword reflexively, and was surprised to see it go through the neck of the creature. The head went flying, and Michael felt sick, but forced himself to keep fighting.
The fight seemed to be going the guards' way. Some were on the ground, some clutched eyes and throats, but all were still moving. Most bore little wounds from the Lutin's tiny daggers, but the guards were decimating the Lutin hoard. Getting his courage back, Michael turned around to confront something else. His eyes were drawn to a cruelly smiling Lutin whipping a sling around his head. Michael's eyes followed the flight of the rock as it whipped towards him.
Then his eyes focused on the crashing stars in front of his eyes, and then they focused on nothing at all.
"Who'd we lose, Jerek?"
"Tim and Garek. Scarett may lose an eye, and everyone has a couple dagger wounds, but that's it. We actually came pretty well out of that. Oh, and Michael."
"Damn. The kid. We're going to have to leave him at the Keep."
"The Keep? You know what'll happen to him there."
"He's a strong kid, he'll get over it. We sure as hell can't care for a head injury right, the only chance he'll have is at the Keep."
"Alright, but I hope he won't mind being a kid, or growing some fur, or getting a huge pair of..."
"That's quite enough, Jerek."
"Captain, I would like to personally apologize for my warriors not being there to assist you. We never suspected the Lutins would dare to get this close to the Keep. We're out exterminating them as we speak. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"That bonus you paid was quite generous, Sir, and your doctors are miracle workers. I feel you've given all you really can... Oh. We had a man receive a head injury, and we can't care for him. Will you take him in?"
"Are you sure you can't take care of him? You know what will happen..."
"He'll die with us. The only chance he has is with you."
"Well, I can't possibly refuse. But waking up in Metamor Keep can be quite an experience...."
"Is he awake?"
"Hard to tell. Let me check."
Michael wondered at those new words, intruding on his dreams like that. He was having quite pleasant dreams right now, dreams that included the Amazon women, who had somehow lost their clothes, dreams of the guards doing folk dances, dreams of the Captain, of his Mom, occasionnally one of this weird creature whacking him between the eyes. Overall, however, they were all quite pleasant, and Michael wondered what this new one would bring.
"Maybe we should give him another day, so he'll wake up changed and get over with it."
"One, I'm sick of bedpan duty, and two, I don't think he'll ever wake up if it isn't soon."
"Alright. Do whatever you think is necessary.
Michael slipped back into the Amazon dream, but something began to interrupt it. Some sort of ripple that slid across the dream, interrupting it. Michael was really disappointed by this, because the Amazon women were moving in ways that made them really interesting, and Michael definitely wanted to watch. But the ripples came faster and faster, and the Amazon women weren't coming back as fast. There was a pause, then came a long ripple that made them disappear for good and threw him into an uncomfortable blackness.
"He's stirring. I almost got him up."
"Why don't you let me try?"
"Cope, you weigh 340 pounds. You'll tear his head off."
"I'll be gentle."
Restored to wakefulness, Michael struggled to open his recalcitrant eyes and restore feeling to his body. Muttering curses, he grimaced as blood raced through his body, restoring feeling but also causing a painful tingling. With an effort, he forced open his eyelids, the painful feeling of light hitting them almost making him shut them again. The glare disappeared, and his eyes focused on the object not 5 inches from his nose.
A giant, reptilian, snout with two baleful eyes slightly above, was not a foot from his face. The snout opened, revealing row upon row of pointed teeth.
Michael struggled with unresponsive limbs, trying to struggle away from the monster in front of him. They refused to move after so long a rest, and Michael was reduced to ungraceful thrashings under the covers of the bed he was in.
What was he doing in a bed?
Michael cast his eyes around, trying to make some sense of the situation he was in, looking for an escape route or a weapon.
"At least the monster isn't going to eat me immediately." he thought frantically.
Eventually his brain began to make sense of the confused images his eyes were sending in. He was in a small bed in a clean white room. There was a nightstand with a glass of water on it, and a plain wooden door in the corner. But what really caught Michael's attention was the large humanoid raccoon reading a book in a chair by the corner. That and the 6' 6" lizard looking guilty and tugging at the sleeve of his robe.
A literate raccoon and a lizard wearing clothes. "Did I really wake up?" Michael wondered. Michael stared at the giant lizard, who seemed to be blushing behind his scales.
"I knew you'd scare him, Cope. Hell, you sure scare me."
"Shut up Brian."
Michael gaped as the lizard raised his head, saw Michael staring, and lowered it again. An uncomfortable moment passed. The lizard spoke first.
"Um. Sorry about that. My name is Copernicus, and that's Brian in the corner. Um. Welcome to Metamor Keep. I guess."
Michael finally got control of his jaw muscles. "What the hell is going on."
Copernicus seemed somewhat confused. "Metamor Keep. Don't you know? I thought everyone knew."
Michael shook his head, "I just got off the farm two weeks ago, and the guys in the caravan were really close-mouthed about Metamor Keep. They didn't like you, I can tell you that."
"Not surprising. And you don't know about the magic particular to Metamor Keep?"
"Not at all."
"That's good. I guessed that must be the reason you were more scared than normal. Normally people just freak out a little bit when they encounter a Keeper. And they're usually scared most about the magic. You were terrified."
Michael wanted to ask what magic the visitors were so afraid of, but Copernicus talked too quickly to be interupted.
"I'll give you the grand tour in a bit, as soon as you're ready. There's too much to see on unsteady legs. Brian, keep an eye on him." The 340 pound lizard backed away from him, and Michael noticed for the first time how nervous he was. Copernicus seemed unable to make eye contact with him, not that Michael was too eager to have a giant reptile stare him in the eye.
Brian just grunted, and Cop quickly turned and went out.
Michael had a thousand questions, but Brian didn't appear to be too receptive to conversation. Besides, once the adrenaline of staring at several rows of teeth up close wore off, Michael found himself to be quite tired. Questions always seemed to come out of his mouth as yawns, and eventually he just gave up and went to sleep. This time, he didn't dream.
Michael woke up quickly and easily, his body finally refreshed. More than that, he felt... sharp. Like he had never been more awake or alert. Michael attributed it to the amount of bed rest he had gotten. He absently scratched his face, realizing for the first time that he had a very thick growth of beard going.
"How long was I unconscious?" he wondered.
Brian, the raccoon, was still in the corner reading. This time Michael felt up to talking.
"How long was I out?" he asked.
Brian out down the book and turned two ringed eyes towards him.
"Maybe a week," he said.
"A week! What happened to the caravan I was with?"
"They left. Your odds of survival were pretty low, and they couldn't stay long in the Keep without consequences."
Michael decided not to ask how long.
"Who are you?"
Brian shrugged. "Brian Eirik Coe. Raccoon morph. Part time scout, part time nurse, part time card raccoon. Pretty much everyone in the Keep is a jack of all trades. We've rotated keeping an eye on you. Everyone except Cop. He's been here almost full time."
"He was on patrol the night you got attacked. The Lutins knew this, and sent 5 or 6 to delay him. They succeeded, and now he feels guilty about not stopping them."
"He stopped 5 or 6 Lutins?"
"Does that surprise you?"
Michael thought for a second. "No."
"Thing is, Cop is no warrior, whatever he looks like. Most of us could've taken out a patrol of Lutins in about 30 seconds. Cop just isn't that good as the rest of us. Spends too much time staring at the stars instead of practicing."
Michael wondered what the standard of "good" was in the Keep. 5 or 6 Lutins alone in the dark sounded like quite a challenge to him.
"So don't be too hard on the guy. He'll probably follow you like a puppy trying to make it up to you, but he'll get over it eventually.
An extremely loud knock shook the door. Then Cop walked in, still looking as guilty as his reptilian face would allow.
"You feeling up to walking around?" He asked Michael.
Michael took an experimental stretch, and realized that he did feel good. Hell, he felt great, like he had just slept for a week.
"Guess I did," he thought.
"Sure, I'm ready," he said aloud, and let Cop lead him out of the room.
Cop started walking off, while Michael followed and stared at the buildings around him. As a farm boy, his experience in architecture had been limited to thatch huts and occasional taverns, with the occasional awe-inspiring stone building. He wasn't sure how to feel about luminescent marble, rising 20 feet into an arched roof. He wasn't sure how to react to a hall that went on for hundreds of yards, with actual glass windows cut into the sides at regular intervals.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Cope said, "Some say Metamor Keep was placed here by the Gods. The Gods say that someone above them placed it here. It's the most beautiful building in the world, and it's half the reason we fight to defend the pass. This is one of the main halls, but by no means the largest. Wait till you see the throne room. Visitors have been known to pass out."
By this point in Cope's monologue Michael no longer cared, because he was staring with awe at the inhabitants instead. There wasn't a single person he saw that looked anything like him.
The first inhabitants to catch his eye were the women. His eye caught some Amazons similar to the ones he had seen on the trail, and indeed many of the women in the hall wore some military gear or carried a weapon that they looked well able to use. Others looked like the finest of courtesans, and others appeared to be a representation of a perfect female form, with short skirts and large chest. But the overwhelming majority of the women looked like normal women back home, exception being that almost none wore skirts.
The second group Michael gaped at were a lot like Brian or Copernicus- the animal people. A man with antlers and snout chatted pleasantly with a female wolf. A sort of bird walked down the hall. Several cat people were talking to themselves. There were some animals in the hall as well, dogs and cats and wolves (wolves!) scampering around. Michael was sure he saw a horse go trotting down the hall as well.
Lastly Michael noticed the children, mainly because they were the smallest. They were both girls and boys, and ranged from about young adolesence to toddlerhood. What was odd was how they were addressed. Michael saw a group of women and animal people listening gravely to the words of a seven year old. And while some wore normal children's clothes, adult clothing made for small frames was much more common. Few played games, and many carried paper.
Only a scaly hand waved in front of his eyes made Michael blink.
"Done gawking?" Cope said with a grin. "Then let's get moving. How about a drink?"
Michael just nodded, still staring unabashedly.
Cope half guided, half dragged Michael down the hall to a smaller hallway, more utilitarian than ornamented. At its end was a doorway, with a small sign on the door reading "The Deaf Mule." Cope opened the door, ducked under the doorway, and walked inside with Michael following. Inside was what looked like a normal bar, if one discounted the clientele. Most raised a tankard at Cope's arrival and cheerfully said hi, and Cope smiled shyly.
Cope dragged Michael to a table and sat him down. A large bovine plunked down two drinks and walked off.
"That's Donny," Cope whispered, "he doesn't talk much. Strong and silent type. Good beer tho."
Michael was trying to absorb the sights around him, but Cope easily filled in the silence.
"One thing," he said to Michael, "one thing that you should know. You can call me Copernicus, Cope, Cop, Coper, Copina, or by my nickname, Kevin, but you can never, ever, EVER call me by the name..."
"Lizard Lips! How you doin'!"
Cope grimaced as a 10 year old with a gigantic mug of beer sat down next to him. Michael was more interested in the attractive women that sat down with them too.
"Doin' fine Pampers, and you?"
"Just fine, Lizard Lips. Who's your buddy?"
"Ah, permit me to make introductions. Michael, this is Mark Van Sciver and Jenn Rose."
Michael shook hands dazedly. Then he took a very large swig of his beer.
Mark looked at the uncomfortable man intently. "I don't suppose your original name was Michelle?"
"Michael has only been here a bit. He just recovered from a head injury and I'm showing off the Keep."
"So he hasn't..."
Michael finally found control over his tongue. "Who are all you people?"
"Not what we seem, kid, not what we seem. For instance, this body," Mark pointed to his childish form, "is about 26. Jenn here started her career with several more appendages then she has now. And Lizard Lips here used to be just as pink as you."
"What do you mean?"
"If magic hadn't intervened, we'd all look a lot like you. All of us were typical human men until Nasoj came down the pass about 6 years ago and cast this spell in an attempt to neutralize we defenders. Some of us got partially transformed into animal forms, like Lizard Lips here. He used to wear glasses and was 5'10". Some, like me, got youthened fairly permanently. Others got gender zapped, tho Nasoj was quite mistaken when he assumed women couldn't fight."
"We have some control over our forms. Morphs, as we call the animal transforms, can change into a full animal and into a sort of human hybrid. AR's, which is short for Age Regression, can go from about 14 to swaddling clothes. TransGenders, and there are women to men, incidentally, can only change their physical appearance somewhat. They can go from normal woman to something approximating a bombshell, which most don't find too useful, but some love it.
"As to who we are inside, we are the defenders of Metamor Keep. That means we keep the nasties north of here back from the civilized lands of the south. Can't say we get much gratitude, however."
Copernicus interrupted, "Mark, and a lot of the ARs, work diplomatic duty down south. They're the only ones who aren't either burned at the stake or attempted to be raped. Plus extra-curricular diplomacy is a specialty of theirs."
"That means spying," Mark said with a grin, "we poor little kiddies are all great thieves. And not bad fighters either. You have a natural advantage when you're at just the right height to stab in the crotch."
Michael took another drink, only to discover that the glass was empty. "How did that happen?" he wondered.
Jenn spoke up, "Most of the girls do military duty, as well as border patrol. But really we do whatever needs to be done and can't be done by those 4 feet tall or without opposable thumbs. Course, no one's position is fixed. Whatever work needs to be done gets done. If we ever lapse in anything, then who knows where it'll stop, eh? Then next time someone like Nasoj comes down the pass we won't be able to stop them."
"Then who rules?" Michael questioned.
"Thomas Hassan is the ruler of Metamor Keep, but he doesn't make a big deal of it. He's mainly the guy we rally around in times of crisis, or the guy who points out stuff that needs to be done. Plus the rulers down south feel a lot more comfortable when they have someone their own "rank" to talk to. Hey, you want to see the court?"
"You mean we can just go in?"
"Of course. There isn't a whole lot of a hierarchy at Metamor. Thomas occasionally acts as judge for some of the small disputes that inevitably crop up, and he should be at the job about now."
"Ok. Let's go." Michael was curious how this whole stronghold worked. "I wouldn't mind staying here," he reflected to himself.
After bidding cheerful goodbyes to Mark and Jenn, Cope and Michael left the hubbub of the Deaf Mule. While they walked down the interminable halls again, Cope began his monologue again.
"Metamor Keep has always been a haven for the odd, the rejected, the different. We take them all in as long as they can work and aren't trouble; we need all the manpower we can get to stop the periodic invasions from the north. Actually, we prefer the different, as they are the ones who invent and innovate and otherwise help out the most."
"Some 6 years ago, an invasion came down the pass, one more powerful than anything Metamor has seen before. It was composed of lutins, giants, gibugs, and a hundred other creatures, all combining to form the perfect definition of a horde. We tried to stop them at several places north, to keep the farm lands safe, but got pushed back pretty badly. Finally Thomas decided to withdraw into the Keep."
"We held out for a long time, but everyone could see that we couldn't hold much longer. Attrition was taking its toll. The Keep would be able to hold as long as five people were left, but at the rate things were going there wouldn't even be that many."
"We made a plan."
"At the north entrance of Metamor there's a giant courtyard leading out to the great gate. From that courtyard there are three entrances to the main Metamor Keep. We gathered all our remaining people in each of the three entrances. Then we opened the gate."
"Nasoj knew he was being baited, but he was getting desperate from lack of food, though we didn't know that at the time. He moved his entire army into the courtyard, trying to break through each of the three lines we held. He was winning, but wanted a sure victory. Our wizards could dispel any outright magic he threw at us, so he tried something devious. He threw a bimbo spell, a polymorph spell, and a youth spell in quick succession down each of the gates."
"It worked- for a time. The first gate was bimbized, falling over from the sheer weight of their... um... you know. The second was transformed, turning pure animal and disoriented. The third was youthened to infancy, unable to even walk. For a second, it worked."
"Our wizards, of which I somewhat am, worked a desperate counterspell even as we changed. But the magic was unique, and the counterspell worked only partially. The women got changed into more or less normal female forms. The animals transformed got turned about halfway back, as you can obviously see. The kids got aged to around 14."
"Somehow we turned the tide. We closed the gates so they couldn't escape, and Nasoj's army was destroyed, tho he himself escaped to the north."
"We were left stuck. We could change somewhat, but not back to our original bodies."
"Oops. We're here."
The court was a magnificent affair. Gilded chairs were elevated on both sides of a corridor. Above was a beautifully painted dome of battle scenes that Michael guessed were scenes from the Keep's past. Instead of a scene of courtly reserve, however, this court was more a mix of a petting zoo and a bar. Michael's head swiveled back and forth as he tried to catch all the activity. A rabbit morph was scribbling happily on pieces of paper while munching lettuce. Some sort of porcupine swept past carrying bottle upon bottle of bubbling liquids.
"Pascal, court alchemist, Phil, court rabbit." Copernicus rattled off.
A wolf stolled past, strumming some sort of stringed instrument and singing in a beautiful bass voice. "Wanderer, court actor and poet." Copernicus shot off quick descriptions and names as the two swept down the hall towards a distant throne. "J Wells, court writer. Arthur, court artist, Bill Hart, court writer, Jennifer Adams, court writer, Charles Matthias, court writer, Bryan Derkson, court mad scientist, IWP, court mystic, Magus, court wizard and writer, Jon Sleeper, court writer..."
"How many court writers and stuff do you have?!?"
"Actually, most of the Keep. You should see the library. If you have a talent, then the court always is a patron of it. Funding is your own problem for the most part, but there are enough geniuses here and enough demand back south that money is rarely a problem. You can appoint yourself stuff too. I'm court astrologer, court wizard, court jester, and court lizard."
"This doesn't sound much like a regular royal court."
"Most royal courts don't have a king that has regular flea dips. When death is the next incursion away things get kinda loose."
Finally they reached the throne. It was a relatively simply decorated compared to other places, being a simple marble dais with a throne. The throne was unoccupied. Instead a smaller throne behind it was occupied by a women, who was managing to look bored and angry at the same time as she rebuked a cat morph who was hanging his head looking pathetic as she cut into him. Cope and Michael caught the last part of her words.
"That was damned dumb, Jason. Are you sorry?"
"Yes! Yes! I'm sorry!"
"Ok, fine. You're forgiven. Your punishment is to make your next story about a lizard."
"Tough cookies. And make it the right size so the library can file it this time."
The cat stalked off, and Cope drew Michael off to the side as the woman on the throne took out a mirror as the next supplicant stepped up.
"That's Malisa, adopted daughter of Thomas and next in line for the throne. I guess she's filling in for Thomas."
"Let me guess. Adopted as Prince Mat?"
"Bingo. She's a top notch wizard and a decent fighter as well, tho with a bit of a temper. Hey, you know Jenn?"
"Yeah, the girl in the bar."
Cope pointed to a small desk in the corner, where a equinish man sat writing furiously.
"That's Bob, Prime Minister. Thomas runs the kingdom well, but Bob provides the grease. Odd to see him behind a desk, actually. Spends most of his time with our equivalent of cavalry, racing with Destrier and Tony. Also the most powerful wizard in the Keep."
Cope opened a small unobtrusive door behind him, and Michael followed him in.
"How big is this place?"
"As big as you want, tell the truth. Geometry is pretty voluntary around here."
They walked for a bit, then Copernicus stopped before a large fountain.
"Well, that's pretty much the grand tour of Metamor Keep. You've only seen about 1/15 of it, but I think you get the gist of this place. Your new room will be just off this corridor."
"You'll be starting magical training with Wildstar and weapons with Jack in the morning, so I advise you rest up. We want to get you acclimated as soon as possible."
"Library's not hard to find, neither is the gym or bar or anywhere else you want to go. Just ask for directions."
"Anyway, welcome to Metamor Keep. We're glad to have you here. Redtailed just brought word that Nasoj is stirring up trouble in the north again, and we need every warrior we can get our hands on."
"Since when am I staying here permanently? I mean, I may anyway, but you're just assuming that I'll stay."
Copernicus broke off and grimaced.
"Well Michael, it's like this. When Nasoj cast his spell some time back, it had a permanent effect on the Keep and surrounding areas. Anyone who stays for more than a week gets caught by it permanently."
Michael had a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Michael, you've been here for more than a week. You got caught. If it had been gender or age you'd have a chance at going back, but not with the path the magic took with you."
"You mean that..."
"Sorry Michael. You have fur. Back of your neck. Animal morphs caught down south tend to get burned at the stake, so you're sorta stuck here."
Michael touched the back of his neck, feeling the short hair that had never been there before. He sighed. At least he had something interesting to do with his life...