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User:Michael Bard/A few Days in Heaven

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A few Days in Heaven

Author: Michael Bard
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Metamor Keep story universe


September, 707 CR

Yvarra sighed, wishing she'd stolen a staff from someone.

She'd been in overgrown full-of-themselves keeps before, but Metamor took the prize. Not only did you first have to go through the shit town of Euper where all the dirty unwashed unworthies of heaven lived, you then had to walk a quarter mile up a damn slope. Then through the dead and echoing silence of what locals told her were called The Killing Grounds.

Yvarra missed her fedora.

She was surprised the vast empty space wasn't kindly decorated with the decaying skulls of those who'd had the audacity of attacking the keep. Or, what she expected the Duke would have preferred, those who dared try to come from the pestilent hole of the lowly earth and up to the rarefied realms where the rich and important people lived. At least they'd only charged her a toll to get on the road up to the keep. Or keep and town.

Yvarra stumbled on a loose cobblestone. She needed boots. Her hooves were killing her.

Though, given the long rocky road she doubted that she'd have been better off if she'd still had boots, or a staff, or even feet.

She snorted, hurrying through the depressing emptiness as fast as her tired limbs could move her. At least there'd been no toll at the lower gates. Apparently seeing the hard divisor between the haves and the have-nots was free of charge.

Her stomach grumbling -- apparently the stew at the inn had finished working its way through to stomach B (the innkeeper had been a wealth of handy information) -- she made her way past a heavily loaded wagon that had broken one of its wheels. The two horses just stood there, sweat clinging to their hides, as the driver cursed.

She sniffed. Was the cart carrying--? It was! Sacks of grain.

Her stomach -- stomachs? -- grumbled louder.

She knew of far too many arrogant bastards that would've starved before eating raw grain, but her life had taught her to be more practical. Just like the damn cult, whatever it was, had taught her to kill. And, just like she was going to work with what she had, and apparently with some gifts of basic abilities and simple sanity, rather than railing about things she couldn’t change.

Turning, she made her way over to where the poor soul was cursing the gods, and everybody else he could think of. "--name of the Gods, of Eli, why me? Why? Damn piece of crap picks here of all the godsforsaken places--"

"Hello!"

"--to shat…" He sputtered to a stop and turned to look at her as she looked back at him. The man was still human, lucky him, a bit on the thin side. From what she'd picked up, he could have been a she, or maybe was just visiting. If the latter, he was probably screwed now, what with the time getting up here, and back down and out, and the delays the broken wheel would cause. Blushing, he bowed, and apologized. "Sor-- sorry ma'am."

"Is there somebody in town I can talk to, to get you some help?"

"Oh-- sure. Cartwright, name of Forgan. Sign of a broken wheel -- one of the new places just inside the gate. Tell him that Guinevere is stuck in the middle of the Grounds and needs a new rear wheel. He'll know."

Guinevere? Cocking her head, she looked at him. Guess he was a local. "I'll do my best."

"Umm--" he kicked at the bare stone, "-- I don't suppose you can do one of those 'taur things I've heard rumoured?"

She blinked. "'Taur things?"

"Guess not-- Apparently some of the Keepers who have animal forms can change to a six limbed form -- four legs, human-like torso. Able to rip down a wall with their bare hands."

She tried to picture it in her mind, but failed. "Sorry-- Could I ask you a favour?"

"Why not, I ain't going anywhere."

She pulled out a silver. "I admit, it wasn't only your problem that made me stop, it was-- well-- I could really use some of your grain. Hungry you know."

"Sure! And don't you worry about paying for it. It's not doing me any good here."

"Just don't put it in a feeding bag."

He laughed, a rich sound consumed and transformed by the huge space into dull grunts of horror. He stopped. Drawing a knife, he cut a slit into the top of one of the sacks. "Help yourself, ma'am. I've got nothing to put it in, so take your fill. Best I can do."

"You, sir, are a saint!"

"After the assault last winter I think we're all saints. At least as blessed as any saint, given the divine favour required for us to survive."

Nodding, holding on the hat she no longer had, Yvarra walked over and plunged her muzzle in, sucking in a mouthful of the rich grain, and swallowing it almost without chewing. A second, a third, and then she was full. Damn stomachs-- Pulling her muzzle out, she licked her lips, and then wiped around her nostrils with a hand to get most of the grain dust out. "Thank you-- Guinevere."

"Notta problem. Remember, Forgan the Cartwright."

"I will!" For practice she slipped a silver into his pouch. She had lots, and with the time he lost today, he'd need it. And, kindness should be rewarded. Waving, she walked off, snorting a bit of missed grain dust out of her nostrils.


The gates that exited The Killing Grounds were typically massive and imposing. Things that stated Abandon Hope if Ye Dare Try to Pass and we Don't Want You. And, from the line up they were controlling entry in some way, and were being lutins about it. Of course, she had no way of knowing how typical this was, but she expected it was very. In front of her was another native, or at least she was pretty sure he was given that you don't see many kids driving wagons on their own.

She sniffed-- apples? Oh my! She'd never cared for them before, but now-- Now they smelled like ambrosia. Besides, there was nowhere else she had to be, and just the thought of crunching on one--

"Morning!" she called.

A dog poked its head up from the seat where it'd been lying, and growled. "Down, Avenger," the kid said.

She snorted. "A message?"

"You could say that--"

"I don't suppose I could sit up there and rest a while? Give my-- umm-- hooves a rest as it were."

"No room."

Hmph. "Oh well. Never hurts to ask. Umm--" she sniffed, trying to keep her face expressionless, though she had no clue if it could even show expression, "Do you got any apples for sale."

"Sure. Sell you a basket for a gold."

She gagged.

Then he winked. "You look so cute like that, you know?"

She clenched her fist. "Fine." She didn't need the aggravation, and knowing her luck recently the cult was probably tracking their gold somehow anyway. Pulling out a gold she held it out to him.

This time it was his turn to blink. "Umm-- I wasn't serious-- Is that real?"

"I'm hungry, and it's real." She tossed it into his lap and he fumbled and caught it as the dog, almost a wolf, watched her every move. "I'll just find the basket on my own--"

"Umm-- sure--" he bit the coin and stared at it. "Other side, take any-- take any one--"

"Thanks," she said dryly. If not for the dog she might have tried something, but it wasn't worth it. She normally had sleep-poisoned darts for obstacles like that, but not here. And, she was a humble penitent trying to find a sage, seeking information. She needed to know what the hell she'd gotten shanghaied into.

She walked to the far side of the wagon as it lurched forward a bit as the line moved, and then found stacks of baskets apples. At least her new height had some use. Of course, the baskets were huge bushels, nothing small. Far more than she needed -- she wasn't sure she could even lift one of them. Instead she cradled four apples in her left arm and held one in her right, and bit into the orgasmic sweetness.

She couldn't believe it, but she might have found something that was actually better than sex! Happily she munched on the apples as the line advanced. At least it wasn't long -- she dreaded what it'd be like before the dawn market. She was just about to start the last one when a voice from behind forced itself into her thoughts.

"Son, I came to Metamor and it turned me into a newt! I didn’t' get much better though-- And I am not a witch!"

It was such an odd turn of phrase and she couldn't help but see through her wider vision that it was indeed a humanoid lizard with a cane talking to a human boy. Who may have been an adult. Or a girl. Or-- Yvarra didn't even know anymore.

It seems she needed to get some basics on the Metamor Curse.

The line advanced, and she moved into the gate, the cold stone looming above plunging her into deep shadow. She moved deeper as the road made a sharp turn, cutting off the sunlight.

"You!"

A torch guttered and stank, hissing and crackling in its slot against one wall, its light pale. The portcullis and the massive iron wrought oak doors were open.

She'd made it to the gate.

There were guards there, of course. Two of them. One was a pig of some kind, the other a literal ox of a man. Licking her nose she sniffed, one of them -- the pig -- stunk of alcohol. Of course, it was an open question how many more lurked behind the murder holes above with crossbows ready.

"Yes, you! What's ya business at Metamor?" It was the pig who'd spoken.

"I wish to consult a sage."

"Sage--"

Her ears flicked as the other whispered, "'Think she means tha library."

The pig grunted, "As though they'll let her in," in a voice he probably thought she couldn't hear. He coughed and she almost gagged at the stench. Only her happy apple filled stomach kept her from an unwanted reaction. "Do you have any papers?"

Of course she did! People were paranoid enough these days, that she was prepared. Of course, she'd paid for them to cover her coming here as man. She knew what they said, even though she couldn't read them, and couldn't have written them. Reaching into a pouch she pulled out the parchment and handed it over. For them it was probably just ritual, they certainly couldn't read--

The pig unfolded the paper and looked at it, eyes squinting. "Gives your name as Sarpadon. You don't look like a Sarpadon to me-- Ellcaran?" He folded the paper up. "Obtainer of rare antiquities, eh?"

"Why do you think I need to talk to-- visit the Library." She shuddered at how much hiring somebody to read for her would cost. And to think that this idiot was literate! At least she'd paid for the forgery to stand up, even if untoward things happened. It was far better to have some kind of history, some kind of voice speaking for one when visiting a strange place, than to have nothing at all.

"Don't think you'll be goin' back there any time soon!"

The ox guffawed.

She almost ripped the parchment from his hand before carefully folded it up. "My caravan was ambushed and my stay has been-- longer than planned. Now, what's the toll?"

"Three copper. There's that sword though--"

Sword, oh right. The damn Swords of Songs. "What about it?"

"I need to make sure it's peace bound. Only Keepers and Watch are allowed with ready weapons. Security, ya know."

Peace bound-- Nine hells! She'd never carried a sword in her life, until now. She hadn't a clue how to use the damn thing. Be humble. Show respect. Let them enjoy their petty power. "I'm sorry." She wracked her brain-- how--? Wax. "Could you take care of it for me--?" At least she had a candle -- backup for the witchlight. Normally she wouldn't trust this pair with a broken crossbow, let alone a candle and fire, but she was tired, and they needed their little power trip.

"Oh sure. But we don't--"

There was a candle in his palm. She probably shouldn't have, but the wonderful mood from the apples was rapidly fading. "I've given you a candle. If you'd be so kind, there'll be a silver to cover it and the toll."

The ox laughed, and the pig lit the candle from the guttering torch. She gripped her pouch tightly in one hand, holding the apple in the other, as he dribbled wax against the hilt. She'd have sworn the sword sighed with her.

"There are rules," the ox intoned. "Either be out or have a place to stay by dusk. The Ducal keep is off limits unless Kyia lets you in. Library's free admittance, but Mael-Murie's word is law. Thieving is punishable with lashes. Other crimes at the discretion of the Keepers. Don't make no trouble, and you'll have a pleasant stay. I'd warn you about the curse, but you've already got it, so you're safe. Any questions?"

"No. There are Inns?"

"Sure."

"It won't be a problem."

"There, all done. Just one thing though--"

She turned, sniffed the candle, decided she was better off to buy a new one. "Yes?" Her spine crawled -- so many crossbows could be aimed at her skull. She hated going through gates.

"Ya gotta peace bond that too." He was pointing at her alicorn.

The ox sniggered.

"Peace bond, remove, or no entry."

Her fists clenched. Just the thought of something like him touching it! She-- Remember those out of sight-- The apple. She should have been humble, should have asked him to do it, but she wouldn't let him near her alicorn!

And why was that? a part of her wondered. More questions for the library.

There'd be more apples. She tossed the last one sadly into the air, and speared it gently with her alicorn, so gently that it neatly plugged the edge. Filling her voice with sweetness, and calm, never forget the calm, she asked "Will that do?"

"Enough!" a voice boomed from above. "You've had your fun! You're on report -- don't make me transfer you to number forty-one. Ma'am, you're good to go. You two-- I am watching!"

The pair snapped to what had to be attention, though she wouldn't have bet on it. At least there were apparent limits of idiocy around this place.

She wondered who was speaking, though. Maybe one of those Keepers. More questions. She'd never planned to enter Metamor proper, hadn't seen any need to research it once she knew that she had to be in and out for her own safety. Hah! Like that worked.

Tossing the silver at the ox, leaving the bright red apple stuck on the point of her alicorn, she stalked out, the clicking of her tired hooves echoing off the stone walls as she passed a guttering torch, and another, and another. A curve, more open gates, more portcullises, and more gates, until she finally got back under the open sky. She'd just enough time to get out of the tunnel before a group of guards ran past her and out. It was the usual mismatch, a dog, a woman, a gray fox kit, a pig and a striped wolf thing. All arguing, and she could smell alcohol. Bah!

There was a large open square on the far side of the gate. Carts were set up, farmers selling their wares -- no apples though -- and tinkers and other small craftsman. It didn't take long to get directions to Forgan the Cartwright, and get that promise taken care of.

Now to her business!


It was almost noon and she gratefully sat down on a bench by one of the fountains. No wells anywhere, just the happily burbling water. She was almost ready to cry.

And why was that? Before-- before all this, he'd never have thought of crying. But, now-- How deep had the changes gone? She forced her emotions back.

What was with this place? It was like everybody could read! Shops were labeled in chicken scratches. She would ask directions, and be given names and words and it was all meaningless! It didn't help that there were obvious remnants of buildings everywhere! Cleared away foundations, filled in basements. Streets changed. Signs twisted.

Normally she'd have just paid some money, grabbed an urchin, and been guided to where she needed to go. But-- there wasn't any of that! No urchins. No beggars. Wide open streets, no overhanging buildings crowding one upon the other so that you had to be lucky to see the sun.

She'd never seen anything like this!

The Killing Fields were like passing through purgatory to gain entry to Heaven.

She swallowed some of her apple flavoured cud. She needed help, and she had no idea how to get it--

People yelled, and she looked up as somebody sped by at an unholy speed on some kind of self-propelled wagon. She'd never seen anything like it, and it seemed not everyone else had either, given some of the curses that were sent after it.

At least that seemed more normal.

Cupping her hands, she took some water and lapped it up. And then some more, and splashed it on her muzzle to deal with the dryness. Before her in the water was her reflection. So beautiful, and so alone.

Cocking her head, she looked at herself. She needed something-- An image flashed in her mind, a vision of herself. Her beloved floppy brimmed fedora, whip on her belt, repeating crossbow pistol. What had been on her forged letter? Obtainer of Rare Antiquities. Probably call the song of her adventures something like Raider of the Lost Cult. On her back, the Sword of Songs seemed to begin some kind of march--

She snorted. Nobody would ever care to hear about her.

All she would do was survive as she'd always managed to do. Alone. Proud. Doing what she had to.

Her eyes flicked up to the apple still on the top of her alicorn. Damn gate-- Scraping her alicorn against the side of the fountain, the apple slid off and plopped into the water.

And she stopped.

She couldn't move.

The tip of her alicorn was -- held? -- in water that had suddenly gone still as crystal. All around her the sounds faded. They echoed and collapsed into deeper and deeper tones that slowed into silence. There was something in the water, some echo, and she could feel it. Somebody--

Like pulling a rope from a frozen barrel of molasses, she dragged her alicorn out of the silent water, and then everything snapped back into normality.

This wasn't her world, and the sooner she got out of it, the happier everybody would be. Especially herself. If she still had it, she'd knead her hat in her hands--

Reaching down, she grabbed the apple, careful to keep her alicorn out of the water. She took a bite from the dripping fruit and licked the wondrous taste from her lips. Her ears flicked and spun at the sounds of the dripping and burbling water, at a child's voice in the distance. She sniffed. Bread? She sniffed again. Fresh bread? Swallowing the last of the apple, she unswallowed and chewed on some more apple-flavoured grain mash.

Bread sounded good right about now. Sit down, relax. Then ask to try and find somebody to take her where she had to go.

As to the bread, well, she'd just follow her nose!


It wasn't long until she'd followed the delicious, well, almost as good as apples, scent to a new stone building. She could smell the fresh cut cedar for the beams beneath the mouth watering scent of fresh bread. Somebody must have pulled a fresh batch out of the oven.

She stopped. Umm-- where did you buy the bread. No window, no bread set just out of reach to lure customers in-- just an open door.

She was supposed to go-- inside?

A brown rat in fine clothing walked past her and padded through the door.

This place just made no sense-- Shrugging, she followed.

Inside it was large and airy. A number of small round tables with various chairs and stools, beams of sunlight and dancing flour in the glistening light. A black and white tabby, well, somebody transformed into one, was sweeping the floor, tail ticking back and forth as he watched the rat talking to-- something-- to a pig-rat? Yvarra had no clue what it was. But the bread--

Her hooves clicking on the wood, she pulled out one of the stools and flopped on it, finally finding a seat the right height for her lengthened legs, and with lots of room for her long tail to hang down. It didn't take long for the patron to get a muffin, pay for it, and walk off, nibbling, whiskers twitching and tail wiggling. The-- rat thing walked over to her, brushing flour off his clothing.

"Good afternoon, Miss-- How may I be of assistance?"

Yvarra watched the cat watching her, its tail swinging back and forth like a pendulum, as she looked up at the-- man she presumed was the baker. He certainly smelled like he was. "Yes. Some bread. Maybe some honey if you have it. Some beer -- I don't care at this point. And help."

"Assuming you've the same diet as deer, I've some fresh acorn bread you might like. Got the honey, got the bread. Rather than beer, may I suggest some hot apple cider with cinnamon? As to the help, well, it depends."

She drooled. "That would be wonderful! As to the help, well, I'm new here."

"Oh?" he called as he went into the back.

She sighed. All rehearsed lies. And they all seemed so wrong here. She couldn't afford the risk though. "Got attacked outside Euper, delayed me a bit too long-- I just want to get proper clothing, boots, visit a-- the library, get an idea of what I've become."

"You've asked for directions?"

"Of course!" If only that damn cat wouldn't keep watching her. "They give me names, they point, and as soon as they're out of site I'm lost again. What I need is a guide, and I haven't found one. I can afford it, but--"

He came back out with a tray containing a sliced loaf of steaming bread and a bowl of honey, and a steaming mug of apple cider. With a flourish, he clapped it down on the table she was seated at. "That I can probably help you with then. Brennar!"

The cat stopped sweeping.

"You've cleaned enough for the day, I think. You want to show the lady around?"

"Would he?"

"Just make sure he behaves himself. He can probably use the exercise. Oh, and call me Gregor. Everybody does--"


That had to be it!

Like a lightning bolt, it had hit her as she cocked her head and looked at the comfortable and familiar leather fedora balanced on her forehead.

It was all out of military expediency!

An invading army would be used to invading typical cities and towns. Tiny thin crooked streets, pictorial signs. They'd be used to having potential allies in terms of the street urchins and beggars -- those who'd have no loyalty to the existing regime.

Metamor was intentionally designed to screw up those preconceptions!

A bit brutal having to drive the urchins and beggars out of the city, but the security! Yvarra almost had to admire the genius of it, if not for the cold bloodedness it would take to execute.

She frowned as she tried to wedge the hat down more. Damn alicorn-- it was just in the way--

The shop clerk looked at her as Brennar watched, tail waving back and forth. "You know, miss, I think we could cut a slit in the brim-- make room for your-- natural accessory.

She pulled off the hat and looked at it. The thing was floppy, ill formed, not quite the same as her lost one, and yet-- it felt right. But, the shopkeeper -- the clerk -- she played with the odd sounding word -- was right. "I guess a slit then."

The clerk nodded and the Sword of Songs dinged in satisfaction.

"I hope you're better behaved in battle," Yvarra muttered.

The clerk came back in a few minutes with the hat neatly cut, and a quick and neat sewn reinforcement to keep the tear from going any further. She plopped it down on Yvarra's forehead and brushed a bit of her fine silken mane out of the way to make it sit better. Tilting her doe-head, she looked at it, first one side, and then the other. "That works."

Yvarra looked into the mirror, cocked her head, and then shook it a bit. The hat stayed neatly in place. She felt so much better having it back. And, it feltright. No other way she could describe it. Recently she'd learn to trust her feelings. A lot more than in the old days anyway. And, especially, when the gods were involved. "You're right, it does." And so did everything else. She looked down at the soft leather boots she was wearing, laced up and cunningly crafted to go past her hock and up almost to her knees. They were comfortable, and fit neatly around the lobes of her hooves. Felt weird, pressing and pulling on the soft flesh between her hoof lobes, but oddly comfortable. She'd picked up a basic white linen shirt, a leather vest, and some shorts -- with her fur she didn't need anything more. Just one more thing, then to have a night on the town before risking the library. She looked around the leather shop. She'd almost never used one, and she had no idea why she felt she needed it. But, it seemed that somebody knew, and that somebody wanted her to act. "Miss, do you have a whip?" She'd seen one, but she wanted to know what was offered.

It didn't take long for the clerk to come back with a pair of whips, both made of tightly bound leather. One was a bit larger. "I think the smaller one might be better for you, but it depends on your strength. We don't have any place you can really try it--"

Yvarra looked at them both. Held one in each hand. If only she knew more. Heavier would be awkward, but could do more damage with less control; but the lighter would be easier to control. She handed the bulkier one back -- she'd never been one for brute force.

The clerk nodded. Pulling out a piece of vellum -- what was with that -- and a piece some metal, she scratched stuff on the vellum, tapped, and then said, "That'll be 23 Gold Suns and a Moon." A haughty look filled her rabbity face. "We don't deal with small change."

Yvarra opened her mouth to offer a lower number, but she'd found out the hard way that was frowned upon around here. It marked one as positively provincial. And, that wasn't unreasonable for quality work. If she'd been fencing it she'd have started at about forty gold. Nodding, she started counting out the coin.

One almost had to love fighting against cults, as long as they were rich cults.


The sun was setting by the time Yvarra got out of the leather shop. She'd have to go to a weaponsmith to try and find a scabbard -- at least the typical specialization existed in this madhouse. She'd almost been afraid that she'd be taken to a general store that carried everything, or even something like a department store that had each individual merchant in a separate department under a single roof.

How could people live like this?

She wanted so much to leave this mountain, go back to Euper where there were only insane people trying to kill her, rather than everything being so topsy turvey

Brennar looked at her, tail moving back and forth. Didn't he ever bend it? It was always like a piece of wood or a fence post, and always, always, swinging.

Where did she want to go? Well, she'd done enough shopping. There were a couple of places they'd passed which promised to wash her mane and style it, but she figured she'd be dying it all a greasy black in a few days anyway. She didn't want to waste the cult's money that badly. Leaning backward, she stretched, old bones, or was that new bones, creaking. She needed a break. To relax. And she certainly still had the coin to do it.

She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. Odd, how a little thing like a tuft of hair at the back of her palms made such a simple action seem so very different. At least knives were thrown by the fingers so it didn't screw that up. "Brennar, how would you like to meet some women?"

The cat gave no apparently reaction.

"What I mean, Brennar, is that I'm in the mood for some relaxation, and I'll pay for you too. Time for you to experience life as a man!"

Still no reaction.

Yvarra blinked. "Umm-- you know-- Women of ill repute? Ladies of the night? Oh, I want men, but the good places always have both." Had she really said men? She examined that thought, poked it around in her brain. Yup. Men. Seemed doing it with a woman had no appeal to her. Or well, she could be dominant on either side.

And still no reaction.

She sighed. "Fine. Just take me to a House of Ill Repute."

Brennar just stood there.

"Well?"

Nothing.

"You know, a whore house? Paid sex? Bangs for coin?"

He slowly shook his head.

"No? What do you mean, no? You won't take me?"

He shrugged.

"You can speak to me you know! Don't tell me there aren't any such places on this damn rock--"

He shook his head.

She stopped. Stared. Impossible. No place, no place could be that screwed up. She swallowed, licked dry lips. "Brennar, are you saying that there are no whore houses in Metamor Town?"

He nodded.

She stared. She blinked. "No whore houses--"

He shook his head.

Yvarra screamed. How could people live like this?

She needed a drink. A big one--


"So, I can stay here?" Yvarra asked.

Brennar nodded.

She looked at the wide two story wood-frame building. It looked almost normal. Except for the sign that was covered with chicken scratches. "What's the place called?"

Brennar shrugged.

She was starting to wonder if he could speak.

The cat held out a furred palm.

At least some things never changed. She popped two silver into it and he purred and waved.

"Cats--" She looked at the-- door, shrugged, and then turned the hatch and pushed it open. There was no sound, at least the hinges were well oiled -- that reminded her, she'd need to get some oil somewhere -- and looked in. It was a large room, well lit by candles on an overhead chandelier. Maybe five tables, a bar, various stools. There was a fireplace, unlit, but then it was an unseasonably warm day. Ten people or so, plus a number of -- children? -- serving. Of course, around this place, children could be almost anything.

A girl in a rough-spun dress ran over to her. She looked about twelve, though it was hard to be certain. She curtseyed and asked, "How can The Shoeshine Inn be of service to you?"

Odd name that. She thought for a moment of talking down to her, but then, who knew what her real age was. "Well, yes. Two things actually. One, a room for the night. Two, the thickest, ugliest, most potent brain rotting liquor you have."

She scratched her chin in an almost cute pout. "Yup, paying for the room first, then, is wise. You want to get really soused? Out of your head soused? Snoring on the floor soused?"

"You got it, miss."

"Got one single left, three silver. Our best rot grub runs a bronze a mug. I would ask that you put that sword of yours in your room first though--"

The Sword of Songs chimed.

"I'd rather--"

"Sorry, with all the Keepers around, we can't take the chance of the rough housing getting that out of control. Daggers fine, sword not."

Yvarra needed a drink. She really did. She swallowed. "Umm-- how about I leave it behind the counter--?"

"Hmm-- yea, we can do that."

A happy flute crescendo came from the sword on her back.

The girl blinked. "How are you doing that?" She pointed at the alicorn. "That?"

"Not really me. Don't let it worry you--" she unbuckled the sword scabbard from over her shoulder and passed it over along with five silver. "Start the drinks coming."

"Your body." She led Yvarra to an empty table and motioned her down. "I'll bring some bread sticks on the house. Try to stay under control. There are Keepers here."

"Don't worry about me."

"Your silver."

It didn't take long until someone else, a boy with hints of white fur behind his ears, brought a tray with a pair of heaping mugs. She could smell the rich spicy scent and licked her muzzle in anticipation. "Ma'am, I've been told to warn you to take 'em slowly. They do have a surprising kick."

She started to say something, but then forced it down. Maybe there was a point -- she was in a new body. Slowly at first to get a feel, then it was time to get roaring, stinking, drunk. Grabbing the mug in one hand, she took a sip. The liquid was rich and heavy, thick and spicy with-- cinnamon, a hint of pepper, and some others she couldn't identify. It even had a slight effervescence. A glow of warmth flowed down from her forehead as she swallowed the rich liquid.

It hit her stomach like a warm brick. But that was it. Nothing else. No sensation at all. No dizziness, no faintness. Nothing.

Guess the drink wasn't that tough after all. Tasted pretty good though. She swallowed the rest, letting the last bit swish around in her muzzle before she swallowed. At least it did warm her forehead nicely.

Just to be safe, she sat for a bit, and nibbled on one of the bread sticks. Maybe it took a few moments to kick in--

She finished the breadstick and chewed some spicy cud. Nothing.

Hmph! She took the second and threw it back. Nice taste, not as good when it wasn't piping hot. Against the nice warmth on her forehead.

And then-- nothing.

"Hey! Some more of those spicy things!"

It didn't take long for the girl that had greeted her to come. She looked at Yvarra, at the empty mugs, at Yvarra. "You drank them?"

"I did. Quite tasty." She cocked her head. "Not much of a kick though."

The girl blinked.

"I'm starting to think you may have not quite given me your best stuff."

The girl put her hands on her hips. "Ma'am, I do not care for what you're insinuating."

"Well, these things of yours don't do much!"

"Ma'am! You see that drunk by the fireplace?"

She pointed, and Yvarra looked. There was a bear of a man, literally like so much around this madhouse, and he was snoring in the table, his breath bubbling and gurgling in half a spilt drink.

"That was his third. And you're telling me--?"

"That's what I'm telling you." Though, Yvarra was starting to have a sneaking suspicion-- No. She refused to believe that the universe could be that cruel. "You know what, I'll make you a deal. You bring me three of those things. I'll drink them all here, one after the other, straight down. If I'm still on my hooves -- and that'll be five mind -- I get those three for free. If I'm out, I pay double." With that, she pulled out ten bronze and clunked the coins on the table.

The girl looked. "Seems a bit more than double. How do I know you're not using magic?"

"Miss, I want to get drunk. I need some relief, and my first plan failed. This is my second. If there is magic, and you could be right, I sure as hell don't want it! I need confirmation though, because if it is what I fear it is, I'm not going to be happy with somebody. Oh, don't look like that. I won't deal with it here. But, she will hear of my displeasure."

The girl looked from the empty mugs, to the coins, and back. "I'm sorry. I'd like to, as I know what these do, but I can also smell a set up. You want the drinks, you buy them. I will lug your body up to your room, though."

By this time a crowd was watching.

Yvarra sighed. "Wise girl. Fine. Make it five more then, take an extra bronze for your trouble. Six total."

She nodded, and came back a short while later with a heavy tray of foaming mugs. She thumped them down, and the rich cinnamon scent wafted into Yvarra's nostrils. "I got father to put a double dose in these. So, either you're under the table, or you're using magic."

"I ain't using magic. I ain't got none. At least none that I've been taught. And none in items other than a witchstone and that sword you took. If it is me, if mind, it sure ain't by choice." With that, she lifted the first mug, and threw it back. Nice warm spice, nice hot liquid, and a pleasant glow from her forehead.

"One!" somebody in the crowd called out.

"Hmph!" said the innkeeper girl.

Yvarra grabbed the second and threw it back. And then the third--

"Two!" "Three!" More were watching now.

And still nothing. Absolutely nothing! Yvarra was getting pissed.

"Four!"

Yvarra was feeling a bit full, and might need to ask for a bucket and a private corner soon. And, her nostrils were getting a tad sensitive from all that cinnamon. But, she was still rock steady.

"Five!"

Yvarra slammed the mug down. "Eli damn this to all the Nine Hells!"

"Magic," the girl said.

One of the others, a scruffy wolfman, called out. "You'll fall over if you stand. Get up on those dainty cloppy things and prove to us you're good."

Yvarra was pissed. Pissed, angry, depressed, and not the least bit drunk. No girls, no drink-- She was not having a good day. In a swift move she stood up, drew a knife, and whipped it across the room where it thunked into the bullseye of the worn dartboard on one wall. "Any other questions?"

Silence greeted her.

Yvarra sat down, squashing her tail against the back of the chair, and winced at the pain. "And that's not from the damn drink!" She lowered her voice. "Oh, it's magic. But nothing I want or choose. But, it seems I'm stuck with it. So, I want my sword, my dagger, and something to eat, and then I'm going to bed."

The girl looked at her. "Fine. Another bronze for the service, and two for the meal."

Yvarra pointed at the table and the girl pocketed the lot. Then she looked up at the sky. Lady Tarathana, you had better be paying me an Eli damned lot for this job!

She sighed and nibbled on another breadstick. There really was only one word appropriate.

"Fuck."

Damn alicorn.


"Who goes there?"

It was the next day and Yvarra was walking up the short road to the keep on its final rise at the north end of the ridge. The gate was open, yet another huge depressing thing of wood and stone and death.

Why was she here again? She hated keeps. But then, she hated anything with only one way in or out. It was like a trap. A giant stone trap.

But, she needed answers, and, apparently, this was the only place to get them.

At least it had been easy to find--

So, now she was standing at the gates, feeling small and helpless, as a heavy-set woman in chain mail leveled a halberd at her.

"I would like to visit the library."

The woman looked at the other guard, a scarred badger in studded leather, and the badger looked back.

"Yes, the library. The vaunted library that anybody can visit by the Duke's order. Or so I'm told."

She chewed on some cud -- porridge definitely needed a bit less pepper the second time around -- and listened as they whispered.

"She is right--"

"But the paper work--"

"Do you want George to find out we turned somebody away--"

"Shit no!"

"I have an idea--" The last was from the badger who walked forward, full of arrogance. "You are right, Miss--"

She sighed. "Yvarra."

"But, why should we let you, an obvious warrior and--," he motioned at the Sword of Songs and it gave him the thumpthump of an angry kettledrum in response, "--and-- Keep that damn thing under control!"

Yvarra grinned. She could smell that he'd voided himself. Bloody idiot guards. "I simply want I'm told is my right. Or, should I ask for-- George?"

"Fine! You do have the right. Anybody does. But, you can't go into the keep wearing that thing!" He pointed at the Sword of Songs.

She snorted. "I got the damn thing peace bound!"

"Doesn't mean shit! You draw it, kill somebody, and it's too late for the wax to save anybody from hell."

The Sword of Songs made a sound like a dying ukulele.

"Kyia will take care of her if she's a threat--" mumbled the woman.

"We're still sworn to protect the keep, and the Duke, and that sword is a threat!" the badger hissed back.

"So much for the much vaunted free access."

"It is free, to those who can be trusted!"

A new voice broke in. "And since when has it been the practice to assume evil?"

The woman joined the badger in pissing herself as both turned and saluted in stiff parade style. Yvarra followed their graze and saw a curious pair: a male fox, wearing worn clothes, with a massive axe on his back. His left ear was gone, torn off by something. She could smell the odour of death around him, and couldn't help but wrinkle her nostrils. He wore a belt, and it was crowded with dried and cracked flaps of skin which were the source of the odour. Beside him was-- was something. It looked like a fox, but it was huge, easily reaching to the anthro fox's waist. And-- it wasn't flesh-- it was some kind of metal that moved like skin. With a clank if flopped down, tongue hanging out, panting with a metal clickclickclick.

"Sir!" the badger squeaked. "She-- she wants to see the library. We don't know who she is, and she has a sword--"

"I can see," said the axe-armed fox clearly. "And you object--"

"She has the sword! She could be sneaking in to assassinate the Duke!"

Yvarra snorted. As though she'd use a sword in an assassination. A thrown knife liberally coated in poison was far more effective. Not that she ever did, or ever wanted, to do anything like that. Though, with the unknown cult hanging over her, she was thinking things she'd never have touched a month ago. It was terrifying how many of her moral standards she was suddenly willing to throw away in exchange for her life--

The fox turned and regarded her. "And you are?"

"Yvarra. I'm new, and I need some information--" and I really need it. Though, not being able to read would pose a problem--

"Hmph. Well, the library certainly has that." He raised a worn arm and scratched the ear of the metal monster, his claws scraping on the metal with a sound that made Yvarra's ears try and fold back against her neck.

The metal thing whined, and stood up with a groan of metal on metal, thumped over, and flopped down in front of Yvarra. It sniffed her, and Yvarra only shuddered a little. Then it started licking her. The thing's tongue felt like a file on her flesh, and she could feel her-- fur tearing out.

"Hmph. Madog likes you, and that's good enough for me, though it shouldn’t be necessary. Go, enjoy the library."

Yvarra wanted to itch her leg, damn metal thing. She hoped she still had skin left. Swallowing, she forced her fear down. This fox obviously knew his way around, and he was as good a one to ask as any. "Umm-- sir-- where is the library?"

The fox looked at her, and blinked. "Where is--?" Then he laughed, a coarse harsh sound that seemed dragged out and over steel spikes. He motioned back at the keep. "Just go, Kyia will lead you to it, or she won't."

That was a big help. But-- She looked, and was suddenly glad that the fox wasn't out to kill her. One step at a time. Get in first, and then find somebody to ask where the damn library was, and then find somebody to help her read the damn scrolls. "Thank you." Boots thumping on the cobblestones, she hurried past.

"Now, as for you two--" the fox roared behind her.


Metamor Keep was a strange place. She'd have said silly, but nothing so big and made of stone and so full of nasty people with sharp weapons could be considered silly. Though, she did have to admit that very few keeps that were surrounded by manicured gardens. They looked quite nice, and, she had to admit, the late-blooming flowers tasted quite good. Almost as good as they'd smelled. She wasn't sure how she'd managed to keep her nibbling only to isolated bits to try and keep people from noticing.

Too soon she had to leave the warm sunlight and go into one of the unguarded open doorways to the main keep. Odd the lack of guards. Though, as there was only one way in, one would presume that anybody here was allowed here. The thick oak door was hanging open, and she made her way in, her booted hooves thudding on the swept stone. The hall was straight, lit by slitted windows high in the wall. Dust specs danced in the streamers of brightness. It was odd though -- the air smelled-- old, abandoned. Like nobody had been here for a long long time.

Which was impossible.

And yet--

The corridor ended at an arched door carved of some fine white wood. Great, a dead end. Well, she obviously needed help. Raising a hand, she knocked on the door, the sound loud and lonely, echoing down the corridor.

"Hello?"

In response the door creaked open.

"Hello?"

Unable to resist, she poked her muzzle in and took a look.

It was a large room, a bedroom of some kind. In addition to the large four-poster bed, there was a desk, some-- books? Who would leave books unattended like that?

She stepped in. "Hello?"

The room-- the chamber-- it felt-- nice. Welcoming. She felt like she belonged there. The air was sweet, smelling of lilacs and rose. The bedclothes were clean. There was a dresser and an actual mirror. On the dresser were some brushes, large and heavy. More like horse brushes than those a woman would use. A finely carved wooden rack for a long sword was on the wall. At one end was a carved target, and a trio of throwing knives were sticking in the bullseye.

What in the Nine Hells? It was like-- it was like--

It was like a room for her.

She looked around, feeling more and more at home. Even the Sword of Songs was playing a happy restful tune on some stringed instrument. Not that the damn sword had any kind of stringed instrument. She sniffed, and saw another door partway open. She could scent water behind there. Hot steaming bath water--

What was going on?

Stopping at the desk, she opened one of the books. The printing was large. A single character. Beside it was a small painted picture of an Apple. Below that was another symbol, and this time the picture beside it was a Bell.

Eli-- She could recognize a few of the symbols. Letters. She turned the page and saw a shape she thought was D. Beside it was a dagger.

It was like a children's book, but not. It was like--

Like a book for her.

She slammed it shut and looked around frantically.

It was like she was home but she couldn't be. Who at the keep could be expecting her?

On impulse she opened one of the drawers and saw a set of what she recognized as hoof cleaning and trimming tools.

Klepnos--

"No!"

Her voice echoed around the room. Around what seemed to be her room.

"No! I don't know what kind of sick joke this is, I don't know how it was set up, but this isn't me! It isn't!"

Turning, she fled, running down the long hall. Running away from the gift she didn't want, hadn't asked for, her thudding hooves echoing off the walls, seeking the peace of the garden. The passage turned sharply to the left--

But the passage had been straight.

She stopped, almost skidding, and stared.

She knew the hall way had been straight.

And, she knew now that the hallway curved.

What was this place?

Unable to do anything else, she resumed walking down the passage. She had no idea where it led, but she also refused to go back to that room. Yvarra didn't take gifts, didn't take handouts. She made her own way!

You took the Sword of Songs, a voice whispered in her mind.

It's a tool. A tool loaned for a job.

Is it?

Something grabbed her, grabbed her alicorn, and then it let go. She almost fell, but then stopped and looked up. And she'd gotten so used to looking down at everybody. In front of her, so close that her nostrils were almost in his chest fur, was the most massive white tiger she'd ever seen. The most massive, muscled, armed and armoured, white tiger she'd ever seen. He seemed to be looking at his one hand to make sure it was all right.

He shook his head, cleared his throat, and asked: "You look lost. Where are you trying to go?"

She swallowed. She didn't understand this place, but she needed information. She needed information so that she could complete the job she was hired for. "I'm looking for the library and seem to have gotten-- lost."

"Odd. The library is just down that way. End of the hall." He pointed. "Or, usually it is, anyway."

She looked down the corridor that branched off and hadn't been there before. She blinked. And usually it is?

"It takes getting used to. The keep is always moving things around."

Yvarra cocked her head and starred at him.

"Usually it'll take you where you need to go, eventually. Good luck."

"Err-- thanks." Turning, she fled down the hallway he'd pointed towards.

Like a drunken snake, the hallway curved and twisted. Once she looked out a window and would have sworn that it looked into another hallway where a rabbit was hopping on the ceiling and all the pictures were hung upside down. She'd have sworn that another time the hallway slowly rotated, twisting around so that it was shaped like a corkscrew, even though she was always walking on the level floor.

Finally, she reached a pair of double doors, one of which was open. Almost afraid, she peeked in.

And saw-- books. Books and books and books and more books. More books then she could have ever conceived of existing. More books than she could comprehend. She just stared at the inconceivable insanity of it.

The room was brightly lit, the walls lined high near the top with stained glass windows of various animals tinting the light that poured through a kaleidoscope of colours that fell amongst the books. She sniffed, and could smell nothing but books and dust and age and love. Odd, how love smelled. One would think you couldn't identify it, but these books were loved and it was obvious to her nose.

She took a step in and looked around. Looked around feeling small and helpless and useless. All those books, all those answers, and none of it was of any use to her--

With a loud sigh she walked the rest of the way in, pushing the door open a bit with a creak. Damn hinges need oiling -- she'd take care of it if she was robbing the place--

Bloody stupid town had all the knowledge, but not a single damn sage. It was one frustration after another!

"Do you need some help?" Yvarra jerked and looked down. It was a mouse, small, brown, standing on two legs and dressed in a red shirt and poofy blue pants. His long tail wiggled out behind, its tip slowly quivering. His ears twisted and focused on her.

She unswallowed, some cud picking a most inopportune time, and she nibbled on the half digested daisy petals. Too quickly to enjoy it, she swallowed. "Actually yes-- I need some information."

"You've come to the right place."

Yvarra rolled her eyes. "I'd agree, if I could read."

The mouse cocked his head and his tail went still, as he looked at her. "You can't?"

Yvarra sighed and slowly shook her head.

"Well! Seems like you do need help then." The mouse giggled.

Yvarra glared.

"So, what do you need help with?" The mouse's tail was wagging again.

She clenched her hands and then forced them to relax. "A few things. I guess-- let's start with the simple ones. I'm kind of new here. What, exactly, is the curse?"

"Curse?"

"The Metamor Curse!" She motioned around and then pointed to herself. "The one that did this to me!"

"Oh! That curse--!"

"Yes, that curse!"

"It's actually quite simple you know. I don't even need to look it up." The mouse turned and walked off between the stacks and Yvarra hurried after. "It came because of the Battle of the Three Gates. The evil mage, Nasoj, -- you've heard of him? -- had his servants cast three spells, one at each gate. They were supposed to be fairly local, and devastating. One would transform its victims into babies, one into mindless animals, and one into wildly over endowed brainless sex machines of the opposite gender. Of course, we weren't idle, and our mages managed to largely mitigate the curses, but they became permanently absorbed by the keep and the lands nearby. Victims were made children, not infants, half animals but still sentient, or just normal members of the opposite gender."

Yvarra nodded. "I must have gotten two of them then--"

The mouse stopped and squeaked. "Two? Two's almost unheard off. The only cases I know had an outside influence corrupting the curses."

The Sword of Songs chose that moment to play the sorrowful note of an oboe.

"I just bet you're sorry--" Yvarra mumbled.

"What was that?"

"Oh, I think I have an idea of what mucked me up. Oh well, not much I can do now."

"There are some groups who could help you adapt--"

"I'm fine!"

The mouse shrugged and resumed walking. "You said you had other questions?"

She sighed. "Yes. What am I?"

"A unicorn. That's obvious. Though, a bit unusual--"

"I know I'm a unicorn! I'm not an idiot. But, what does being a unicorn mean? What do the legends say?"

The mouse stopped and stroked his chin. "We can look it up. There's a standard reference we have--"

"And what do you mean about unusual?"

The mouse turned to face her looking her up and down. "Well, the tail is right, and the hooves, but the head-- The classical appearance is like that of a horse with the horn, cloven hooves, and lion tail. Your head is a deer, completely."

Yvarra responded through gritted teeth. "I know."

"Well, let's take a look and see. It might be that females are different. It's not unknown-- Ah! Should be here!" The mouse stopped at a table where a huge, heavy book was sitting open.

Yvarra sniffed, and a cascade of faint scents poured into her, all kinds of scents. Lions, tigers, bears-- oh my -- and many many other animals.

The mouse started leafing through the pages, mumbling "U-- u-- unicorn-- Ah hah!"

The mouse moved out of the way and Yvarra looked at the painted illustration. It was a unicorn, though the alicorn looked a bit short, and the head was definitely like that of a horse. It had a goat-like beard, and cloven hooves and lion tail. The hooves were darker than her own, and almost finer, but the tail was nearly identical. All around the picture and below it were scribbles and meaningless marks, though she did see a u and some other recognizable letters here and there. "What else does it say?"

"What else-- oh right." He ran a finger down a page. "The unicorn has a number of powers, though it is unsure how common they are, or even if all of them are truly possessed. Their horn, the alicorn, is reputed to have healing properties. It can be ground up--"

Yvarra touched her alicorn possessively.

"--and the powder will purify anything poisonous; a cup made of an alicorn will similarly purify liquids poured into it. Alicorns are said to be great tools for manipulating magic, being extremely effective as a material for wands and staves. It is also said to be able to heal, or, more accurately can be used as by a unicorn to heal those who are worthy. It is said that if a unicorn touches you with its alicorn, all wounds will be healed, all poisons destroyed. There are legends of the recently dead being raised by the touch of a unicorn.

"Legend says that unicorns are attracted to virgins, or that a virgin, in her innocence and purity, is a symbol of what a unicorn is. A symbol that a unicorn must respect, possibly even worship at. Virgins have been used as bait for hunters who would capture or kill a unicorn."

Yvarra scratched her chin. "Is that all?"

"Pretty well. Not much else seems to be known -- nothing on diet, habits, or such things. Unusual, but then unicorns are rare." He tapped the book. "You seem to have lucked out in the curse department if half of this is true."

"Not as much as you might think--" The poison part certainly was, and she cursed it again. There had to be a way she could selectively turn it off!

"You don't have much to worry around here, but down in Euper, and outside the keep, I can see visitors trying to kill you for that horn. I hope you know how to use that sword."

She didn't, but she wasn't too worried. She knew how to take care of herself.

"Anything else I can help you with?"

"One more thing." She reached into a pouch and pulled out the cut scrap of cloth. Unfolding it, she slapped it down on the open book, the faint symbol facing out. "What is this?"

The mouse picked it up. "Trivially? A piece of black cloth, wool I think, with a sewn design. No clue what that dye is from."

Yvarra snorted.

"I take it you're more interested in the symbol?"

She nodded.

He scratched the base of an ear, took a few steps forward, then stopped. "I don't have a clue where to start. Let me take you to Mael-Murie." The mouse shivered and swallowed. "She'll have a far better idea. Come along."

The mouse scurried off, and Yvarra hurried after, first closing the book that the mouse had been reading from. It didn't take long for Yvarra to sense movement and look up, to see a great horned owl silently wing its way between the shelves, and then kaflump onto the floor, skidding a bit, and then almost falling over onto its -- her -- face. She was wearing a vest that left her arms, her wings, whatever you wanted to call them, free, along with a pair of shorts that were cinched with a rope of red silk.

"So, Pyat, this is the individual you can't help?"

The mouse squeaked, and she had to resist the urge to oil him. "Yes ma'am."

She looked at Yvarra, leaned sideways a bit, and looked again. "Hmph! So, what kind of problem does she have?"

The mouse held up the scrap of paper; Yvarra could scent his nervousness. "She wants to know about this."

Mael-Murie somehow grabbed it with her wing, though Yvarra couldn't see how. The owl's huge eyes focused on it as she slowly turned it around. "I think-- yes-- Such stupid questions. I've seen it before. Pyat, you get back to your copying. You, come with me." With that, she put the cloth in her beak and took wing, silently flapping her way between the shelves as Yvarra hurried after. The owl twisted round and round, but flapped hard and landed on a-- perch behind a table piled with old books. Putting the scrap of cloth down, the librarian reached a wing into a metal mesh cage, grabbed a squeaking mouse and tossed it into her beak. For an instant only the tail was visible, and then it vanished.

"Much better!" she said.

Yvarra just swallowed, and wondered how that-- how Pyat could work around here.

"You're lucky, Miss," the owl continued. "What's your name, anyway? I was cataloguing these old volumes -- you wouldn't believe the mess Cutter left the place in -- and had just ran across that symbol. Coincidence, though there's never any of that where Kyia's involved."

"You can all me Yvarra."

"Fine, fine-- now--" She peered down at a thick old tome that stunk of age, and she flipped it open. The pages crackled, almost resisting being touched, as she quickly leafed through with her right wing. "Now-- where was it-- ah hah!" She let the cover thump onto the table and spun the book around so that Yvarra could see it.

The picture showed the same symbol as was sewn onto the robe, but it was drawn in ink. It didn't exactly match the sewn symbol, looking-- normal. Yvarra glanced at the cloth, and it was like her eyesight rolled off the symbol, sliding away from it, trying to avoid it. The copy in the book didn't have that.

"Definitely matches. As you can read--" She blinked at Yvarra's headshake. "Another one who can't read-- what is the world coming to? Fine--" Turning the book back around, she read: "The King in Yellow. An ancient symbol reputed to be associated with an alien divinity of irresistible power and strength such that the Gods themselves would be destroyed. The creature is known under various names including Og-Sotot, Sasthoogua, Aphom-Cthuagas, Salestra, various others. Supposedly it is considered sacred to cults that prepare for the second coming of this entity, through the use of corrupt rites, sacrifices, and unholy blasphemies. Those who bear the symbol exist to sell their souls, sell their world, and offer all solely to open the way to bring back their master."

"Oh great--" Yvarra muttered. "An end of the world cult."

"I wouldn't worry." She slammed the book shut. "The whole thing is just a story. Utterly false. Even if a cult does exist, there's no way they could bring such a being, if it even existed, back. It's simply impossible."

Yvarra grabbed the symbol. "And how can you be sure? If this-- oog-sootoot-- is that powerful, how can you take the risk?"

"Because there is no risk. If there were, the Duke would know, Raven would know, Kyia would know, and correct and proper action would be taken. I take it you took this from somebody?"

"Yes-- A boy who tried to--"

"Some agent of Nasoj no doubt. Or some homeless urchin down in Euper who found this in an old book and grabbed it for his or her gang. Nothing more--"

On Yvarra's back, the Sword of Songs let out a loud, long, moan of an oboe.

"So," Yvarra said, "just some kid."

"Yup. Nothing to worry about. The watch will take them out when they get around it. Now, if that's all, I am very busy-- things to catalogue, books to organize-- Important things to do. If you think you can handle it, there are literacy classes--"

Yvarra snorted, and the rattattat of a metal drum on her back agreed with her. "Miss-- I am quite capable of taking care of myself. And, if I saw a need to read, I would not need your charity to learn how. In fact--"

But the owl had already closed the book and launched herself back into the air.

Yvarra sighed. A cult. Given who she figured had hired her, given her double curse, given the Sword of Songs, she really doubted it was just some kids who'd found a cute symbol. Hmph! Well, it seemed that she was going to have to take care of the problem herself. After all, it was only the world that was at stake. Nothing important like killing lutins.

Shoving the cloth back into a pouch, she spun on her hoof and walked out.

She'd had enough of Metamor and its oddness. Half of her just wanted to let them rot and let this Ooog Soototh, or whatever, anihilate them.

Hmph!


As Yvarra left the library, she realized that the hallway looked-- different. Different from what she'd come in through. But-- She didn't have much of an option as there was just the one way to go. It seemed like she walked for hours, the only sound her footsteps, the only scent her own, and the stinking tar of the torches. A part of her wondered who replaced them as she could detect no sign of anybody else having been here. That made no sense, but then nothing around here did.

She was really beginning to hate this keep.

The torches stopped, and the corridor became lit by small window slits high in the wall. Stopping, she looked. She didn't like this trapped feeling she was getting-- Yea, it was possible she'd fit through. Before climbing would have been easy. Now--

Well, one thing at a time.

The corridor ended at an arched door of carved white wood hanging open.

No.

Almost involuntarily she licked her nostrils and sniffed. Her ears tensed, she felt her tail pull between her. She could sniff herself, her own fear.

"Nine Hells no!"

She stepped forward and looked into the room that felt so much like her. The room that felt like a gladly offered gift.

"No! Do you hear me, no! I won't take this!"

Screaming, she ran in, threw the books off the table, ripped the drawers out of the dresser, tore the bedclothes off the bed, grabbed and dragged and tipped and knocked and did everything she could to destroy the damn place. The place she didn't want.


She stood there, panting, looking around at the ruin. The ruin that looked sorrowfully back at her. Picking up her fedora and shoving it on, she snorted, spun around, raised her muzzle in pride, and walked out. "I don't want it, and I won't take it. You hear me? No!"

Yvarra slammed the door so hard that she'd have sworn the wood cracked. Her limbs quivering, she leaned against the wall, tension shivering its way amongst her muscles. What was this place? Why can't it understand no?

When she was in control again, she looked up. Looked up at a dead end. She was in a corridor that went no where, other than back to the room she'd wrecked. There were no torches, but a bright shaft of light coming from a window high in the wall.

Enough! Enough, Klepnos damn it!

Leaning against the wall, she unlaced her boots and pulled off first one, and then the other. Folding the soft leather up, she put them both into her pack. She was going to get out of here, and she was never coming back. The Eli-damned place can be destroyed with the rest of the world for all she cared! With long practiced ease she felt small cracks in the tight fitting stones of the wall, and pulled herself up. For a moment her hooves scrabbled, but then one found a grip, somehow tightly fitting on a hair-thin ledge.

Yvarra didn't understand it, but she wasn't complaining.

Inch by inch she crawled up the wall, shoving away her fear that whatever was here would remove the window just as she reached it. Rushing caused mistakes, and mistakes caused accidents. The window wasn't that high, maybe ten feet from the floor, but there was no sense taking chances.

She reached it without incident. And, the damn thing was narrow. Almost too narrow. Fine!

"I'm not staying!"

Releasing one hand she worked her pack off the one shoulder. Then she grabbed with that hand and did the same with the other, and was soon holding it. She pushed it out the window and heard it rustle through some leaves and then thud to the ground. Then she began wiggling through the window. She'd have to jump, but that she was used to. And, if they were brambles, well, the pain would be worth escaping this cursed place. Soon she was through, and she looked down to a bed of roses. Well, not as bad as brambles, but still-- If the window hadn't been so narrow, and so short, she'd have tried lowering herself, but there just wasn't room. Fine! Wiggling through, she leapt, plummeting hooves first and smashing into the roses, rolling to absorb the impact.

Without warning she jerked to a stop and felt her muscles tear. Pain stabbed through her, but then faded as warmth flowed down from her forehead. Blinking, she looked down the length of her alicorn and saw that it had stabbed into the ground almost its entire length.

Growling, she yanked it out, falling onto her back due to the damn thing's length. Thorns tore at her, blood streaked her white fur, as she shoved herself to her hooves. She licked a few rose petals off her lips -- not bad -- and chewed, as she looked around before grabbing her pack. Forcing her way through the battered and broken bushes, she staggered out onto the grass, her entire body almost burning with fever as she watched her wounds close, one by one.

"You! What are you doing in there?"

Yvarra looked up, and then stared. Slowly crawling across the grass was a giant snail, almost man sized. A monstrous shell curled up its back, and its almost human face glared at her as it slowly approached, its two hands clenching a hoe as its eyes glared at her from the end of long tentacle stalks.

"What have you done to the garden? You just wait right there until I reach you--"

Reaching into the bushes, she pulled out her fedora and shoved it on. Then she shook her head and pulled out her boots, and worked first one hoof into one, and then the other into the other. Tying them snug, she turned to leave, seeing the gate out to freedom in the distance. She wanted no part of this damn place.

"Don't you dare leave! Do you have any idea how much work you've destroyed?"

Swallowing, one of her stomach's growling, Yvarra yanked off a rose and ate it, even eating the branch it was on. There was a bud there that was quite tasty.

"What are you doing? I'll set the watch on you, I will! Just you wait!" The snails voice faded into silence as Yvarra reached the gate and walked out.

Nobody stopped her.


She sat there on the bench, the crystal water gurgling and splashing in front of her. She'd cleaned most of the blood off her muzzle and arms with the water. The red stained liquid had long since flowed away. On the far side of the fountain was a massive stone column, the same earthy gray as the wall of Metamor. It was a four sided tapering spire maybe twelve feet high, three feet square at its base

Only Metamor would have a pillar in the middle of nowhere.

What was she doing here? She was just a thief! A thief having barely escaped a keep that wanted her to stay, and that wouldn't let her go. A keep that she refused to let help her. And, she, and she alone, had to stop the summoning of a thing beyond good and evil, a hunger, something without comprehendible emotion or will or want, that would destroy the world.

One lone unicorn. A myth set to fight another myth.

She laughed, a lonely mocking sound. She grabbed a stone and threw it into the fountain, watching it skip and skip and skip before clunking into the far side and sinking out of sight. Why in the Nine Hells should she bother?

"Keeper?"

She turned around, and saw a pudgy badger clothed in -- she sniffed -- linen and cotton.

"It'll just be a moment. She won't be any trouble -- just a quick errand."

The badger pushed forward a little human girl, and then waddled off.

"But I'm not--"

"Hi," the little girl said, waving.

Yvarra stared. A girl. A little girl. And, somehow, she knew that this wasn't a curse victim. But she wasn't a Keeper! Whatever that was--

The girl shifted her weight from foot to foot. "What's your name? I'm Ansela."

Yvarra just starred, looking from her wide blue eyes into the innocent little eyes of this little-- person. And after the woman who just trusted her, a stranger, with--

She looked at the long golden hair, tied up in a braid, glowing in the afternoon sunlight.

Yvarra swallowed. "Hello--"

"Hi! I'm Ansela."

"You said that, you know." She couldn't help but smile.

What was she? Yvarra wondered. A thief. A unicorn. A myth. A sword forged to save the world. And why? Why her? Well, why not? But why should she do it?

She looked at the trusting blue eyes. Looked at the receding mother.

"Hello, Ansela. I'm Yvarra."

For Ansela, and those like her, that's why.

And, for those, she could not, she would not, fail.

"Don't worry, Ansela, I'll keep you safe until she comes back." And safe always.

"I know. You're a Keeper."

Not a Keeper, but something better.

A unicorn.

Preceded by:
Pawned
This story is part of a series Succeeded by:
The Cultists Strike Back!