Within the fabric of the forest, the vague glimmer of a disturbance riffled the otherwise tranquil landscape. If it were inhabiting a form able to accomplish such a task, the Morphyd would have given a great sigh of relief to find itself in solitary surroundings. It was vital that each Emergence go unnoticed by the local populace. The Morphyd could not recall why it was of such relevance, but then there were many things that the Morphyd failed to remember. It did not fret its lack of memory. To worry about such things was not inherent to its nature. Suffice to say that every Emergence required secrecy and, in this instance, that had been accomplished very nicely.
The Morphyd surveyed the area, seeking a suitable shape to adopt. The amorphous, opaque character of its intangible and indigenous form (at least, the Morphyd assumed such was its indigenous form although, truth to tell, it was far from certain) might be all well and good when it came to camouflage, but did not lend itself to the successful achievement of missions...and the Morphyd was most definitely bound upon a mission.
With deliberate intensity, it struggled with its capricious memory until the words it had long ago committed to rote swam to the surface. The imposing voice which sprang to mind would have sent shivers down its spine...if the Morphyd has possessed a spine with which to shiver at that moment in time:"To stand the test and be the best;
To know that you are truly blest.
To never rest or be digressed
Until fulfillment of the Quest."
If the Morphyd had ever been cognizant of the exact character of the Quest in question, that knowledge had long since been forgotten. No matter! It would surely recognize the challenge when it presented itself. Confident of victory, the Morphyd had determined it would then return home in triumph to acknowledge the accolades and wallow happily in the thrill of glory. Although somewhat doubtful as to where, or even what, home might be, the Morphyd refused to allow such trivial facts to overshadow its natural enthusiasm.
"All will be revealed when the time is right," it had often told itself. "Yes, all in good time."
From a tree branch above the rippling rift in the scenery, a pigeon regarded the unusual breach with an inquisitive eye. She was a comely bird...at least to her male counterparts...plump of breast with smooth, grey plumage. Curious, she hopped from the bough and fluttered gracefully to the forest floor in order to investigate this strange occurrence. She pecked tentatively at the shimmering curtain. The substance was wet and sticky and not at all palatable to the tongue. The pigeon clacked her beak in disapproval and, with a muted "coo" of disgust and dismay, took wing.
The Morphyd observed the fleeing pigeon until the bird was no more than a small speck on the horizon. What a perfect way to travel! Swift and able to traverse large quantities of the landscape in a short span of time, it appeared the ideal shape until something which might be more suitable came along. The Morphyd shuddered slightly and withdrew into a small, tightly-packed ball of iridescence. Clawed feet sprang forth, closely followed by a bobbing head and then a feathered body. The Morphyd practiced the "coo" it had recently heard. Satisfied with the results, it spread its wings and was somewhat startled at how quickly it rose into the air. Captured in the strong flow of an upward draft and teetering unsteadily, the Morphyd...who was now a pigeon...flew southward. It tried to avoid looking down unless absolutely necessary. The vista from such a great height made it feel rather dizzy.
Lillie of the Valley, also known as the Maid of Jade, hobbled along the Great Lir's Highway and rued the hour she had crossed paths with that swarthy-skinned, oily-haired, wagon-journeying merchant. She should have know better than to trust anyone who sported a single gold hoop in the left ear and rubbed his palms each time he grinned. Still, the trade of her worn and scuffed boots for a pair fashioned from fine green suede appeared to be the deal of the century at the time. They so perfectly matched her traveling outfit and the gypsy had informed her they possessed "special attributes." The only "special attribute" apparent so far was the ability to raise an excruciatingly painful blister on her right heel. Each and every step was akin to a dozen red-hot needles piercing the now tender skin.
Squinting into the distance, Lillie noticed a building with a sign swinging gaily in the wind. As yet too far away to make out the printing, she could only hope it was some type of inn or tavern where she might "take the weight off" for a short while. At Lillie's side, Kyte clacked sympathetically at her demise and she paused to absentmindedly scratch his bald pate. She had briefly ridden Kyte when the heel first began to trouble her, but Hellions had never really been intended to serve as bareback mounts, their spines being ridged and rangy...and Lillie, caught in the fever of trade or perhaps duped by the smooth banter of the aforementioned merchant, had swapped her saddle for a finely-tooled leather sheath which now contained the small hunting knife suspended from her slim waist. Eventually, Lillie had determined that one sore heel would be infinitely preferable to one very sore rear end.
Deep in his metallic throat, Kyte whirred softly as a kitten at the attention , and tilted his head to better take advantage of the scratching from Lillie's fingernails. "Well," sighed the Maid of Jade, "we'll not get very far just standing around here, will we Kyte?" The Hellion hummed his agreement and pawed at the ground with bronzed talons.
Taking a grimacing step, Lillie moved forward once more and then stopped in alarm as low-flying pigeon with dangling claws and panic-stricken fluttering brushed past only inches from her nose. Beak wide, the Hellion snapped angrily at the offending bird. With a "coo" of dismay, the pigeon struggled to avoid the brazen bill and turned unsteadily in the direction of the distant swinging sign.
"Stupid bird!" muttered the aggravated Lillie."One would think it had never flown before in its life!"
With a clumsy swoop, the pigeon landed with a thud in the courtyard of the Red Gryphon Inn and slid several feet along the grass on its plump chest. "Coo?" inquired the bird hopefully of an old woman who was vigorously sweeping the threshold. The aged crone's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Derned pigeons," she snarled, brandishing her broom at the unwelcome visitor.
The pigeon hurriedly scuttled out of harm's way and stumbled into a patch of thistles. Quickly righting itself, the bird peered anxiously through the leaves. "Coo?" it asked again with an expectant air. The reception received was no less hostile second time around.
"Derned pigeons," snarled the broom-wielder, brandishing her weapon again. "Coming down here and making a mess of my nice clean pathway with yer horrible bird droppings!"
The pigeon was somewhat confused. Unaware that it had been carrying anything, let alone dropped such cargo, it hopped out of the thistle patch in order to scrutinize the ground. It trusted that the dropped item had not been vital to the Quest. One could never be sure what might be vital to the Quest!
Frantically bobbing and cooing, the pigeon retraced its steps since landing, but constantly tripped over its inturned toes and was totally unprepared for the sudden twhack it received upon the head.
Smoothing the bristles of her broom, the old woman chuckled. "Scat, sir!" she hissed at the dazed pigeon, now weaving in and out of the bushes along the front of the Inn. The bird blinked at her. She flourished the broom again. "I said scat, sir!" she screeched. "Now begone about your business and leave me to mine!"
The pigeon pondered momentarily on the command. The ancient crone was quite right, of course. It would appear that she was mistaken about the dropped article, but there was no denying the wisdom of her words. There was business to be taken care of and perhaps she too was engaged on a Quest. Maybe they were on a similar Quest and could exchange notes at a later point in time. One could never be sure who might be engaged on a Quest!
With a "coo" of gratitude, the pigeon took flight...a little less clumsily this time, but still sadly lacking in elegance. With a touch of regret, the old woman watched it go. "Plump little devil," she mused, wondering if it had not been a mistake to allow it freedom. With a few steamed vegetables and loaf of freshly-baked bread, it would have made for a tasty supper.
Winging westward, the pigeon was beginning to quite enjoy the experience of flight when a declaration, drifting upward from below, caught its attention and caused it to look down. The sensation was one of disorientation as the ground spun uncontrollably before the bird's blinking eyes. Nonetheless, it maintained what equilibrium it could and, whether by some inherent skill or luck, managed to recircle the area without totally losing balance.
"You will not defeat me in my Quest, foul beast!" came the announcement again. The pigeon winked excitedly at the hallowed word and gazed with much admiration upon the figure who was wielding a determined sword about his head and who had apparently just spoken. Dressed in a fine suit of plate armor, the man was poised for battle before a cave, the entrance to which was littered with white bones. Cautiously, the pigeon came in for a landing and perched upon the bare branch of a withered tree which stood upon a small, rocky hillock close by...but not too close.
The creature who loitered just inside the mouth of the cavern was an imposing sight to behold. Its overlapping scales were emerald in color and sparkled like morning dew upon the grass. Impressive and dangerous-looking claws extended from its broad feet and its forked tail lashed back and forth, sending tiny stones spewing into the dark interior of its abode. Teeth, long and pointed, protruded from its wide mouth, and from its nostrils puffs of grey smoke undulated in mesmerizing waves. It towered above the armored figure who was now swinging his weapon to-and-fro beneath the creature's elongated chin in a threatening manner. The watching pigeon was very impressed.
"Prepare to die, foul beast!" came the challenge. The creature appeared to grin and inspected one of its claws with a critical eye.
"Join forcessss with ussss crussssader and you sssshall be rewarded with giftssss unknown to the common peassssantssss who inhabit thissss land," coaxed the creature with a slithering tongue. The crusader's response was to jab at the flesh of the creature's chin with the point of his sword.
"Prepare to die, foul beast," he challenged once more, "for I would rather give of my life than succumb to the will of the dragons. Such I have sworn and such is the nature of my Quest. Death to you all!"
The pigeon winked again, eyes bright with anticipation. It took careful stock of the metallic garb worn by this devoted crusader and of the weapon by which the Quest would be accomplished. Quite obviously, such would be the desired form and accouterments of victory. This was indeed a stroke of luck...to happen upon the ideal so quickly after arrival in this land. The bird, however, decided to await the outcome of the encounter before adopting the shape. It was anxious to learn more.
The dragon appeared to shrug. One or two green scales fell to the ground with a dull thud. It sighed and a thin trail of smoke straggled from its nostrils followed by a belch of tiny flames. The crusader snapped shut the visor of his helmet and gripped his weapon with both hands.
"Assss you wissssh, ssssir" hissed the creature, raising itself to full height.
With a cry, the crusader rushed the dragon and sliced at the throat. The blade nicked the skin and the dragon gave a low growl of acknowledgment. This challenger might prove to be more proficient than most of those who had gone before...it would make a nice change. Under normal circumstances, the creature could dispose of an attacker within the first minute. It became something of a bore. Dabbing delicately at the wound with a careful claw, the dragon inspected the glistening blood and nodded his approval.
The crusader hopped in agitated fashion from one booted foot to the other. "Fight, you foul beast!" he insisted. The dragon shuffled forward from the cave. Swinging its thick tail, it aimed for the crusader's knees, intending to bring its target crashing to the ground. With a nimble leap, the crusader avoided the attack and, instead, lopped off the tip of the forked tail with a well-directed blow. The dragon stared in amazement as blood oozed from the injury and stained the stony ground. It licked ruefully at the lesion and regarded its assailant with a malevolent eye. It would be a laughing sssstock if ssssuch an action were permitted to go unpunisssshed!
The crusader whirled his sword and stood firm, preparing to lunge for the creature's chest, trusting that the point of his weapon would pierce the abominable heart. The dragon, however, filled its lungs with air and discharged a bellow filled with flames and fire and impenetrable black smoke. Queasy at the sight of blood...even though it be dragon blood...the pigeon shambled nervously along the heated branch. No wonder all the trees in the area were withered and bare!
When the haze cleared, the crusader was no more than a charred mixture of twisted metal and roasted flesh. Peeling away the armor, the dragon selected the most delectable morsels of meat and devoured them at its leisure, stopping only to clean its teeth with the tip of the unfortunate crusader's sword. Examination of the tail indicated that the bleeding has ceased and the skin had already closed quite nicely. The dragon heaved a spark-free sigh of contentment. It has been a most satisfying day.
The pigeon was horrified at the spectacle and felt somewhat light-headed. For a moment, it feared it might not be able to keep a grip upon the branch. Nevertheless, heartened at the courage displayed by the fallen crusader, it remained certain that such would be the shape of success. This particular location, however, might not be the appropriate area for transformation, given the propensity of the nasty-tempered creature for consuming armored figures. Taking to the sky once more, the pigeon retraced its former flight path and remembered the Inn. Now there might be a good place to begin the Quest in earnest and there would surely be a secluded spot nearby where it could safely perform its metamorphosis.
With her green suede boots tucked under one arm, Lillie inquired of the aged crone whether there were rooms available at the Inn. Intent on sweeping, the old woman had already ignored Lillie's question twice. Kyte, deciding to lend a helping wing, whirred noisily to attract attention. The sound accomplished the desired goal. The old woman leaned on her broom and gaped.
"What manner of creation might that be?" she asked.
"It's a Hellion," replied Lillie, hoping she would not be required to furnish a detailed explanation, as was too often the case. She was tired and hungry and it always seemed to take so long to educate people on the origin of the Hellions. They could never quite grasp the concept of a half-avian, half-mechanical being first time around. Luckily, the ancient virago's focus suddenly switched to an ungainly figure lumbering toward the Inn while struggling to extricate a sword from the top of his boot.
The knight...for such it appeared to be, given the polished armor...waved in friendly salutation. With a triumphant flourish, the paladin finally dislodged the sword but managed to snap shut the visor of his helmet. Staggering for a moment and looking as though he might stumble into the ditch along the side of the Highway, the knight managed to right himself and peered through the slits of his visor. He arrived at the courtyard of the Inn without further mishap, save a few teetering steps along the way.
"Greetings, fair ladies," he said, bowing at the waist and almost toppling over, unused to the weight of the armor. Lillie reached out and steadied the knight until he regained balance. "I am forever indebted to you," said the knight. Lillie raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"It was merely a helping hand," she informed him. "It's not as though I saved your life. A simple thank-you is all that's necessary." The knight wondered if all hands were helping ones and regarded his gauntlets with interest.
The old crone sidled over and took his arm. "Now, don't you be a fine-looking young figure of a fellow," she simpered. The knight blushed. Nobody knew he blushed because his visor was still down, but he blushed nonetheless. "Simple thank-you," he muttered.
Lillie shook her head. Did this knight know nothing? "It's not 'simple thank-you,'" she told him. "Just 'thank-you.'" The knight nodded, which made him stagger a little more. This armor really would take some getting used to.
"Just thank-you," he murmured. Lillie decided to let it go and scratched Kyte's head.
The knight regarded the Hellion inquisitively. "Greetings, foul beast," he said kindly. Kyte's feathers bristled and he clacked loudly in protest, leaning forward and opening his brazen bill. Startled at such uncalled-for aggression, the knight wobbled precariously. The old woman tightened her clutch upon his arm. "And what might yer name be, sweetling?" she asked.
The knight pondered the question for a second. The dragon had called the fallen crusader "ssssir," and this old woman herself had earlier referred to him as "sir." Perhaps that was part of the name. The puzzled knight furrowed his forehead and then vaguely recalled something else the old woman had said.
"Scat Sir?" he ventured. The ancient crone chuckled.
"You must mean Sir Scat, you being a knight and all," she replied. The knight considered the proposal. This old woman was obviously very wise in the ways of the world, she was surely correct in her assumption.
"Yes," he replied with confidence. "Sir Scat!"
"Were you seeking a room?" asked the aged crone, batting her eyelashes coyly and leading him toward the door of the Inn.
"I am seeking a Quest," declared Sir Scat, mumbling through his visor.
"A guest, aye?" queried the old woman. "Well, we don't have too many of them at the moment, but you're welcome to come in and take a look at the book." Sir Scat felt the adrenalin surge through his veins. A book! A Book of Quests? He had certainly come to the right place! He allowed the old woman to lead him onward.
"Am I to take it that means there are vacancies available in this establishment?" called Lillie, annoyed at being ignored in such a rude manner.
"Take yer animal to the stable first," replied the old woman, aiding Sir Scat to remove his helmet, since he appeared unable to coordinate successful navigation of the open doorway while raising his visor. Not knowing quite what to do with the article, Sir Scat balanced it on the hilt of his sword, whereupon it promptly tumbled to the ground.
"Why don't you just carry it, ducks?" asked the old crone, retrieving the item and tucking it under Sir Scat's other arm...the one to which she was not clinging. "Just thank you," said Sir Scat gratefully as he tripped over the threshold.
Lillie watched the episode and rolled her eyes. "Some knight, aye Kyte?" she confided to the Hellion. "One would think he had never worn armor before in his life!"
Still indignant, Kyte declined to comment. Foul beast, indeed!