By: David Ihnen, for 'Snow' in the christmas exchange

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This story is Copyright by David Ihnen, for 'Snow' in the christmas exchange. Please do not distribute without permission.

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The man triggered the time to go home macro on his work computer, and sagged back in his chair. Far too much testing and documenting the vagaries of poorly written software. This was what a degree in information systems security got you these days. Time for some food, some games, before dragging back in tomorrow. The display on his smart phone came to life as a mechanical voice spoke.

"Good evening Snow. Day marked complete, projects logged, documents saved and shared with management. Hours displayed. Transit inbound seven minutes."
The man triggered the time to go home macro on his work computer, and sagged back in his chair. Far too much testing and documenting the vagaries of poorly written software. This was what a degree in information systems security got you these days. Time for some food, some games, before dragging back in tomorrow. The display on his smart phone came to life as a mechanical voice spoke.

"Good evening Snow. Day marked complete, projects logged, documents saved and shared with management. Hours displayed. Transit inbound seven minutes."

Previously he had to spend half an hour per day entering all that information and reporting before he automated it! The phone slid naturally into his pocket as he picked up his sunglasses, turned summarily and marched out the door into the late afternoon Floridian sun. His phone rang. The ID said "Snow, pick up" and had a number. He did.

"You're tired of this. There is a way out." spoke a solemn voice.

Snow blinked. "Samuel L Jackson?"

The voice shifted timber, now more announcer-like. "No, but a good similitude, don't you think? I am the Narrator. If you want to continue documenting software, just hang up. If you wish to escape this drab existence, white-list my number and await a text. I won't promise that it will be without peril. I will promise it to be worth it. You have four minutes before this offer is revoked."

The phone signaled end of call. He contemplated the words as he walked through the warm afternoon towards the bus stop. An emotion surged in him and he vocalized,

"Fuckit. Why not?" and flagged the number on his call history for text message reception. It vibrated almost immediately.

Narrator> There is a treasure, retrieve it. (1/3) 26.390854, -80.107189

Snow blinked. A treasure hunt, then? Intriguing. He brought up the coordinates on the map. It was nearby, but far enough that he would miss the next bus for sure. In for a moment, in for half an hour. Besides, you don't second guess the narrator. That would be much like arguing with himself. Not that he usually won those arguments, but that was what being a writer was about. He could spare the time.

Snow> Questing

The coordinates took about ten minutes to find, they were in the courtyard of an immense old IBM campus, grey concrete with fins that stuck out of the building every few meters. There were a few signs advertising space for rent, but few evident occupants. The parking lot was sparsely filled at this hour. He came to the edge of a concrete circular depression about three feet deep. No doubt this was normally a pond. He paced around the edge for a few seconds, but got no closer - the coordinates appeared to be in the exact middle. He couldn't see anything more than a cluster of pipework that no doubt drove a fountain.

With some trepidation he hopped down into the empty pond.

Into darkness with a splash! He was knee deep in warm water, the night sounds were loud around him, several reactive splashes from his movement, like frogs. He couldn't see a thing.

He staggered backwards in surprise tumbling back onto the sidewalk, pulling himself out of the... empty pond.

He looked around in some confusion at the building. The birds sang, the sun illuminated the top half of the eastern side of the building out of a clear blue sky. His shoes and legs were no damper than they were a moment before in the sweaty heat of the Floridian afternoon. His phone chirped.

Narrator> Time grows short, the portal will close and the treasure lost.

Snow held the phone high, gritted his teeth, and hopped into the empty pond again.

SPLASH! The warm water soaked into his pants. He strained to adjust his eyes to the darkness, the stars and a glowing object in his hand finally easing into resolution. He peered at the phone... only it wasn't. A phone that is. A chunky metal object was in his hand, a recess on the front showing a dimly glowing rod that remained oriented ahead of him no matter how he twisted it, like a compass. Nothing provided light but the stars above and his chest, looming cypress trees close around. The heat and humidity still felt like Florida. Glancing down there was something like a chemlight hanging from his neck, glowing eerily.

He sloshed forward, navigating around some reeds that blocked the direct path. The bottom of the pond was mucky, squishy between his toes. Toes? It didn't feel like he had any shoes on. He tried to go around another lump of rushes, but the rod steadfastly pointed to the center. Leaning forward to see in the dimness, he parted the rushes to find a Japanese style stone lantern. He grimaced thinking of what might be lurking inside - probably a spider. Or ten. He raised the chemlight from his chest to one opening and cautiously peered into another. He started, dropping it back on its lanyard!

There was an EYE looking back at him!

He shifted on the mucky ground and raised the rod to cast light into the lantern again. There WAS an eye there - a glass eyeball more accurately - nestled on a tiny plinth. It gleamed in the light, iridescent, round pupil with a yellow iris. It didn't move. It was also remarkably free of evident spider webs or spiders. Snow reached in tentatively through a larger hole and retrieved it, wiping some dust off on his vest. Vest? Yes, it had pockets too.

There was a loud 'CHUNK' noise and the water started rushing past his legs. He hastily pocketed the treasure, his bumbling hands found a bag hanging from his belt that fit the compass thing easily. He staggered back against the current that seemed to quickly stronger. One moment he was straining through hip-deep warm water in the dark, and the next he was perfectly dry, scrambling up out of the empty pond, his phone in his jeans pocket. He squinted hard against the daylight, tears welling up as he tried to adjust to the brightness. The eye was nowhere to be seen. He looked back towards the road, easily focusing on a vehicle driving by, the face of the driver bored. He blinked - that had to be at least a quarter mile away! The phone blipped.

Narrator> Eye of the Eagle (treasure 1/3) obtained.

Snow looked around more intently. He spotted a squirrel leaping in a tree at 200 yards, everything was so sharp! He was surreal, but hardly something to particularly complain about. His eyes easily snapped to movement. He tapped into the phone's keyboard.0

Snow> I can see.

Narrator> Every hunter needs a Tome. 26.365892, -80.114105. Bring food. Have some Tea.

Snow used the map program again as he walked back towards the bus stop. Best he could tell, it appeared to be in the Barnes and Noble. They would have Tomes there. He was hungry too. He could stop at whole foods next door and get some. The number 2 bus came along just as he approached the bus stop, within 15 minutes he was walking across the freeway bridge towards the market.

The smells of Whole Foods made him salivate. He could have a salad, or something from the steam table... As he stepped through the door he quite abruptly found himself in a meadow in a wood, the species unfamiliar to him. Pausing he stepped backwards, and almost got hit by a passing shopper with a cart full of groceries.

"Where did you come from?" the woman glared as Snow dodged out of the way, letting her pass. The store looked normal from here, he took a step forward again, eyes wide, and everything changed exactly as he stepped through the door. The sun stood high, the air baking hot. Glancing down he started. His skin was dark, black even. His... her? breasts were bound with a few strips of bright cloth, bottomed with a gathered orange colored skirt. She was utterly barefoot but her feet felt incongruously comfortable on the ground. Cautiously she stepped forward through the shoulder-high shrubs adorned with brilliant orange flowers. Curiously, being female felt entirely natural.

He could smell the smoke of a fire, and in another step he found it. A dark-skinned man crouched by the fire, wearing an incongruously striped t-shirt. He appeared to be brewing something in a makeshift pot that had at one time been a tin can.

"Aad Waxaa jira." the man said, flashing a white-toothed smile. He understood it to mean 'There you are'.

"What?" Snow said, trying to stall while she attempted to make sense of the sounds the man had made.

"Gots you some tea." he said with equanimity. The words sounded strange to him but the meaning was clear.

"Tea?" Snow asked, trying to sort this out.

"Lion's tail, woman." the man said, indicating the plants around them with a sweep of his hand. "You be needin to drink it."

"For what?"

"For your quest" the man grinned again, presenting the can to her.

Snow took it and hesitated, then shrugged. She raised the can, sipping carefully. It was warm, but not intolerably so. I had a bitter tang, but was mostly watery. She drank down the rest of it carefully. She went to look back at the man again, but the world spun around her, the can falling from her hand. The ground smacked her hard on the side. She found herself unable to move or close her eyes, the scratchy grass digging into her cheek. The man grinned at her lecherously. Snow started to panic. More peril! Alone, in the wilderness as a woman for all of three minutes, already drugged and helpless with a strange man. She was some kind of idiot. The man winked, came over and undressed her with his rough hands. But having removed the clothing, he simply stepped off with them and disappeared through the orange flowers. Snow's torso, hips, and legs began to ache and feel unbearably hot. Intense stretching and burning would cause her to involuntarily convulse, the only movement she seemed to be able to make, leaving her exhausted and panting as it faded. Intermittently there were pops and stomach churning sensations as her legs and hips rearranged. She lay there watching the shadows of the sun on the ground lengthen, from about noon to almost sunset before the man returned. His strong hands gripped her under the arms and dragged her along the ground for a ways. She tried to scream but couldn't manage any more than hyperventilating.

"Back you go." the man said, and she...he... tumbled forwards onto cool tile.

"Oh my god, are you alright?" a female voice said.

Snow tried to move and he could! He found the concerned face of a young blonde peering at him. "whuh?" his head spun still.

"You fell down!" she explained, "Did you hit your head? Should I call the ambulance?"

Snow started to sit up gingerly. "No, I'm alright. Just give me a moment." He winced as she sat awkwardly on her spine somehow. Rolling off it, she got to all fours, then staggered on her... paws... still inside sneakers though. A couple uncertain steps and she was sitting unevenly on a nearby bench. Her ...tail? seemed to be stuck down the leg of his trousers.

"Are you sure?" the woman inquired, "you don't look good"

"Yes, Yes, I'm fine." he said. His voice sounded as it always had, male, but there was... definitely something unfamiliar about her lower half. Short fur bound up against the cloth of the trousers, she slipped a hand under his shirt enough to feel short fur covering her stomach, gasping a bit as he found more than one evident nipple too. His head was rapidly clearing.

"Thank you ma'am." he said to the concerned lady, "I just slipped, I'm feeling much better now."

"You might have a concussion." she said dubiously, "you should call an ambulance."

"NO!" he almost shouted, then paused, and shook his head. "No, its fine. Its just been a very odd day."

The phone blipped in his pocket.

"If you'll excuse me?" he said to her, pulling the phone out.

Narrator> Tail of the lion (treasure 2/3) obtained.

Snow frowned, and her stomach rumbled. Walking on these paws was easy enough, after he stopped trying to think about it. Her tail kept trying to flail around down the leg of his pants, he was getting some strange looks from behind. He initially headed for the salad bar, but there was a display of various interesting meats at the counter inside.

"What can I getcha sir?" the butcher asked.

"Can I... Smell the different meats?" he asked.

The man blinked, and shrugged. "Alright." He presented a steak of each kind for his perusal up close. They all smelled good, but one was particularly mouthwatering, even raw.

"This, this one is good. Give me, two, no, three pounds." he said.

"Yessir, three pounds goat coming up.", a paper wrapped and stickered package appeared on the counter in a matter of seconds.

He paid, putting the packet in her messenger bag. Couldn't wait to cook that up. But, Barnes and Noble bookstore, for a Tome. She stepped through the bookstore doorway with trepidation - would something happen? Nope. The air was cool, and smelled thickly of books. He smiled at the familiar scent as she rode the escalator up to the animal section, it just felt right. And there it was, on the bottom shelf in the corner. A massive thick leatherbound tome looking completely out of place amongst the shiny picture books. "Griffon Lore" was embossed in gold on the spine. She retrieved the heavy book, riffling through the pages. There was artwork depicting many variants of griffons, details. Stories whose titles he didn't recognize. Yes, this must be what this was all about. He carried it to the checkout counter and laid it down.

"Oh, this is a good one." the clerk said, patting it. The total came up on the display. It was... less than he had available, barely. He wiggled her pawtoes in the sneakers. Totally worth it, even so. He handed her the card.

Book safely ensconsed in the messenger bag, an opening caught his eye between the IT books and the Architecture section. Above it was a stylized griffon icon. A clue!

As she stepped through the opening her big paw splayed, not in a sneaker, but on the cool, rough surface of a rock. Once again she was in brilliant sunshine, squinting to adjust.

An involuntary shiver worked through his torso as an almost uncomfortably cool wind ruffled around his bare chest where she stood on the top of a mountain or butte. A twisted, stunted tree grew nearby, looking more dead than alive. Cracks in the rock under paw were home to a number of low succulents tenaciously clinging to life. There was no sound other than the whisper of her paws on the stone and the hiss of the wind in the tree. She was now wearing a worn canvas shoulder bag, her lion tail seemed happy to be liberated from the constraining trousers, lashing in the breeze. This was the first good look she had gotten at her bottom half. Short tawny fur over rippling muscles as she shifted to keep her balance in a gust of wind. From about the belly button down she seemed to be female lion, the top half still skinny male human. It looked a bit ridiculous, really.

She turned slowly, finding herself high above the ambient landscape what seemed to be a pillar of rock. Her sharp eyes caught movement a coyote chasing a rabbit about a mile away. They disappeared in a fold of the land. Another movement caught her attention up above. A bald eagle sailed along effortlessly, her head cocked to eye the interloper. Their eyes locked together for long moments. She wheeled about and with a few flaps, came to rest on top of the stunted tree. The bird peered at the odd looking creature.

"I am the treasure you seek." The eagle said matter of factly, "or my wings are, at least"

Snow's mouth hung open as he looked at the bird, unsure what to say. She looked ancient, her feathers a bit ragged and her beak discolored and scarred.

The eagle spread her wings and glided down to the stone, walking around Snow, inspecting her from various sides.

"Yes, you'll do. I won't last another season. I can feel the winter on the air. Is that goat?"

Snow shifted on her paws under the intense scrutiny. "Y..Yes." she said slowly. She reached into the canvas bag and retrieved the packet of meat, though it was now wrapped in a large leaf rather than paper. She sat down on haunches and layed it out in front of her. The eagle stepped up, snagged a steak with her talons and started ripping off chunks.

"You have no idea." she managed between bites, "How long its been since I had goat. This is so good!"

Snow's stomach rumbled. The eagle finished off her steak.

"I'll leave the rest for you." she said, "You will be hungry. Are you ready for this?"

Snow shivered in the wind, arms held around his/her chest. "I think so." she said.

"Good, because the winter solstice waits for no griffin." the eagle snapped, "Put down that bag, get on all fours and close your eyes."

Snow placed his hands on the cool rock. They were familiar, skinny hands, a scar from a knife cut years ago, wrinkled in just that way over the stretched knuckles. Wind buffeted as the eagle half launched, half dove off the rock. The wan sun seemed to swell in brightness, tiny tingles of warmth beating the chill away. He closed his eyes, momentarily able to relax as the sun warmed him.

"Ready or not, here I come!" he heard the eagle scream, the sound echoing off the landscape for long seconds before the weight of the bird hit him right between the shoulders, hard.

The wind was knocked out of him. Heat exploded through her face and shoulders as she was knocked forward onto her face, hands losing grip against the stone. She couldn't press with them, her wrists and fingers all wrong. Pain and fire ran through them, the thumbs pulling far to the inside until they snapped backwards with a nauseating pop. The bones in her hands lengthened, the skin becoming yellow and rippled. Her face stretched forward, lips drawn taut across an expanding forward skull, quickly becoming hard and keratinous. Her tongue flicked, changing shape and texture, licking along the sharp edge of new beak. Her field of view expanded, the majesty of the landscape more inspiring for its width. Her chest expanded with deep, crunching pops, thrusting forward as thick sinews of muscle wrapped around her rib cage, crushing what remained of the air from her lungs. She struggled to breath, somehow unable to inhale. Her hands - no - talons - seemed to be able to support her now, she rolled off her side, beak open wide, struggling to draw a breath. Her vision started to get dark as she struggled, the burn of needing breath greater even than the deep ache of growing down and feathers that sprouted from her torso, head, and arms. Wings came online abruptly, tingling ferociously as her mind tried to adjust to the sensation, half-lifting her off the ground as she flailed trying to balance against the wind. Must Breath! Her eyes rolled up in her head as the need for oxygen sapped her, she dropped to her elbows, beak gaping, trying to find that breath. Her balance swam, the world spinning around her as she fell over, wing thumping hard on the ground, writhing weakly. Breath! Why couldn't she breath? Anything for a Breath! Black.

Snow blinked, coming awake. She lifted her head and peered around easily. For more easily than she would have expected. She was lying on her side on the top of a rock pillar, perilously close to the edge. Right, she couldn't breath!

For a long moment she couldn't breath again, then for some reason she just let it relax. She had... two diaphragms? They alternated in a syncopated pattern, so she was somehow breathing while inhaling. How curious, yet, invigorating. She twisted and rolled to all fours, spreading her giant wings tentatively. The breeze caught at them, ruffling the feathers. She shook them gently, feeling the flight feathers falling into place where they had bound up on each other in her sprawl. Much better. She folded them against her sides. Much warmer.

She sat sphinx style and used her flexible neck to look at herself intently. Lion hindquarters, a thin ropey tail with a tuft of fur at the end. Not much of an elevator or rudder, how did that work? Impressive wingspan, a speckled mottled feather appearance like a young eagle. She rose, tried a few steps in the limited confines of the rock pillar. She had to keep her wrists more or less straight - as they bent her talons kept trying to close. She could crouch, but more by using the shoulders and elbows than her elongated hands/talons/wrists.

The sun was feeling particularly good, and the goat smelled good too. She attacked the steaks, gulping them down in just a few moments. And was still hungry. She pulled the bag over, opened the book and found an inscription inside the cover.

Quest fulfilled! You are the first of the rocky mountain Griffins. Live well, guard your treasure, and be sure to have riddles ready for future adventurers. - Narrator

Her eye caught site of a few bighorn sheep across the valley and her stomach rumbled. Riddles and hoards later. Now, Food.

She leapt from the rock pillar without thinking, started to panic as she plummeted. Then she found the proper lever, her wings spreading with a whoof, carrying her out across the wilderness valley. She screamed,


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