Hunt - Part I

The cobblestone steps were chilly to the touch, but the small rat scampered across them effortlessly, barely grazing them with his paws. Nestled against the crook of the long hallway wall, Charles did his best to remain unnoticed, searching for any opening or fissure that might lead him to a less public place. Though, he had used this innocuous form for sneaking about the Keep's many corridors and passages - usually to follow those he suspected of legerdemain - it never ceased to amaze him how gigantic this timeless fortress really was. Of course, this simply meant that as a pure rat, it would take him numerous hours to navigate his way even the shortest of paths.

Still, on this particular summer morning, this was desirable. As was his new found custom, Matthias had gone to see Misha shortly after meeting with his fellow rats in the cellars. The fox had proposed a game of sorts, whose rules had been very open-ended. Of course, the rat had dragged the explanation from the fox, and found the proposal quite to his liking. Predator and prey they would be, Misha stalking Charles through the halls of the Keep. The only stipulations were that at no time would either of them take their morph forms, or would they leave the many and various halls and rooms of the Keep itself.

"So, when do we begin?" Matthias had asked while nibbling on his chewstick as he sat in Misha's workroom.

The fox had flashed him one of those mischievous grins, and then turned the crank on one of his timepieces. A sudden ticking then echoed throughout the musty hall, full of oil and grease and the scent of the bread and cheese that they had shared only moments before. "We begin right now. Once this clock winds down, I will start following your trail. I suggest you return to your room and change out of your clothes."

And so Matthias had done a little over an hour ago. So far he had seen nothing of his vulpine teacher, but he was not going to take any chance in resting till he was sure he was in a place that the fox could not find, or simply could not reach. The Keep was an ancient edifice, and so one would expect that it would be cris-crossed by imperfections and decay, but such was not the case. There were cracks here and there, places through which a rat could squeeze through, but they were few and far between. The variable geometry of the Keep was hard to predict, though most places generally stayed in the same area. This only made his task more difficult.

Slipping behind a large maroon tapestry - probably purchased from Kelewair before Nasoj's malignant touch had forever cursed the Keep - Charles gingerly began scaling the reverse side, clutching at loose threads and seams, drawing himself upwards. The cool of the masonry behind him sent a shiver down his spine, his long tail twitching beneath him as he clawed at the fabric. Finally though, he emerged back into the light once again, staring down at the hallway far below.

The dizzying height made him grip the iron rod that held the tapestry in place with the force of his Sondeck. Charles sniffed at the air once, his eyes glancing down at the faces of the Keepers as he sat at his lofty perch for a moment to regain his composure. He recognized the darting blur that was Kee one of the court messengers, as well as a few of Wessex's apprentices muttering beneath their breaths to each other as they passed, concerned looks etched across their faces and muzzles. Even Rupert, Phil's assistant, came strolling past, his long, hairy, gorilla arms nearly dragging across the floor.

Taking a moment to peer backwards along the hallway, he felt his heart skip a beat. To Matthias's stunned surprise, there was Misha, trotting along, his nose in the crook of the wall that he had been scampering along only moments before. The rat sucked in his breath, trying not to make any noise, but scanned the walls and the rest of the hallway, trying to see where he could go. He certainly had no chance of outrunning the fox, not when he was this small. He'd barely been able to keep up with him while they were scouting in Glen Avery, and then he'd been at least twice his current size.

Along the wall in either direction were a series of the Kelewairic tapestries, each depicting some tale or legend, usually involving the small little-traveled forest to the north of that midland town. Ahead of the rat were three more, each separated about a foot, and then there was a sculpted ridge that ran along the remainder of the hall before it curved to the right and out of sight. It was possible that he could reach the ledge without anyone noticing, but he doubted it. At the very least, Misha could not reach him there. But it still left him with nowhere to go. However, if he remained where he was, then surely the fox would find him in another moment.

Wishing that he had his chewstick to gnaw upon, Matthias gnashed his teeth furiously, and then made his way towards the end of the long iron pole. Since none of the Keepers were looking up, no one noticed him at first. Taking a deep breath, he tensed his muscles, and assured himself that he would not crash to the floor in a small heap of fur and blood. Springing from the bulb, he held out his fore-paws, and clutched at the fabric of the next tapestry for dear life, and quickly pulled himself up to that pole.

Misha had not noticed him yet, the fox was still padding along the cobblestoned hallway, his nose tight against the corner of the wall and floor. Charles breathed a sigh of relief, and made his way to the end of this tapestry. Once again he jumped, the air flashing by his fur, and the open space so large about him. It was like he was suddenly a thousand feet off the ground, with only the monuments of gods to straddle. The allusion was slightly unsettling, but he put that out of his mind as he scrambled up the top of the next iron pole, his paws clutching furtively at the slippery bulb.

This time however, something went wrong. The bulb itself must have been loose, because it spun off the end of the pole as Charles finally managed to gain his balance again. It toppled to the ground, bouncing with a loud clank, and spinning across the floor, till it finally came to rest a good ten feet behind the rat. Everyone noticed the clatter, including Misha, who loped up to the tapestry, his grey eyes peering up the breadth of the chartreuse tapestry to the little brown rat who was scurrying madly to the other end.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the fox half jumping in excitement, his ears pointed and his face full of the glory of the catch, yet also crossed by frustration that his quarry was well out of reach. Misha quickly realized what Charles was doing, and got between the rat and the last tapestry, his long red tongue licking his black nose in anticipation. Matthias had two more leaps before he was safely ensconced on the far ledge, and so far, he had only barely made each jump.

Tensing himself, Charles pushed off the edge, using his Sondeck to aid him slightly. He gripped the fabric in his paws, nearly tearing a whole in it, his hold was so tight. Still he managed to scramble up to the iron pole, and run down its length quickly enough. Misha padded over to the ledge itself, his paws against the wall, yipping and whining in frustration at the rat's elusiveness. Matthias tried not to look down at the Long Scout, but instead focused his eyes on the finely wrought entablature that ran down the length of the hall.

He jumped before he realized that he had. The split second that he was hanging in the air, Matthias was sure his heart would stop. Abruptly, the moment passed, and the rat collided violently with the masonry, his claws scrabbling at the nooks and crannies in the rock, trying to gain some purchase against the downward slide into the paws of the waiting and expectant Misha. Finally, his rear paw caught hold of a crease, and he gripped the top of the ledge, and dragged himself up, his tail dangling temptingly at the fox below for only a moment more.

Finally secure on the ridge, Charles scampered along its length, though he could hear his pursuer padding along underneath it, waiting for it to reach its end, for surely it must. The rat tried not to think about his likely fate, only of how he could avoid this particular predicament, or at the very least escape without the fox snapping at his tail. Misha would never hurt him, but he had no doubt the fox might scare him a little.

However, as he made his way around the turn, he felt a bit blessed by the Keep's strange benevolence. There was a small crack at the top of the ridge, going right into the wall. Charles nosed at it, smelling fresh air inside. It was just large enough for him to squeeze into, but not large enough for him to turn around. Still, it appeared to be safe, and there was little else he could do. So, praying to Eli that there was another opening somewhere, he scampered inside, the darkness closing about him like a black robe. He could hear the faint whimpers of Misha far behind him as the fox realized that he'd lost his quarry.

Jumping up and down at the far end of the hallway, Misha tried to see where Charles was hiding up on the rampart. One of the rules that he had not stressed - but in retrospect should have made abundantly clear - was that if he trapped Matthias, that the rat would reveal himself and give up. He did not want to have to wait here for the next few hours for his friend and trainee to try sneaking off again.

Even as he jumped and capered about, much to the amusement of the other Keepers, Misha felt a quixotic joy about being a fox. For many years, he had been trapped solely in his morph form. The liberating freedom of shifting was like a breath of fresh air after walking through a stagnant marsh. Of course, the fact that until the curse, he had been a human only, did not in anyway detract from his animalistic pleasure. If anybody asked about his odd behavior this day, he could easily and truthfully tell them that it was just about the two of them having a bit of fun. Many enjoyed such activities already, so it would not be seen as anything unusual.

Still, as he continued his frantic efforts to spot the rat on top of the ledge, he became slightly flustered. At least Charles was proving difficult to capture. He'd been slightly disappointed at seeing him so early on in the morning. Even so, the excitement of the catch was hard to still in his beating breast. However, the thrill left him in a rush, like a wave pulling back from the breakers on the shore, when he saw the fissure in the side of the wall. Sitting on his haunches, he tapped one paw against the cobblestones, his claws ringing a steady peal in agitation.

Finding his scent again would be nearly impossible, especially if he stayed in the wall. Misha shrugged off the disappointment, reminding himself that the longer the rat stayed free, the more finely tuned his stealth skills were. And besides, the fox was quite a good tracker. Matthias would not stay lost for long.

With that thought in mind, he gently trotted off down the hallway, his nose searching, his eyes wary, and his ears straining every sound that came to them. It would only be a matter of time before he was on the trail again.

It was a bit of a surprise to discover that the fissure led all the way through the entire Keep to the Deaf Mule Inn. Yet, for the rat, the trip seemed quite well timed, since the imperfection wound its way through stonework cold and confining for what felt like an eternity or two. Occasionally, his coffin of marble and brick opened out into small porous caverns. Of course, the only way he could tell was that he felt nothing against his sides. Though his eyes were good in near darkness, there was absolutely no light here whatsoever.

As he continued on his way, he began to regret his decision to trust himself to the benevolence of a castle so old, that no historian could remember who laid the cornerstone, or where the cornerstone was! He quickly became apprehensive of the darkness about him, as well as the amount of stone surrounding him. Though never having suffered from claustrophobia before, it now gnawed at him like he chewed wood, slowly wearing him down, and filling his heart with icy fear. He hated those confining walls, those constricting snake-like passages that wound and wound down to nowhere but more blackness and cold. How his body ached to be in the open once more, to be able to grow in size, not to be trapped as a simple animal.

Yet as Charles continued his trip, scurrying faster and faster, finding the crack at times jagged, tearing at his fur, scratching at the skin beneath, he felt his fear and terror only increasing. Was there an end to this passage? It felt to him that he was heading downwards, but he had taken so many turns that he was now completely disoriented. Where was he in the Keep? Or was he in the Keep at all anymore? Had he passed from this world into one of stone and ice, where light was a forgotten thing?

When the fear became too great, Charles would stop, breath slowly and as deeply as the confining walls would allow, and turn his thoughts upon the Sondeck. That peaceful glyph, a sign of honor and of service, filled his thoughts, and gave him the courage he needed to plunge further into the impenetrable blackness. Yet that bit of respite never lasted more than a few minutes. As time passed, more and more did his thoughts turn to abandoning himself to the animal instincts in him, and letting them lead him on, since all he could do was move forward. Matthias bitterly resisted that temptation though, reciting the Song of Sondeck inside as he groped along on all of his paws, squeezing through the narrow passages, some barely half-an-inch wide.

Despite how he hated the tight twisting and winding tunnels, he despised the open spaces even more. When he first emerged into a small opening, he felt as if his blood had turned into snow. Furiously, he scurried against the wall, rubbing its comforting and reassuring surface against his fur. The emptiness had been absolute, as if he were on a plane of nothing but blackness, only the dry scent of the rock filling his mind with every breath. He took those open spaces slowly, each step a trial, for fear that there would be nothing beneath his paws, and he would plunge into an endless pit of obsidian night.

The Song of the Sondeck filled his thoughts as he continued into the abyss, dragging his way along the stone, smooth and jagged, up and down, and in every direction. Eventually, even the song became garbled, a thing of nonsense as his rodent instincts began to take hold, his intellect relenting to the pure animal need. Eventually, the song deteriorated into nothing but meaningless shapes, forgotten images in a world where light does not exist, and intangible scents and sounds. Only the scraping of his claws against the stone could be heard in these endless caverns that spiraled into nowhere.

Even when he first saw the faint glimmer, his mind was not wholly there. Charles scrambled to the edge of the opening, blinking furiously as the light filled his eyes, wondering what these noises, luscious scents, and terrific sights could possibly portend. He slunk backwards into the comforting darkness, the world that his mind could comprehend. For a time, he was compelled to continue his backwards progression into the night, where he likely would never have returned. It was only the familiar sounds and scents that gnawed at the base of his newfound insanity that prevented him from retreating further.

At first those sounds were meaningless, but eventually they broke down the barrier Charles had erected for himself, and began to call forth things deep in the recess of his mind. Voices speaking in tongues he knew; the voices of friends and acquaintances. In the past, he had shared drinks with many of them. Finally, Matthias returned to himself once again, the Song of the Sondeck filling his mind once more as he purposefully left that cavernous embrace and scampered out onto the timbers and beneath the various tables of the Deaf Mule Inn.

Naturally, Charles was drawn to the pool table, near where some of his friends were sitting. As he gazed at the patrons, he noted that almost all of them had something to eat. Though it had seemed an eternity, his sojourn in the walls must have only lasted an hour or two at the most. Still, the scent of bread and cheese and meats filled his belly with an aching. Maybe he could find a few crumbs lying here and there? Or if he had to, he could wander over towards the kitchens. If Lady Kimberly was there, she'd definitely sneak him some morsel.

His usual table was quite full. Michael, Lindsey, and Lance, all tired looking, were sitting around one end, while Tallis, Nahum, Cope, and Habakkuk graced the other. They seemed oblivious to his crouching presence by one of the solid-oak legs. Feeling a bit winded from his run, Charles took the moment to relax a bit and listen in unobtrusively.

"That sounds like quite an adventure," Nahum was remarking as he bolted down a chunk of beef. "So you have been living on the river the last few days?"

Michael and the other timbersmen nodded. "We lashed all of the logs together, and built little tents on top of them, using the smaller pieces of wood and cloth. It's nice to eat something other than fish though."

"I thought a beaver would love a diet of fish!" Tallis mused thoughtfully as he munched on a slice of freshly-baked bread. The rich aroma made Charles gnaw at the table leg instinctively, his stomach growling petulantly.

Michael shook his broadening shoulders once and smiled, the two thick teeth showing clearly beneath his lip. "I do enjoy fish, but a little variety now and again is always good." The rat was startled to see how strong the beaver looked beneath his red and black fur. Chopping wood had definitely agreed with him.

"That is easy for you to say," Lance pointed out as he rubbed the velvety antlers growing from the sides of his head with one hoof-like hand. "I think Chief Tathom and I exhausted all the greeneries on that trip. I would have loved to have been able to eat some fish!"

The giant lizard rumbled a deep laughter, "Ah, it is times like these I love being a reptile, we can eat whatever we want!"

"And you do!" Nahum chortled as he took a sip of what smelled like fresh apple cider. Charles gripped the table leg tighter, refusing to let himself do anything but watch.

There was a round of laughter from the table, all the faces bright with smiles and good cheer. It had been so long since he had just sat down with his friends for a meal at the Mule, especially Michael. He would have to make it a point to spend some time with the plaid beaver when he had the chance.

"So," Habakkuk began as he stirred what must have been a plate full of noodles smeared in butter, "did you make your expectations on the flume?"

Lindsey nodded once as he shoved a small slice of beef into his mouth and washed it down with a sip from his mazer. "We've had more hands helping us this year than any before, we exceeded even Tathom's expectations this year. In another year I imagine we will have even more resources available to us than before Nasoj's attack."

Copernicus nodded, stretching out his green-scaled arms across the table to hold aloft his mazer. "Most definitely, a toast to rebuilding!"

"To rebuilding!" they all chimed and drank down the frothy alcohol. The toast was almost perfunctory, for as soon as it was over, they all returned to eating as if it had never occurred. Michael's blocky multi-colored head was bowed low over a plate of some roast chicken, while Lindsey at his side had turned to Habakkuk and was whispering something in the kangaroo's long ears. Zhypar glanced up in some amusement, reaching out with one paw to twirl the long red braided beard that Lindsey wore around one finger a moment before shaking his head and laughing silently.

Cope finally slammed down his drink and gazed across the startled faces at the table, and broke into a giant reptilian grin. "So, who wants to play some pool?"

Immediately there were groans from about the table, with Michael furiously shaking his head. "I'm still trying to recover from the last time we played!"

Nahum rubbed his forehead with one white paw. "Last time I played you, Cope, you bounced a ball off my forehead. I'd rather not think about where you'll aim this time!"

"But that was an accident!" Cope protested, though Charles could tell that the lizard was enjoying all the attention.

Habakkuk finally rose from the table. "I'll give it a shot. Not that I have any chance of winning, but it'll be fun. I've got way too much work to do at the Guild anyway."

Tallis groaned at that, putting down the loaf of bread he'd been chewing. "Why did you have to say that? I'd almost forgotten about that stack of papers in my office!"

Nahum leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms out wide. "Ah, it is nice just being a member!"

There was a bit of laughter at that, and then the two combatants walked over towards the pool table where Charles was hiding. He quickly scurried beneath their table, staring at the paws, boots, and hooves of the five still siting down. Lance was tapping his left hoof, as if in irritation. Lodged between the cleft was a small bit of dirt. The rat could only imagine how irritating that must be!

As the clank of the balls being placed on the table reached his ears, another sound came to him. It was of the doorway at the back of the Mule which led directly into the Keep opening. It was not normally used, as it was traditional to always use the front entrance except in times of siege. Charles couldn't see who had come in though, as there were too many intervening tables and chairs. However, the soft velvety clicking of four clawed paws upon the timbers informed him of all he needed to know.

Immediately scanning the area, he tried to see if there was anyway he could escape Misha, who had somehow tracked him down. Whatever means the fox had used, Charles was not sure he wanted to know at the moment. His eyes did fall on the crack in the wall, but with a suddenly violent seizure, he dismissed the idea before it could even curse his thoughts with its presence. The front door was off-limits, and simply ridiculous. He'd never be able to push that door open anyway, even with the Sondeck. Could he make it to the Mule's kitchen, or one of the guest rooms? Misha was between him and staircase at the back, so the guestrooms were too dangerous, and they didn't lead anywhere in the first place. The kitchen was behind the counter, and while certainly the first choice of his stomach, probably took him too close to the reynard.

It was then that his eyes saw straight between Cope's legs and past his sinuous tail to the inglenook. The fireplace was empty of course, the room was quite warm without one in the summer months, as the walls were not made entirely of stone like most of the castle. The chimney led out onto the roof, a possibility that Misha had not specifically forbidden to him that morning. Sucking in his breath, Charles scampered out beneath the table as fast as he could go, and dashed beneath the lizard's giant legs.

His motion did not go undetected though, as Misha suddenly bolted from the other side of the room towards the pool table. There was quite a stir at the sudden attack, with Keeper's rising from their chairs to see what was going on. Copernicus turned around to have Misha run right into his knee, toppling the lizard along the floor, upending one of the round circular dining tables. Fortunately, nobody had been sitting there, but the commotion was enough to get everyone involved.

Charles took the time to run beneath as many chairs as he could, the fox struggling past Copernicus and the very surprised Habakkuk. That look of utter astonishment on the kangaroo's face was like the finest cheese for the rat. He'd savor that expression for days. Still, Matthias did not waste anytime in trying to make his way across to the far side of the Mule, with Misha trying to follow his path, upending chairs and evading the Keepers who were trying to grab him and restrain him. Donny was waving his arms over his head an pounding them against his horns at seeing his lovely Mule turned into a sea of chaos.

It was still a good ways to the inglenook, but Charles paused a moment to look back, but only a moment before he was once again scampering on a mostly straight direction. Suddenly, he felt a terrible weight slam down into his tail, and he squeaked in the sudden terror. The weight was quickly gone, and he saw a boot lifting up and away. Misha was snarling behind him, trying to struggle free from Lindsey, who had wrapped his arms about the fox's middle. Charles, nursing his bruised tail, continued on his way.

Still, he now took the time to deliberately avoid the other Keepers, so circled around several groups of them as he relentlessly scurried along the timbers towards the fire-pit, which loomed before him like some yawning charcoal mouth. Suddenly, the clatter of chairs and bodies recommenced behind him, and he knew that Misha was loose once more. Pushing the Sondeck into his legs, he tried to ignore the throbbing sensation from his tail. Faster and faster he made himself go, but still his escape appeared out of reach.

Suddenly, a darkness passed over him, and he reflexively crouched low, as a chair toppled over onto his back. Fortunately, the frame was built with a curve, so there was a small pocket that slammed around him, but did not hurt him. He could feel the wood against his back though, and for a brief moment he felt a flash of panic, before he was consoled by the light streaming in from all directions. However, he could hear the muffled whines of the fox right over head, pushing at the chair, trying to get at the trapped rat.

"Get him!" he heard somebody shout, and then the sounds of the struggle continued, Misha whining at being tackled by so many Keepers at once. Charles took the opportunity for what it was, wriggled free from under the chair, and quickly set his sights on the hearth. The distance did not seem so great, and in fact, was but a few moments stroll for him as a morph. Now, with the chaos reigning about him, it would take him a few seconds more.

"I got him," he heard somebody say, no longer sure amidst the uproar of voices, but it was quickly followed by, "Ah, he got away again!" Not hesitating to look back, Matthias pushed himself even harder, scurrying beneath the last table before the inglenook, and then out from the last chair and into the short open space where Misha was circling about to reach. Peering out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance just barely grab the fox's hind paw as he tumbled over another fallen Keeper. Misha ripped free a few moments later, delaying him only a second, maybe two.

But those few seconds were precious indeed, rare as diamonds, for they allowed Charles to reach the hearth and begin to scale the stonework, clambering over the mostly clean rocks. It was not an easy climb, but there were many rivulets and tiny paths that he could grip and ascend. Using his strength, he was able to do what no normal rat would have been capable of. Bit by bit, and step by step, he scaled the chimney, quickly making his way out of reach of the fox once again.

Taking a moment once he was a good ten feet up to peer down, he saw Misha's red and black muzzle peering upwards disconsolately, and then a mass of paws and hands reached in and dragged the vulpine back out, despite its yips of protest. Wiggling his whiskers contentedly, he tried not to breath too deeply, for while the hearth itself may have been cleaned, these stones were covered in soot and ash. Gazing upwards at the pinprick of blue sky ahead, he wondered just how long this was going to take him.

It took three men to hold him down, Lance and Lindsey on one end, and Donny on the third. The fox stopped struggling rather quickly though, and soon, it began shifting upwards. The three Keepers gave him room, and soon, before their surprised faces, was the naked form of Misha Brightleaf, looking quite disconsolate, but at the same time, very embarrassed. He waved with one paw at the onlookers, bystanders and others who had fallen over each other to stop the fox, then grabbed a mazer from a still standing table and used it to cover his navel.

"Misha?" Lindsey asked in some surprise as he wiped a few bread crumbs from his bright red beard.

"Hello everyone! Sorry about the mess I made; I suppose I got a little carried away," Misha indicated the three overturned tables, and ten scattered chairs, two of which had been smashed when Keepers had fallen on them in their frenzy to stop him.

"A little," Nahum asked, swatting dust from his tan jerkin with both paws. "I've never seen anybody come in here and turn this place into a battlefield like you did!"

"Still, that was the most excitement I've seen in a while," Tallis added lithely. "I'd rather have been here than in my office! Thanks for the entertainment, Misha."

Misha bowed then, his bushy tail flicking debonairly in the air. There were a few women in the bar he then realized, as they giggled as he had inadvertently taken the mazer from his navel when genuflecting. He was quick to replace it.

"Well, what are we going to do about this mess? I hope you intend to pay for my broken chairs?" Donny asked as he righted one of the tables, picking up a flagon that had fallen, soaking the timbers with the frothy mead.

"Well, I don't have any money on me right now," Misha admitted to more feminine giggling. "I can pay you back later if you wish."

The bovine split his lips in a rather sadistic grin just then. He tapped one horn with his hoof-like hand and then spoke in his somber voice. "I have a better idea. I'd like you to work it off in my kitchens."

Misha blanched slightly, his paws keeping that mazer well in place. "When?"

The others in the room were all grinning at the embarrassed fox, some of them even righting chairs and tables as they watched the proprietor pronounce his sentence! "Now actually."

"But, I have no clothes!"

Donny started walking back towards the kitchen indicating with a finger that Misha should follow. "I'll give you an apron if you are so self-conscious. Now, let's see, what can I have the mighty warrior Misha Brightleaf do for me? Scrubbing pots sounds good!" The fox groaned, even as the others in the Mule laughed loudly at his fate. The kitchen door swung behind him, swatting him in the tail as he went!

Copernicus then turned to Habakkuk, now that the commotion had died and Misha was off to the scullery. "I do believe we still have a game to play."

The kangaroo laughed drily, swatting the timbers with his tail. "I do believe you are right! If Misha can scrub pots, maybe I can defeat you?" And at that, they all laughed once again.

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