Hunt - Part II

It took Charles a little bit of time to scale the inside of the chimney, but once he emerged from the top, covered black by the soot, and choking on the very air, he saw that his way was clear. Shaking himself free, and sneezing every other step, he climbed across the gambled roof of the Mule towards an overhanging promenade, a small balcony over looking the far wall. It took him another few minutes to climb over the large stones and scramble back inside the Keep proper, but he did manage it with little difficulty.

From there, it took his tired, bruised, and weary body only half an hour to find the kitchens. Staying flush with the wall, he avoided all the workers moving in and out, carrying trays, cleaning equipment, fresh produce, silverware, pots, pans, skillets, meats, spices, wines, eggs, and everything else that the rat could conceive belonging in a kitchen. It was hot of course, the ovens were almost always cooking something, and that something today seemed to be a roast. He wondered idly where Lady Kimberly would be in all this mess.

Taking a moment to examine his tail, he found that it would be fine, it had not been hurt nearly as much as he'd originally thought. Content with that, he continued scampering behind counters, stumbling upon crumbs of bread and cheese and meat, all of which he brushed off and then happily ate. His stomach was most appreciative, and told him so by settling quite nicely. However, his eyes wanted to find the visage of perfection, but apparently she was not here at the moment. From what he had heard coming up the chimney, he knew that he had a little bit of time before he'd have to start running again, so he decided to wait a little while to see if she would return. Climbing up behind the spice shelf, he found a little perch on top of the hutch from where he could safely watch the coming's and goings of the kitchen staff.

It was only a few minutes before the Steward came striding in, dressed casually in short red robe and jerkin. The many Keepers in the room immediately found something to busy themselves over. Thalberg went to one of the sinks, washed his hands and claws off, dried them, and then began to inspect the dishes that were being prepared on the main stove counter. Dipping his finger in a milky white sauce he brought it to his large crocodilian mouth, and licked it off.

Charles watched in fascination as he exuberantly waved one algae-green scaled hand. "The béchamel sauce needs more flour. Just a pinch mind you!" He then reached over and scooped a tiny bit of ground meat on another claw and tasted that as well. "Ah, the forcemeat is ready to be cooked. Stuff it in the roast in about an hour, and leave them simmering till supper." And then another dish, small dumplings of some sort that Charles had never seen before. "Excellent! The quenelles will be perfect, just add a touch more salt." And on it went.

It was then that Lady Kimberly made her entrance, carrying fresh bread, obviously from Gregor's bakery, and setting it down on the counter on the other end of the room. There was a peculiarly spicy odor about the loaf that Charles could not quite place. Thalberg strode to his beloved with imperial grace, and gently pulled a tiny morsel from the loaf, almost unnoticeable. He tasted it, and seemed contemplative for a moment, before breaking into a wide reptilian grin. "Perfect! Gregor has outdone himself yet again! Set this in an oven to keep warm, but do not let the oven get too hot."

Kimberly nodded emphatically, already moving to place the rather hefty loaf on a baking tray. "Yes, sir," she said, her voice rising above the clamor of the sizzling foods and crackling stoves to fill Matthias's ears with pure delight. He sighed, watching her body, its light tan fur glistening in the hot air.

Thalberg, then strode from the room, taking a moment to let out a pleased expression. "I love having state dinners again!" He then disappeared, while many of the kitchen staff chuckled quietly amongst themselves at the exasperating Steward.

Charles climbed back down from the hutch, and scurried along the walls once more, waiting, and hoping to avoid the watchful eye of the other staff. Once he was sure it was safe, he ran out into the open across the length of the room till he was sitting next to Kimberly. He squeaked once, catching her attention. She peered down in confusion at him, though kept her lips closed for a moment. She then bent down, and held out her paw, which Matthias gladly climbed into.

"Charles?" she asked in a very soft voice as she crouched behind the shelf out of sight of the others.

The rat nodded emphatically, putting one paw over his teeth, and throwing it out at her. She knew that he was blowing her a kiss, and her whole frame appeared to shiver with delight at the sight of it. "What are you doing here as a rat?" she asked in that same sweet voice. A choir of angels indeed!

Matthias simply shrugged, not sure how to answer that question, at least not while he was a rat, and as tempted as he was, he was not going to break the rules of the hunt by shifting. He then put one paw to his eye, and pointed at her. "You came to see me, is that it?" He nodded again, rather vigorously in fact. Her whiskers twitched in delight and she gently petted his back with her other paw. "Oh, I love you, Charles."

He leaned into the petting, finding it eerily pleasant. Then, happy to have seen her at least part of the day, he jumped from her paw to the ground, and waved back to her. She chuckled lightly, her own paw waving as she stood back up. Matthias then turned and scampered back to the wall and continued on his way. He was not sure where he would go to hide next, but he still had some time. Misha was probably still moping floors or something at the Mule!

Standing amidst the filigree of a marble crown that rested upon the measured and well-wrought face of one of the Keep's earlier rulers, Charles watched the comings and goings from the Ducal chambers. After seeing the catastrophe that Misha wreaked in the Mule, the rat decided that his best course of action was to surreptitiously stay close to the Keep guards. If Misha tried to snatch at him, then they would provide sufficient distraction for the fox to let Matthias make good his escape. Of course, the other reason was because it was always so fascinating to watch the political world slowly gestate before his eyes.

Unfortunately, there did not seem to be much activity at present. He could hear soft voices inside, but he could not make out who they belonged to. With the Prime Minister dead, and now with ambassadors finally returning to the Keep, things had seemed quite hectic around Festival time, but as always, it had settled back into a preternatural calm. Rumors continued to swirl over who would be Posti's successor, but they were not as numerous as the gossiping about the new Ambassador. Even the guards were talking about him from time to time.

So in the silence he sat, stretching across the marble, looking over the spiked rim of the crown, and pondering just who exactly he was reclining on. The hallway outside the Ducal chambers was lined with eleven statues, each being a ruler of the Keep sometime in the past. They were not the only rulers, just the ones who had been either prosperous or popular enough to merit a perpetual memorial. There had been a twelfth, until Madog had reduced it to rubble several months back. He'd heard some talk of having it repaired, but apparently, no one was in any rush to start work.

As if on some unseen signal, the guards hefted their guisarmes, holding them straight, the butt upon the terrazzo, tapping twice, resonating down the hall like a drumbeat. The doors then opened, almost regally, and Ambassador Yonson strode out, followed by two of his own retinue. It was the first time in nearly a week that Charles had seen the man from Marzac, and it was quite clear from just a cursory glance that the Keep had indeed claimed him. His eyes were a golden brown, flushed completely, and his formerly flaxen blonde hair had given way to a dun color, with traces of grey and black along the edges. He was walking oddly, as if his feet ached inside his boots, and there was a definite bulge at the seat of his hose.

Matthias did not quite know what to make of these changes. Perhaps something new that the Keep had not yet seen? At the very least, it appeared that Yonson was not becoming a rodent, for which the rat would be eternally grateful. The very notion of the ambassador joining them at the Gnawer's Meetings was simply too awkward. Muttering a silent prayer of thanks to Eli for sparing him that inconvenience, he continued to glower after the Weathermonger as he and his men strode from the hall, past the dead kings and dukes, and then around a corner and out of sight.

It was only after they were gone that Charles realized that Yonson had not been wearing the robes of his order. Instead, he'd worn a simple pearl gray doublet and hose, with a surcoat besmirched by the unicorn in a field, that was Marzac's heraldry. What that portended, the rat did not try to guess. Had the guards been similarly adorned? With a bit of chagrin, Matthias realized that he could not remember what Yonson's guards looked like at all! He couldn't even discern whether they had been human or not. He spent all of his time glaring hatefully at the Ambassador, so had not even seen the guards, only noticed that they were there.

Still, it was the last interesting thing to occur for quite sometime. The guards changed twice as he lay there, uncomfortable, getting hungry again, and quite tired of this cold marble! At the very least it meant that the fox was not chasing him, but he doubted that would last much longer. Glancing at the ridges along the walls, he knew that he could easily traverse them if need be. Still, if he found any more fissures, he was definitely not going to climb into them!!! A shudder passed up his spine at the very memory of it.

It was faint at first, but eventually it became more distinct. The clicking of an animal's claws against the terrazzo. Tensing himself, he prepared for the jump to the ridge. He knew that Misha would find him soon enough, as there could be no mistaking the fox's footfalls. Idly, while he waited for the vulpine snout to poke around the corner, he wondered what time it was. Surely late afternoon by now, he reckoned. The growling in his stomach was the best indicator for that.

Of course, when Misha did finally appear, surly but eager, Charles had gone so far in his wanderings that he almost squeaked in alarm. Holding it inside, he watched the fox sniff along the base of each statue, following the trail that Matthias had taken precisely. He probably should have dunked himself in a basin of water to wash away the ash. Suddenly, the foxed peered right up at his location, and the bright red tongue snaked out to lick his nose once. Yipping slightly, he placed his paws on the statue, staring intently upwards.

The guards looked bemused, but said nothing. Charles grimaced, and decided that he had little choice but to run now, and hope that Misha caused a stir. Jumping from the top of the crown, hoping not to chip the filigree with his claws, he grasped the edge of the parapet and climbed up on the ledge. Misha saw him of course, and let out another yip, bounding over to the wall, running back and forth beneath its base.

Matthias scampered towards the Ducal chambers, running along the top of the ridge behind the two guards. The fox however did not take the bait as he had hoped, but instead sat on his haunches, staring up at him behind the marble entablature atop the gold-trimmed oaken doors. Misha waged his tail in agitation, but otherwise sat there, waiting.

"What do you suppose the fox wants?" one of the two guards murmured.

Though Charles could not see them, he supposed the second guard pointed up. "I saw a rat sitting on one of the statues jump to the ledge. They are probably playing some sort of game." Misha flashed the two of them a grin, his tongue lolling out of his narrow, angular snout.

Matthias peered about, wondering just where he could go from here. He was trapped and he only had two choices: left or right. Taking a deep breath, massaging the bruise on his tail with one paw, he started out towards the right. He had come from the left, and didn't think there was anything over there that would help him escape. Misha had assured him that before nightfall, he would be caught. Though Charles had hoped he could astonish the fox, at the moment it did not look likely.

It only took Misha a moment to spot the rat racing along the ridge, and he was quick to return to his paws, nearly dancing with the excitement of his catch. "It looks like the rat is going to make him work for it though," the first guard mused thoughtfully.

"That it does," the other replied. "Run little rat!"

"I'll wager two silvers the fox manages to catch him," the first guard remarked offhandedly.

"He'll never catch the rat, you're on!"

Charles did not really need the encouragement, but he appreciated it nonetheless, scampering along the ridge, past the eleven pairs of sightless, marble eyes, and then around the corner to the hallway proper. The thick red carpeting along the middle of the floor muffled Misha's footfalls. The fox must have been tracking him along the edge of the walls were the carpeting stopped. The ridge ran down the length of the hall, various placards and other ornamentation lining the masonry. Neither took the time to admire any of it.

However, like all things, the ledge did finally stop, just before an open doorway. Charles jumped at the door, grabbed the wood with his claws, and scratched and plummeted to the ground. Landing with a sudden squeak, he was quick to get back to his paws, and dart inside the room. Misha snapped at his tail as he ducked behind a shelf; a bit of spittle landed on the rat's back as he scurried into the dust-choked store room.

That they were not alone in the room was quickly made obvious by the startled grey-liveried servant, who poked his long narrow beak over a drab package filled with gossamer linens and table cloths. "What are you doing in here? Be careful, some of these boxes have glass!" Misha was darting his head between the cracks in the shelf, chuffing at the air, nearly sneezing when Charles grabbed some of the dust in his paws and threw it at the fox's nose. This of course, caused the vulpine to back into another precarious stack of odds and ends, causing it to sway dangerously. The servant cried out in horror, nearly jumped over a set of fine china as his arms tried to flap in the air before he reached the stack and placed his wings about the middle, steadying it.

Charles took the opportunity to delve further into the cramped space, weaving in and out of the china. The ibis squawked in horror at the sight of it, pensively stomping his talons. Misha deftly snapped and yip, his muzzle dipping into the set of china, but never once touching it with a single strand of his bright vermillion fur. "No, you'll ruin it! It's from Elvquelin; it costs more than I earn in ten years!"

But the rat had already scurried past the Elvquelin finery, and was moving between two stacks of boxes, the feel of the hard sides tight against his middle sending a shudder down his spine, but Misha could not follow him through that. The fox circled around to the other side, but already, Matthias was running beneath a large old, and broken grandfather clock, which was nestled against the far stone wall along with other trinkets that no longer worked, or were simply not in good taste. Most of them had been gifts to Metamor from other lands before the curse, others had been bought by less frugal nobles while visiting the southern Midlands. At any rate, with the two of them darting in and out of the gears and old wood, the ibis was dancing back and forth in agitation, its beak dipping low, cutting a wide swath through the musty air.

Finally, Charles climbed on top of one set of boxes, while Misha extricated himself from the clock's innards, having managed to twist himself around the pendulum. The avian servant was practically pulling out his feathers. "Not the winter decorations!" Looking across the open space, Charles saw the gossamer table cloths set just a few feet before him, and Misha between him and the other stack. Pushing against the boxes, he leaped onto the linens, landing softly, and bouncing up and over the china, to run through the ibis's startled legs, and out the door. At the same time, the stack he had jumped from, swung back into the wall, and then toppled over onto the very surprised fox. An anguished cry arose from deep within the bird's beak, as he rushed over once more, trying to salvage what he could from the mess.

Charles could hear an exultant peroration come from the room as he darted along the wall. "Ah, nothing's broken! Thank the gods!" However, he could also hear the scrambling of the fox from underneath his weight, and his claws against the stonework. Sucking in his breath, the rat dived beneath the thick maroon carpeting, trying not to dwell on the feel of the rough fabric against his fur on all sides.

However, he quickly popped out the other side, and was heading through another door, one marked by some heraldry that he did not recognize. It opened into a long hall, quite wide, with chandeliers hanging over head. It must have been a ballroom at one time, for it was about as large as the throne room, but without the superfluous columns and decorations. Still, it was finely wrought, with a high ceiling, and inglenooks on two ends, with fires burning amiably inside, as well as multiple doors leading off from either wall. The floor was covered in a rich chartreuse carpet, probably of Pyralian origin given the amount of swirls and whirligig designs sewed in. Even the ceiling was ornate, stained glass lined the upper balconies, casting strange colors upon the floor. Torches burned brightly in sconces about the entire room, set between the doors and other tapestries.

Of course, the rat took no time to appreciate this, instead he rushed as fast as he could towards one of the doors. He was not sure why he picked that one, there was just something about it that drew him onwards. He was almost there when Misha barreled into the ballroom, charging at full speed after the elusive rat, the back of his fur stained with ancient dust and grime. Thankfully, the slender oaken frame was slightly ajar, and so he squeezed on past.

The room adjoining the ballroom was one that instantly made him feel completely at home. The broad expanse of yellowed clay, fashioned over countless years into a room so smooth, you could run your paws over every inch of it, and never once feel a bump or imperfection, was intimately familiar and so unusual at the Keep. One wall was lined by shuttered windows, the shutters splayed outside to let the hot crimson sun shine in and warm this abode. A hearth graced the far end of the narrow chamber, while a broad black banner hung overhead, with only a single symbol inscribed in the center. Along the wall opposite the windows was a broad granite altar, upon which an angel kneeled, her hands held aloft, empty. Cases of long wooden poles, daggers, and other inoffensive weapons was arrayed behind the altar.

Instinctively, the rat scurried in a direct line across the front of the altar, tapping the angel on the left ankle as he passed. Of course, to active the trap, he needed to use the Sondeck, but that was to be expected in this place. Misha popped into the room, narrowed his eyes as he saw the rat running towards the far end, and then took up chase himself. Only, as he passed the altar, something very peculiar happened. The angel herself spun about as if alive, and grabbed the fox in her arms, and rolled down the ground, pinning him beneath her pair of velvety wings.

Misha let out a sudden yelp as he was quite effortlessly and permanently restrained. Charles stopped running, scampered back over to the sight, and wiggled his whiskers contentedly. Slowly shifting back into his morph form, Charles spoke his first words since the morning. "Well, it appears that I've won the little hunt."

And then the enormity of where he was slammed into the rat. Turning, he ran to the windows, and peered out across the town of Metamor, surprised to see it there at all. He turned back around on his heels, a bemused expression crossing his face, as he gazed lovingly at the banner with the red shield inscribed by an upturned hand, with an alabaster sword nestled in the palm. His eyes then followed across every contour, the cases, the altar, the angel, and all the tiny secrets that were contained in these four walls. Though he live his entire life here, he would never uncover all the mysteries.

Turning back to the sedate fox, who was whimpering slightly at being so sternly confined. "I could have sworn that I would see leagues of sand outside those windows. Nothing but an ocean of sand." Sighing wistfully as he gazed out at the yonder rolling forests and craggy mountain tops, he let the next thought in his mind go unsaid for the moment. "Do you agree I've won? Lick your nose if you do."

Misha breathed deeply once, and then gently licked his black nose, his grey eyes glaring in annoyance at the rat. Charles walked back over to the angel, and gently pushed the Sondeck into her right ankle. With equal fluidity, the statue shifted once again, released the fox, and returned to holding out her hands before the altar, wings folded gently against her back.

Misha then shifted as well, returning to the familiar axe-wielding maniac who also happened to be the rat's teacher. "How did you know about that?" he asked petulantly, pointing behind him to the angel.

"Oh, well, I grew up here," Matthias replied lamely, still searching for words to describe the utter amazement he was feeling. To find this room, here at Metamor, was an omen for sure.

"What do you mean you grew up here?" Misha asked. Charles only pointed at the banner, to which Misha stared for a moment, before his jaw fell open in shock. "What in the world?"

"I think this is an exact replica of the main training room that I learned in back in Sondeshara," Charles announced. "The Keep has struck once again. The only way I know that I am not back in the Southlands is because there is no sand outside those windows." He mused silently for a moment as the fox continued to gawk. "I should bring Garigan here, this is perfect. He can train here, and Yonson will never have to know."

Misha was reaching out to touch the simple granite altar, but the rat turned and shouted in horror. "Don't touch that!"

The fox held his paw only inches from the raised platform, but did hesitate a moment. "Why not?"

"Only Sondeckis can touch the altar. If you do not have the Sondeck in you, it will kill you." Misha yanked back his paw as if a snake had tried to bite it. "We've never had to worry about it before, since you are the first person to enter a room like this that has not been a Sondeckis for as long as I can remember. We usually place our holy artifacts upon it so that they cannot be stolen."

"Ah, I see," Misha whispered quietly. "Is this all there is to the training room? It does not seem much."

The rat shrugged. "There were many training rooms at Sondeshara, this just happens to be the one I was in most of the time. Well, an exact duplicate of the room I trained in anyway."

"Ah," Misha said, though it was clear that he only partially understood. Stretching, the fox's fur rippled. Both of them were naked of course, but neither said anything. "And I suppose that huge room we came through to get here was a training room as well?"

Charles shook his head, still in awe at the power he could feel vibrating from the very clay. "I just thought it was a ballroom of some kind."

"Have you ever seen a ballroom like that here at the Keep before?" Again the rat shook his head, while the fox turned about, one paw for modesty over his navel. "Well, shall we see where the other doors lead?"

The two of them spent the next hour going from door to door, and marveling at all that they had available to them in just this heretofore unknown space of the Keep. There were pantries, kitchens, as well as meat rooms kept cold by some unseen breeze; and all of them were fully stocked with produce, a wide variety of salted meats, vats of butter and flour, casks of milk, ale, and water, as well as an abundant supply of nuts and eggs. Behind another door lay an armory, with several rows of hauberks and plate mail as well as lighter gear and an assortment of weapons; halberds, mein gauche, sabers, scimitars, long bows, crossbows, they were all there in neatly arranged shelves. There was even a smithy with moderately sized forge - unlit of course - behind one of the doors. There were a couple of offices, as well as a small library, but mostly, the place seemed accustomed to war.

On the balconies, there was a doorway leading up behind the stained glass windows. Much to their surprise, they were not actually open to the air, but were inside another brick edifice. This possessed narrow slits built into the frame to magnify any light coming down, and to give the illusion that the sun was directly striking the many-hued panes. There were also separate slits, which obviously could be used by archers in the case of a siege. Charles expressed some surprise not to find a pitcher of boiling oil on the parapets, to which Misha laughed, and then pointed to a small alcove that the rat had missed.

As they were walking down the steps again, their claws making a pleasant ricochet noise, they mused over this strange happenstance. "This is very strange, why would the Keep design this place? Almost all of this can be found elsewhere!"

Misha chuckled lightly. "Hey, at least they had something in our size." Too demonstrate, he patted the buckler that he had slipped on over his middle, covering his loins. Charles had found something similar to wear for the sake of modesty.

"True! But that is not quite what I meant."

Misha shrugged, and then a thoughtful expression passed over his muzzle. "Well, it is obvious that in some way this is for you, but perhaps it is also for me? Or for us?"

Charles stopped on the stairwell, tapping the oaken banister thoughtfully with one claw. "I checked the front door, you can lock it very securely from the inside. It is almost as if this place were designed as a last bastion against invaders."

The fox paused as he listened to the idea, and then a smile crept across his jowls. "You know what, Charles. I think you may be right!" The grin quickly turned mischievous, and he motioned for the rat to follow him towards one of the doors on the lower floor, near the far inglenook. The room inside was one of the offices that they had searched earlier. There was a desk, with an ink bottle and fresh, thin sheets of parchment, with a delicate quill pen laying on top, as if waiting for somebody to pick it up and put it to use. Along the back was a small placard, though nothing was posted inside, as well as a narrow green banner, emblazoned with an axe and longbow crossed over each other.

"And what is this supposed to be?" Charles asked as he looked around the now familiar room.

Misha grinned, and held out his arms wide, one of the poorly attached epaulets falling across his chest. "This is the new office of the Long Scouts! It is perfect, the emblem of axe and bow is just right or us. We've always had our meetings wherever we could. To have a place where we can always come to do Long business will be wonderful! It seems that we have found quite a bit more than we expected on this little hunt."

Matthias was too stunned to do anything but lean on the desk and shake his head in mirth. "Well, I should go track down Garigan. It'll be good to have a place to train him without fear of observation."

"We can train more than just Sondeckis in this little complex, Charles," Misha pointed out. "We can easily train you and any other Long Scout here for most everything. We've been given quite a gift. I say we make the most of it."

The rat grinned then, slapping the leather thongs on his side with one paw. "First, I think we should celebrate. Perhaps split a drink at the Mule?" He winked mischievously at the fox just laughed at that.

"I don't think Donny would be too happy to see me right now. I still owe him money for the damages. It took me an hour to slip out of there you know!" He then reached into a small cupboard in the desk, and pulled out a cask of Chardonnay. "I'd say we were expected."

On a whim, Charles opened another drawer in the desk, and found two mugs placed neatly side by side. Taking them out, and handing them over to the fox, he remarked, "This is very peculiar. When the Keep made the chapel, that was one thing. Garigan's bedroom and proper Sondeckis robes, that was almost trivial. This is so monumental! I'd be interested to know if anything of this scale has ever before occurred."

"That is something to think about," Misha pondered a moment, before with a loud pop he cranked out the cork, and was pouring the sweet vintage. He handed back one of the mugs to the rat, and then they clinked their cold iron sides together. "But that is something to think about another night. Tonight, let us toast Metamor Keep for this wonderful gift."

Charles broke out into a wide grin, and raised the mug high. "To Metamor Keep!" They both drank long and hard, their hearts full of purest thanksgiving.

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