Liturgy of Blood - Part VIII
orning on the second day of the Patriarch's visit was much less hectic for the Keepers. By then, almost everything that could be cleaned, had been, and everything that could be scrubbed, had been rubbed raw. Yet, the same sense of excitement, that feeling that something far vaster than the simple chores of life had descended upon them was ever present in the words and gazes of each Keeper. Of course, not all shared this sense in exactly the same way, but it was there nonetheless.
When Charles climbed from his bed an hour before dawn, and found that Garigan was not in his room, he felt a different sort of excitement. Anxiety more accurately described the fluttering of his heart, and the swift jerkiness of his movements as he scanned about for any sign of his charge's whereabouts. It only took the rat a moment to discover that he was not anywhere in their joint rooms. This troubled Matthias for two reasons: the first was that he did not know where he could be, the second was that Garigan had apparently disappeared without waking the rat, something that he'd never done before.
Sitting on his students bed, he found the covers neatly folded over, the thick winter quilts already in place. As he'd just risen, Charles was naked, but alone in the privacy of his quarters, he cared not. Even in the presence of his student, he'd grown comfortable speaking to him only in the fur, though more often than not they wore their Sondeckis robes. Running a claw through the brown fur on his thigh, he thought back to the first time it had happened; Garigan had been unable to sleep, and so had been singing the Song of the Sondeck, or at least trying to.
The pleasant memory was not sufficient though to ameliorate the rat's concerns. Scanning the room, his nakedness forgotten, he saw that the closet and drawers were all closed neatly, while the rug covering the cold stonework was well accounted. Gazing back down at his rodent flesh, he smirked. Like himself, Garigan slept naked, yet was rather prudish about walking where others might see him without something on. Crossing over the warm rug, the snatches of dead fur catching his toe claws every now and then, he walked to the closet, opened the doors wide, and peered in, holding his lantern just behind him. As he'd suspected, one of the garments was missing. Specifically, Charles saw that Garigan had donned his yellow Sondeckis robe.
Closing the closet door and relatching it, the rat could not keep his smile down. If he'd taken his robe, then there was only one place he could be, and that was the Sondeckis Shrine in the Long House. Running a finger across the solid oak frame of the closet, he realised that he was going to have to reconsider the yellow colour. Garigan had accomplished so much in such a short space of time. Perhaps he should test him to see if he were prepared for the rank of green?
Carrying the brass lantern back into his bedchambers, Charles set the illumination on his dresser, and quickly set about lighting the candles about the room. Once he was satisfied that he could find his way about without stumbling over his stool or what not, the rat found his brush and comb, and began to straighten out his fur. Though he had done this yesterday, it felt appropriate to do it again this morning. He certainly did not know the Patriarch's schedule, and so did not want to take the chance of bumping into the Pontiff looking as dishevelled as any common vermin!
Besides, Garigan would either return soon, or would be waiting for him in the Shrine, so there was no need to worry anymore. His anxiety left, he simply set about happily grooming his fur. Along his belly, it took little time at all, as it was rather sparse, and much lighter. But there were certain places along his back that were very difficult for him to reach by himself. Though his body was more supple than any human's, it still had its limitations.
A strange idea then floated up into his mind as he stood there before his mirror, comb and brush in paw, dressed only in his natural fur. It had not been that long ago that Misha had shown him how to find that other form, that rat-taur shape as he had come to call it. Although it had been disconcerting at the time, what with so many eyes upon him, in the privacy of his room, and an hour before dawn, his mind took to wondering just what it had felt like again. How would it feel to groom himself when there would be so much more of him?
Charles gazed back at his reflection in the mirror, wondering if it was a silly idea. He could barely use his Sondeck in that form, and it left certain bits of him in complete view of anybody who could intrude. Garigan could return at any moment after all, and what if Lady Kimberly were to make a surprise visit? For some reason, the very thought of her seeing him with four legs instead of two struck him as hilarious. The image of her look of shock at his chimaeric shape would soon melt into one of delight. She'd probably ask if he would give her a ride or something.
The sheer ridiculousness of the whole idea was what finally decided it for him. Setting the brush and comb on the dresser, he stepped back several paces, and made sure there was sufficient room. If he were going to do this on a regular basis, he'd need larger quarters! Closing his eyes, Matthias summoned the mental image of himself, just as Misha had instructed him to do. Standing at four feet in height, was a rat with paw-like hands, and a coating of brown fur which lightened as it came towards his chest. His long baize tail, with errant hairs poking from the seams in the flesh curled about his long-toed feet, with the dark claws digging into the earth. That was he.
It had only taken a few months after his initial change for even his dreams to picture him as a rat. Now, he could barely remember his human face. A distant memory that had slowly been expunged from his mind. He'd never had a painting done, so only those like Jerome who had known him then would be able to describe it to the rat. Many were disheartened that they could not recall what they had once looked like, but Charles was not one of those. The image of another rat appeared in his mind, and he could not help but smile. He had very good reasons for enjoying his new form.
Shunting Kimberly from his mind for just a moment, he concentrated once more on his self-image, bringing all the details back, and fixing them in place. And then, he thought of another pair of legs growing from behind him, extending his lower torso out backwards. Yet, the image did not change or shift slightly, but remained as it was and always had been. Grimacing, Matthias tried to push harder, but with every mote of his strength, it only repelled each attempt with swifter finality.
Opening his eye, he saw that he was still a two-legged rat. Misha had said it was hard, and even for the second time, it still felt impossible. What had the fox suggested he try those few weeks ago? He'd not really thought much about it at the time, he was too busy being shocked at his transformation. Apparently, a few other Longs had tried it and had been unsuccessful, despite their leader's advice. Very few Keepers could actually take such a shape ostensibly. With a bit of consternation, Matthias wondered why he could do it, even when it was near impossible anyway.
Taking a deep breath, Charles placed his paws on his hips, and stood akimbo before the mirror. His tail circled about on his foot paws, and he drew it across the fur, rippling the brown mass like a wave. Staring at it, he did it again, slicing the flesh of his tail through the brown mass of hair, and watched the fur shift fluidly. Smiling, the rat closed his eyes once more, the words of Misha fresh again in his mind. Pulling back the image of his morphic self, he imagined it as a placid lake, slowly working across the shoreline, drawing sand inwards, and depositing other minerals in their place.
At first it did nothing, and for a moment he felt the bitter agony of defeat. And then, some barrier gave way, and the image began to distort, his legs doubling and extending backwards. His lower torso became the body of a rat, complete with a thickening of his tail and a tripling of his weight. He did not need to open his eyes to know that it had worked, he could feel heavier, and higher off the ground. The cold masonry stung the pads in all four of his feet, and his tail lay somewhere about a metre behind him. Running his paws across his hips, he could feel where the two bodies joined into one, the muscles beneath strong and firm. Opening his eyes, he truly stared at himself for the first time in this form.
His upper body appeared much the same, though his shoulders were broader, and his physical strength was more obvious. Still, as a rat-taur, he appeared more sleek than powerful, but he was no longer as scrawny as before. The lower portion was as long again as his chest, and ended in the thick hairless tail. The claws on each of his paws were longer, and the toes thicker. In fact, his forepaws nearly resembled hands. The only aspect of his shape that made his whiskers twitch in embarrassment was the fact that Rickkter had been right about his appearance – certain parts of his anatomy were quite well accounted for.
Picking up the brush and comb once more in his paws, Charles curled down and turned to look over his large body. He was lying directly on his belly, much like a rat might, the tail curling around his hind legs. Despite his prodigious equipment below, the recumbent position was oddly relaxing. With a bit of chagrin, Matthias had to admit that Misha was right, the taur form was worth exploring a bit more.
When he began to brush out the long strands of brown fur, he became even more convinced. Grooming himself had always been one of his most enjoyed morning practices. Yet, with so much more to groom, it took on a whole new meaning. The colossal task was one that he found himself relishing even more with each stroke of the brush. The feel of bristles through skin that was still so new to him reminded him of his very first days as a rat.
Metamor had still been rebuilding much of their way of life at the time. Nasoj's brutal attack that had forever scarred the face of the inhabitants had been barely a year gone. Many of the homes had still stood burned and charred from where they'd been sacked. Into that climate Charles had arrived under the auspices of being a storyteller without a home. It had been a hard first year, and he did not wish to know what it had been like the previous year.
Yet, when he'd become a rat, one of the very first in fact, he felt some form of liberation. Mostly at the time as he was afraid that the other Sondeckis would find him. Yet also because there was so much new to discover about himself. His very first grooming had been an experience the likes of which he thought would never be repeated. Yet every time he brought the bristles of the comb to his fur, he felt it again and again.
But now that he had a new body once more, it was happening all over again. He brought the comb down through his rear thigh, watching his own hind paw twitch and stretch against the chilly masonry. Reaching out a paw, he poked at his own claws, shuddering at the sensation. It truly was all his, despite the fact it appeared so odd upon him. He idly wondered how Misha must have felt when Varnal's misfired spell had left him as a fox-taur. Perhaps he ought to tell the reynard how wonderful it was to groom oneself this way?
Setting the brushes aside, Charles took his water bowl and selected a small wash cloth from his dresser. Dipping one corner into the water, he began to rub down his new tail. It did not really need a serious cleaning, as he had washed it the other day. Still, he enjoyed working over the cracks and crevices, discovering the new avenues his flesh took. When he finally dabbed at the tapering end, and poked the single strand of hair there, feeling the electric thrill cruise up his twisted spine, he knew that he truly did appreciate this form. He was glad that he was one of those fortunate enough to be able to assume it.
Setting his cleaning utensils away, Charles considered himself in the mirror. Lying down as he was, he was still nearly four feet in height. When he stood he would be over five. It had been many years since he had been that tall. The one thing that this form lacked, aside from a decent way to cover his lower extremities, was a strong connection to his Sondeck. That disturbed him greatly. Misha had speculated that it would take a good deal of practice to bring it back at the level of mastery he was accustomed too.
Glancing over at the open door to Garigan's empty room, he smirked. The ferret wasn't the only yellow now, as the rat-taur would have to retrain himself from the very basic techniques. Closing his eyes once more, he began to search for his Calm. Most times, it was right there, waiting for him to approach. A night full of stars loomed overhead, each one bright. Charles lay recumbent on the sandy dunes of the desert outside Sondeshara. This had always been his Calm. And yet, though he had brought forth the image in his mind, it simply did not fit anymore, at least not for this flesh.
A growl of impatience waited in his muzzle, but he stifled it and returned to that sandy plain. Resting all four of his paws in the dune, he peered upwards, trying to lose himself among the celestial curtain. Yet he could not stop thinking about the particles of sand wedged between his toes, or scratching at his underside and everything that was down there. Standing up on all four of his legs, he tried to pry lose the discomfort, but it remained there, digging between his claws even further.
Staring down at the dune, he shifted his paws about, stirring the white sand, and only further embedding the annoyances in his pads. With a bit of chagrin he realized that his Calm was not going to work for this form. Slowly, he let the scene fall away, first the blinking lights of Sondeshara in the distance, and then the dunes about him, until all that was left were the stars. And then, one by one, they too winked out of existence.
All that left was the black slate of midnight, and his new shape. Charles was rather startled at how quick it had managed to conquer his subconscious. To find the Calm, he had to let that rule, not his own preconceived notions about what would work. He tried to envision something warm beneath his paws, and something that would not irritate the skin there. In moments, he felt his claws digging into soft loam, grasses and moss. He breathed slowly, pressing and lifting each paw in turn, gaining a feel for the terrain. There were a few rocks, mostly large boulders that the dirt clung to. A sudden image of the trail that Misha had led him up into the Eastern mountains and towards the glacier came to mind, but he pushed that away, focussing instead on what was beneath his paws.
And then, all of that disappeared when he heard a solid knocking upon his door.
Turning to the side, still a rat-taur and lying upon the cold masonry, he looked about the dark room. Only the candles he lit cast any light about, but they were enough for him to make his way about. Yet, he could not help but wonder who would come around at this hour. "Just one moment," he called out, rising to all four of his feet.
Gazing back into the mirror, he pondered his normal shape, knowing that he ought to switch back and put something on. Yet, that mischievous excited part of him had returned. Very few ever came knocking before dawn, even in the winter time when the sun was reluctant to ever rise. The thought of Lady Kimberly seeing him like so came back to him, and that was enough to decide the issue for him.
Crossing over to the door, he opened it wide, caring not for his nudity, or his strange appearance. Only, the figure on the other end, in the torch-lit hallway, was not Lady Kimberly. Instead, it was a human, standing a bit over his head, with a grey lock of hair falling across his forehead. He wore a green tunic, with the crucifix marked on his chest. He had his arms crossed, and wore a curious expression as he gazed down at the full length of the creature before him.
"My, you are full of surprises," the Yeshuel remarked as a slight grin creased his face. He flicked his head back, the lock of hair returning to its proper place behind one ear.
Charles stood there staring right back at the Patriarch's servant, the only thought going through his head was the image of the Pontiff himself coming around the corner to see the rat-taur in all of his naked glory. "I–" he started, and then stammered into nonsense.
"Don't worry, the Patriarch isn't with me. I'm alone," the Yeshuel added, as if sensing the scout's thoughts. Matthias tried to remember his name, but his self-inflicted embarrassment had shunted it from his mind.
"Ah, what do you want?" Charles managed to ask, fighting down the quavering in his muscles.
The green clad man smiled a bit broader this time. "I was hoping to talk with you, I promised you I would do that after all. I find you an interesting person. I asked the Patriarch's permission to do so, and he agreed to give me the morning to this task. He'll be busy visiting a few other places, and there are four of us to watch over him after all." He gestured inside the room. "Do you mind if I come in?"
Had Matthias taken the time to think it through, he would have asked him to wait while he changed, but as he was so flustered, all that he could manage to do was step out of the way, and close the door after the Yeshuel had come through. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, not yet." The man scanned the meagre furnishings and nodded his approval. "My name is Kashin, just in case you had forgotten."
"Ah, thank you," Charles said as he lay back down on his belly. With his prodigious nature obscured from view, the sense of embarrassment lessened. "I'm am curious why you find me interesting."
Kashin rubbed his palms together as he indicated the bed with its mass of quilts upturned. "Do you mind if I sit here?" Charles shook his head, and his guest stretched his legs for a moment before sitting down. Running one hand across the smooth weave, he appraised the rodent with one eye. "Given your current appearance, I can hardly understand why you think I would not."
Matthias glanced down briefly at himself, and then back at the green-clad man. "I can hardly blame you at that. But you thought I was interesting before you'd seen me like this."
"Of course, there is that as well. To put it mildly, I had never expected to see somebody of your upbringing this far north."
"Well, you are a Sondeckis are you not?" Kashin asked mildly, his eyes penetrating. In that moment, not only did the rat's chest tighten, but he felt himself seek out his Sondeck to hold it in check, but his grasp on it as a rat-taur was flimsy at best. The gaze the Yeshuel levelled at him bore through his skin to something else beneath there. Matthias was not sure how he knew, yet that was how it felt. "I see I was right. I've never seen one of your kind before, and I have been curious as to what you could do."
"How do you know I am a Sondeckis?" Matthias asked, finding his guest a most unwelcome one.
Kashin held up both of his hands. "I have no intent to spread such news about. I understand you wish to keep it a secret. That is why I chose to speak with you in private about the matter." Charles breathed deeply, watching him, as the man continued, "I am Yeshuel, and we have our own secrets. You probably know us as defenders of the Patriarch, and in that capacity we most certainly serve. Yet, to do so, we have been blessed, and certain... powers have been given to us."
"Like the ability to know when another possesses magic?" Charles inquired, his defensive hostility waning.
Kashin shrugged softly. "Something of that sort. So, are you indeed a Sondeckis?"
Matthias nodded then, letting his arms dangle at his sides, and rest against his sloping back. "Yes, I am a Sondeckis."
The green-clad man then did something that surprised the rat completely. Stepping off the bed, Kashin then dropped to one knee and lowered his head in respect. He stood back then and returned to sitting on the quilts. Matthias blinked, unsure how to respond. "What was that for?"
"Your kind have always sought honour and to do justice. That is something that this world needs a great deal of now. You have my respect," Kashin's voice was almost reverent, not the sort he had expected to ever hear when he would tell another of his allegiances.
Charles stammered a moment, his face brightening visibly at the display, his muzzle pulling back to prominently display his incisors. "Thank you, I do the best that I can from here." He had no desire to reveal the fact that he had left the Sondeckis because their former white had corrupted that goal.
Kashin grinned, a small gesture, but one that carried an understanding alongside it. For a bodyguard, there was much to this unheralded man that Charles yearned to explore. "As to the other matter that interests me though." He pointed at Matthias's four legs and long tail that had curled along his side. "I was not aware that you Keepers could become an amalgamation in quite such an extraordinary fashion. Is this some secret you have harboured?"
The rat-taur chuckled and patted his lower middle section as he gazed at the smooth brown fur. "No, this is a more recent discovery. In fact, this is only the second time I've assumed this shape."
"Can all of you who are animal's do this?"
"Well, apparently only a few can. I only know of one other who has for certain though." Charles ran his claws along the fur once again, enjoying the alien sensation. "It is for most purposes a rather cumbersome and ungainly shape. I doubt I shall make use of it much, if at all."
Kashin nodded again, his eyes curious. "What is it like?"
"Being a taur?"
"No, being a Keeper? What is it like having fur and a tail, claw and fangs? How does one deal with the prospect that they may be a different gender, or a child the rest of their lives?"
"That is not an easy question to answer," Matthias admitted as he turned fully around to face his guest. "As I have always been a man, I do not really know what it is like switching genders. I imagine that one has to completely readjust the way they approach life, as so much of our social interaction is based on our sex. Even here at Metamor, men and women are treated differently. At least in this generation. We all grew up believing that men were men and women were women and that was the way it would always be. It is not so anymore. Perhaps the next generation will have fewer prejudices; I certainly hope so.
"As to being a child, I really cannot say either. You would have to ask one of the children, possibly Father Hough if you can find the time. I have heard many express frustration as they no longer have the strength or the reach they once used to. Plus, how serious can one be when one is continuously distracted by the sound of others playing?
"Having fur and claws, a tail and fangs, that I can try to express though. In my case, my teeth need to chew on something almost constantly. They begin to hurt if I do not. I have a collection of chewsticks that I carry around with me so that I may appease my need when the time comes. It did make speaking difficult at first, but one eventually relearns how. My claws are not very significant, much like thicker, longer fingernails, I suppose. Fur sometimes feels like having hair all over your body, but it isn't that either. I guess one could think of it as always having a tight fitting jerkin on, but that doesn't do it justice."
Charles rubbed his chin with one paw for a moment, considering. Finally, he shrugged again. "I have become so used to it, I have pretty much forgotten what it was like not having fur. Much the same for the tail as well. I can warn you, with a tail, you have to be careful going through doors. But there are advantages as well."
Charles felt his whiskers droop in a blush. "Well, when I am with Lady Kimberly, I like to curl my tail around hers as well as hold her hand."
Kashin laughed brightly then, patting his knee with one hand. "And people call you folks demons. Bah, you are just as human as the rest of us, maybe more so."
Charles nodded his head and then his eyes snapped up. "That reminds me. I have a few friends I visit in the cellars every morning. They are all rats like me, but they don't share your optimistic appraisal, at least, not completely. Would you care to join me?"
The man rose from the bed, folding the quilts back in place. "Of course, I'd be delighted."
"If you would leave so I can change. I don't want to show up as I am after all."
Kashin nodded and headed to the door. "I will wait outside." He closed the door behind him, and once more, the rat-taur was alone with his thoughts. Gazing across the room towards the other door, the one that led to Garigan's quarters, he smiled. The ferret was almost certainly at the Sondeckis Shrine practising his techniques. His pupil was quite dedicated, a fact that made Charles proud. He would be fine without the master for a few hours more.
Standing on all four of his legs, he closed his eyes and brought the mental image back again. Slowly, and with a tinge of regret, he brought his old form back again.
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