Liturgy of Blood - Part X
ashin leaned out the window and stared up into the blue sky. It was a chilly day of course, and on the high balcony where the winds swept to and fro it was only colder. Yet, his green, woolen tunic was more than a match for the elements, and so he held that position for several seconds more as he gazed up at the mostly cloudless sky. Distant shadows lined the mountains, moving along as the clouds overhead moved, while the crystalline white horizon gleamed from the midday sun.
And then, he drew himself back in and peered at the rat who considered him whimsically, his whiskers twitching unconsciously. "Do you normally hang out over a hundred metre precipices when asked for the time?"
"Only when they are available," Kashin replied, laughing slightly. "It is still midmorning though, so a few hours more before I ought to return to the Patriarch's quarters."
Charles nodded then, glancing a moment out the high window himself. "Is there anything you would like to see? We've been to the cellars, and now to the battlements. Perhaps something more towards the middle."
Kashin smiled and rest his hands on his hips. "Is there any place that you would like to show me? I am a visitor here; it is customary for the host to show guests around, is it not?"
Grinning, Matthias inclined his head towards the stairwell on the other side of the tower. "You've seen the chapel right?"
"Yes, I was there for an hour or so yesterday. Quite an impressive cathedral I must say. Father Hough did not say how long it has been there."
The rat shrugged helplessly as he began to take the first of the spiral steps leading down back into the castle depths. Dust clung to the corners of each step, the granite along the centre worn smooth from use, while the edges were nearly as sharp as the day they were cut, whenever that had been. Unlit braziers hung on the inner walls, while the narrow windows lining the staircase cast long shadows along their path.
"With the Keep, one can never be certain," Charles finally said after passing by the first landing, which lead to a lower balcony, but nothing else. "It could have been there for years, hidden, waiting for the time to be discovered. Or, it might have appeared that very morning when Father Hough found it. Part of the charm of this place I suppose, there is always a new surprise waiting to be uncovered.
"My quarters use to be a solitary room, but one day after I returned from an assignment, there was a second chamber there, as if it had always been. It didn't look new, it had that used feeling about it, if you know what I mean."
Kashin nodded, running his fingers along the inner wall as they continued downwards. To rock felt cold to the touch, yet there was a warmth buried deep beneath the surface as well. "Most peculiar. How do you find your way about if things change so often?"
"Well, they don't change all the time, just when needed. Most of the passages I walk tend to be the same day in and day out. Others have never taken the same path twice to their own quarters, or so they say. If you just think about it, most of the time you can get where you are going."
"Very peculiar. No other structure in this world is quite like it. At Yesulam, there are many great wonders, but nothing like this. Nothing even resembling this."
Charles nodded then and stepped off at the next landing, heading down a side passage lined with banners and warm, satin draperies. "I am wondering. What is Yesulam like? I have never been there, and almost certainly never will."
The Yeshuel rubbed his chin with one finger thoughtfully for a moment before answering. "Yesulam is a city on a hill, much like Metamor, except that this hill is in a parched land. Oh, we have plenty of crops and farms, but it is much warmer than Metamor, and much drier. We depend quite a bit on irrigation and trade to support ourselves. Yet, despite that, there are at least five times the number living there than you have here at Metamor. Maybe ten times, I can not be sure, I was never good with numbers.
"Life in Yesulam revolves around the Ecclesia as you might well imagine. Apart from foreign diplomats and ambassadors, everyone attends Service at least once during the week. The Patriarch never announces when he'll be officiating the ceremony otherwise the halls of the Great Temple would be flooded with petitioners. Even so, we spend quite a bit of money just expanding the temple space so that all who wish to come may.
"The Great Temple once was just a simple building, barely a third the size of your chapel here at Metamor. Over the centuries it has grown though, and with it, so too has the culture surrounding it. Disreputable establishments are simply unheard of in Yesulam. And while there is crime much like any other city, organized elements have never been able to gain a foothold. Corruption does exist, I am ashamed to say, but in recent years, it has mostly existed among the foreign dignitaries allowed to stay in Yesulam. The last few Patriarch's have been rather adamant about at least keeping their Holy city free from the pitfalls of other kingdoms.
"When I was growing up, I lived in a monastery with the others of my kind once I was about seven I think. All around us we saw the finery and success that the Ecclesia had brought to its people. And then, on the feast days, we were all instructed to find some article in the monastery and take it to a poorer family and share it with them. We were to use the money we could acquire from selling it to help that family celebrate the feast in their own homes. It is hard to forget the look on those children's face, some of them only a year or so younger than I, burn bright with delight when they saw the meal they would have that night. I didn't see many of those children again, but every once in a while I would run into them down at the market while I was on errands for the monastery. We'd always hug and tell each other of our lives when we did. And they'd have that same smile on their faces too."
Though Charles did not say it, he could see that Kashin had a smile that must have mirrored those children's own. His eyes were distant as if he were reliving those moments, and was sharing a feast with one of those poorer homes yet again. "That's just one of the practices instituted in the last fifty years to help preserve the service of Eli in His own home. Things are not perfect in Yesulam, despite the gilded streets and boisterous crowds and solemn services. No, it is far from perfect, but no place ever is. It has its own charm."
"It sounds rather like a nice place," Charles murmured as he walked. "How large is your army?"
"We have quite a significant force, but since our only neighbours are the wandering nomads in the deserts to the east, and the Flatlanders to the north, they see little action. We are on the edge of the civilized world, at least on this continent. The Southern continent provides us with quite a bit of trade and many of the cultural fineries. I remember a ballade I heard just a few months ago, shortly before we left the city there that had migrated all the way from the western shores of the Kitch Steppe. Many of the nobler families had become quite taken with it, and have requested their own musicians learn the piece so that they might hear it whenever they desire.
"At the same time though, books from Metamor Keep are a rather expensive item. They are also frowned upon by many in religious circles, so only the affluent are able to procure them. It may delight you to know that your name is known to some in Yesulam."
Charles blinked in surprise at that revelation, and then the words that the Patriarch spoke to him the previous day came back to him. He stopped where he stood, his claws digging at the carpet in shock. "The Patriarch told me he enjoyed my works," he said, barely louder than a whisper. He could feel his heart flutter at the very notion of it! Once more, the rat was overwhelmed with the enormity of what had happened the previous afternoon.
Kashin nodded. "I knew of you before I arrived. Patriarch Akabaieth was rather smitten by your tale of the father and his rebellious son."
"Ah yes, I recall that one. I wrote it for a friend, never thinking where it would go. It appears it has gone quite far indeed if it met the Patriarch's eyes."
Kashin smiled. "I enjoyed it as well. Though I am curious. Are you still writing? I had thought you were the Head of the Writer's Guild, and yet Duke Thomas introduced some other person as the Head. I do not recall his name immediately."
"That would be Habakkuk," Matthias pointed out. "I left the Writer's Guild just over three months ago now."
"Well, it was no longer my calling. Oh, I still write occasionally, usually a poem or something, but it is no longer what I am meant to do. I take it you have never had any calling other than to serve the Patriarch?"
Kashin shook his head. "My whole life, that was all that I have been trained to do. I enjoy it, it feels right to me. I see in him a hope for something greater. His hope gives me hope that my service is what is right. Many say that he was not always like this, but I have only known him for about ten years, and have only seen his gentleness."
The Yeshuel gazed curiously at the rat for a moment, who had turned his face away as if to study the tapestries lining the wall. "You once served something as well. I know your kind do not leave easily. You must have been terribly disillusioned."
Matthias grimaced and turned the corner, and saw the two guards standing outside the Long House. He looked back up at his companion who was well over a head taller than the rat. "Yes. Here is the place I wanted to show you."
Kashin regarded his guide oddly for a moment, but did not comment further as they walked up to the two guards bearing the Keep's heraldry upon their breast. Charles smiled and waved his paw towards the two, who gave him friendly looks, but to the Yeshuel they appeared wary. "Don't worry," the rat said, his whiskers twitching, "Kashin is with me. I'm just going to show him a few things."
"I can see that," one of the guards, a ferret said. Kashin looked at him a second time and could not help but grin.
"Finbar, wasn't it?" Kashin asked as he stepped closer.
"Yes, I still want to know how you found me yesterday morning." The other guard, a girl, was trying not to chuckle.
Charles looked between the two, and then nodded, remembering what the ferret had said after the Patriarch's entrance. He'd been in shock of course, as would anybody having been so accosted and then handsomely treated.
Kashin simply smiled though at the question and shrugged his shoulders, hooking his thumbs through his belt. "You Keepers aren't the only ones who can use their nose."
Finbar shook his head, his dark eyes frustrated. "No, that is not it. You appeared upwind of me; you couldn't have detected me. And why didn't I know you were there until you announced yourself?"
"I serve the Patriarch as a body guard. I cannot be unskilled can I?"
Finbar dug his paw into the masonry with little success. "I suppose not. I would still like to know how you did it."
Kashin laughed and patted the ferret on his shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. "Perhaps I shall tell you before I go then. Charles here would like to show me what you are protecting. Would it be acceptable for us to pass?"
Finbar nodded, opening the wide door with one paw. "Of course. But don't take too long in giving me that explanation. I'm dying to know!"
As Kashin offered a parting word to the ferret, assuring him that he would not delay in providing an answer to his inquiry, Charles stepped into the Long House. The carpeting was a new sensation beneath his toes, yet it was a welcome one. Scanning about the main hall, he saw that nobody was about. Most of the Longs were probably patrolling the Keep in pairs, switching on and off over the course of the Patriarch's stay. Misha would probably recall the Followers so that they might attend Service tonight, but that was all.
"Most impressive!" Kashin exclaimed as he walked up to stand next to the rat. His eyes gazed across the balconies and high ceiling, as well as the defences lining the out walls. "What is this place?"
"It is where many of the scouts are trained. Also, it is a fall back point in case we ever face invasion again," Charles said, pointing at several of the doors. "Those contain goods and supplies for several weeks. We keep them all fresh, so there can be no mistakes. Water collects in cisterns in both rooms every time it rains, so we always have fresh drink as well. As you can see, we have enough space to house quite a few Keepers if need be."
"It appears that this is more than just that, you have many more doors."
Matthias nodded at the unspoken implication. "I have to speak with Misha, could you wait here a moment?"
"Of course. I won't touch anything. You don't need to ask," Kashin assured him.
"Thank you," the rat turned on his heels and walked towards the fox's office.
He found his friend sitting behind the desk, reading over a map. It appeared to be of the valley. "Ah, Charles, do come in. I've been wondering where you have been. Garigan is in the Shrine, and told me that you weren't in your room. He was rather worried."
"I've been showing one of the Patriarch's bodyguards around. I thought I would show him the Long House, or at least parts of it. I'll check in on Garigan once I'm finished escorting Kashin about the place."
Misha waved his paw. "No need, I will do that myself. This problem can wait."
"It's awfully quiet here today. Where is everyone?" Charles asked, pulling his chewstick from his breeches and nibbling at the end. Whenever he grew anxious, the urge was almost too powerful to resist.
"Patrols mostly. His grace wants to ensure that Metamor remains safe from any surprise attack while the Patriarch is here. Not even one Lutin is supposed to be allowed to get within five-hundred metres of the Keep. George and I have our work cut out for us, but so far it has been quiet. In fact, it has been quiet for the last month. Nothing major since their push on Mycransburg a couple months back." Misha turned back to the map, frowning at it in consternation. It was as if he were studying some dilemma that was resisting all attempts to sort out.
"And Caroline?" Charles asked softly.
"She's with Dream Serpent right now. Apparently, he is teaching her how to play the flute." Misha turned away from the map, folding it up with a bit of impatience. "Do you know Dream?"
Matthias shrugged and put the chewstick back down. "Only by reputation. I've heard him play before, quite a talented musician. I've never talked with him much though. Then again, I didn't know you well until this year either. I've led a rather secluded existence here at the Keep so far as you know. First with the Writer's Guild, and now with the Longs."
Misha gestured to the door. "You ought to talk with him some. He is quite an interesting fellow. Joy's old flame actually. Then again, you wouldn't have known Joy back then either."
Charles put his paw on the door, holding it shut for a moment more. "Is there anything else you have to say to me privately? Kashin is waiting out there for me."
The fox's grey eyes lit up slightly, and then he nodded slowly. "Charles, I'm going to need you on patrols most of tomorrow. I need to give some of the other Longs a rest, and it would be good practice for you. I know you wanted to be around while the Patriarch was here, but I need you out there."
The rat sighed softly and then took his paw off the door. "When should I be ready to leave? Who will I be going with?"
"You'll be with Finbar this time, and I want you in the field before the sun rises. You'll be heading north to watch the perimeter there. It should not be a terribly difficult mission, but I doubted you'd be delighted to know of it," Misha said apologetically.
"It is all right, I will just make the most of the time I have now." Charles gazed back at his friend, and saw that Misha was truly sorry about it, but was determined to go through with it anyway. Matthias knew he would be. "Is there anything else?"
"No, that was it," Misha reached for the door again, and this time, Charles did not stop him. They emerged to find Kashin standing exactly where the rat had left him. He had not moved a at all during the entire time that they had been in the office. Closing the door behind him, Misha walked up to the green clad figure and extended his paw. "I'm Misha Brightleaf, and you are?"
"Kashin. It is an honour to meet you, Misha Brightleaf." Kashin bowed ever so slightly, accepting the fox's paw in his hand. They shook briefly, and then the Yeshuel asked, "Are you the one who oversees this place of refuge?"
The fox nodded and gestured with one paw at the room about him. "I like to think of myself as a tenant dutifully watching his master's house while he awaits his return."
"From what Charles tells me of the Keep, that sounds to be a rather apt description of every Keeper!"
Misha chuckled heartily and nodded emphatically. "I suppose one could say that. Well, I do have a few errands to run, I do hope that you enjoy your stay here at Metamor. May your journey be a safe one." And with that, the fox left them alone together again, disappearing inside the Shrine to deliver Garigan the message that his master was well.
Kashin and Matthias then walked about the Long House, discussing the various aspects of its construction, as well as its decoration. Often times, the man from Yesulam would point some unseen defensive mechanism and explain its uses to the rat. Other times, it would the Yeshuel who was surprised by some clever invention the Keep had devised to protect itself. Several times he remarked how he would recommend this or that trap to his superiors back in Yesulam. Yet, Charles did keep him from seeing many of the rooms that were restricted only to the Longs and those in training to be Longs.
Still, that allowed them plenty of time to navigate the upper halls, which were mostly defensive structures, including the cauldron of boiling oil, though it did not have any oil in it presently. Kashin always found the ability to ask rather direct questions. He was mostly concerned with the rooms origin, to which Charles had to admit he was as much in the dark as the Yeshuel was. He did reveal that Misha and he had stumbled across it while playing a game of predator and prey. That last had elicited one of the most comical expressions he had yet seen grace the man's face, a mix of bemusement and shock.
Returning to the Main Hall, Charles stretched his arms wide. "Well, that is pretty much most of what we have here. I've enjoyed showing you about. It was quite educational."
"Well, you haven't shown me those rooms," Kashin pointed to several doors on the lower floor as they stepped off the staircase.
"We don't allow visitors in there. I'm sure you understand that."
"Of course." Kashin looked about the empty room for a moment, and then a slow smile crept across his lips. "You know, I have never had a chance to trade blows with a Sondeckis before."
"Most would count themselves lucky if they suffered a similar fate as yours," Matthias remarked whimsically, unsure of what his guest was intimating.
Kashin chuckled and then loosened his belt slightly. "What I mean is, I would like to spar with you before I return to the Patriarch. As longas you do not mind that is."
Knowing deep in the back of his mind that he would regret it later, Charles shrugged. "I suppose we could do that. I've never fought a Yeshuel either."
The man simply grinned and slowly stepped away from the rat, digging his shoes into the rug. "Do you want any restrictions on the match? What should we fight to?"
Charles loosened his legs a bit, feeling the Sondeck flow through each of his muscles. Inside of him, he found his Calm, this time the sands outside Sondeshara not irritating his feet. "Well, you need to be fit for the Patriarch, and I have my own duties, so I suggest the first of us to bring the other to his knees is the winner."
Kashin nodded, turning to face him, standing akimbo. "Agreed," was all he said before his arms came up before him, slowly rotating back and forth, his body relaxed, fluid. Charles stepped leg over leg, circling in slowly, gathering his force in his paws and arms. He had no intention to pull his punch, for something told him that this man would be capable of taking that sudden crushing blow.
The first swing is always the one that takes the longest to give, or so it seemed to Charles as the two of them slowly circled each other, eyes alert and feet ever swift. Kashin continued to rotate his hands in a circular fashion, palms facing inwards, his fingers uncurled, but otherwise made no offensive gesture. Breathing slowly, letting the Sondeck regulate even his need for air, Matthias studied each movement of the man before him, from the way his feet stepped across each other, to the way his chest rose and fell, and even to the little twitch of his pinky. Nothing escaped his notice, as he was sure nothing of his body failed to register with the Yeshuel.
And then, after what felt like several minutes, Kashin took a sudden step forward. Matthias waited though, continuing to circle, despite the rapid movement of his foe, waiting to see where the second foot would land. Yet, the second foot did not move him forward, but back into that outer circle. It had been a ploy, noting more; a test to see how Matthias would react, to understand his style. If the rat had backed off, he would have known that Charles fought defensively. If he'd moved forward, then the Yeshuel would have known that the rat was an aggressive combatant. Now the man from Yesulam knew him for what he was -- cautious.
Kashin however did not place his third foot back in that outer circle, but once again strode forward, continuing to meet Charles at his edge of the imaginary ring. Matthias tightened his control of the Sondeck, watching the man's shoulders, for the very first blow. Kashin threw a jab down towards the rat's shoulder, but Matthias was easily able to block the move and make a counterstrike of his own. Yet he winced in pain as the knee he had not seen slammed into his ribs. Despite the hidden blow, his paw had landed upon the man's chest, flinging him back a few paces.
His opponent did not take the time to recount their blows, but once again resumed the circle, studying him, his face betraying none of the pain he'd just received. Matthias hid his own wound as well. It did sting, but only a little. That blow the rat had delivered would have caved in most chests, yet somehow he'd known this man could accepted it.
He whipped his tail about a bit, hoping that it would catch the man's eye. Kashin did not appear to notice it, but continued his level gaze, eyes focussed and unblinking. Charles decided to do something unexpected, in order to see what Kashin would do. So, he stepped back a pace, and continued his circle. Kashin stepped forward once, a wry grin on his face. Charles had expected something like that, he knew this man would have been very well trained.
But, he doubted that Kashin would expect him to do as he did next. Matthias turned about and ran in the exact opposite direction, straight at the nearest wall. It had the desired effect, for he heard Kashin start after him, running at a steady pace. Turning about, Charles flung his arms forward, releasing the force he'd grown in them, and slamming it all into the man's legs. Kashin nearly fell over at that point, twisting on one foot to keep himself upright as he brought his fist down on top of the rat's unprotected head. Charles threw his arm up and deflected the shot, but it tore several hairs from his forearm as he did so.
Kashin then brought his other leg up, the knee aiming once against for the rat's side. As the man was quite a bit taller, it was an easy shot for him, but Matthias was expecting it this time, and stepped out of the way, wrapping his arm about the Yeshuel's own and twisting backwards. Yet the move was expected, and with his free arm, Kashin reached around and gripped the rat's shoulder, nearly forcing his arm to dislocate.
Grimacing at the sudden pain, the rat smashed his head into the man's groin, and heard an unexpected yelp escape his lips as he back off several paces, stretching his fingers. Kashin favoured him with an amused grin, though no other sign of their recent tangle showed on his face or his frame.
Stepping away from the wall and back towards the centre of the room, Matthias tried not to think of what had just happened. The Sondeckis were trained in combat such as this, but in terms of style, they did tend to rely a bit heavily on their ability to channel physical force. If it were not for his Sondeck, he could never have won a fight against this man, Charles recognized that already. Their was a suppleness to his movements that the rat could only hope to mimic, never match.
This time though, it was Charles's turn to be surprised, as Kashin leaped into the air, landed on his palms, and bending over backwards, kicked at the rat with the soles of his boots. Charles had never before seen an opponent try such a tactic, and so he was caught off guard by the motion. Yet, the foot still did not connect solidly with his muzzle, as he brought up his arms and knocked most of the leather boot to the side. Yet, it did manage to catch a scruff of his fur, and had probably left a small cut as well.
Still, the position gave Charles an opening, and he took it. Grabbing the man's leg, he yanked forward, while his other paw released a bit of force towards the man's arms, intent on crashing him to the floor on his back. Yet, Kashin twisted on one palm, and brought the other boot up to swipe at his head yet again. Matthias had to release the leg and duck out of the way to avoid the roundhouse, allowing his opponent time to recover his stance.
Kashin then began to move his hands before him in a very intricate pattern, yet slowly as if weaving a loom. Charles tightened his claws into his palms, baling the Sondeck there. Kashin was obviously preparing for something, perhaps refocusing, or attempting to distract the rat as he moved. Either way, it gave Charles time to ready one of his own techniques, one he was sure the Yeshuel had not seen before. Force projection was best executed in a manner containing the whole body, and the Longfugos technique was one of the best examples of this. Capable of destroying spells, it would clearly be sufficient to send Kashin to his knees.
And then Kashin stood still, his hands resting before him contemplatively. Matthias stopped, holding the power for a single moment before the unthinkable happened. Leaping forward in the air, his fingers tightening into a thick weave, Kashin lunged at Charles, his body twisting like a corkscrew in the air. Matthias brought back both of his arms, and then smashed his paws together in a V-shape motion, unleashing the power of the Longfugos technique. A wall of dense force thundered through the room, distorting the air before him, the shimmering image of Kashin growing closer.
And when the two met, the wall of force enveloped him and smashed his body against the air. Yet Kashi did not fall as the rat had expected, but instead he threw open his hands, thrusting the wall before him aside and driving his legs through, connecting solidly with the rat's chest. Charles tried to bring his arms back up to lessen the blow, to hold onto the foot, anything to keep from falling backwards, but it was no use. His energy had been spent into the wall of force, and he had little left to hold onto. Stuttering, he fall backwards and landed upon his tail.
Kashin landed on his boot, rubbing the carpet with one heel. Gazing down at the coughing rodent, he nodded softly. "That was most enjoyable."
Charles rolled over onto his belly, and struggled to his feet, the blow having knocked the wind from him. He felt a hand reach out and take his own. Looking up, Kashin was smiling, one broader and simpler than he'd ever seen the man give before. "Here, let me help you up."
"Thank you," Charles sputtered as he returned to standing on two paws. He took a moment to catch his breath, and then stared curiously at his victorious opponent. "How did you?" he waved his paw negligently as if to suggest what had just happened.
"Force can be diverted after all. I doubt you've ever seen anybody ever try it though."
Charles shook his head, and then gazed past the Yeshuel at the third figure standing in the room watching them. It was Garigan, dressed in his simple tunic with the yellow band along the sleeves. His musteline face was bunched up anxiously, but he said nothing. Kashin turned around and saw him and nodded slowly. "Hello there, did you enjoy the fight?"
Garigan blinked a few times, and then asked, "Charles, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine, just got the wind knocked out of me, that's all. Kashin here can deliver quite a good kick."
Kashin grinned and then walked over to the ferret. Garigan happened to be standing in the doorway leading to the Sondeckis Shrine, but he did not appear capable of moving from that spot. Charles quickly caught up with the Yeshuel and grabbed his arm. "I'm sorry, you cannot go in that room."
"Oh, my apologies." Kashin simply nodded at the ferret, who continued to watch him skeptically.
"It is all right, it is just that we don't allow visitors to see everything that there is. Something are best left secret after all."
"We don't or you don't?" Kashin asked pointedly, raising one eyebrow.
Charles bristled at that slightly, but kept his feelings buried inside. "I don't know quite what you mean."
Kashin smiled then again and patted the rat on the shoulder. "Nothing, I suppose. I ought to be returning to the Patriarch's chambers as it is. I must say, you do put up quite a good fight, Charles. I do hope that our paths will cross again someday. Perhaps next time you will be the visitor?"
Charles laughed then. "I hope it is possible, but I doubt it. In any event, I hope to see you again before you have to leave. It was a pleasure meeting you, Kashin."
"And you, Charles." Kashin then walked towards the door of the Long House, and a moment later he was gone.
Garigan came up to stand next to the rat, still a head taller than his master. "What was he? I've never seen anything quite like it."
Matthias shook his head, still gazing at the door. His chest rang with a dull throbbing pain; there would be a boot shaped bruise upon it soon enough. "I haven't either. All I know was that he is a good man. I suppose in the end that is all we should ever have to worry about."
"I hope so," Garigan said softly, breathing a sigh of relief.
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