Questioning - Part XVI

Sir Petriz of Vasks, Knight Commander of the Driheli, was just finishing his nightly prayers when the rider from the Southeast came to their camp. The sound of the Pyralis River flowing so near had been the constant drumbeat at the back of he and his knight’s mind for many days. To have the familiar pounding of horse’s hooves added to the mix was a pleasant relief.

Not that they had not heard enough of that either. For the last several days they had been making their way along the course of the Pyralis River, a winding swath of blue that cut through the westernmost reaches of the Flatlands. Small settlements dotted either side of the wide river, while sail-barges occasionally slipped past. At no point was there a bridge across the river, and it was too deep to ford. Had the knights of Driheli wished to cross the river, they would have had to pay the ferry at one of the small villages.

But at present they were content to head upstream, following the river to its source in the distant Sathmore range. If they were to reach the forest and mountains that lurked far in the distance, they would have to travel for nearly a month by following the river. Of course, as so far they had found no evidence of their quarry’s passage either along the river itself or in any of the villages they had come to, it was possible that they would have to travel so far into a foreign land.

When he was younger, Sir Petriz had never imagined that his lifelong dream of becoming a knight would lead him into a land as vast and empty as that of the Flatlands, a Steppe that stretched out across the horizon in either direction. Across the river into the Pyralian Kingdoms hills and farms could be seen, but even these were spread out. Aside from the port city of Marilyth at the river’s delta, the Knight Commander found that this land was as new as when Eli crafted the world from the void. Only in that city had anything resembling age or history made itself apparent to the young knight.

It was a strange sight for one born to potters in the small community of Vasks. Roads led in three directions from their town, one of them was even paved with cobblestones, winding up through gentle hills to the port city of Stuthgansk. Nary a week would pass without one of the knights of Driheli passing through, making sure that all was well with the populace of his small town. Sir Petriz remembered first seeing their colourful banners, proud poise, and certain manner. From that moment on, the son of several generation potters knew that he wished to hold a lance and sword, not mould the clay as all the rest of his family had done.

His parents had not understood his desire, and kept him working the kilns when he wished instead to be out practising to become a squire. Everyone knew that only squires could become knights, and it was his sole goal in life to become a squire. Yet, as he began to get older, he was not noticed, and he had felt the life of a potter become more and more his future. He prayed fervently, spending hours in the chapel, praying as many prayers as he could that he might one day be a knight. With determined study, he’d learned from the priests all the proper prayers that any good Follower should know. And he said them every night, his most fervent wish ever upon his heart.

And then, a few days before his fourteenth birthday, the Knight Commander made a visit to Vasks riding in on a brilliantly coloured charger, plumes and feathers of black and blue bestriding his saintly beast. The man wore brilliant armour, polished until it shone so bright that few could stare at it. Sir Petriz had made his way through the crowds that gathered to greet their protector so that he might gain a clear view. But it was what that knight of Driheli did that surprised him the most.

Much to his parent’s and his own surprise, the Knight Commander had dismounted from his steed, crossed along the cobblestone street, mailed boots thunking with each step, and then rested his gauntlet upon Sir Petriz’s shoulder. In that moment, he announced to the rest of the townsfolk that Petriz would be his squire. Gasps had filled the square, and Petriz himself, felt his knees bend, and he lowered his head solemnly, and thanked the man for such a great honour.

Sir Petriz had remembered the look of pride in his father’s face when he’d stood back up. Though they had never though it possible, they were both proud of him that his dream would come true. The very next day, the Knight Commander led Sir Petriz back to Stuthgansk so that his training might begin in earnest. His knight was the very hand of Eli himself reaching out to bring his greatest joys to light. And in the years that followed, they were as father and son. No look of greater pride existed than that of his knight when Sir Petriz himself was invested as a knight of the Order of Driheli.

And it was only natural that when Sir Petriz’s master was elevated to become Knight Templar that Petriz would take his place as Knight Commander of Vasks. And when the Bishop would come to him with such an important mission as this, it was also only natural for one of the two Knight Commanders to be selected to assist him would by Sir Petriz, his most faithful squire and loyal of knights. There was no greater pride that Sir Petriz could have than to know he was serving the Ecclesia and her Knight Templar in such an important capacity.

Thus it was that the thought that filled him each night as he said his lengthy prayers, all that he had learned in his youth, was that he wished only to fulfill the will of his spiritual and earthly fathers, Eli and Sir Czestadt of Stuthgansk, Knight Templar of the Driheli, for whom he had once served as squire. A smile crossed his lips as he heard the beat of the hooves upon the soft grass, approaching their camp in the late hours of the night.

Rising to his feet, he shifted his mail shirt about his chest, and stepped to the entrance of his tent, smiling as he watched the rider approach through the darkness. Along the river bank they were alone, the nearest settlements were half a day’s ride in either direction. This could mean only one thing – the rider was from Sir Czestadt.

It was very late at night. The moon was high in the sky, nearly full and nearly at its highest declination for the evening. The midnight hour would not be long in coming. It was not unusual for Sir Petriz to still be awake speaking his prayers at this hour. In fact, he usually was. But most of the rest of the camp, including both his priest and his squire, were asleep. Still mounted were a few of his own knights, good men each, keeping a watch on the vast tracts of land to their North and East.

Sir Petriz slipped his escutcheon over his left arm, and stroked the hard iron pleasantly. It’s weight felt good on his arm, a welcome addition that brought a smile to his lips even now. He could still remember the day that he had received his heraldry, chosen for him by Sir Czestadt of course. Surrounded by the other knights of Driheli, each delighted to see one of their own honoured in such a powerful way. It was a gift from the Heavens themselves, this he knew. One that he thanked Eli for every night in his prayers.

His own steed was milling around in the central paddock they had erected between the tents. The bay mare saw him, and trotted over, her proud mane billowing in the gentle wind coming down the river. With a gentle touch, he patted her neck and brought her head in for a warm embrace. The horse lowered her head over his shoulder as well, snorting and stomping her hooves impatiently. “We have a visitor. Shall we greet him, Karenna?”

Karenna snorted and nodded her head, her hooves stomping impatiently. Sir Petriz smiled and nodded, leading her from the paddock with the gentle guide of his hand. The rider was fast approaching, but he had time to saddle his steed. The tack was all assembled just outside his tent, and within moments he’d placed them upon her back and tied them in place. With a quick pull, he’d swept into place in the saddle. A gentle nudge and she trotted out to the perimeter with the other knights.

“Good evening, Sir Petriz,” one of the two knights out on watch said, nodding his head at the Knight Commander’s approach.

“Good evening, Sir Wodnicki, Sir Poblocka.” Both knights were a few years his senior. But they had all been friends for years. When Sir Petriz had been made Knight Commander, both these two had been there, and had been the first to offer congratulatory toasts. “It looks as if news has come.”

Sir Poblocka, a stocky man with a thick mustache, nodded and smiled, showing a few gaps in his teeth. “We have been wondering how long before you heard him coming.”

The rider was beginning to slow his approach, but was still another few minutes away. If not for the bright moon and stars that night, he would have simply been one more shadow against the wide stretch of land that was the Steppe. But they could see the familiar blue and green cross upon the rider’s shirt, and knew that he was of the Driheli.

“Shall we greet him?” Sir Petriz asked, smiling to both his fellow knights. Sir Wodnicki, though a bit taller than Sir Poblocka nevertheless was lighter in the saddle than him, let out a barking laugh and nodded, spurring his steed forward. The other two knights laughed, and quickly rode after him. Sir Petriz could feel Karenna’s muscles pounding beneath him and between his legs, and he savoured it. The clanking of mail upon horseback was a musical chorus of praises to Eli Himself.

The grasses along the southern reaches of the Flatlands had long since shed their wintry gowns. Crisp and wet, they rustled as the horses thundered on past. The moon shone along the gentle current of the Pyralis, and also cast a starry glint to their own forms. Three heavenly lights they were as they streaked across the grasslands to meet a fourth in a brilliant constellation. As they neared each other, they slowed their steeds down. The rider appeared exhausted from his exertion, his horse also in need of some rest.

When the rider reached them, they all turned about and let their animals slowly walk back towards the campsite a short distance upstream. “Sir Wodnicki, run ahead and get this man and his steed some water.”

The knight nodded, gave the rider a pat on the shoulder, and spurred his stallion back towards the camp. Sir Petriz and Sir Poblocka then flanked the rider, accompanying him on his way towards the camp and to rest. Letting his escutcheon rest upon his thigh, Sir Petriz considered the youthful rider. He was flush in the face, and was beginning to show signs of his first manly beard. Sir Petriz kept his dark beard well-trimmed, letting it only frame his face, not define it.

“What news do you bring?” Sir Petriz asked after letting the rider catch his breath.

The rider reached within his jerkin and pulled forth a slender piece of parchment. He offered it to the Knight Commander, who took it gingerly. Staring at it in the moonlight, he could see that the seal was that of the Knight Templar Sir Czestadt. He broke the seal, eager to read the news. The letters were not easy to make out by moonlight alone, but he managed. A smile crossed his lips, filling his face firmly. When he had finished, he folded the note back once more and gave a full grin to his fellow knight.

“We ride South tomorrow.”

“South?” Sir Poblocka asked, making sure that he’d heard correctly.

“Indeed. Sir Poznan has found Kashin to the East. We are to return the Knight Templar’s camp, and then travel Eastward until we reach the mountains.” Sir Petriz felt the joy of doing Eli’s work fill him.

His good joy was infectious, as Poblocka favoured him that gap-toothed grin again. “Excellent news, master Commander.”

“That it is, my friend. That it is.” Sir Petriz gave Karenna another firm pat on the neck. She gave a whinny, her delight plain as well. Tomorrow they would ride. It would be weeks before they reached the mountains where they would find Kashin the traitor. But at least they knew where he was now.

His smile would not leave his face. Closing his eyes, trusting his mare, Sir Petriz offered a prayer of thanks to Eli for such good fortune, and for this chance to serve.

Where the last two nights, Felsah had found it difficult to finally settle into a pleasant slumber, it was his slumber this night that upset him. More specifically, it was his dreams that caused him distress. Unsightly and horrible, they filled his mind with every vile image that could be conjured forth. Many of them were images from that very day, the few Keepers they had questioned blending together to condemn him, to chop his body to pieces and feast upon the remains.

Felsah quailed under the minute ministrations of the fox Misha Brightleaf. The vulpine was slowly working the blade he’d brought with him underneath the Questioner’s fingernail, prying each of them loose one by one. He screamed in agony, thrashing against the bonds that held him, great furry paws that cut into his skin like rusted iron manacles. There was a sadistic grin upon that reynard’s muzzle, and once he’d removed the fingernails, his blade began to saw right through the Questioners ears.

And then, Felsah found himself freed from the fox’s torturous care, whole once more. But his surcease would not last, as only moment later, the strangely nebulous form of the skunk Murikeer was flowing about him, that savage hollow eye socket glowing an unholy red as it bored within him. Felsah felt his flesh smouldering under that gaze, as strange shadows leaped up around, blending and coursing over the skunk’s naturally black fur. Felsah felt his flesh blacken under the intense heat, as if the shadows themselves were claiming him. The bestial churr from the mephit’s throat only intensified with each of his screams, as if his painful exhortations were but fireflies to be caught in a jar to be marvelled at by a child.

And even as his flesh continued to burn and rot away, he could hear some dull pounding, a metallic clicking that grew more intense with each new moment. It was rhythmic, like the sounding of a clock, nearing him as if from a great distance, but from no direction the priest could determine. Even as the skunk began to fade and diminish within the shadows that he’d drawn tight about himself, Felsah could feel a new laughter rising up along with that resounding time piece.

From behind, a strap was pulled taught around his neck, and his hands flew up to meet it. Hi flesh was still charred, and every touch upon his flesh sent new agony through him. Cold stone met his back, pressing against him firmly, eliciting a hideous scream from his throat. Another voice laughed into his ears, a haughty mocking tone that reverberated inside his skull, despite the overwhelming pain that coursed through every pour of his dream state. He wished to wake and leap form his bed, but he feared that he would find himself in the presence of his torturers, find that it was not a dream at all.

Still the inexorable clicking as the clock continued to grind away. With dull horror, he began to see monstrous gears spinning before him, turning ever so slowly, and spinning above him like the vault of the heavens. Another figure also became visible amidst the miasma. It was the same one who’d laughed a moment before, standing akimbo, long feet bracing the Questioner’s legs. His long tail brushed across the scarred remnants of Felsah’s toes, and he cried out anew as the thick fur brushed ever so gingerly across the bone.

“Will you go to the Garden?” Habakkuk asked then, his voice contemptuous. “Will you talk?”

Despite the agonies that had been inflicted upon him, Felsah knew that he could still speak, and did so, even though his jaw ached with a stinging rebuke. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“I have done nothing. You have done this to yourself. Will you talk?” Habakkuk snarled then, his muzzle curling up in an arrogant sneer.

“But I only asked you questions!” Felsah protested, his voice raw, his eyes straining, even as he felt the veneer scraped clean from them by the heat the skunk had brought. Beyond the kangaroo was a massive gear that was turning and twisting through the dark air. It’s grooves slowly moved closer, strange symbols marked into the ends of the teeth.

“And what do you think you asked me?” The roo nudged his burnt legs with one foot, thick claws tearing and leaving gouges of muscle lowing, blood oozing across the metal floor beneath him.

“I asked,” he had to pause, the pain was so great he felt sure he would pass out from it, but this was a dream, and it would not end. “I asked about the banquet, and why you did not want to go.”

“Wrong!” the kangaroo shouted, giving him a kick. Felsah yelped in protest, his whole body shivering as the pain coursed through him again. The strap about his neck felt s if it were choking him, yet he could still talk. It also held him in place against the metal. The gear was turning around in a great circle, coming towards him from the right.

Leaning over, Habakkuk smiled a sick smile that looked ll too familiar, though never upon the marsupial’s face. “You asked that of Habakkuk, not me.”

Felsah wished to blink, but his eyelids seemed to have been burned to cinders. “Aren’t you Habakkuk?”

Again that mocking laugh, the shrill tones of which made his spine wish to snap in half like so many twigs. “You see me as him because you do not wish to know who I truly am!” A terrible glint came to those eyes, one that spoke of last chances. A peal of madness filled them, a yearning to power and evil without regards to the consequences. Felsah wished he could push himself further into the metal gear beneath him, but the pain that prodded him from every direction was his only response. “Now talk.”

For some reason, the Questioner knew that this was important, though he could not tell why. Mustering every last bit of strength within his body, he shook his head, knowing that this was but a dream, and it could not hurt him no matter what it did, no matter how real the pain felt. Even as he did so, his eyes caught sight of the massive gear that was turning about. And then he understood why it was doing so. His own head was laying on a gear’s tooth, one that would meld with the gear ponderously turning and rolling towards him.

And then it was upon him, the roo watching with arms crossed over his chest, smiling sadistically as the massive gear bore down to smash the Questioner’s head like a pumpkin. Felsah screamed one last time as the metal connected with a solid click.

With a gasp of air, he sat bolt upright within his bed. The metallic clicking continued, as well as the familiar ticking of the clock outside. There was no wind tonight, leaving those as his only companions in sound. His body trembled, his heart pounding so loud in his chest that he was sure it would wake his fellow Questioners from their sleep. Gingerly, all other sensation forgotten, he rubbed his hands over each other, finding his fingernails in place, and skin unmarred. He reached up and felt at his neck, feeling the lined skin tense, but intact. And then over his face, his ears s they were before, and the skin still in place, eyelids working properly.

For several moments Father Felsah sat there, legs pressing down into the thick mattress, skin shaking and body weak from the wilds of his nightmare. His eyes strayed across the darkness of his room, seeing nothing but the shadow of night. It was a blessed emptiness, no gears or phantasms approaching him to torment him and say strange things to him that were incomprehensible. He was safe at Metamor, within his room and in his bed.

And it was then that he realized that the clicking noise that had plagued his dream was still present. It’s familiarity at first brought a rush of fear, then of calm. He knew what that had to mean. He listened, his flesh subsiding, breath stilling, heart slowing. The clicks moved back and forth across his floor, simple, but rhythmic, matching the beat of the clock.

Felsah leaned over his table and struck the tinder against his lamp. It took him a moment to nurse a flame to life on the oil slicked wick, but soon, his lantern was providing him a soft light. His lips were set once more into a thin line as he turned back and saw Madog pacing back and forth in his room, ears perked high, tail held up as if in alert.

“Good evening, Madog,” Felsah said at last, holding the lantern in one hand as he curled his legs beneath him.

The mechanical fox turned about in is pacing and then sat down on his haunches to regard the priest. “Good evening, Father Felsah.”

Felsah glanced past the automaton and saw that the strange opening once more had materialized in his room, just past the inglenook. Where before had been solid stone there was now an entranceway that curved into the darkness. The Questioner leaned forward and stared down at his guest. “Why are you here?” he asked, voice still uncertain, but no longer was it filled with anxiety. A nightmare was unpleasant, but it was not real.

“To watch you,” was Madog’s reply. The fox stared at him with its silver ears alert, golden eyes fixed. Once again, Felsah was struck by its simple innocence. There was no doubting its words, or its sincerity. Deception was foreign to Madog’s nature. It was something that simply could not be achieved.

Not wishing Madog to leave as he had last night, Felsah slipped out from under his covers and kneeled before the automaton. Madog lowered his muzzle to stare at him unafraid. Tentatively, the priest reached out his free hand, and slowly began to pet the mechanical beast. The metal was strangely warm to the touch, as if the entire contraption lived as a real fox might. But it was still a highly polished metal, smooth to the touch.

Madog’s tail wagged at the petting, his ears going flat. At first, Felsah’s hand moved very slowly down the creature’s back. But after a few exploratory attempts, the priest gained confidence, setting the lamp down on the floor, and stroking with both hands, firmly and fully. Felsah crouched on the floor next to the automaton, his hands petting from the head down to the tail, simply watching as his guest accepted the attention.

When Felsah’s pace began to slow, Madog turned his muzzle towards the priest and nudged at his arms. Feeling chagrined he continued to pet, giving full force to his strokes, and making sure not to miss any of the metallic back. It felt odd, like petting the kitchen pot, but also it could not help but remind him of the hound that his father had owned when he’d been a young boy. He’d loved that dog, and had spent many days simply tumbling about his father’s farm with him. And when he’d been killed by boars, Felsah had spent the entire night upon his pallet crying.

Madog’s silvery nose nuzzled at his cheek unexpectedly. The nose was cold oddly enough, much like a real fox’s would be. “Is something wrong?” Madog asked him, golden eyes blinking curiously.

Felsah shook his head, reaching one hand up to feel his cheek. He shuddered as he did so, for he realized that he’d actually shed a tear. How many years had it been since he’d done that?

“Nothing is wrong,” Felsah said at last, even as the mechanical fox pressed closer to him, nearly toppling him over. Instead, the priest wrapped one arm about the automaton’s neck, cradling the head within his arms. “I was just remembering some things that happened a long time ago. When I was a boy.”

“Metamor could make you a boy again,” the fox said suddenly, as if it were hoping this to be.

“No, it won’t.” Felsah wrapped his fingers about one of the metallic ears. Strangely, as it turned between his thumb and forefinger, he expected the metal clasp to pinch him, but it did not. It was as smooth as silk. “I’ll be leaving in two days.”

Madog nuzzled at his arm, asking to be petted again. Felsah complied. “You should stay,” Madog said abruptly, his voice crisp and clear. “Become a boy again. Smile.”

He felt his lips tremble, and his hand waver in its petting. “I have a duty to the Ecclesia. I must go back to Yesulam.”

The mechanical fox did not say anything then for a long while. He simply sat there on his haunches, tail wagging slowly across the floor, making only a dull scrapping against the stonework. Father Felsah continued to pet the strange beast before him, his heart trembling as before. It was not like his nightmare of course, where it beat forcefully in terror, threatening to burst from his chest so great was its need to be heard. Now, it was more a matter of nervous uncertainty. How was he supposed to react to this automaton’s simple mind?

The clock outside continued it inexorable march towards the next hour. He had not yet heard it chime, so was uncertain about the time. But it was clearly very late in the evening. But he had no wish to go back to bed just then. He did not know whether those awful dreams would be waiting for him on the other side of the curtain of consciousness, but he feared that they may. Still, while sitting there petting Madog was pleasing, he wished to do something more.

Glancing back towards the phantom doorway that the automaton had come through, and that had not existed otherwise, Felsah nodded to himself. “Madog, do you think you could show me where you came from?”

Madog shook his head. “That long time ago.”

The priest blinked and then realized just what he’d asked. “No, I mean do you think you could show me how you got into my room.”

Turning about on is haunches, the fox pointed his nose towards the doorway. “That way.”

Felsah rose to his feet and tried to scratch the pleasant creature behind the ears much like he had that poor hound he’d once loved. Surprisingly enough, the metal was just supple enough that he could do so without hurting his fingers. “Let’s go walk down it,” he suggested as he took a tentative step towards that aperture. He could not help but wonder whether it would allow him to pass through. It certainly had not opened to him the previous night.

But the fox seemed only delighted to be his guide, trotting along on his metallic paws towards that entrance. Felsah kept up the pace, his white night linens pulled tightly about his slender frame. The doorway was narrow, but they still could pass through side by side. Beyond, the stone wall looked like any other corridor that he’d seen within Metamor. The masonry was cold grey, and fitted tightly together so that the seams were only barely visible. No torches were lit within the passage, so Felsah had to quickly retrieve his lantern to make his way though.

Very quickly the passage curved to the right, and bent downwards. Madog trotted along, quiet but for the metallic click of his claws. Felsah’s slippered feet touched the stone softly, tentatively, as if afraid that at any moment the passage would disappear and they would be left suspended in air, or worse, within the very stone itself. Regularly, Felsah would glance behind him to make sure that the passage had not ceased to be. He still wanted to be able to get back to his rooms after all.

But Madog led him downwards in that spiralling tight passage, until at last they emptied out into a wide and long corridor, lit by blazing torches within sconces. At several intervals, other passageways forked off the main hall, while small alcoves were cut from the passage, suits of armour standing within them. Some of the suits were designed for those no longer fully human, as he recognized at least one canine and one equine muzzle amongst the helmets.

“Where are we?” Felsah asked as he stood holding is lamp, though he no longer needed it.

“In Metamor,” Madog said, pacing about the hallway, nose to the floor and sniffing. Felsah wondered if the automaton could really smell anything, or if this was merely for show.

No clocks lined the hall, and he could no longer here the one that was set within their quarters. There were no windows in the hall, and so only the guttering of the torches themselves added to the metallic clicking of Madog’s pace. Turning about on is feet, Felsah saw that the passage they had come through was still there. Fearful that at any moment it would cease to be, he set his lamp down in the doorway, hoping that would keep the aperture there. He had no idea if it would or not, but it was all he could think to do.

When he turned back around, he saw that Madog had produced a brass ball from somewhere, and was holding it in his muzzle. His tail was wagging expectantly, and his silver ears were hopeful. Felsah blinked several times as he stared at the sight of the playful creature. Even after it had dropped the bauble at his feet and nudged at it with his nose, he could only stare. Madog backed up several paces, his frame tense, ready to pounce, front paws splayed out before him, back arched, tail held aloft, steady, and alert.

Uncertainly, Felsah kneeled down, and picked up the brass bauble in his hands. It was small, a few pounds in weight, though not terribly heavy, but also very smooth and comfortable in his hand. The fox kept his golden eyes upon it at all times, growing even stiffer as he watched. Had the automaton any muscles, Felsah was certain that they would be tense.

Turning to one side, Felsah rolled the ball gently down the long hall. With a short yipping bark, Madog bounded after it, catching it only a few paces past the startled Questioner. A second later, the mechanical fox had deposited the ball back at Felsah’s feet, tail wagging ever so slightly behind him. Again, Felsah took the ball in his hands and rolled it, this time more forcefully. Madog gave out another yip of pleasure, cornering the ball before it rolled within one of the alcoves. The mechanical fox did bump the canine armour, but it stirred only slightly.

Felsah slumped down onto the cold hallway floor, and continued to roll the ball for the playful automaton. His mind lost itself in the simple act of pushing that ball, sending it down the hallway, doing his best not to aim it towards any of the alcoves, nor to aim it too straight. He tried to get it past the crafty fox, but many times Madog stopped the ball within seconds of it leaving the Questioner’s hand.

He was not sure for how long this continued, but his arms did eventually grow tired of rolling that brass bauble. Madog on the other hand appeared as energetic as before. Felsah was strangely surprised by this, as the fox had seemed so lifelike in every other respect. But he supposed it only reasonable that the automaton would not tire as easily as a middle-aged priest. But Madog did appear to sense Felsah’s exhaustion. Instead of rolling the ball back towards him, he set it down and then curled up at the priest’s side.

Felsah reached out and resumed petting the strange beast once more, leaning his back against the wall next to the passage that led back to his chambers. His eyes yearned to close. His breath was slow and deep, pleasant images of tumbling through the hay with that hound many years gone filled his mind. He could almost smell the dry straw, the thick animal musks that inhabited a farm. Those had been the days of youth, the days before responsibility.

A dark shadow stood over those days, a man with arms crossed dressed all in black. His mind gazed back into the face, and sighed. It was his own, flat and blank, simply watching. A long sigh escaped his lips and he patted the automaton on top of the head. He forced his eyes to open once more to that long empty hall. It was as before, nothing had changed. The orange lames licked upwards, casting flickering shadows along the walls. They reflected in the glint of Madog’s metal skin, giving him the fiery glow of a real fox.

“I need my sleep,” Felsah announced, his voice low.

Madog lifted his head from his paws and nodded, golden eyes fixed upon the Questioner. “Good night, Father Felsah.”

“Good night, Madog,” Felsah said, his lips drawn tightly. He gave the automaton another pat on the head, picked up his lantern, and started back up the twisting passageway. Madog did not follow him, but remained behind. Without the metallic click of the fox’s claws upon the masonry, the passage seemed completely empty, as if drained of its life and reason for being. Somehow, Felsah knew that this passage was meant for Madog and for nobody else. With each footstep, he felt an intruder upon some secret demesnes of the automaton’s.

But the moment did not last after he passed back through into his own chambers. His bed sheets were overturned as he’d left them. The ashes in the inglenook were cold and black as well. The ticking of the clock in the main room was audible once more, a gentle rocking that now soothed him. With airy steps, he made his way to his bedside, setting the lantern once more on the small night stand.

Slipping underneath the heavy quilts, he rolled onto his back, and looked once more towards the far wall. The passage next to the inglenook was gone, the wall as solid as it had been during the day. He stared at this for nearly a full minute before turning and extinguishing the lantern, plunging the room once more into complete darkness.

When he rested his head against the pillows, he found the comforting words of the litanies once more filling his mind, lulling him back to sleep. Strangely enough, he thought he could hear a counterpoint, as if he were kneeling within a vast cathedral, speaking them aloud, the words echoing off the distant ceiling.

And when Father Felsah could no longer distinguish between his own voice and the echo, sleep, a peaceful sleep, claimed him once again.

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