To the Glen - Part I

When the woman and her small group of soldiers had left the four Sondeckis alone in that intersection, the bodies of Lutins strewn about their feet, their minds began a new journey, despite the exhaustion that they all felt deep in their bones. After facing what had become of Wessex and the Shrieker, finding this new threat, one that promised to swallow them all and destroy everything they cared about, they discovered that they each possessed reserves of will that had heretofore been untapped.

“Well,” Charles said, retracting the Sondeshike into its compact form, “we’re going to have to do something about this. If Nasoj is moving his troops into the city, then we will have to hold the Keep.”

“We can certainly help kill these Lutins,” Jerome said, nudging a green head with his foot. “But we don’t even know what’s going on out there. We need some specific goal to rally around, not just killing random groups of Lutins. We need a plan of action, and others to follow it through with.”

Zagrosek rubbed his chin thoughtfully, tapping the ferrules of his Sondeshike upon one foot. He then cleared his throat and looked to his friends. “I would say our best bet is to find some safe haven that we can defend and launch counter attacks from for now, and then, once we are sure of the situation, make more elaborate plans. I’m sure there are places in Metamor that would be fitting for such, assuming that they haven’t been overrun already.”

The rat nodded, rubbing one paw through the fur of his bare chest. The tips of his brown fur had been singed in the fight with the Shrieker, though most of it was undamaged, for which he was grateful. “I know a good place for that. Though, I want you two to know, that by staying here you risk ending up like myself. We can not know how long this siege will last.”

Zagrosek shrugged, as did Jerome after a moment. “We are Sondeckis, and we are friends. If we must become animals, then so be it.”

Charles grinned, his two large incisors prominently displayed at the front of that smile. “Then let’s go, there’s no time to waste.”

Garigan shook his head though, his eyes very uncertain. “I’m not going there, Charles.”

“What?” Matthias asked, turning to face his student in surprise.

“I’m not going to the Long House, I know that is what you have thought of. It would be the best place to hold, you are right, but there is something else that I am thinking of. I want to go back to Glen Avery. If Nasoj is attacking, then his forces had to pass by my home. I have to know if it is still there.”

“Glen Avery?” Jerome asked, looking between the two Keepers, neither of which were paying much attention to him at the moment.

“Garigan, that is a five hour carriage ride to the North. Even in the summer, with Nasoj’s army out there, it would be extremely dangerous. There is a blizzard all around us right now, and the temperature is too cold to go walking around in. We have to go to the Long House. The Glenners can take care of themselves.”

The ferret however, the blood still smearing his chin, glared back at the rat. “When I came here to Metamor, it was under your promise that I could leave at any time I choose once I became a green, once I could control my emotions. I choose now to leave Metamor, and to leave your service. I will go to Glen Avery, no matter what snowstorm is out there, and no matter how many Lutins Nasoj has stacked in my way. Nothing will keep me from my people. Nothing!”

Charles looked at the face of determination his student wore, and remembered well his words to Garigan when he’d first taken him on as his pupil in the Sondeck. Never had he thought they would come back to haunt him like this. Unable to look into the brown eyes of the ferret, he turned instead to Jerome and Zagrosek, who stood dumbly, watching them both, waiting to see whose will would come to fruition.

“Well, you both can find your way to the Long House. Just head back to the Sondeckis Shrine. The other door leads into the Long House where you will find a fox named Misha. You can help with the defence there.”

Zagrosek peered curiously. “What are you going to do, Charles?”

“I’m going with Garigan to Glen Avery.” Garigan started at that, his stubborn eyes giving way to both surprise and delight. “I do not believe he could make it on his own, and so I will go with him to see to it that he makes it safely home to his people. We’ll help with whatever needs to be done there to repel this invasion.”

Jerome shook his head. “If you are going to this Glen, then I am too.”

“And me,” Zagrosek crossed his arms. “After seven years, we’re finally together once again, you aren’t getting rid of us that easily! Besides, four have a better chance of making it through this than two.”

Charles and Garigan exchanged glances, both of them filling with their newfound unity. The rat then peered back at the two human Sondeckis and nodded. “All right, the first thing we need to do is head back to my quarters. It’s awfully cold out there, and we’ll need warmer clothes.”

Jerome laughed slightly. “Do you really think you’ll have anything in our size?”

“You managed to get here in this storm didn’t you?” Matthias replied, smirking, even as he set out down one of the passageways, scanning up and down the lamp lit corridor for signs of passage or ambuscade. “Come on, let’s not waste time. We have to get past Nasoj’s forces too remember! That’s not going to be easy either!”

The other three were quick on the rat’s heels, Jerome at the back, casting his eyes down the passageway behind them, and at the bodies still piled unceremoniously in the hallway. They would eventually be cleaned up he knew, but for now they were a testament to the battle that had begun all around them. Zagrosek and Garigan were between them, both eager and prepared for whatever lay ahead as Charles forged the path. Their hearts were stirring, the apparent ceaseless energy of the Sondeckis quite discernable in each. These were the moments that they trained for, and even that they lived for.

When they reached a wide staircase, Charles peered down the smooth steps, noting the way the shadows moved along either wall as the torches flickered in a small breeze. It was cold, so they knew that somebody had opened a door or a window nearby. Yet only the dry scent of snow rose to them on that wind, nothing else. Uncertain, the rat descended the steps anyway, taking them one at a time, clutching the compact cylinder that was his Sondeshike, running his claws across its smooth surface. It was cold, like the wind, but when he extended it, his own energy would warm it.

Halfway down the steps, he thought he heard a noise from below, some muffled voice. Holding up his paw to the others following after him, he peered closer into the subtle light. No other sound came to him as he waited, his breath held in check within his chest. All that he could hear was his heart thumping in his chest, threatening to break through his rib cage and spill out onto the floor. His tail drew in close to his legs, the scalded section stinging slightly as it ran across the fabric of his breeches. Finally, he slowly lifted one foot paw, and began to measure his way down the steps again

Before he had set that paw back upon the granite steps though, a sudden muffled clanging rose to him from the other side of the hallway. Drawing his claws back from the stone, he quickly and silently darted to the other side of the staircase, pressing his back to the wall, feeling its chill touch reach through his fur and send a shiver down his spine.

Doing his best to ignore the discomfort he signalled to the others to wait, but be prepared. He found himself unconsciously using the Long Scout signals, but apparently, his meaning was made clear, as Zagrosek nodded, holding out his extended staff in both hands. Charles did not dare extend his own though, at least not yet, for it would ring like a man drawing a sword, and alert whoever waited behind that wall of his coming.

Finally, standing upon the last step before the wall turned, he heard that muffled slap yet again. The cold wind blew past his face, disturbing the fur on his muzzle, and making his whiskers twitch in annoyance. It was nearly enough to make him sneeze, but he held his breath in check still. Pressing his teeth tightly together, he spun about the corner, extending the Sondeshike as he did so, and drove it home into a large bundle of cloth that was swaying in the wind.

Blinking, he scanned up the curtain to see white plumes of snow filling the space behind it, and an unlatched window opening and swinging on the wind, banging against a bit of the hemp that was caught in the hinges. A small smile broke out onto his muzzle as he watched the snow settle about his feet. Reaching forward, he freed the drapery, and pushed it aside. He grabbed the window latch and sealed it. The chill wind was quick to pass then.

Turning back up the staircase, he motioned for the rest to come down, trying not to laugh at his foolishness. “It was just a window. You can breathe again.”

Zagrosek grabbed the curtain and drew it across the snowy pane. “Are you crazy standing in front of this thing? How did you know a Lutin wasn’t watching?”

Matthias peered at the thick hemp and shook his head. “I doubt anybody could see through the blizzard. However, you are right, that was foolish of me. I’m thrice a fool in fact. Lutins could very well have been standing behind that other wall and left this open to trap any unsuspecting Keepers.” Curling his paws about the extended Sondeshike he sighed. “Well, my room is just down the hall. Let’s keep moving.”

It did not take them long to reach the familiar wide oak door that led to the rat’s chambers. Garigan rushed into his own chambers just inside, and disappeared around the corner. Jerome was quick to follow him, but nodded as he saw things were in order. The ferret was peering into his mirror and looking at the cut along his gums where his front two teeth had been. He blanched in distaste before looking away.

Charles reached into his closet and drew out some of his thickest clothes and began to slip them on. “I have to let Misha know where we’ve gone, that way they won’t worry about us too much. Can you hit the bottom of my ink bottle a few times, Krenek? It was getting a bit dry the last time I used it.”

Zagrosek picked up the small black bottle from Matthias’s desk and began to shake it, tapping the flat bottom with two fingers. He watched the rat pull on two tunics and another pair of breeches, this one reaching down to his ankles. “Do you have boots?”

Charles shook his head forlornly. “No, with paws like these, nothing fits comfortably or effectively. “ The rat lifted one leg and splayed his long toes out to demonstrate. “I do have some thick socks I sometimes wear, but on ice I would have trouble standing in them. No, it is best that I go barefoot.”

Grunting, Zagrosek set the ink bottle down, and pulled his black cloak from inside his tunic. “Well, I just hope this wind dies down some, otherwise we’re going to freeze to death before we make it halfway.” He drew the black cloak over his shoulders, until the robe was dangling at his shins, the symbol of the Sondeckis proudly gazing back at the rat from the man’s breast.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Charles said, even as he pulled his own black cloak overtop of the double layered clothes. “There might be a way to reach Glen Avery without spending much time outside. I just hope they’re okay. We’ll need their help to find it!”

“Who?” Jerome asked as he climbed into his robe, drawing it tightly about him. The soot from the fire in Wessex’s quarters still clung to the thick wool. “Whose help do we need?”

“Some of my fellow rats,” Charles said, a grin crossing his muzzle that he was not aware of. “The cellars here at Metamor are quite extensive, nobody has explored them fully. I have some friends that have lived down there for several years now. They know them pretty well, and if there is a way out under the walls of the Keep heading towards Glen Avery, they would know about it.”

Garigan came back out of his room, his green robe drawn tightly about his chest. His tongue was licking absently at the cut, cleaning up the blood on his muzzle. “We might be able to get past Nasoj’s army that way.”

“True,” Charles said, nodding, even as he moved over to his desk. “But then again, Nasoj might be using those tunnels as well to move his troops in.”

Jerome looked to Zagrosek and then back to their furry companions. “We’ll need hooded lanterns then, so that they won’t see us coming. Do you know where we can find some?”

“No, it is too dangerous to go look for a pair. I have two lanterns myself here, the one on my table and another beneath the desk. We’re just going to have to do the best we can with those.”

Zagrosek picked one of the brass lanterns up in his hands, turning it over and peering at the wick inside. “How much oil are in these?”

The rat shrugged, peering at them curiously. “I’m not really sure. I filled them up a month ago, but you best fill them up again. My oil flask is in that cupboard by my bed.”

While Zagrosek was searching the cupboard for the aforementioned oil, Jerome was reaching into the desk to find the other lantern. It was sitting inside the drawer as Charles had promised, and soon the two of them were one again brimming with the slightly aromatic fluid. The rat of course was scribbling out a short message on a single scrap of parchment. The ink had dried a bit, and he hit the bottle a few times himself before he was able to finish.

Once finished, he gazed about the room and grimaced. “I put the message in code, Misha will know what it means, but even so, I don’t want the Lutins finding it first. Garigan, can you hand me my sword?”

“Since when did you use a sword?” Jerome asked, even as the ferret grabbed the short blade from behind the basket of chewsticks in one corner.

“Since I became a Long Scout. Misha insisted. I’m not that bad apparently.” Charles hefted the weapon a few times in his paws, and then gazed at his desk, his scent turning melancholic. Then, muttering a short apology to the piece of furniture, he brought his sword down into the frame, splintering the hickory. He raised his blade again and slashed at the wood, destroying and ruining his dresser once again.

“What did you do that for?” Zagrosek asked, his eyes wide with shock.

“If the Lutins think this room has already been sacked, they will ignore it then, won’t they?” Charles replied, slashing his dresser a few more times before turning to his closet. “Sorry about this, old fellow,” he said, and then hacked away at the wooden doors, crashing them inwards against his summer wardrobe.

Jerome chuckled lightly. “Still talking to your furniture?”

The rat grimaced slightly before turning to his bed, and piercing the quilts and cushions. “I’m going to regret this later I know, but I think I would rather I be the one to destroy my things than to have some green-skinned monster do it!”

Garigan watched him for a moment and then looked back through his door. “Do you want me to do the same to my room?” His voice quavered; obviously he was rather fond of his bed and assorted furnishings.

“No,” Matthias shook his head. “I doubt anybody will look past this room.”

“What if they go into the Shrine?” Zagrosek asked, jerking his thumb over to the other door at the far end of the room. The closet had once been standing before it, but as it was now in splinters, the hidden exit was now visible to all.

The rat shrugged, pulling on his buckler and slipping the sword home in its sheath. “Let them. There’s nothing in there for them to take, and they’ll most likely kill themselves when they try to steal the angel.”

“Good point,” Zagrosek chuckled, and then spinning the Sondeshike in his hands, he shrunk it down to fit within his palm. “Is there anything else you need here? It is already night. We’ll have an easier time moving through the woods while it is dark out.”

Charles shook his head, scattering the stack of parchments on his desk. He sighed as he peered at the mess littering his floor, wood splinters almost everywhere, mixed in with the papers. He quickly took the one he’d penned for Misha and laid it on top of the torn mattress. “No, I think this will do.” He picked up the ink bottle from the floor, and dashed it against the wall. The dried ink scattered with the glass, littering the back of his room. “It was dry anyway,” he murmured as he crossed over the mess towards his door.

Jerome was the first to step out of the room, peering down both sides of the hall. Seeing that nobody was about, he stepped out into the middle, and motioned for the other three to do the same. Charles was the last to leave of course, gazing at the destruction he’d caused within his own chambers and sighing. He hated having to do it, as so many thing that were in his room had a great deal of meaning for him. There were trinkets of course that he’d left unmolested, and hopefully, the Lutins would as well.

Suddenly though, he recalled one of the gifts that he’d received at the party, a cross necklace fashioned from some milk stone. Murikeer Khunnas had made it for him, and it had probably been one of the nicest things he’d received. Coming from the skunk, it meant even more, since he knew that until the Patriarch’s visit, that Muri had not looked favourably upon the Patildor.

“Just one moment,” Charles said, before picking his way back in among the ruin to his desk. Reaching inside the lid that had only partially been caved in, he retrieved the ornament, cradling it within the pink flesh of his paws and let a smile cross his muzzle. Looking back to one corner of his room, he remembered the secret cache that he’d hidden his robe in for so many years. Pressing against the stone, he opened it wide, and set the cross within it. It would be safe there.

However, a sudden premonition filled him, and his paws did not close it back up. Instead, he reached in and withdrew the milky cross again, gazing at it, remembering what it meant, what that sign meant to all Followers of the Way. Upon that cross, his Yahshua had died. Muttering, he closed his eyes, and traced that sign over his chest and forehead. “My Abba, I need you now in this more than ever. Watch over my fellow Keepers in this time, and give us the victory we need. And please let our friends at Glen Avery be all right. I pray this in the name of your son Yahshua. A-men.”

Rising back to his paws, he slipped the cross over his neck, the rock cool against his fur. He dropped the pendant down beneath his cloak and against his chest. Strangely, it was warm on his fur, as if it breathed a life of its own. Smiling once more, he closed the cache, and left his room once more, rejoining his companions. He had a quiet feeling of unease as he did so, but it was very subtle, and he hardly noticed it.

“Now are you ready?” Jerome asked impatiently, casting wary eyes down either passageway.

“Yes, follow me, this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.” Charles set off on a familiar path, for it had been his habit for many years to walk this way each morning. The halls of the Keep were empty though, as most of the Keepers had been at either the Lothanasi or Patildor celebrations that evening. It had probably been blind chance that they had found that small group of Keepers battling Nasoj’s forces when they had. He could almost imagine Misha’s incredulity when he informed him of the Shrieker and of Wessex’s demise while the fox was preparing for the assault!

They reached the staircase into the cellars without incident, their eyes ever watching the shadows shift and turn about them. Jerome and Garigan held the two lanterns, unlit in their hands. The halls in the cellar were of course lit much like the rest of the Keep, though much more subdued, the torches further apart. Being a rat had its advantages, and one of which was that he could see rather well in the dark, as long as there was some light. So, walking down the cold passages beneath the rest of the Keep, the scent of mould just dimly apparent in the air, proved to be no difficulty for either Matthias or the others.

However, just before they were about to turn the corner down the hall to the rats’ rooms, there was the sound of splintering wood. The four of them stiffened as they heard it come from around that corner. Sliding forward along the wall, Charles sniffed at the air, the scent of Lutins faint, but evident. Grimacing, he hazarded a peek, before pulling back his snout to glance at the others who were nestled behind him, their bodies tense.

Charles held up one paw, and raised four fingers, and then nodded at the corner. Both Jerome and Zagrosek nodded in return, while Garigan narrowed his eyes, small daggers appearing in both of his paws from inside his cloak. The lanterns were set at their feet, silent as an undisturbed cave.

Taking a quick breath, Charles plunged around the corner, catching the first of the four Lutins by surprise. They had been smashing at Hector’s door, obviously looting whatever they could find. Nasoj had almost certainly promised them that they could keep whatever they found here, and so this quartet had been industrious enough to try and steal what they could while their brethren died killing the Keepers. However, when the first of them collapsed, his back smacked in two by the force of the Sondeshike, they regretted their greed.

Strangled cries issued from their throats as the other three reached for small swords at their sides, snarling in fury as their comrade fell face down upon the cold masonry. Charles lashed out again with his Sondeshike, breaking the arm of the nearest Lutin. However, the battle was over before the rat was able to swing again. Zagrosek cracked one of the Lutin’s skulls with his own Sondeshike. While Garigan stabbed the Lutin cradling his broken arm repeatedly with his daggers, Jerome forced the last Lutin to impale itself upon its own sword.

Glancing at the bodies beneath their feet, Charles took a deep breath, before peering into the gaping hole in Hector’s door. The room was empty, aside from the cluttered sculptures across his floor. The light was too dim to make out any detail on the carvings, but it was sufficient to allow the others to see them as well.

“Whose rooms are these?” Jerome asked after retrieving the lanterns.

“This one belongs to Hector, one of my fellow rats. I wonder where he could be.” Charles rubbed his chin with one paw, stroking the short fur there.

Zagrosek opened the other four doors along the hallway, and grimaced. “Is this where the rest live? They are all empty too.”

Charles nodded and then cast his eyes back to the Lutins. “They don’t have any blood stains on their clothes. Well, any old ones, so I don’t think these four have seen any combat yet. I imagine that my friends are probably somewhere else at the moment. Saulius is in the Cathedral, that much I know. The other four, I’m not so sure about.”

Jerome nudged one of the Lutin’s with his foot, and then grimaced. “Well, where do they usually go on feast-days?”

The rat shook his head. “Nowhere, they are almost always spending their time in these rooms.” He then stopped and peered back in at the carvings layed out neatly in Hector’s rooms. “Wait, I think I might know where they are. They might not be there, but it is the only place that I can think of. Follow me, it is not much farther.”

The other three Sondeckis fell into line behind the rat, eyes ever wary for more of the short, green-skinned invaders, and ears ever vigilant lest some untoward noise reach them. Yet, aside from the occasional drip of water upon stone, no sound did reach them while deep within the cellars of the Keep. Their footfalls sometimes tracked through passageways replete with dust, and at others, across mildew and pools of stagnant water. Even so, Charles knew that he must have been right, for he could smell his fellow rodents ahead of him as they neared that ancient and forgotten portion of the cellars.

The door was as he remembered it when Goldmark had shown it to him over two months ago. Old and musty, the oak creaking and groaning within its stresses. The dust at its base was disturbed by many rat-shaped tracks, some significantly larger than the others. From beyond the door, they could hear soft voices whispering back and forth.

Charles smiled and looked to his fellow Sondeckis. “Give me a moment, I need to get them out.” He pulled off his cloak, while both Zagrosek and Jerome stared at him oddly. Their eyes grew even wider as the rat began to shrink, the humanoid features falling away to be replace by the more natural shape of the rodent. Ere long, their friend was nothing more than a six inch long brown rat, nose a twitter as he pawed up into the air at them, before scampering beneath the door frame.

The four rats were on the other side of the door in the wine cellar as he had expected. They were sitting around a small table with an old candle lit atop it, drinking from mugs that had not been used in several centuries. Of course, they were each bereft of clothes, as they preferred to keep the door locked to everyone else so that they alone might share in this delightful discovery. However, as they had already imbibed a rather tidy quantity of the wines, they did not notice Matthias had scurried beneath the door until he’d grown back to his usual four-foot size.

“Charles!” Elliot cried, his light-furred face brightening, the splotch of red across his shoulder gleaming scarlet in the candlelight. “What are you doing here? I thought you were going to be in the Chapel with Lady Kimberly and Sir Saulius?”

“I was,” Charles added, stepping over to his fellow rodents, eyeing each of them quickly. “But something terrible has happened. Nasoj is invading the Keep again.”

As one, they shot up, eyes wide with sudden fright. “What?” Hector shouted. “How can that be?”

“I don’t know exactly, but I think he is using the storm to cover his attack. In any event, I need your help. Nobody knows the cellars quite like you four do.”

Goldmark pipped up, for once in his morphic form, standing as tall as he could. “As good as anybody can know a building that constantly changes.” He then set down his mug, and crossed his arms. “Are you saying Nasoj’s troops are in the castle itself?”

Charles nodded, wishing that he did not have to. “We ran across a small group of them outside your rooms. They were trying to steal your things, but we stopped them.”

Julian snorted, his red eyes glowering slightly. “They can have it, there’s nothing there of value.”

Matthias considered the morose white rat for a moment before looking back at the others. “I need to know if there is a way out of Metamor in the direction of Glen Avery.”

Goldmark blinked. “Is our situation that hopeless that you are giving up already?”

“No!” Charles shook his head emphatically. “That is not why I want to go there at all. My student, Garigan, comes from Glen Avery, and has told me in no uncertain terms, that he is going there to see if his people need help. I am accompanying him, because it is too dangerous a trek for him to make on his own. I need your help in getting out of the Keep though, because it would be suicide to try leaving over land.”

The other four rats looked at each other for a moment, their eyes meeting, speaking silent words that years of voluntary confinement in the cellars had given them. Charles was usually quite adept at understanding those glances as well, but this time, he was not sure if they were discussing possible routes, or attempting to ascertain if the Long Scout was completely sane. Finally, Hector turned back to the other rat and nodded. “There might just be a way. When are you planning on leaving?”

“Immediately, or at least as soon as you four can be ready.”

Julian snorted at that, casting his eyes about the stacks of wine bottles. Elliot however, leaned further forward, his paw reaching out to clutch protectively at his mug. “It’s well past dusk already. You’ll never make it through the tunnels if you don’t get some rest.”

Though he did not wish to admit it, the moment that Charles thought about sleep, he realized that he was very tired. Having done battle with Wessex, the Shrieker, and a couple groups of Lutins had worn him almost completely out. He’d only been able to stay on his feet from the pure excitement coursing through his veins. Idly, he wondered about Jerome and Krenek, both of whom had to trudge through the snow that morning to reach the Keep. They were probably worse off in fact.

Grimacing finally, he nodded to Elliot. “You’re right about that I’m afraid. A little rest would do us some good. Is there any place nearby where we can all fit together easily that the Lutins aren’t likely to find?”

“Here!” Elliot gestured about the room. “With the door as rusted as it is, as long as we keep quiet, no Lutins passing by would think that anybody would be in here.”

Charles thought for a moment. He wondered if the red stained rat’s unvoiced reasons didn’t have something to do with the fact that the wine here was well-aged. Yet he didn’t sound drunk, nor had any of the others.

“The only problem is, two of my party are humans. They can’t fit underneath the door like we can.”

Elliot’s face fell slightly at that, and he looked back to the other three, hoping to find some defence for his idea. Hector rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his short paws digging through his brown fur, while his large teeth grated together. Goldmark harumphed and stared at the door, as if surveying a lovely girl. Julian however, was scanning with some other intent in mind.

The albino rat’s voice, when he did speak, was curious, missing the usual apathy that Charles was accustomed to. “What if the door were unlocked from the inside? Do you think it would show?”

Charles had to shrug. “I suppose that might work. But the lock is rusted, and we don’t have a key. How do you intend to open it?”

Julian drew his paws across each other, scratching at one of his claws on his thumb. The Sondeckis noticed that the albino’s thumb claw was longer than the rest, and rather narrow. Even so, as he scratched at it, he shaved it more, narrowing it further. Then, he looked at it and nodded in satisfaction. Crossing to the door, he pressed his face to the lock, feeling inside of it with his whiskers. He shivered slightly, his long white tail twitching unconsciously.

Leaning back, Julian looked to the others. “I think I can open this. Give me a moment.” He then pressed his thumb claw within the lock, gently fidgeting it about, careful not to break the nail. Charles peered in wonder at the rat who so far as he knew had demonstrated no discernable gifts. And now here he was, picking the lock with his thumb claw! Yet, Charles knew it to be hopeless, as it was surely rusted solid.

“What happened to your tail?” Goldmark asked suddenly, pointing at the slightly puffy section in the middle.

Charles gave him a moue, even as he peered at his singed appendage. “It was burned slightly in a fight earlier today. It should be fine, I doubt it will even leave a mark in another two weeks.” He then studied his fellow rats. “You have heard nothing this evening?”

“No, not a thing,” Elliot confirmed. “We’ve just been in here drinking and enjoying each others company for the last few hours. Not a soul has come down this way until you and your friends arrived.”

Charles nodded then, and glanced back at Julian who was still fiddling with the lock. “Making any progress?” He kept his tone hopeful, though he knew that it was not likely to open.

“A little, give me another minute, and I think I will have this open.” Julian replied, bending his head even lower over the rusted lock. Charles blinked once, surprised at his fellow rodent’s certainty.

His face bunching up in curiosity, he finally asked. “When did you learn how to pick locks?”

Julian gave a noncommital shrug and continued at his work, calling out to them in a soft voice. “My Father used to lock me in my room for long stretches of time. I hated being confined like that so taught myself a few tricks.” Suddenly, the door began to heave, and he gripped the handle and pulled inwards. “There!”

Zagrosek peered in, his human face almost alien in a room full of morphic rats. And it was then, and only then that Charles, or any of his fellow rodents gave any thought to their nakedness. The black-clad Sondeckis did not appear to notice their sudden modesty though, as his eyes stayed mostly upon their faces, and not their other prominent features. “Is everything all right?”

Charles nodded, waving to the black pile at the base of the door. “Could you hand me my clothes?”

“Oh,” Zagrosek blinked, as if he had not been expecting such a question. He reached down and picked up the garments, handing them to the rat. “Of course, here they are.”

Jerome was chuckling lightly behind his embarrassed friend, and Garigan was peering curiously at the stacks of wine bottles along the back wall of the room. Charles saw that his fellow rats were jealous of him, having a set of clothing so close at hand. He wondered why now that there were others in the room that covering themselves suddenly became important to them, but had no answers.

Even so, he slipped into his shirt and breeches, donning the robe atop all of it. Rubbing the black fabric, he peered to his friends. “Will you be all right without your clothes? We could always go back and retrieve some for you.”

Goldmark shook his head. “The passages get colder the further down we go. And to reach the tunnel we need, we will have to go far down indeed. I would like to put something on,” he glanced briefly at the two humans, a motion that only another Keeper would notice, “to keep myself safe from the cold.” Charles was very certain that there were other reasons he wished to cover his loins as well.

“All right then,” Charles said, having no desire to shame any of his friends, so decided to act as if he accepted the response at face value. “Elliot, Hector, you and my two friends here go back to your quarters and grab enough clothing for yourselves and both Julian and Goldmark as well. Garigan, Julian, Goldmark and I will stay here. No need to attract attention to ourselves by travelling in such a large group.”

Zagrosek nodded then, stepping back out the door. By the slight colour in his cheeks, Matthias had to wonder if the man had not become aware of the rat’s modesty. However, his friend glanced down the hallway, and then stepped completely out of the room, Elliot and Hector following after him uncertainly. Their eyes traced across the strange heraldry that the four Sondeckis bore, without any hint of recognition in their eyes.

Habakkuk had always wanted him to be more open about his former allegiance. With a bit of chagrin, Charles realized he’d accomplished that end through his own negligence. However, as Jerome trailed after them, he knew that there was little he could have done about it. Instead, he turned to the ferret and pointed at the door, “Keep a watch out in the hallway. When somebody comes, I want to know if it’s them or Lutins.”

The ferret slunk out the door, his body smooth, and his paws making no noise as they danced lightly across the stone floor. Goldmark watched him, and then turned the other corner, not giving Charles a chance to tell him not to. It was probably for the best though, as now being alone with Julian, he could ask what he wished to.

“Well, the others are gone for the moment. I was hoping you’d tell me what your Father did to you. I’ve never heard you speak of him before.”

Julian closed his red eyes, the white fur rimming them appearing almost ghastly in comparison. “I really rather wouldn’t. It is my burden to bear, not yours.”

Charles sat down next to the white rat, and placed one paw upon his shoulder. “I just want you to know that you don’t have to bear it alone.”

His friend lowered his head, lost in his own thoughts. He made no move to dislodge Charles’s paw, instead, letting it rest upon his shoulder, rising and falling with each breath he took. When his face did rise, long snout that flushed out into a bushel of whiskers at its end, there was a look of profound sadness in his eyes. “Please, I do not wish to speak of it. Do not ask me of it again.”

Sighing, Charles removed his paw from Julian’s shoulder, and sat against the old wood, trying not to press too hard against its fragile surface. In the many years that he’d known the white rat, this had been the first time he’d ever spoken of his past, and of why he came to Metamor. A faint hope from out of the days past had filled him for that brief moment when he thought Julian might say more, but it was gone now, returning once more to its dusty corner of his heart.

“All right, I shall speak no more of it now.” His voice was thin, as if the life had drained from it and left it a desiccated whisper. Julian nodded though, and spoke no more, simply wrapping his arms about his chest, to hold in the feeble warmth his body held. With the door open finally after all the countless years, the cold billowed in like a conqueror, subjecting its victims to all the fury it had stored since last it had ventured this way. Charles found himself shivering slightly, as if some unseen hand had brought that chill down through his robe and tunic.

Perhaps it was simply a manifestation of their fears realized in so many horrible ways recently that left him cold. The thought of Nasoj invading the Keep was horrid enough, probably one of the greatest fears he’d ever dallied with. Yet, not only was he doing so again, but an undead Wessex had summoned a Shrieker into their midst! Though he had only heard of them in legends, he had known it even before its unearthly howl had nearly blasted their minds into senility. Even the very thought of it only made him shiver more.

However, he did not have very long to wait, for several minutes later, the other four returned with bundles of clothing for the rats. Julian slipped on his trousers and tunic without comment, as did Goldmark, but Elliot and Hector were rather self-conscious, turning their back to the humans as they made themselves presentable. Zagrosek and Jerome both looked to Charles, as if expecting instructions.

Charles did not disappoint them. “We’re going to get a little rest here for a couple hours before we move on. We’ve all had a long day so far, and we need some sleep. It is going to be a long trek to Glen Avery, and the last thing we need is for a squadron of Lutins to surprise us while we can barely keep our eyes open. This is as good a place as any, and the Lutins won’t suspect there are Keepers hiding behind a rusted door this far in the cellars. That is if they even come down this far.”

Jerome scanned the room, noting the shadows that were flung across the walls and the wine casks by the lit candles. “Well, we shouldn’t burn any candles then, they would attract attention. How will we know how long we’ve slept?”

Charles opened his mouth, and then closed it again. That thought had not occurred to him. Down here in the cellars, there were no stars to guide them, and if they could burn no candles, what means of telling time was left to them?

Hector spoke then, his voice soft, but sure. “It takes me roughly an hour to completely gnaw through one of my chewsticks. I measured it one afternoon a few years back, I was rather bored. I’m sure the same would be true of the rest of us. There are five rats here, so we could easily have two of us awake at any time so we could chew for the rest of you. Once we were done, we could wake the others and get our turn sleeping.”

Zagrosek’s eyebrows rose significantly at that suggestion, but he said nothing. Jerome however, was quick to ask, “How many chewsticks do you have?”

“Four of course, five if Charles brought his own.”

Matthias reached inside of his robe and drew forth a slender shaft of burl walnut. He’d recently purchased it, as he found the flavour quite delightful. Now that he didn’t pay taxes to the Keep anymore, he could afford a little luxury in his selection of chewsticks. The other four rats eyed the complex grain of the wood with a bit of envy. Theirs were all made from the gnarly oak which was so common in this region.

“All right then, we’ll take two shifts,” Jerome said, slowly settling to his knees on the cold floor. “Two of us ought to be awake at all times,” he said this last to Charles directly, glancing speculatively at Garigan who had his back to the door, and one round ear pressed gently against the wood.

“Good point,” Charles added, nodding and glancing over his friends. “Hector, Elliot, you two stay up with Garigan and I for now, the rest of you get some sleep. Elliot, once everyone has setteled in, blow out the candles.”

Julian lay down where he was, curling his hairless tail around his flanks as he lay his head on the jacket that had been brought for him. Goldmark nestled next to him, much like any two normal rats might, to help keep their warmth. Zagrosek and Jerome both rested on their Sondeckis robes, off in one corner of the room. Charles sat beside his student Garigan at the door, sliding his back down the cold stone wall. The scent of rust made his nose itch slightly, but he ignored it, instead watching as Hector brought his chewstick to his teeth, but mostly as Elliot walked about the room snuffing each of the candles.

Gritting his teeth together, Charles watched the light fade and dwindle with each silenced flame. When it was only a single light shining in the darkness, Charles tried to capture that moment, tried to memorize where all the bottles lay discarded on the floor, where his friends lay huddled tightly in their clothes, and where the old mouldy boxes were strewn haphazardly. And then, Elliot’s breath blew past it, lighting his dirty white face for a moment, and then there was nothing. Not even the eyes of his fellow rodents shone in that darkness.

Closing his own eyes, Charles breathed in deeply, and listened to the breaths of his companions. He could hear the quiet nibbling of Hector upon the wood, and held that sound in his mind, while his back held the wall up behind him. Shivering from a chill he had not felt in a long time, he knew that the hour would not pass quick enough.

Though, it did pass eventually, for which he was grateful. But in that time, memories of something that he had wished to forget kept climbing to the surface of his thoughts, making him nearly gasp in terror. The walls were very cold, and the room was very dark, and were it not for those walls, he would be lost, endlessly wandering in a field of blackness, never again knowing the light.

Yet with each breath, he reassured himself that he was not trapped once more in that fissure as he’d been so long ago. The scents of all seven of his friends filled his nostrils like blessed incense, and even the rust that irritated his nose so was a welcome odour. For they were nothing like the cold dryness of that fissure, bereft of any sensation but the sound of his claws on the rock, and the feel of its chill through his fur. And of course, there was always the monotony of Hector’s gnawing to assist him in maintaining his sanity. Matthias almost longed to hear the approach of Lutin’s footfalls, for at least they would have been something his rational mind could focus on, but alas, they remained unmolested.

At some point though, he was not sure when during that hour, his heart trembled within his chest, and no amount of scent could possibly hold back the ghastly terrors that lurked, memories of a time when his mind had nearly left him completely an animal, a simple creature of this world with no thought or purpose other than to survive, threatened to send him screaming for the door. Instead, his paw reached out across the span of the door to find the arm of his student, to feel the warmth beneath the cloth, and the life therein. Garigan reached up with his paw, and they gripped each other for a few moments, holding tight, letting their flesh meet and pulse with blood. The ferret’s paw was furrier than Charles’s own, and he slowly ran his claws though the thick grey, while he felt the back of his own paw massaged gently, as if in reassurance.

He did not know how long they held each other’s paws like that, but it helped Charles fight the madness that had lay hidden within him for so long now. In fact, it almost came as an unwelcome surprise when they ceased to hear Hector chewing anymore. His voice though, was clear, the first real intelligible sound that had graced their ear drums in that interminable hour. “I’ve finished, let us wake the others and get our own rest.”

Jerome yawned when Charles shook his shoulders gently, but aside from that, the others stirred in silence. The two Sondeckis traded places with Charles and Garigan by the door, while they curled up by the wall, resting upon their own robes as well. He was not sure who was chewing now, but he kept that sound in his mind while he let sleep overcome him. It came faster than he could have thought possible, for which he would always be grateful.

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