Mud, snow, ice, mud, ice, snow and more mud. Ugh. The entire lower half of Stealth’s legs were entombed in mud by the time he reached the cave, yes the cave. Things went bad for the cheetah after he reached the first signal tower south of the keep. Once there he tried to find a path across the Metamor River but there was no bridge in sight. The water moved too fast for much ice to form across it’s length, not that he’d be dumb enough to risk it anyway, so he grudgingly continued south along the east bank until a bridge came into view.
When he found it, he’d travelled halfway to Lorland from the signal tower. The road across the bridge travelled to Ellingham which was one of the markers on his rout but not the actual destination even though there was nothing else out that way... Near the town the feline began up a hill side in the snow, then a mountain side in a small hail storm that pelted his armour and ringed in his ears until the path ended at the mouth of a cave.
Stealth kicked off as much mud as he could before peering inside. The cave was more of a tunnel – it lead back down past an obstacle on the exterior of the rock face and led to a small plateau overlooking Ellingham. The cheetah walked cautiously inside. The light on either end illuminated the passage well, reflecting off the ice covered walls.
While the icy walls lead the way the slippery silt under his paws made for a dangerous path. Though he tried to use the steel claws on his foot paws, he inevitably slipped and slid, gradually faster and faster, down the tunnel. Somehow he made it down safe and sighed in relief. Now he could see his destination – a house overlooking the town, built upon a slope.
The feline groaned under his breath and started up the slope. Eventually he made it to the top, his legs trembling from the strain. He’d almost reached the first wooden steps to the house when his hind foot paws began to slide. As his torso alarmingly began to join them the feline began to claw at the dirt and snow above, the steps slowly getting further and further away...
Stealth chirped in what sounded like the shrill cry of a bird as he slid back down the slope, past countless sharp rocks. The feline was thrashed about, taking small dents in his armour until he landed in the soft snow at the bottom, save his head which rested on a large, flat stone. Everything went dark.
“Ohhhhhhh...” The morph groaned.
He woke on a very hard, flat surface, his head pounding. The armour didn’t much shield his skull, it was designed to keep his body warm and shield his torso. But the armour was gone. After many minutes of recomposing his senses, the feline realised he was a physical hybrid again... and completely naked.
Opening his sore eyes, Stealth saw a ghastly sight. The first thing to greet him was a skull. Looked to be a moose and mounted on the wall. Next to it was a deer, this one a proper taxidermy job so it looked like a live creature. There were other skulls like the moose one but they couldn’t be identified. The cheetah was still shocked that his skull looked so alien to that of a generic human one... was there a cheetah skull on the wall? Some of them had large fangs, others antlers and horns... one had horns AND fangs!
“Do you like my collection?”
The cheetah gasped in surprise and turned to his side. A bloodied skull with horns, looking like some demon thing hovered there, greeting him. Stealth promptly screamed.
The feline looked up and found a large animal morphed man holding the skull in his hands. Stealth promptly blushed and felt stupid.
The bovine man grinned and moved the object in his hands as if it’s jaw was moving, “This will be my latest masterpiece... you’re not such a bad specimen yourself.”
“Huh?” Stealth asked and flinched in pain but still aware enough to be afraid.
“Your body, you’re not using it for anything... anything after death, right? It would make a good anatomical reference.”
“Ohhh.” Stealth groaned, feeling dizzy, “Who are you?”
“Olong Obelisk, finest healer in all the lands at your service!” The bull morph answered and placed the bloodied skull on a side table before wiping his hooflike hands on a well worn cloth...
“Healer? Shouldn’t I have an ice pack or something?”
“Ice? Ice?!” The bovine asked, “Ice creates an imbalance, young one.”
“Imbalance?” Stealth asked. He was long overdue to demand some modesty as he was still very much naked before this man but he was too scared and confused to care about modesty at that time.
“Are you daft? Do you know nothing of modern medicine?” The bull turned on his hooves and approached a bench with several jars. “Injuries and sickness are the result of an imbalance, I am balancing your humours to heal your head injury.” He turned around, holding a jar full of...
“Whoah! You’re not gonna put those on me!” Stealth said and pointed at the leaches!
The morph furrowed his ridges at the naked cheetah man, “Of course not! I already applied plenty!”
The feline turned to ice. He didn’t dare probe himself, at the same time he desperately needed to. Despite all the voices in his head screaming against discovering what he didn’t want to find, he stroked his head and found a large bulbous thing lodged in the side of his ear. Stealth looked more petrified then the dead animals lining the walls.
“...Oww.” Olong groaned and rubbed his ears from the cheetah’s terrified scream. “Well your throat is working I see.”
Stealth breathed quickly, almost to the point of hyperventilating. He looked and felt about, discovering a second on his scalp, a third further back, two on his chest and one past the naval, near his groin. He frantically pulled them off, starting with the one near his groin, then the ones on his ears and chest. Blood streamed down his face and body as he pulled them free with trembling hands.
“Careful!” Olong said and recalled the discarded leeches. He put them in another jar except one that he looked over more closely, “You almost hurt Betsy.”
Stealth sat up and turned to the side, his legs hanging down off the table as he panted and forced back the vomit. “Wh... W...” He swallowed again before trying to speak, “Why did you put leeches on me? I haven’t been poisoned.”
“Your head is swollen! They relieved the pressure.” He retorted and put Betsy in the jar.
“My navel?” The feline asked, his tongue lolling out slightly, his eyes sagged.
“Can’t be too careful.” The bull shrugged and put the bottle back on a shelf. “These are my latest children. I shouldn’t name them and form an attachment because their lives are so short but I find myself doing just that because they’re the only other living creatures here.” He said with sorrow, “Except for my anatomy-rats.”
“Anatomy rats?” The feline asked and tried to rub the blood off his fur.
“The rats that I open up to see how they work... And my rabbits. And dogs.”
Stealth’s jaw lay open, his ears flat before he stuttered, “Are they dead before you do that?!”
“Aye! Usually. Anyway, who are you and why did you come here?”
“Give me some clothes.” The cheetah ordered bluntly without another word.
Olong shrugged and threw an apron on the feline’s lap from a nearby hook.
Stealth winced and batted the heavily blood soaked garment off his legs, “Give me MY clothes!”
“You don’t have any!” The healer retorted.
“I have a backpack with my things, and where is my armour?”
“Oh! THAT!” The bovine recalled and turned to one of the skulls lining the wall. From the open jaw of one he removed a back pack that had been slung over it.
Stealth quickly opened the pack, expecting to find some nasty surprise but everything was in order. He removed the breeches and quickly put them on.
“My name is Stealth, I am a courier here to deliver your Fadger... item.”
“They built it to my specifications? And it WORKS?” The bull asked excitedly.
Stealth removed a very large box that took up most of the space within his pack. It took some persuasion but he eventually liberated it from the back pack. “From what I’ve heard, it was an odd challenge but the mechanics are the same, it just needs to be adjusted and calibrated to what you have in mind for it...”
The feline placed the box on the table that he’d once rested on, some of his own blood was still visible on it’s surface. He opened the box to reveal a big device that was obviously mechanical yet looked nothing like what Fadger was renowned for – clocks. It’s surface consisted of several dials and gauges. Each one had a symbol, one was a bone, another looked like a portion of flesh.
“I hope it’s... to your liking, what ever it is?” The cat scratched his head fur.
“It’s a body clock!” Olong said excitedly and began winding it, “This dial tell you how long a meal will take to be passed, this one tells you how much of that time the food will spend being digested.”
“But how could you possibly know h—” The cheetah’s ears folded. Did he really want to know what he already suspected? “Y- You do realise it will take different lengths of time.” He said to change the subject before the healer could answer the previous question.
“It will and does, that is why this clock will help me make a mathematical determination of the average time for different species, with different diets and in different states of health.” He answered distractedly, “At which point healers will be able to balance the humours more accurately.”
“Well, if everything is in order I’ll just be—”
“Wait! You forgot the sum. I don’t fancy reprisals from axe wielding vulpines for unpaid goods...” The bovine said and opened a door, headed into a back room.
Through the open door, Stealth got a whiff of the healer’s trade and had to fight back the urge to vomit. And to think he’s a carnivore! How could Olong possibly stand it?
“I’m sure it’s been paid for already, mayhap you merely forgot?” The cheetah said, weary.
Through the open portal he saw something akin to a butcher shop, no, butchers were tidier. What he did see made him recoil. He could see all manner of... things. Was it his imagination or were some of the fleshy objects... moving?
The feline’s imagination held him firm, he didn’t even notice the bull return and close the door behind him. Stealth received a pouch; it was silently placed in his palm. He looked inside and found... coins. No blood, no leeches and nothing moving save the metal sliding about.
“Did you change your mind about departure? I always could take on an apprentice.” Olong mused when he saw the cat standing motionless.
“No! No, I... where’s my suit? The thing I was wearing.” He asked, looking around on the ground.
The healer held up a sack with objects bulging through the sides.
The cheetah took the sack and opened it up, rummaging through the contents and taking stock. He suddenly froze and then reached in much slower. He pulled out a skull and held it out to the bull.
“Oh, I was wondering where I put that.” The bovine said and took the item in his hoof-like hand.
“What is it from?” Stealth asked, his curiosity getting the better of him though he really wished to leave.
“It’s a skull belonging to a red fox.” He answered and placed it on a shelf, “Those silly things always end up in the strangest places and still get into mischief.”
In the time it took the bovine to explain, Stealth’s upper body was almost completely armoured. He worked quickly, placing and fastening each plate and sheet in place before removing another from the sack. The feline soon had to drop his pants to complete his winter running suit and this proved to be one of the rare occasions that he didn’t concern himself with modesty.
When his bits were bare save the light coat of sandy fur he let out a large breath of air, relieved to find no stray leeches there.
The cheetah stuffed the pouch and pants back into his backpack, slung it over and finished building his suit. In no time he was at the door. It felt surreal that for most of the time he’d been naked and still was, however so long as merely his exterior was exposed and not his innards he would not complain.
The one command in an otherwise awkward silence spooked the feline, his hand hovering over the door latch.
“There is one more thing I need from you before you depart.” Olong said, walking slowly toward Stealth who’s tail began swaying about.
“You are mistaken.” Stealth stuttered.
“This won’t take a moment.” The bull said, reaching the cat and towering over him.
Stealth held up a forestalling hand, “I’m not interested in taking part in any—” He suddenly gasped as the bovine grabbed his tail!
Olong held up the puffed up extremity. It fidgeted furiously in his palm. The healer stroked the black fur on the tip and found what he was looking for.
Stealth flinched in slight pain as the bull aptly removed a bulbous object from the tip of his tail.
In his hooflike hand Olong held out a large, blood covered leech. “Missed one. Don’t know how she got there.” He said, genuinely surprised.
“Can I go now?” The feline asked in a whisper, his eyes dilated.
“Aye, you have nothing more I want. Be carful heading back down.” The bull said, the leech lolling about in his palm.
Stealth nodded stiffly and opened the door. He was gone fast, even for a cheetah.
The return trip soothed his troubled mind, the crunch of snow dulled the images and before he knew it he returned to the Keep. The cheetah headed into Long House, somewhere in his mind feeling angry and frustrated with Misha but he reminded himself that the fox couldn’t have known. No one could have known – they need to see it for themselves!
When he heard approaching footsteps, Misha looked up from his pile of parchment, “Stealth! I’ve got a—” The Long paused and blinked, “Spots?”
The vulpine’s eyes widened when he saw the vacant feline sauntering stiffly towards him. When the cat stood before him he held out a pouch. Misha took the pouch that was mechanically handed out and looked into the feline’s eyes for a sign of life.
“Spots? Are you alright?”
“I am fine.” The cheetah said softly. He rubbed a sore spot near his ear, “My... humours are in balance.”
“I went to the house, through the hail and snow and the cave up the hill.” He swallowed before continuing, “I saw things.”
“Things?” Misha asked, slightly alarmed, “Well, go take a hot bath and don’t worry about it.” The fox opened up the pouch and counted it’s contents, “Did he like it?”
“He did. I’m tired, I’ll see you later.” Stealth said brusquely and turned to leave.
“Wait! Just to let you know, you’re invited to my Yule eve party, it’s on the 23rd at—”
“Yeah, great, thanks.” The feline interrupted without bothering to turn back.
Misha ear drooped, “Hmmm, what’s his problem?” He whispered to himself.
Stealth didn’t even wait for the fox to give him his pay. Misha shrugged, he was far too busy with Long business among several other things to chase up the feline but he’d need to make time later, perhaps a chat over a muffin or two.