by Charles Matthias

Once again the morning came, as it always seems to, and Hector as usual was not wont to rise from sleep. It was not because he hated facing the day - far from it - but because he had to face himself. No matter that he had found a way to enjoy life again, no matter he had located a measure of happiness in this dark dank cellar, he was still a rat. That carried a lot of baggage with it.

Rolling over and striking his lamp, he tried to ignore the moldy walls and the disgusting fungus that he was going to have to eventually take care of that was forming in between the cracks in the mortar. Sitting up in bed, he blinked a few time as his eyes grew used to the light. Blinking, he could see his fur covered legs hanging from the side, as well as his scaly tail dangling over the edge. He tried to ignore them too.

Hector slipped from the covers, his little claws scratching at the rug he'd purchased with the extra money he'd made form selling his sculptures. It was so much nicer than standing on a cold stone floor in the morning. It was probably the only nice thing in his room. Eventually, he would hav eenough money to get out of the cellar, but he wasn't sure either that he wanted to leave. It was strange, but he really did like living down here with his fellow rats.

Of course, usually they would all be going out into the hall to spend time with Matthias, but he was on patrol for at least another week. Still, they had gathered anyway. And they would do the same this morning.

Hector slipped on his brown tunic, picked up a block of wood - he'd been using them for his sculpting - and casually strode out into the hallway. Sometimes he was the last one out, and sometimes only one or two of the others were there. This time, he was first. Standing in the empty corridor, he looked back and forth along the rows of torches and braziers. Few ever came down this way, there wasn't much to see except the rats and a few of the other dungeon crawlers. Bryan the cobra, out of respect for the rats, lived on the other side of the Keep cellars thankfully.

Hector sat down on his haunches, curling his tail up beneath him, an stared about. The floor chilled him of course, but the air was pleasant, that sweet smell of Spring flowers still fresh in the air. Benedict, one of the mice, had given them all bouqet's from his garden at the Gnawer's Meeting. They had long since died in these dark catacombs, but the scent lingered on.

Just as he set his teeth to the wood, Elliot emerged from his own room, and came to sit next to him. His bright fur, with the single red discoloring on his right shoulder was testament to his past source of income. He'd once greed to be Pascal's test subject. Most of the changes had been of course temporary, but that red patch had been an accidental spill. And it was the reason he'd taken on less dangerous tasks since.

"Good morning," Hector nodded to him as the other rat sat down.

"Morning, Hector," Elliot replied, biting his claws apprehensively. If only he would use a chewstick like the rest of them he wouldn't have that incisor problem! They were twice the length of anybody else's and they tended to give him a slight lisp.

"How'd you sleep?"

"Tolerable. You?"

"It could have been better. I think I had too many beers at the Mule last night."

"I noticed you were gone, what was the occassion?" Elliot asked, scratching at his chest fur. He was wearing a brown tunic as well - they were cheap and easy reparible, and went well with their fur.

"Nothing really, I just wanted to get out of here for a while. I stopped by Michael's room, but he'd already been decreed fit to go back to work by the raccoon so I missed him."

Elliot nodded. "Was his door repaired?"

"Yes. I'd heard what Saulius had done." Hector grinned, as did Elliot. How could anybody not find the antics of the knight rat humorous. However, it was a bit sad. They both turned to look at Saulius's door, but it remained closed. Goldmark's however did open, and soon the other rat had joined them on the floor.

"Hello chaps," Goldmark greeted them in his off hand manner. Nobody understood Goldmark, it was simple as that. Why he ever did anyting, was a complete mystery. He prefered living like a rat most of the time, scavenging for much of his food. Yet he was always pleasant company, even if it never lasted for long.

"Morning, Goldmark," They both repsonded. The three of them sat almost knee to knee as they waited for the other two to rise. Even if Julian had woken early, he wouldn't have said much. He never did anyway.

While Elliot and Goldmark chatted, Hector began to gnaw away at the block of wood he'd brought with him. He wasn't sure just what it would become, but like much of his art nowadays, he knew that a rat would be in it somehow. That personal identification was very strong, it was a symbol of his being. Two years ago of course, it was a disgusting vermin tha he wanted nothing to do with. Yet still, he'd become one.

And they were still verminous!

He sighed as they sat there on the floor, chatting away about nothing really. The only thin that sparked any interest in him was the date for the next Gnawer's meeting, and just who would be there. Would Matthias make it back from the patrols in time? Would Michael bring Pascal again, depsite their falling out? And what of the others? Most of the rest were usually there, but there was always the chance of sickness. Or worse, depression.

"Good morning, Sir Saulius," Goldmark called out as the knight emerged form his bedchambers. Hector looked up from his chewing at the stately rat who seemed in good humor this morning. He was wearing only his mail shirt and coat of arms, which had been ammended of late at Charles's suggestion. Before the change he had worn the crest of an eagle stnding proudly before a plain. Now it was that of a rat in Saulius's own visage.

"Hark! Dost mine ears hear the pleasant voices of my brethren? If my eyes deceivest me not, and I have faith that mine eyes are true, then I knowest that I am in good company! Good morrow all!" Saulius spoke out in his archaic dialect. They all knew that he deliberately maintained it, for so many had come with their own peculiars of speech, and they had been subsumed into the greater Metamorian mode of speech. Yet this rat kept a hold on who he once was at least in that regard. Nobody could take it from him.

"Morning, Sir Saulius. We'd be honored if you'd join us here on the floor," Goldmark remakred comically, motioning for the knight to sit next to him.

"The honor is mine," Saulius announced as he settled on the stones.

"We were just talking about the next Gnawer's meeting. Do you think Pascal's going to make it this month?" Elliot asked.

Saulius considered the question. "The porcupine's past behooves me to declare that she will not be with us come June."

"You don't think Michael will sucker her into it?" Elliot pressed.

"Nay, he shan't even want her in his presence if he speaks in sooth."

When Julain stepped from his door a few moments later, they all greeted him, and the white rat returned the greeting, but then he sat silent on the floor. It always made Hector wonder about just what was going through his mind. He couldn't like being a rat, but what else could he be now? None of them wanted to be rats, except perhaps Goldmark, but that was what they were.

And more importantly, it had brought them together. Hector stared down at the emerging figures from the block of wood. There seemed to be more than one coming forth. He knew what he was chewing out; it was a group of rats sitting together and being friends. Shifting to a more rat like state, even before Goldmark had started changing, he continued chewing, listening in to the conversation as it continued.

Goldmark then looked over at Saulius again. "Hey, did you hear what new event they are going to try at this year's Summer Solstice festival?"

"No, what?" Elliot asked.

"Jousting! We're going to have jousting again! They are going to separate it into categories based on the size of the combatants, but they're going to have it. Isn't that great?"

"I love jousts!" the red-stained rat remarked enthusiastically. "You should participate, Sir Saulius. I know you'd win."

The knight's whiskers drooped at the encouraging word, and he picked at his claws in embarassment. "I knowest not how I would fare."

"You would do well," Julian added quietly. It was the first thing he'd said since hello.

"Come on, Saulius, this is perfect for you, being a knight and all." Goldmark winked at him.

Hector shrunk even further, definition coming to their faces and forms. They were rats all right. Five of them in fact. Five rats coming from the wood.

Saulius shrugged his shoulders. "I fearest that being a vermin, I will be too small to put up a worthy fight against mine adversaries."

"They are breaking it into categories based on size. You won't have to worry about that."

Saulius sighed, tapping his claws together. "I wilst consider it." He finally conceded, much to the other rat's delight.

Goldmark patted him on the back, tapping the mail lightly. "I know you'll win."

"I shall endeavor to ensure that thy faith is not misplaced," Saulius remarked, patting the other rat back. They all just sat there for a while after that, not doing anything in particular just sitting there for a time. None got up to move, and none said a word. They all just started watching Hector sculpt them into wood. He hated the scrutiny, but accepted it for what it was.

Shrinking down to his full rat size, he began adding the finishing details to the figurines, noting differences in each. Saulius was the one with the armor of course, and Hector with the block of wood. The other three were distinguishable by less obvious means. As luck would have it, a different vein of wood came through right where Elliot's shoulder was, giving the impression of his died fur. Goldmark was smaller than the rest, with loose fitting clothes, to represent his tendency to be a full rat. Julian was just Julian. There was nothing distinguishing about him that Hector could utilize, a fact which disheartened him.

"What is it, Hector?" Julian asked, looking down obliquely at the figurines.

"It's us," Elliot replied for Hector, who, being a rat, couldn't very well speak the human tongue.

Goldmark touched his own shape for a moment with his claw, staring down at it speculatively. He leaned back, his face bright, but solemn. Saulius kept his straight face the whole time, but it was quite obvious that his own heart warmed at the sight. Hector grew back to his larger form, redressed, and stared at it as well. This was one that he could not sell, ever.

It was of course very suprising to them all that it was Julian who came up with the suggestion that they all had wanted to hear. "Why don't we go get our breakfast at the Mule? Let's get out of this cellar for a while."

Each in turn nodded, voicing their agreement. "Then let us go." Julian stood from the floor, and began his way down the hall towards the stairs that led up into the daylight. The others rose as well, Hector picking up and carrying along his sculpture of them, the rats.