Fox sat on his haunches, his tail flicking against them, his forepaws resting on the stone floor as he looked out over the table in front of him. The fox'taur librarian looked over the stacks of scrolls on the table trying to judge where to place the one he currently held in his paw. It didn't exactly fit into any of the current categories he had for the scrolls, but wasn't different enough to merit its own pile.
Rolling the parchment in his fingers, he chuckled to himself, "I really need some sort of system for this sort of thing," he said to himself as he finally set it onto of one of the piles.
He reached out to grab a new scroll to read as he continued the process of cataloging the Library in the Long House. A smile played over his muzzle as he heard footsteps behind him. "Hello, Misha," he said with a flick of his ears as he placed his glasses on his muzzle.
A chuckle echoed from the fox as he walked up to the table. "How is it that you can always tell that it's me?" he asked the librarian. The scout stood just a bit shorter than the fox'taur, but he was more powerfully built. His whole body moved with a strong grace and an exactness that made every action he took look precise and intentional.
"It's a library," Fox replied, hiding a smile as he read the scroll in his paw. "As a point of fact it's my library, so I know everything that goes on in it."
The long scout chuckled and shook his head with some amusement. "I'm glad to see that you are enjoying yourself," he said, not giving voice to just how glad he really was. The librarian had changed significantly in the months since the discovery of the Elvin Library, regaining his mobility by learning to become a 'taur, and his confession in the snow.
"How did the scouting trip go?" Fox asked with a smile. "You're not bleeding on the floor, so I assume you didn't cross swords with anyone."
He shook his head, "No one of any importance or notable skill. The trip was routine, and I meet up with Ryan and his group on their way out. We did discover an old homestead, overgrown and deserted."
Cutter nodded, rolling up the scroll in his paws and taking off his glasses. "Does it date from before the curse?"
Misha nodded. "Indeed it does, and it maybe quite a bit older. I found this in the ruins of the house." As he spoke he pulled his bag from his shoulders and fished out an old book. "It's not in any language I can read, and I thought you might be able to read it."
Fox's ears flicked as he took the book from the vulpine's paws. It was old, the covers were made up of stiff leather and the pages were a brown and yellow paper. Many of the pages were matted together, bound permanently by the wetness of the outdoors. The remaining pages were brittle and they had to be turned carefully so as not to break them. "Why do you think I can read it?" he asked.
"You can read Elvish, and every other language we have come upon. I'm sure you can read this," the scout said.
Cutter laughed and nodded his head as he returned his glasses to rest on his nose, hooking the arms behind his pointed ears. "Yes, I can read it," he said, placing the book on the table and holding it open. Leaning close he focused not on the words on the page, but on the green glowing letters that floated in front of his vision. "Ten bushels of grain, three head of cattle, a dozen chickens," he read aloud, then flicked ahead a few pages. "It seems to all be like this, just a manifest for a farm. The dates are at least seventy years old, and could be older... it doesn't say who the Lord of the Keep was."
"Well, that's something at least," Misha said as he watched over his friend's shoulder.
He took the glasses off, and closed the book. "It's minutia really, but there may be more here. I'm sure someplace, or sometime, a scholar would be more than happy to get their hands on it."
"Thank you for your help, Fox," the scout replied and shook his head as he was offered the book back. "You can keep it... you know better than I where it should go."
The librarian nodded, and set the book down onto the table, hitting it gently as he shifted on his forepaws. With a gasp the 'taur watched as half a dozen scrolls shifted, and in quick succession rolled off the table and onto the floor.
"Oh, bother," he said with a sigh, setting his glasses down on the table and lowering his forelegs to move his upper body under the table, and gather up the fallen scrolls. Misha was soon on the floor as well, collecting them in his paws. They returned the scrolls to the table, placing them in a pile away from the others.
"I'm going to have to re-file those," Fox said as he rose to all fours, and padded around the table, looking for any scrolls they may have missed. Once satisfied that they had retrieved them all he stretched out his arms and walked towards his desk. It was simpler than the one he had in the main Library, but it satisfied him, and he was able to sleep under it in his non-morphic form.
Misha stood at the table, looking at the piles of scrolls, "Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked his friend's large backside.
Cutter thought about it for a second, then touched the pocket of his shirt, finding the contents missing. "I left my glasses on the table, if you could bring them to me?" he asked.
The scout nodded, locating the glasses quickly. He picked them up in his paw, holding them gently as he walked to the desk. "When did you get these? I don't remember you wearing them before."
"I used to have to wear them before I came to the Keep," Fox answered, shuffling the papers on his desk, and making a note about the scrolls he had filed during the morning.
Misha nodded, looking over the glasses as he held them in his paws. "These are well made, and built to fit a fox's face," he said as he unfolded the arms. With a touch of curiosity he looked through the lenses without actually putting them on his face. His ears snapped up when he saw the writing hanging in the glass, floating over the top of the documents on Cutter's desk. Even though the writing on the papers were in a language that Misha couldn't read, the glowing letters were easily understood. "Where did you get these?" he asked.
Cutter looked up, the start of a word dying in his mouth as he saw his friend's expression. His face seemed to fall a bit as he gulped back, "Um..." he said, turning his head to look away, his ears flattening against his hair.
The scout saw the look on his friend's face and frowned as he set the glasses on the desk. "This is an incredible spell. Who did you find to perform it?"
"I don't know who made them," Fox said, licking his suddenly dry lips. "They were a gift to me."
"A gift? From whom?" Misha asked, realizing the impertinence of the question only after the words had escaped his muzzle.
Cutter shuffled his four feet, his ears falling back on his head, "Well... it's might be hard to believe, but I think Kyia gave them to me."
"The Keep herself?"
The librarian nodded his head, relaxing slightly now that it seemed he would be believed. "I think so, she told me where to look, and I found them."
Misha's eyebrows lifted as his ears flicked upwards, "Told you where to look? How did she do that, and where did you find them?"
"Well, the how she told me is hard to explain, as for where; they were in an old throne room deep under the Keep."
The scout's ears went even higher. "Under the Keep? Just how far under the Keep?"
Fox smiled as he picked up the glasses and put them in the pocket of his shirt. "Deep, deeper than even where the rats live. It took me about six hours to find my way down there, and not much less to get back. I think I was the first person down there for centuries."
A smile spread out over Misha's muzzle, and a glow started to fill his eyes. "Centuries, you say? I would like to see this throne room."
"It's not that easy to get to," Cutter replied as he started to collect some parchment from his desk. "It might take longer to get there from here, given how well isolated the Long House is from the rest of the Keep."
"When do you want to leave?" Misha asked with a chuckle.
Gathering up an inkwell and a pair of quills, the librarian shoved them into his pocket and smiled up at his fellow fox. "Now is just as good of a time as any, but we should get some supplies before we go. It's not like we are heading outside, but we will be on our own."
"So we will stop by the kitchen, and we should stop by the armory as well."
Cutter chuckled as he scooped up a saddlebag from where it hung next to the desk and dropped it over the barrel of his quadruped body. "Aren't you being just a little paranoid? It's not like we'll run into any lutins down there."
"It's best to always be careful. You would be wise to learn that Fox."
Fox shook his head and picked up his cane from the side of the desk. "I was never that good at being wise, just rash and foolish," he replied with a chuckle. "And you would be best to leave your axe here, some of the passages we will be taking will be too small for it."
Misha frowned, his tail sweeping behind him in a long arc that wrapped around his legs. "If I must, but I would rather have Whisper at my side."
"It's your choice, but I would recommend against it," the 'taur replied as he turned his bulk around and started for the door of the Library. "The armory is closest, we should stop there first."
The long scout nodded, following along at the side of his fox'taur friend. "So why did you fill you pockets when you have your saddlebags?" he asked as they walked through the stone halls.
"I already have my clothing, and we can carry some food in it as well. I might as well be a pack animal, I have the body for it now," he answered with a flick of his thick tail.
"Why the clothing?"
Cutter shrugged his shoulders, "I'm going to need to go back to my bipedal form to get through some of the passages, and we'll be going through the Keep proper."
The fox tilted his head to the side, casting a look at his friend. "And why does going through the Keep imply that you would need to change clothing?"
The librarian tensed slightly, then let out a sigh, slumping forward a bit. "Lets just say that my new-found mobility has not won me a lot of friends," he said.
Fox paused for a second, then continued with a shake of his head. "I've had my 'taur form for the last six months, and many in the Keep are still not used to it. After a while you hear things, people talking behind your back... between this," he said and waved at his trailing rump, "and what happened during the assault, a lot of the people here no longer feel comfortable around me anymore."
A frown crossed Misha's face, a touch of anger showing in his ears as they folded down a bit. "I'm surprised that here, of all places, people would take an issue with your form."
"It was the norm where I came from," Fox said with a worn smile.
He nodded as they came to the armory, the guards at the door nodded when they saw Misha, moving aside to allow him in. The pair eyed the librarian, unsure of how he should be treated.
"He's allowed in for now," Misha told the guards as he passed through the door. The guards nodded, allowing Fox to enter the room.
The Armory was a full room, large but not overly so. There was only the one door into and out of it, and it was made of thick stone. A counters-weight was slung behind it, balancing the door on it's hinges so it swung smoothly. The walls of the room were lined with different weapons: with swords of all types and sizes, leather armor, and chain mail. Quivers of arrows filled a rack down the center of the room, with unstrung bows resting near them. To one side three sets of plate armor stood on dummies, like they were holding sentry over the weapons.
"I'm amazed," Fox said, stopping just inside the door, his head moving from side to side to take it all in. "I never really thought about how much you had in here."
Misha nodded, moving with quick ease through the room, heading for the swords. Without hesitation he picked up a short sword and pulled it from the scabbard; with a nod he return the blade, and hung if from his belt. Moving down the wall he selected the padding that went under chain mail, but not the mail itself. "Do you want anything?" he asked as he pulled off his own shirt, and started to pull the padding on.
Fox paused, looking around the room, making a quick decision about what he should do. "Some of the padding I should think, and a small sword, two daggers about the length of your paw, and one more half that size," he said as he unlaced the front of his shirt.
The scout looked surprised at the request for so many small weapons, pausing as he laced up his own shirt. "Now I should ask which one of us is being paranoid?" he asked with a chuckle, and began his task.
"It's not really paranoid," Fox replied as he draped his shirt over his barrel. "I'm just used to carrying them when I am armed."
"I see," Misha replied as he handed the librarian one of the padded shirts. "That's not a common thing."
"I am an uncommon man," Fox replied as he pulled the shirt over his head and tugged it around his body. It was a little tight on him, but that was normal. His upper body was larger than a normal fox's, to match his horse-sized lower body. When he changed back to the more 'normal' form it would fit better.
"That is as good of a description for you as any that I have heard," Misha said as he walked back to Fox with the requested items.
Fox smiled, and quickly pulled his shirt on, leaving the lacing at the top loose for the moment. He took the daggers one at a time from the fox, each one vanishing into his fur and clothing, hardly leaving a trace.
"Your training betrays you," the long scout said with a smile.
"I was good at my job," the fox'taur said with a mix of pride and distaste as he turned away from Misha to reach into his saddle bags. He removed a belt and held it for a moment. "It might be easier if I changed back now, then I wouldn't have to do this all over again."
Misha shook his head, "Don't bother, Fox, stay as a 'taur until you have to change."
"Which will be soon enough," he replied as he started to put the belt away.
The long scout shook his head. "It will be when we are both too big to go any further," he declared as he started to undo his own belt.
"We?" Cutter asked with some curiosity as he watched his friend start to undress himself.
Misha smiled and nodded his head, working the clothing off his lower body. "I believe it's time to show those who object to your new form that you aren't alone in being a 'taur," he declared, pulling the last of his clothing free, and with a determined grin his body shifted, blurring as his hindquarters shifted back and in a moment was a fox'taur himself.
The librarian cocked his head to the side, watching his friend change. "I appreciate this, but are you sure you want to become involved in my problems?"
"They are my problems, too," he said as he worked his belt free from his pants and wrapped it around his waist. "I'm the one who learned how to became a 'taur, and I'm the one who taught you how to do it. If someone has a problem with that, then they have a problem with me."
Fox let out a long breath, running his paws through his hair, his tail flicking slowing behind his large body. "Thank you, Misha, it means a lot to me," he said, taking Misha's pants from the fox's paw and putting them in the saddle bag.
"It's the least I can do. You are my friend, and I help my friends," he replied, loosening his shirt a bit to accommodate his larger body.
The librarian nodded, a smile on his face. "And I help my friends. We should go get some supplies before the kitchen get's swamped for lunch."
"Right," Misha replied, and side by side the two fox'taurs went into the Keep.
Misha chuckled as he helped Fox through a tight gap in the stone wall. The younger man was straining through the narrow passage of stone, one that was small enough to have forced the pair of vulpines back into their bipedal forms. Fox apparently carried some of the bulk between his forms, as demonstrated by the round bulge under his shirt. A bulge that he was trying to suck in as it was holding him in the passage.
"Come on, come on," the Librarian said, short of breath as he pushed himself against the stone wall. Misha had one paw on the stuck fox's shoulder, and the other was holding in the bulk of his belly in. With a final grunt he came free, and the pair of them fell hard onto the dirty stone floor.
Cutter laughed and disentangled himself from the other fox. "I need to lose some weight."
The long scout shared the laugh as he helped him up. "You do eat more as a 'taur... I guess it can add up," he said.
"Right," Fox replied, then grimaced as his weight came down onto his bad leg. With a grunt he leaned up against the wall, taking most of the weight off the leg without really lessening the pain.
Misha moved quickly to pick up Fox's cane and hand it to the librarian. He took it eagerly, and shifted his body around until the extra weight was on the mahogany wood. "Thank you," he said.
"Do you think you could go back to being a 'taur?" he asked.
Fox shook his head, he had just changed out of the form to get through the passage. "There will probably be a few more tight spots. It will be best to remain on two feet," he said as he bent over and picked up one of the lamps they had brought with them. Misha had the other and the saddle bags were thrown over his shoulder.
The scout nodded, and looked around the passage they were in. It ran only a dozen feet before it intersected with a second passage, giving them three possible ways to go.
"So, which direction?" he asked.
The librarian moved quickly down the hall, using the cane to it's full advantage. The tapping of the sliver cap at the end was muffled by the layer of dirt and dust on the floor. Misha was a bit relieved to see that he was moving faster than when he had first seen him with the cane, but at the time Fox had nearly been a member of the walking dead. This time he was alive again.
He stopped at the intersection. Holding his lamp high he looked down each of the corridors. "Tradition says that you should always take a left hand turn when navigating a maze... so we'll be going to the right."
"And who's tradition would that be?" Misha asked as he came up behind Cutter.
Fox chuckled and started to move down the hallways. "Not mine, but one that is useful if you don't know where you are going. I know where we are going."
"How? You said this isn't the same way you came last time," he asked, following at the fox's side. The librarian was still moving slowly, but it was close enough to a normal walking speed that it didn't frustrate him.
Cutter gave his friend a smile, "Because I know how to get there... it's kind of hard to explain."
"You have my undivided attention," Misha replied as they moved through the dirty halls. Occasionally they would find signs that there was once life there, but even those were covered in muck and dust. It had been nearly five hours since they had seen another person except each other. Luckily the trip had been uneventful, and so far Fox seemed to know every twist and turn to take.
The librarian smiled again as he slowed his movement just a little. "Keep in mind some of what I'm about to tell you is a secret. I don't want you telling anyone about it, all right?"
"Of course," Misha replied.
Fox nodded, and returned to his previous speed. "Have you ever wondered why a librarian can hear you whisper across the room? Or how they can know who is in their library, and what they are doing even if they can't see it?"
"It never really occurred to me before," the long scout replied, his ears lowering at his thought about the many times he had been to a library. "Now that you mention it, I believe you're right."
Cutter chuckled and nodded his head, "I know... that's because of what a library contains. Books are filled with words and knowledge, and words have power. That many in one place can't help but affect things, to create their own magic. Librarians, myself included, can feel that power. It flows through us, telling us about what is going on. We have powers in our libraries, powers that are special and secret."
Misha nodded his head, thinking it over, "And these powers let you navigate the Keep?"
"It's not like that," he paused for a moment, his mind turning over the problem and how to describe it. "See, in my library I know how to get anywhere from anyplace, so I can move almost like a ghost through the stacks. My powers end at the walls of the Library."
The other fox's brow furrowed, his ears rolling to the side as he looked at the young man. "So how does this help us find the Throne Room?"
Fox let out a laugh and nodded his head. "It helps because of something I discovered a few months after I became the librarian, and I understood what powers that gave me. The Keep, the whole Keep is a library, and my abilities extend to its walls."
The long scout's ears twitched in surprise as he stumbled over his own feet. Flailing his arms he fought hard to keep himself from falling to the ground. He managed to catch his balance after stumbling a few steps. The could of dirt he kicked created a halo around the lamps, and the pair of foxes.
"Do you realize what that means?" he asked Cutter as he coughed from the dirt. "You could do anything you want in the keep, go anywhere, and no one could stop you! I'm glad you're not an assassin, otherwise I would be more worried."
Cutter laughed and shook his head. "Not anymore I'm not, and I don't have full access to the Keep. Parts of it are separated from the rest, like the Light Bringers Temple and some of the outer grounds."
Misha nodded, still trying to take it in. It explained a lot about what had happened during the attack the winter before, and how Fox was able to move undetected. It took another moment for him to realized that Fox had just admitted to being an assassin, which made sense if one of the three he had killed protecting the Duke had been someone he loved.
"I think we need to have a long talk some day," he managed to say.
Fox chuckled and nodded his head. "I'm sure, but that's going to be a different talk than you might expect. I'm retired. I only fell back into it to save the Duke. It's not a job that I will ever go back to unless my hand is forced. Come on, we are nearly there."
Misha nodded, and followed his friend as they once more started down the hall. "I've always suspected there was something about you, but not quite like this."
Fox nodded, then came to a stop as they reached another intersection. With a smile he pointed to the floor of the other passage. In the dirt were two sets of footprints, both of them vulpine in nature. They overlapped each other, one in each direction. "We're nearly there, those are my tracks from last time."
"Good! I'm eager to see this," Misha said as the started down the passageway. "So, if the Keep is a library, where are all the books?"
The former assassin let out a sigh and shook his head. "I don't know, and I have looked. They could be at the bottom of the Keep, but even I don't know how deep that is, or they could even be the walls themselves. Frankly I don't believe the library is for us, but for the gods, and whatever they may store here is not for the hands and eyes of mortals like us."
Misha nodded, picking up his speed as both he and Fox were becoming eager to see their destination. "Just how deep does the keep go?"
"I don't know, and I've tried to find out. I once spend two weeks trying to find the bottom, but I couldn't. I didn't even come close. I just kept finding older Keeps, one under the other like the layers of a cake. This place is old, Misha, not just hundreds, or thousands of years. It maybe as old as the universe itself, or even older."
The long scout let out a low whistle, "A library started by God himself," he said under his breath.
"Or themselves," Fox replied with a smile. "What I find interesting is that there isn't a single religion that mentions a library like the Keep. Of course it's possible that whatever gods made this place are dead, and died a long time ago. It just lives on it's own, not knowing or caring that it no longer serves anyone."
"Kyia may know, we should find some way of asking her," Misha said.
"True, she might know," the librarian replied, "but I think the time for that sort of thing will come later. For now, we have arrived," he said as they came to a stop in front of a large wooden doorway.
The doors were nearly ten feet tall, and had intricate carvings cut into the thick wood. Most of the carvings had been filled by the dust and dirt of a thousand years. Some of the dirt had been cleaned out, leaving trails over the carvings.
Fox pushed the doors, and even after a millennium of neglect they moved smoothly, swinging inwards without a sound to reveal a large throne room. It was a grand room, nearly thirty feet wide and a hundred feet long, and the roof was so high up the light from their lanterns couldn't reach it. Spaced along each wall were elegant stained glass windows glittering in the light. A few had broken over the years, revealing a wall of natural stone behind them.
As they walked down the length of the hall, they passed statues and decaying rugs. There were paintings placed around the room, but the canvasses had darkened into obscurity. At the far end of the room stood a pair of thrones, one just a bit larger than the other. The fabric and the padding were gone, leaving just the underlying stone.
"This place is amazing," Misha said as they reached the thrones.
Fox chuckled, leaning against his cane as he gave his friend a smile. "It's more ornate than the current throne room. It makes me wonder why it was replaced."
The other fox nodded as he ran his fingers over the arm of the throne. "Maybe the Keep grew too big," he said as he turned to look back at the room. "It's odd. Everything is here, it's almost like they just left one day and never came back."
"With the way the Keep moves around that's quite possible. It's clear this place was once on the surface. It probably was moved down here to get it out of the way," the librarian said.
"It could have been buried."
Fox chuckled and shook his head. "Like Pompeii? Maybe but there isn't a volcano anywhere near by."
The long scout cocked his head to the side and gave the librarian an odd look. "Pompeii?"
Cutter laughed and shook his head. "History. My history, not yours. It was a city that was buried by a volcano many centuries ago. It's not really relevant, and I'm not even sure why I thought about it."
"Fox, at times it amazes me just how different a world you come from," the long scout said.
"You have no idea," Fox said to himself.
Misha didn't notice the comment, "I know that you came from the other side of the ocean, but I don't normally think about it until something like this happens."
"After a quarter of a century on these shores, I hardly think about it myself," Fox replied as he pivoted on his cane and started to walk towards the side door. "Come on, you wanted to see where I got the glasses. It was this way."
Misha nodded and followed after the librarian as they moved through the abandoned throne room. Behind the thrones was a set of shelves, empty other than the dirt and dust. It was only disturbed in one place, where it had been cleaned away to revealed the dark wood surface.
"This is it," Fox said, tapping the exposed wood. "They were buried here, left when everything else seems to have been taken away. I only knew they were there... because I knew that they were there."
Misha reached out and ran his fingers through the dirt on the shelves, a smile on his face as he pushed it about. "I wonder if there is anything else buried under here?"
"I honestly have no idea, it's quite possible that there is. To be honest I never really looked, I just took what I was supposed to."
The long scout started to work over the shelves, searching out anything that might have been left behind. After uncovering the whole of the shelves, all he found was the dirt in his fur.
"Oh well," Fox said with a shrug. "It was worth checking."
Misha nodded as he dusted off his paws. "It was, and nothing harmed by looking."
"Nothing at all," Fox replied as he turned to look back at the throne room. "Well, do you want to head back?"
The long scout gave the librarian an annoyed look. "Are you kidding? If the throne room is here there are probably other parts of the old Keep down here too. We should keep looking around, at least for a bit."
Fox smiled and nodded, "That sounds like a good idea, but if you don't mind I would like to go back to all fours."
"Of course, of course. I should have suggested it earlier," the long scout replied with a wave of his paw. He paused for a moment, remembering that Fox generally preferred some privacy. "I'll be back there," he said, pointing over his shoulder, then turned and walked away.
Fox sighed and lowered himself to the ground, glad to take the weight off his damaged leg. As he shed the clothing on his lower body he concentrated on the rooms around them, trying to feel out where things were, and to see if there was anything interesting near by. He found a few things that were close, but nothing that was really worth the time.