Then he sensed something. It was a short walk away, and he felt that it was a place that Misha would appreciate seeing if he could.
He stretched out his arms, feeling his body change into the fox'taur form. The dirt of the floor felt good under his four feet as he rose onto them. He arched both of his backs and stretched his legs out one at a time. Then gathering his things he walked back towards his friend. "I think I have someplace we can take a look at."
"Really?" Misha asked as he turned away from the grimy painting he had been studying.
Cutter nodded and waved towards one of the side doors of the throne room. It was a servant door, the kind that would normally be hidden behind a tapestry, but after so long the cloth was gone.
"Not going to tell me what it is?" the other fox asked as he fell by his friend's side.
"I would like it to be a surprise," the 'taur replied as they passed through the door and into a smaller stone hallway. It was almost too narrow for them to stand side by side, and Fox's bulk took up most of the free space.
They moved together down the hallway, moving deeper into the gloom at the edge of the lamp light. After a few minutes Misha spoke up, "Something you said back there made me wonder, how old are you?"
"Forty-one, give or take a few months. I lost count a few times."
Misha nodded, doing the math. The vulpine would have been about sixteen when he came over. "I always thought you were in your twenties... you must have caught some of the youth curse."
He shrugged, "A lot of people think that, and I would like to keep it that way. I have people who would be... interested in me. Being younger than they expect is useful for that."
"The Keep is a popular place to hide," Misha commented.
Fox nodded and chuckled a little, "It's not that I'm hiding, no one is really looking for me, but I did set a few people's teeth on edge. I came to the Keep to retire, but I really wasn't running."
"Do you ever talk to anyone about your past?"
He shook his head, "Not really. I've told a few people about it... well only one really. I generally like to keep the past behind me. It's only when I run right into it that I'll confront it."
Misha cocked his head to the side, looking at his friend. "Then why are you telling me about all of this? If you want to keep it secret, why aren't you?"
The retired assassin let out a sigh and shook his head. "It's hard to explain. I've already told you more than most others. You're the only one I've told about Ki, even though I never meant to... so I felt you should at least know why I knew her. I trust you Misha, and you might be surprised to discover that there are only three people in this Keep that I do trust: you, Ryan and myself."
"I'm flattered to know that you trust me... but why Ryan?"
Fox chuckled, "Something happened about a year ago that Ryan was involved in, and he learned more about me than I would ever tell anyone. It's also why he signed up with the long scouts; he's trying to find someone who I think is now dead."
"I didn't know that," Misha replied.
"No one does. Ryan promised to keep his secrets, and he has been good to his word."
The vulpine nodded his head as they turned a corner. "Ryan is a good scout, and someone I would trust to cover my back."
Cutter nodded, "I'm glad to hear that," he said, then came to a sudden stop his paw lifting as a look of surprise crossed his face. "Wait a moment," he said.
"What is it?" Misha asked looking concerned.
The 'taur took a few careful steps back and looked at a door they had just walked passed. "I just got smacked with a feeling. There's something behind this door. I'm not sure what, but it seems like Kyia wants me in there."
A smile spread out over Misha's face as he looked at the door. "I see-- then we best not disappoint her," he said as he forced the door open. It protested the action, grinding on the floor as he forced it before it caught on the floor.
"Here, step out of the way," fox said, motioning his friend to the side.
The fox obliged, moving out of the way as the 'taur moved himself around to face the door, and set his lantern on the floor. He bunched his hindquarters against the opposing stone wall, and with a grunt he lunged forward, putting his full half ton bulk against the wooden door. With a creek and a crash the door slammed opened as he burst through it.
Fox smiled to himself as he adjusting his clothing. "Never let it be said that force doesn't have its own finesse," he said.
"It can be useful," Misha replied as he followed his friend into the room, carrying both of the lamps. As the light filled space it reveled a fairly spartan room. Some benches filled one part of it, facing towards a small altar that was on a raised platform. The wall behind it was covered in a mural made up of small colored tiles that shimmered in the lamp light.
"This is very interesting," Fox said, taking the extra lamp from Misha as he walked towards the mural. "This looks like some sort of chapel."
The long scout nodded, moving faster than the 'taur around the benches to reach the mural. "Definitely, but I've never seen anything like this," he said, looking over the tiles. The image was faded, and looked like the a group of animals and people together, with what looked like a dragon hanging over them.
"This is more a closet than a chapel," Fox comment, looking over the mural. "This wasn't a major religion, at least at the time. I wonder how the dragon fits into it."
Misha bent down, looking at the tiles on the edge of the mural. "There's some writing here, some sort of petroglyphs," he said, then waved his paw at Fox as he reached for his glasses. "No, no... I can read it," he said, running his fingers backwards over the lettering. "'The Faithful saved by the Highest'," he read aloud.
"Interesting. I wonder if the dragon is the Highest," he said as he moved closer to get a look at the lettering, and hit the alter with his equine sized rump. The wood creaked and shifted on the raised platform, and then with a moan of stress it rocked sideways and crashed onto the stone floor.
Fox let out a sigh and shook his head, "I'm so used to this form I sometimes forget how big I really am," he said as he turned around to survey the damage. The wood had fractured, sending splinters everywhere, and revealing a mental box in the middle of the debris.
"Now that is interesting," Misha said, bending down to pick up the box, "I wonder why it was hidden in there?"
"Maybe it's a relic, or a money box, or maybe it's just empty," Fox said as he stepped off the platform.
The long scout shook the box, causing something to rattle inside of it. "It's not empty, but it looks to be locked," he said, turning it to reveal a latch with an ornate lock hanging from it.
Cutter nodded and lowered his front legs so he was looking over the fox's shoulders. "I might be able to open that."
"You know how to pick locks?" he asked as he handing the box back to the 'taur.
He nodded, "I do, but considering how old this box is I think I can do it faster," he said turning the box in his paws to look at the lock. Then reaching into his shirt he pulled out one of his daggers, flipping it around he hit the latch with the pommel of the dagger. The ancient metal of the latch shattered, and the lock fell free.
"Useful," Misha said as Fox handed the box back to him. He held it in his paws and opened the lid. The hinges protested for a moment, then snapped open. "Guess we are both breaking things today."
Fox chuckled, "It really can't be helped."
Misha nodded as he set the lid aside then looked into the box. The only thing it contained was a thick leather belt, curled up around the metal loop at the end.
"Ok, now that is odd," Fox said.
The long scout nodded, lifting the belt from the box. It was large, at least four feet long, and braided at the narrow end. "It's a nice belt, but a bit plain. I wonder if it had something to do with the religion."
"I doubt we'll ever know for sure," Cutter said. "I wonder if this is why Kyia had us stop. It looks normal, I know, but it took me a few days to learn what the glasses did. This could have some sort of magic on it, so we probably should take it with us."
Misha nodded and handed the belt to Fox. "Then this is yours," he said.
Fox took it from the vulpine, and held it in his paws, "I think you're right. The feeling I got has stopped, so I think this is what we are here for. Now we just have to learn why," he said, wrapping the belt around his waist. Threading the braided end through the metal loop, he pulled it tight against his fur and tied it closed.
"It looks good on you," Misha said.
"Thanks," he replied as he looked around the room, "I'm not sure there is anything else for us here."
Misha nodded as he stood back up, "Is this what you wanted to show me?"
"Oh no, this was just here. I was heading for the old armory," Fox said with a smile.
The long scout's ears lifted high as a look of excitement crossed his face. "Well now, that is interesting!"
"I thought you would like it. Come on, we're almost there," Cutter said as he turned his mass around and walked out of the small chapel, the other fox following a few feet behind.
The librarian fiddled with the belt as they walked. "You know, outside of wearing the belt there really isn't anything I can do with it," he said.
Misha nodded, half paying attention as he worked through the saddle bag that hung over the 'taur's back side. "Well, maybe it's a necklace for a giant," he said as he took a bite of a waterfruit.
"It's possible... even more so around here," he replied, taking the fruit that the long scout offered him. "I may just have to be in the right situation for the magic, whatever it is, to take effect," he said, punctuating the statement with a bite of the fruit, using his teeth to tear at the thick skin.
"You can get a mage to look at it when we get back to the upper levels of the Keep," Misha suggested.
The 'taur nodded, whipping the pale juice from the fruit onto the sleeve of his shirt. "Do you know anyone who I could ask? I'm sorry to say I'm not that familiar with the local magic users."
"I know a few people who understand the old magic," Misha replied as they turned a corner.
Cutter nodded again, chewing at the rind of the fruit as they walked. "I'll trust your judgment on this one," he said, coughing a bit as the fruit tried to go the wrong way. On instinct he smacked his free paw against his chest, and instead hit the metal loop on the belt.
With a grunt he shook his paw, his fingers hurting where they had jammed against the iron, then with a flash he felt... something rush over his fur. A weight settled down over him, his vision narrowing as something obscured it around the edges.
Misha jumped back as he suddenly found his friend suddenly changed. His whole form, from nose to tail, was covered in plate armor. It ran down over the top of his feet and even ran around his large barrel. It was cut to fit his form and continued around every curve and bend, moving easily as he did. The steel that made up the plates shone dully in the lamp light as the scout reached out to his friend.
"Fox? Are you in there?" he asked.
Cutter nodded, reaching up with his free paw to fumble with the visor of the armor, pushing it up with an unstable hand. "I think I know what the belt does," he said, his voice muffled by the helmet.
"Apparently so," Misha agreed as he looked closer at the armor. Every joint and overlap was perfect, covering every part of Fox's body, even his most exposed parts. He could find no screws anywhere in the plate, and it was sealed tightly around his friend. "How is your range of motion?" he asked.
The librarian shuffled a bit and flexed his arms and legs, twisting his hind quarters about around his friend. The armor was quiet as it moved, not silent, but something that could be missed. "Limited, but not by much. It's not too heavy either," Fox said after a few minutes of experimentation.
"That's good to know, armor needs to be light," Misha said as he looked carefully at where his friend's upper and lower body joined. He couldn't quite understand how the armor moved around the joint, but it did it well.
Fox nodded again, shuffling a bit in the armor. "Let's see if I can turn this off. It's nice to have but I really don't want to be spending the rest of the day in it," he said, patting around his belly, finding the ring of the belt embedded into the plate of the armor. With a slap of his paw the armor faded away, leaving him unmarked and unharmed.
The librarian let out a long breath and rolled his shoulders, his feet tapping at the dirty floor. "I wonder if this was made for a 'taur, or would it fit anyone who used it?" he asked touching the edge of the belt.
"We should do some experiments," Misha said, "but in the main hall of the Long House; we'll have more room in there."
"I think that's a good plan," Fox agreed as he bend down to retrieve his lamp, "but we still have to see the armory, or would you rather head back now?"
The long scout laughed and shook his head. "You are enjoying teasing me about that aren't you?"
"Of course!" Fox said with a laugh and a smile. He started trotting down the hallway, his tail swishing happily behind himself as he moved.
The fox followed behind his friend, showing a private smile as he walked. Cutter was a complicated man, and he suspected he would never know all of his secrets, but he was starting to think he didn't want to. Whatever his past might be, he was complete in his own way.
They walked along in silence for a few minutes, they one left to their own thoughts as each made their own tracks in the dirt of the hallway. Soon the hallway started to narrow around them, and a moment later they came to the end of the hallway. "Here we are," Fox said with a wave of his paw.
It was a dead end, with the exception of two features. On one side of the hallway was a stone door, much like the one in the Long House's armory. The door stood half open, wedged into place against the stone and dirt of the floor. There were chips and scratches all around the door's edges and the frame, like it had been fought over in the past. Across the hall from the door was an alcove, in which stood an old stone statue. The statue had seen its share of damage as well; one arm was missing, broken free at the shoulder, and it was covered in various nicks and cracks. It held a rusty sword in its remaining hand.
Fox reached to touch the open door, arching his head around to look inside. "Looks like there are a few weapons still here, though I'll have trouble getting inside."
The long scout nodded, looking over his friends shoulder. "If you have to shift again I can move down the hall," he said, as he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He moved without thinking, grabbing the back of Fox's shirt and pulled him back hard. The 'taur let out a yelp as he bent backwards at the center join of his body, moving farther than was easy for him and causing him a lot of pain. The pain from it was the last thing on his mind of as a sword cut inches from his muzzle, through where his neck had been a moment before.
The sword crashed into the stone of the door as Fox dropped his forelegs to his knees. The stone arm that held the sword shook from the impact, dust falling free and settling onto the fox's face.
"Fuck!" he yelled as he pulled out of Misha's grasp and twisted his body around. Kicking at the guard with all four of his legs, he pushed himself back from the door and the stone statue that had attacked him. It looked down at the 'taur, it's dead eyes glaring into the 'taur's face.
Fox didn't think, he didn't have time to think. He spun around, grabbing Misha with his arms and throwing the fox over his back. Digging his feet into the ground he started to run down the hallway, his paws pounding against the floor as he pushed himself to his fullest speed.
"That thing is getting closer!" Misha yelled as he wrapped his arms around the fox's chest.
The librarian looked over his shoulder, and saw the stone guardian behind them, moving with long strides that ate the ground a lot faster than he could run. With a snap of his jaw Fox tried to think of what he could do.
"Quick, in there," Misha said, pointing at an open door that was quickly approaching them.
The 'taur nodded, and tried to work out how he could do a ninety degree turn at full speed, but by the time he could even think about it, it was time to make his move.
"Hold on!" he yelled, and dropped to his knees, skidding over the dirty floor. Reaching out with his paws he grabbed the edge of the wall and pulled himself around, sliding through the door. His rear hit the frame of the door, sending him twisting and rolling over the stone floor.
In a second Misha was on his feet, and rushing for the door. He slammed it closed just as the sword crashed through the ancient wood, cutting so close to the fox's face some fur fluttered free.
Misha backpedaled, sliding his sword free as he kept his attention on the door. "Are you all right?" he asked his friend.
Cutter nodded, panting hard and rubbing his sore hindquarters, "Nothing a warm bath wouldn't fix," he said, jumping as something, probably the statue, crashed into the door.
"What is that thing?" Misha asked, looking around the room for another exit, but finding their luck had run out. It was a large room, but with only the single door.
"A golum, guarding the armory," Fox replied as he pulled himself up to onto all fours.
"I worked out the last part on my own," the long scout replied, standing near his friend. "What do we do about it?"
Fox sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, "I'm not sure... but I doubt that it will be willing to just let us be. These things are single minded about this sort of thing."
Misha nodded, watching the door bend as it was hit for a second time. "You've dealt with this sort of thing before?"
"Once, but that was years ago," he said with a sigh as he adjust himself, looking worried. "There isn't a lot you or I could do to stop it, not without a dozen or more men. The last time I had to destroy the controlling spell to stop it."
The long scout nodded again, sparing a glance at his friend. "How do we do that?"
Fox let out a long breath as he dredged his mind for what he remembered. "We find what the spell is placed on. The last time it was a stone table about a foot wide. You can control the golum with it, which is the point if you think about it. It's usually someplace safe, and usually behind the golum."
"You mean in the armory," Misha said with frown.
The librarian nodded, "That's where I would put it... you would have to get past the golum to stop it. The trick is that we have to get past the golum."
"We could wait it out," the fox said, looking intently at the door. "It seems to have stopped trying to get in."
Fox shook his head, "It's stupid; it's brain is literally rocks and stone. It won't leave us alone until it's told to, and there is no one left to tell it anything. I think it's just waiting, and it can wait longer than we can. It's also pretty clear that I won't be able to outrun it."
"So we have to destroy the control spell," Misha said, sheathing his sword. "Which means we have to get past it, if we can. You can't get into the armory, the door's too small for you, but I can."
"Assuming that's where the spell is," Fox pointed out.
"Yes, assuming that," he said with a sigh, "but let's not add any extra problems until we have to. So how do we get past the golum in the first place?"
Fox tapped his right forepaw on the ground as he thought. "Well, I'm the one who tried to get into the armory, so it's probably more interested in me than you. If I can keep it busy long enough for you to get back to the armory, we could stop it."
"And if you can't?" Misha asked.
Cutter paused for a second, his eyes unfocusing as he looked into the dark ceiling. "Then it kills me, and you can follow our tracks back to the Keep."
Misha shook his head, "You're not suppose to say things like that," he said.
The 'taur shrugged.
"So, how do you plan to keep it busy?"
Cutter chuckled, "I run like hell itself is chewing on my tail, and hope it doesn't come down to a sword fight between me and it. At least I'll have some protection," he said and touched the edge of the armor belt.
"Fox...." Misha said and shook his head, not finding anything to say. "We'll meet back here afterwards?"
He nodded, pulling his clothing about him and freeing his sword from his belt. "Open the door when I say so," he told his friend as he tied his lamp to his flank.
The scout nodded his head and hurried over to the door, grabbing the handle with both paws. "Good luck," he said.
Cutter smiled and dug his hind paws into the ground, "Thanks, we'll both need it," he said and activated the armor belt, feeling the plate form around him. "Now!" he yelled, and then digging all four paws into the ground, started to run.
Misha grabbed the door and pulled it open, giving the 'taur just enough time and room to charge through the opening, making a tight turn in the hallway and running at full speed away from the armory. The stone guardian, who had been standing at the door, seemed surprised, but in an instant was following after the fox'taur, it's stone feet crashing down the hall.
The long scout waited for only a few seconds, long enough for the light from Cutter's lamp to have faded in the distance. He started running down the hall, following the 'taurs deep footprints as he hurried towards the armory.
Fox ran, and ran hard, but the armor was weighing him down. It wasn't a lot of weight, but it was enough to slow him down. He also regretted being a bookwyrm, and not bothering to stay in the shape he had been when he had come to the Keep. He vowed that he would get back into shape, assuming he got out of the current mess. Damn everyone who had problems with his new form, he was going to run laps in the courtyard.
He slowed down for a moment so he could turn a corner, and hazarded a glance back. He was startled to see the statue was only a few inches from his rump. If the guardian had both arms he probably would have grabbed the 'taur's armored tail, ending the chase then and there.
Once around the corner he put on a burst of speed, pulling away from the statue for a few seconds. The lead lasted only a few moments before the stone was back on his ass. The golum swung the sword at the 'taur, aiming towards his expansive back. The edge of the sword hit his side, clanking against the plate of the armor. He felt the impact crash through his body, shoving him sideways, but not cutting into the skin. Fox grunted from the impact. There was still pain, even if he wasn't cut. Nothing was broken, but he knew he was going to have a nasty bruise under the fur.
The impact of the sword shook more stone from the golum, and slowed him down for a few seconds. In those few seconds he came up with an idea how to stop the statue, at least for a few more seconds. Sliding to a stop he bent forward, rearing his hind legs up like he had seen horses do countless times, and as the statue grew close he delivered a full strength kick with his hind legs.
His feet hit the stone dead center in the statue's chest, and brought it to a hard stop. It skidded backward and tumbled to the ground, at the same time the force of the impact forced the 'taur forward and send him crashing onto his chest and face.
He gasped as the air was forced from his lungs and a plume of dirt and dust rose up around them both. He scrambled to get his four legs back under himself, kicking at the stone statue in the process. Rising up to all fours he looked back at the statue, and found it still lying on the floor.
Fox took a few steps back, his sword out as he watched the stone statute. It was still, but as it wasn't alive that meant nothing. Taking a cautious step forward he tapped the statue with the point of his sword. When nothing happened he reached down and pulled the statue's sword free from it's hand.
There was no reaction.
The librarian let out a sigh and returned his sword to it's scabbard. "Misha did it," he said to himself as he touched his belt, dismissing his armor. Stepping over the fallen statue he walked back towards the armory, taking it slowly, his body aching from the impacts and the exertion of the running.
That was enough excitement for one day.
Misha stood in the entrance of the Long House's library, watching Fox as he read through another of the countless scrolls that the library held. The 'taur had an intense look of concentration on his face as he read the parchment, his tail swishing gently over his rump. There was a dark patch of fur running down the side of his hind quarters, caused by a dark bruise under the fur that was distorting the color and shape of it.
The fox hadn't been forthcoming about what had happened three days before with the golum, but he could guess at the cause of the bruising. There were similar marks on his forelegs, neck and paws. He must have taken a beating from the golum, but he hadn't said a word about it.
"Are you going to come in, or look at me all day?" Fox said, not bothering to look up from the scroll.
Misha chuckled and walked into the room, "Have you put anything on your bruises?" he asked.
The 'taur shook his head. "Nothing that I can do, really. I've taken some pain killers, but that's about it."
"We have a medic here, why don't you go see him," Misha said as he approached his friend.
Fox looked up at him, his blue eyes twinkling behind the glasses. "I don't really need that, we're in one piece and that's really all that matters."
"And if I made it an order?"
The librarian laughed and rolled up the scroll. "I'm not a Long Scout; you can't exactly tell me what to do."
A smile played over Misha's face as he looked at his friend. "That's true, but you live here. That means I can order you around in some things."
Cutter looked a bit confused as he removed his glasses from his face. "But I don't live here," he said.
"You can if you want," the fox said. "I think you have earned that, and I would also like to have you here. You're a strong man, Fox, and the people around here accept you for who you are. I know that's not true for everyone in the Keep, but everyone around here likes you, and you still have years of work on this library."
"Decades," the librarian said, looking a bit dazed.
Misha nodded, and reached out to touch his friends shoulder. "So if you want to move into the Long House, and I mean more than just sleeping under your desk but as your actual home, you're going to have to see the medic."
Cutter let out a long breath and shook his head. "I'm... thank you, thank you very much," he said with a smile.
"Good, now go get yourself looked at."
He nodded, then paused for a moment. "Not just yet. There's something I want to give you first," he said as he turned away from the table and walked towards his desk.
Misha lifted his ears in curiosity as the fox'taur picked up the armor belt from the top of his desk. "Here, this is for you," he said as he handed the belt to the Long Scout.
"But this is your's; Kyia gave it to you," he protest.
Cutter smiled and shook his head. "No, she gave it to you, we just didn't understand that at the time. I don't have a use for this. You, on the other hand, can use armor that can conform to your body, 'taur or morph. We would never have gone down there if you hadn't wanted to see the throne room. We would never have found the belt if I wasn't taking you to the armory, and the writing on the mural was in a language that you could read. It all adds up-- it was meant for you."
Misha look at Fox in surprise, then back down at the belt, "Are you sure?" he asked.
Cutter chuckled and nodded, "I'm sure, and if you want me to see the medic you'll take it. Deal?"
The fox smiled and nodded, picking up the belt. "I think that's a fair deal. I'll take you to the medic, and I'm sure we'll find a room for you across the hall."
"I'm sure we will," the fox'taur replied as he set his glasses onto the table.
Misha smiled as the pair of them walked out of the library. "Welcome to the Long House," he said.
Fox laughed and patted his friend on the back. "Thanks," he said, as they walked side by side down the hall.