Hands Free

by Stealthcat

The animal sat on his haunches, rolling his shoulders after a long trip from the north. ...it seemed like a good idea at the time but he managed to hitch a ride on a log raft and now he was several hours late on his return, ugh.

Seeing as it more or less didn’t matter anymore, he took his time to restore circulation to his body and unhinge his stiff joints. The backpack with a small amount of garrets, also, some cookies, sat next to him on the boardwalk. The cheetah sighed and nosed at the pack, he couldn’t be bothered becoming a morph currently but he wanted a cookie, they smelt very nice.

Twould’ seem the only threats up north weren’t lutins, but when one takes a b-line through the Glen en rout back from the Outpost they’d be liable to endure an attack by a savage, frightful, ...baking-tray wielding hedgehog.

Technically they shouldn’t even have any taste for the carnivore yet he wanted to devour them, they smelt that good. As the feline nosed at his backpack his ears suddenly perked to a subtle ‘meep’.

He turned his head and looked about, eventually spotting a small, blue dragon cavorting about on some crates. The little reptilian waved as he danced about. Stealth cocked his head. How’d he get there? Gornul probably spotted the cat from the air and swung in to say hi.

Stealth took one of the pack’s straps in his maw; perhaps the dragonet would want a cookie. As the cheetah lazily walked over he saw Gornul flail about suddenly before he meeped again, much louder and then fell into one of the crates. A moment later, without even noticing the draconic element, someone placed a board over the crate and nailed it shut!

‘Gornul!’ The feline chirped after dropping his pack. ‘Damn this throat!’ He chirped some more at the dock workers. A wolverine holding the crate looked up at the distant cheetah, paused and shrugged then continued working, placing the crate into a wagon which was then shoved further back behind another crate and another, and more on top until the wagon was full.

The cheetah was already running at full speed down the pier, he was going to shift and tell them or jump in the path of the departing wagon or something, anything but then he ran head long into an equi-taur.

“Watch it!” The six limbed mule shouted to the floored feline.

Stealth scurried back to his feet and found a large carriage in his way, being pulled by the taur. He hissed and risked weaving in between the wheels. On the other side he found a score of wagons carting away their wares. Some of them were heading north to the keep, others into Euper and more still were heading further north, even into the Giant Downs!

‘Shit, shit, shit!’ The feline scurried from wagon to wagon in the immediate vicinity, sniffing at their contents until he gave up and sat on the spot in a distressed haze, looking about frantically.

At first he thought he was imagining things but suddenly the cheetah saw an image in his head, it was a small peek hole looking out from a dark place and wherever it was it was moving.

‘Gornul!’ He chirped, ‘yes, keep that up.’ With renewed energy the cat scurried to his feet. The image was getting faint but as he began running north it got stronger, okay, his friend is heading north... he just past a house made of timber... that could be anywhere!

Stealth hissed again, running at full speed north he began making desperate comparisons between the sights from his own eyes and those of the images being fed to him.

Merchants gasped, even squealed when the cheetah leaped up onto their carriage to inspect their wares. One even shouted “You again!” but just as quickly as he’d arrived, he leaped back down and was already half way to the next one in sight but there was no sign of the dragon. To make matters worse, the images were becoming weak again...

Stealth sat on his haunches to catch his breath. By this time he’d long since cleared the docks and Euper. The feline found himself somewhere between Euper and the Lower Ward but to the west of the winding path that connected them. He sniffed at the air and perked his ears, hoping to detect the slightest whiff of scales or the faint ‘meep’ of the dragonet.

The carriages were splitting up and the mental image was growing ever weaker, the only clue was long grass and there was long grass everywhere!

Suddenly, with the change in the wind direction Stealth caught the scent of a reptile and bolted in that direction. He weakly leaped into the back of the carriage, all the recent running to date taking it’s toll. In his fatigue and haste the feline stumbled over the crates and fell onto the driver. The carriage driver screamed and flailed about, reaching for a sheathed sword. The cheetah all but sat on him and unintentionally prevented the man from moving – both with his position and his intimidating stare.

He looked at the REPTILE for a moment before sighing and jumping back to the ground. The lead was false, he was tired and the mental images finally flickered out.

As the cat journeyed back down the path to retrace his steps he looked for the next carriage down and pondered a new tactic. Stealth sniffed at the air some more, not for dragon scales or whatever but for something else entirely.

... And there is it. It was faint but it was there – the sharp scent of fruit. Smelt like peaches but only just. With some effort he managed to find a bearing on the fruit and headed southwest down a sparsely used road.

After fifteen minutes of travel, Stealth arrived... in the middle of nowhere. The scent was gone along with the images. Even the tracks were faint but he was on a path and it headed in only one direction. He had nothing more to go on so he pressed onward, ever anxious.

It looked like a mirage but there was a house at the end of the path, also, a single carriage heading away from the residence and toward the cat. Stealth ran directly at the advancing wagon but quickly stoped and decided instead to hide in the long grass and wait, just in case the driver got the wrong idea about the intrusion, thus far he’d been lucky to avoid a short sword to the guts...

It felt like forever but soon enough the carriage passed by and the cheetah hopped in the back. He cringed but was unsurprised to find it empty, at the very least though it would make finding his quarry easier as there was only one place for him to be. IF he was in this carriage to begin with, but then again he noticed the driver kept mumbling to himself something about ‘the images’ in a frightful tone...

The house was no humble cottage. It was practically a palace! Surrounding the house, many old growth trees gave it privacy and broke up the monotony of the grazing lands and provided shade for the well maintained gardens. When he got close, Stealth decided it best to actually live up to his name and crouched low, using the large trees for cover as he approached the back door.

The cheetah found the door open, it looked like a service door as it was very large and hosted many servants moving crates inside. He gasped when he saw an image appear in his head but then sighed in relief, Gornul is here! Judging by the image – a room with shelves, he was already indoors.

Stealth sat down on his haunches and pondered. Why doesn’t he just become a taur, walk up to them and tell them about the dragon? He was about to do just that when he saw the carriage parked near the stables and then he felt real fear. He’s seen it before, the pattern, the inlay and the heraldry.

That was the carriage he perched on when he lost his mind and took a dump on that lizard guy. This is his house. Come to think of it the location was familiar in that it matched the directions of a job he’d failed to complete, on the same day to the same person!

Stealth cringed and shivered. He can not show himself here, he won’t! The feline paced back and forth in the bushes, as he did so the images flashed heatedly in his mind.

‘I’m coming, little buddy.’ He thought with a grimace.

The cat snuck back around to the front which in contrast looked peaceful and clear. Forcing his reservations to the back of his head, the feline shifted to his humanoid form and hurried to the front door.

‘I’m wearing a fur coat, I’m not really naked...’ he thought over and over.

The door was locked but with a bit of less-then-gentle persuasion he coaxed it open.

‘Forced entry,’ he cringed, ‘I just committed a crime...’

The naked trespasser pressed on. He was in a lavish hallway with thick draperies and a wonderfully lush rug under his feet. Huh, fox furs... lots of fox furs went into it. As he ran his toes through the warm fur a door latch opened on the far side of the hallway. Stealth instinctively jumped into a side room and waited for whomever to pass by. When the threat was gone he sat up from the floor and gawked in terror at the sight of a lizard morph staring back at him.

It took some gruelling moments before the feline relaxed enough to realise that the morph wasn’t moving at all. He thought the reptilian was glaring at him in anger but, no, he was fixed firmly in place. Stealth stood up slowly and cautiously walked around the figure who became thinner and thinner the further the cat walked. It was a painting.

Besides the relief and embarrassment from his error, the cheetah took the time to be amazed by the quality of detail that went into the portrait, not only in the form staring back at him but the entire wall seemed to be a painted illusion, making the room look far bigger then it really was and it was already quite big!

Stealth re-entered the hallway but quickly darted back into the room when he heard more movement. The courier looked about and pondered for a moment and then he returned to the painted wall to inspect it. There were other objects – ones made to blend into the image like a large painting on the ‘far’ wall that turned out to be just a foot in front of his muzzle and far smaller then it appeared. With a bit more scrutinising he found a small door, a door that looked big in the image but was really quite small but real nonetheless.

It opened easily and the stench of coal and soot hit his nose. It was an access door to the manor’s chimneys and crawl spaces. There was just enough room for him to squeeze in and then drop about two feet below the floor. The crawl space was surprisingly warm from perhaps several hearths somewhere in the other parts of the house but it was also thankfully clear of soot though still far from immaculate.

Besides the scent of smoke, Stealth could detect cooked food and, when he stopped crawling and grunting, he could hear the crackle of meat. The sounds and smells gave him the energy to press on until he arrived at a dead end. From a strained glance through the floor boards the cheetah summarised he’d reached the kitchen.

Stealth crawled about on his back for a few minutes and eventually found what looked like a panel. It was fixed in place and either hadn’t been opened in some time or it needed a special tool to open. The feline began to push on the boards... he didn’t have much room to move so it was almost impossible to get any leverage. Trying hard with both his palms, knees and even his head he eventually nudged a corner up by about five millimetres.

He tried to push it some more but it wouldn’t budge from the pressure applied by his hands so he pushed with his head instead. Stealth grunted and cursed as his ear was squished under the pressure though he did his best to tilt and keep it protected he just didn’t have enough room to move but eventually he pried a single board free and desperately forced it up. The cat cringed when the board very audibly snapped in two. He desperately forced the other panels off and pulled himself out.

A bemused servant wearily entered the room and gave it a cursory sweep. He found the floor damaged and foot paws belonging to a morph leading away about two or so feet at which point they disappeared. The man grimaced... he’d need to report this. He also wanted to leave lest he encounter a hostile intruder.

From the cupboard, Stealth released his breath. A good thing the servant was a human with dull senses. He stepped out of the closet, dirty feet marring the floor... crawling to the cupboard on his knees and wrists did seem silly and not to mention uncomfortable but it worked, now where was Gornul?!

Stealth looked around the kitchen in vain but soon another image appeared in his head. The same obscured view as always but this time there was no natural light in the image, just an oil lamp or a candle or something. The cheetah looked around, finding a door near one of the exiting passageways. Not knowing where else to look he opened it and found a monster pile of crates and barrels.

“How the hell am I supposed to find him here?” He whispered.

His question was answered by a fresh image, it was the same one as last time but now the lighting looked a tad different, thanks to the open door. Stealth casually walked around the room, not really trying to find the right crate but just focusing on the constantly changing image. He grinned when the image depicted him, from the view of the crate. Stealth turned his head down, now the image was of him looking down at the crate – he was looking back at himself!

Quickly snatching up an implement from the door, he pried open the crate to find a little dragon nestled within a pile of seeds and half eaten peaches.

“Have fun?”

Gornul waved and burped. His head then slumped back to rest on a peach with little fang marks in its flesh. The only part of the dragon that wasn’t prostrate in rest was his large, disjointed belly. Stealth scooped up the little reptile and placed him over his shoulder with one hand holding him in place. Gornul meeped weakly and had a nap.

At that moment the cheetah could hear several footsteps down the hall and getting louder. He decided there wasn’t enough time to leave the room without being spotted. Stealth gently closed the door and began to move crates in front of it. When he was satisfied that it was secure enough to keep unwanted wards out yet flexible enough to remove them and escape the room he slowly stepped back and waited...

Gornul fidgeted about, having some sort of draconian dream. Stealth took a breath and continued listening at the door. The sounds didn’t fade away, rather it sounded like whoever was out there had begun work to repair the damage and mop the floor.

Frustrated, the feline looked about the room for other options. He could hear a faint whistling coming from the ceiling and climbed some crates to inspect it. There was a trap door, why did the house have so many trap doors let alone ones that didn’t work? Because sure enough this one didn’t budge, there was only a gap about the width of a fist.

Ever weary of the sounds outside the door, Stealth poked Gornul’s head and tried to coax the dragon awake. The little reptile tried to ignore him and instead nuzzled into the cat’s fur. Stealth persisted and continued poking his claw tip on the dragon’s tiny head. Gornul eventually got disgruntled enough to turn his head and attempt to bite the claw. Then he tried to bat it away but he was at least awake now.

“Gornul,” The cat whispered, “I need you to enter that gap and look for a latch or something, open it up so we can get out of here.”

He couldn’t tell if the dragon actually agreed or not but he stuffed him into the gap and waited. Stealth’s right ear perked to the dragonet scurrying about in the darkness while his left perked to the activity outside the door. Suddenly a soft grinding could be heard overhead and without any further warning the door fell on the cheetah’s head.

Stealth cursed in silent pain and looked up to see the dragon standing on the edge of the void, waving.

“Wait there.” Stealth whispered and returned to the door at ground level, his forehead still throbbing.

He removed the crates, though it was a risk he wanted to make his presence less conspicuous then it already was and a storeroom locked from the inside wouldn’t help. Once the door was clear he hurried back to the opening in the ceiling and with the power of fear-adrenalin, attempted to boost himself up. First his hands grappled the edges and then he swung his legs up and gradually rose while his head lay back and his long tail still tickled the crates below.

Eventually he slid his body up, fully horizontal with the ceiling cavity, save his tail. A sudden chill ran up his side and his hackles rose when Stealth felt something GRASP his tail! Looking down in silent alarm, he found his tail being firmly held by a rat.

Not a rat morph but a rat-rat, a household pest finishing what Gornul had started... Stealth sighed in relief and hissed at the rodent, it promptly squeaked and scurried into a little hole in the wall. With his tail free, Stealth twisted his body about, reeling in the extremity and turning to face the opening. He reached out and grasped faintly at the door which he pulled up and into place before resecuring the latch. He didn’t dare rest on the door for fear of it giving way but he continued to roll until he was clear of it.

After the better half of an hour spent silently and painstakingly crawling in the ceiling cavity, Stealth eventually gave up on finding a way out. Perhaps there was only one way IN... he slumped on the dusty boards and gasped when another image appeared in his head. It looked like another access point for the ceiling but where? He question was answered by a big, inconspicuous arrow.

Following the apparent baring, Stealth continued to stifle sneezes and silently grumble until he found his way to Gornul. The little dragon had no trouble traversing the cavity, save having to lug around his bloated belly...

The cheetah released the latch, not realising where exactly the door was but he realised soon enough when Gornul meeped in alarm as the ground underneath him gave way. Stealth reached out and grabbed the dragon in his fist, prompting Gornul to burp but otherwise avoid falling to the floor below, and it was just as well as the floor below was a large bath!

Stealth groaned and pulled the door shut once more. He should have realised he was over a body of water from the smell but his nose was too clogged with dust! Suddenly Gornul poked him and pointed to a light source about a five minute crawl away... he eventually covered the distance and this time found another opening facing up, not down. It lead out to the floor above.

It took some time to open the trap door and even more to climb out. When the cheetah finally climbed out and closed the trap again, he looked around to find himself in a bedroom, not all that grand – perhaps a guest room. His dragon friend perched on the bed, looking comfy and waiting patently.

Stealth quickly went over to the door and cautiously opened it, he was greeted with the sight of a hallway, stretching about fifty feet down to where it presumably ended with a staircase, also, he could hear people talking at the end of it.

“Hell with this!” He grumbled after closing the door, “We’re gonna jump!” the feline walked over to the window and pulled open the curtains and then the windowpanes.

“Ready, little buddy?” He asked and was answered by Gornul gliding effortlessly out the window and perching on a tree branch.

Stealth ear drooped, “Oh, right, I forgot you can do that.” He shifted to full form and climbed up onto the windowsill. Balancing his hind feet on the ledge and his fore paws on the outer wall, the cat hesitated for a moment while he maintained and adjusted his balance and then leaped to the ground.

He was lucky to jump and land in an area full of dense foliage as it made it harder to spot his escape though he remained convinced that someone had seen him. It didn’t matter anymore, he and Gornul were free. The dragon landed on the cheetah’s back as he sprinted away from the building and put as much distance between it and himself as he could.

Somewhere down the road, the feline ran out of steam and collapsed in a heap. The dragon hopped off his back and landed before Stealth’s panting muzzle.

He eventually became a morph and still laying prostrate said, “I lost it, three garrets in that pack... I dropped it at the docks. I’m never going to see it again.” He whimpered tiredly.

Gornul projected an image of himself trying to eat a gold coin, failing and then throwing it away.

“I know it’s just gold but it wasn’t my gold...” Stealth cringed, “And now I’m a criminal. I broke into a house.”

Gornul projected an image of himself trapped in a tower and a cheetah with wings swinging down to rescue him.

“Thanks...”

The dragon nuzzled his nose and suddenly took of, flying far away in a matter of seconds...

Stealth was stunned. He suddenly felt very afraid and alone. Lying prostrate didn’t help his mood. He eventually forced himself to his feet, remembering his nudity he became an animal again and walked slowly on his four paws back to the keep.

When he arrived at the crossroads between the Lower Ward and Euper, Stealth could easily hear the noise from the logs he’d hitched a ride on now making their way one at a time through the flume to be devoured by several saws. Strangely the very same image appeared in his mind. Why? Gornul wants him to go to the flume? Well the cheetah currently had dozens of gold to pay off so he couldn’t care less where he wandered.

Stealth lazily followed the small canal that lead from the docks to a large warehouse constructed out of solid timber. The sound of saws and axes hacking away at logs sent him to fold his ears but the cat entered and sat on his haunches just inside the entrance.

He moved when a bull scolded him for taking up the road but otherwise remained where he was. Suddenly a weight on his head startled him, Stealth yelped and flailed about and then a small, blue creature with wings fell in between his forepaws.

“Take that thing out of here.” Someone said.

Stealth looked up. The cat saw a deer scolding him... with everything that had happened this day the feline had had just about enough. He shifted and became a cheetah taur.

The taured-cheetah hissed loudly and stared down the taller creature, “Enough.” He said in a deep growl, “Go back to work and get out of my sight.”

The deer scoffed and was about to say something when he suddenly looked wide eyed and scampered off. Stealth grinned, was he really that intimidating?

Stealth reached down and plucked up Gornul from the ground, placing him on his taur back when he heard someone call out his name.

“Stealth!” the figure waved a muscular arm with something held in the hand.

The cheetah taur gawked at first and then chuckled in relief when the plaid beaver came even with him and handed over his backpack.

“Thank you!” He said and opened the pack to check its contents. It was all there! Even the cookies and they still smelt great! “Where did you find it?”

The beaver smiled and adjusted his pose, his muscles rippling under his plaid fur. “It was just here, on the pier. I saw it in my head!”

The cheetah nodded, “Yeah, I see where this is going.”

“Aye, I went to the place and found your little friend trying to drag it by himself. He told me some other stuff in weird pictures but I eventually figured it out.”

“Yeah, those pictures...” The feline agreed.

Gornul sagged at the conversation.

The rodent and feline both suddenly jumped and gasped for no apparent reason.

“What was that for?!” Mike asked.

“Ah...” Stealth panted after the frightful flash in their heads went away, “I don’t think he likes us talking about him behind his back or more accurately behind my back.” He fished the dragonet out from his back fur and held him out, “Okay, it’s not that hard to understand your language.” Stealth conceded.

“And it’s not weird... sorry.” Michael finished.

Gornul nodded in satisfaction and projected a nicer image of the three of them looking plaid and engaged in a group hug, it made the cat groan and the beaver laugh.

“Wait, when I scared away that guy just now...” Stealth asked and looked meaningfully at the reptile for an answer.

Gornul favoured him with a mischievous grin and projected an image of a slaughter house, a deer hung up and being dismantled with all its blood oozing on the floor. Not that bad for a predator, actually quite nice but for the prey animal involved to see that in his head must have been nothing short of terrifying...

Stealth sighed, so he’s not that scary. Bah. His pout was interrupted when the dragon sitting in his left hand began nosing at the pack held in his right hand.

“Those cookies do smell nice...” Michael said.

Gornul ‘meeped’ his agreement and tried to bury his head further into the bag.

“Okay, friends, I’d be more then happy to share this treat with you,” He shoved Gornul fully into the backpack, the dragon made a muffled, angry meep and flailed about as the cat continued, “Now let’s have at the menacing dragon’s hoard.”

"Hands Free", copyright Stealthcat