The cheetah headed down the floors of the Keep on another, small errand. He was only heading into town and wouldn’t be needing his warm suit. As he headed though a small, furnished hall a small blue dragon playfully stuck his tongue out at him.
Stealth ran through the mud of the southern pass. They kept the main road clear of snow but this was the compromise. It stuck to his steel claws and his tail armour when he slowed. The feline was almost glad to leave the path and run on wet snow... until it too clung to him.
‘By the gods, this is stupid!’ he came to an immediate halt and stamped his paws, scraping them across the snow in frustration.
His destination was just a few hundred yards to the south. A bright yellow cottage nestled among a crag of skeletal trees. The cheetah ran intent on shifting and brushing himself off on a clean, solid surface. Several long minutes passed before he arrived at the boundary of the grounds. Two stone columns marked the end of the wilderness and the beginning of the house’s gardens. The house looked out of place in the wintery field, more like it should have been surrounded by green grasses and wild flowers or perhaps in a few months time it would.
The animal stepped onto the front porch and shifted to his morph form. Stealth wiped his hands vigorously of the snow and mud before he undid the straps of his lithe backpack. His ‘summer’ pack as he now thought of it remained in his apartment next to his trail pack that he took with him as a morph. The back pack he had on was far more suited to his suit and it came from the oddest place.
He removed it and looked at it for a moment. The old croc gave him a gift. The cheetah still couldn’t quite grasp it but that’s what Samuel said... the snow’s bite lessened as he recalled the Iron Mine.
Baron Christopher, no, Samuel was a wonderful person and Krystoff? An interesting little guy. Now Daniel, ugh, if he spent much time around that kid, Stealth would probably take to batting him like Samuel did. The baron’s wife Stephyni had been very hospitable. The cheetah knew she used to be a man, he wondered how much of that man remained when he saw the blouse and gown; it made him pause in calling her ‘sir’ as he had the habit with other gender morphs. He did that out of respect for them and their curse but was it respectful to call a Baroness ‘sir’?
He shook his head of the confusion and began to kick his feet free of the mud and snow so he could don his trousers. How long had he been standing there, naked?
Stealth knocked on the door and waited. He knocked again and waited a bit longer... after several minutes the feline made a circle around the house and tried to peer into the windows but he could detect no sign of life. Perhaps they weren’t home? But he needed confirmation of the delivery!
“Hello?!” The solitude of the place seemed to suck up his voice like a void. Stealth looked out toward the grounds and hibernating gardens, “Anyone around?!” He called out and then turned an ear to listen.
Was he at the right place? Was it just a stupid crank delivery?
“Oh, come on!” He WAS at the right address, how many yellow cottages were there in the north of Lorland?
Stealth walked up to the back door and knocked on the slightly oval shaped, solid oak door. ‘What the hell is this?’He seethed, if he didn’t get this delivered it would come out of his pay! And he didn’t want Edmund and Misha to bail him out AGAIN.
The cheetah stormed to the front door and knocked again. Nothing. Very well.
After a brief hesitation, Stealth opened the door with a long and loud creak which made him shiver and sigh. Perhaps he should change his name to Blatant. The door opened into a foyer with many doors leading off and stairs leading up to a second level with more to the right heading down into what must be a cellar. The feline crouched low to the ground and unsheathed his daggers, one from his friend Oberon, the other from a sort of friend... the Shadow Fox. The cheetah waded cautiously into the entry hall, fearing an imminent attack by a nut hiding behind the door with an axe – no offence to Misha – but his imagination remained just that.
His next and more realistic fear – that the owners were merely out and would return to find a trespasser in their home and then the accusations will begin. But something didn’t... smell right. The cat sniffed at the air and caught the old whiff of a human. The scent was perhaps a day or so old, it led up the stairway and there was no other scent leading back down. The house may have had a second story but it wasn’t that big and the possibility of a second staircase was unlikely.
Stealth walked up the stairs two at a time and surprised himself when he didn’t make a sound on them. At the top the path went in a zigzag, in one direction toward a small window looking out over the garden and to the right it led and twisted into darkness. He followed the old scent down the dark path and held his daggers at the ready. The cheetah stopped at a door at the far end and leaned against it, ear erect. He could hear nothing through the door and after frightfully looking back over his shoulder but seeing nothing creeping up on him Stealth took a breath and opened the door.
He allowed it to creak all the way open till it stopped almost flush with the wall. Inside he could hear haggard breathing but first looked about from the door frame; George always told him his own safety came first, lest he wouldn’t be able to help others. But there was no sign of life in the room except for the sound of haggard breathing. Not being able to delay any longer, Stealth walked fully into the room and on the opposite side of a bed, found a middle aged woman lying on her back.
“Ma’am!” The cheetah said and sheathed his daggers, rushing to her side.
“D... don’t call... me... that.” She staggered.
“Yes, sir.” He corrected, “What happened?”
“...fell...” She huffed, “Been here since yesterday.”
“I think your bones are broken... I can’t move you.” He grimaced.
The woman looked up at him, “Who are you, kid?”
“My name is Stealth, I am a courier from the Keep.”
“The COURIER!” She said with renewed strength.
Stealth flinched back from her, “Yes... should I get help?”
“Where’s my delivery?” She demanded and tried to point at him.
The cheetah frowned, “Is it important now?”
“Yes! Give me my... package.” She said in a whisper.
Stealth blinked a few times and reached for his back pack. After a few moments the cheetah handed the woman a large wooden box, she snatched it up and opened the seals. As soon as the box opened Stealth gagged and doubled over. He almost retched at the acrid stench and scurried away on his back from the open box.
“Good! It’s still fresh.” The crippled woman said.
Stealth rubbed his tongue and nose on his tunic to wipe off the taste of whatever the hell was in that box. To think he’d been carrying THAT this whole time, what if it had opened accidentally on the way?
“You there, boy, quickly now.”
“Huh?” The cat asked and coughed a bit.
The human held out the open box which contained some sort of fleshy, wet, plant thing. “Feed Herbert.”
Stealth blinked. “Herbert?”
She nodded, showing no sign of discomfort from the smell, “My dear Herbert, down in the basement.”
Stealth just stared at her, “Now wait a minute-“
“HURRY! He’s hungry!” She insisted.
The cheetah gulped and shivered, he gingerly took the open box in one hand and held his tunic to his nose with the other. “Is Herbert... friendly?”
“If he is fed...” She said calmly.
Stealth sighed and turned about.
“Wait! You need the key.” She called out and spasmed in pain. “Top... dresser draw.”
Stealth approached the dresser and removed the tunic from his muzzle so he could open the draw. Inside the draw he saw some ordinary clothing articles and nestled between them a large, heavy iron key. He took the key from the dresser draw and power walked out of the room, eager to get rid of the contents of the package. He walked carefully down the stairs and nearby found another staircase that only descended down a few steps to a small door. This door didn’t have a lock and it easily opened inward.
Inside there was a small room which looked unremarkable, to the left another staircase led downward to another door much further down. This door had a latch but it was open and so the cheetah merely opened it and entered the next room. This room was made of stone and well lit with torches lining the walls. To the right was another staircase leading further down still. At the bottom the stairs terminated at a large, steel door.
Stealth gulped and opened it. He found himself inside what must be a dungeon with naught but more burning torches and a trapdoor in the centre of the floor. He placed the box on the floor and heaved the wooden panel free. It crashed into the ground where it rested. Underneath, more stairs led further downward. Stealth picked up the box full of ‘food’ and continued down. At the bottom he found another level of the dungeon with only one more door on the far wall. Of all the doors, this one had a lock. The cheetah paused in opening the door and asked himself what he was doing; if he had any sense at all he would drop the box and bolt back up. But instead he placed the key in the steel reinforced door and turned it. The door opened with the turn of the key but he had to push hard to get it to budge.
As he moved the door inward with greater momentum, a stench similar to the contents of the box greeted his nose. Once inside he could fully smell... it. Stealth looked about the dark room until he spotted a large, shadowy thing. It lay in the corner, too dark to make out. The feline trembled in terror but he tried to remain calm and focus on his task. He carefully leaned down to set the box on the floor when the creature stirred. It jumped to its feet or whatever and was on the cheetah in an instant.
Stealth screamed as he was thrown to the floor. The giant thing stood over him and breathed slowly but the cat could make out nothing of it but its fangs, very large and numerous, twisted fangs. Stealth lay sprawled out and paralysed with fear. The cheetah could hear it gurgling with each breath.
Not knowing what to do, Stealth reached up his free hand to pet the thing approximately around what must be a neck and instantly regretted it; he almost squealed and retched at the repulsive touch of its flesh but Herbert seemed to be sated by this, for the most past though, it ignored the cat. Its head moved and hovered about the courier’s hand. In a moment it snatched up something in its jaws, Stealth trembled fearing it took his hand.
The monster suddenly walked away and went to sit in the middle of the room. The cheetah sat up with a start. He looked at his right hand and saw it still intact but the box and all it’s contents were gone. Stealth blinked and looked up at the animal-thing and saw that it had fallen asleep!
The feline stood up, continuing to stare at ‘Herbert’ while he crept backwards out of the room. Stealth strained with all his might to close the door behind him and lock it up again. Trembling slightly, he bolted and ran up the stairs, closing and locking each door on the way.
He quickly returned to the room where the aging woman still lay on her back.
“Did you feed him?” She asked, trying to hide her physical pain.
The cheetah merely nodded quickly, his eyes still wide.
“Well, what do you think, isn’t he adorable?” She asked with affection in her eyes.
Stealth stared blankly at her, “Why do you keep him locked up in the dark?”
“The light is bad for him! A cold, dark place is the closest to his natural habitat.”
Stealth nodded and kneeled next to her, “He ate the box.”
“He ate the box?! You were supposed to take the food OUT of the box!!!”
The cheetah just stared at her, again.
“Now he’ll have an upset tummy.”
Stealth pinched his nose bridge. “Look woman, you need medical attention now.”
“Oh, yes!” She pointed out the door, “Go to the far room at the other end of the hall... it goes to the attic, I keep a lantern to communicate with the Keep.”
The courier rushed down the hall and opened the door at the other end. Inside he found a plain room sparsely furnished but full of light. In one wall a staircase led up into the roof, it was the only dark place in the room. Without pause he ran up the stairs and then fell through a hatch, landing in the old woman’s bedroom. The cheetah landed on all fours and blinked.
“Aye, that’s what happened to me, sorry.” She said from just a foot away. “I forgot, you need a key to open the path to the attic,” She pointed to the dresser, “dresser draw, hurry!”
The cat sighed and stood up, he ran to the dresser and opened the top draw-
“No, no! The bottom draw!”
Stealth groaned and rolled his eyes. He opened the bottom draw and found it full of talisman and amulets of all designs from all materials. Among the clutter was a small, red key.
“This it?” He asked and held it up in his paw.
“Aye, hurry! Hurry!” She said.
Stealth ran again – he’d been running indoors a lot today – and eventually found his way back to the stairs. In the wood panels underneath his feet, he saw a small metal disk. He placed the key in the disk and turned it with a grunt. The stairs made a sound. He recalled the key and walked up... slowly. The cheetah sighed in relief when he reached the attic then groaned when he saw another set of stairs.
He looked for another disk but found none, just a lantern on a single table surrounded by a score of scrolls and tomes on bookshelves. Grunting, he hefted up the lantern, it was as heavy as the cat. Stealth set it down at the foot of the stairs and climbed them. He opened the door at the top then ran back down, hefted the lantern again and... walked... slowly... up... backward. The cheetah was in a great deal of pain when he reached the top but he managed with the last of his strength to place the lantern in place on the balcony and then tried to light it.
After trying several times to light it with the flint, check it over for defects and trying to light it several times again he went back down the stairs and called out in a loud voice, “How do I light the lantern?!”
There was a pause, “...It’s out of oil. I keep the oil in the basement.”
Stealth head butted the floorboards and walked slowly down the stairs hoping Herbert was still asleep. A few minutes later, the feline returned to the balcony facing toward Metamor Keep. He’d always thought all the nuts lived IN the keep.
After much frustration he finally got the lamp alight and using what he learned from Teague, sent a message to the Keep,
‘N_U_T___ N_E_E _D___H_E_L_P.’ He scratched his head and tried to remember how to signal the rest, ‘B_R_O_K_E___B_A_C_K___Y_E_L_L_O_W___C_O_T_T_A_G_E.’
After a few long seconds the keep sent a reply, ‘H_E_A_L_E_R___O_N___R_O_U_T_E.’
Stealth sighed in relief and walked back down the stairs. He reached the GM’s bedroom and kneeled next to her, “They are sending someone to help.”
“Good! Thank you, lad.”
He nodded, “Should I get you some water or a pillow?”
“No! ...please just stay with me until they arrive.” She asked softly, “I am Ithel.”
“Nice to meet you, Sir.” He said and clasped the woman’s hand, supporting her slightly.
“Well don’t just gawk.” She grunted, “Tell me about your day or something... and what are you wearing?”
Stealth rubbed his muzzle with a paw for a moment before turning back. They spoke for a long time, about his suit, about being a cheetah, about the house and its odd geography – something to do with magical strands – and they talked about Herbert. Almost two hours passed before the healer from the keep arrived, the feline stood back to allow the AR to work. They had to ease her out of the room and down the stairs into a waiting carriage so she could be bandaged and healed properly by Coe.
Stealth secured the house and made his own way back. Hours later he arrived back at the keep and headed to the baths. On the way, many stared at him and blanched, even the odd skunk. Stealth noticed for the first time that day how much he stank from being pounced by that slimy monster. Before reaching the baths, the feline turned and went to the Mage’s Guild Tower instead; perhaps they’d have some sort of special soaps to remove the gunk.
When he arrived, Stealth found his friend, Fell in one of the labs working late. The gazelle gagged and turned to face him then a smile crept across his muzzle.
“It smells like you met Herbert, and he likes you!”
Still coated in pungent slime, Stealth walked up to the gazelle. The cheetah slowly smiled and lunged, pulling the mage into a tight hug.
Fell stood stiffly in the feline’s arms as the slime coated his cloak, but only for a moment before he smiled again, “Oh that reminds me, Ithel will need to recover in the infirmary for a few days and someone will need to feed her pet... clean his pen... and he likes you.”
Stealth gasped and froze in place. The gazelle pried himself free and chuckled all the way to the cabinet, in search of his special soaps.