When he stepped back into the Roscoe's chambers, Matthias felt a chill pass down his spine. The last time he had ventured to the dungeons had been nearly six months ago. Yet the decor had not changed. The cave-scorpion's quarters reeked of rotting flesh - his next meal most likely - and draped in that cold darkness that was home to him now.
As a rat, Charles did not find it offensive, but as a man, it was a degradation. Yet, Roscoe too had once been a man, and now he was left in this light shunning body, feasting upon carrion for the remainder of his days. How must he crave companionship, yet so many recoiled at the sight or scent of him. Charles knew that Phil was often found in these subterranean depths providing that company, but who else did?
With a pang of regret, Matthias admitted to himself that he had never taken the time to do so. Like so many others, he had been shown that a man lay beneath the sickly-white carapace, but had only seen the death, and not the life. Perhaps it was time he made amends of that?
"Here to see the prisoners?" a clacking voice asked. Charles scanned the darkness, and then finally saw the head of the dungeon staff come from behind a small table.
The rat nodded. "I was hoping to see Gornul and Oren. I understand that they are allowing them visitors now."
"I imagine that you of all people would know how important that is," Roscoe murmured quietly as he strode upon his chitinous legs towards the gate into the even blacked dungeon, were such a thing possible.
Charles followed after, his feet easily crossing the surprisingly clean floor. "Yes, I do. Having people come to see you really helps give you hope."
"Yes, it does," the cave scorpion agreed solemnly as he cranked open the gate, the hinges squeaking dramatically as they turned. Matthias wondered if the jailer wasn't trying to say something else there too.
Stepping into the darkness, Roscoe waved a claw for Charles to follow. The rat did so, feeling his fur stand on end as the blackness enveloped him. Flickering torches lined the walls just as he remembered. He could even see the cell door that he had stayed in during his sojourn here. They passed by it though, as it was unoccupied.
The next door down though, Roscoe stopped and fitted a key to a door. "Knock when you are finished," the cave scorpion directed, and then let the rat inside, shutting the door behind him. Charles felt his heart tremble at the sound of the key being turned once more in the lock.
Lying in the center of the blackened cell was a small reptilian ball of scales and flesh. The sound of weeping echoed up from the little dragonnette, and Matthias found himself nearly biting back his tongue as he approached. The news that he brought was probably not going to be well received. Still, it would be better if he knew, than if he were left to wonder.
Gornul's head craned on his long neck, and the eyes went wide with joy at the sight of his friend. He hopped up onto his legs, and half ran, half flew across the room to cling to the rat's shoulders and chest in a tight embrace. Matthias stood there, his paws reaching up to hold the dragon in place, while it wept and cooed, so overwhelmed was he at the company. Charles could say nothing of course, but let his friend exhaust his emotions, for that was what he needed most of all.
It was some moments before the dragon finally let go, and settled upon the floor before the rat. Charles sat down upon his haunches and gently stroked Gornul's bright blue scales, that gleamed in the guttering torchlight. There was a certain dampness to the texture that made him swear his friends had been crying, but he knew that dragonnettes were incapable of producing tears.
The request, when it did come, was hardly a surprise. Gornul projected an image of a question mark, and Charles took the meaning instantly. His friend wanted the news. "I couldn't find him," Charles admitted ruefully, wishing that he could bury his head into the stone floor from shame. "I looked all over the keep for him, but your father seems to have just disappeared."
It had not been the usual sort of request that plagued the rat. Instead, this one had been urgent, and given to him in the direst of tones. And so, he had set off scouring the Keep, asking folks if they had seen Mitok, Gornul's father. It did not take long to discover that he was not to be found.
Still, as he had expected, Gornul was disquieted by the news, hanging his head in that mopish demeanor he had exhibited before he'd seen the rat.
Scooting a little closer, Charles added, "I'm sorry, Gornul. Maybe he'll come back."
Gornul could only shrug.
Eager to distract him from his misery, Charles reached into his tunic and said, "Oh, I've got something for you. I've been to see healer Coe about the tiny little troll who was inside your stomach. He gave me this medicine to give you just in case there was any residual damage."
Gornul took the medicine but aside form a cursory thanks, said nothing else. Instead, he continued to stare at the dark floor strewn with hay as if he could sink into it and disappear.
Grimacing, Matthias did his best to break though his friend's apathy. The best way he knew was to keep talking. "I still can't imagine a small troll," the rat remarked, breaking into a chuckle, hoping that would dislodge the dragonnette. "And you say he was trying to get you to kill Vitra?"
But even that jocularity only produced a nod from his draconic companion.
Seeing that his questions were barely eliciting a response, Charles decided to ask something that required something a bit more. "Why?"
It worked to a certain extent, as Gornul peered up at him, his face forlorn. The image Charles received from him was one of a diminutive Lutin woman superimposed with a caduceus, the heraldic emblem of the medical profession.
"She's a healer?" he asked with some surprise. This was the first he had heard of it.
The dragonnette nodded once, and then a whole sequence of events flashed through the rat's mind, in which Vitra removed that tiny troll from Gornul. Indeed, he had not heard any of this before. Why had it not been disclosed? "Interesting," the rat admitted after a moment's reflection. "I never thought that there might even be such a thing as a Lutin healer."
His friend shrugged in assent, though his head once more turned to the ground afterwards.
Charles tapped the ground thoughtfully with one claw, the tight walls about him making him nervous. The darkness was near absolute, cloaked around the room like a thick, choking scarf. The rat found the confinement quite to his distaste, as it brought back several unhealthy memories. How must it make Gornul feel? After all, he could not use his wings much at all in these cramped quarters.
Reaching out his claw, he gingerly scratched the back of the draconian's little head. "I don't know what is going to happen to you, Gornul. If there is anything I can do for you, I will try my best."
An image of a Gornul standing by himself flashed through his mind. It was not so much a question, as it was forced, more of a command. The rat sighed, and slowly rose to his hind paws. "Then, if that is what you want, I shall leave you be."
Turning about, he knocked on the massive iron door. The resounding chime echoed down the long dark hall. "You won't be here much longer, that I firmly believe." But Gornul projected nothing in return, curling back up into a ball. Charles felt his gut tighten at the sight, but there was little else he could do for now. Lowering his own head, he stepped back out into the hall as Roscoe opened with the door for him.
As he entered the other dungeon darkened cell, Charles heard a ebullient voice ring out, "Matty Ratty!" It was Oren, trapped as she was in the body of a little girl. That particular name was not one he had ever applied to himself, though others found it rather easy to remember. Usually though, they never used it to his face.
"Hello, Oren," Charles called out into the darkness. The door shut behind him, and then were subdued in the eternal blackness of the cellars. Once again, the rat had to breathe slowly to prevent the panic from overtaking him. This occasion was the first since he had scampered through that fissure nearly two months ago in which he was in near complete darkness. It was not a pleasant feeling.
However, his eyes were strangely accustomed to the subterranean depths, and it only took him a moment to realize that Oren was still dripping wet. His eyes strayed to the glistening pool just off to one side. How in the world had a pool managed to find its way in here? The floor of each cell was flat, or so he thought. It never failed, no matter where the otter went, she always found water.
Oren though did notice the abashed rat, and quickly reached for a dress lain across the straw mattress on the other side of the room. "Excuse me," she called in her piping voice. "I just got up."
Matthias glanced at the recently cleaned stonework, noting where moss had clung only weeks before. The dungeons were not a very high priority for the maintenance staff here at Metamor Keep, but like everything else, they were habitually cleansed of any unwanted guests. While Oren slipped on the gown, he continued to stare fixedly at the wall. "I was just visiting with Gornul," he murmured, attempting to start the conversation.
When he'd been imprisoned himself, Michael and others had seen fit to try and break him free from his melancholy. Oren did not appear to need such help. "How is he?"
Charles shrugged as he came further into the room, gently sitting upon his haunches in the cell. "Upset," he said quietly. "He's feeling very alone as his father is nowhere to be found. I searched all over the Keep. He's just not there. It hit our friend pretty hard."
Oren looked downcast. "I wish I could be with him."
The rat could only nod in assent, wishing that Gornul had let him stay a bit longer. Wiping the unpleasant moue from his face, Matthias then asked, "How are you doing?"
The otter positively grinned, her whiskers twitching in a bunch "Better than I have any right to."
"I noticed," Charles smirked suddenly, the return to happier thoughts quite a relief to him. "Are you having any trouble being a girl? It is not the sort of thing I know much about."
"Not really. I've found that I can actually become male again if I wish," Oren remarked offhandedly, as if he were commenting that the sky were blue.
Charles felt his jaw drop open slightly as his eyebrows shut up. "You can? Nobody's ever been able to do that," he barked in surprise. With a slight chuckle, he wondered why the irascible kangaroo wasn't pestering Oren about his role in the world to come, as he appeared to be more remarkable than the trio from Felix's prophecy were!
"It might have something to do with the fact that I'm antimagic," Oren added cryptically. "Not that it makes much difference. I'm the most feminine guy you've ever seen, and... well, nothing works." Charles grimaced at that, his whiskers drooping in a blush. He had not expected that sort of detail.
"Any news from the outside?" Oren asked suddenly at seeing his friend's modesty.
"Most of the keep is abuzz about you and the Lutin woman."
"Anything besides me?"
Charles drummed his fingers. "Let me see. Phil has a girlfriend."
"No kidding! Is it serious?" Oren's face beamed with sudden delight. "Serious? You could say that. You can expect to hear wedding bells before too long, I believe. I think I heard something about this fall."
"How about that. And what about you and Kimberly? When are you going to quit teasing that girl and pop the question?"
"Oren!" Charles face contorted into a mix of chagrin and anger.
"I'm sorry," admitted the otter with a sudden lowering of her muzzle. "I've been locked up in here for days. I want to talk about something. Anything!"
Matthias nodded in understanding, trying to quell his embarrassment at the impertinent question. The news about the Keep was rather voluminous, where could he possibly begin? That was answered for him by the sudden clanging on the door and the voice of the cave scorpion. "Oren? You have another visitor."
Grimacing, Charles nodded to his friend, "Well, I suppose I shall see you another time. There is much that I am sure you will be told in the ensuing days."
"Will I see you again before the trial?" Oren suddenly asked, her face hopeful.
"I'll try, I should be able to get away from my duties long enough. Trust me, Oren. I know what it is like being in a cell all by yourself for days." And with that, the rat ducked out the open door and back into the hallway. The light of the flaming torches was a welcome sight, but the memories of his own captivity continued to flood his mind.
Stumbling after the cave scorpion, he left the dungeons and returned to the world of light without only a cursory word to Roscoe in appreciation for his time.
The Deaf Mule once again served as a sanctuary for Charles; a place to reassert his personality and to shun the darkness. This time though, he was not six inches tall, but his full four feet of height. Sitting behind a table, the rat clutched a mazer full of fresh mead, just delivered in from the grape vines to the south. It was nearly September, and like always, there was some talk of the upcoming Autumnal Equinox Festival, but so too was the conversation laced with the upcoming trial, as well as rumors of Phil's betrothed and the usual tidbit about any other fellow Keeper.
The braziers about the room were all lit, as was the chandelier hanging gaily from the ceiling in the center of the bar. It was not a terribly hot day, very few in the Valley were, but it was warm enough to bring out the sweat and the tongues. Charles himself had been panting until he had stuck his muzzle deep into the mead. Its cool taste filled his throat, cascading down to each of his bones.
His gaze lifted from the tabletop to the approaching Keeper. His red fur and brown tunic were moderately well groomed, though both had the appearance of a scuffle still ingrained in their ancestry. In one white-furred paw he held a tumbler, and in the other was a tray of fresh stew. Charles nearly salivated at the aroma of potatoes, carrots, and beef all stirred together in that lovely sauce Donny always employed. The rat had not had anything to eat since the morning, and his stomach was rather wroth with him for the inattention.
"You look like you could use some company," Nahum remarked as he set his plate down upon the table. Taking a seat, he peered inquisitively at the rat. "What mischief have you been up to, oh ex-writer of the guild!"
Matthias could not help but grin at his vulpine companion. "I was visiting Oren and Gornul today."
"Oh really? How are they? I haven't seen them since the arrest. Copernicus misses his pool partner you know."
"He would! Has he been down to see them?"
Nahum stabbed a piece of meat with his fork and swallowed it down in one gulp. "I don't know. I've been too busy with Guild matters to really talk with him much these days. Ever since you left, it feels like we only have more and more stories to handle. Tallis and Habakkuk are sending me stuff to read now! Me! Phil is now rather occupied with his bride to be, so you can imagine it is rather hectic down there."
Charles grinned and took a sip of his drink. "I gathered that. I haven't seen any of you here in a week!" Glancing about the room, and then back at his red-furred friend, he grew curious. "Where are Tallis and Habakkuk anyway? I'm surprised they aren't here with you."
The fox shoved a bit of potato into his mouth, and gulped it down even faster than the meat. Nahum, though a carnivore, had the enviable ability to eat most whatever he wanted. "They wanted to finish up more work at the Guild before coming for some lunch. Would you believe that Habakkuk is writing again? For three years he doesn't pen one word outside of a few poems, and suddenly he's back at it."
Matthias could not help but be interested in this tidbit of news. He had made Zhypar the head of the Writer's Guild specifically to abjure any free time the kangaroo possessed so that he would not interfere in the rat's affairs anymore. That he was taking the time to write on his story gave Matthias significant pause. "Has he shown it to anyone?"
Nahum's brow furrowed slightly as he shoved another piece of meat down his gullet. "Actually, no, he was rather secretive about it."
"That's odd, he usually parades his work about to everyone," Charles muttered inquisitively. If there was a darkness to his tone, he could not tell. He'd been too much in the dark today to notice any longer.
Nahum then grinned broadly, his whiskers glistening with a bit of the sauce. "I did manage to catch a snippet before he pushed me out of his office."
"What did it say?"
"Something about a white weasel, I'm not really sure," Nahum said as he scratched one ear thoughtfully.
"There hasn't been a weasel in his story yet. Must be a new character," Charles mused softly.
"Most likely," Nahum agreed as he downed another potato. "So, how are Gornul and Oren doing?"
The rat grimaced, his thoughts once more returning to the dark enclaves of the Keep's prisons. "Gornul is not well. I feel awful for him. He shouldn't be locked up down there, especially not while his father's missing."
"I hear you," Nahum grimaced, lapping at the mead in his tumbler. "Not much we can do though. You tried, I've heard that. You did try to find Mitok, Charles. That's more than a lot of us can say."
This sort of gentleness was not typical of the vulpine, but Matthias knew about it. He was a brusque sort, always eager for a good scuffle, but they never came to any real harm. Nothing short of a black eye or a few bruises ever resulted from his dust ups. Yet, his sensitivity to real pain was also part of that eagerness, as he was quick to sympathize.
"And Oren?" Nahum proceeded, seeing that Charles was once again lost in the miasma of his own thoughts.
"Oren was rather happy. Not what I had expected from the otter at all."
"Giddy is a better term for it, I suppose," Matthias mused as he finished off the last of his mead.
"He could be executed next week, and he's giddy?" Nahum asked incredulously.
Charles just shrugged. "That's what I said."
Nahum chuckled drily, and then returned his snout to his plate. Charles let his gaze wander about the inn, his eyes drawn towards the main door where two figures entered. One, a kangaroo, was holding the door for another curly-haired rat. It was Habakkuk and Tallis, finished with their morning work, come to take a break at the Deaf Mule.
"Charles," Habakkuk declared, his voice chipper, "good to see you for once. How goes life?"
"You look shaken," Tallis observed as he sat down, his tail entwining the back of the chair.
"I visited the dungeons earlier today. Went to see Oren and Gornul."
"Oren's giddy if you can believe it!" Nahum pronounced from his plate.
Habakkuk chuckled lightly. "I wouldn't worry about them if I were you, Charles. Tallis, can you go and order our regular?"
"Why do I have to do it?" Tallis objected, his black eyes narrowing.
"Because yesterday I did, and the day before Nahum did. It's your turn now."
Grumbling, the other rat rose from his seat again, and walked off towards the bar. "Are you going to have anything to eat, Charles?" Zhypar asked, pointing at the empty space in front of Matthias.
"Not right now, maybe later." Before the kangaroo could interject, the rat proceeded. "Nahum tells me that you've finally started work on your story again. Do you think I could see it?"
Habakkuk's ears waggled slightly, and his thick tail slapped the floor in excitement. "I'd rather not let anybody see it just yet. I want to finish this chapter off first. It has been too long, it feels wonderful to write again."
"Will you finish it this time?"
"Perhaps, I'm going to write until the mood leaves me at least." Just as suddenly, the kangaroo changed directions. "So, I take it that you did not like being in the dungeons again, eh, Matthias?"
The rat shook his head. "No, I do not like it down there. Too many painful memories."
"I bet," Nahum muttered sympathetically.
Once again, the kangaroo fixed him with that self-assured gaze, his light red fur bristling slightly. "I think our friends will be fine. Rickkter is going to be making the case against them, so, don't worry about it."
"Rickkter's a blowhard," Matthias muttered disconsolately. "But I've no doubt he'll do his best to make sure Oren and the others are executed. If Rickkter is as good at this as he claims he is about everything else, why do you think Gornul and the rest will be fine?"
Habakkuk shrugged his small shoulders and leaned back in his chair. "I've seen Rickkter speak. If he does so in court as he does elsewhere, I doubt any of the judges will hear a thing about Oren."
Nahum laughed, "Yes, the raccoon does tend to talk about himself a lot doesn't he?"
"So like I said, don't worry about it." Zhypar then turned as a plate of steaming vegetables was laid before him. "Ah, Tallis, thank you!"
"Don't mention it," the rat grimaced as he took his seat to eat the bread and cheese he had ordered.
"Well, I suppose I might as well have myself something to eat as well." Charles stood from his seat, and then raised his empty mazer aloft. "To Rickkter's confoundment and the freedom for our friends." They each gleefully raised their glasses in that toast.