by Charles Matthias

Hector woke dreading what he knew he would see and what had become accustomed to seeing. It was dark, the dim glow of the oil lantern hanging from a small iron-wrought peg where he always left it. The cold chill of the stonework all about him and the slow dripping of water along one face of the wall where consistently grew a small patch of moss that had to be periodically cleansed embraced him in the loneliness of his existence. He blinked a few times as his body slowly brought him aware of these surroundings. The single bench and table at which he could work, with quill pen and reams of parchment placed along top of it, sat in one corner. His small dresser that had his three pairs of clothing sat in the other corner. Between the two sat the small door leading to the cellar hallway.

His bed sat at the far end, and in it Hector lay, unwilling to get out and fate the morning ahead. He hated the morning; he hated it since it reminded him of what he had become. He had once been a man, proud, with a fair face and handsome appearance. He had been a craftsman of fine skill, with an ability to sculpt the human form that was not often seen. He prided himself on his work, but also on his appearance. He had been vain, yes, he knew it now. He had loved the attention that all the woman poured out upon him, how each one wanted to be known as the one that he, Hector Phillips, selected to be his wife. He had glorified in their praise and adulation. And now he was a filthy verminous rat.

He rolled over in his bed, turning away from the dim illumination of the still burning lap. The oil was set on a slow burn so that a very little would last the whole night and he would be able to climb out of bed without hurting himself. It was always dark in the cellars, and only the torches and the lamps could give any light. It might as well have been completely black for all he cared. The night was the place for the rats, a place where he could hide his shame from the sight of others. He did not want to be seen, and only rarely did he dare venture forth into the air above. Every time he was up there, he could hear others speak behind him. He did not hear their words, but he knew that were remarking how ugly he had become and how repulsive he was. They mocked him, claiming his vanity brought this on.

He snuffled, his nose twitching rhythmically. He wished he could claim that he did not care what others thought, but he did care. It had been his only care for so long, that he had forgotten all else. He had once been a prolific sculptor, and now, in the year since his arrival, he had carved only a single sculpture, that of what he once was, a human being. His face was proud, looking towards the sky. It was inside his desk, he had not dared look at it in so long. It had been the last time his hands had clutched the knife to carve at wood, to shave it away, to work it down. Now, his teeth did that sort of work, had no choice but to do that sort of work. It was humiliating.

He rolled around in bed again, facing the door again. It was probably getting later in the morning. He did not have a timepiece of his own, and there was no other way to tell the time of day in this dank forgotten place. He should climb from his bed. Matthias would probably be coming down to say hello to him and the other four rats who lived down here. Charles was a nice enough fellow, probably one of the few people he could call a friend in this cursed Keep. However, he did not understand anything about Hector Phillips.

Hector finally climbed from his bed, looking over his grayish fur, and that hairless scaly tail, and cringing at it. Charles carried himself handsomely, but it looked ridiculous, almost an affront to real beauty. He should be dredging himself in the cellars like them, not pretending and deluding himself into thinking he was acceptable into society. If there were any of them that looked remotely good it would be Kimberly. She was cute, for a rat. But still, she was a rat, and he wanted nothing to do with her. He wanted nothing to do with himself most of the time! However, he was a rat, and he was going to stay a rat, and that was the end of that.

There was no means to cure him of this condition, it was permanent. He would be a rat for the rest of his life. He should learn to accept that and just move on. At least that was what Charles had said. Charles had told him that he should carve more, use what he had and get back into society. How could he carve, he could barely manipulate the knife properly. Unlike Charles, his own paws were much less manipulative. He could hold a quill pen in them, and he could write, but he could not carve. His one sculpture, an image of his human self, was flawed in this respect, though it was still, as some described a very remarkable piece of art. They were just trying to make him feel better, when there was really very little they could do.

Slipping into his shirt and breaches, he sat down at his desk and pulled out the figurine. He held it in his paws. Why had he come to Metamor Keep? What possessed him to come to this place? He had been travelling in a caravan that was passing through this land, and they had been split up by an attack from some ferocious beasts. He and several others had gotten lost, and were wandering about the woods until they saw the Keep several days later. The woods had been so think that their view was obscured, apparently they had been wandering about the Keep's lands for some time. The rumors and stories about this place had already spread throughout most of the Midlands, but there was no choice but to seek refuge there till they could rejoin their caravan. They knew what would happen if they stayed long, but they had only planned on getting stuff organized in a matter of two or three days. Apparently their wandering about in the woods had also counted, and on the day that they were planning to leave Hector had begun to grow fur.

His comrades had been unaffected and had apparently safely returned to the caravan and gone on. Hector, had no choice but to stay. The fact that everything he had grown accustomed to, the fawning of women, the attention his art brought him, was all at and end did not click for several days. It became a hideous reality when he began to shrink. He had been a tall imposing man, now he was diminutive, taller than Charles was, but still no bigger than a child. Everything he had ever wanted was gone in that one shift. Everything that ever held value was swept away by Metamor Keep. He wished he could call down a curse upon the place, but there was nothing that he could do.

"Morning everybody!" he heard Matthias's friendly voice ring out as he knocked on their doors. Hector cringed. Matthias always liked to spend time with them all together, and sometimes individually. He hated having to go out there and face the scrutiny of the others; it gave him a horrible sensation in the pit of his stomach. However, Matthias would come in if he didn't go out. He picked up his latest chewing stick and walked out to say hello to the Headmaster of the Writer's Guild.

Matthias was dressed nicely in a mostly clean tan shirt with white vest overtop of it. He had his chewstick through the buckler of his belt like a scabbard might be. His black eyes were bright with life and happiness. Of course he would be happy, he was deluded and did not realize how much people wished he'd just go away. That and he had a girlfriend of course. The other rats made their way out as well. Saulius still had bandages all over his chest, keeping his upper torso mostly immobile. His knightly bearing made him seem noble and tragic at the same time. Since his run in with Charles last week, he had not said much more than a few words at a time. Also he had been saner in the last week than he ever had been before. Eliot, who had a patch of red fur on his back where one of Pascal's concoctions scalded him, was already gnawing feverishly away on his stick; he tended to wait till the last minute to start doing that, thus his incisors tended to get very long. Goldmark, who seemed to take some sort of perverse joy out of reveling in the rat, was at a more midform with his quite baggy clothes hanging off his three-foot tall blackish form. Then there was the almost obsessively quiet Julian, with his pure white fur and pinkish tail, who chittered to himself most of the time, and speaking only when spoken too.

All of them gathered around in a circle of five, sitting on the cold masonry as Matthias leaned in towards them, his own face bright. He looked over each of them quickly, noting happily that Saulius was not grunting as much as he had been the last few days, and that the others were each with the exception of Hector at least somewhat positive that morning. Hector did not want Charles to try and dislodge him from his misery, he just wished to be free of the rat.

"How is everybody this morning?" Charles asked, looking about their faces, taking his chew stick and nibbling on it a bit as he spoke.

"Just ratty," Goldmark remarked comically, shrinking even further in his clothes. Nobody could figure out just what Goldmark wanted, but he seemed to like living in the cellars. Matthias had apparently given up hope that Goldmark ever return to the world of the daylight for any serious length of time.

Hector did not want to speak yet, waiting to see what the others said. Sir Saulius spoke slowly, trying not to move his chest too much. "I am well, Sir Matthias. How dost thou farest?"

Matthias nodded his head, "I'm doing good, I just got another story finished and will be reading it at today's Guild Meeting. I brought it with me to share with you all if you would like to hear it."

Hector nodded, as did the other rats. That was always one of the most enjoyable parts of seeing Matthias come down to them in the mornings. His stories, while sometimes dry, were always entertaining and did remind them that there was still hope and that life still went on. Hector suspected that the stories he read them had a deliberate message that he was hoping would bore into their brains and convince them that they did not have to live in the cellar. It was clever, but it was going to take a lot more than a story to convince him of that.

Charles nodded, "Okay, I'll read it to you, but not until we've finished talking. Julian, Hector, how are you two? You haven't said anything yet."

Hector looked to Julian; he was not going to let Julian get away with going last this time. He wanted that position. He had been first in all things in life, now it was only fitting that he should be last. Julian shrugged, "I'm okay." His voice was lackluster, as his eyes dropped to the floor, unable to connect with anybody else. He was so withdrawn that it made Hector wonder if he was always like this or just after he'd become a rat. Hector was one of the last of them to come to the Keep, only Kimberly had come after him, so he really didn't know what any of them were like before they had changed.

Matthias turned to him. Hector sighed, "I'm as all right as I can be. I mean, I am one of the lowest forms of life there is. No, I think I'm doing just fine!" he snapped at the one who wanted to be his friend. He knew that he shouldn't have done that, now Matthias would try to find out what was wrong and then to cheer him up. He wished he wouldn't bother.

The others were not too shocked by his outburst. There were similar outbursts from them all the time down here in their conversations. Matthias once in a while had been driven to make an outburst against life in general as well, though that was much more infrequent. Matthias nodded at what he said, and sighed, "Hector, what's wrong?"

It was the typical first question that he would ask, and there was always his typical response. It was almost a game now, a sort of sparring between partners. He had made his first move, and Charles had responded almost instinctually. "I think it should be pretty obvious what is wrong." Hector remarked, staring condescendingly at Charles. Who did he think he was anyway? He was just a rat like them. He was fooling himself if he thought otherwise.

The others took a breath then; this was going to be a long discussion. Matthias however, did not make the next move that he was expecting, but tried a different tactic. "If you want to be miserable Hector, then fine, be miserable. I am trying to share in the company of my kin, and you just seem to be contrarian this morning. Fine, be contrarian. We shall enjoy ourselves." Hector sat there, denied the chance at the attention he had wanted, and told what he could do. What had possessed Matthias to say those things to him? There seemed to be no reason for him to be so cruel! Didn't Charles know who he, Hector Phillips was? He glared at the better-dressed rat and sulked there, running through his emotions as Charles chatted mostly with Eliot and Goldmark. He shared a few stories, as well as telling them about some of the recent events on the Keep. He also warned them of the upcoming Easter celebrations that would be coinciding with the Vernal Equinox festivals. They were usually held at the same time so that all could participate in the activities. Some held Easter and others the Vernal Equinox. Even though there were some calendar differences, it all usually worked out to everybody’s satisfaction, at least everybody that would be attending.

Of course he extracted a promise out of Eliot and Julian to attend. Goldmark had already been planning on going, though he was going to probably go as a real rat and slink about trying to sneak off with as much food as he could. Saulius already had his excuse to avoid the public sight, he had been injured. Matthias hoped he would at least show up, and Saulius gave him a rather tepid response. Matthias never asked Hector anything. For some reason, that only infuriated him more.

At last, Charles finally succumbed to Goldmark's protestations that he get on with the story. Hector usually enjoyed his stories, but not today. It was probably because of his anger, but he found everything about Charles's writing sloppy, trite and without any artistic qualities whatsoever. It was worthless dribble, without intent or capability to actually entertain the higher minded. Sure, the others were enjoying it; even Saulius laughed at one bit, though he quickly regretted doing so from the spasms that wracked his body. However, it was not art. It was words on a page thrown together so that the laymen might find pleasure; it was not true literature. Matthias had written true literature, and this was not it.

When he finished, Eliot and Goldmark praised him warmly, Goldmark scurrying about in the pile of his clothes, almost completely a real rat now. Saulius gave him a quick comment in his archaic tongue, and even Julian gave him a slight nod at hearing it. Matthias then rose to his feet, "I better let you for get on with the days work. I love seeing you all, you are my friends, but responsibilities beckon us onward."

With a few farewells, the others began to return to their rooms, but Hector wanted to be the first to be off. He stood up, and marched back to his room, slamming the door behind him as he went. There were a few muffled murmurs, but nothing else from the other end. Hector sat at his desk, knocked the figurine he had sculpted to the floor where it landed with a clatter, and pulled out the parchment and began to inscribe the odd shaped symbols onto the blank paper. He blinked in the dim illumination. He really should have put more oil in the lamp, because he could barely see what he was doing, but he didn't care. He hated doing this work, but he needed something to live off of, and all of his artistic talents were wasted on this body.

He heard his door open and shut. Matthias seemed to have forgotten his manners. "Hector, please, can we talk?"

Hector did not turn around; he did not want to even look at the disgusting creature behind him. He dressed in finery and strutted about court thinking that they liked him! He was a fool, all of the others at the Keep laughing at the presumptuous rat thinking that he was worthy of anybody else's time and efforts.

"I thought you wanted me to be miserable?" he remarked acidly.

Charles nibbled on his stick a moment, and then added, "I wanted you to realize that you cannot expect me to spend all of my time trying to sooth your ego."

"My ego?" That was too much. Hector turned about on his chair, his tail twisting about the legs of it in frustration. "You're the one who struts about thinking how wonderful you are!"

Charles turned back towards the door, "I don't have time for this, Hector. I don't know what flea you've gotten in your fur, but I certainly want no part of it."

It was then that Hector realized he wanted Charles there. He wanted the attention, and Charles was systematically denying him that what he wanted. That was why he was getting so angry. He quickly toned his voice down and called out, "No, Charles, I'm sorry. I'm just miserable again."

Charles turned back towards him then, "I know. Do you want to talk about it?"

Hector sighed, putting the quill pen down and placing his paws in his lap. "I don't like being a rat."

"You aren't the only one. Do you think Saulius likes it? How about Julian? Eliot pretends he is coming to accept it, and well Goldmark, I don't know about him." Matthias looked a bit confused over the oddball of the group. "Tallis is probably the only other rat who even halfway likes it, and the Lady Kimberly is growing to accept it, but very slowly. You Hector, I do not understand. I've seen your carvings, they are absolutely amazing. Yet you refuse to share your gift. Why?"

"I can't do it anymore!" Hector complained. "I have carved only one thing in my time, and you've seen it. It's terrible."

"It may not be up to what you used to do," Matthias conceded, "but it certainly is better than most can create. We have carpenters here at the Keep, but no real artisans with wood. Why don't you fill that gap?"

"My hands are paws! I can't control the knife anymore," Hector protested.

Matthias just gnawed at his stick, as if in contemplation. He shrugged, "When was the last time you tried?"

"I don't know. But look at my paws, my thumb can't touch all my other fingers! I can barely make a fist out of my paw. About the only thing I can do with them anymore is write, and that is more like drawing anyway. I can't sculpt with them now, and I will never be able to do it again." That was half of his complaint, but he doubted that Matthias would appreciate hearing the other half. It was his fault for being so vain. He deserved to be given a form that would prevent him from ever being looked up as handsome again.

Matthias continued gnawing at his stick, little pieces of wood occasionally falling down to the floor below him as he did so. "I guess you are just going to have to find another way, Hector. I really hope you can, because you have a remarkable talent."

Hector stared at Matthias, especially the stick in his mouth for a moment. He stared at the incisors that chipped away at the stick, rubbing it down ever so slowly. He felt as if he was going to shake with stunned shock at what he as seeing. He nodded to Matthias, hoping that his secret would stay that way, at least for now. He didn't say anything else, but turned away from Matthias, hoping that he would let him be.

Matthias did not disappoint him this time. "I have other things I need to get to. I hope you are feeling better soon Hector. I hope you can get some of your carvings done before the Equinox, I'd certainly like to see them myself." Matthias then gave his final farewell and left him to his own devices.

Hector waited until he could hear the scraping of Matthias's claws against the masonry grow distant. He then with feverish excitement grabbed at a sturdy looking stick that he had collected and began to gnaw at it, moving up and down the stick, moving it through his teeth, letting the old magic that he once knew come to life. He had to stop and look at it many times, making sure that he could get just the right amount of wood off. He managed to get a rough outline done quickly. However, his teeth were too wide to get the finer detail. He removed his clothing then, and sat upon his bed, and let himself shift closer to his norm form, and then continued with the smaller incisors. He wore out more, getting the detail finer, sculpting the shape in his teeth, and forming it from the wood that before had just been a chore.

As he grew smaller, he could no longer hold the object in his paws, but had to set it on his bed and roll it over with his nose. He refined it, his excitement at what he was doing once more taking hold of him. What he carved or chewed out of the wood was no longer important, it was the act of the chewing and the creation that overwhelmed him. He had not felt so giddy in over a year at what he was doing. He shrunk until finally he was a true rat in form and had to crawl about his object and work it down until it was smooth all about, and each crease in the figure was precisely the way he wished it. He used his claws in places, for very fine details, and made sure that every contour was perfect. He finally sat back on his haunches and stared at the creation that he had gnawed out of the wood.

It was the figure of a morphic rat, nobody he knew in particular. He felt his body shaking, and he crawled up beside it and placed his paws on the wood. This was his, he had made it, and all would see that he did indeed have talent. Those people snickering at him, they could continue to say how ugly he was, but he would create things more beautiful than even the fairest and most resplendent of them all. He, Hector Phillips, had found his way once more.