Stealth said his farewells to Oberon and Kristinai before departing from their home. The cheetah had been training under the white tiger that morning and he’d been invited back to Oberon’s apartment in Long House for lunch. Stealth had blushed profusely under his fur and graciously accepted the offer. Their son, Garen, joined them at the table, sitting on a high chair. It was a bit scary for the cheetah; he feared that at any moment the cub would lunge at him and pull his whiskers or something, however Garen remained well behaved, though a bit messy.
All the Longs were good folks, he felt... except maybe Finbar. They were such nice, friendly people and it was easy to see why they got along so well.
After the courier left the snow tiger’s apartment, he turned his head down to the thick green rug under his feet. While training in various forms of combat and wilderness survival techniques, which included spending some time in full form, Stealth had taken the time to get fully dressed again and that included pulling his boots on. Though it made the trip through the towns and the Keep easier, the cheetah now wished he hadn’t bothered with them; he would’ve loved to walk on that thick rug with bare feet. The carpet looked quite comfy.
Stealth thought it best to block out any envy or longing in regard to anything in this guarded place the Longs called home; he’d just leave and be done with it. As he made his way quickly to the exit and the rest of the Keep’s halls, the cat was startled by a call from behind.
Stealth turned to see Misha approach with a certainty to his manner. Ever since becoming a cheetah taur, Misha had become friends with Stealth just as Padraic and Oberon had, however it didn’t look as though the fox merely wished to say hello. But Stealth hadn’t done anything wrong...
As Misha reached him, standing on the symbol of the bow and axe at the centre of the carpet, Stealth found an envelope in his hand. It bore the seal of a fox’s head.
"I need that taken to Glen Avery," the fox ordered. "And when you bring back the reply just go straight to Long House. From now on you have my permission to come and go as you please."
The cat’s eyes widened, “I can enter Long House whenever I want without a pass?”
"Well, you've done really well lately and you've earned it. Also Edmund trusts you and that is good enough for me."
Stealth felt his ego soaring. He was barely allowed into the kitchens! The cat’s ears folded in a humbled gesture as he bowed low to the fox in gratitude.
“It will reach the Glen with all haste! And I’ll have their reply on your desk even faster!” The cheetah declared boldly. “How far is it to Glen Avery again?”
“About five hours by carriage.” Misha suddenly noticed the cheetah staring blankly at him. “Is there a problem?”
“...hell no, I’ll be back in five hours!” Stealth assured though more to himself, hoping he’d believe it.
The fox just chuckled and shook his head, “You don’t have to kill yourself, Spots. Just get it there and return. It needs to go to Lord Avery, his house is the first on the left up a rope ladder in the town’s commons.”
“I understand, but I have one more question.”
“Oh? What is it?” The fox asked. It was probably another question about being let into Long House or something.
“What is the weather like up north of the Keep today?” Stealth asked.
“Ah, it’s quite cold to be honest, lots of snow about the northern woods.” The fox admitted. “If it’s too cold for you, I understand, I won’t force you to go but you’re still welcome here.”
“No, I can still make the journey, but I will need to call on someone for something I didn’t think I’d ever take them up on.” The cheetah rubbed his chin in thought.
“Oh?” Misha asked, “I’m confused.”
“I just need to make a stop off first and make an adjustment to my gear.” Stealth explained.
“Can I see what this is?” The fox cocked his head.
“I’m afraid I have to travel to the mage’s guild tower to collect it, if that isn’t a problem.” Stealth cringed; it wouldn’t be much of a delay though he preferred to leave in haste to his destination.
“The mage’s guild it is.” Misha answered and dropped his pants...
Soon the cheetah was accompanied by a foxtaur on the centre of the green carpet. Misha stood on his four legs and looked at the cat expectantly.
“It isn’t THAT far away.” The cat put a paw to his mouth due to the awkwardness.
“You need to make a stop off first and this is the fastest way to travel.” The foxtaur argued. He just loved an excuse to go taur, but then again so did everyone the Long taught the form to! He continued to wait for the cheetah.
Stealth blushed under his fur but soon made a motion for the fox to look away. When the fox’s head was turned, the cheetah removed his boots – the rug did feel comfortable under his feet – and his breeches. Scarcely a moment more and two giant taurs stood on the rug.
“Planning a trip?” A familiar voice asked from behind.
Both taurs turned to see the Paladin Knight approaching from one of the doors off Long House. “I was returning to my apartment...” Edmund explained. The comment was intended as both an answer and a question to why he found himself in Long Hall.
“I may need your help with something.” Stealth explained, assuming there was no greater concern that Kyia intended for the Knight to attend to.
“Of course, how can I help?” It wasn’t the first time Stealth had confused the Paladin and probably not the last.
“We’re heading to the Mages’ guild tower. Meet us there.” The cheetah taur explained.
“You should just come with us to save time.” Misha explained.
Edmund shook his head slowly, “That... isn’t necessary. I will meet you there.”
“Alright, it would be fun and faster though.” He shrugged, “Now we’ll be off, don’t dawdle.” Misha ordered both the cheetahs and began for the exit. They made their way out the same way that Edmund had entered.
The taurs made a casual trot through the halls and courtyards of the Keep, giving Edmund plenty of time to catch up to them. Though tempting to race, the cheetah taur would need to measure his strength for the long journey ahead. However they arrived soon enough at the doors to the Guild hall and carefully walked through the large portal though there was more then enough room even in taur form, still they were subtle.
The guild hall looked much smaller then Long Hall and less furnished though it had far more intricate decorations lining the walls and ceilings much like Lothanasi temple. The cheetah taur approached a small boy who he assumed to be some sort of overseer or perhaps just a page, he couldn’t tell.
“Excuse me, I need to see two mages, Ethan Rugger and Felltho Longark, can you tell me if they’re in?” Stealth asked respectfully.
The boy looked him up and down, “I could find any mage to take a look at your problem if you want.”
“No, I just need to see them. It’s regarding a project they’ve been working on with me.” Stealth glanced back at the fox taur sympathetically.
The child looked at him for a moment, “I’ll go check,” He then turned and headed off down a corridor.
No sooner had Edmund arrived, the boy returned and ushered the three of them down a long hallway. They entered a large room full of benches and then the child left. Fell and Rugger were already waiting in the room. It looked to be a room for projects much like a workshop though for a different craft.
“Hey Stealthy.” The gazelle mage hailed after the trio entered.
“Hey Fell, Rug, it’s good to see you. I’m here for that project, is it still good to use?” The cheetah taur asked hopeful.
“Yes.” The Dragon answered simply, “though the tailor took your measurements, there was no real chance to fit it or test it, but it should be fine.” So saying, the dragon and gazelle left through a door leading to another room connected to the workshop where they readied the project.
“What is this? Some sort of suit I imagine?” Edmund asked.
“Its a suit to be worn as an animal, not regular clothing with modifications, but something warm and adjustable for me to work in, in the snow.” Stealth explained.
Edmund paused. “Did you try this thing for practicality?”
“You’ll look a bit silly.” Misha added softly.
Stealth frowned at the two older morphs, “Misha, we’re taurs! And you’re saying I’ll look silly? This could be a great advantage, and Edmund, you should know the disadvantages that being a cheetah brings this far north.”
They both nodded slowly, “Well.” Misha began, “I still want to see this thing.”
“When did you start working on this?” Edmund asked.
“Back in April I got a tailor in Euper to take my measurements in animal form and build the parts to the suit. Fell and Rug worked on the magic behind it to make the thing light and strong.” He paused, “We’ve been working on it as a pet project over summer, the tailor crafted it and the mages here refined the parts. Additions have been added over that time to make it stronger.”
“How strong?” Misha asked.
“Like armour...” Stealth answered softly.
Most of the additions were added following the attack in September. Stealth was still working to pay off his debt to the fox scout following that. Though he didn’t mention it openly, Misha and Edmund probably had a hunch as raiders were the most likely reason for the added protection unless one day Stealth intended to head into battle in full form. For a moment there was only silence in the room, though there was plenty of noise coming from the next room.
Misha eventually nodded. “You say a tailor helped?” He asked to break the silence.
Stealth looked up, “Aye, a gender morph who kept the name Ann ...and her personality.” He smiled at the memory, “I think he’d love to take both of your measurements. Last I heard a full suit for a taur was in the works but it needed proper measurements to come to fruition.”
“Oh?” The fox asked, “Hmm, Well if not practical, a suit like that would still generate exposure for the tailor, perhaps even enough to catch the Duke’s attention!”
A call from the next room caught their attention; apparently the mages found what they were looking for.
The next room looked more technical. It was where the guild carried out ‘real’ work as opposed to class experiments. Misha and Stealth both shifted back to their biped forms and replaced their pants, the cheetah remained bare footed and continued to hold onto his boots. The next room was familiar to the cat and the fox, but not to Edmund. Reaching high were scrolls of parchment and large tomes, then there were the racks of tools and shelves of bottles as well as a large work bench covered in various things.
Fell unveiled a rack with various and ordinary looking furs as well as some sheets of leather and even metal. “This will be a bit tricky; we’ll need you to shift again and get some extra hands or paws to help fit each piece properly.”
Stealth sighed, though he was expecting this part and had grown accustomed to disrobing and then shifting among company many times, still he faced away from the small group as he quickly removed the shirt, jacket and trousers before melting into his animal form.
Throughout the next few minutes, the fox and cheetah handled the various furs as instructed by the gazelle while the dragon chanted something. At first they handled the furs and thin metal sheets for the animal’s front; his fore legs, head, neck and chest. Then Edmund attached the sections around Stealth’s hind legs and rump. Of the four people there, Stealth felt most comfortable with Ed adjusting anything in that area.
The others didn’t argue, and gave Edmund the tail-padding and armour which was built in a shape similar to a scorpion’s tail. Finally came the boots, four boots made for digitgrade foot-paws. At first, Edmund thought of them as smaller versions of his own custom made boots though he soon saw them to be of a different construct entirely.
Like the tail piece, the boots were made in sections hinged together for more flexibility, and they weren’t made of leather, save the soles. Again like the tail, they were made of fabric and metal covering the shins. The base had a metal frame and ended in steel claws for each toe. With all the parts attached, the paladin stood back to get a better look and frowned; he felt torn between them looking... harebrained on one side but on the other, quite ingenious.
Though his concerns really lay with the logic and use for such a ‘suit’. It was both thick in places yet had gaping holes in others. Some parts of him would be liable to overheat while others would get frost bitten. Then there was the armour component, how would it handle a blade or a volley of arrows? And how would he be able to move at all in it? Even IF this thing worked, a cheetah relies on proper ventilation to keep cool and functioning. That’s why their fur was so abysmal at warding off the cold; it wasn’t designed to retain warmth, it was designed to dispel it.
The paladin looked over to his other, still morphed friend, Misha. From the look on his face, the fox had been quietly making his own opinions on the suit though it was difficult to discern between whether the vulpine felt dissatisfaction or merely curiosity.
“Now...” Rugger said distractedly, “try not to move...” The cheetah could only comply as he literally couldn’t move. The suit fixed him solidly in place where he could only hope to move his eyes and jaw.
The dragon had been drawing runes on the floor with chalk in symmetrical patterns. Rune craft usually takes a great deal of time and effort but these were just garden variety runes for basic strengthening. The gazelle mage firmly lodged two amulets into the feline’s breast plate then some small gems in various grooves along the suit.
All four of them stepped back, setting the cheetah very ill at ease.
“We’re going to awaken the suit, we’ll only have to do this once, but ONLY if it’s done right so don’t move or panic or anything.” Fell ordered and raised his arms.
The gazelle mage made slow movements with his hoof-like hands that seemed to mimic the shape of the suit while the dragon carved invisible patterns in more specific places, probably the gems and amulets. Eventually they both began to chant and the suit glowed. Power flowed through the joints, startling the cat but he tried to remain calm. Veins of magical energy flared all over and coursed through the fabric and metal joining at the amulets at the front where they built up in strength and flowed back over the entire length magnifying the veins intensity further.
And then the power faded. The energy dimmed to a cool, subtle glow then it diminished within the suit completely.
“You can move now.” Said the dragon.
Stealth turned his gaze down to his legs and cautiously lifted a paw. He could move it so he flexed it, then his other paw, then his fore legs and hind legs. He could move, he could move as easily as when clad only in fur! His tail swayed back and forth as he moved about on the spot for practice.
“You can walk. Try to move about the room.” Fell instructed.
Stealth walked about for practice as instructed, and then the gazelle made some slight adjustments. All seemed to be going well.
“Okay, now this is the tricky part, I need you to shift back to morph form.” He said while working on one of the joints. “According to the tailor, a key feature of this suit is that it can shift as you shift, without tearing or causing much discomfort.”
The quadruped shrugged and shifted, slowly at first, looking a bit like an animal trying to stand on two legs though soon his body began to look humanoid. The mage continually made adjustments as the shift took place. Eventually, Stealth stood as a morph once more, naked, though only in the one place that mattered...
His ‘shoes’ didn’t look damaged, but they were sitting awkwardly much like socks that needed adjusting, albeit socks made of metal with steel claws.
“How do you feel?” Fell asked.
“Exposed.” The cheetah answered, while clasping his ‘harbles’ “But the furs and metal aren’t too uncomfortable.”
“Good, then that’s one less thing to worry about.” He said. “You can shift back now.”
Stealth did so promptly, and Fell made some more adjustments.
“Will it work in the cold?” Edmund suddenly asked, “I have concerns about this suit.”
The gazelle looked at the knight and shrugged, “It’s designed to protect the most vulnerable areas on an animal’s body, and ward off hypothermia. We’ve got lots of runes and a couple of amulets to keep it light and flexible yet strong and it breathes well enough so the wearer won’t overheat from running. In addition, it’s highly flexible and non-invasive. It works with the wearer’s body to keep him warm.” He quoted, though with much of his own input as one of the creators.
Edmund nodded. “This will be its first test.”
“What about the power of these amulets?” Misha asked and rubbed his chin, “What happens when they run out of power, how long do they hold out till they run out of power?”
“We’re not entirely sure as it hasn’t been tested properly, we’ve done lab tests and it looks okay for a few hours, maybe a day of usage but it drains faster with stronger ware.”
“And when it runs out?” The Paladin cheetah persisted.
“We don’t know.” The dragon admitted, “It could fall off or fix him in place but it can be replenished by a mage easily enough.”
Stealth shifted uncomfortably in the suit at the row beginning to simmer because of him.
“I understand you’re concerned.” Rugger said suddenly, “Are you his father or something?”
Stealth’s head shot up at that.
Edmund chuckled, “Nay, I’m his friend, I’m not THAT old!” He joked. “But with all due respect, I don’t want my friend succumbing to the cold, it almost happened once already.”
The quadruped seemed to snarl at the paladin, ‘Edmund...’ he would have said had anyone understood him.
“We heard.” The dragon said with a grin.
“How much did this suit cost you?” Misha suddenly asked.
“Apparently it’s no cost, but to be seen.” Fell answered, “When this suit passes the hard yard, Ann wants people to know who made it.”
Misha put a paw to his chin, “That’s quite a risk she’s taking.”
The mage shrugged, “I’ve been living in the valley all my life; I know people need to take risks to get this far.”
“Then good luck to her and the two of you and you too, Stealth.” Misha offered, “I’ll be waiting for you in my office, just remember not to kill yourself out there to prove something; I want you back safe, understand?”
The cheetah nodded.
Misha turned to leave. Stealth and Edmund both followed after shortly, Edmund slipped Misha’s envelope into a custom made pocket on the animal’s back, the suit still needed work before he could attach his trusty back pack, not that he brought it along anyway. The paladin wished him luck and then joined the fox outside the Guild hall who had once again become a taur.
The gazelle mage kneeled down to the cheetah, “I’m sure it will work fine, Stealth.” He said and then headed back down the hallway to return to his other tasks.
Outside the Mages’ Guild Tower, Stealth headed for the third gate of Metamor Keep, then the main gate out to the lower ward. His friends had already left in a different direction so the cheetah started on his way to Glen Avery. He did his best to ignore the stares he received from the Metamor town folk.
Stealth made his way out of the town and down the side path leading north. Once the cat entered the wide, open space, he bolted. The suit now began its first REAL test and a hundred paces – human paces – north of the keep, everything looked good. Five hundred paces north of the Keep, the first problems began to emerge...
Two opposing sheets of fur on the cat’s right fore leg began to clash. It was enough to cause a considerable distraction and the obstruction slowed him down. The cheetah slowed to a trot and tried to gnaw on the hindrance in the hope of forcing it apart.
He stopped to sit on his haunches and continue the task. Soon, the upper section shifted up, back into place and, after a slow practice walk, the cat bolted once more. For the next quarter of an hour or so, Stealth ran without incident. He began to grow used to the suit and it felt less obstructive. It even seemed to balance out his body heat; the sleek feline didn’t feel numb from the cold or hot from the run. This strange suit didn’t just consist of thick padding and metal, the overall shape and curves of it as a whole seemed to structure air flow around his body, allowing it to breathe yet remain warm.
Stealth reached Tarrelton in good time, though he felt too tired after the run to care about the looks people were giving him. Hypocrites... A clothed full form Metamorian couldn’t possibly be the most peculiar thing in this valley; they did have a plaid beaver running around for one.
After catching his breath for a bit, and observing the continual reconstruction of the hamlet, the cheetah began another slow trot north though he began to have dire doubts. Being a courier seemed like a good idea for getting things to places fast, but to the Glen? However, only a fraction of his deliveries had essential time frames, the rest of the time he did regular work.
And despite lacking the endurance for a sustained dead run, he could still get there faster that a mule-drawn-carriage. At least in theory...
After walking at a quick pace, the cat started into a trot, measuring his strength. For a great portion of time, the cat alternated between walking, trotting, jogging and an all out sprint. He made sure to always be moving at-least the same speed as a horse drawn carriage. After three hours – that he didn’t keep track of – he’d long since passed the northern signal tower and entered the boundary of the larger, northern forests.
At this point, Stealth measured up his strength for the final leg and moved off again. He entered a fast trot, vowing to maintain it, though he had long since felt the strain. Time and trees passed him by as he closed in on the Glen until a shout from overhead stoped him in his tracks.
“Halt! Identify yourself.”
Grudgingly the cheetah shifted into his morph form and rose into a crouching stance to become perceptible, “I am Stealth, a courier from Metamor Keep.” Usually he’d change back into a clothed morph before reaching a town but he didn’t know where the town began! And with the new suit he couldn’t carry his backpack that held his clothing...
“A courier? I don’t see a parcel, unless that thing you’re wearing is the delivery.” The anonymous voice continued, which earned some chuckles from other places in the trees.
“This thing I’m wearing keeps me warm, like your ‘houses’ keep you sheltered.” The cheetah retorted with a resentful tone to his voice. “I am delivering a message.”
“Who is your message for?” The voice asked. At the very least Stealth figured it must have belonged to an animal morph.
Who was it again? “Lord Avery.” That was it.
“And who sent you?” The voice asked in a condescending tone.
There was a pause, “proceed.”
And he did, Stealth shifted once more and after a few minutes the cat reached the commons. He made it to Glen Avery!
Despite himself, Stealth gawked at the trees on either side of the clearing.
He'd never seen trees so tall as these. They were as big as a wagon around and
rose so high he wondered if they didn't rival the towers of Metamor. The small
clearing filled with a light dusting of snow would have been shrouded in gloom
if not for the lanterns that hung from ropes strung between the trees like a
thousand fireflies swaying to and fro. Nestled with the base of many trees he
saw little doors and lights glowing within. At the far end of the clearing he
saw what looked like a welcoming Inn set amidst an outcropping of rocks, as
well as a sign bearing a tankard next to what at first glance appeared to be
He soon found a rope ladder that led up into the boughs of a massive redwood. This had to lead to the Avery’s home though if the ladder weren't lowered he'd never would have known it was there. He took a quick breath, threaded his shoed paws in the ladder, and began the slow climb up. The cat cleared it with some trouble, but cleared it all the same. It led to a small balcony built on top of a large branch and ended at a slightly arched door inside the main trunk. He batted at the door, which soon opened to reveal a confused humanoid squirrel. She was dressed in a relaxed green gown that obviously could be hitched for easy climbing. The weave was better than anything Stealth owned, so this must be Lord Avery's wife.
“...yes?” She asked slowly.
The animal couldn’t answer as he was and instead bowed low to the woman, revealing the pocket that would contain the message from Misha.
A long pause followed.
The cat eventually looked up to see the squirrel hadn’t moved from her spot or said a word. Stealth motioned with his head to the spot in his back a number of times.
“...are you hurt? Is there a problem with your back?” She asked and reached over.
Stealth vehemently shook his head, oh by the gods he was tempted to become a taur and achieve the power of human speech, though that would likely cause the small, wooden balcony to buckle and collapse. That only left the option to shift into a morph, a naked morph in front of the female...
‘Maybe if...’ he shuffled about for a moment and paled; the letter was GONE!
The cheetah began to panic and he made an animalistic cry in anguish.
Lady Avery crouched by his side, “What’s wrong?!” Her voice carried both a stern quality of command, but also a gentle concern that Stealth knew must be genuine.
“Hello down there!” A second voice called out.
“Marcus? What is going on here?” The squirrel asked to the voice. Stealth turned his head and saw a pine marten effortlessly scramble over the balcony edge.
Marcus, a grin stretching across his entire muzzle, waved an envelope back and forth with his free paw, “Your guest dropped this on the way in.”
Stealth looked up suddenly with a tired smile and a yip of delight. Lady Avery took the offered letter, “It’s from Misha.” She noted after examining the wax seal. Turning to the cheetah with an arched look of disbelief, she asked, “Did you RUN all the way here like that to deliver this?”
The cheetah gave an animalistic chuckle and nodded before slumping in fatigue.
“You poor dear! Come inside!” She then turned back to the pine marten and smiled. “Thank you, Marcus. Be a dear and fetch my husband.” The pine marten jumped off the balcony onto the tree bark and his claws scittered as he sped down like an animal.
The Lady of the Glen then led the tired cat inside the tree. Stealth marvelled as the door opened wide to reveal a small sitting room with a working stove upon which steeped a copper tea kettle. A ladder led up to a small hole in the ceiling, and another door at the back stood closed. Stealth felt some of his energy return as he crawled into that warm home. Angela Avery procured a brown robe from the wall and draped it over the cat. As soon as he was modest, Stealth shifted to morph form.
“Thank you! I’m so sorry; I could have handled things better than that.” He said genuinely apologetic.
“Yes you could have.” She nodded. “But it’s in the past. Now tell me, what is your name?”
“I am Stealth, a courier who usually operates around the Keep.” He answered and stood up to sit in an offered chair with the robe wrapped about him. The chair Angela offered was built from solid oak for a heavy Metamorian, perhaps an ursine judging from the width of the arm rests. Though Stealth's armour was very light, Lady Avery probably wasn't sure how cumbersome it was. “Misha asked me to deliver a message to your husband and return with the answer.”
“Marcus should be fetching him right now.” Angela assured him. “What did you do for Misha to punish you so?”
“Punish?” Stealth asked as he began to relax, “He asked me; I didn’t have to do it, he made that clear.”
“Did he give you those... clothes?” She pointed to the furs and armour showing through the robe. “Would you like to take them off?”
“No, a tailor in Euper and a couple of friends at the mages’ guild gave me these, and I would like to take them off but I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to and I need them for the trip back.” The cat explained.
“I understand, I” The squirrel was suddenly cut off by the sound of a bell ringing just inside the door. Lady Angela offered him an apologetic glance and then stepped outside. She leaned over the railing next to the rope ladder and her long tail flicked in obvious pleasure. “Annette! What are you doing here?”
Curious, Stealth wrapped the robe more tightly around himself and timidly followed her out onto the balcony. He’d prefer to remain hidden indoors given his odd attire but everyone would have seen him on the way in anyway. Peering over the edge he saw through the foliage a squat hedgehog dressed in a simple apron and rather matronly clothes. She held a basket full of something hot under one arm. The hedgehog pointed with her free arm at the cheetah and smiled. “I thought I saw a young fellow climbing to your tree and I thought I'd bring some of my freshly baked muffins for you both.”
Angela's smile was simple but true. “Hold onto the rope and we'll pull you up.” The hedgehog wrapped both her arms and legs around the end of the rope as asked. Angela gestured to the top of the rope and said, “Help me pull this would you?”
Embarrassed that his robe might fall open and reveal more than he wished, Stealth got on his knees to keep the robe in place and then started pulling. The hedgehog was definitely heavier than she looked from above! Still, after half a minute of pulling and heaving, the hedgehog scrabbled over the ledge with the piping basket intact.
“Oh my! I think I need to lose some weight.” She brushed out her apron and then beamed with her small pointed face at Lady Avery and the cheetah. “Hello dearies. I brought some of my muffins for you.”
“Let's go back inside where we can sit comfortably and wait for Brian,” Lady Avery suggested. Stealth was quite happy to take her suggestion. He climbed to his paws and with one arm holding down the robe, took his seat again inside the warmth of the squirrel's treetop home. Still, despite the hedgehog's cheerfulness, the cat began to feel awkward in the presence of these two and wondered when he would receive an answer to the letter so he could return to the Keep triumphant.
“Stealth, I’m sorry for the interruption, but this is Mrs Annette Levins and you must try her muffins! Mrs Levins, this is Stealth, he ran here all the way from Metamor!” The squirrel said to the hedgehog.
The cheetah felt a blush burning under his fur and turned his head down.
“Don’t be like that, here try one, lad.” The hedgehog held out the basket before the shy feline.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He took a reasonable sized muffin. They had walnut pieces and a sweet smelling glazing. It tasted simply mouth watering. The three talked about the cheetah’s duties, his suit and his friends while sharing a muffin or two. The cat forced himself to stop at three. At hearing about Alex, the pair had a renewed interest in the cheetah and asked him all about the woman, how she was doing and how she felt about the Glen.
Stealth was aware of her journey to the Glen and she’d had good things to say about the place, despite some hardship at the time of her arrival. She’d taken the exclusion from the elk hunt hard but the Gleners all helped to cheer her up afterward. Since that time, Lady Avery claimed that Alex was considered a Glenner! And so they wanted to hear how she was.
Stealth finished off the last of his walnut muffin, “I’d better stop; I’ll have to head back.” He said sadly.
“Brian hasn’t arrived yet.” The squirrel reminded him.
“I know, but I don’t want to get a cramp.” He answered honestly.
“I understand, but I still can’t have you running about so soon after such a long trip.” Angela scolded she got up and went to a cupboard next to the hearth. She took down four earthenware cups. “That... suit is sure to be quite heavy; you should rest before moving again.”
“It’s very light; it’s magical so it isn’t really a problem.”
“Well, even our horses rest after such a trip.” The squirrel countered as she poured the hot water into the cups.
“But I told Misha-”
“Never mind Misha, You’ll rest before heading back or you’ll both answer to me.” She ordered and handed the cheetah and hedgehog some tea. It smelled of sassafras.
“Yes ma’am.” The cat said obediently with drooped ears and sipped his tea.
At that moment a scattering sound could be heard through the front door which then burst open to reveal another gray squirrel. “Marcus tells me we have news from that rascal, Misha.” He walked over to the trio sitting by the fire, “Well met Lad, hello Mrs Levins.” Brian turned to his wife, he didn’t say anything but shared a fond gaze with her for a moment.
The Lady squirrel had a warm glow when she saw him and then after a moment handed him the letter, “Misha sent you this.”
“I’ll need a reply to take back to him,” The feline said, hopeful of an imminent departure. His hopes were dashed by a glare from the female squirrel.
Brian didn’t notice as he broke the seal and sat in a chair next to the cat. His eyes quickly scanned the text. “...I see, okay I’ll compile a response, in the mean time please enjoy our hospitality... what’s your name lad?”
“I’m called Stealth. Thank you for your hospitality, Sir.”
The squirrel Lord nodded, “I should probably give Misha an answer but please tell me what you’re wearing, is that some sort of armour?”
“Aye, armour and insulation. Despite its looks it is very light, lest I wouldn’t be able to run.” Stealth explained.
Annette Levins clasped her paws together, the spines on her arms bristling outward. “Oh, that's a wonderful idea! Do you deliver all your messages in this?”
“No, Ma’am, this is its first test!” He said giddily, “I usually carry parcels and a change of clothes in a backpack but I couldn’t wear it properly with this suit.” That and in his excitement to try out the suit he'd forgot the backpack. “I don’t even know how to take this thing off yet!”
The three Gleners stared at him for a moment. Brian's short snout twisted oddly to one side in either amusement or a scowl. One of Angela's brows lifted with feminine curiosity. The hedgehog Annette blinked and crossed her paws on her lap waiting for somebody else to speak first.
With so many eyes on him, Stealth couldn't help but shrug uncertainly. “Well it worked... so far.”
Brian suddenly laughed and shook his head, “I need to head back out to get an answer for this... I take it you won’t be interested in a tour of our town?”
Stealth shook his head sadly, “No sir, not as I am. But I hope to have this thing sorted out the next time I visit.”
“Good to hear, in the mean time I’ll get this sorted now.” He waved the letter in the air a moment before turning his bushy tail to leave. Just as quickly as Lord Avery arrived he scurried back out the door and from the balcony he probably took straight to the branches.
Mrs. Levins rose and brushed a few crumbs from her skirt. “Well, I should leave too. There's lots more baking to be done before nightfall. Jurmas asked me to prepare him some meatpies before his guests turn in.”
Lady Avery and Stealth rose as the matronly hedgehog slipped onto the balcony. Feeling self-conscious again, the cat asked, “Do you need help getting down?”
She laughed and waved her paw. “Oh no! Getting down is the east part. But thank you for thinking of me! Now do take care of yourself and don't wear yourself out running all over the place.” She smiled to Lady Avery in the sort of way women always did then grabbed the rope and disappeared over the edge. The rope slid back and forth a couple of times as she climbed down.
Lady Avery shut the door while Stealth settled back in the chair to wait for the Lord squirrel's return. To his pleasant surprise the ruler of this charming village returned before either the cheetah's impatience got the better of him or Angela was able to convince him to spend the night. Brian scrabbled in the door with a few pine needles sticking in the creases of his tunic. Lady Avery dutifully plucked them free as her husband walked over to Stealth.
“Here you go, Lad.” Lord Avery handed him the reply letter, “Good luck out there, we’ll be interested to hear how your experiment works out.”
“Thank you...” Stealth turned to the other squirrel in the room and looked at her with a shy and pleading gaze.
“Oh, go on. But I want you to take off that thing and get lots of rest when you get back.” She relented.
“Yes ma’am!” The cat said eagerly then felt around his back with both hands. “I have a pocket for the message somewhere back here.”
“Turn around and I’ll place it.” Angela offered.
He did so. His tail flicked nervously from embarrassment as Angela unveiled the robe from his back and slid the letter into the pouch. A few seconds of nervousness and then she replaced the robe.
“I made sure to fix it securely, it shouldn’t fall out this time.” She explained.
“Thank you, milady. I should be off now.” He bowed to the Lord and Lady of the Glen.
Brian looked at him for a moment, “How will you get down from the balcony?”
Stealth blinked at the squirrel. In the name of the gods, how WILL he get down? He climbed up okay... Cats were good at climbing trees but BAD at descending and cheetahs didn’t climb trees at all! He would have to descend the ladder in morph form but how would he climb back down without clothes?
“Could I borrow this robe... and a belt for it till I climb down?”
“You could; I’ll go with you to relieve it when you shift.” Brian shrugged.
“Thank you...” He took an offered belt from Angela, “Thanks.”
“You really should consider spending the night.” Lady Avery said with concern, “It will get dark and cold soon. Your fur is not thick enough for the forest night.”
“Thank you but if I leave now I can get back in time, if not, I can see in the dark and the suit will protect me. It's meant to keep me warm.” He hoped. “It has been nice to meet you, thanks again for your hospitality.”
“Very well. Thank you for your visit. Now be off before I change my mind.” She winked. Stealth felt very certain that if she truly wanted him to stay then every Glen scout and guard would hold him down and lock him up for the night no matter how much he protested.
Brian patted the cat on the back and led him to the door. “You work in your animal form?” He asked, making conversation, “Have you considered becoming a Glen Scout? You might just be perfect.”
“I’m not really built to climb trees, sir.” They headed through the portal onto the balcony.
“Not many of us are, actually, but you have the right outlook.”
Outside the tree house the daylight had waned and the temperature dropped, both facts made the cheetah eager to get moving all the sooner.
“It just seamed like the thing to do I guess.”
“Not many keepers, watch your step there, not many keepers use their full forms much if at all.”
“Hmm” Stealth nodded. He never really thought about it. With the robe wrapped as tight as possible he climbed down the rope ladder to the snow covered ground. Steel claws crunched snow and the padded feet within felt nothing of it’s cold bite. Stealth walked over from the bottom of the ladder somewhat and shifted quickly to his four legged form.
Lord Avery had only just climbed down when the cheetah already shifted. The squirrel now stood taller then the cat though not by much. He removed the robe from the animal and patted him on the shoulder. “Give that crazy old fox my regards and be careful out there, son. May Artela see you home safe.”
The animal nodded and chirped, then took off like a bolt out of the commons and toward home.
Night had long since fallen on the valley when the tired, armoured quadruped returned to the keep. He strained to make every step toward Long House. Each step was harder then the last. But finally with much thanks to Kyia the cat courier found the guarded doors. Stealth stopped at the door before the guards and wondered at how he would identify himself, thankfully they had the sense to wave him through.
At a snails pace that the gardener Rodger could beat he crawled into the narrow passage past the murder holes. The suit felt sooo heavy, he couldn’t possibly be THAT tired... with a start he realised that he wasn’t. The suit’s mana power had almost completely depleted and with it the ability to move. Some time later he made it half way through the hall and collapsed in a heap right on top of the symbol of the bow and axe. And there he stayed a prisoner of the suit.
Misha sat in his office going over correspondence. The fox scout went over all his intelligence reports in silence when he heard a high pitched sound. His good ear perked to the noise while his ridges furrowed in confusion, the noise sounded like a chirp or a squeak or something. The same squeak sounded quickly again and again at intervals. Misha ran out of the room and saw a creature sprawled on the floor; he immediately bolted to the figure’s aid.
"Get Jotham here FAST!" Misha shouted to a page standing nearby. The young boy took off at a run. The fox knelt down next to Stealth and started to remove parts of the suit. "Stealth. Can you hear me?"
Stealth made an unintelligible sound and tried to look up at the fox. As had been the case earlier that day he could only move his jaw and eyes.
"It's this damn suit isn't it? You shouldn't have used it on such a long trip." The scout snarled with the effort of prying it free.
Knowing a thing or two about magic, Misha looked for a proper release for the armour. He found a latch and tried to force it open. Having lost many of his fingers in battle, the task had its difficulty but he eventually managed. The parts of the suit that hadn’t yet been removed suddenly unbuckled themselves and fell apart on the floor allowing the fox to drag his friend out of the wreckage.
As soon as he was placed on the carpet, Stealth shifted to taur form so he could have both modesty and the power of speech. "How long did it take me? How long? Am I back in time?" The feline pestered, "I took too long..."
"You made it back in plenty of time." Misha answered.
At that moment the Long scout, Jotham rushed to the pair, “What’s wrong here?”
“Exhaustion from running to the Glen and back in that.” Misha answered and pointed to what was left of the armour suit.
Stealth trembled with weakness and kneeled on his four legs. He turned to the remains of the full suit and searched the back plate. He found a letter, it actually didn’t fall out this time!
The courier handed the envelope to Misha, “Your answer from the Glen.”
The human shook his head.
Misha took the letter and placed it in a side pocket, “Thank you, now let’s get you to bed.”
“To bed? This early?” Stealth asked with a frown.
“Yes, now. I’ll help you find a place to rest.” Misha answered.
“I’ll worry about that, I’ve cost you enough time as it is.”
“You saved me much more time, now to bed.” The fox ordered.
“My apartment isn’t anywhere near here.” The cheetah pointed out.
“Then you’ll rest in one of ours.” Misha shot back.
“What, sleep here? But it’s too early for bed.” Stealth complained.
"Either you get in bed or I'll have you CARRIED there," Misha ordered harshly, "I can get a dozen people here with no problem."
"No! I'll go!" The cheetah taur raised his hands disarmingly. He then tried his best to stand. The task proved almost impossible even with Jotham’s help.
Suddenly Stealth flinched at contact to his other side. Misha became a taur for the second time that day, it certainly increased his strength several times over and he easily helped lift the feline.
The fox taur and human healer eased the cat toward the direction of a door that lead to an apartment. It was the closest door and that’s all that mattered to the Long scout.
Stealth blushed as he was propped and helped along, "You know this is another favour I'll owe you."
"Don't worry about it Stealth,"
"At least let me shift back when we get there so I don't break the bed!"
The fox laughed, “Have you seen the size of Meredith’s bed? I wouldn’t worry.”
“We’re not going there are we?” He flinched.
“No, this room should be free.” He answered and motioned for the healer to open the door.
The room looked quite large though it was still shrouded in darkness. In the centre Misha could see a large bed and leaned the cat down against it while Jotham lit some candles on the desk. Stealth sniffed at the air and looked about, then his eyes widened.
“Misha, this is MY room!” Stealth gasped.
The fox laughed again, “There, you see, you didn’t need to travel far at all.”
“What will happen with my suit?”
“I’ll have it collected and sent back to the Mage’s Guild, I think it needs some work still and you should rest for a few days.”
The cat groaned, “I forgot to replenish it at the Glen. I don’t see what work it really needs.”
“Well you can wear it as a morph, what about making it adjustable for a taur?” Misha joked. "Adjusting the magic to suit should be easy."
"Taur armour... yes, taur armour!" The cheetah said with an image forming in his mind.
"Yes, that way you could still be on all 4 legs and still have arms."
Jotham pulled open the covers of the cat’s bed, "Now get in bed and stay there. Get several days of rest and muscle exercises."
"SEVERAL!?" He gagged. "But this bed wasn't built for a taur!"
"Then change back to a two legged form," Jotham ordered.
Stealth looked at the man who he knew used to be a woman...
"Don't give me that look. I know what you've got and I'm the healer so what I say goes!"
Stealth blushed profusely and shifted to his biped form in full view of the gender morph and foxtaur. There he slumped against the side of his bed.
Misha caught the cheetah before he fell very far and lowered the feline down onto the bed. Jotham helped move him then draped the covers back over the form. Stealth clenched his eyes shut and continued to blush under his fur.
Misha chuckled. "Relax Stealth. I've seen people nude before. And you do not excite me."
Stealth just groaned, "Misha please just don't worry, don't forget the letter."
"The letter is safe, never you fear!" The fox answered and patted his pocket.
Stealth pat his sheets and looked up at the healer, "It shouldn't take long for me to get back on my feet should it? I mean I can cover that distance fine."
"You need at least a night’s bed rest," Jotham ordered. "And another few days of limited walking and rest."
"Will I have to do this every time?" The cat asked ashen.
"Your recovery time will be shorter each time you head out, so long as you remember to keep moving or your recovery will take longer."
Misha shook his head. "Do you really need this armour? Seems a lot of trouble for some protection."
"Yes!" Stealth answered, "Without it I'd freeze out there and with it any thieves will think twice before attacking me."
"All right. You do have a point there but you need to have the mages alter it to make it safer." He said, shifting back to his biped form. The fox replaced his breeches that a moment before he’d slung over his taur back.
"Well I'm not going anywhere for a while..." Stealth grumbled into his sheets.
Misha took a small pouch from his belt and deposited it onto the bed with the cheetah. "Your payment my friend."
The cat chanced a peek in the pouch and his eyes widened, "Misha, this is too much!"
The fox gave a wave of his hand. "It's a perfect amount seeing as how fast you got there and back." He patted the cheetah on the shoulder. "Well done."
"Thank you," He said with folded ears. "But next time I'll be faster!"
"Crazy cat!" Misha just shook his head and slowly left the room.
Jotham glared at the cat then blew out the candles, “Remember to exercise your muscles but for now get plenty of rest.” So saying that he closed the door.
Stealth chuckled to himself as the door closed. He leaned back on the pillow and began to feel the first aches. Just as he had after his first patrol his whole body began to feel stiff. But for the pay, the trust, the memories of the day and not to mention being glad to help out, it was well worth it. And Misha did have an interesting idea. Taur armour. He pondered on it as he drifted into slumber.