Chapter Three – A Quest for Sustenance
When Nathan woke up, he defied the literary and fictional dictates that he should not remember where he was or the surprising things that happened shortly before he fell asleep. Instead, the boy woke quickly, quietly, and immediately looked around for Mathis. Nathan’s heart beat faster when, at first, he could not find the moose in the darkened room.
Mathis had given up patrolling, at least for that moment, and stood mostly hidden in the heavy folds of cloth that blocked off the outside from the inside of the room. Mathis stood looking out at the rain soaked darkness on the other side of the glass. Though Nathan did nothing more than lift and turn his head, some whisper of motion across the bed, the change in the air patterns moving in the air, or the shift in Nathan’s breathing alerted Mathis. Without turning to look, Mathis said, “Good morning, Nathan,” and the sound helped the boy locate the moose in the darkened room.
“Is it morning, then?” Nathan asked, wiggling around until he sat cross-legged, facing the window.
“I guess that depends upon how you define morning,” Mathis said. He finally turned away from the glass and hopped from the air conditioner under the window, to the table, and from there to the back of the padded chair where Mathis sat on his heels.
It is after midnight, so morning as in the start of a new day, but it is not yet five o’clock, so it would still be dark out even without the weather,” Mathis said blandly, filling the air with unimportant words in case Nathan’s brain needed a little more time to catch up with his body.
“Usually, I would go for the first half of the day after sunrise, but almost five o’clock is close enough to count, too.” Nathan rubbed his chin in thought, a gesture picked up from his dad who invariably returned from Antarctica with a beard of some description. “No idea where to draw the line, however.”
Mathis smiled to himself. Clearly Nathan would not be a slow riser if immediate action ever became necessary. “Have you had enough sleep for a while, or do you think pjs and covers sound attractive,” Mathis asked. “Barnaby will probably manage to stay unconscious for a few hours yet if nothing intervenes. You have not been asleep very long.”
“I think I have had more than enough naps to last me for a good long while.” Nathan uncrossed his legs and scooched forward until he could slip his feet to the floor. “First I want to clean my teeth, and then I want to have a look at that menu.”
Nathan headed for the bathroom, surprisingly quiet on his feet for a boy his age. He absently flicked up the room’s light switch on his way to his travel kit and the sink. Somewhere in the passage of time since Mathis first spoke, Nathan had accepted the moose as a full and proper adventuring companion. Though Mathis seemed perfectly comfortable, there was no need to leave him sitting in the dark. It would only take a few minutes to properly clean the teeth. The airport pizza had been good enough at the time, but some of the flavor lingered. While Nathan slept it had grown and mutated until Nathan did not want to be around himself when he spoke, and pitied the nose of anyone with whom he spoke.
For once, when Nathan emerged, he found Mathis in the same spot, though instead of sitting, the moose paced along the chair back with his pooves clasped behind his back and his head bowed.
“Is something wrong?” Nathan asked. He had not forgotten what Mathis said about attacks and enemies. While Nathan might have no personal experience of such things, he knew all the stories about his Gramps and Gramma, and had read a lot of stories by and about people who dealt with such things.
“Not at the moment,” Mathis said and smiled at Nathan. “I am not always good at keeping still unless it is needed.” Mathis jumped from the chair to the bed and strolled to the foot, nearer the desk, as Nathan made for the desk’s chair. “Is there anything in particular you are hungry for? I did some recon while you slept. The kitchens are clean, well kept, and I cannot vouch for the day crew, but the night chef is excellent.”
“How did you manage that? The door is locked and a restaurant kitchen is a very busy place,” Nathan asked.
“It is very difficult to keep a moose in or out of anywhere against our will. And you will find that most humans cannot hear me or see me do anything that a stuffed animal cannot. The main exceptions are young children and people with a mindset close enough to ours.
“Frankly I was surprised that you realized I had moved when you caught me nosing around in your suitcase with an eye toward making a little travelling nest for myself in case you either shoved me in there or I had to stow away. As embarrassing as getting caught sneaking was, I am just as glad you did. There are ways for me to make myself noticed if I need to do so, some fast, startling, and temporary for emergencies and other slow, more gentle and less predictable. I was not looking forward to trying to keep an eye on you while you remained oblivious.”
“You mean you are going to want me to carry you around with me?” Nathan asked, imagining how some of his friends at home would react to seeing him walking around carrying a forty-five centimeter high soft toy with a shudder, turning in his chair to look at Mathis.
“When we are on the move you can carry me in your rucksack, Sometimes I will want to make my own way to scout around a bit, though. Do not worry about it. The people most likely to give you a hard time about me are the ones least likely to notice my presence, unless they are getting a little help from our enemies. In that case, it serves as a pretty good warning as to what we are dealing with.” Mathis smiled and gave a brief laugh in a way that made Nathan profoundly grateful they were on the same side.
“Besides, how can I be a good Adventuring Companion if you go leaving me behind in cars and hotel rooms all the time?” Mathis asked. He jumped from the bed to the bureau, and dropped gently from there to the desk. A gentle stroll took Mathis to the menu’s edge.
When Nathan did not seem to have an answer to that, Mathis asked, “What do you have in mind?” looking down at the glossy, laminated page, even though he knew that Nathan had not actually looked yet. The menu was not fancy, only one, extra-long page with writing on the front and back with no pictures sealed in a thin layer of plastic. Most of the fare was familiar from home, though not always by the same name. For example, the menu called chips, fries and what it called chips, Nathan called crisps but Mathis had to explain to him about mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
“There are so many interesting and tasty things to choose from,” Nathan said, running a finger down the card and pausing a moment at all the things that struck his fancy, waffles, hamburgers, bacon, sausage, pancakes, steak, fries, and many others. “I know I could get more than one thing, but I do not want to waste any when I cannot eat it all.” Nathan made a face, trying to decide.
“How hungry are you?” Mathis asked, watching Nathan’s wandering finger. Most of the things Nathan lingered on longest were not on the all night availability section. I mean, can you wait half an hour or so you could go down to the buffet, even though the room service extended menu will not be available until seven.”
Reminded that only part of the things listed were actually available, Nathan turned to the back of the menu card and covered up the dinner and dessert options with both hands to stare at what was left. There were still several tasty things left, but mostly more snack like foods like chicken wings, and fried mozzarella sticks though there was pizza. After a long, thoughtful moment, Nathan dropped his hands and looked at Mathis. “With the kitchen staff busy getting the buffet ready, it will probably take the half an hour or so for them to bring up anything, won’t it?”
“Depending on what you pick and how long it takes to fix, it could be even longer,” Mathis agreed with a shrug.
“But you said Barnaby would sleep for a while yet,” Nathan said, not even aware he was rubbing his stomach as he spoke. “He worked the whole flight over, and then he worked some more when the weather went south.”
“Let us take the long way down and do some exploring to fill the time between now and the buffet opening, and let Barnaby sleep,” Mathis said. He hopped from the desk to the top of the bureau, and then turned back to wait for Nathan from the far corner. “Remember to bring your room key.”
“Nathan hesitated, for a moment feeling very alone and far from home, but then he thought of his grandfather and rubbed his empty middle again. The hotel had security cameras in the hallways and stairwells, so while he may be alone, he would not be unobserved. Nathan snatched up his room key, stuffed it deep in his back pocket, and headed for the door. Without any thought or effort, Nathan caught Mathis when the Moose stepped off his high perch and kept walking toward the door.
Nathan pulled the portal open wide and took a deep breath. As he slowly expelled the air, pale golden sand welled up in front of his feet and tumbled in rippling waves out to cover the dark blue-grey carpeting of the hallway. Once the sand hid the carpet as far as Nathan could see to either side, the waves built up against the far wall, and the overhead lighting began shifting colors. The light grew brighter and stronger from the cool white of the hallway’s light fixtures to the merciless, golden hammer of the sun as it beat down through an atmosphere completely devoid of soothing moisture. By the time the sand built up to cover the tops of the doorways in the opposite wall, the ceiling and any sound of the storm raging outside the hotel had faded away. With a muted thump and a sudden cloud of sand, the wall fell backwards and disappeared under the shifting sands, until the entire visage beyond Nathan’s doorway had changed into an empty wasteland of sun and shifting sand.