January 708 CR
The animal thundered through the clearing. It’s pointed hooves dug into the dirt as it zigzagged, gaining precious feet. The gazelle was as good as safe then it slammed head on into a tree, the cheetah was on it in a moment and baring its fangs into the animal’s neck.
Moments later a hyena approached. The scavenger encroached on the tired cat, it was certain to steal the kill. The hyena was young and naive but its powerful jaws were more then a match for the scrawny feline. The poor cheetah would surly have to abandon the kill and try again when he’s regained some strength, but he didn’t.
The cheetah ran after the hyena to drive it away. Sometimes it works but more often then not it ends with dire consequences. The hyena ran away at first but it came back, the cheetah tried again but the hyena faced the defender this time. It ran up to the feline and immediately bore it’s fangs into it’s neck, it bit hard, as hard as was needed to sever the feline’s head. The hyena gnawed with all it’s might and then there was a ‘crunch’.
The scavenger pulled away with blood oozing out of it’s open maw. The cheetah shook itself off with naught an injury to be seen. It pounced the hyena, bit into it’s neck and tore a chunk clean out.
As the animal bled and became motionless a war horse trotted into the clearing, the rider stopped close to the hunting cat and had a big grin on his face.
“Good boy! Very good indeed!” The man said.
The animal sat on its haunches and looked up at him. It had two kills but it was very tired now.
The man had armour befitting a nobleman. His breast plate had a symbol marking him as a soldier in the Seuilman Empire. He climbed off his horse and scratched the feline under the chin. The cheetah began to purr loudly. It had on a gleaming gold and silver suit of armour with a glowing orb over the breast. The armour didn’t weigh the animal down one wit. It looked very nice save the small dents in the neck plates.
The cheetah and the man, even the clearing they stood in soon faded from view until all that was left was a clearing surrounded by redwoods and oaks and covered in a thick blanket of snow.
Edmund blinked and turned to face the shadow. “The southlands?”
The shadow fox shook its head, “His soul is trapped here as well, with the rest.”
“Then I will work to free him like the others.” The knight answered.
“So many take.” The shadow said, “And they do not leave... their being becomes as putrid as their respect.”
The paladin nodded slowly, “Many are driven by greed.”
“Treasures become putrid without respect...” He began to melt and shift into the form of a quadruped fox, “...or purpose.” The shadow then faded away, leaving Edmund alone with his thoughts.
“Will says Hi, Misha.” The cheetah informed as he opened the backpack.
The fox scout rubbed his paws together in glee and his tail wagged. The feline courier unveiled several intricately decorated parts for a clock’s exterior and the components of metal figures.
“What are you making? Automated figures?” Stealth asked as he sat down in one of the chairs.
“Yup. They’ll eat muffins to break fast, have a sword play at noon and frolic as taurs at dusk.” Misha answered and collected the items, looking over each one in turn.
Stealth squinted at the unpainted figures. “Oooh, it’s you and Carol.”
The fox grinned, “Yup! But don’t tell her, actually don’t tell anyone. You’re the only other who knows besides Will.” He said in a whisper.
The cat leaned in close, “Oh,” He too whispered, “Your secret is safe with me.” He looked back to the door to make sure it was still closed. He’d wondered why – specifically – Misha told him to close it behind him.
“Well, good luck with that.” Stealth grunted as he hefted himself up. “Before I left, Ed wanted to show me something.”
“Oh?” The fox asked without looking away from his figures, “He told me too, but is it really wise to head there at this time of year?”
“Why not? I’m protected from the weather now.”
Misha looked away from one of the Caroline figures, “It’s not the kind of place I want people travelling to, least of all in bad weather. If I didn’t trust Edmund’s judgment I wouldn’t have let him head off there.”
“Me either but I told Ed I’d be there and he knows what he’s doing.” The truth was Stealth did not trust Edmund’s judgement as the Long scout did but he didn’t need to think about that now and dash the remains of his confidence.
“I still think he could have waited for you to return from the lower ward... I don’t see what the rush is.” Misha said as he began to collect the parts up again.
“No rush but he makes the journey alone all the time, apparently. And this is no different then my other runs.”
“All right. Take care out there, Spots.”
“I will.” The cheetah gave a basic farewell hand gesture and opened the door, “Later, foxtaur.”
Stealth ploughed through the snow at full speed (in short bursts). He felt angst at the amount of ground he had to make up but he’d get there eventually, he always got from point A to point B... except for that time in September the year past.
The feline snarled to himself. ‘Bloody thieves’, he grumbled. After a brief daydream of tearing open that pig, the cheetah began to feel better. He stoped yet again and sat on his haunches. While catching his breath, the feline caught a scent of several different species and sighted some thickly bundled keepers chatting in a group several hundred yards to the north east.
Stealth returned to his paws and crouched low as he snuck toward them. He’d been training in these skills for so long now, why not put them to the test? The cheetah crept along a snow bank flanking the group of keepers. They were probably a patrol stoped for a break to gossip or something.
So far so good; they didn’t know the animal was there unless they were just ignoring him. Anyway they continued in their banter, Stealth tilted his head and ears to get a good listen.
“We’ll head north and to the east. We can make good time.”
They were discussing their patrol rout. Nothing juicy there...
“I want to intercept the quarry at the foot of the woods near Mycransburg, have archers at the ready and flank the target.”
‘Ooh, they’re ambushing lutins.’ Stealth thought to himself with renewed interest.
“When you see the cheetah, kill him; kill him as fast as you can and make sure he’s dead.”
Stealth went as pale as the snow he perched on.
“My people observed him leave the keep and we should catch him on the rim of the woods.” Another voice chipped in.
“Then we can loot the woods, yeah?” Another voice asked.
“If he’s out of the way, yeah!” A scraggily voice answered.
“That knight goes in there whenever he wants and comes out again... alive. He must be controlling the demon of the woods, kill him and we have free reign over it.” The first voice agreed. “Now move off.”
Stealth trembled and shuddered as he heard their horses galloping away.
‘Oh gods! Ed!’ He bolted faster then he’d ever run before.
Eyes wide with fear and adrenalin, Stealth strained to run faster then he could but his body had its limits. At least when he was forced to time out, he had plenty of cold snow to crash in and cool off. After his first ‘crash’, Stealth abandoned his backpack along with all his camping gear, weapons and trail rations. Though valuable in its own right, the pack’s contents were expendable and heavy. His bow and quiver stubbornly did not give from his harness and flailed about in the wind as he ran.
The cheetah ran north and slightly to the west; he ran on a slight b-line to the Haunted Woods, hoping to avoid the assassins but reach Edmund in time. As the feline ran, his connection to reality began to wain. His vision became more of a tunnel and the world slowed down, sounds dimmed and he lost track of time. He could only hear his breathing and heart beat.
More alarmingly he began to feel hot, very hot, internally. Like a fever, a burning heat swelled within and radiated out. Every part of his being began to burn. The animal eventually blocked out everything, not quite feral but rather in a dream state. Out of the pain and confusion, Stealth recognised his quarry and before he knew what was happening, he leapt.
Edmund felt a terrible weight crash into his back. The paladin fell underneath an animal and into a ditch. Not a moment more he heard a score of arrows strike the cheetah who protectively perched on top of him. Through the confusion, Edmund feared the worst as he heard his friend grunt in pain, then collapse next to him.
The knight gasped for breath when he saw the animal still moving. Edmund never felt more relieved and grateful to see that harebrained armour.
“Stealth, can you hear me?”
The animal just trembled and panted feverishly in response. Ed could tell he was thoroughly exhausted from a dead run and currently of no use to anyone, not even himself.
“We can’t stay here.” So saying he picked up the other cheetah and dragged him through the ditch to lower ground where his stallion tried to graze on grasses buried in the snow. Edmund put the animal on the horse’s back and led it quickly towards the haunted woods where he hoped their attackers would halt in their steps.
When they entered in far enough that the paladin was satisfied, he tied up his mount to a branch and eased the feline down off its back. Edmund placed the cat down on the snow and saw that his eyes were still clenched shut and his whole body trembled.
Edmund put his hand to the cheetah’s forehead and felt a burning heat. The knight promptly removed Stealth’s armour suit and liberally spread a good chunk of snow over his head and body. Edmund left the animal for a moment and returned to his horse, reaching for his canteen.
He rushed straight back, leaned down and tilted the cat’s head up, “Here, drink this.” He said and poured the ice cold water down Stealth’s throat, hoping he wouldn’t inhale it during his fevered panting. The liquid streamed down Stealth’s muzzle and neck, much of it welled on the snow which then began to melt. Some gathered on his armour and insulation – the latter becoming soaked.
The cheetah greedily lapped up as much water as he could while Edmund continued to spread snow over his forehead. Eventually his brow cooled and his rate of breathing slowed.
“Th, th, Thank you.” The animal whispered.
The paladin blinked, “Stealth, you can talk?”
The cheetah nodded and tried to sit up but the knight held him down.
“No, rest for a few minutes.”
Stealth nodded tiredly and lay there unmoving. Eventually heat turned to chill and he much preferred to stand, still, his friend helped him to his four legs.
“Are you okay?”
“Ooh, dizzy... nauseas.” He answered and staggered on his legs before falling back into the snow. “Everything aches.”
Edmund placed his hands on the cheetah’s flank and whispered some words in a strange language. Stealth gasped and tried to move but he couldn’t even squirm for the life of him.
“What did you do?” The feline asked tiredly.
“I healed your muscles. You still need much more rest but your injuries have been healed.” Edmund answered and swayed slightly... “How do you feel now?”
“I’m fine. Thanks again.” The animal said.
“Thank YOU; you saved my life, Stealth.” Edmund pat the feline on his slanted shoulder. “But how did you know I’d come under attack? Who are those people and how is it you can talk in this form?”
“Slow down.” Stealth ordered as he tried to stand and swayed about until Edmund held him still. “I overheard them on the way up. These people have been trying to thwart the shadow for years... they think you control it or something.” He swallowed a knot in his throat, “I ran as fast and as long as I could to get here in time... I hope I didn’t do any permanent damage to myself.” The quadruped said in trepidation.
“Relax; I’m sure I cooled you off just in time.” The paladin assured. “How does your chest feel?”
The cheetah shook its head, “Nothing broken, it just aches but I think I can run again now after whatever you did.” He sat on his haunches in the snow and tried to ignore the sting in his paws.
Edmund nodded, “Good, but I won’t be satisfied till we get back to the keep.”
“That will be difficult. Those people are quite determined that you can unlock these woods, they are... gonna be keeping a look out.”
“They can’t possibly patrol the entire rim of the woods.” The knight countered, “If need be we can run in full form toward the northern outpost.”
“I don’t like our chances.” He looked up at the paladin, “Ed, I’m sorry but it gets rocky here... those people are Metamorians. They can blend in with the local patrols. They could even BE the local patrols and we can’t send any message out.”
Edmund hid his gasp, “How do you know they’re locals?”
“I don’t but I saw their faces, trust me. If we stay here long enough and George knows something is up, those bandits may very well be the people he calls on to search for us.” Stealth yawned loudly and flopped down on his side.
“No, George will send his own people, besides it’s highly unlikely that anyone who’s called on to help us is corrupted.” Edmund countered. He returned to his horse again and looked through the saddlebag for one of several maps of the area he had on hand.
“Maybe, unless he’s tied up with more important things.” The cheetah sighed, “I just think we should be mindful.”
“Aye, but optimistic.” The knight mumbled as he looked over one of the more detailed maps. It was covered in his notes and scribbling. “You never answered my question, though. How is it that you can talk in that form?”
“Why it’s this amulet hanging from my neck.” He motioned down between his forelegs. “I got it cheap because it was made by an apprentice mage.”
Edmund folded the map up again, “an apprentice? Such a spell must be quite complex and difficult to fashion.”
“No, Ed, It’s a simple spell that makes it far easier for me to chirp.”
The paladin raised an eye ridge.
“Churrrrr, yip, rawr...” The animal paused for a moment, “...Okay, It has problems.”
“I suppose it is much more affective; you can now work as a messenger, if you have a good memory.”
“Perhaps, though I wouldn’t be a match for Kee. Besides I don’t really fancy running about the keep like this.” Stealth forced himself back to his legs and moved about on his four paws to return warmth to them. “Now, you wanted to show me something?”
The paladin nodded, “I believe there is something here we can use, the shadow will allow us to retrieve it but we must find it first.”
Stealth sat down on his haunches, “Do you know where it is... approximately?”
“No idea, actually. But I believe the shadow gave me a clue.” He admitted...
The animal yawned, “I see, you mean you’re making an educated and optimistic guess at his words and the location of this thing, whatever it is. Right?”
“I told you I’ve been searching these ruins for a long time. I don’t think it will hurt you to have a little faith in me.” Said the paladin and poked the cheetah’s nose.
Stealth feigned biting Edmund’s finger, “I do, Ed, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m not a ‘yes man’. I prefer to tell you what I think, even if it means we argue, instead of just pretending to agree.”
“All right, but I’d prefer we don’t contradict each other too much; it won’t do to argue for the sake of arguing.” Edmund answered while looking through his saddlebag.
“Not in this weather, anyway.” Stealth agreed. “Now what’s this clue?”
“An avid hunter and his tools.” The knight answered as he unfolded another map. “The only place where we obtained something similar was in that cellar, do you remember?”
“Aye, that town with the nice, little brothel.” The cat answered. He almost seemed to grin despite the primitive features.
Edmund rubbed his nose bridge as the animal literally chirped in laughter.
“Anyway we’d best get moving there quickly, on the way wrrrrrrr, chirp.” Stealth clenched his eyes shut while Edmund waited patently. “On the way there we’ll figure out how to deal with the little problem in leaving.”
“Agreed, for now I believe we can acquire ourselves an advantage.” He walked back over to the quadruped that’d begun pacing back and forth on the spot for warmth since cooling off. Edmund pointed a claw at a point on the map, “we’re not far; if my bearings are right then I can find some landmarks that will lead us to the main road.”
“Good, now we just Rawrrr... rrrrrr... rrr!”
Edmund snickered at the frustrated feline. Stealth looked up; he ran around Edmund’s back and bit the paladin’s tail.
“Oww, okay, we’d better head off now.” The knight said and followed with some more snickering.
“Yes, but I am getting very cold now. Do me a favour, my armour suit is warm, you know how to put it back on, right?” Stealth asked and bat the paladin’s swaying tail out of his face.
“I’ve done it once and it wasn’t too hard. I’ll give it a try.” Edmund answered and assembled the parts.
After a few minutes, the full form cheetah was once again armoured and warm. He soon shifted to his morph form for the first time since that morning and donned some of Edmund’s offered clothes.
“That doesn’t look too comfortable.” Edmund observed as he held the horse close. “several plates on your right flank are dented; they must be digging into your skin.”
“It isn’t comfortable and they are digging in but it’s warm.” He paused for a moment and looked at his steel coated feet, “I didn’t even think about bringing a horse and it’s too cold to be a taur.”
“Then don’t linger and hop on.” Edmund answered and hefted Stealth in his arms.
Stealth blushed shyly, “Thanks.” He said as he was gently placed on the horse. “Sorry to be a bother.”
“A bother? You saved me from a volley of arrows.” The knight reminded.
“It means nothing if we don’t make it out.” Stealth mumbled into Ed’s back.
“Think positive.” The paladin ordered, “And it means something to me.”
Stealth snoozed into Edmund’s shoulder. The knight didn’t interrupt him; he thought his friend would need a good night’s sleep or several to recover from his harrowing run. After some time on the path, Stealth finally began to blink awake and yawned.
“Are you alright?” Edmund asked softly.
Stealth yawned some more, “I feel tired and weak.”
“We’re almost there. You’ll feel better after eating lunch.”
Stealth yawned again and rubbed his eyes. “Some good, red meat sounds good right now but I abandoned my backpack and everything in it to get here in time.”
“I brought plenty of rations and if need be I’ll hunt a hare or two.”
“Thanks.” Stealth answered and yawned again, he just couldn’t stop yawning... “A nice, warm bed... That’s what I need. I want one to appear right now.”
Edmund didn’t say anything but shook his head and rubbed Stealth’s head fur.
The cheetah drifted in and out of sleep as they rode. Edmund held his wrist to keep him from sliding off as they progressed. Since everything was covered in snow the paladin had to look for landmarks to find his way and he’d long since grown accustom to the many sights of the woods.
Stealth eventually stirred again, “So what else will we be seeing?”
“There is no need to travel elsewhere, out time will be occupied by the hamlet we scanned last time.”
“What? We’re only going back to the brothel town?”
“Please stop calling it that.”
“But when will I see the capital?”
“Stealth, we’re not tourists. And I don’t want you to see Camuludunum at night.”
Stealth blinked tiredly, “Camuludunumununumunum...?”
“Camuludunum.” Edmund corrected.
“Camdulumulum, phffffft!” Stealth yawned and went back to sleep.
Edmund rolled his eyes and continued to look forward to the snowed-in path. A shiver ran through his spine and tail at the memory of what he sensed that morning. Just before his life was saved he felt something unsettling. Something worse then a bunch of bandits...
Currently they were in a bad way. Stealth was completely exhausted and his armour sustained damage that all but rendered it useless in flight, also all of his equipment had been abandoned. Edmund only had so many rations and blankets for any long term stay, he didn’t know the northern reaches as well as their pursuers, perhaps not even the Haunted woods as well as them and they were completely outnumbered, out armed and out flanked.
The paladin blocked the thought from his mind and focused on the positive. Stealth would recover, their attackers failed once already and the Shadow had a gift for them. Edmund knew they would prevail. He thought of returning to the warmth of the Keep, he thought of his soldiers, he thought of Eli and he thought of Bridgette.
Edmund began to warm up and he smiled. They would get through this yet.
“Wake up... come on, wake up!”
“Wake up. The weather is to cold to stay asleep.” Edmund said in a loud voice.
“Just a few more minutes, just to have a lie down.” The cheetah answered. He lay sprawled on the stallion’s back in what looked to be a most uncomfortable position.
“But Stealth, we’re here! I know you need rest but you need to be awake for this.” Edmund answered and lifted him off the horse, onto the snow.
Stealth used the opportunity to stretch. He stretched long and wide to the point that would make felines everywhere proud. He stretched so far that his legs became digitigrade until his muscles relaxed again. The cheetah yawned loudly and forced himself to sit up.
“Are you ready now?” Edmund sighed as he stood near the entrance to the ruins with a backpack slung over his shoulder.
He closed his eyes and shifted into a slightly more animal-like form. “...now I am.” Stealth finally stood up and brushed himself off. He appeared as a morph though now with digitgrade legs that fit into the suit much easier in its damaged state.
“Follow me and be mindful of where you step.” The paladin ordered and continued to watch him, “Stick close.”
“I’m not drunk.” Stealth rolled his eyes and walked past the knight.
“I don’t know how worn you are and I don’t want you hurting yourself.”
As the feline walked ahead of Edmund, the knight saw that in addition to having foot paws, Stealth’s entire frame was far more animalistic, almost halfway between a morph and a beast. He could probably run on all fours if he wanted. His body was still humanoid enough for the clothes to be worn yet animal enough for the dented armour to fit much easier.
“I’m fine, it was hours ago. Let’s just find this thing.” He swayed slightly but it might have been due to his current midway form.
Edmund caught up and grabbed the cheetah’s wrist, leading him onward like a child.
Stealth rolled his eyes, “I’m not that tired.”
“Sorry, but I don’t want to risk you falling into a dark hole.” Edmund said and insistently led the disgruntled feline along.
“The bandits would be having a good laugh if they saw this.”
“If they did they wouldn’t live long to do so. The Shadow will see to that.” Edmund countered and led his friend around a large branch.
“I think they understand that; they’re lurking outside the woods, out of harms way...”
Edmund grimaced. The Shadow fox, as mysterious and powerful a creature he was, could do absolutely nothing to help them. They were on their own. “So tell me about your suit.” The cheetah knight said to lighten their moods, “Has any more work been done to it?”
“It’s always being modified.” Stealth sighed, “It works well with my strides but it’s working lifespan is abysmal. It needs maintenance after every run and minor repairs. They try to tweak things each time to make it more enduring.” He squirmed in his armour a bit, “It will need plenty more work when we return.”
“I see... well, only two more months till the snows melt.”
Stealth glared at him for a moment. “The weather will be warm but what then? I’ll be vulnerable again but I don’t want to wear this thing in summer.”
“By then you’ll be a much better fighter.” Edmund offered. He stoped for a moment to get his bearings... everything looked different in winter. The knight eventually found some faint signs of what he was after, “This way.”
“There is one thing I want to try with this thing...” Stealth began. He almost fell in the snow and contemplated just shifting to his animal form again.
“Oh?” Edmund grunted as he weaved past some low hanging branches.
“Taur armour? Misha’s suggestion I take it?” With a slight alarm, Edmund realised the cellar had nothing to mark its location, he had to rely on the closest still standing structure...
“He did mention the idea but we just can’t get it to work; my body retains almost the same mass in either of my forms, but my taur body is three times that and there is no way to spawn more fabric and metal to cover it.” The cheetah groaned, “Also, seeing as my ‘hind legs’ double up when I become a taur, that’s two more limbs to build around...”
“That’s too bad but I wouldn’t worry about it. If you don’t find a way around it then you don’t.”
“Like the curse?” Stealth asked and noticed they had stopped moving.
“Aye. Don’t be hindered or plagued by it.” Edmund answered as he looked around in vain.
“...Everything looks different since we were last here.” The paladin pointed out and sighed to himself.
Stealth closed his eyes for a moment then opened them slowly, “That way.”
Edmund looked down at him with a questioning glance.
Stealth just looked at him with a bored expression then he motioned with his nose the direction of their north west. He didn’t speak but just continued to look at Ed.
Edmund nodded slowly then walked in that direction. Moments later they found a dark hole with some snow peeking up, to the side a small slope led down into the cavity. The knight realised them to be the stairs they’d used, currently covered in snow.
“Good work! You have a good memory.”
The cheetah shook his head, “Nope, I can’t remember much of where we went.”
“Then how did you know?”
Stealth remained silent for a moment, “I don’t know.”
Edmund nodded and looked at the stairs. They looked more like a bumpy slope and he contemplated clearing it with his sword. The cheetah searched for his witch light, after saying the incantation, he threw the small stone into the cellar which reflected off the snow and ice, illuminating a great deal of it.
“I’ll go first.” Stealth said and removed his clothing, handing them to Edmund so he could shift fully.
The cheetah bounded down with little difficulty and came to perch on a fairly large mound of snow that gathered through the hole in the roof. From the bottom Stealth pawed at the snow from one step to the next and slowly headed up until the stairway had been cleared.
From the last steps before ground level the animal bowed low and moved his paw over his chest, “The stairway is ready, milord, but I was unable to locate a red carpet.”
Edmund rolled his eyes and waited. Stealth stuck out his tongue and lithely turned, scampering back down the stairs. In the cellar, the paladin looked about and recalled his illuminating stone. The room looked as he recalled it albeit with a pile of snow in the centre. Now that he thought of it, the walls around the room close to the floor as well as the floor itself showed the signs of centauries of water damage. It was slowly eating away at the stone and returning it to earth.
“What now? You said something about tools?” Stealth yawned again. He almost instinctively groomed his fore leg then caught himself and gagged – not because of the beast like action but he’d almost groomed metal.
“The tools of a hunter.” Edmund corrected and folded the clothing, placing them on a large stone near the steps. “I believe it is armour much like yours.”
“Armour like mine? I don’t need any more armour or insulation, perhaps it’s meant for you.” Stealth scratched at his left ear with a steel-clawed foot paw.
“It is not meant for me. I can’t explain why.” Edmund said simply.
“You paladins aren’t much on material items.” Stealth joked, “Well, let’s start looking.”
The cheetahs scanned the room with their eyes and noses. They never took liberties by moving fragments in the room to get a better look into places though they so yearned to. Using his smaller and more agile form, the courier squeezed into tight spots to look around and then bolt back out, rush up the stairs and clear out his nose... A half hour later Stealth flopped on his side.
“Ed, there’s nothing in here.” He said through a cloth. At one point Edmund created makeshift masks to ward off the dust, he had to tie Stealth’s around his muzzle for him.
Edmund stoped looking too and closed his eyes. He began to ponder to himself, occasionally his ears flicked slightly.
“Ed? Ed this cellar must be a distraction; we must have made a mistake... Ed?”
“Close your eyes.” The paladin ordered and didn’t open his. “Relax your senses.”
The feline looked down for a moment then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Up... it’s up there.” He said and pointed a paw to a corner of what remained of the ceiling.
Edmund nodded and walked in the direction, near where the stairs terminated.
“What happened? Did you do that?” Stealth asked, a little afraid.
“No, while I can sense certain things it does not pass on to those around me.” Edmund peered into a small cavity and then picked up the animal (much to his surprise) so he too could get a good look. “You found this just as you found the cellar.”
Inside the cavity they could see a dim bronze-like metal. Edmund shone his stone over the gap to get it better illuminated though he could scarcely see the object and keep it illuminated through the hole at the same time. “There was light coming from the corner.”
“I saw it.” Stealth flailed a bit to be set back down.
Edmund put him down and watched the cheetah nip at a latch near his shoulder to drop his armour. The animal then deftly winded his way through some of the still standing remains of an old wall and then squeezed through a hole in another wall. Edmund kept the glowing stone in the gap, casting himself into darkness as a result.
“Ed, I see it now...” Stealth called out.
He could see an armour suit propped on a stand in the middle of the cavity. He could not tell in his current form what exactly its pallet consisted of but assumed that it was silver and perhaps bronze. There wasn’t much in the way of a helmet but the hands and feet (what was left of them) were covered in large claws and there looked to be something of a tail in pieces on the ground.
The animal gagged at the condition of the suit; large parts had crumbled away and most of it was coated in dust and dirt. “It’s trash; it probably had no magical warding.”
Edmund grimaced, “Ok, what else can you see?” He asked as he tried to balance on the icy steps.
“Nothing but there’s anorrr, chirr... another panel above me...” He sighed and cursed softly. “If there’s anything up there I can’t get to it from here.”
“All right, get out of there and head back up.” The paladin ordered and recalled the light stone. The cavity Stealth occupied was swallowed up in darkness again but he could see the way out now.
It was harder getting out then getting in... The cheetah squeezed through, reminding himself that if he got stuck Edmund couldn’t help him as more rubble blocked the way. With great relief he got through the small hole and carefully walked back to where Edmund waited for him.
“Chirp! Could you help me with the suit? I’m freezing!” Stealth said and shook himself free of dust and dirt.
The knight carefully reattached his armour suit, after his friend shifted Edmund handed him the discarded clothing.
“Ed, we must have been mistaken, this isn’t the right place.” Stealth said as he put on the breeches.
The paladin shook his head, “No this is what we’re looking for.” He shifted a large stone revealing more of the remains to the light.
“Are you sure that’s it?” Stealth asked.
Edmund reached his arm in further and brushed away the dirt, revealing more of the gold and silver plate. “Many suits are based on animal forms; it could be armour for a man made to give him the appearance of a large cat.” He shrugged.
“So what do you want to do? We can’t use that; it’s scrap metal.”
“We can not reach it from here and you said there is another panel, correct?” Edmund asked and recalled his arm. “We may need to excavate.”
Stealth’s eyes widened, “Wait, first you told me not to touch anything then told me to take the dagger and now we’re desecrating the ruins?!”
“We are desecrating nothing! We’ll put everything back!”
“How the hell can we even try to dig anything out? We have no tools and we are not miners.” The armoured feline countered.
“We will dig away the earth at ground level and remove a stone panel.” The paladin answered after scratching his chin for a moment, “There are plenty of fallen tomb robbers in these woods and they have many shovels and crowbars to spare.”
Stealth clenched his muzzle in his paws, “Aye, many people came here with digging implements and they all died horribly!”
“I told you, we are not thieves!” The knight answered harshly.
The courier sighed and looked at the ruined armour, “You want to dig through permafrost, just us two, for that.”
“You don’t have to.” Edmund said softly.
“No, I’ll help you... I just hope it’s worth it.” Stealth unsheathed a dagger.
He had three daggers, a standard Metamorian scouting weapon, a prized treasure given to him by Oberon and the smallest of the three – a dagger he retrieved from this very cellar. The three daggers along with his bow and quiver were the only items he had left, everything else had been in his backpack but the daggers were sheathed away on his armour suit while the bow and arrows were tied down.
The cheetah reached his arm through the widened hole with the golden dagger in hand. He gently began to brush away more dirt and dust from the metal. He revealed something that appeared to be made of glass, as the dagger removed enough dirt from it’s surface the glass began to glow.
“Huh, look at that.” Stealth commented and pointed his armoured claw at it.
The paladin nosed his muzzle past Stealth’s arm and tried to get a proper look, “There is still some residual mana in this suit; it’s fallen apart and corroded in many spots but for the most part it’s kept it safe from the affects of time.” Edmund commented and scanned it.
Stealth ran his fingers along the gold, when he took back his hand from the hole the gold went with it, stretching and clinging like molten cheese. “Now what’s this?” He asked with some trepidation but mostly irritation.
“Here, let me-” Edmund began but no sooner had he said it the gold and silver began to ooze and suck its way through the gap. As it sloshed through and out of the cavity it spread over Stealth’s armoured hand and wrist as a large blob.
Stealth jumped back and fell into the snow pile. The oozing, ancient blob-armour continued to suck its way through the hole and went with him. The cheetah screamed in terror as the liquid-metal slithered in between the gaps in his clothing and coursed over his body, fussing itself to the cheetah.
“STEALTH!” Edmund began trying to pull chunks of the gold and
silver free but the metal flowed easily through his fingers and back onto his
friend. “It’s almost like it’s alive!” Edmund gasped.
“ED! HELP!!!” Stealth cried out and clawed at himself with hands now covered in the new-old armour. The cheetah shifted into full form to dislodge the cursed armour and free himself as his armour suit was designed to detach itself in full form.
The animal squirmed on the ground in ill fitting, human clothing but the suit wouldn’t relinquish it’s grip, and then it’s shift was finished.
“Stealth, are you alright?” Edmund asked softly.
“That thing is gonna suck my life out!!!!!!!!!!!!” The cheetah screamed to the forest above, “Take it off! Take it off!! Take it off!!!”
“Relax Stealth,” Edmund ordered. “No one is hurting you. Hold still!”
Stealth involuntarily ignored him and continued to squirm as Edmund removed his shirt and tried to find the old latch but the armour had transformed itself completely leaving no hint to the old failsafe.
Stealth then bolted up the stairs and ran into the snow in a panic. He ran about on the spot, squirming, flailing and rolling about until eventually he got tired and collapsed. Edmund approached him slowly and looked down at the panting cheetah at his feet.
“Please take it off, I don’t want it. Don’t let the Shadow kill me, please.” The animal whimpered.
“Relax, my friend. I told you the Shadow himself told me of this, it’s a gift.” Edmund offered as he resumed looking for the latch.
“But... but I like my old armour, I don’t want to be stuck in this.”
“You won’t be stuck; we just need to learn how to remove it...” Thus far, the paladin was stumped but he wouldn’t tell Stealth that, at least wait till the flighty feline calmed down a notch.
“Try to stand up, have a walk around.” Edmund suggested.
“But aren’t you going to remove it?” The cheetah asked in a loud voice.
“I will, but try to walk around in it first, just to try it.” The paladin answered.
“I know,” Said the cheetah, “I’ll force it off.” He closed his eyes and his pants soon tore away as his hind legs began to divide. Stealth’s front rose off the ground as two extra legs propped him up. When the feline opened his eyes his full colour vision was restored. He looked himself over and found his large, cheetah taur body along with his human half were both armoured...
The taur dived to the ground and rolled about on his taur-back in a panic, straining to pull the plaiting off but it wouldn’t relinquish its grip.
Edmund patently approached him and placed a hand on the taur’s chest, in between his forelegs. “My mentor once told me if you struggle in quicksand you’ll only sink faster.”
Stealth snorted and turned about, climbing back to his paws. He trotted to the other side of the clearing, then turned around and ran to the other side. He began to cool off and relax then came to a halt and sat on his haunches before the knight.
The taur shook his head and said nothing.
“Well, I’m sorry but its important not to jump to conclusions, don’t give up.” Edmund said softly.
Stealth reached his hands to his face but then saw the large, steel claws and put them back down by his sides. “I’m sorry, Ed. I’m just really shook up right now. Everything that’s happened today has been... difficult to say the least.”
“I understand, just take a deep breath and relax.” The paladin said soothingly, “Tell me this, aren’t you warm? It’s a very cold day. That armour looks very warm.”
Stealth nodded, “It is but right now I’d rather tear it off and jump into ice water.” He sighed softly, “I should be more exposed as a morph, maybe then I can cool off.”
The cheetah taur clenched his eyes shut and began to shift again, but the suit had other ideas... Stealth’s upper body armour moved fluidly but the plates covering his taur body refused to budge. Stealth knew there was a problem, he panicked and tried to shift back to taur form but his body did not obey.
After shifting between forms almost on a daily basis since becoming cursed, suddenly, just like when first being cursed, he could not control his change. The cheetah’s upper body melted into that of his lower body, his arms merged with his forelegs and the new armour melted into place.
When Stealth opened his eyes he looked down and saw he was closer to the ground however he still stood higher then he would in full form.
“Ed... what happened, what am I?” At least his amulet was still working...
The paladin looked him over, “You have the form of a full cheetah but... you’re huge.”
Stealth blinked, “I’m still in my taur body aren’t I?” The cat sat on its haunches in front of Edmund. Not as tall as a taur but still taller then as a regular cheetah.
Edmund nodded, “You’re three times bigger then a real cheetah.”
Stealth looked at him with a mix of fear and pride in his eyes, “...I’m a dire cheetah.”
“A dire cheetah...” Edmund repeated as he looked over the form. Stealth was essentially in taur form without the upper body; he was a very large animal and could probably do significant damage to an opponent. “I’ve learned of long extinct giant cheetahs in my studies though there is no such thing as a dire cheetah, you can be the first.”
For the first time Edmund finally noticed how his new armour appeared. The chest and inner leg plates were silver, everything else looked to be gold. Strangely, the dire animal was covered in large, black splodges but not those of a cheetah’s pelt; they formed a marble pattern which terminated as stripes running vertically down his tail.
“Stealth, you look like a dire king cheetah.”
“A what?” The large animal asked and tilted its head.
“King cheetahs are a rare breed of cheetah, they are covered in marble instead of spots. Some scholars believe them to be the result of recessive blood.”
Stealth blinked, “What happened? The suit was trash...”
Edmund shrugged and scratched his chin, “Perhaps it merged and transformed your armour, taking what it needed to rebuilt itself.”
The giant cheetah stood up and turned to look over his form, “Am I stuck like this? I was trying to become a morph again.”
“An accident. The magic of the armour interfering with your changing shape.” The knight paused as he looked over the form, “Or perhaps the suit wanted to show you this form. Try changing again now that the magic seems to have stabilised.”
The dire cheetah nodded and closed it’s eyes. His forelegs began to divide, spawning humanoid arms while his hind legs began to merge into the forelegs. The animal’s rump and adjoining armour shrank and melted while his chest rose with his arms. A cheetah morph fell forward, exhausted.
“Are you alright?” Edmund asked as he helped his friend into a kneeling position.
Stealth laughed tiredly, “I was a dire cheetah... wait till I teach that trick to Misha.”
After a few minutes spent recuperating, Stealth consciously looked down between his legs and was relived to see a large silver plate covering his loins. On further inspection he saw that the suit still had many breaches, usually where parts connected up but for the most part it was a decent (and light) suit of armour.
“So now what?” Stealth asked.
Edmund thought for a moment and looked toward the cellar...
Stealth and Edmund spent some time clearing out the cellar of snow and much more time locating discarded wood to build a fire.
“You sure we should be doing this?” The armoured cat asked as he dragged a particularly large log.
“We are in the dead of winter and unable to return to the Keep...” The knight said with a grunt and dropped a large log. “We will not touch anything, just build a fire.”
“In an ancient cellar...” Stealth shook his head.
“Let’s just carry these down together, without damaging the steps.” Edmund ordered.
“Okay, I’ll go first. You tell me which way to go... I don’t need you loosing balance.” The feline scolded.
“I have no intention of falling! That last time was just a lapse.”
Stealth sat in the snow for a moment to rest. With all the running he’d been doing, Edmund knew better then to scold him for slacking off. He began to feel better as he got comfortable. Now if only his armour could drop...
Edmund dropped a log when he saw his friend’s armour drop entirely into a pile of metal on the snow leaving a startled cheetah morph in its wake.
“Stealth! You did it! What did you do?” The paladin asked quickly.
“I... I just thought that I want it to drop.” He looked himself over, “I can command it to fall.” The feline stretched out and rubbed his fur. “I’ve never been so happy to be naked!”