That night they bunkered down in the derelict cellar where months prior the coalition found that splodgy, golden dagger. Now Stealth had a warm, armoured suit with the same pattern. Unlike his old armour, the gold and silver coloured plates covered his entire front in morph form. If his clothing hadn’t been torn to shreds in his frantic transformations, he wouldn’t have bothered wearing them anyway.
After first ‘willing’ it off, the cheetah quickly discovered that he could summon it back on, from a reasonable distance. Though terrifying at first he eventually accepted the fact that the suit was of no harm to him.
Edmund had lit a small fire in the centre of the stone floor, seeing as there was no roof, smoke wasn’t a problem. The knight handed the armoured cat a warm trail ration and sat down opposite. “How are you feeling?”
Stealth just poked at his rations with a fork and looked down at his legs and tail. “I’m fine...” The cheetah sighed and looked up at Edmund, “I’m sorry Ed; I’ve just been panicking and pouting all day. How are you doing? You’ve been very quiet about... you know.”
“The attempt on my life? It hasn’t been the first time.” He said quietly. “I was very troubled the first time someone tried but being a soldier you just set aside the thought.”
Stealth raised his ridges, “By the gods! How many times has someone tried to kill you?”
“You mean not counting the battles I’ve fought in? It’s happened several times throughout the years during various campaigns I’ve fought in; you can bring a conflict to a quicker end by eliminating the leaders...” He paused, “This is the first time I’ve been targeted personally by assassins.”
“Out of greed and stupidity.” Stealth spat.
Edmund looked up at him, “You saved my life today. I’ll never forget that, my friend.”
Stealth shrugged, “I told you during the Yule, you’ve done so much for me. All I do is complain...” The feline mumbled and ate some of the rations. The Keep provided trail rations that consisted of a large bread/pastry that was stuffed with various fillings - beef, pork and vegetable (depending on the keeper’s diet). But Stealth couldn’t tell what exactly his rations consisted of; maybe pork, beef or lutin or something. “Perhaps you saved me last time you dragged me out here, lest I’d still be hiding under my bed.”
“I did that for a reason.” Edmund said between bites, “You’ve done more then you know... I said that during the Yule as well.”
“...Like what?” Stealth asked softly.
Edmund swallowed a large bite and looked up, “Do you know how few would call a paladin a friend? Our reputation has been so tarnished.”
“Hmm,” Stealth nodded.
The knight took a swig of water from his canteen and continued, “And now I have a hunting partner!”
“Thanks. I just wish I could do more.”
“I do value you openness Stealth.” Ed offered soberly, “You never fail to show me things in ways I never considered.”
Stealth smiled shyly. “Well you’re not that scary... now the Questioners.” The feline’s ears folded, “They were here sometime around a year ago weren’t they?”
“They were but they have no power here.” Edmund assured.
Stealth took a deep breath. “What if they come back here? Will they do anything to me?”
Edmund shook his head, “Never worry about that. If they ever did come back Misha would chase them off with that massive axe of his. If they got past him, they wouldn’t get past me.”
“But you’re a Follower; don’t you answer to the Questioners?” He asked and licked the rations... then thought it best to just swallow without tasting it.
“I do not answer to the Questioners. My order is separate.” The knight answered, licking his chops.
“But the Questioners can interrogate Followers... and anyone else if a priest lets them.” Stealth gulped his food down and followed up by eating some snow.
Edmund chirped in laughter, “I think Misha would have something to say about that. Also, Metamor is the spiritual centre of the Lightbringers.”
Stealth just looked at him with a frown.
“I answer to Eli.” He said simply, “Now don’t worry anymore about the Questioners.”
Stealth sighed in relief and began to relax. Suddenly the feline sat up with his eyes alert. He clawed at his chest with his taloned hands.
“What’s wrong?” Edmund demanded.
The courier fidgeted then all of a sudden his new armour buckled and dropped in a heavy pile all around. Stealth quickly lifted the large and heavy loin-plate off his crotch then sighed and grumbled to himself.
The paladin just blinked. He turned around and went to search his pack for more pants.
Edmund remained silent as Stealth worked. He’d only had one extra pair of pants and they’d been ripped apart when Stealth shifted. The courier wore a shirt and concealed his lower half in his blanket. Stealth wrapped the blanket tight around his waist as he leaned over the armour suit and moved his hands over them in some sort of pattern.
“What are you doing?” The knight eventually asked.
“It’s a trick I learned from Fell.” The cat mumbled, “I can draw magical energy from my aura and into the suit.”
“But you’re not a mage. How can you conduct such a spell?”
“With... great... difficulty.” Stealth answered through grit teeth. He took a deep breath and paused in his work, “A mage can do this in a matter of minutes; this could take me all night...” He swayed slightly, “And it’s already taxing me.” The cheetah continued to work on the spell. His expression became more feral until he flung his hands free of the spell, “Bah! I give up!”
“How is this suit powered? Does that spell use your own life force itself?” He asked.
“Well, yes sort of. It draws on my health.” Stealth explained.
“If it has health my prayers can help,” Edmund walked over to him and gently placed his hand on the crystal fused into the breast plate. The cheetah paladin whispered a few words in another language and the crystal began to glow. He opened his eyes slowly and smiled at Stealth. “There you go. Done.”
Stealth took a breath and closed his eyes. The lower portions of the armour began to melt and coursed across the floor and toward him. The feline flinched as the blob-armour spilled across him but he concentrated until his legs and lower body were once again armoured. The rest of the suit along with the glowing crystal still waited on the floor.
“Only half returned?” Edmund asked perplexed.
Stealth nodded and removed his shirt then stood up to look himself over, “This is enough for now.”
“You can control it partially? I didn’t know you could do that!” The knight said, impressed.
“Neither did I...” The cheetah answered in distraction and sat back down.
“Now you do, don’t be afraid to explore this or your new dire form! You should always push the limits and explore new things and places! I still remember my curiosity at the change.”
Stealth looked up at him, “What was it like? What did it feel like?”
“Physically it didn’t feel like anything. It was more a spiritual exploration... I quite enjoyed it.” Edmund saw Stealth grit his teeth, “What’s wrong?”
“Forget it; I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“I know it was painful for you.”
Stealth shook his head, “No, no you don’t...”
“Then tell me now. You’ve mentioned it in the past but never come to terms with it. Am I right?”
The cheetah gasped, “I must have been in agony for ten hours... Yes, the pain began at ten; it was finished at dawn, 8 in the morning.” Stealth shuddered, “I thought it was a stomach upset but... but...” he rubbed his wrist while staring blankly.
“Then you saw your new form?”
“No. Then I screamed in pain... in front of everyone in the mule.” The feline’s hands clenched into fists. He looked at his spots in revulsion then ran his claws along one arm, as if trying to tear out a chunk of fur. He succeeded in shedding a large tuft which floated into the air between the two. Stealth hoped to see it land in the fire and BURN but it floated out of sight, into the darkness.
“Every . . . single . . . change, each new strand of fur, the claws, the tail, ears ...m muzzle... teeth – the teeth were the WORST.” He shivered and licked his jaws as if trying to remove a foul taste. “At one point my mouth must have been full of blood. My whole body stung inside and out... maybe the pain was as bad as it would be to give birth.
“The rest of the change is a blur, I must have fallen asleep.” He took a deep breath, “I awoke like this. I didn’t enjoy any fucking part of it.” With that he threw the remains of his meal at the wall and slumped in his armour.
Edmund carefully walked around the fire and hefted Stealth up, into a hug, “I’m sorry to hear that, I really am. It always troubles me to hear the pain people have gone through from the curse.”
Stealth leaned into the hug, “Thanks. Sorry you have to put up with me...”
Edmund sighed, “Stealthy...”
“No, really.” He sat up and Edmund sat back down nearby, “I’ll admit now I used to be jealous of you. Then I got to know more about you.”
The paladin nodded and placed more wood on the fire, “I’ve been jealous of people too.”
“Yeah but not of a friend.” Stealth countered.
“Above all, a friend...” Edmund answered softly and leaned against the wall.
Edmund just looked at him and nodded.
Stealth blinked and his eyes widened, “Me?!”
Edmund sighed and rubbed his forehead, “At the Yule party when I saw you dance with Bridgette.” He admitted with a great deal of discomfiture.
The courier pointed to himself, “You were jealous of me?”
Edmund remained composed and nodded again.
Stealth stared at him. Then he smirked and finally fell back and burst into laughter.
The paladin’s tail thumped the ground behind him as he grumbled and shook his head, waiting for the laughing fit to finish.
“Oh...” Stealth rubbed the tears from his eyes.
“I am sorry, do you forgive me?” Edmund asked.
“Of course!!!” Stealth laughed, “Oh, Ed... you ARE cute when you’re grumpy!”
The paladin sighed and hugged his friend. “Thank you!” He ruffled Stealth’s head fur.
Stealth gave him a hug before settling down and flopping back on the floor.
Suddenly, Stealth gasped. He felt something slither over his chest and solidify. The cheetah sat up in shock and rubbed his chest, it too like his legs were covered in armour. “Well that’s the damndest thing.”
Edmund nodded and pondered, “Perhaps it thought you were being harmed? Or it doesn’t like to be separated.”
After the brief fun and excitement dissipated they both settled in. Stealth took in the fire’s warm radiance and stared into the flames. He eventually looked over to the paladin; Edmund kneeled in the corner of the cellar with prayer beads in hand. Stealth watched him shift each bead in his claws one by one. When the cheetah paladin was done praying he went back to the fire and remained silent. Edmund’s eyes bore into the flames, his body remained still and even his ears and tail stood motionless, showing not even a flick or twitch.
“Ed, are you okay?” Stealth asked concerned.
“Aye, I’m okay.” He answered softly.
The courier shook his head, “What’s wrong? Please, you can’t just bottle up your problems and pretend they don’t exist.”
“Never, but they are MY problems. I shouldn’t make them yours.” Edmund turned his back and added more wood to the fire.
“I made them mine when I overheard the plot against you, Ed. I know you feel personal responsibility, even I can sense that. But you can’t shield me from this, not now.”
The paladin sighed and sat back down. “Those assassins weren’t just a ragtag group of thieves.”
“Their intentions are dumb but they’re good fighters.” His friend agreed.
“They are but there’s more... I felt an evil presence.”
“What, another summoning? A spirit?”
“No, a warrior. One like me. After much thought and prayer I am convinced it’s a powerful follower of the Shadow Bringers.”
Stealth shivered; he knew about the Daedra worshipers all too well. “A Daedraenlui; A sword of the fallen gods... we’re facing an ‘anti paladin’.”
Edmund nodded. “They have many names but that is correct. They are also pure evil... As evil a person as there can be.”
Stealth wrapped his blanket around his form – though the suit kept him warm on its own it also drained vital energy while it did so. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“I wasn’t entirely sure and I didn’t want to create unnecessary fear.” The paladin reached for the Yule tree around his neck and ran his thick padded thumb over its surface. “Such people should not be feared but their power should be respected. This is a dangerous foe.”
“Then we’ll fight our way out, I know how to fight.” Stealth answered cagily.
Edmund just looked at him; to say Stealth didn’t sound confident was an understatement. “We will take a safe passage around them, not through them. Any confrontation will be a last resort.”
“But they’ll find us; they’ll attack US if we try to slip away. We need to take them by surprise and attack THEM, isn’t that the best form of defence?” The feline hissed.
“We can’t surprise them; their ‘paladin’ will sense me.” Edmund countered calmly and rubbed his hands over the fire.
“Then we can’t slip away. We need to fight or they’ll hunt us down.” Stealth insisted.
“I have been trained since I was a child how to fight and how to lead. You need to listen to me now.” Edmund said sharply, his tail began to sway slightly.
“All your training did you no good out there!” Stealth hissed and stood up, “You’re a paladin; you’re supposed to fight evil aren’t you? This isn’t the time to be philosophical and patent.”
“My job is to protect the innocent.” Edmund countered sharply. “I appreciate what you did for me but don’t let it get to your head; these people are professionals, you’re gonna get yourself killed!”
“Do you know how many times I’ve nearly died running? I’m tired of running.” Stealth said coldly.
Edmund looked into his eyes for a long moment, “You’re thinking with your emotions, with your anger. These are the people who attacked you and you’re being blinded with hate.”
Stealth became silent and sat back down. “I’m tired of them. I just want it to end.” He said softly, “But it’s true; all I’ve done is run and what did it get me? And you just want me to crawl past them.”
Edmund placed a hand on his shoulder, “I want you to use your head, think clearly. Being a soldier isn’t an adventure; it is a very dangerous and hard life. It means making hard decisions and living with the consequences... and sometimes it means running away.”
Stealth nodded and sighed, keeping his head down.
“Get some rest, we both need rest. I’ll take the first watch. We’ll leave before dawn and plan our next move tomorrow. How does that sound?”
“Fair enough...” Stealth said and willed his armour to drop. The cheetah morph grabbed the side of his blanket with a humanoid hand and pulled it over his form as it quickly melted into the shape of a quadruped that huddled up as best it could. “Good night, Ed.”
“Good night my friend.” The paladin said softly as he watched the fire.
Early the next day Stealth and Edmund finalised their preparations to leave. Neither of them had any idea of the time but dawn must have been another three or four hours off. Being winter, they’d scavenged enough wood for their fire to last all night. Stealth used it as an impromptu clock – when the last flames began to die out he shook the paladin awake.
The coalition extinguished their bonfire before leaving though both were conscious of leaving without cleaning up the spent wood and ashes. They intended to return to clean up later and hoped the Shadow would understand, for now they needed as much time as they could get before the sun broke over the Barrier Range.
Darkness still concealed them by the time they reached the boundary of the Haunted Wood. In full form the coalition skulked carefully out of the safety of the woods but didn’t stray from the tree line. Stealth left his amulet behind in case the magic could be detected. He left it along with his armour and occasionally looked back – hoping the armour didn’t follow him.
The cheetah saw a humanoid shadow nearby and took a step back into the woods. Stealth shook his head when he realised the irony of where they took shelter.
Edmund crept low and flanked their pursuers. He sniffed at the air and darted his head about to see over snow banks. The knight could make out several shadows moving slowly around two or more objects. He guessed them to be tents and next to them were what must have been horses.
He couldn’t tell how organised they were but they must have been able to leave at a moments notice. The paladin’s ears folded when he paid closer attention to the tents... he could sense the Daedraenlui in one of them. Edmund’s hackles rose when he saw Stealth creeping closer to their camp. For fifteen very long minutes he watched the younger cheetah sneak right up to their camp, at one point he perched in the shadow of a sentry. Eventually Stealth had the sense to back up and return to the safety of the woods.
Edmund grit his teeth; he wanted to chastise the feline for his foolishness. Another part of him wondered why Stealth would even contemplate taking such a risk; it certainly wasn’t in his nature to leap into danger.
Soon the courier returned to the tree line and motioned for the paladin to follow. Edmund sighed and turned on his paws, they both snuck quietly back into the Haunted Woods.
They returned to the small corpse of trees where Edmund tied up his mount. After shifting back they were VERY grateful to put on something warm.
“What did you see?” Edmund asked as he reattached his belt and chain mail.
“There were two tents and six people on guard. They had around a dozen horses.” Stealth answered quickly.
“What weapons did you see?”
“Short swords, bows and an axe or two.” The feline shrugged.
The paladin nodded, “Why did you encroach so close to their camp?”
Stealth narrowed his gaze, “Because we have little remaining darkness and I can get close without them sensing me.”
“If you had been discovered...” The knight shook his head.
Despite his friend’s recklessness, Edmund had a thought that Stealth’s new armour and form would aid in their escape yet the paladin remained reluctant at the thought of Stealth going to his death against experienced assassins. “And please don’t say you would have been too fast.”
“Safety is a luxury right now. I just don’t see how else we could have gone about it.” The courier argued.
“That was too dangerous. You’re not expendable.” He said harshly. “Recklessness is a luxury!”
“So is ignorance! How do you expect to fight them?”
“That is for me to worry about.” The knight said in a firm tone. Yes, it was best to do this alone, he thought. “And what if they’d detected your scent?”
“I didn’t get close to any animal morphs; I would have sniffed them out first.”
“And what if they’d heard you? Sound travels better in the cold.”
“They didn’t here me! They were crunching too much snow under their boots.” Stealth sighed and rubbed his muzzle, “From what I’ve seen and smelt I can tell you which ones are armed with what and how to approach them.”
“Then tell me, but you will stay here.” Edmund ordered.
“Why? I’ve fought these people before and come out of it.” The armoured cat answered, “And now they’re after you.”
“And I will deal with them. I want you to remain here where it is safe.”
“Safe? Safe in the Haunted Woods...” It was difficult to comprehend but it was the truth; this place so feared and cursed had become their sanctuary...
“Aye, the Shadow will protect you.”
Stealth gasped and shook his head, “No... Ed, no. If that’s the answer then we’re trapped here just like the spirits.”
“Be patent and you will return to the keep – alive.”
“Ed, I know I’m not a soldier but...” He paused, “If I stay here, you’re gonna die.”
Edmund just looked at him for a long moment while his breath filled the air between them. “Have faith in me.”
“Maybe you should have faith in me.” Stealth answered. He was warming to the idea that he could help defeat those thieves and assassins... “I’ve never done anything for you. Let me help you now.”
The paladin looked at him for a long moment. His harsh gaze made the cheetah uneasy. “All right but you need to understand just how deadly what we are doing really is. You need to do exactly what I say.”
“Fine.” Stealth answered sharply, “But only in battle. I know this armour and my new body better then you... I’d hazard a guess that I understand what’s going on better then you, no offence. You need to hear me out; let me help you with any plan you make.”
Edmund took a breath and nodded, “Let’s get to work.”
“A paladin?” A well groomed mongoose asked. “He must not be allowed to escape.”
“Escape is not his plan.” The man answered. “I’ll take care of the filthy Follower, You will do away with the other one.”
“Done.” Regal answered, “I took him out easy enough once. This time I don’t think the boss will mind me killing him; not if I bring back something good.”
“Then it’s settled.” Edmund said as he looked over his sword once more. “We will head to the far hill and take shelter behind the reverse slope.” The paladin sighed before he continued, “You will flank them and fell as many as you can with your bow but you will remain at a safe distance.”
“Understood.” Stealth scowled and shifted to his taur form and then again to his new dire form. The armour melted and contorted into place though it staggered at times.
Edmund sheathed his long sword. “You should use your normal full form; you need your speed and agility to evade them.”
“Look around, Ed. I need good traction to do those things anyway.”
Edmund just looked at him while he pondered, “I’d still prefer you to stay and remain safe, at least try to head east to Mycransburg.”
“Then why bother coming here to get this?” The large animal motioned to himself, pointing out either his armour suit or new form or both.
“To use when you are a better scout and fighter.” The knight countered, “To use them when the time is right.”
“I can do this, trust me. You know I’m not the bravest man around. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t like my chances.” Stealth implored.
“You’re still training, you are wearing ancient armour and you’re in a new form, neither of which you understand.”
“But you said I’m here for a reason, you said I got this armour for a reason. The suit will protect me and I’ll run fast, I won’t engage them. They won’t even see me most of the time.” As he said it, Stealth’s heart beat faster then he could count the number of beats. He trembled with fear but he tried to control it.
“All right...” Edmund said and controlled his feelings. This was nothing new to him; a rookie wanting to do something foolhardy with the likely hood of being killed. “You will keep your distance from the assassins at all times. Do not approach the Daedraenlui. I must face him alone.”
“Fine, I’ll peg them from a distance and keep moving. Now grab my bow and quiver, tie them onto the back of my neck.” The animal said and pointed a paw to his weapons.
The paladin quickly wrapped a leather band around the dire cheetah’s neck like a collar but to it he equipped the quiver and latched the bow over it.
“Good, now Ed, quickly jump on my back.” The dire animal ordered and kneeled close to the ground.
Edmund flinched and stared at the large feline. “I’ll use my mount to run along side.”
“I need you to be able to keep up; you’re no good to me trailing behind.”
“I’m sorry, there has to be another way. I’m not entirely comfortable...” the paladin explained.
The giant cheetah shot him a cold glare, “How do you think I felt when you wanted me to disrobe in front of your people?! Our lives are at stake!”
Edmund sighed. The idea of riding a friend just creped him out. But a part of him was interested in the challenge of riding a cheetah.
“It will be alright.” The animal said.
The paladin quickly climbed onto the dire cheetah. He didn’t sit up but leaned forward and tried to gain his balance. This was vastly different from riding a horse and it took a moment to get a good seat. All the while he tried not to think about WHO he would be riding.
“I am ready!” Edmund said and grit his teeth.
“Good! Hold on tight, here we go!” The animal shouted and took off like a bolt.
As the paladin bounced around he said a last quick prayer, “Eli see us through... and please don’t let me fall off.”
As they approached the tree line, Stealth gasped at the weight of what they were doing. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s... killed someone but now he was faced with true combat. All of his training would be put to the test and it would make the difference between life and death.
“Ed...” He said in a huff, “I can’t do this.”
“Yes you can!” The paladin snarled. “Now is NOT the time to loose your nerve. Flank them! Flank them!” He pulled on the cheetah’s neck and guided it to the right. He guided his friend as he would a horse... “As soon as we’re past the reverse slope I’ll drop, you just keep running!”
With a feral snarl the dire cheetah ran faster and ploughed through the snow. In the twilight he leapt over a snow bank then up the shallow side of a slope. Once past the reverse slope he felt a large weight drop from his back. Having deposited Edmund as close as he’d dare approach, Stealth ran onward, while blocking out the hustling and confusion of the bandits he shifted to his full form. As soon as he reached a safe distance he stopped to rest. The feline shifted to taur form and reached for the bow now slung very loosely around his neck.
After reattaching the belt to his back he shifted to ordinary full form and took off at another run. His pace slowed from the exertion earlier as he ran low through the trees and snow banks. He stopped and shifted to taur form, notching an arrow in his bow. Stealth took a breath and loosed the arrow. As he shifted back to full form he heard a grunt but he was already running to a new location where he shifted again and shot another arrow with the same result.
As he ran about the pre dawn field he tried to ignore the shouts of alarm from fleeing bandits. They obviously knew they were under attack but had no idea at the location or number of assassins – perhaps the Keep was onto them? Stealth shifted to taur form once more but paused in notching his arrow. Instead he shifted back to Dire form, his harness bunching up around his neck again, and ran at several people he saw running.
Suddenly, like metal succumbing to years of rust in mere seconds, his armour ground to a halt and the animal collapsed in the snow.
‘No! No! Not now!!!’ He willed the armour off and it promptly dropped like scrap. As he shook off the unwanted weight, the cheetah caught sight of something glowing.
Lying in the snow in the remnants was the dagger from the cellar. The dire cheetah took it hesitantly in his muzzle, feeling a strange warmth flow over him. He ignored the sensation and ran at the thieves as they galloped away.
Stealth reached them in no time and swiped the first horse’s hind legs up from under it. It’s rider fell to the ground on his head with an audible crunch. He then turned to the next one and leapt, pouncing the bandit out of the saddle. The dire animal landed hard on the bandit when they hit the ground. The thief’s chest completely caved in under the weight of the feline’s paws. Stealth then turned on another who currently rode directly at him.
The cheetah darted out of the way faster then should have been possible in his large form. He reached out his razor sharp dew claw and sliced open the horse’s foreleg as it ran past. The horse whinnied and crashed into the one in front. The man, some sort of mongoose, slid into the cheetah’s waiting forelegs. Stealth dropped the dagger in the snow near by, he licked his lips and craned his head down intent on crushing the man’s skull in his jaws.
The mongoose looked paralysed with fear but at the last moment he grappled the cat’s neck and slid underneath him out of harms way.
Stealth hissed and turned about when he saw what he’d been hearing the whole time. The dire cheetah saw Edmund clashing with the Daedra follower, around them three bodies were scattered. Stealth watched the Daedraenlui with a bloodlust he wasn’t really aware of. The predator crouched low to the ground and moved silently with intent eyes.
After tumbling in the snow, Edmund stood up and quickly unsheathed his long sword. He spared a glance at Stealth and his friend was already racing off. The paladin ran down the slope swinging his blade, the first swipe took someone’s head, the second cut into the chest of a companion, spilling entrails. Edmund thrust his sword forward at a third foe and skewed him instantly.
The cheetah paladin then reached the tent and sliced open the canvas. He looked inside, emanating a long and uncertain ‘chirr’. The Daedraenlui was absent.
Edmund hissed and jumped back on his paws when a jagged blade swept past him. The knight turned to his right and saw the cold, empty gaze of the unholy warrior. The Daedraenlui stared at Edmund motionless and silent while three more bandits emerged around him. The thieves looked at each other and the anti paladin uncertain until one of them bolted.
No sooner had the long tailed weasel moved the Daedraenlui merely stepped on said tail and jammed his serrated blade into the morph’s back, lifting the sword like a crow bar and prying a portion of spine free.
“Stand your ground.” He said calmly as the morph collapsed in spasms.
The other two looked at each other with a great deal more fear and ran at the same time. The Daedraenlui instantly drew out a chain and twirled it about, it wrapped around and sliced open one man’s chest and he cried out as he fell, the unholy warrior swung it about in the same instant, wrapping it around the neck of the second. With a simple tug, the chain drew back causing the morph’s head to twist and spin free of his body.
The paladin hissed and drove his sword toward the evil warrior. His blow was easily deflected as was expected. Edmund used the momentum to spin his blade about and try to take the Daedraenlui’s head but his opponent ducked and they soon stood opposite each other. Edmund’s ears twitched to the startled cries behind him. The knight seethed when he realised Stealth had ignored his order and engaged the bandits directly.
He blocked out the thought as he twirled with the Daedra warrior and exchanged blows. As Edmund countered attack after attack he began to tire but the ‘anti paladin’ showed no sign of tiring. The cheetah began to loose ground and panted with the exertion.
‘Eli, give me... strength?’ The knight’s eyes widened as a giant animal rose up behind his opponent like a wave and crashed into the Daedraenlui who slammed into the ground and slid to a halt at Edmund’s paws.
The man was almost crushed under the weight of the dire cheetah. Stealth snarled at the anti-paladin, eyes wide with the thrill of the hunt. The giant animal craned its neck down and opened its jaws wide around the neck of the frightened Daedraenlui.
“STEALTH! NO!” Edmund shouted at the cat.
Stealth jerked his head back and blinked, “Oh, sorry. I forgot.” He put a heavy forepaw down on the man’s back, restraining him easily. “I hope you don’t move; I haven’t eaten today... I like to eat things that move.”
That earned a chuckle from Edmund. The dire animal purred loudly but the Daedraenlui just shot the paladin an intense and hateful glare.
“How did you fare in the battle, Ed?” The animal asked and looked at the three bodies around them.
“Oh, I didn’t kill these ones, he did for desertion!” Edmund said to Stealth’s other unasked question, “I fared well; a difficult fight but I got thru it.” He answered. “And you my friend?”
The cheetah thought for a moment, “I feel... different.” Looking back he did feel strange. Like he’d almost enjoyed it... slowly the reality began to sink in and the thrill began to fade.
“Are you alright?” Edmund asked softly.
“No.” Stealth said without hesitation. “What do you want to do with... this?” He asked and nudged their prisoner.
“Hold him steady,” Edmund kneeled close to the ground and searched the man for anything dangerous or interesting. He found a score of poison tipped darts and the large chain. Ed could now tell the chain was covered in spikes and they were marred with flesh and blood. Using a rope from one of the tents, the cheetah paladin tied the man’s arms, legs and gagged him.
Once he was secured, Stealth removed his paw from the Daedra follower’s back. “Can I get the other ones now?” He asked eyes wide with the thrill of the hunt again.
“No, I need you here to help me take him back.”
“Okay. I’m glad we survived...” The animal said.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Edmund reminded as he watched their prisoner – their only prisoner after the rest fled or died, “but I am glad to see you unharmed.”
Stealth purred and rubbed against Edmund, causing him to grunt and fall backward in the snow. “Ooof!”
“Are you sure you want to take him back with us?” Stealth asked and sniffed Edmund’s nose.
“It wouldn’t be right to kill him like this. He should be tried for his crimes.” Ed answered as he got back up and looked around. “Forgive me for asking this but may I sling our guest across your back for the time being?”
“Sure.” The animal said and waited patiently as if he were a draft horse while the burden was hefted over him like a sack of potatoes. “I’ll take him back to the Keep!”
“No, not without my guidance. He is too dangerous to be left alone.” The knight ordered and turned to head back up to the tree line. “Follow me to my horse.”
“Ed, wait, my armour.” Stealth motioned behind him.
“All right,” The paladin walked quickly past the splayed corpses and noted the arrows buried in their skulls. “You did very well Stealth. Fine aim.”
Stealth just mumbled in acknowledgment; he didn’t feel all that proud of what he’d done, just an unsettling craving... The thought was worse when he remembered almost crushing their skulls in his jaws. Perhaps he was feeling a little complacent and feral in his new form, Stealth wondered with trepidation if he had tried to kill the Daedraenlui... or eat him.
Halfway to the discarded pile the dire creature found his dagger in the snow. He idly snatched it up in his muzzle and felt its warmth quickly fading away.
When they found the suit, Edmund didn’t have the strength to fully repower it at that time so he just fuelled it enough to make it’s weight bearable and then collected up each plate as well as the daggers into a gunny sack he took from the tents. It was a slow walk but they eventually made their way back to the horse. With renewed energy they then left the Haunted Woods (again) and stepped out into the sunlight of the new day.
As they slowly headed south a distinct cloud of disquiet hung over them. They were victorious but neither would feel safe until they returned to the keep. The daunting choice of being trapped in the Haunted Woods or getting killed trying to leave was behind them but until the Daedra worshiper was out of their paws they wouldn’t rest easy. Still, at least they were going home.
They forded the creek that once tried to eat Stealth’s Yule tree. Though the stream was now frozen solid it was far more risky to cross. Stealth wanted to jump across but he’d probably loose his load. He allowed himself to be lead across by Edmund who held the cheetah’s scruff in one hand and the halter of his horse in the other. During the crossing the dire cheetah wondered who was helping who maintain balance...
Edmund kept a close eye on the evil warrior on the cheetah’s back while Stealth just lamented. A few hours past he felt thrill and delight which quickly eroded into despair and now he felt so shook up that he just wanted to go home.
“You are very quiet.” Edmund spoke as they walked. “Something wrong?”
The quadruped opened his mouth to speak but faltered.
“Amulet acting up?”
“No it’s not that.” He said softly and swallowed a lump. “...”
“Speak to me. Tell me what is troubling you.” The paladin ordered.
“When I shot my bow and heard a scream...” Stealth began but lost his voice.
“I can understand how that would be troubling.” Edmund said and huddled up in his coat. Now that the excitement was long behind them he was cold again.
“I was happy.” He corrected and tried to look away.
Stealth only heard Edmund breathing, was he pondering? ...or was he judging? “When I leapt and landed on someone... I was happy, happy that I crushed him underneath me, happy that he died under my paws.”
“Are you sure?” Edmund asked.
Stealth blinked, he looked up at Edmund with an expression to emphasise just what he thought of that question...
“Well are you sure that YOU were delighted? Or the cheetah within?” Edmund countered, “Humans have always lost themselves in battle. Eons before the curses gave us new instincts to contend with, it’s the way it’s always been.”
“Then why do we always come away pained?” The animal whimpered in a churr.
Edmund laughed humourlessly, “Because we’re not monsters.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever feel worse then the first time I snuffed someone.” The feline said softly.
“You acted in self defence that day, today you made a decision and took responsibility for your safety.” He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder, “It’s not meant to be easy.”
“Thanks, Ed.” Stealth said and absently nuzzled the paladin’s hand.
“If there’s one to bear the burden it is me; they did this to get to me.” He said and huddled up more in the coat while the knight’s tail wrapped around his legs.
“Because of the Shadow?”
“No.” Edmund said bluntly. “Daedra followers are evil but not stupid. He knew I have no control over the spirit of the woods.”
Stealth blinked, “Then he told those people, all those people you did just to...” The cheetah slowly turned his head to look at their prisoner.
The man bound and slung over his back could not speak but through the gag he seemed to grin.
Edmund’s reaction was swift and unexpected. He lashed out with his fist and punched the man dead square on the nose. “Your real punishment will come soon enough.”
The Daedraenlui grunted and choked a bit on his gag.
Stealth turned away and blanched. Edmund said that man killed his own people. And he lied to them to obtain their help in killing the paladin... They’d not have been so helpful if they knew the Shadow was still a threat. Had they succeeded all of them would have naively gone to their deaths at the hands of the Shadow Fox. And he was proud of it! As troubled as Stealth felt at their fight that morning, it was comforting to know that at the very least he wasn’t a sadist...
After the fist to their prisoner’s face, their conversation died down again. Edmund pondered everything that had happened and everything that would need to be done. George will want a debriefing, those ashes in the cellar would need to be collected respectfully and he’ll need to give Bridgette a big hug and kiss.
Another matter of concern was obviously the armour and ‘dire’ form. However of more concern to the knight was Stealth himself. Edmund was a bit surprised and a little amazed that Stealth did so well. He did have a problem with following instructions but Edmund was already aware of that. What gave him pause was Stealth’s attitude; he did almost falter but besides that he seemed eager when at other times the feline acted much more timid and reserved. Perhaps the new form or suit had an affect on the lad.
Edmund blinked out of his revere, “Yes?”
“What was a Daedraenlui even doing here in Metamor?” The animal asked as he navigated a large mound.
“Good question. One that many people will want answered. Especially myself.”
It had only been just over a full day but to the returning cats it felt like weeks. Edmund and a score of his men escorted their guest to the dungeons. Stealth took the sack containing his belongings to the Guild Tower for recharge and analysis. The mages wanted to keep it in their possession for some time to understand its transformation but it refused to stay put and merely blobbed along the floor and back to its wearer.
Stealth shrugged and left, promising to return for them to study the new suit when he had the time to sit around. He left in his dire form – he’d been in that form since early morning – and walked towards his next destination.
As the large animal walked through the halls of Metamor, people stoped to gawk. Some chuckled while others were gobsmacked. Some looked on in curiosity and made appraisals while others cowered in fear. To think, if he’d been a normal, ordinary taur in a tunic people wouldn’t even spare a glance.
Late that day the dire cheetah in golden armour lined with black splodges slowly and with natural grace entered Long Hall. Misha spared with some of his fellow Longs in taur form, everyone stopped in their training to gawk and the horse-sized feline.
Stealth turned his gaze down and saw a metallic animal standing in front of him.
“Rawr!” The cheetah said to the metal fox.
Madog promptly ‘yipped’ and scurried to hide underneath Misha’s legs, peeking up shyly from underneath.
“Hello Misha,” The giant animal said in hypnotic low hiss.
“Stealth? Is that you?” The fox asked, confused.
“Yep, I learned a new trick...” The cat grinned.
“What happened?” Misha asked, unsure of how he should react.
The cheetah sat on its haunches, “I went out to the woods the other day and got a new suit. Then by accident while I was trying to get out of it I discovered a new forth form. I call it the Dire form.”
“Very impressive Stealth! You are some sort of mega sized cheetah. Almost like a throw back to some ancient long extinct giant cheetah!”
“Oh, yes. Now Oberon can be the little cat.”
“Can you teach me this new form?” Misha asked enthusiastically.
Some people around the taur rolled their eyes or sighed. They weren’t all too excited about the idea of a bouncy dire fox.
“I don’t know; I don’t really know how to teach people stuff.” The animal shrugged.
“Stealth.” Said the taur and placed his hand on the cheetah’s shoulder, “You need to teach me new things!”
“Okay, I’ll try, though I hope you don’t mind loosing your upper half.”
“No problem.” He handed his staff to Georgette and removed his vest. “I’m always happy to try a new form.”
“Good!” Said the dire cheetah. “Now close your eyes. Picture your own body...”