“No.” Stealth said and pulled the covers over his head.
“No?” Edmund asked from his position at the end of the bed.
“No.” The lump in the bed sheets mumbled, “I’m not going back there.”
“Oh come on! Are you going to deny the chance for adventure?!” Edmund said boldly and loudly. His tailed lashed back and forth wildly.
“Ed, it’s a dead forest and I’ve seen it twice.” Stealth pulled his head out again, “And after the last time, we almost never made it back.”
Edmund shook his head slowly and pointed a finger at the bed. “So that’s it? You are not going to do anything? The last time you were there you gained your armour and dagger didn’t you?”
“Ed, I’m a cat; I’m supposed to do nothing," came the answer from the bed.
“You’re also a Keeper and people of Metamor Keep are adventurers! Now get out of bed or I’ll pull you out by your tail," the feline paladin ordered.
“You do that, Ed.” Stealth yawned.
“All right!” Edmund answered and grabbed hold of Stealth’s tail. “Now get up!”
He was answered with a thrown pillow.
Edmund dodged the pillow and pulled Stealth’s leg slowly dragging him from bed. Stealth slid down the mattress, his thumb claws stuck to the sheets, slowly dragging them out too. the entire mess hit the floor with a muffled thump. But Still Stealth did not get up. Instead he lay in the middle of a ball of blankets and sheets.
“You really are a nut," The pile of sheets mumbled.
"Oh for heaven’s kindness. Get up you lazy sluggard!”
“Fine...” Stealth yawned, from the floor, “Just a sec...”
“Now!” Edmund snarled. “I know that old “one-more-minute-trick”.”
Stealth stood up and stretched, he then placed his arms on the bed head and his feet several feet further back and stretched again until he was almost lying on the floor, before he stood up and stretched again. “Can we please get a coffee or something from the town first? Please?”
“Of course! I know a mess hall in the keep where they make good, strong coffee and fine tasting pastry!” Edmund chirped happily.
“You wouldn’t happen to mean that charming little place called THE mess hall, downstairs?” He gagged, “Ed, let me buy us breakfast in the Lower Ward.”
“What’s wrong with the food in the mess hall? they have some fine cooks there. But if you insist we could eat there?”
“Wonderful!” Stealth said, putting on his shirt, “Can we stop off in Euper too? And Tarrelton?”
“This is an expedition to the Haunted Wood, not a shopping trip” The cheetah paladin pointed out dryly.
Stealth shook his head. “Ed, I don’t want to go back there!” He said and threw his pants on the floor and turned his back.
“Why?” Edmund asked. “Was it that terrifying?”
“Daedra.” He whispered. “Daedraenlui.” He hissed the word as if it pained his mouth. “I wonder how many more of those trolls the Moranasi sent.”
“I see. And by hiding here in the Keep you think you will be safe?” Edmund countered sarcastically.
“What happened to that thing anyway?” Stealth asked without turning around.
“Well he was tried and found adjudged guilty," Came the explanation. "The curse has since claimed him and reduced him to a child again.”
“A child? An anti-paladin child and he’s held here, in Metamor?”
“Indeed.” Edmund answered. “But he is safely locked away where he can hurt no one.”
“Ed, we’ve got an ‘evil’ battering ram and now there’s a creepy Daedra kid in the keep.” Stealth countered bluntly, “You know what? I wouldn’t mind taking a trip through the woods after all, let’s go.”
Edmund nodded. “See. It is a good day to go out into the wilderness.”
They bumped into Bridgette in the lower levels of the keep. The maned wolf was happy to see Edmund and he her but the other feline accompanying him looked to be in a foul mood.
“What’s wrong?” She asked and stroked his chin.
Stealth blushed, much to Edmund’s delight but his friend was quick to get his revenge, “We’re going to Edmund’s favourite place in the whole world.”
“The Haunted wood is far from a place I take any joy in visiting but I am happy to help the people there, as too you should be.” The paladin lectured.
“I wasn't talking about the woods, Ed.” He answered with a devilish grin, turning his eyes up slightly, “I meant that little brothel.”
Edmund gasped, more so when Bridgette asked, “What is a brothel?”
The cheetah paladin began stuttering, confronted with explaining such a thing to his lady friend and one under his tutelage.
“Go on Ed, tell her about that place. You were sooo excited to discover it.” Stealth purred, nudging his friend.
“Were you?” The wolf asked, cocking her head.
“NO! I mean I was but I didn’t know what it was!” He shouted, “We must go!” He hugged Bridgette quickly and dragged his friend down the hall.
“Ed, you missed the turn.” Stealth called out, looking back over his shoulder and pointing to the south.
“You are mistaken,” Edmund countered. “The turn is up ahead!” He pointed to the north.
Stealth shook his head, “Nothing up there but the Dike and...” He paused, “Why are we going to Hareford?”
“We are going that way to meet with Nestorius. He has uncovered some information," Edmund answered in an annoyed tone.
“I see.” Stealth said slowly, “Do I have to be there?”
“Yes," the Paladin answered forcefully. "It involves the haunted woods. And all 3 of us are bound up together with the spirits there.”
The feline pinched his nose bridge, “I’d really prefer to wait outside.”
Edmund shook his head. “And miss all the adventure? Besides you liked Hareford the last time we were there.”
“The town. Not the pompous, arrogant, snooty lion mage.” He spat, “I want nothing to do with him.”
“Stealth, Nestorius did apologize for his rude behaviour. And he is my best source of information on the haunted woods.”
“After you threatened to leave.” Stealth countered.
Edmund shrugged his shoulders. “It was all a misunderstanding. One we easily cleared up.”
“It was NOT a misunderstanding, the arrogance I endured was very deliberate," Stealth snarled. "And from what you said, he was quick to change his tune ONLY after this animal-figures-on-a-map thing came up.”
“Enough, we’ve been through this before.” The paladin said sharply, “I’m asking you to trust me, at the very least, stay your emotions.”
Stealth snarled softly and waved his hand in disdain, ignoring Edmund for several minutes as he muttered under his breath.
Edmund moved up the trail a short way. Then stopped. “Well. I think we missed a turn back there.”
“We didn’t miss a turn, we took a wrong turn 500 yards back.”
“We did? Why didn’t you tell me?” the paladin asked. He turned and looked at his friend.
“I thought you did it on purpose!”
“Why would I take the wrong road on purpose?” Edmund asked, confused.
“Ed, you missed the Haunted woods turn off and didn’t tell me!”
“I didn’t tell you?” Edmund asked. “I was slightly distracted.”
“This road goes to the glen... let’s go to the glen! Get some muffins.”
“No. We’re headed to the Forest. But first we need to meet Nestorius," Edmund ordered sharply.
“ED, I DON’T want to go back there!!!” He screamed. The feline jumped off his horse and tied the reins to a branch.
“Are we going to have this argument again?” Edmund snarled as his tail whipped back and forth in agitation.
Stealth unsheathed his short sword and hacked at the bark of a tree trunk. “You going to drag me?”
Edmund shook his head. “My friend. Why are you acting like a child? What is wrong with visiting?”
He thrust the sword into the bark where it stayed and turned around with his fangs bared, “He... he...” The cheetah cowered and turned his head down, “He scares me.” He finished in a whisper.
“Nest scares a lot of people. He likes putting up the tough, scary wizard face to the world.”
“Whatever.” He mumbled and turned his back, “It was like being in the presence of Death. He frightened me, intimidated me in a way I can’t describe.”
Edmund was quiet for a moment. When he spoke it was in a soft tone. “In the wild, lions hunt cheetahs. Perhaps it’s some feral instinct?”
“But I’m a predator!”
“And a lion is a larger predator," Edmund countered.
“I’m a predator and I have no instincts... I shouldn’t have instincts.” He pulled the sword out of the tree and hacked violently at the branches, startling his horse. “WHY?! WHY do I have to go to a dead forest? Why do I have to be imprisoned in a dumb animal body? Why do I have to have anything to do with a lion-mage?”
“Why? Why?” Edmund asked. “WE were chosen to help all the lost souls in the haunted woods. And to help them we need Nest’s help. As for your instincts you have simply exchanged human instincts for feline ones.”
“I make the choices in my life, ME, do you understand? ME, not you or your...” He paused.
“My god?” Edmund finished. “Life can be unfair. We all have things thrust on us that we don’t want.”
“Aye, Edmund, aye, YOU’RE thrusting it on me, how can you make me do this?”
“All right Stealth. I won’t thrust it on you. Go ahead and go back to the Keep. Give in to your fears and your feline instincts.”
Stealth’s jaw dropped and he stuttered as he was taken aback. He turned his back and walked away.
Edmund sighed silently and followed. He walked down a small decline past low branches until he stood on the bank of a small stream, Stealth’s back was still turned to the paladin, he looked at the rushing water in silence.
Edmund placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “My friend. We all have our own inner daemons to fight. I have the same instincts you do but my human mind helps me to overcome them.”
“I want the choice,” Stealth said with a clenched fist, “I want no one to choose for me.”
“You do have choices. You can choose to fight the instincts trying to control you and be yourself," Edmund said softly.
He brushed the Paladin’s hand away and walked back up the incline. Edmund followed after a moment.
“Don’t tell anyone about this.” Stealth said softly while untying his horse, “Please.”
“Of course not. I never tell a secret and I am a good listener.” Edmund said.
“You put up with a lot from me, Ed.” He sighed remorsefully.
Edmund shrugged. “You're my friend!”
Boom! The deep low rumble made the entire castle shiver and sent plates and cups dancing on the table in front of her. The young woman was some twenty nine years old and in spite of trying to raise three children she was still trim and fit. Or perhaps because she was tending to three children she was in good shape. Her hair was braided and pinned tightly to her head. The dagger that hung from her belt was no decoration and had a razor sharp edge.
"Mama!" the little girl next to her cried. Amelia scooped up the girl and held her closely. "There, there. Mama's here."
"Cassandra!" the woman called out.
A young girl of about fourteen came running into the room breathing heavy. "My lady the whole castle shook. Was it an earthquake?"
"No honey," Amelia answered calmly. "That was one of my husband's experiments. Please watch Samantha while I see if my husband has burned off his mane again." The woman had more worries then just Nestorius' looks but she did not show it publically, afraid it might cause a panic. Cassandra was a good servant but she was still a young girl whom the curse hadn't taken yet. She handed her daughter to the young girl and slowly headed out of the room. When Amelia was out of sight she took off at a dead run.
In her husband's private workshop she pronounced a few short words in a whisper and the outline of a small door appeared in one wall. The door swung open silently revealing a set of circular steps leading downward.
These stairs were new, having been installed less than a year before. After a minute the nature and colour of the steps changed suddenly levelling out into doorway. The stones themselves here were older and of a darker stone. Wear on the floor revealed that it was a lot older then the castle above it. This stonework was a Seuilman construction. How old was something even Nestorius could not tell.
Amelia found her husband in the doorway. The black furred lion morph was leaning against a wall. His clothing was in tatters and his mane was smoking.
She rushed forward and hugged him tightly. "Are you all right?"
Nestorius nodded his head. "I'm fine. I just had a sharp reminder of how powerful a protection spell the Seuilman could be. Even if it is almost 700 years old."
"Haunted woods?" she asked.
He nodded slowly. "Yes. Even seven centuries after the city's fall the spells around it are as strong as ever. But I did learn a few useful things."
“And here we are!” Edmund said as he dismounted.
Stealth said naught. Why did Edmund always have to be so bloody cheery? “Ed, let me take the horses in, you go ahead.”
“The stable hands will take them, I would like you to accompany me.”
“Ed...” He sighed, “...okay, I’ll head in with you.” The young cheetah had had enough of verbal jousts for the day and Edmund was probably at the end of his tether too.
And so it was they approached the front doors to the manor together, albeit one with his head down.
The doors into the manor... Stealth could just picture it,
‘You again what do you want, peasant?!’ the woman would croak.
‘Shut up, granny’ the cheetah would command, ‘get out of my way and die. I’ll piss on your grave, you old bitch.’ He’d shout.
Stealth shook his head and cringed, alright; he’d never say that but oh, did he want to...
“Listen, Ed.” The cheetah said.
“Yes?” Edmund answered.
Stealth was about to reply but just then the door opened.
The door opened quickly and silently revealing the bright face of a young girl, her blonde hair done in long braids.
"Hello! Welcome back!" she said cheerfully. “Lord Nestorius and Lady Amelia will be here shortly.”
Stealth visibly relaxed. Where was the old woman? Dead hopefully.
"Thank you my child, may we come in from the cold?" Edmund asked.
She turned and beckoned them inside. A moment later they were standing in the hallway. "Please follow me to the solar."
A short walk down the hall took them to a small room brightly lit by the windows along one wall. A fire burned in the fireplace and pictures hung from the walls. Comfortable looking chairs were scattered about the room.
"Listen Ed." Stealth said, after the girl had left.
"Yes?" Edmund asked slowly.
A boy entered the room with a small platter of cheese and slices of baked chicken as well as a bottle of red wine.
"Some refreshments for you while you wait," the boy said "The chicken is fresh from the oven."
"Thank you son but neither of us drink, could you fetch us some cider?" Edmund asked.
"Of course!" he said and smiled. After putting down the platter he turned and quickly left the room.
In moments the two were alone again in the room with only the portraits hanging above them for company.
"What did you want to tell me?" Edmund asked.
The cheetah opened his mouth to speak and then a large explosion rocked the room sending the portraits falling from the walls.
"What?!" Edmund shouted as he picked himself up off the floor. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Stealth sighed and nodded, a chicken leg resting on his nose.
In a few moments the girl returned with a big smile on her face, "Lord Nestorius will see you momentarily, please make yourselves comfortable" She said and ran off at full tilt.
"I think," Edmund started slowly. "That Nest has been experimenting again."
"Can we leave now please?" Stealth asked with a meaningful glare.
It was tense to say the least, however only for Stealth. Much to his frustration Nestorius seemed as blissfully, ignorantly cheerful as Edmund. Stealth hated Edmund for the nudges and encouragement... he was courteous, polite... but he wasn’t the slightest bit comfortable doing more than that. And if it weren’t good enough for the other cats, Nest would have to work for it.
The three felines found themselves walking slowly down the same steps Amelia had used a few hours before to find her husband. The lion was in the lead with Edmund next and Stealth following behind.
Nestorius stopped at the place where the circular stairs ended. "Since coming to Hareford I have spent much time and effort trying to uncover all its secrets. Five years ago I uncovered the existence of a series of chambers buried deep under the town itself. It was then I had these stairs installed. Only in this last month was I finally able to get past the wards and access the corridor and chambers beyond. They are definitely Seuilman in construction as was the spells protecting them."
He stepped out of the stairway and into a small, circular room with niches lining the walls and three doorways. Nest pointed to a door way off to the left. Edmund could see that the corridor beyond the opening led only a few feet before ending in a pile of debris that blocked it completely."I believe that originally led to the Principia. The legion fortress headquarters."
"Was there anything in the niches?" Stealth asked as he examined one. "It looks like they were meant to hold something."
"They were empty when I arrived. But I believe they held statues or treasure of some sort."
Edmund noticed another opening opposite the one the lion had pointed out. He peered through the doorway and into the darkness beyond. All he saw was an empty corridor leading off into the darkness. He had more sense than to actually go down the passageway. "Where does this lead?"
"I do not know," Nestorius answered. "It leads at least forty feet but there are several powerful spells blocking access. I believe it might lead to some sort of special treasure vault or if I'm lucky a library."
The lion mage walked over to the doorway opposite the one they had first entered. "The true treasure lies this way."
The doorway gave way to a short hall that ended in a wooden door that was bound with rusted bands of steel. Edmund was amazed that the wood and metal had survived so long.
Nestorius made several complex gestures and touched the door in three places in rapid succession. The door started to glow with a deep blue light that slowly subsided to a faint glow along the edges. The lion gave the door a push and it swung open revealing a large chamber lit by some unseen light source.
"The room is as I found it," Nestorius explained. “But I have reinforced the spells protecting and hiding the chamber."
The trio walked through the door and Edmund got a good look at the room. It was long and narrow with them at one end. Overhead the ceiling was black but all the stars and constellations painted on it. It was like looking up at the night sky. The only light in the room came from a pair of glowing orbs hanging from stone brackets. He noted a dozen similar orbs spaced evenly around the room but all of them were dark or only glowing dimly. The walls were of finely cut stone but plain and devoid of any decoration or embellishment. The floor of the room was covered with an elaborate and highly complex map complete with cities, towns and roads carefully done. Even after centuries of neglect all the details were clearly visible.
"It's a map of the valley!" Stealth said excitedly as he pointed at various places on the map. "That's Metamor Keep and that line up there is Giants dike." The cheetah’s tail whipped back and forth as animated as his arms.
Nestorius nodded. "It is! I call this the summoning chamber for lack of more accurate title," The lion said. " I believe this chamber was one of several scattered about the valley." He pointed to the floor. "You'll notice eight spots on the map that are picked out with gold and silver stars. Those were the locations of other similar chambers. You will note that one is located in what's now the lower ward of Metamor Keep. I believe this was a transport system of sorts. Allowing them to travel between the various places instantly. I have seen similar systems in the Sathmore kingdoms but nothing this large."
"Well, they were in the valley for over five hundred years," Stealth said. He was slowly walking along the map looking at it carefully. "Plenty of time to do all sorts of things."
Nestorius nodded his head in agreement. "Indeed."
"I've heard rumours of such things," Edmund added. "I know of a few mages who have perfected the ability to move distances instantly but never over such long distances."
Stealth walked to one edge of the map and knelt down. "What's here?" he asked. The feline was pointing to a star located in what Edmund knew to be mountains at least a dozen miles from the valley. The map itself showed mountains surrounding the star but no structures.
"I am not sure.”It might have been a hidden refuge. There is so much to learn and understand." The lion walked over the map to and pointed to the image of a large city that Edmund knew all too well. It was Camulodum the capital of the Seuilman province and now the centre of the Haunted woods.
"I have confirmed at least one of my theories," Nestorius said. "I have uncovered a powerful series of spells over this place that is most certainly a Seuilman creation."
"Could that be trapping the spirits?" Edmund asked.
"It is a strong possibility. It is certainly a set of wards I have never seen before. Very unique characteristics. Extremely power and aggressive in its defences. I need to study this more closely. Unfortunately I cannot do that from here. My last attempt almost killed me and came close to destroying the whole town. I need to be in the ruins themselves. That will allow me to study them from the inside. I need to go here!" the lion said and pointed to a large gold and silver star located on the edge of the city. "But the same magic that I wish to study keeps me from going there directly."
"So how do we get there?" Edmund asked.
"The same way I got here, on foot. We have to go to the ruins and make our way downwards," the mage answered.
“We had best start in the morning before dawn. That will give us the maximum amount of daylight.” Nestorius commented.
“We have to stay the night?” Stealth asked, he didn’t bother trying to hide his shock.
“We are most obliged.” Edmund bowed.
The lion gave a wave of the hand and Cassandra reappeared. "My friends will be staying tonight in the blue room."
Stealth glared at Edmund, the paladin didn't see him though.
"Please see that the bed is ready," he ordered calmly. The girl took off down the hall at a run.
"Cassie! Don't run!" the lion called after the speeding girl to no effect.
"One bed?" Stealth cringed.
Nest turned to Stealth. "There are two beds actually. But in the same room. I hope you both do not mind?"
"No! No, I don't mind at all..." Stealth mumbled.
Nest gave a rumble of laughter. "Believe me it is a large room and the warmest."
"Now how about dinner? It's been too long since we've had guests for supper."
"We're honoured!" Edmund answered. "I am certainly hungry! How about you Stealth?"
Edmund gently nudged his friend.
Stealth eyed Edmund, "Oh, yes, yes indeed..."
Dinner started promptly at 5:30pm and was announced by Amelia - the lady of the castle standing in the main hall and ringing a small bell. The two cheetahs followed her as she walked into the dining room.
Standing close to Amelia and hanging onto her skirt was a little girl that Stealth recognized as Samantha. Amelia’s youngest daughter.
The little girl’s face brightened into a smile. "Hi!" she said and waved.
"Hello..." The cheetah said shyly.
Amelia smiled. "Stealth! It's good to see you again! Welcome back."
Stealth bowed, "Thank you milady, I'm sorry Bridgette couldn't make the trip out."
Amelia hugged Stealth who blushed and purred. Then the woman turned to Edmund and smiled. "And this is Edmund. Bridgette told me so much about you. You’re even more handsome then she described you."
"Oh..." Edmund blushed, his tail flicking about, "It is a pleasure to meet you, milady."
She hugged Edmund. "Thank you for coming. It’s a pleasure to have you share our house for dinner."
The group made their way to the dining room. Nest and Amelia took a seat at the centre of the table with Edmund and Stealth next to them. The kids on either side. Seated just off Amelia was her daughter, directly in front of Stealth. The cheetah sighed softly.
"I would like to thank my good friends Edmund and Stealth for so graciously joining us for dinner," Nest said in warm tones.
"It's an honour to be here and I thank you for inviting us and for meeting your wonderful family," Edmund answered.
Stealth turned his head down prompting a gentle kick in the shins from Edmund.
"It's a pleasure to be here." He said shyly.
Nest nodded. "Thank you. I'm glad you came."
"We’re delighted you invited us. It's been too long since I've had a good meal." Edmund commented.
"I've prepared Braised lamb over a bed of carrots and artichoke leaves," she said cheerfully.
"So Edmund," Nestorius said casually, "You are quite familiar with the woods, I understand."
Stealth started to say something but Edmund cut him off with a poke to the ribs. "Yes. We've been there several times of the past few months; I've made freeing the souls there my work."
Stealth looked at the paladin with a hint of irritation and slumped his head in his palm.
Nest tilted his head to the side in query.
"Stealth has not enjoyed our trips there." Edmund explained. "He does not like bothering the undead."
"No one does I'm sure..." The lion said, rubbing his chin scruff, "Have you discovered any relics on your journeys? Perhaps uncovered the history of the ancient city?"
"A thing or two," Edmund answered evasively. "But we refrain from taking anything from the woods. The Shadow and the ghosts do not like looters."
Nest took a long slow drink of his wine before speaking. “I have been wondering about something. Perhaps you can help me?"
"Oh?” Edmund asked. "I will help if I can."
"The duke rules over the entire valley and gives the honour of controlling parts of it to certain nobles. Just as I control Harford."
"Yes," the cheetah answered. "And?"
"Well who has the duke assigned the lands in the haunted woods? Does some noble family control it? Or try to control it."
"I don't know. I've never really considered that since no living person has lived there in centuries."
"I'm sure that land belongs to someone and whoever that is, technically has the right to take what they wish from the ruins..." The mage mused.
Stealth made a chirp of laughter. "I'm sure the ghosts and the shadow have something to say about that."
"And the shadow had what to say about the things you took?"
"We did not take them," Edmund said with anger in his voice. "We were allowed to use them."
"I thought you refrain from taking things..." Nest reminded as he sipped his wine.
Edmund bared his teeth. "I’m not in the mood for word games wizard. Those woods are very deadly. I have seen the remains of those who tried to loot the dead. I alone have befriended the shadow as we had the same goal in mind. Freeing the souls there."
Nest held up his hands. "My apologies Edmund. I meant no insult but you must admit the lure of that much treasure is a constant temptation for those of lesser minds or weaker wills."
Edmund nodded his head slowly. "All too true. It is a common affliction."
Any further conversation was cut off as the servants arrived with the soup. Placing large bowls of the steaming liquid in front of every adult.
"This looks good!" Edmund chirped.
"Smells good too... what is it?" Stealth asked.
"Shepherd soup!" Amelia explained. "A mix of mutton, vegetables and noodles."
The group was silent for several minutes as everyone enjoyed the soup. It wasn't until his bowl was empty that Edmund spoke, "What information do you have on the size of the ruins? I wonder just how many people died there."
"Well I have seen a census taken in 632CR that placed the population at 12,317," Nest said.
Edmund nodded but how accurate was the census? "Such things are never truly accurate."
"We will never know until we can see firsthand," the lion answered.
Edmund nodded."What other records have you turned up any other census or some sort of count? I know of a single record of the military strength in the valley at the fall."
"Has the shadow fox ever told you how many souls are in the ruins?" the lion asked. "It should know."
Edmund shook his head. "No he has not told me this. His trust of me only goes so far. There is much I must earn."
"Then we must remove it." The lion intoned.
"Remove it?" Edmund asked. "Do you understand just how powerful that shadow is?"
"I do. That is why I advise we remove it, I doubt we can ever control such a creature"
"More powerful people then you and I have tried. This is no minor shadow. It is extremely powerful. It had defeated all attackers," Edmund countered.
"Then what of the ghosts? When you free them will the shadow still linger?" Nest asked. "Do you expect to free them at all within your lifetime?"
Edmund nodded his head slowly. "The shadow is here because he made a promise to protect the people here. When the ghosts are freed so will he."
"What?" The lion asked confused, "Are you saying it is not bound here at all?"
"The shadow is bound to protect the people and the city but if the spirits were freed it would no longer be bound to the ruins."
"Bound by what? By words? A promise?" Nestorius asked eagerly. "Knowing that would be a great help to us all."
Edmund shook his head. "That he will not, cannot tell me. There is only so much that the shadow can tell me. The rest we must uncover for ourselves."
Nest sighed. "That is to be expected. Will he prevent our quest?"
Edmund made a wave of the hand. "No. Since we all want the same thing - the freeing of the ghosts there."
"Still it is best if we tread carefully," the mage said and took a sip of wine.
The lion was silent for a moment before speaking. "And what of the summoning chamber, what if I were to control the shadow for my own ends or it thought I intended to? How would it prevent that without impeding us?"
Edmunds answer was in cold, hard tones. “If the shadow thought you were a threat it would kill you quickly very violently. Misha saw the shadow kill an ogre with no more trouble them you and I have in eating this lamb."
"Technically I am a threat; neither you nor it knows my intentions and you have been evasive in telling me what I seek." Nest answered in mild irritation, "I could very well claim the shadow and take control of Metamor. Even Nasoj would have since contemplated the thought."
"Nasoj HAD probably considered it. And he was wise enough to not try or he did try and failed. As would you." Edmund said. "And if you tried I would settle the issue myself with you."
“Well . . . You need not worry about me. I have more sense than to try and control such creatures. I worry about other mages. I just hope they have the sense to not try."
"So do I," Edmund commented, "So do..."at that point a noodle sailed thru the air and bounced off of Edmunds nose.
This brought a round of childish giggling and laughter.
Edmund turned to his friend, “why did you hit me with a noodle?” he asked in calm tones.
“To liven things up! It suits you," Stealth answered cheerfully.
Edmund shook his head. “I take it you did not like our choice of dinner conversation?”
“I tried, I swear I did...”
“So tell me, Edmund, how’s Bridgette been?” Amelia asked changing the subject, “When are you to going to get married?”
Samantha pointed at the two cheetahs and said “They’re getting married?!”
The paladin’s eyes went wide.
“No honey.” Amelia said, “Edmund and Bridgette. Remember she came to lunch a little while back.”
Stealth chuckled and Edmund shook his head for a moment. Even Nest gave a rumble of delight.
"Well, we have grown closer as of late...." Edmund said uncomfortably.
Amelia smiled. "So when will you ask her the question?"
"I..." Edmund stuttered.
Stealth laughed openly his tail flicking back and forth energetically.
Amelia turned and looked at Stealth. "What about you? Have you found a girl yet?"
The feline's laughter died suddenly, "Well, I..."
“Oh we must find you someone to settle down with, Stealth," she commented cheerfully.
"I've got you Ed..." He said, placing his hand on the paladin's.
Edmund shook his head. "Sometimes you really worry me Stealth," he joked.
“Ed, listen.” Stealth pestered.
“Yes?” Edmund asked and then a chamberlain entered the room.
Stealth pinched his nose bridge and fell back on his bed. As soon as he heard the door close he leaped up, “Alright, now listen.”
Edmund perked his ears and listened intently, his friend paused and waited for an interruption but there was none.
“Ed, you know I’m not under your command... you do know that right? You have got to STOP ordering me around.” The feline said sharply.
Edmund nodded, “Yes, my many years in the army has...”
“Guess again Ed.” Stealth interrupted, “Even if I did take orders from you, it still wouldn’t amount to this...”
He sat down and continued in a more subdued voice, “Edmund, you do not know what is right for me. You have got to stop telling me how to live my life down to the smallest detail.”
“Have I been doing that?” he asked surprised.
“Do you feel I'm lying... or exaggerating Ed?”
“No!” he answered quickly. “You’ve never lied to me before so why should you now? It’s just that I never realised that I was being so overbearing.”
“Ed... I might be way off on this but...” He scratched his head, “do you have any younger siblings?”
“I have several. 2 brothers and a sister,” he answered
“Did you let them down?”
“Why do you ask?” Edmund asked.
“I’m just wondering if you’re trying to make up for something. Actually that was rather harsh, do you THINK you let them down?”
“Well,” he said and hesitated. “We all have regrets and mistakes in our past.”
Stealth thought for a moment and surprised the Paladin again when he answered, “We don’t have to have this discussion. If you're not comfortable.”
“Well,” he said “My younger brother Aldred had a difficult youth. I tried to help out but he always seemed to make the hard choices.”
“And what, it was your fault?” The feline scoffed.
“I should have done more!”
“What were your parents doing, Ed? What about your brothers and sisters? Or did they all dump the responsibility on you?”
“He didn’t listen to mother or father. I’m his older brother - we all watch out for each other.”
“There is only so much you can do Edmund, and you know it.” Stealth answered bluntly, “But is this why you’ve been so overbearing? Do you think I'm heading down the same road as your brother?"
Edmund did not speak but shook his head and sighed.
“Just think about what I said, Ed.”
“I will Stealth. I will.”
Stealth nodded and turned to blow out the candle.
“Stealth...!” Edmund called out in a faint voice.
“Yes?” The cheetah asked.
Edmund blushed, “Did Bridgette... What did Bridgette say about me?”
Stealth grinned, “She said you’re very brave.”
Edmund nodded silently.
“...and cute.” He added.
“Oh!” Edmund churred as his tail whipped about.
“Goodnight Ed.” Stealth said and blew out the candle.
This time he’d prepared...
Today Stealth utterly refused to leave the bed no matter what. He would be drenched in its softness and warmth for as long as he pleased. For today, he had a canopy-supporting-bed head to wrap his arms around. He felt satisfaction and anticipation when Edmund failed to struggle with his legs at all...
A moment later the coldest thing Stealth had ever felt in his life trickled down his neck and quickly spread to his back and to the bed sheets.
The feline sprang out of the bed with a yelp and flailed in an attempt to dry himself off.
“I didn’t know you could jump that high!” Edmund laughed and put the flowers back in their vase.
With a sagging, wet muzzle, Stealth silently glared at the paladin.
“And now that you are awake we can leave!”
“Alright, we have food and provisions to last us several days.” Edmund said as he fixed the harness on his back pack.
“I intend to be home with my family by the end of this day.” Nestorius answered.
“I intend to be in bed, yesterday...” Stealth mumbled, “If something happens we may be stuck for many days.”
The courtyard of the castle was quiet at this early hour. The only ones awake besides themselves were the soldiers on guard and Amelia.
"Is everyone asleep except for us?" stealth grumbled.
"We have a long way to go and I’d prefer to be at the forest by dawn so as to have the maximum amount of time there." Nestorius explained.
The three of them came to a halt. The road they had been travelling on came to an abrupt end in a junction with another road leading perpendicular to it. Heading north and south. North to the Giantdowns and south to Metamor Keep...
In front of them was a line of trees that lined the north-south road. The trees were tall and straight and the area beyond was hidden in shadows.
"There it is. Haunted woods," Edmund said.
No one moved for a moment. All of them just stood staring at the forbidding wall of trees and forest.
Stealth wanted to warn or at least reason with the mage but Nestorius would never pass up such an opportunity. Stubborn pride is a powerful thing.
“If we continue in this direction it should take us straight to the capital.”
“Good!” the lion said but he did not move for a moment. Instead staring at the forest.
Stealth shifted his gaze, “Don’t stray from the path...”
“What path?” Nest asks. “All I see are trees and brush.”
Edmund stepped forward and pushed two large bushes apart. There barely visible in the weeds and branches were the stones of an old road - barely visible.
“The forest guards itself well.” The lion said.
“All imperial roads follow straight lines, the same as Hareford. When in doubt, pay attention to the ground, also, keep a look out for markers and rubble.” Stealth explained.
“This is as far as I’ve been into the wood... I spent a month recovering.”
“What happened?” Edmund asked.
Nest shook his head.”I am not sure. I remember stepping forward. I was found a short time later twenty feet away and both legs and 5 ribs broken and with odd burns on my body. I took the hint that my presence was not wanted there and I have stayed out of the woods.”
Stealth looked meaningfully at Edmund but didn't say anything.
“So long as you obey the rules and take nothing you will be safe,” Edmund said calmly.
The lion nodded his head slowly but still did not step forward.
"Nervous?" Stealth asked.
"Yes!" Nest answered honestly. "I'm always nervous about dealing with the undead and unknown magic. It has kept me alive."
"Are you coming?" Stealth asked. "Or are we going back to Hareford."
Edmund poked Stealth in the ribs.
Nest took a deep breath and stepped into the woods. Stealth half expected a lightning bolt or a ball of flame to incinerate them all but nothing happened. He saw the lion pause and look around for a moment.
"Well, it seems the woods have accepted you," Edmund said.
"For now," Stealth muttered.
The sun didn’t rise until they were well into their journey; even then it took several hours more for it to even appear by which time they’d arrived at the gates of a large satellite city bordering the capital. Long hours of walking in the semi-darkness had given them only brief glimpses of walls and stonework amidst the trees. The trio used the arrival of dawn as a queue for a rest break.
Nestorius didn’t rest and preferred to continue his search, restricted as he was by the Paladin. Edmund ordered the mage to remain within the confines of the clearing he’d located.
With the lion doing all he could to extend his leash as far as Edmund would tolerate it was very easy for Stealth to catch Ed in reasonable privacy.
“Ed, why do I have to be out here? It’s not like you need me to do anything.”
“Why? Because I value your opinions and I need your help.” The cheetah paladin said, emptying his canteen.
“With what exactly?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know but you have a way of finding things and seeing things in a light I would never have.”
“But I don't need to be here...” Stealth seethed.
“I need you here,” Edmund says earnestly.
"We BOTH need you here," Nestorius said in a solemn tone. "You are fated to be here with us in this place."
"How long have you been listening?"
"That doesn't matter. I am well aware of your reluctance to come here. That is understandable. Who wants to willingly walk into a graveyard filled with the undead. The souls trapped here need help and we three are the only ones who can help. We’re the only ones to have tried to help in centuries."
"He is correct," Edmund added. "They need us."
"Yet neither of you know what, if anything, you can do."
"That," Nestorius said firmly. "Is why we MUST go into the woods. You cannot solve this problem sitting safe and cosy back in my home drinking wine."
"...Your home... drinking wine?" The feline said tersely.
The lion raised one ear up. "It's bad enough my wife won't let me drink now you don't want me enjoying a few glasses of wine?"
Stealth pinched his nose bridge, "We're at... somewhere, the capital should be just another mile."
"Just a short walk," Edmund said trying to sound cheerful.
The pavement was still visible where it peeked through the tree, grass and earth. The three felines walked slowly along the ruined road. Close on either side were the tumbled down walls of ruined buildings.
Nestorius shook his head slowly. "So sad. This was once a beautiful city, bustling with life. At one time this city alone had a population larger then is now in the entire valley."
"And a lot of them are still here," Stealth said. "They never left."
The three felines walked slowly down the street. Skirting around the debris
and small bushes that often blocked their path. "There is so much we still
need to learn. Each one of these buildings holds its own secrets," Nestorius
Nestorius stepped off the path and walked slowly into the remains of a building. A flash of colour on one wall caught his attention. Gently he pushed away the branches and vines revealing a small mural with an unusual subject. It showed men and women in a wide variety of sexual positions. And next to each pair was a drawing of a variety of coins. "What is this?" he asked surprised.
Nestorius looked at the mural for a moment. "It's a price list!" he commented with a chuckle.
"Then this place was a . . ," Edmund paused.
"A bordello," Nestorius whispered.
"Ed what's a bordello?" Stealth asked. The cheetah was still outside the ruin and had not seen the mural yet.
The paladin sighed, "It's a place where men and women get together for bodily pleasure."
"Huh, and I thought it was a deli or something," Stealth commented as he walked up to where his friends stood.
"Well they do sell meat... sort of," Nest quipped and the lion pointed to the erotic sign.
"Oh my!" The cheetah exclaimed, seeing the mural, "They do indeed," He said with a lusty grin revealing all his sharp teeth.
Edmund shook his head slowly. "Another bordello. Did the men in this town ever have any entertainment besides sex?"
Stealth nodded and gave a yip of laughter. "Yup. Drinking and gladiator games."
Nest pointed to one unusual position. "Is that even physically possible? Be fun to try!"
"Well," Stealth joked. "It must be very special since it cost 3 gold."
"Please!" Edmund exclaimed, "Let's move on."
Stealth suddenly stopped. "I smell bread! Fresh baked bread!"
"Impossible," Nest said. "There's no . . . " he paused. Then spoke in a softer tone. "I smell it too,"
"Where is it coming from?" Edmund asked and looked around. All he saw was the ruins of the dead city.
"Well we've seen ghosts and heard them, why not smell them?" Nest said softly.
"Don't jump to conclusions." Stealth ordered, "For all we know we're not alone here."
"In the haunted woods?" Nest countered. "No lutin would be so stupid as to stop and bake bread? No one would be that stupid."
"I didn't say lutins." Stealth countered.
"Then who? The Keepers avoid these woods. That leaves the shadow and the ghosts. Unless you think a squirrel is baking."
"Or someone the Shadow hasn't informed us of." Stealth mentioned, "Can we really be sure we're the only ones here? Has the Shadow ever said otherwise?"
"That brings me back to Who? Who goes into these woods but us?" Nest said. "I've never known any keepers to go into here willingly."
"No, you haven't..."
"I think," Nest said slowly. "That we have lingered here for too long. It will not remain daytime forever."
"We'll track our phantom keepers later," Edmund agreed, "If they are keepers or even mortals."
Nest paused a moment. "Of course.”