As they continued through the ruins Nestorius became either more oblivious or more drawn to the obvious dangers around them.
Edmund grabbed the lion by the back of his mane, "Ware your enthusiasm, this is a place filled with the dead."
"This is the chance of a lifetime!" Nest answered and edged closer to the hole in the pavement.
“It’s intact!” The lion exclaimed, bounding through the rubble in another direction with boyish energy.
In the remains of an antechamber he found a statue of a Seuilman Goddess.
“Fantastic, there doesn’t seem to be any weathering on this, well, apart from her right leg.” He said brushing his hand across the stone.
“Don’t touch that! Explore with your eyes.” Edmund ordered.
“An inscription!” Nestorius exclaimed and pushed through some large slabs. “Yes, I believe I can make this out...”
“How long have we been here?” Stealth asked.
“Two hours, it’s still late morning.” Edmund said, keeping his eyes on the inattentive mage.
“Ed... look how long his shadow is.” Stealth whispered to the paladin as they gazed at the mage.
It was not his shadow, there were two shadows... It darkened and encircled him, rippling like a puddle.
“Nest! Halt!” Stealth ordered.
“Why? There are no magical traps, I told you.”
“Nestorius!” Edmund shouted and ran towards him.
The lion mage began to feel odd. He looked down at his feet and shivered. He tried to move but his feet were numb, and the shadow trickled up further still.
The shadow enveloped him and Nest felt himself being drained into it. He couldn’t move his arms or legs, he couldn’t summon up a spell he felt himself...dissolving. Nestorius found himself paralysed in a world of ice cold stone, he could see and hear nothing, not even his own heart beat, but somewhere in his tomb he felt a warmth and then the ice melted.
Edmund touched the mage gently on his shoulder and the shadow quickly dispelled, drained, and faded away into the ground.
Nestorius panted for breath and rubbed his forearms for warmth, “What? What happened? Did I miss a trap?”
His question was answered with a claw-tipped finger pointed at his muzzle.
“Touch nothing.” Edmund ordered coldly, “Step only where I say.”
Dumbfounded and frightened, the lion simply nodded.
“We all need to remember just how dangerous this place truly is.” Edmund intoned in a softer voice.
“In many ways the Haunted Wood is dead.” Stealth added, “In many more it is very much alive. Listening, watching and waiting. Ready to pounce.”
Nestorius pointed up ahead where a procession of tall, battered columns lined the side of the road. Behind them they could see a battered brick wall with small openings that once had been doorways and windows. "This is the forum," he explained. "The entrance we're looking for is in here."
The trio followed the line of the building till they came to an opening different than the others. This one was twenty feet wide and the shattered marble blocks that partly filled it told that at one time this had been an impressive gateway.
Stealth stepped around the headless torso of a marble woman. Her head lay half buried in the rubble nearby. Her mouth was open and her eyes fixed on him as if scolding the cat for disturbing the peace here.
They walked through a large doorway and through the short passageway behind it. After a moment they stepped into a large open courtyard. Tall, marble columns lined the arcade that wrapped around all four sides of the massive courtyard.
In the centre of the courtyard was a twenty foot tall block of stone upon the top of which was a battered figure riding a horse. The head and arms of the rider were gong but the horse seemed relatively intact except for a missing tail. Peeking through the dirt and brush in various places were glimpses of red and white marble in various shapes. Hinting at elaborately decorated flooring lost beneath six centuries of debris and forest growth.
"This is where the government was run from," Nestorius commented. "All around this courtyard are the rooms needed for the clerks, scribes and officials who administered the district."
"Which one do we want?" Stealth asked.
Edmund pointed straight ahead. "The basilica. That is the main building. Where the governor had his offices. The stairway we want is probably in there."
Stealth looked in the direction his friend had pointed and he could make out a building whose dome loomed tall over the surrounding trees and casting a large shadow over everything.
A slow walk across the abandoned courtyard took them past rubble and debris now covered with a thick layer of earth, grass and brush. They walked up a short set of vine covered steps and past marble columns that stood tall and straight in spite of the passing centuries. Two massive doors of bronze over fifteen feet tall stood half open in the doorway in front of them. The bronze was coloured a deep green from age but Edmund could easily make out the designs on them.
Edmund halted for a moment and took off his pack. From inside he removed a small lantern made of brass. He deftly put his pack back on and looked to the lantern. After a moments work the lantern started glowing with a soft, white light. Satisfied with the light the paladin slowly slipped through the opening being sure to avoid touching either door. He found himself in a large open space with the walls and ceiling lost in the distant shadows. In here things were cool and quiet. No moss or grass grew over the beautiful marble floor beneath his feet.
"Wow!" Stealth said softly. His voiced echoed over and over till it faded into silence.
"Impressive!" Edmund commented. "Truly a work of art."
"This place looks new!" Stealth knelt down and ran his hands along the highly polished red and white marble floor. "The floor's not even dusty."
"Magic," Nestorius explained. I see some very powerful magic here. It was woven into the very fabric of the structure when it was built."
"They wanted it to last forever," Edmund said softly.
"They've succeeded so far," Stealth added.
The three explorers walked slowly through the darkened corridors and halls of the building. The only sounds that came to their ears was the soft patter of their own footsteps which echoed back and forth in the darkness that surrounded them.
Suddenly in front of them a massive shape loomed up out of the darkness. After a moment the light of Edmunds lantern illuminated the object, revealing it to be a massive statue. It showed three men wrestling with a massive snake that was over twenty feet long.
"I believe that's Laocoon and sons being killed by a serpent," Nestorius commented.
"Looks like a bad night at the Deaf Mule," Stealth joked.
"I'm surprised it wasn't taken when the city was destroyed," Edmund said as he walked around the massive statue.
"It weighs at least 2 tons. They probably couldn't move it," Stealth answered.
"Odd that they did not deface it?" the lion commented. "All the other statuary we've come across has been smashed."
"That is strange," Edmund added.
"Everything about this place is strange," Nest commented.
"That's the truth!" Stealth said loudly. His voice echoing in the ancient structure.
Edmund waved the lantern about revealing more of the large hall they were in. The small light sent shadows dancing all around them. "I see doorways leading in all directions. Which way do we go now?"
The lion pointed off into the darkness straight ahead. "That way, in the governor’s villa."
Their walk across the large hall came to an abrupt halt when they found something laying on the floor in front of them.
The figure lay stretched out in the middle of the hall. His arms and legs were splayed at odd angles and his head was turned away from them. He was laying in a large pool of fresh blood. The man was dressed only in a bloody tunic and even bloodier pair of pants. Next to him lay a short sword and a large rectangular shield on which was a gold scorpion over two crossed lightning bolts.
"Who is he?" Stealth asked.
Edmund shrugged. "No way to tell. His has been stripped of all his clothes. But the blood is fresh so he must have been killed within the last hour or so."
Nestorius shook his head. "I believe he has been here like that since the fall of the city."
"Impossible!" Stealth countered. "He can't be dead more than a few hours!"
"It's the preservative magic of this place," the lion explained. "It preserves everything that is here, even the dead." The mage pointed to the shield. "That is the emblem of the 23rd legion. And that legion has not existed since the year 150 when the valley was overrun for the last time."
Stealth didn't speak but just stared at the corpse while Edmund was silently recited a prayer for the dead.
"You understand what this means?" Nestorius asked. "It means that everything in here was preserved including parchment, paper and linen. This building could be filled with astounding treasures."
"It also means it will be filled with the dead," Edmund added.
Slowly the three feline keepers made their way through the halls and corridors of the gloom shrouded building. They walked through massive halls with their roofs lost in the darkness above. Their only companions were the soft echoing of their own footsteps following close behind.
The second body they came upon was another man this time wearing the simple gray coloured toga of a servant. Stealth kept his distance but even so he could easily see what had killed the man as his head was some five feet from his torso.
They found themselves in a long corridor lined with doors along both walls. Stealth peered into the doorways as he walked past. He caught site of a room filled with shelves, another was piled high with scrolls. Many others held a single table or desk. He paused a moment and looked more closely at one. A wooden desk stood in the middle with a chair behind it. A scroll rested on the desk with a quill and ink pot next to it. He stepped close to the desk and examined the scroll. It was half filled and he could see where the scribe had stopped in mid sentence. It was hard to imagine that 600 years had passed since the scribe had left. He half expected some annoyed scribe to come barging in, annoyed at some stranger being in his room. He quickly backed out of the room and continued his journey.
Suddenly Edmund and Nestorius came to an abrupt halt.
"What's wrong?" Stealth asked.
"We've found another body," Edmund explained. Sprawled at the paladin’s feet was the body of an older woman. Her long, black hair lay spread out in a fan around her head. Thankfully she was laying face down so he could not see her face. She was wearing a dress of bright red with white flowers.
Stealth was content to let Edmund and Nestorius examine the body. After a few minutes they were done. Edmund pronounced a small prayer over the body. Nestorius pointed further down the corridor to where it ended in a large gold covered door. "We're close now. It's only a short walk in this direction." There was one problem. To continue onward they had to step over the corpse.
The lion gracefully stepped over the body without a second glance at it. Edmund paused a moment and made the sign of the cross before gently stepping over. Stealth didn't pause but he did look at the figure as he moved over her body. He wondered for a moment who she had been. Did she have any descendants still living in the valley? He put those thoughts behind just as the put her body behind him.
"This is the governors’ private office," Nestorius explained as they stepped into the room. All around them was chaos. An overturned table rested in the centre of the room. On one wall was a battered and chopped up wooden object that one must have been cabinet of some sort. Shattered pottery, smashed wood and stone pieces were scattered everywhere.
"The lutins ransacked this place thoroughly,” the lion commented. Carefully and slowly he stepped through the room.
"They took everything valuable and smashed the rest," Edmund said. The paladin made his way slowly into the room placing each step carefully.
"I'm surprised they didn't try and burn it all," Stealth asked.
"They couldn't. The magic protecting this place prevents such destructive fires," the mage explained.
Stealth pushed a small pile of pottery with his paw revealing even more debris underneath. "We're not going to find anything useful here. The lutins took it all."
"Agreed," the paladin added. "To find anything useful we'll have to do a detailed search of the room and examine each piece carefully. That will take weeks."
"We will save this place for another time," Nest said. "We are here to find the entrance to the summoning chamber and that is in the private villa of the governor."
At the back of the room was another door. This time smaller but no less well made. It was made of a dark coloured wood with veins of white and red running through it.
Stretched out on the floor in front of the door was the body of a lutin charred black from some great heat. What remained of the figures clothing was just as charred scraps.
"It seems this door is trapped," the lion said calmly.
Edmund bent over and examined the body closely. In spite of the damage done by flames he could make out odd stripes and marks on the burnt skin. "I wonder who he is? What tribe?"
"For that you'd need to talk to Misha," the mage answered. "He would understand what all those marking mean." The lion stepped around the body and up to the door. Nestorius studied the door intently for several minutes. "The magic sealing this door looks to be intact," the lion said excitedly. "It's never been breached."
"Can you open it?" Edmund asked.
The mage nodded slowly without looking away from the door. "I can. But it will take some time."
Edmund watched as the door started to glow a deep, blue colour that slowly changed to green then yellow. All the fur in the lion’s mane was standing straight out as sparks danced through it. The light from the door spread outward till it covered the entire wall. Then suddenly the light vanished.
The lion mage leaned against a wall for a moment. "That was intense," he explained in a tired tone. "I was able create an opening but not fully remove the seal," Nestorius explained. "So when we are done exploring I can reseal it to protect the contents."
Edmund nodded. "Good. This place is a treasure beyond measure. And incredibly dangerous." He walked up to the door and pushed it open slowly. The warm light of a lantern spilled out illuminating the trio and the hallways around them.
They stepped into a small room whose walls were covered with bright reds and deep, vibrant green colours. Several cloaks and coats dangled from hooks on the wall to their left. Resting on the floor beneath the cloaks was a pair of shoes of a design long out of fashion. The leather clean and brightly polished.
Stealth gently ran a hand along the hem of a yellow cloak. "This feels new, like it was just hung there."
Edmund felt like he was intruding on someone's home. Like some burglar sneaking in to steal what he could instead of an explorer in a ghost haunted ruin.
"Hello?" he said out loud. The only outward sign of his nervously was the tip of his tail. Which was flipping back and forth incessantly.
"If someone answers," Stealth said nervously. "I'm leaving."
"The magic has preserved the place perfectly," Nest said excitedly. In one hand he had a pen and the other held a large notebook. The lion was furiously writing. Taking notes on everything he saw.
They stepped through the doorway and into a larger room. In the centre of the room a small fountain sat. Its water danced and burbled cheerfully. The sound belaying the ominous feeling of the room. Against one wall rested a small table made of a dark wood. On it rested a silver bowl filled with apples and oranges.
Stealth examined the bowl and its contents without touching anything. "They look fresh."
"They are fresh," Nest commented. "Everything was preserved as it was when the building was sealed."
"Anyone want a six hundred year old orange?" the Stealth asked.
Slowly the trio of feline keepers made their way through the rooms of the villa.
They paused at the door to a small bedroom. Against the far wall was a large wood frame bed covered by a blanket with multicoloured stripes all over it. A small pile of pillows rested at one end.
"They made the bed before they left," Edmund commented. "They seemed to have cleaned up before leaving. That shows they had some time for preparation."
"Or maybe they just liked things neat?" Stealth said.
Nestorius nodded. "Probably. But however they left I doubt we will find any corpses here. The people who lived in this place all fled and either escaped or died elsewhere."
"What exactly are we looking for?" Stealth asked trying not to think about finding any more bodies. "What does this door look like?"
The lion shrugged. "It should be a door like the one at the entrance to this villa but I cannot be sure. I can narrow down the search to a specific room."
"And that room is where?" Edmund asked.
The mage pointed off to the right where a small doorway led off into darkness. "That way."
A few steps brought them to that doorway and they carefully peered inside. Unlike the other rooms in the villa this room was dark. No torches or lanterns were lit and no light spread into the room through the doorway. Even the beam from Edmunds lamp would not penetrate the darkness. All they could see was darkness.
"This is the place," Stealth said. "The door must be in here. Somewhere. In the dark."
"Do not enter the room. Do not even touch the door frame until I'm sure it is not trapped." Nestorius stepped up to the doorway but did not walk in. He spoke a word in soft whisper and a small ball of light appeared in front of him. With a wave of the hand the mage directed the light into the room. The small ball of light drifted into the dark room. Its light illuminated a room with walls of light blue and white flowers. At the far end of the room was a large desk made of a light coloured wood. Scattered about the room were a variety of cabinets, tables and cupboards. On the floor in front of them was a carpet with two men in strange armour fighting each other. One was using a trident and the other was wielding a spear with a crescent shaped point on the end. There was no sign of any doors except for the one they were standing in.
"This looks like someone's private office," Edmund commented. "Is it safe to enter?"
"Yes!" Nestorius said is a surprised tone. "Surprisingly enough. I do not see any traps in the room itself. But do not touch the desk. That is trapped."
"Must be the governor’s personal desk," Edmund said. "The door we are looking for must be hidden somewhere. So look around but be careful."
The door was a small one and well hidden. Stealth's sharp eyes spotted a flash of metal behind a large cupboard. It only became visible after they moved away the lacquered wood cabinet. The door itself was made of bronze moulded and shaped into a series of complex scenes.
"This must be it," Edmund said. "They went to some effort to hide it."
Nestorius did not approach the door but stood at arm's length and stared at it for a moment. Then he took one step forward and stopped. From a pouch on his belt he produced a small silver and blue egg shaped object. He pointed one end of the thing at the door and the entire egg glowed a deep red colour. The mages eyes grew wider and he moved several steps backwards very quickly. "Do not get anywhere near that door. The spells protecting it are very powerful. And very sensitive," he snarled.
Both cheetahs stepped backwards several paces.
"Can you get the door open?" Edmund asked.
Nestorius shook his head in reply. "Eventually but it will take me several months to do it. It will take me several weeks just to prepare. But perhaps there is another way." The mage opened his shirt revealing the black fur that covered his chest. Dangling from a chain around his neck was a small metal cylinder. He unscrewed the lid of the cylinder and pulled out several rolled up pieces of parchment. These he laid flat on a table. "We are here," Nestorius said and tapped a part of the map with a black furred hand. Then that hand drifted over a few inches to another spot. "This where to summoning chamber we want is located." His hand traced a straight line between the first and second spots. "And this is the tunnel we need to use."
"This door that we are standing next to is the primary entrance but I did note a second entrance from a smaller secret tunnel," Nestorius explained. He moved his hand to a spot on the map several inches from the first two. "That passage can be reached from a drainage tunnel here."
"So more walking through the creepy building and the creepy city so we can walk through a creepy tunnel?" Stealth asked.
"That sounds about right," Edmund answered.
"There is no other choice," the mage added. "Not without several weeks of hard work."
The keepers made their way quickly back through the villa till they again stood in front of the only entrance. The paladin closed the door and made sure it was firmly shut.
Nestorius stood in front of the door for a moment his hands moving in complex gestures. "Done," he announced. "I have resealed the area so it is again safe. I have also added my own wards and alarms. Anyone tries to breach it I will know instantly."
"Who would be so stupid as to try?" Edmund asked.
Nestorius pointed down to the floor where the charred remains of the long dead lutin lay where it had rested for over 6 centuries. "Him for one. And his million or so descendants north of here."
An hour's trek through the basilica had taken back into the forest. After hours in the dark building the gloomy forest was a welcome sight. they moved quickly through the forest shrouded ruins but Edmund loosened the lion’s proverbial leash when they found fresh corpses in a side alley. It was clear that the Shadow had gotten to them. The fallen thieves were well equipped with digging implements; Nest convinced his cheetah guide to ‘requisition’ their tools for if and when the need would arise before continuing. It didn’t help that one skeletal hand needed encouragement to part from his pick axe. When Stealth picked up the pickaxe it remained firmly in the skeletal hand. He had to pull several times before the dead man let go.
It was after several more minutes walking that Nestorius stopped in the middle of the road. A line of low grass ran off to their left and right indicating the presence of a street running perpendicular to their own. The lion pointed to the ground. "There should be access to the city drainage tunnels here."
A few moments of scraping with a shovel brought the pavement into view. They expanded the cleared area until they came upon a stone with holes cut through it in the shape of a flower. "That's the cover!" Nestorius exclaimed.
Edmund carefully inserted his fingers into the holes and pulled. The stone came up with surprising ease revealing a square dark hole. Below them they could see the water filling the old drain almost halfway up. It was thankfully not moving very fast but there was a distinct current running from left to right.
"All that rain," Stealth commented.
"Makes sense," Edmund said. "Storm drain is full of storm water!"
Stealth slowly stepped down into the water and let out a moan. It was cold. The cold wetness racing right through his body and chilling him down to the bone. "This is freezing!"
"It's run off from the winter snow," Nest answered as they walked down the tunnel. "And only slightly above freezing."
"Only?" Stealth asked as they walked along.
"At least there is nothing trying to eat us in this water," Edmund said,
Stealth shook his head. "Don't say that!"
The trio turned a corner and came to a halt. The tunnel in front of them is filled with rubble and debris.
"Is there a way around it?" Edmund asked as he examined the blockage.
"This is a labyrinth and bound to have more than one route." Nest said and pointed down the passage, "This way, I'm sure there's another path."
After another 45 minutes of walking through the sewers the tunnel became smaller and smaller until they were crouched before a duct barely 2 feet wide.
All stealth say was two pairs of boots and a tail flailing around in the darkness. He heard several muffled curses coming from deep in the duct. "I am stuck!"
"Can you... see anything in there?" Stealth asked with a grin as Edmund tried to fish him out.
"Grab one of his legs Stealth it will take both of us to get him out." Edmund ordered.
It took several pulls before the lion finally popped out of the tube and dropped to the floor.
"Well what did you see? Is it blocked off or not?" Edmund asked.
Nest chook his head the dirt and filth on it dropping off. "No it is not blocked off. It continues onward."
"Wonderful!" The feline exclaimed and tossed his shirt on the lion's head, "Now where's a rope?"
"Rope?" Nest asked.
Stealth dropped his pants too and shifted.
"Chirp? Oh that’s a helpful answer."
Stealth picked up the end of the rope in his teeth and the feline quickly scurried thru the small tunnel.
For five minutes scratching sounds echoed through the sewers until a voice called out, "Okay, I found the end, now someone else come through."
"How long is it?" Edmund asked. "Not too long I hope."
"I got disoriented in there so I don't know, just hurry up, and bring my clothes!"
Edmund removed his garments and bound the straps of all his gear as well as Stealth’s onto his legs. Moments later in full animal form he was slowly scrambling thru the small tube.
"Now how do I get thru?" Nestorius asked.
"Chirp!" Stealth answered with a giggle.
Nest shook his head. "You have never sounded more intelligent Stealth."
"Why thank you, you're surely close to my level, I mean you must have seen the rope I left there for you..."
"I see. So you two intend to pull me thru?" he asks.
"Yes!" Edmund answered. "You place a cloth or blanket in the tub and lay won on it. We'll pull you thru."
Nest carefully placed all his equipment in the tube except for a thick wool blanket that he laid in the tube and tied the rope to it. He then climbed into the tube, laying down on the blanket.
"I'm ready!" he called out.
"You HAD to be lion!" Stealth complained. "A large, heavy lion. Not a slim and light cheetah."
"I'll have you know I'm the reason you're both alive to be pulling me; would you hasten to know the cavity you're in is about to collapse?"
"You're just full of all sorts of good news," Stealth grumbled.
"I will maintain its structural integrity, cramped as I am in here."
"We'll pull faster," Edmund commented. "We’d best not to linger in any of these old tunnels."
The two pull faster and they heard the sound of cloth ripping and Nestorius cursing. "That is a new shirt. Keep pulling! Faster!"
In a moment the lion popped out of the hole and into the chamber. He tumbled to the floor.
"That was unpleasant," Nestorius said as he stood up.
"Let’s be gone from here before the ceiling collapses." the
lion said and pointed down the tunnel. A few stones fell from above striking
the floor around them and urging the trio out of the room. In moments they were
again in another tunnel.
"Why am I always wading thru sewage on missions like this?" Edmund muttered as they walked through waist high muck in the one thousand year old sewer.
Nest nodded in agreement."Last time I was in a sewer like this I left it stark naked and my fur was jet black."
Stealth stopped walking for a moment and looked at the mage with his head
cocked to one side. "Naked? The sewage made your fur black and ate your
clothes?" He asked.
"No it was the mage I was duelling," the lion morph explained. "But he was hiding in a cistern filled with stagnant water."
"All villains seem to have their lairs in some dank underground place filled with vile smelling liquids," Edmund commented calmly.
"What is it with nobles?" Stealth groaned, "It's just mud, deal with it!"
"Stealth," Edmund answered."We are in a SEWER. I wish it was just mud!"
"Ed, no one took a shit here in seven hundred years. Just pretend we're archaeologists, you'll live."
"All right so it is 600 year old shit we're walking through," Edmund countered.
"It's broken down and become earth! Everything returns to the earth, mayhap your breakfast this morning used to be shit."
"Could we not carry on with that line of discussion," Nest asked. "Before I lose my lunch."
"Nobles..." Stealth muttered and shook his head.
"At least the smell is not bad," the paladin commented.
Stealth shook his head, "It's a sewer. It is not supposed to smell good."
"I was trying not to consider that idea," Nest said slowly. "At least this muck is not attacking us!"
"I don't want to think about meeting any of Herbert's relatives," Edmund commented.
"Who is Herbert?" the lion asked.
"Herbert is . . . Edmund stuttered.
"A very rare and fascinating creature." Stealth answered. "To meet him is an experience."
"And having the plague was an experience too," Edmund muttered.
Stealth elbowed Edmund in the ribs.
Nest looked at the two and shook his head. "You are both crazy."
Their travels through the sewer were unpleasant but thankfully peaceful and brief. After a few minutes Nestorius stopped and looked at the small metal egg in his right hand. Then he turned to the left and examined the wall. "The entrance should be here."
Edmund looked at the wall and noted that it was made entirely of massive blocks carefully fitted and mortared together. Then he noticed a small block, one no larger than his hand just over eye level. It was the only small stone in a wall filled with massive blocks. He touched the stone and it sank into the wall a few inches then stopped with an ominous click.
With a deep rumble one of the massive blocks that made up the tunnel way moved out from the wall. A blast of warm fetid air rushed outward causing them all to step backward. The block moved slowly outward into the tunnel until a small doorway had opened up.
The paladin waited a moment then peered into the doorway as he slowly waved his lantern about. The light revealed a small tunnel that seemingly had no end in sight.
The felines did not traverse the entire length of the tunnel, instead stopping where the small egg-shaped puzzle told them to.
“There should be a staircase here, or an opening or something.” Nest said slightly irate at the little puzzle in his palm.
“You’re standing on it.” Edmund said calmly. “I can see a door down there but it’s mostly been buried.”
“I am not digging through that.” Stealth said, gingerly prodding at the top soil with a pick.
“You said it’s just broken down earth.” The lion mage countered.
“Precisely.” He said and tossed the pick-axe to the noble.
Nestorius glared at him for a moment.
“You have the stamina and the physical strength to clear that passage," Stealth said. "I’ll supervise.”
The lion gently scraped at the soil as if he were afraid of damaging the buried stones. “You realise I’m not a labourer.”
“The work will do you good, being pent up in that fortress has been detrimental to your health I’d imagine.” Edmund commented, though he began to remove soil with his pick axe.
“Perhaps...” Nest mumbled as more stones came into view, “But I did have the stamina to journey here on foot.”
Eventually enough dirt was cleared from the steps that they could descend them and force open the door.
The light revealed a small tunnel running off into the darkness for a short distance before ending in a large pile of debris. "Are you sure it's this way?" Edmund asked as he looked at the massive pile of dirt and stone in front of him. It completely blocked the passage.
Nestorius examined the small item in his hand again. "It is steady and firm. There is a large chamber some thirty feet down this passage. At least what used to be a passage."
Edmund patted one of the stones in the wall of rubble. It was at least four feet long and two feet high. There was no telling just how deep or how heavy it was. "This is too heavy to shift by hand. We'll need a block and tackle or magic."
The lion mage studied the block and the rubble around it for a moment. "There is no way around it. There is a block below it that's even larger. I can remove it."
"Won't the rest of the ceiling come down?" Edmund asked.
Nestorius shook his head. "The loose material has already fallen down. It should be safe so long as we do not remove too much of the raining rubble."
"Should?" Stealth asked.
The lion spoke a long string of words as he moved his hands along the stones. After a moment the block slowly started to shift and move towards them. With a loud grinding and rumbling of stone on stone the massive block moved forward inch by inch till it pulled clear of the debris. Then it slowly descended to the floor.
"Good! There should only be a few stones between us and the other side." Edmund grabbed a stone and pulled on it. The rock came free with surprising ease and the rock wall in from of him fell apart revealing a large hole. A blast of cold and vile smelling air roared past sending the paladin tumbling backwards.
"Don't breath that air!" the lion warned. "It is old and stale. No doubt it has many poisons in it." All three stepped away from the stream of foul air coming from the breach.
It was several minutes before the air has cleared enough for Edmund to climb the debris back up to the breech. Edmund took the light stone and pushed it through the hole. Then he stuck his head into the darkness. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. Slowly he made out a large room whose sides were long in the gloom. The he began to see skeletons everywhere. Some sprawled on the floor, others leaning against floors and even one stretched out on a large stone block.
"What do you see?" Nestorius asked.
"I see the dead," was the paladins answer as he made the sign of the cross and spoke a short prayer.
Edmund slowly made his way down the mound of rubble. the rock and dirt was loose and he had to move slowly, placing each step carefully. Finally his paws touched solid, paving stones and he could step more easily. He walked slowly stepping around a pair of skeletons and over a third.
"Where are we?" Stealth asked.
Nestorius looked at his map for a moment. "The room has no name but it could have been a wine cellar or cold storage. I do not think it had any magical use."
Stealth knelt down next to a pair of skeletons that were resting against a large rock. "What killed them?" he asked.
"Probably a lack of fresh air," Nestorius answered. The feline was walking along amidst the remains looking at each in turn. "With so many people in such a small area the air would eventually turn bad. It is supposed to be painless. They just drift off to sleep."
It was not his hearing or his sight that first alerted him but a more primal instinct that made the fur along his spine and set every nerve in his body alight.
Then came the voices in the darkness.
"It's blocked!" came a voice off to his left. Instinctively he turned in that direction but all he saw was darkness.
"It can't be blocked," a woman's voice said from another direction.
"It is blocked," this time the voice had a tinge of panic.
"Can you clear a path?"
"No. The stones are too big to move."
His fear starting building higher and higher and the paladin struggled to contain it. He realized that this was no ordinary fright but a deep seated, primal terror that came from the animal in him. It was the fear that made horses bolt, cats hiss and dogs whimper and run in panic. His whole body shook and he had to fight to keep from running away in a blind panic.
Next to him Edmund could see Stealth standing there, calmly listening to the voices in the darkness. How could Edmund be so afraid and yet Stealth so calm and curious? Someone who had such little control of his emotions didn't show the slightest shiver yet the paladin was ready to bolt from the chamber.
"Relax," Edmund told himself. "Why am I afraid? I've seen spirits before. And the Great One is with me." He remembered the prayers he had learned and slowly recited them. That relaxed him and he brought his fears under control. They did not go away but they were under his firm control.
"Relax and do not move," Edmund ordered. "But stay on guard."
The darkened room suddenly became lit by score of lanterns hanging from the wall revealing scores of people moving about the room. The hole in the rubble they had crawled in was now gone, replaced by rubble and debris. All of which seemed to be the centre of attention of a dozen men. These men like all the others in the chamber were dressed in the robes and toga's of the long gone Seuilman Empire. "It looks as if the entire tunnel has collapsed," one of men said calmly as he looked at the pile. "I see large stones that can only have come from the ceiling."
He looked about the chamber and saw as more people scattered about. He saw a family resting against one wall. The mother was trying to comfort two small children while her husband looked at the crowd working on the rubble. "There has to be a way out!"
"Someone will come for us!" the mother said softly. "Someone will come for us."
Edmund watched the unfolding events calmly trying to keep his mind on the fact that this was all just a memory and that there was nothing he could do to help these people.
One man dressed in expensive silks and wearing considerable jewellery looked upward at the stone ceiling. "I wonder if anyone is left up there."
"They cannot all be dead," Another man answered.
"She can see us!" Stealth said in a whisper. "She can see us!"
"They can't," Edmund countered. "These spirits are locked in past events and cannot see us. . ."
Stealth didn't speak but simply pointed to down to the floor.
Edmund looked in the direction Stealth had pointed. There huddled in a corner by their feet was a young woman cradling a little girl of no more than four or five years old. The little girl had a head full of brown curls and bows and her bright face was looking straight up at them. She smiled at them and her eyes seemed to bore through Edmund and straight down to his soul. Without thinking he waved to the little girl and she smiled and waved back. "She can see us!"
"She reminds me of my own daughter," Nestorius said softly.
Edmund made the sign of the cross and said a prayer. He looked down at the little girl and had to bite back the tears.
Suddenly and thankfully the room went dark and the voices and people were gone. All that remained was the three keepers standing in a darkened, ruined chamber lit only by torch light.
Edmund found himself looking at two skeletons who were still huddled in the corner.
"I thought the ghosts could never see us."Stealth stuttered.
"Usually they do not," Edmund answered. "It is very rare for them to break through the barrier between the dead and the living. It bodes well."
"What do we do now?" Nest asked.
"We bury them," Edmund said calmly.