This takes place after Shadows of the Past and Present
Thanks to Leo M. Panther for the cool quote at the end
The bathhouse at Metamor Keep is quite large with lots of small rooms in addition to the large main bath chamber so it took Edmund several minutes to finally locate Misha. The fox scout and his otter fiancé were in one of the larger side rooms with a group of their fellow long scouts and their families. There was quite a group there and it seemed to be more like a party than a bath,
All of them were scattered around the room and in the large pool. The pool itself in addition to the people floating in it had a number of floating trays filled with food and drink. Even a wooden, yellow duck, bath toy floated about.
"Edmund!" Misha said cheerfully. "It's good to see you. Please come in. Sit down!"
The cheetah stopped at the steps leading into the pool. He was wearing just a pair of briefs that covered just enough to satisfy modesty. The attendants wouldn't allow him in fully clothed. "Why are you here? Doesn't Long House have its own bathhouse?"
"It does," Misha responded. "But someone's practical joke turned the water into a foul smelling, green sludge. So we have to use the main bath house till ours is cleaned out."
The cheetah took one step into the water and stopped. "I see."
"No fear," the fox commented. "This water is safe. Now come on in!"
Reluctantly the cheetah morph slowly stepped down into the water and found it had been heated to a nice temperature - not too hot and not too cold. He held up his pouch to keep it and its contents dry. "Thank you!" the cheetah morph said as he sat down next to the fox.
"What brought you here today? I doubt it was to enjoy the cheese or have a bath?"
He pulled a bundle of paper from the pouch and handed them to his friend. "I'd like your advice on some items we recently discovered."
Misha examined the various papers. "Where did you get these?"
"These are copies of scrolls and documents we found in the ruins in the haunted forest," Edmund explained. "The originals are far too delicate to be brought here but these are exact copies down to the dirt smudges." He tapped the top document with a clawed finger. "This one is the most important. It has a list of names."
The fox turned his head and waved to an older woman standing nearby. "Helen can I have that writing float please."
"You and your people are certainly keeping the serving staff here busy," Edmund noted as the attendant raced over with a large piece of oddly shaped wood. The woman leaned over and dropped it into the water and it floated nicely. Edmund realized it was a floating desk.
"I know," the fox admitted. "But we are paying them very well. Rest assured they are being paid fairly for all their hard work. A Brightleaf never cheats or bullies a servant or a craftsman. Good service should earn good pay." He handed the woman a silver coin.
Edmund's ears perked up and his tail swished back and forth slowly in the water. "That's fair. But all too rare in some parts of the world."
"True," Misha answered. "But Grandpa Misha started life poor as a peasant and we've never forgotten that in the Brightleaf clan." He placed the papers on the desk and began to read through them.
"Death Walkers, Raging Killers, Dripping Blades are all Lutin tribes," Misha commented without looking up from the page. "All the names that I recognize are Lutin tribes. At least four of the rest sound like tribal names but the tribes must be extinct or they've been changed."
The fox tapped a name on one of the sheets. "This name I recognize. Gulak Crawsag. He's a legend among the lutins. Usually called Gulak the conqueror."
"So this is from the time of the great collapse?" Edmund asked excitedly.
"Most certainly," Misha answered. "Gulak captured the city now called Kelewair in the Midlands after a long and difficult siege in 150."
"That's great. I suspected as much but . . ." Edmund stopped in midsentence and looked down into the water.
"What's wrong?" Misha asked.
Edmund leaned forward a little bit and stopped. "I can't quite say." He fidgeted about a bit. "I think my tail is caught in the drain." The feline squirmed some more and seemed to drift backward. "No, no, wait, yes I believe it's stuck."
Misha leaned forward. "Seriously?"
"Yes," Edmund responded in clipped tones. "It is firmly stuck in the drain."
The fox disappeared below the water for a moment and Edmund felt something touch his tail. He reappeared few moments later dripping wet. "Oh yes, it's firmly caught."
"The drain is open and there's enough suction to keep your tail stuck sir," Helen said. The attendant was standing on the floor next to the pool and looking at them. "I'll have the drain closed. That should allow you to remove your tail." With that the woman turned and started moving away from the pool. In moments she reached a door and after opening it stepped inside.
"I've always wondered," someone asked. "All these baths with all this water. How is all of it heated?"
"I've always thought it was some sort of magical thing," Finbar responded as they waited for the drain to be closed.
"No," another attendant said and pointed to the floor. "On the floor below are massive furnaces that heat the water."
"What happens to the used water? I mean they do drain out the dirty stuff and bring in clean don't they?"
"Yes they do," Someone explained. "Each evening the pools are drained and the water used in the sewage and the green houses."
"So no water goes to waste. That's good."
Helen returned walking at a slow pace. "Try it now Sir Delacot. You should be able to remove your tail."
Edmund gave a tentative tug and this time he felt some give. He reached under the water and took hold of his tail near the tip. When he pulled the tail came free, much to his great delight. The cheetah examined his tail and found the tip looked no worse for wear but it felt tender.
Misha pointed to Edmunds tail. "I think that is a small sign from the Great one that you have been working too hard." Misha placed the papers into the pouch. "Enough of work for today. We'll talk about those tomorrow. for now let's just relax."
The office of George the Patrol Master (Also known as The Head of the Scouts) was smaller than Stealth expected but well appointed. Fine rugs covered the floor and expensive paintings lined three of its four walls. A large couch with thick, soft cushions stood against one wall. One wall was bare of any art. Instead it was covered with a large map of the entire valley and a good part of the Giantdowns. In front of that map was a large desk made of the finest mahogany and cedar.
Seated behind that desk was a canine morph. One of the men affected by the curse by becoming something neither human nor animal but as mix of both. His canine head was topped with large ears sat atop a lean, rangy body that was covered with short tan fur. Looking behind he saw a long, bushy tail. The fur on his back was black instead of tan like the rest. The species was called a Black Backed Jackal and it seems to fit George perfectly. On the desk in front of George was a bottle of wine and a silver goblet. Next to that was a small tray filled with pastry.
George was remarkably quiet while Stealth gave his report. The old scout listened intently and seemed to absorb every word. It wasn't till the cheetah had finished that he spoke. First he took a long drink from a silver goblet that rested on his desk. "That sounds like one of the tales Misha is always writing about rather than the truth."
"That's exactly how it happened," Stealth shot back.
The old scout waved a hand. "I know. You did very well. When faced with an unexpected problem you handled it well."
"I was hoping for my first mission as a leader to be a simple and quiet one." Stealth commented.
George gave a yip of laughter and shook his head. "No mission is ever simple or quiet. Never forget - Prepare for the worst but hope for the best."
"How could I prepare for being taken into a ghost city?" the cheetah shot back.
"You WERE near the haunted forest," George said. "What would you have done if a ghoul or a wight attack you?"
"Call for a retreat and then we'd run away," Stealth answered. "Fast."
George leaned close to Stealth. "And if you can't run away?"
"Go down fighting," Stealth said calmly. "Alone. And there are no ghouls or wights in the forest."
The Patrol Master took a sip of wine. His lips pulling back into something that could be a smile or a snarl. "Good," he said cheerfully. "But a smart scout wouldn't let themselves be caught with no way out."
"And we weren't supposed to run into ghosts on our first patrol." Stealth responded.
"Life doesn't owe you a nice, dry, safe patrol. You need to be prepared for anything or you shouldn't be going out there," George answered. "And all I owe you is three meals a day, a place to sleep and twenty gold a month."
"Are you dismissing me, is that what this is? because let's just get it over with," Stealth snarled.
"Dismissing you?" George asked and he turned to look at the cheetah scout. "Why get rid of you? You're just getting good."
Stealth simply nodded in response.
George looked at him for several moments. "Are you all right?
Stealth didn't answer for a moment but seemed lost in thought. "I don't know. I was in a city of Undead and was killed but survived."
"Being killed does hurt a lot," George said in a matter of fact tone.
"Not just physically," Stealth said calmly.
"All too true." George sat back down at his desk. "Take off till next Monday. That will give you time think this over. I will talk to Edmund and Nest about this. I do not like you three wandering around those woods causing trouble. This needs to be handled carefully."
"Nestorius is a careful person," the scout commented. "But too curious for his own good."
The old scout gave a bark of humor. "That describes most mages but that old lion has a lot more common sense than even he realizes."
"What do you think this means?" Stealth asked.
George shrugged. "Things like this are never easy or simple. Ask a mage and they'll give you a long and complex answer that no one but themselves would understand."
Stealth gave a chirp of laughter. "That sounds like Nest all right. Something really big is happening. But I don't know what." He pointed a finger at George. "What do you think?"
George stood up and turned around and looked at the map behind him. He ran his hand along that part of the map that was the Haunted forest. Stealth saw the jackal's finger rest on the spot where he and his squad had recently been. He seemed lost in thought for a moment. "What do I think it means? Trouble and adventure."
Stealth shook his head and gave a chirp of laughter. "You're starting to sound like Misha."
The complex of rooms and halls that the Long Scouts called home was technically part of Metamor Keep but was always hard to enter. There was only one entrance and that was heavily guarded by gates, portcullis and a murder gallery. Defenses stronger than those on some castles the paladin had been in. As they made their way through a second doorway that had a steel door he again wondered why the complex was so heavily guarded.
"I am reminded," Nestorius said slowly. The mage was standing next to the paladin and looking up at the slot the portcullis had disappeared into. "Of the old tale that Metamor Keep safeguarded something so dangerous that even God himself thought it best hidden."
"We've all heard that tale," Edmund responded. He shook his head as if to dismiss such wild thoughts. "But that is a tale for another day."
"Still," Nestorius said slowly. "It begs the question. What could be so terrible that God himself wanted it hidden."
"That," the paladin answered. "Is a question I do not want to know the answer to."
The two found Long Hall busy. The vast, almost cathedral like hall was usually quiet but today he found it filled with a dozen Keepers all in the midst of combat training. They were wearing padded jackets and all held a long dagger in each hand. At the front of the group was Finbar. The ferret morph had a dagger in each hand. Danielle was standing next to him.
"What are you doing my friend?" Edmund asked. "I don't recognize any of these people as Long Scouts."
"They aren't Longs yet," the ferret answered. "Hopefully at least a few will make it."
The cheetah cocked his head to one side. "Oh?" He looked at the sixteen Keepers who were sparring with each other. "How many do you think will pass the tests and become a Long?"
The Long scout shrugged. "Probably one or two, maybe three."
"That's all?" The feline asked, surprised.
"The problem with us Longs is there are so few of us," the ferret responded.
"The standards to be a Long Scout are very high," Danielle added. "Perhaps too high at times. Only a few people can meet them."
Finbar pointed to a small doorway with a dagger. "Misha is in the office."
Edmund and Nestorius walked into the office and found not only Misha but Caroline and the raccoon mage Rickkter. Misha noticed that the feline's entire tail was bandaged from tip to hip. He placed a small pillow onto a chair before sitting down in it. Nestorius took a seat next to him.
"Are you hurt Edmund?" Caroline asked.
"No," Edmund said slowly. "The only real injury is to my dignity. Bridgette has been learning healing and she decided to help me."
The scout leader gave a yip of laughter. "Thank you both for coming today," Misha said, changing the subject. "I've been researching the information you brought and found some interesting things."
Edmund's ears perked up and he leaned toward his friend. "Oh?"
Nestorius nodded. "I am most interested in the information you can give us."
The fox held up his hand and in it was a large book bound in brown cloth of about average size.
Misha placed a book on his desk and Edmund was able to read the title stamped on the cover. "Lutin Tribes. Updated 12-707."
"This is THE reference on the lutins," Misha explained. "At least one copy of it. Andwyn, George and myself started this and we've kept it updated as often as possible. It lists the name, size and territory of every single Lutin tribe known or suspected. There are a few names on there I don't recognize and I'm going to check to see if they are in here."
The scout leafed through the book, stopping occasionally to peruse different pages before coming to a halt on one. He read the page intently then looked up at his friend. "The one tribe listed on your papers as the Grundulan are now known as the Axes."
He read more from the book. "Now this is interesting." He didn't explain the comment but seemed lost in thought, staring off into space. When he spoke again it was in a whisper. "So that's where she was."
Edmund cocked his head to one side. "Who?"
Misha closed his eyes for a moment. "You ever wonder where I got my famous axe from? I got it from my Grandfather."
"And where did he get it from?" Edmund asked following the fox's discussion.
The fox opened his eyes and looked at his friend. "Grandfather never did really explain. He often told the story about how he came by the axe but he never told the story the same way twice."
Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. I know people like that but what does that have to do with my list?"
"That tribe, The Axes," Misha explained. "It's a shortened version of an older name; The Black Axes."
"The BLACK axes?" Nestorius said. "Like in YOUR black axe?"
"Yes," Misha starred off into space for a moment. "You know, this is the second time the axe and its time in the Giantdowns has come up within a month."
"Meaning what exactly?" Edmund asked.
"An excellent question," the feline mage added.
Misha laughed and shrugged. "I don't know. The axe was here during the downfall. In the valley. I know that for a fact. Occasionally I catch glimpses and feelings from previous wielders of the axe. Sometimes without her intending it. When I first came to the valley back in 697 I got brief flashes of the valley in an earlier time. Not as it was in 615 when Grandpa was here but back in 150 when this was still a Suielman outpost."
"That's amazing. We have so little information from that time. And none at all about the catastrophe in Camulodunum that created the Haunted Woods," the paladin commented.
"Has the axe revealed what happened?" Caroline asked. "After all she was there."
Misha slowly shook his head. "No. It's a very touchy subject with her. The last time I pressed her for details she wouldn't communicate with me at all for a month."
"I've heard the legends of what happened here in 150," Caroline said. "As a child I had to learn by heart the story The Fall of Maractania. It was a nasty and bloody fight. Everyone was killed. No wonder she doesn't want to talk about it and bring up bad memories. Grandma Annabelle used to tell of how Great, great, great Grandma Coventina survived the invasion by hiding in a cave."
"I wonder how many other families here in the valley have similar legends," Nestorius commented. "I've never considered that the people here might have preserved memories of the fall of the empire. It could be an untapped source of information. It would mean a lot of work to collect the information."
"It would be a worthwhile endeavor," Edmund said slowly. His tail was moving back and forth slowly.
"Let us not concentrate on what we do not know," Nestorius said calmly. "Let us concentrate on what information we do know."
"The dagger was here in 150," Rickkter said calmly. "I've learned that much from having her and with my own research. Survivors carried the dagger south to Elvquelin using it's illusions to escape."
"The axe was here as well," Misha added. "The guild was able to trace it's journey that far. We know for a fact its last known wieldier was assigned to the 12th Victrix legion. So it's safe to say it was here in 150."
"Well the axe wound up somehow in the Giantdowns," Edmund said. "But what happened to it till your Grandfather found it in 615?"
Misha shrugged. "No idea. But from their name I think it wound up with the Black Axe tribe."
"The name alone is a good clue," Edmund commented.
"So two of the Five sisters were here during the invasion of 150," Misha said.
"Not two of the Five," Edmund said calmly. "Three. During our recent journey into the forest we saw the sword."
"WHAT?" Misha barked. They all leaned closer. "How? Where?"
"Not where," the lion answered. "When." Slowly the feline mage and Edmund explained what had happened to them in the ghost city. They left out no detail.
Misha exhaled slowly. "That's , , , that's ," he stuttered.
"Incredible," Rickkter added.
"I was there too," Edmund added. "All three of us were. As incredible as it sounds that is exactly as it happened."
"I've NEVER heard of the Haunted Forest being so active," Misha commented.
"And interacting with the undead like that is unique," Rickkter added. "You may have actually traveled back in time."
"I am not certain as to what happened," Nestorius responded. "But it was both exciting and frightening."
"Not many people can die and live to tell the tale afterward," Rickkter commented.
"The entire episode seems like a dream. Or some nightmare," Edmund said.
"Being shot in the throat with an arrow felt real enough," Nestorius said as he rubbed his throat with his left hand. "But what really stands out in my mind is the sword. I was not expecting to see that there."
Misha leaned over the desk and closer to the two felines. "Are you certain it was THE sword? One of the Five?"
"It WAS the sword Ka-Staru, that I saw," Edmund commented. "One of the Five Sisters."
The lion nodded his head in agreement. "I do not doubt that what we saw actually happened back in 150. This means it was in Camulodunum at the time it fell."
"I do not understand what happened to us," the paladin answered. "But what I do understand is that what we saw and experienced was the truth."
"All five of the Sisters are unique and unmistakable," Nestorius added. "It could have been no other."
"So three of the five were here at that time," Misha leaned back in his chair. "Sword, axe and dagger."
"After the fall the axe went north and the dagger went south but where did the sword go?" Rickkter asked slowly.
Misha shrugged. "To be honest as a holder of one of the five I really didn't research the other four much. I did hear plenty of rumors but nothing about the sword. I'll contact the Marigund guild and ask. They are sure to have more information."
"It didn't go anywhere," Edmund said in a slow, distant sounding voice. The paladin was staring off into space and seemed lost in thought. "It's still here."
"Here where? It's a big valley," Nestorius asked.
"It's in the haunted forest somewhere," the feline paladin answered slowly, still with the distant gaze. "It has to be there."
"Why do you say that?" Caroline asked.
Edmund shook himself the way a waking person might try to shake off the memory of a bad dream. When he looked back at the group there was a fierce gaze in his eyes. "The sword was here before the invasion. And it has not been seen since."
Rickkter shook his head. "You cannot be sure of that."
"The three were here during the invasion," the cheetah said firmly. "One went north. One went south. And one stayed in the valley."
"There is a certain symmetry to that concept," Rickkter commented. "If it is true it means that the Axe, Sword and Dagger are together again for the first time in 557 years. And it's in the same place."
"It does explain the increased activity in the forest," Nestorius commented. "With all three weapons together again it is recreating the setting back in 150. I cannot be sure of what powers or magic have been released but something is stirring."
Rickkter nodded his head. "Agreed but what?"
"What does that mean?" Caroline asked nervously.
Edmund shrugged. "I don't know but it is significant. Perhaps this is a sign from the Great One. There is a great evil in those woods, keeping many souls trapped there. The presence of the three has stirred it up."
"Perhaps the three were attracted by whatever is stirring," the mage added. "Or perhaps whatever binds that evil in those woods is failing."
"That is too many perhaps," Caroline said. "We need more information."
"Our recent trip has told us that whatever happened back then was centered on the Castra Prenturio in the city itself," Nestorius commented.
"That's a start," Misha commented. "But we need a lot more information."
"I have already contacted Sir Jacob Harrick, Senior Knight Commander of my order and explained what happened," Edmund said. "And asked that Brother Crosley be sent. He is the most knowledgeable of the Order in dealing with the undead."
"When does he arrive?" Nestorius asked.
"Within the month," Edmund answered. "He was most eager to come here."
"He was eager? Is that a good thing?" Misha asked.
There was a pained expression on Edmund's face. "No. The only thing that interests brother Crosley is the undead. If he takes an interest in something it usually results in combating the undead or something equally dangerous."
Rickkter shook his head slowly. "I was afraid you'd say that."
"We consider Nasoj to be the most dangerous threat to Metamor," Edmund said. "But whatever is bound up in that forest is far worse."
"In CR150 the Suielman mages unleashed something truly evil and the evil is still there. In the woods. But how does this relate to whatever happened back in 150. What were the three doing here back in 150?" Nestorius asked. "And what are they doing here now?"
"How were they involved in the fall of the city," Edmund added. "My instincts tell me if we understand that we can understand what happened to the city."
"I don't know. This is not good," Misha said. "I don't like having two of the Five Sisters together but three. That is sure to bring trouble."
The raccoon mage nodded his head. "Agreed. But we need to confirm it IS still in the valley. And that means discovering what happened to it after the invasion."
"I am trying to uncover what happened in the Haunted Forest and you are trying to uncover the history of your axe. We all need to know happened back in 150CR," Edmund said slowly. "It seems our quests have converged."
The library at Metamor keep had always fascinated Nestorius Sentilus. Even as a young boy he was intrigued by the legends of the magical keep to the north. But what really excited him were the stories of it's great library that held tomes of long lost knowledge. Even now all these years later the black furred lion enjoyed just wandering its stacks and shelves.
He had spent the last two days going over the notes he had taken during their recent trip into the forest. Nest wasn't sure what happened but during their brief sojourn into the city of ghosts he had filled five notebooks with information. The notebooks told him something had happened but what? A dream? Illusion? Did he travel back in time or was it something else? The information in the notebooks was exciting. The handwriting was most assuredly his own. He recognized it. What really amused him was that it was all written on old Suiel a language that although he could read and write was one he would never use for taking field notes. And didn't remember writing in that language.
Nestorius took a break from his notebooks and took to just wandering the library at random. A past time that had given him much joy in the past. He found the scroll amidst a small pile of others on a shelf labeled 'Suielman Personal Correspondences.' Other scrolls held information about crop harvests and estimated cattle yields. But this scroll held a crudely drawn but surprisingly detailed map of the valley that listed all the surviving towns and villages. With the map was a long text listing the population for each town. Valuable information that would help the mage calculate the post invasion population of the valley. It was dated Cr200, Thursday.
Below that was a detailed population list (obviously copied from some older and probably long lost document) of the valley from cr 148, two years before the invasion. It listed every town and village with a detailed listing of the population for each. Right below that were two words in stark, red ink so different from the black used for the rest. "ALL GONE."
What really caught his attention was at the very bottom in a different handwriting was a simple statement. "There once was a dream that was the Suielman Empire, will we ever see it's like again?"
Nest stared at that statement for a long time. he remembered the beautiful city of Camulodunum he had been so privileged to see. Now reduced to a ghost haunted ruin in a forest. He thought of the roads, aqueducts and of all the amazing structures the empire had built. All gone into ruin and decay. How the peace it had brought had lasted for centuries. All replaced by the chaos of the current world.
He picked up a pen and carefully added his own thoughts. "I sincerely hope so. But not in my lifetime."