Sir Nestorius Sentilus took all of his tasks seriously. As commander of Harford he had as his responsibility maintaining the town, the castle and the walls that surrounded both. Also he was responsible for the welfare and happiness of the town's 350 residents. as well as the 400 or so living in the countryside around it.
The mage prepared for two days making sure he had all the spells and equipment they might need. Of course what he wanted to take had to be balanced against what he could carry. Finally the blacked-coloreds lion morph put on a simple but durable tunic and pants. Over that he had a waterproof cape with a hood large enough to accommodate his mane without tangling the fur too much. He paused in front of a mirror and examined himself one last time. No matter how hard he tried his vanity just wouldn't let him leave his bedroom without checking.
The figure that looked back at him was a anthropomorphic lion that stood six foot four inches tall and weighed 325 pounds. He liked to think that was all still muscle but the sedentary life of a town nobleman was starting to take its toll. What would have stood out most strongly to a stranger meeting him was his color. Lions, those majestic savannah hunters had fur a golden tan with the males possessing a black mane. But all of Nestorius's fur was jet black in color. Being a lion-man was the result of the curse of Metamor Keep. His black coloring was the result of a ferocious duel with a necromancer. It was a small price to pay for defeating such evil. And his wife Amelia thought it made him look sexy.
He arrived at the agreed upon meeting place early. Behind him was the road that led west to Hareford. In front of him was a road that ran north to south, going the entire length of Metamor valley. The road ran north before ending at the Northern mouth of the valley at Giants Dike. To the south the road wound past Metamor Keep before running completely out of the southern end of the valley. Beyord that was the Northern Midlands.
Six hundred years ago that road had been called the Via Maractania as the Suielman empire called the entire valley the province of Maractania. The road he had just traveled was called the Via Adurni since it ran to the city of Adurni. Now that city and legion fortress were the small walled town of Hareford. Nestorius' research told him that centuries ago this crossroads had been the town of Durnovaria. But in spite of intense searching the mage had yet to locate so much as a single worked stone. He feared he would need to dig up the entire area before he'd locate any trace of the Suielman town.
Standing on the road from Hareford he paid no mind to the paths that led north, south and west. He was facing east where there was no road or path. The lush and overgrown haunted forest filled that side of the road like a green and brown wall. The long, thick branches blocking all movement through like soldiers guarding a wall.
But it had not always been like that. If you carefully examined the eastern side of the Via Maractania you could see where the curbstones stopped for a stretch of some twenty feet. Just barely visible were paving stones that told of a major road that used to run east. But that road was now long gone; buried under the dirt, brush and plant life of a five century old forest.
In that forest was the ruins of the Suielman city of Camuludunum the capital of the province of Maractania. Once a vibrant city with palaces, shops, temples, markets and home to thousands of people. All of that was destroyed when the empire collapsed in CR 150 under a wave of Lutin invaders. But simply being dead had not see the people of Camuludunum at rest. Desperate to stop the invaders the empire mages and done something truly terrible. Now their souls haunted the forest-choked ruins. And they did not brook intruders lightly. Lutins and humans entered those woods carefully and none did so at night. Only the suicidal actually ever tried to loot the ruins.
This was where Edmund, Stealth and Nestorius had met for their last sojourn into the haunted forest and it seemed the appropriate place to meet this time. It was merely an hour or so before a figure appeared, walking up the road from the south and headed towards him. In a few minutes the man had come close enough for the mage to get a better look. This person had been like Nest effected by the curse of Metamor keep. But he had become a lean and spotted cheetah morph. He stood a little over five and a half feet tall and literally weighed half of the mages weight. He was wearing a suit of chainmail armor. The tabard which covered the armor over his chest was dark blue. The gold cross on the front and back marked him as a paladin of the Order of the Protectors. A long sword dangled from his belt in a simple leather scabbard.
Nest took in all the details of his friend easily but one thing noticed that truly worried him; that the paladin was alone.
The lion looked around. "Where is Stealth?".
"Stealth has decided not to come this time," Edmund responded in clipped tones.
"We need Stealth here with us," Nestorius said nervously. "He'll be missed."
"I know but we must respect his wishes," Edmund answered firmly. "I was unable to convince him to come. He refuses to come."
Nestorius gave a growl of annoyance and shook his head.
"Going without him feels wrong to me as well," The paladin commented. "But Stealth has never felt comfortable going into those woods."
The mage nodded his head as the fur of his mane shook in unison. "I am fearful of going into that haunted place. Dealing with the undead is always dangerous but we must do this." He pointed to the forest. "We cannot leave those souls trapped in there. And whatever has them trapped must be explored and dealt with."
Edmund held up a hand to silence his friend. "I understand that. Those are arguments for later when we can talk to our friend. For this trip we must go without him."
"Agreed. I understand. I do not agree with it but I understand it," Nestorius growled softly. "Are you ready?"
"I am ready to go," the cheetah answered as he looked south in the direction of the Keep.
Nestorius took a step towards the forest wall and paused for a moment. The mage took a deep breath to calm his nerves. Going into the woods made him nervous, doing so without his friend made him even more nervous. Finally Nestorius pushed the brush aside. He stepped through the opening he'd created. Edmund the paladin followed after him. The brush returned to its normal place of its own accord and all trace of the two vanished as if the woods had swallowed them up.
Back at Metamor keep itself in one of its countless rooms a small group of four had gathered. Their leader like Edmund was a cheetah morph. He was slightly shorter than the paladin and of course the pattern of his spots was completely different. Stealth was wearing leather armor and had a long sword and dagger on his belt. Resting on a table nearby by was his longbow and a quiver with 20 arrows.
Stealth glanced at the symbol on his cuffs. A sword with the point facing down, surrounded by a bow. The bow marked him as a scout and the sword pointing down as a sergeant. The promotion to sergeant meant more coins for him which was nice but it also meant he was responsible for the people in his squad. Three people who now depended on him making the right choices. Would he make the right choices?
Standing at the front of the group was a wolf morph who was quite a bit taller than Stealth. His head and muzzle were tattooed with blue and red lines that marked him as a warrior from a human tribe north of the valley. Although exactly which tribe Stealth did not know. He was wearing armor made of small, palm sized squares of steel. His shield was hexagon shaped in that it had six edges but the four side parts were longer than the top and bottom. This gave the shield an odd rectangular shape. Dasan had a crossbow in hand. On his back was a quiver filled with a score of bolts and a short sword dangled from his belt in a leather sheath.
The woman standing next to the wolf was slightly shorter than him. Her body was slimmer and trimmer but still her muscles showed when she moved. Mairsil had a large composite bow strapped to her back and a quiver dangled from her belt. Her long, brown hair was tied tightly into a bun.
Mairsil was talking to the third person of the team. Adelyte was taller and stockier but the woman had the muscles and movements of a soldier. She had a spear in one hand and a bow and quiver strapped to her back. A jagged scar along her right cheek was a reminder of a fight with a Lutin.
Stealth tried to follow all of Edmund's advice and look calm and confident even if he didn't feel calm or confident. "Our mission is a simple one. To watch a section of trail leading to Mycransburg," he said trying to sound confident. "We've scouted together before, we've hunted together. This is the same. We do this the same way as when we're hunting deer."
"Except these deer carry weapons and can shoot back," Mairsil joked.
"That doesn't change the tactics," Stealth countered. "Hopefully things will be quiet."
"Nice and boring," the wolf added.
"Hopefully but we have to stay on our guard just in case," Stealth responded.
It was a quiet trip from the Keep. Just Stealth and the three scouts under his command. The journey north went well enough. After leaving the Keep they made their way north. Moving carefully they avoided the main roads as they were too obvious and they'd be too exposed. Eventually they reached their destination. It was a place where a small trail exited the haunted forest and crossed a small clearing. The trail then entered another forest that was not haunted. It was at the edge of the non-haunted woods that they settled in. The group split into pairs with each pair created a hiding spot. This was partly a hole dug into the ground and partly wood, earth and debris placed to make it invisible to the untrained eye.
He should have been thinking about his small command. Four other people were depending on him to make the right decision. Stealth checked and rechecked all their hiding places trying to remember everything he had learned. But no matter how much he tried to concentrate his mind kept wandering to the haunted forest and his friends. He wondered what they were doing. Part of him wondered if he should have gone with them. Another part of him was relieved at not being in that haunted place.
Time passed slowly for the group and Stealth climbed from his own hide every so often to check on the others. The cheetah scout had just finished such a visit and settled back into his hiding spot.
A figure stepped out of the haunted woods and started walking intently across the clearing towards where the scouts were hiding. The creature's leonine features were clearly visible in spite of being all black in color. It took Stealth several seconds before he recognized him. He stood up and moved towards the figure. "Nestorius? Is that you?"
The lion man turned towards him and ran forward. In moments he was close to the cheetah scout. "Stealth! I've found you!" He hugged the cheetah scout.
"How did you know where I was?" Stealth asked.
"I used a spell of course," the feline mage responded.
"Am I that easy to find?" Stealth asked.
The lion shook his head and the fur in his mane rustled back and forth. "No but as a friend it's easier to track you."
He squinted at the lion. "How long have you been tracking me?"
"Since I first found out you wouldn't be going into the forest with us," Nestorius answered.
"In case we needed your help," the mage explained. "And I was right."
The cheetah's eyes narrowed. "Ah."
The lion leaned close. "I have survived this long by being prepared. And I do like to watch over my friends. To be sure they are safe."
"I see. So what happened? Why are you here and where is Ed?"
"It was remarkable actually," the lion gestured wildly with his hands. "When we entered the forest it changed. It was as if we had been transported back in time. We hadn't been in a ruin in a forest. Instead we were in a living, vibrant Suielman city."
"What?" Stealth asked, surprised. "You were where?"
"We were in the Suielman city of Camulodunum back when it was a living place," Nest answered slowly as if doubting his own words.
"You were seeing more ghosts." the scout answered slowly. "We've seen ghosts every time we went into those woods."
The lion shook his head. "No," he said slowly. "This wasn't seeing a few ghosts in the ruins. What we saw was the live city. We were walking in a living, breathing place. We were interacting with the people there as easily as we are talking here, now. It did not look or feel like we were seeing ghosts."
Stealth had a puzzled look as his tail flipped back and forth. "That's amazing and scary. If you were walking among them and talking to the locals why didn't they notice a lion and a cheetah wandering around?"
Nestorius shook his head. "We looked to be Suielman we even seemed to speak the right language."
"I do not know. But those are mere details. The problem is Edmund," the mage added. "He was overcome by the spirit of the environment and he truly thinks he is a citizen of the city. He believes himself to be a Vigilis."
Stealth stood there for a moment unresponsive as if unable to absorb what he had just heard. Then he blinked slowly and shook his head as if to drive away a bad dream. He stared at the mage intently. "What? He thinks he's a what?"
"A Vigilis," the mage answered. "The Suielman version of the city watch. He truly believes he is one."
"What? How?" Stealth snarled.
The mage shrugged. "I am not sure. But all of his memories of being here at Metamor, being a paladin, his entire life. Gone. Replaced by a false one from six hundred years ago."
Stealth sighed deeply and shook his head. "Why is nothing about those woods easy."
"I've never liked those woods," Mairsil commented. "They've always creeped me out."
"If you both were there why weren't you overwhelmed by it?" Stealth asked. "Why aren't you wandering around thinking you're a Suielman?"
"I always have protection," the mage answered. "And so did Edmund. But for some reason he was affected anyway."
"He was there before." Stealth answered calmly. "And not in some weird dream. We both were there back in 150."
"Edmund mentioned that to me. You truly believe you were soldiers back then and reincarnated?" The mage asked.
The scout nodded his head. "I remember things I shouldn't, Call it a trick, my imagination, a spell, whatever. I know Edmund believes that, but Ed would believe he's destined to go to the moon if you draw it on a napkin."
Nestorius was quiet for a long moment. "That makes sense. It would explain why he was so vulnerable. His soul was remembering its previous life."
"That's it?" Stealth asked. Slightly confused.
Nest looked at his friend. "You made a logical argument that fits all the criteria. What's wrong? You were expecting an argument?"
"Well," Stealth said slowly. "Yes. Edmund and me have been arguing over that for months."
"I am not Edmund," Nestorius responded calmly. "Now am I? But all of this debate must be saved for another day. We need to rescue our friend. Now will you help?"
"Of course!" Stealth responded. The feline scout was silent for a moment then he turned to his squad mates.
The three Keepers were standing and listening quietly.
"Philip," Stealth said calmly. "Take the squad back to the Keep. Report directly to George and tell him what's happened. Also tell him that Nestorius and I have gone to rescue Edmund."
"You two are going in there alone?" Philip responded. "We should go with you."
The cheetah shook his head. "No. We've been in those ghost filled woods before. You haven't. And I won't risk all of you."
Up ahead a tumbled down and overgrown wall suddenly loomed up. The mage came to a halt barely two steps from the ruins. "This is about where it happened. When we reach the wall you will change. So don't be surprised."
Stealth gave a chirp of laughter. "The curse changed me into a cheetah. After that, nothing can surprise me."
Nestorius didn't speak but turned and walked forward. The other feline followed and suddenly everything changed.
The pair stood off to one side and stared in amazement at the world around them.
The forest with its overgrown ruins was no more. Nothing more than a confused and oddly pleasant memory. In front of them and all around them were the tall stone and brick buildings of a prosperous Suielman city. The plaster over the bricks was bright and white and the stone lined streets were clean and well swept. But although the buildings were amazing what truly dazzled them were the people. The streets were filled with men, women and children moving about. Some were walking, some talking and still others moving among the stores and buildings on daily errands. All of them were dressed in clothing of a style that had fallen out of use when the empire collapsed under invading lutins over five centuries before. The two living Keepers were in a world that had been dead for centuries.
Stealth turned to speak with Nestorius and stopped. He stood there for a moment unable to speak. Where the black furred lion morph had been was now a stranger. This man was the same height as Nestorius but was dressed in a tunic and pants both of blue and edged with an intricate design in silver. A small, gold and silver emblem was on the front of his tunic. On the belt at his hip was something the Metamor mage had never carried; a simple short sword. "Nest? Is that you?"
The stranger nodded and the voice that spoke clearly belonged to his leonine friend. "Yes." The man bowed. "My apologies. I should have warned you."He reached into a pocket and pulled out a mirror. "You had best take a look at yourself."
With some trepidation Stealth took the mirror and looked into it. The figure that looked back at him was not the cheetah morph he was. Instead a brown haired man with a face weathered by time and the elements looked back at him. Gone was the brown, black and green covered leather armor he had been wearing. Instead he now had on chainmail armor that looked a little worn and battered. Strapped to his back was a large bow and a quiver filled with arrows. A leather strap ran diagonally down his chest running over his right shoulder and down to his belt. On it were two, dull brass badges about the size of the palm of his hand. Dangling from a brass and leather belt was a short sword of a design he had not seen before. Next to that was something he did recognize; his dagger.
"I'm human again!" Stealth exclaimed. Then he cursed loudly. "But I'm not myself. Who am I? What happened?"
"We are in Camulodunum," the mage answered calmly. "Shortly before it's fall in 150."
"So," Stealth asked nervously. In front of him a man dressed in a plain gray tunic and leading as donkey laden with large bolts of cloth. "Are we dead? Or did we travel back in time?'
The mage slowly shook his head. "I am uncertain of exactly what is happening but we are still alive."
"Then what is all this?" Stealth waved his arm at the strange people around them.
"We are witnessing the ruins as the ghosts trapped here see it," Nestorius explained.
"What?" Stealth blinked and looked at the mage.
The stranger who was Nestorius nodded his head. "All the ghosts here were trapped when the city was destroyed. They have been reliving the last few days before their deaths over and over."
"And now we're in it too," Stealth said. "Reliving the last days of the city."
The mage watched as a merchant and his donkey slowly made their way down the road. "Yes. We've been given the privilege of seeing this place as it was over five centuries ago."
Stealth let his eyes wander as he examined a shop close to them. There an older man was busily crafting pots from clay. "I'm sure this is exciting but we both know how this ends. How long till all this," he said and waved his arms at the city around them. "Gets destroyed and everyone killed. Again."
"I believe we have about one to two days before Camaludunum falls again," Nestorius answered. His gazed followed where Stealth was looking and he watching the craftsman working a lump of clay on a potter's wheel. "But I cannot be certain."
A woman wearing a simple gray dress walked up to the potter and the two spoke quietly. "What happens if we're still here when that end comes?" Stealth asked.
The mage was silent for a moment. "I'm not sure," he said softly.
Stealth looked at the long dead world around him that looked all too alive. "Let's not stay and find out."
"Agreed. As much as I would dearly love to explore and record everything here we need to find Edmund as quickly as possible," Nestorius said.
"So where do we start?" Stealth looked around. "Where is he?"
"Edmund thinks he is an officer in the Vigilis so we need to look for him in the Vigilis Argunta Comandio. The Vigilis headquarters."
"Didn't we visit those ruins a while back?" Stealth asked.
Nestorius nodded his head slowly. "Indeed we did. It will be fascinating to compare the ruins of what exists now with the reality of what once was."
Stealth looked at the strange body that covered his own. "Who am I?"
Nestorius peered at his companion for a moment. "I believe you are a Immunis Decanus Exploritie."
He looked at the strange clothes on the strange body that was now his. "And what does that mean?"
"Decanus Exploritie means you are a experienced scout sergeant," Nestorius explained. "Immununis means you are immune to regular fatigue and guard duty."
Stealth looked at the strange clothing and armor he was wearing. "You could tell all that from what I have on?"
"Yes," the mage answered. "I have been studying the Suielman as of late." He pointed to the brass badges on his chest strap. "Two means you are a Decanus or sergeant. One would mean you are a Veternai. None would make you a Milos or a Tiros. The bow on your back makes you either a scout or an archer. The chainmail armor is too heavy for a Sagittaria so that leaves only a Exploritie."
Stealth looked at his clothing and weapons. "You realized all that by just looking at me? You remembered all that information?"
"When I was sixteen," the mage explained. "I attempted a simple summoning in class but mispronounced the seventh word in the fourth tranverbative phrase. Instead of summoning a simple, fire spirit I summoned a fire hound." The mage was quiet for a moment. "I was burned over 40% of my body and spent six months recovering. It took a dozen mages over an hour to finally defeat the creature." He rubbed the back of his left hand and looked at it. Examining a wound that had been physically healed for decades. "What went wrong? I left out one letter. The one good thing it taught me was the need to know every detail. To remember everything."
The scout peered at the mage intently. "And what are you?"
I am wearing the deep blue of a Vigilis," his companion explained. "The silver edging marks me as a Tribune Artus. Roughly equal to a major."
"You said a Decanus is the same as a sergeant," Stealth said slowly. "So the same rank as I am back at Metamor."
"Now that's important," Nestorius commented.
"What does it mean?"
The mage shrugged. "I don't know. Yet."
"Betutius! Foslius!" A voice called out. "Hold a moment please."
Both of them turned in the direction of the voice.
The man approaching them was stocky but well muscled. His black hair was cut short and the brown eyes below were filled with caution and doubt. On his left cheek was tattooed two blue lines and on the right two blue ones. He was wearing a shirt of chainmail armor that matched his pants. A sword with a long, straight blade rested in a sheath that hung from his belt. In his left hand was a round shield. Painted onto the front of the shield was a gold greyhound running on the bottom half of the shield with a white crescent moon on top. This was an officer of the 23rd Artinea, Exploritium, an Auxilia unit. Once the Auxilia units had been considered inferior to the legions, merely meant to supplement the true soldiers in the legions. But centuries of working and fighting side by side had erased the differences. And Auxilia was now merely a title meant to invoke memories of past glories. "Betutius, Foslius, you've returned."
"I think that is us," Stealth muttered under his breath.
"I am glad that you have returned unharmed," the officer said and looked at Stealth. "How did your mission go?"
Stealth was at a loss for words for a moment. "It went well enough. I got back alive."
"I see," the man commented slowly. Unhappy with the answer. "So, are the rumors of the massing Lutins are true," the man asked nervously.
The man who was Nestorius simply nodded. "They are true but we've defeated them before. We'll do so again."
The officer gave a forced smile. "I'm glad you came back safe. Good day to you sir." Then he turned and walked away.
Nest watched the auxiliary leave and then paced back and forth. "We appear human to them. We are seeing the same illusion they are."
Stealth turned his gaze down, to the mage's back, there he could see a jet black tail darting about, completely unobstructed by the ancient robes they were protruding. "Our Suielman illusion isn't perfect and our real bodies can poke through."
Nest rubbed his nose, "fur and muzzle, our human selves are concealed to us?"
The cheetah Immunis nodded, "Until such time as you shave and lose weight."
Nest nodded his head. "Of course this brings up another question. If our Suielman clothes aren't physical to us then how can we stand in buildings that don't exist anymore, hold weapons that don't exist, etc."
"Well," Stealth said slowly. "All this," he waved his hands about. "Is part of this whole recreation or story. And since we are in it we can interact with all of it."
"That doesn't explain how we can interact with people who are dead and move about in a city destroyed for over five centuries," the mage asked.
Stealth shook his head. "That isn't important right now. What matters is how do we get out and back to our own time."
"Of how I do not know," The mage answered. "Until then it is best we go along with the illusion placed on us. They do allow us to move about unhindered."
"All right," the scout answered reluctantly. "What's my title again?"
"Immunis Decanus Exploritie." came the answer from the figure who might be Nestorius.
"Could that name be any longer?" Stealth asked sarcastically.
Nest gave a short growl of laughter. "The Suielman did have a love of long and grandiose titles."
Suddenly Stealth felt a warmth and a tingling sensation from his hip. Looking down he saw that the hilt of the dagger that hung there was glowing a light blue. He drew the dagger out and examined it.
The weapon rested easily in his paw while he reflected, waited and watched. He turned it over and over. The gold and black marble glistened in the light and the whole blade glowed with a blue light. Stealth had found the weapon in the ruins some months before and carried it with him since. But he had barely given it a second thought. The weapon had shown no magic or powers till now.
He stared at the dagger for a long moment unsure of what to do or say.
"Is that the dagger you found in the ruins?" Nestorius asked. The mage was looking at the weapon but keeping a respectful distance.
Stealth simply nodded in answer without taking his eyes off the dagger.
"Has it ever done this before?" The mage kept examining the weapon but got no closer.
"No, never. Neither in the ruins nor out of them. It did change my armor into something completely different. I never considered it to have any other purpose."
"Well," the mage said slowly. "It seems we have discovered another one."
"Are there other powers?" The scout asked nervously.
"Undoubtedly," the mage answered. "I can study the blade in detail when we escape here."
"If we escape." Stealth looked at the mage for a moment and then back at the blade. "Edmund had said I was fated to find the dagger," Stealth said slowly. He held the dagger up at eye level. "I don't believe in fate. But I do believe something is happening here and somehow we're all involved."
"Indeed," Nestorius said calmly. "It seems someone or something is guiding us."
The scout leaned closer to his friend. "Who?"
Nestorius shrugged and shook his head. "I do not know. The more we learn, the more I understand how little we truly know."
Stealth, still holding the dagger in his hands turned and was rewarded with the glow of the blade growing brighter. He stopped moving and turned back in the direction he had come and the light dimmed.
"Interesting," the mage commented. "It seems the blade is guiding us towards something or someplace."
Both looked in the direction to magic blade was pointing but all they saw was the city with its hustle and bustle.
"One way to find out," the mage answered. "To follow it and discover for ourselves but first we must find Edmund."
"Where is Ed now?" Stealth asked.
The trip through the city had a surreal feel to it. They found themselves moving through a city alive with people and yet one they knew had been dead for centuries. Stealth looked at a pair men busy replacing a damaged door. He examined them closely but no matter how hard he looked at the men, they still seemed to be alive. Like people he had seen at Metamor a thousand times before. One part of his mind knew they were dead and yet another part just couldn't accept that fact. "This is creepy. They don't look dead."
"In this place and time they aren't," Nest explained.
Stealth stopped and looked at his friend. "Are we dead?"
The mage came to a halt next to his friend. "No. I do not understand the mechanics involved but somehow our world of the living and their past has crossed."
"That makes no sense," Stealth commented. "How can that be happening?"
"Stealth," Nestorius said in clipped terms. "I do not know but it is obviously happening. All we can do right now is move along with this world until I can understand truly what is happening."
The two travelers continued moving through the ghostly city. Up ahead a massive building filled the opposite side of the plaza. It was at least two stories tall and topped with a half dozen domes. The stone had once been bright white but with time had weathered to a dull gray. People hustled in and out of the massive doorway leading inside. Above and around the doorway a score of marble statues stood guard. They were as gray and weathered as the stone walls they were on.
The pair walked through the large opening as the stone figures glared at them. The interior was filled with booths and stalls that ran the entire length of the building which seemed to stretch for over three hundred yards. The market was alive with people. Every booth was filled with people of all ages and types buying, selling or just talking.
"I've never been in a market this big before," Stealth commented.
"I'll admit to not seeing one this large in a long time," Nestorius commented. "Except as a ruin in the forest or desert. I knew the valley was a lot more heavily populated in this time than in our own but I never truly realized how much more."
The two passed a stall selling fish that had only just arrived from Ceasarath having been pulled from the Mare Animarum just that morning.
Nest stopped suddenly in front of a stall selling all manner of fruits. "Oh!" he exclaimed. The mage pointed to one of the bins that was piled high with an odd fruit. It was a tan colored sphere about a foot in diameter and covered with a large but thankfully dull thorns.
Stealth stared at the odd piece of plant matter. "What is it? It reminds me of a porcupine."
"It's called a Durian," Nestorius explained. "And they grow in the far south. On the southern continent."
"How did it get this far north?"
"One off the benefits of a continent spanning empire," the mage responded. "Is an excellent transportation system. They could transport fruit halfway across the continent and have it arrive still fresh."
Nestorius reached into a pouch on his belt and produced as small coin. He handed it to the woman and plucked two of the odd fruit out of the bin. He handed one to his friend.
"All right," Stealth slowly took the fruit. He looked at the durian as if he expected it to explode or shoot spines into his hand. "How do you eat it?"
Nestorius took a knife from his belt and deftly cut the fruit in half avoiding the spines. Upon splitting the fruit in half he laid bare the tan colored flesh inside. It also brought out the powerful smell.
"That smell," Stealth started to say and paused. "Is indescribable. It reminds me of Herbert."
Nest looked up from the fruit and at his companion. "Who is Herbert?"
"Not a who. He is a what," Stealth commented. Then he started gesturing with his hands. "He's a . . . . I mean . . . " He paused for a moment. "I still don't know what he is but his favorite food is month old garbage, sewage and anything else you find in a midden."
Nestorius closed his eyes and waved a hand in front of him. "I do not want any more details." He sniffed one half of the fruit. "You don't like that smell?"
Stealth scowled. "You LIKE that smell?" he asked incredulously.
The mage sniffed the fruit again. "It's an odd smell but yes I like it." He cut a square of the fleshy inside and impaled a square of the fruit onto the point of his blade. "Now try it."
Stealthy gently removed the offered fruit square from the blade and reluctantly popped it into his mouth. The feline keeper slowly chewed the food for a moment then swallowed.
"Well?" Nest asked and leaned closer. "What do you think?"
"Eh," Stealth answered and shrugged.
"That's what I thought as well," Nest laughed.
Nestorius stopped in one corner of the vast market and pointed to a group of people standing near one of the doorways leading outside. "That is Edmund, the officer with the silver edging along the bottom of his armor."
A dozen civilians were clustered around a soldier who had a forced smile on his face and was softly talking. He was dressed in full armor that consisted of silver colored metal strips in horizontal hoops that went all around his body and fastened by leather straps. There were silver buckles, hooks and straps. The man held himself upright with a bearing and calm that spoke of confidence and knowledge. Even from a distance it was clear that this was a true leader.
"Oh that's Ed all right," Stealth commented. "I don't care what he looks like."
Nest nodded in agreement. "The body you're seeing is just an illusion. The soul underneath is the same."
The two moved towards the group and as they got closer the conversation became clear.
"I AM aware of the rumors," the officer said in clipped tones. "Rest assured we are doing everything we can. Our worst enemy is panic."
One of the crowd started to speak but the officer cut him off with the wave of a hand. "Please. Don't believe such gossip. We've defeated them before, we can do so again."
Slowly the crowd dispersed heading about the daily tasks. Still they moved slowly and reluctantly.
The two waited till the crowd had dispersed before approaching the man.
"Ed, what the hell are you doing?" Stealth snapped as they walked up to him.
"Do I know you?" The officer asked with a puzzled look on his face.
"Yes," Nestorius answered. "And we know you. You are Sir Edmund Delacot, a knight brother of the Order of Protectors."
"And my friend," Stealth added.
The man peered at them intently. "I'm sorry but I do not recognize you and my name is Albinus Terdinius."
Nestorius stepped closer to the officer. "Do you remember us?"
"Don't you remember Bridgette?" Stealth said.
The man looked at them with a puzzled expression. "I do not know this woman of whom you speak." He bowed to the pair. "Now please excuse me but I have tasks to attend to." With that the man turned and walked away at a fast pace.
Stealth started after the man but Nestorius put out a hand and stopped him. "We need to give him some time to consider what we've said."
Stealth shook his head in disagreement. "Time is running down. We can't wait too long."
"I am all too well aware of the time." Nestorius snarled. "But some things cannot be hurried."
The two stood there and watched the man who was their friend walked away. "What do we do now?" Stealth asked. "Can't we just snatch him?"
"Snatch him?" The mage asked. "You mean just kidnap him? That is a bit harsh."
"Well," the scout answered slowly. "You are a mage. Can't you knock him out with a spell?"
"Edmund is a paladin and possess some considerable protection," the mage answered.
"True," Stealth countered. "But he doesn't know he's a paladin."
"Good point but I'd prefer to not attack him. I do not want to have to fight a friend. Let us follow the dagger to where it wants us to go. Then we can return for our friend. That will give us time to consider all our options. And give him time to consider what we said."
"How can we find him again?" Stealth asked.
"I've placed a tracing spell onto him," the mage answered. "So long as he is within the city I will be able to find him again. It's how I was able to find him before."
The dagger lead them straight through the city. They moved through crowds of people who were going about their lives not knowing that they were dead. Their lives already over.
Nestorius came to a halt for a moment. "Welcome to the Vigilis Argunta Comandio. The stronghold of the Camulodunum Vigilis."
Up ahead of them suddenly loomed the tall, solid walls of a fortress. The massive building easily overshadowed everything around it. The massive gate at the end of the street was decorated with many statues of fine marble and granite that surrounded massive doors of wood and iron.
Stealth looked up at the walls and then at the well guarded gates. "So how do we get in?"
"We just walk in," the mage answered. "After all we are members of the Vigili." He straightened up and looked confident. "Just relax and act like you belong here."
Stealth shot the mage a hard look. "Just? We're in a ghost city filled with dead people that's about to be destroyed by an invasion. And you tell me to relax."
"Just try and imagine that you are back at Metamor," he said as the two walked up to the gate.
Standing in front of the massive doors were a half dozen soldiers wearing full armor and carrying shields and spears. Each had a sword dangling from his belt.
"I wish we were back at Metamor." He muttered. Stealth took a deep breath and tried to put his fears out of his mind. Together they walked along loosing themselves in the hustle and bustle of people who were moving through the gate.
One of the soldiers was not carrying a spear, instead he had a sword on his belt. The lower edge of his armor was edged with a thick line in gold. These marked him as an officer. He stared at them for a moment before nodding his head and then looking elsewhere.
The other guards shifted about nervously and kept glancing to the north as if expecting something. They certainly seemed more interested in checking their weapons then on checking the people passing through the gate.
Stealth waited till they were a dozen steps beyond the gate before speaking in a low tone. "If they are the City Watch why are they wearing so much armor and carrying so many weapons? I mean the Watch in Euper doesn't go that well armed."
"The final invasion is less than a day from now," Nest explained. "They must have had some warning."
"Well you can't mass two hundred thousand Lutins without someone finding out," Stealth added as they walked.
"Notice how they were so nervous?" Nest asked as they walked. "They're waiting. The worst part before a battle is the wait. You know the blood and killing will happen but all you can do is just wait for it to arrive."
Stealth looked at the people around them. "Should we warn them? Perhaps we're here to change events, breaking the cycle."
"Warn them of what?" Nest answered. "They already know the invasion is coming." The mage sighed deeply. "I'm not sure we can break the cycle. They might be doomed to keep repeating it."
"We could try... evacuating some of them?" Stealth hypothesized "It may free their spirits."
"I'm not so sure," the mage answered.
"I have been thinking," Stealth said slowly. "The curse is limited to the city right?"
"Correct," the mage said without stopping.
"So what would happen if we got some of these people out of the city?" Stealth waved his hand at the people they were passing. "People who had originally died here. That would take them outside the area of the curse."
The mage paused for a moment and seemed lost in thought. Then his face brightened with excitement. "That is an interesting idea. It could very well break the cycle. At least for those involved."
The courtyard was busy. Everywhere they looked were men hustling along on various errands. In one corner several men were quickly pulling down a small, wooden building that was tucked against the outer wall.
Nearby two others were filling buckets full of water from a well. Once filled they would take the buckets and place them at various points around the courtyard.
"I understand that the buckets of water are for use against fire but why are they tearing down a perfectly good building?" Stealth pointed to the crew who by this time had the roof off and were pulling down the walls.
"Same reason," the mage answered. "If that little wooden shack were to catch fire it could weaken the wall. Or worse, the flames could spread to other buildings."
"It's hard to imagine that all of this," Stealth said and waved his arms about. "Will be gone in less than a day. I am having a hard time dealing with the fact that this live and vibrant city is in our time an overgrown forest. That this city and the tree covered ruins are the same place still amazes me."
"I have been through enough ruined cities to understand that man's works are temporary," the mage waxed philosophically. "Time and nature will eventually wear down even the largest of man's creations."
"Wait!" The mage paused in front of a doorway. On the door frame was carved a series of symbols that meant nothing to the scout. "We need to go this way." He pointed into the doorway.
"The dagger is leading us that way," Stealth countered and pointed to another doorway.
"I am well aware of that," Nestorius answered coldly. "But what we need is in there." Nest stepped through the opening before his friend could argue.
Following after the mage Stealth found himself on a flight of steps that spiraled to the right as it led downwards.
After a minute the stairs leveled out into a small room. Nestorius halted there. "I have bypassed some of the wards but be very careful."
Stealth nodded. "I understand but do we really need this distraction?"
"This is not a distraction," the mage snarled. "We've been given an amazing opportunity to recover important magic." 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 same wards were used in the chamber under Hareford! Excellent! The lion gave the door a push and it swung open revealing a large chamber lit by some unseen light source.
The pair walked through the door cautiously. 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. A pair of glowing orbs hanging from stone brackets lit the room with a soft glow. As they entered, a dozen similar orbs spaced evenly around the room lit up bathing the room in a bright but soft light that illuminated everything. 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 of the valley complete with cities, towns and roads carefully done.
"I recognize this place!" Stealth said excitedly. "This is like the room under Hareford!"
"It's an exact copy," Nestorius answered. "You remember the one under my home had spots marked with stars. This room is one of those stars."
"Did this room here survive into our time?" The scout asked.
"I think so but it was damaged and the magic had failed." Nest raced around the room trying to intently study everything all at once. "This is amazing. It's in perfect condition!"
Stealth looked down at the map where Hareford was. There he saw a gold and silver star with the word 'Adurni' next to it. "I wonder how many others survived?"
"Impossible to tell but I intend to find out someday!" The mage knelt down next to some runes carved into the floor. From his pocket he produced a sketch pad and a pen. He began to intently and quickly draw.
"Do you have to do that now?" Stealth asked.
The mage pointed to some symbols carved into the stone floor. "These are the missing symbols I need to understand the entire system."
Stealth looked to where the mage pointed. There carved into the stone and painted in various colors. The symbols to him seemed to be just gibberish. Random twists and swirls in the stone. He struggled to make sense of them but every time the thought he understood they degenerated back in into an unintelligible mess.
The mage leaned closer to one symbol in particular and seemed to study each line and curve. "Remember how I said this massive map might be a transportation system?"
"I remember," Stealth answered.
"It IS a transportation system," he said in amazement. "This is meant to allow travel between points." The mage tapped the symbols. "And these symbols are the key. With them I can reactivate the whole system. There is no telling where it can lead us. What we can discover."
"You don't have them in our day?" Stealth asked.
"No," the mage answered without looking up from his work. "Someone deliberately destroyed the symbols, disabling the system."
The scout looked at the symbols. "To keep the Lutins from using it."
Nestorius paused in his work. "Yes. Someone who could have escaped instead stayed behind and destroyed the system."
"I wonder who?" the scout asked.
The mage paused in his writing and shrugged. "No telling. History is full of such unsung heroes."