In the silent forest, four figures moved carefully and quietly along an overgrown, little used trail. All of the scouts were dressed in brown, green and black camouflaged cloth to blend into the forest. The coloration even extended to their exposed fur and skin which were dyed to match.
The leader, a tall fox morph had a longbow slung across his back and carried a jet black great axe in his hands. The weapons five-foot length didn't seem to bother Misha at all. His chain mail armor didn't seem to slow him down in the least as he moved with surprising skill, disturbing not a single leaf or twig, nor making any sound.
Behind the fox came a short figure, barely four feet tall. The humanoid rat carried a long wooden staff in both hands, and four knives hung in their sheaths at his belt. Unlike his companions, Matthias wore no armor, just the camouflaged cloth.
Next in line was a male prairie dog morph, dressed in leather armor and carrying a short sword. Slung across Craig's back was a short bow and a quiver of arrows.
Bringing up the rear was a female otter. Like her partner at the front, Caroline was dressed in chain mail armor. A long sword hung from her belt and a longbow was held in both of her hands. An arrow nocked, ready to be loosed should an enemy appear.
Misha slowed, then stopped and dropped to a crouch. The three others quickly followed suit. Looking around and sensing for any sign of trouble Matthias stayed alert. What he noticed most was the total absence of any wildlife. They had been walking through this forest since before dawn and he had yet to see so much as a field mouse. The whole forest seemed empty of life, even the trees, devoid of leaves, looked dead. They were all twisted into eerie shapes with long grasping claws that seemed to flex and grasp as the wind moved them. "No wonder they call this place the Forest of Ghosts," Matthias thought to himself.
He glanced down at the ground underneath his paws and was surprised to see paving stones. It was almost completely covered with dirt and overgrown with trees and brush, but there was no doubting that he was crouching on a man made road, not a natural path.
Matthias touched his vulpine friend gently on the arm. When the fox turned and looked at him, Matthias pointed to the roadway and then drew a question mark in the earth. The rat hoped that he had just asked about the road, his sign language skills left much to be desired.
His friend nodded and leaned close to the rat, placing his muzzle against Matthias' ear. "We're on the old empire road," he said in a barely audible whisper. "Just up ahead are the ruins of Mol Dahir," he finished.
"Mol Dahir, Death Hill. That's a really cheerful name," Matthias thought to himself.
When Misha had first told them what the patrol would be, it had seemed simple. "We're going to explore some old ruins north of Mycransburg. The Duke is considering building another outpost up near the Giant's Dike," The fox had explained. "We're checking out one of the best places for it, an old Suielman fortress." A simple, easy trip, just walk there, look around, and come back. What Misha didn't mention was that the ruins were in the center of the Forest of Ghosts, and was rumored to be haunted. In CR145, after the destruction of the wall now known as the Giants Dike, the last surviving Suielman troops had taken refuge in the fortress. After a long and bitter siege it had been taken and everyone in it slaughtered. Their ghosts were said to still haunt the place.
Misha gave a small wave of his hand and started to move forward again. Matthias could feel the stone under his paws as he walked. Slowly out of the darkness a tall shadow loomed in front of them. The rat recognized the shattered remains of a building. Its top broken off into ragged peaks and valleys. Large gaping holes were everywhere, some had once been windows and arrow slits. Other holes had been made by large stones thrown by a catapult or a giant. The four moved quickly across a shallow ditch that the rat figured had once been a deep moat. The weathered stone wall loomed over them and the breach in it was a black gaping maw. Misha paused a moment checking for any sign of trouble, then moved through. Matthias hesitated momentarily before stepping through into the courtyard beyond.
There wasn't any courtyard, instead Matthias found himself standing amidst tall trees and thick underbrush. Only the looming walls and an occasional stone block or column gave clue to the fact a building had once stood here. The ground underneath him was rough and strewn with rocks and Matthias had to place each step carefully to avoid making too much noise. And noise was the last thing he wanted to make in the eerie stillness of the ruins. As they moved he was aware of the complete silence around them, there wasn't even the rattle of the trees. The stone walls blocked all wind, leaving the ruins even more deathly quiet then the forest.
The group stopped next to a toppled column and Misha motioned everyone closer. When they were all together the fox outlined his plan. "We're going to make a plan of how this place is laid out and its general condition," he said in a whisper.
"You mean it's a two hour walk from the keep and no one's ever bothered to drawn a plan?" Craig asked softly. "I thought that it was regularly patrolled?"
"It is patrolled, and we have a general idea of what the layout is, but no details," Misha answered quietly. "Only after George took over as patrol master four years ago did the Keep started pushing patrols this far north. It was only two years ago that we convinced Thomas to build the first outpost."
"You really need a better name than 'Outpost' for that castle," Caroline commented.
"If the Duke rebuilds this place I hope he uses a better name than Death Hill," Craig said.
"What was the empire name for this place?" Caroline asked in a barely audible voice.
Misha pondered for a moment before answering. "Fortress twenty one."
Craig grinned in amusement, "Oh that's a good name. Really imaginative, and awe inspiring."
Perfectly hidden in a shadow less than ten feet from Misha a creature watched the four scouts. It watched their every movement, and studied their weapons and armor. It also gauged the best way to kill them, but it didn't attack, it just sat and watched, for the moment.
When nightfall came to Mol Dahir it came with a suddenness that was frightening. The darkness seemed to sweep across the ruins like an advancing army charging a helpless enemy. It left the four to pass an uneasy night in the pitch blackness.
Matthias shifted nervously about in his sleeping bag. He couldn't get to sleep. The ruins had been strange and unsettling during the day, but at night they were outright creepy and frightening. The darkness was total. Matthias could barely make out the dark shape that was his friend Misha seated on guard duty less than three feet away. The darkness didn't un-nerve the rat, it was the fact that he couldn't see the moon or stars. The darkness seemed to just swallow them up. He could barely see the vague shape of Misha shift back and forth, and he realized that he wasn't the only one who was uneasy with this place. It was going to be a long, sleepless night.
The rat woke with a start. He had finally managed to nod off and now something had woken him up. He heard the sound of marching feet and voices speaking close by. Quickly Matthias slipped out of his sleeping bag and reached for his staff. A hand dropped onto his shoulder restraining him. "Easy Matt, they won't hurt us," Misha said in a soft whisper.
"What's going on?" Matthias asked in a soft tone.
"The dead walk," came Caroline's reply.
"What ever you do, " Misha said out loud. "Don't panic, just stay still and watch things unfold."
"Yes, Ssir," Craig stammered.
In the darkness surrounding them Matthias could hear all sorts of voices and noises. The sounds of people talking, walking, marching, singing, all came to the rat morph's ears. They reminded him of the outer keep at Metamor during a normal day as people went about their business. Suddenly from the darkness above them a loud bell started ringing incessantly. Shouting and yelling came out of the night and the sound of people running filled the darkness. Then there was a loud crash and the crack and rumble of rock and masonry falling. Then the sounds of battle came from all around them. The ringing of steel against steel, the thump of an arrow striking flesh, the grunt and groans of people in combat echoed through the night. The screams of the dying filled the air. Suddenly figures loomed out of the darkness lit by the glow of a moon that shown only on them. Locked in mortal combat, a human in armor was fighting ten lutins. Matthias watched, paralyzed with fright, as they fought. The man was wearing scale mail armor and in his right hand was a long sword that he used with great skill. In short order he killed four of his attackers before he was surrounded and stabbed in the back. His sword went flying through the air and vanished as he fell to the ground. The lutins clustered close around the body and kept stabbing long after the soldier must have been dead. Then one of the monsters stepped back and held the man's severed head aloft and waved it about. The others cheered and laughed in delight at the trophy. The figures suddenly faded into darkness and the ruined fortress fell back into silence.
It was a long time before anyone spoke. "What just happened?" Craig asked.
"It seems this fortress really is haunted," Misha said in a quivering voice.
"Has this ever happened before?" Matthias asked.
"No. I was expecting footsteps and some voices but nothing like this," Misha answered.
"Why did it happen to us?" Caroline wondered out loud.
"Who knows why the dead act as they do?" Craig answered.
"Something stirred them up," Misha said. "I wonder what?"
"Will they come back?" Caroline asked.
"I don't think so. The ghosts only appear around midnight. That's when the fortress fell," the fox said but he didn't sound too convinced.
The rest of the night passed quietly, but no one slept.
The ruins were quiet and serene the next morning. The sun shown brightly through the trees as birds chirped and various animals moved about the ruins around the scouts. It was almost as if the ghosts were trying to make up for the terror they had inflicted the night before.
"Did anyone manage to get any sleep last night?" Misha asked as he worked a kink out of his back.
Matt yawned, stretching his arms to the limit. "A little, towards the dawn. Though I wish I had managed a little more." The others murmured their assent.
"I want to get this done as soon as possible so we'll split up into two teams," Misha ordered. "Caroline and Craig will do the eastern half. Matthias and myself will do the western half. This is a quick inspection only, just to get a general idea of what shape this place is in. This large stone block will be our rally point," he said and patted the moss covered stone. "We'll meet back here at noon. Then we'll do a complete circuit of the exterior of the fortress."
"What about breakfast?" Craig asked.
"You can eat as you work. I want to get this done as soon as possible. I don't fancy spending another night like last night," Misha replied. Any questions?"
No one spoke up so Misha continued. "Be careful, there's no telling what we'll find here."
Criag and Caroline walked into the remains of a large building. Tall weather beaten walls loomed overhead. Craig could see doorways twenty feet off the ground that led from open air to open air, the floors long gone. Tall windows devoid of glass broke through shattered walls blackened by a long ago fire. Under foot was earth and rock, no trace of its tiled floor remained.
"What do you think this place was?" he asked.
Caroline shrugged. "Hard to say, probably a great hall used for ceremonies and the like."
In a nearby shadow the creature watched and listened. It remembered a time when this place had been full of people; eating, drinking, laughing and enjoying life. Now all that was left was the memories and the ghosts.
"What do you think of this place?" Matthias asked as he jotted down notes in a small notebook.
Misha shrugged. "I think it would take a lot of work to restore it. That is if the Duke decides to try." The fox leaned down to inspect a small alcove in the wall. He let out a yelp and backed away quickly. Matthias dropped his notepad and reached for his staff.
The rat actually laughed when he saw what had startled his partner. A large raccoon nosed its way out of the hole, then made a quick scamper for an open window. It was over the ledge and out of sight in seconds.
"Hee, hee . . . It seems that ghosts aren't the only ones occupying this place."
Misha dusted himself off. "This place is infested! Make a note of that."
Matthias snickered as he retrieved his notepad. "Coe would probably say That a few coons make a place homey."
Craig slowly folded up the measuring tape. They had just finished measuring the last wall and were getting ready to head back. Suddenly a loud chirp echoed through the ruins. The morph dropped the cloth tape and picked up his staff. He looked towards Caroline and found her crouching next to a large stone block. She motioned off to the south with her bow. The prairie dog picked up the tape and hastily stuffed it into his belt. Without a second glance the two scouts hustled towards the rallying point.
When they arrived the two found Matthias and Misha crouching low to the ground, looking all around. Misha touched his left ear and then with his left hand in a fist, lightly rapped the palm of his right hand. Matthias knew what that meant; Lutins were nearby. Caroline nodded and knelt next to her lover. Matthias started to take cover next to a tree stump.
"WARGH!!!!!" came the sudden shout as a dozen figures came bounding through the underbrush at the four scouts.
"LUTINS!" Craig shouted drawing his sword.
Nearby a figure watched the fighting unfold with cold detachment. It watched as the four fought desperately for their lives against a score of attacking lutins. The creature observed with admiration that they fought with skill and determination. It watched as an ogre smashed its way through the undergrowth towards the defenders. The fox thing let out a loud yowl and pointed toward the breach in the wall near tower twelve. The observer understood what the fox man was doing. The four could hold off a score of lutins, but the ogre tipped the scales against them. The creature remained a passive spectator as the scouts moved past its hiding place, trying to reach the breach before the ogre reached them. Once in the woods the four could easily evade their pursuers amidst the trees. Hidden in shadows, none of the pursuing lutins noticed the creature as they moved past. The ogre lumbered toward the shadow where the creature was hidden and stopped right next to it.
"Now," thought the creature and moved forward.
Matthias dodged the sword blow from a lutin and slammed the end of his staff into its face sending the monster flying backward, its face a bloody mess. He saw the ogre stop next to a shattered statue and hefted a spear for throwing. Suddenly it screamed and dropped the spear. The rat could see what looked like a shadow flow up the monster's legs and towards its throat. The ogre fell to the ground, shrieking and thrashing. Then the shadow covered the monster's throat and face. There was a loud crunch and the ogre became still and lifeless.
One of the lutins shouted and pointed to where the ogre's body lay. They stared at the ogre and saw the shadow that had killed it. As a group, the lutins turned and fled, the battle forgotten. The four scouts were left alone in the ruins. Alone with ten dead lutins, one dead ogre and the shadow.
"What is that?" Caroline asked as the four watched the shadow from a distance. The ogre's corpse was shrunken, almost like it had been drained of life.
Misha just shook his head. "I don't know, but I think it just saved our lives."
The shape flowed off of the corpse and came to rest on a large, stone block. It started to slowly shift its shape and solidify. After a moment Matthias could make out a long tail and two legs. Then the body and front legs formed. Last to solidify was the head, and then the creature was complete. Sitting on the stone block looking at them was a fox, coal black in color with glowing blue eyes.
"What do we do?" Craig asked.
Misha lowered the head of his axe to the ground and leaned on the hilt, never taking his eye off of the black fox. "Well, it hasn't attacked us, so I'm quite willing to return the favor."
Caroline brought her long sword up in a salute. "Thank you for saving our lives," she said to the black creature.
The strange fox seemed to regard them for a moment. "You are most welcome," It said in a deep voice. Then it turned, leaped off of the rock and disappeared into the shadows.
"Ok people, let's get out of here. I've seen enough of this place," Misha said, hefting his axe in both hands. No one argued the point.
The Deaf Mule tavern was quiet. It was still too early for there to be a big crowd. In the back by the fireplace a dozen Long scouts sat at a table drinking and chatting. Misha flagged down a passing waitress and ordered an iced tea. He was still officially on duty and couldn't touch alcohol. With his iced tea in hand he made his way to the group. He gave Caroline a warm hug and a lick on the muzzle and sat down next to her.
"So how did things go?" Caroline asked. "Find out what that black fox was?"
The fox shook his head. "No."
"Did you check with the Ice Queen?" Craig queried.
"Who?" Matthias asked.
"Raven Lightbringer," Caroline explained. "She's not the most friendly person at Metamor Keep."
"Haughty is the word that comes to mind," Commented a jackal morph from the back of the table.
"Raven told me what she thought it might be," Misha commented. "Her description was long, detailed, and complete. It was also incomprehensible."
Craig shook his head and laughed. "That's Raven for you. Never given a short, clear answer in her life."
Misha laughed. "She did tell me its name was 'Taugwaith'. It means forest shadow."
"That still tells us nothing," Craig commented.
"The common name is Shadow Fox," a voice said from behind Misha. The fox morph turned and found Rickkter standing there.
"You always eavesdrop on private conversations," Matthias commented coldly.
The raccoon shrugged at the rat, but spoke to Misha. "Sorry about that but the name just happened to catch my attention. It's not often you hear people speak of Taugwaiths outside of campfire stories."
"You know about Taugwaiths?" Craig asked.
"A little. They're guardian spirits. It's actually considered a good omen to see one," Rickkter explained.
"What is it if one saves your life?" Misha asked.
The raccoon was silent for a moment. "It did what?"
"We were ambushed by a raiding party and it killed an ogre and scared the lutins off," Caroline explained.
The amazement was plain on Rickkter's face as he shook his head. "If it were anyone but you telling me this, I would be inclined to say they were full of it. It really killed the ogre?"
"Sucked the life clear out of it," Craig said with a shudder.
The raccoon chuckled to himself. "In that case consider yourselves all very, very privileged. I would love to just see one of those things." He looked at Misha. "I might even reconsider that offer of yours."
Matthias shook his head and rolled his eyes in disgust but didn't say anything.
"Well Rickkter, you might get your chance," Misha said. "The Duke has decided to rebuild the fortress, ghosts not withstanding."