The grass stirred in the cool afternoon breeze. The cheetah found relief from the wind blowing past his tears, though he soon had to shut an eye to the sting of dirt floating into it. Stealth came to a halt and tried to brush away the obstruction with a fore paw while he sat on his haunches.
Despite the discomfort, he took the time to look about to get his bearings and a moment later after some vain blinking and rubbing at the watery eye he started off once more and hoped to walk it off. The atmosphere of that day seemed so calm and dull. More so out in the open with only the odd farmer, traveller or soldier about and none of the clamour of the towns and cities.
Stealth would note the contrasts on his journeys throughout the place he thought of as the inner valley region; the area within comfortable and practical single days travel to and from the keep. Most if not all of Metamor and the nearby Midlands and Giant Downs had the same geography though the cheetah need not travel that far to see the differences in the land’s natural features.
Many times his path would lead through dense woodland that Metamor’s regular army patrols liked to set their checkpoints in. The ones where some beautiful lass would stop and question a caravan while her furry – and disconcerting – compatriots would lie in wait for trouble. Should trouble arise however, pests, be they louts or even bandits can be discouraged with some ‘sound affects’.
Stealth wondered at the reaction the non-cursed humans would have to an animal running around with a backpack, then again he didn’t need to as he didn’t travel on the main road south.
Other times, and rather a great deal of the time, the cheetah ran on paths leading through lush, green meadows like the one he currently trotted through. These he felt were far nicer than the woods as he could see the snow covered mountains, rolling fields, the sky, the forests in their combined forms and the tall spires of Metamor Keep, his home, in the distance. And fortunately for the cheetah all five were in shades and colours he could make out in this form.
Most importantly, he could see everything and it put him at ease. Though the northern lands did not agree with his thin-spotted-coat, the hilly region did give him a sense of being propped up as opposed to the relatively flat regions his adopted species made their homes in.
After some time on the road, Stealth eyed a morph sitting in a tree by the path. The tree appeared quite large and reached over the road, though with a high clearing. The cheetah could make out the figure as some sort of long, sleek mammal. Though among the leaves and with the cat’s limited colour vision, it was hard to make out what he or she actually was, perhaps some sort of ferret? He paid the creature no heed though as he approached under the tree.
Suddenly, Stealth felt a sharp, terrible pain. The quadruped crashed into the ground and slid to a halt on his side, gravel grinding against his flank and limbs. He had been hit square on the head by a blunt object, courtesy of the tree-dwelling stranger. As the animal lay sprawled on the ground, a mongoose dropped down to the sound of approaching hooves.
Dazed Stealth could only dimly hear the gravely clopping and tried to move, prompting a hoof-like fist to slam into his sensitive feline stomach, inducing a coughing fit and causing the cheetah to clench his body in agony.
“Nice kitty.” The warthog said as he ignored the animals discomfort and opened the bag, sliding out its valuable contents.
The cheetah struggled for air as pain laced and swelled in his abdomen. Through the blood trickling down his face, Stealth opened his eye to see a large, sharp tusk hovering just millimetres from the sensory appendage. Itch gloated over his victim while his accomplice waited impatiently with folded arms.
“Hurry up, get the statue and leave It.” The mongoose ordered.
“Whatever.” The pig grunted and turned back to the cat. “Now we’re even for pilfering my crossbow.” With the rare and expensive heirloom in their possession, the thieves unceremoniously ran away leaving the cheetah with his new injuries, empty backpack and large debt.
Time passed as Stealth lay sprawled on his side. He had a dull pain on his side, a deep pain in his long, slender chest and a sharp, throbbing headache. Gradually he tried to rise and stand up. The cheetah made weak, fidgety movements on his legs as he swayed somewhat but he managed to stand. He took a few deep breaths through the pain and fought back nausea.
After a time he opened his eyes to the world and tried to focus his vision. The first thing that came into sight was a small pool of blood in the dirt, probably originated from the wound on his head. The feline staggered a bit from his spot and quickly noticed another throbbing pain in his foreleg from when he’d slammed into the ground.
After a few moments, the cheetah became aware of the fact that his backpack lay open and his clothes had partially spilled out. Stealth sat on his haunches and tried faintly to nose the contents back in. He gave up and began to tiredly skulk back towards the keep. Eventually, some clothing fell out and he realised the wisdom of actually shifting back to morph form and dressing in them. But his head hurt too much to risk it... Stealth took the shirt in his mouth and tried to place it back in the backpack though he soon dropped it in the dirt again.
Unwittingly, he moved toward the grass on the side of the road until he found a sharp decline and collapsed in the most concealed part. With the feline feeling somewhat safe from danger, he tried to rest and... What would happen next, he didn’t know.
Some time later the cheetah flinched and cowered in his hidey-spot at the sound of more hooves. The sounds stopped and he could hear nothing of them for a long moment but the clopping soon recommenced. It became muffled as they trod on grass and then stopped again when they got close enough. Through the ache in his head, and the dust in his nose, Stealth was mildly relived when he was able to smell the scent of a human and a horse.
He could only hear their breathing for a time but nothing more.
“Hey... are you okay?” A masculine voice eventually asked from a short distance away.
‘Ugh’. The cat sighed inwardly.
“This is a keeper, right?” A more animalistic voice asked some moments later from further away.
The injured animal groaned, though it sounded more like a long ‘chirrrr’, then closed his eyes tight to the world.
His visitors regarded him; from where they stood they saw a four legged animal sprawled out on his side... with a backpack. The pack had been opened and some clothing spilled out of it onto the grass. Nearby, a shirt lay on the path just near the side of the road. Further up the path, the dirt had been stained by a small amount of blood.
For a time there didn’t seem to be any sound of movement or speech from the pair...
“So... what?” The horse asked unsure.
More silence followed. Had Stealth cared at the time, he would have wondered what was at the core of the strangers’ attitude towards him. The first thought would be of general apathy but then there was the obvious confusion, not to mention it could be attributed to fear of getting involved.
“...He needs some help.” The man eventually figured.
For a time, the two were silent again until the human spoke once more, “I hate to ask this but...”
“...But?” The stallion asked followed by yet more silence, then a sigh. “One work horse coming up.”
The pain in his head, both physical and mental, threatened to overwhelm him. Some dense noble thought it wise to send an heirloom ‘express’ to a departing relative who’d begun on a trip and forgot their treasured inanimate object. To make matters worse, on top of the debt, the clients went on a tirade when they received demands for a ransom by the guild that took it.
Stealth hadn’t been allowed a great deal of time for recovery before the Watch questioned him on something he was barely conscious for and the nobles scolded him for the ransom they now had the prospect of paying.
He reflected on the past few days as he stood in the hallway, facing a large window looking out over the keep’s grounds. The cheetah felt a dull ache all over. He’d surly sustained many bruises under his fur. He clenched one side of his throbbing head with a paw. Stealth felt trapped and conflicted; he preferred the open plains to the imposing stone walls, yet he just had no desire to head out there. Tilting his ears back and his head down, the cheetah turned his back to the window.
“Greetings Stealth!” Edmund said cheerfully.
“Uh, Ed...” Stealth flinched at the knight in the dark hallway. He didn't pay attention to the signs his nose or ears gave him and practically walked right into the paladin.
“How are you doing? I have not seen you about as of late.” At best, Edmund had heard about his kin appearing in the Mule on the off chance. He’d be sitting on a stool with a good view of everything.
“I...’ve been busy.” The cat lied and looked away.
The paladin was silent for a moment as he examined his friend. “Is there anything wrong?”
Stealth didn't look or speak.
“You look a little unnerved. What's wrong?” Edmund persisted in a firm tone.
“I’ve just been feeling tense lately. Just don't worry about it.” He quickly said dismissively.
The paladin just looked at Stealth with a hard penetrating gaze. “Are you so sure of that?”
The cat wilted under his gaze and mumbled something incoherent and inaudible, even to the Knight’s sensitive feline ears.
“How is your head feeling? Is the wound healing fine?” Edmund asked.
“It’s fine.” Stealth Mumbled and looked away.
“Are you sure?” He reached a hand up to Stealth’s head. “I could examine it if you want-”
“I’M FINE!” Stealth shouted. He evaded the Paladin’s hand and then turned and rushed away before Edmund could stop him.
The bell tolled the end of yet another training session and participants, be they novice or veteran, went their separate ways as they removed gear and sheathed swords. Alex exchanged some pleasantries and farewells with her colleagues and departed past a sparing area. The gender morph noticed a familiar feline heading out of the grounds.
“Sir Delacot!” The woman called out to the distant cheetah. Edmund swivelled his ears then his head about to the approaching female human. He removed a gauntlet and waved with the free paw to acknowledge her.
“Hail, Alex.” The knight greeted her. Since April when they met, Edmund became familiar with Stealth’s friends. Even with the dragon, Rugger, who seemed friendly enough though mostly distant. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
“And you, Sir Knight.” She scratched her flank in a very un-lady like way.
“Just Edmund.” He corrected with a toothy smile. “I saw you out there today; almost all your shots were perfect.” The cheetah nodded over to one of the targets.
“Just from practice.” She shrugged.
“And each arrow was already notched after its predecessor scarcely left the bow.” Edmund added.
She grinned, a toothy grin at that for a human. “I’ve been at it since I was five.”
“Five?!” He looked surprised. “I guess the Northern Midlands are close enough to Metamor and the north for its children to train early.”
“How did you do out there?” She asked suddenly, “I caught a glance but no more as I was preoccupied, I am loathe to say.”
“Not at all.” He assured. “I did well in my sparring and taught some of my people their powerful forms can be their demise; no matter how much time passes some still fall into preconceptions and bias to their new strengths and weaknesses.” Edmund explained. It was another of the Paladin’s tasks in the cursed valley, he felt, to see past the curse to its true meaning of each change.
“It is a slow lesson for some.” She intoned.
“Which can be helped along, but tell me, how are things?” He asked in a more cheerful tone.
“To be honest, I have grown concerned.” She started.
Ed frowned, “What’s wrong?”
“Tell me, when did you last see Stealth about?” She asked though it sounded more like a comment.
“Quite some time, honestly, almost a week ago as my duties have kept me occupied.” He conceded. “He seemed very weary. I think the attack still had him troubled.” He explained, sounding concerned.
“He’s been getting worse.” Alex stated candidly. “More and more since he was found.”
The knight stroked his chin in thought. “I see, I understand.”
“...what?” She furrowed her eyebrows.
The cheetah gave her a pat on the shoulder and smiled. “Don’t worry about him, Alex, let me try something. Good to see you again!” He walked away, continuing to remove his gear and prepare for mass.
‘THUD, THUD, THUD...’
“...who is it?” A nervous voice asked from behind the portal.
“It’s Edmund. Please open the door.” The knight ordered bluntly.
Stealth opened the door slowly and sniffed at the air just in case. The voice spoke the truth; the paladin stood at his door wearing armour and was fully equipped with his weapons. Despite his menacing appearance, Ed had a friendly smile on his muzzle.
Stealth stared up at him with his mouth slightly open. “What’s wrong?”
“This must end.” He said firmly. “I am leaving the keep on a trip and you are coming with me!” He nodded eagerly.
The spooked feline looked wide eyed for a moment. “Are you mad? I can’t fight in a battle.”
The knight shook his head. “This is not a draft and I am not heading into battle, I am dressed like this because we are leaving the keep, today.”
Stealth narrowed his eyes. “I can’t do that; I may be called upon to-”
“You have been given time off to get this sorted out, now pack your things.” Edmund ordered and brushed past him into the apartment.
Stealth sighed and left the door ajar before turning to face the knight. “No, I’m not packing my stuff because I’m not going... where ARE you going?”
Edmund tapped his boot on the floor. “When we head out, I will tell you. And it looks like you won’t be packing because it’s already been done for you.” He nodded to the backpack stuffed full with clothes and a sleeping bag on the bed.
The indignant courier groaned loudly. “Kyia, you will be the death of me.” He said to the ceiling.
“So far she’s done very well to protect you from yourself.” Edmund pointed out, probably referring to the warm coat on the bed from when the cat strolled the keep in anguish one cold night. “Now put your shoes on and follow me out before the nice lady throws you out.”
Stealth brushed his hand over the slowly healing bruise on his head. He then looked sadly at the knight.
Edmund gave him a cold hard gaze. “Trust me.” He emphasised both words. “Shoes, bag, door. Now.”
The hesitant feline seethed at Edmund yet reached for his plantigrade shoes, quickly slipping them over each foot though wriggling slightly to un-chafe the fur on his toes and feet. Stealth walked over to his closet to retrieve his leather armour and was mildly surprised to see that it didn’t open out into the keep’s gardens. He slipped the armour on then the backpack which his friend handed to him. Stealth paused one last time to look up at Edmund who gave him a comforting smile then they headed out. The trip to the ground was much more brisk than usual.
Stealth reflected on how he came to be in his present situation. After some ‘gentle encouragement’ the cat descended from the castle’s upper floor with an eager Paladin in tow. Edmund quickly hustled the agoraphobic feline to the stables, newly rebuilt after the assault. He led Stealth to a large section housing the steeds for his troops.
Stealth didn’t have his own horse and since he wasn’t looking forward to the trip he didn’t particularly find that a bad thing, however just as during a patrol months past Edmund merely lent the cat one of theirs. The Paladin cheetah saddled up his own horse and the coalition soon headed toward the gate to the lower ward.
Metamor town and Euper were a blur and before he knew it, Stealth had begun
on a trip yet he didn’t know where to. Edmund said he wasn’t heading
into battle yet he wore armour and carried all his weapons, but why? If Edmund
intended to go hunting he wouldn’t wear all that armour. He had thought
it an unusual sight. The cat finally collected his wits and built up his nerve.
“What?” The paladin asked as the two rode down the road.
“...Where are we going?” Stealth asked, mildly irritated.
“Didn't I mention that? North to the woods.” He answered simply.
Stealth frowned at Edmund, “Where? Why?” He asked more insistently.
“We're headed into the place called by many Haunted woods.” Edmund explained.
“...I see.” The other cheetah raised his eyebrow.
“That’s all you have to say? We are headed into a place known to be haunted and all you say is ‘I see’.” Edmund commented, not getting the reaction he had probably been hoping for.
“Well, I'm just trying to understand this trip is all.” Stealth sighed inwardly.
“You are on this trip to get out and back into the world. Myself. I am here for my own reasons.” Edmund answered vaguely.
Stealth struggled for what to say, it did sound quite odd. “You'll exorcise the woods?” He pondered for a moment. “This is safe, right?”
“You are safe with me. Exorcising is for daedra and evil spirits. I am trying to put the lost souls in the woods to rest.” He corrected and answered.
“How?” The cat asked.
The paladin shrugged. “I have not discovered that yet but I will not stop trying till I succeed.”
“You've done this before? Made this journey?” The feline asked.
“Several times over the last few months,” Edmund explained.
“Hmm.” Stealth commented. “Tell me about this forest.”
The knight shrugged, “The forest isn't very large but it is deep and it hides a dark secret. It holds the ruins of a large Seuilman city destroyed many years ago.” He explained.
Stealth looked at Edmund for a moment, “Why did they build it so far up? Didn't they live in the keep?”
Edmund shook his head. “No they didn't. There was a large town around the Keep but the Keep itself was closed to them. Kyia it seems did not like them. Back then all this area was heavily settled. Farms, towns, cattle.”
“Ah, I don't blame her; weren’t the original inhabitants taken as slaves?” Stealth narrowed his gaze.
He nodded. “The Seuilman when they conquered an area would kill all the men and take the women and children as slaves. But to be fair, with time they did mellow. Most of the Seuilman who settled here wound up marrying into the local families. Intermixing the two groups.”
“But the locals were enslaved, what choice did they have in the matter?” Stealth persisted.
“True but they didn’t enslave everyone. There were just too many locals and too few Seuilman.” Edmund answered.
The cheetah shook his head, “If these souls belong to conquering Seuilmans I don't see why we should care...” He turned his head down, “I hate slavery.”
“So do I, but the Seuilmans took the valley centuries before it fell to the lutins. By that time the people here were all one society. No more conquer and conquered.” The knight offered.
“Yet they never renounced the trade.” Stealth pointed out.
“True, that evil practice only ended when the empire did.” He agreed.
“Humph, Metamorians were almost taken by slavers, just recently. Our own people.” The cat seethed.
Edmund nodded his head. “During the Yule attack they took all the people of Tarrelton captive and were leading them away into slavery.” He began, “I remember that George slit the throats of the slavers when they caught up to them. So many people were upset about that.”
“I'm upset they got off easy...” Stealth said contemptibly.
Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. “Having their throats slit was an easy death? I think they deserved that painful death.”
“They were given a quick death. They should have paid for their crimes.” Stealth said, “Let them rot in the dungeons, in shackles for a few years, then kill them.” He detailed with heat in his words.
He nodded. “I can understand that but I am bound by the code of the order and chivalry to show honour to all. I wouldn’t have slit their throats. I would have hanged them for a fast death. Let the Great One give them their final punishment.”
“But that will happen eventually anyway.” The cat pointed out.
“True but I would speed them along to that final punishment.” The paladin offered.
“IF that final punishment occurs...” Stealth reminded.
Edmund shook his head. “Let's not start that debate again here. Save it for when we are back safely in the Keep.”
“Ugh, I didn’t mean it like that! I'm just saying that may not be the case.” Stealth shook his head, “...I’m not even allowed to disagree or it immediately means I’m debating.”
“What I mean is that this is not really the place for such a talk.” Edmund countered.
“Then we’re BOTH at fault in that.” Stealth said in a grumbling tone.
He nodded. “Agreed. We do need to talk this out sometime. We cannot keep that between us forever.”
“What, a theological debate?” Stealth felt dismayed at the thought.
The knight shook his head, “No, just get our thoughts out in the open and understand each other better. Otherwise such concerns turn to resentment. But I understand. I’ll just say that whatever happens after death evil people like that are best removed from the world.”
“I suppose that’s a way of looking at it. So long as they are successfully removed, anyway.” The cat shrugged.
“This is a momentous event. We both agree on something!” Edmund joked.
“This scares and confuses me.” Stealth said dramatically and they both laughed. Soon the courier sobered once more, “I still hate slavery.” The cat affirmed, “It has to be one of the pinnacles of arrogance.”
Edmund nodded. “It is one of the true evils that I have strived hard to eradicate all my life.”
The cheetah sighed, “Well, these spirits. They would consist of slaves too, I'm guessing.”
“The spirits here are of all sections of society; Slaves, wives, shop keepers, soldiers, craftsmen.” The knight counted them off.
“Then free them,” Stealth conceded.
Edmund laughed. “That is the hard part. These ghosts are bound here for a reason. I do not know what that reason is. Yet. But I WILL free them.”
After some more time on the road the conversation died and the two were left to their thoughts. Stealth began to tilt his head down and appeared to be distracted.
“What’s wrong Stealth?” Edmund asked.
“It happened so fast and then they took it. What will I do? How will I ever pay it off?” He whimpered.
Edmund nodded. “You are still worried about that? Your debt is cleared but you have to spend the night in a haunted forest.”
“...What?” His demeanour changed though the cat paid no heed to the last remark. “Who paid it?”
“I did,” Edmund answered. “With a little help from Misha.”
“Misha? The taur guy?” Stealth vaguely recalled an image.
“Yes the foxtaur guy. Despite his looks he is quite wealthy.” Edmund and Misha were well acquainted though Stealth didn’t see much of the fox scout during the months he’d been living at the keep.
“What!? You asked him to pay?” He asked bewildered, “I have
to pay him back.” The cat noted.
Edmund shook his head. “I said your debt was paid and I meant it.”
“I have to thank him somehow.” He continued, feeling humbled.
“How do you intend to do that?” The knight asked, mildly curious.
“I honestly don’t know.” He shook his head. “Did you tell him who it was intended for... or why?” he continued softly.
“...Aye, I did.” The knight answered. He’d told the Head of the Longs of Stealth’s need as well as the basis of the need – the attack. But Edmund would not bring that up now.
“I have to make it up to both of you.” The cheetah bowed his head reverently to the knight in gratitude.
“You don’t need to make it up to us. It was a pleasure to help a friend.” Edmund shrugged him off.
“But you know I will anyway!” The cat pointed out.
Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. “I understand. Do not ponder it too much or too long.”
“Well you’re taking me to a place that’s haunted so I don’t feel too bad about it.” Stealth joked.
“But you don’t believe in such things.” Edmund reminded.
The cat paused for a moment, “There are things in this universe that I cannot deny but I don’t consider them ‘ethereal’, I just think there is a scientific reason for the occurrences. Hell, for all we know the Lightbringer gods are just powerful mortals from another world, but mortals all the same.” Stealth explained.
He nodded. “We Followers think the Lightbringers ARE just that. Mortals who gained too much power. We think alike in that at least.”
“That’s good; I knew we were interacting for a reason besides having the same curse...” Stealth shrugged.
Edmund nodded once more, “We may be very different people apart from the curse, but we share many ideals.”
“Hmmm...” The cat pondered, “If I weren’t a cheetah would we still have become friends?”
Edmund thought for a moment, “If our paths still crossed, yes, but perhaps not as close.” He offered, “But don’t ponder on it, don’t be concerned by what-if’s. It’s futile, we are here now.”
Stealth felt satisfied with the answer and said no more on the subject. He looked down to the saddle then back up again, “...say this horse, it belongs to Terrant, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.” The knight answered, “I told her I would be bringing a friend with me to the woods and asked to borrow her mount.” Edmund saw Stealth try and fail to hide a big, triumphant grin, “I take it your nose is working?” He asked with a smile.
“Yeah!” Stealth chuckled, “I noticed her scent when I saddled up.” Despite a distinctive scent that only the gender morphed knight had, the cheetah noted that he smelt like a healthy female human, though he’d dare not tell Terrant that. Another thing the cheetah noticed about human scent in general was that they smelled like monkeys and apes for some reason but then they always did share characteristics. “Did you tell her who it was for?”
“Yes, of course, Terry wouldn’t lend her steed to anyone.” He said.
“Oh? That was nice of her.” Stealth blushed.
“She greatly appreciates how you always refer to her as Terrant and call her sir.” Edmund explained.
“She does?” Stealth asked. His ears drooped as he blushed slightly more under his fur.
“Terrant is still having trouble dealing with the change in gender unfortunately. But thankfully she is adjusting. Whatever the gender Terrant is still a fine soldier.” Edmund intoned.
Stealth smiled, “A fine soldier and a good friend. You have good people serving with you.”
“I know. My people stayed here with me, I’m thankful to lead such people. I thank Eli for them everyday.” The knight said fondly with sincerity.
The arrow cut through the air and clunked against a stone.
Again, a narrow projectile whistled through the air and hit the ground.
“Don’t be fazed!” The knight insisted. “We shouldn’t be moving for this, so relax and try again.”
To break up the monotony of the slow journey, Edmund tried to tutor Stealth somewhat with his bow as they rode. The younger cheetah was taking pot-shots at small, furry critters to have something fresh for lunch to eat instead of trail rations. The frustration was helped along by the fact that the knight made Stealth ride out over the range to retrieve each fallen arrow. At least if he caught something it wouldn’t be so bad.
Edmund spied another rodent-thing, “There’s one!” He pointed a claw. “Have another go.”
Stealth pulled the bow as taught as he felt safe with and released it. The arrow drifted a bit in the wind and impacted on the grass halfway to the target, which foraged and scampered about unaware of the failed attempt.
“You just need to pull the bow tighter.” Ed explained once more.
Stealth’s frustration showed despite his efforts to remain level-headed. “I’m trying.”
“I know, it takes time.” The Knight assured and took out his own bow. In a single habitual move, the cheetah notched and let loose an arrow which went straight through the tiny animal, out on the plain. Without pause, Ed sent one more and picked off one of the critter’s chums.
The young feline felt his esteem and confidence drain away utterly. He felt the same as when those nobles blamed everything on him, and he felt the hopelessness begin to crop up once more. The paladin had no trouble spotting the look of dejection on the cat’s face and body; his posture, ears, whiskers and tail completely slumped.
“Snap out of it.” Edmund ordered in a sharp tone and brought his steed to a halt. “It took me years to learn everything that I have.”
“It’s not that.” The pride-damaged cheetah pointed out tersely. “It’s everything that has happened.” He sighed.
Edmund placed an arm around his friend. “Take heart my friend. Things
will get better. Sometimes bad things just happen.”
“I know. I'm trying not to let it get to me.” The cheetah said while showing no outward sign of awareness to his friend’s proximity.
The Knight nodded to the field of their discarded arrows, “restock the quivers and retrieve the kills.” He ordered softly. Edmund didn’t want to order Stealth about like a page but he intended to keep the troubled feline’s mind busy, that and it allowed the Knight to remain alert to threats. “Everything takes time my friend.”
After a few minutes, Stealth managed to collect all the arrows as well as the two, small voles, felled by the skilled Paladin.
“They’re quite small, Ed.” The cat teased as he approached on his mount.
“Aye, but they will be nice with what we brought along.” Edmund answered and took his kills from Stealth, placing them in a saddle bag.
They continued a short ways toward the haunted forest. Not all that much time had passed though when they left, the warm, autumn sun shone in the sky. Now every inch of the blue sky above had been blanketed by a light gray cloud cover.
The younger cheetah didn’t notice the shift though he didn’t mind it either. He looked down to his steed’s side and could no longer see any distinct shadow. With the sun blocked out for the time, the weather didn’t seem particularly gloomy but pleasant and quite calming. Stealth blinked and the tip of his muzzle twitched from the soft touch of droplets on his nose and whiskers.
Each minute speck of water contented the cat. Gentle enough not to irritate the sensitive features on his muzzle yet apparent enough to stimulate them. He smiled at the acute sensation he could now distinguish. Then again, he’d been able to smell and feel rain as a human anyway and it was a smell he enjoyed. But now Stealth’s whiskers tingled from the drops and it was a fun feeling, just so long as they remained minute drops – drizzle at the most. To be caught in a rain storm without shelter wasn’t something the cheetah wanted to experience even when he used to be a full human.
Stealth looked about the surrounding area. The haunted forest now dominated the landscape to the north. There were other woods about however these didn’t appear quite so imposing. Off to either side the trail still consisted of open ground, notably barren fields, or so they appeared at first. The cat looked over to one area and considered it for a moment.
“Ed, wait.” Stealth instructed as he dismounted.
“What’s wrong now?” The knight asked.
Stealth stood before a long abandoned and barren farm field. Nevertheless, the cheetah walked towards it and began to inspect the soil. He found a spot that he seemed to approve of and then approached a nearby shack from which he snatched up a rusty shovel. Stealth quickly removed the topsoil and unearthed a good number of potatoes.
“Impressive, but we’re carnivores.” Edmund reminded.
“I am aware. Do you still have those voles?” Stealth asked, unfazed.
With some confusion the paladin held out two dead animals in his hand.
“Good, I need their skins and flesh, the entrails aren’t important.” He instructed the feline still in the saddle.
Edmund shrugged, after some work with a dagger which produced an icky sound as it was applied, the feline quickly and brutally tore off the outer flesh which consisted of fur, skin and body fat. Still on his horse, the cheetah trot over to the other cat who had accumulated a small pile of wood, broken off from the shack and attempted to light it.
The knight sighed quietly and took the liberty of creating a fire after giving his friend the fleshy hides. Stealth took the morsels of flesh and placed them in a small metal pan from his pack intended for meals then held the pan out over the fire. The metal soon heated up to the point that it burned away the fur and slowly the solid animal fat began to melt into a thick, oily fat. The cheetah tilted the pan and applied the melting animal fat to the potatoes which he let soak for a moment while Edmund very patently waited for the results of the experiment.
After a few minutes of waiting, though not as long as it took to extract the fat, Stealth skewed one of the potatoes on his dagger and held it out over the fire. The vegetable cooked in the fire helped along with the fat coating it which seamed to accelerate its roasting. The carnivores took in the aroma as the vegetable baked. As it began to turn golden brown, Stealth removed it from the flame and held it out to Edmund.
“Try it.” He said hopefully.
The Knight cocked his head in bewilderment but took a bite out of the object. The cheetah purred with content as he consumed the small bite of plant food in his carnivorous muzzle.
“That’s quite good.” He commented and licked his lips. “Tastes like a roasted vole.”
Stealth smiled, “Really?”
“Really.” He took another bite, “I should try that on my next patrol, very clever.”
The cheetah blushed, “I got the idea from people who have those large, outdoor roasts. Or anyone who bakes food with lots of meat.” He explained and scratched his head, “Their taters tend end up baking with a good amount of cooking fat.” Stealth placed the pan back over the flame in an attempt to extract more of the oil as he explained. “Though I don’t know if anyone’s ever cooked them in fat deliberately let alone if it’s been applied to field cooking.”
Edmund had been copying his friend’s example and already had another potato over the fire. “There is a first time for everything and it’s good to have such a taste for potatoes again.”
After stopping at the foot of the haunted woods for a hearty and resourceful noontime meal Edmund saddled up his mount and instructed Stealth to extinguish the small camp fire before returning to his. After breaking camp they made the rest of the journey toward the woods which now stood just a scant few yards away.
Stealth felt nothing as they crossed the threshold; it looked like yet another forest no different from the others dotting the valley. He felt relief yet disappointment at the lack of paranormal atmosphere. Then again it was still daylight.
“So tell me about these ruins.” Stealth persisted from the last time.
The paladin looked about at the woods that surrounded them. “These woods are young. They are not the millennia old forests of the Aelves. They date back to the year 150. Before then this area was covered with farm fields and a small city. A true Seuilman city.”
“Ah.” Stealth said simply.
If Edmund felt bothered by the apparent apathy he didn’t show it but continued nonetheless, “It a city of over a thousand souls who lived, laughed and walked it's streets till the day the lutins attacked. The hordes swarmed over the wall to the north and laid waste to the entire valley. But this town held out for many days. It's brave people beating off waves of attackers.”
“Really?” Stealth sounded surprised. “I heard about the fall of the Seuilmans but I don't know any details.” He explained. “Just that lots of lutins poured south.”
Edmund nodded absently. Of course the knight may have been exaggerating just a bit to perk his friend’s interest... “This is where it all started. Metamor Valley was the first place to fall. The people who lived here were brave and strong but they were too greatly outnumbered and late one night the city fell but only after killing many lutins. Angry at their losses the lutins put everyone to the sword in a single night of massacre and chaos.”
Stealth seethed under his breath and his ears folded. “And then?”
The paladin shrugged. “No one is sure and the Shadow Fox is reluctant to tell me more details. He had been summoned right before the end and although he could not stop the downfall he did exact revenge on the killers. He must have killed thousands of lutins before they fled the city.”
“Then some of the inhabitants would have survived, right?” Stealth looked up and asked, even though the people to whom he referred were long dead.
“Some must have but they soon fled. It seems those who died then do not rest in peace. Each night they haunt the ruins going thru the motions of their final day of life.” Edmund explained, sounding distant.
The cheetah furrowed his ridges. “Why? Are they sentient?”
“If you mean do they think? Yes but they are trapped in unlife reliving the city’s downfall and their own deaths over and over again.” He added in more detail.
“How then are they trapped in a cycle?” Stealth continued, “If they are capable of thought.”
“They are not really alive but trapped in a terrible undead mockery of life. They do not know of the passage of the centuries. To them it still that terrible night.” Edmund eventually clarified.
Stealth looked away for a moment and then back. “Have you seen this?”
“Yes,” Edmund answered tersely. “Several times and it pains me every time.”
“Is it dangerous? What happens if they see you? What happens if you interfere?” The feline demanded in a sharper tone.
“Do NOT interfere,” Edmund answered. “Most will not even notice you unless you directly interfere with them or worse try and steal something from the ruins. So do NOT take anything. Not even the smallest most worthless of coins.” The cat said adamant.
“And you're taking me to this place!?” Stealth asked with a hint of panic. “What if something happens? What if I disturb them?”
“You won't,” Edmund reassured. “You are too responsible for that. And you will be with me and I will watch over you.”
After a moment Stealth nodded without a word.