by Stealthcat and Christian O'Kane

The cheetah headed down the floors of the Keep on another, small errand. He was only heading into town and wouldn’t be needing his warm suit. As he headed though a small, furnished hall a small blue dragon playfully stuck his tongue out at him.

The knight sauntered down an icy stone stairway. His leather boots descended gradually until one paw slipped backward. Edmund chirped and spat in a panic as he fell forward. In an instant he saw his fate; that of his muzzle, teeth and sensitive nose being smashed upon the cold, hard stone.

An arm reached out and grabbed the paladin by the scruff of his neck.

“Careful, Ed. You’ve gotta watch those icy steps with your foot paws.” Stealth said and hefted the knight back up.

“My thanks!” The knight said regaining his footing.

“No problem.” The courier answered and looked around.

They were descending from the highest level of the Keep’s exterior that one could traverse. To the south, smoke from the castle, the lower ward and Euper consolidated into a soft haze. The cats blanched at the acrid smell. In all other directions the skies were clear, the air fresh and crisp. The forests were spread out before them like a fine moss and the Ice Mountains of the east and west radiated like crystals. “It’s nice up here, huh?”

He nodded his head. “A fine view. You can see all the way to the valley walls from up here.” the paladin answered.

Edmund trained with Stealth that day. He’d been tutoring his friend every so often but he surprised the inexperienced feline by waving the day’s sword play in favour of a lesson in strategic planning. They’d been looking over the northern forests and discussing battle strategies and the placement of imaginary armies for the defence and assault of the Keep.

Stealth leaned against the stone wall for a moment before flinching away from its icy touch. “I come out here whenever I need some air. Usually I need to run back in then sit by the fire with a blanket or five...” He said and exhaled a cloud of mist.

“Let’s head back inside. It is a little too cold for this cheetah body of mine.” Edmund huddled up in his coat. Perhaps next time he’d conduct the lesson from his bedroom window...

“I was going to say. Here, this way and watch your step.” Stealth led his friend down the remainder of the stairs into a side door.

It did feel good to get back inside but the Keep’s interiors weren’t a great deal better then the battlements. Though they were on the upper levels, it wasn’t Stealth’s apartment they came across but rather Edmund’s. As the paladin fumbled for the key with paws numb from too much time outdoors, Stealth looked about the hallway. Not much different from any other except for one door he noticed next to Edmund’s. It smelt like the home of a canine, more specifically a lupine. Stealth smiled at the memory of the Yule when he heard a click followed by a creak.

“Ah! A lot warmer in here!” Edmund said as they entered the apartment. He waited till Stealth entered past him then shut the door. “Thank you again; you spared me an arduous meeting with Kyia.”

“That’s okay. I think I’m more used to the battlements. Besides, I couldn’t let those handsome tears come to harm; what would Bridgette say?”

Edmund’s ears folded and his tail flitted about at a much faster pace. Stealth smiled to himself and patted the paladin on the shoulder before turning away to examine the hearth. The cheetah fed the fire some wood. After standing up from the fire he noticed the room looked the same as it had the first time he’d seen it.

“I used to like winter but now it is just too cold outside for me most days.” Edmund lamented as he looked out the window. It didn’t snow out but more then enough already gathered on the ground and showed no sign of going anywhere soon.

“Don’t worry about it Ed. I mean, you don’t have to go up there if it’s cold. You’re not a snow leopard.” The cheetah petted him on the shoulder, “In summer, that’s when we’ll shine.”

Edmund turned around and nodded. “True! Nice, warm, summer.”

Stealth sat down on one of the chairs belonging to the shivering Paladin, “When it warms up you could take Bridgette up there to the battlements.”

Ed nodded again and sat down opposite him. “Yes, when it warms up a lot more!”

“Well she has a pelt much more suited for the weather.” Stealth stretched his legs and flexed his arms to return circulation to them. “Anyway, she’ll enjoy the view. I know I do.”

“Winter is nice but I’ve always liked summer. Not just for the warm air but because we could finally go out into the fresh air to go riding and my favourite sport - hunting!”

Stealth rubbed his hands to return feeling then looked at them. “Still feels odd.”

“What does?” Ed asked in a puzzled tone.

“Hunting.” Stealth answered, “I mean I know we’re carnivores but we’re not the most ferocious creatures around.” He laughed slightly, “I don't know why the prey bother running away.”

“Well we have the combination of intelligence and a hunting animal form. Not an overly powerful one but still a noble hunting creature. We all can’t be like churan and spring to life fully grown. It just takes practice to hone your skills.” The knight said as he stood up again and walked over to the wardrobe.

“Who?” Stealth cocked his head. He drummed his claws on Edmund’s desk.

“Churan are terrible monsters my parents told me about when I was little.” Edmund answered as he began to remove the bulk of his winter clothing. “They were supposed to be 10 feet tall with fangs as long as your arm. One was supposed to be able to pull down a full grown elephant by itself.”

“I see.” The cheetah nodded slowly, “Is this like the story about the thing from the bottomless pit?” He snickered.

The paladin nodded. “Yes, however there are people who claim to have actually seen one but I think they had one drink too many.”

“Well, I don’t see myself bringing down an elephant anytime soon.”

“Oh? My parents told me a story about a churan...” Edmund placed his thick coat and scarf in the cupboard, the whiff of musk greeted his nose. “He chased a mammoth beast. The mighty hunter felled its quarry but before the creature was even dead, a hyenadon appeared out of the brush.”

Stealth blinked, “A hyena-don?”

“You’ve met Anteius?” Edmund asked as he walked over to the hearth.

“Aye... oh, one of those.” Stealth turned his upper body to follow Ed’s path.

The knight nodded and crouched on his foot paws before the flames. “Hyenas never hunt alone and several more of its pack surrounded the hunter and its carcass.”

Stealth nodded but didn’t say anything. Perhaps the hunting animal killed the pack leader and the rest fled or the feline fled to save itself or it stayed to fight; going down in a blaze of glory so to speak. That’s usually how these things ended...

“The mighty hunting cat took its kill in its jaws. It bit into the neck with its large fangs and used its strength to drag the mammoth to the narrow side of the clearing. The hyenadons could not get close to eat the kill because it was in a bottleneck and the churan paced along what flesh was in reach.

“The mighty hunter eventually prevailed and the hyenas fled, not wanting to risk a wound for a meal. As powerful as the churan was it still needed to use its intellect as well as its natural abilities.”

“But the hunter was still very strong, it couldn’t have done that otherwise.” Stealth countered.

“Perhaps, but it used its strength for an intelligent purpose, not bruit force like some thug. We are not strong hunters but we are agile and intelligent. We use them both.” Edmund answered and removed his digitigrade boots, setting them on the mantle while his bare toes took in the warmth.

“I understand.” Stealth shrugged. “I suppose that story was fiction though.”

“Almost certainly or at best an exaggeration.” The paladin conceded, “But I like it and the message is an important one. Besides, you remind me of the feline in that story. Churan were supposed to be the fastest alive and you are the fastest cat I’ve ever seen.”

Stealth raised an eye ridge, “Ed they can’t be fast AND strong!”

“Stealth, it’s a myth - in a myth they can do whatever I want them too.” He joked and turned back to watch the dancing flames.

“Is that the reason the creature in that story reminds you of me?” Stealth smiled, “Don’t know what I’d do with a bunch of giant hyenas.”

Edmund shrugged. “Everyone has fears but you are mastering yours.” He was now toasty yet couldn’t really drag himself away from the hearth’s warm embrace.

The cheetah laughed out loud, “Oh, stop. You have to drag me by the scruff to get me anywhere.”

“Did I really have to? You didn’t put up much of a fight.” the paladin answered and turned to face him again.

“Well you’re very persistent and friendly!” Stealth joked, “But do I really remind you of a creature like that?”

“Yes you do!” Edmund answered. He reached for his boots and put them back on, they were much warmer now.

Stealth chuffed, “Come on, you’re due in Long House in half an hour.” He said and got up. “I need to head down to the sparing arenas.”

“Actually...” Edmund began as he stood up, “I would like you to attend this meeting with Misha.”

Stealth flinched, “Am I in trouble?”

“No you’re not in trouble but if you are going to help me with haunted woods you should attend. Misha has found a few maps of the forest he’s made.”

“I... wasn’t aware I was any help to you.” The feline blushed.

“You have helped me a lot!” Edmund explained. “And like me you seem fated to help the spirits.”

Stealth went wide eyed before composing himself, “We’ll see.”

He nodded and walked toward the door. “You have truly helped me a lot over these last few months.”

“How’s that?” Stealth asked in a bored tone.

“You have gone with me into the woods and your different perspective has shown me things I would have never considered.”

The cheetah patted his friend on the shoulder, “Come on, let’s go.”

“After you, Churan.” Edmund smiled.

Stealth blinked and shook his head, stepping out into the cold hallway with the odd paladin following behind.