"THERE'S TOO MANY!" the legionnaire shouted. "We're going to die!" The two soldiers were back to back as a dozen green skinned lutins charged straight at them.
Edmund used his massive shield to slam into two of the lutins rushing at him sending them tumbling backwards. But the respite was fleeting as three more replaced them. Edmund stabbed the first to reach him in the stomach as he desperately parried the spears of the other two.
"Ed, get up."
One of the spears slid past his shield and the metal bands that made up his armor and sank deeply into his chest. The searing pain shot through his whole body.
"ED! WAKE UP!"
The cheetah in the bed stirred and tossed about but still didn't awaken. The shock of cold water on him brought Edmund awake instantly and he sat bolt upright in bed his eyes wide and his whole body shaking. All he saw around him was the warmth and safety of his bedroom in Metamor Keep. "What?"
"You were having a nightmare," Stealth standing next to the bed with a pitcher in hand.
"We must return to the haunted wood," Edmund said solemnly.
Stealth blinked. "Ed, go back to sleep."
"I'm serious!" The paladin said.
"I know!" Came the reply and Stealth turned and left the room.
The room was quiet, the only sound was the faint and steady ticking of an elaborate clock that hung on a wall. The room's two occupants were seated at a large table. Resting on the table was a half full bottle of wine and two goblets of pewter.
"Rick, look at this table and tell me what you see." The fox ordered with his head turned down.
Rickkter scoffed under his breath and looked at the table, on it was a map of the Eastern Giantdowns with several of the vulpine's painted scale models presumably representing real world units. "I see the northern wastes."
"And your strategy?"
"Who's strategy? You've placed several legions from Metamor around a handful of enemy soldiers in an area of no strategic importance."
"So it would seem!" The fox said and then turned to his shelf for another scale model. "Nasoj is unpredictable! He has tricks up his sleeves." He placed it down behind the Metamorian positions causing several of them to rattle. "Now what do you see?"
"A giant enemy crab," was the response. Rickkter peered closer at the figure. "A nicely painted one."
"And now the tables are turned, what do you do now?" The fox asked, staring at him.
Rickkter rubbed his chin and then reached down at the table, turning one of the keepers the other way, facing the crab, "Attack it's weak point for massive damage."
Misha leaned forward, closer to his friend. "And how do you know where the weak points are?"
"That's the difficulty," Rickkter responded, eyes narrowing in irritation, his statement almost a question. The raccoon could not help but wonder where the fox was going with this line inquiry. And if there was one thing Rickkter hated it was guessing games.
Misha picked up the model crab and looked at for a moment. "Rickkter. I need your help. Are you up to a little trip?"
"A little trip?" The raccoon asked suspiciously. "To where? The Giantdowns?"
"The Amber Order ruins," the scout said bluntly.
"The ruins on the mountain top here in the valley?" The raccoon asked. "Why? We haven't been there since we fought with Bolva."
"I've ignored the place for too long," the fox explained simply.
"Do we really need to explore that place?" Rickkter snapped. "We already have enough problems without disturbing those ruins and uncovering more trouble."
"Yes! We might find another automaton there!" Misha replied cheerfully.
Rickkter stared at his friend for a moment with a cold, hard gaze. "Metamor can't survive another one like Madog. I'm not sure we can survive Madog!" The raccoon quipped. "Just leave them both there then he'll have a friend."
"Rickkter! That's a stupid thing to say!" Misha snapped harshly.
"You're right, he'll just follow you home," Rickkter said without looking up.
Misha's eyes narrowed and he snarled at the raccoon. "Why won't you admit that Madog is a good thing to have at the keep?"
"I'm not blinded by my emotions." Rickkter answered, "Madog is not a child!"
"And he's not a monster either," Misha countered.
Rickkter looked at the fox with harsh glaring eyes "What is he, Misha, what is he? Tell me"
"What are you?" Misha countered and pointed a finger at Rickkter. "I know Madog better than I know you."
Misha expected some sort of witty reply but Rickkter simply shrugged. "Do any of us really know who we are? Aren't we as much a mystery to ourselves as to others?"
"What I know is that I trust you," Misha said earnestly. "What I don't know about you is not worth worrying about."
Rickkter gave a chitter of laughter. "You make it sound so easy."
"It is that easy," Misha answered, "I've trusted both you and Madog with my life more than once. You were there with me at Stepping Rock when we fought that ogre. And when Bolva threatened everyone I trusted Madog and he saved us all."
"And what of Bolva?"
"That is another reason to go. To be sure he is still in his cage," the fox said.
"You don't know for certain?" Rickkter asked, surprised and worried.
"I haven't revisited the ruins but I know Madog and Omega do so regularly," the scout answered. Misha leaned forward, closer to his friend. "Can you honestly tell me you're not interested in exploring the ruins of a castle that was home to a group or mages. Mages who practiced magic that is now long lost to the world?" He asked in a soft voice.
Rickkter glared at the fox for a moment, his only movement was the slow, steady swishing back and forth of his tail. Then he laughed out loud. "You know the answer to that already!"
"I really need you there for support," the fox added earnestly.
"Why are you suddenly going back to the ruins?" Rickkter asked. "It was almost a year since we were there."
Misha leaned closer to his friend and when he spoke it was in a soft whisper. "Recently I was visited by a strange woman."
That caught the raccoons attention. Seeing as he lived in a magical, sentient castle filled with talking animals and had a metal fox as a pet for Misha to describe someone as strange meant they must have really been strange. "Oh?" He said with some excitement creeping into his voice.
"She claimed to be from the far east," Misha explained. "But this woman didn't look like she had traveled that far."
"She lied to you about where she came from? Not surprising. What did she want with you?" Rickkter asked.
"Supposedly she wanted some clock gears repaired," Misha explained. "But these were NOT clock gears. They were clearly part of an automaton mechanism."
The raccoon took a sip of wine. "What did you do? You accepted I hope!"
"Of course," was the fox's response. "These parts were old and the magic in them was clearly automata."
"Another collector perhaps," Rickkter commented with a shake of the head. "Someone with bits and pieces."
Misha shook his head. "I've had plenty of those and so have the Marigund mages guild. This seemed different. Far different. For one she didn't try to sell me the parts for some obscenely high sum."
Rickkter gave a chitter of laughter. The raccoon picked up a small metal figure of a centaur and examined it for a moment. "It seems you attracted the attention of someone else interested in automatons. That's interesting and exciting."
"Dangerous too," Misha responded. "I'm starting the believe everything involving Automata is dangerous. I've no idea what she really wants but it's certain she was testing me and my abilities."
The raccoon put down the figure of a centaur. "That makes sense. There are many people who claim to use automaton magic but so far you're the only one to actually use it."
Misha sighed deeply. "Why me? Why does all this seem to come to me?"
Rickkter shrugged. "That is a question I cannot answer. All I can say is that sometimes we chose and sometimes we are chosen."
"I didn't even get the chance to be asked." Misha commented with a shake of the head.
The raccoon leaned forward. "Are you sorry you found Madog?"
"No," Misha responded quickly and firmly. "Never have I regretted finding and fixing Madog."
"So what of this mystery woman?" Rickkter asked between sips of wine. "Any idea who she is and where she came from?"
Misha shrugged. "No idea but she certainly wasn't from the far east. That's for certain. She couldn't have traveled that far."
"Could she be from the Giantdowns?" Rickkter asked.
"If she wasn't from the east the woman had to be from the Downs." The fox looked at his friend. "What do you know of the Giantdowns?"
"Little," Rickkter responded honestly. "You've spent the last several years wandering around the Giantdowns and studying the region. You actually wrote a book of Giantdowns myths and legends. So you know more about it than me but one thing does come to mind; the Dragon wars."
"That's what came to me too," Misha said. "But all I have are legends and stories of dragons and automatons fighting monumental battles all over the Giantdowns."
"Why not ask the Lutins?" The raccoon mage questioned.
Misha looked at his friend with a puzzled expression. "You're serious?"
The raccoon nodded his head slowly. "The lutins have lived in the Giantdowns since long before the Dragon wars. They fought on both sides in it and they're sure to have some knowledge and probably relics as well. If there are any remains I'm sure the Lutins have found them."
"I never considered that," Misha said, surprised. "Metamor has some allies in the Downs that I can contact. I'll have to be very careful."
"Of course," Rickkter added. "But everyone already knows of your interest in Automata. Everyone knows of Madog, even the Lutins."
"They're the only ones to show no interest in him," Misha commented.
The raccoon cocked his head to one side. "None at all?"
"None at all," Misha answered with a shake of the head. "No attempted to capture or even study him. I've never heard so much as a single mention of him by them. They seemed to have gone to great lengths to avoid him. Perhaps they remember the Dragon wars better than everyone else and want nothing to do with Automatons."
"Or it can be the fact that Madog personally defeated a Moranasi by ripping the mage to pieces," Rickkter muttered.
Misha gave a yip of laughter. "Good point. But still I can't help but wonder what the Lutins do remember about that war."
Rickkter shrugged. "Undoubtedly they remember quite a lot but there's no way to find out. At least not yet."
"Recently Madog suggested I visit a new arrival here at the keep," Misha said calmly without looking up.
"Madog suggested it?" Rickkter asked surprised.
"He said there was something I should see," came the explanation.
Rickkter cocked his head to one side. "Oh?" The raccoon asked curiously. "And what was there to see?"
"He had arrived from Lom only a few months ago." Misha added in response.
"From Lom?" Rickkter asked and pointed to the north, in the direction of the Giandowns. "The same Lom Shi'Un as the Dragon Wars? I didn't think they let people leave that land."
"Yes that Lom," Misha answered. "And they don't. His departure was an exciting tale of pursuit and escape."
"Just getting from Lom to the Keep would be a considerable achievement," Rickkter commented. "Why did he leave?"
"In a country owned and run by Lillith he dared to not worship her and to be a Lightbringer. You might have seen him around, dragonish, shockingly white scales with a brown spinal mane," Misha said waving his arms behind his head in imitation of the dragons mane.
Rickkter shook his head side to side. "So another dragon here at the keep?"
"We only have a few," Misha answered.
"One dragon is too many," the mage quipped. "I've seen him on occasion."
Misha gave a yip of laughter. "True sometimes but at least this dragon is friendly. And he brought back some interesting Automaton items with him."
Rickkter leaned closer to his friend. "Enough to make another automaton like Madog?"
The scout gave a firm shake of the head. "No. Mostly bits and pieces from a wide variety of sources. There was a dozen gears of different sizes and materials. Four sections of what I think were skin or armor. One four inch long curved claw that can slice through steel like a knife thorough soft cheese. A complete eye, still in the socket and in amazingly good condition was fascinating. And a lot of other pieces that I have yet to identify. The most interesting was a finger from some human shaped automaton," Misha said. He spread his arms out wide. "It was three feet long and eight inches in diameter."
Rickkter's eyes narrowed for a moment as his tail swept back and forth. "That would make the entire figure one hundred feet tall!" He exclaimed. "Where did he get all of them?"
"From Lom," the scout answered. "What really excites me is that they might be remains from the Dragon wars. They were certainly not created by the Amber order. The magic used is quite different from that in Madog and Omega."
"Discover anything truly interesting?" Rickkter asked. Understanding that his friend had not revealed everything yet.
"A small box about the size of a bread box, filled completely with automata," the fox gestured with his hands mimicking the boxes dimensions. " On top were a half dozen of the most delicate figures I've ever seen," Misha said with the delight plane to hear. "You know what it was? A music box! When it was activated beautiful music played and the figures danced. Not just spun around, they actually danced a sophisticated and graceful dance movement."
"That's amazing," Rickkter asked. "What was left of it?"
"It was intact," Misha responded. "All I had to do was a little cleaning and adding some lubrication. Then it worked perfectly! It had to be at least a thousand years old and except for some dents and scratches it was intact. It's odd how something so delicate could survive so perfectly intact and yet the hundred foot tall titan was destroyed utterly."
"Not so surprising," Rickkter replied. "Something as big as that titan would be hard to conceal. Everyone would see it and know where it was. They'd also attack it and do whatever they could to destroy it. But that music box is small and easily concealed. It would have been treasured and locked away in some unknown corner."
Misha nodded his head. "Good point! It's certainly a better use for automata then making more war machines."
"Where did he get all these treasures?" Rickkter asked.
Misha shrugged. "He claims he found them by just exploring and purchasing from various junk and art dealers."
"Just?" Rickkter asked, amazed. "Is he aware of the value of them?"
"He is now," Misha responded. "I made it clear how valuable they were and how dangerous it is to own them."
"He knows how to keep a secret I hope," Rickkter questioned. "I am not in the mood to have to deal with some greedy fool trying to steal them and causing all sorts of mayhem here."
Misha took a sip of tea. "I would think so, he kept his religious beliefs secret for years in that Lilith-ruled land. I offered to buy them but he turned me down. I'll be sure to keep an eye on him."
Misha's laughter turned briefly into a sullen moue, then he brightened again, fixing the raccoon with a firm stare. "So, you've danced around my question without giving me a firm answer. Will you come with me to the Amber Order ruins? Please, Rickkter. We may need your magic."
His friend let out a long sigh, eyes drifting heavenward before closing with a shake of his head. "Fine, Misha, I will go with you. But if I think things are getting out of hand I'm dragging you and anyone else you plan to rope into this crazy venture right back here to the Keep!"
Misha's tail actually wagged. "Excellent! I'm glad to have you along, Rick."
"And," the raccoon war-mage said, crossing his arms and scowling, "just so I know, who else did you plan to rope into this little adventure?"
His scowl turned into outright disgust when he heard the exuberant answer.
It took some effort for Edmund to locate his fellow cheetah friend. He had to search all the usual places Stealth would go before finally locating him. The paladin found his friend relaxing under a tree in one of the small courtyards that dotted the keep itself.
"I'd love to go with you, Ed," Stealth said. "Except for one problem."
Edmund titled his head to one side. "What's that?"
"I'm not gonna," Stealth said firmly.
"Why won't you go? It will be a grand adventure!" Edmund asked. "It'll be exciting!"
"I understand what you're saying; I won't wake you with cold water anymore," Stealth said warding off the paladin with his hands. Then he turned and started to walk away.
Edmund grabbed the retreating feline by the tail. "You are not running away from this adventure. I won't let you lead a boring life."
"Boring? I've seen your room and you call me boring?" Came the response.
Edmund pointed a finger at Stealth. "Are you going to stay here in the boring safety of the keep?" The paladin countered. "Adventure awaits us. there are good deeds to be done and places to explore!
Stealth pulled his tail free of his friend's grasp. "And what have you found? You can't just wander aimlessly and expect to find something!"
"We have found something every single time!" Edmund answered. His tail tip flipping back and forth rapidly.
"And the ghosts still scream each night," Stealth snapped.
Edmund slowly nodded his head. "I know. And that is why we keep coming back," he said in a soft whisper.
"I'm still not going," Stealth responded.
"Let's stop the games," Edmund responded harshly. "You'll say you're not going and we'll argue about it for a while but in the end you'll go. So let's just avoid the arguing and you just agree to come now."
"And miss the argument?" Stealth said cheerfully. "That's the best part. Ed, here's what you're going to do. Go and have a think about it, then come back and give me a good reason to go." Stealth waved a finger at his friend. "I don't want to hear anything about destiny, come back to me when you have a factual, specific reason."
"You can't be serious, you're giving me homework?" Edmund exclaimed, surprised.
"I'm being fair and practical Ed, try it some time," Stealth answered. "Go, ponder and return at sunset."
The paladin stood there a moment. Then he quietly turned and left the room.
"I don't want to waste any time, I want to cover some serious ground before day break. So eat up." The fox ordered.
Misha, Rickkter, Caroline and Charles were seated around a table in the large room that was the Long House mess hall. In front of Caroline was a plate filled with an assortment of fish that had been fried, boiled or grilled.
"You look nervous, my friend," Rickkter said. He stood a short distance from the table with his arms crossed.
Misha set down his mug, "What makes you say that, why would I be?" He scowled.
The raccoon's markings hid his eyes in the flickering candle light of the mess hall. "It doesn't take a master to see it in someone, even a skittish fox."
"Alright, you think I'm skittish? How about you sit down at the table, stop floating about ominously. Can you handle that, Rick? I'm nervous about going to the Amber order ruins," Misha said slowly.
"Then why go?" Charles asked. "Why take the risk?"
"Because I have to know more. Too many people are showing an interest in me, Madog and automata," Misha explained. "And I cannot just ignore an entire mountain top filled with powerful magic."
"This is no lutin stronghold. It's a place of old and dangerous magic," Rickkter snarled.
"We've been there before," Charles responded. "So it's not completely unknown."
"We only visited a small portion of the ruins. The rest of it is unknown!" Caroline countered. "And certain to be very dangerous."
"That only adds to the excitement!" Misha countered, trying to sound cheerful.
"There's no telling what unknown or long lost magic waits up there for us to find it," Rickkter snarled.
"Are we going to climb back up that mountain?" Charles asked. "It's a long. hard climb."
"Yes," Misha answered. "Until I know what defenses remain we're not flying there."
"Rickkter nodded in agreement. "I'd rather not get hit with a bolt of lightning while flying. I can deal with the bolt but plummeting ten thousand feet will hurt."
"What will we be doing there exactly?" Caroline asked between bites of grilled fish.
"First to properly map the place and an exploration of the ruins. See what we can find," Misha answered. "And also to be sure Bolva is still in his cage."
Rickkter lowered his snout and his whiskers bristled. "Is that all?"
"Of course not! There are some questions about Madog that can only be answered in the ruins," Misha explained. "To really understand Madog I need to understand the people who created him; the Amber Order. And the only place I can find out more about them is in the ruins."
Rickkter slowly nodded his head. "Now that make sense but it doesn't make exploring those ruins any less dangerous."
"Agreed, but it is something that must be done!" Misha said.
"We can't ignore Bolva and those ruins forever," Caroline added. "We need to be sure he is still held there."
Charles lowered the heel of bread he'd just been about to bite and muttered, "I thought we decided that we were going. Why are we still arguing about it? We are going to the Amber Order to see what's there, what's not there, and to make sure Bolva is the former and not the latter. Whatever we find, we find."
"It's not that simple," Rickkter shook his head.
"It's precisely that simple. We're all trained and more than capable warriors. We know our limits. Now," he hefted the bread again, "Misha wants to get going soon. I want to get going soon. Let's eat and get on our way." So saying he shoved the loaf between his incisors and bit off a chunk.
Rickkter glared first at the rat, and then Misha, but finally sat down and started his own meal. "It's never that easy," he muttered under his breath.
This time it Edmund didn't have any problem finding his friend. He found Stealth at one of the small archery ranges scattered around the interior of the keep. The scout was the only person there and was slowly shooting arrows at a target one hundred feet away. Edmund walked up to his friend but didn't speak for a moment. Instead he stood and watched as his friend practiced his archery.
After Stealth had loosed several more arrows he turned to the paladin. In one hand he was still clutching an arrow. "Well? Do you have answer? Explain to me why it's my destiny to go into those woods."
"Destiny has nothing to do with it," the paladin explained calmly. "We are involved with this. And if we don't free the spirits in those woods then who will?"
Stealth shook his head briskly. "Try again!" The arrow in his hand waved about as he moved his arms in animated gestures.
Edmund's ears flattened against his head as his tail whipped back and forth at high speed.
"Let me ask YOU a question," he said and pointed a finger at Stealth. "Why shouldn't we help them?"
"It's not a matter of helping, you didn't plan this, you're just compelled and you won't tell me why!"
"These souls need help and it's my duty to help people. All people," Edmund answered with a wave of his hands.
"Enough of this! No more of your lectures." Stealth snarled, "Give me answers, I have a right to know!" Stealth emphasized his point by tapping the paladin lightly on the chest with the head of his arrow.
"Alright." Edmund said in a whisper. He pushed Stealth arrow away from his chest with one out stretched finger. "I may not be able to give you the answers you seek but I can say this. These people are the reason I stayed. I allowed myself to become cursed so I could free them."
Stealth looked surprised for a moment as the arrow dropped from his hand and clattered to the floor. "When did you decide this?"
"When I led my troops thru those haunted woods back during the Winter Assault counter attack."
Stealth bent down and picked up the arrow. He stood up straight and looked his friend in the face. "You didn't tell your men, when you convinced them to stay?"
"I gave them the choice to stay or leave and serve another honorable man. Some left, most stayed."
"You didn't tell them!" Stealth shouted.
"I told them we were needed here. That was enough," the paladin responded. "Sometimes you just have to put aside the questions and accept things." Edmund patted Stealth on the back. "We leave tomorrow morning to meet up with Nestorius."
"Then you'll have to cancel my training for a while," Stealth responded.
"I already did." Edmund answered simply.
"What?! You can't do that!" Stealth exclaimed.
"Yes I can. I asked Terry and she asked George," the paladin responded.
Stealth scowled at the paladin for a moment. Then he turned and walked to the corner of the room. There hanging on a pair of hooks was a jacket and a large satchel.
"We'll need to leave before dawn if we're to meet up Nestorius," Edmund said.
Stealth took the quiver off of his back and placed it on an empty hook. "Really?" He asked slowly. "He'll be accompanying us again."
"Yes." Edmund answered coldly. Sensing another argument coming.
Stealth removed the strap that was wound around his left wrist and dropped the strap into the satchel. "And how do you keep roping him into this, isn't Nestorius the Lord of our northern defenses?"
"Yes he is and he is deeply worried about the haunted woods which falls into his area of control." Edmund responded.
"Well, I'd prefer not to take any detours," Stealth commented as he undid the strap on his right wrist.
"If you wish we could meet him at the crossroads." the paladin responded. "And cut down on our travel time."
Stealth's eyes narrowed. "Can't we just go alone? Without him?"
"No," the paladin snarled. "All three of us are bound up together in this mystery."
"Why?" Stealth snapped. "Why us?"
Edmund shrugged. "I don't know. That too is a mystery that only time and effort will reveal."
"You still have work to do."
"Yes, I do." Edmund nodded.
"No, that's not what I meant," was his friends response.
"Oh?" Edmund asked, curious as to what Stealth meant.
"You failed your homework, Edmund, now you have more," came the reply.
Edmund's ears folded, "Oh really?" He asked sarcastically.
"You always trudge through the woods and expect something to turn up. Now you're going to make a plan. You will create a structured layout outlining your mission and checkpoints."
"Stealth my friend. I have never seen anyone so creative and energetic at avoiding doing something as you do." He pointed a finger at Stealth's chest.
"Ed, I have never seen someone display such irony."
The paladin just looked at his friend for a moment. "Oh, you'll get your homework. But can I count on you to attend me tomorrow?"
"Of course, Ed, I have another reason to accompany you," was the second feline's response.
"And what reason is that?" Sir Delacot asked.
"To stop you from doing something stupid," Stealth explained
Edmund just sighed and shook his head.
Stealth peered closely at his friend. "Edmund, are you feeling alright?"
"Yes I am all right. Why do you ask?" Edmund responded, a little confused.
"Any stress or fatigue?" Was Stealth's question.
The paladin shook his head. "No stress from people asking me how I feel all the time." Edmund placed a hand on his friends shoulder. "Enough of the arguments. I HAVE to do this. Helping those spirits is something I need to do and I cannot do it without your help."
It took Stealth only a little while to find her. Terry was always busy doing something but George was able to tell the cheetah where the woman was. He found the female knight in a corral working with a horse on a long reins. She was standing in the middle and the animal galloped in circles around her. Stealth caught her attention with a wave of the hand.
She handed the reins to another woman and walked over to where the cheetah waited.
The woman was now known as Terry Gattaway but before the curse had change her, HE had been called Terrant Gattaway. Terry had taken being a woman hard at first but now she seemed to be happy. She had served with Edmund for many years as his second in command. No one knew Edmund better.
"It's good to see you Stealth!" The woman exclaimed and hugged the feline. "How are you doing?"
Stealth gave the woman a hug in return. "I'm doing all right," Stealth responded. "But I am worried about Edmund. Have you noticed anything strange about him lately? Any strange habits?" The feline asked.
"Edmund? He has nothing strange about him," Terry responded. "Do you have something specific in mind?"
"Obsessions. Extreme ideas," the feline explained.
"You mean like constantly wandering off into those haunted woods?" She asked.
"Yes!" Stealth responded energetically. "Then you have noticed!"
"I have noticed that the trapped spirits in the forest have occupied more and more of his attention," Terry answered. "That and Bridgette."
"Doesn't that bother you?" He questioned.
"Edmund is a paladin, he's supposed to be concerned with spirits and the undead," Terry answered and stopped speaking.
Stealth leaned closer. "And?"
"I worry about him going into a place so filled with evil and so many undead," the woman said. "But some thing's need to be done."
"What needs to be done?"
She looked at him surprised. "What? It is a paladins task to defeat evil, help the innocent and put undead to rest. There are many in the Order who do nothing but fight undead."
"Yes, and how is that achieved?" Stealth asked.
"Many different methods. The simplest is it simply destroy them with sword and axe and bow," the woman explained. "But many of the restless dead must be helped to gain their final sleep. That is much harder."
The cheetah leaned against the fencing of the corral. "But what if we're just making them restless?"
"You mean we are the ones stirring them up? Interesting idea but those woods have been haunted long before we came here."
Stealth wagged a finger back and forth in front of the woman. "No, Terrant, they've been haunted but it wasn't until you arrived after the winter assault that they became active. It's a constant occurrence now."
She nodded slowly. "True, something has stirred them up but I find it hard to believe our mere arrival caused the trouble."
"Not your mere arrival," Stealth explained. "Edmund's journeys. He frequents the woods."
"There is more going on here than that. " she said. "Something greater is happening now. How can you explain the drawing on that map of the three of you? And those odd dreams Edmund has been having lately. And what about you and Nest? Don't you find it odd that all of you seemed to be drawn to those woods? Like Nestorius. He was exiled here. With the entire world to choose for his exile Nest chose Metamor Keep. Why Metamor?"
He tilted his head to one side. "Aren't you reading too much into coincidence?" Stealth asked.
The woman shrugged. "Perhaps, but there are too many things happening to just be coincidence."
Next Morning - before dawn
The trip from Metamor Keep was short and easy. It was just before dawn so few people were awake aside from the four. Misha, Charles, Caroline and Rickkter walked through the gate out of Metamor and down into Euper. It was not quite dawn so Misha had to get special permission to exit the main gate of Euper and out into the valley itself. They made their way east across the valley floor. Quickly the tall mountains that lined the entire length of the valleys eastern walls grew taller as they got closer. After an hour the rolling hills of the valley gave way to the steady slope of the mountains. It was easy at first as the grade was gentle, but it quickly got steeper, and steeper. Finally they came upon a small grove of trees resting at the bottom of a massive landslide.
Charles stared at rock wall in front of him. Finally he walked up to a large boulder that had to weigh over a ton. The rat placed both hands on the stone and Misha watched as they seemed to sink into the stone till his arms were in up to their wrists.
Misha placed a hand on Charles shoulder. The rat's fur and skin felt as hard as stone. "Not too deeply my friend."
Charles slowly and reluctantly pulled his hands from the stone. "This is not natural. These stones were further up the slope and were rudely separated by force and rolled down to here."
"The road was deliberately destroyed," Misha said. "Probably when the fortress was destroyed."
"Why destroy the road after attacking the fortress?" Caroline asked.
"Unless it was destroyed before the attack," Rickkter responded. "To try and keep the attackers out."
Charles shook his head slowly. "This was done slowly and with great care. To remove all traces of humans having worked the stone."
"Why?" Misha asked.
"It seems we've found more questions and no answers," Rickkter commented. "I know where we can find those answers." The raccoon pointed upwards.
Caroline stared up the near vertical slope of the landslide. The wall of stone seemed to go upwards forever. "It looks even steeper than the last time!"
The two cheetahs left the keep shortly before dawn. Very few people were about as Stealth and Edmund made their way from Metamor Keep and down the road to Euper. They led their horses rather than ride and talked as they went along.
"Aside from wandering around in a haunted forest don't you have other responsibilities to keep you busy?" Stealth asked.
"I have many responsibilities in life," Edmund responded. The streets of Euper were already starting to show signs of life as a handful; of workers and craftsman moved about.
Stealth nodded. "Yes you do, over a hundred of them back in the other direction."
"Terry is quite capable of leading them. She's a fine leader."
"It's not her responsibility to clean up after you," Stealth snarled.
Edmund shook his head. "You're missing the point. Her responsibility is to free me of mundane tasks so I can concentrate on what matters the most. Just as she has subordinates to help her. Terry is almost ready for a command of her own," the paladin commented simply.
Stealth tilted his head to one side. "Almost?"
"She still has some things to learn before that time," was the explanation. "George is teaching her many things."
Stealth Guided his horse around a shattered tree branch lying in the road. "Is it true that her and George are a couple?"
"Yes. They are quite close!" He responded in a surprised tone.
"You're surprised at that?"
Edmund paused walking for a moment. "Well, yes. After all he is old enough to be her father. But they seem happy together."
Stealth leaned close to his friend. "Just like you and Bridgette."
Edmund purred loudly. "Bridgette," he said softly. "Is a fine lady."
"What does she think of you going off to that dangerous forest with all its ghosts?" Stealth asked.
"Bridgette worries but she understands it's something I need to do," the paladin explained. "Whatever has trapped those spirits is a threat to everyone in the valley including you, me and Bridgette. I'll do whatever it takes to protect her and you."
"So, how did I do?" Edmund asked. "Did I pass your tests?"
Stealth pulled up several sheets of parchment and examined them. "This is still vague but it's a start."
Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. "You sound like my tutor from childhood. Lady Alina was always pushing me. Never satisfied. But your questions have prompted me to ask for the help of an expert."
"An expert?" The scout asked. "Who?"
"The Order of the Protectors has dealt with the undead in the past," Edmund explained. "Still are. There are those who specialize in dealing with the undead. I've asked for the help of Brother Crosley one of the most knowledgeable in the order. He's been combating the undead for over forty years. Does that raise my score a little?"
Stealth rubbed his chin, "Hmm. So long as he doesn't wind up aimlessly expecting something to turn up."
"Brother Crosley is credited with having destroyed over a hundred wraiths and ghouls all by himself over the years. Our problem will be trying to keep up with him!"
"Let's not kill the spirits, Ed."
"I don't intend to but Bother Crosley is always on the move. He's at least twice your age and I bet you'll never be able to keep up with him. I know I never was able to."
"You've served with him?" Stealth asked.
Edmund shivered noticeably and rubbed a certain spot on his upper, left arm.. "Oh yes," he said in clipped terms. "Five years ago I assisted Brother Crosley deal with . . ." The paladin paused in both speech and movement. "Something very powerful and evil."
"Have you contacted Brother Crosley yet?" Stealth asked, trying to change the subject. He had no wish to know more details.
"Oh yes!" The paladin responded with an energetic nod of the head. "I sent him a long missive a month ago on everything we've discovered so far. I got his answer this morning." He took a small bundle from his pocket and opened it revealing a score of pieces of papers. Stealth noted each page was covered with a tight, neat handwriting.
"What did he say?" Stealth asked curious as to the letters contents.
"I haven't read it all yet but it ends with him asking me some questions," the paladin said as he put the letter back into the safety of his pocket. "Seven hundred and fifty of them."
Stealth gave out a chirp of laughter. "So you have more homework!"
Three hours of long, hard climbing finally got the foursome several hundred feet up the mountain side to a place where the slope finally gave way to a small path. The path was a mere hands width wide and led upward at a steep angle. After another hour of climbing the path leveled out and opened up into a small open area where the group stopped for a break. The first time they had visited the Amber order ruins it had been a long, arduous climb. It was no easier now. They were supposed to be following a road but for the first five hundred feet of the climb there was no road. It was just a plain, hard climb up a very steep slope.
"Why couldn't they have a built on nice level ground," Caroline said as she sat down on a rock. "Or even a dungeon."
"Nothing so simple for these paranoid mages," Rickkter said sarcastically. "They needed complete protection in the most extreme form."
"You have to admit it the place is almost unassailable," Charles commented.
"Almost," Caroline added.
"What happened to this place?" Rickkter asked and looked upwards to where the ruins lay hidden.
Misha shrugged. "I honestly don't know. I've found no records in Metamor's vast libraries and records."
"What of Madog and Omega?" Charles asked.
The fox shook his head. "Omega was asleep when it fell and didn't wake up till Bolva brought Madog here last year. And Madog's description of what happened is at best vague and confusing."
"EVERYTHING Madog says is vague and confusing," Rickkter joked.
"But at this he's even more confusing and vague than usual," Misha explained and took a drink from his canteen.
"I didn't think that was possible," Charles quipped.
"When the attack came Madog was probably the first one attacked," Rickkter added. "So he wouldn't remember too much."
"Agreed," Misha added. "But he still blames Bolva for the order's destruction."
"Do you?" Charles asked "I sense some doubt."
Misha shrugged. "I used to think Bolva was solely responsible but after doing more research I'm not so certain. That's another reason for going to the ruins. Perhaps we can get some answers."
"I've never found an easy answer to any question," Rickkter commented sharply.
"True, there are no easy answers," Misha countered. "But if there are any answers they'll be in the ruins."
"We're liable to find more questions instead of getting answers," the raccoon added.
"Probably," the fox commented. "But we will find some answers."
Misha saw Charles standing at the edge of the road, staring down at the valley far below. He noticed that the rat was looking at one specific spot in the valley; Glen Avery. "Thank you for coming Charles. This means a lot."
"Always glad to help," Charles answered without taking his eyes off the valley.
"How are you and Kimberly doing?" Misha asked softly.
Charles's snout twitched into a faint smile. "Good. Much better now that the plague is over. These last two weeks have been very good for us."
The relief brought a similar smile to Misha's vulpine jowls. "Even with the responsibilities of your new title?"
The rat actually laughed and turned away from the vista to face his friend. "There haven't been any yet, although at some point I should inspect the tract of land that is supposedly mine. For now I'm glad to be able to play with my children. You know, when I was their age I hadn't even said my first word yet? They've already mastered dozens!"
"They're no bigger than a child that age should be," Misha pointed out, fondly remembering the quartet of little rats scampering about Long House and bringing much needed cheer to his friends and family during the dark days of the plague. "In another year you'll be teaching them letters and combat!"
Charles laughed for a moment and then his expression darkened palpably. He glanced back at the valley, lush now with pinks, yellows, purples, and blues of Spring blossoms. "Aye."
Misha tightened his grip on the rat's shoulder and grimaced. "Come now. The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can go back to them, Sir Matthias."
"Sir," Charles's smile returned after a moment. "That still sounds so strange. Ah well. You're right. Let us be on our way." He turned his back on the valley and fell into step beside the fox along the ancient road. Neither spoke again as they quickened their pace to catch up with Caroline and Rickkter.
The road to Haunted woods was open and well maintained and the pair of felines made good time. A large cavalry patrol came towards them. At the lead was a stocky brown mare wearing full barding but bearing no rider, saddle or tack. Behind her were a dozen other horses each bearing a rider. The patrol stopped a short distance from the felines. Stealth noted that four of the riders were archers and had bows aimed at him and Edmund.
"Good morning!" The rider-less mare said.
"Good morning to you!" Edmund said in way of response and bowed deeply.
"What brings you two here out this early in the morning?" the mare asked.
"We are headed to Hareford," The paladin explained. "How is the road ahead?"
"The road to Hareford is clear," the equine responded. "No activity as of late from the lutins but you'd best take care."
"I'm always careful," Edmund responded. "But my thanks for the warning."
Only a short time later the two came to the crossroads. Ahead the road lead to the Giants Dike and eventually the Giantdowns. The road split off to the left and wound its way eventually to Hareford. But neither of those paths held their attention. On the right was no real road; just a wall of trees and underbrush. Standing just off the road was Nestorius. The black furred lion was carrying a backpack and holding the reins of a horse. "Welcome!" The feline said with a wave of the hand. "It's good to see you!"
Edmund got off of horse and gave the mage a hug. "Good morning!"
"Good to see you here," the lion added. He turned to Stealth and gave the surprised cheetah a hug. "Good to see both of you here."
"Thank you," Stealth replied nervously.
Nest stood looking at the forest. "Are we ready?"
"Yes," Edmund said.
"No we're not," Stealth commented sarcastically.
The lion turned and looked at Stealth. "What?"
Edmund gently kicked his friend in the leg.
"Ouch!" Stealth yelped. "I mean I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
Nest laughed a little. "Are you sure?"
"We are both sure," Edmund said speaking for both of them.
"I can understand if you are reluctant to enter these haunted woods," the lion said. "But we are only entering through daylight and will only stay for a short while."
Stealth pointed towards the forest. "Why are we going there?"
"Why?" Nestorius responded. Surprised. "Why? To explore of course and to find out why the ghosts are there and to finally free them."
A large shape loomed up out of the shadow ahead and soon resolved itself into the battered remains of a curtain wall. Edmund caught a glimpse of movement along the top of the wall. He stared intently at the crumbling and battered battlements. He caught sight of a figure racing along the top. The shadowy figure was clearly recognizable as a man wearing armor and holding a large bow in hand. The ghostly soldier aimed his bow at an enemy only he could see and loosed an arrow. Another raced up to the first and threw a javelin down towards the ground. A shower of arrows bounced harmlessly and silently off the stones of the battlement. The two shadowy warriors ducked for a moment behind the thick stones but then popped up and started shooting again.
Edmund felt a touch on the shoulder and saw that it was Stealth. His friend's eyes were wide with excitement and he was pointing to the ground at the base of the wall. There he saw more shadows this time clearly lutins racing along towards the wall. He watched as several raced through trees and bushes that had not been there when they had been alive. Four ghostly lutins were carrying an equally ghostly ladder.
The Keepers watch silently as an equally silent and ghostly battle played out in from of them.
Stealth shook his head. "No matter how many times I see things like that it still scares me."
"You should be," Edmund said in a level tone. He was standing still and seemed to be calm. But his tail was twitching back and forth at high speed betraying his own fear. "This is not normal. Every human and animal instinct I have tells me this is wrong!"
"Everything about the undead is wrong," Stealth added.
"More wrong then you realize." Nestorius was standing next to them examining the scene in front of them. "This sort of spectral activity in daylight is unheard of. All the previous activity has been at night."
"You mentioned this before," Edmund commented. "It's only increased since the Yule assault."
"So what has changed since then?" The lion mage asked.
"You two have been exploring these woods too much," Stealth commented. "Stirring up the ghosts."
"Misha reported the ghosts were far more active BEFORE Edmund arrived," Nestorius answered.
"If we aren't stirring them up then what is?" Stealth asked. "They've been quiet for over 500 years. Why all the activity now?"
"An excellent question. I have studied the issue," Nestorius commented. The lion spoke without taking his eyes off the spectral battle going on in front of them. "And have few answers. The activity seems to have increased dramatically several months before the Yule attack but it also increased even more so after that event."
"We did march an entire army through the center of the city ruins," Edmund commented. The spectral lutins had placed their ladder against the wall and were attempting to scale it. The long dead defenders of the wall showered missiles and rocks down on their attackers.
"And the shadow didn't do anything?" Stealth asked.
Edmund shook his head. "No. The shadow was not happy but it did let us go through."
"That was surprising," Nestorius commented.
"The shadow actually came to me in the night," Edmund said calmly. "And showed me a lot of the ruins and the ghosts."
Stealth looked at him. "Why?"
The paladin shrugged. "That I do not know. For some reason the creature accepted me. Perhaps it sensed that I was a paladin."
The lion looked surprised for a moment. "That alone is very interesting. "Why did the creature accept you? That is an interesting question."
"So instead of getting answers," Stealth commented dryly. "We have even more questions."
"We do have some answers," Edmund said. "We know that something stirred up the ghosts just before the Winter Assault and even more so afterwards."