They stood in the courtyard for a moment, blinking as their eyes adjusted to the bright light of day.
"Which way does the dagger lead?" Nestorius asked.
The scout pointed to a squat building that stood against the curtain wall on the opposite side of the courtyard. "That way."
The two Keepers made their way across the courtyard well aware of the people looking at them. They moved at a carefully calculated pace. Moving slow enough to not draw attention to themselves but also fast enough to not draw attention to themselves.
The one door to the building had two soldiers standing guard. People were rushing in and out past them. Stealth and Nestorius simply walked past the sentries who took no notice of them.
They found themselves standing in a large hallway with corridors leaded off left and right and a set of stairs leading upwards. All were clothed in marble that once had been white and brilliant but was now weathered and grayed from long use. People were hustling about on their own errands and paid the two no notice.
"Where now?" The mage asked softly.
He glanced at the dagger. "Up."
They stopped at the head of the stairs. For all the activity going on below them this floor was quiet. The corridors that headed off to the left and right were empty.
Their footsteps echoed loudly as they walked along the marble floored hallway. They stopped as the hallway ended in a door that blocked any further advance.
"We need to find Edmund. Why don't we wait till we're back in the present and look for this place?" Stealth asked.
"I've tried," the mage answered. "It's not there in our time. We visited it remember? All we found was waist high rubble. The dagger led us here for a reason. What we need is inside there, now," Nest said and pointed at the doors. "Past those locked doors."
The two stared at the door for a long moment. The door was of a wood as dark as nightfall and banded with steel straps. In the center of the door was a narrow, rectangular shaped depression. Nothing else was on the door, not even handles or hinges.
"So," Stealth said slowly. "How do we get inside?"
"That I do not know," Nestorius answered. "The magic protecting it is impressively strong. It's been a long time since I've seen wards this powerful and complex."
"The Suielman were here for over five hundred years," Stealth commented as he looked at the door. "Plenty of time to do all sorts of powerful magic. Can you get past it? You are a powerful mage."
"Perhaps," the mage answered. "But it will take a lot of time and study."
"And that will take longer than we have I'd imagine." Stealth intoned.
The mage shrugged. "Not sure. But it took me three years to work my way past the wards that are underneath Hareford."
"The lutins will be able to get through it in a much shorter time," Stealth responded. "But we won't live to see it. Perhaps we could order the ghosts to open it?"
"Unlikely our subordinates would have the means to open it, any more than we do," the mage countered. "And they are liable to ask us why we want into a place that's locked against us. And the lutins didn't get past the wards. They simply burnt the entire building down."
Stealth examined the entire length and width of the door. "They must have a way to get in. Someway to open it."
"There must be," the mage answered. "Usually a password or a key of some sort."
"This door doesn't have a lock or a keyhole."
"It doesn't have to be a literal key to fit into a keyhole." Netorius answered. "With magic it could be almost any object that the lock and warding spells are aligned with."
The scout looked at the odd shaped depression in the door. Stealth unsheathed the dagger and stared at it. He compared the dagger to the door. "Is it that simple?" Stealth placed the weapon into the depression and it fit perfectly.
There was a soft click and the door swung open silently.
"Sometimes it IS that simple," Nestorius commented and patted his friend on the back.
The officer walked slowly through the market. Outwardly he was the very picture of calm and poise. But inside his mind was in turmoil. So many different ideas and memories were running through it.
The Decanus Exploritie had spoken of a woman named Bridgette. It was an old Centli name even one empress had born it. And it was the name of a Centli goddess. He personally knew no one by that name and yet it seemed familiar. An image of a woman came to his mind but it was oddly not human. Her body was covered with short, thick red fur. The body under the fur looked like a fox's down to the pointy ears and long, bushy tail. What really caught his attention was her legs which were long and spindly. It was like she was walking on fur covered stilts. To him that look was wrong and yet it felt right.
Suddenly the busy market with all its people was gone. In its place was a dark and brooding forest. Gone was the stone, vaulted roof overhead replaced by tall trees rising up into the sky and blotting out the sun. The hard granite floor was gone, Underneath his feet was a thick carpet of leaves and dirt. He used a boot covered paw to push aside the debris and he caught a glimpse of grayish stone underneath that might be the remains of a stone floor. The forest was silent, only the lonely cry of some bird pierced the quiet.
Then suddenly he was back in the market again with all its people and its lively noise.
He shook his head and tried to dispel the ruinous images from his mind but they wouldn't go away. He looked at his hands and saw them covered with golden colored fur with black spots. "Why are my hands covered in spots? That's wrong." a part of his mind said. "No, that's right. I'm a cheetah and they have spotted fur."
The man looked at the world around him. So familiar and now yet so alien. "Who am I?"
Stealth looked around at the racks and shelves that lined the room. "Where are we exactly? Looks like a library."
"That's exactly what it is," Nest looked through the various scrolls carefully. "It's an archive where older messages and orders are stored. There is a lot of important information here!"
Stealth looked at the row upon row of racks holding scrolls. "There must be thousands of scrolls here."
The mage looked up from the scroll he was reading. "At least five or six thousand. Too long to look through them all. We need to concentrate on the most recent messages. That will provide the information we need."
"But what is that information?" Stealth asked.
Nest shrugged. "I don't know but if the dagger led us here it must be important." He walked along the rows before stopping in front of one. He pointed to a date painted onto the wooden rack. "These are less than a month old."
The mage was silent for several minutes as he searched through different scrolls. Then he tapped one scroll in particular. "This one has some important information. It's an order to allow the Vertansula full access to the Castra Prenturio, which I believe is the city fortress. It also lists a building and several chambers underneath the fortress. And this is an exact quote 'To be supplied with anything no matter how strange or disagreeable it might be. And none are to be allowed there under immediate death.' It is signed by Falernus Crudicus Tuditanus. The governor of the whole province."
"The Vertansula were mentioned in that mail we found last time weren't they?" The scout asked. "Any idea who they are?"
The mage gave a shake of the head in response. "No. I believe they are mages or some sort of magic using creatures."
"We already knew that. Whoever they were or whatever they were doing they didn't want anyone else to know," Stealth commented. "And that's not good."
Nestorius nodded his head. "Agreed. But this tells me exactly where we need to concentrate our investigation," the mage said, sounding pleased with himself. He pointed to another scroll that was resting next to the first. "But this one has a list of items that their guests would need. Some of the items can only be described as evil."
Stealth tilted his head to one side. "What do you mean?"
"One of the items requested is three virgin girls and three virgin boys no more then eleven years of age."
The scout shook his head. "What did they do?"
Nest shook his head slowly. "I am not sure but that and the other items on the list do give me some clues. I believe they were trying to summon something."
"Could it be the Shadow Fox?" Stealth asked. "We know he was bound here to protect the city and the people in it."
"I don't think so," was the mage's response. "The Shadow Fox is powerful but he is as trapped as the ghosts are. Also you would never need a live sacrifice to summon something like the Shadow Fox. There is something more powerful involved."
"Can you talk to the Shadow Fox? He might have more information?" Stealth asked.
"The Shadow doesn't talk to me. He only communicates with Edmund," The mage carefully returned the scroll he was holding back to the rack it had come from. "Also I believe the Shadow doesn't understand what happened either. I think he was summoned separately and was trapped when the curse took effect."
"Now that idea makes sense. It seems that the more we learn the more questions we have," Stealth commented.
"We are advancing," the mage answered. "We know that the cause of all the trouble is something the Suielman did in 150 and that it happened in the main fortress. That tells us who, when and where. That's more than anyone else has accomplished in over five hundred years."
Stealth didn't answer for a moment. He turned and looked at his companion. "Why us? Why have we managed to do all this when no one else could in five centuries of trying?"
The mage shook his head and shrugged. "I do not know. Something has stirred up the ghosts. Everyone at Hareford has told me that. And nothing like what we are experiencing has ever happened before. But what I do know is that somehow it involves you and Edmund."
"It involves all three of us," Stealth added. "You were on that map too."
Nestorius smiled revealing large leonine teeth. "Indeed. But we are still missing pieces to this puzzle. There is some information we do not have as of yet."
"Unfortunately the undead is not my area of expertise," Nestorius responded. "For that we need Edmund back."
Stealth came to a sudden halt. "I have an idea about Edmund. What rank is he?"
"He is a Duplicarius," Nest answered. "Equal to a captain."
"So as a Tribune Arturis you out rank him! You can just order him to follow us out of the city. He has to obey our orders and go with us!"
The mage smiled. "I like that idea. It's simple and to the point. Once we are done here we will retrieve our friend."
"Let's not take too long," Stealth said. "The lutins certainly aren't going to wait."
They replaced the scrolls in their proper racks and reluctantly left the room. The doorway was closed up properly and the duo made their way down to the ground floor and out of the building.
Slowly the pair walked along the courtyard, though the gate and out into the city proper.
"What do we do now?" Stealth asked.
"We retrieve our friend and leave this place," the mage answered. "Wait!" Nestorius exclaimed and suddenly stopped.
Stealth came to a halt. "What? Something wrong?"
"That's the sword!" Nestorius said excitedly.
"What?" Stealth asked and looked around nervously as his hand reached for his sword hilt. "What do you mean?"
The mage pointed up the street. The crowd parted and a figure slowly walked past.
This man was tall, with the dark brown hair that was carefully cut and coiffured. It was showing some gray in spite of obvious attempts to dye it. He was dressed in a long, blue robe that stretched down to his sandaled feet. The robe was edged with the silver and gold lines around its border. He moved at a slow, deliberate rate and his face was a solid mask of calm and determination. What caught Stealth's attention was the sword that hung from a loop on his belt. It was a simple thing with a long, straight blade and hilt. What was unusual was the entire weapon was pitch black in color and devoid of any decoration or enhancement. The blade was not in a proper sheath but seemed to be hanging from a small loop of black chain that hooked over his belt. He'd never seen a sword carried like that. Everyone kept their swords in a sheath to protect it from the elements.
"That sword. It's all black, like Misha's axe," Stealth commented.
"That is Ka-Staru," Nestorius answered. "One of the Five Sisters."
"What?" Stealth looked in the direction the mage pointed. "You mean like Misha's axe and Rickkter's dagger?"
The mage slowly nodded his head. "They are part of a set of five weapons all created at the same time. Their look is unique and unmistakable."
Stealth looked at the weapon for a moment. "That does look like his axe. Do you think seeing that was an accident?"
Nestorius slowly shook his head. "No. The Five are too powerful to just accidentally appear here. Nothing involving them happens by accident."
"So what does it mean? What is it doing here?" Stealth asked without taking his eyes off the sword and its bearer. "And the Axe and Dagger are BACK in the valley in the modern age. Why? How?"
Nestorius stared at the blade intently as if he could gain the answers they needed that way. "Those are excellent questions but I don't know the answer to any of them. But I will find out."
The sword wielder moved down the street at a steady, deliberate pace and was effecting an air of calm and unconcern, as he was just out for a pleasant stroll. But it didn't quite work. The man's hand never left the hilt of his sword. The smile on his face seemed forced as if painted in or carved in stone.
"What is he doing? Stealth asked. "It's like he is showing off."
"He is," came a calm voice. "Curule Falernus is aware of the unease among the people. He is deliberately acting calm and cool to ease their fears."
Both turned to see Edmund standing there. The man had his arms folded and scowling at them.
With slow and with deliberate steps the officer walked toward them. "Who are you two and what are you doing?"
Nestorius opened his mouth to speak but Stealth cut him off.
"We don't have time for this," the scout snapped.
He waved to some Vigili who were standing nearby. "This traitor is preaching for a false god, detain him."
The officer gave a wave of the hand and the Vigili stopped. He scowled at the two. "Why are you doing this?"
"You don't belong here," Stealth snapped. "None of us three belong here."
"This is not our time or place," Nestorius added. "You are Edmund Delacot." He pointed to himself. "And I am Nestorius Sentilus." He then pointed to the cheetah scout. "And this is . . ."
"My friend Stealth," Edmund said finishing the mage's sentence.
Stealth looked at his friend. "Ed? Is that you?"
The paladin nodded and smiled. "It is. I have regained my mind."
Stealth hugged his friend. "It's good to have you back!"
Edmund returned the hug. "It's good to see you!"
He turned and hugged Nestorius. "I am glad to be back. I have recovered my memories but I am confused as to where I am. Are we in the past?"
"It's hard to explain," the mage answered.
"That means he doesn't know what's going on," Stealth added.
"I have a good grasp of what is happening but this is neither the place nor the moment to explain," the mage answered. "The short explanation is we are in Camulodunum in CR150. A day before its fall. We must be free of this ghostly city immediately."
Edmund seemed to ignore his friends and stared off to the north. The other two turned and followed suit.
The entire northern sky was lit up as bright as the dawn. Flames shot high into the sky and seemed to envelope everything.
"We're too late," Nestorius muttered. "The invasion's begun!"
"No," Edmund countered. "There is still time! We just need to get out of the city."
"Just?" Nestorius commented incredulously and pointed to the north. "You do realize there are two hundred thousand lutins out there?"
"We do not have to defeat all two hundred thousand, just the few in our way," Edmund paused for a moment and looked around. "We are on the Strata Margentus. It will take too long to go to the east or west gates. That leaves north and south. Since the Lutins are to the north I suggest we go south past the forum and the Castra Prenturio."
"NO!" Nestorius shouted and waved his arms. "We have learned that whatever cursed these woods was instigated in the Castra."
Edmund closed his eyes for a moment and slowly shook his head. "Why doesn't that surprise me."
"We cannot condemn people for something done six centuries ago," Nestorius commented. "At least till we find out exactly what they did."
"Can we concentrate on the important thing, How we are trapped here" Stealth said. "And getting out of this doomed place."
North," Edmund folded his arms. "With south out we can only go north."
"Towards the Lutins?" Stealth asked, surprised.
Edmund nodded. "And hope we can escape before they seal off the city."
Nestorius pointed to the two Vigili who had been standing quietly through all this. "You two are being reassigned. Take your families and head south. I want you out of the city within the hour."
"Sir?" the one vigili asked. "Our assignment is here."
"I AM REASSIGNING YOU," the mage countered. "I don't want everyone concentrated all in one place. Take yourselves and your families to Alguntia."
The man slowly shook his head. "I am needed here."
Edmund took a small quill pen and a piece of parchment from a pouch. He hastily scribbled something on parchment. "Those are your orders. Take yourselves and your families to Alguntia. You should be safe there."
"We don't want to be safe," the second countered. "We want to do our duty and help."
The paladin smiled and nodded. ":And you are doing your duty," he said in a calm but firm tone. "Whatever happens here the people in Alguntia need our protection. Now take yourselves and your family and GO!"
"What about you?" The Vigili asked. "Are you coming?"
"Not yet," Edmund countered. He gave the man a pat on the back. "Don't worry. I will not be here long."
The two Vigili slowly walked away talking quietly to each other. Suddenly the horizon lit up with an immense explosion sending even more smoke billowing into the sky. The men started walking faster and then broke into a run. In moments they vanished into the crowd.
The sight that greeted them at the gate was chaos. A solid stream of people was streaming through the gates and into the city. There was no way to force their way through that mass to leave the city. The three Keepers took refuge in a doorway.
"It's as if the whole valley is trying to get in the city," Nestorius commented as the trio watched the mass of humanity stream past.
"Not the whole valley," Edmund responded. "Just the northern portion. This is a well rehearsed plan. The lutins have invaded the valley before."
Stealth watched a man and woman hustle past with a half a dozen children in tow. For a moment he wondered how many of them would survive. Were they among the ghosts that haunted the valley? He pushed those thoughts from his mind and turned to other things. "How many times have they invaded the valley."
"The records that have survived speak of Camulodunum having been besieged a dozen times before it's fall," Edmund responded.
"We cannot use this gate," Nestorius commented. "We'll have to try one of the other gates." He pointed off to the southwest. "That will take us out of the city but still keep us away from the citadel."
A figure on a horse raced up to the gate. The rider used his mount's massive size to push the stream of people aside. He steered through the crowd and towards the officer. "THEY'VE BREACHED THE WALL!" The rider shouted as he leapt from his horse.
"They've breached the wall and they're streaming into the valley in the tens of thousands," the officer explained as a group of people clustered round them.
"How long till they reach the city?" Edmund asked.
The man simply pointed out the gates. Looking through the open gateway they could see tall pillars of flame and smoke. A group of buildings in the distance started burning. They watched as buildings closer and closer caught fire marking the path of the approaching invaders.
A solid stream of refugees was still flowing over the drawbridge and through the gates. Buildings barely a stone's throw from the ditch that surrounded the city exploded into infernos. The flames added a ghastly red tint to everything as sparks and ash rained down everywhere. More ominous than the flow of refugees was when that stream diminished down to a trickle and then stopped completely. A dozen soldiers slowly made their way into the city. Then a last ragged group of women and children hustled past.
Last through the gate was a soldier. The man was dressed in armor that was splattered with mud, ash and blood. He had a large bow in his hands with an arrow nocked. He walked backwards a few steps never taking his eyes off the burning buildings. Then paused a moment and loosed an arrow.
A figure silhouetted by the flames of a burning building suddenly dropped to the ground.
The bow carrying scout walked over to the officer. "I'm the last," he said calmly. "Nothing but the lutins out there."
"Close the gates!" Came the order. "We're under siege."
"I think that's me!" Stealth said slowly and pointed to the scout.
Both of his companions turned and looked at him. "Why do you say that?" Edmund asked.
Stealth's reply was cut off by the deep BOOM, BOOM as the massive city gates slammed shut. The large iron bolt over a foot thick and twenty feet long was quickly drawn across locking the gates shut. The invaders were locked out but that also meant that the defenders were locked in.
"Do we have time to make one of the other gates?" Edmund asked.
Nest looked to the south in the direction of the Castra. - the massive fortress that overlooked the whole city. Already a purple haze hung over the fortress like a storm cloud. "No," the mage answered.
"Whatever they're doing has already started," Stealth added and cursed under his breath.
Edmund looked at the castra and saw that cloud that made him shiver. Every part of his soul rebelled at it. Whatever was happening there was wrong and evil on a fundamental level. His hand wrapped tightly around the hilt of his sword.
Stealth placed his hand on Edmunds arm. "No."
Edmund looked at his friend. "What?"
"I know that look," Stealth answered. "You want to go to the fortress and stop them right now."
"Stop it right here and now," the paladin responded. "Before it happened."
With a shake of the head the scout answered him. "No. This has already happened and we can't stop it. We're not here to change history. We're here to see what happened."
Both Edmund and Nestorius looked at their friend. "Why do you say that?"
"Well," Stealth said slowly and pointed to the mage. "You said we the living are seeing the dead replay what has already happened. That means that all this," he waved his hand towards the refugees still making their way past. "All this is just a ghost of the past."
"How do you know that?" Edmund asked.
"Remember when we were in the sewer ruins and we found all those bodies?" Stealth asked.
"You mean where the tunnel collapsed and trapped them back in 150?"
Stealth nodded his head. "Yes. Remember how we saw their ghost and how they saw us. We couldn't change what happened to them. They still died. All we could do was watch."
"It's an intriguing theory," the mage commented.
"If not that," Edmund countered. "Then why are we here?"
"I think the time to answer that question is long past," the paladin commented. "How long till the city falls?"
Nest shook his head. "I cannot be sure but only a few hours. I simply do not have enough information to make an accurate estimate."
"We already know the city fell in a single night," Stealth commented.
Nestorius looked at the mass of people and the city around them. "All of this gone in one night. What a shame."
"Let's get up to the top of the wall," Edmund ordered. "We'll be better able to see what is going on."
A set of stone steps led up from the street to the top of the wall that surrounded the city. When they reached the top they found it filled with people. Lining the battlements was a collection of Legionnaires, Vigili and men in civilian clothes who were nervously looking at the world outside their walls.
The valley should have been alive with the lanterns, candles and lights of a prosperous province of the empire. The valley was alight but with the fire of burning buildings and flaming debris. Wherever they looked they saw pillars of fire climbing into the night sky. Each pillar was a house, a building or a home being looted and destroyed.
"They're burning the whole valley." someone called out.
Edmund leaned against the battlement in a mock-casual move intended to calm people down. "They're moving fast and the main body of the Lutins should be here soon."
"Occasus is burning," a legionnaire commented and pointed off to the northwest.
"And so is Orcasus," his companion said and pointed to the northeast.
"That means they've taken the full length of the wall," the first answered.
"No they have not!" A legion officer countered and pointed to the north. "The main gate still holds."
The first soldier smiled. "They'll not take the Primus Applius so easily."
It seemed like only a few minutes before Stealth's sensitive ears heard the deep rumbling long before they came into sight. A half dozen large, long, wheeled things each as large as a wagon loomed up out of the darkness. They were covered with thick hides over massive planks of wood that were sheathed in iron. Still others were hauling massive tree trunks that were slung between large wooden frames that moved on wooden wheels. Swarms of Lutins ran alongside the siege weapons.
"Battering rams and siege shields!" Edmund snarled. "They've come prepared."
A bolt of lightning set one aflame as burning figures screamed as they writhed in agony. Soon a second lay in flames with its crew. A catapult on one tower sent a massive block of stone into a third smashing it and its crew into s bloody, shattered mess.
Stealth raised his bow, nocked an arrow and took aim. Edmunds hand came down on his shoulder. "Wait till they get closer."
Edmund waited till the mass of infantry got to within a hundred yards before giving the command. "LOOSE!" he shouted loudly.
A cloud of arrows rose from the battlements and rained down on the advancing Lutins. Scores of the invaders died each moment. from the lethal rain. But for every Lutin they killed a dozen took their place.
The city moat, deep and wide had stopped a dozen other attacks over the centuries but this time it was only a momentary delay. Lutins rushed forward tossing timber, rocks and earth into it. Arrows, spears and javelins from the wall and towers took their toll but it did not slow down the attack. Soon the moat was nothing more than a shallow depression that the attackers raced across.
A giant as tall as a tower lumbered forward tossing boulders that weighted a ton a piece. The massive rocks smashed walls and towers sending rocks and debris tumbling to the ground.
There was a loud thump and a ballista on the roof of one of the gate towers sent a javelin five feet long and as thick as a human arm into the giant's chest. The monster stumbled backward and vanished from sight. But two more giants stepped forward. And the first boulder they tossed smashed the tower and its massive siege engine. A massive stone weighing over half a ton came lofting over the wall and smashed into one of the giants. The monster's head exploded in a spray of blood and gore. The headless corpse toppled to the ground smashing a dozen Lutins in the process.
The remaining giants smashed away at the wall with massive hammers and mauls while battering rams hammered at the gates. All ignored the arrows and spears that rained down on them.
Nestorius pronounced a short spell and a ball of fire erupted from his fingers. It raced down from the wall and exploded on the middle of the attacking horde. Scores of lutins were incinerated instantly, while others ran screaming into the night with their cloths and flesh on fire.
But for all effort by the defenders the attack continued unabated. The dead and wounded were ignored and the work of destroying the wall continued. Soon with a deep rumble a section of wall collapsed creating a breach wide enough for a pair of wagons to roll through side by side.
"They've breached the walls," the officer announced. "We can't stop them here. Fall back on the Argunta Comandio. Its walls are strong enough to hold them off."
"NO!" Edmund had a shield in his left hand. One of the large rectangular ones the legion was famous for. "We can't fall back there. We have to hold the breach."
Stealth stayed on the wall, at the top of the steps leading down. Next to him was Nestorius. From there they had a perfect view of everything below them. "Do we stand a chance of stopping them?"The scout asked as he nervously counted his arrows.
Nest turned to Stealth. "You're joking right? We both know how this ends."
A ragged mix of Legionnaires, Vigili and civilians formed a thin line across the breach. They mustered behind a hastily thrown up barricade made of boxes, wagons and whatever debris was at hand.
The first three lutins through the breach died from Stealth's arrows. Others simply swarmed over the rubble and the bodies without slowing down.
In the breach pandemonium reigned. Screaming and shouting hammered at their ears as the smoke and flaming debris filled the air, making it hard to see far. Everywhere people were fighting and struggling. Edmund with a dozen legionnaires behind him charged out of the smoke. "HOLD THE BREACH!" The paladin shouted and waved his sword overhead. Then he charged straight into the chaos.
Stealth snapped off each arrow as fast as possible. Sending each little messenger of death off to a Lutin destination.
He kept careful track of each arrow he used. Not out of vanity to know how many he had killed but how many arrows he had left. He knew all too well that his quiver held only twenty arrows. All the rest had been used.
A trio of lutins charged out of the smoke, screaming as they brandished long swords with wickedly curved blades. They headed straight for Edmund.
The scout grabbed a trio of arrows and nocked, drew and released them all at once. Two of the lutins tumbled to the ground. The third kept coming.
Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen.
The archer snapped off another arrow.
He paid no mind to the previous target as the lutin gurgled and twitched on the ground before it died. The archer spied two Lutins fighting another human.
Stealth felt more than heard something behind him and he ducked and dodged as he spun around. A Lutin with a massive scimitar was drawing back for another swing at the archer. He never got the chance.
A Lutin in heavy armor climbed the rubble and paused for a moment. He turned and looked behind him and beckoned with his sword. His armor was thick and should have made him invulnerable but the archer noticed a weakness. When the leader raised his sword a second time he revealed that there was only simple leather protecting his arm pit. A well aimed arrow went through the leather all the way up to the fletching.
A group of lutins clustered around their dead leader and made the mistake of standing still for too long. Three fell in quick succession before the rest scattered.
Eight. Seven. Six.
A score of others replaced the fallen. Stepping over the still warm bodies of their compatriots. A ragged line of legionnaires met them with notched swords and battered shields. At their head was Edmund standing tall and shouting orders.
Lutins and Legionnaires clashed amidst the rubble and the archer picked his targets carefully.
A spear came flying towards him. Its sharp point slicing through the armor on his legs. A quick glance down showed him the wound was small. He ignored the pain and looked back to his work.
There were fewer soldiers now. Only two still fighting besides Edmund. "The end is soon," he thought to himself and took aim at one of the four lutins attacking his friend.
Another arrow sank into the flesh of his hip and he cried out in pain but he still kept his aim steady. He looked where the arrow had come from and found the archer who had loosed it.
He looked at the arrow for a moment. Taking in its smooth shaft and carefully crafted fletching. Slowly and carefully he nocked it to his bow and pulled the weapon to full draw. He saw a dozen lutins charging straight at him. He clearly could see the features of one. The scar along one cheek and the gold ring dangling from his left ear. He loosed his arrow and the projectile raced off and buried it's point in the creature's chest.
The other lutins hesitated for a moment and the archer used the moment to sling his bow across his back. Stealth drew two gladius; the short swords that had served the legions well for centuries. "Let's finish this." He took a deep breath and charged.
Stealth took the steps two at a time and hurtled down into the chaos below. He had a sword in each hand and was lashing out with both of them. Each twist and slash of metal seemed to take down an attacker. Swords slashed and spears stabbed at him as he dodged and twisted to avoid a dozen different types of death. The Lutins in front of him melted away and Stealth found himself face to face with his friend Edmund.
The paladin smiled and leaned on his sword, grateful for the momentary break.
"I've always wondered what it was like in the city when it fell. I never expected to experience it firsthand," Nestorius said as he joined the group.
Wherever he looked all Stealth saw were Lutins and more Lutins. "We're trapped. What do we do now?"
Edmund turned a full circle looking at all their options for escape. There weren't any. "We die," he responded. "Again."
The invaders surged forward again with a loud roar like a charging lion. The firelight from a hundred burning buildings lit the scene.
Nestorius shouted words of power and a hail of ice pelted the area in front of them killing a score of the lutins. A score more of the invaders swarmed over the rubble stepping over the dead and wounded without a moment's pause.
"Back to back!" Edmund shouted. "We'll make our last stand here."
"It's as good a place as any to die," the mage responded as a spell of his blasted a dozen lutins with fist sized daggers of ice.
Edmund smashed his massive shield into a lutin's face, sending him tumbling backwards. But the one Lutin was replaced by three more. He gutted one with his sword as the blades of his enemies bounced off the shield. "I like this shield. No wonder they conquered the known world with it!" A kick of the boot sent an enemy to the ground as his sword slashed another.
Next to him Stealth was lashing out with his swords ripping into the Lutins attacking him. His right sword deflect the spear of an onrushing Lutin while the left ripped thru the creature's armor spilling his blood and ripping open its chest. The feline dodged the swings of an axe from another attacker. He pushed his blades under the swing of the axe and buried both blades into the stomach of the Lutin wielding it.
Nestorius raised his arms to cast another spell when an arrow sprouted in the mage's throat. He stood there a moment clutching at the foreign object that had shattered his throat. He gurgled and spit up blood that sprayed over his chest. There was a look of surprise and confusion on his face just before he collapsed to the ground.
Stealth found himself in a world of lutins. A Lutin with a large iron hammer swung the weapon and sent one of Stealth's blades flying off. A second Lutin dodged under his swinging blade and pushed a spear into his chest. Stealth stood there for a moment and stared at the thing in his chest. Surprise, fear and disbelief raced through his mind as he grasped the shaft of the spear. His strength failed him and he tumbled to the pavement.
Edmund paused for a moment and looked around. He was alone. Both of his friends were gone and the only legionnaires around him lay sprawled in death. A score lutins were just out of reach and slowly moved toward him. He raised his face skyward and said a quiet prayer. Then the paladin charged straight into the largest group. He was still swinging and fighting when a sword blow caught him in the throat. The last thing he saw was buildings burning all around as figures raced past. Then the blackness claimed him.
A soft breeze tickled Stealth's nose as the quiet sounds of the forest filled his ears. He felt the soft grass underneath him. Slowly he opened his eyes and sat up. The scout was laying on the grass in the middle of a field. Laying nearby was both Edmund and Nestorius. Both were back to their normal, feline forms.
Stealth looked at his own body and saw the familiar spotted fur and behind him was his long, cheetah tail. He was oddly relived to see it. Like seeing alive an old friend you'd thought dead. "Are we alive?"
Nestorius let out a long, deep sigh. "Yes," he said simply.
"I know where we are but when are we?" Stealth asked. "Are we back in the present?"
The black furred lion morph slowly sat up and rubbed his neck where an arrow had punctured him five centuries before. "I believe so."
Edmund got to his paws and stood there for a moment. "What happened? What did we just experience?"
"I'm not sure," was the mage's answer. "But what I am certain of is that it is over."
"What is over?" Someone asked.
Turning to the voice they saw Dasan slowly standing there with a crossbow in hand loaded and aimed at them.
Stealth pointed a finger at the wolf. "Didn't I order you back to the Keep?"
"You did order me back," he answered. "Less than a minute ago. Then you turned and walked into the woods."
Mairsil walked up to the group. "I heard the sounds of combat. People shouting, the ring of metal on metal."
I did too and I smelled smoke," Adelyte added as she walked up to the group. "But it was faint. like it was far away. Then there was a flash like lightning and you three were laying there on the ground." She pointed a finger at the trio. "Where were you and how did you get back?"
"That," Nestorius said slowly. "Is an excellent question."