Warmth in Darkness

by Chris O'Kane and Stealthcat

The two made their way slowly thru the forest when a large stone wall loomed up out of the brush ahead. They stopped and dismounted from their horses less then a half dozen paces from the wall. “Let's look in here.” Edmund said, “It looks like it was once a substantial building.”

Stealth looked at the imposing wall, “Is it safe?” He asked as he tied up the horse.

“More or less so.” Edmund said as he tied up his own horse to a small tree. “Be careful of where you step. Keep an eye out for writing or anything that might have writing on it like pottery.”

“You can read Seuilman?” Stealth asked sounding doubtful.

He nodded in answer. “Yes. My parents believed that all their children should have a classical education. I can read 5 languages.”

“Really?” Stealth asked sounding envious. “Can you read my parents language?”

“I cannot speak it well but I can read it.” The paladin explained.

“That’s still something, I can only read common.” He admitted, though being able to read at all was still quite a feat for those of the Midlands.

“I can teach you if you want?” Edmund said.

“That's okay; I think I'm too busy to start learning other languages.” Stealth declined.

Edmund shook his head. “You should never stop learning. It keeps the mind young and active.”

“And when you’re done, you will be old.” Stealth noted as they crossed through what looked like a collapsed gate and into what was once a large compound. The younger feline flicked an ear and pondered at the task ahead, “I thought you said not to disturb anything.” Stealth reminded. “How do we begin to look for clues?”

“You search with your eyes, and your ears and your mind.” Edmund explained. “Look for anything that seems different and unusual. Also be careful where you walk. There could be a hole opening into some deep cellar.”

They slowly moved through the rubble toward a smaller gate. The room beyond the gate was a tumble of stones and bricks but a small marble figure poked out from the middle of a large bush. “This must have been a home. That statue would never be in some business place.”

“It doesn’t look safe to tread, not without disturbing the remnants.” Stealth observed.

The knight nodded, “This way.” They moved past the wall toward nearby partial-standing structures.

The two walked slowly thru the silent forest. Jumbled piles of stones were everywhere. Some knee high, others waist high and still others piled high over their heads. Edmund would stop occasionally and examine some interesting stone or pile of stones before moving on.

After a while they came to a ruin that still resembled a building. Tall moss covered columns towered above them. The two carefully made their way to an open doorway and the paladin peered inside.

“What are you looking for?” Stealth asked as he stood near by, trying to see in past Edmund.

The paladin shrugged. “Anything that might tell me what happened that night. Records. wreckage, bodies.”

Inside Stealth saw lots of bushes and small trees but amidst those he recognized a stone table resting on what once might have been a mosaic floor.

“What was this place?” The cheetah asked as he tried to make out the depiction of the mosaic.

Edmund nodded as he peered into a dark niche that might once have been a doorway. “Can’t tell exactly but this might have once been someone’s home.” He shook his head at the sight. “Sad to think that a place once filled with warmth and laughing children is now just a tumble of weeds and stones.”

Stealth nodded, “That is the fate of everything, eventually.” He explained, “Nothing lasts forever, everything comes to pass, even cities yet to be built will fall into abandonment.”

The paladin nodded. “The only constant is change.”

After scanning what they could of the ancient home, the two moved further through the ruins in a random direction. Almost the entire area had been returned to its natural state save the piles of stone and brick peaking out from the foliage. For the most part it took a careful eye to spot most of the remains.

Edmund stopped suddenly and stuck out his hand to stop Stealth too. “Stop!” He ordered.

Stealth immediately froze in place and became fully attentive.

The paladin pointed down to the ground. At first Stealth didn’t see anything but then he noticed a dark hole almost completely covered by the brush. “Someone’s Cellar.” Edmund explained.

Stealth gazed into the hole, trying to see an end to it. “How far does it extend? Are we on solid ground?” The cheetah wondered at how solid the ground underneath them was. He could have sworn it was hard, packed earth!

He shrugged. “No telling. It could lead to a simple cellar or some deep sewer.”

The younger feline crouched low to the ground and tried to take a whiff into the dark cellar.

Edmund took a small stone from his pocket and whispered a word to low for Stealth to hear. The rock started to glow with a bright light. “Let me look inside!”

“Okay, it ‘smell’s’ normal.” The cat made room for the knight.

Edmund peered down into the hole moving the light around and tossing shadows all about. “Looks interesting. There is a set of stairs here we can use.”

“You want to go down?” Stealth asked in a mix of nervousness, curiosity and apathy.

“Sure!” Edmund said. He put the stone in a pocket and started to move some stone blocks out of the way revealing a stairway downward.

Stealth helped him move the blocks out of the way and tried to recall the fleeting memory of what he’d seen of the room. Edmund took out the glowing stone and stepped carefully down into the cellar. He moved slowly and looked around.

Around him were tumbled down debris that might have been furniture and other items. “Lots of interesting things down here. Come on down Stealth!”

Stealth followed down slowly, looking carefully at his steps. The stairway’s steps were narrow and clustered with rubble and he had slightly more difficulty clearing them than the paladin had with his digitgrade feet.

Edmund let out a sudden shout and drew his sword instantly as he stepped backward bumping into Stealth. “Watch out!”

“I'm over as far as I can go.” Stealth answered in annoyance before he looked up from the steps and jumped back himself with a rumbling hiss emanating from his throat.

Edmund pointed his blade at the armoured figure that loomed out of the darkness in the far corner. “Halt! Who goes there?” He ordered but the figure remained silent.

As the moments passed Stealth began to relax, “I still smell nothing...” He whispered.

Edmund held his stance for a moment then leaned forward and touched the figure on the chest with the point of his sword. Still the figure did not move. He relaxed, “Go easy Stealth. It’s some sort of statue.”

“Understood.” He answered with an embarrassed grin though reminded himself that Edmund too had been startled. As the cat’s eyes adjusted he could make out the suit of armour on the statue. It looked to be made of gold and silver trim. Tarnished from its time in disrepair.

The paladin stepped forward to get a closer look at the figure. “This is a wooden figure but the armour it has on is real. Also looks like a few weapons as well. This must be some soldier’s cellar or private storehouse.”

Stealth quickly walked over to Edmund and saw the military objects. They were covered in caked on dirt and dust, “...Is it safe to touch?”

The paladin nodded. “I see nothing that can harm us at least no traps or magic wards.”

The courier smiled faintly and moved about the small space. He saw many objects telling of a life lived long ago; he could see clay pots and bottles in one corner though they were smashed and sprawled on the floor. It appeared they’d once been placed properly on a sturdy shelf that had long since given way to the affects of time. In another part of the cellar, Stealth could make out some tatters of cloth and leather, crumpled beyond repair and use.

Finally his eyes brought him back to the armour and basic weaponry. Upon closer inspection Stealth could detect small alcoves amid the remains, between the shelves and benches. His attention drew to one niche near the armour that had so spooked the cats before. Deep in the recess he could faintly see something glinting. A sword, it must be a sword, a beautiful one at that.

“Ed, Can you see that?” The cat pointed a claw to the hilt in the deep groove.

Edmund followed the claw and peered in, “AH! That looks like a fine weapon. Why not take a closer look at it? Pick it up!”

“But you told me to search with my eyes and ears.” Stealth reminded with a grimace.

“You can make an exception here. I do not think the shadow would mind us examining things.” Edmund assured as he waited expectantly.

Stealth hesitated. “Are you sure? Why can I take this and nothing else?”

“Because we are not looting or pillaging, this is different!” The knight lectured.

“Now wait a minute, you said touch nothing...” Stealth insisted.

“Without my permission.” Edmund clarified, “Well for this weapon you HAVE my permission to touch it.”

Stealth cocked his head to the knight, “And who are you to give me that permission?” The gall of some Followers...

Edmund shook his head. “Stealth. The shadow who guards these ruins gave me permission himself. I do believe you were fated to find that. It just feels right.”

“And what if I found an interesting coin? You said it would disturb the ghosts.” Stealth reminded. What was it with Followers and contradictions anyway?

Edmund was quiet for a moment. “All right. Let me explain it another way. What would you do with that weapon? And why does THAT weapon interest you? Back at the Keep there are thousands of similar ones.”

“What?” He looked for something to say, “You said to look around and I am looking around!”

“You did, and you found that weapon.” The paladin pointed out, “I cannot explain it to you but my instincts tell me you were fated to find it.”

“But... my instincts tell me to eat little things that move...” Stealth softly pointed out.

He laughed. “You misunderstand. I don’t mean those instincts. Long have I worked, hunted, searched and prayed about these woods and how to free the souls trapped here. I have learned few things but the one I learned was that YOU are fated to help me free these souls.”

“But you said, no, insisted that I touch nothing, ‘do not touch anything, even the most worthless of coins’.” The cat recited. While the last sounded like a quite a revelation, Stealth assumed it to either be another contradiction or an exaggeration of the fact that he currently helped look through rubble.

“I am telling you to pick it up Stealth. Why? You have to trust my judgement on this.” Edmund pestered.

“Then why did you say that to begin with?” Stealth sighed.

“Ah... perhaps a slight exaggeration but I didn’t intend to mislead you, I meant without my guidance.” Edmund answered.

Stealth shook his head, “And what if I were to take it from here? Then what?”

“The shadow knows everything that goes on in these woods. He is already aware of what we are doing now. If he didn’t like it you would already be dead.”

Stealth blinked, “Oh, that’s wonderful...” He said in clear sarcasm.

“And why are you worrying about what is not going to happen?” Edmund countered.

Stealth rolled his eyes at the knight, “He’s already ‘watching’ us, how is that supposed to set me at ease?”

“Because besides watching us he is watching over us. We won’t be attacked by lutins or other raiders.”

Stealth became silent and just looked at Edmund.

Timidly, the lithe feline reached his arm down and strained before giving up. He adjusted his posture and strained again but he remained just-out-of-reach...

“Would you please just pick it up?!” Edmund ordered and pushed Stealth’s hand towards the weapon. “It will not hurt you.”

“Damn it! I can't reach it!” He looked over to the Knight, “Here, try to keep me steady.”

Edmund wrapped his arms around his friend’s waist as Stealth leaned further down. “Can you reach it now?”

Stealth reached down further then before and still the muscles in his arm ached with the strain. “I... I got it!” He said in triumph though he could barely shift about let alone right himself, “Pull me up! It’s really light...”

The paladin pulled his friend backward and upright. “Let’s get a good look at this weapon.”

Both the cheetahs landed upright again. They were covered in dust but Stealth’s front was absolutely blanketed in the fine powder. In his paw he held a dagger...

“A very nice looking weapon indeed!” Edmund said as they looked the weapon over.

Stealth looked at the weapon with a blank expression, it wasn’t a dagger; it was SMALLER than a dagger!

“But Ed it’s...” He looked up to speak but then turned away in an instant, in that instant Edmund was able to see his face contort in an odd but familiar manner. “TEW! TEW! TEW! ...TEW!”

After the spell of feline sneezing, Stealth forced his muzzle shut from the volume of air forcing itself through. His throat and nose ached from the strain. It itched and burned and the feeling threatened to trigger another painful bout of the allergy.

“You all right?” Edmund asked the cat who now clenched his muzzle with both paws, “The dust and dirt are getting to you. Let’s get you back outside.”

Stealth nodded quickly while rubbing his nose from the blanket of dust that covered him. His sinuses were large, being that of a cat that needed to take in a large quantity of air to run fast. And he could feel it welling up with volumes of irksome fluid.

“Get upstairs and give yourself a good shake.” Edmund ordered again, “That will remove most of that dust.”

With the dagger still in hand, Stealth scampered up the stairs till he leaned on the grass above. He placed the weapon on the ground and shook his leather armour free from centuries of piled up dust. For the moment he paid no heed to Edmund’s musings of the dagger.

“Looks like a fine little weapon.” He ran his finger along the blade lightly. “There is magic in this little blade. Why not keep it for your own?”

“What? Now touching it was one thing but keeping it?” Stealth asked not really believing his friend’s words. He’d finally overcome the dust from reaching in to that crevice and cleared his sinus of its affects...

“No worry. I told you the shadow fox understands and there are no ghosts here. The shadow gives me more leeway with such things. Besides I think that blade was destined to be yours. After all you found this place.” Edmund said, switching his gaze between Stealth and the dagger.

“You found it, I almost fell in it.” He corrected.

“Maybe it found you?” Edmund commented cryptically. “That you were destined to find it.”

“If that's true then I guess we’ll find out in time.” Stealth regarded the dagger. He slowly lifted the weapon off the ground and soon placed it safely on his belt.

Edmund nodded. “All good things come with time. When we are back at the keep we can examine your new dagger more closely.”

“It's not my dagger.” Stealth reminded, “More likely I'm just looking after it.”

Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. “I am sure you will be allowed to use it. I do think the blade was meant for you!”

The cheetah smiled, “We’ll see.”

“Know you are starting to sound like my old tutor with all his cryptic answers.” The knight complained in jest.

“Yeah, I get it from you.” Stealth joked, “And now I know where you got it from!”

“Old Sedgewick would be proud.” Edmund said as he recalled, either with a bit of fondness or enmity Stealth couldn’t tell. “I was a difficult child when I was small. I just never settled down.”

“Me either. But you have accomplished quite a bit.” The cat still sat on his knees and wondered at the hilt of the small weapon at his side.

“I never expected to become a teacher when I was a child. Then I never expected to be a paladin either.” He saw that Stealth had his eyes on the dagger. “That dagger still has your imagination?”

“I just got it.” Stealth answered deadpan though suddenly realising that it did hold his interest. However it made him feel grateful that no natural feline apathy had kicked in yet. Stealth removed the dagger from his belt again to get another look, “Parts of the hilt look to be gold but it feels light...”

“Light? May I hold it?” Edmund asked.

Stealth handed the weapon to Edmund hilt first, noting the colours that lined it, it was a mix of gold and black. Not like the pattern of their fur but more like a marble pattern.

The paladin hefted the weapon carefully. “A finely made weapon. Well balanced. This is no mere decorative toy. This was meant to be used.”

He handed the weapon back to Stealth. “You have a really fine little weapon there. Take care of it and it will take care of you.”

Stealth took back the dagger, “Of course, I told you I’ll look after it.” He said and placed it back at his side.

“I know its old owner will be proud of how you handle her.” Edmund mused.

The cat nodded, “One of the ghosts?”

Edmund shrugged. “I hope not but there is no telling.”

Stealth finally rose to his feet. “Should we move on?”

Edmund stood up. “Good idea. We have a long way to go. But from now on move carefully and watch for any other holes.”

“What if I don’t see them?” The cat asked as he scanned every small spec of dirt.

“Use your paws,” He said. “When you step do so carefully. When you start to put weight on it if it gives or shifts step back.”

“I'll try” Stealth answered, already applying the Paladin’s advice.

“Use your best judgement,” He said. “No need to push yourself exploring everywhere.”

The cheetah nodded and carefully progressed through the brush and overgrowth. He approached the nearest structure and scanned it for anything out of place. After a moment the cat lit up in wonder.

“Edmund I found something. There’s writing on this wall.” Stealth called out. The cheetah was standing next to a vine covered wall of weathered brick.

The paladin rushed over to his friend and looked at the wall. There he found writing carefully scratched into the bricks. He examined it carefully.

“What does it say?” Stealth asked.

The paladin looked at it for a moment then his ears drooped in embarrassment.

“What?” Stealth asked curious.

“Well. It's from a fellow known as Valarious who is bragging how a certain body part of his is enormous.” He informed with guarded unease.

Stealth couldn’t help but giggle at Edmund’s discomfort. “I take it this wall was once part of a public rest room...”

“Ah,” The Paladin stammered. “Well. People did rest. Sort of. Well. You see. It was a place where men and women . . .”

“It’s a brothel.” Stealth stated bluntly.

Edmund put both hands on top of his head. “YES! A thousand buildings in these woods to investigate and I pick a brothel.”

“Go easy, Edmund, this may be the ruins of a little industrial town, so every second building is probably a whore house...” Stealth buried his muzzle in his paws to muffle some more laughter.

Edmund shook his head trying to hide his discomfort. “What can I say? Sex is always popular.”

“That it is, anyway, is there anything else we should check here?” The younger one kindly changed the subject.

“There is nothing much here,” Edmund said. “Nothing that interests me or the ghosts. Let’s go. We need to do a few more miles before we make camp for the night.”

Rubble jutted out in places along their journey, but only rarely and then just the remains of a marker or a retaining wall. However the path they travelled, though at first appearing as an open track, turned out on closer inspection to be one of the remaining imperial roads.

“This path looks like it’s been built quite well.” Stealth said as he looked about, “These Seuilman structures are still standing firm in large spots.” The cheetah observed.

Edmund nodded his head. “I’ve know of this road for while as well as the others and I am still finding new ones. Many such roads crisscross the forest.”

“The path is overgrown in many places, but I’ll bet under the foliage it’s still in good shape.” He continued to scan the ground. If only they still made roads of this quality, the cat thought.

“I use them all the time during my trips into these woods,” Edmund explained. “Also the largest ruins are along such roads. Makes finding them easier.”

“That’s good; I wouldn’t want to get lost in this place.” Stealth noted, “It’s good these roads have stood the test of time.”

“Very good,” The paladin commented. “Even in the shape they are in now the roads still make travel far easier.”

The two were moving slowly along the road when the road split into two. Off to the left the road led into the mouth of a small tunnel.

“Should we check that out?” Stealth motioned to a semi-decline and the dark cavity beyond.

“All right. It looks to be leading somewhere interesting.” Edmund answered. The two slowly made their way to the tunnel mouth and dismounted to peer inside.

“It won’t collapse you suppose?” Stealth asked, not wishing to end up a permanent resident under the earth.

Edmund peered at the roof and patted the walls with his hands. “Looks like solid stone. It should be safe.”

Stealth absently moved his steed back a pace and made no sign that he intended to enter.

“What's wrong?” Edmund asked. “If you want I’ll go in first.”

“Ugh, I'm sorry.” Stealth felt a flush of embarrassment.

He patted the feline on the shoulder. “That’s all right.” And with that he slowly stepped into the tunnel. The cold clammy air of the tunnel made them shiver. The stone underneath was moist and covered with dirt and moss. Daylight shone thinly along the tunnels length from the far end.

“Heh, think we’ll make it out to the end?” The courier asked though his confidence started to grow.

Edmund laughed nervously. “Why wouldn’t we? You think some nasty thing will eat us?”

“Yeah, the tunnel itself.” The cat joked as he looked around. He felt unsettled at being in a dark place when daylight shone beyond the confines.

“The walls look solid enough and I don’t see any loose stones in spite of their age. I think there is some magic laced into it keeping it intact.” He reassured as he looked about the ceiling though it was mostly dim.

The two slowly walk thru the tunnel the walls closed in on them as the ceiling pressed downward. They had to hold their horses tightly by their harness and lead them along. Thankfully the equines seemed nervous but still calm enough to handle. They tried to avert their gaze from the light at the end and instead looked to the walls, adjusting their vision.

Edmund noticed small niches cut into the walls. The paladin stoped suddenly. “Oh Great Maker!” Edmund said suddenly. “This isn’t a tunnel. It's a tomb!”

Stealth gasped and faltered in his steps.

Edmund grabbed Stealth by the shoulder. “Now is not the time to stop. Keep on going. The dead here are at peace. They were dead long before the city was destroyed.”

“Oh.” He said simply and continued moving forward. NOW Stealth could make out what he thought must be tombs.

Edmund kept a hand on his friend’s shoulder as the two made their way thru the stone lined tomb. “This place was old even when the city was over run.”

Stealth patted the hand and gently brushed it away, “Don’t worry about me, it’s not that bad down here.”

“All right.” The paladin stopped at one niche and read an inscription that had been painted over it. “This seems to have been a family crypt.”

“You mean this whole tomb is for one family?” The younger cat could make out the inscription but had no clue to its meaning.

“Yes. Each niche holds one family member.” He pointed to a collection of bones and clothe rages in the niche. “This particular person was an important nobleman named Cladius Artrix. It says he had the crypt made at his own expense.”

“I wonder who he was, where his fortune came from...” Stealth regarded the bones and noted traces of jewellery.

“Probably someone important and powerful. It says he was a member of the senate.” He looked at the mouldering bones. “No matter how powerful a person is Emperor or farmer - everyone ends up the same way.”

“I bet they had a pampered life though, this crypt speaks of it.” Stealth noted.

He nodded in agreement. “Nobles were well fed and well cared for. They wanted for nothing.”

“And others died to build this place.” The cheetah brushed his fingers over the inscription.

“Probably. The life of a slave tended to be short and nasty.” Edmund commented. “The slaves certainly were not buried here.”

Stealth turned from the niche and led Terrant’s horse further up the passage. He spared an imploring glance back to Edmund to do the same.

Edmund followed after not wanting to waste any more time among the long dead. They seemed to travel far through the crypt though it almost felt like they weren’t moving at all. The light at the end didn’t wain but neither did it grow.

Stealth knew it to be his imagination or so he told himself. They hadn’t traversed through the tomb that long but it felt like a long time. While the courier focused on the end as well as the condition of the tunnel ahead, Edmund spared more thought toward the niches and inscriptions. He then stopped. On the left hand side was a doorway with steps leading down into darkness.

Stealth gazed at the door then leaned toward the opening and sniffed at the air. He turned to Edmund.

“You want to see what’s down there?” The paladin asked. “Looks interesting.”

“Hey... I didn’t necessarily say that.” Stealth answered. Feeling uneasy he rubbed his wrist absently.

“You didn’t say no either.” Edmund countered. “We’re here to explore and discover. What better way to do it then by going down into a dungeon?”

Stealth face pawed, “Fine, let’s go... at least I can leave you to handle any more scary statues.”

“Scary statues? We're in a crypt full of the dead and you are worried about statues.” Edmund joked and stepped slowly toward the stairs.

The feline quietly seethed at Edmund before calling out in a soft voice, “Wait, what do we do with the horses?” Stealth asked as he patted the neck of Terrant’s steed.

“We can leave the horses here.” Edmund says. “We’ll only go a short way and won’t leave them alone for long.”

Stealth let go of the reins and followed after the paladin into the darkness.

The paladin held up the glowing stone throwing light where it had not been for centuries. Slowly Edmund started stepping down. “Watch your step. These stairs are a little slippery.”

Stealth carefully followed after, watching the imperfections become illuminated in the tunnel’s walls from the stone. The walls and ceiling looked to be in good nick though it showed its age, either in chips, cracks or even water damage.

The stairs eventually ended. They started passing niches in the walls filled with more remains. “This is fine craftsmanship. Whoever dug this was an expert.”

“Perhaps not slave labour then.” Stealth mused, “If it was done right.”

“No slave did this work. Far too much care went into it.” Edmund explained as they walk.

Edmund waved the stone around throwing the light all about. Shadows danced and zoomed around the room revealing stone coffins arraigned neatly across the room. On the far wall came a glimpse of figures painted onto it.

“Who’s buried here?” Stealth asked as he looked about the bodies he could make out in the light.

Edmund walked up to one of the stone sarcophagi and looked at the inscription carved into the side. “Looks like important family members. This one was a family matriarch. Beloved mother, grand mother and great grandmother. It says.”

“She was one of the last buried.” The cat pondered, “It looks like they were running out of room.”

Edmund nodded. “They probably intended to add more tunnels or another room.”

“Spare no expense,” Stealth intoned.

Edmund nodded his head. “I’ve noticed that people often spend more coins on the dead then on the living. I’ve seen mausoleums hundreds of feet tall and covering acres. All to glorify only one person.”

“Life is short, death is forever.” He shook his head, “To a ruler that is all that matters.”

“All too true,” Edmund answered. “The coins spent to build this could have been better spent on the living. To build a place for the living to rest in.”

“We’re putting this place to better use than it was intended!” Stealth joked as he looked at the wall. “What is this?” Stealth gestured his head toward the large stone wall, “I noticed that before from your light.”

“What?” Edmund turned to the wall Stealth was looking at. “A mural!”

Stealth tried to make out the image and saw many beasts. It looked as though a lion chased a bull. There were many such creatures running around. They consisted of a repetitive shade of brown, trampling the pale yellow dirt or sand in an area that looked like an arena. Surrounding and seemingly encircling the men and beasts were stone walls beyond which grandstands choked with spectators cheered and basked in whatever was happening down below.

“What is it meant to be?” Stealth asked as he tried to distinguish each animal.

The paladin leaned closer. “It looks like some sort of gladiatorial games. Men and animals fighting to the death.”

Stealth wondered if Cladius was an avid spectator at the colosseum or something more... “Did these people own slaves and beasts to fight at these things, you suppose?”

Edmund shrugged. “Hard to tell but probably. They might have owned one of the many gladiator schools that existed.”

“They taught slaves to fight and die for fun...” The cat gagged.

Edmund nodded slowly. “Yes. All too true a fact. Such schools were common.”

Stealth nodded slowly as he made out the details of the, more or less, preserved mosaic. He could see vendors selling bread, people in rags and then those in robes. The people in robes sat off to the side but in a spacious area. Stealth craned his neck up and saw the tops of the stands ending in awnings that gave some sort of basic shade to whoever was lucky enough to sit in a spot under its ward.

His eyes turned down to the ring once more. Off to the corner the cat spotted a creature of notice. It looked large like the lions but it had yellow fur a similar shade to the dirt making it difficult to detect at first. The fur had a covering of some sort of spotted pattern...

“Edmund! Look at that!” The cat keenly pointed a claw.

The knight gazed to the far right corner of the mosaic and looked over the creature Stealth had discovered. “I’m sorry, Stealth, but that is a leopard.”

“...oh.” He said simply.

“I could be mistaken, but this animal is quite large and stocky, also it’s covered in rosettes.” Ed pointed a claw, “See here? The spots are hollow and partial.”

“I guess we don’t have a relative in this picture, then.” Stealth joked.

“Not counting the leopard and the lions.” Edmund shrugged.

Stealth let his gaze drift to other parts of the image. Of course there would be no cheetahs; they’re not nearly the toughest big cats. Perhaps the long dead Seuilman family owned them for hunting but it wasn’t important. His eyes scanned over the fight scene. In another part of the arena he saw a cruel depiction of a fighter being impaled by an opponent and another felled by a lion. The image brought his mind back to the crypt they stood deep within.

Stealth looked to the knight without a word.

“I think we’ve been among the dead long enough,” Edmund said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Okay, I hope the horses are still up there... and that no nasty thing has eaten them,” The feline joked.

“I’m sure they are fine.” The two quickly made their way out of the room and started up the stairs.

Stealth almost forgot about the condition of the steps and warded his step lest he fell back. Edmund would be there to break the fall but then they’d probably both tumble down and land in a heap or sprawled out like the corpses. Of course the thought never eventuated. Once they reached the upper level of the tomb Stealth felt humbled and relived when he saw the horses hadn’t gone anywhere astray.

Edmund patted his horse on the neck. “Glad to see me?” He asked. “I’m glad you’re still in one piece.” The animal nickered at the knight in some sort of recognition.

“How does he feel around you, being a carnivore?” Stealth asked, “How did any of your people’s horses take to the change of their riders?” Their voices faintly echoed in the din though their ears picked it up well enough.

“He was very skittish at first. It took me a long time to get him used to my new form. I couldn’t even get within arms reach of him for over a month. Oddly enough he did recognize me AFTER the curse changed me. I went from human to cheetah and yet he knew it was still me. Edmund his rider. It was the same with all the others.” He gave a chirp of laughter, “Except for Alwyn. He became a horse. All the normal horses accepted him right away.”

“What? Didn’t any of your other solders become a horse morph?” Stealth continued to rub his fingers through the horse’s neck fur. That along with the conversation helped distract him from being in a place full of the dead.

“Alwyn is the only equine Keeper among my own people but there are a few others at the Keep.” The knight pointed out as they began to head up the tunnel again.

“That poor guy!” Stealth raised his eye ridge, “How did he cope with it?”

“He adjusted to it quickly. He was always good with horses. Now he is even better.” Though the dabble gray had preferred to become a woman, not that Edmund would bring that up.

Stealth chuffed at that, “Good, and then again he is an individual. How many of your men became foxes, over half?” He joked.

Edmund laughed. “I’ve noticed that there are a lot of foxes at the Keep but none of mine became one.”

“Humpf, the curse truly is random then.” Stealth tilted his head in contemplation as they walked past the bones of another Seuilman. Edmund would recognise them as Cinnius Vipsanius, The Clarissimi – most distinguished – or so the inscription read.

“Sometimes I’m not so sure. Misha says the curse has an odd sense off humour sometimes but it is fair affecting everyone without exception.”

The cat’s eyes suddenly lit up in recollection, “Hey wait a minute, you said before that you couldn’t get near your horse after the curse even though he knew it was you,” He started bewildered, “You mean he recognised you but he was scared of you?” Stealth asked as he pat the flank of his horse.

He nodded. “Yes. You do have to admit it was a considerable change. It took me a while to get used to my new body.”

“We’re always changing.” Stealth said thoughtfully, “We change constantly. It’s just not as obvious most of the time.”

Edmund nodded. “True and a profound idea!”

The cheetah smiled as they continued to lead the horses onward. “The scary thing is the curse isn’t necessarily the most considerable change many can make.”

Edmund nodded his head in agreement. “True. A change of the heart and spirit can be the most profound transformation.”

“For better or worse...” He lamented, “But it happens.”

“Indeed!” Edmund commented. “There is an old saying, as I said before. The only constant is change.”

They soon became silent once more as they continued on. By this point the anxiety of being in the tunnel – even after discovering its true nature – began to wane. Despite that, the growing illumination at the far end was still a welcome sight. However the closer they drew to the light, the more they could detect a foul odour.

“What is that smell?” The courier asked as he tried to discern the cause, “It smells... fresh.” Stealth said in nervous tones.

Edmund shook his head, “Stay calm, it might only be rats.” He pointed out hoping to believe it himself.

“Edmund, those must be some rats...” The cat’s nose wrinkled in disgust.

Though he didn’t want to speculate for his friend’s sake, Edmund knew the smell all too well. Stealth on the other hand didn’t – he’d never been to a days-old post-battle ground in the warmer parts of the continent...

“Let’s get away from this tomb,” Edmund said and started to lead his horse away. “We’ve . . .” He stoped walking and speaking and let out a moan. “Oh Lord.”

“Oh... oh, ugh...” Stealth gagged and backed into the horse he had been leading, he urged it back into the tomb at the sight.

“No not back inside,” He pointed off to one side. “Take her around that way. And ware your step. No telling what else is around.”

Stealth quickly led the horse away to the side, keeping his head down, gaze averted from the source of the odour. The cheetah swallowed and took many deep breaths, trying to keep down the potatoes from lunch.

Edmund waited till his friend was clear. “You wait there. I want to see to these poor souls.” He bent over the closest and freshest corpse. The body looked as if all the blood had been drained from it and there was a look of pure terror on the face. It was hard to tell if the person had been human or lutin. There was too little left. The corpses were up wind of the morphs so they hadn't been able to detect the scent till much later then they should have.

“It looks like they were tomb robbers,” Edmund said calmly.

Stealth chanced a glance at the bodies and saw a number of scattered jewels about, probably spilled from a bag. “What happened to them?”

“The shadow does not like looters,” Edmund explained calmly as he walked over to his friend.

Stealth was running his hand along his horse’s neck. Terrant’s steed was a war horse and fared well as compared to the cheetah. “Will that happen to us?”

“No. It won’t. So long as we take nothing we are not meant to.” He explained while tending to his own horse.

Edmund saw the look of unease on the other cat. Stealth frowned and his ears folded back as his hand hovered over the hilt of the dagger they’d found.

“I told you, that weapon was meant for you.” The knight said in a firm tone. “He does not like looters but we are not looters! Now, are you all right?” Edmund asked.

“I’m fine, it’s a disturbing sight... and smell, except if you’re a jackal or vulture.” His mood seemed to lighten, “Don’t tell any jackals or vultures I said that.” The cat joked.

Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. “I’ll keep that secret. Let’s get away from here and leave this place in peace.”

They saddled up and took a b-line around the bodies. Stealth spared a final glance before looking ahead to the road.

« Previous Part
Next Part »