Bartholomew’s orange and striped fur laid limp and damp over his thin Abyssinian cat body. His top hat was left in the care of Ricky the raven after learning what his current mission was. The smell of mold and decay overwhelmed his sensitive nostrils and he cringed in disgust at the state of the catacombs he was sent to explore.
Ravens were often nomadic, which led to complications with their death rituals for passed comrades. Their catacombs were located far to the north of Ravenhome beneath the Featherstone taiga, which made for some interesting complications traveling via airship.
Thankfully Ravens had created routes to make it easier to transport their passed thaumaturges and high-ranking nobility to rest in their most sacred of places.
The darkness only added to the cold, with nothing but a small lantern to guide his way through to find his target. The walls were carved into the side of a mountain where they inlaid precious stones in the rock at every casket. After passing numerous ornately gemmed caskets and winding through multiple hallways, he wasn’t entirely sure if he had traveled the correct way.
Grunting under his breath, he seemed annoyed at the surroundings of his current task.
“Ricky has been sending me on less and less pleasant missions as of late. I can’t quite tell if he’s punishing me or tasking me with things he can’t trust anyone else with.”
His paw brushed up against a small bone that somehow made its way out of an open casket nearby. Peering into the casket he saw not just bones, but decaying feathers and muscle. The smell was atrocious.
“Hmm? A bone out of place? That seems… Very unlike ravens.“
Taking note of the disturbance, he realized that grave robbers were likely a problem for a place laden with precious stones. Switching the lantern to his left hand, he readied himself to draw his rapier at any time. His heart beat steadied as he took a deep breath. Bartholomew never liked the prospect of fighting, but it was always a possibility in his line of work.
Turning right, he saw the marker that let him know he was going the right way. A stone lectern sat with a tablet adorned atop it in front of a massive steel door. This was the way to the Patriarchal catacombs. Somewhere inside was the Stone of Shangri-Paw that Ricky’s ancestor Rocky had used to rally Ravens around one banner.
Bartholomew loosely knew the story behind how Raven society came to be, but his hope was to find out the truth. Something had itched at his brain since he had stumbled upon Kvasir’s Gardens. Supposedly Kvasir was a giant honey bee whose royal jelly allowed Rocky to gain sentience himself. That theory was wholly thrown out the window when he found an amusement park and retreat for Furth’s social elite at the center of Kvasir’s Hive.
He even tried the royal jelly after befriending Kvasir’s last-living ancestor Donny. Here was an opportunity to verify that the Stone of Shangri-Paw really existed.
Small steam-powered lights flickered on and off beside the steel door that was five times Bartholomew’s height. The smell of decay lessened and he began to smell something sweet. It had a faint hint of juniper and pine-needles. Making his way to the door slowly, he brushed his hand against the crease in the middle to feel air pushing through.
The air smelled far more pleasant than the decay and mold he had been trudging through for nearly an hour. A grin grew wide on his whiskered face and glint appeared in his eye.
“Ah, so I’ve found you at last. Let’s see what secrets you hold, shall we?”
He hovered his lantern above the stone lectern to read the inscription placed there.
Rocky roads and poisoned toads
Adventure leading to a life indentured
Here lie the old masters of Furth
To enter prove your worth
“Prove my worth? How do I prove my worth to stone and steel?”
He had to think for a moment what the puzzle could mean. A memory of his debriefing with Ricky pulled into his mind and provided a clue.
“Come, friend. I have an important task for you.”
Hopping forward, Ricky grabbed a small cable with his wing inside the royal airship “The Wild Reaper”. A whistle rang as steam passed through a device that signaled across the entire ship. A door to his private quarters opened to reveal a surprisingly simple room with a writing desk and a few pictures of his ancestors hanging and rattling on the walls.
Bartholomew noticed a small jar of pebbles sealed and fastened with a steel plate to the desk. A large black feather quill sat in an ink-well on the desk with a small ruby embedded in the jar.
“Come, sit down Bartholomew.”
Taking a small stool and placing it in front of the desk, Ricky made his way behind the desk and sat on his own small stool. Bartholomew sat down and couldn’t help but wonder why Ricky’s quarters weren’t more… extravagant.
“I daresay you must be thankful to have your own space here. It starts to feel quite cramped amid the pipes and steam.”
Ricky nodded in agreement and opened the jar of pebbles slowly.
“Aye, it is quite luxurious. Now, for business my friend.”
Grabbing a pebble out of the jar, he placed it on the desk and watched it roll around.
“Tell me Bartholomew, what does the word Worth mean to you?”
Thinking for a moment, Bartholomew realized he’d never really thought about it.
“I suppose it means how much you could trade any given item or service for? That’s generally how I use it anyways.”
Ricky’s beak widened with a smile, and he picked up the pebble on his desk.
“Ah, so I suppose this pebble has worth then eh? I purchased it from a small store in Bullcago for fifteen bits.”
Bartholomew’s mouth opened at the price of a small pebble like that. He realized his reaction was all too apparent to Ricky who laughed at the look on Bartholomew’s face.
“Yes, yes, it’s quite a lot of money for something so small. Yet what the shop keep didn’t realize is this is a smoky quartz. In my culture, smoky quartz is a sign of fantastic luck and prosperity. Does it truly amount to such? No one can say for sure. But do you think this stone is worth something?”
Cocking an eyebrow and pursing his lips, Bartholomew tried to think of a polite way to say how he felt.
“I’ll take that as a no. That’s a perfectly acceptable answer as well my friend, do not be ashamed of it. My perceived worth does not mean you have to see it as worth anything. That’s simply a difference in culture.”
Picking up the stone with his beak, he walked over to a small viewing window nearby a picture of Rocky the Raven. Opening the port hole, he tossed the pebble out.
Bartholomew couldn’t help but be confused. Why would he throw away something he paid so much for?
“That pebble’s worth is in the eyes of the beholder. Yet there’s another word we use to describe how much a person’s worth may be. And that word would be…?”
Ricky looked at Bartholomew and waited for him to finish the sentence.
Ricky nodded and hopped back to his desk to sit down.
“Ravens use those words with great care. They are not interchangeable and I cannot stress this enough, improper use is highly frowned upon. Yet it wasn’t always like this. There was one specific event which taught us the difference between Value and Worth.”
Pointing his wing at the picture of his ancestor Rocky, Ricky’s tone grew serious.
“When my ancestor Rocky retrieved the Stone of Shangri-Paw and used it’s magic to rally Ravens around one central society. The war that nearly followed was diverted only due to Rocky’s ability to remind others the difference between those two things.”
The rattling of a lantern startled Bartholomew and pulled him from his reverie. While he couldn’t finish the full memory, he realized what the riddle could mean.
“Oh, terribly sorry messir. I was unaware anyone had ventured in. I will leave immediately.”
Bartholomew shook his head and beckoned to the haggard old raven that had wandered in.
“Now good sir, if you have business here as well don’t let me keep you from it. My name is Bartholomew. May I ask yours?”
Moving slowly, the Raven stopped in his tracks and began to waddle painfully over to Bartholomew.
“My name? Oh, messir. My name is not important to the likes of you. I know my place.”
Cocking an eyebrow, Bartholomew laughed heartily and walked over to the Raven to extend his hand.
“I am not of nobility nor do I wish to be, kind sir. Your presence is just as welcome here as mine. If you do not wish to share your name, I will not make you. But know that I do not see you as any lesser than I.”
The raven smiled and his lantern slipped out of his wing and crashed to the ground. It cracked and flickered out as it hit rock. Bending over, Bartholomew picked up the lantern and looked it over. Realizing it was wholly broken, he handed his lantern to the old Raven in exchange.
“Here, you won’t make it around here nearly as well as I will without some light.”
A quick smirk appeared and a glint shone in the raven’s eye.
“You are too kind, young one. Thank you for making me feel worth your time.”
Steel creaked and moaned behind Bartholomew as the steel door began to open. Turning to view it, he quickly looked back towards the raven to find the working lantern floating gingerly in mid-air where the raven once stood.
Grabbing the lantern, he felt feathered wings place themselves upon his paw.
Your kindness shows true value
I know what you seek and know you
Will find a use for it to spread the truth.
Something whispered in his ear as he felt feathers move off his hands. Could he have passed the test?
“Thank you old soul. May your rest be peaceful.”
Laughing echoed through the chamber behind the door and the smell of juniper filled his nostrils. It also blasted him with cold and drifts of snow that now raged through strong winds. Making his way to the door, he peered in to find a massive golden statue.
Depicting not just a Raven, it was carved to show the many different animal tribes that became part of the sentient animal world. A cat adorned in leaves stood tall near the raven, while a Bison and wolf stood over them looking towards the skies. Near the rock ceiling a golden statue of an eagle hung over with wings spread longer than all of the animals combined.
“Wait, wait, wait a moment. An eagle? I thought Ravens had always been at war with predator raptors?”
He marveled at the statues a moment and the sheer craftsmanship. It appeared to have been carved from the stone of the mountain then coated in gold. A small inscription lay at the bottom of the statue with a gold plate. Reading it, Bartholomew was stunned.
Raptors soar to protect the new races under the light of Rocky The Raven. May our alliance last throughout Furth’s long and prosperous history.
“Alliance?! Raptors?! Does this statue mean to say that Raptors ushered in the alliance of animals?!”
A different laugh could be heard echoing throughout the catacombs behind him, and the steel doors slammed shut.
Now you know part of the truth
Go forward and learn more to carry through your youth
It is time to toss out what you previously believed,
Only then are you allowed to leave.
Bartholomew’s damp fur began to feel frosty as cold bit at him and the wind picked up. The sound of howling gales and trees shaking confused him. Weren’t they deep under the mountain?
Walking slowly towards the hallway to his left, he realized it wasn’t a hallway at all. It was an exit to a vast open valley tucked between the mountains. He had been told it was dangerous to fly directly over the Catacombs. Could this have been why?
Peering out into the lightly wooded valley before him, it stretched out to the size of two Ravenhomes. It was massive, and he could barely make out a stone brick structure built into the side of the mountain opposite him past the large valley. A pack of bison roamed quietly while chewing on the grass, and the howl of wolves came through the coniferous treeline to his left. To the right the valley stretched out to a lightly wooded area.
The wind blew his direction and he caught a faint whiff of something he definitely didn’t expect. Other cats, with a faint hint of hawk.
“What on Furth is this place?”