Counter Strike

by Christian O'Kane

The corridor was cold and damp. Edmund could easily see the dampness on the walls and puddles on the floor. Bits of thick moss growing at random in the cracks in the walls, glowed with a light of their own to give an eerie light, as if the walls themselves had eyes. Those eyes slipped in and out of the shadowy cracks in the walls as the two people moved, almost like they were blinking. Their breath came in clouds that seemed to hang in the damp, moldy air close to their bodies for a long time. Like it was too frightened to leave its creator. Of all the places in the keep this was the only location he truly did not feel welcome in.

“Kyia keeps this part of the keep hard to reach,” Misha explained in cold, whispered tones as he opened a massive iron bound door that weighed at least two tons. It was the third one the vulpine had opened in the last five minutes. “During the attack this entire section of the Keep was simply sealed off. Even during normal times no one ever comes here.”

“No guards?” Edmund asked as he followed Misha through the doorway. The thin light of Misha’s torch revealed another corridor exactly like the one they had left. Some distance away barely visible was another set of doors. He could just make out some sort of decorations on it.

“We used to have guards but very few could withstand the duty for more then a few hours. When a guard tried to kill himself the Duke ordered the watch post moved further away. But none of the guards could find their way there. It seems Kyia herself decided to guard it. No one was in any mood to argue the point.”

From the placid thinness to the vulpine's voice, Edmund had to wonder for a moment if Misha himself had ever stood guard there.

“About Seventy five years ago a Lutin Warlord named Grumish the bloody started to unite all the tribes,” Misha explained. “He had War Wolf with him from the start. No one knows where he found it but with it no tower, castle or stronghold could stand against him. Any lutin tribe that refused to accept him as their ruler was attacked and their stronghold destroyed. Everyone in it being put to death. It only took a few such slaughters to convince the rest to join. When he had an army of forty five thousand he moved on Metamor.”

“Duke Philip met him about five miles north of here where the Sueilman road goes through a series of sharp turns. The result was the battle of Five Bends. Five days later when the fighting ended Grumish was dead along with some forty thousand Lutins. There at the center of where the bloodiest fighting had been was IT.”

The fox paused to close the door behind them as if he was worried that something else might get in or that something might escape.

“The Duke ordered it destroyed but they couldn’t. It won’t burn, it can’t be smashed or cut with any axe or hammer. They even dropped it off a hundred foot tall cliff without so much as a scratch. Finally Philip ordered locked away in the deepest dungeon for safe keeping. So no other Lutins could get hold of it.”

As the two moved slowly down the corridor Edmund felt the closeness and oppressive atmosphere seem to thicken noticeably. It was a leaden air, filled with strange moldy scents and thick supposition that seemed do weight down upon them both. Pressing against the hearts and minds. Thoughts no man would entertain in the open air came unbidden in the soggy mists, circling around his mind like wisps of smoke blown from a long pipe. The fox had fallen silent, his ears pricked curiously, like a beast wary of attack. Edmund couldn’t help but look around as if he expected something to slither from the walls and throttle him with long dead hands.

Clumps of moss filled the many cracks within the walls. This portion of the Keep was old, very old, built far down into the foundations. Through those cracks pushed the earth, pressing upwards against the stone edifice erected above, and then dragging all of it bit by bit down into the bowels. Here, deep in the lowest portions, the earth had begun to suffocate the air, slowly filling, reclaiming this chambers as its own as if the earth were jealous of the beautiful creation that stood atop it.

The moss glowed its sick, febrile light, staring balefully at them, studying them as they moved passed. Edmund felt his skin tremble as some of the moisture dripped down along in rivulets over that moss. Almost as if some living creature were snaking in and out of those cracks where the earth had asserted its dominion. It was strange, and utterly unreasonable, for he knew very well that the Earth was a creation of Eli, and given unto man as a means to life, but in this strange dark corridor where the water was putrid, the wall ripped and rent. Edmund felt that the very earth hated them for coming here. Intruding on its domain.

Edmund's heart was held tightly within his chest, eyes flickering from wall to wall as those glistening droplets of water gave that wall its bizarre life. They were snakes and salamanders of water and light he imagined and then, his breath caught within him, and he wondered whether it was his imagination at all. A man had nearly killed himself because of his duty to watch over what this ghastly corridor protected. Who knew what things could lurk or thrive in such cloistered places as this.

And then, as he set his boot down into one of the many foul puddles that pock-marked the uneven floor of the corridor, he felt something slither and wriggle beneath him.

With a shout, Edmund leapt back, his sword ringing free from his scabbard in a second. Misha had one of his own blades within his paw at the same time, turned to face him, gray eyes intent on what beastly thing may have withdrawn from the cracks in the walls to beset upon the paladin. But the puddle, the water shimmering from the vapid green glow, rippled briefly as a pond when disturbed by a thrown rock.

Misha narrowed his eyes, his posture relaxed, but not completely so. Edmund, gingerly poked his boot once more within the small puddle, but found nothing but solid stone beneath. Had there ever been anything in there, he wondered. The sickness in his stomach made him hope his unspoken question was never answered.

"The door is just ahead," Misha said, gesturing with his short sword at the massive iron bound door that stood at the end of the corridor. Edmund nodded, but did not sheathe his blade. It felt reassuring to hold it in his hand, to feel its weight before him. Somehow, as they stood before that door, he felt more like a man about to confront an enemy, not to find a weapon.

Misha set his torch on a black basalt stanchion, and then pressed his shoulder against the door. There were a pair of them, and they opened into the room beyond. They were also nearly twice Edmund's own height. Misha gave the paladin a speculative look, and soon Edmund had his shoulder against the other door. The iron was cold, deeply so, more than he'd expected. The cold seemed to seep right through his body and clinch his heart with an icy grip. He very nearly flinched from its touch, but he managed to keep his poise. He made a silent prayer to the Great one leaned into the door. Grunting, he heaved against it, slowly pushing it inwards, as Misha did the same with its twin.

The doors shuddered as they came to rest in the entranceway of a much larger room beyond. The walls were sloped, reaching up to a four point dome far overhead. Dogtoothed designs were etched into the braces along the walls, fashioned from black basalt. The light from Misha's torch was drawn to them as if they wished to extinguish the light, leaving them shrouded in shadows and darkness. Where the walls of the corridor had been corrupted by the earth, these ones were secure, firm, and completely untouched by the years of decay they had seen only a moment ago. Yet, even so, he could hear the sound of dripping water but he saw no life. Not even the glowing moss. That thought alone sent a shiver down his spine.

Two more stanchions stood within the doorway, long black candles set within them. Misha lowered them with one paw to carefully light them with his torch. Strangely enough, once both were lit, Edmund had no difficulty seeing what lay in the center of that chamber. The walls reflected the light from those candles just so, casting all attention inwards to the mammoth device that was nestled safely in the hold of the Keep's most secret catacombs.

It was a battering ram, mounted upon thick timbers bound with dark iron, massive spikes holding them together. The shaft appeared to have once been fashioned from several different trees, fitted together in four sections, and bound tightly by iron shackles and rings at five places. The bark was stripped bare, leaving it an unhealthy sheen, a sickly pale white. Strangely though, the trees appeared to have grown together, as if the four different woods had all be part of one single tree. But the most prominent feature was the head of the ram, the snarling façade of the wolf.

Edmund, saw nothing of the rest of the weapon. His sight was first drawn to the eyes of the beast which seemed to glow with a baleful light. They were slitted eyes, staring hatefully forward. This was a caged beast, one that lay in wait for any man to enter its cage. Edmund felt studied, as if they were examining him, pushing and probing him to his very soul. He swallowed heavily, the tip of his sword wavering unsteadily in the air before him. No man would ever leave this beast's cage alive.

He felt a deep chill sink into him, one far worse then cold of the corridor behind him. It filled his body and soul draining all warmth and hope from his body. He could see his own corpse sprawled on the floor. He wondered how long would it lay here before someone found it. Would the great Keep allow anyone else in or just lock and seal the doors trapping his soul here as surely as his body. How long would his tortured soul haunt this terrible place before it was released.

His grip on his sword wavered, and its tip touched the ground, his arms too weak to hold it. He fumbled for the gold symbol of the Tree that hung from a gold chain around his neck with his free hand. As his fingers closed around the metal he felt a great warmth flow through him lifting his soul. The coldness left him as did the thoughts of death. In moments they were but faint memories. He silently uttered a prayer to the Great One in thanks.

For several moments, he held that gaze, until he had no choice but to look elsewhere. He found Misha standing a step behind him. The vulpine’s body was rigid, his ears were pressed flat against his skull and every hair on his body was standing on end.

Finally he looked back at the thing, refusing to give in to it’s evil. It was then that he discovered the source of the dripping noise. The wolf's head was snarling, the jaws wide, with vicious looking fangs bared, all of it fashioned from a black metal the likes of which he was not familiar.

Between those fangs dripped some red fluid. It spilt from those ravenous jaws and into a small pool. Edmund stared at the pool for several moments, watching as the edges of the pool simply were drawn within the stones beneath. It was as if the very stones were gorging themselves on it. The fluid was viscous and had a certain familiar dry smell that he had known many times.

It was blood.

"My Abba!" Sir Edmund Delacot said chokingly, stumbling backwards shaking his head in ghastly horror. This was the weapon that Misha wished to unleash upon their enemies? The snarling wolf face almost smiled at him, as it drooled blood. This was an evil worse than their enemies. "I have seen enough, Misha. We’re leaving now."

The fox nodded slowly, his own gray eyes unsettled as he extinguished both black candles. Those terrible eyes watched them as they pulled those heavy door shut again, twinkling hellishly with a life and a light all its own. The decaying corridor they were in felt like a breath of fresh air to them both.

They quickly made their way back down the passage and through the doors, being sure each was locked and bolted before moving on. It wasn’t until the last of the massive doors was closed and triple locked that they stopped. They were again in the warm and inviting passageways of Metamor Keep. Without a word both set off down those passages for the same destination. Neither had to say anything or choose. It was clear where they needed to go. To the Cathedral to pray.

The meeting chamber of Duke Thomas felt almost empty to Misha. Aside from Thomas, Lord Bidwell, Sir Edmund, Rickkter and Misha only George was present. It made a vast difference from the previous meeting although Rickkter was just as silent as before.

“We need to discuss how we are to handle the advance into the north,” Thomas explained. “Plan strategy.”

“The basic strategy is simple enough. Advance north along the Sueilman road removing any roadblocks and helping the scouts locate the main body of the Barons army,” Lord Bidwell said tapping a map that rested on the large table in the center of the room.

“Just marching north and trying to bully our way through is guaranteed to be nasty and bloody,” the George replied. “We’re sure to run into a dozen ambushes and countless traps of all sorts.”

“The terrain dictates our path. There is only the one road north,” the human countered as he ran a finger along a blue line on the map.

Misha nodded ruefully. “Agreed. At least there is one good thing in our favor. The road between here and the Outpost is reasonably clear.”

“Reasonably?” Edmund asked, chuckling. “You mean it’s as safe as you can make any war zone.”

“The only areas we can say that are completely clear are south of the tree line. Roughly along a line that goes from Lord Barnhardt’s castle to Mycransburg,” the black backed jackal morph explained running his hand along the map. “Everything else is still not completely safe. Between the tree line and Outpost Lutins still regularly raid, but they pay dearly for it. They attacked Mycransburg last September.”

“That’s less then five miles from here!” Ellingwood exclaimed.

“Until I arrived three years ago there wasn’t even an Outpost,” George bragged. “Only a pile of rocks. Lutins could slip down through and we wouldn’t know they were there till they left the trees. And then it was too late to stop them.”

The stallion shot his head scout a cold glance. “When Nasoj attacked eight years ago the original Outpost was overwhelmed and forty good men died. We did not have the resources to rebuild it for two years.”

“And until then the Lutins could race down the road and kill and raid all the way to the Keep,” George commented. “Me and Misha talked you into rebuilding it. And since then Nasoj and the Lutins have had to get past Outpost and its patrols BEFORE they can pillage.”

Thomas scowled at the jackal.

“I remember,” Misha commented interrupting the Duke before he could speak. “That the night George arrived you could see a burning village from the window of my apartment. Since then we’ve been slowly pushing them back north. But it hasn’t been easy or without cost.”

“I thought we were winning,” George said in a dejected voice.

“We ARE!” Thomas countered. “The proof is that he had to resort to such a despicable plan. You were stopping too many of his raiding parties.”

“Nasoj had to resort to the desperate measure of an open assault,” Bidwell added.

“Desperate or not it came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding,” Misha commented.

“But he didn’t did he?” Rickkter asked.

Misha slowly nodded in agreement. “Now he’s going to pay for that.”

“My scouts have cleared the whole valley around the Keep and south of it,” George commented. “The only Lutins left there are dead. What worries me is once we get past Outpost. The road to there is well maintained. The brush and trees are cut back a full arrows flight on both sides of the road. But once beyond the junction to Outpost the road is badly overgrown. Plenty of places for an ambush, not to mention that the road itself degenerates to a muddy track by the time it reaches the Dike. Unfortunately it’s still the only road.”

“The worst part is here,” the vulpine said pointing to a point just south of the Giants Dike. “At a point called the Vultures Neck. The road passes through a particularly badly overgrown spot there and the terrain is so rough that there is only one route. Plus a key bridge was destroyed by the people of Glen Avery. Until it’s rebuilt getting to the Dike will be hard.”

Edmund didn’t speak for a moment but examined the map. “At this crossroads where the road to the Outpost meets the main road. Is there anything there?”

“Before this attack there was a stone tower but little else.”

“There is a road marked in gray that runs east from the crossroads.”

“There WAS a road there,” Misha explained in clipped tones. “But the forest has completely reclaimed it.”

“We could move east along this track and then turn north at these ruins,” the paladin commented. “If these ruins are Sueilman I’m sure we will find the remains of a connecting road headed north to the dike. That would place the army miles from where the Baron would expect us to be. Does such a road exist?”

Silence was his only answer.

Looking up he found the fox, his eyes closed staring into space.

“What is wrong?” the man asked.

“Taking an army along that route is impossible,” Thomas explained. “NO army has taken that route in centuries.” The fox looked back at the map. “The woods and particularly the ruins are haunted, literally.”

Sir Edmund and Lord Bidwell looked dubious.

“I’m not joking and it’s no superstition,” the vulpine said, countering their unspoken comments. “Those ruins are Sueilman. It was once a fortress built as part of the wall we now call Giants Dike. Its twin stood on the site of the present Outpost,” the fox explained, tapping the castles location on the map with his finger. “It’s one of some four known fortresses the empire built here in the valley. All were meant to support and control the troops on the wall.”

He slid his finger along the map until it came to rest on the carefully drawn image of the ruin. “This one was bigger then the rest. It was home to the largest garrison and the Governor-Commander. When Giants Dike was overwhelmed and collapsed in the year 145 the fortress was attacked. It was taken after a long siege and every living thing in it was put to death.”

“With that last resistance destroyed,” Edmund said. “The Lutins moved south and went on to overrun all of the Midlands. One of the darkest periods in our history.”

Thomas nodded. “When Prince Andrew finally drove the Lutins back north of the Dike in 235 he brought peace back the valley and made Metamor his home. Outpost was rebuilt but not the other one. The entire forest is haunted by the ghosts of the murdered garrison.”

“Plus there was something else there. . .” the fox added, his voice trailing off into silence.


“In the last moments before the fall of the fortress the doomed Seuilman summoned something. A thing of shadows and magic. It failed to stop the fall of the place but it exacted a bloody revenge on the Lutins. Legends say it killed hundreds of them.”

“This shadow is still there?”

The fox nodded. “Yes, I saw it with my own two eyes. It actually saved my life and the lives of the three scouts with me. We were surveying the ruins when a war party attacked us. I watched it literally drain the very life from an ogre as big as wagon.”

“It continues to guard the place and I do not think it will like an army of three thousand marching through,” the Duke commented.

“Can it be defeated?”

The scout shrugged. “I honestly don’t know, but I’d rather not find out. This is not a creature to be dealt with lightly. It’s VERY powerful.”

“Something as simple as not moving along the route your enemy expects can give us a valuable edge. It could give us the element of surprise. It could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”

“Perhaps we can negotiate with it?” Sir Edmund suggested. “If we explained what we were doing it might be willing to help, if only for revenge. After all it was Lutins that destroyed the fortress.”

“You want to talk with a shadow?” Bidwell asked incredulously. “It’s evil.”

“I don’t know,” The fox commented. “It did save my life.”

“Dealing with a summoning is dangerous,” Rickkter commented, speaking for the first time. “Even if it’s not evil or blood thirsty it has been bound to protect the fortress from all but a true Sueilman army. We could try to rebinding the

“Is that possible?”

“Yes, but would not care to deal with such ancient and obviously independent magic unless I have to,” the raccoon answered.

“If the biding fails the results would be very bad,” Misha commented.

“How bad?”

“It could be completely released it from the old Sueilman bindings,” Rickkter said. “And after being bound for several hundred years it is going to be seriously upset and go on a killing spree that could kill hundreds.”

“But it is still bound to the ruins. What if we did not approach the ruins directly?” Edmund suggested. “But bypassed it.”

Bidwell looked at the map for a moment before speaking. “If we start at dawn and move fast we could pass the ruins by mid-day and be far past by dark.”

Misha was dubious. “I’m not so sure.”

“Risks must be taken,” Thomas said calmly. The advanced guard will leave tomorrow morning before dawn.”

“What about War Wolf?” the fox asked in an oddly quiet voice. “We will need time to prepare it.”

“War Wolf is NOT going,” Duke Thomas ordered.

“We need it’s power . . . “ the fox argued half heartedly.

“I will not stoop to such evil. The advanced guard leaves tomorrow morning with the main body following two hours behind. War Wolf stays in its prison.”

Edmund saw the scout make the sign of the Tree with his hand and nod his head. His whole body noticeably relaxed. “Thank Abba for that.”

Long House was surprisingly quiet. After seeing the place full of people during the attack it felt odd to see it so empty. Rickkter moved slowly across the vast open space of Long hall. His footfalls echoing loudly in the open space. Here and there he could see signs of the large numbers of people who had so recently taken refuge here; piles of clothes and other debris lay scattered about. In one corner was the charred and blackened remains of a fire.

“May I help you sir?” a polite voice asked.

Turning around Rickkter found himself face to face with a tall, thin, lop eared, brown rabbit morph. He was dressed in a loose fitting, bright blue tunic that went down to the rabbits knees. Over that was a cloak of fine blue cloth held together by a gold brooch that rested on his chest.

From the lapins left ear dangled a small gold earring in the shape of the twin cross symbol of the Lothansai. Around his neck was a torc made of gold and silver rope twisted together in intricate knot work.

“My name is Padraic Cul Dethain,” the rabbit explained as he bowed. “You are Rickkter Feniagh?”

“I am Rickkter but Feniagh is not my name.”

“My apologies Sir,” the rabbit countered. “Among my people we honor our guests with honorific titles.”

“What does Feniagh mean?”

“Bright, nimble hero Sir. It seemed fitting to one such as you. Misha is expecting you,” Padraic said in a smooth, calm voice. “He is presently in the armory. If you will come with me I will take you to him.”

Rickkter simply nodded and walked along side the rabbit as he moved across the hall.

“You’re the newest Long Scout aren’t you?” the raccoon asked.

The rabbit hesitated before answering. “I am a candidate for joining.”

Rickkter snorted. “After what just happened, I doubt you’ll have any problems being added to their ranks. You’ve already fought with the Longs during the attack on the Barracks.” That was a statement rather then a question.

“Yes Sir. I was able to add my humble skills to the battle.”

They arrived at an iron bound wooden door set in one wall. Rickkter knew it was the entrance to the armory.

“Hardly humble. I heard you killed the mage with General Selig single handedly. Crushed her head with a stone.” He slapped his hands together with a loud clap. “Splat!”

Padraic winced at those last words from Rickkter and was about to speak when the door suddenly opened ending the conversation.

“Rick,” Misha said sticking his head out. “You’re late as usual. Come in.”

The fox turned to the rabbit. “Thank you Padraic. You ready to go?”

“Yes Sir, I was about to get dressed.”

“Good. Have you talked with Finbar about your team assignment?”

“Yes Sir,” the rabbit answered. “I’ll be in the middle, behind Finbar and in front of Danielle. I’m to use my bow and to protect Danielle as she casts spells.”

Misha nodded. “Good. One final thing. Don’t call me Sir. Just call me Misha.”

“Yes Sir . . . Misha,” the rabbit stuttered.

“Relax Padraic. You’ll do fine.”

“Yes Sir,” he replied. “Permission to visit the Temple before we leave?”

“Of course. Just be in Long Hall in two hours.”

“Thank you Sir,” the rabbit said. Then he turned and walked off.

“How is the rabbit doing?” Rickkter asked as he looked at the receding form of Padraic.

“Good. I wish we could have more time to work with him. Get in some training,” Misha answered as he stepped through the door and into the armory. Rickkter followed close behind.

Rick shrugged. “From what I hear, he did well during the assault on the Keep. Besides, where we’re going, he’s bound to get lots of experience. Who’s going out?”

“Besides me and Padraic, they’ll be Caroline, Finbar, Danielle, Georgette and Jotham.” The fox shook his head. “Seven total. A week ago I had twice that many.”

“I see you put Finbar as second in command,” Rickkter commented.

“You don’t agree?”

“On the contrary. I think he’ll be a fine leader, with some more experience.”

“I don’t have the time for him to gain more experience. Besides Lisa herself recommended him. He’s been her second in command for over a year.”

“I’m glad to have you coming with us Rick,” Misha commented. “We need your support.”

“Hey,” said Rick, a smirk twisting his muzzle, “anything for my friends.”

“We need to get you outfitted right. What do you need?”

“Winter camouflage, perhaps some weapons,” was the raccoons short answer.

“You need weapons?” Misha asked incredulous. “You have enough weapons to do credit to a small nation.”

“But you always seem to have the best ones here.”

“The best and strangest,” the fox added with a laugh. “Let’s start with armor.”

“Alas, those last few battles have taken their toll on my armor. Almost all that I own will have to be sent to the smith for a great deal of repair, some of it even scrapped. All I’m left with are those magical bracers I found here and this,” Rickkter answered fingering the edge of his shirt.

Misha felt the material for a moment. “Chain mail wrapped in cloth. Not good enough. Come,” he said. Then the scout turned and walked off.

Rickkter followed his friend past countless rows of weapons and armor. They stopped in front a rack as tall as the raccoon. Upon it was a suit of armor made of shaped and fitted steel plates that interlocked to cover the body from head to toe in armor. The breastplate was made of two pieces of steel carefully shaped to fit over a person’s torso.

“I don’t wear plate mail. It’s too bulky and restricts my movement.”

“You’ll wear this,” the fox countered. “It won’t slow you down.”

Rickkter gave Misha a skeptical look before beginning to strap on some of the smaller parts of the suit. Between the two of them, they had Rick suited up fairly quickly.

“I must admit, it does have a nice fit,” Rick said, twisting and flexing his arm, watching the plates slide across each other. “Very snug. But let’s see how it really feels.” Stepping back a ways, he went through a series of rapid fighting maneuvers – kicks, blocks, punches – seeing all the time how the suit restricted him. He nodded when he was done. “Looks like you were right. The, uh, leg guards are a little restrictive, so I have to watch the kicks. But aside from that, not bad!”

Misha smiled back, his arms folded over his chest as he watched. “Glad it meets your approval. Now let’s see what we can do in the way of armament.”

Walking past half empty racks of swords and spears, Misha came to a halt upon hearing a delighted churr from Rickkter. “Now what do we have here…”

What they had was what appeared at first to be a staff. The middle was a fourteen inch grip of wrapped, thick cord, often seen on metal weapons. The ends, oddly enough were encased in leather sheaths much like knives; the two sheaths being connected by a strap, enabling the user to sling the whole affair over their back. Rickkter quickly slid one off to reveal a good eighteen inch blade, painted flat black. Chuckling, he did the same to the other end and held up a large, wicked looking double bladed sword.

“Where does she get these marvelous toys?” Rickkter muttered as his gaze traveled up and down one of the blades.

“Glad you like it,” Misha said with a laugh.

“Oh, this will be excellent indeed,” said Rickkter, a wide smile splitting his muzzle as he tested one of the edges with the pad of his finger. “While I’ve always preferred the sword, I know that properly trained, someone with a staff can defeat someone with a sword.” He gave the double bladed sword a series of quick spins, ending with one blade pointed at the ground, the other pressed against the back of his arm. “This is going to be very fun to use.”

"It seems Kyia likes you playing with her exotic toys,” Misha commented.

“Something I have no complaints about, either,” Rick sniffed. He re-sheathed the sword, settling it across his back. “Well, I thank you for your hospitality, Misha, but I have to go prepare the rest of my things. I’ll see you later.”

The fox clasped his friend on the back. “Later.”

1 Day later, just north of Mycransburg near the edge of haunted wood.

The group of some four hundred cavalry and soldiers made its way slowly up the track turning the path into a morass of mud, snow and ice. It was slow going as each footstep was a fight against the thick and all clinging mud. Trees loomed close on both sides of the overgrown and abandoned Sueilman road.

Sir Edmond Delacot was at the front of the column mounted on his war-horse. The stallion nickered and danced around as he carried the paladin. Edmond could understand his mount’s nervousness. This type of close woods was perfect for a bandit ambush. There wasn’t enough room for a decent charge with lances. A battle here would be sword and mace work, always bloody.

“Lutins!” Someone shouted.

Looking forward he saw a group of some seventy green skinned people come running around a bend in the road. Without hesitating he snapped his visor shut and leveled his lance. “CHARGE!” he shouted and spurred his horse into a gallop. He surge forward rushing at the Lutins. Behind him a score of knights followed suit.

Keeping his eyes on the enemy he moved over the forty yards distance between them in a matter of seconds. The finger thin point of his lance punctured the lead lutin with a surprising ease, spraying blood and gore everywhere. The heavy wood shattered.

Edmond drew a sword and spurred his horse straight into the middle of the fight. He caught sight of Arister riding behind a fellow keeper. The mongoose leapt from the horse straight down onto a group of some ten Lutins. The knight guided his horse towards the mongoose. Arister was certainly a fool for attacking like that but he couldn’t let the young fighter be killed.

A dozen Lutins stood in a group in front of him but that didn’t stop him, or even slow him down. His horse simply plowed straight into the group sending many flying back and stomping those too slow into the mud and snow. Edmond’s sword came down cutting a lutin from shoulder to hip, splitting the creature completely in two. A second lutin came at him with a short sword in hand. The knight lashed out smashing the creature in the face and sending it sprawling into the mud. His horse lashed out with its hooves, catching two Lutins and killing them before they hit the ground.

As suddenly as it had begun the fight ended. Looking around all Edmond saw was Keepers and humans. Some were checking to be sure all the Lutins were dead; others were tending to the wounded. He guided his horse towards the spot were he had last seen the mongoose.

He found Arister stretched out on ground, unmoving. In a second Edmond was off of his horse and kneeling next to the mongoose. He touched his muzzle with a gauntleted hand and Arister opened his eyes and looked at him.

“Are you hurt?” Edmond asked.

With a shake of the head Arister sat up. “I’m fine. I slipped on a puddle of blood,” he said sheepishly.

“Best be sure that you are not wounded,” the paladin explained and began to examine the mongoose.

“I’m not hurt,” Arister insisted and started to get up. Then he let out a shriek and dropped back into the mud. He clutched his right leg with both hands. “I think I broke my ankle.”

“That was a foolhardy thing you did attacking so many Lutins alone,” the paladin said. “But very brave.”

“Did you get them all?” Caroline asked suddenly appearing next to the two.

“Yup!” Arister answered. “They didn’t stand a chance. You should have seen Sir Delacot he was unstoppable.”

“I was simply doing my assigned task,” the paladin countered.

The otter looked around at the scattered corpses. “You did a fine job of it.”

“Where is Misha?” he asked. “I don’t see him about.”

She pointed in the direction they had been traveling in. “Up the road, taking care of a few problems.”

Delacot had his question answered completely when he walked a short way around the bend in the road. There lying in the middle of the road amidst a dozen lutin corpses was the body of ogre. The body must have stood over nine feet tall when alive and weighed more then the paladin and his horse combined. Sitting calmly upon the creature’s bloody, armored chest was Misha. The fox was cleaning blood from the blade of his axe with the monster’s tattered tunic. Scattered about were a dozen keepers who moved about searching the dead. He also noted at least a score more dead Lutins scattered amidst the trees that lined either side of the road.

“Sir Edmond,” the scout said, jumping down from the corpse. “You killed the Lutins that managed to escape our little trap?” It was as much a statement as a question.

“None of the Lutins escaped,” the paladin said. As he walked through the corpses he noticed that arrows had killed most, but he noticed a circle of a dozen charred black by a fire. “What were they?” he asked. “A rear guard?”

The fox nodded. “They were trying to ambush you,” the vulpine answered as he walked up to Edmund. “They were so busy trying to ambush you that they didn’t see us ambushing them until it was too late.”

The paladin nodded solemnly. “Then your strategy worked. I honestly did not think they would believe we would be so foolish as to just blindly wander through these woods without scouts.”

Misha was standing in the center of the road, resting on his axe. He waited until Edmund had come up to him. With the paladin were all of his senior knights and soldiers. In a moment they stood around the scout in a semicircle.

“We’re on the edge of the Haunted Woods,” the fox intoned loud enough for all to hear. “That is no mere name. These woods ARE haunted. Behind me, about an hours ride is the ruins of a Seuilman fortress that dates to the time of the fall of the empire.”

“When the Lutins swept south in the year 145 that fortress was the last one in the valley to fall. When it was conquered every living thing in it was put to death. Their ghosts still wander the ruins and these woods.”

That statement brought a murmur from the group and he noticed many of the men shifting about nervously. He could hardly blame them – fighting Lutins was one thing, but facing ghosts was another.

“No need to worry, we have been living with this haunted place for over five hundred years and we know what to do.” The fox tried to sound calm and reassuring, letting those emotions be plain to see. No need to cause any unnecessary fear.

“First, go no where alone and stay on the road. Never let yourself be lured off the road for any reason. If you must leave it, stay within sight of it. Be careful where you walk. Watch both below your feet and above your head but don’t jump at every shadow that moves.”

“My biggest warning is TAKE NOTHING,” the fox commanded. “The ghosts do not mind people moving through but they get mad when you steal what they think is theirs. If you find something like bits of metal or pottery leave; them be. If you find bones . . .” He paused for a moment. “Tell myself or Sir Edmund and we’ll see that the person is given a rightful burial.”

“One final warning. We will be passing the ruins at midday. We will not enter the ruins but we will pass within an arrows flight of it. DO NOT ENTER THE RUINS FOR ANY REASON. My people will be sure the surrounding woods are clear of Lutins. And any lutin stupid enough to enter the fortress itself won’t live long.” He made no mention of the Shadowfox. For which Edmund was very grateful.

For once Sir Terrant agreed with Misha; coming this way was a bad mistake. The woods around them were full of tall, old trees whose branches stretched high up into the sky speaking of good health. They reminded him of his home and of the Kings private reserve where he had grown up. He had fond memories of the days of his youth, hunting, fishing and often just walking amidst that ancient forest. But where that forest was open and welcome, this one was dark, foreboding and mysterious. It seemed to be a place full of shadows and fear. Where no animal was ever seen nor heard.

The thing that most un-nerved him was the total silence; no birds chirping, or animal cries. Gone was the soft crunching of a deer as it grazed, no yowling of the fox or howl of the wolf or the sounds of squirrels chattering. Even the faint rustle of the wind was gone. There was only a dead silence that clung to everything and stifled all sound. Even the sound of the soldiers marching around him was reduced to a mere whisper of a noise. The crunch of snow inaudible.

He couldn’t help but feel that they were being watched in spite of what Misha said about his scouts. I was almost like the forest itself was watching them. Watching and waiting.

Looking back at the soldiers and knights under his command he saw that this strange place had affected them too. Gone was the usual chatter and easy movements. Instead every man held his tongue and gripped sword and shield tightly as they looked about scanning the trees and brush for any sign of trouble.

Sir Terrant tried to sit taller, straighter and to look more confident and calm then he felt. He tried to act casual as if they were merely marching through some village close to home. Above all now he couldn’t show any fear to his men. Fear was contagious and if he looked afraid it would spread through all of his people gnawing away at their will to fight. The forest might be their enemy but right now fear was a bigger enemy. An enemy to be fought with words and gestures.

Turning in the saddle he looked at the troops marching behind him. There was a half dozen knights all armored and on horseback like himself. Behind them marched a score of pike armed infantry flanked by a dozen archers. His eyes fell on one man some ten years his senior who with long bow in hand walked slightly apart from the rest, closer to the woods.

“Roderick!” Terrant called out, trying to sound casual but not sure if he had succeeded. The man didn’t seem to hear him but just kept staring at the woods.

“RODERICK!” He shouted louder and cringed as the words seemed to explode over the whole group. A dozen other people jumped or started in surprise. A horse neighed in momentary unease.

The archer finally looked at the knight. “Sir?” he asked in a soft voice. As if talking in a normal tone wasn’t allowed here.

“What is the name of that tree there?” Terrant asked waving a gauntleted hand at a tall tree with leaves that were a dark green on one side and a light silver on the other. All the trees around it were bare of leaves but this one was still in full bloom as if ignoring the cold. “I have never seen it’s like before.”

Roderick seemed surprised at the statement and just stood frozen for a moment before looking in the direction the knight had pointed. Quite a few others in the group looked too. All eager for something to break the monotony and silence.

“It’s a Winter Oak I think, my Lord. I’ve never seen one before but my Grandfather told me that they once grew in the high mountains where winter never leaves. It’s wood makes the finest musical instruments. A violin made of Winter Oak is said to speak with the voice of the forest itself.”

“Such a tree is a great treasure then,” the knight responded. “When this is over we’ll come back and see if this forest will begrudge us a few strong limbs.” The tree was tall and old and its smallest branch was easily as thick as a mans whole body. It would be no easy thing to remove and haul away such a branch.

The archer noticeably brightened as a broad smile filled his face. “Even one such limb would be a great gift. We would have to pay our proper respects to the tree. Be sure that the wound we make in taking the limb heals well.”

“Of course,” Terrant answered. He knew that Roderick would spend days before hand appeasing the trees spirit before even touching the bark. And afterward when the first instrument made from the wood was finished the first to hear its voice would be the tree.

Slowly the column moved past the Winter Oak and down the snow and mud covered path that had once been a road. Marching as they always had been but now the forest didn’t seem so dark and foreboding.

It was close to noon when things changed. Ahead Terrant saw the column slow noticeably then regain its normal pace. Almost like it had shivered at some momentary fright.

The trees which had until now been far from the path suddenly appeared less then an arms length from it on either side. As if standing guard over the road. These trees were far different from the tall oaks, elms and pine that made up the rest. Instead these trees were shorter and speared out across the ground instead of shooting straight up as if afraid of standing too tall. Their branches were gnarled and twisted and many looked like grasping hands. Without realizing it the knight reigned in his horse for a moment shocked by the twisted trees in front of him. He gave a shake of the reins and slight nudge of his heels and his mare started forward again.

In a moment he was among the trees and he had to suppress a shiver as the gnarled creatures loomed overhead and their shadows fell over him.

“They’re Blossom Apples,” suddenly came the voice of Roderick.

Surprised the knight looked more closely at the trees and realized that the archer was right. In winter these trees were gnarled and twisted things but in spring they would blossom and in days they would be covered with bright, white flowers and their sweet scent would fill the air as their petals covered the ground like snow. The trees would be a true beauty to behold delighting all who saw them. At home people would come from a long way just to see even one tree in full bloom.

“The Seuilman must have planted them,” The knight commented. “To make to road a bit more pleasant to travel.” That was true and even now many centuries later they were still doing so. Somehow knowing that beauty existed in this dark, haunted forest made the journey easier.

Sir Terrant tried to imagine what it must have been like back when this was no mere path but a fine, paved, empire road. In his mind he could see himself dressed in the bright, shining armor of a centurion, leading a hundred legionnaires. The steady tramp of two hundred feet marching in unison over the gray granite of the road filled came to his ears. The flowers would be in bloom and the air filled with their scent as people lined the road, cheering them. Heroes returning home flush with victory. The warm spring sun shining down on everything making the trees seem even brighter. As if trying to compete with the sun itself. He could in his mind see young women laughing and cheering as kids flittered about like they always did, laughing and playing games as they wove back and forth amidst the flowering trees.

With a start that happy image disappeared and the knight found himself at a stand still staring at the side of the road. The trees as suddenly as they had appeared had disappeared leaving a blank and forlorn road. He could easily see a flat spot on either side where trees had once stood but was now only covered with snow and ice.

Shivering, he tried to understand what had just happened but couldn’t. Had he been just imagining things? The warmth from the sun had felt so real, the sweet scent of the flowers so fresh. Instead here he was shivering in the cold of winter the trees bare and seemingly dead. Slowly he looked up at what lay ahead and saw a large ominous shape looming over them all. He knew instinctively what it was before his eyes made sense of the shapes. It was the ruined fortress, the very home of the shadow and the ghosts who still haunted this land.

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