Cry Havoc

by Chris O'kane

"Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war" -- Shakespeare.

chapter 1

A loud banging roused Rickkter from his sleep. Unfortunately while the body wanted to continue its blissful romp in the land of dreams, his body insisted on rising. The raccoon slowly rolled over and sat up, only to be brought up short as he moaned and grasped his head. "Damned wake and its free drinks."

With his head throbbing from a hangover he staggered to the door. "Okay, you're not some stunningly gorgeous goddess come to make wild passionate love to me," he said to the page who stood on the other side, "so I assume you have something for me. Considering the hour, it had better be good."

"This is for you," the girl said and handed the raccoon an envelope.

Rickkter mumbled a host of obscenities in almost as many languages as he turned back inside. Cracking the seal, he looked at the note.

"Be at Long House by five am. Come armed. Misha," the letter in the envelope read.

The wake had been yesterday and he had at least expected Misha to wait a few days, but the fox it seems had other things in mind.

To his surprise the guards at the door to Long House didn't stop Rickkter, instead they just waved him through. Rickkter found Long House a hive of activity. He saw a score of people in the process of putting on armor and weapons and readying equipment. Most he recognized as Long Scouts, but some were strangers to him.

"Rickkter," someone called out.

The raccoon turned to find a red panda morph, half dressed in leather armor coming towards him. "Kershaw, it's good to see you again," Rickkter said as he held out his paw.

Kershaw quickly grasped it with his own paw. "Glad you're coming along."

"When I heard about this, I had to come. There's no way I'm letting those bastards get away with this," admitted Rick as he looked over his fellow keeper. While they both shared some characteristics such as long ringed tails, he and Kershaw were quite different. The red panda was aptly named, with a coat of deep, rust red, dark burgundy paws, and his fingers were far more blunted than Rickkter's. The markings on his face were white, the face itself more round and blunted. But under that rather harmless looking exterior, Rick knew he was a cold-blooded warrior.

"If you want to get in on the briefing, Misha's holding it in his office now." Kershaw pointed to a small door in one wall. "You'd better hurry, the meeting just started."

Rickkter found Misha's small office crowded. A dozen people were gathered around a large table. All of them looked in his direction when he entered. The faces of Andre, George, Will, Lisa, and Misha looked at him. Without any acknowledgement the fox looked back at the map.

"This is Stepping Rock castle," he said in a cold voice and pointed at the map. "From there his subordinates bully and control the lutins. Plus, his soldiers have staged countless raids against us. These are the people who staged that brutal raid on Mycransburg last month."

"We estimate the garrison to be about forty humans, and around two hundred lutins." Misha explained. "The castle itself is on a short, low hill and the main defenses consist of a ditch about twenty feet wide and forty feet deep and a stone wall about twenty feet tall. All located on the top of the hill, meaning it's a long hard climb to reach the walls."

"You plan on taking it?" Rickkter asked, shocked.

"Stepping Rock was built as a manor house about three hundred years ago and isn't a formidable place," Misha commented without answering Rickkter.

"Stepping is twenty miles from Metamor. Who would be dumb enough to build a manor that deep in Lutin territory?" someone asked.

"It was built at a time of expansion for Metamor and all the lutins within forty miles of the Keep had been wiped out," Misha answered. "Things around Stepping were supposed to be very peaceful back then. When Duke Sedgewick died the expansion stopped and the lutins began to retake their territory. About thirty years after it was built the manor house was fortified but to no avail. The castle fell after a ten day siege."

"What does the inside look like?" A tall weasel asked. "I don't see any towers on the wall or any mention of a central Keep."

"The wall has no towers. The original human builders threw it up in haste, and the lutins never bothered to add any. The only tower is the gatehouse. As to the interior structures, we can only guess. The main hall itself was fortified to some degree, and there was the usual buildings near it; barns, stables, granaries. No telling how many are left. The hall we know still exists and is the home of Hurd, the castle's commander and his personal guard."

"Here is the basic plan. The Longs will infiltrate the castle on the south side, farthest from the only gatehouse. Laura, your team along with Matthias will clear the gatehouse and let Andre's force in. Meanwhile Lisa, her people, Will and myself will move to the hall and kill Hurd along with his human troops. With the commander dead organized resistance should fall apart."

"And what do I do?" Rickkter asked.

"You do whatever you want. I'm sure you'll make yourself useful," the fox responded. "Let me make this perfectly clear," Misha said in a voice as cold as a grave. "This isn't a hack and slash raid. We're going to destroy this place. I want nothing left behind when we leave but rubble and dead bodies. Kill everything that moves."

"What about prisoners?" Matthias asked.

The fox looked at the rat for a moment then looked back to the group. "Any other questions?" When no one spoke he continued. "All right. The Longs leave at noon today. Andre's unit leaves tomorrow morning."

Matthias caught up with Misha in the armory. The fox was dressing in his chain mail armor. "Misha, can we talk?"

"About what?" Misha asked as he laced up his armored shirt.

"Why are we doing this? For revenge?"

Misha looked at Matthias for a moment before speaking. "Is that what you think?"

"Yes," the rat responded simply.

"You're right," the fox replied, pulling on his gauntlets. "Part of it is to gain revenge for what they did to Craig and Caroline."

"Part of it? Are you sure that's not all of it?"

Misha flexed his armored hands to test his gauntlets. "I want to make those bastards suffer for what they did. I also have to show Nasoj and the lutins that you don't kill a Long Scout and not get punished. Nasoj has a hefty reward for killing or capturing a Long, that's a very big incentive for them to hunt us. If the lutins learn that taking a Long will earn them swift, brutal punishment, then maybe they won't be so eager to go scout hunting."

"Also one Long scout is dead, another has been raped and tortured and the rest are in shock. My people are angry, horrified, and confused. Soon they'll start to think about what happened to Craig and Caroline, then they'll start to doubt themselves as well. After all if it happened to those two, it could happen to anyone. I need to stop that train of thought before it starts. What I have to do is distract them, keep them busy, and to remove any doubt about themselves."

"And a revenge raid is your answer?" Matthias queried.

"Yes, besides . . ." Misha's voice faltered and he looked at the floor. When he spoke again it was in a faint whisper. "There's a rage building in me I can't control for much longer. I need to vent it before it consumes me."

Matthias could see that his friend's hands were clenched in rage and he was shaking. The rat laid his hand on Misha's shoulder. "I understand."

"The party's about to begin and you two aren't ready yet," Rickkter said as he walked to the pair.

Misha nodded, "Almost ready. I just need to pickup some weapons."

"I'll be waiting in the Hall when you're ready," Matthias said and left.

Misha started moving down various aisles, picking up various weapons as he did. In short order he picked up a long bow, a dagger, and four hand axes. "All I need is Whisper and I'm ready," he said, and turned to find Rickkter several feet away handling something.

"What is this?" the raccoon asked.

The weapon the raccoon was holding was a steel rod three feet long with a spear point on one end and a wicked hook on the other. The hook had a needle sharp point and a razor's edge on both sides. Just below the base of the spear point was a handgrip. The grip was protected with a crescent shaped hand guard that also had a razor's edge.

"You don't know? A great weapons master like yourself?" Misha asked.

Rickkter moved the weapon through a series of loops and slashes with ease and grace. Then he brought it up to eye level and inspected it again. "No, I don't know." He smiled at it in an evil way. " But I like it anyway."

Misha took another weapon off the rack that was a match for the one the raccoon was holding. "Well, you're welcome to them," he said and handed it to the raccoon.

"How can you be in such good condition today?" the raccoon asked. "I have a headache, and I didn't even drink half as much as you. Hell, Andre and I had to physically carry you out of there last night."

"If you need to get rid of that hangover why don't you try asking a certain prickly alchemist for her help," was the fox's answer. Then, without another word Misha walked several aisles over and stopped. Curious, Rickkter followed and found his friend holding his great axe.

The fox held the blade up at eye level, the edge towards him. Gone from his face was any warmth. "It's time," he said in a cold, hard voice and headed for the door without a glance back.

It was raining lightly and the guard on the wall paused to pull the hood of his cape up to keep out the rain on this dark, wet night. Then the lutin picked up his shield and continued walking along the stone parapet. For a minute after he had gone nothing happened, then twenty feet below in the darkness two figures left the cover of the brush. One of the creatures was a black colored ferret barely a foot long. The other figure was a girl, who looked about fourteen years old. Dressed all in black, she had a short bow on her back, two short swords dangled from her belt and a length of rope was slung across her torso. She followed the ferret across the open ground to the base of the wall.

The wall itself was an old stone one made of small blocks mortared together. There were plenty of hand and foot holds and the two began to climb up. Behind them in the brush the rest of the Long Scouts waited tensely with bows ready in case something went wrong. For the ferret, Finbar, the climb was easy, but for Lisa it was harder.

Things always seemed to be harder for Lisa Ringe since the curse changed her. Being trapped in the body of a fourteen year old meant she didn't have the strength she used to. It meant she couldn't carry as many supplies as the others and she didn't have the same endurance. It also made things like climbing this wall harder. Not that it stopped her, she just tried that much harder. She was one of two age morphs in the Long Scouts, a fact both she and Allart were justifiably proud of.

The worst part of the climb was the halfway point. If she was spotted it was too high off the ground to just drop and too far from the top to climb up out of danger. It was then that she had to trust her friends and fellow scouts to get rid of anyone who tried to kill her. Below her the other Longs waited and watched.

Finally she reached a point just below the parapet and paused to check out where the guard was. Next to her was Finbar who scurried up the last course of stones and carefully looked around. The ferret pulled his head back, and looking at the girl pointed to the right and then patted the stonework with both front paws four times. That meant the guard was off to her right and about forty feet away.

Lisa waited for two long minutes as the guard made his way leisurely down the walkway to her. Her muscles started to ache as she clung to the wall and listened for the lutins foot steps. Finally she heard the dull slap of boots on stone approaching. Slowly the footsteps got closer and closer and then passed her. Holding onto the stonework with her left hand she drew her dagger and placed it on the parapet. Finbar leaped from his hiding spot on the parapet and onto the walkway.

As she pulled herself up Lisa saw Finbar change into his morph form. Then he picked up her dagger and quietly rushed after the guard. The lutin didn't know the ferret morph was there until the scout grabbed his head and pulled it back. Then he drove the dagger into the lutin's neck, destroying the windpipe and the artery next to it. Finbar held the lutin as he struggled and tried to fight back. After a moment the guard's movements stopped, having drowned in his own blood. He draped the dead body over the wall.

The girl dropped onto the walkway and taking her rope began to tie one end around a merlon. She didn't bother to check if the lutin was dead or not, she trusted Finbar to do his job. Having secured one end of the rope she lowered the other end over the wall. Lisa drew one of her swords and handed it to her partner as he came up to her. The girl unslung her bow and nocked an arrow. Then the two waited for the rest of the Long Scouts to scale the rope.

At the base of the wall the scouts wait for the last one of their group to reach the ground. Misha knelt next to Will; the badger looked strange dressed in armor and carrying a mace but he looked confident and assured. In all the confusion and excitement he hadn't had the chance to talk to him.

Misha placed his muzzle against Will's ear and spoke in a voice so low that the badger had trouble hearing the words. "How are you doing?" the fox asked.

The badger nodded and whispered into Misha's ear, "Fine. When does the real excitement start?"

"This is where things get difficult," Misha whispered. Then he pointed to a short man who knelt near them. "Stay close to Jotham and watch each other's backs."

"Of course. Watch your own back too. I've grown rather fond of you," the badger whispered and gave Misha a warm hug.

Lisa knelt next to them and signed with her hands. "Ready to go, everyone is here."

Misha looked at the fourteen people assembled around him, eleven Long Scouts, Will, Matthias, and Rickkter. They were all people he knew and trusted with his life. He wanted to say a thousand things but the silence prevented it. Finally he brought the palms of both hands together and then slowly drew his hands apart in opposite directions. Then he crossed himself. "Both teams go your separate directions," he had ordered. "And Eli go with you."

chapter 2

Laura Calamar and her five team members moved carefully towards the gatehouse. On the map it was only around one hundred yards, but that one hundred yards was filled with the dozen huts and shacks of a lutin village. Suddenly the journey was a lot harder. She hadn't expected it to be easy, after all this was the interior of an enemy stronghold. It didn't make her team's task impossible, just a little bit harder.

She looked at Matthias. The rat morph was dressed in a simple robe and aside from a short sword was armed only with a few knives. He had been in training to become a Long since the summer festival. It still surprised her how good he was. Misha was right; he made a perfect Long Scout.

The village consisted of dozens of huts, and ramshackle shacks scattered randomly around. Looking carefully, she couldn't see anyone, not even a sentry. The whole camp seemed asleep. That didn't mean everyone was asleep, they just couldn't be seen. Going straight through that was suicide, they would most certainly be spotted. They would have to go around it.

Moving slowly and cautiously they skirted the edge of the village, making sure to stay down wind. The foul stench from the place filled her nostrils and she wondered how the animal morphs could stand it. "Why is it that lutins revel in filth?" she asked herself.

Suddenly a small, mangy looking dog appeared in front of them and started barking loudly. In an instant four people aimed their bows at the creature to silence it before the whole camp woke up. One of the scouts moved forward and knelt next to Laura. It was Arla, her dog shaped head was clearly visible in the darkness. The border collie morph bared her fangs at the dog and wagged her tail.

The small dog didn't know anything about Nasoj or Metamor Keep; it just knew that these people were strangers in its territory. The big female snarling at him didn't really look like a dog, but it smelled like one and it acted like one and that was all that mattered. She was bigger than him, and obviously was the pack leader. He stopped barking and rolled onto his back in submission.

Arla patted the dog on the stomach, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The group moved forward again past the still prostrate dog. With one final tummy rub, Arla headed after her team mates, leaving the dog behind.

The little dog looked at the departing people and then at the lutin camp that was its home. That female had shown him more kindness in those few moments then the lutins had shown all summer, and she smelled better too. Scrambling to his paws the dog took off at a fast trot to catch up with his new pack.

Andre petted Swiftfire on the muzzle to calm her down. The mare could smell the lutins in the fortress and was nervous. She wasn't alone, everyone was nervous, especially Andre. Leading one hundred cavalry ten miles beyond the Giants Dike without being seen had been hard enough. But now they had to wait in the cold, rain, for the signal from the Longs that the gatehouse had been taken. Until the signal came all they could do was wait, and that was the hardest part. At least when they were fighting or riding his mind was occupied, but waiting gave him time to think about what might go wrong. There was the possibility of being spotted by some patrol or some passing monster. The greatest threat was if no signal ever came. If the infiltrating Keepers were discovered they would be wiped out and the whole region would be up in arms. The chances of even half the cavalry getting back alive was remote.

Andre shook off his morbid thoughts and moved among his people. He greeted each one by name and swapped jokes and comments. He casually checked various bits of gear as he walked, more for appearance's sake than out of concern for his soldiers' readiness. All of the soldiers with him tonight were hardened professionals and had more sense than to go into battle with a dull sword or an unbuckled saddle.

Still, by checking, the wolverine showed that he cared about them. Finally he had seen each soldier and each horse and was back to his own Swiftfire. There was nothing left to do but wait.

The six scouts huddled by the low wall and planned their next move. In front of them was a dirt road barely twenty feet wide that cut across their path.

"Can we go around it?" Matthias asked using sign language.

Laura shook her head. "No, there's no telling how long it is and besides we don't have the time," she answered silently. "We'll cross it one at a time. I will go first."

The girl looked both ways before stepping out from the cover of the wall. As the rest of the scouts were on guard she hustled across the road. Matthias held his breath as she was terribly exposed for a few brief moments. Then Laura was across and in the safety of a wall.

One by one the scouts made their way across the road. Ralls first, then Arla, Meredith and Allart. The boy had just dropped behind the wall when the sound of footsteps and loud singing came out of the darkness. The scouts hunkered down and waited.

Out of the gloom a group of forty lutins came staggering along, singing and laughing. As the rat morph watched the group it came closer and then stopped some twenty feet from his hiding place. "They're drunk," Matt thought to himself. The lutins started to scream and swear at each other.

Matthias peeked carefully across the open space to where the other scouts were hidden. The blackened face of Laura looked back at him.

"Now what?" Matthias asked with his hands.

"We wait," She answered silently.

He gave a quick look at the lutins and saw that the fight had stopped and they were now sitting in the middle of the road drinking. "How long?" he queried. "It looks like they are going to be here a while."

"Can you circle around?" she asked silently.

Matthias checked again to be sure he wasn't being seen and then answered. "Yes, but it will take me a while."

"We don't have the time," Laura answered.

"Go ahead without me, I'll meet you at the gatehouse," he commented.

"No," she replied. "We don't leave anyone behind."

"I can take care of myself," he retorted. "I'll be right behind." Matthias saw the indecision on her face. "Go," he signed again and then dropped out of her sight to end the argument. The rat morph moved carefully away from the road and his friends. For the moment he was alone surrounded by several hundred lutins but it didn't bother the rat. He was confident that he could handle himself.

Misha peered around the corner of the wooden barn and assessed what was going on in front of him. Twenty feet in front of him was a short, two story hall. Aside from the barn they were hiding next to and the hall, there was one other building, another barn this one stone. All three were located on the edge of a muddy field, that probably served as a drill and assembly area.

Four humans in chain mail armor were standing guard in front of the entrance to the hall. A tall pole was planted in the dirt next to the door and various object hung from its cross poles. Two more soldiers were standing in front of the double doors of the stone barn. A score of soldiers stood milling around in the field.

Misha withdrew around the corner and conferred with the other scouts. "There are four guards in front of the hall and two more in front of the stone barn. Plus there's a score of them in the courtyard. They must be preparing to change the sentries."

"They will find the sentry I killed and raise the alarm. How long before that happens?" Finbar asked with his hands.

"Hard to say," Misha answered. "The group is about ready to move. We don't have long." The fox paused for a moment and considered what to do. "If we wait till the group is ready to march, we can catch one half of the human garrison in an ambush," he thought to himself. "We might even catch the commander himself. Any half competent leader would check his soldiers before sending them on duty."

"This is what we're going to do," he signed. "We'll wait till they form up to move out, then we'll hit them. We'll start with missiles, standing in close formation they'll be easy targets. Then we close and finish the matter with sword and axe."

"What about the ones in the hall?" Danielle asked.

Misha leaned close to Rickkter and whispered in his ear. "I need you to use your magic to kill the soldiers in the hall while we take care of the ones on the field. Can you do it?"

The raccoon nodded. "Yes, but I need to get close to one of the windows or doors," he whispered in reply.

"All right, take Kershaw with you and work your way around to the back. On the way take a look inside that guarded barn. I hate surprises."

The gatehouse was nothing more then a small stone tower set into the curtain wall. The gate itself was made of wood bound in iron. A small person sized door was set into one wall of the tower to the side of the gate. A solitary human stood guard in front of the gate. The five Long Scouts huddled behind a hut nearby and planned their next move.

"Any sign of Matthias?" Laura signed. All she received in reply were shaking heads answering no. They had already waited many long minutes for the rat to appear but to no avail. "We have to plan on moving without him," she ordered.

Laura pointed to a boy holding a long bow and tapped his weapon. Then she pointed to the top of the tower. "Allart, you use your bow to kill the people on top of the tower," was what she had told him.

Next she pointed to Arla and her bow and pointed towards the sentry on the ground. "You kill that guard," was the message. She pointed to the man Ralls and the brown bear morph Meredith, "You rush the door," she signed. Then she pointed at the bear and made a breaking motion with her hands. Meredith understood what that meant. He was to use his brute strength to break down the door into the tower.

Quickly and silently Meredith stripped out of his armor. In his morph form he weighed a little over three hundred pounds and was over five feet tall. In his animal shape he weighed over a thousand pounds and stood seven feet tall on his hind legs. An animal that big would make short work of the door and anyone guarding it.

Suddenly a horn blared from far behind them and the faint sound of shouting and screaming followed. Laura muttered a curse under her breath. Something had gone wrong with the other team. "Go!" Laura shouted.

chapter 3

Rickkter and Kershaw moved quietly along the back of the wooden barn until they reached the corner. The two stopped and pondered their next move. Ten feet separated the wood barn from the stone one. The building they were interested in was made of a gray/black fieldstone. The long side wall had only two arrow slits and nothing else.

Crouching low they hustled across the open space between them and pressed themselves flat against the stonework. They waited for a moment to see if they been spotted, but no one sounded the alarm. Rickkter worked his way along the wall until he came to the back corner. He peered around the corner and found that the back was unguarded. Cautiously the two turned the corner and moved along the back wall. They came to one of the arrow slits that flanked the large double doors.

Kershaw took guard while Rickkter pressed his ear to the door. "There is something moving around in there," he whispered. "I can't tell what it is."

"Sound like horses?"

Rickkter paused. "No. And why would horses require arrow slits?"

The red panda shrugged in reply. "what else. . . " he started to say but Rickkter jumped back from the door and cursed loudly. "Ogre!" he shouted.

A loud roar echoed from inside the barn and the door burst outwards. The figure that came striding out was ten feet tall, dressed in hides and carrying a giant sword in his right hand.

From the parade ground came the sounds of people yelling and an alarm bell ringing.

The ogre charged at Kershaw and the red panda dodged a blow from a sword as long as his whole body. The blade carved a gash deep into the stonework mere inches from his head.

{Distract him,} mind sent Rickkter. {All I need is an opening}.

Kershaw drew his sword lunged at the ogre, nicking the monster on the knee. With a roar the ogre charged at the panda morph swinging the blade over his head. The blade came down aimed straight for Kershaw's skull.

The panda waited to the last moment and jumped backwards, but not quickly enough. Kershaw danced backwards clutching at the cut on his arm.

The ogre had his back to Rickkter, which was exactly what the raccoon had been waiting for. "Hey look at this!" he yelled. When the creature looked in his direction, Rick snapped off a blinding white flash of light at him.

Roaring in pain, the ogre staggered backwards clutching at his eyes. Rickkter took advantage of his distraction and dove quickly through his bowed legs, tucking into a compact roll and coming up behind the blinded ogre. In one smooth motion, he extended his foot, stopped his forward momentum, sprang up, spun around and jumped on the ogre's back.

The ogre was not prepared for that at all. He reeled back, flailing his arms and bellowing the whole time. But that didn't matter to Rick. He just grabbed one of the bandoleer straps on his back, hooked his toes in the belt and hoisted himself up to just over the ogre's head. Uttering a war cry that rivaled the ogre's, Rickkter drove the spear like tip on the butt of his weapon into his opponent's skull.

Kershaw was taken slightly aback as the ogre stopped yelling. He watched the life kind of fade from his opponent's eyes and then the massive frame fell to the ground, sending the raccoon perched on its back sprawling. The red panda just stood there gawking there for a second, looking at where the long, curved hook stuck out of the head of the dead ogre. In his long, long career, he'd never seen anything quite like it.

Rickkter got up and dusted himself off, checking to see that the rest of the weapons were all still there. He then went over to the body and, with a loud sucking noise, removed his weapon from the head. "Well, come on," he said, "we'd better hurry up. No telling what kind of trouble Misha's got himself into."

Kershaw's sensitive ears picked up the sounds of the battle on the other side of the fortress. "Somehow I can only guess."

Meredith raced from his hiding spot with Ralls and Laura close behind. There was a thump from above and a figure dropped from the tower and landed at the feet of the sentry at the gate. The man had a moment to gawk before an arrow sank into his chest and he fell on top of the first body.

The bear shambled past the two corpses without a second glance and threw his full weight against the wood. The door shattered and Meredith pushed his way inside through a door too small for his big frame. Figures rushed at him and he lashed out with his paws and sent them flying backwards. The room was crowded with people fighting. He saw Laura disembowel one soldier, and Ralls bury his sword in another guard's chest. Suddenly the room was empty of all save Keepers.

"Up," Laura commanded pointing at a stone stairway leading into the ceiling.

Shifting to his morph form to better fit in the small tower and started up the steps only to be greeted by the trap door above him being slammed shut in his face. It didn't slow him down at all. Meredith smashed it with both paws sending the splinters flying into the room beyond. As he climbed the final steps into the room the bear found a man lying dead on the floor, a large splinter in his chest. Another lay writhing with a piece of wood in his leg. Meredith, Ralls, and Laura made short work of the four remaining guards.

A short race up a wooden ladder took him to the roof, where he was greeted by the sight of a large condor killing the last of three guards. "Is that all of them Baldwin?" the bear asked the bird.

"Yes, and you're late," the avian answered. "I've been circling for over two hours."

"Meredith go down stairs and help Arla and Allart open the gate and stand guard until Andre arrives," Laura ordered as she came onto the roof.

"What's going on?" someone shouted from below. Leaning over the parapet Meredith saw a soldier standing on the wall below them. Without an answer Laura brought up her bow and put two arrows into the man's chest. He dropped onto the walkway without any more questions.

From her belt Laura drew a small lantern and aimed it outside the castle walls. She spoke a word so softly that the bear couldn't hear it. A soft blue light erupted from the lantern. Meredith knew that was the signal to summon Andre and his people.

"Go Mere. We need you down stairs," came the order from the woman.

The bear made his way through the tower down to the ground. He arrived to find Arla slowly pulling open the gates while Allart stood guard. Now all they could do is wait and hope Andre arrived before the lutins realized the gate was open. He hoped they came quickly, because it would be hard for six Scouts to hold the gate open in the face of several hundred lutins.

A group of about twenty lutins appeared out of the darkness and moved toward them. The lutin in front waved a sword over his head and pointed toward the gate. Arla put an arrow in his throat and the others shrank back into the darkness.

Andre mounted on Swiftfire thundered up the road toward the gatehouse. The old weathered stones of the approaching road raced by below his horses hooves. Out of the darkness the gray stone gatehouse suddenly loomed. Standing in the open gateway was over a score of lutins trying to close the wooden doors in spite of the rocks and arrows being rained down on them from above. Without slowing down he leveled his lance and rode straight into them. He speared one lutin with his lance shattering it in process. Reining in his horse Andre turned around in his saddle and saw the gateway was full of charging cavalry. Of the lutins that had been there seconds before, there was no trace. They had been simply run down by the one hundred cavalry riding with him.

"ANDRE!" Someone screamed from above. Looking up he saw Laura waving her arm at him. She pointed off in the darkness. "Get to the hall."

The wolverine pointed to a ferret with his saber. "Pete, your section comes with me. Everyone else destroy the village and kill anything alive."

With twenty other soldiers riding with him, Andre sped off at a gallop towards the hall.

chapter 4

In the muddy field in front of the hall chaos reigned. Long Scouts and guards fought a brutal battle. Leading the charge Misha attacked with a cold efficiency. Swinging his axe the fox charged straight into the soldiers. With one swing of the axe he took one warrior's head off and cut another one in half with the return stroke.

He caught sight of men rushing out of the hall to join the fight. One of the rushing men brushed against the trophy pole setting the bits and pieces on it swinging. A swinging head caught Misha's attention, it looked to be a lutin, a rather large one at that. The fox looked at the skull above the moving head and a shiver ran down his spine. He recognized it. There was no doubting that it was a Keeper. That large, half human, half animal shape was distinctive. Logically it couldn't be Craig's; Misha had laid that skull in the casket himself, but all he saw was his friend's face and the prairie dogs brutal death flashed through his mind. Then he saw his dear, sweet, Caroline being raped over and over and over . . . Their agonizing screams echoed in his ears. All thoughts of cold efficiency vanished. A low guttural growl erupted from deep within him as he tightened his grip on Whisper. A blind rage that had been building for days washed over him and blotted out everything. Swinging his axe over his head Misha let out a blood curdling scream that blotted out all other noise. Then he charged straight at that hated trophy pole, all trace of humanity gone. He wanted to kill everyone and everything connected with it. Nothing else mattered but killing.

Misha's axe cut great swaths through the ranks. Every swing found flesh and bone. He became an inhuman killing machine cutting down people without the slightest trace of remorse. He moved toward the trophy pole cutting down anyone who got in his way. Nothing could stop him, everyone he attacked, died. Finally he reached the pole, beheading the soldier guarding it. With one great swing he cut the iron shaft in half with such force that the axe blade was buried up to the hilt in the wall behind.

The fox sensed movement behind him and letting go of the axe jumped back as a sword slashed past him. He pulled a long sword from his belt and retained enough of his mind to parry the next blow.

His opponent was a tall figure dressed in plate mail armor and carrying a long sword and a shield. It was Hurd, the commander of the castle. This was the owner of the trophy pole. This was the man who had killed keepers like Craig.

Without any thought of tactics he lashed out at his enemy. He didn't pay any mind to the cuts and wounds that were inflicted on him, he just kept attacking, slashing, jabbing, cutting. Finally he just dropped his sword and grabbed the commanders blade with his left hand and pushed it aside. With his right hand he pulled the shield away and pushed forward with his whole body. The two fighters tumbled backward to the ground with the fox morph on top. The humans head hit the ground hard and he was stunned for a moment. Misha lunged forward and sank his teeth into the man's throat. He felt his teeth cut through skin and muscle and clamping down harder twisted his head to the side, ripping the mans throat out. A fountain of blood gushed over Misha as he exalted in the kill.

The battle was going badly for Lisa. At first things had gone well. Taken by surprise a dozen soldiers had been killed before they realized what was happening. But more soldiers had kept streaming out of the hall and soon the scouts were outnumbered three to one.

The girl dodged a sword thrust and lashed out with her own blade. Her assailant stumbled backward clutching his shattered right arm. Two more men took his place and pressed their attack. Suddenly a bone chilling scream echoed across the battlefield. The battle stopped as everyone turned to the source.

A tall inhuman figure covered completely in blood lifted a human body over its head. With another scream the monster tossed the shattered form straight into the thickest part of the fight. The bloody remains of a man in plate armor landed at the girls feet. One of her attackers took one look at the bloody mess and all color drained from his face. "It's Hurd," he whispered. "That thing killed Hurd!"

The other soldier pointed at the bloody monster which was now advancing on them, a large axe in its hand. "It's a ghoul! And it's coming after us!" he shouted and fled in terror. The other soldiers scattered in a blind panic, all thoughts of fighting as dead as their leader. Tired, Lisa let them go. With the gatehouse in scout hands there was no way for them to escape.

The bloody figure moved toward the scouts, the axe raised to strike. Will came forward and dropped his mace to the ground and held both hands up to show that they were empty. "Misha," the badger said in a quiet voice. "Are you all right?" he asked the bloody figure.

Andre walked slowly among the dead, his horses reins in one hand a saber in the other. Up ahead he could see the group gathered around the well. As he came close Lisa walked up to him.

"The fighting here is over with but there are about seventy or so of Hurds guard alive," the girl said.

"Not any more, my people are running them down now. This battle's over. We're down to killing the stragglers. Any casualties?" the wolverine asked.

"A few wounded, but no one killed. The worst is Misha, he's in some sort of daze."

"Where is he?" Andre asked, concerned.

The girl pointed to the crowd at the well. Andre realized one of the people was Misha. The fox morph was seated on the ground staring straight ahead oblivious to the world around him. His great axe lay on the ground at his side, forgotten. He was stripped naked, and a bloody heap of clothing lay nearby.

Will sat down in front of the fox and started wiping the blood from Mishas face using a sponge. Andre started to move to his friend but was interrupted by a horse galloping up behind him.

Turning around he saw a short blonde woman rein her horse to a halt a few feet from him. "Sir, Captain Harsted reports that all resistance in the castle has been crushed."

"The last of Hurd's guard been killed and the village secured?" the wolverine asked.

"Yes sir. They were clearing the last of the buildings when I left. The Captain wishes to know what your orders are?"

"Burn everything," a husky voice said out loud.

Andre turned to see Misha staring at the rider. The recently vacant face was staring at the woman with weary gaze that made the wolverine shiver. "Destroy everything, leave nothing for those bastards to use."

The woman hesitated and looked at Andre for orders. "You heard what the fox said. Destroy everything."

The woman turned her horse and started to ride off when the fox spoke again, with a voice as cold as a grave. "Burn the buildings, salt the ground, and don't forget to poison the wells. Leave nothing."

The first word Metamor Keep received of the attack was a brief message that had been flashed from signal tower to signal tower. "Orange glow seen in north western sky by Outpost."

An hour later came another message through the signal towers. "Stepping Rock castle is burning. Commander, Outpost."

The next message was clearer. "Group returning with wounded and prisoners."

It was noon before a sentry spotted a long line of cavalry moving slowly towards the Keep. Soon after a courier reached Long House and was besieged by the families waiting in Long Hall.

"How are they?" Someone asked.

"Was anyone hurt?" another asked.

"Is everyone safe?"

"Finbar's leg was torn up pretty good and Danielle has her chest bandaged," the man answered.

"Anyone killed?"

"No," was the answer, and a sigh of relief passed through the group.

Through all of this Carol sat quietly in a chair near the door. Kimberly and Jenn sat with her. All were waiting quietly for their loved ones to return. Slowly the Long Scouts returned one by one and were greeted by relieved family and friends.

Caroline looked at every person who came through the door. So far the two she was looking for hadn't shown. Most of the soldiers stopped by her, wishing her well and hoping that she was feeling better. She gave each of them a quick, painful smile, and thanked them before they went on their way. She smiled a little more at a certain warrior that stopped by.

"Hello, Carol," said Rickkter. He greeted Jenn and Kimberly as well.

"Good to see you made it back, Rick. Have you seen Misha and Papa? I'm beginning to get a little worried about them..."

Rickkter looked back at the door. "Well, they're back there. I can't speak for Will, but last I saw Misha, he was taking up the rear, making sure everyone was alright."

Carol blinked her one good eye and slouched back. "But what about him? Is he alright?"

The raccoon turned towards the door with his weapons clinking slightly and sighed. "I don't know. I hope so." He turned back and gave the otter a weak smile. "I don't think there's any question of how much he loves you, not after today. I guess it's true; the greatest hurt comes from the deepest love." Looking down at his own bloody paw, Rickkter said, "I'm going to go get cleaned up. See you later."

"Good bye, Rick," she said, before leaning back once more to wait for her love. If it were possible, she felt even more apprehensive now then before.

"What did Rick mean when he said that the greatest hurt comes from the deepest love?" Caroline asked. All she wanted was to see Misha.

Andre and Matthias came through the door together and were warmly greeted by the ladies in their life. Last into the hall was Will and Misha. Caroline stood up and hobbled over to them. Without a moment's hesitation she threw her arms around the two and hugged them both. It was a long time before she broke the embrace and looked at her two men. Her father didn't look too bad, aside from a few scrapes and bruises. There was a small cut on his left arm but that was all. Will looked fine, but Misha didn't.

Misha looked weary and battered. The fox had stripped out of his armor and was wearing only a pair of shorts. His whole body was covered with cuts and bruises and both arms and hands were bandaged up to the elbow. The eyes that stared back at her held a weariness and a pain that seemed to permeate to his very soul.

Caroline hugged him tight and pressed her chest against his. Then she kissed him on the muzzle and looked him straight in the eyes. "I love you," she whispered. Caroline saw the pain leave his eyes, replaced by love.

"Welcome home, my love," she said softly. "Welcome home."

chapter 5

Misha sat in the peace and quiet of his office and drank his morning tea. He was thankful for it being so early; it meant there was no one around to bother him. He had a lot to think about and he didn't want to be disturbed.

The fox lapped at the hot liquid in the cup on his desk. He looked at his hands and arms, which were bandaged all the way up to the elbow. His chest was also bandaged as was his left leg below the knee.


Misha jumped as the loud barks boomed through the small room. Wiping the spilt tea off of his desk he looked around for the source of the barking. He was alone in the room.


Leaning forward Misha looked over the front edge of his desk. Seated on the floor was a small dog wagging his tail at him.

"Hello, who are you?" the fox asked.

The dog wagged his tail. "YAP! YAP! YAP!" he answered.

"I'm sorry Misha, he's been running all over the place these last few days." Looking up, he saw Finbar standing in the doorway.

"Exactly who let him in here?" the fox asked the ferret morph.

"He followed us back from Stepping Stone," was the answer.

"Anyone I know?"

"He's just a dog, Misha. A stray that was hanging around the lutin camp. Arla befriended him," Finbar explained as he picked up the dog.

Misha laughed for the first time in many days. "So Arla's finally got herself a boyfriend."

Finbar chuckled and pet the dog. "Don't let her hear you say that. She'll kill you." The ferret's face got suddenly very serious. "How are you doing?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"I'm stiff, sore, and I ache all over," the fox answered.

Finbar sat down in a chair next to the desk and looked at Misha. "Are you sure you're all right?" he asked.

The vulpine nodded in response. "You said our friend there," he said and pointed at the new pet, "has been wandering around for several days. How long was I asleep?"

The ferret stopped petting the animal. "Three days," he mumbled.

"THREE DAYS!" Misha shouted in surprise.

"Caroline and Will put you to bed and you just kept on sleeping. You realize that you went five days without sleeping, and when we got back you looked terrible."

Misha held up his arms for Finbar to see. The bandages were plainly visible to the ferret. "The hands and arms I understood. I did them myself at Craig's funeral but I didn't remember the chest or leg wound. I must have gotten them in the fight by the hall."

"What do you remember of the fight?"

The fox morph looked down at the desk for a moment before answering. "I don't remember much of what happened there. I remember hearing a commotion from the stone barn and cursing Rickkter for getting into trouble and having to spring the ambush early. Everything after that is hazy. I vaguely remember swinging Whisper, and being in a blind rage. All I wanted to do was kill. Everything else is a haze."

"I won't lie to you Misha. You went berserk and waded into those soldiers with your axe swinging like some sort of rampaging monster. You took on Hurd, with nothing but your hands and teeth. You literally ripped the man's throat out and threw his body a good twenty feet."

"I don't remember any of it," Misha answered in a whisper.

"Nothing?" Finbar asked, surprised.

"I have a vague memory of wrestling on the ground, and that's all," the fox commented. "The next thing I remember I'm sitting in front of a burning hall. I was stripped naked and Will was pouring water over me to wash off all the blood. The thing that troubles me the most was I was crying and . . . " Misha's voice trailed off for a moment. "And I don't know why."

The ferret put the dog down on the table and hugged the fox tightly. "You were crying because you had became a monster and becoming human again hurt."

"You're late," the person at the table said.

"So what?" the second person answered, sitting down. "You have my money?

The first person dropped a small bag onto the table. "Four thousand gold pieces in a mix of coins, mostly garretts."

"The reward was for eight thousand garretts, four for Craig and four for Caroline," the second one said.

"We didn't get the otter, " the first person explained. "So you only get the money for the prairie dog."

"I gave you them both. I told you when and where they would be, it's not my fault your stupid lutins lost her."

"We don't have her, so you don't get the money." The first speaker explained. "And why didn't you warn us about Stepping Stone? We lost Hurn and a valuable castle."

"That couldn't be helped. At the wake Misha got falling down drunk. I thought it would be several days before he made a strike. Instead he's up before dawn giving orders. I didn't have any chance to warn you," the second speaker answered.

"Well, we'll overlook it this time, but you'd best start giving us better information," the first one replied.

"Of course. From now on I can forward you patrol dates and patterns, along with all sorts of information."

"For the right price? A very high price."

"Of course, we Long Scouts don't come cheap."