Punching the Line

by Ryx

The next day dawned to find the two animals once human already on the move through the heavy, thick dawning mists. The rain had let up in the night, but not entirely. Even with the dawn a steady, whispering drizzle filtered down through the trees. The pair moved swiftly yet quietly along mud sodden paths, swatting aside rain heavy branches without overmuch regard for the muffled noise they made. The sounds ahead masked their approach.

The heavy, continuous rasp of saws, punctuated regularly from all directions by the sharp, staccato crack of axes. These sounds brought Muri's hackles up, as much as they could due to their current state of wetness. The forest was being razed, in all directions as far as he could hear trees were being felled. Great, rending crashes echoed from beyond them in the murky grey haze of the dawn, coming with a speed that Muri found appalling. They could feel each thundering crash through the very soles of their paws, the water dancing in the puddles through which they ran.

Several times they darted past short, hulking shadows in the fog, marching toward the south and muttering amongst themselves in the guttural, coughing rasp of the Lutin tongue. Some of those shadows were much larger than Lutins though, their voices a great deal deeper; Giants. After one such encounter, barely avoided by quickly ducking behind the huge girth of a massive oarwood, Muri decided it was time to begin employing his magic.

Working from his memory of the Lutins he had helped slay the day before and adding details from what he could remember Keletikt wearing, he crafted two illusions to mask himself and the mink moving close behind him. "My magic cannot keep these illusions up forever, so we will have to move swiftly." he hissed at her, wiping water from his greenish grey brow. They both appeared to be clad in rough furs, reflections of their own for the simplicity of creating the aspect of wet fur garments. She was taller than he, as ever, but male rather than female. The illusion was not great, being hastily done, but would suffice in the fog.

"Just grunt if they say anything to us." he cautioned as he stepped out from behind the tree, "We're going the wrong way, so we may be asked a few questions." he extended his pick, which now looked like a broken axe, "Our tools are broken, so go with that." She grunted, rather effectively male, and nodded. She held up what he assumed was her shortsword, but looked like the handle of a crosscut saw. He hoped that was the manner of saw the Lutins were using.

What they were using them for he wanted to find out. The irresistible urge to continue north was still jangling on his nerves, which meant he had not gotten close to his objective yet. These Lutins were merely one aspect of it, whatever it was. Llyn stepped out behind him, propping her broken 'saw' upon her shoulder, and they began a very open, rapid trudge northward. They passed Lutins at what seemed every turn, the fog masking them from close scrutiny, the steady drizzle forcing everyone to move with their heads lowered. Even Lutins did not like cold rain, it seemed.

They were not stopped for an amazing hour, by which time they had passed the workers heading out of their camps to their labors. At one point a tall, muscular grey-green Lutin came charging toward them bellowing what Muri assumed to be epithets, pointing toward the south. He held up his shattered 'axe' and grunted at the husky fellow, only to be rewarded with a sharp blow to the side of the head. The lutin commander was so preoccupied at chiding him for the broken axe he never noticed that the head he struck had been furry, not hard like his Lutin brethren. Behind him, Llyn tensed, shifting the 'saw' upon her shoulder, preparing to end the angry Lutin's existence.

With another barking series of guttural words the Lutin pointed off to the northwest, then turned and charged off after another group at full volume. Muri paused briefly to catch his breath, feeling his tail twitching behind him nervously. Turning in the direction indicated by the Lutin commander, they resumed their march.

Muri began to notice the lack of shadows surrounding them, the general brightening of the mists as the sun climbed higher into the sky behind the dense cover of clouds. It took him some minutes to realize that there were no longer any trees, as far as he could see through the mists there were nothing more than stumps. Cleanly cut, if not level, the huge circles of wood were all that remained of centuries' old oarwoods, maples, ash, and other species of trees. Only the crushed underbrush remained, scattered about with discarded branches.

"By all the dark gods what are they doing?" he muttered to himself as they turned northward, once safely out of sight of the bellowing Lutin. Behind him Llyn said something, but it was lost to the muffling of the fog. Soon they found themselves among tents and Lutins on all sides. Mostly female Lutins, with their young scampering about like rabbits in a newly cut field. Most of the tents were in the process of being broken down in preparation of a move.

None of the females did more than glance their way, none saying anything much more than a curse now and then, waving them on their way once they saw the shattered tools. None seemed to know which way was which, though, for they were given all sorts of directions to travel. Keeping northward, they moved through the Lutin camp at full alert, carefully circling the one shaman's tent they encountered. There were male Lutins there, the personal guard for the shaman, and probably the chief as well.

The Lutin camp was positively huge, taking almost a half an hour to cross at a moderately rapid walk. Never before had Muri ever seen so many gathered in one place, nor had Keletikt ever spoken of such large gatherings. All of the hunting camps he ever stumbled across had been but a few tents and a single firepit. There were hundreds of firepits here, if not over a thousand. For the fog and the wet it was impossible to gauge the true size of the camp.

Eventually they won free of the huge, sprawling encampment, dodging around a host of wagons drawn by huge, heavy horses. These were the tool wagons, the moving forges used by Lutin and Human alike to forge tools of the foresters' trade. Lutins scampered about, porting bits of damp wood and buckets of coal from wagon to wagon, going this way and that with iron either raw or finished. All around them was the muted clang and clamor of metal being forged, even as the wagons lurched into motion. Muri was utterly amazed.

He was, he knew to his very core, witnessing the creation of a huge army bend on the vanquishing of an entire forest. Once that task was done, he sensed, that same iron would be turned from saw to sword, woodsmans' axe to battle axe. Nasoj was on the move.

Muri stopped as the last of the wagons lurched into motion, the small coterie of humans orbiting it moving along in its wake. He stared after it into the thinning gloom as the drizzle finally lightened, the sibilant, whispering hiss quieting. Silence settled around them as he and Llyn stood side by side, listening to the last fading echoes of the wagon drivers, the muffled din of forges fading to silence. Then, for a long moment, nothing. Only their shared breathing as they stood alone in the mud left behind from the moving of the camp, their paws sinking into the brown dinginess.

"War." Llyn said at length, placing a hand upon his shoulder, and nodded her head toward the east. Muri shook his head, turning to head north once more, letting the illusion slip away. He glanced over at her when she grasped his shoulder a second time, urging him eastward. "Not that way, you'll only run into another work crew." she turned east, and Muri followed, "That's what I was going south for, I've seen this already, but further north."

"What are they doing?" Muri asked as he stepped over the shattered remains of a wagon wheel and the crushed, almost unidentifiable remains of a treebranch.

"Building a road." Llyn called back over her shoulder as they began to ascend a hill. Here they encountered the tattered remnants of once thick undergrowth, spotted here and there with open spaces which had once been mighty trees. The earth around each huge stump had been churned and trampled by many Lutin and Giant feet as they worked with axe and saw to fell the forest giant. Huge ruts across the side of the hill defined the direction in which the huge logs had been hauled.

"A what?" Muri barked in surprise as he ran a few short paces to catch up. The rain had finally ceased, leaving them alone in the thinning fog and the silence left behind the ravenous appetite of the road builders.

"A road." she said again, "Like none you have ever seen before." With that she stopped, looking up into the lighter grey of the fog. It would take quite some time for the sun to burn the morning mists away. She turned and once more began their northward trek. Muri fell in step beside her, his pickaxe on his shoulder, and watched the fog around them for more Lutins, or giants, or... whatever. He still had enough personal power to create more illusions, but he could not maintain them indefinitely.

For another three hours they moved northward steadily through the dense fog, turning aside only when they heard the yell and call of work crews. Horses shrilled from some distance away, whips cracked. Voices were raised in command, Lutin voices yelling back and forth to one another. Not in anger, not in challenge, but in cooperation toward a goal.

Slowly the fog began to lift, making them move more cautiously, prepared to fight at a moments' notice, but they had passed far beyond the limits of the Lutin host. Their defensive cordon was focused toward the south, hoping to prevent any scouts from penetrating along their southern front. Also to prevent those that might from returning along the same avenue. They paid little attention to the north, for their task was completed there, extending their work a little closer to its objective.

Reaching the crest of a hill, Llyn brought Muri to a halt with a brief call, nodding her head toward the south and west. They both crouched behind a ravaged stand of alderberry and looked.

What Muri saw utterly took his breath away.

On the far hill of the valley from them, partially revealed by the lifting fog, was a huge bulwark of earth and wood with Lutins swarming across it like angered carpenter ants. Huge logs were being dragged up the flanks of the huge ridge of earth even as more was added to its leading edge. Huge beasts of dark, stone grey flesh and immense digging claws were busy at work within the earthen flesh of the far hill. The monsters were easily six or seven times the size of the great working horses dragging logs here and there. With each backward swipe of their huge, heavily clawed forefeet huge gouts of earth was thrown up against the side of the construction.

Like huge moles they excavated the earth, driven to work by the Lutins standing beyond their buried heads. Other Lutins ran about the construction, working with the loosely thrown earth and stone, huge mallets and bars working to secure the earth. Two more of the huge digging beasts were set to working the earth along either flank of the earthen ridge, creating a smooth, raised platform upon which milled logs were being lain.

A road was taking shape with rapid, startling ease. The huge oarwood planks were each perhaps a foot thick, but despite their length, no single log spanned the entire width of the immense road. Muri's jaw hung, slack and forgotten as he regarded the breathtaking display of engineering might. The road was not one for carriages, or even war chariots, but for entire armies to travel upon. Fifty or more human warriors could stand shoulder to shoulder upon that huge road and still have a bit of room on either side.

What would be moved along that road Muri had no idea at all, save that it had to be the greatest achievement of engineering he had ever seen, heard of, or read about. Not even the great harbor spanning the great Labmador Delta could come close to this for sheer power, or presence. A kingdom capable of such a feat had to be mighty indeed.

Once completed an entire army could move along it with a speed that would be frightening, unhindered by the terrain through which it ran. Indeed, following the line of the road, Muri was amazed to find that terrain was no obstacle. Where hills barred its passage, the road cut through them rather than going over or around. Every inch was covered in wooden planks, laid edge to edge, for as far as he could see.

"What is that for?" he squeaked at Llyn, his voice choked off by his shock, his horror at Nasoj's power.

"I don't know, his army I would guess." was all she could reply, with a shrug, "When I saw it they had not even reached that hill." she pointed to the cut through a hill some distance away. "My patrol turned tail at that point, to return to Metamor and warn them of this monster."

"How far is Metamor from here?"

"By foot? A fortnight." she glanced toward the south, "Taking terrain into account." she glanced across the valley at the road, "Though if they get that thing done they'll be able to move south three times faster than they ever have before."

"How long ago were you captured?" Muri followed her gaze, his heart sinking in his chest. If the road continued, the forest he had called home for the past two years would be leveled to make way for it. He now knew why Giants had become more common further south. This huge effort required unimaginable amounts of resources. The wood and earth was easily enough to come by, but food and water for the workers needed foragers fanning out over huge distances.

"Seven or eight days." she replied.

"That hill is perhaps two leagues away, so the road is advancing with some speed." he muttered to himself, quailing. The road was being built faster than he knew something like that rightfully should be. Yet he was there to witness the cooperation of the workers on the distant hill. The whole process moved with a swift, smooth routine. From where they were hidden it looked chaotic, but there were no apparent disagreements among the humans, giants, and Lutins working the site.

"Look there!" Llyn hissed, grasping his shoulder and pointing to a group of ten Giants standing off to one side on the finished portion of the road. A handful of ogres sat around them, looking impatient as they shifted their crude wooden weaponry around and watched the Lutins work nearby. "See the big one, in the blue steel?" she pointed toward a figure prominently standing in the center of the mass, huge arms crossed over his chest. He was a Giant, like those around him, but did not stand with the customary, listless slouch. His armour was polished to a high gloss, a huge two-handed sword slung at his hip.

"Who is that?" Muri asked, crouching a little lower behind their pitifully ragged bush.

"General Daraque. He lead the advance on the center gate during the war." her voice dropped to a growling burr, her hackles up as she regarded the Giant, "Killed a friend of mine with one sweep of that sword. His armour is magical, and is said to make him invulnerable. He's also rumored to have been human once."

Muri lidded his eyes and looked across the valley, looking at the flow of energies through the earth, and nearly cried out in anguish. Where the flow was normally a chaotic, thick web of moving energy, the energy here was thin, almost gone. Only the crushed remnants of vegetation gave any power to the earth, the thin trickle they provided almost lost under the cold emptiness of a land slain.

Across the vale, the Giant's armour was a beacon of fiery red energy bound up in an intricate weave of power that Muri would have had to be much closer to have read. His was the most powerful magic in leagues, where normally he should have been but a discolored mote upon a glimmering white veil.

"They've slain the land." he hissed, banishing the sight with a quick shake of his head.

"They've what?" Llyn looked at him curiously.

"The land... they've slain it." he sighed, waving a hand helplessly at the opposite hillside, "Each life contributes to the life of the land." he explained, "From this bush to the trees that used to grow here, to you, I, and the lowliest worm. An intricate web of life energies that gives to the land." he glared across the valley, "Even those Lutins, even as they take from the land. Each life gives a little of itself to sustain the life of the land."

"Imagine the destruction when it reaches the pass." Llyn choked at the amazing display. The forest had been cleared almost as far as the eye could see for the huge slabs of wood paving the road. The earth to either side out do a distance easily three times the width of the road was a churned ruin, advancing steadily southward.

"We don't have to." Muri muttered as he crept backward on his stomach, cautiously sliding from the crest of the hill. Llyn gave a short, involuntary shudder, her tail ducking morosely as she crept after him. The only got to their feet once they had reached the base of the hill, standing amidst a ruined landscape of shattered brush and flat treestumps.

"Where now?" she queried, resettling her belt as she stood and brushed bits of dirt and debris from her fur. Muri stood beside her, his gaze distant, paying scant attention to the similar state of his own pelt. His tail swayed lazily behind him, still damp from the passing of the rain and fog. "The keep needs to know about this."

"North." he said after several long moments, turning his face toward her, expressionless, whiskers drawn back against the sides of his muzzle, "There is something to the north far, far more dangerous than the road." He nodded, shifting his bandoleer and taking up his pick, "Whatever the road is being built for is to the north." Llyn stared after him for long moments as he strode away, stepping over the remnants of the forest, his tail trailing him like an obedient black and white shadow. She shook her head at his sheer folly and hastened to catch up. His folly was her folly, she mused, for alone neither would make it far.