The Homeward Journey

by Lurking Wolf

Due to the relative safety of the patrol, Lois had taken one of the watches, although he had seen the firelight in Alex's eyes several times during the night. The feline had the same glowing eyes as he had seen in wild animals in the past, and it was disconcerting at times, knowing that the man that was watching him had the body of a large cat that could kill him easily in either of his forms.

He had lived through it, however, and Alex relieved him at the end of the shift, bearing himself nothing like the predator Lois had been considering moments before. Instead, he looked as calm and collected as any human Lois had ever worked with, as well as significantly more alert.

As the final watch, Alex had the responsibility of waking the rest of the patrol. The sun had just barely peaked up far enough to light the sky, but they all started moving. Lucy was already awake, and seemed to be steadying herself magically just away from the camp. She began to move just as the others finished breaking camp, but she had already prepared and so joined them as they began to move.

As they were in the forest, silence was prized above speed, and they continued as a unit, quietly moving through the underbrush at a comfortable speed. Lois found himself close to Lucy at this point, and decided to ask a few questions while they were still relatively safe.

"Why did you get up so early?" he asked quietly.

Lucy chuckled quietly. "These short legs don't last as long as your long ones. I made it yesterday, but to keep up today I need to recharge myself magically. Drains my magic a bit more than I'd like, but it also keeps the patrol together without giving up too much speed."

Lois nodded, and stayed silent for a while longer. In that time, the patrol made good ground through the forest. They moved along together, keeping up with Alex as he set the pace. Several times they saw signs of creatures in the area. Even though they were moving quickly, sometimes they would manage to sneak up on something without them knowing. It was nice to know that they were succeeding in stealth, and it was also good to know that nothing else had disturbed the wildlife earlier.

They ate on the move; Alex took some food from his pack and passed it around. It took them less than a minute to get ready to continue again, but they took it slower while they ate, just in case anyone got careless. The food wasn't too much, but it gave them the strength to keep moving until they could get something more substantial.

Alex said that they would be reaching Outpost a good while before sundown. Lois hoped that this was true; he didn't want to keep going too much longer. Although he would never admit it, the pace was beginning to get to him. He wouldn't stop as long as the others moved, but he certainly wouldn't mind an excuse to rest. He watched the sun with anticipation. It couldn't be much longer now. He just needed to keep moving.

The patrol reached Outpost just before dusk. Alex had increased their pace several times during the day, apparently unsatisfied with their progress. His original estimate of late afternoon ended up being a bit optimistic, but Lois was at least happy to enter the gates of something slightly resembling civilization. As its name implied, Outpost was mostly a military installation, but Lois knew that it would be a few more weeks before they returned to the Keep proper, and staying in the fortress for the evening would help ease him into a few weeks of roughing it.

They were given a place to rest in the barracks, and were given food to eat with the garrison of the fortress. They ate together, purely for sake of saving time, but Alex took advantage of the situation to say a few words.

"We were forced to start this patrol on short notice, so we have not had much time to talk about what's going on. Now, we could say a few words while we eat here, but I think we would all appreciate some extra privacy considering the scale of this patrol. I've gotten a meeting room for our use, so we'll be heading there directly once we finish here."

He was met with no opposition; whether it was due to the fact that no one objected, or simply because they wanted to enjoy a full meal before their patrol began in earnest was unclear. Either way, only few words were exchanged the rest of the way through their meal.

Alex led the way to their reserved meeting area as soon as everyone had finished. The room they entered was small and sparsely decorated. A few lights were already lit, giving the room enough light to see the map that was spread wide over the top of a small table in the center of the room. It was certainly functional, but made everyone realize how much grander the meeting rooms were in Metamor. Considering the lavish decorations of George's office, which was the only place they had discussed the patrol, this room seemed more like a dungeon cell.

Alex walked across to the room and ran a hand over the map. He left it otherwise undisturbed, however, and instead turned back to face the patrol. "Gerard, Lucy, you both know me. I don't have anything to say to you two except that I expect you to work as well now as before Lois was assigned to work with us. Beyond that, you're just here to remind me of anything I might forget to tell our guest member."

He turned then, and looked directly at Lois. "We've fought each other once; I know you have skill. Since you addressed it last night, I won't be shy about mentioning it here. You were an assassin, so I expect that you're good at being quiet. That's good; we've had a lot of freedom so far, since we've cleared a lot of the area around Metamor recently." He left the reason for this clearing a secret, but the rest of the patrol knew; they were preparing for the arriving dignitaries in anticipation of the Duke’s nuptials.

"We won't have such a clear road from here on out. We'll keep the pace up until we get past Giant's Dike; from there we're into no-man's land. Nasoj would still claim it as his own, but right now it's the domain of countless squabbling lutin tribes, and whatever nasty things they might have with them. Our orders are to scout; engagement is only authorized in the case of certain troublesome tribes. Even then, the call to engage is mine. If there's too many in a particular party, we'll try to follow them for a while, and see if we can find a pattern to report to George.

"Since it is a recent development, I need to inform you that not all lutin tribes are considered hostiles. We have received offers of peace from several of them, and their intentions have proven trustworthy to this point. We don't have the resources to offer peace terms personally; we leave that to the longs. Our job is exclusively to find and track tribes whose hostility is confirmed. Most of the time, I'll be available to identify them. I will want you to be able to handle yourself, though. Here's a handy resource that intelligence came up with to keep us up with things."

He pulled out a small wooden box that he had kept in a pouch by his side. It didn't look special at all; it was simply a plain wooden box, lacking any mark, stain, or symbol that might make it look important. It was latched at one side, and hinged with simple, utilitarian hinges on the other. Alex tripped the latch and opened the box, revealing a deck of well-made cards inside. They lacked the usual design used on cards; although the swords, coins, clubs, and hearts remained, as well as numbers on the corners, the designs in the center instead consisted of unfamiliar symbols, labeled names under each one.

"These cards are used to tell us what tribes have what allegiances. The swords are openly hostile to us; many of them are still allied with Nasoj; we have more enemies than cards, so we just have the most important enemies in the cards. The clubs are hostile, but generally leave us alone if we leave them alone. Coins aren't on either side; a few of them might try to give you trouble, but they're mostly show. Current orders are to leave them alone for now; we believe that we might be able to buy their aid later. Hearts are allies; we don't have too many of these, yet, but we hope to have a suit of them before too much longer."

Lois nodded. Using cards to keep track of your enemies was certainly a novelty, but it did seem to be a good method. He didn't have much trouble remembering things; a little familiarity with the cards, and he would know who was who without much difficulty.

"So, we're out here mainly for intelligence work?"

"At the moment," Alex confirmed. "As I said, there are some priority targets. I'll go over some of the important ones with you sometime later this evening. At any rate, I will want to use your skills every now and then, if you feel comfortable doing so in your new form."

"I might need a little refresher. I'll take a run around the fortress a little bit, see how well my stealth works in this form. I don't anticipate any trouble though, so you should be able to count on me."

"All right, good." Alex looked him up and down and sighed. "I didn't give you much of a response when you came out with the fact that you were an assassin last night. I want to be clear; I am not going to treat you any different on this patrol than if you were any other rookie. My men will be my first choices for most missions, but that will be because I'm still figuring out the extent of your skills, not because of what your employment was before you came here. Once we're out there, we're all in danger. Add distrust to our list of handicaps, and we're already well on our way to failure. I won't let that happen to us."

"The same goes for me," Gerard said, breaking his silence for the first time since their meal. He nodded, perhaps a little stiffly, to Lois. "I can't say I will never have a second thought about you, but all I've seen of you so far is a strong man with a good work ethic. Do remember, however, I'm fighting for a lot more than just myself. If you go after me or anyone I know, I will not hesitate to kill you on the spot."

"Aren't you the reassuring one?" Lucy commented. She couldn't hold back a girlish giggle at Gerard's words, but she managed to regain her composure before she completely lost her poise. "I'm in no hurry to die either; I'll work with you too," she finally managed for her own part.

"All right, Lois. We're agreed. You're part of this patrol, and as such now partake in all of the responsibilities, dangers, and quirks that make us who we are," Alex announced. Lois felt Gerard's heavy hand thump him across his shoulder a few times, and he managed a lopsided smile as he looked back at the large man. Lois had to admit, it was the first time he had let his guard down this much in a long time. It felt really good.

"Welcome to the club, mate," Alex said. He held out a paw, giving a full smile for the first time since they had met in the ring. Lois shook his paw, and returned the smile with full force. Lucy managed to squeeze between the two of them next, and gave Lois' hand one strong pump before stepping aside to shake the feeling back into her hand.

"If you're going to get some practice done in your new form, I would suggest starting immediately," Alex said. "I will want an hour or two before we get some rest tonight to review some details." He pulled the case of cards partially from the pouch and gestured to it with his other hand. Lois nodded.

"I'll take a quick run and be back here in about half an hour. Will that work?"

"Sounds like a plan to me. Better get moving, we're already almost out of sunlight."

Lois didn't hesitate any further. As soon as the door was open, he darted out, scanning the halls for cover as he started his run. Inside the room, the three regulars watched him go, smiles widening as they surveyed the scene.

"I see the two of you performed admirably," Alex commented drily.

"Are you kidding? His attention was glued to you the whole time. I could have covered him from head to toe in fur dye and he wouldn't have noticed." Gerard wiped some of the black dye on his armor.

"I think I prefer what you did. Turning him black isn't hardly as funny as watching him running down the hall with a target painted on the back of his head." Alex sighted along an imaginary bow and mimicked a shot at the man just as he rounded the far corner.

"Don't forget my work," Lucy said. "A target is nice, but I want to see his face when he realizes that I tied a bow to his tail while he was watching you. If he's that observant as an assassin, I think we can all rest easy."

"As long as we let someone monologue to him, we'll be fine," Alex agreed. He finally let his smile fade a little bit. "Well, that means he's officially one of us. Best get used to it; if we do a good job and George follows his usual tendencies, we could be seeing a lot more of him as we move along."

The two others nodded. None of the three felt completely comfortable with their new member, but the words they had spoken were true. If they didn't trust one of their partners, they would be better off if they didn't leave Outpost. Trusting an assassin could be deadly, but the alternative could be even more dangerous.

Lois found his new decorations before going very far in his run. In the interests of keeping good relations with his patrol partners he decided to postpone his revenge until they had returned safely to Metamor. A little fun was still well within what his conscience would allow, so he decided to drop in on them unexpectedly. He already knew from their equipment drop where they were going to be sleeping, so he stayed hidden for several minutes, watching the rest of his patrol as they moved around. Alex seemed an easy target; he sat near the middle of the room, sitting on a bench while playing a solitary game with the cards he had shown Lois earlier. As he worked on his game, Lois silently crept up to him until he was finally close enough to whisper in Alex's ear.

"Move the five onto the six."

Alex jumped noticeably, and managed to catch Lois' hand as he attempted to show his commander the move he had just described. After a few moments of silence, Alex finally managed to say something.

"I think I'll make it a requirement for you to announce yourself whenever you enter a room," he said, voice sounding more than a little hoarse.

"That shouldn't be a problem. By the way, thanks for the decorations."

Alex looked at him with a bit of a grin. "Decorations?" Lois held up the bow that had been around his tail. "That's one decoration," Alex noted.

"Well, yes. The other I noticed when I rubbed the back of my head a while ago. I know I didn't have any black dye in my fur before my run, and couldn't think of where I could have gotten it. I figured it out after finding the bow."

Alex watched as Lois circled back around the table where his cards were laid, and verified that most of the dye had been cleaned from the fur, and anything that was left was hardly recognizable as anything important. Lois wouldn't have to use dye in the field, since his natural coloring and the color of his equipment matched the terrain so closely, so this would probably be the only time on this patrol that he would be dealing with the stuff. Well, perhaps until after the patrol; further pranks might be a good way to keep Lois off guard while Andywn planted some people on him.

A good bit of the evening was used familiarizing Lois with the cards. They played a few hands of various card games, and then Alex left to tend to some final arrangements for the patrol, leaving Lois to alternate between flipping through the cards randomly, and playing solitaire games on the low table. He moved quickly through the games, but obviously had little skill, and often gave up on an easily winnable game because of impatience. Alex didn't note this directly, but Gerard noted these tendencies and relayed them to his commander. It wasn't a major problem, but they had always been told to keep an eye on anything that might be an eventual weakness in the field. Impatience could be a problem; Alex would have to watch for any sign of it in the field.

For his part, Lois was beginning to get the feel of the cards. His impatience was based mostly on the fact that he didn't want to be staring at the same rows of cards for several minutes. Seeing a distinct pattern of the symbols for too long would associate the pattern with the symbols, instead of with their classification. By keeping the cards moving, he left the symbols and the suits as the only two constant things, and allowed him to associate them in his memory without interference.

Lucy was already sleeping hours before her partners. She completely and openly realized that it was because of her reduced age, and brushed off any jokes about it. It was the life she was forced to live, but she worked with it as well as she could, and that allowed her to keep up with her partners.

Lois slept without any trouble that night, and finally woke up when Alex gave him a firm shake.

"Rise and shine, we're out of here in ten. Up and ready, now." His words were somewhat harsh, but his voice was low and controlled, almost as though he was already on the patrol in the middle of lutin-infested woods. They would be in such a state before long; Lois supposed that practicing for that eventual occurrence was not a bad thing, and so he prepared in a similar manner, quickly and quietly.

He was not the only one. While Alex was already ready and speaking to some high-ranking member of Outpost just outside of the room, Gerard and Lucy were still in the room, preparing without making a sound beyond the unavoidable creaking of leather and ringing of settling mail. Gerard was the first one ready, finishing his preparation by strapping his massive sword across his back and checking it to make sure it was in good position for a rapid draw in the field. He left through the door, leaving Lucy and Lois to finish their preparation.

Alex had not been joking when he told Lois that they were going in ten minutes. It took him about five minutes to finish preparing, and the rest of the patrol was ready to move by the time he left the door. After ten minutes, they were already walking down the main road that led to the exit gate. They headed through the east gate, following the road for a few miles before they once again left the beaten path.

"This is probably the last time we'll be on an actual road for a while; what few good paths exist north of the Dike we will be religiously avoiding," Gerard noted quietly. "Get used to the underbrush; it will be your path and your best friend for the next couple of weeks. This is not friendly terrain."

The patrol cut through the forest, going more slowly now than they had traveled earlier. Alex was clearly being more cautious now that they were beyond the Keep's immediate vicinity. They were still technically within the Keep's sphere of influence, but Alex knew that lutins were pretty common in the area, and he had no desire to announce their presence before they had to. If they could avoid lutins on this side of the Dike completely, he would not be disappointed.

Early afternoon found the patrol within sight of the Dike. Every now and then, they could see glimpses of the ruins through the trees. The trees stopped short of the area by design, giving any defenders the advantage of a wide open area in which they could see an enemy advance. With the fall of the wall, however, there were no regular defenders about to take advantage of this fact. Still, Alex called a short while they were still well within the trees.

"We'll wait here for a little while; the Dike has plenty of places where someone could hide out and try to stop us, so we're going to wait for dark to make our crossing. For now we take some rest, get some food, and do a little bit of preliminary surveillance. Gerard and I will be doing most of the scouting when the time comes; you'll be coming with us for part of the way so we can cross if the opportunity arises, or to reinforce if either of us is engaged."

Several hours were spent in their position. Everyone watched as the sun dropped in the sky, slowly dipping farther and farther. The trees on the other side of the main path began to cast long shadows, until much of the main path was obscured by their shade. Alex watched until he felt comfortable, and then motioned for the rest of his patrol to follow as he finally moved out of the forest's cover. For the first few minutes after they left the tree line, it seemed as though the cover followed them. The long shadows fell, deep enough to give them satisfactory cover until a few feet short of the Dike itself. As they reached the border of this shadowed area, Alex motioned for Lois and Lucy to stay back in a slight decline in the terrain. He and Gerard moved up into the light silently, and soon had reached the wall.

For some time they both disappeared into the ruins, each exploring different passages. Alex disappeared first, checking the other side of the Dike, and then Gerard stepped out of view. Lois stayed prone, watching to see if any flares were set off; beside him, Lucy kept her eyes just barely high enough to see the wall. To anyone on the walls, she would disappear into the terrain because of her posture.

As they waited, the long shadows lengthened even more until the surrounding terrain began to fall into similar shade as the sun fell out of sight a little bit at a time. Soon, the sun itself would be completely hidden, and they would have only a little while longer until the entire ridge was covered in darkness. Just before the sun disappeared, however, Gerard and Alex appeared beside the wall, their silhouettes signaling for the others to move up. Lois and Lucy wasted no time, and they had soon rejoined their commander at a breach in the wall.

"We're in the clear. Let's go," Alex whispered.

No one had any argument; before the fading light had disappeared, they were entering the forest on the opposite side of the Giant's Dike, ready to begin their mission in earnest. It took them about another hour before they found a good campsite, and everything was set up quickly and efficiently for the night.

"Lois." The ermine turned as he heard his commander's voice, and saw the lynx looking at him, with that peculiar fire that felines possessed at night. "I want you to take first watch. Gerard will come and relieve you in a few hours. Good luck and good night."

"Yes, sir," Lois responded, voice barely audible. He wasted no time finding a good post, and had settled in before the rest of the patrol was ready to rest. He spent the rest of his shift letting eyes and ears work together through the darkness. He found that it was very easy to carry out his responsibilities. His form had improved his vision in the dark, and his hearing was wonderful at picking up and interpreting sounds quickly. He had no doubt that anyone that tried to enter the camp would be caught. It was just another one of those odd things that came with the territory; one of the strange blessings of the Curse.

From the Journal of Vincent Lois

December 6, 707 CR

Day 4 on Patrol - First Day North of Dike

Today, I got a firsthand taste of the Giantdowns. I thought Alex had called us too early when he woke me early this morning, but the darkness was our cover while we got unpacked and moved. It didn't cease even after we had left; a wall of dark clouds kept the sun obscured for the majority of the day, only very rarely allowing it to peek out, and never long enough to chase off the chill that hung in the air. My thick fur cuts the effect some, but even I could feel the extra edge added by the weather.

While the weather was not overly pleasant, the atmosphere we had entered was itself desolate enough to send a chill down your spine. We didn't speak at all because of the nature of our mission, and the silence among us was echoed by the forest around us. It felt wrong; no living creature made more than slight rustling in the undergrowth, and that rare occurrence was sufficient cause to take extra caution. Either the lutins have hunted all the creatures in the area to extinction here, or something was scaring them off. Either way, the ambiance gave us no cover, and forced us to a painful crawl of a pace. I find it no wonder that the lutins try moving south so frequently.

It's good that I'm used to waiting for opportunity for a long time, because I doubt we moved three miles today. Alex won't allow us to build a fire past the Dike, so we have to keep our supplies dry and warm through judicious application of pyrocks. Good thing he seems to have a good number of them stashed throughout our supplies. While there wasn't any rain or snow today, there was enough leftover snow to dampen almost everything we had with us. I don't expect it to get any better out here; I just hope it doesn't get much worse.

December 9, 707 CR

Day 7 - Fourth Day North of Dike

Writing journal entries over the past few days has been impossible due to our patrol schedule. We stopped early on our first day in the north, but we're milking each day for time now. I think Alex was getting a little nervous after we saw no one on our first days of work, so he kept us moving until later in the evenings. Or perhaps it simply feels later this far north. We keep moving until well after dark.

We finally came across some lutins yesterday. We've been following them cautiously, trying to determine what they're here for. So far, we haven't seen any identifying markings among the group. The prevailing theory is that they are deserters whose tribe at large are still loyal, and so refuse to identify themselves openly anymore. Alex is giving this investigation one more day, and we'll move on if nothing comes up.

December 10, 707 CR

Day 8 - Fifth Day North of Dike

Patience has paid off. The party we were following hooked up with another, larger party, this one wearing the symbol of one of the hostile tribes. A little covert investigation later, and we discovered that the one we had been following was a hunting party. Apparently they got wise to us hunting down anyone openly wearing their symbol; they had intentionally left their symbols off of their hunting party so that they wouldn't be picked off.

We have to stay alert, so I'll cut this off short. With luck, I'll be able to write again soon, after we move.

December 14, 707 CR

Day 12 - Ninth Day North of Dike

We spent a good bit of our last few days maneuvering around approaching parts of the enemy formation. We were planning to take out what we saw of it several days ago; it was good fortune that we were waiting for better intelligence before we went in. As it turns out, the entire tribe seems to be assembling near us. Currently, it just looks like their relocating for territory reasons, with no intention of taking hostile action to the south. It's our job to watch out for these tribes, though. We have just a little time before we're supposed to head south, so we'll try to keep up with them for a while.

I had expected to have to deal with more than just one tribe, but Alex tells me that such a large group of enemies takes precedence over everyone else. It makes sense; if we can get enough information of the patrol patterns of this tribe, we might be able to send someone better equipped to deal with them. The Keep has enemies to spare, so any small part we can do to help that situation will be appreciated.

Lois was woken by Alex shaking his shoulder. His first reaction was to take hold of the dagger he kept hidden at his side, but he relaxed when he saw who it was. Alex motioned for the ermine to get ready for the day, and then went about his own preparations. Gerard was still at his patrol post at the bottom of a ridge separating the Keepers from the enemy camp, and Lucy was off to the side, focusing herself so she would have enough magic for the day's activities.

It didn't take long for Lois to finish his preparations; they had not taken much out to begin with just in case someone got a look at the camp during the night. When everything was ready, they met at Gerard's position on the low ridge.

"All right," Alex started once they had all gathered. "This is our last day to find something unless they are going our way for some reason. We head south after this. This basically means that we need to find some more information on this particular group before we go. We know their name and their general location; while this is good, it would be better to know how to anticipate their actions."

"Going to look for orders?" Gerard asked.

"Orders or any other information that might help us, yes. We want to be able to give a raiding party the most accurate information that we can. If we can give our side the resources to take out this party, it will be invaluable to the Keep."

"So, what's our gameplan?" Gerard asked.

"There's no clear command tent in their camp, so it might be a little more difficult than usual to determine where to look," Alex noted. "To start out with, we need to figure out who's in charge, because they'll have the info we need. Since we don't have too many other useful leads, we're all going to work on finding their leader."

"With all due respect, we've been at this for a good while," Gerard noted. "We haven't found a commander yet, and we really cannot be certain that he is even here. With their strange movement patterns, there may be another group of lutins coming, and he could be with them."

"That's a distinct possibility, and one that suggests we take an extra layer of caution in our movements. If there are more groups, then they could stumble over us on their way in." Alex thought for a moment. "We should split into pairs for maximum safety, although that could make us miss something. Still, being able to take what information we have to our allies would be better than taking unnecessary risks and getting caught. All right, I'll be pairing up with Gerard and moving around to the other side of the camp. Lucy, you and Lois should stay on this side and keep an eye out here. The method you use to get your information is your decision, just keep quiet and keep your eyes and ears open."

With one last day to find whatever information they could, the group wasted little time getting to their positions. Because of her experience, Lucy watched the camp while Lois watched for any approaching groups. The camp remained strangely quiet for the first few hours. Several guard shifts were switched while the groups watched, but the camp showed little other sign of activity until well past dawn. Once things started moving, however, they moved in earnest. It seemed that every lutin in the camp was doing something. After a little while, they began to cook something over a fire near the center of the camp.

"I don't know, it seems like they're going to a lot of trouble in their food preparation," Lucy commented. "I don't think they are close to finishing the meal, but I can already smell it. They never did anything like this since we started watching them; either they're just incredibly overconfident for some reason, or something special is happening today."

"Like a command party coming in?"

Lucy nodded. "It's certainly a possibility. Keep your eyes out; we may have company before long."

The lutins were indeed just starting their cooking. Before long the smell of the food flooded the area. It pretty much assured the party that anyone who might have been nearby would be able to find this troop of lutins. Their reckless lack of fear was odd, and made the patrol extremely wary. Even lutins wouldn't be so confident without a good reason.

Little changed until Lois noticed some figures moving through the forest behind him and Lucy. He got Lucy's attention and pointed them out. The rout that the figures were taking towards the camp would bypass the two at a safe distance, but they weren't content to let them move in without some observation. Instead, Lois and Lucy anticipated the group's movements, and observed from a safe distance.

The group was relatively small compared to the others that had gathered in the larger camp, but other differences were also immediately apparent. This group was better equipped and much better disciplined than their counterparts, and moved with speed and precision though the woods. From their distance, Lucy was not able to make out specifics, but passed on piece of information to Lois.

"It's a Shaman and his personal guards. He's probably the one they're preparing for."

Lois nodded, and then followed Lucy as they followed the small group to the edge of the camp. As they approached, the shaman's men were hailed by the guards at the rim of the camp, and orders were soon being dealt out in loud voices throughout the camp.

With a target now firmly in mind, the Keepers moved along the edge of the camp, keeping out of sight of their enemies while giving themselves as good a look at them as possible. The shaman's regalia were much finer than his position usually demanded, and Lucy was quick to point it out.

"I think this one is the commander we’ve been looking for," Lois suggested when she mentioned it. "I would not be surprised if lutins put a shaman in a position of power; just like so many humans, they are drawn to power, magical and physical. It's not hard for a shaman to garner a lot of respect with their magic."

Specific words were hard to hear from the forest, but it was certain that there was an overly theatrical greeting being given by the one of the assembled lutins to the shaman, which was waved off with something akin to distaste. While it was hard to hear the lutin greeting the shaman's retinue, it was not hard to hear the shaman's angry response. He spoke loudly while gesturing at the cooking area. Lois grinned and gave a quiet chuckle as he watched the scene.

"He's certainly not very happy that they so thoroughly blew their cover."

The lutin tried to save his skin, but the expression of the shaman made it clear that he was unimpressed. Suddenly, what little sound could be heard from inside the camp faded, and then became entirely silent. The shaman reached forwards and violently grabbed the man that was trying to explain his logic. Lois tried to read the lips of the shaman, but found himself jumping a bit when the shaman violently took hold of the lutin in front of him. The lutin was clearly screaming, and the fact that nothing was audible only made it more intimidating. Even Lois flinched when he realized that the shaman was magically tearing his subordinate apart. The creature screamed in silence as his body simply burned away, and the lutins all watched the spectacle in awe and terror. It didn't take the shaman long to finish with his subordinate, and when he did, there was nothing left but a scorched skull held in the shaman's hand.

Lois wasn't sure what to think about what had just happened; obviously, the shaman was not someone that you wanted to mess with. Also, as he handed the skull to another one of the lutins, it seemed that he was instating a new interim leader for his men. At any rate, they had successfully found the commander they had been looking for; now they had to find a way to get information so that they could move on.

He started moving through the brush, following the motion of his target as he went back through the camp, but stopped suddenly when the shaman froze. He was staring off into the forest on the other side of the camp, almost as though he had seen something. He turned halfway, saying a few silenced words to the lutins at his side, and Lois could see a sickening smile on the man's face. He was sure now; the shaman had seen the two on the other side. Lois knew he had to do something quickly, and so moved without saying anything to Lucy.

He stood, pulling a dagger off of his bandolier and switching to a throwing hold in the same motion. By that time, he was already halfway through his throwing motion, and the dagger was out before anyone had a chance to see it. The blade found its mark, driving through the furs that the shaman wore and lodged itself just right of his left shoulder. He dropped, his scream of pain killed by the same magic that had kept the patrol from hearing the rest of the activity in the camp. The lutins who had been moving towards the other side of the camp turned as their leader fell, and quickly became confused. Gerard and Alex must have seen the situation from the other side, as one of the lutins was run through by an arrow in the next second, and one of the watchmen on the edge dropped, nearly torn in half by the force of Gerard’s longsword.

The advantage had already changed from the lutins to the Keepers, but Lois knew it wouldn't last if they couldn't keep their opponent's confused. He moved as quickly and quietly as he could through the forest, trying to find another position to throw from. Lucy swore vehemently and unleashed a controlled burst of magic at one of the nearby lutins.

Even as it seemed that the lutins were going to help the Keepers with their indecision, the shaman rose from the ground, his shouting barely audible as he pulled the dagger from the wound. Lois was close enough to see the blade, and gawked at the man as he found the dagger was clean, as were the furs over the shaman's heart. The lutins were too intimidated to disobey anything he said, and they all charge united in the direction he had first pointed. They would take many casualties charging so recklessly, but it would switch the momentum back to their side as they finally decided what was happening.

It helped the Keepers not at all that the shaman had turned his attention to the opposite side, eyes boring through the leaves, staring straight at Lois.

The assassin let loose his second throwing dagger, but was forced to hit the dirt as it turned and spun back in his direction. It buried itself hilt deep in a tree behind him, but he was safe. Lucy moved up then, announcing her presence by sending a far less controlled burst of energy towards the lutin mage. He easily countered the attack, but turned his full attention to Lucy, giving Lois an opportunity to get out of trouble.

He stormed through the forest, cutting across the edge of the camp to follow the charging lutins into the forest. Gerard and Alex had both fallen back into the cover of the trees, and were slowly moving to flank while doing their best to stay out of range of the lutins. A few of the monstrosities had gotten wise to their strategy, and now fired back with bows, spears, and other ranged weapons they could bring to bear. Lois made them his primary targets

Letting any of them see his approach would make his job a lot harder, so he went in as carefully as possible. He would still have to cover some open ground before he reached his targets, but he took a much more cautious route to them. As he entered the camp area, the sounds that had been previously kept from his hearing hit his ears, and he heard the chaos of lutins screaming. He wasted no time silencing the first of his targets, and the second fell to a thrown dagger as he looked over at his fallen compatriot. Another followed when he failed to notice his allies' fall, and the rest were short work as they very nearly did Lois' job for him in their panic.

With that taken care of, Lois drove through the branches, chasing after the lutins who were brave enough to take the fight to Alex and Gerard.

Lucy had her hands full. As soon as the shaman was focused on her, he began to drive at her with his own magic. It was more powerful than her own magic, but she held against him, shielding herself against his attacks carefully. She occasionally responded with an attack of her own, but the lutin's rage refused to be beaten, and he just kept driving her back. She knew that Lois had gone to help Gerard and Alex; she hoped that they all got back before her defenses failed.

Alex took another shot from his bow, trying to get it through the tangled mess of branches and leaves even as he depended on them for cover. Gerard took a more personal approach, picking off lutins on the edges of the group as they moved. Alex had seen the beginning of the battle, and knew that Lucy was now locked in battle with the lutin shaman. He was determined to get back to her, and so led the lutins on a chase, through the forest a little while, then back to the camp. He just hoped that they could defeat enough of them on the way back to the camp to allow them to hold in the open.

Lois finally caught up with the back of the lutin party, and he made quick work of the first few that he reached. Once their companions realized what had happened, however, a considerable number of them broke off and followed after him. Lois was forced to break pursuit of the main body in an attempt to shake loose. He couldn't leave the rest of the patrol, though. After a few moments of running, Lois stopped and watched his enemies approach him. They were scattered enough to give him a chance. He just had to keep focused.

He stood still only long enough to come up with a plan of attack, and then charged back at the lutins. They helped his cause by shying away, scattering their group even more than before. He had no such reservations. He hit them with his full force, tearing through the defenses of individual lutins as they hoped for aid in vain. Many had already fallen by the time that he reached a considerable group, and they were too intimidated to be effective. Lois maneuvered through them, taking them out as quickly as possible, until the group had dissolved, the survivors running for cover in the trees.

The moment's respite let Lois take stock, and he realized that he had not been as flawless as he had perhaps hoped. A few injuries were visible, mostly on his extremities, but one blade had made it through the leather armor he wore and left a decent gash across his chest. It wasn't very painful, not compared to many other things he had done in his time, but it was bleeding badly. He had to do something about it soon. Right now, he just had to decide whether to help first, or take care of his own wound.

Lucy was being quickly worn down, but refused to give in to her opponent. She grunted as the shaman unleashed attack after attack onto her defenses, but she gritted her teeth and dug deep into her reserves to keep fighting. Her friends would be there to help her soon, and she couldn't just give up now.

As it turned out, her friends were on their way back, and they burst into the clearing, followed at a short distance by what remained of the lutin camp. Alex wasted no time contributing his help to Lucy's cause as he released an arrow at her attacker. The shaman saw it coming somehow, and eliminated the threat with a negligent flick of his wrist. Still, he seemed to realize that he didn't have much time to waste if he wanted to win his engagement. He unleashed an even stronger blow onto her defenses. She held, but her shields were too weak to take another, a fact she realized as he got ready to throw another attack at her. She took what little power she had and used it to save her life.

Her defenses blocked any elemental damage from the attack, but she took the force of the blow full on and was thrown back into the forest. Alex fired off another arrow, but just received a blast of wind from the mage as a reward. He was able to get back up, but Gerard was already between him and the shaman, taking his shot at the man. Alex braced as he expected the stag to be thrown back by an attack, but his friend blocked the blow with his sword, which simply seemed to absorb, then diffuse the elemental energy released by the shaman. The lutin was barely able to sidestep Gerard's attack, and was forced to use his magic in defense as Gerard turned another attack towards his body.

"Alex, get Lucy and get out of here!" Gerard yelled. Alex's first instinct was to refuse vehemently, but the situation was desperate. The lutins weren't far away any more, and they would be all over them before they could set up a defense, even if Gerard could somehow defeat the shaman. They had done well to survive this far, but there were still too many of their enemies left alive for them to hope to defeat alone. If any of them were going to be able to escape the battle, they would have to get out now.

"Disengage as soon as we're away!" Alex yelled as he sprinted towards the woods where Lucy had fallen. The lutin, whether he knew what had been said or not, still realized that Alex was trying to escape, and tried to attack his with his magic. Gerard turned that attack away as well, maneuvering to get between the shaman and his commander. Alex still held hope that Gerard would be able to get out of there, but he knew better. The stag would have to keep this lutin busy until his teammates were well gone.

Alex found Lucy quickly, and she had fortunately made it out with little enough damage to struggle back to her feet as Alex arrived. "We're getting out of here!" Alex yelled, grabbing Lucy's arm. She was too winded to reply with words, and simply nodded as he pulled her with him. She stumbled after him as quickly as she could, but her magic reserves were exhausted, and she couldn't enhance her stamina magically anymore. She only had adrenaline to run on. She just hoped that it would be enough.

The shaman yelled something to the other lutins as they started arriving, and they began forming a disorganized ring around the two fighters as they faced off. Either the shaman didn't trust them, wanted to get the kill himself, or simply wanted to make sure his target could not escape after his friends. At any rate, it looked like the two of his friends would get away, as none of the lutins pursued them. At the same time, however, it looked grim for him, even if his sword somehow deflected the magic that the shaman was bringing to bear.

He fought as hard as he could, driving the shaman back a little bit, but finding before long that the lutin was far too stubborn to be defeated by an untrained Keeper. He kept fighting back until he finally forced Gerard out of position. The next second, Gerard was thrown back, horrible pain originating at his left leg. His sword was lost, and the lutins in the ring quickly retrieved it and kept it from him. Gerard hadn't seen what had happened, but he knew that his leg was broken; he could feel that without seeing the damage. As a pair of lutins on either side of him dragged him forcibly to his hooves, Gerard yelled out from pain. They refused to let him keep his broken leg from the ground, and one even stepped on it to make sure that the stag was feeling the pain.

The next moment, the lutin shaman had his muzzle held in one strong hand, pulled down so Gerard was forced to look at his enemy through his tear-blurred vision.

"You fail," the chief said in barely intelligible Common, a cruel grin his only expression.

"What are you waiting for?" Gerard spat through grinding teeth. "Kill me!"

"Kill?" The lutin laughed, and Gerard's heart sank. "No. I don't kill body, I kill mind."

The shaman held up an orb in his hand, barely the size of a marble, but no less terrifying for its lack of size. It seemed to suck in all light from around it, and appeared in the hand of the mage as almost a hole in the fabric of the world. Gerard had seen them before, usually in training and seldom in the field, but he had no doubt as to what it was. It was a fetish stone, designed to amplify the Curse, tearing from the subject their human mind and forcing them to adopt the mind of a docile animal. Even powerful Keeper mages were wary around them.

Gerard would gladly die for his friends, but his eyes grew wide as he saw the sinister item in the lutins hand. He pulled against his captors, even twisting on his broken leg to try to break their grip, but nothing worked. The lutin's dirty lips parted in a sinister smile, and he drew closer...

Suddenly, a deep voice yelled from outside of the ring. If Gerard would have been able to move, he still would have had no idea where to look for the speaker. The voice seemed to reverberate, changing direction with every echo. The lutins heard it too, and were obviously almost as frightened as Gerard at its sudden appearance.

The voice spoke then, its direction still unclear, but its words now clearly coming in the lutin language. Gerard knew a few words in the language of the lutins, but he couldn't understand at all what was being said. Even the shaman in front of him seemed disconcerted at the voice that called from all around him, and he had, for the moment, lowered the fetish stone.

The shaman had good reason to be frightened. "Your magic and your bloodletting are not welcome here," it said. "Stand down, or all of you will feel my wrath."

If someone had said that to his face, it would have perhaps been a bit underwhelming, even laughable. As it was, with an echoing, ethereal voice warning him of the death of his entire tribe was simply intimidating. It became even more so when several of his men fell, dying with no visible reason why.

"I know who you are!" the lutin chief yelled, trying to stay calm. "You're the mage I just crushed!"

As disturbing as a disembodied voice speaking to him was, that same voice bursting out in sinister laughter was worse. If it was the mage, she was showing more resourcefulness than he had expected, as well as more power than had before been apparent. "No," the voice spoke. "That mage survived your attack, but her part in the bloodletting was unforgiveable. I am the one who crushed her."

The fear in the air was palpable, and the lutin chief shifted nervously. No, it couldn't be a spirit; he would have sensed it. It had to be one of the Keepers, trying to save their friend by intimidating him. It wouldn't work! He recovered himself, and began to channel his power into the charm he held. Just as it was ready to be used, however, he felt a sudden chill. He tried to swallow, but found that his body would not respond to what he tried to tell it. His fingers released the fetish stone, and he dropped to his knees. His vision began to darken, and he yearned to scream in defiance, rage, anything...

Yet he fell onto the ground in the next second, eyes open and unblinking, dead on the spot.

Whatever resolve had kept the lutin unit together up to that point collapsed with their leader. None of them had the gall to stand up to this spirit that could kill their leader, and they spilt and ran in every direction, each trying to outpace the others as they escaped the clearing. As the guards who had held Gerard on his feet followed their companions, the stag collapsed. The pain from his leg pressed in on him, and his attempts to crawl away ended quickly as his senses faded and he lay unconscious in the middle of the clearing.

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