December 23, 706 CR - 3pm
Borne by a powerful upper level weather pattern, a bitterly cold wind hissed a sibilant, sinister curse across the featureless plane of ice. Made dark by the depths of the water over which it had frozen, the ice had the look of obsidian, worn smooth by the constant winter wind. Located high above the treeline, the alpine lake was a featureless black plane in a white landscape, broken only by stone and the occasional hardy, tortured looking shrub.
Out upon the center of this blackness was a collection of still shapes, most of them thickly garbed in fur to ward off the bitter winter wind. They sat in a rough circle, five of them in all, around a sixth figure sprawled supine upon the ice. The five sat with legs crossed, backs straight under their heavy winter garb, wispy trails of mist the only revelation that the motionless figures lived. The sixth also breathed, but was not garbed against the elements though it wore fur.
The supine creature seemed wrong somehow, its legs inhuman, the fur that covered
its body natural despite its hauntingly human appearance. Appearing half hunting
dog and half human, it was an amalgam of the two. A thin red mist rose from
the unclothed body, spiraling upward in seeming defiance of the shrill wind
hissing across the ice. From long, animalistic feet, wrists, and brow the red
mist rose from slashes in the flesh of the female creature. The others sat at
five points around her; at hands, feet,
and head. Scribed into the black ice was a circle which encompassed the half-human beast, within which was scribed a five pointed star. The body's spread limbs and head defined the five points of that star, the five others sitting outside the ritual circle as they worked their magic upon the body within.
Weather mage Kundar Lusk sat at her head, as the master of the ritual, leading
the intonations as he watched the blood-red mist rise from the lesions in her
flesh. The spell drew itself from the very life force of the female bound within
the circle. He did not know her name, but he was forced to grant her a grudging
respect for her temerity, her bravery. She had been a spy, within the very walls
of Nasoj's own bastion. Only carelessness of one who knew her true nature had
betrayed her presence, leading to her
capture attempting to send word to those to whom she owed allegiance.
She had proven strong and resistant to the interrogations of Nasoj's inquisitioners, mages, and torturers, and had never broken. At least, never broken in a manner that would make her speak. Her mind had shattered, leaving her mad. All she knew now was terror, which Kundar had fostered to assist in the working of his spell. Fear liberated more force from a soul than any other emotion, even love.
Withdrawing his attention from the nearly completed weave of blood and weather magic, he looked about at the four others arrayed upon the ice before him. Kundar was a northerner, born and raised at the foot of Horshiah, the great glacier, and found the dry cold to be refreshing. He wore a minimum of garb, warmed by the magic he wove. Two of the others were also of the northland, though not from as far north as Kundar. One was the earth mage Kiyle Jan, who was nearly as icy as the lake upon which they worked their magic. She was a vicious creature dedicated to war and death, be it against those Lutins under their very command, or the Keepers they would soon be facing. She simply liked to kill.
Kundar respected only her power, though he would have liked to break her icy will. Her body was as lissome as any southlander courtesan, but her attitude was all polar wolf. That she was subordinate to him in this campaign irked her to no end, which gave him some satisfaction.
Huk Chjarikuk was a generalist mage, his talents covered the gamut of magics, from fire to earth to weather. He was at the victim's right hand as second to Kundar. Though he had a wide range of talents, they were all a great deal weaker than any practitioner of specific forces. He was a steady, calm contemplator, seemingly slow to reach any point of decision, but swift to act once his mind was set. Kundar enjoyed having the man at his right hand, for he was a follower, and worked well in Kundar's shadow.
The other two were less known to the weather mage, their magics being almost completely alien to him, though both were similar practitioners of blood rites. Tum Yi was from the east, a place he called the Dragon Sands, but had little else to say on the matter. Not that he could say much, his language being almost as alien as his meditative magics. The man wore even less than Kundar, the discipline of his body being such that he seemed immune to the elements. His magic was something Kundar could not identify, seemingly equal parts alchemal and sacrificial, the bald man going through prisoners and animals at a rate that left even the vicious Kiyle amazed.
The last and most miserable of their lot was the Sathmoran warrior mage, Thorne. A young fellow not long past his final tests of Mastery. His chosen force was fire and lightning, making him absolutely miserable in the cold and dry north. His bitter hatred of those who banished him from the south sent him north, where his undisciplined ambition helped him to rise swiftly in the ranks of Nasoj's magical ranks. This was the man's first campaign, though Kundar suspected that he was well versed with fighting by magic and steel.
The man also held a simmering hatred for anyone more powerful or in a place of power above him, which put him in confrontation with all the other mages of their small circle on this mission, for he was the most minor of them even if his power was among the most powerful. Kundar could not help but chuckle at the soft southerner with his thick layering of furs and his waste of magic in keeping himself warm.
Kundar turned his attention back to their prisoner, a Keeper far from her home spying for their survival. She had worked for many years, if what Kundar had learned was true, to help thwart Nasoj and his minions. She, among them all, was not clad whatsoever. Runic patterns had been shaven into her grey and brown pelt, some of which shimmered with active power while others were quiescent. Her body did not feel the cold, despite the fact she was literally frozen to the surface of the ice. Kundar had invested a small tidbit of his weather spell to sustain her body's warmth, lest she expire too swiftly.
With luck, the sustaining magic would keep her alive for a week or more while the weather took its strength from the consumption of her spirit. Once her soul was no more her body would swiftly fail, activating the last of the runes shaven into her fur and etched into the ice. The resulting heat would melt through the surface of the lake, obliterating the evidence of their magery here and losing her corpse forever in the dark depths of the alpine lake.
December 23 – 7pm
General Shatterbone met them near the upper treeline in the first throes of a mighty blizzard, his fur lined leather armour tucked up under his scarred greyish green chin. He glared up at the assemblage of taller human mages as his personal retinue gathered closer around him. The wind, briefly calm as the heavy warm air mass came in from the southwest pushed aside the cold northern wind, left the snow falling in thick, heavy sheets straight down.
Kundar came to a stop before the general, looking down upon the shrewd, cunning Lutin war-chief. "Your forces prepared?" he asked in the common tongue, forcing the Lutin to speak a language other than his own. The ugly Lutin scowled, then nodded shortly.
"Yes." he turned and waved a hand toward the half-seen treeline a few hundred paces further down the slope. "They slay watchers, scouts. Mole near place. No warning."
"Good. They move once darkness has come." Kundar nodded as he walked past the Lutin with little more regard than that necessary to give his orders. The other mages, arrayed loosely out behind him in their concealing white furs, said nothing, too depleted from their spellcasting. "A fog will rise soon, and the storm will come with dawn. Tell them to dress warm, or they shall die." Kundar could care less how many of the noisome beasts would freeze to death in his blizzard, for even with half their number frozen they would still have enough to overrun the Keep. They still had the giants, trolls, and ogres to add their muscle to the Lutin's speed and ferocity waiting in the wings.
He was more worried about their one surviving tundra mole, and its positioning. Three others had died in the summer and fall of various ailments, leaving them but one to continue their offensive. His feet crunched through the thin, dry snow as he headed down the slope of the mountain toward their pavilion within the distant treeline. They would remain there through the night, recuperating their strength, and move to follow the army with the dawn. He knew that they would face the harder trek, into the teeth of the very blizzard that they had just summoned, but he was confident in his ability to find his way in the very worst of weather.
After all, he had been watching the passes from these very heights for years, avoiding or decimating what few patrols ever came this high. He heard the rubbing, squealing crunch of snow behind him as his retinue followed, their own minds on whatever orders Nasoj had given them before they left his citadel a month ago. Kundar had his orders, which were known to him alone, and he knew that the others had their orders. He simply wondered which of them had been ordered to slay him should he falter, or who would do so no matter /what/ their orders had been.
December 24 - 2am
The blizzard hit with the force of an angry god half way through the night, threatening to rip their pavilion from its moorings. The mages paid scant attention to the moan of the wind beyond their magically protected canvas walls, intent upon their various meditations. The acolytes that had erected the tent knew what weather would be coming, and had taken appropriate measures to secure their dwelling.
Outside trees whipped and bent, their limbs shattering with the cold and the force of the howling gale. The sound was muffled, almost inaudible over the wind, but when a nearby tree was sundered, everyone heard it. Luck prevented a stray limb from crashing down upon them, but not by much.
Their armies fared worse, attempting to move into the teeth of the blizzard, sheltered only by the short, dense pines through which they traveled. They stayed high on the eastern and western slopes of the mountains, just below the treeline, where there would be few, if any, farms or grazing livestock. Those hardy souls they did find living at such heights were quickly overrun and dispatched before they were able to escape or cast warning spells.
Through the night they moved, setting a brisk pace despite the wind. Heavy garments and showshoes helped them slog through the driving snow, though countless bodies fell to the wayside, frozen even as they marched. Those that fell were quickly stripped of everything usable by those following them, leaving naught but a frozen body to be buried in the snow or ravaged by the wolves that ghosted the army.
Lower on the slopes were the cavalry; Lutins riding huge dire wolves thick with their winter pelts. They cleared the path, working as scouts and skirmishers, locating larger farms and directing the armies around them so that there would be no unnecessary battles that might risk detection. Those huge, voracious beasts made swift prey of those that fell. Ogres and Trolls followed in the train of the cavalry, herded along by the Giants that commanded them. Even as far down the slopes as the wolves and giants traveled they were still well above most of the agricultural lands of the soft Keepers who huddled securely in their warm cottages in the bottom of the broad valleys.
By dawn the greater majority of their forces had reached their staging points and set up camps. The few tents were of whitewashed canvas to blend in with the snow; erected for commanders and those mages that would support the armies. Not that camouflage was a big issue with the blinding whiteness of the driving snow. Soldiers bedded down where they were able. Being hardy northern creatures that was not a great problem for them. Often enough they lacked even the cover of trees on their tundra territories, and blizzards were nothing new to them.
Scouts among the wolf riders were sent out to ward the perimeters of the camps, kept in touch by their wolves' natural sense of location.
December 24 – 7pm
Darkness came early with the growing force of the blizzard, turning white-out into black-out. The winds picked up continually during the day, making Kundar's trek toward the distant keep a laborious one. The mages' circle only lost three acolytes in the trek, though, which they considered a good balance considering the conditions. They made it to their staging area shortly after dusk, guided by Kundar's weather sense and understanding of the valley, stopping less than a mile from the Keep's northern curtain wall.
Around him gathered the other four mages, their acolytes, and several dozen other mages that would be supporting the assault. They had set up their command post in a thick copse of pines, stretching canvass from trunk to trunk to help block out most of the wind, relying on the thick branches of the trees to block both snow and wind.
Thus sheltered they went over their attack plan one last time, the support mages nodding silently as they accepted their orders. Kundar and his four would do nothing unless the Keep was somehow forewarned. His skirmishers had reported that no one had made contact with the advancing armies and survived. Those they had sensed attempting to make their way to the Keep along the few roads were left alone so long as they did not stumble across the Lutins. Kundar and his generals knew that the Keep would still expect a few stragglers to brave the storm, both from the north and the south. A sudden cessation of northern traffic would make them suspicious.
Once their plans were discussed and cemented together, those mages that would command the Lutins, Giants, and other forces were let away by their wolfrider escorts. Those that would be supporting the battle, or standing in reserve, remained behind. Kundar and his circle would be doing nothing during the initial assault save using their divinations to monitor the progress. There had been no alerts, so they did not expect more than a token resistance from those manning the walls.
This was not the greatest of battles Nasoj had ever planned, Kundar knew, as he had been there for many planning sessions, but it was the best that could be done before the armies became restive and began to disband. Their earlier attempts at a summer campaign were undone by the actions of a few brave keepers, either by accident or design. Those creatures were now targets, to be slain wherever they might be found. A score of assassins had been dispatched to scour the Keep once it was secured, their only orders being to find and capture those specific Keepers.
A rat, a white rabbit, a skunk, a fox. The lord of the Keep, and the leaders of the two major religious factions. They were focal points for the Keepers, and their public executions would work to demoralize those defenders that would undoubtedly band together in an attempt to resist the new owners of Metamor.
The castle spirit was the express purview of other mages, and out of Kundar's hands. Another small circle of Moranasi mages was focused on the capture or distraction of the spirit, to prevent its intervention in their assault. Kundar did not know where that secretive circle was, as they had preceded the army by weeks.
He rubbed his hand across the amulet he wore around his neck as he examined the maps one last time in the dim magelight hovering above the table. Nasoj claimed that the amulet would protect him against the lingering effects of the transformational spells, but he did not know how far he could trust that claim. The magic had been altered by the Keepers over the years, so it may not have any touch of the Great Mage any longer. Each of the other mages in his circle possessed a similar amulet, though the rest of the humans in the army did not. They were expected to assist in the initial assault, then withdraw from the area affected by the spells.
He let the magelight wink out, taking a few moments to calm himself, listening to the shriek of the wind across the canvas walls around their shelter.
The snow was blowing hard and fast outside the window Rois was staring out of, when one of her students came up to her, with a concerned look on his face. "Rois-sensei?" the AR of her three charges, Colin, queries, unsure if he should disturb her.
Rois turns to look at the boy, a gentle smile on her face, "Yes, Colin? Did you need something?"
"I'm sorry to bother you sensei, but this storm... it... something... something feels strange about it..." Colin said, with a bit of trepidation.
Rois' expression suddenly became quite serious, "So, you're feeling it too, ne? Something," she stared back out the window again, "is coming."
December 24, 5pm
With the darkness came movement, like cockroaches in the shadows, as dark forms rose from the flanks of the mountains surrounding the Keep. Unseen, even against the white snow, due to the pure white of the world surrounding the otherwise peaceful castle, those dark shapes swiftly swept down toward their prey. The castle, unknowing, hulked large and solid against the shriek of the wind as the invaders gathered at the base of the walls. Milling about, the sound of their activities whipped away in the moaning wind, their presence missed by those manning the top of the wall out of sight some forty feet above.
Larger forms trudged up among those already milling about at the base of the wall, long ladders carried between them. The long iron ladders were quickly raised upright into the wind, their tops coming to rest against the crenellations high above. The larger shadows moved to steady the wider bottoms of their ladders as the smaller shadows quickly swarmed upward.
Some, already left cold and stiff by the bitter, unyielding cold, fell from the ladders, or slipped on the leather-wrapped iron rungs. Regardless of the method of their fall, it invariably proved fatal as they crashed against the ice-coated walls and smashed down into those milling around below. None of those grumbling shadows paid any heed, walking on the corpses in their haste to ascend the ladders and let the battle finally be joined.
Pacing back and forth before the battlements, the guards atop the walls clutched their heavy winter garments close about them in a vain attempt to hold out the biting cold and stinging wind. They walked in pairs, making contact with others as they moved from one tower to the next, turned, and paced back the other way. They grumbled to one another, lost in the darkness with only the wooden railing to one side and the cold stone on the other to tell them where they stood upon the narrow parapets. None appeared pleased to be there, though twice as many were there than would normally have been the case.
Someone, some asinine, paranoid soul had claimed that they would be attacked, on the eve of the most important holy day of the entire year; in the middle of the worst blizzard in centuries.
At first glance, one may not have seen many of those guards amidst the blowing snow and ice, their fur-lined garments caked with a rime of ice, but they were for the most part visible to one another when they got close. One of the castle mages had replaced the usual torches with spell-glows, giving them at least a little light to see by.
Seth did not like those glaring yellow spheres of light, for they did not burn with fire, or heat, or anything else he had ever known. Eli did not countenance their creation, did not accept the foul taint of magic. The ermine circled each one of the lights widely with each circuit of his patrol, his companion shaking her head at his unbending intolerance of the helpful aids. The human female was turning to give him a sharp reprimand for leaving her side yet again when the ermine saw her shadow suddenly double in size.
Staring in some confusion, he backed further away when she spun, the shadow separating from her, then suddenly falling to the stones of the parapet. As it did, the steady glow of the evil lights gleamed from its face. A Lutin face, split nearly in half by Alan's heavy sword. Suddenly shadows were lurching toward them, appearing out of the snow like wraiths, steel gleaming in the light as three more closed on Alan, whose sword flashed and thrust. None seemed to notice the ermine, whose white fur blended into the snow entirely save for the hard black dots on either side of his muzzle.
Alan hollered, her voice almost entirely lost in the shrill cry of the frozen wind, two of the shadows dropping heavily upon the first, barring the third. "Raise the alarm!" Seth finally heard as a shadow blocked the nearest magic glow, the source of that shadow dropping over the lip of the castle wall and raising a huge axe. It was twice the size of any Lutin Seth had ever seen. Staggering against the hard wooden railing, the ermine spun and raced away as Alan went down under a furious blow from the ogre's massive axe.
He pelted past shadow after shadow as the invaders milled around on the parapets, none of them giving the white ghost slipping past them any regard as they slaughtered anyone they found manning the walls. Vivid red dashed the monochromatic coldness of the winter night, the sight crushing Seth's soul, calling up a wailing cry from his small chest. His horrified cry went unheard, even as he reached the distant tower and hammered on the door with his small fists. Shadows loomed close, casting the wooden portal into darkness as the nearest magic light was occluded by an attacker.
Seth dropped, scrambling away just as Lutin axe hammered into the center of the door, making it shudder heavily. The ermine slid and stumbled toward the far edge of the wall, knowing there was a sluice there so that rain could drain off the parapets. Finding the narrow, curved path, he plunged forward. The Lutin did not pursue, losing the white shadow in the driving snow as it slid around the curve of the tower. Instead of attempting the narrow path the Lutin turned back to join its brethren at battering upon the doorway.
Seth reached the bottom of the walls in short order, ignoring the numbing cold of water soaking into his fur, and charged as swiftly as his short legs would allow across the bailey. He knew that if he kept moving in a straight line he would end up against the wall of the keep itself, where he could find a door, and raise the alarm.
They were under attack! On Cristos Eve, of all times. Nasoj and his forces truly were as evil as every legend had painted them.
A shape suddenly plunged out of the white darkness, slamming with a sickening crunch onto the stone in front of the startled ermine. He knew the wolf too, Lanscome, a kind fellow who never could keep his armour on straight. Now he would never have to worry about it any more, for he had no chest to cover with it, nor a left arm to put it on.
Death did not care, not one whit, claiming the wolf's spirit with the same swift brutality as it had claimed Alan. The ermine, still screaming soundlessly into the white nightmare around him, found himself stumbling over other still forms scattered about the base of the wall. He heard the harsh bellowing voices of the attackers mingling hauntingly with the shrill howl of the wind as he fell over yet another body, this of a Lutin who had stepped just a little too far in its initial climb over the wall to land face first in the courtyard below. Seth scrambled over the swiftly stiffening corpse, his paws stained red with its blood, and continued on all fours.
He found the Keep wall with his head, an impact which left him crumbled and stunned for several breaths before he was able to regain his wits and stand once more, moving to his right along the wall. He prayed that he found a door before he was guided back around to one of the towers by the wall, for the first time in his life truly hoping that his tiny voice was being carried to his God.
Apparently his prayers were heard, for he came to a door within a few short strides. Grasping the latch, he lifted it and plunged himself against the door even as the wind howled into the opening. Just within the doorway the castle was plunged into sudden darkness as the torches were snuffed by the cold wind. Another light sprang into existence swiftly enough, hovering brightly over the head of a startled leopard dressed in somber black tailored festively for the ongoing celebrations. At his side was a tall woman, her eyes wide as she clutched the feline’s arm as the cold wind howled down the passageway.
"Lutins!" Seth screamed, "We are." he was never able to finish his statement as a sudden agony blossomed in his back, sending him staggering forward a pace, filling his lungs with blood as his head dropped. Standing four inches out of his chest was the rusted, pitted tip of a Lutin saber, which suddenly vanished as the rapidly dying ermine was yanked backwards. His last sight was of the leopard drawing his hands together, the sudden bright flash leaping from those hands lost as the ermine's world faded, the hard stone that met his falling body unfelt and unseen.
And so it begins.