The Winter Assault

Part 11

by The Winter Assault Writers

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

At the very least, Charles slept peacefully. His dreams were filled with bright images, of Lady Kimberly and he frolicking and enjoying each other’s company out in one of the gardens of the Keep. They sat beneath an espaliered wall, nestled against the thin trunk of the tree, sharing each other in ways that so far had been confined to Matthias’s dreams. One paw clutched a branch set against that wall, holding on as his dream exploded into brilliant rays of light.

Then abrupt darkness as he felt Zagrosek’s had upon his shoulder, rousing him from his pleasant sleep. Struggling from the confines of his robes, the last images from his dream still clouding his mind, he gazed blindly about him with an embarrassed smile, but of course, no candle had yet been lit, so none could see his chagrin.

But the darkness was short-lived this time, thankfully, as the sound of flint against steel rang in his ears. Moments later Jerome brought a small flame to life on one of the candles. In quick succession the other candles were brought to life, and soon the room was bright once more. Wrapping his cloak tightly about himself, Charles nodded to the rest, noting that the Sondeckis appeared much less haggard than before.

“Charles?” a voice from behind him asked, and for a moment, that embarrassed smile crept back onto his muzzle.

“Yes?” the rat asked, turning to stare at Elliot who stood with a candle held gingerly in one paw.

“What happened to your tail?”

“My tail?” Charles asked, certain that Elliot was going to ask about something far more private. Glancing back behind him to where his tail peeked out from beneath his cloak, he grimaced. The portion that had been scalded in Wessex’s first attack was slightly puffy still, and quite pink. “It was burned a little, but it should be all right. I don’t even feel it that much anymore.”

Elliot nodded and then glanced back at the others. They were all bundled up in their thick wool cloaks, even the rats. Jerome was lighting the two lanterns that they’d brought with them, extending the wick inside the receptacle barely past the hole through which it was twined. The flame that rose from it was slender, and very petite, but it glowed with a resilient orange fire.

“Well, we’re depending on you four,” Zagrosek said, looking back at the door that had remained shut for the last few hours. “Which one of you knows these cellars the best?”

Goldmark raised his paw over his head. “That would be me, I’m afraid.”

The Sondeckis nodded, his black hair shifting only slightly with that motion. “I suppose Jerome and I can watch the back, while you and Charles lead.”

Goldmark looked over to his fellow rat, dressed the same way as the humans in that black robe with the shield, hand, and sword insignia. “I don’t suppose you want to wait any longer?”

“We’ve waited long enough already,” Garigan said hotly, crossing his arms, his short tail shifting beneath his green robes.

“He’s right,” Charles murmured softly, taking one of the lanterns from Jerome and handing it to Elliot. “Stay behind us, and keep that light shrouded as best you can. Do you think you can handle that?”

Elliot held one paw before the light, obscuring most of it except for what slipped through the cracks in his fingers. “I think so.”

“Good, then we should leave once we are sure it is safe to do so. Julian?” Charles pointed towards the door, and the white rat solemnly pressed his ear against it, sliding his claw once again into the lock. It took him barely any time at all to catch the latch and draw it open now that he’d done it twice before already. The door gently drew inwards, slowly, though, for which Matthias was thankful. The hallway stood empty outside, and neither sound nor scent greeted them except the draughty mustiness of the cellars.

Nodding once, Julian stepped out of the way to allow Charles and Goldmark to step outside, with Elliot and Garigan following closely behind. The pale light shone over their shoulders and gave the hallway beyond a spectral cast. Old stones hung overhead, and now Charles could see the faint traces of moss and fungus that clung between the cracks. Yellows and greys filled the spaces between the stones, while rivulets of filthy water dribbled along them, charting the course of their growth as the moisture led down towards cellars even more remote from the lives of the Keepers. Where in places the stone had grown too mouldy, and had crumbled to the ground, the cavities remaining were filled with that creeping life, and sometimes the rats found that they could see those amorphous masses shining with gangrenous light even before the lantern illuminated their mildewed form.

Thankfully though, the floor was free of those cancerous infestations, but instead was choked with dust that rose into the air as they walked. It clung to their noses, nearly causing Charles to sneeze several times. The path that Goldmark led, though, was much less clogged than many of the other side passages that they happened to pass by. It would be obvious to any tracker, skilled or otherwise, that somebody had recently passed this way, but they found it hard to believe the Lutins would reach this far beneath the surface of the Keep. Of course they found it hard to believe that the Lutins would reach the Keep at all, much less enter it. And so Jerome and Zagrosek kept a wary eye behind them, their nervousness unspoken, but known by all.

Even so, they descended further and further into the dank confines of the cellars without incident. Several times, they had to skirt around an unseemly fragrant pool that had filled portions of the hallway. Charles feared even dragging his clothes through the noxious water, for fear they would be covered by the mucous clinging to the pool’s membranous surface like cadaverous flesh upon bone. Sometimes he fancied things lurking beneath the calm surface, waiting to reach out and snatch at his foot paw should it stray to near, only to smother him in some necrophagous abyss. Yet, they remained preternaturally still, aside from when a droplet of water fell from the ceiling, rippling outwards along that mucus in a rather subdued fashion.

The entire cellars possessed that same feel of being subdued, as if life and motion here were foreign concepts, ones that were squelched by the unbearable weight of the years and of the stone that rest over their heads. Charles was reluctant even to speak, for fear it might conjure some unsightly ghast from the walls of Metamor itself, covered in that profane muck and slime, and turn him into much the same, as punishment for his blasphemy. Again, he chided himself on letting his prodigious imagination overcoming his senses, but he still kept as quiet as he could be.

In fact, aside from one snippet of conversation that Garigan and Elliot had near their backs, none of them spoke a word the entire time they descended into the dark and untrod chambers of the Keep’s cellars. The dank and clogging mildew almost made Charles wish to be in the dungeons themselves, for they were much cleaner and not nearly as dreary. In fact, the walls about them felt almost hostile to their intrusion, as if they were trespassing on hallowed ground. That feeling clung to his heart the entire time they remained in that passage alongside the darkened rooms.

He did not even notice what they truly were until Garigan spoke, his voice hushed, but audible. “Was that a bedroom?”

Elliot nodded and replied, “Yes, they have mirrors in there, but they are to old to even show you your reflection anymore.”

“Who lived there? And why would they live so deep in the cellars like this?” Garigan’s voice stung Charles, springing up all sorts of unnatural fears. As his eyes traced along the walls, he could almost make out indistinct faces glaring back at him, their features twisted in fashions that were not recognizable even as human.

“As to who lived here, none of us know. But it must have been a very long time ago indeed, because I don’t think that these rooms were this far beneath the earth then. Hector thinks we should be right beneath the killing grounds now, so several thousand years ago, you might have been able to look out a window at the mountains from here. I don’t know for sure though.”

Neither Garigan nor Elliot spoke after that, for which Charles was glad, though he certainly would not say so, or even smile while they walked on past those glaring faces. After a moment, the rat realised that they were not just his fanciful imaginings glowering down at him from the walls, but they were the last remnants of statues carved into the walls themselves from ages long ago! With a trembling breath, he sucked in air that he supposed had not been breathed in several millennia.

However, it was only a short time after they had left that passageway that Goldmark stopped. They had come down more flights of stairs than Charles bothered to count, and had more stone hanging above their heads than he wished to reckon either! Before them was a thick portal of black stone, chiselled as if from the side of a mountain. It was clearly not the same sort of stone used in fashioning the rest of the Keep, for where mould had overtaken much of the structure that they’d passed on their journey, this was still solid and smooth, as like it was freshly cast.

Finally, after holding his tongue for so long, Charles asked, “Is this it?” He trembled as his paw felt the cold surface of the stone, as if it contained the icy chill that billowed outside.

Goldmark nodded, looking back towards the others. The light from the two lanterns glistened on the surface of the portal, lighting a small handle that was inset into the centre of its frame. “We’ve never been able to move this portal, but we know it points roughly Northwest. If there is anything that could take you from this keep, it must be beyond this door.”

“How do you know it is a door?” Jerome asked, peering overtop of Julian’s short head.

Goldmark knocked on the metal several times, and a hollow sound echoed back. Jerome nodded, smiling slightly. “Are you sure it opens outwards?”

“It has to,” Elliot interjected, pointing at the sides. “Look at the sizes of those hinges.” And indeed, a set of large hinges framed one side of the circular portal. “We’re just not strong enough to move it, and only two of us can hold that handle at a time.”

“Krenek,” Charles called, and the large man stepped past the two rats before him. “Let’s see if we can move it.”

Zagrosek nodded and put his hand around a good portion of that inset ring. He lifted it with ease, and peered down at the rat. Charles calmly slipped his own paw beneath that black iron, feeling the way it slid over his skin for a moment. Then, tightening his grip, he nodded emphatically, and began to usher his Sondeck through his arm and into the portal. It groaned, a loud resonating sound that made bits of mouldy stone dribble from the ceiling in consternation. The rats all stared at the ceiling and the walls, hoping that they would remain intact as the black door began to slowly but inexorably come loose.

Both Charles and Zagrosek grunted as they heaved. Jerome leaned back and forth on his feet, holding one of the lanterns his over his shoulder so that he might see, but it was clear to all those around that he wished to assist. Finally, after the two Sondeckis gasped for breath, leaning back against the portal, no longer pulling for a moment, he saw how he could help. Moving over between the door and the wall, he began to push at the frame. Charles flashed him a quick smile before he gripped the handle again and yanked for all the might he could muster.

With all three of them using their Sondeck, the door did finally come to rest wide open. It had been a rather thick door, at least an arm’s length thick at the middle, and so it was no surprise that the rats had not been able to make it budge. Lifting the lantern and shaking the stress from his arms out a bit, Jerome peered into the blackness that awaited them beyond. He was greeted only with another hallway, one that appeared to be slightly fresher than the one that they stood in, but otherwise unremarkable. The four Sondeckis were quick to note that it appeared to head off in the same direction for as far as the light could shine, and their eyes could penetrate.

“This looks promising,” Charles murmured, glancing back at the four rats who stood in the hallway, peering down past the portal as well. “Thank you very much, we owe you a great favour.”

The four of them smiled then, even Julian. Hector though spoke for them all. “Thank you for coming to us and warning us of Nasoj and his Lutins. We’re going to go back up and see how we can help.”

“You could come with us,” Charles offered, indicating the other Sondeckis.

“No, this is our home, and we will defend it. You defend yours,” Hector said, though the last was meant for Garigan alone, and the others knew it. Charles nodded, and then patted his fellow rodent on the shoulder. Hector leaned forward though, and whispered into Matthias’s saucer-shaped ears, “And I do hope you plan to tell us what that symbol you all have on your cloaks means.”

Charles found himself laughing, something he had never thought he’d do in these dank passages, or in relation to the Sondeckis. “I’ll tell you after this is all over. I’ll tell everybody, I think.” That brought a rather quirky smile to the muzzles of his friends. He disengaged himself from his fellow rats, and stepped towards the portal and the dark hallway beyond. “Best of luck to you, my friends. Do take care of yourselves. And remember, use what you have, and take pride in it always.”

“You too, Charles. Don’t get yourself killed!” Elliot called back, even while Goldmark lit one of the candles he’d brought with him by one of Jerome’s lanterns.


Josh has always been a very light sleeper.

It irritated his parents to no end when he was a young one - the slightest noise from the outside would wake him up bawling immediately, and so they rarely if ever got enough sleep to make it through their regular days, let alone take care of him. He's certainly a very open and high-spirited individual (for someone still years short of double-digits), but that came about more in spite of his parents' constantly high levels of stress from lack of wakefulness, rather than as a result of it.

Nowadays he no longer bawls loudly instantly upon awakening. This has increased the livability of his family's household a great deal, but it has other benefits as well.

In this specific case, it means Jono has enough time to put his hand over Josh's mouth before the child can speak.

"Shhhhh," he whispers quietly. "It's okay, it's Uncle Jono." His first priority is to keep Josh from panicking, so he has to say that, even though the situation for the time being is decidedly not okay. "We have to be very, very quiet, Josh. We're in trouble." He says it easily, calmly. Sure, there's trouble here, but I'm your big Uncle Jono and I can handle it, just you watch me.

The bit of false bravado seems to work, because Josh calms down very quickly, so Jono removes his paw, allowing Josh to look around. He sees Jo looking up, her face looking very worried indeed. He tries to track where she's looking, to see what's got Uncle Jono's friend bothered but there's nothing there but ceiling. And those other folks - the nice lady and the Really Cool big cow-guy - they're also looking upward. Daemion's and Jeremy's dads are both looking at tunnels, he thinks Dae's dad is in front of the tunnel they just took, and Jeremy's dad's in front of someplace new.

Then his thoughts cut off there as he hears again what woke him up. A fairly loud THUMP from above, presumably from a sack of grain (though Josh doesn't know that), and then the gravelly voices of somebody up there. It doesn't take him too long to realize what has all the grown-ups so worried.

“Bad guys! Right above us! Then, But they're not gonna get us, we gots Uncle Jono!”

The aforethought surrogate Uncle glances up briefly at the thump, looking worried, then quickly drops that expression from his face and turns down to Josh. "Okay, Josh, remember the deal we made back in my rooms?"

Josh doesn't need to remember to whisper. "Yep. I 'members good," he whispers proudly. Promises of big slices of any kind of pie you like do not easily fade from the mind of any child.

"Okay, good. I need you to make sure that anyone else who gets woken up stays very, very quiet, so we can keep the deal going. We can't let the bakers down, you know." Jono gives the child a conspiratorial wink. He's just shared a Big Secret - the bakers are waiting to make the pies for the kids. This is Big Stuff; Josh has to take it seriously.

"'kay, Uncle Jono," he says, nodding seriously. This is his moment; he's been trusted with the Secret Of The Bakers, and he has to make sure that he and the rest of the kids don't let them down.

Jono grins proudly, giving the child's shoulder a small shake of gratitude. "I knew I could count on you. Now go, make sure you notice when someone wakes up." He gets another nod before Josh turns and starts tiptoeing around various kids, looking to see if anyone else was awakened by the Bad Guys.

He manages to keep the grin for a few more moments before his expression turns serious again, and he stands back up, turning to Jo. "How long do you think they're going to be up there?"

"No idea," she says. Of course, she knows he already knows that, as well as everyone else in the room. They'd first showed up a few minutes ago and it doesn't sound like they're leaving, so even for Kevin the conclusions are elementary. The Lutins could be following orders to retrieve foodstuffs for the army, in which case they're going to be staying there for a bit, but probably will otherwise be okay unless spotted, in which case they're likely to be doomed due to large numbers of Lutins. The Lutins also could be simple looters, in which case the chances of discovery get much higher as the Lutins search around, but it's also likely that they'll be the only ones and thus escape wouldn't be too difficult.

Then, of course, it could just be that the Lutins already know that they're here and are searching for the trapdoor. This would necessitate immediate escape, but in doing so they'd have to rouse all the kids, and if they do that then it's almost guaranteed that some child will wake up loudly, and they'll be found out for sure, and then if it was one or the other situations then they'd be in Much more trouble that they were.

Nobody wants more trouble. So they're being as quiet as they possibly can and hoping that they'll pass by.

"Plan?" Kirk asks Jono.

"Jo's daggers. They'll definitely wake most of the kids up, but it's the quickest way we can take them down. If we bring the house down on us, Perry intends to stand there and block the doorway from entry while we get the kids out." In the background Josh can be heard silencing another child who has just woken up, whispering something about the pie deal.

Kirk nods solemnly, then flicks his gaze back up as another loud THUMP is heard, followed by a loud grunt. Then there's some rapid chattering in some kind of guttural Lutin tongue which, even if any of them could speak it, isn't loud enough when it gets to them to be heard. Footsteps. And some more chattering, from a voice that could possibly be different from the first.

Then everyone's blood turns icy cold when they hear a metal rattling which could only come from one source - The lock on the trapdoor.

Jo moves swiftly to the side so she has a clear view of the trapdoor, quietly slipping out one of her daggers as she does so. Perry moves towards trapdoor itself, tiptoeing as silently as he can, pulling out his sword as he does so.

The rattling continues, then is followed by a loud Clack, whereupon the wood starts to groan slightly, but doesn't give. “Pulling on the lock,” Jono thinks. He can see over to where the kids are; Josh has evidently recruited a few of his fellows to assist in the job of keeping waking kids asleep.

And then Perry puts a foot down on the floor and hits wood, which gives a very audible creak.

Everyone instantly freezes Totally still as the groaning of the wood stops, and a loud CLUNK indicates that the lock has been dropped to the ground. Then arguing. Perhaps one of them thinks it a result of their pulls and that they should pull harder, Jono hopes. Either that or they want to decide early how to divvy up the shares. Then silence.

They wait. It could be only a lull.

The silence continues.

Everyone takes a deep breath, then sighs and relaxes. They left. This occurs but moments before several loud clanking sounds, as though from metal against metal, start to come from the direction of the trapdoor.

They're attacking the lock!

Perry by now is almost right underneath the trapdoor, clearly very tense, sword already partway pulled out. Jo's arm is reared back, one of the daggers in her hand, ready to throw the instant anything pokes its head through. Jono has his whip out and has gotten into a corner where he has enough space to lash at the trapdoor if necessary. Kevin is shaking - he needs to do something to help stop them, but he doesn't dare start chanting a spell. Kirk and Dana are both hovering over the kids. Josh and his army of recruits are moving about as quickly as they dare to try to keep the other kids quiet, as they're waking up very fast.

Too fast. One child wakes up with a loud yawn and a "Wh " - an abortive start on a "Where" that gets cut off Very quickly by Josh's paw, but the damage is already done, as gets evidenced when the loud clanks stop briefly, then resume, far, far faster than before.

And then, quite suddenly, there's a human voice, difficult to hear but obviously shouting. "…hell are you doing there?" they manage to hear just before the clanking ceases. Everyone goes absolutely still; a mouse chewing on grain would sound loud in the cellars now.

"Diggin' for rats 'n Keepers!" a voice calls out. Presumably said voice belongs to one of the Lutins.

"Yeah, is hollow!" There follows a few nerve-jarring THUNK THUNK THUNK against the ceiling.

The human voice returns. "..n't give a damn f'n it's hollow or not! You're both suppose..." - it fades out, then back in - "...n Guard duty! You will get the Hell over here right now!"

There is a very long silence. Nearly dozens of seconds pass by, everyone in the cellars doing their best to suspend breathing.

Then there's another THUNK that makes everyone jump, several footsteps leading away, some assorted grumbling in that Lutin tongue, and then... silence once more, save for the slow deep breaths of everyone in the cellar.

Jacob woke with a start, snorting and grunting as he flailed briefly about the unfamiliar environment. He was buried in a pile of cloth. Some of it was cut, most was just off the rolls, but it did a good job keeping him warm considering that he was in a basement somewhere. Then the events of the previous night came back and he knew why he was here. The staggering home drunk, waking up and finding Lutins in his house, that house burning down; it all came back. And the masked stranger who came to his rescue. Jacob raised his head and looked out over the dimly lit basement, his eyes coming to focus on where the raccoon was sitting across from him.

“Good to see you’re awake,” Rickkter observed. “I was about to do that for you myself, actually.”

“Damn, how long has it been light out?” mumbled the fox as he rubbed his forehead.

“About an hour now. I took the opportunity to look around while it was still early, when the troops would be tired and not as alert. Not that it mattered. None of them saw me anyway.”

Jacob was yawning and rubbing his face, not paying much attention to Rickkter. Then something about the raccoon clicked in his mind and he stopped mid yawn to examine him more closely. “Um, Rick, where did you get that overcoat?”

“What this?” Rickkter pinched the lapel, lifting it a few inches from the coat. The overcoat itself was entirely made of white fur, arctic fox from the look of the slightly blued fur used to line the collar. However, a large rust colored stain that ran from the neck to about the crotch region, matting the otherwise pristine white, marred the whole front. “I found this on my little recon this morning. The owner didn’t seem to have further use for it.”

“You mean you stole that from a dead man?” the fox asked, snarling in revulsion at the very notion.

“Like I said, the owner wasn’t going to be needing it. Same for the gloves. He was better than half frozen when I found him, and it was a bitch getting all this off him. The Lutins who killed him had already taken his money, but I did manage to find this near by under some snow.” Rickkter reached under a small pile of cloth and slid a sword over to where the fox was sitting.

Picking up the weapon, Jacob couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of it. True he was not a connoisseur of such things, but even a blind man could appreciate the workmanship that went into the weapon. The hilt ended in a slight curl, both sides of which were set with large sapphires. The other jewels were set on the cross guard, those being emeralds and other sapphires. Unlike many weapons bejeweled for purely ornamental purposes, this one had a sturdy leather grip that looked like it knew well the touch of its previous owner. Jacob couldn’t help marveling that this was a weapon worth more money than he had made his entire life. “This is proof that the wrong people have coin.”

“And from now on that’s your weapon, so you can get rid of the crappy Lutin sword you picked up last night. That blade is a good steel alloy, not like some of the cheaper, poorer grades the militia’s around here use.” Jacob pulled a few inches of the blade from its scabbard. It was double edged with a fuller down the middle. “Edges are also razor sharp. Whoever owned that was a professional. It’ll definately serve you better than that shovel you were using last night,” Rick added with a sardonic grin.

Jacob glared up at the raccoon, sliding the sword back hard. “So what’s the plan?”

“Visibility has picked up a lot,” Rick said as he turned to look up at the small cellar window. “You can see for about twenty feet in front of you now, and I think the wind might even be dropping.” He sighed deeply, giving his nose a rub in an attempt to warm it up. “Our main problem is what we’re going to do about the Lutins. They’ve overrun the town, or so I would assume by this point.”

Jacob rubbed his own nose in an effort to warm any part of him that wasn’t covered in fur. He nodded. “I think I saw fire out by the stables. It was a rather bright orange glow coming from the northern part of the wall around.”

Rickkter’s nodded, his gaze never moving from the small window. “That sounds about right. Burn the stables, kill the horses, prevent any quick dispatches for help. And that would also mean they’ve burned the granary, most likely the mill and the workshops as well. At least those make strategic sense, even if they are pushed back.”

The fox quirked his ears. “Oh?”

“If you can’t kill ‘em outright, starve ‘em out,” Rick elaborated with a sardonic grin.

“True. I’ve read of sieges lasting years.”

“I’ve seen them last years. And the results at the end. Trust me, we could never hold even a fraction of that time here. Not with how far they’ve already made it past our defenses.”

Giving up for the most part on his nose, Jacob started rubbing his paws. “So what are we going to do? Can you use your magic to get us by them?”

Rickkter shook his head. “No, I can’t. The storm prevents the use of teleportation spells, and as I told you last night, any illusions I used would most likely be quickly picked up by any shaman or mage in the area.”

“You mentioned something about that last night. What is this blizzard?”

“This blizzard is the single nastiest magical construct I have ever seen. It’s a natural storm front wrapped around a whole mess of spells. There are several dampening ones to prevent probes, teleportation, and message sending through the storm. Other parts stem the flow of manna to any source besides the storm. From that and the size, it must have taken several very powerful wizards to cast it. They can also control, to an extent, the interior: their army, or armies, hid out in pockets to shelter them from the worst of the storm.” Rick flicked his whiskers and cradled his chin in his paw. “Rather brilliant, actually. The storm drives any opposition to seek shelter, and then the army rolls in without anyone expecting it. That’s what happened to us. We walked right into their vanguard. They were doing a pretty good job of chewing us to pieces by the time I decided to make a break for it.”

Jacob nodded soberly. “You didn’t have much of a choice then. But still, where does that leave us? We definately can’t hide here forever.”

“No, we can’t,” said Rickkter as he dropped his hand back between his knees. “The way I see it, our only option is to try and make it south to some other city or town and see if we can get help there. The problem with that is getting through their lines, and this damned snow.” He growled loudly at the swirling whiteness. “Based on what happened last night, I don’t even know if I’d make it in this. You’d have a much better shot.”

Rocking his head back and forth, Jacob murred to himself and mulled it over. “You know... there might be another way?”


“Yes. You see, I’ve lived here all my life. I was changed by the fucking curse. But long before that happened, I was a kid. And like all kids, I explored.”

Rickkter briefly reflected how ‘wonderful’ it was to have gotten trapped with a storyteller.

“Our favorite place was not the wood surrounding the keep, but right underneath us. You see, one day my friend Perry showed us what used to be a sealed door in the basement of one of the warehouses near the mill. It lead to a series of small passageways, a labyrinth under the town!” Jacob was hunched forward and rubbed his paws together. “We managed to get down there, oh, about a dozen times before they caught us and sealed it up again. We used half spent candles, whatever we could scrounge up, to see and rarely had the guts to venture very far in. But based on how far we went, I think that it leads right under the curtain walls. So if I’m right, we can walk right under the enemy without their ever knowing.”

Rickkter slowly stroked the length of his chin with his claws and looked out the window. “Seems rather risky. There will definately be more of them the closer we get to the walls. And you said yourself that you’re not even sure the door would be open for us. I still think that our best option would be to head to the nearest town and get help there.”

“And on the way there we can get killed, captured, lost, or freeze to death in this wicked stuff. Okay, I’ll grant that my plan is as risky as you say, but there are also advantages. Skills like yours would be desperately needed; whoever cast that spell and controlled that pocket is probably inside the keep.” The fox pursed his lips. “And I’m sure there are those you’d want to get back to, to make sure they’re okay.”

The raccoon’s scratching stopped for an instant at that last part before resuming. He kept looking out the window far longer than Jacob would have expected him to. “Okay, we’ll do it your way. Damn it. So where is this warehouse?”

“Where are we?”

“I thought you knew this area of town.”

“Hey, I was dead on my feet when I stumbled in here. I saw the smashed front, saw cloth, knew we could use that to stay warm. So just tell me the name of the place.”

“Sign outside said Philip Legrand, Clothier to Dukes and Kings.”

Jacob murred and nodded. “Okay, good. We won’t have to cross the town square and we’re only about four blocks south of the warehouse. I know the neighborhood well enough to get us there, even in this.”

With a small grunt, the raccoon tilted himself forward onto the balls of his feet. When his center of gravity was right, he simply stood up. “All right, let’s do this.”

Everyone was nervous, Arla could smell it. Not just from the keepers, but the from the dire wolves as well. Every motion of a keeper was carefully studied by the wolves intently for the least signs of attack. The large group moved slowly down the hallway, keepers in front and the wolves following a short distance behind.

“This is stupid,” Ralls said quietly.

“I should have stayed in the pantry,” Terrance commented.

“What do you suggest we do with them?” Arla countered.

“Once we get them to Long House Misha and George can figure out what to do with them,” Lisa said firmly.

“Getting into Long House might be exactly what they want?” Meredith commented.

“Enough of this,” Laura ordered loudly. “We’ve been through this already. The argument is over.” That ended the debate but not the nervousness. And the journey continued at its slow pace.

December 25, 7:30am

It was definite; there was something terribly wrong with the Keep, and it was not merely Kyia’s distraction in dealing with the invaders. Murikeer stared at a wall as it crumbled to dust before him, it’s magic depleted. The crumbling wall was all that remained of a portico he had been standing in moments before when he reached out and drew the magic of the Keep to himself. Much to his surprise none had immediately flooded back to replenish the void his grasp had left behind though, beyond is immediate reach, vast reserves still held the ancient walls erect as pristinely as they day that Kyia had placed them. There was simply an aching emptiness in the skein, like a moth chewed hole in a tapestry.

He peered at the wall as the last pieces of decayed stone crumbled, the magic that had sustained it for eons sapped and letting in the age that had been held at bay for so long. He shook his head and lifted his lips in twitchy disgust; it could only be the work of powerful mages to bind the magic and prevent the Keep from shifting its walls. Murikeer fed a tiny iota of the magic he had stripped to supplement the warming spell in the amulet about his neck and felt the numbing cold of the howling blizzard fade. The wind still grasped angrily at his fur and pulled his tail to one side as he crossed the courtyard, stepping over the frozen corpses of a score of Lutins, humans garbed in northerner furs, and a handful of those who had died to bring them down. A single frozen hand clutched futilely from the snow, pale white fur spotted with black rosettes and blood.

As he approached the archway of a deeply inset door the wooden portal was yanked open to issue forth a mob of Lutins that scattered to either side, utterly ignoring him as the driving snow made it all but impossible to see more than a few feet. Arrows sailed from the depths of the corridor beyond and, caught by the gale, wavered in their paths before falling well short of the skunk. Dimly under the howl of the wind he could hear the clash of steel and the yells of an unseen battle. Before he could decide if braving the battle would be worth entering a Lutin lurched out of the driving white and slammed into him, almost knocking him from his feet. It stopped in surprise and looked up to see what it hand bowled into and let out a surprised screech, lashing out with the short curved iron blade it held. The bruising impact staggered Murikeer once more, only his fur preventing the blunted edge from laying him open at the waist. He snarled down at the startled creature and burned it down with a hasty spell before turning to flee as others came charging across the courtyard to escape whatever foe they faced within.

The skunk darted up a corpse littered stair against the far wall and into the hacked door at the top of the wall into a tower guard house. The sight that he met within was no different than the courtyard or stair; bodies littered the floor, most of them Keepers who had tried futilely to stave off the overwhelming forces that had poured over the wall. Bodies lay thick across the floor, hacked by countless foes and burned by toppled braziers. He was forced to drag aside what was left of a woman and animorphed hound to find the trap door to the armoury below. Quickly climbing down the ladder after drawing the trap door closed he cast about for the door that would open to the inner wall passageway. The fight had not progressed into the armoury and the door, when he found it, stood open showing that at least some had escaped the slaughter above. He moved into the narrow passageway after summoning a witchlight to illuminate the darkness. No torches burned, the sconces emptied by those who had fled for their lives.

Coming upon another door he paused a few moments to listen against the heavy wood but heard nothing beyond. Opening it carefully, an arcane bolt readied, he found a wider corridor beyond as empty as the passageway and stepped into it, casting about for some hint of where he was. Somewhere below the ground, he surmised, by the lack of windows and general dampness. As with the passageway there were no torches, only vacant sconces festooned with old cobwebs. The dusty floor showed no signs of having been trod in years. A simple sweep of one hand caused the dust to shift over the tracks left by his unshod paws as he quickly paced along the corridor until he found another door; narrow and gray with age. The hinges were blessedly silent, however, as he drew it open a crack to look into the room beyond.

The sight brought a leering smile to his face as he spied a pair of hands worth of humans beyond, all garbed in heavy furs and velvet robes, studiously working on some manner of construct upon the floor. It was a ritual circle for some manner of sacrifice, marking them as Metamor’s foes even as their northern garb. His mage sight showed him that only two of them were mages, one vastly more powerful than the second. That one, an age bent man rendered gaunt by his years of privation in the frigid north, seemed to be directing the coterie of servants, none of whom appeared to be warriors. Indeed, Murikeer could see not a single weapon among them. Only the master and his apparent apprentice were armed, their sheathed swords belted about their waists.

“Bring the sacrifice.” Commanded the elder in a gravelly voice, waving imperiously toward a corner of the room Murikeer could not see through the narrow crack of the doorway. He pushed as much power as he could into his readied arcane bolt and steeled himself as the sacrifice was dragged, moaning behind a gag and kicking feebly, into sight. It was a child of perhaps ten years, garbed in the rags of a street urchin, and clearly caught up by Metamor’s age reversing curse. The boy was hauled into the center of the circle by a quartet of servitors and the elder mage followed slowly. From his belt the man drew a wicked looking serpentine dagger and, with the help of his apprentice, unsteadily settled to his knees beside the boy. While the quartet held his arms and legs the man lowered his dagger to his brow.

What he was going to attempt was never carried beyond that point as a shrieking sizzle cooked into his back and sent him sprawling forward over the child. Murikeer charged into the room with an animalistic, snarling yell and, with one swift sweep of his hand, sent the apprentice into the far wall with a shove of his magical strength. The man grunted once at the impact and collapsed; dead or unconscious Murikeer did not care overmuch with so many to interrogate. None of them were Thorne, but they would know more than hapless Lutins or mercenaries. The servitors scattered in horror as more sizzling arcane bolts lanced about the room, cutting them down murderously as they tried to escape the enraged beast suddenly in their midst. Two managed to scramble around Murikeer and dart through the doorway he had entered through and three more out another door but five lay where they had stood, steaming and immobile. The skunk turned and hammered the door shut behind him so violently the wood buckled and seized in its frame preventing those that fled by that direction from returning.

His decimation complete Murikeer cast about for more foes before crossing to check upon the fate of the apprentice. Other than a savage blow to the head when he slammed into the wall, and perhaps a few broken bones the skunk cared nothing about, he still lived. Murikeer took the sword within its scabbard from the man’s belt and quickly patted him down for more weapons before binding him with a paralyzing spell and turned his attention to the child still struggling to push the fallen mage from atop him. Wiping a gap in the bounding circle with a fallen servant’s cloak Murikeer rendered the construct powerless before entering and pulling the man off. He extended a hand toward the child to help him to his feet.

“You?” the child gaped after yanking off his gag. He scrambled back away from Murikeer hastily and looked about for an exit. “Again?” Murikeer narrowed his eyes and looked the child over but nothing about him seemed familiar, yet the youth seemed to recognize him. As with the apprentice Murikeer patted down the deceased elder mage, divesting his corpse of what weapons or magical accoutrement he could find. “Don’t remember me, do you?”

Murikeer glanced up from his labors, “No.” he grunted shortly, finding the sword to be purely mundane, as was the dagger, both of which he tossed toward the age-regressed man.

“I can see why. You opened my eyes a few months ago, I guess I should thank you.” The child groused, picking up the weapons and looking at them dubiously. “And curse you, too. You threw me into a room full of mirrors and what I saw there… it changed me as much as this damnable curse.”

The child’s accusation tickled some shadow of a memory but Murikeer did not delve too far to recall it. He used the dead mage’s belt to bind his limp wrists, just in case he had some devious arcane method of resurrecting himself, and looked over at the child with a glower. The child had settled against the far wall and drawn his knees up to hug them with the sheathed sword clasped in his hands, “I gave it all up, you know? Sold off my lands, my possessions.” His narrow shoulders rose and fell in a shrug, “I was happier just being a child, no more of that incessant politicking and grasping at airs.” His clear blue gaze looked about, “I’m Aniris, once a petty underling lord of Loriod’s barony. I guess you freed me of that, but now,” he sighed and shuddered, “Now you save me from a worse fate than my own selfishness. Where do I go from here?”

“I don’t know, I don’t care. One of the temples, likely. Kyia will focus her efforts keeping the invaders from those places.” The skunk stood to examine what remained of the binding circle. It was nothing more than an amplification relay for a spell already anchored elsewhere. The rune sets seemed focused on a greater paralyzation of magic, the cause of Kyia’s current problems. He shoved that into the list of things to be wary of, or destroy if he came upon them, well below the death of his one-time-pupil, Thorne. “Did these mages have others with them? Other mages?” He looked aside at the child, “One with gray eyes and a black beard?”

Aniris shook his head, “Only those two and their slaves. I was unconscious for a time after they captured me in lower Keeptowne.” He shivered and looked at one of the dead servants lying nearby for a moment, mulling over if the warm cloaks were worth the effort of stripping the corpse. “I only know I’m in the Keep, beyond that… nothing.” Deciding that warmth was more important than squeamishness the child crawled to the corpse and began the laborious task of shucking him of clothing. “If the sycophant is still alive he may know more than I.”

Murikeer nodded and swept his hand in a circle, obliterating the construct entirely. “You should go.” He growled flatly, “What I am going to do with him you may not want to watch.”

Aniris smiled. It was not a pleasant grimace; it was pure cold, sinister malice. “I am Anaris, late of Loriod’s inner circle, skunk. If anyone knows how to torture it would be me.”


They've resumed the formation they established earlier. Kirk and Jono in front, Dana and Kevin in the middle with the kids, Perry and Jo in back.

This bothers Perry somewhat. He's one of the more versatile combatants, and he can easily block a passage while the others make off with the kids. But Kirk made a point of ensuring that each pair have at least one who has very good vision or at least perception in the tunnels, which is a quality shared mostly between himself, Kevin and Jono. And it's important for Jono to be in the front, because he's become what amounts to the leader of the Kids. Or, as Jono put it, the kids aren't panicking only because they know their Uncle Jono is up in front and they know him.

And besides, he'd reasoned, the most likely place for attackers to come from is from behind, given that they entered through an open staircase in a point under siege, and they camped in an area that's kept away from the marauders above by a wooden floor and trapdoor secured by a now damaged lock. Never mind that they sealed the entrance at the Inner Gate, and never mind that they piled enough bags of grain under the trapdoor to make it virtually impossible to get through that way.

But Perry doesn't complain, despite the tactical situation. Jono's reasoning as to the children's morale is very sound. They're his primary concern at the moment, being the future of Metamor, and thus they're the ones he has to defend. He's doing his best not to give special consideration to anyone, including his own Daemion. At least not until they're out of this, at which point he's definitely going to give Daemion the time of his life as recognition of how brave the boy's been and of how proud he is of him.

But that's not until things are over. This is still a potential combat situation. And so he distances himself for the duration, keeping himself consoled from having to do so by reminding himself that Dae is definitely going to feel better about this at the end, and he's going to make it to the end because if Perry does his job right, they're All going to make it to the end.

The kids, for the most part, are looking about in wonder and maybe a little fear at the surroundings lit up barely by Kevin's pseudo-witchlight. They aren't really in actual 'tunnels' in the classic sense of the word; what they're in ends up looking more like a series of cellars, or in some cases like a whole underground castle. A few of the kids are scared - this is obviously Very Old and so there could be Ghosts down here. Most of the kids are excited beyond belief. A Whole New Castle! Underground! And no grownups around to tell you No!

Derek and Jeremy and Sammy are already considering the possibilities.

"I bet we could have ourselves a room down here," Jeremy is whispering. "Get into the bakers' room and get all the cookies and pie, get it down here with some snowballs, and stay here when the grownups come to take us in!"

"Yeah!" Derek whispers, trying to keep his voice down so that the Bad Guys and the grownups don't hear. "We could have a" - he lowers his voice so it's barely audible; a Big Secret is about to be announced - "super-secret hidden base!"

"Super-secret," Sammy repeats, his face set in an expression of awe.

"Yeah, our very own spot," Derek continues, obviously excited. "Where we tell the grownups what they can and can't do. Make them go to bed early."

There's a concurring series of nods. Then they all join hands, to show that they're All going to keep the secret. "Snowfield Champions vow. This'll be Our secret place."

Sammy and Jeremy both nod solemnly. "Our secret place," repeats Sammy.

Jono in the meantime walks on, pretending to be oblivious of the children's plan. Cats have extremely good ears, though, and he can hear them quite clearly. He shakes his head slowly, smiling mostly to himself, then returns his gaze to the areas around him. The area they've just entered seems impossibly large for being underground; it looks like it could have been a dining hall, or quite possibly a chapel to some forgotten god in the olden days. Certainly the tapestries on the walls look like they've been crumbled for quite some time.

This fascinates Kevin to no end. _I wish we could send a few historical expeditions down here... this room looks like it's been around since the days of the Seuliman Empire!_ Kevin's always been a fan of history, and this fascinates him to no end - so much, in fact, that Dana has to put her hand on his shoulder and shake him before he realizes that he's wandering towards the tapestries and away from the kids he's supposed to be watching. "Er. Sorry. Thanks," he whispers to her; she simply nods back.

Dana for her part has given up on wondering what she's supposed to do and is doing her best to keep watch over the kids. She figures at the rate she's going now she's probably going to end up a mother herself sometime, so she might as well get the practice in. Of course, she admits to herself, this isn't likely to be the most common problem with kids if she ever has any, but you take what you can get. Her curiosity is slightly piqued by the state of the room, but only slightly.

Kirk's only thought is that this looks like a good resting spot. "Okay, everyone," he says in as quiet a voice as he can manage. "We're going to take a quick break here, rest legs and such, and then we're going to keep heading onward, so everyone take advantage of the break while you can. Don't wander too far off."

Most of the children (and some of the adults, too) sigh in relief and just fall to their butts on the ground where they're standing. This is tough work. Sure, running around the snowfields is tiring, but that was fun. This is just so BORING, walking through some dumb tunnel. Kevin clearly disagrees, as he practically jumps for joy before practically rushing off to examine the tapestries. Oh wow.

Derek and Jeremy and Sammy don't think it boring either. "Okay, let's split up and start scouting around for good places in this room," Jeremy suggests. Derek and Sammy agree quickly, and the three break apart to go wandering up and down along the walls. Jeremy doesn't get very far though; he takes the same path his Dad was taking, and gets taken hostage. "Hey, Jeremy, take a look at this!"

Jeremy certainly finds what people do interesting, but he's not so sure about historian stuff. Of course, the stuff Dad looks at is really cool - you get to see about all sorts of things like battles people fought and how these guys tricked those other guys into taking over some Really Big Castle (cool!), but all those Other historians spend all their time in the library. Boring! Boring beyond measure. 'Course, when Dad took him to see that deer guy who had all the really old toys 'n such... that was really cool, 'cause the deer guy got to, like, go to places to get this stuff. Now that is what Jeremy considers fun. Finding cool old stuff that some legend guy used to beat the Bad Guys. How can you not like it? He's hoping now that when he starts his Change in... what, one year, two years?. he hopes that he becomes a rat 'cause he's heard that they pretty much own these tunnels, and he wants to be there too, just to see all the cool stuff.

Samuel (he always gets called 'Sammy', can't stand that other name) doesn't have any ambitions like that. He knows what he's going to be already - weaponsmith. After all, if he can make snowballs so easily, swords ought to be a cinch. He never really got Jeremy's thing for old stuff; after all, an old snowball is just a smear of snow. You can remake it into a new snowball, true, but you can make snowballs much more quickly if you use the snow that's already there on the ground. 'Course, it could just be Jeremy's dad playing with Jeremy. After all, Jeremy's dad clearly wants to be an old geezer real bad, and so Sammy can easily see Jeremy's dad trying to turn Jeremy into - GASP - a Grown Up. Not a serious, always capable grownup like Perry or Kirk, but some kind of old-guy-wannabe grownup, like all those guys in the big towers. Sammy is never, ever going to be an old guy wannabe.

Derek's not thinking of ambition now, he's thinking of finding some of that Cool Old Stuff that Jeremy's talking about, but for a different reason entirely. Jeremy keeps going on about how it's old and so it's Cool and such, just like his weirdo dad, but Derek has a different thought on that. If there's a super sword that the Super Old Guy Hero used to beat all the bad guys that's down here, Derek is willing to bet it'll work for these bad guys too. He's not thinking of running into combat at all - he's been watching Jono and Kirk, and it's obvious that he's Never going to be as good as the legendary Uncle Jono, or as big as the AWESOME! Kirk. No, he's going to be one of those Smart warriors that fights from a dista

"Derek." The voice instantly cuts off his thoughts, and he whirls around. Nobody's there.

"It's okay, Derek, I want to help out." Sounds like some kind of girl's voice. But he doesn't see any girl, and more importantly, the voice is Too Loud!

"You need to be quieter, or we're not gonna get any pie," Derek informs the voice. Sure, he's older than most of those other kids, but this is a big piece of pie at stake!

The voice seems to giggle slightly. "Don't worry, Derek. You're the only one who can hear me here."

"Oh," he says simply, not knowing what to think about that.

"I need you to do me a favor, Derek. Can you do me a quick favor?"

"Um... who are you?" Derek asks, his voice a little shaky now. That's just a little too much, now.

"My name is Kyia. I'm not going to hurt you or any of your friends. I want to help."

Kyia? Wasn't she that weirdo lady that that whatever she was called, Lightbringer or something didn't that person at the ceremonies talk about her sometimes? So she's probably a Good Guy, "'Kay," Derek says in a slightly hesitant voice.

"There's a small bag right next to you; it's got some gloves and some other things in it. I need you to take them along."

Derek blinks, then turns to look at the wall next to him. Sure enough, there's a small sack with a belt loop there, and he can see a glove poking out of the top. So he picks it up slowly. It's not all that heavy, but there seems to be some metal things in there.

"Don't get out any of the metal parts without the gloves on," the voice - or Kyia, whomever - warns. So he pulls on a glove, then reaches in, and pulls out.

"Wow!" He's still speaking in whispers only by reflex. It looks like a tiny ball, except it's got big nasty spikes all over it. He just sits there, looking at it for a few moments.

"Just make some snowballs with those. You'll know when you have to. And don't tell anyone else except whoever is going to help you," Kyia continues. Derek nod nods agreement. This is so cool! Some mysterious lady just gave him a nifty looking weapon thing!

"Thank you. And good luck, Derek. I'll be watching." And then the voice doesn't come back.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

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