"Thank you all for arriving promptly. What do you have to report?"
There was a moment's hesitation, as Raven cast her gaze around the circle of priests. Most of them looked weary from the frantic activity of the last several hours, though they clearly realized that this matter was too grave for lack of sleep to sway them from their duties. All the same, fatigue was taking its toll, and no one seemed quite sure who should be first to address the Lothanasa.
It was Brother Cardiff who first broke the silence. "The Baron of Komley has promised his support," the red-haired man said quietly, the wrinkles in his brow twitching slightly. "He will dispatch a troop of horsemen as soon as they can be made ready."
"Excellent," Raven nodded in satisfaction. "I fear it shall take them several days to reach us, but any assistance will be welcomed. Sister Heldah, what news from Sorin?"
Heldah grimaced, shaking her head slightly. "It appears doubtful at best, Lothanasa. Sorin was raided by pirates last September and many of our finest men fell in defense of the city. The elders fear that sending any troops at this time would leave us defenseless against another attack."
"The city elders would do well to remember their fealty to Lord Thomas," Raven said, her blue eyes as hard as ice. "See to it that they do not forget."
"Of course, Sister hin'Elric."
The wolf-woman turned her attention to Brother Larkspur, a tall and rather scrawny young man who had only recently become the head priest of his temple. "And what of Merith?" she asked him. "Have they also suffered from these pirate raids?"
"No, Lothanasa," Larkspur said, shaking his head. "The town has been peaceful this year. The baron is reviewing his forces now, and he has promised to send them no later than noon today. We do not have much of an army, but what we have is at Lord Thomas' disposal."
"Good." Raven turned her eyes on Brother Holdeman, who up till now had been sitting quietly. "What about Midtown, Brother Holdeman? You have the largest military force of any represented here, apart from Metamor itself— and you are one of our closest neighbors, besides. Has the baron reached a decision?"
The gray-haired man sighed, folding his hands in his lap. "Metamor's request is ... under advisement," he said wearily. "The baron has said he will debate it today with the members of his council. You will have an answer before sunset."
Raven frowned. "I had expected better of Midtown," she said, half to herself. "They have more to lose than many if Metamor should fall."
Holdeman shrugged, somewhat helplessly. "I know not his motivations, only his message."
"I understand," Raven assured him. "Contact me as soon as you hear anything more— and do what you can to influence their decision."
"As you say, Sister hin'Elric."
Finally, the high priestess turned to Myers and Byron, the priests of Lorland and Mycransburg. Apart from Raven, they were the only clerics present who lived in Metamor Valley.
"Has the storm shown any sign of clearing near you, gentlemen?"
Myers shook his head. "Afraid not, Lothanasa," the stag replied. "Everyone's still in the castle, hoping we can wait it out."
"Nasoj seems content to bottle us up until he's finished with Metamor," the gendermorph shrugged. “A couple of cold hardy scouts have spotted at least a hundred, perhaps more, Lutins in the shelter of the tree line just beyond easy loft of our ballista or trebuchet.” She shrugged a bit, “I am going to review the situation at first light and see if anything can be done.”
Raven sighed, putting a hand to her forehead and gently rubbing her temples. "Very well," she said. "You all know what to do. Cuialye lothan, all of you."
The other clerics repeated the ancient salutation, then faded from view. A moment later, Raven was once again seated on the floor of her bedchamber. The candles that lined the Circles had burned low in their stanchions. Rising to her feet, she extinguished them with a wave of her hand. Stretching her arms overhead and yawning as only a wolf can, she sent up a silent prayer to Dokorath for the soldiers of Metamor before reentering the main hall of the temple.
The dawn sacrifice had already been performed, and Merai and Celine were sitting quietly on the floor, sharing a breakfast of bread, butter, and tea.
"Good morning, Sister Raven," Merai said, smiling up at her. The bags under her eyes made it obvious that she had been up all night.
"Good morning Merai, Celine," Raven said, nodding to both of them. Abruptly, her eye caught hold of something: three still forms lying on the floor near the end of the hall. "What happened?" she asked, her brow creasing in a frown.
"Injured townsfolk," Celine replied. She smiled a little. "Lady Kyia saw fit to let in a score or so of survivors from the battle outside."
Raven shot Merai a serious look. "No one has left, have they?"
"Oh, no. They arrived during the third watch of the night, and the doors shut quickly behind them. Nothing else came in with them, either," Merai added, answering the wolf-woman's unspoken question.
"Good." She considered the two men and the girl a moment longer. "Their prognosis?"
"Very good," Merai assured her. "Just a few arrow wounds, nothing serious."
Satisfied with that, Raven sat down with the other two women. They ate in silence for several minutes, chewing thoughtfully as they watched the storm raging outside.
"I wonder how the rest of the Keep is faring," Merai said quietly.
"I don't know," the elder priestess replied. "I am hopeful, however, that we shall receive reinforcements from the south in a few days."
Merai frowned at her. "How do you know?" she asked.
Raven shrugged, letting a small smile form on her lips. "I have my methods."
The cat-woman looked at Celine, as if wordlessly repeating her question. The acolyte's green eyes sparkled in a knowing smile, but she said nothing.
Just then the temple doors opened, and a slender young woman wearing the colors of the Red Stallion stepped inside. As she came closer Raven recognized her as Daria hin'Leon, Merai's longtime friend and compatriot. From her aura and the set of her jaw, she seemed to have come here for more than idle conversation.
"Good morning, Squire," Raven said, nodding at her as she approached. "How can we help you?"
Daria stopped a few feet away and came to attention. "Lothanasa, I request your permission to join the battle in defense of Metamor."
Raven gazed at her a moment, bemused. "No one can leave this temple, Daria. Lady Kyia has sealed us inside, as I said before. And, in truth, it seems to me that one squire would make little difference in the outcome."
"I do not propose to go alone, Mistress Lightbringer," the redhead answered. "And I do not propose conventional battlefield tactics. The situation calls for a different approach."
Slowly, Raven steepled her fingers. "I'm listening," she said.
Briefly, and with increasing animation, Daria outlined her plan: a strike team composed of volunteers from within the temple would act as a stinging gadfly on the haunches of Nasoj's army, using their knowledge of the Keep to attack swiftly and silently in weakly defended areas and disappear without a trace. Through a combination of stealth and terror, they would harry the invading forces and wear them down, making them more vulnerable to assault by more conventional tactics.
"It sounds like you are proposing to fight like thieves and bandits," Raven said with a wry smile.
"Aye, Mistress," Daria nodded. "Kayla called it 'otrinca' warfare."
"One of the survivors who arrived last night," Celine said. "She works for Prince Phil in Intelligence."
Raven scratched her chin thoughtfully for a moment. "Who would lead this team?" she asked. "You, Daria?"
"Aye, ma'am," the warrior-woman said. "I _am_ being trained as a field officer, so I already know something of tactics. Kayla has pledged her assistance in planning the attacks."
There was another long moment of silence as Raven peered deeply into Daria's eyes, as well as her aura. The girl was brave, quite obviously. She was also competent, if the reports Raven had heard from time to time were true. But most importantly, she sincerely believed that she could perform this task— and perform it well.
And self-confidence, Raven knew, could cover a multitude of shortcomings.
"Your plan has merit," she said at last, rising once again to her feet. "But I believe I can give you something which will make it even more effective. Wait here a moment."
Fifteen minutes later, after a brief descent through the depths of the Archives and into the Vault that lay beneath them, Raven returned bearing a small golden key. It was simply carved and unadorned, and it hung from a short gold necklace.
"Take this," Raven said, offering the pendant to Daria.
The young woman looked at it a moment, then took it from the priestess's hand. "What is it?" she asked.
"A facilitator," Raven replied. "With this key, you can shape the passages of Metamor around you at will. It can only be used to travel to a place where the user has been before, but I doubt that will limit you much under the circumstances." She bared her teeth in a grim smile. "Imagine the enemy's surprise when you appear out of the very walls."
Daria grinned broadly, fitting the chain around her neck. "How do I use it?"
"Simply name your destination. Though I am not sure of the details, I believe it acts as a magical focus for Kyia's space-altering powers— a channel to direct her energies without requiring her to concentrate on the task at hand. 'Tis less likely, then, that she will be distracted in her efforts to hold the enemy at bay." She placed a hand on Daria's shoulder. "You'd best be going now, Squire," she said. "I believe you have a strike team to assemble."
The young warrior grinned once again, looking down briefly at the pendant around her neck. "Aye, Lothanasa. Thank you." With that, she turned and nearly ran out the door.
Raven chuckled as she sat down again with Merai and Celine. Within hours, she guessed, Daria and her fellow warriors would be making life utterly miserable for the invaders down below. Nasoj's generals would _not_ be happy.
She bit into a biscuit with a feral snap of her jaws, swallowed, and grinned broadly. This was looking to be a fine morning after all.
The stranger came in three more times, each time building more and more to their supplies, and more to their numbers… now nearing 50, as he brought more children, and soon afterwards, their lost parents. A number of them had wounds, being saved just before a mortal blow could be inflicted. After 4 hours, he stood by the door, as if keeping watch. If someone chose to look closely, though, they would see his body shifting toward the door, as if something beckoned him to go out… just one more time.
"Are we packed?" he asked, the hood turning, so the silver head inside could glance at the crew as they bundled wood from the cord found for supplies into tight clothes to protect them from the weather. Outside the blizzard battered at the cellar doors, as if knocking, and they dreaded when they would have to open themselves up and let it in, "Start waking up, we leave in less than an hour."
8:30am – 7/25
The main hall of the temple was full of people. Its vaulted ceiling rang with the sounds of people who had grown weary of the close quarters. Some of the people were sleeping, some were praying, some were comforting their family and friends. Others weren’t involved in anything so mundane.
The group assembled in the center of the room was a mixed lot of men, women, and various animal morphs. They were dressed in various types of armor and carried a polyglot mix of weapons.
Thunder roared suddenly through the temple, a shuddering boom of sound that came from the main temple doors, repeated three times in rapid succession. The sound echoed through the whole temple. Everyone froze, unsure of what the sound portended.
“It’s from outside,” Someone said.
“They’re trying to batter the doors down,” someone said in a panic.
A person screamed and a loud clamor filled the air as people scrambled down the narrow stairs to the perceived safety of the archives. Others hugged their loved ones in fear; still others grasped weapons intent on selling their lives dearly.
“Quiet!” Raven shouted and the room instantly fell silent.
The priestess motioned to Daria and her group to surround the doors leading to the antechamber and the outer doors.
Slowly, and carefully Daria and a small group filed through the inner doors and into the tight corridor beyond. Ornate frescoes with elaborate scrollwork and complex calligraphy covered the walls.
Again the doors shook with the heavy reverberations, the booming echoes drifting ominously up the passageway.
Raven took a position just inside the inner doors, next to Jessica. The falcon mage was desperately trying to ready a spell. The wolf morph touched Jessica on the wing. “Relax child,” she said, comfortingly. “Move easily.” The falcon took a deep breath and calmly finished reading her spell. A throng of soldiers and acolytes quickly crowded around the two, drawn steel gleaming in the torchlight.
The heavy, bass thunder continued, pausing briefly every few seconds, only to repeat again soon after in a slow pounding at the doors. To many in the room it sounded like a death knell. To others it sounded like the ominous thunder of a battering ram.
“Is anyone in there?” Came a faint voice from beyond the portal during one of those brief pauses.
A worn, and ancient looking woman pushed her way through the crowd of people trying defend the outer doors. Daria recognized her as Malia, the Temple door warden. “Who is there?” the warden asked the doors in a calm, dry voice.
“It’s Misha Brightleaf with a group of my people. Can we come in?” the voice answered.
“Mistress Raven, there is someone at the doors asking for entry,” the ancient warden said calmly to the Lightbringer priestess as if announcing guests arriving for dinner.
The wolf nodded. “Let them in, but everyone stand ready. This might be a ruse by the Lutins.”
Two guards swiftly drew back the securing cross brace and lifted the two heavy bolts securing the leaves of the huge, heavy portal closed. After the bolts had been withdrawn the warden slowly pulled one of the massive doors open. Everyone tensed as Daria and Bradfox nocked arrows and Morel readied a spear for throwing. Daria wondered who was on the other side. Was it more Keepers or a horde of bloodthirsty Lutins?
Nothing came through the doorway immediately; instead it yawned, an empty chasm leading into darkness. The seconds seemed to stretch into an eternity as the open portal remained empty. Finally just when Daria felt her heart was going to burst from excitement a shadow appeared in the doorway and a figure slipped into the temple. The tension in the room eased instantly as everyone recognized the figure as not being a Lutin; it was a Keeper. The person was dressed in tabard and pants that were completely covered with brown, green and black spots. There was a long bow on his back and a long sword on his belt. In his paws was a five-foot long, coal black, double bladed battleaxe. The Keeper’s vulpine head darted back and forth taking in his surroundings.
“Misha,” Raven said calmly. “It is. . .” she started to say.
The fox held a gauntled hand up to the wolf, interrupting her. He turned and motioned through the open door. Then he watched silently as a group filed in. It was a mixed group of all ages, species and sexes; some dressed in the tattered remnants of their holiday finery and others in ragged work clothes. Sprinkled in among the others were six who stood out as different. They walked and stood bolder, more confident then the rest, and they were all dressed in the black, brown and green camouflage of a scout. Last through the doorway was a tall ferret carrying a long bow across his back and a long sword in each hand.
The ferret carefully looked over the twenty people who preceded him into the room. Then he looked at Misha and saluted. “All present Misha. I’m the last one. Hallway’s clear,” he said as he sheathed the two swords.
The vulpine nodded. “All right. Keep half the team at the doors, the others get some rest.”
“Ok boss,” Finbar answered. “I’ll rotate them so everyone gets a rest.”
It wasn’t until the door was closed and barred that the fox looked back to the Priestess, who had patiently waited throughout. “My lady Raven hin'Elric, I’m glad to see that you and your people are safe.”
“Thank you Misha.”
“I have a about a dozen refugees I picked up in our travels. Can they stay here?” Misha asked.
The priestess turned to an acolyte, “Please see that these people get cared for. Be sure to find them places in the archive.” The woman began to quietly direct servants and other acolytes.
Raven turned back to Misha. “You bring word from the outside world?” It was as much a statement as a question.
“Yes I do,” the fox answered in a tired voice.
The entire chamber erupted into a tumult of conflicting and shouting voices.
“What’s happened to the town? I heard it was burning?” someone shouted.
“Have you seen my husband Paul, he was tall, with brown hair. He was working in the kitchens.”
“Are the walls still holding? My sister was on duty at the outer gate? Do you know what’s happened to there?”
“Have the Lutins over run the lower town?”
“Have you seen my father?”
“Have you seen my son?”
“My mother . . “
“Sister . . .”
“Do you think the Lutins will make it into the Keep?”
“QUIET!” Raven said coldly and the room went deathly silent.
Misha fidgeted for a moment before speaking. “The outer walls have been completely overrun. The outer gate has been taken and Andre the gate captain . .” Misha stumbled over the words. “My good friend Andre is missing and believed dead,” he finished in a faint voice.
“The outer ward?” Raven asked.
“Burning,” Finbar answered simply, moving up to stand next to Misha. “All three gates have been taken, and Lutins are running berserk inside the Keep itself.”
There were sobs and shrieks from the people in the room. In the background someone started weeping.
“Then Metamor has fallen,” commented someone from the crowd.
“No,” Misha answered firmly. “The monsters are in the Keep but they haven’t taken it yet. Getting inside the Keep is one thing, taking and holding it is another.”
“Metamor shall not fall, Kyia will see to that,” Raven answered with firm conviction. “What exactly is the situation?” The priestess asked of Misha.
“Nasoj’s forces are inside the Keep and are roaming the halls at will. But it seems Kyia doesn’t like her new guests and they’re getting lost as everything keeps moving around on them.”
“So we’re holding on?” Someone asked.
“Is anyone from the south coming to help us?” Another asked.
“Yes to both questions,” Misha answered.
“Forces are moving to aid us even as we speak,” Raven added.
“Is the Duke all right?” Someone asked. The room suddenly went deathly quiet as all eyes turned to the vulpine scout.
“Yes,” Misha answered without missing a beat. “His safety was the first thing we checked.”
The tension in the room eased noticeably. Finbar looked at his leader but didn’t speak. Then he turned and looked to helping the refugees.
The silent exchange didn’t go unnoticed by the Lightbringer priestess, who made no comment of her own.
The fox touched Raven on the arm. “We need to speak in private.”
The wolf priestess nodded and pointed to a doorway. “We can talk in my private chambers.”
As Misha moved to follow the wolf he was stopped by a tug on the arm. Turning, he recognized the skunk immediately. “Kayla, it’s good to see that you’re okay.”
“Thank you. Have you seen Rickkter?” the skunk asked.
Misha shook his head. “Not in a while. When Madog came charging in Rickkter took a group and headed out. I haven’t seen him since. Knowing him he’s in the thick of the fighting.”
The skunk’s whole body drooped. “I see,” she said in a small voice.
Misha touched her on the shoulder. “Listen Kayla, Rickkter is a survivor. Whatever happens he’ll come through it alive. He may be a little battered and bruised, but he’ll survive.”
She brightened noticeably and gave him a hug. “Thank you Misha.” The fox broke the hug reluctantly and moved after Raven.
Neither Misha nor Raven spoke until the door closed behind them and they were alone in her private chambers.
“What do you know about the Duke?” Raven asked.
“Nothing,” Misha answered. “I sent Laura and her team to find the Duke. They haven’t reported back yet. I’ve heard a lot rumors . . . “
“Rumors that have him dead?” The wolf finished.
“Can they be true? Is Thomas dead?”
The scout shrugged. “Anything could be possible. We do know that Nasoj infiltrated a lot of assassins into the Keep before the assault.”
“Any idea of how many?” Raven asked.
“No, but Madog and Sir Saulius killed the seven who came after Father Hough.”
Raven looked shocked for a moment before regaining her composure. “They came after Hough? Is he all right?”
“Hough is fine. A little shook up but fine. He’s leading the defense of the cathedral even as we speak.”
The priestess nodded solemnly. “What is the general situation?”
“We in Long House were warned about the attack by Madog at half past eight. The actual attack began at about nine o’clock or about half past. They were over the outer wall before we even knew they were there. By ten the outer gate had fallen and there was fighting in the outer ward. We had Lutins in the Keep itself by that point, roaming the hallways.”
“We have to assume that everything but the Keep itself has fallen,” the fox explained. “And all three of the Keep gates have been taken and Lutins are pouring in. Long house is still holding out, as is the Cathedral. The outer ward has been taken and I have reports of it being looted and burned.” Misha gave a mirthless chuckle. “You can see the glow from the flames from any window.”
“So I’ve seen,” Raven said. “Also I can see another light.”
The scout nodded. “That’s from Oren’s tower. I hate to imagine what those poor folk are going through out there.”
“As long as that light burns, Oren and his people are still alive and resisting.”
“Don’t let Oren fool you, he’s a tough customer and hard to kill,” Misha answered. “I’ve sent my Longs out to reconnoiter the keep, harass the Lutins and find any other pockets of resistance. We’re finding groups of lost and cut off Keepers all over the place. The Lutins seem to be sticking to the main hallways and corridors. With all halls and corridors shifting constantly they seem to be having a tough time finding their way around.”
“Kyia is defending herself and us,” Raven commented.
“Right now that’s the only thing keeping them from overrunning the Keep. They can’t control where their troops are going. So far we’ve had only small groups attack Long House. Five to ten in each group and none of them coordinated. They’ve made only one serious try to take the cathedral but it has been several hours since we were there but I doubt they’ve been hit again. But that won’t last, eventually they’ll pin down all the remaining centers of resistance and starve us out.”
The fox paused in his conversation. “You mentioned outside,” he said pointing at the closed door. “That help was coming. Was that the truth?”
Raven nodded. “Yes it is. I have contacted several of the temples to the south.”
“We need Midtown, they’d make up the largest contingent. Who has promised to send troops so far?” Misha asked.
“Merith, and Komley, have both promised troops.”
“Too small,” the fox said shaking his head. “The best we can hope for from them is several hundred. What about Midtown. We need them.”
“I’ve entreated Midtown to send troops, but they have not replied yet. I am expecting an answer before dawn,” Raven answered.
The fox just sadly shook his head. “Those fools are bound and determined to see Metamor destroyed, even if they themselves get destroyed in the process. What about the towns here in the valley?”
“Besieged by the weather and the Lutins. So far they haven’t been attacked,” Raven answered.
“Of course not. Once Metamor falls resistance in the rest of the valley can be cleaned out at leisure,” the Long Scout explained. “How long before the first reinforcements arrive?” Misha asked.
“It takes time to muster a relief force. And the weather is only making it worse. Most likely a week.”
“I don’t think Metamor can hold out for that long. If we don’t stop him, Nasoj will take the Keep,” was Misha’s comment.
“What can we do to stop the attackers?”
“Strike back, hard and often. Keep the Lutins off guard, put them on the defensive and unable to attack,” Misha answered. “I’ve already dispatched two raiding groups besides the other Long Scout patrol.”
The wolf rang a small hand bell and a servant appeared. “Have Daria come here,” she told the woman. The servant left as quickly as she had arrived.
“I have set up a group to conduct raids against the attackers,” Raven said to Misha. “They were about to set out when you arrived. Daria is the leader of them. Your assistance and advice would be of great service.”
“Of course. Glad to help.”
“Have you had any contact to the south?” the priestess asked.
“Some. I’ve contacted my sister Elizabeth. She’s talking to the Mages guild now on sending help.”
Raven shook her head. “The Mages guild will not help. They avoid northern politics.”
Misha chuckled. “They’ll help all right. I told my sister to remind the guild that if Metamor Keep falls then Nasoj will capture Madog and Omega.”
“That should stir them to act.”
The fox laughed bitterly. “If I know the guild, they’ll panic and spend a week debating what to do.”
“Will they act?” was the canines question.
“Yes. What they send will be powerful, well trained, and completely untraceable back to the guild. But such help comes at a cost.”
“It always does,” Raven commented ruefully.
There was a knock at the door and Daria stepped into the room. She calmly bowed to both the wolf and the fox. “You called me, Priestess?”
“Yes,” Raven answered. “Misha has agreed to assist your group in getting organized.”
Daria was dressed in a green tunic, with a leather jerkin, leggings and a leather bracers and belt. One her back was a quiver full of arrows, and Misha recognized an expander bow, attached to her belt next to a sharp rapier. Misha shook the young girl’s hand with a strong firm handshake. “Glad to help you out. Let’s go look at your team.”
Once back in the main room Misha called over Finbar and all the Long scouts together in a group. Daria called her own people too and soon everyone from both teams stood together in the center of the room.
“All right everybody, listen carefully. My name is Misha Brightleaf. I’m head of the Long Scouts and I’ve brought a team of Longs here to the temple. Daria is head of a group that’s going out to strike at Nasoj. I want her team to stand in formation here in front of us.”
As the people assembled themselves in a ragged line Misha talked to Daria. “First we’ll look your people over and see how they’re equipped. Then we’ll break up into small groups with the Longs and get some personal training done. That sound good to you?”
A little over awed by the axe wielding vulpine, all she could do is nod.
Misha and Daria began slowly inspecting each of Daria’s volunteers. The first was a tall man, wearing a jerkin of leather studded with metal rivets. The man’s hair was liberally sprinkled with the silver of age and wrinkles covered his face. His sole weapon was a long sword that Misha noted was Lutin made.
The man saluted smartly. “Private Morel, twelfth reserve sword regiment.”
Misha nodded in approval. “How did you get that?” Misha said tapping the Lutin blade.
“With this,” came the answer as the man held up a large chopping knife.
“Any one else here from your unit?”
“No, I’m the only one I’ve seen so far.”
“All right. You’ll do,” Misha said nodding his head.
The next person was barely in his teens. The leather jerkin he was wearing was a size too big. The short sword he was carrying seemed too big for him. He saluted. “Tornok Sir.”
“Have you changed yet?” Misha asked.
“Not yet sir,” he answered nervously. “But that won’t stop me from fighting.”
Misha was silent for a long time staring at the boy. “I think you would better help us by helping to protect the temple.”
Looks of relief and disappointment flashed across Tornok’s face alternately. “But Sir, I . . “
The fox held up his hand silencing the boy. “They are going to find this place eventually and attempt to take it. I want you here to help defend it. A lot of innocent lives depend on you. You understand?” he said slapping him on the shoulder.
The boy nodded nervously. “Yes sir.”
“Good. Go stand over there, ok?” Misha said pointing to Finbar.
As Tornok moved off Misha turned to Daria. “Be sure he gets guard duty and that he’s treated like a real soldier.”
“Yes Sir,” Daria answered.
“Call me Misha.”
Next was a black bear morph dressed in chain mail and carrying a large battleaxe. The ursine pointed to Whisper, the battleaxe Misha was carrying nonchalantly in one hand. “Great minds think alike.”
Misha gave a chuckle. “And who might you be?”
“Corporal Garulf of the first axe,” answered the bear in a calm tone.
“You’ll do,” commented the fox and moved to the next person.
Misha recognized the red tailed hawk instantly. “You’re Jessica, Wessex’s assistant.”
“Yes,” She answered.
“Very good,” the vulpine said, obviously pleased. “We’re going to need all your magic.”
“Have you heard anything about Wessex?” the avian asked.
“No,” the fox answered. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday. He was headed for Lorland, but with this storm there’s no telling whether he left or not. He’s on my list of people to find and protect. If he’s in the keep, we’ll find him.”
“Thank you,” Jessica answered.
“I hope the mage is fine. We’ll need all the help we can,” said a tall hawk morph standing next to Jessica.
“Who are you?” Misha asked the stranger. The five foot tall avian was dressed in a blue surcoat.
The hawk bowed to Misha. “I am Weyden.”
“One of Yonson’s body guards?” the fox answered. It was more a statement then a question.
“Yes, I have the honor of being a member of Ambassador Yonson’s bodyguard.”
“Have you seen the ambassador since the attack started?” the Long Scout asked.
A shake of the head was Weyden’s answer. “No. I was here in the temple when it started. I was hoping that you might have some knowledge of him.”
“No, nothing yet but we’ll keep a look out for him. Unfortunately we just don’t have the people. Any idea where he might have been?”
“He was going to stay in the ambassadorial apartments.”
“Nothing special planned?” Daria asked interrupting.
The hawk shook his head. “No, Yonson’s not a religious person.”
“All right. I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t make any promises.”
“Thank you. I’ll be grateful for anything you can do.”
Standing next to the hawk was a nervous looking tomcat morph who was fidgeting in his chain mail armor. “Can you use that, Brenner?” Misha asked, pointing to the spear the feline was holding.
Brenner took a step back and leveled his weapon at the fox. He jabbed at Misha several times sharply. Misha watched calmly as the razor sharp point breezed past his side. “Good. What unit are you with?”
“The fourth reserve spear. Nicknamed the Hedgehogs!” Brenner answered with obvious pride.
“Very good. How is Captain Farmer? I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
“Good Sir,” the feline answered. “I’m dating his daughter Amanda. She’s here in the temple.” The cat’s ears drooped. “I don’t know where he is though. We were going to meet after the services, when he got off duty. Have you heard anything about him?”
“Where was he on duty?”
“Patrol, on the west wall, near the Bakers tower.”
Misha didn’t answer for a moment but looked to the floor. “The curtain wall was breached and we have to assume that the whole wall was taken,” the fox answered calmly.
Brenner nodded. “I understand,” he said in a faint voice.
“Don’t assume he’s dead Brenner. All I know is that we haven’t seen him yet. Even with one arm he’s a tough old marmoset. No Lutin could kill him.”
“Yes sir,” Brenner answered, but his voice betrayed his doubt.
Misha touched the feline on the shoulder. “Brenner, don’t assume anything, until you actually see the body. I’ve been away on patrols so long that they’ve written me off for dead more then once.”
Brenner brightened at that comment. “You’re right.”
Misha started to move on, and suddenly stopped. “You’re only carrying that one spear? I suggest you get another one, or another weapon. Something shorter, like a sword, or a mace.”
The fox turned to Daria. “I suggest that everyone carry at least two weapons and a bow or javelin if possible.”
“There are only so many weapons to go around, Misha,” Daria answered.
“All right, do what you can. I suggest that your first target be the Keep armory. If we still hold it make sure it’s well defended before you move on. If the enemy has taken it, retake it and hold it.”
“What if we can’t retake it?” The woman asked.
“Leave people behind to watch the place and come to Long House and tell us,” Misha answered. “We’ll send a strike force out and retake it.”
Daria nodded and took notes on a piece of parchment. “All right.”
“And while you’re at the armory make sure you get all your people equipped with weapons and armor,” the fox ordered.
“Don’t forget food and water,” Finbar added walking up the group.
“Very good point Finbar,” the fox said as he moved to the next soldier in line.
The tall, brown haired man next in line was calmly drinking from a bottle of wine. The fox simply grabbed the bottle and threw it over his shoulder.
The man grunted in startled surprise, his face contorting in anger a moment before he swung a punch at the fox. Misha caught the man’s fist in his gauntleted hand with a meaty smack. Then the fox gave a short rabbit punch straight in the man’s face, knocking him to the ground.
He was up in a moment and stood nose to nose with the fox; his face purpled with anger. The man was fuming but he did nothing, instead he just stood there glaring down at the fox. After a moment the anger faded as he let out a disgruntled sigh. “My apologies sir.”
Misha grunted noncommittally. “You are?” he asked.
“I hope you’re better with that bow and arrows then you are with your fists.”
The man drew his bow and nocked an arrow. Then he took aim at a point on one of the great doors. A snap of the string and an arrow was buried in center of a decorative circle barely three fingers wide.
“Nice. You’ll need something better to protect yourself with than that dagger,” the fox said pointing to the short blade on Brad’s belt.
“I have no intention of letting those green bastards get so close,” came the answer.
The Long scout turned to his counter part. “Daria, make sure he gets a sword, and that he carries it at all times.” Then before the archer could complain he moved on to the next soldier.
The next person in line was a young girl. Her dark brown hair framed a face that had barely entered puberty. She was fourteen, desperately trying to look sixteen.
“How old are you?” Misha asked.
“I’m an expert with the bow Sir,” she replied.
“That wasn’t my question,” the fox answered in a hard voice.
“Fourteen and a half,” came the reluctant answer.
“No,” Misha answered calmly. “You’re too young to have even changed yet. You stay here at the Temple and stand guard.”
“NO!” the girl answered forcefully. “I’m ready to fight.”
Misha didn’t counter her words, instead he took off a gauntlet and tenderly caressed her cheek. “You’re too young and beautiful. If the Lutins captured you alive you wouldn’t last twenty minutes among those creatures. Death is nothing compared to rape.” He said quietly, his muzzle twisting with the disquieting memories of what had been done to his own love, Caroline, at the hands of Lutins. She had recovered, at least outwardly, but he knew the hurts ran deep within her yet. And she was out among the attackers even now, sent by his own orders to harass the foe. Shaking his head slightly he moved off leaving the horrified girl behind.
The girl started to protest but Daria shook her head. “I have to agree with Misha on this. We’ll talk more about this later.”
“Yes my Lady.”
Next in line was the strangest. The fox recognized the tall carpenter ant instantly. “David! Its good to see you're alive. Where did you run off to?”
David gave a bow, “Thank you, And I am sorry for worrying you but I had to make certain that my Library wasn't in danger of being sacked.” The insect looked terrible, His dull leather jerkin was stained with blood. And a rent down the front showed an expanse of shiny carapace.
Misha sighed, "I see getting here wasn't any easier for you than it was for me."
The insect’s cloak was similarly gashed and torn, but it was difficult to see much of it in the shadows. It seemed almost to devour the light. The ant had outfitted himself for battle. His Staff hung in its baldric from his side, and a bandoleer of slender throwing blades hung over his chest.
“I hope you’ve brought some of your magic as well as those,” Misha commented.
The ant’s mandibles clicked in a disquietingly strange ant version of a grin, “Of course.”
The towering man who was next in line had long black hair that fell loosely around his shoulders, his bronze-skinned arms rippling with even the small movements. He looked down at Misha and Daria and smiled, his gray eyes glistening.
"Good day to you," he said softly, his voice still carrying a commanding air.
Misha started to ask a question but Daria spoke first. “I don’t think so,” she said calmly.
The man scowled and Misha turned to her. “Why?” the fox asked.
“Thomas needs to have a father,” she answered.
“Who is Thomas? You don’t mean the Duke?” Misha asked.
“Thomas is my son,” the man answered.
“His baby boy, barely six months old,” Daria commented.
“Step over there,” the fox said pointing off to the corner.
“I’m a superb fighter, you need me,” Dana said.
“We need you more as a father then as a fighter,” Daria countered.
“Agreed,” the vulpine complimented.
“But . . “
“Take care of your son. He’s the future of Metamor Keep,” was all Misha said in a cold tone. “I’m putting you in charge of those staying behind to defend the temple.”
“Yes sir,” Dana said, his baritone voice resigned.
Misha turned to Daria,” Is that all of them?” he asked.
“Yes Misha. I was thinking of keeping the group small at first. Then build on it from there when we have more experience.”
“An excellent idea,” Misha agreed. “A small . . .” A heavy object landed on his head and a small reptilian face looked down at him.
Daria smiled as Misha jerked his head back out of reflex, the small dragonet’s wings flaring as it clung to its perch there, the fox staring up at it in surprise. “I think we have another volunteer.” She chuckled.
“Who might you be?” the fox asked.
The image of a small bird entered their minds. “Your name is Starling?” Daria commented. And the small dragon nodded.
“What can you do?” the woman asked.
A jet of flame shot out of Starlings mouth.
“That could come in handy,” Misha commented patting out the flames on a nearby tapestry. “What else can you do?”
The image that next came to them was of Starling holding a large shield. Arrow’s and magic spells bounced off of the shield leaving the dragonet unharmed.
“A eldritch shield?” Daria exclaimed and Starling nodded. “Excellent!”
“A very useful ability,” Misha agreed.
“All right, you’re in the team,” Daria said scratching Starling’s head.
“A good looking team you have Daria,” Misha commented. “Have you considered where you’ll have you team go first?”
“Well, no,” Daria answered hesitantly.
“I have an idea. My team was headed toward the armory next and your team needs more equipment. So why don’t we join forces?” Misha asked.
The girl nodded. “Sounds good.”
“All right,” the fox said. “Let’s go plan this thing out.”