“I still think this is a stupid idea.”
Jacob grunted and pulled away another charred board. “What is it you soldiers say? If it works, then it’s not a stupid idea?”
Snorting, Rickkter tossed his own board out of the way. “It still has to work.”
“Are you always such a pessimist?” said Jacob as he hauled away another board. Finally they could see the frame of the door. Good, it was never sealed up properly. “Or is it just when you’re trying to impress people you’ve just met?”
“I like being a pessimist,” Rickkter told him as he kicked aside a crate. “You’re either always being proven right or pleasantly surprised.” Rick moved the last of the boards from in front of the door. Thankfully they didn’t have to worry about breaking into the warehouse. The place was a smoking ruin when they found it. It must have been a hell of a blaze, too, reflected the raccoon, for the ruin was still mostly bare of snow. He just hoped that it would remain bare of Lutins as well. The door itself was made from thick oak boards with iron bands across them and a lock on the outside that looked somewhere close to fifteen years old. And, while it would probably stop a curious child, the mechanism sprang open with just a few hits from a stout piece of timber that Jacob had picked up. From there they just had to remove the lock and latch.
Jacob dropped the board and brushed some ashen snow from his muzzle. “Okay, let’s get out of this miserable cold once and for all.” That proved easier said than done, for when he tried to pull on the iron ring, the door refused to budge. Frowning, he tried again with both paws.
“Oh, no. You’re kidding me!” Rickkter exclaimed. He shouldered his way beside the fox and added his own strength and paws to the stubborn door. Even with the two of them grunting and pulling, the door barely moved an inch. “Figures it would have to happen now,” cursed the raccoon through his clenched muzzle as he added a foot to the doorframe for added leverage.
“Don’t tell me you’re bitching about the cold again,” Jacob cursed, his own muzzle set in a snarl as the door moved about a half inch. Whether it was warped in the frame from years of neglect or just the metal hinges having rusted shut he couldn’t say.
“No, I’m not bitching about the cold. I’m bitching about the rather large patrol of Lutins that are coming this way.”
Jacob changed position, trying to wedge his shoulder between the door and frame and push outwards. He managed half his arm. “Are you sure they’ll see us?”
“Do you want to risk it?”
“We’d better hurry then.”
Rickkter grunted and strained against the iron ring while the blue fox attempted to force the thick door open further. The door cracked and shuddered under their combined efforts, eventually giving way.
It gave way in a method neither would have preferred, however. The entire handle assembly came free of the apparently rotted wood and pulled right out in Rick’s paw, almost sending the raccoon down on his tail in the process.
“That’s it, back up. We’re doing this the easy way,” growled the raccoon before whipping the now useless handle into a pile of rubble and backing up several paces. The expression on his face was one of pure murder and the fox quickly sought to remove himself from it. He had barely made it clear before Rickkter threw up his paws and sent a shimmering silver ball of magic hurtling at the door. What would not budge before for mortal hands shattered like fine crystal under a little magical coercion. Jacob looked back at the now gapping back doorway to the underworld of his childhood.
“Come on, let’s get going,” Rickkter said to him, slapping him on the back as he jogged past. The fox was quick to find his feet once more and follow.
At least the way down had not changed. The stone steps were frozen over slightly with their normal film of slimy water, so both had to be careful as they went down. At least the wall was of pretty uneven stone and provided something to grip. But of course the tunnel didn’t provide any way to see. Night vision works at night, not in pitch darkness. He was just about to call that fact out to the raccoon ahead of him when a feather of witchlight burst into being above the mage’s head. The sudden illumination was blinding, though, and almost caused the fox to lose his precarious balance on the slippery steps. At least it lessened to bearable levels when Rickkter moved past the first turn. Jacob stood in the weaker glow of the witchlight and tried to blink away the afterimages. And that was when he heard the first of the Lutin war cries echoing down the steps from above.
That got him moving again. “Rick, we got company coming!” He hit the flat level of the switchback and braved a look back. Sure enough, the silhouette of several Lutin warriors could be seen bounding down the steps. “Rick?” he called out again down the second flight while still watching the Lutins. No answer. “Rick?!” he yelled louder. The little green horrors were making excellent progress, getting far too close for his comfort. Plunging down what he long remembered to be the final flight, he saw Rickkter standing there under the unearthly halo of his witchlight. “Gods, what are you waiting for? They’re right behind me!”
“I know they’re right behind you! Now get out of my way!”
Jacob quickly skidded to a halt, his toe claws scraping the stone floor before he threw himself to the side. It was a rather ungraceful landing, a sharp corner from a stone poking him in the ribs as he rolled onto his side and looked back at the stairway. He was just in time to see the mage reach out and wave his paw in an arch mimicking the shape of the stairway roof. Then to see that roof collapsing in on itself and hear the death screams as the falling blocks caught the Lutin pursers. Well, all but one of them. The lone lead Lutin just cleared the falling stone before becoming engulfed in the ensuing dust cloud. Jacob was able to make out the silhouette of the Lutin against the glow of Rickkter’s witchlight, and able to see that glow shift behind the Lutin, followed by a wet thunk. The Lutin silhouette promptly disappeared.
“Okay, what did you do?” Jacob demanded as he got to his feet after the dust had cleared.
“The only thing I could. We couldn’t have fought them off, they were too many.”
“So you sealed us in here?”
“Good motivation,” Rickkter explained as he returned his drawn sword to its wooden scabbard. “Now we seriously need to find another way out of here. So which way?”
Jacob licked at some dust that had settled on his muzzle. “Left. That tunnel turns towards the Keep itself, it should take us where we want to go.”
The mage nodded and headed off in that direction.
The blue fox started to follow, then paused to look at the Lutin corpse. Its head had been cleanly severed at the shoulders. “What is with you, Rickkter? Don’t you have any qualms about killing someone?”
Rickkter’s reply was an eerie echo in the tunnels. “An entire person or just parts of a person?” He never broke his forward stride.
Jacob could only shake his head and draw his cloak tighter about himself, wondering just what kind of person he had met up with and when he was going to turn on him.
Arla stopped and stared at the figure in front of her blocking their way. Standing in the center of the hallway not twenty feet from Arla was a very tall, stoutly built, wolf morph.
She stared at the figure for a long moment. “Who are you?” she asked. The wolf morph was at least eight feet tall and his body seemed to bristle with muscles. He wore no clothes, except the deep black fur that covered his body. She didn’t know who this person was but all her instincts were telling her something was wrong. Behind her she heard one of the dire wolves whine in fear.
The wolf morph didn’t say anything but started moving towards the scouts at a slow walk. Arla could feel her hackles rise and a shiver ran down her spine. The wolf’s scent came to her nose, it was wrong, strange, not the scent of a keeper.
“Stay right there, come no closer,” Lisa ordered coming to stand next to Arla.
In return the strange morph snarled and broke into a run. As he brought both hands over his head she could see long, razor sharp claws tipping each finger.
“That’s no keeper,” Lisa said drawing her sword.
“SHIT!” Arla shouted pulling her sword from its sheath. “AMBUSH!” Behind her she could hear the other scouts drawing weapons.
“Get down Arla!” Meredith’s voice thundered from behind her. Without thinking she obeyed and dropped to the floor and rolled to one side. Behind her she heard the snap of the bear’s crossbow and a bolt buried itself in the attacking wolf’s chest. A second later two arrows joined it.
If the missiles hurt the creature it didn’t show. The stranger just brushed them off the way a child might flick away an annoying fly. It kept charging straight at them, a feral look in its eyes. And then it was among them. Lisa met the creature head on, lashing out with her sword catching the creature across the stomach. The monster grabbed the girl in it’s jaws and shook her like a dog shaking a sock. Then it released her and Lisa flew backward in a bloody spray. She hit the wall, slid to the floor and lay in an increasing pool of her own blood.
Without hesitating Ralls leapt over Lisa’s bloody body, swinging his war hammer for all its worth. Charging right beside him, was Meredith, who in spite of the narrow confines of the hall still managed to swing his axe. Fast behind them was Laura and Allart. Allart’s face was drawn into a furious, rictus snarl, his deep blue eyes as hard as winter ice and burned with a dark rage as his shout rang over the clash and screams of the fight, “You’ll die.”
Without hesitating Arla leapt up and rushed the creature. She ducked one of those massive paws and lashed out with her own sword the point aimed at its stomach. She saw Ralls thrown backward by a powerful backhand and sent flying out of sight behind the beast. The creature took Meredith’s axe blow across the chest and lunged forward, it’s teeth snapping the two-inch thick wooden handle like it was a twig. The bear had to leap backward to avoid being killed but didn’t move fast enough, those sharp claws caught him across the chest.
“What is it?” Someone screamed.
“It’s a werewolf,” Allart said calmly as he attacked, his sword biting deeply into the creature’s side. He dodged a swipe of a paw and backed away.
Suddenly there was just Arla, Allart and Laura facing the creature; all the other scouts were gone. The werewolf calmly looked at the age morph. “Clever little boy,” it said in a voice dripping with sarcasm. Then it rushed the three remaining scouts.
Allart flicked a pair of throwing stars at the creature, one burying in itself in the monster’s muzzle. Arla’s sword flashed as she lashed out at the monster’s paw. She heard it bellow in pain, and she felt a jolt like some one had hit her, and warm blood splashed over her. The monster simply rammed into her and she was sent flying backward into a wall.
Dazed and confused she felt something warm and moist touch her muzzle. She looked up into the eyes of Crooked Jaw, the leader of the dire wolves. She had completely forgotten about them in the midst of the fight. They just seemed to be watching the battle. At least they weren’t fighting against the scouts.
She turned to the fighting and saw Meredith, shedding all traces of civilization, had changed to his full animal form and was charging the werewolf on both hind legs. The one ton brown bear was a terrible sight, his chest was a mass of blood and there was true rage in his eyes.
A whine brought Arlas attention back to dire wolves. They were staring at an object laying on the floor. It was a paw from the werewolf. She saw the terror of many of the wolves who were crouching in the corner, tails between their legs. They were truly terrified of that werewolf. She looked at Crooked jaw for a long moment and something passed between them. Then she stood up and retrieved her sword from a corner. Behind her she heard the wolf give a short, sharp bark, and then the sounds of the wolves moving.
With a loud howl Arla rushed back into the fight and with her came twenty dire wolves. She saw the werewolf shake off the bear and send him tumbling down the hallway. Arla leapt over the bear and the wolves simply flowed around his body. She couldn’t spare the time to help her friend.
It was a swirling chaos of a fight. Men, women, morphs, and wolves leaping, snapping, and rushing the creature as it lashed out with its remaining paw and it’s dagger-sized teeth. She saw Ralls trip and fall to the ground, his leg shattered from a snap of the werewolf’s jaws. Before she could help him a dire wolf clamped onto his armor and pulled him to safety. She saw Laura, a dire wolf by her side, rush straight at the monster, sword slashing. Then she saw a dire wolf, it had to be the smallest of the pack, run straight up the monster’s broad back and clamp its teeth onto the werewolf’s head, right across those rage filled eyes. The monster gave a flick of it’s head and the wolf was sent flying. It hit the wall with a thud and a crunch, it struggled to stand up for a moment then collapsed to the floor. The small wolf’s attack had not been in vain though. The monster’s eyes were a mass of bloody bone and shredded flesh. The creature blindly flailed around for a moment, before Allart stepped up and drove his sword deep into it’s left leg. With a bellow of pain it crashed onto the floor, and wolves and keepers alike swarmed over it, biting, slashing, stabbing, and ripping in a brutal, killing frenzy.
It was a long time before Laura ended it.
“ENOUGH!” she shouted in a ragged voice. “It’s finally dead.”
Everyone just stood still and looked at the corpse, unbelieving that the fight was truly over. Finally Allart sheathed his sword, and that broke the stillness. “See to the wounded,” he said calmly.
It was a sad business picking up after the battle. Everyone was hurt. Arla found Laura gingerly bandaging the broken ribs of a small, female dire wolf. No less then four of the dire wolves sat nearby intently watching. Laura’s right arm was covered in a bandage from elbow to wrist. Tired, Arla sat down and rested her back against the wall. She suddenly recognized the female Laura was helping. “That’s the one who blinded the werewolf by running up its back?” she asked.
The woman nodded. “Yes. One really brave soul.”
“What’s the count?” Laura asked.
“Four of the wolves are hurt, but not badly,” the collie answered. “Ralls has a broken leg. Meredith has some deep cuts across the chest, but they’re minor. Allart has a few cuts and bruises. And me, I’m fine except for a few bruised ribs.” The canine hesitated to continue.
“What about Lisa?” Laura asked.
“You’d best talk to Ralls about that,” was all Arla could say.
The woman just stared at Arla without speaking. “That bad?”
Arla just nodded.
Laura quickly finished bandaging the wolf and hustled over to where the girl was lying. She passed Terrence. The boy was calmly bandaging his wrist and arm. She hadn’t noticed him in the mayhem of the fight but the long, claw wounds on his arm told that he had fought. The woman paused long enough to be she the boy would be fine and then rushed over to where Lisa lay.
In spite of his broken leg Ralls had all the equipment of healing spread out on the floor and was working on the girl with Allart’s help. It was not a pretty sight. Lisa was lying on a blanket and was covered with a second one. Her face had lost its color and was a pasty white. She was breathing shallowly and looked to be asleep. Arla couldn’t help but look at the mangled remains of Lisa’s right arm. Ralls motioned both of them forward.
“How is she?” Laura asked.
“Her right arm is completely shattered,” Ralls said. “Plus she’s broken at least four of her ribs and she’s lost a lot of blood. I’ve stopped the bleeding but we need to get her to help immediately if she’s going to live.”
“All right, rig a stretcher for her and yourself,” was Laura’s answer. She turned to Arla. “Do you think you can talk one of the wolves into doing a little stretcher pulling?”
Arla pondered before answering. “Probably, as long as we save room for Little Tail on that stretcher.”
“Little Tail?” Allart asked.
“That’s the female wolf who blinded the werewolf,” Arla explained.
Laura smiled. “Sure. The Longs always take care of their own.”
The two groups met together in a small room of the Temple library. The walls were lined with shelves full of books that went all the way to the ceiling.
Daria noticed Misha examining the books on one of the shelves. That surprised her. She’d never considered the fox to be a reader. His reputation painted him as a blood thirsty killer.
“Misha, how do we start?” Daria asked.
The fox put down the book he was reading and moved to stand in front of the girl. “Let me introduce my people to you.” He pointed to the ferret, who had sheathed his sword. “That’s Finbar. He’s team leader. Standing next to him is Danielle.” The pine marten nodded to Daria. She was carrying a short sword, a bow was slung across her back and three hand axes hung from her belt.
The fox pointed to three other scouts, a man, a woman and a red panda morph. “The woman wielding the spear, is Georgette.” The brown haired woman smiled at Daria. The girl noticed that besides the spear she had a long bow and no less then five daggers.
The short man standing next to Georgette bowed deeply. The mace hanging from his belt had long, sharp spikes and the two hand axes hanging next to it had razor sharp edges. The ever-present bow was firmly gripped in his right hand. “My name is Jotham,” he said shaking Daria’s hand.
“This tall fellow,” Misha said patting the panda on the back. “Is Kershaw.” The panda looked Daria in the eyes with a piercing gaze.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” The panda said.
“Is that your whole group?” Daria asked. “It’s small.”
Misha chuckled. “You know what they say? Good things come in small packages.”
After a few more nods, smiles, and farewells, the four rats were nothing more than a faint glimmer of light beyond the portal. Charles watched them until they disappeared around a corner and up a set of stairs. Sighing, he turned back to his fellow Sondeckis and gestured into the darkness before them. “Shall we see if this takes us where we want to be?”
Jerome handed Garigan the other lantern, and soon they were walking down that narrow passageway. Charles took the lead, with Jerome at his back. Garigan followed quickly on the heels of the broad man, while Zagrosek stayed in the rear, watching behind him, though all that could be seen was a passage dwindling into darkness. Of course, that was all Charles could see before him as well, and that did not appear likely to change anytime soon.
Yet the passage did not contain the same sort of stink and disrepair that was prevalent in their descent through the cellars and sub-cellars of the Keep. Even so the passage, or at least what they could see of it in the hooded light from the two lanterns, appeared to be rather old, with a dry musty scent that neither Charles nor Garigan could place. The stone lining the passage was uniform black for the most part, though no signs of tunnelling or other construction could be seen. Even the corners were looked seamless, or very nearly so. It was as if the passage was formed from a single slab of stone, shaped according to the will of the very earth.
“I must show this to Murikeer sometime,” Charles said aloud, without realizing he had done so, for the very thought that magic could have been involved in its construction was startling to the rat. He knew that the skunk was familiar with the magics of the earth, and in fact that it was his speciality. Surely he would be intrigued by this ancient passage that did not appear to have any normal construction.
“Who?” Jerome asked from behind him, peering ahead, and seeing nothing but the endless passageway.
“A friend I’ve made recently. I think this passage might have been made magically.”
“It does appear to be abnormally straight and smooth,” the larger man confessed, his head nearly touching the roof of the hall. It was not a large passage, despite its length. Instead, it was narrow, barely five feet across, and only two feet more from floor to ceiling. Charles was grateful for the light; for otherwise he knew the madness that had crept upon him only a few hours ago would overwhelm him here. As it was he felt confined and squeezed on all sides, for the illumination provided by the lantern in his hand only pierced a few paces of darkness, and the black walls leaned heavily in to either side. It was as if they were in a room made entirely of shadows, the floor revolving beneath their feet as they progressed from nowhere to nowhere. The way it appeared to narrow ahead only made him more nervous with each step forward he took. Yet, it never turned and it never changed its proportions.
And so far, it did not appear to end. “I wonder if we won’t end up in the Dragon Mountains before we leave this tunnel.”
Jerome let out a guarded laugh at that. “If it does, the fighting will be done and over with before we even escape this place!”
“And we’ll be damn hungry too,” Charles murmured, gently pressing a palm to his belly. The thought of food had stirred his stomach in revolt, and it voiced its misgivings to him quite vocally then, gurgling through his fur and clothes.
Jerome heard it and gave another of his light chuckles. “I’m sure we will find something to eat when we leave this place. It will be at least a day’s walk to this Glen Avery if I reckon the distance correctly.”
From behind the two of them Garigan spoke softly. “That sounds about right. But I have no idea what time it is down here. For all we know, a day could come and go and we may never see the sun.”
Charles let out a bitter report. “With this blizzard, we could never see the sun anyway!”
There was silence for a few moments after that, as the four of them trudged on in the dark, only that feeble light from the two lanterns any consolation for them. Yet every step felt like the last, and every new bit of the tunnel looked just like the rest of it had: endless and unchanging. The rat found himself half-wishing for the fungus and mould that had been a common feature of the Keep’s cellars. To see it adorn the walls in any fashion, even a tiny bit of it, would relieve the monotony the black stone represented.
Running his paws across its shiny black surface he pondered aloud, “Is this obsidian?”
Jerome reached out to feel the wall as well as he walked, the lantern held in the other hand. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not glossy enough, I don’t think. It isn’t jet at least, doesn’t have the right smell.” Charles tried not to snort. He could have told him that! However, Jerome, not noting the comical nature of his statement, went on. “Strangely enough, it almost reminds me of pearl.”
“Pearl?” Charles said in some surprise. “Do you have any idea how expensive even a fragment of this wall would be if this were indeed pearl?”
“I have more an idea of that then how this wall came to be if it is fashioned from pearl,” Jerome pointed out, letting his hand fall from the stone. “Do you know where they find pearls?”
“Somebody told me once, it had something to do with the sea if I recall.”
“Oysters,” Jerome exclaimed, though in a subdued tone of voice. It was clear he found the process a bit disconcerting. “They’re found in oysters, and rarely at that. So I ask you, how could they possibly have found enough to fashion a tunnel as long as this out of black pearls, which are the rarest of them all?”
Charles had no choice but to shrug helplessly. “I really don’t know. I don’t even know for how long we’ve walked even! It feels like forever already.”
Zagrosek’s voice came from the rear of their group, and despite his quiet whisper, they both knew he was being sardonic. “At least won’t have to worry about Lutins attacking us down here. You two will bore them to death first.”
That ended the debate on the composition of the tunnel walls, though both Charles and Jerome continued to ponder it. Even so, the walk soon took their minds to other places. After what seemed hours, the rat finally stopped a moment, stretching both of his legs. The others saw this and did likewise. Soreness had begun to creep into their bodies as if it were born there. A short while later, after having travelled a bit further, they did the same thing again. A third time they stretched, not twenty minutes after, and it was about that time that they realised that they had to make a decision.
“This is longer than I had realised it would be,” Charles said, leaning against the black wall. He rubbed his paw over the stone, no longer wondering whether it was obsidian or pearl. The aching in his joints occupied his thoughts. “I think we ought to take a short rest before moving on.”
Zagrosek, who had already collapsed into a sitting position, cradling the collapsed Sondeshike in his hands, nodded emphatically. “I agree, we’ve walked at least four or five hours, and seen not a single change in this whole place. For all we know, this tunnel may never end.”
Though it had been a jocular statement, neither Charles nor Garigan was apt to take it as such. “What if it doesn’t?” Garigan asked, his musteline frame quite suddenly erect. “I mean, what if this is a magical passage, and this direction continues on forever? There are stranger things at Metamor. We’ve seen as such.”
“That room, for instance,” Jerome finished the unspoken thought. They each dwelled on that for a moment. The room in which they had faced Wessex and his summoned shrieker had been constructed oddly, with every angle appearing to be a right angled corner, but finding many more of them than should be in any room. Things had distorted oddly about the space in the centre, and every time they touched a wall, gravity would shift with it. Yet, it had disappeared as soon as the vortex had closed. Who could say if an endless corridor did not exist?
Charles shook his head though, slapping his paws on the floor. “Look, that’s merely a speculation. I cannot imagine the Keep herself creating something like this, especially since we are trying to fight invaders to the Keep.”
“Are we?” Jerome asked. “We’re running off to this Glen Avery to see if it is okay. For all we know, they could remain unmolested, and this is just the Keep’s way of telling us where we are needed.”
Charles glanced at Garigan. This whole expedition had been undertaken at his insistence. Only he could lead them to turn around. As long as he was set on venturing to Glen Avery, Charles and the other Sondeckis were dedicated to accompanying him. The ferret though, appeared to take Jerome’s remarks seriously, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Finally, after a moment of silence, he spoke, slowly, and carefully. “If what you say is true, then our travelling to Glen Avery would have wasted our talents in the defence of Metamor. Maybe even give the Lutins some tactical advantage. For all we know, we could be the bird that breaks the branch, as my people say.”
He picked up one of the lanterns, and peered inside the receptacle. “We have about two thirds of the oil we started with left in this lantern. If, as we continue down this hall, it reaches the half-mark, then I am willing to turn around to help the Keepers. Would that satisfy the rest of you?”
Charles nodded and smiled warmly to his student. Though it was just as chill in this ancient tunnel as it had been in the cellars beneath the Keep, he could feel the cold leave his body as he gazed at his student with profound respect. Rising to his feet, he nodded yet again. “All right, that settles it, a few hours more, and if we see nothing, we turn back. Let’s just hope our legs an hold out that long!”
“A-men!” both Jerome and Zagrosek chorused together. Garigan blinked once at the expression, but said nothing as he resumed his place in the line. The two Sondeckis though switched places, and so Krenek carried the lantern behind the rat, the familiar sound of his breathing filling Matthias’s round ears.
The plan they agreed upon was simple. They would head to the armory, if the place was held by the Lutins they would take it back. That took all of ten minutes to come up with. Preparing everyone took two hours. Misha broke up both teams into small groups, making sure there was a Long scout in every group.
“I don’t care if you could hit a fly with an arrow at a mile off,” Finbar shouted. “You’ll carry a sword just in case.”
“I don’t need one,” Bradfox countered.
The ferret’s small ears laid back against his skull and he opened his mouth to reply, but he said nothing. Instead Finbar stood for a moment and considered. When he finally spoke it was in a calm voice. “Battle is a chaotic place. There is no telling what will happen. There is no way to guarantee that a Lutin won’t get past us and come at you with a sword. If you don’t have a way to defend yourself you’ll endanger everyone else. We need to know that in the heat of battle we don’t have to worry about you.” The ferret held up the sword and the man, glowering at the weapon, silently took it.
December 25 – 9am
The snow had slowed to a light powdering when the group arrived at the outer gate. Most of the wreckage had been removed but numerous bodies still littered the passage. The smell of burnt and boiled Lutins filled the air. The small group on horseback took no notice of the many dead Lutins littering the passage in the gatehouse.
In a few moments the seven mounted figures moved into the courtyard beyond. There were bodies everywhere, human, Lutin and keeper, all intermingled in death. The harsh smell of smoke and the putrid stink of death filled the air. A mute testimony to the ferocity of the fighting that had taken place here. The riders took no notice of any of that, their midnight black steeds trodding with heavy hooves upon the shattered bodies scattered before them.
A tall Lutin dressed in plate mail armor rushed up to the riders and flung himself on the ground in submission. “Welcome Lord Polteen. General Selig reporting. The enemy has been crushed at the outer gate and is in full flight back to the keep itself.”
The person at the head of the group of riders was tall, even for a human, standing well over six feet tall without the imposing height offered by being in the saddle. He was dressed in long, flowing black robes that were edged in silver and gold. Brown hair framed a hard face and steel gray eyes which showed no warmth or mercy. “Good,” he said coldly. “I don’t wish to annoyed by any keepers.”
“No my lord. I have a bodyguard ready to protect you,” the general said pointing to a group of ogres and Lutins that were off to one side. All were like the general, flat on the ground in submission.
Polteen laughed, a cold, hard sound that frightened even the ogres. “We have no need of those stupid oafs. Just keep your people out of our way.”
“Yes my lord,” Selig answered.
Polteen slowly moved his horse forward, forcing the prostrate Lutin to scramble aside lest he be strode upon by the human’s massive black horse. Gleaming, blood red eyes glared balefully at the Lutin as the beast tossed its head. Selig backed away from the magically enhanced horse, head bowed as he noticed a very similar red-eyed black horse slightly behind the mage and to one side. Astride the nightmarish beast was a short woman also dressed in black robes. Her red hair was tied into a ponytail with a mithiril chain. Her face showed nothing but disdain as she looked down at the general.
Behind the two wizards, were four more riders all dressed in the black and silver robes of mages. The seventh and last rider was a woman, dressed in expensive furs and wearing the gold collar of a trusted slave. She was leading two horses. The first animal was piled high with bundles and bags containing all sorts of equipment. As the last animal passed, Selig noticed that a young girl was tied to the saddle. Looking barely twelve years old she was dressed only in rags and looked close to death from the cold. The Lutin saw panic and fear in the girl’s eyes but he felt no pity for her. He didn’t care about what happened to any Keepers. All that mattered to him was his own life and those of his soldiers. The general could not waste time and emotion on the enemy. Still, as she passed he couldn’t help wondering what hideous fate awaited the captive.
In a few moments the figures were passed him. Selig stood up and motioned for his soldiers to do the same. He turned and looked in the direction the mages had taken. The riders slowly disappeared into the swirling snow leaving the living and dead behind them.
12/25 – 9am
Finally everything was ready to go. All the supplies and been packed and every weapon had be double checked. Final good byes had been said and the last plan finalized. The group stood silently in the main temple somber and quiet. A large group of people came to see them off and wish them well all stood as still as mourners at a funeral.
Misha came up to Daria, moving with a silent grace that surprised her. “You ready?” he asked in a warm tone.
She nodded in return. “Yes. Lets get moving.”
“Good. One thing, I’ll leave first to check the corridor. If everything is clear our people will come out one at a time as quietly as possible. I want you to be the last one out. When you do leave I want you to come up and signal to me that everyone is out.”
Raven, who had been watching silently from the sidelines until now, came up to stand beside Misha in front of the group of warriors.
"A moment, Misha, if I may."
Misha inclined his head fractionally toward the priestess. "Of course, Lightbringer."
The wolf-woman took a long look at the men and women before her, meeting the eyes of each one. At last seeming to find the words, she spoke. "You are all headed out into battle— perhaps the most important battle of your lives," she said. "I could stand up here for an hour talking about the trials and the challenges you will face, trying to instill some kind of courage or tenacity in all of you for the road ahead. But when you walk out of those doors, you will be the ones who have to go into battle. And in that moment, no words that I say here today will give you the strength that you need to win. Ultimately, it is your strength ... your skill ... your courage ... and your faith ... that will bring you through to victory. So believe in yourselves. Believe in each other. And believe in whatever gods you serve. And know that whatever happens, we will be here praying for your safety."
The Lightbringer stretched out her hands, palms facing the group. "May the blessings of Kammoloth, Dokorath and all the gods go with you this day," she said solemnly. "Fight well, and fight with honor."
With that, she stood aside. Misha gave her one last look, then turned and headed for the doors leading out of the temple.
Daria signaled Misha with the wave of the hand that everyone was out. Behind her the massive doors of the temple slowly closed. The two doors came together with a massive boom that made everyone jump. No matter what happened the die was cast, there was no turning back now. Misha tapped the stones with the hilt of his axe and all eyes turned to him. He began moving down the corridor without saying a word and the rest followed silently after him.
12/25 – 10am
The town was burning. The light of countless fires danced and reflected off of his metal skin creating an exotic display. The bits of debris raining down all around didn’t seem to bother him as he continued to wander the streets. Malabrinum was confused, this didn’t look like any part of Taroshi he knew and as the Amber Orders guard he knew the whole fortress intimately. Still the town did look vaguely familiar, but why? It didn’t look like any normal Seuliman town. The buildings were mostly wood and plaster instead of brick and marble. And the road beneath him was paved with small gray stones instead of the usual massive stone blocks.
As the creature walked the sounds of shouting and screaming came to his metal ears and he broke into a run. Turning a corner he beheld a strange sight. Some strange animal-like people were cowering in the ground floor of a burning building. He watched as the animal people shrieked and screamed as debris rained down on them. He couldn’t understand why they didn’t leave the building and go to safety. They were standing in front of an open doorway, all it would take was a few steps. Then he heard the sound of laughter and cheering.
He turned to the out of place sounds and found a group of human like people and three large dogs watching the animal-persons plight. The animal people Malabrinum didn’t recognize, but the other group he did. “Tekshi,” he said out loud. Lutins. All doubts disappeared from his confused mind; he knew what to do with Lutins.
They were having a great time, both Lutin and moondog. It was so easy too, all it took was a burning building and a few Keepers. All they had to do was stand and watch as the keepers had to choose between the terror of burning to death and the mind killing terror of the moondogs. The Lutins were betting to see which of the cowering retches would die first. The moon dogs were enjoying the rush of power they felt as they absorbed the fear from the people. The moon dogs didn’t care who died first as long as they died in fear. The keepers would die of terror, literally frightened to death to feed the moon dogs. It was wonderful sport.
“Ta woo shenamo, Tekshi.” All eyes turned to the voice that had spoken those words. There standing in the shadow of a burning tavern was a large animal debris raining down around it as the flames cast dancing shadows all around it.
The Lutins as a group laughed. “More fun!” one shouted. The largest of the moondogs; Jhauzros, nodded in agreement. This Keeper was different, more powerful and watching him squirm in terror would be all the better. The keeper broke into a run and came straight the group.
Jhauzros watched as the creature cleared the building and came into the open square. He was surprised that this keeper could even get so close, most people simply couldn’t handle the fear. He expected the charging animal to stop any moment and then flee in panic. But it didn't stop, instead it picked up speed, running at an impossible speed straight at them.
“That no person” a Lutin shaman said as realization set in. “That a golem.”
“Destroy it!” another of the shamans ordered.
A Lutin spear arched out and down toward the wolf. Jhauzros watched as it hit the canine in the shoulder and bounced off with a loud “Clang.” Then a fire flared up to one side and illuminated the charging creature. It was like no golem ever seen before. Smoke gray metal covered the creature’s body and fire reflected off of gold teeth and claws. The monster fox, closed with the moondog at unnatural speed as arrows and spears bounced off its hide. Jhauzros had a moment of pure surprise before Madog slammed into him knocking the magical creature to the ground.
The other two moondogs charged the metal creature. Erizth bit down on the monster’s muzzle with her powerful jaws while Xscahas grabbed both if it’s hind legs with his own powerful teeth. The giant fox gave an almost casual flip of it’s head and sent Erizth tumbling into Jhauzros. Then he turned and attacked Xscahas ripping his head off completely. Then he closed with the prostrate forms of Erizth and Jhauzros. He heard Erizth snarl and there was the crunch of bone.
Suddenly the metal covered vulpine loomed over Jhauzros. He caught sight of those gold teeth just before they clamped down on his throat and crushed it, killing him instantly.
Malabrinum looked at the corpse of the hound that lay in front of him. Even though it was now dead he could still see the evil aura that surrounded it. The other two monsters lay nearby as dead as the first. Also there were the shattered remains of three Lutins, of the others there was no sign. The animal-people crowded around him and patted him on the head. Why were they calling him Madog? It wasn’t his name, was it? It did seem familiar and he did like it. He studied the faces, but none of them looked to be an Amber mage. Suddenly he remembered. They’re called Keepers. And this place was Metamor Keep. It was his new home. Not the Amber Order, that was long destroyed. Metamor Keep had become his new home, its people his people, and he would protect them.
He heard the sounds of Lutins shouting in the distance. There was work to do. “Go to safe place,” He ordered the ones he had just saved. Running quickly he headed towards the Lutins. Once long ago he had defended a fortress and failed.
This time he wouldn’t fail.
Laura, Arla and Allart gratefully accepted the plates of hot food and the cups of tea from the woman. It had been a long time since any of them had eaten a hot meal. Laura had just taken her second bite of food when Hough sat down next to her. Behind him stood the Duke. The boy priest and the equine Duke both looked tired and worn out.
“Lisa will live,” Hough said quietly. “The great one saw fit to answer my prayer of healing.” There was a sense of awe in his voice despite his obvious weariness.
Relief flooded through her body. “That’s great to hear.”
“What about her arm?” Allart asked between bites of beef.
Hough shook his head sadly. “Her arm was too far gone to save.”
“I figured as much,” Allart commented. “That monster didn’t leave much for you to work with.”
“I’m happy she’ll live,” was the collie’s statement. “We can worry about her arm later. What about everyone else?”
“They’re all fine,” Hough answered. “Even that giant wolf. She’s already eaten several pounds of meat. Ralls is getting some sleep, and Meredith is looking in on Lisa.”
Thomas shook his head. “Dire wolves,” the stallion said amazed. “I never expected to see a live dire wolf in Metamor. Certainly not a score of them as our allies.”
“War breeds strange allies,” Hugh intoned.
“Indeed,” the duke replied. “It also breeds strange enemies. Do you know what it is you fought?”
“Werewolf,” Allart answered calmly drinking a mug of ale.
“Evil creatures,” Hough answered. “Must have been very powerful to do this much damage to the Long scouts. The prayers and blessings I did should stop any of you from becoming a lycanthrope,” Hough said.
“I hope so,” Laura commented dryly. “We have enough trouble already.”
“It will,” the priest said confidently. “As long as it’s done before the first full moon the disease is removed. We have dealt with such things before. What did you do with body?”
“Burned it,” Arla explained. “Doused it in oil and made sure it burned completely.”
“Good,” Hough said. “I wonder who he was? How he came to have the curse?”
The collie shrugged. “From what Crooked Jaw tells me, the pack has been controlled or bullied by him for years. He was definitely working for Nasoj.”
“Nasoj collects evil people the way manure attracts flies,” Allart commented.
“They flock to vile cause,” Thomas added.
“I don’t think Nasoj found this werewolf,” Arla commented. “I think he created it with magic.”
“What makes you think that?” Allart asked.
“Strong Jaw called him magic born, “ the canine explained.
“I have heard of forbidden magic that can be used to create werecreatures,” Laura commented. “But no normal wizard would use such magic, it’s too dangerous.”
"Nasoj is no normal wizard," The Duke said. "He delights in the most foul and dangerous as long as it aids his victory."
Arla nodded. “It’s lucky we killed that thing before it had a chance to go on a rampage.”
Thomas shook his head. “I don’t think it was chance it attacked you.”
“You say the werewolf had been controlling those wolves for years and they get into the keep and he just lets them wander off?” the Duke asked.
“Then what did he do?” Allart asked.
“He used them as bait,” the horse morph answered. “He knew if he waited long enough we Keepers would find them and send someone to kill them.”
“Some one powerful like us Longs or a group of knights,” Arla added.
“Then while we were busy killing the wolves he would attack us from behind,” Allart commented. “A smart plan. But things went wrong when we didn’t attack the wolves.”
Hough smiled. “That creature never considered that you might befriend the wolves instead of killing them. Love won out over hate.”
Allart laughed. “Yes, love won out. Love of food.” The whole group laughed at that.
When the laugher died down Hough spoke, “When are you going out again?”
“Within the hour,” Laura answered.
“You can at least sleep for a few hours?” Hough asked.
Allart shook his head. “No, Nasoj and the Lutins won’t rest and neither can we.”
“The fight continues,” Laura added.
One of the things Jono has always strived to avoid is the story cliché. While he recognizes the value of allowing for a few expected variables - the good guys always winning, for example - he also is very aware of the fact that a story whose whole course is completely known is one that is not nearly as effective. For how can one be enthralled by the presentation of the story if they know the story already? How can they stay with their attention to the storyteller without that lasting mystery of what is about to happen next?
The problem with this is that Jono's stories are often based on real life events. And while a crafted story can be made to avoid these problems, occasionally reality will intrude in such a fashion that it becomes unavoidable to tell the story without resorting to this.
He is reflecting on this because he has just experienced a particularly fine example.
Only fifteen minutes previously he was getting his confidence back. The tunnels have still been going, none of the kids are feeling all that tired, his fellow 'grownups' (he still chuckles a bit to himself as he thinks of the children's word for them, despite the situation) are all alert and ready, and they've been safe from any Lutin attacks. As a result, he'd actually gotten to the point of believing that this was it; the last of their problems was at the Mill Tower, and that nothing else could stop them. He even went so far as to say this out loud to Kirk.
This, of course, was before they came across the door.
They'd run into several other doors along the way, of course, and most of them opened quite easily. But this one was different in a very significant way. Specifically, it was heavy. Very, very heavy. Kirk and Jono together made an attempt to pull it open and it didn't even budge.
So they can't get out through that door. And for some unknown reason, the keep's variable geometry isn't doing a thing to help.
This is why Jono is now where he is. He's standing in a corner in the cellars of what looks to be some kind of bakery next to Kevin who is preparing to chant his warming spell Again, watching the kids huddled in a corner with Dana and Jo, while Perry, poised on the end of a 'staircase' put together from grain sacks, slowly lifts up a trapdoor and peeks out, Kirk standing nearby in case of alarm.
Jono is, suffice to say, not pleased at all by this development.
"Looks clear," comes Perry's voice from the trapdoor. "Help me up and I can get a better look of the place." Kirk obliges, leaning down to catch Perry around the sides and heft him up, mindful of the spines, allowing the hedgehog to climb up.
There's a brief silence as Perry presumably looks around, then... "We're clear. Start bringing folks up."
It takes but a few minutes to move enough grain sacks to extend the staircase high enough, and then they start hefting kids out, Kirk at the bottom and hefting up, Jono at the top and lifting the child up and to the floor.
There is one positive effect of this detour, at least, as Jono notices when he first gets up. The bakery, remarkably, hasn't been raided yet; there's plenty of bread in the kitchen. So once all the kids are up he brings them all over to the kitchen areas and starts passing out bread rations, reminding everyone to stay quiet. The Deal's still going on. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there isn't any actual pie around, so he can't reinforce the idea. None of the kids seem to notice, though.
Jono is starting to get weary, despite the few hours of sleep he's gotten. Just twenty-four hours ago he was with most of these kids telling them the story of Alexander of the Northlands and his faithful friend Randolph. Back then, the world still had a measure of sanity. Kids were happy and growing up. He was active and telling stories he'd learned in his youth. Jo was preparing for them to go see the Lothanasi ceremonies for the first time in... gods, it's been almost six years, hasn't it? Perry would most likely be joining them there. Kevin and Jeremy would have been off to see Father Hough. Kirk and Dana would be staying at the gates, resolute and determined to keep the Keep safe from until about fourteen hours ago had seemed a merely symbolic threat.
And then, of course, he had to go and get Derek. And this, of course, is the very moment that damned wizard they always blabbered about decided to show up. And then, of course, he finds himself playing Uncle to two score kids with only Jo and four others to help defend three others, he corrected himself. Kevin hadn't been able to gather together enough mana for any of his attack magic’s ever since this whole mess started to come on.
Jono slumps into a nearby corner, suddenly unable to stand under the responsibility he's been carrying for the past twenty-four hours. Then he closes his eyes, breathes in deeply, and tries to get himself to relax. We're going to make it. Everyone is going to make it. Every. Last. One.
Then he opens his eyes to see one of the children - Andrea, if he can recall the name right - staring up at him.
"Uncle Jono, could you tell us a story?" she asks timidly. Still whispering... the kids are obviously very determined to get their pie.
A weary smile. It is time for story time, isn't it? And he could use the chance to relax... "Give me a moment I'm not ready to tell a story; I need to figure out which one I can. But sure."
Andrea looks quite pleased. "Thanks, Uncle Jono!" She almost slips on the last word, but then quickly goes back to a whisper, obviously she's thinking about the pie still. Then she heads off.
That, also, has Jono worried. One of the kids slipped this morning, and while it didn't put them in danger, it very well could have. He's going to have to talk to Josh and the folks he recruited, make sure that all the kids stay as quiet as they possibly can for sure. Even if the Deal gets broken once, he needs it to be clear that they have to stay quiet.
But why keep focusing on that? He needs to tell a story.
And suddenly he's got just the selection.
With a smile, Jono gets up, heading for the kitchens where the kids are. Best not to delay. After all, it's time for a story.