The Winter Assault

Part 14

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

12/25 – 10:30

As their walk resumed, so resumed the silence and the never-changing tunnel. It stretched on before the rat in a way that was almost maddening after a fashion. Any change from the endless dark passage would have been welcome, even a sudden army of Lutins pouring down the tunnel en masse would have been relieving to Matthias’s nerves. The feeling of being trapped in this endless corridor was rather oppressive of his mind, and it reminded him far too much of his feral flight down the fissure many months ago. He’d had no idea if he was ever going to escape that ever-present blackness and twisting crack either.

Shaking off such thoughts, he decided after a short bit to distract himself with talk. He doubted that any Lutins would invade this way, after all, there had always been talk of tunnels beneath the Keep coming out into the valley, but almost none of them were known, and those that were, were blocked. So, with that knowledge safely in mind, he felt there was no harm in speaking quietly.

Glancing back at the black-robed Sondeckis, he asked in a quiet voice, “So, Krenek, what do you think of Metamor so far?”

Zagrosek chuckled lightly. “What do I think of it? Well, it appears to be a rather exciting place.” He waved one hand as he shook his head, ticking off on his fingers, “ So far, I’ve been set upon by an undead wizard, a Shrieker, and a host of these disgusting little green-skinned Lutins. I’ve slept in an ancient wine-cellar with a handful of talking rats, and now I’m walking down an endless hallway through a mountain.” He snorted as his hand closed into a fist, then fell at his side as he laughed hollowly. “I should have come here long ago to relieve my boredom!”

Matthias did have to laugh alongside his friend at that. “It’s normally not this tumultuous, I can assure you!”

“I’m sure. From what I have seen though, it strikes me that this is one of the most pleasant places I can think for any to spend out the remainder of their life. I think it a pity though that once here, one can never leave if they so choose. You Keepers have a solidarity that I wish others possessed as well. You fight together, not because of hatreds, but almost in defiance of it. A very noble aspiration, I think.”

“You give us more credit than we deserve,” Charles added wryly, idly lifting his chewstick and nibbling at it in a vain effort to distract himself from the interminable march. “We fight so boldly together because it is the only way we’ll survive.”

“Possibly,” Zagrosek murmured, as if he too were chewing on something. “Still, watching you with those other rats really set me thinking. You looked natural together, as if you all belonged where you were. I don’t quite know how to put it into words, but you were very comfortable as you were.”

Even thinking about his fellow rodents made Charles yearn for their companionship once again. Taking a moment to chew at the end of the walnut chewstick, savouring the pleasant flavour, he collected his thoughts on the matter. What Zagrosek had told him was plainly true, a fact that he had not given much thought of late in fact.

“Well, I’ve found that most of the animal morphs here at Metamor prefer the company of their own species in a way that they can’t easily describe. Oh, there are many couples here of different species, but there are also many of the same. My betrothed is also a rat, and the Lord and Lady of Glen Avery are both squirrels.”

“When is the wedding going to be? And are we invited?” Zagrosek asked, nudging him slightly in the ribs with one finger.

Charles laughed slightly. “Kimberly and I haven’t decided that quite yet. We’ll see about that latter, once this is all over.” He then took a breath and went on. “There are eight rats here at Metamor, and we’ve tended to stick together for the most part. You’ve met five of them, including myself now. The other three are my fiancèe, one of the Head’s of the Writer’s Guild, and a knight. We’re a motley bunch, but we stick together. I can’t explain it any better than that I think. If you stay here long enough, you might get a chance to understand.”

Zagrosek nodded slowly at that. “It would be interesting to see what I would become should I stay, but I do not think I am ready to find out quite yet. If there is no choice, I am willing to accept that, but I’d rather not have to.”

“Most wouldn’t,” Charles said softly, staring at the black before him, wishing that it would change in even the slightest respect, but it kept on going, as endless as it appeared.

However, Zagrosek said nothing after that, instead simply holding the lantern near the ceiling of the passage, shining down before the rat. The dry air was beginning to grow stale to the four of them, almost noxious. Charles wished that his friend had not stopped talking, for he could feel his imprisonment in this tunnel begin to weigh heavily on his shoulders, as if the entire ceiling had come to rest there. He did not dare let the oil in the lanterns be spent more than half, for being trapped here in the dark would surely push him over the edge, no better than a common rat, except that this one could bite very, very hard.

He reminded himself of the travails of Prince Phil, their lapine chief of intelligence. Every night, Phil had to be locked inside a wire cage with hay and food in case he woke the next morning as just a simple bunny. How was Clover taking that fact now that they were married? Surely she was not going to be sleeping in the cage with his Highness. No details of the arrangements of their married life had been disclosed, so the rest of the Keep was left to ponder.

And it made Charles wonder how he would deal with being only a rat in mind as in body. It wasn’t so much as how he would deal with it, he’d simply act like a normal rat, but how those who cared about him would handle things. They might cage him, as Phil had been done, if he hadn’t crept off into some quiet corner of the Keep never to be seen again, until one of the felines captured and ate him – that thought made him shudder visibly. He imagined that Kimberly would probably care for him, tears in her eyes as she called to him, and he barely even able to recognise his own name.

Tears nearly fled from his own dark eyes at the thought of her subjected to such daily torment, to see her beloved but to find her love unrequited. It would be as if he were dead, only his corpse was left to rot in her chambers instead of being buried. If it came to that, he might ask Misha to kill him to spare Kimberly that terrible pain. That thought alone brought a chill to his cheek fur, one that took him a moment to realise was not wholly self-generated.

As he let thoughts of being completely a rat pass from his mind, he realised that the chill did not come from his own imagining, but instead was caused by a slight breeze passing him by, one that was colder than the surrounding air. He blinked a few times an stopped in his tracks, peering ahead at the endless corridor, certain that he smelled something other than the dry mustiness that had pervaded his nostrils for almost half a day. Zagrosek stopped behind, asking a question that Charles did not listen to, while he tried to catalogue that odour.

A smile crept over his muzzle then as his mind finally brought the pieces together, the culprit’s name escaping his lips, “Snow.”

“What?” Zagrosek asked, looking ahead in bewilderment.

“Snow, I smell snow!” Charles said, a bit excitedly, and louder than he really aught.

“You do?” Jerome cried, his own voice rather exuberant.

“And I feel a breeze coming this way. Don’t you?”

Garigan was the first to nod to that, as it was easier for him to notice the way it moved his fur and whiskers. But both Jerome and Zagrosek acquiesced only moments later. “There must be an opening somewhere up ahead,” the thick Sondeckis at the rear of their little group pointed out. His broad face could barely contain his smile.

Zagrosek nodded, but he appeared dourer. “We must be quiet then; if there is an opening, then the enemy may be lurking about. No need to alert them that we are here.”

Charles nodded and kept his muzzle shut, though his whiskers did twitch with glorious anticipation. After waiting so long, and walking so far, it was a wonderful relief to know that they might soon be walking out under the sky again. The darkness, as if in protest, only appeared to grow thicker about them, clutching at them as if to keep them locked in that tunnel for all time. Yet they pushed on for several more minutes, undeterred, but renewed.

And soon, they saw a pinprick of natural light streaming into the tunnel from its end. The black stone abruptly stopped, and thick rubble lined the opening. A trickle of snow had collected at the base of the opening, falling through that tiny crack. Yet, by the light they could see pouring through, they knew that it was both daytime, and that the blizzard had lessened significantly.

Being the tallest, Zagrosek and Jerome set themselves to moving the old rocks that had piled in front of the doorway. Drifts of snow poured down in upon them, as did that bright light. Charles and Garigan both shielded their eyes as the sun’s rays fell in upon them even more. And as he peered past the two Sondeckis at that lovely celestial sphere, a terrible thought clutched the rat’s heart.

“Why is the sun in front of us?” he asked, trembling, and not from the chill that was blowing in with the snow.


The children are gathered around on the floor in front of the front counter in the bakery. They're seated in a semicircular fan arrangement, very close in so they can hear him (he will still have to whisper), yet still all positioned in a way such that they can all see the storyteller and whatever or whomever he might employ for assistance. This is all which occupies their focus (excepting, of course, the promise of pie, which reminds them to whisper only); there are no thoughts of Bad Guys, or the cold, or whatever else might interfere. After all, it's Storytime.

At the center of all these lines of sight is a Storyteller. Jono, of course. He's leaning easily against the counter, waiting for the focus to come completely on him, and also waiting to gather his thoughts together for the telling of the tale. He has to be sure he can tell the story absolutely right, so that it will inspire and invigorate rather than depress and disturb. But he knows what he's doing - he's done this hundreds upon hundreds of times before, and he's sure he can handle it.

He can also catch sights of the others around the place, watching through various spots to make sure that nothing interrupts. Thankfully, they didn't need to be convinced of the value of Storytime. The morale of their charges has to stay high. He's picked a story that he normally doesn't tell kids, but for these circumstances he thinks it very appropriate.

So here he is, preparing himself for the Story, turned mostly away from the kids, while the kids sit and watch, already transfixed. It's time to listen, for that's what you do when you have a Story.

Then Jono turns back around, and spreads his hands wide. He clears his throat, then speaks, his voice not quite at a whisper, but still largely quieted.

"It is said by many in this World that no matter what Story you Tell, you will always be telling a twice-told tale. What this means to say is that Whatever is happening to you" - he points a finger and sweeps it back and forth, indicating All of the children - "is almost certainly not unique; that it has happened to persons Before. Thus, if a person Knows of these tales, said person can apply them to their Own lives, and Learn from them!" He brings his paw up as he says this; this is a Lesson To Be Learned. "And, indeed, the situation we have before us has occurred before, long ago in a land far, far to the south of where we live here."

The children are still listening. Some of them are a bit puzzled; this isn't like the normal stories Uncle Jono tells! But most aren't caring - it's Uncle Jono, and he's telling a story! And it's a New one, which is going to be so very cool!"

Jono is currently facing a small challenge; he has to retell this story from a different perspective. The facts of what happened to Sarcomand are well known, but most of them aren't things he wants to dwell on. He's going to have to re-embellish so that things will involve the kids more. Fortunately, any good tavern bard can re-embellish.

"So, once upon this time, there was a village named Sarcomand, on the border of the Southern Midlands and Outer Midlands, in between Three Mighty and Fast Rivers!" He spreads his hands outward as he says the last - these are Big Things! They really Are big things; a child would easily be impressed to see it, but he has to Show it to them without actually going there.

A collection of "oooooh"s and looks of awe seem to communicate that he's gotten the message across.

"Now, Sarcomand was this amazing place to live. All the kids there got to do all sorts of things! Snow would come down from the mountains and so they could have snowball fights; the rivers were heated from hot springs and so you could swim when you were tired of snow, and all the Mommies and Daddies had things to do like farming, making bread, telling each other stories, all sorts of things!" Jono spreads his paws wide as he says this, to convey the awesome number of just Fun Stuff To Do. So many things!

One child asks quietly, "Did they get to play 'Tag'?"

Jono chuckles as softly as he can manage. "Of course they got to play 'Tag.' The place in general was nice and flat for running, and there were All sorts of good hiding places in the buildings and along the riverside." He grins widely, giving the child a conspiratorial wink. You could have the game of your life there! the wink seems to say. The child gets a very happy grin on her face.

"So, Sarcomand was a very neat and a very happy place, where Everyone got to do stuff they loved to do. But" - and he drops his voice lower; we're about to get bad stuff here - "not everyone liked things the way they were with Sarcomand."

One child blurts out "Bu ", then he catches himself and starts whispering again. "But why? Isn't there all that stuff to do?"

Jono smiles. "Ah, that is a Big and Complex thing, but I will tell you. You see, Sarcomand was a place that lived with all the other people of the Southern Midlands, much like how Lorland and Glen Avery and other villages here live with Metamor. And they liked it that way; they had all sorts of friends in Kelewair - those're the people in charge of Southern Midlands" he says quickly as one child starts to raise his hand; the hand goes down. "and they could go over to visit friends in Lanton nearby, where they could trade food and other things for wood and such to make more homes and more toys for the kids!"

Everyone's face brightens up at the prospect of more toys, and Jono smiles briefly, then drops his voice low. This is the bad part...

"But other people in the Outer Midlands wanted Sarcomand for themselves. They liked where it was, but they didn't want that spot to be with Southern Midlands. So they wanted to take it! Take it without asking, without doing any helpful chores to pay back!"

A collective series of gasps come from the children. That's means you're ALWAYS supposed to ask permission!

One of the younger children raises his hand. "Uncle Jono? Did they get in trouble with their moms and dads?"

Jono has to resist the urge to chuckle; he doesn't want this to go into their heads as something funny. Yet he can't resist smiling inwardly. "Ah, I'm afraid they didn't; that's a problem when you start working with whole Countries. You see" - he puts a hand back up now; this is another Lesson - "sometimes when someone gets to looking like they're grown up enough to be in charge of all those people, they start deciding they don't want to be grown up anymore, and start being like kids again. But since they look like they're grown up, their Mommies and Daddies are letting them live all by themselves. And so they can get in trouble, and the only people that can tell them No are other people who are in charge of other big groups of people who are deciding to stay grown up. And sometimes the not-grownup says he doesn't Want to, and then" - voice drops again - "Very, very bad things happen."

All of the children go quiet at that, and some tremble a little as their imaginations try to think up what kind of very, very, bad things might be happening.

Then another child - he realizes with a bit of a start that it's Jeremy - raises his hand. "Are those very, very bad things kinda like the bad things that are happening here?"

Kevin is suddenly looking immensely proud of his son. Jono is very much inclined towards the same opinion. "Exactly right!" he says, beaming. "With us right now, there's a big bad guy wizard called Nasoj" - everyone seems to look up or nod at the mention of that name; evidently they all know about him - "who wants to take the Keep without asking, and this is the sort of very, very bad things that happen when someone is being that way. With Sarcomand, there was a Big Bad Guy in Outer Midlands named Kelewin who was in charge of Outer Midlands at the time, and he wanted to take Sarcomand without asking. This is why you always have to ask for things!" He raises his paw again; he wants them to remember this very clearly. It seems to register in many of their eyes, thankfully.

"So, Kelewin decided one day he was going to just up and take Sarcomand. He didn't even think to ask the people in charge of Southern Midlands, he didn't even talk to Sarcomand people. He decided to be a bad guy and just take it." Emphasis on the last few words - it has to be absolutely clear that this is an Incredibly Bad Thing. There's a few nods from the children.

"So that day Kelewin gets a whole bunch of good guys and forces them to become bad guys, and makes them go over to either make Sarcomand belong to him, or" - he lowers his voice - "destroy it entirely."

There's a collection of gasps again. Now that's really bad.

One child, evidently confused, raises his hand. "But how could he force good guys to be bad guys?"

Oh dear. This is going to be a tough one... "Kelewin was a very, big bad guy, and so he was able to do things that made it such that people had to do what he said. He'd do things, like, threaten to send you to bed without supper, only much worse, and just because you were a good guy! So to keep from getting unfairly punished, the good guys had to do things that only bad guys would do, and so many people thought they were bad guys."

The children are looking very frightened now. Clearly the thought on their mind is what if I end up around a bad guy like that?

"So with the good guys doing bad guy things for him, Kelewin went over to try and take Sarcomand. But the folks at Sarcomand wanted to keep their homes. They liked their baking, and their snowball fields, and all the good hiding places in the river. And so they were going to fight back, and they did!"

"Di " one kid starts to shout, but another puts his hand over his lips and says "Shh!" before removing the hand. The kid restarts, a little chastised, "Did they beat the big bad guy?"

Jono grins. This is the cool part. "Yes they did. They found out that what they thought were bad guys were actually good guys, and so they got those good guys to help them out!" He spreads his paws very, very wide; this is about to be a very big thing. "And when all the other good guys in the Outer Midlands found out about that, they Also decided to go help out Sarcomand, and pretty soon Kelewin wasn't able to be in charge anymore, because EVERYONE was now a good guy, and good guys don't do what bad guys tell them to!"

The kids manage not to cheer only because they're all still waiting for a slice of pie. The Sarcomand folks did win! The big bad guy who punished good guys unfairly got beat!

Kirk, all throughout the storytelling, is shaking his head in wonderment at Jono's ability. His first thought when he heard the name Sarcomand was along the lines of Oh dear Gods, Jono's gone insane. Sarcomand was one of the most horrifying events in Midlands history. Kelewin had been trying to get into the fertile river valleys that crisscrossed along the area, and he'd been petty enough to send in an army, and what had followed was the bloodiest massacre in the history of the Midlands, directly by Kelewin's orders. A few of the solders had had the morality to object to that, the villagers had pleaded with them, and before long a few small objections had grown to the point at which there was a full-on rebellion up and down the Outer Midlands. Kelewin had woken up that morning to find himself surrounded by mutineers whose kindest thought towards him would have been swift regicide. They'd tortured him for days, then dropped him somewhere in the middle of the Great Barrier Range, completely naked, and left him to die. Of course, there were rumors that he'd survived and become one of Nasoj's nobles, but nobody thought that likely.

And yet Jono was taking the story of a massacre and a resulting revolution, a story usually told as a lesson in defeating evil early to protect the weak, and had turned it into a story of the Good Underdogs beating the Big Bad Guy. And the kids were enthralled.

Kirk is simply amazed.

"And thus it came to pass that the people of Sarcomand did manage to stop a very, very bad guy and make him go away forever and thus preserve their home, and here this story ends." And with that Jono drops his paws to his sides, to show that the story is over.

Thirty seconds later the Lutins start trying to break down the door.

12/25 – 11am

"Everyone get back behind the front counter! MOVE!"

The kids do not need Any convincing at all. It doesn't take much thought to realize that anyone who is pounding on the door like that and scaring the grownups is a Bad Guy. Nobody wants to be around for when the Bad Guys get in.

Jono already has his whip out and is running for the back door. Nothing's showed up around it yet, so he's willing to bet it'd be a safe(r) means of escape. Currently the front door is being held back from being broken down primarily by Kirk. And while Kirk is certainly qualified to hold something like this back, the door clearly isn't. Which means they have to get out now.

Dana, by contrast, is heading towards the front door. "Kirk! Get out of the way! I can deal with these things!" She's already got her sword out.

Dana's experience focus has traditionally been in single combat. But she's capable of handling multiple foes under certain situations, most of them pretty simplistic but effective nonetheless. That's a fair description of her move when Kirk steps aside, allowing the door to fall down.

All she does is swing as the Lutin who was banging charges through unexpectedly. He doesn't even get a foot into the room before he's bleeding dead on the ground. The same goes for the second immediately following the first.

And then Dana is there, holding the doorway against two Lutins at once while Kirk is yelling "GO! Get out of here!"

Perry is the first one out the back door. This is a good thing, primarily because he was prepared for the ambush. All he has to do is drop to his belly as the Lutin drops from above. He gets a bit of a shock; the Lutin gets impaled. Then next comes Jo, with both daggers flying to take down the next two Lutins moving in. Then Perry is running forward, swinging his sword to nearly decapitate a fourth Lutin while Jo leaps out of the way for Jono's exit, who instantly moves to the side and starts keeping watch as kids start streaming out from the back door.

"Perry! Kevin! Take the kids and get them to the nearest shelter!" Jono screams as Kevin runs out, doing his best to chant the warming spell on the fly.

Jono, if he felt like he had time, would be mentally kicking himself for this whole fiasco. So far everything has held together primarily because he's anticipated scenarios and set up plans for the kids ahead of time. But he didn't think to include a plan for this, and so gods know what all the kids are going to do. Fortunately most of them seem to be following Kevin and Perry, but...

He shakes his head clear, then quickly runs around the building, Jo following close behind, just in time to see another Lutin fall back from the door.

Jono can't use his whip here; the weather is still very hostile, and the winds would badly throw off his attempts to use it. Normally in conditions like this he'd fall back to using his claws and engage in a bit of melee. But there's far too many Lutins for him to be able to pull that off effectively, and so he has to go for a different tactic.

Fortunately, Jono does have a very nice curved sword, which he's gotten a lot of practice in. He's very quickly reassured that he hasn't lost any of that practice when he whips the sword out from his scabbard, flicking the blade outward as he does so and dropping the first Lutin who had the misfortune to notice him.

He shifts into the ready stance he's been practicing for years ever since his first few lessons with that old master he and Jo met on the docks of Elvquelin, and takes count. One Jono. One Jo. One Dana, presumably at the door. Fifteen Lutins.

This is probably going to be a bit of a stretch.

That bit of a stretch is exactly why Derek and Sammy are separate from the rest of the kids right now.

Derek, of course, has his nifty bag thingy with him, which he showed to Sammy. There's, like, an endless supply of the little spiked ball things in there, so they can prepare as many as they want.

Derek didn't really want to show anyone the bag; the lady who told him about it was pretty specific about telling very few people. But then again, she'd said to make snowballs with them (which is an exceedingly obvious thing to a talented snowfields warrior like Derek; just pack snow around them so they look harmless). And Sammy is by far the fastest snowball maker in Metamor. And she did say that he could tell people who were helping him out. There was even an extra pair of gloves in the bag for him to use.

So he showed it to Sammy, and told him about how he's supposed to make snowballs out of them. Sammy, being a clever and capable fashioner of snowballs, caught on very quickly, and even prepared two in advance; one for each of them. And they're sneaking around the Other side of the building to help out Uncle Jono, because once again a Comrade In Arms is certainly in trouble, and this time Derek is not going to allow himself to run away.

They're very prepared for the first Lutin that comes around the bend; it grunts in surprise, then grins evilly and starts to slowly advance on them. Sammy is the first to get his snowball off; it crashes into the Lutin's chest and causes it to scream out in pain. But only briefly, for Derek's shot smacks it right in the center of the head, and it falls.

And Derek and Sammy are grinning at each other as Sammy passes Derek another snowball, having already fashioned two replacements. “Ohh, YEAH!!!!

Jono, in the meantime, is busying himself with the several Lutins in front of him. One swing downward at a head, then a snap back upwards to another's chest and throat, then across to another's throat, up to parry a falling blade, twist and to the side to parry another, step back, while behind him Jo keeps her daggers flying, dropping Lutins left and right.

What hasn't encouraged him is that the count isn't going down any. It's going up.

Derek, in the meantime, is feeling absolutely exhilarated.

He still retains all-too clear memories of last night, back when Uncle Jono had to stop that one Bad Guy, and he wasn't able to do a thing, and in the back of his mind he's been partly frightened out of his wits still over that event, and partly yearning for a sort of vengeance.

He's getting that vengeance now. Because THESE snowballs stop the bad guys.

They've just about made it to the corner now, Derek having already dropped two more Lutins with precise throws of deadly snowballs. And from here they can see that's Uncle Jono! And he's fighting the bad guys big time! But there's too many bad guys.

Derek gets a very big grin on his face, then, and gets ready to start throwing. Not going to be too many bad guys soon enough...

Jono is just about to dodge an expected thrust from a Lutin that has slipped past his sword when to his astonishment a large snowball SMACKS against the back of the Lutin's head, splattering snow and blood in a finely mixed spray, leaving a small spiked ball that looks to have nearly crushed the back of the Lutin's skull. It falls before he can react.

Then, while he's staring at that one, the Lutin that was just about to take advantage of his momentary lack of attention takes another such snowball to the back of it's head, and he has to leap out of the way to insure that it doesn't fall on top of him.

“What in the...” Then his eyes flick up to see...


And then his eyes go even wider as he sees what's immediately behind...

Derek starts to turn. "Sammy! Need anoth "

His words drop off as he catches a quick glimpse of what's behind him.

To his immediate back and right is Sammy, being held up by a very big and nasty-looking Lutin. His feet are dangling off the ground, and he can't reach the Bag at all. Said Lutin has got a knife to Sammy's throat.

But Derek's more immediate focus is on the Lutin right behind him. It too has a knife in its hands, and it's looking down at him with fiendish glee. He can easily see the scars along his face that seem to correspond almost exactly to those on the Lutin that he'd hit with the ineffectual snowball that frigid night that seems so, so long ago.

This, of course, all registers within less than a second. Because Derek doesn't even have that much time before the Lutin snatches him up, drawing him up off the ground and shaking him until he drops the snowball, then puts the knife to his throat.

Ulgath Grimtooth is feeling DAMN proud.

He's always known that he's going to be a great Lutin warrior. First he'd led his daring charge against the North Gate, nearly breaking it down and showing his battle prowess for all the Generals and members of his tribe to see. Then there was the ingenious raid he'd lead into the tower adjacent to the big Inner Gates that kept the puny wood village and the infuriating stone Keep separated, which lead to the gates' eventual capture - again with the generals watching and noting his bravery and his willingness to do battle.

And now he was just sending a platoon of Lutins up to the Town Gate when he heard these Keepers hiding in here, got all his people into place and attacked. And even now that they've gotten some of their people out and fighting, he's managed to take two of the kids they've got with them hostage. And he knows Keepers will do just about anything for their precious children.

Life could not be better than at this very moment.

"Drop your weapons, or these die!" he yells at the two Keepers who have been fighting off his men from the flank. Both quite capable warriors... too bad. "You in doorway too! Drop your weapons!" He's keeping his eyes on the both of them as he yells. They've managed to fell at least twelve of his soldiers; they could easily have a trick planned.

The larger Keeper - the one that looks like some kind of cat - looks very shaken, but it nods regardless. "Okay," and drops its strange-looking sword. The dog-like Keeper behind it drops her two daggers as well, and he can see a broadsword clatter to the ground near the doorway.

"Now let the kids go," the cat says resolutely.

Ulgath Grimtooth simply smiles. Then he turns to Sekkh, holding the other child, the one that was throwing the weapons.

"Cut," he says simply.

"NO!" And then suddenly, to his immense surprise, there's a flash of light just beneath the dog-Keeper's paw-hands, and suddenly it's holding the daggers again! And Sekkh has only just started to cut when the dagger has become a flash of light again, slashing through his head.

And Ulgath knows he's next, so he quickly starts to draw his knife across his hostage's neck, just to be sure that he can kill his last Keeper before the knife rea

And then the blade pierces, and the last thing Ulgath is conscious of is the dog-keeper's scream of horror, as it runs towards the Keeper he knows he's just killed.


Jo is running. Running as fast as she possibly can towards the kids, already reaching for her herbal bag, hoping beyond hope that she can beat the clock. She's barely conscious of Jono as he gives a loud scream of horror - something between a human scream and a cat's yowl - before he suddenly shifts into a non-anthropomorphic form, throwing off his clothes, and pounces, spitting and snarling, at the Lutins in front of him.

And suddenly Kirk is rushing too, bellowing a cry of hatred to the winds as he charges the rest of the Lutins, his axe flashing around and around as he starts sweeping it through the hordes, cutting down dozens with each arc.

But none of this matters to Joanne as she leaps and skids over to stop right next to Derek.

Oh gods oh gods oh Gods I hope I wasn't too late...

Somebody's been hurt!

Daemion doesn't know how, but all of a sudden it's as absolutely clear as though he'd just seen it happen right in front of his eyes. Derek and Sammy are hurt bad!

"Derek! Sammy!" And he turns and starts running back towards the bakery, to the astonishment of every single last kid around him, and especially to his father, who blinks, then cries out "Daemion! Come back!" and starts to chase after him...

Derek is lying facedown on the snow; fortunately the Lutin isn't on top of him. There's a sickening red stain that's still spreading on the snow as she stops next to him.

Jo flips him over and quickly puts down a compress on the wound she can see, leaking a large amount of blood. From what she can tell it looks like the vein just nearly got nicked, but the compress should keep the wound from expanding. She hopes.

Derek actually blinks his eyes open, then, looking up at her. "...missus jo...? sammy...?"

Sammy! She quickly ties the compress under Derek's shoulder so it stays against his wound, then rushes over to the other boy...

Daemion has never run so hard before in his life. Every single time there's simply never been a need. It's always been races with other kids down the courtyard, or to get to a bakery when they're giving out cookies, or to get to someone who's just been hit with a snowball. Small things.

But this is far more serious. Far, far more serious. Even more so than when he was running from the Southern Gate to the Inner Gates tower. Even that was nothing compared to this.

Behind him he can hear his father yelling. "Daemion! Get back! I can't help keep the Lutins away if you keep running this fast!"

He doesn't care. “Got to help Derek and Sammy!”

Sammy is in far, far worse condition.

Jo picks him up and takes a look, and almost has to look away. The blade has cut very, very deep; the vein is almost spurting, and... gods, the windpipe's been cut...

She starts quickly preparing another compress, knowing that it's not going to matter but unwilling to just give up right there...

Daemion turns the corner and sees Jo there, desperately trying to combine various herbs. He doesn't call out to her; he can't afford to waste the breath. He just keeps running...

Jo's ears perk up as she hears the footsteps. A Lutin? Not now... She looks up, and to her incredible surprise...

"Daemion! Don't get any closer! They've been hurt!"

"I know! I gotta help them!" he screams as he keeps running forward.

"But there's nothing you can do!" she yells back, even as he makes it right up to her, dropping down next to her.

"Yes there is!"

And then he places both his hands on Derek and Sammy, and...

Daemion is suddenly elsewhere.

He glances down at himself briefly, feeling oddly different somehow - and he blinks in surprise, as he's looking down at what looks to be a white-furred paw.

A further quick self-examination reveals a large floofy tail kinda like Jo's except all white, feet that are... what was the word, dijidigade, something? Also kinda like Jo's, except again all white, and that he's clad in some kind of weird robes that have a very interesting-looking double spiral pattern on the front.

Then he hears a whimper of fear from right in front of him - feeling his ears swivel towards it, which is Really weird - and he looks up to see... Derek?

Derek looks a lot like he's always been. Slightly older, maybe. But the big thing is that he's wearing really fancy-looking leather armor, and he's got a big sword on his side, and a dagger in his belt behind him.

He's also wearing, on his face, an expression of the most absolute terror. And he's seemingly being dragged forward, slowly.

And Daemion knows that he's got to stop Derek from scooting forward. So he runs towards Derek, leaps on him as though he were pouncing like Jo sometimes does, and drags him to the ground. His ears barely pick up a small snap from somewhere, and Derek stops moving.

"Derek, you okay?" he asks.

Derek simply nods, then points over behind Daemion.

Daemion turns around.

And there's Sammy, a little further away. He's looking Very weird - one moment he looks like he does now, the next he looks something like that one guy... whatsisname... Copersomething, dunno. He keeps flickering back and forth between those two appearances, and it's really weird and distracting.

The flickering is slowing down though; he's starting to look more and more like he does right now. It's picking up as he gets dragged forward, pulled by what look like dozens and dozens of ropes latched Gods know how all to his front. Moving much faster than Derek.

And when Daemion turns to look where those ropes are going, his eyes go very wide.

Because what is standing there is a grim figure around which the very light seems to dim. A giant, armored being, his armor all covered over with skulls, raising a sickle above his head and twirling it, pulling the ropes in closer with each twirl, and seated atop an inky black horse with fiery, dripping red eyes, rearing back and whinnying.

And Daemion is more terrified right now than at any other time in his life.

Jono has never before been in a berserker rage.

In fact, the very concept seems utterly alien. He's always been the coolheaded, smooth talking type; he'd only resort to actual fighting when it was utterly unavoidable, say when the drunken warrior is charging you right that minute. Mindless violence has never been a problem for him.

But something new seems to have been stirred up in him with the changes the Keep has made.

He's always rather liked what he got out of the Keep - much more athletic and graceful, voice restored to him (improved, even!), and a large variety of audiences that always appreciated his services and oftentimes also had stories of their own to create and relay. His only real regret so far has been his occasional bouts with frustrated wanderlust, and that's all.

If he were in full control of his thoughts right now he'd almost certainly be realizing that his new feline nature has come with something else new.

But he's not thinking clearly. The only thing he can think of right now is destroying every last Lutin in front of him, which he is doing with disturbing efficiency.

He's not absolutely perfect; one Lutin manages to get in close enough to bring its club down on one of his rear legs. But he barely even notices any wound as he turns, yowling, and rakes at the Lutin several times with his claws. The Lutin doesn't get in a second shot.


Daemion stares at the apparition, dragging Sammy in inexorably. Somehow he knows that this giant horseman is some kind of representation of Death. And that once he's got Sammy he's never going to give him back.

Daemion is not about to let that happen.

"Derek! We've got to go help Sammy!" He pulls his friend to his feet. "C'mon!"

Derek blinks, shaking his head a bit as if trying to get his bearings, then notes the apparition for the first time. His first reaction is not fear. Indeed, it is far from it, as he draws his sword and charges at the apparition, screaming a battle cry and swinging his sword over his head.

But the apparition simply laughs, then rears back his horse and has it kick forward, throwing Derek back like a toy and sending him sprawling onto the ground.

Next to Jono is Kirk, his battleaxe flailing about, cutting down Lutin after Lutin. A casual observer would believe him to be under similar influences as the berserker cat near him.

Kirk usually isn't berserking at all. He'd be proud if he heard said observation; that's exactly the image he likes to convey. Kirk learned very early on from Dana (from back in her Darren days) that one of the primary uses of being a large individual is intimidation. In other words, making it look like you're in a state of powerful, unstoppable Rage. It tends to cause the enemy to hesitate, and in melee combat, a few seconds' hesitation is usually all it takes. So most of the time in battle he likes to make it look like he's immortal and invincible and that nobody is going to escape him.

Right now, however, the casual observer would be much more correct than Kirk normally wants. Two of the children he's been trying to protect have been badly wounded, perhaps even killed. He hasn't even looked over to them, though; he knows there's nothing he can do directly for them. The only thing he can do is to keep the Lutins off Jo's back while she works, and that means killing every single last one.

He does have his wits about him more than Jono, though. So he does realize how much more trouble he's in when, with nine or so Lutins to go, Jono takes a blow to the head and lets out a loud yelp before falling to the ground, dazed.

Kirk's first action is to bellow and charge again, swinging the axe as he did before, hoping to scatter them long enough so that he can finish them off individually. He manages to get three of the Lutins with his axe, but the rest manage to dodge out of the way, then start closing in. He swings the axe upwards, catching one of them under the chin and flinging it upwards as well, but that gives another one of the Lutins time enough to sneak in and score a hit along his side with a sword. He bellows again, this time Not planned as he turns and decapitates the Lutin responsible. This only opens him to another attack from behind, this time with a Lutin spear. This time the bellow becomes almost a scream…

...And then suddenly there's Perry, yelling his battle cry, cutting down two of the Lutins as they seek to stab at him with their spears, hurrying to try to help. But before he can get all the way there the Lutin immediately behind Kirk has its club moving, striking him in the back of the head and dropping him to the ground. It'll take a few seconds for him to be able to get up again, and by that time the second spear-wielding Lutin can

And then Kirk's eyes go wide in surprise as said Lutin lets out a loud cry, as though transfixed, and then goes thud against the ground, with Perry still twenty feet away and running. He manages to turn just enough to see some black-furred thing swinging what looks like some kind of halberd into the final Lutin's chest, causing it to groan, then finally fall.

He blinks his eyes, trying to clear his head. “Doesn't he look familiar someh “

"Corporal Jahnsen?"

He gets a weak sounding "Sir, pleasure to be of service, sir" before the batmorph falls to the ground from exhaustion.

Derek leaps up, seemingly unfazed, grabs for his sword and charges again, swinging the sword just as the horse kicks forward again, fire issuing from its mouth as it whinnies while Derek attempts to remove a leg and cripple it. But the blade passes right through the leg, not harming it at all, while Derek is thrown back again. And the apparition cackles loudly, sending a deep chill down Daemion's spine.

And somehow Daemion realizes what's going on. "You can't attack him! We have to cut the ropes!"

"Ropes?" Derek asks. "What ropes?"

"What do you mean, wha " Then it hits him. He can't see the ropes! He can only see the big bad guy!

"Jahnsen! Are you all right?" Kirk is trying to get to his feet, and mostly succeeding. Jahnsen isn't really trying.

"...more or less, sir..." comes the weak reply.

At least he's alive. Then Kirk turns to Jono - who is already up, back in his usual anthropomorphic form, and staring in the direction of where the kids were. Kirk turns to look in that direction and freezes.

The first thing that he notes is Jo. She's almost sprawled back, leaned up on her paws, staring incomprehensibly forward. Her herbal bag is next to her, some of the contents sprawled out a bit, as though they'd been shoved.

The second thing he notes is Daemion. For some reason he's seated in what looks like some kind of meditative posture - both of his hands touching both of the wounded kids, his eyes closed, his head leaned downward. He seems to be trembling slightly, but otherwise is showing no signs of life.

The third thing that registers in his mind is the globe of radiant light that has Daemion and Derek and Samuel all surrounded.

"What in the name of all the Gods is that?" he manages.

Jono just seems to shake his head.

Daemion now knows exactly what he has to do.

"Derek, give me the sword."


"I need it!" he shouts. "I've got to cut the ropes! You've got to hurry and keep Sammy from getting dragged all the way in!"

Derek looks confused for a brief moment, then gets back up on his hands and knees, puts a hand on the sword and shoves it as hard as he can, sliding it across the ground to Daemion. Then he gets to his knees and charges towards Sammy, leaping at him and tackling him down to the ground.

The apparition then starts to chuckle quietly, in a low, deep tone, spinning the scythe faster and faster, light flashing off the blade, his horse rearing back again and letting out another burst of flame as the chuckles start to grow into a hideous laugher, getting louder and louder and louder...

Daemion doesn't allow himself to be shaken. He CAN’T.

"NO! You don't get Sammy!" he screams at the apparition. Then he grabs the sword, rushes up to the ropes, and starts hacking away as hard as he can at the ropes binding his friend...

Kirk and Jono both manage to crawl forward, towards Jo and the globe. "Jo!" Jono calls out. "What happened?"

"I..." Jo stammers.

Just a few short seconds ago, things were still making sense for Joanne. A tragic sort of sense, in that there wasn't anything she could really do for Sammy, but it was still making sense.

That was before Daemion moved in.

One moment she was preparing a compress for Sammy's neck in the hopes that it might perform some kind of miracle to heal his damaged windpipe and thus save his life, and trying to get Daemion to stay away as well. The next thing she knows, she's being flung away from the child, herbal bag and all, coming down to a not-so-soft landing only to see...

... this....

"What is it?" Jono is asking her. "What happened? What's going on in there?"

"I..." she starts again. "I have no idea..."

The ropes aren't breaking! It's having no effect!

He's been swinging at the ropes for what feels like hours, though it could be merely seconds, and there's no effect whatsoever...

Derek keeps pushing vainly, trying to keep Sammy away from the apparition, but Sammy keeps moving. Sammy himself is now looking more and more like himself and less and less like that lizard guy, and he's sobbing and shuddering in absolute fear. And the apparition is laughing and laughing and laughing...

...And then the wind picks up, and Daemion himself slips to the ground, then starts to slide towards the dark-suited figure, and Derek calls out "Daemion! I can't stop it!"

And the apparition is still laughing, a hideous grin now apparent through the face on the helmet, and then as Daemion watches it suddenly turns into a blackened human skull with fiery red eyes, and screams piercingly at him... "Foolish boy! Do you really think you can beat the Master of Death?"

Daemion gets back up.

Oddly, his thoughts are not of rage, of revenge, or of any other sort of hostile emotion. All he feels now is a quiet, almost subdued, but firm defiance.

"No." he says simply.

"Of course not!" the apparition screams, cackling once more. "You'll never beat me!"

"No," he says again. "No, you're not going to win. You are not taking my friend."

His voice is firm and final as he raises the sword, closes his eyes, then brings it back down on the ropes.



The hideous cry comes from the apparition as it flies backward from the loss of the tension on the ropes, suddenly looking more and more like a skeleton, fading away... and the other ends of the ropes catch Daemion, and he's flung back as well, and he lands next to Derek and Samuel who is looking solely like the lizard now... and then...

Without any warning at all, the globe of light vanishes, right in front of the astonished eyes of Jono and Jo and Kirk and Perry. And yet not one of them moves a muscle. They simply watch as Daemion stirs, breathing in very deeply.

Then the wound in Samuel's neck closes up, blood vanishing from around it as though it was never there.

And Derek and Samuel both open their eyes, blinking a bit, and sitting up just before Daemion falls to the ground, exhausted.

And all anyone watching can do is stare.

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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