The Winter Assault

Part 15

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 noon

It took two hours of careful searching to find the right room and clean it out. It had been a guard room for the south gate and many of the guards bodies still lay slumped in the chairs where they had died, poisoned. Betrayed by a fellow Keeper. Polteen waited impatiently as a group of just captured slaves cleared the room of everything so they could start their ritual.

Once cleared they began the process of setting up. Grand Master Polteen and Adept Mistress Thryza watched as their four apprentices unpacked the equipment which was carefully placed by the door.

The apprentices Tilock and Quizano picked out six large pieces made of some dark wood. The two men carefully assembled the pieces into a long, low table that was placed in the exact center of the room.

The captive girl was striped naked and bound to the table by Rankin and Stenger. Both took a lot of joy in removing the girls clothes, laughing as they pulled off each piece. Polteen let his apprentices have their fun since it enhanced the girl’s fear, and fear was a great multiplier with the magic they were about to perform.

Polteen and Thryza chanted as they started to paint the complex formulas onto the bound girl themselves. The ink was a special mixture that had taken over two years to produce.

Preparing the girl took long hours to finish but the four apprentices had work of their own to accomplish. Freed of their burdens two of the horses were led into the room and placed at opposite corners. Tilok and Quizano held one animal, Rankin and Stenger the other. Tilock and Rankin each produced long, rune etched daggers. Holding the blades over their heads for a moment the two mages began a deep, sonorous chant that wavered chaotically between musical and dissonant. The ominous, dark chant lasted for several minute, during which they held their poses, only swaying slightly in time with the incantation. The two other apprentices said nothing and did not move, holding the spooked animals still by their own magics. Finally lowering their arms, the inchanters brought their blades down, sweeping them under the throats of the immobile animals. Left hands were placed on neck to steady the stroke that was to follow.

With practiced motions they slit their animals throats. The horses let out terrible screams that echoed and re-echoed throughout the room and out into the corridors outside the door. Blood fountained from the wounds, splashing across the floor and into bowls held under the neck by the other two apprentices. In spite of their wounds and obvious panic neither creature moved, held immobile as their flesh twisted and rippled with their stifled death throes. Once the animals were dead and the last drops of the precious life fluid drained the spell holding them upright was removed. The dead bodies dropped to the floor with the thud of flesh hitting stone and the shattering of bones. Now useless to the mages the carcasses were removed from the room.

There was enough blood from the two horses to fill four large bowls full. Each of the apprentices, with a bowl and a fine paintbrush in hand, moved to separate corners. Once in position, they began to chant in slow, monotonous voices as they started the long difficult task of painting the formulaes and symbols.

12/25 – noon

Daria watched as Misha stopped at the corner and listened. Then he held up his hands and tugged on his left ear. With his right hand he signed the letter L, and then pointed around the corner. “I hear Lutins around the corner,” was what he had just signed.

A flurry of hand signals followed before the group retired to a nearby room to consider strategy. Danielle and Bradfox stood guard at the door as the rest planned.

“No doubt, the armory is being held by Nasoj’s people,” Misha announced in a whisper.

“How many?” Finbar asked.

“A score of Lutins, four giant wolves a half dozen humans, and some sort of Lutin chief, guarding the doorway” Daria replied.

“That Lutin chief is a shaman,” Misha added.

“What tribe are the Lutins?” Kershaw asked.

“Slaughterers,” Misha answered.

“Terrific,” Finbar said shaking his head.

Garulf was also shaking his head in agreement. “Are you sure?”

Misha nodded, “Yes, I did a thorough recon. There’s no doubting the markings.”

“What’s wrong with fighting the Slaughterers?” Brenner asked, un-nerved.

“Slaughterers are renowned for their fighting. They don’t surrender and they don’t run away,” The panda explained. “The only way we’re going to get rid of them is to kill them all. With most Lutins if you kill a few of them the rest will run, but not the Slaughterers.”

“The Lutins aren’t the problem,” Misha said calmly. “We’ve killed lots of Slaughterers in the past. It’s the humans who we need to worry about. There’s no telling how skilled they are.”

“Another problem is that shaman,” Misha said. He turned and faced Jessica, “that will be a problem for you to get rid of.”

The hawk nodded. “I can handle him easily enough.”

“Don’t underestimate a Lutin shaman,” Finbar warned. “They can be as powerful as any human.”

“Kill the shaman quickly,” Misha ordered calmly. “He’s too big a threat to be allowed to live.”

“I’ll take care of him. He’ll never cast a spell,” Jessica answered. “I have an appropriate spell that will kill him and anyone near him.”

“Good,” Daria answered.

“About the Lutins, if there are that many outside the armory how many are waiting for us insides?” Kershaw asked.

The fox shrugged. “No way of telling. The armory itself is really two rooms. The first room is on the other side of the door that band is guarding. That’s the antechamber, basically that room is used for preparing; putting on armor and checking weapons.”

“There are two other doors leading out of the ante chamber; a steel door that leads into the main armory and a wooden door that leads directly to the courtyard.” Misha scratched his ear. “Taking out the guards outside aren’t a problem. What is a problem is by the time we get done outside the armory thirty of forty more could come streaming in from the courtyard and out into the corridor.”

“We need to keep anyone from getting into the armory from the courtyard,” Kershaw commented. “And keep anyone from the antechamber from coming out into the corridor until we’ve dealt with the guards already there.”

“How?” Weyden asked. “Perhaps we can come at it from the courtyard.”

“Misha shook his head, “No, there must be several hundred Lutins outside. We need to block those two doors. That would split the Lutins into manageable pieces.”

“How do we block those doors?” Finbar asked.

“I can see that both doors are blocked at the appropriate moment,” Daria said calmly.

“How?” the fox asked.

“With this,” Daria said and held up a gold key that hung from a gold chain around her neck. “It’s a gift from Kyia.”

“What can it do?” Misha asked.

Daria looked at a blank section of wall and held up the key. “A door please, wooden, leading to the temple.”

One moment there was a gray stone wall and the next there was a wooden door, painted with a beautiful flower design. Brenner tentatively opened the new door and found himself looking into the main room of the temple. “Wow!”

“A good little trick,” Misha commented.

“Come in real handy,” Finbar added.

Bradfox smiled broadly. “We can block all the doors and kill the guards in the hallway without being bothered. Then we can unblock the door and when the guards in the antechamber run out,” the man smacked his fist into his palm. “They won’t even have the time to yell.”

“I like the way you think,” Finbar said enthusiastically. “Once the all the guards are out of the way we can clean out anyone left in the armory easily. And the door to the courtyard can stay blocked permanently.”

Misha looked at Daria. “What do you think?”

The girl nodded, “I like it.”

“People,” Misha said calmly. “We have ourselves a plan. Let’s work out all the details.”

Daria took one last look around the corner and pulled her head back. Nothing had changed since the last time she had seen them. A wooden door stood in the center of a large room. Behind that door was the anteroom to the armory.

In front of that door a score of Lutins were standing, eating or gambling. Daria noticed four dire wolves lounging in a corner. Sitting amidst the Lutins was a short Lutin dressed in finely made, red robes. He was holding a large staff in one hand and a dagger in the other. That Lutin was a shaman, the staff was a sure marker.

Standing off to one side separate from the Lutins were six humans, all male and dressed in armor. A tough looking bunch of rogues they were talking to each other and trying to ignore the Lutins.

Daria looked down the corridor, the members of her team were waiting there. Jessica stood next to her, nervously preening her feathers. Behind her Garulf stood calmly waiting. Morel was next to the bear, seated on the floor with his back to the wall, eyes closed. Both were old soldiers and it took a lot to phase them. Brenner poked Morel with a paw to wake him up. The soldier stood up and soundlessly stretched his limbs.

The girl looked at her team one last time to be sure they were ready. Everyone was ready, they had gone over what was going to happen in great detail. Misha and his people were waiting down the hall, waiting for the sign to begin the attack. That sign was when Daria used her key to block that wooden door. Once that was blocked, the killing would start. That thought startled the girl. She looked at the gold key. Until now it had never occurred to her that she didn’t know how the key worked. Did it contact Kyia directly and she did what was needed? Or maybe it worked the magic by itself, without Kyia having to interfere.

Suddenly the sound of stone grinding and sliding came from around the corner interrupting her musing. “What happened to the door? It just vanished,” came a concerned voice from around the corner.

Jessica brushed past Daria and stood in full view of everyone. The bird spread both wings out and shrieked loudly, “TI FU LANITAW.” And the she brought her wings together. A cold blast of air suddenly swept down the corridor and a from the tips of the hawks wings razor sharp icicles shot straight into the waiting Lutins.

Bradfox stepped next to the hawk with his bow in hand and loosed an arrow into the enemy. The shrieks and shouts of dying Lutins came to Daria intermingled with the thumps of arrows, javelins and axes sinking into flesh.

In a moment David joined the woman and the bird, his arms moving with a blinding speed as he threw knives into the fray. Daria joined her teammates in the open corridor. The scene that greeted her was pure chaos.

A cold frost covered the floor and walls. A quick glance showed her the still ice covered form of the shaman and many Lutins and wolves. Humans, wolves and Lutins were screaming, and tripping over each other as a hail of arrows, and spears ripped through their ranks. Five Lutins led by a short human charged straight at Daria and her team. Without thinking she brought up her own bow and put two arrows into the man’s face. He crumbled to the ground, but the Lutins kept coming at her.

Suddenly Garulf pushed past her his axe held low to the ground. The bear swung his weapon in a great upward arc and two of the Lutins were cut down. The keepers as a group rushed forward right into the midst of the Lutins. Swept up with them was the woman who was their leader.

A horrible, confused melee broke out in the hallway as keeper and attackers fought each other. Somehow she dropped her bow and drew her rapier. She saw Morel fighting three Lutins at once, cutting the arm off of one in an instant. Nearby Brenner drove his spear deep into a mans chest pinning him to the wall. A Lutin rushed the tomcat who let go of his spear and lashed out with his claws shredding the monsters face. There was the panda named Kershaw slamming his heavy mace down on a Lutin. The creatures head exploded on a spray of blood and gore that covered everyone. She caught a flash of Jotham as he drove two daggers into a Lutins throat. Daria lost all sense of what was happening and concentrated on just staying alive. She parried a blow from a Lutin and stuck her blade into the green creatures stomach and it fell to the floor. Starling swooped down out of the shadows above and sprayed a Lutin straight in the face with a blast of flame. The creature was fully engulfed in a moment and ran screaming down a hall. He made it only a few paces before an arrow put him out of his torment and his burning corpse fell to the pavement. The flames adding a ghastly light to the battle.

Someone shouted Daria’s name and she looked up in time to see a huge wolf coming straight at her intent on killing her. As it leaped she saw the long dagger-like teeth that would rip out her throat. Without thinking she brought her blade up and the point went deep into the creatures chest. Daria staggered backward as the huge animal fell to the ground at her feet, dead.

She stared at the great beasts still body as a pool of blood started to form underneath it. That such a huge creature could die so quickly was a surprise to her.

“Check to make sure they’re all dead,” a loud voice said startling her back to reality.

David came up to her and touched her on the shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked in a voice filled with concern. All she could do was nod.

Misha came up to her his great axe in both hands its blades had a crimson gleam to them from the fresh blood. The vulpine looked at the still corpse of the dire wolf. Then he bent down and pulled out Daria’s blade which was lodged in the monsters chest. He wiped the blood off the blade onto the animals fur and handed it to Daria. Numbly she took it and sheathed the blade.

“Nice kill,” Misha said calmly. “Neatly done.”

The woman couldn’t answer at first but finally stammered, “Thank you.”

Next to her Brenner and Finbar were checking the dead. “Now Brenner, always be sure to stab every dead body just to be sure they’re actually dead and not pretending,” the ferret said. “Never assume an enemy is dead until you’ve checked him.”

The cat nodded and pushed his spear into a dead Lutins stomach. “This one is dead.”

The ferret nodded and then turned to Misha. “All dead.”

“Now comes the second part,” Misha explained. “Clear the dead away from the doorway and prepare for the ambush.”

Daria watched as the Keepers calmly dragged the bodies of the dead away from the area in front of the doorway. She saw Kershaw drag the corpse of a tall human by the feet. She wondered who the body had once been. Was he married? Did he have a wife and children? She tried to look at his face but what had been his head was just a bloody mess. As the panda pulled the body past her Finbar calmly walked up and casually dropped something onto it. It was a bloody lump about the size of a mans hand. With a shiver of horror she realized it was part of the dead mans head. The ferret turned and walked off. Kershaw never broken his stride, but kept on pulling paying not the slightest notice to the addition to his burden. It was all done so casually. Like it was merely a sack of grain he pulled.

Daria sagged against the wall as she felt the bile rise in her throat. Horror, pain and disgust raged through her mind as she fought to keep from throwing up.

“Don’t fold on me now Daria. You can be sick later, we’ve got too much to do right now,” the fox said sternly.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve just never fought a dire wolf before,” she said.

Misha placed a bloody paw on her shoulder and stared into her face. She found herself looking into his eyes. She found them full of warmth and concern. “This was your first battle?” her asked softly almost like a parent talking to a child.

She nodded. “I’ve been in a few skirmishes with Lutins, but I’ve never fought humans except in training. And I’ve never even seen a dire wolf.”

“You did good, girl, very good. Not many people kill a dire wolf.”

“Thank you. He just seemed to jump onto the point.”

“Nonsense,” Misha countered. “He jumped onto the point because you held it correctly.” He slapped her on the back. “Well, now you’re a full blooded warrior and a leader. Now we need to get ready for the second part. When I give the word you’re to drop the stone blocking the door and open it.”

Cheered by the encouragement the fox had given her Daria stood a little straighter and smiled. Gone was the fear and pain. She looked to where the door to the armory had been, it was gone. There was just a blank wall where a few minutes before a large wooden door had been. The key had worked. She looked around her and saw the others dragging the dead bodies out of sight. In a few short moments the only signs of the quick and brutal deaths of some forty living beings was gone except for a few blood stains.

“We’ll open the doorway into the armory and then give a shout of alarm,” Misha ordered. “That will bring anyone inside running out to help. When that does we hold our shooting till we have a large group standing in the open and them we’ll cut them down with missiles. Anyone left we can finish off with swords.”

“Sounds good to me,” Bradfox said.

It took a few moments to arraign everything. The keepers returned to their initial hiding places and waited for the door to reappear. Daria found herself again at the corner peering around. This time she was ready. She had retrieved her bow and nocked an arrow. “Kyia put the door back please and open it,” she said out loud.

The door just seemed to blink into existence, one moment it wasn’t there and the next it was. The door opened, there was a loud shout and a score Lutins poured through into the hallway. With weapons ready they looked around in bewilderment for their comrades.

“NOW!” Daria shouted and loosed and arrow that sank into a Lutins chest. In a moment all the keepers were shootings. Spears, axes, arrows and daggers filled the air.

The Lutins panicked. Scattering in all directions trying to escape the deadly hail but there was nowhere to escape to. Daria watched with cold detachment as the missiles ripped through their ranks.

It was all over in moments. As quickly as it had started the fight ended. Dead Lutins lay scattered on the floor, some still writhing in their death throws. There was a loud bang as the door to the armory closed again.

Stepping over the dead, the Keepers converged on the armory entrance door. Brenner tried the handle but the door didn’t open. “It’s locked.”

“I can open it,” David said. The tall ant came forward and stood next to the door. He held up a slender metallic rod. After a slow breath a glimmering pin prick of light appeared at its tip. Taking this he drew a complex design on the hard wood above the lock. Next he felt along the edge of the door, pressing against it at several points. It would give a little to his strength when he pressed. Near the top, one press didn't move the door at all. After another deep breath he traced a sigil there as well.

"Everyone please step back." The ant took a position against the wall next to the door as the others moved away from it. Daria heard the insect mutter something under his breath and the mark next to the lock glowed brightly before a small gout of flame spewed from the keyhole, followed by the sizzling splat of superheated metal. Again the ant muttered something, this time the rune at the top glowed and there came a grinding snap as the hidden bolt was drawn as if by some phantasmal hand.

The insect stepped in front of the door and kicked it open. He dropped suddenly and rolled to the side as a pair of arrows flew out passed his head.

“It seems someone still feels like fighting,” Garulf commented.

Bradfox leaned into the doorway and loosed two arrows in quick succession, then ducked back as an arrow narrowly missed his head. From inside the room came a gurgling noise. “Not anymore,” was the dry comment.

“I’ll go first through the door, followed by Jotham and Kershaw,” Misha ordered. “Finbar, Georgette you guard the door.” Misha was about to step forward when the insect placed his hand on the Fox's shoulder. "How large a room are we talking here?" Misha was slightly impatient. " Main room's maybe thirty feet square. Why?" The insect spread his mandibles in his version of a grin and held up a small metal ball covered in arcane markings. "You do still remember how to use this don't you?" Misha's eyes widened as a sly grin spread across his face.

The ant calmly tossed the sphere to the now jubilant fox. Misha stepped back to the doorframe. Daria was about to turn back towards the door when she saw David snap out his staff and begin running his armored hands over its shiny surface. Where his hands touched fiery lines began to glow.

Daria turned just in time to see Misha hurl the ball through the door. Another arrow greeted this new intrusion, but Misha had already pulled back. The almost cheerful sound of that small ball bouncing its way into the room slowly came to a stop. A Lutin made a perplexed sound and Daria saw Misha's grin intensify as he shouted out " Huyria Kormun! " There was a deafening bang and a blinding flash of light from the doorway. A wall of flame shot out of the door and into the corridor. A huge, thick cloud of smoke billowed through the doorway as the flames died away.

Misha was through the door in an instant his battleaxe already swinging in an arc. David and the others followed the vulpine into the smoke. Daria took a deep breath and rushed through the door.

The acrid smoke stung her eyes and made her choke and cough. A strange sight greeted her. One wall of the room and a good portion of the floor was charred almost black, here and there a burning corpse could be seen. After a moment she retreated back to the hallway for a breath of fresh air. Soon Misha and the others joined her, coughing and choking.

“Wow, David. That’s some neat little toy you have there,” Jotham said between coughs.

“Yes,” David responded. “A little too indiscriminate, but a very good weapon.”

The keepers had to wait ten long minutes before the smoke dissipated enough for them to re-enter the anteroom. Their next entrance to the room was calmer. Nothing recognizable greeted Daria when she came through the door. Various charred lumps were scattered around the room some had to have been furniture, others were more human shaped.

Misha slowly walked around the room examining everything. “About ten Lutins I estimate.”

She noticed Finbar and Kershaw standing in front of a section of wall. “The doorway to the outside is completely gone,” the ferret commented.

“Your key worked perfectly,” the panda added.

Daria smiled. “Kyia would never let us down.”

“Great,” Misha said as he continued his tour. “That will make it all the easier to defend.” The fox paused in front of an iron door, his battleaxe was strapped onto his back.

Daria recognized the metal door as being the one leading into the armory itself. She walked over to the fox and stood next to him. Both stared at the metal door. Soon everyone had clustered around the vulpine and the woman.

“This is where it gets nasty,” Garulf said ominously.

The fox nodded. “This is knife work,” he said and drew a dagger and long sword. “Close in fighting. We’ll split into two groups; Daria’s and the Longs.”

“Is that wise?” Daria asked. “No telling what’s waiting for us inside.”

“No choice. The place is too big to cover with one team,” the fox explained. “Finbar, Jotham, you two guard the door. Anyone you don’t recognize comes towards you, kill them.”

Daria pointed to Brenner and Bradfox. “Both of you stay here with Finbar and Jotham.”

“One final word of warning,” Kershaw said. “Keep together. Don’t let yourselves get split up. If you get lost, head back to the door.”

“Good point,” Misha agreed. Then he looked the group over. “Everyone ready?”

With a few nods as an answer Misha took hold of the handle and pulled the door open. This time no arrows came flying out, instead total darkness greeted them.

“Not good,” Finbar muttered under his breath.

“What happened to the lights?” Brenner asked.

“What were the lights in there?” Weyden asked. “Lanterns?”

“No,” Morel answered. “Magic globes were placed around the room.”

“I can see the shattered remains of one near the door,” Daria said, peering in.

“Safe to say that who or what is in there prefers the darkness,” Misha said in a quiet voice.

“I’ll light a lantern,” Garulf said and started rummaging through his pack.

With a slight nod of his head Misha led his team into the inky blackness.

“Wait,” Brenner asked, “Don’t you need a light?”

Danielle paused at the doorway. “No, a light just gives away your position,” she said and then walked into the darkness after her friends.

“What do we do?” David asked. “Do we take a light or not?”

The woman leader thought on that for a moment before answering. “Jessica, David can you create light?”

Jessica nodded and the insect agreed.

“Good. As we move along we’ll create light. Brighten the place as we go.” Daria looked at the blackened doorway. “What ever is in there, doesn’t like light. The first rule of warfare is pick your battleground carefully.”

Daria stopped just inside the room to gain her bearings. The dim light of the lantern held in Garulf’s paw vaguely illuminated the great room faintly. She could make out the rows of shelves, tables and racks that marched off into the darkness. Flanking the door they had just entered metal staircases wound upward into the darkness. Of Misha and his team there was no sign. It was as if the darkness had swallowed them up.

Daria had been here many times but this was nothing like it had been before. All the other times the room had been brightly light and friendly. Nothing like this shadow haunted place she was in now. A shiver ran down her spine. She stood straight trying to look bold and unafraid for the benefit of her team. The last thing she needed was for fear to take hold of the group.

A soft whisper echoed behind her and a golden glow erupted, casting a bright light around the room. Turning around she saw a glowing sigil carved into the wall. “Thank you David.”

“Which way do we go?” Jessica asked. “Left, right, straight ahead or up?”

Up,” was her leaders reply, “and we’ll work our way back down to the door.”

With her rapier in hand Daria started up the spiral staircase. Behind her the other people made their way after her. The stairway was dark in spite of the light the bear was carrying. She took each step carefully, slowly, looking for the slightest sight or sound of an approaching enemy. The trip up went slowly but without any interruptions. It was at the top that she found the body.

Her first sight was of a trail of dried blood on the top few steps. Beyond that she could make out a shadow laying on the floor some ways from the stairs. Moving cautiously she reached the top stair tread and stepped onto the balcony. A few short steps brought her to the corpse. It had been a fellow Keeper, a man, someone she did not recognize. Daria stared at the body for a long time. “Who was he?” she thought to herself. “How did he die?”

Morel touched her on the shoulder. “Come along, we can’t help him anymore.”

Reluctantly, she followed the man’s advice and started off again. She saw David carving another Sigil into the stonework at the top of the stairs. Its amber glow illuminated the area and its deceased resident.

Walking among the racks was a chilling experience for Daria. The faint light from the staff did nothing but make eerie shadows that danced over everything. The sharp tap, tap of her boots on the stones seemed to echo louder and louder until she was sure everyone in the keep could hear it. Occasionally they would pause for David or Jessica to work their magic and light would flood the area. Daria would be relieved for a moment and then they would head back into the darkness and her anxiety would return.

The endless rows of weapons and armor slowly moved past as she walked. There was a strange silence in the room. She knew that the other group was out there somewhere but she hadn’t seen any sign or sound of them. Had they been attacked and wiped out? Brutally killed in the darkness? Daria shook her head to dispel such fear. The Longs were too good to have been killed without a fight.

After a long time the group came to an area with no racks or shelves. Instead there were a few tables and chairs scattered about. Daria paused at the edge of the clearing next to the last of the racks. She watched as Morel behind her took a bow and a quiver of arrows from a shelf.

“Daria!” David shouted out loud. She turned to the speaker and saw David pointed back along the way they had come. Looking in the direction the insect pointed all she saw was two lights glowing in the darkness. As she watched one of the lights flickered and died leaving only one.

Garulf cursed softly. Something was destroying the lights. “Now what do we do?” Bradfox asked.

“When it’s done destroying the lights it will come after us,” Daria answered. She pointed at the one light that remained in the vast blackness. Then she began to move carefully toward it.

The group got only a few feet before that light went out as well leaving them with only the faint light of the lantern. She paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “Everyone stay alert,” she warned in a whisper. ”It will be coming for us next.”

As she started moving she heard Morel speak, “Good,” the man said. “I’m getting tired of skulking around in the dark.”

The next four minutes were the longest of her life. As they moved the source of light in her party cast strange shadows that all seemed to leap and dance around her. Very slowly she moved trying to look everywhere at once and wishing she had Misha’s sharp nose or excellent hearing. Instead she had to make do with the faint light from the staff.

When she reached the place the last light had been, Daria paused and looked around. To her right was the faint outline of the railing, beyond that was open space and a long drop to the floor below.

From one side she caught the flash of movement out of the corner of her eye and spun around. Daria lashed out with her rapier as some shadowy figure came at her. The figure let loose an inhuman shriek and fell to the ground.

Behind her she heard the sounds of her fellows fighting. She saw Garulf drop his lantern as three figures leaped at him from the top of a rack of bows. Wild and garish lights and shadows suddenly bounced, flashed and dueled around the giant room, making the whole area look surreal and terrifying. In a flash of light she saw the bear grab one of his attackers and bodily throw it against the balcony railing. Even over the sounds of the fighting she heard the crunch of its spine breaking. The corpse flopped over the railing to the main floor below. Then the light was gone, leaving her alone with the darkness.

Suddenly a figure loomed up next to the woman and threw itself at her. The two fell to the ground together with a thump that took her breath away and sending her weapon flying out of reach. She felt course fur scrape against her body and a foul breath from the creatures maw made her gag. It’s great weight pressed her down and threatened to simply squeeze the life out of here. She grabbed her attackers muzzle with one hand and pushed their razor sharp teeth away from her throat. The power in those jaws was immense and she had to struggle with all her might to keep it at bay.

With her free hand Daria drew the dagger from her hip and drove the blade deep into where the creatures skull should be with all her might. There was an earsplitting scream and some foul smelling liquid splashed over her making her choke. Then the great weight disappeared, letting her breath again.

A soothing, white light played over her and the feathered face of Jessica loomed above her. “Relax, everything is fine.”

David and Morel helped Daria to her feet. She still smelled terrible from the foul creatures blood and she was a little unsteady on her feet. “What happened?” she asked.

“We got hit by a group of Lutins,” Weyden said from his perch on a table.

“What I fought was no Lutin,” Daria said and looked around for the creatures corpse. All she found was a large pool of black ichor.

“What ever it was, it’s dead now,” Garulf said poking at the puddle with the tip of his axe. “Gone to what ever hell it came from.”

“Seems we missed all the fun,” a chipper voice said from the shadows. Before anyone could react the slim forms of Finbar and Danielle came towards them followed by the rest of Misha’s group. The fox came last of all, his sword still in his hands. Daria noted the blood on the blade. It was black.

Misha came up to Daria and looked at her carefully, his concern plainly visible. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she stammered. “Just this evil goop is clogging my nose.”

“What’s it from?”

All Daria could do was shrug her shoulders in ignorance. “I don’t know. It melted when I killed it.”

“It was some sort of summoned creature,” Jessica commented.

“You’ve made quite a kill today, Daria,” Misha said with admiration. “Not many people can claim to have killed a summoning and lived.” He put his arm around the girl and hugged her.

“Thank you,” she stammered. A thought occurred to her. “What about the rest of the armory? There might be more of those things around.”

“Nope, We’ve cleared the bottom floor and the rest of this one,” Misha answered.

Everyone visibly relaxed. “Now what?” David asked.

“First we outfit ourselves with what we need,” the fox replied. “Then you’ll take your team back to the temple and gather up about twenty guards and bring them here.”

“Then what?” Daria asked.

“Then the guards will guard the armory while we go out and cause more mayhem,” Kershaw explained.

Daria smiled. “I can think of a few targets my team can wipe out.”

Misha nodded. “We’ll have to coordinate our efforts so we don’t both attack the same target.”

“I can work with that,” she answered.

“Good, let’s get planning,” Misha replied.

Getting into the wall tower was simplicity itself; there was a very convenient door through which they could pass easily. The Lutins weren't a problem either; Jono was able to use his whip (having retrieved his clothing and supplies after the earlier adventure), and Jo kept her daggers flying, and Dana even got a chance to take a few down. None of them even broke a sweat.

Perry did not get involved in the fighting. Perry is still looking down at his son, still asleep from his apparent ordeal.

Derek, when he realized that what had happened wasn't some kind of dream, had told them all about what had happened to them while he and Daemion and Samuel were under that mysterious globe, and Samuel was able to confirm a great deal. Perry is still stunned from the ordeal. He'd recognized the description of the apparition almost instantly. Revenos. The Daedra of Rage and Death. If what Derek was telling them were true, then his son managed to defy one of the major dark powers of the realm - and not only survive, but bring his friend back from the abyss.

Perry doesn't really know what to think with regards to that. Perhaps it was some kind of illusion; a few of the daedra get mentioned during ceremonies, and perhaps the three of them somehow imagined it all collectively. But that still doesn't explain the globe, or how Samuel and Derek's wounds were healed.

"Well, you've gotten what you wanted, anyways," he says, whispering, to his son's sleeping form. "You're a healer for sure, Daemion."

"...really?" Perry startles, then calms as he sees his son's eyes open. "Derek and Sammy... they're okay?" he asks in a sleepy voice.

Perry grins and nods. "Yep. They're all better. Whatever it was you did, you did good, son."

"I did..." Daemion manages to get out before he slips back asleep again.

Poor boy's exhausted. Perry picks him up, then takes him over to a corner where most of the rest of the kids are resting, down in the tunnels. The entrance was easily found towards the bottom of the tower, and as soon as they'd all gotten through it mysteriously covered itself over again. Kyia, of course. Always good to have your home on your side, he thinks, patting the side of the tunnel.

He can almost swear he hears a woman's chuckling in reply, but dismisses it. Could be just imagining things.

Then he catches a glimpse of a slightly scarred bovine. "Kirk, you doing any better?" he calls to his comrade in arms. He gets a stiff nod. Kirk has not been in a very positive mood ever since he got the news from Jahnsen - the Inner Gates were taken over by Lutins several hours after they left, and he'd survived only because he'd landed in a snow bank after being tossed off the wall. Apparently it was the merest chance that he'd shown up when he did. Fortunately for Kirk and Jono, anyways.

Jahnsen himself is curled up in a corner now, he sees, trying to warm up using the blanket Kevin managed to put a heating spell on. Evidently he'd been wandering through the snow for hours; it was a miracle he hadn't frozen to death already. Jo had a healing draught prepared for him fairly quickly, though, and the blanket seems to be doing him a lot of good. They ought to be able to move out within, oh, about another hour or so. Hopefully Daemion will be awake by then.

Jo, interestingly, has taken off her clothing and shifted to a more animalistic form, and curled up around and under a blanket of hers to catch some rest. Perry got a bit puzzled by that, but Jono had a ready explanation when he'd asked. "It's how she likes to retreat from the world, sometimes," Jono had said. "Don't worry, she'll be back up and at 'em after a while." Jono's worried that she's blaming herself for nearly losing Derek and Samuel; she almost certainly is wishing she could have done more. Perry can easily understand that; she obviously considers protection and healing to be her Duty, and being unable to perform one's Duty when it's needed is obviously a very serious thing. And - he looks back down at his son - it's pretty certain that if not for what Daemion somehow did, Samuel would most certainly have died.

Jono is still recovering from his own ordeal, it would seem. Perry himself has never understood the berserker rage, and so can't really fathom what Jono must have been going through. Evidently it's shaken him a great deal, however, which is probably why he proposed this resting period for everyone to get their bearings. Of course most everyone agreed even though they're almost certainly at the final stretch, the past few events have been rather nerve-wracking for all.

Perry shrugs, leaning back against the wall, his paw on his son's head, careful not to stick him with any of the spines, and closes his eyes, trying to get some rest while he can. They're not out of this yet, but they're at the final leg, and he intends to be ready for it all the way.

12/25 past 1:00pm

The blizzard blew harshly against the low cluster of tents, slamming jagged peaces of shale-like sleet and snow against the thick hide. The wind screamed as it clutched the smoke coming out the top of the largest one and sent it sprawling to the ground.

Inside, things were relatively quiet, as people hugged themselves tightly, as the heat of the fire spread throughout the self contained world, filled with the banging of cloth and shrill shrieks of the wind, as they all attempted to regain the heat they had lost that day, which consisted of a nearly four hour forced walk. The only blessing they had was that the wind screamed against their backs, but they still were nearly blinded by the stinging snow. A baby's cry pierced the incessant, yowling calm of the blizzard, as the mother huddled over her, hushing softly, tears coming down the adult's cheeks, finally able to feel again, but only fear.

"She's cold?" a hushed voice said behind the mother, as she jumped looking back at the speaker, nodding at the quiet wolf-armor clad 'savior'. The mother huddled around the child, keeping her body between her baby and the stranger. She shivered, whether the cause was fear or the cold, she did not know, but she nodded in reply.

"How old is she," he said, kneeling down beside her, his hood thrown back, his lupine features, although inanimate, somehow conveying a sense of concern, sadness, and perhaps paternity. He peaked over the mother's shoulder, eyes gleaming happily from the firelight.

The crying baby's voice trailed, and then squealed in pleasure as it glimpsed the metallic wolf. The stranger cocked its head to the side, and the baby giggled. The mother looked up, turning toward him. As he took a glove off, a golden talon touching the blanket around the baby as he hugged the mother again, and she closed her eyes and takes a deep breath, feeling warmth moving through her body.

"Not even 5 months old," she said, relaxing.

He motioned with his hands, "May I . . .?"

She again nodded, and offered the fragile bundle to the guide, who took it in golden talons very carefully, making sure to support its head.

"Hello there little one, how're you doing?" he asked, as if carrying on a conversation, his voice still hushed. "I see you're doing well, and mommy, how's daddy doing?"

The mother answered, "He's cooking food at the moment."

The man's shoulders slumped with a relieved sigh, holding the baby in the crook of his arm, stroking her face with an ivory talon, "You're an awfully lucky child, honey. Don't worry, I'll look after you, and mommy, and daddy, and you'll have a very happy life." With a yawn the baby fell happily asleep.

The guide scooted back over to the mother, gently placing the baby back in her arms, nodding to the man approaching.

"I see you've met my daughter and my wife, Susey and Rachel," he said, sitting down, his tail curling under on the ground.

"Yes Mr. Mason, and you were right, I envy you," the stranger got back up, "If you three well excuse me, I have some business to do, we have to leave in a moments notice, I don't want to be around here five hours from now, make sure you're well rested. He walked off to another corner of the tent, squatting down next to a boy as the mother watched on.

"You know him?" Rachel asked, the husband shaking his head. The boy talking to the stranger, no older than 11, a gangly youth, suddenly broke down in tears and hugged the black clad, cloaked guide, who hugged back, rocking him gently back and forth, muzzle protectively draped across the back of the boy's neck.

"No, I don't, oddly enough, but he talked to us as we prepped the fire, very friendly. When he left, I felt extremely hopeful. I watched, and he's been walking around to everyone, and every person he talks to, they seem more alive.

"He's going to help us."

There was no doubt in his voice as he said so, and no other possibility in his mind.

The wife looked up, smiling at her husband, as if there was nothing wrong, as if the attack hadn't happened, as if their home hadn't been gutted, or chased off by Lutins, or a thousand other terrors that had happened.

She looked over to the boy and the guide, who pointed back at the couple, waving to them. The boy got up, and walked over, stopping by the father, standing there, as the two looked at each other. Without a word, the boy hugged the man.

The wife smiled, and had a feeling they just received another family member. "I know what you mean," she said, looking at her baby, a happy tear rolling down her face.

Topo crept down the corridor, instinctively keeping to the floor where it met the wall. He had been wandering around like this for hours, ever since he had been caught by morning. Although his mind remained, his were-blood was dormant and he was once more trapped in the body of a simple mouse.

Not that he minded it for the most part. It was just a thrice damned nuisance right now. He was cold, he was hungry and he was stuck as a creature half the size of a human hand. He sneezed violently. He was sure to get a massive cold out of this adventure. Suppressing a shiver at the chill he continued on his way.

He scurried around a corner trying to keep to the darkness as much as possible. Hearing a slight noise he froze, his ears seeking the source of the sound. All of a sudden the entire passage shook and was filled with roar of a tremendous explosion.
A door set into the wall of the corridor blew outwards and a cloud of smoke billowed out.

Topo was torn between investigating and leaving as fast as his legs would carry him. Then the clash of steel on steel came from the inside the room. His choice was either to investigate and hopefully follow the other keepers to a place of safety, or continue wandering these freezing corridors.

Drawing up what courage he could he dashed towards the door. A battle was raging inside. The room had apparently been taken as a barracks by the Lutins. The explosion had wiped many of them out, shown by the scorched and blackened bodies that littered the room. A team of keepers of all shapes and sizes was there finishing the job, from appearances it seemed they still had their work cut out for them.

Topo heard the pounding of booted feet running down the hall and taking a deep breath he plunged into the room just as a group of soldiers joined the fray, against the keepers.

"All of you, come this way!" A red haired girl shouted as she launched herself into battle, followed closely by a fox morph, who dropped his bow and swept out a short sword.

Topo's only thought was of the opening she had come from. He saw to his amazement that it was being guarded by a tiny dragon, no bigger than a house cat. That thought itself frightened the mouse to no end. A dragon of that size would find a mouse a tempting appetizer indeed. But his choice was to either go back into the halls or try and sneak past the watchful dragon.

He would have chuckled if he could have. He had to cross the room first and that meant leaving the wall behind. Clenching his tiny teeth tightly the rodent launched himself away from the wall, sprinting towards the door.

He dodged past a booted foot and continued his headlong drive for the passage. He was nearing the Keepers now. The battle growing more furious by the moment as the Keepers edged their way towards the escape route as quickly as they could while defending themselves against so many.

He was almost past the main tangle of legs when a kick sent him spiraling across the room. He landed with a startled squeak of pain, his entire body aching, He tried to drag himself to his feet but his legs wouldn't hold him. Then he felt a cold hand
close on his body and he gave himselfup for lost.

David slashed again with his dagger, raking a Lutin across the face, splitting the ugly leering expression in two before using a kick to send him spinning back out of the fight.
Resheathing his blade, he once more swung his staff in a whistling arc. It smashed into the shield of a human soldier and the force of the blow bore him backwards.

David reversed the weapon and brought the other end up underneath the soldiers chin. The man's teeth came together with a painfully metallic click as he was lifted off his feet and thrown backwards.

He noticed that Weyden had also finished off his attacker and was turning towards the main fray once more. David was about to join him when he heard a pitiful squeak near his feet. Looking down he saw a tiny mouse lying on it's side, struggling to regain its feet.

Reaching down he gently picked up the weakly struggling animal. He turned the tiny face towards him hoping the seeing that he wasn't a Lutin might calm the creature. " I don't know if your a keeper or not, but I'm not going to leave even an animal
in the middle of this carnage." He spoke softly trying to comfort the animal as he gently opened his small pouch and set the creature inside.

Topo shook his head clearing his eyes until he could see once more. For a moment he didn't know where he was. Then he remembered the giant armored hand and the shiny black face of his rescuer. He now rested in the man's pouch, among a few small items that he evidently found useful. The walls of the pouch were soft, but enough room was kept open by the contents that Topo wasn't crushed or stifled. And the upper flap was left slightly open so he had no reason to worry about suffocating.

The man was still in the fight however and the quickly changing motions as he dodged and weaved were starting to make Topo a little seasick. To take his mind off the fact that his life was still in deadly peril he took to examining the objects inside the container with him.

A small steel ball covered in strange writing. A long round tube of unmarked silver that had a strange glimmer to one polished end as if it was shining in a shaft of sunlight. He decided to not ask for any more trouble by investigating that occurrence.

A small golden disc on a chain caught his attention and he wriggled his way over to it. The object was a thin round medallion no bigger than Topo's outstretched arms could reach. On the surface were many strange and beautiful designs, but one design in particular caught the mouse's attention, he leaned forward for a closer look. As his pointed nose touched the design engraved on the metal of the disc it glowed briefly and Topo felt a wave a warmth run through his body, dispelling the shivers he had until then forgotten.

He jerked backwards and the glow faded, as did the heat. Wishing desperately to be warm once more Topo repeated his earlier motion and the medal glowed once more. Curling up making sure to keep in contact with the object at all times he laid his head down and drifted into sleep.

So exhausted was he that not even the battle or the fact that his safety was by no means assured to be a lasting one held any sway over him. As he drifted into sleep his last thought was a hope that the rocking would quiet down soon.

Topo slept for what seemed like hours. As he reluctantly fought his way back to consciousness he realized that his wish had been granted. All was still and silent. He strained hard listening for sounds. He heard the sound of breathing and nothing else. He found that the breathing was his own as he slowly and shakily got to his feet.

Then the bag rocked slightly and was suddenly flooded with light as the flap was pulled up. He saw a black hand descending on him. A bit startled, and in any event not fully awake yet, Topo took a step backwards and stepped into the coiling loops of the chain that attached to the medallion. With a squeak he slipped and his hind legs became entangled in the thin golden chain.

The hand closed over his tiny body and he felt himself slowly lifted up into the light. Topo clenched his tiny claws ineffectually against the insect's smooth carapace. " I don't
suppose you are actually a Keeper?" The ant asked. Topo was still to exhausted to react intelligently, and all he wanted to do now was sleep. " Thought not." The ant said in a bemused voice. He tiredly struggled to his feet.

The man slowly carried the small rodent over to an open door. " Well my little friend, This is the best place for any little fuzzy mammal to be right now." The insect spoke softly as he stepped into an unlit room, the bone-crushing fatigue plain in his voice. He gently untangled the snarled loops of metal from the mouse's hindquarters and dropped it back into the pouch.

He then knelt and slowly, with surprising gentleness set the rodent down on a small pad of folded cloth set in an empty corner, behind a cask of something fragrant. Blinking furiously at the sudden darkness, Topo came to realize that he was on the floor of what looked to be a storeroom of some kind. The smell of grains and other edible things caused his shrunken and long neglected stomach to growl furiously, for the moment displacing his need to sleep.

"You should be able to keep yourself entertained in here I think." The ant spoke quietly as he lightly caressed Topo's furry head with a fingertip. " Just please, don't eat it all. We may have need of these supplies for sometime." With a muffled groan the insect hauled himself back to his feet and padded out of the storeroom, softly closing the door behind him, leaving Topo in the pleasant darkness.

After slowly stretching himself and finding that besides a few bruises and a general soreness he was all right. Topo made a bee-line for the nearest open sack of grain. Climbing nimbly up it side the rodent perched on the edge and made his first meal since he couldn't remember when. Never had uncooked grain tasted so good. When he was finally sated he tiredly dropped back to the floor and scurried back to the corner and the nice comfortable bed that the insect had left him. Nosing the top fold of the cloth up he crawled in between the layers and lying down with only the very tip of his nose left outside he once more fell deeply asleep.

12/25 – 2pm

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

Garigan’s jaw dropped and his eyes went wide in sudden horror. He looked back down the tunnel, straight as ever, and dark after only a shot distance despite the new light piercing the veil of its blackness. He then turned back around and stared in gaping horror at the sun. “We’ve been going south!”

Jerome dumped a rock as wide as his hips onto the ground in the snow that was collecting about his feet, and rubbed his hands within the folds of his robe. “South? But weren’t we supposed to be heading Northwest?”

“Look at the sun, it is staring us right in the face! We’ve been going South!” Charles exclaimed, finding his voice much too loud for safety. Yet, the terrible fact was standing before them, they’d been headed in the opposite direction from Glen Avery! Now they were much too far to ever have any hope of assisting Garigan’s people.

“Calm yourself,” Zagrosek snapped softly, even as he stubbed his toe against the rock. Grimacing, he rubbed his shin as he peered out of the hole they’d fashioned. A thick line of trees and snow stood all about them outside the tunnel, while the bright yellow disc shone through the leafless branches. “We’re here now, whether we like it or not, so let’s do what we can.”

Garigan was next to tears, staring at the sudden open mouthed as if he could not believe that it existed at all. “Do what?” he finally asked, his rough burr a near shrill. “Do what!”

Zagrosek glowered at the ferret and raised one palm forward, but did not strike Charles’s student. Matthias was too shocked by the sun still to react at all to his friend’s action. “Be quiet. There may be Lutins in the area as it is. Charles, go out and see if you recognise where we’ve come out. I’m tired of tunnels. We can harass the Lutins from their flanks still if nothing else. And we will do something.”

Charles nodded, though he did grab the hem of Zagrosek’s robe and draw him away from his student. Garigan had taken the hint and was frantically searching for his Calm. It would not take him very long to find it, as the point had been made effectively. The taller Sondeckis looked down at Charles rather abashed, “I’m sorry I had to do it.”

Matthias nodded though, before scrambling up the rocks clogging the entrance. “I know, just let em do that in the future.”

The rocks were slippery from the snow, but having claws gave the rat a good grip, and soon, he was standing in vast field of undisturbed snow as high as his waist. The trees were rather tall, taller than he remembered them being South of Metamor. In fact, as he gazed about at the rough strewn hills, and disjointed assortment of the trees, he realised that he didn’t recognise the area at all.

“I have no idea where this is. It doesn’t look like any place South of the Keep to me. The trees are too tall,” Charles whispered back into the tunnel entrance. From this side, he could see that it had been set into one side of a hill that only grew larger the further back it went. In the sunlight, he could no better tell what sort of stone it was made from though.

“Tall trees?” Garigan asked, his voice strangely accented all of a sudden. “Let me see.” He climbed up onto the rocky outcropping, standing no better than Charles in the snow drift. Matthias could already feel his toes start to freeze in the thick white confines. He hoped that it was not this deep through the woods, or he’d soon freeze, no matter how much he wore!

He turned back to face the sun, hoping that some of its rays would warm him, though he found meagre comfort in its feeble light. Even though the sun was visible, most of the sky was covered in thick grey clouds, most of them to the South in a thick, roiling mass. Through the hills and the trees Charles could not tell if it was still snowing down that way. He doubted the sun would last long either before the clouds filled in the small gap they had come out under.

“I know where this is,” Garigan exclaimed suddenly, his face brimming with delight. “We’re only an hour outside of Glen Avery! I’ve travelled this way many times!”

“What?” Jerome asked, even as he scrambled up onto the rocks, slipping a bit as his human form did not possess claws that were good for gripping. “But we’ve been travelling South, you said Glen Avery was Northwest.” Zagrosek nodded, and said something similar, even as he tried to make his way from that tunnel and into the world of sunlight and breezes.

Charles laughed a bit, though he did keep his voice mostly to himself. “Well, this is Metamor. You’ve seen how the geometry of the Keep changes. Why not the direction of that tunnel? I know I never saw a turn, but if a five-sided figure can have angles like a square, why not a straight passage that curves?”

Jerome waded through the snow, though on him it only reached past his knees. “Why not indeed! And it is good to know that we are so close, but in which direction?”

Garigan pointed just West of the sun. “We’re a bit North and East of where we want to be, but it shouldn’t take too long, even in the winter. If we had snow shoes, it would be much easier.”

The rat snorted, even as he tried to lift his legs enough to move through the snow, but found he could barely do so. “Either that or you are going to have to carry me.”

Jerome jumped down the rock side, slipping and sliding down the hill a bit as he made his way towards a more level track. He waved back up to them after stomping around for a moment. He did not say anything though, having made far too much noise as it was already. Though, the snow there did not appear to reach higher than his boots. Charles breathed a sigh of relief at that. He would never make it to the Glen if he had to wade through snow up to his waist or higher.

Even so, it took him several minutes just to slide down the hillside after is fellow Sondeckis. Zagrosek helped him, but even so, Krenek was left stumbling as his feet managed to find a few errant roots beneath all the layers of snow. Of course, in the process of battling through the thick drift, his Sondeckis robes became soaked with the snow, and he could feel the chill creeping into his tunic and breeches underneath. His heart was happy that Glen Avery was so close though, for in retrospect, he’d rather be in the tunnel then fighting snow drifts nearly as high as he was!

When they had all joined Jerome down at the base of the hill, Garigan took over the lead, flowing between the trees with the ease a Glenner ought to have. Matthias would not have been surprised had his student called each tree they passed by name, and then able to tell stories of its struggles and travails in this northerly forest. The trees did get wider and taller as they moved South, keeping the sun just a bit to their lefts as they moved. Soon, they were at their colossal stature that the rat remembered from his trip here back in May.

Yet, shrouded in the blanket of snow, most of it undisturbed, he found a new and greater appreciation for this, the most isolated region of the valley. Here they were in a shrine of nature, locked and guided by its whims and vagaries, and yet they beheld a beauty that could not be found elsewhere in the world, Charles was certain. Until he’d visited here, he had never imagined trees wider than a horse. Now, seeing them crested with white plumes of snow made him feel as if they had been clothed in gowns of purest priestly white, the finest silk that had been available. They were the lofty kings of this world, towering beside the mountains themselves, giants who would long be standing even after the four of them had gone into the grave.

Even as he watched with his dark eyes, the clouds gathered far overhead, casting their world back in the pale grey that was so common in winter. Though the sun was obscured once more, Garigan still knew the way, leading them along the length of the shallow crescent between the hills, deeper into the clutch of the silent giants. Jerome and Zagrosek followed blindly, glancing this way and that, always wary of the scout that may lurk behind those massive trunks. Charles wondered if the Lutins might not stash an entire army behind them, as they were so huge at times.

Ere long, a light dusting of snow began to descend through the branches, and it gradually grew thicker as they pressed Southwards. Glancing back behind him, Charles could see that their footfalls were already filling in with the newest precipitation. Sighing, the rat drew his robe tighter about him, holding his arms as much inside the black cloth as he could. Still, the dampness clung to him, sending shivers down through his fur. Despite the layering of his garments, he still felt as if he’d been buried in ice.

Over his own physical discomfort he still felt a distant sense of unease, as if there was something wrong about all that he was seeing, as if it were an illusion of some sort. He could not identify the feeling, and so glanced from side to side at the banks of snow upon the hilltops, collecting and clustering around the trees, wondering if something might lie beneath that serene surface. So it came as little surprise to him when Garigan held up his paw, ears alert and pointing forward, his posture firm, giving the green cloak about him an almost serpentine twist.

After a moment, in which Charles felt his heart skip a few beats as he stood, his foot paws going numb, and his whiskers collected with irksome snowflakes, the ferret slowly moved to one side, putting the base of one of the trees between himself and what lay over the crest of the next rise. The three other Sondeckis did likewise, though the rat found the deeper snow much to his distaste. It was up to his chest, and had he waded in to it, he doubted he could have found his way out again!

When he was close enough though, he could see the source of his student’s alarm. Over the rise he could hear the sounds of feet crunching snow, and of wagon wheels doing the same. Peering from behind the tree trunk, he could see a small group of Lutins drawing several wagons along what must have been the old road to the North past Glen Avery. It was not a large convoy though; only a squadron of twenty Lutins at the most manned the wagons, disconsolate mules dragging them through the thickening white blanket. Coarse blankets covered the wagons, but from out of one corner the rat could see feedbags.

Slipping back around the tree, he noted that the others had seen the composition of the party as well. They needed to decide what to do about it, however, for surely the path Garigan intended to take crossed that road. Blinking a bit of snow from his eyes, he spoke softly, directly into their ears as they leaned closer. “Supply wagons. I’d wager they use this road to carry in their supplies from the Dike. Do we let this group pass?”

Zagrosek shrugged softly, nestling into the cold confines of the winter frost. He was sitting in it, which amazed the rat, who could barely stand and still see overtop of it. “If we attack them on the road, any other Lutins that come this way will see evidence of it.”

“Perhaps not,” Jerome mused rubbing his chin with one finger. “The blizzard hid their coming to Metamor. It might cover our tracks by the time the next wagon passes by.”

“And the bodies?” Charles pointed out.

“We can drag them over the next hill. They’ll probably never even look for them.”

“And we could certainly take some of the supplies to Glen Avery with us,” Garigan pointed out, jerking his paw over his shoulder. “But if we do take them, we ought to move fast, they’ll be past us shortly.”

Matthias nodded slowly, frowning as something caused him to turn his head slightly; a touch of unease that seemed to focus off to his right, insistently pulling his attention in that direction. He found his gaze locking with the livid brown glare of a Lutin ten paces away as it stepped out from behind a tree. The creature’s green face contorted as it raised a short arm swathed in fur and pointed toward them as it yelled something. Before Charles could grab for his weapons or even warn the others the forest around them seemed to come alive with Lutins. The foul green skinned humanoids leapt up from behind rocks and trees close about them, spears and swords coming to bear. Jerome and Zagrosek turned their heads in disbelief, while the ferret reached for his knives.

Charles felt a spear point touch his neck, and he held still for a moment, though his paw curled over the Sondeshike inside his robes. “You come with us now, sneaky Keepers!” the Lutin who held the spear said, spitting on the snow at their feet.

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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